Friday, January 31, 2014

TV Breakaway

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 , Shandong we have veritable sticks dynamite close, further away, close, that punctuate this first thick, polluted morning of the New Year.  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[1] 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.

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.

[1] shànjiěrényì:  understanding people's views (idiom); fair and considerate

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

New Year's Eve

There were chickadees out my window this morning that were going at it.  I think they may have been fighting over the scraps of persimmons that still hang from the tree.  New Years steadily rolls in across the land like inertia.  Back up north and I don’t know why but it really feels different. Perhaps it is just the familiarity. 

Today we drive across the dry plain into the mighty seat of Chinese traditionalism, Shandong province.  I can’t think of a better place to experience Chinese New Year than off on that formidable peninsula.  There is pollution in the soil and pollution in the air and the poor soil has been worked and worked and over worked for so many years.  There aren’t many trees.  Much of the architecture is monotonous.  Sometimes, driving through a foul stench will extend for many kilometers, and one considers the people who live in that place.  Dry, silty, hidebound and it doesn’t matter at all.

The people we are visiting are family and this is a high holiday.  The culture clings to something absolutely lost elsewhere in this country that you can still sample and sniff and learn from.  The rituals don’t change.  Some of them are seem absurd.  “We are obliged to drink any guest into oblivion or we are not good hosts.”  Often they seem misogynist, and women can feel like chattel that “belong” to the man’s family.   But they are also magical and resilient, having withstood not only Maoism, but now, and for now, also post-modernity. 

Tonight, near midnight we will bao dumplings and eat them.  My wife’s older brother, the oldest in the male line, will offer food to the ancestors and welcome them to join in the feast.  Three days later all the males will head to the village where the family line hails from and at dawn they will trod out to the ancestral grave site and light fireworks that look like dynamite to scare away the ghost so the ancestors can safely travel back to the netherworld.  

I met with a gent yesterday who was heading off with his family to Whistler to ski this year for new years.  Sometimes it is best to get out of Dodge.  We’ve don that before and we’ll do it again.  But this fragile ritual is best to expose the kids to as often as we can, because it will truly disappear in their lifetime.  People will move on, places will be bulldozed and the “holiday” will be reduced to simply eating frozen dumplings somewhere.  And besides, I could use a bit of auspicious 财进[1] for the coming year. 

And Duke Pearson has just about nothing to do with Chinese New Year, but I don’t care.  I’m a big fan and I heard him on my headphones randomly down in Shanghai this week and it brought a big smile to my face.

The man born Columbus Calvin "Duke" Pearson, Jr, from Atlanta Georgia is a swingin pianist and beautiful composer.  He played on Donald Byrd’s famous “New Perspective” and arranged half the tunes, and I never knew it.  If you haven’t heard his album “The Right Touch” your life isn’t really complete.  I found it randomly once in Amoeba there in San Francisco and it forever changed my musical life.  It swings so hard set it off when I go out for my runs in odd places like Poughkeepsie or Dublin.  Right now I’ve “Little Waltz” from the 1966 album “Prairie Dog” caressing my ears.

Time to start packing for the trip out, back in time. 

[1] zhāocáijìnbǎo:  ushering in wealth and prosperity (idiom and traditional greeting, esp. at New Year); We wish you wealth and success!

Rain, Finally, Somewhere.

I don’t think I have an especially large backside.  I may be wrong.  I am, alas, bigger than you’re average Shanghainese.  That’s probably safe to say.  Sitting now on the number 4 train line and there are two seats with a slight rise between them, meant to signify the divider.  But there is a modest sized man beside me and to give him the politeness of an inch or so of space my ass, spans way over the middle divider.  Should one more person sit down, its all over. 

Now a beggar is passing by.  An older gentleman, who is most assuredly in for a crummy Chinese New Year, presumably doubly undignified to be poor and without any filial care on this symbolic time.  I wonder if anyone comes through signing songs, or playing bongos or doing some controversial street theatre that doesn’t expect any money.  Unlikely.

I felt like some elemental Masai nomad in Karen Blixen’s stories of East Africa as I walked out my hotel this afternoon.  It was dark out, people darted about under umbrellas and uncharacteristically I was overjoyed.  Rain!  Nice to see you.  How long has it been?  I walked out under the awning and felt it hit my skin.  I might have sung a different tune if I’d had to walk for a few hundred yards in a deluge, but it was a simple drizzle and the moisture was like a morning shower, completely welcome.

I haven’t been tracking.  I’m sure it’s easily locatable on line somewhere but it has been many months without any precipitation, rain or snow, in Beijing.  And it shows. Here the presence of moisture, the 潇潇细雨[1]conveys something civilized. 

I’d been out walking around two hours earlier and no rain was falling.  I had to walk a few blocks to find a café with espresso.  Costa Coffee:  That’ll do.   There must have been a check out design flaw, because these three young ladies were working indefatigably and yet the line to pick up your coffee snaked around behind the garbage can for eight people or so. 

I heard one of the ladies finally call out the word “dopio” and I butted in, in Mandarin that it wasn’t a dopio but a triple shot.  She replied in English that she was aware of this and then commented kindly on my Chinese, to which I replied that we should speak the local dialect, Shanghai-hua.  And as has happened probably five hundred other times I’ve uttered that cheeky line, she of course replied “you can speak Shanghai-hua?”  Which is my queue to say, “I can’t speak Shanghai-hua” in the local dialect.  This, being one of a dozen phrases I know.  I should be tired of this silly routine but it is pleasure inducing, nearly every time.  The day is always a bit easier when you make someone smile.

Then, kindly switching to Mandarin she asked me something I don’t think anyone ever said before, which was “ahh, so you must be married to a Shanghainese woman?” I told her I was the husband of a Shandong gal, which she and the woman in front all found entertaining.  Walking out with my triple shot, I mused on the classic Shanghai dichotomy of kiss up to foreigners, kick-down to Chinese who are not from Shanghai.  And theoretically it is a drag, something less than fair.  And that analysis may all be a bit anachronistic.  But in the moment, it was pure fun to speak bits of Shanghai-hua and elicit animated, flattery and engagement. 

OK.  Next stop is my change station.  Back later, if I get a seat or two.

No such luck.  Those five stops were done standing.  At the Hong Qiao Terminal Two departure hall Starbucks now.  Just before switching trains I was distracted by two people speaking in sign language.  Of course it is impolite to stare, even if that is the native custom.  And of course it is even less polite to smirk, unwittingly at someone’s exaggerated facial gestures as they use their hands to communicate.  And it is then, the depths of poor taste to connect the mental dots from this remarkable language to the South African gentleman who recently did translations for world leaders at Mandela’s funeral that were, it became clear later, utter nonsense, but that’s what my mind did, sitting there on the train. 

Orchestral jazz, Gil Evans “Big Stuff”, from “Gil Evans & Ten” on the mix.  Calming sophistication to watch the holiday traffic promenade by.  Still enjoy looking out at the rainy road out there, within site.  There won’t be any puddles where I’m heading.  Tomorrow we join the other five hundred million or so and head to the “old home” in our case Shandong, where things are scrupulously traditional.  This is a three-hour drive that will likely take us five or more hours with the traffic.  There won’t be any puddles out there either.  Dry, overworked farm land that’s been worked hard since not long after Peking Man.  But that’s OK.  It’s dry and rough, but it is magical, and medieval, particularly at this time. 

[1] xiāoxiāoxìyǔ:  the sound of light rain or drizzle (idiom)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Very Improper Questions

Sitting now in the same Shanghai Starbucks that I wrote the introduction to my Seven Deadly Starbuck’s manuscript.  It was a rainy spring then.  Middle of winter now.  There is the languid, opiated wood cut like window by Li Shoubai that irked me so much at that time.  I was annoyed by yet another representation of the city’s style as quintessentially 1920s. 

I’m sitting across from a finely wrought photo of tropical Yunnan with mists rolling down the mountain to the farmland below.  Beside it is a wood cut map of China and a plaque that says “Starbucks and Yunnan” in English, but only “Yunnan” in Chinese.   It’s 5:45PM but the morning rush hasn’t yet abated.  I’m lucky to have found a seat.  Nearly everything is taken. 

Characteristically, even in the dead of winter Shanghai is presently much more moist than Beijing.  Leaves are still notable on trees.  I don’t know when the last time there was precipitation, but it doesn’t feel as though four months ago, as it does in the north.  Dust is not ubiquitous. 

I met some old and even older friends together for lunch in the former French Concession.  They described the adjacent street as having a bouquet of prewar architecture and two of us made off along it for a while afterwards.  I wanted to snap some photos.  Outside of the second ring road, one simply doesn’t walk around in Beijing.  The civic planning is designed to inspire awe at every turn.  Sometimes these efforts are laughable, sometimes they succeed, but there is little to see between this building and the next, it is rarely on a human scale and so one only walks if one has to. 

And walking around a city, noting brick or Deco architecture from the 20s, flashes the mind back to Manhattan and to the time I first fell in love with this city adoring the same evocations homeward.  In the right mood, it can be wonderful to be here. 

Speaking of home, it looks like we lost a towering New Yorker today.  I had a quick look at the Washington Post to see what the day’s news was.  The VPN I recently purchased seems unable of tunneling out of China with this fragile Starbucks WiFi connection, so I am prohibited from viewing the New York Times.  Flashed across the front page of my alternate, unfiltered default is the news that Pete Seeger has passed. 

He was such a constant for so many years; it is hard to believe that this tall tree has finally fallen.  My parents would have, played his music for me when I was young.  We’d have sang him in grade school, I’m sure.  My mother’s dear friend, our neighbor, was involved early with Pete in the Clearwater effort to save and revitalize the Hudson River.  And as kids we’d go to the Clearwater Revival and Pete would always be on one of the stages, his presence somehow, everywhere.  In high school I made a lifelong friendship with Pete’s niece who was a year ahead of me in school.  And in her honor and I suppose in honor of the school as well, Pete performed at her graduation.  And, even as a jaded, hardcore punk kid, it was lovely. 

We were at the Oakwood School, a Quaker School, there in Poughkeepsie, New York.  Oakwood had a proud tradition of conscientious objection and when Pete was blacklisted in 50’s Oakwood still allowed him to play.  This was all explained to us at the time.  And I remember when he performed he said something that was simple and yes “folksy”, wise and easy to remember, as he talked to the eighteen year olds preparing to graduate and the rest of us who were there in attendance.  “Remember, that money is like air.  You need it to live, but having too much of it, is pointless.”

I should revisit and learn more about the people who were actually summoned to speak in front of the House on UnAmerican Activities Committee.  On Dusty Brine I have already written about I. M. Finley who wrote “The Age of Odysseus" and compared him to the sinologist Owen Latimore.  Both of those gentleman fled to England and continued with successful careers there.  But Pete stuck in out in the U.S. despite the black list and managed to survive, in part perhaps, because simple places like Oakwood were brave enough to welcome him. 

I somehow imagine that time as a comparatively brief aberration cotemporaneous with the insanity of the Korean War.  I really must learn more.  I quote at length below from the Post article about Pete’s time before the Committee two years after the Korean War was over in 1955.   What a sorry, sad, frightened time if this sort of fear-mongering was the norm.  What presence of mind and depth of conviction would have been required to remain disarmingly friendly and大庸弱且[1] 

“I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody,” he told the committee. “I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature. ... I love my country very deeply.”

In 1955, the House Un-American Activities Committee began an investigation of Communist influence in professional entertainment and subpoenaed Mr. Seeger. He volunteered to discuss his music at length with the committee, and he offered to sing his songs. But he declined to answer questions about political associations or whether certain songs were sung at Communist gatherings, and he declined to invoke his constitutional right of protection from self-incrimination.

“I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this,” he said.

Convicted of contempt of Congress, he was sentenced to a year in jail. After a prolonged appeal process, the conviction was overturned in 1962 because of a technical flaw in the indictment. The government never retried him.

A different sort of hero than the ones I discussed with my daughters over the weekend, MLK and Malcolm X.  But certainly another brave American, who never veered from conviction and who similarly would not have been allowed to continue publically, despite all the spiteful restrictions he endured, had he been a singer, here in this world that I and my daughters live in.  I have him singing "I Ain't Scared of Your Jail" live, right now, where he which he sings about Dr. King and the civil rights marchers in the south at that time. I look forward to discussing Pete with them when I’m back home tomorrow and continuing the juxtaposition and the consideration of the heroes China has and needs.  Certainly this safe, caffeinated Starbucks, with people anonymously coming and going could use a little sing along to warm it.  Rest in Peace, Pete Seeger. 

[1] dàyǒngruòqiè:  a great hero may appear timid (idiom); the really brave person remains level-headed