Saturday, May 24, 2008

china dispatch #4 - street scene

I'm waiting and waiting for Catherine to come back to me. She's in San Antonio now, where we fly her back every two months for medical treatments. She'll be back Tuesday, and I can't wait to see her.

I felt sick all day yesterday, so when I finally got up I just went down to our little neighborhood street to read and have a bite to eat.

The street isn't particularly traditional in its architecture. Earlier, I compared it to a hutong in its tone, but it's definitely newer than that. And yet, as I looked around, I saw the ghosts of old China all around me. It was about eleven o'clock. Groups of people were gathered around the tables that every restaurant had out on the wide sidewalks, chattering loudly, old pudgy men with their shirts off, teens bunched up together. A stream of people flowed past, commenting on and being commented on. The several Mongolian grills smoked up occasionally, sending huge fogs of mouthwatering smoke to everyone near.

It's interesting. I'd always pictured myself getting overwhelmed at some peak on the Great Wall, or getting teary-eyed at a Beijing opera, or at the sight of the spectacular Temple of Heaven, perfectly rigged as it is to inspire as one approaches.

But this is where it happened: suddenly the sight before me glowed with meaning, and with the weight of six thousand years. The workers just off of work, gnawing at skewered meat, the young boys watching the girls go by, their girlfriends snapping at them, the boisterous sound of laughter and argument, the big old trees sending their leaves down to the concrete, the lady silently hunching over her bowl fooping noodles into her mouth length by length, the wafting pentatonic sound of a single flute coming from somewhere to dance around the cell phones' tinny pop, the taste of an unknown vegetable, buttery and garlicky in my mouth, the feel of cheap bamboo chopsticks in my hand, the blue and red and yellow bricks lit by paper lanterns and bare bulbs hanging from wires &#8212 this is where China sang to me.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

china dispatch #3 - birthday, music, apartment

I am sitting in an internet cafe in a charming little neighborhood just down from where we now live. Our laptop computer gave way a couple of weeks ago, and so we haven't been able to update as often as we've wanted to — especially me, because I always want to do everything at once, including Facebook and the website, which requires that I have ftp access.

Anyway. Let's see.

We visited the church for foreigners that Bryan and Cathy attend. I'd visited by myself the week before, when Catherine wasn't feeling too well. China does allow people to worship, both foreigners and locals, but it doesn't allow them to mingle when doing so. So there are several churches for foreigners sprinkled around town, and you have to show your passport when you go in. Strange!

The one we visited has several branches. Bryan and Cathy's branch is way out on the west side of town, about an hour by taxi, in the University district. So there are lots of expats, especially students. Both times, the worship was really nice, with a good speaker (different each week) and a very competent worship leader (also different each week) leading a band of singers and players who were earnest (a term for which I am indebted to my mother, who deploys it to hilarious effect, though she herself is earnestly trying to find the best in people — that's partially why we find it so funny, to her consternation).

After the service, I met the folks in charge, and have now been conscripted to serve in the band a few of this summer's Sundays, and to be the leader myself for a few, too.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 14: I played again at the bar where it now looks like I'll be every Wednesday. The manager says he'd like to have me every single day, and is working furiously toward that end. Meanwhile, the Wednesday gig is delightful, and the players I've been working with are really talented, great players, good listeners, and fun to be with, though the hang is a bit compromised in breaks because their English isn't all that fluent, and my Chinese is nonexistent.

THURSDAY, MAY 15: My birthday! The day started off extremely well, ushered in as it was with a delicious meal. Catherine and I returned from the gig starving, especially after an hour commute. So we ventured down to see if our favorite little restaurant was open at near-midnight. Sure enough, it was, and the waiter, who has become a real friend to us with his excitement over a chance to test and improve his English, really did us nicely. We ordered several new things that looked like they might be good: "tiger" vegetables, which is a plate of very thin julienne cucumbers, peppers of the light-green kind that come with pizza back home, and cilantro, washed in a spicy and refreshing dressing and served chilled; a plateful of jiaoze; and, at his urging, some delights from the Mongolian grill outside on the steps (which is a custom around here), including a small plate of nondescript gelatin and well-spiced small pickles, and several skewers of mouthwatering lamb, spiced with some sort of pepper that actually brings on a slight numbness to the tongue. Very pleasing, and unlike anything I've ever tasted! Furthermore, seeing our delight at this feast, he refused to accept any payment at all for it.

Our friend Billy had invited us over for lunch. This is turning into a regular date, and a highlight of my weeks here. Billy is big-hearted, big-humored, full of life and light, a devoted family man taking a sabbatical from work to enjoy his family and friends, and a fine musician on top of it all.

He greeted us at the door with a gift bag: yep, he'd heard it was my birthday, and went to considerable trouble to get a gift and wrap it! It's a Chinese picture frame that will hold a place of honor around some picture of people I love. Thanks, man! After a beautiful Western lunch, he got out his bass and I sat at his grand piano, and I did something I don't think I've ever done exactly on my birthday: I composed a song.

I scribbled out a chord structure based on something I'd heard a band do recently, compressing the entire form of Miles Davis's "So What" into four bars; Billy and I played it round and round, as I experimented with different melodies, and finally zeroed in on something haunting and, I think, quite lovely. Can't wait to see what audiences think of it.

Catherine and I then caroused around the big downtown mall, which, Wonka-like, tormented us with its simple yet deceptive layout, while giving Catherine the opportunity to do some spontaneous shopping and cobbling together of birthday gifts for me: a whole grab-bag full of goodies, both lasting and transitory. Thanks, love!

We'd decided on a Beijing Opera for my birthday dinner. We'd looked it up in our (couple-of-years-old) city guidebook, and found what we knew would be our favorite: a very authentic one in lush surroundings, that also served Peking Duck, the city's most famous recipe.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Catherine tells all about it in her Facebook notes, which you can get here if you don't want to bother getting them there.

Nonetheless, we did have a superb meal, and we did discover a whole little area that we wouldn't have discovered before. So, we'll get to a B-opera at some point; that just makes the birthday celebration last longer, no?

After dinner, we tooted on over to the East Shore Cafe to hear the Thursday night session. The very generous (and good) piano player invited me up to the stand for a couple of numbers, and midnight passed, ushering out my birthday in one of the best ways: doing the thing I love, playing music for an appreciative, packed house, with fine musicians. As for what else I love, some hugging and kissing and carrying on provided an absolutely perfect ending to a somewhat perfect day.

SATURDAY, MAY 17: We spent a couple of hours packing up all our worldly goods, and another couple of hours driving over to a new place and unpacking them. Yep, we've moved. Bryan and Cathy, our hosts for three weeks, can finally have a bit of peace and quiet around the house, though their children were adorably reluctant even to say goodbye to their new friends Barry and Catherine. Not to worry: we'll be doing some babysitting soon.

The new place is going to be fun. We have two roommates, delightful Chinese gals in their twenties, named Cora and Cherry. The place itself is a study in contradictions: approaching it, one sees something out of a Terry Gilliam movie, a giant building in a giant cluster of buildings, looming against the grey grey sky, stained and cluttered. Inside the halls, it's concrete everywhere, the dingiest lighting possible, and not a single decoration or attempt at beauty. And yet, it's the first place I've ever lived that has doormen and elevator operators, all of whom are solicitous, and all of whom remembered which floor we were on after the first trip. Nice!

Our room looks out onto a green courtyard dominated by a traditional Chinese garden. We've already shopped a bit, and now have it fitted with pretty sheets and towels and pillows, complemented by Catherine Fine Yang's gift of beautiful midnight-blue batik hangings. Feels like home already.

SUNDAY, MAY 18: Church again, but this time it was at the location that's much closer to us. Just a few subway stops down. Our location, by the way, is ideal, only a few subway stops from the places we'll be going most. We're just at the Fourth Ring Road, which sounds far out, but the inner four rings are much closer together than the massive Fifth, and our commute to, say, Tiananmen Square is only about fifteen minutes. We'll be delighted to have significantly diminished taxi fares in those late nights after the subways close.

Anyway, church. I got there right on the stroke of eleven, only to discover that this branch starts at ten. Drat! Missed the music, but got there just in time for the sermon, which revolved around the Savior's teachings about wineskins: "No one puts new wine in old wineskins. The skins will burst and the wine will be wasted." Wow! It hit me right in the gut, and challenged my thinking about all sorts of things. Think about every word of those teachings for a moment. We've seen it happen, have we not? I've often thought that the Word always preferences the New: the old self goes and the new self comes, the old testament is merely an echo for the new, the old earth gives way to the New Jerusalem. And who doesn't suspect that people we know will be with us in that New Jerusalem, unable to stop talking about how good the old one was? I was galvanized. It was exactly what I needed to hear, and I obviously showed up exactly where (and when) I needed to.

I met up with the people there, who are all warm and welcoming, and their worship team was glad to hear I was around. I'll be commuting an hour and a half for those other things across town.... Sheeeee! But it will be nice to have this closer location too.

Back at home, I managed to communicate to a doorman that I'd like to find the nearest Internet cafe. He showed me out a different door, along the back of the building, and — weird, weird, weird — down a stairway at the parking lot's side. Suddenly I experienced a dizzying paradigm shift. The ground was not the ground at all. My building, and the grove of buildings around it, and the green-gardened courtyard, are on a giant platform, three or four stories off the ground, with parking underneath.

How fascinating, to find another entire layer of street life, far below! I tucked into a little opening that isn't a classical hutong but bears a familial resemblance to it, and suddenly I was in the middle of a bustling, vibrant little neighborhood! And I'm now sitting in its Internet hovel, with boisterous talking that wafts around the street from outdoor restaurants and cafes, battling musics from tinny speakers here and there, the ring of bicyclists, and the distant cry of revelers as my midnight soundtrack; and the smell of meat roasting on the street's several Mongolian grills setting off the taste of my Apple Mirinda.

MONDAY MAY 19: I have been roped into doing some community theater. A friend was talking to a friend who was talking to a friend who was complaining that he was having a hard time casting the part of a reality-TV host in an upcoming play. The friend said, "I think I may know someone who could do that." There ya have it. I'm in.

The rehearsals take place on the other side of town. It's worth the commute if only because of the setting: a club that sits on the side of a lake, one of the several interconnected lakes that include Beihai Park. (The "shore" of the East Shore Cafe belongs to another one of them.) You get off the subway, turn into a wonderfully preserved old hutong, and suddenly you're looking at a beautiful lake, right down the way from an old monastery and a lovely classically-architectured restaurant. We've been there a couple of times now in the haze of early evening. Serene and beautiful. I've got to get some pictures up!

Late last night, Catherine and I made our way to the Beijing Train Station, where she took an overnight train to Shanghai; as I write, she's flying from there to San Antonio. She'll have a week there. On the agenda: medical treatments (the reason we're flying her back every two months), catch-up time with family, and her sister's birthday. I miss her already.

Friday, May 9, 2008

china dispatch #2 - jazz and english

It's been several days since I've updated this: sorry! Here are the happenings so far.

On Sunday, the 27th, I went back to one of the places I'd visited Friday, to talk with the people there and play a bit. I'd invited a couple of musicians to join me as well. We played, and were liked quite a lot. There were tons of details to work out, though, and in fact those details still hadn't been worked out as of this last Wednesday, when our friend there had asked us to come play again. I still hadn't had word, but got dressed and headed out anyway; sure enough, on our subway ride (it's an hour commute into downtown!) he called and said we were on. I then texted everyone and they texted back with "OK" and there you have it.

This particular club is very nicely done: beautifully decorated, and well-placed in the heart of town. It also has a grand piano, which will be fantastic once it's tuned properly (and I have much reason to believe it will be; these people believe in quality). Looks like it's going to be a regular thing.

Meanwhile, another gig fell right into my lap. I have now edited an entire brochure for the Beijing Olympic Committee, taking it from comically outrageous to slick.

Sorry, everyone. I know we prefer it comically outrageous. (There really is a sign that says "PLEASE DON'T CROSS ANY RAILINGS LEST SUDDENNESS HAPPENS," and just yesterday at one of the malls they had a sign up that warned against "ground injustice." Construction going on.) Anyway, this translation service has discovered the fine art of "polishing": after something's been translated, I then go over it and make it say what they mean it to say.

It's been really interesting taking stuff that's already been expressed in such a distant language and trying to make it flow. I find that the real challenge is in keeping my own sense of English. Bombarded with these gargantuan monstrosities of language ("Let Beijing More Wonderful, And Make The Olympics More Brilliant"), it's hard to remember what does indeed sound right. Sometimes it's hard to know what the original is trying to say: "The Integrally Sliding Construction Technology of Steel Construction: construct synchronously, and complete high-effectively."

So, that looks like it's going to be a good source of problem-solving entertainment. I've been known to walk into the living rooms of perfect strangers and start straightening their paintings; finally, a productive outlet for that impulse!

One of the chief pleasures of Beijing, as I experienced in my first trip here, is the opportunity for getting clothes tailor-made. Catherine and I have been frugal and systematic in our 6-month sartorial plot; the first stage of it is just now coming to a close. We found a tailoring shop that came highly recommended, and ordered a beautiful olive-green suit for me: a trim, Savile Row kind of thing, double-vented in back, with a classic look that will hopefully look good for several seasons.

When I was here in 01, I had three suits made, two of which I designed myself. My hope then was that, since they never were in style to begin with, they'd never go out. Unfortunately, what's invisible to us in one season becomes starkly visible the next, and now all three of them have a distinct turn-of-the-century look to them. Ach! Well, I'm keeping them around anyway.

We've also done some less monumental shopping: I got a pair of decent sneakers for all the walking and hiking we'll be doing, and Catherine has gotten a little load of socks. We'd vowed that we would only bring a bag apiece for the six-month trip, but as the date approached we gave in to reality and checked a bag apiece as well. Nonetheless, I think, we did an admirable job of not kitchen-sinking it. But that does mean that we'll be buying these little necessities for ourselves here. My guess is that we'll keep some of it, but unload most on some charity or other when it's time to go.

Also bought along the way: a couple of belts for me, a lovely silver pendant for Catherine, a dirt-cheap shirt and tie for me, a perfectly Catherine-ish pair of green shoes, hybrid sneaker-Mary-Janes in bright lime green, for Catherine.

I absolutely love doing all that shopping and haggling; Catherine has a hard time with it. The sellers here are extremely aggressive. As in the old days, nothing has a price tag. So you bargain for every single gosh darn thing you buy. Really, it's been fairly recently that things began having a set price — it happened with Marshall Field and Sears Roebuck — and of course you still have to haggle with car dealers. So, if you're one of those people who detest shopping, just remind yourself that you could be in the land where getting a new pair of shoes is like buying a car. Sheeeee!

We haven't done a lick of sightseeing. We keep telling ourselves that we should do it soon before the heat of summer and the onrush of tourists. Today, in fact, our utopian dream was to get to the Temple of Heaven. We decided to take care of business first, though. We'd set up an account with the Bank of China on our first day here, as a good way of taking care of our money, making ATMs usable (they don't often take Visa, even now), and getting what's left of a decent exchange rate as the dollar continues falling faintly through the universe.

Unfortunately, we got into a distracting conversation while wrapping up an ATM session the other day, and the machine timed out and ate our card. We're thankful for the safety feature, which prevents folks from just strolling up and taking a forgotten card, but still it's a hassle. The bank today took a full two hours, and we ended up just taking all the money out of our account and starting a new one, which is actually easier than getting a new card on the old account. Catherine passed the time by being delighted at the security guard's cattle-prod. Instead of a typical billyclub, he had an electric one. What on earth would he ever use it for? Could that come in handy if there were ever a bank robbery? Maybe if the bank robbers were pledges.

After that, we took a nice stroll through the Wangfujing area, a slightly overcommercialized district near the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. Then I wanted to find one of my favorite streets off the square, but either it isn't there or I'm not remembering correctly. At any rate, right around dinnertime we found ourselves in an area with lots of extant hutongs. So we ventured down one crowded, brightly lit, crooked alleyway, figuring that might be a great place to get some fantastic local thing or other.

Bingo! We found a suitable-looking place, sat down amid stares, and began trying to communicate with the waiter, using our several resources. By the time we were finished ordering, our table was surrounded by — count 'em — twelve people. Twelve people were just pressing all around us, observing as we tried and tried and tried to find out what it was we were ordering. We never did find out: we just hoped it wasn't entrails.

As we were waiting for the food, we noticed a table of old men near us, eating some delicious-looking flatbread, sort of like nan. We called the waiter over, I pointed to the word "bread" in the book, and he shook his head and started explaining something in fluent Chinese. There is no doubt that his Chinese is spectacular.

This sort of thing is of course common: it's just hard to conceptualize communication other than in your own language, even if you know the other person doesn't speak it. A few days ago, a street cop tried saying something to us, and, on our indication that we didn't understand a word of what he said, pointed to a sign. The sign was in Chinese.

Anyway, we did manage to indicate to the waiter that we wanted what the old men were having — a harder feat than it sounds like. He brought us some of it, and we were transported. Delicious, delicious stuff, very much like nan, the flatbread staple of Indian food. We were able to find out what it was called later (it translates to something like "springtime onion pancake") and so now we'll be able to ask if other places have it.

Then the rest of the meal came: delicious, delicious stuff! It was a pile of something like empanadas, stuffed with a concoction of spinach, chives, and garlic, perfectly spiced and piping hot. Man, oh, man. This meal definitely fell under the heading of Traveling Mercies.

I'd been decanting my beer from its giant bottle to a tiny drinking glass, as is the custom. When I realized that I wouldn't be able to finish it, I offered it to a couple of guys across from us. I didn't even try communicating verbally this time: a simple gesture was all that was needed. They reciprocated with an offer of whatever it was they were drinking, a clear spirit that seems to be the national drink of China. From the looks of it, it's called White Something. (I recognized the "white" as "bai," the character that is also my surname in Chinese, and which you see on this page.) May I suggest "White Lightning." It was awfully strong, but quite satisfying. In tasting it, and in persuading Catherine to taste it, perhaps more theatrically than strictly necessary seeing as she does speak my language, I was able to acquire a greater audience than we'd had previously. All were entertained, even us.

Just as our meal was coming to a delicious close, several police cycles came charging in, which set the whole street in a flurry; suddenly, the outdoor cookery at our place was whisked inside, and just as suddenly our own table was whisked as well. All up and down the street, people were talking and gesturing, and police lights were flashing. Hm. What to think?

We called Cathryn to see if she could talk to one of the drinking buddies and find out what was going on. As we were handing the phone over, the proprietor (who was also our waiter) intercepted it and spoke to Cathryn, telling her it was a routine neighborhood security thing. We then took advantage of our long-distance translator to communicate more eloquently our appreciation of the meal; the proprietor graciously accepted. Catherine then chatted with Cathryn while I asked the only other foreign-looking guy on the street what was really going on. He said, in a broad Australian accent, that it was a raid on unlicensed vendors: you can't sell stuff on the street without proper papers. So several of these places had been expanding their square footage by leaking out into the street. Charming, as far as we were concerned, but apparently not entirely legal. We actually saw cops breaking a prep table! What a display of force for such a misdemeanor!

The Australian guy had been in Beijing a few days, and was leaving tomorrow; he asked about us, and was flabbergasted when we told him about our six-month visas. How could it be? It's just not done! How? Where? I told him we just waltzed into the consulate in Houston and waltzed out; he just couldn't believe it. He said that only happens when you have friends in high places.

As it happens, we do.