Thursday, February 15, 2018

Where Is China?

One of the great joys of travel is to get out of your head, out of your endlessly circulating thoughts and points of view, and move your central headquarters to the observing eye, the listening, feeling and olfactory senses as you wander through the streets of a new city or hike the forest paths of some place new and unfamiliar. And the travel writing I enjoy is a mix of simple reporting—here’s what I did, here’s what I saw, here’s what I heard—with a tiny dose of “and here’s what it meant to me.”

Anyone reading the last five or six blogs might have noticed that there’s a hardly a word about China, that I’ve mostly been cocooned in my own self-enclosed world. And that’s partly true. Not in a neighborhood that invites much sightseeing, working seven hours a day and not much time to get out, it’s cold outside when I do get out, documenting classes at the end of the day and planning a bit for the next (and tonight signing 80 certificates). And so indeed I’ve mostly had my spare time in my hotel room, just me and my circulating thoughts.

And then there’s the fact that it’s my third time here and I’ve seen most of the big attractions—the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace. And let’s face it. Most of Beijing, like most of so many cities nowadays, is Anywhere, World, a city with similar architecture, roads, cars, stores, malls, people hurrying to and from work. I did get out last night and had dinner with an old friend’s son whom I had never met. The dinner was in a Mall that had a big collection of Salvador Dali artwork and of course, the mandatory Starbucks and such.  A far cry from my notions of China from 20 years ago, with thousands of bicycles, different clothing, large groups doing Tai Chi in parks, hanging ducks in store windows, bustling outdoor markets.

Anyway. The little things I’m noticing are small, but interesting. Like the motorcycle cloth shields while riding in cold weather. Simple but ingenious! The surprising clean air and then someone telling me it’s because they moved the polluting factories further away form the city. Let someone else breathe the noxious fumes! The other interesting idea that the lack of access to Facebook and Google is not only censorship, but smart business. A billion plus customers forced to choose the Chinese alternatives and hey, that makes sense. A depressing take-out culture with thick plastic Tupperware that gets thrown out, no Sunset Scavenger separated bins for recycling. But last time I was here, someone showed me a huge mound of garbage with people picking through it. “That’s how they recycle here.” And apparently, that’s still the informal method.

The people in my class are simply wonderful, though a bit unaware of my need to have my own little rest during the break, as the crowds come up and ask me for photo after photo after photo. And then a new twist—signing hand drums they bought. Today we played some jazz and their rhythm and sense of offbeat and swing was much improved by the China I worked in ten years ago. They’re doing great with body percussion and seem to love it and are very fast at picking up and remembering melodies. There’s four or five kids casually woven into the group and they’re mostly doing great. One took a jazz solo today. And speaking of which, the highlights was a blues solo on the Erhu fiddle! Yeah!

Well, there you go. No travel writing award for me, no sense of lifting the reader out of their armchair into some exotic land. But hey, that’s mostly the world we inhabit. The new exotic is not in tourist sites, but in our own rekindled imagination.

(Feb. 2) 

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