Thursday, October 23, 2008

harvest season in minority villages

Colorful tapestries, harvesting rice, morning cock crows and ancient songs floating over drum towers where old men sit playing mah jong. The ethnic minority villages of Guangxi Province offer much in the way of slow living - especially in contrast with the rapid industrialization of the home places of the rest of their Chinese brethren. These pastoral places seem to serve as refuge for city-dwelling Han Chinese; similarly to the romantics in turn-of-the-century continental Europe, you can find painters and poets and lovers of a slower life here in these villages, enjoying the clean air and the sweeping movements of the brightly-clad reapers, harvesting what they had sown many months previous.

In Ping'an, home of the Zhuang people, the rice fields are in the form of terraces cut into steep hillsides - referred to here as 'dragon's backbone.' Most of the time in Ping'an was spent hiking amongst these carved mountainsides, taking in the autumnal scent of burning dry leaves.

In Chengyang, a series of Dong towns clustered along a water-wheeled river, the main attractions are several flower (or, more practically, wind-and-rain) bridges. A leisurely stroll through the towns finds gaggles of schoolchildren giggling out hello's, narrow alleyways framed by nail-less Dong houses with drying bouquets of rice hanging from their eaves, and drum towers with friendly old men smoking pipes and offering weak green tea as a token of friendship and pride.

Monday, October 20, 2008

hipness in yangshuo

Yangshuo is the Moab, Utah or the Jackson, Wyoming of China. These gateway towns are hip, filled with dreadlocked climbers and their dirty backpacks, and are surrounded by gorgeous natural scenery. For the first two, the draw is Arches and Yellowstone, and here it is the Li and Yulong rivers and the karst peaks that jut out of the otherwise flat land of this southwestern province. For some, the sight of westerners at all in this fairly remote area of China is too much to bear; with their hideous visage of unkempt northface pants and designer hiking boots.  For others, including us, the sight of westerners only makes obvious what is inherent in many "remote" areas here, the effects of globalization - of America Brand consumerism and greed - are everywhere, and cannot be avoided.  Many purists say that Yangshuo is not the 'real China,' but I think they are looking for something that doesn't exist, and are actually offended to see some mainstream middle-aged American white couple making it to somewhere that was -up until then - making them feel radical and wildly adventurous.  Alex and I make no claims of grandeur and purity, so we can be okay with beautiful scenery, Heineken's and pizza for dinner, and American breakfast. So we did, and enjoyed ourselves.

One night, when enjoying some local beer at a great cafe with great music, we were approached by a 9 year old boy who asked us if he could practice his English with us.  Well, we were skeptical at first, reading about people who want to "practice English" by asking you to buy things. So, we asked him a few questions and he seemed legit, so we invited him to sit with us. We sat for the greater part of an hour discussing pokemon and American movies and his parents' jobs and how much he likes knowing English.  He gave us some (what he considered simple) 'math problems,' which were actually super Chinese-esque riddles for us to solve. Like, if you have 8 eggs, and one of them weighs more than all the other 7 separately, and each of those other 7 weigh the same, and you can only use the scale 2 times, how do you weigh the eggs (in any combination) to find out which one is the heaviest egg. Yeah, we failed to figure this one out.  In any case, this theme of adorable and earnest children has been repeating itself. I am once again taken aback by the joy of conversation, and once again (as in Morocco, Ecuador) it is with a child. They have less of a filter to guard against the wrong words, so they tell you exactly what they know. Like our friend Joe says, "Chinese video games are horrible."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

colonialism in macau

More a colonial city than Hong Kong, Macau reveals its Portugese bloodline. Cobbled streets and richly decorated churches, words in arabic letters (albeit still hard to decipher) and people who look (more) like me, Macau gives me my last shot of The West -- of home -- before my long abstinence in The East. We spent time here wandering along the winding european alleyways and relaxing into churches, following our eurotrip model of finding sanctuary from our own feet in comfortable and often cool holy places. We ate Italian for the first (and not the last...I HOPE!) time, had Macanese (a mix of Portugese and Chinese) food and found a Portugese cafe with soft coconut pastries and caffe latte's in which they can be dunk. Oh, pleasure drome! Basta! Give me something hard, tough, strange, absurd, an assualt on my senses. Southern China, Li River, ethnic minority villiages, I'm coming.

fables in hong kong

After an arduous but surprisingly tolerable fourteen hour flight, we arrived -- for the very first time -- on the continent of Asia. We wobbled wearily toward our hotel, in Mirador Mansions, which were anything but the luxurious image that comes with the name. It is basically a series of buildings housing stores, exchange shops, tailors, apartments and guest houses. After a bombardment of neon lights and a maze of indians hawking "sunglasseshandbagswatchestailoredsuits," we made it into our fortress of solitude, complete with hot water, free wireless internet, powerful air conditioning and a flat screen tv now showing a David Attenborough nature documentary. ahhhhh. 

Our first nights were mostly sleepless, our bodies in a funk from the insane opposite-side-of-the-world-timechange, so our first couple of days we spent marching like zombies through the streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong. We saw two movies (Body of Lies and Vicky Christina Barcelona), applied for our China visas, went to two museums, an English bookstore, and took the longest (1/2 mile) escalator in the world. 

The fourth day, however, after having adjusted our eating and sleeping, we journeyed into Kowloon's fabled markets. After popping off a quick and insanely cheap metro ride, we found the flower market. Teeming with flowers named and nameless (to me), we were overcome by the sheer sweetness of it all. Every perfect package of luscious buds was wrapped up in crisp and soft and pale paper, waiting to be delivered to blushing babes and gracious mothers. Then the bird garden -- a series of men fawning over their exotic bird-friends that I am not entirely sure they actually wanted to sell, for fear of parting with their best mates. It is rumored that the men hand feed each of their creatures crickets with chopsticks -- spoiled! but also worthy of the attention, these birds overwhelmed with their colors, shape, size and sometimes uncanny ability to talk back. After that, fish. Assuredly illegally garnered, there were tanks and tanks of water plants and anemones and coral and so many types of goldfish you didn't know existed, some of them so strangely resembling anime creatures that you would think they were designed by nintendo. oh, asia. Repititions of things, especially aesthetically pleasing things, has an uncanny way of making you feel overwhelmed but curious. Like a child running through a flock of grounded birds, you want to keep it all, to discover it, to feel it, to touch it. Oh! So many flowers and they smell so sweet and oh so bright and fresh and oh they can all be mine! and birdies! and fishies! I want to see them all close up, to hold them, to have them, forever. Come to asia, you'll know what I mean. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

on the road again

On the road again
goin places that I've never been
seein things that I may never see again
and I can't wait to get on the road again

Flying from Chicago, I touch down in Phoenix and as I step out of the plane I breathe in the heat. Exhausting and invasive but inspiring and motivating, travel draws the best from me like powdered sugar through a sieve.  There are little unconscious symbols that exist in Phoenix for me, signifying the beginning of something new: the bright sun on the white floor, the lights of planes burning like brighter stars in the desert sky, the palm tree against an endless blue. I went to visit my grandmother (Nan) and Uncle (Kurt) last time before I left for Europe, and returning again I feel safe, like this is my launching pad, and I'm ready to take off.

After a week of preparation for the journey ahead and relaxation for now, Nan and Uncle Kurt drove me up to Flagstaff where I was forced to face the worst part of leaving home: saying goodbye to the ones you love the most, and who love you, too. After some tears, and some fleeting thoughts of regret, Alex and his mom (Oksana) and I drove off to conquer to Colorado Plateau. 

We saw deep chasms and natural arches in fiery red (Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion), ancient cliff palaces (Mesa Verde), rock cities made of pink and salmon and tan hoodoos (Bryce Canyon), and ended with Alex's home place -- the enchanted forest in his backyard called Yosemite. 

So, here I am again. On the brink of something scary and new. And as hesitations begin to take over, I am reminded of the student speaker at my graduation, and I think this is the best time to include the entirety of his speech, because it has been a sort of maxim for me, post-graduation.

“Life. . . naturally pulls us down toward death.” 

Welcome to your graduation. 
As a product of a U of C education, I feel compelled to cite my sources, and so I’ll tell you that what I just said was a quotation from Anne Bogart, a renowned American theater director, who was paraphrasing writer Italo Calvino from one of six lectures he wrote but never finished. He didn’t finish them, because he died. Now Anne Bogart is not a U of C student and moreover, she’s an artist, so she isn’t required to cite anyone—for example, she fails to cite Rudolf Clausius. Who is Rudolf Clausius? He’s the German physicist who stated the second law of Thermodynamics. But it’s not like his idea was original—he was only revising Sadi Carnot’s theories, which were addressing advances made by James Watt, who was standing on the shoulders of Thomas Newcomen, who synthesized Thomas Savery and Denis Papin, and so forth, and so forth. Five hundred years of neglected citation, but I will not perpetuate such irresponsible scholarship—all of my information was taken from Wikipedia.

For example, Wikipedia tells me about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that since the Big Bang, entropy has been rising—which means that the energy of the universe has been dissipating and will continue to do so until it arrives at equilibrium, fatal and final. That event is otherwise known as the Great Heat-Death of the Universe. Now this will happen billions of years from now but you’re graduating today, and entering a world, as Anne Bogart conceives it, of dissipating human energy. For the rest of your life, you will get tired. You will shy away from risk. You will cathect to comfort. You will watch lots of television. It’s a gentle process, and it's completely unstoppable. We will lose energy. The universe will end. We can’t stop the Great Heat-Death of the Universe.

But by God, we are University of Chicago students. And we can fight.

How do you pick a fight with the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Anne Bogart, artist and abstainer from Chicago-style citation, argues that the act of creation is inherently an act of resistance against our own death.
To fight entropy, I might add, is to have the audacity to act against the universe’s inclination to settle and our own impulse to simply live a comfortable life. This of course puts me in the mind of Plato’s allegory of the cave. The cave, we forget, is a really cozy place to be. It’s warm, there’s a big long couch—there’s even a sweet television and all your friends are there watching it. But the cave is part of a universe that yearns for stagnation, and so here at the U of C we leave it. It’s uncomfortable and even painful but it takes a damn good shot at entropy. If we’ve learned one lesson from Plato, it’s that discomfort is often a sure sign of something worthwhile. We take up discomfort, we take up the fight because to fight entropy is to transcend our own fate and the single most important thing we can do as human beings is to confront the Great Heat-Death of the Universe and to defy it. For four years, you've been doing just that—talking, writing, collaborating, creating—fighting entropy 10 weeks at a time. Today you decide—do you go back to the cave? Or do you stay outside and fight?

Life naturally pulls us down toward death, but today you graduate; and today, entropy meets the U
niversity of Chicago. This is your graduation. This is your fight. 

Asia, here I come.