Happy New Year. I was born a horse and the year of the horse has returned. Thud. Thud, thud. It isn’t the crackle, crackle of the firecrackers or even bricks of fireworks I might expect to hear down south. Nor is it the notably loud sound of what we used to call “M80s”, that weren’t much bigger than a thumb. Rather here in WuDi county 无棣县, Shandong we have veritable sticks dynamite close, further away, close, that punctuate this first thick, polluted morning of the New Year. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wudi_County WuDi literally means “no cherry trees”, but my in laws have tried to explain that the literal translation doesn’t quite capture it.
Wudi is considered a “township” but there are four hundred and fifty thousand souls here in the greater area. That’s nearly half the population of San Francisco. The drive here was miraculously free of traffic. Every normal person had already made it home by the time we were driving. Next to no one out on the elevated highway ride, nearly all the way here. The drive that fifteen years ago took six hour on back roads was just done in three. Last night was real Shandong baozi and dumplings, and alas, toasts and toasts and a few too many toasts.
I have watched more television in the last twenty-four hours than I have seen during the previous year. Most people are accustomed to the tube and can ignore it. I am drawn to it like a moth and my retina are singed. Most people are mature and do not talk back to it, in any language. I cannot resist the urge to mock it. The broadcast is, of course the most watched television program of the entire world, the great gala spectacle of CCTV’s Chinese New Year television special.
I watch and I wonder about the target audience. That is presumably someone from the countryside who earns approximately a few thousand $US per year. They have something to eat and somewhere to live and probably lots to complain about and many things to be thankful for. Perhaps this special is somehow above the heads of many viewers, who see things and hear references to things they don’t understand. And for urban viewers with flashy modern lives it may seem facile. Then again, perhaps it approximates the artful commonality of Johnny Carson who struck a note with everyone in the country. As a foreigner, who has seen the show many a year now, even one who strives to understand, who labors to be 善解人意 it is extremely grating. And the insult to my injury is that all the skits are now being rerun.
There are the dance numbers with absurd costumes in colors too garish to assign as merely garish. Military songs with girls in jack boots kicking, soaring stentorian melodies and jets and aircraft carrier clips streaming up behind them. Kids, and more kids who should be forced to retire at six. Acrobats and magic tricks a life size dummy cracking jokes and comics who I alone cannot laugh with. English is flashed out, more often than I’d expect. Sooner or later the stock foreigner is brought on to serve as some routine’s foil. And always the camera pans to the hand picked audience of folksy folk, who look alternatively elated and bored depending on how quick the pan catches them. Now, “Applause” sign flashes. Now. Now. Applause. Why do my eyes train towards the one or two genuine people who are not smiling?
It can only but look dated, striving and foreign to, say, an American. For a while we still get to define what is most flashy in the world. Bread and circus works differently back home. Our propaganda our still defines captivating. It is so effective we call their broadcasts propaganda and ours entertainment.
And today is the day to go around and visit relatives. We’ve had a steady succession of visitors. Older folk mostly who are lovely though their local dialect is largely unintelligible for me. Where do you think my eyes unwittingly wander off to when I glaze out from modest comprehension? The family network is wrought so broadly. Everyone it seems, spawns from “yi ge lao ye ye” which means, ‘one old, old granddad.’ So we have people who are the cousins two and three times removed who are quite familiar and chummy and wouldn't think of missing the visit today. And each time we offer them food and drink and there’s a ritual that makes sense after a while, where people refuse things and then accept them and then go.
My kids wisely cut out for the day with their cousins (no times removed) to see a movie which they seemed to enjoy. They’ve returned and I’ve taken the opportunity to cut out back to the hotel and get on line, so I can post this. I threw on some music, which feels like a shower after all that television. My ears are so happy. I have the Pittsburgh pianist Horace Parlan’s 1961 release “Up and Down.” Grant Green’s dazzling on guitar and Booker Ervin, sharp as always on tenor. Like Ervin and the other early DustyBrine appearance John Handy, Mr. Parlan was playing all these years on Mingus’ Ah Um and I never knew it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Parlan
Tomorrow, with a bit of luck and coordination we’ll head up to the ancestral village of Cheng Kou, where about 75% of the population has the surname Zhang, like my wife and the daub and wattle house we’re heading to won’t have a television on. It’s about a 30-minute drive from here and we’ll have to rise early which will be interesting for my wife and daughters. It will be worth it, as they prepare the best dumplings on earth.
OK. I’m ready to head back and view more view more television, now.