Archive for Life

A pirate’s life for me

I’ve been getting back on a movie kick the past few days, after a few weeks spent doing a lot of reading. Mostly, I think, I’m inspired by the Academy, which nominated a lot of films that I’ve heard are really terrific for Oscars this year. The weather was gorgeous this afternoon, sunny and in the high 40s or low 50s, so I decided to take a ride out to the suburbs to Tom’s–by far the best DVD store in Beijing. Their prices are more expensive, but the quality of the DVDs is great, and their selection is unrivalled, as well as incredibly (alphabetically!) organized. I found just about every movie I was hoping to buy, plus, of course, a number of others that caught my eye in the process:

Walk the Line
The Constant Gardener
The Family Stone
A Home at the End of the World
Edward Scissorhands
Everything is Illuminated
The Aristocrats
The Simpsons – Season 15
The Pretender – Season 2

Altogether, they cost me about $32–but I’m flush since I got paid on Friday. Besides, these movies are all well worth it, or so I hope, and just compare how much I spent with the prices at Amazon!

Posted by on February 19th, 2006

A pilgrimage to Tianzhu

The Tianzhu temples caught my eye despite being out of the way—not only were they hidden at the end of a list of Hangzhou’s attractions, their names buttressed by little description or practical information, but their actual position is a bit off the beaten track as well. Never one to listen to a list or let geographic inconvenience deter me, however, I was certain that my time in Hangzhou wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt out past Lingyin Temple to Tianzhu Road, where it seems as if gods have set three temples like jewels into the mountainside. It was only an inkling I had, based on years of experience that have taught me to value my own instincts over the recommendations of any tourist board or guide book. Still, I’ve also learned that sometimes travelers avoid places for a reason, so when intuition sends me off into the tourist wilderness, where locals roam free, impervious to attack from the point-and-shooting hordes, I try not to let my expectations run away with me.

As I hiked up the road toward the topmost temple one perfect autumn morning, I reveled in the fullness of the forest on either side, a verdant surprise that already justified the cab fare from the city center. So absent from my home in Beijing, a dry, gray, and dusty city that seems to sprawl almost to the grasslands of Mongolia, the lushness of this scenery overwhelmed me. To find a place still embraced by nature is sadly rare in urban China, yet unspoiled green tracts surround Hangzhou, a fitting frame for the artful expanse of water at its heart. A few cars whizzed close to me on the paved mountain road, but I paid them no mind, wrapped up as I was in my meditation on unchecked development and the cultural and political challenges of conservation.

When I reached Faxi Si, the Buddhist abbey at the top, however, after a walk of three-quarters of an hour or so, my train of thought turned more personally meditative. Should I buy a bundle of incense from one of the women selling candles at the temple gate to attempt the proper ritual once inside? Or would it be better to fumble around in my relative ignorance, taking photographs and sticking out like the foreign devil they likely assumed I was, but also not pretending to knowledge or beliefs I didn’t really possess?

I ruled that since my intentions were in the right place—I wanted to try to fit in with the few faithful adherents I saw milling around and gain a sense of how they experienced the place, rather than imposing the interpretations of my own mindset on it—I should do what pilgrims do and buy some scent to burn as communication with the heavens. The few extra kuai my purchase would add to the vendor’s pocket couldn’t hurt either, a certainty reinforced by the speed with which she stopped counting the beads on her mala, the Buddhist rosary she draped around her wrist to help her focus on the mouthed but silent recitations of her mantras, to tell me how much my attempt at partial participation was going to cost me.

It was, then, clutching eight powdery, fuchsia sticks in my hand, which itself would remain stained pink for much of the day, that I passed through the threshold of the temple. In the main courtyard, uphill from the gate, I took in the gold and crimson buildings devoted to the lord of compassion, the Buddha whom the Chinese call Guanyin, a female deity known in Tibet and India as Avalokitesvara.

The name of this trio of temples itself evokes that spiritual place of origin: Tianzhu, which literally translates as Master of Heaven, is the ancient Chinese name for India, from which Buddhism trekked over the Himalayas more than 2,000 years ago. The religion spread over the whole of China, eventually nestling its way into Hangzhou and putting down roots so strong that, despite the passing of millennia and the cultural crusades of the past century, the people of this city still climb Tianzhu Road to reach these temples, even if most of those who pass by the old women selling joss sticks are themselves grandmothers, or at least mothers, or daughters.

I felt like a daughter of Hangzhou myself as I clumsily imitated the motions of the older women in the center of the courtyard. I stuck my incense into a large bronze vessel filled with fire, until the sticks smoldered and then smoked at their rounded tips. The pilgrims bowed at the waist toward the temple at the top of the steps, shook the spicy smoke up into the air with both hands in front of them, and turned to their right, repeating the motions until their prayers were ascending to all four corners of the sky. With my thin magenta wands, I followed them as fluidly as possible, repeated their movements and tried to ingratiate my mind with their thoughts. I was not just performing empty gesticulations there on the stage before an audience of these believers and their deities, but I couldn’t fill my mind with the same resonances I knew these gestures held for them.

Like my unwitting (though seemingly not unwilling) tutors, I pushed my still-smoking joss sticks down into a bed of ash behind the censer and entered the convent’s main hall, where the Buddhas of the past and future flanked their present-minded avatar. Standing before these magnificent symbols, given form as gorgeous statues, I reflected on my history, the past that had brought me before this pacific triad; I considered my present, allowed my breath to slow until my mind could not detect it, and worked to still my mind so it wouldn’t even try; and I contemplated moving on into the future, following my thoughts of the life ahead of me into the experience of living it.

When I stumbled back out into the crisp air of early fall, which pixelates the sunlight to sharpen and saturate life as if it were a photo, I knew I couldn’t hope to understand the experience of those visitors to which the temple and its inhabitants are more accustomed. Still, I’d had revelations of my own, and I meditated on them as I made my way along the side of the road to the next bead in Tianzhu’s mala. Buddhist monks say that the mind is as random and thoughts as spontaneous as a monkey jumping through the branches of a tree. As I meandered down the mountain, however, my mind was focused and my thoughts purposeful, the monkey sitting still upon a single branch, peeling a banana.

Posted by on February 13th, 2006

Excerpts from my book

Now that I’ve finished my Hangzhou book I figured I’d might as well share the best parts of it here–it’s not like anyone’s ever going to see it.*

*That’s hopefully not true, but I imagine none of you will ever actually read it, nor should you. Most of it will be pretty boring.

Here I’m going to post only a few of the first-person texts I wrote, since those are the most interesting (and best written)…

Posted by on February 13th, 2006

The east is red

If I’m up at dawn, I might as well take pictures of it.

Posted by on February 8th, 2006

A snowy day in Beijing

Snow is rare in Beijing despite how cold it gets. It’s been well below freezing for two months or so, but yesterday was only the second time it’s snowed. Some people attribute the clear (ahem) skies of a Beijing winter to it being somehow too cold to snow, but I know exactly how ridiculous that is. Witness any winter in Boston, or in the northern half of the US, for that matter. So it was a welcome change in the weather when I woke up yesterday morning to find the sky outside my window a hazy shade of winter and not just the usual grayscale hues of haze and pollution. While I was on my way back to the office from lunch later in the day, I spotted this man on his bicycle. It seems to capture Beijing in an essential sort of mood. What I know for sure: god was I glad I’d gone out the night before and bought a proper winter jacket! (It’s “Columbia”–though I think it actually might not be counterfeit–in bright shades of red and gray.)

Posted by on February 7th, 2006

Master of the house

As I said in my last post, not much of particular interest to anyone but me happened while I was at home, and this might fall into that category as well. Still, I think these photos are too adorable not to share. My dog, who’ll be turning eleven on Sunday, is a toy poodle named Muggsy. Now, for the first eight or nine years of his life, he was pretty awful, and even now, he’s still not house-trained and lots of people (my uncle, my ex-boyfriend, other people I’m sure who just haven’t put it in words) hate him because he’s not the friendliest or nicest dog much of the time. My mom and I, and even my brother, I think, love him, though, and have been pleasantly surprised by how much he’s mellowed out in his old age. When he was younger, my mom always said he was stupid because he just could not be trained, but I always argued that he was actually a willful genius, too smart to succumb to our attempts at rendering him subservient to our merely human desires.

My mom has recently come around to that point of view as well, having finally agreed that he’s just a pretty damn smart dog, who has his way with the entire house and uses us for the American cheese that’s the only treat he’ll accept (he may be my dog, but he certainly didn’t get his refined palate from me!). As a puppy, he chewed up napkins and other assorted papers, which he gave up after a few years but then replaced with a shoe fetish two years ago. Now, if he can get his crafty paws and pointy teeth on a pair of sneakers, he goes crazy, starting by chewing the laces to thread (I’ve bought more shoelaces in the last two years than by far in my entire life prior to then.) and moving on to the edges of the leather if he’s not caught in the first fifteen minutes and called away to the fridge for the obligatory bribe of cheese, fresh from the plastic wrapper.

One day during Hanukkah, I was shopping at the mall and passed a Japanese dog-clothing store. I couldn’t resist buying him a present of his own: a lion costume, on sale for $10. My mom was a bit chagrined that I’d spent that much on useless crap for the dog, but we never buy him anything, and his birthday was coming up, too. Plus, he may not be the king of the jungle, but he certainly is the master of our house. It seemed only too fitting–and he was irresistibly adorable when he modeled it for us in the kitchen.

Posted by on January 11th, 2006

Goodbye and thanks for all the weird food

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but I’ve been really busy–not just finishing up my research in Hangzhou, but also designing this new site. The most exciting part (besides my impending flights back to Beijing tomorrow and to New York on Thursday) is that I’ve finally gotten this photo album plugin to work. This site now has an awesome (if I do say so myself) photo page. To check it out, click on “Photos” at the top of this page…then check out any of the albums I’ve uploaded so far. More are on their way as I upload old photos over the next couple of weeks. Even cooler is that the albums each have a great built-in slideshow feature. Just click “View as slideshow” on the album’s page to watch one.

I have a number of posts lined up about how I’ve spent the past two weeks here in Hangzhou, and I promise I’ll have them all up before I leave Beijing. Some might even follow tonight.

Posted by on December 11th, 2005

Adventures with L.

After I had disembarked the Hainan Airlines Boeing 737 at Hangzhou airport and grabbed my suitcase from the carousel, I passed through the doorway into the meeting area and a young, skinny, well dressed (not as in a suit and tie but more like not wearing the shitty sorts of casual clothes in which a Chinese 28-year-old might be liable to show up) guy called my name. It took a second to realize that my boss had asked me to send her a photo last week–I hadn’t thought it was so that L. could recognize me when I arrived. It’s a much better method than the usual tacky sign that I’d expected. L.’s boss had made him bring one of those anyway, in case he didn’t recognize me, but he showed me how he’d folded it up and stuffed it in his back pocket. He’d only gotten his driver’s license two months ago, so, since my plane landed at night, he had been uncertain of his ability to drive the long distance to the airport on the highway; instead, he had a company driver, Mr. Chang, as he was introduced to me shuttle us both in a white minivan. The ride into town took about a half hour, and we passed some of the futuristic houses the wealthy farmers of Zhejiang province like to build, though it was too dark to get a decent photo.

We went first to my hotel, so I could check in and drop off my bags, and then the three of us headed toward a Korean barbecue place, since L. was excited about the chance to eat there. He promised that we’d have plenty of chances to eat Hangzhou food together, and I think he was even a bit disappointed that his chosen cuisine wasn’t new to me. I told him how I eat at a Korean barbecue restaurant in New York whenever my brother can convince us to shell out the cash (at home it’s really overpriced, which I guess it tends to be in China too, although the “prices” are so low here that “over” is hard to calculate), which usually happens only on or around his birthday. On our way over to the restaurant, L. called ahead to reserve a table and found out that the kitchen was out of lettuce with which to wrap the barbecued meat. He and Mr. Chang were so disappointed that they asked me if it would be alright to stop at the supermarket before dinner so we could buy our own! Of course I said okay. That moment marked a most auspicious beginning for this journey. Dinner was delicious, we had lamb, beef, and squid to cook on our table-top grill, as well as scallion pancake, shiguo banfan (better known to Americans by its wonderful Korean name: bibimbap), and my first taste of Hangzhou’s favorite beer: Siwo, which seems to be an attempt at non-pinyin transliteration of its Chinese name, which is, unsurprisingly, Xihu Pijiu, or West Lake Beer. It was at that very lake that I would end up spending most of today.

Posted by on November 16th, 2005

Strange images

I arrived in Hangzhou this evening, and already I can tell that I’m going to have some incredible adventures here. For now, the only evidence will be these two photos, since I’m too tired to really write anything–tomorrow, however, I promise more. In any case, the first one is from the nightstand in my room at the surprisingly well decorated and nice Bokai Commercial Affairs Hotel, where a room with free ethernet is costing my boss only US$25 a night. I’m still waiting for Matt to get back to me on the meaning of Mei Rong Mei Fa. My bet’s on “Beautiful lady, beautiful time,” or, more accurately, on some weirdly poetic euphemism expressing that sentiment. The other photo is of a miraculous find I made at Vanguard Supermarket tonight–the whole box cost only US$1.10, which in itself is unusual for American junk food in China, although from the box (and the frosting’s sad divergence from American tastes) it’s clear that they didn’t have to import this overseas…it’s actually manufactured in China.

Posted by on November 15th, 2005

The friend formerly known as M.

As you’ve probably noticed, when I mention the people with whom I interact in actual life in this virtual representation of it, I refer to them by initials only. I figure that I wouldn’t want to stumble across a mention of my name linked up with weird things I’ve said or done on someone else’s blog without knowing about it first, and I don’t particularly feel like getting permission from my friends to write about them. Sure, I’m not going to post pictures of them if I haven’t mentioned that possibility with them, but pseudonymic initials seem pretty harmless. Some, however, have asked for more–in particular, M., who would prefer I call him by his full name, Matthew Pereira, in order to further inflate his web presence and the Google ranking of his blog. I don’t know that I’ll oblige: it seems silly to use his surname all the time, and I might just resort to using “Matt,” but I figured at least I should explain why I’m expanding his identity from a mere M. At least it frees up the letter for someone else!

Posted by on November 11th, 2005