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. SUNDAY, MAY 11:
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.