Sunday, January 27, 2008


You are not my sun-dim

New York always seems like a better place to live after I’ve been gone for a few weeks. Since I was in China for the last month or so, coming back to Manhattan seems like a breath of clean air. Our overheated apartment seems snuggly after huddling under smelly wool blankets while wearing multiple layers of unchanged long-johns. But I know this is just the lull before the rat race and soon enough I’ll be sucked back into the labyrinthine like a blindfolded trained monkey twitching my nose whiskers against dead ends and the miles up and around and back down to get to the place I need to be during the right second. I don’t like that part of it.

In China common workers don’t live like that it seems. At night they sit around watch TV, gnaw on various husked up seeds, smoke cheap cigarettes (50 cents a pack), and play cards. During the day they work hard, but there are so many people doing exactly the same job in every given context that it rarely seems too overwhelming. We always enjoyed watching waitresses scrub tile walls with toothbrushes in-between instantaneous responses to requests for more tea or additional pork filled pancakes. I think they do slave labor type work outside what we think of as their job description because service people are expected to do whatever the boss asks no questions asked. Yet despite this lack of free will work seems more convivial and jocular over there, people stay busy, people talk to each other, not too many seem tired, bitter, and stressed.
The only time I noticed regular workers in China that looked like they could be workers here was at a “Coffee Shop” (that means Western style high class restaurant) in Beijing where a latte comes with a neat leaf design etched into the foam on the top. The two waitresses looked really tired and bored, they slouched against a wall trying to sleep while standing up. I think the main problem was the coffee shop was not very busy and just too western, the boss didn’t have anything for the girls to do in between dings of the service bell.

Here in New York it seems easy not to smile when we think about everything we can do if we push ourselves hard enough. Jennifer says she smiles at all the Chinese people she sees since we’ve come back and “they like that.” I think it’s possible to be happy here, you just have to try. It made me happy that on my way to work on Monday while I was waiting for my bus across Central Park a taxi driver pulled over and suggested that he could give me a ride to the other side of the park. It was on his way, he said. “Get in,” he smiled, “It’s cold out there.”

Monday, January 21, 2008

Sleeping Across China

We took the slow train from Urumchi in Northwest China to Beijing. 66 hours over the poop strewn tracks down the Chinese section of the Silk road past the 6.6 million people of Xi’an who guard the famous terra-cotta warriors from the 7th century and the 6.3 million people in Louyang famous for being the center of Chinese Buddhist history. The only repeating sounds were the click and clack of metal wheels on metal rails, the whoosh of toilets at the ends of each car marking the land claimed for the use of humans, and the nasal call of cart pushers announcing the passing presence of orange flavored drinks, processed tubes of meat, disposable bowls of ramen noodle, and big green bottles of Xinjiang beer. Every once in a while the sun stands in naked silhouette to our left -- the only thing between us and it the layer of gray smog which is a prerequisite for China’s industrial boom.

Chinese civilization is pretty dense. Countless hours of Chinese poker on this train with my bunkmates, a young railroad engineer and car salesman, attest to that. Only the familial obligations of husband to wife occasionally trump the filial obligations of new friends to new friends. And so most of the time six of us crowd onto two bunks so four of us can play the hours away while the two alternates cheer and jeer and keep score. There is no opportunity for such a solitary pursuit as reading a book or staring at the landscape streaming by without coming across as a lone ranger, a Western oddity.

Speaking Chinese helps a lot when trying to make friends on a Chinese sleeper train and the position of being-in-relation, but sometimes just being an American prompts welcoming smiles and, later, handfuls of nuts and raisons. Particularly from Uyghur transients after they hear I’m studying Uyghur history and am married to the quiet girl who smiles all the time that they assumed was my girlfriend. It's interesting to hear the same Uyghur refer to Mao Zedong as “crazy insane person” and a young English student mention that our current president Bush scored the lowest of any of our presidents since the invention of the IQ test.

The community here is a little demanding but nice. We don’t lack for warmth, Chinese teachers, various fruits, and curious looks. If you’re sure you will still make you flight out of the country by a few hours, I think the slow train across China in the middle of the Chinese holiday season is a great way to end a trip to the Middle Kingdom and the 25th year of your life.

Friday, January 11, 2008

No Answers

the other day we were invited to an english class by a man who works in the bazaar (he greeted us by saying "i would very like to be your best friend"). he also manages to work phrases such as "time and tide wait for no man" into normal conversation. we went to the class for lack of a better thing to do and met 25 or so delightful & dedicated students who study english every evening for 2.5 hours in a frigid little room. we were seated in the front and the students were instructed to ask us questions (2.5 hours worth)! here were some of our favourites:

is arnold swartzenegger master of texas?

what do you do in your free time?

i heard one of the backstreet boys died in 9-11 - is this true?

how is the weather in america?

do you think alfred noble traded in death?

what do you think of europe? specifically, what do you think of australia (i think he meant austria)?

have you ever explained in front of the white house?

how does this weather compare to new york?

what is most famous in your city?

how many movie stars are your friends? (here most people know uyghur movie stars)

can you give me a visa?

tell more about canadian boxing.

i heard someone disappeared the statue of libery. is this true? (darren finally figured out he was talking about david copperfield)

how are human rights in your country?

what do you think of the FBI?

tell me about american education.

Right now, can you write your family history on the blackboard?

is it true that you can own guns in america?

what is a good job in america?

is it true that there are uyghur villages in vancouver?

what do you think of the movie The Big Liar?

when you see us, will you call us uyghurs?

can you come to my house?

what kind of communications do people use on the internet in your city?

are you tired?

do you like our questions?

what kind of food will you eat?

are you interested in the olympics?

what is your favourite sport?

i would include our answers, but i'm afraid they would sound even more bizarre than some of the questions.

Modern Kashgar

Kashgar has changed. The creaky old Russian Consolata turned Seman hotel and Pakistani hole-in-the-wall are gone -- replaced by fake trees whose leaves portend an eternal autumn. Thousands of centuries old houses built over and all around winding cobbled streets have been bulldozed and replaced by highrise apartment buildings, Chinese-style highways and sidewalks, and Arabesque souvenir malls. Yet although thousands of Chinese migrants have arrived to fill those new apartment buildings and man the new supermarkets, the Uyghurs still hold sway in the center of town. Men still boil sheep heads, bake naan, and repair metal folding chairs by hand. There is still the familiar bustle and hustle of trade and barter in the market where "everything except chicken milk" is bought and sold according to one of the local business men. And although the old Uyghur longbeards seem to spend more time watching Uyghur dance routines on the jubotron outside the Id Kah mosque instead of standing around in gossiping clusters or actually bowing towards Mecca, the mosque still stands, although somewhat forlornly, as the center of Uyghurness here in China's "New Dominion."

I see a lot more women fully covered in the brown knit burka style veil, or the always interesting dark sunglasses-veil combination, then I did 5 odd years ago. Our firends, Alyas, Zulpya, and Gulpya say this is because Kashgar is "developing slowly." But they are probably a little bit invested in such a development project since as the top students in their Uyghur classes they are part of the Chinese section at the Police Academy in Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang. They will be the future leaders here in Kashgar. Other Uyghur students whose Chinese is less perfect tell us that the new developments in Kashgar have in some ways precipitated the movement toward more conservative forms of Islam here on the Chinese border of Pakistan. Something about the ruthless leveling of centuries of history combined with false promises that kitschy tourist shops for Chinese yuppies will give everyone economic salvation makes locals resent the incursion of Chineseness into their lives and turn toward other things to put their faith in.

Despite all the changes it is very interesting to observe how Uyghurs live in the modern world. I really enjoyed listening to a Uyghur grandmother learn to say "Hip-hop" (which her grandson, our friend, admires so much), a bazaar trader take a strong position against American style fast food ("who knows where that meat comes from," he said, "for all we know it could come from a donkey"), and of course the comparative aspects of Tom Cruise and Arnold Swartzenegger.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Wearing Longunderwear in Northwest China

so we're finally in xinjiang province (the area darren studies).

we had a heel kickin' good time on the sleeper train from lanzhou to turpan. our bunks were shared with 3 elders & their doting escort. since we gave up our low bunks (they didn't look like such great climbers) they felt generally indebted the whole trip & tried to stuff us with food & cigarettes & filled our tea jug every few hours. before long it seemed the occupants of the entire car were trying to outdo each other with how much they could get us to accept.

it was really a great way to see the country too - change from dust-bowl city to deserty stuff (but darren says it's not really desert yet - it does a pretty good job of pretending to be desert i think though).

in the train station the man next to us prophecied that we are going to have a baby girl after we visit xinjiang. then last night i dreamt that we adopted a little girl named peggy jo. she was 4 and had pretty severe developmental delays but i became utterly devoted to her. go figure.

if a tibetan monk asked you "what is the meaning of the song 'jingle bells'?" what would you say?

i like xinjiang. we spent today at a little town in the flaming mountains (that's really what they're called - i'm not waxing poetic - promise). it looked every bit like i always imagined bethlehem to be like. and so i kept humming "away in a manger" which drove darren nuts. and then the shepherds kept yelling at us (but it turns out they were really yelling at the sheep most of the time). but that put "my sheep know my voice" echoing through my brain (and straight out my lips much to darren's chagrin).

then i got really fantastically depressed at how male dominated this culture seems (imagining myself silently ducking in and out of corners for the rest of my life) and didn't snap out of it until we went to our favourite restaurant in the market (the women there didn't seem oppressed at all - even looking darren in the eye, etc,etc). we practiced our faltering uygur & they pretended like we did a half baked job at it. very good times were had and now our future is looking bright and clear once again.

so now we will go to our cozy little hotel room that doesn't smell too badly like toilet bowl after you've been there for a while. we will sit and laugh till we cry at chinese TV (where teams of children weep after losing their relay races by a tenth of a second one after another, and there are endless replays of incredibly bad singing contests, & swooping sunshiny songs about\n chinese unity and the colourfullness of minorities - all looking ecstatic to have the uncanny luck of being annexed by china).

so good night one and all,


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Yak Butter Tea is Soo Good
The guy next to me is reading some blogs in Tibetan. It makes sense since he is a Buddhist monk here in Xiahe, Gansu Province, China. Everyone is muttering in Tibetan or listening to Tibetan music on their headphones (or singing out loud when the impulse strikes!). All nineteen computers are occupied. Everyone has payed their two yuan or 25 cents for an hour of Internet time. And they are exploring electronic worlds pretty seriously, the monk next to me is talking on his cell phone while he is blogging.

We did some exploring here today too. With the help of a young monk who learned English with a guy from Seattle who sang "Jingle Bells," we were given a grand tour of the Dabrang monastery which is tucked away here in the mountains that ring the Amdo steppe of Northeastern Tibet. Some of the relics and Buddhas and what not is really old here -- stuff donated by the Kanxi Qing emperor and the royal families of Mongolia. But even more interesting is talking to a monk about what it is like to grow up a nomad on the grasslands of Qinghai, watch "King Kong," pass the exams in Tibetan Buddhism and give tours to South Korean missionaries who insist on strumming their guitar and breaking out in praise and worship songs when he takes them into temples (he said the other monks thought the South Koreans were crazy).

The food here is not so great. Most things have a healthy dose of yak butter making it a little rank. And after a night of snuggling under blankets scented in the same way we are ready for strictly vegan diet. Maybe tonight we will try some Hui/Chinese Muslim food on the other side of the street. We moved to a new hotel tonight where Jennifer is "sooo happy" because it is heated and, even more important, cleaner.

For those of you following us on your trusty wall map of China -- tomorrow will be a long day of first a bus from Xiahe on the border of Qinghai province to Lanzhou the capital of Gansu then an overnight hardsleeper to Turpan in Xinjiang Province.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Beijing Xin Nian

It's blitzing cold in Beijing like they say, but that doesn't bother Mao. He looks pretty cold year round. When Jennifer and I doffed our hats and shuffled past him with the rest of the peasant-pilgrims he didn't even blink at our hat hair. He seemed about as quiet as a New Yorker on jet-lag afraid to use a squat pot.

We're holed up about ten minutes away from Mao's mausoleum next to a mall filled with the best haute couture yuan can buy. Most people though on this brisk new year's eve seem not to buy anything but rather mill about looking cool sipping lattes as a supplement to their buns topped with dried shredded pork. We of course decline such buns in favor of the sweet-bean filled ones while admiring the Chinese characteristics of modern life.

It is absolutely wonderful to sleep 12 hours straight every given night after wandering hutongs (twisting labyrinthine alley ways stocked with cobblers, meat roasters, bun steamers, bicycle fixers, card board collectors and other petty merchants standard to organic community life) in a manner true to the uncomprehending stare of nascent Chinese learners who are perpetually lost. This would be great were it not for the perpetual need to find meat-free food aside from occasional roasted chestnut merchants and sweet-potato men such as those that hang about the East Gate of Beijing University.

Thus presents our crowning achievement as of December 31: the mapping and acquisition of food from the finest vegetarian restaurant in all of Beijing. Hundreds of beautiful dishes made to melt in the slowly-filling chopstick manner of in this case Buddhist consumption. Daoist temples, Chinese sculpture gardens, Forbidden Cities, and resolutions in the search for Internet cafes not withstanding, this has been our best thing yet. Tomorrow we fly to Lanzhou in Gansu Province and begin our slow ascent into Northwest China on the first day of the New Year. Hopefully we'll find some coal-fired warmth insulated by even more smog among the Tibetans, Hui Muslims, Uyghurs and regular provincials.