Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ancient Spirits

In order to heighten my awareness of life, I take a mind trip back to China. I feel I am sitting again on a bus surrounded by peasants and farmers loaded down with their bundles in their laps and on the floor under and around their seats. Cramped, leaning one way, then the other as the bus snakes around the twisted mountain road, sometimes talking in hushed tones, sometimes silently restless, they frequently nod and smile at me. Hoping that the passenger in the seat behind me will put out his cigarette, I fix my eyes on the road to shake off the threat of nausea.

Then, suddenly, without warning, around the next bend, a magnificent emerald valley
comes into view. Mountainsides of terraced greenery in their entire splendor swell my
mind with an explosion of delight.

Thousands of years of history present themselves in these timeless moments. The sky seems to reflect visions of bygone days when peasants lived on the edge of survival. Simple survival must have made life very real. I feel that to be here is an exclusive privilege. Yet, a sadness too is prevalent in all this. Sadness for the future? I don’t know.

It feels as though I am reincarnated into a life thousands of years ago. My own life becomes vague, shallow, not even real anymore. Who am I to think I know anything or could understand anything?

Wai goren” they call me. My skin is of the pure non-colour they all so long for. But, it is my eyes that tell the whole story. I am rich. Rich, White Westerner would never be able to comprehend the depth of their neediness, the ache of their hunger, the pain of their toil, the chafe of their “regulations”. Neither do I want to! It is enough to observe this ancient way of life that indeed I will never be able to comprehend in a thousand years. It is all beyond me.

All I know is that I am more alive in China than possibly anywhere else on earth. Maybe it’s the focus on food. Everywhere you go, people are selling food, or cooking food or growing food. And drinking tea! You could sit and drink tea all day if you wanted to. Your glass would just get refilled over and over while you watch people going about their business, hauling boxes, riding motor cycles, carrying ladders, toiletting babies on the sidewalk or whatever.

In mainland China, most people never use diapers. Not even cloth diapers. Little tots wear pants with a slit up the back that is pulled open as the child is held into the squatting position to do their thing over the gutter. -Or, over the sidewalk. -Or over the place where a sidewalk would normally be. No such thing as a diaper. Even in winter months, the heavily padded clothing has a slit right up the seat. I have seen my share of little pink-chapped bottoms.

No such thing as a dryer. Clothing is washed by hand in cold water and hung out to drip dry right over the same gutter. Since shop-keepers spend all their time at their shops, often laundry is hung right out in front of the shops. I have sometimes mistaken laundry for sale articles. (For the right price, I probably could have bought it.)

I think the language itself carries ancient spirits. Chop sticks too, used for eons can drum up visions of the past. Once, while eating “Over the Bridge” soup in a restaurant with some friends, I was transported into the past. Sitting there on a low plastic stool, elbow to elbow with hungry soup-eaters, squeezed in on all sides and filling my face with noodles from a steaming bowl, time stood still.

Although the concrete floor under us is piled high with trash and strewn with cigarette butts, customers wade through it without taking notice. All eyes are on the soup. A huge piping hot bowl of water is brought to the table along with another bowl of ingredients: noodles, pieces of meat, spices, greens and veggies. Everyone creates their own personal bowl of soup!

This recipe was passed down from generation to generation, just like so many other traditions of the Chinese. This passing things down is probably the reason there is such a feeling of timelessness. Some things have never changed in thousands of years. Thousands of years ago,

water buffalo were plowing the fields, fishermen were using bamboo rafts and cormorants for fishing, rice was eaten with chop sticks, wheel barrows were loaded down with wares to sell, red paper lanterns were hung in doorways and fire crackers were announcing the Chinese New Year. Thousands of years ago, tea was drunk from tiny china cups at an ornately carved table in the traditional methods accompanied by the same Chinese music.

Who’s to say that ancient spirits don’t linger in their habitual haunts? Their descendants certainly welcome and worship them. There’s tenacity towards ancient traditions, which, for the most part, I believe, engender respect and grace, brotherhood, honour and even godliness in today’s China.

"Ground Breaking"

When I wake up in the morning, my tongue feels like a sand-paper tile on a sun-baked roof, I jump out of bed and shout, "Hallelujah!" for another day, flip the switch on the back of the water dispenser and head for the bathroom.

"Good morning, wai goren!" I tell the mirror. ("Wai goren", meaning "White People" is the name affectionately given to Westerners.) I do look pale. Back home, I would be considered pale or even pasty and colourless. But, here, this skin is a thing to be envied and sought after. Indeed, in the skin care business, the desire for white skin is exploited by every skin product commercial and their products declare, "whitening power" and "whitening effects". Even the men try to keep their skin as white as possible as I observed with my friend, Jing Li who is very cautious not to spend much time in the direct sunlight.
Back in the living room/bedroom/office, I draw open the floor-length curtains and slide open the doors to reveal another perfect day. Far below, the one inch square fields are already speckled with workers. I feel like God looking down on them.
"You eensy, teensy ren (people)! There's a wide world of unlimited inches you've never seen, yet you relentlessly pour your life's sweat and toil into these few fractions of a square inch all day long, every day!" I shake my head, as I imagine God would, and continue, "Don't you know that in a few years your back will be bent horizontally to the ground so that you won't be able to walk straight? Your line of vision will be the very ground you worked and will one day return to."
These Chinese farmers are married to the earth, nurturing and wooing her like a dearly beloved wife, picking nettles from her hair, smoothing her rough skin and cherishing her offspring. Embracing the rain for her sake, it drenches them until saturated clothing sticks to their bones. Rain is a blessing. Let it rain!
I sit on my balcony and watch a heavy-laden figure move up the hill. Body folded in half, a bulging bundle resting on the flat of his back, he climbs. He disappears in a thicket. There he is again. Now a tree blocks him from view. He reappears, steadily plodding up, up, up...
Should such a life be envied? I envy him! He is a god! A provider! Everything depends on him! Our fate is in his hands! To turn the soil and produce food is sheer magic! What a life! What an obsession!
He reaps and reaps and reaps again. He entices lady earth with sweet words and she gives and gives of her heart!
To be so totally absorbed by one's career is a thing of joy. -To wake in the morning knowing exactly what your are to do. -To see the fruit of your labour and hold it in your hands! Wonderful!
He feels every beat of Earth's heart, every pulse of her blood. He senses her mood-swings, joys and sorrows. He listenes intently to her every whim. He waits on her, bowing his head. He humbles himself on his knees in her worship. It's an all-consuming love affair!
As I watch, two men are plowing a one and a half inch by half an inch field. It takes two large water buffalo yoked together to drag the little plough which looks, from here, like a miniature triangle of wood.
The first man "gee aws" and smacks the buffalo with a whip, guiding them by a rope that's strung through the ring in each of their nostrils. -Little, tiny men teaching such heavy cattle where to walk. The grey beasts lumber forward together, dragging the wood triangle as the other man in a red T-shirt (probably the same fake Adidas T-shirt as mine) bends over and pushes the plough in the orange soil. With each step, hooves are plunged into the sinking earth, nostrils stretched taught and probably bleeding. (I've seen water buffalo being pulled by the ring in their nose. It cuts their skin open.) Step by step and smack by smack, the work proceeds throughout the afternoon.
When I return after lunch, the men are standing still. They exchange places, drive the plough one more length and set the two buffalo free to wallow in their swimming pool size puddle of muddy water. The animals seem delighted. I wonder whether they can feel satisfaction for a job well done.
Now the field looks like chunky chocolate-chip cookie dough. Clod breaking will follow.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


I found my friend, Li Jing, at his mother's tea shop. He was overjoyed to see me, almost as if he hadn't really expected me to show. When I introduced him to my friend, Nick, they immediately hit it off and started tossing back local beer with a vengeance.

Li was happy to practise his English on a real native English speaker. We sat outside to talk. By the end of the night, the ground under our table which was under the trees was littered with sunflower seed shells and bottle caps.

Back at our hotel, Nick and I had split on a room to save money so with two guitars at hand, a jam session was called for. He'd play me a song. I'd play him a song. It was great. It was my first jam session in years! The exchange of music and appreciation was a real high.

The next day after breakfast, Nick admitted that he was glad to be leaving China. He'd had his fill of the crowds and the craziness and was heading off to Thailand via Laos. In a way, I envied him the trip.

Since he wanted to change some money, Li and I took him to the local Black Market money- changer whom I had dealt with months previously. He remembered me, always happy to do business with wai goren foreigners. Nick was happy with the exchange and felt he'd gotten a fair deal. I looked askance and shook my head.

Then it was time for Nick to be leaving. The Black Market money-changer/bicycle box driver loaded his backpack into the box on wheels but as he approached to mount his bicycle, Nick said,

"No, no, let me drive. You ride for a change."

This completely floored our money-changer! His smile grew from ear to ear as he sat in the metal box. We waved them off as a startled group of onlookers watched in amazement. This was the show of a lifetime for the citizens of Mengla -a white-haired, blue-eyed Westerner driving a bicycle box down the main street in broad day-light!

A view of the Dai Village on the river in Mengla

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Qing Feng Experimental School,Guilin

Although I had had two weeks of training and orientation, nothing could have prepared me for Qingfeng Experimental School. With fifty-five rebellious, teenage students in each of my four week-end classes, teaching English was a huge challenge! To top it off, no teacher's assistant was provided! I was on my own. Every Saturday, I came to dread walking into the "lion's den".

Wall to wall students who don't want to learn on their week-end. Can you blame them?

At the beginning of every class, I travelled the room, confiscating
items such as MP3 players, text books, toys, games, gadgets, bits of string; you name it, they had it. My new game was called "How Long Can You Last In My Class?"

I started kicking students out of the room. (There were no reprisals, they were free to leave and I didn't report them.) The noisiest ones were first to go. The chatty girls were next. I figured, the less students the better. That way, the ones who were left had a better chance of concentrating. Eventually they realized that if they came into my class room, they played by my rules. By the time Sunday was over, I usually had no voice left.

After this initiation into teaching English in China, I lowered my expectations, went a lot slower and taught a lot less content. Even a few words per class would suffice.

Now, teaching English is all about repetition and fun!

The Li River, Guilin

One day, a young lady named Christy called to offer me an op
portunity to teach for a private school. Since I had five days off per week, I gladly accepted! They sent me to middle schools in the area. That meant that I had to learn the bus routes to various locations in Guilin with the help of friendly assistants who accompanied me to all the lessons. This was an enjoyable time of cultural and language exchange as we all got to know one another and became friends. We were actually able to accomplish something. I taught a lot of songs as was requested. The studen
ts were younger, interested and fun to teach!

Class Mates at a Government School

Many times, after class, my assistants would introduce me to the local restaurants. Jao ze (dumplings) became my favourite food. The soy/vinegar dipping sauce was addictive! Still, I have to admit that the sweet and sour pork ribs were hard to beat! We pigged out!

The night market was also very interesting. Two rows of vending stalls extended three or four city blocks, each one lit with twinkly lights or lamps. Like the students -you name it, they had it: dishes, posters, music pipes made from dry squashes, souvenirs, hand knitted sweaters, scarves, toys, perfume, jewelry, everything. I found a stall selling little perfume bottles like the ones I'd get at Christmas when I was a kid! They were two inches tall with a little red tassel on the lid and you could select your perfume to fill it with from big vials. I picked jasmine.

My Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr. Benjamin, introduced me to a young man named Sean who wanted to improve his English and asked me whether I could help. So, Sean came to my apartment for conversational English several times a week. In return, he took me to climb a karst and helped me to find a suitcase at the market.

My living quarters were in a compound that was enclosed with high walls and gates that were locked at night. Within the compound, were several little squares where people could sit on benches or play cards and at one of these areas, an old well with a pump was still in use for water.

Part of the Wall of the Compound

A permanent guard sat just outside my building, usually engaged in an intense game of Mah Jongg on a rock table. Whenever I came out, the players looked up from their game to acknowledge me and the guard spoke the one English word he knew, "Hello."

My Double Decker Bus

Soldiers walking downtown in Guilin

Rice Farmers with karst (mountains) back-drop

Any time I passed through the narrow streets to go out onto the main road, heads turned and sometimes fingers were pointed at me. I experienced a little of how movie stars must feel when they go out in public. Many Chinese feel unabashed about outrightly staring at "wai goren" (white people).

My friend, Li Jing (first name last) called
from Mengla to invite me to come and teach English there at a time when I was looking around for somewhere to go to get out of the Guilin cold. The ancient apartment I inhabited was getting colder by the day, and the only means of warmth was "reverse air-conditioning" which was like a hair dryer that blew a little warm air into
the room and right out the wide cracks under the doors.

Winter moved in in all its dampness. It took me by surprise. All the summer humidity suddenly left off its sweltering stickiness to become an unshakable, bone-penetrating chill. That, along with the problem that no repairs were done on my place made
his offer very tempting.

However, in mid-November, when my father had a sudden collapse, it looked like I would be returning to Canada. I immediately gave notice to the school and decided to go to Kunming where I knew English speaking people who could get me a cheap flight. (Right before leaving, I received news that my father was fine. There was no need to go all the way back to Canada, but since the boat was already in motion, I notified Jing that I was on my way to Mengla.)

My friends helped me get a taxi to
the train station where we waited for the train to Kunming. A moving sign board indicated that my train was delayed by two hours, so we chatted together in the station. Again the train was delayed for several hours. We all went for dinner, then the girls decided they had to leave since it was dark. Only Sean stayed to the end.

Kelly, Joy, Jenny and Sean in front of the gate of the school yard.

Jenny, me, Joy and Kelly at my apartment
(My Teacher's Assistants)

At the Train Station Waiting and Waiting...
As I boarded, a young man from Tasmania struck up a conversation. Our bunks were only one bunk away from each other, so we sat at a fold-out table and had an interesting chat. Nick talked about his passion for rock-climbing and world travel. He'd bought a "Round the World" package and had toured the States, Europe and India. Now he was headed for Thailand.
Kunming Train Station
Kunming Train Station Bull
Downtown Kunming
Coincidentally, we were both bound for Mengla. So, when we arrived in Kunming, we went to the bus station together and bought two sleepers. (A sleeper bus has upper and lower sleepers like on a train only without curtains or dividers.) Ours were along the very back of the bus. We lucked out. Each of us had an extra sleeper to stretch out on while Jackie Chan movies entertained us on the TV. Nick was thankful to have enough leg-room for a change.

Tassy Nick, the Rock Climber

Friday, September 08, 2006

Photos of Yang shuo and Guilin

In order to get a picture of what China is like today, one would have to go back to a time of donkey-drawn carts, water buffalo-drawn plows, wheel-barrows, shoe-shine men, World War II vehicles and things that many of us are too young to remember.

But, do you remember the days of bicycle inner tubes, blackboards and chalk, tacky, fake wood grain Mac Tac, panty-liners that won't let go, plastic crimped pvc pipe, large plain white square tiles, heavy, ornate ceiling molding, pleated drapery, leaky fridges and colour-damaging laundry soap? Do you remember when fruit tasted like fruit? Remember when organic fruit and veggies were cheap because nobody knew it was organic?

Electric scooters are very popular here. They're as quiet as a bicycle, except for a low hum and the rattle of plastic as the tires roll over bumps in the road. I love them! They're clean and almost noiseless!

On the way home from school, I have a ten-minute walk through the compound. I pass by row houses of dingy stucco with little children sitting on doorsteps and women busying themselves. A dozen ducks waddle around like they own the place, parading into houses or just mulling about.

I don't know how many times I have gotten lost on the way home. Turn right, go straight, turn left down a narrow alley, turn right around the pile of stones and gravel, walk to the telephone, turn right, then left where the road splits, walk past the wall with broken glass on the top, then another right, turn left past the hydrant and I'm home. Uneven pavement and choppy, patchwork-like, stone walkways require a sharp eye to the ground.

Then, there's the everlasting dust! It seeps into cracks and crannies, coating everything everywhere all the time. Where does it all come from?

Living on campus has its drawbacks. My apartment, which overlooks the sports field, seems to be in the school's mega speakers' direct line of fire. The same three annoying songs are broadcasted over and over and over, several times throughout the day, as if to brainwash us. There's never just silence. On top of that, every 40 minutes, a cute little ditty is played to announce the change of class. Peace and quiet is a luxury that China, apparently, can't afford.

Some days, it feels like there's a conspiracy to take my sanity away! Some days, I feel, “I don't want to go outside! China is out there!”

I had a ride on a bamboo raft like this but mine had a roof on it.

New Year's celebrations leave the streets littered with red paper.

A panoramic view of Yangshuo

Sunday, September 03, 2006


Climbing the stairs behind the Chinese English teacher, my first impression was... not good. We had walked from the school grounds, down a roughly paved, narrow walkway that twisted several times through rows of weathered tenement buildings. I marveled at a fire hydrant that looked hundreds of years old.

Up four flights of cement stairs past worn, dirty walls, we arrived at a door that bore a red sticker blazoned with gold Chinese characters. The apartment was number "3-1".

The heat and humidity were bad and we'd been walking quite a while, Mr. Benjamin hauling my suitcase and carrying my guitar in the other hand, with my cloth bag slung over his shoulder. Neither of us smelled like a rose. However, I suspected that the unusual odor (somewhere between cooked cabbage and rotting garbage) was being transmitted from my new living quarters.

It was filthy. I forced a smile and tried not to visibly cringe. Mr. Benjamin announced that a cleaning lady would be coming in and that a man had been in to do a few repairs. Apparently, the air-conditioner had been leaking all over the floor, leaving a pool of water along with droppings from the repair work. (As I write, the air-con still leaks a puddle on the floor!) The curtains were grimy and a little lopsided. The green vinyl couch bore a rather large hole in its back and a big brown burn on its arm. Dust and dirt hung over the furniture like a veil. I could feel it on my feet once I'd taken off my sandals.

Nevertheless, there was a washing machine and a real refrigerator! There was even a water-dispenser boasting "cool", "warm" and "hot" water. It didn't matter much that the "hot" part of the dispenser was broken, since I was also blessed with a microwave. A one-burner gas stove sat beside the sink.

The bathroom is my Nemesis. Although a "Western" toilet and a hand-held shower offer a touch of the luxurious, three taps (at least 60 years old) that stand out on the wall, are constantly dripping. "TIC", as my teacher would say. "This is China." That's a little saying that's supposed to help us to adjust to things like this.

Now, the kitchen. (Not really what you'd call a kitchen.) A large bare window presents a view of the apartments directly across the street. This enables my neighbours on the upper floors to know exactly when and what I'm eating! Square, white tiles form a two-foot long counter over a tiny shelf beside a white tile sink, with one lone faucet. The sink is sharply square, the same shape and size as the large white tiles it's made from. Somehow water seeps out of the sink and ends up in a puddle cradled in a dip in the cement floor.

To me, the main focal point of the apartment is the computer. It sits on a blue and white desk looking just as attractive as a candy shop to a little kid. This will be my contact with the "outer world", my entertainment on a rainy day, my exploration of new worlds to conquer and a tool for planning lessons.

Once my luggage was unloaded, Mr. Benjamin took me to meet the Head Mistress. She was a very stylish lady, wearing very high heels. Since she was busy, she was unable to join us for lunch. The custom here is to feed new teachers to the gills. It's a tradition that usually involves lots of toasting to the chant of "Gam bei!" or "Bottoms up!" Any excuse for a toast will have everyone emptying their glass of local beer, which, by the way, is very cheap. A liter bottle usually costs 3 yuan which is roughly fifty cents, Canadian. It really helps to have a glass of beer on hand when you're being coaxed to try some suspicious looking oddity.

After lunch, Mr. Benjamin asked me if there was anything I needed and I said I'd like to buy some cleaning supplies. He said he'd planned to send a cleaning lady in, but I insisted that I'd like to do it "my way". (From what I'd seen of the cleaning ladies' work, they were not as thorough as I'd prefer.)
"Isn't that too much work for you?" he asked.
"I have nothing else to do." I said.
He led me to a nearby supermarket where I bought some soap and a cleaning cloth as well as a can of air-freshener. It was a long, hot walk home with lots of twists and turns that I tried to memorize, but couldn't. Since all the signs are in Chinese, there are not many distinguishing features to go by.

Then it was nap-time. I slept like a rock and upon waking, became vaguely aware that that's what I'd been sleeping on -a rock. It seems the Chinese believe the harder the bed, the better. My bed at the Buckland dorm, which had been severely hard had me hoping that the next one I encountered would be a little softer. Instead, this one made the dorm bed look cushy!

An hour later, there was a knock at the door and Mr. Ben invited me to supper. This time, since I was wearing pants, we could use the motorcycle. I gladly donned the silly thin, red plastic cap and climbed aboard. The breeze was refreshing as we glided along in the moving maize of traffic to his favourite restaurant.

We chewed the fresh grapes he'd brought while waiting for dinner to be served. They brought us each our own bottle of beer, but when mine was half empty, I passed it to him. It fueled our conversation. First we talked a little about America. When he told me he had lived with a family in Illinois, I asked him if he was Christian. He said he'd been to church. One thing that really moved him was when he'd seen, on the church bulletin board, a photograph of a Chinese girl whom the church was raising money for. But, no, he was a Communist. He went on to say that Communism helps people to think about others instead of themselves. People are naturally selfish. To that, I agreed.

By the time George Bush entered the conversation, we'd finished half the beer and our voices were growing louder in order to be heard above a noisy table of men who, like us, were also trying to solve the world's problems.

"So what do you think about what's going on now in Iran?" That lit a fire-cracker under him! His eyes grew almost round and his eye-brows shot up as he waved a fist in the air.

"Why shouldn't they have a right to nuclear power?" He demanded, "It's ridiculous!" I echoed him.

"And what about Iraq? Do you know who suffers the most?" I asked, "It's the children." He agreed. Then his voice turned solemn.

"The Chinese people want to be friends. We want to make friends with our neighbours," he said, "Not war!"

I said that I thought it was good that the Chinese were going into countries as peace-keepers with the UN.

"Yes, that's a very good example to the world."

The view from my school

A bridge over the Li River

I spent that night flipping from one side to the other to even out the flattening. My hips demanded it. Saturday morning, I couldn't touch food until banishing some of the dirt! Then, of course, once I got started, I cleaned the whole living room, including the overhead fan, which had been growing black, grisly dust-weeds.

As I stretched up from the coffee table, I noticed that the real dirt was hiding on the upper sides of the wings, like black fur. Several trips to the sink with the clumps of soot brought the real colour back. I now have a white overhead fan.

The corners of the room yielded unbelievable amounts of dust. To my surprise, the fake wood floor actually came up shining. A great weight has been lifted. Tomorrow, I'll tackle the rest of the apartment.

The Brighter Side
Having published my Blog, I realize, from some people's reactions, that I may have been a little negative. We were taught in Yang shuo Teachers' Training that it helps to have PMA here. That stands for: Positive Mental Attitude. My Canadian teacher said, "China will change you. One way or another, you won't be the same person."

Today I feel like I'm enjoying the spoils of my labour. The living room and bedroom are spit and polish. When life presents a challenge, it brings out the best in you. I feel that I'm carving out a place for myself here, like the pioneers in the old days, one stump at a time. (Or one cockroach at a time!) Like an athlete in training, we get stretched sometimes to see what our limitations are. A true athlete loves that test of strength and endurance because, otherwise, how does he know whether he's capable of meeting the opposition?

Speaking of athletes, I woke up on Monday to the sound of beautiful classical music and the voices of children outside my window. The school grounds were filling with throngs of students dressed in white shirts and navy shorts. Hundreds of them came running along the track to join other groups of students who were organizing themselves into squads. It was impressive to watch jumping jacks performed by hundreds of uniformed students in sync to a man's voice calling out on the loud-speaker, "Yi, er, san,..." ("One, two, three,...").

Just as I began to wonder how long this entertainment would continue, it started to rain. The next time I looked, the vast grounds were empty, apart from a few wet stragglers.

Chinese Chocolate
Christy came to my door lugging a round watermelon and some cucumbers. We had plans to go down along the river to the restaurant her sister managed. She tried to ride me on the back of her bike, but I couldn't sit on the bars for more than a few minutes. So, we walked together, Christy pushing her bike. She handed me two chocolate bars, which I received with an excited,
“Wow! Thank you!”
“They're Chinese chocolate,” she said apologetically. I tried not to lose the lilt in my voice,
“Wow!” (It was already in my mouth. I'm thinking, ‘What the heck is this pink stuff in the middle?’ Chew, swallow, chew, swallow,… shdicks do da ruff uff yow mouf.) “Not bad!”

We were suddenly standing at the foot of a karst that seemed to be growing right out of the sidewalk. - A permanent fixture right in the middle of the street that had become a part of its surroundings. One of its caves had been shamelessly exploited for use as a shop. Along the edge of a rock formation, a red brick wall had been erected, perhaps hundreds of years ago! It was the outer wall of what looked to me like little garrison houses from a distant past. You could just feel the oldness. Christy told me that people used to live there.

However, on the way home, I noticed that inside of one of those ancient brick houses, there was a light on! A worn shutter stood half-open so that I could see the clay ceiling held up by wood beams. Yes, people actually lived there now too!

If I thought that was unusual, I was even more awed to see people living on the so-called "house-boats" at the river. Talk about old. It was a wonder they were afloat. No windows, just one door at the end, made of wood like the rest of the boat. An arch of bent bamboo formed a low roof. Laundry hung all around, adding to the shabbiness. The water was so shallow that weeds had claimed a great deal of the river. Algae were growing on the surface and the banks stood high and dry.

Fishermen using cormorants to catch fish on the Li River. A rope around the bird's neck prevents it from swallowing the catch!

Taking a Shower
There's a learned art to taking a shower in my apartment. First you turn on the water. When you hear the water heater flame up, count to three, then, quickly turn the shower head away from the body. Count to three again. Then, resume your shower. Otherwise, you could get painfully scalded! Ask me how I know.

Since We're in the Bathroom
A regular toilet is, well -it's a hole in the floor. It usually has ridged tile either side to place your feet and squat. This is ok for a quick pee, because you just put your feet either side of the hole and, if you aim accurately, you don't always get pee on your foot. -Unless, like me, you pee crooked. You can even have a bowel-movement on there, if your legs are strong and you have good balance.

Since I don't care to see what comes out or how it comes out, I prefer the good old "Western" toilet, which is what I have in my bathroom. There's just enough room to sit down with no room to spare between the wall and my knees. When I'm ready to flush, I crank open the leaky faucet, standing well back, to avoid getting squirted by water spraying in all directions, wait for the tank to fill up, and press the flusher button. I never get out of there dry.

I Love China!
In a lot of restaurants, the food is served piping hot, right in the pot which is placed on either a gas burner or hot-plate to continue cooking. I really enjoy chicken soup with fresh ginger, ginseng and things that I discovered later were actually dates!

Fresh greens are brought to the table raw. You can put your cabbage or bok choy in the boiling water just before you serve yourself. That way, your greens don't get overcooked. I've never been much of a soup person, but it's really becoming a favourite of mine these days.

I'm getting the hang of chop-sticks too. They used to slow me down, which was probably a good thing for my digestion, but now, I'm in there with the real chop-stick-wielders. Benjamin was pulling apart his chop sticks at the restaurant when he suggested,

"Maybe that's why they call them 'chop sticks', because you chop the sticks." So, I asked,
"What's the name for them in Chinese?" He said, "We call them 'fast'."


"Because, people used to eat with their hands. If the food was hot, they had to wait until it cooled enough to pick it up without burning their fingers. So, those who used chop sticks could eat faster than those who had to wait."

Tonight, Friday, October 6, 2006 is the Full Moon and the most important day of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It's a family celebration. Everyone goes home to be with their family. My friends are all at home with their families, but one of them called me to ask, “Did you eat moon cake?”

“Oh, yes,” I answered. It would be sacrilegious not to.