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