HuangYao Ancient Town

Often Every day I am struck by how things are filtered through the China lens to produce something familiar but also so, so different. For example, the Western-style weddings that take place at our building that I watch from my bathroom window feel very much like a game show, complete with an emcee with a mic and applause lines to deliver to the audience–er, family and friends.

The same performative phenomenon happens with tourism, and Colin and I experienced this when we spent MLK weekend in HuangYao Ancient Town (黄姚古镇), a dot on the map in the next province over with ancient banyan trees, narrow stone-paved pedestrian-only passageways, and a creek that bisects the town.

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You pay an entrance fee that grants you access to the town. You get a ticket and a sticker as your proof of payment (about $25). Nice clear signs in four languages highlight the truly magnificent trees (“named Dragon Gate Tree because it looks like a dragon and is next to the gate”), or note significant buildings or viewpoints (“this view was featured on a postage stamp”), or lay out the rules for being a tourist in what is still a community where people live something like a normal life (“don’t be a loud jerk”).

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This view was featured on a postage stamp.

It appeared that everyone who resides within the limits of HuangYao Ancient Town lives and breathes the tourist economy. Shopkeepers mostly sell the same ten spicy, fermented sauces and oils but sometimes clothing and cheap souvenirs. The riverfront is lined on both sides with open-air restaurants. Buildings that aren’t shops do double duty as guesthouse/eatery, but the whole town was so sleepy that when we stopped into one looking for a beer, the elderly woman in charge confusedly asked us, “Beer? What kind of beer?”

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We walked down every passageway.

IMG_20180113_163606.jpgWe saw the sights on the first day. I read all the signs to Colin while he snapped photos under the overcast and polluted sky. One of the dozen boat captains talked us onto his pontoon by warning that it may be raining the next day, so we took the tour under the charming stone bridge and past the bend in the river that collects so much of the litter. On foot we followed the stone passageways to each end of town, separately coming to the conclusion that HuangYao felt a little bit like Venice, Italy.

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We were not alone in being charmed; the second day of our stay we had to walk through (again and again) a very serious film crew that was shooting something in the very bar we managed to find a beer in the night before.

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Some sort of ritual in involved wearing squares of white cloths, banging drums and cymbals, and the regular lighting of firecrackers, the sounds reverberating through the stone alleys and more than once scaring the shit out of me because we were nearby when they were lit.

Our guest house was right on the edge of the tourist town, and there was a manned post right outside the front door, which we only realized was an issue when a sign on the inside of the door the next morning warned us to go out the back door unless we wanted to pay the entrance fee again. We didn’t, really, so out the back door we went. It emptied us into the middle of what was once a larger compound that had been parceled out–I think.

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The architecture in HuangYao is all low buildings walled off on the passageway side that open into courtyards once you’re inside. Thresholds within the compounds are round, and those to the outside are raised and with holes bored into the curb that would allow a door to be barred closed. The building materials are grey and dark stone and bricks, but red-painted wood is fashioned for the windowsills and eaves of the roofs, and red lanterns cover the fluorescent bulbs that light the town after dark. To complete the scene, giant Mao-era advertisements for things like light bulbs and tonics adorn the walls at intersections. I couldn’t tell if they were genuinely historic or added afterward to boost the historic vibe and because they are so arresting as photo backgrounds.IMG_20180114_175909.jpgIMG_20180113_181734.jpg

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Colin gets this photo cred.

I do believe the food we ate was authentic. There were four or five outfits set up on one side of the river and another across. The women would bring out more folding tables and plastic chairs as needed, and menus were offering identical fare. The specialty was tofu in broth that had bits of pork inside; Colin had it the first night but didn’t order it again. I twice tried eggs scrambled with tomatoes, a combo I really like but was underwhelmed by in HuangYao. Noodles and rice porridge were breakfasts, plus I found a tasty, thicker-than-I’m-used-to soy milk. We definitely dropped the most coin at the chic-for-HuangYao tea shop that had both a snuggly cat and a heater.

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We spent four hours of our second day in that tea shop because, well, we’d already seen the town and it was a really wintery weekend and my coat (actual vintage, formerly grandma’s) was way cuter than it was functional because I missed the memo that I really needed to pack a puffer coat. So we sat in this shop and ordered round after round and wrote postcards and read and it was really pleasant.

IMG_20180114_083840.jpgLogistics: Take the train into Hezhou, walk past the touts at the station to find the bus to HuangYao by yourself in the adjacent parking lot. The bus ride is roughly an hour and drops you right at the ticket window, but then you have to walk maybe half a mile to get to the town itself. This would have been a tough trip to do without at least some basic Chinese or a hardy sense of adventure–be warned.

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2017 Reads

In no particular order and for my own sake more than anything else, here are (most) of the books I read in 2017, many happily inspired by the fantastic book clubs I’m in!

Early this year I jumped on the Hamilton bandwagon and read Ron Chernow’s 800-page love letter to the only Founding Father that didn’t get to grow old. The inspiration was the musical and I continue to be delighted by the related songs that Lin Manuel-Miranda releases.

Other nonfiction I read include a pair of books by Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman and The Man Who Loved China. He’s got a nice narrative style that made both easy and enjoyable histories, the first of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary and the second of an English scientist who “unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom,” as the subtitle promises.

I recently finished 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Alsan. Both were revelatory to me for the myths they dispel about their respective subjects.  I happened to tie both to their holidays, too, but that was a happy coincidence that just gave me ample opportunity to reflect on my reading, especially during the month of Christmas music I allow Colin to play.

In fiction I recently read The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri because I loved her previous works; I felt this novel didn’t live up to how beautifully written The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies are, although the story of a man marrying his brother’s widow to get her out of India kept me up late reading.

I picked up both Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan and The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan to continue my “China” reading. Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature partly for this story about a formerly wealthy landlord who keeps being killed and reincarnated as a different animal to work in his village as decades pass and China moves through its revolution and the turmoil that followed. Tan’s novel was more about the relationships between a woman and her daughter, husband, and closest friend, but the setting is pre-revolution China and through it. I really enjoyed them both.

I happened to read a couple Russia books, too, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. Gentleman was a highlight out of the year, and I recommended it if only for the mouth-watering descriptions of the food in the hotel to which our protagonist is confined after the Soviet takeover. I was inspired to pick up the classic by Tolstoy after listening to a Radiolab podcast, of all things. It’s, you know, thick, but I really do love classic literature in my bookwormy heart.

A cousin dropped Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly into my bag as we were leaving to come to China, and it is a compelling story based on truth following three women during WWII, an American socialite, a German doctor, and a Polish woman who gets sent to a concentration camp.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was chosen for a book club, and I think Colin and I were in the minority of people who finished it. It’s not a particularly easy book to start, but it was ultimately engrossing and led to some interesting discussion.

I’m currently about 100 pages into The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan for a book club here, the theme of the month being a “a book you’ve been meaning to read forever.” The first chapter is “The Problem That Has No Name” and it basically describes my life right now. A resolution for the new year is to take more charge of my situation here, though, so hopefully I won’t end up on a couch being diagnosed with penis envy.

The wrong business trip

Colin recently had a work trip to attend the opening of photography museum, and since I had gotten to meet and dine with the museum’s director a few months back, I was invited to tag along for the weekend with Colin and one of his local staff.

En route we stopped for gas and I had definitely the most Chinese bathroom experience of my life, involving a gaggle of older women who decided to flout the long line and admittedly arbitrary standards of decency and pee all together in what was either a wall-length urinal or hand-washing setup. Some men were doing the same by the time I came out of my squatty potty stall, reaffirming my decision not to join the old women.

The museum is in a small Chinese city of half a million people, four hours away from where we live in GZ, a little rough and ramshackle around the edges. It was a two-part celebration: an annual festival that features artists from China, the U.S., and Europe shown in a former shoe factory, a granary, and a candy factory, this year simultaneously held during the opening of the contemporary photography museum. It was the fruit of years of labor, and showcases Chinese and European photographers in an industrial space using local building materials.

IMG_20171202_172213.jpgI called for a pit stop on our walk to the museum and we bought a dollar’s worth of sweet and savory steamed buns for the three of us. There were leftovers.

Though not actually special guests, we were invited in early to see the museum space and exhibits. When the gates opened and the speech-making began, I found myself hiding my face and frowning at the men who so blatantly turned their camera to me. Look, sirs, this is not why we’re all here.

We joined a couple people from another consulate for dinner at a riverside restaurant serving all the hits, saucy veggies, bone-in chicken, spicy pickled vegetables. The food immediately got cold in the 50ish degree air. Walking back, the others pointed out the dried meat hanging in a shop that was suspiciously puppy shaped.

IMG_20171202_195857.jpgBack at the hotel we put on every lick of clothing we brought to go to the outdoor opening of the annual photo festival. Dancing, more speech-making, videos–all with the volume turned up to 11. The young Western photographers I was sitting next to brought beer and snacks, which seemed like the right call. A reception back at the museum followed, at which they immediately ran out of wine glasses but not wine. Luckily my years of training have taught me never to let go of a wine glass. The gal from the other consulate and I were approached by a few teenagers to take a photo with them. It took a while because when we said yes to one, all the dozen teens in the space crowded into the shot.

I walked around the square the next morning, watching the groups doing tai chi. I said good morning in Mandarin to an old man who seemed surprised to see me, but couldn’t catch his response because it was in a local dialect. He assured me that speaking Mandarin was still pretty good, though I wasn’t able to piece that together until after we’d parted ways, so he clearly overestimated me. Grabbed 50 cents’s worth of veggie buns and warm soy milk for breakfast.

IMG_20171203_105211.jpgWe visited the sites of the festival, especially enjoying a series by a Japanese artist telling the story of a younger cousin and their grandmother as well as a collection by an American artist we’d met the night before showing mugshots of the same person in different clothes, code-switching. A mom asked me to take a picture with her kids because “they love foreign friends.” You know what’s totally fine with me? Being asked to take a photo.

IMG_20171203_095704.jpgOne final stop for buns (more buns!) and fruit for our four-hour journey home, with another rest stop with more staring.

So why was this bun-filled, puppy-filled, staring-filled, photo-filled trip to small-town China the wrong business trip for me to go on? Because just days later Colin was sending me pictures from his visit to a former U.S. consulate in a town apparently chock-full of craft breweries and seared tuna dinners, bakeries and cute cafes and antique shops.

Yuexiu field trip

We were so good at the beginning–so good. Our first weekend was at the plant market. I visited the local museum the second week. We were going out and saying Yes to things.

Included in this was our field trip on our second weekend in town. We live in an almost ridiculously modern part of Guangzhou–so much that it’s even in the name: Pearl River New Town. As impressive and clean as it, it can feel a bit sterile.

IMG_20170910_113309But not all of Guangzhou is like that. This part of China was formerly known as Canton, important for its international port since the Tang Dynasty and community that grew around that. And that history is honored. We took the metro to a neighborhood with a particularly high-density of these historic buildings, Yuexiu.

IMG_20170910_114337The buildings here were not nearly so modern nor the streets quite as spotlessly clean; there was charm in the feeling of this being a place where people might live their whole lives. Our first stop was one of the first Buddhist temples in Guangzhou, Guangxiao Temple. It claims over a 1,000 years of history, and was no less active on this particular Sunday. People burned incense and bowed their heads in prayer in front of the various Buddhas. Multitudes more bought lunch from the women manning card tables in the adjacent courtyard: rice, soup, meat, vegetables.

Congyoubing

We stopped instead at a street-side snack shop for a scallion pancake hot from the griddle, a favorite treat from our days in Taipei. 

Next stop was the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. We sat in the shade while Colin read aloud the Wikipedia page on the revolutionary hero-scholar-leader who manages the tricky feat of being revered in both Taiwan and China. Inside the building was an impressive theater and old photos of both the man and the hall.

Our last destination was the Yuexiu Park, a sprawling, manicured park with hills, lakes, a handful of historic buildings, and a statue honoring the legend of the Five Rams. These rams came bearing rice for the residents of the city during a particularly dreadful famine 2,000 years ago, saving everyone, and now they’re an emblem of the city.

Some fun things to look forward to, future visitors!

“I have to get out of here”

Colin and I have high tolerances for discomfort fostered over years of traveling on 3rd-class trains to stay in 1-star hostels. But age or having a salary or the combination thereof are apparently making us soft.

Air quality in China is not very good: some days the sunlight takes on a distinctly orange tint. We have top-quality blue-ribbon air filters in all of the rooms of our apartment, but we also wanted some plants for their added filtration and general zen.

At the end of a metro line, the Lingnan Flower Market spreads out several blocks with individual vendors selling not only apartment plants, orchids, and small trees, but also ceramic planters, bamboo fencing, silk flowers, water features, and popsicles. An old hanger is filled with nothing but cut flowers. Lovely, no?

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Colin took this photo.

The narrow roadway that cut through the market was busy with rumbling trucks delivering plants and silent electric scooters delivering people. Motorcycles with trailers honked their annoyance at pedestrians with nowhere else to walk but the gutters. I had not yet acclimatized to the intense heat and humidity, and the tarpaulin coverings we walked under kept off the worst of the sun but also trapped some of the heat. I was melting.

“This isn’t fun anymore. I want to leave.”

Fast forward to last weekend and our first trip to the big-box store that has been described as the German Costco. A cart each, we loaded up with the greater variety of imported goods: canned tomatoes, pickles, Campari. I noted a gallon of ketchup and 10 kilos of mozzarella, but mostly it was just normal amounts of product at a significantly cheaper price than I can get at the supermarket in our underground mall.

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Can I interest you in 2 kilos of cream cheese?

 

The noise level increased as we approached the frozen section and met a crush of carts and people and women shouting into microphones about… frozen shrimp? Pork dumplings? There were samples of hard-boiled eggs and children playing foursquare with a ball from the outdoor section. Colin looked nauseated by the onslaught and not any better by the time we’d navigated to the dairy. I grabbed my butter for baking; he got his milk for yogurt-making.

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“Do we need anything else?” I eyed the Mission tortillas even though we have no appropriate beans or cheese. “I don’t know anymore. I have to get out of here.”

So we’ve gotten soft. We need cool, calm, quiet environments where there is no risk of being mowed down by teenager with scooter or granny with shopping cart. No problem.

Old Friends

Our arrival in China has been smooth. From being fetched at the airport to signing up for our own library cards at the top-notch library just a short walk away, everything has gone as expected—some traffic here, a typhoon there, but really well on the whole. Some old friends here have eased our way.

It hasn’t just been the friends from C’s initial training class that we’re overlapping with, though picking their brains has helped enormously. It has also been the familiar sounds and flavors, the feeling of warm rain, of being curiously stared at. The scent of a specific kind of fried chicken took me right back to our night market in Taipei, even as we took a pedestrian overpass above an eight-lane road in our neighborhood.

In meeting new people here, they often want to know, First time in China? And I can see why. This place is foreign from the U.S. in a multitude of ways, sometimes delightful, sometimes frustrating. Our Taiwan frame gives us a reference point on so many of our initial experiences here.

So even though this city of over 15 million makes me feel like a country mouse, and it’s been over 7 years since we left Taiwan, and that technology here lets one pay with the swipe of a phone or hail a taxi with no Chinese ability whatsoever, we have found old friends here, and old friends are nice to have when you’re so far from home.

Summer Vacation: Suchitoto getaway

Two years and three weeks ago, Colin and I threw a big party and said some vows, so three weeks ago we celebrated by visiting a tiny mountain town with stinky lake and one of the best hotels in the country. Suchitoto is only about an hour and a half north from San Salvador and has the distinction of being one of the few towns spared during the civil war, so its streets are cobblestoned and its buildings are one-story and surround small courtyards. We walked from the indeed lovely hotel to the lovely plaza in front of the church. That Friday was a national holiday, Father’s Day, so the plaza was full of families enjoying shaved ices and snapping photos. We had a decent lunch on the square and did a bit of souvenir shopping, picking out a new hammock and a clay pitcher.

Our guidebook, an old copy of Central America On a Budget, suggested walking down to the lake, so we set off in the heat Saturday morning, but about 20 minutes in and soaked with sweat, it occurred to me that our book never would have considered that we might be able to drive our own car down. The lake and its recreation area, once we got down there, proved disappointing. Not actually all that stinky, but definitely nicer to look at from afar. After about 15 minutes spent watching the small ferry boats from a park bench with an empty, open-air food court behind us and a curious family next to us, we took our leave. A dip in the hotel pool and a couple hours reading in the courtyard seemed a better use of our time.

Rainy season

I was told when the rains started again back in May that they were coming late, and I could see El Salvador was parched and needed the relief by the time the rains were falling regularly. I am happy that it’s rainy season again because it makes our little garden happy, it makes the farms across the countryside happy, it makes the lakes and rivers happy, and it brings El Salvador back to the lushly green country we landed in a year ago. It’s a good thing.

It does also mean that our ceiling is leaking again, even though we have over a month of roofers up there after the last rainy season. It also, this time, means our little tomatoes aren’t reaching maturity because the daily pounding rains are too much for them to bear. And most annoying, it means the mosquitoes are out in force and have somehow breached our perimeter, such that I killed five inside the house yesterday and four so far today.

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Couldn’t hang.

Summer Vacation: Recent obsession

Hello world! I’m starting week three of summer vacation, and I honestly don’t have much to show for the enormous amount of free time I’ve suddenly been given. That’s OK, though. I’ve watched some Netflix, read some books, baked a LOT of bread, made some fancier meals, and gotten at least halfway through organizing some of this past year’s school materials to be better prepared for next year.

The first two weeks of vacation, and continuing into this week although to a lesser degree, have been set to the soundtrack of Hamilton, the musical. The Tonys happened the Sunday after the last day of school (do yourself a favor and watch this clip of their performance during the awards show) and so the hugely popular production resurfaced in my consciousness and, acknowledging I will likely never see the show live, I downloaded the original cast recording and blasted it three days straight while I cleaned my classroom. My pal, the third-grade teacher, wasn’t there to make fun or to see me tear up during “Burn” (it was an emotional week).

I tried to mix it up by listening to other musical soundtracks, but the thing that I can do while Colin is around is read 1776 by David McCullough, which follows Gen. Washington during the fight for American independence and barely features Hamilton. Oh well. A riveting story nonetheless.

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I also made this inspirational poster for next year’s second graders. It’s a lyric.

Late to the game, I know, but I’ve got a lot to catch up on coming out of the first year of teaching. So if everyone could stop talking about House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Game of Thrones, that would be great, thnx.

Pen pals

No excuses; no epic, sweeping catch-up post; no promises that this will be regularly updated once again. It’s bad blog practice if even Grandma has given up on you…

We’re doing a really fun (for me) project in class right now–my amazing former mentor teacher agreed to have her class be pen pals with my class, and my students are now writing their second letters to send off to their new Virginia friends. It’s funny to see what eight-year-olds think is worth putting into a letter to a near stranger. It’s funny to hear a comment come out of one child’s mouth and then see it appear in drafts of four other students. Everyone’s favorite movie is Star Wars.

My students lives are not so different from those of the Virginia students, but there are misconceptions on both sides: although the twins in my class at one point had a pet monkey, that was unusual even for here; and my students aren’t real clear about the different weather phenomena likely to hit the Mid-Atlantic region. Sports and games go by different names, but everyone loves art class. (Note to self: incorporate more art projects.) I can say with 100% certainty that more of my students have nannies at home, and also that even though I’m the one teaching at the international school, the Virginia classroom is more diverse.

Anyway, Vicky, I’m doing the best I can. It’s a lot to teach social niceties and grammar and handwriting all in one to the bunch I’ve got. Thanks for your class’s patience.