Sunday, July 20, 2008

Week 20

Week 20

Sunday June 29

Simon is supposed to pick me up at 9 to go to my student Michelle’s house, but he calls at 9 (!) and says he can’t make it, has a headache. So Michelle and I take a taxi, which is just as well, she lives very nearby, less than a half hour south of campus. Michelle was a child actress, starred in a hugely popular children’s show called “Little Dragon” and several other movies. I expect that her parents will be Hollywood types, but they are very humble and welcoming. Her dad makes several pots of different types of tea (China’s “Tea Street” is one block away). Her apartment is small, two bedrooms, a galley kitchen and a small entry room where they have their dining table and a TV. Michelle’s room has a few photos of her acting days. Her dad’s job is to notify people that they must move out of their homes because their buildings are going to be destroyed to make room for new buildings or a road. He was involved in moving the residents of Qianmen, a neighborhood just south of Tiananmen Square, which is now supposed to be re-built to look like an old neighborhood. Apparently it was a very controversial project. The residents of this very centrally located area were moved about 4km away. He often gives people 3-6 months notice that they must move. He likes his job and says he’s good at it.

After the interview with the parents, her mom presents me with several very nice silk gifts, a scarf, a jewelry case, a tissue box cover, and a few other trinkets. I feel like a heel, two very generous families and I arrive empty handed.

During the visit to Michelle’s, Katie calls and she does not want to be picked up until 5. I negotiate and say 3 (I don’t want to be in 5pm traffic retrieving her). I head home, and at noon, Simon calls, very apologetic and wants to drive me for free to get Katie. Since he lives very close to where Katie is staying, I suggest he just go get her and bring her home and leave me here and he’s fine with that. I have the afternoon to eat peaches, and read, without interruption. Katie arrives home around 3:30, very sad to have said goodbye to her good friend Louisa (and I think tired from a late night). Louisa’s mom called to tell me that the mom had slept in and woke up horrified to find a note from Louisa that she and Katie had ridden her bike to Jenny Lou’s, a store about 3 km away, on very busy roads….with Katie riding on the cross bar and Louisa peddling (and of course, no helmets). Glad I didn’t know about this until they were safely returned home!

Around 5 my student Sophia comes over to give me her final project. I say that I will see her again, but I don’t know if I will see any of them again, and I’m sad about that.

At 6:30 Stephen arrives, windblown and delayed 3 hours, but he’s here and Katie and I both are glad to see him. He stays awake until 9 and then crashes.

Monday. I interview Susan Brownell for another OAG story on the culture of sport in China. She has been studying this subject in obscurity ever since she was an exchange student at Peking U in the 80s. Now, she is getting calls far and wide for her expertise. Very interesting take on Chinese culture. On the way home I record a basketball game and wild cheering, and try to record a group of elderly folks doing a fan dance, but a jackhammer constantly interrupts. At 2 Michael comes over and Stephen gives him the Celtics championship T-shirt. Michael says he’s been reading my blog (hi Michael!). Later, Eve comes over to go over plans for our trip to Hunan. We pack up for the trip and head to bed early.

Tuesday July 1, we meet my student from Yiyang, Eve, at the west gate at 6:30 a.m. and fly to Changsha. We are met by Eve’s uncle Zeng Jiande. We stop first at Hunan TV where Eve has a friend who will give us a tour, but security does not allow us to go in. We are told we might be there to steal their show ideas (!)…like their version of American Idol, “Super Girls”, (which we first stole from the Brits). “Super Girls” had to change its name because “super” was seen to be politically incorrect, after the show garnered more votes than the government was comfortable with…And now there is a show called “Happy Boys” because “China is a happy place”.

We go across the street to a huge traditional Chinese (reproduction) building and had lunch, but after more phone calls and discussion, we still weren’t allowed into Hunan TV. We are also told that the road going to Mao’s college is closed and it will be a long hot walk to get there. Strike two for Changsha plans. We then decide to go to the Hunan museum to see the many thousand year old mummy that I saw ten years ago, but had ZERO interest in returning to see. But Katie wanted to go…, we get there, but there are no tickets until 3:30. Strike three. We go to a nearby park and have a pleasant walk. It is very hot, easily in the 90s, but not so bad in the shade. Martyr’s Park has a sign telling us how to behave: “don’t paint confusedly” (presumably no grafitti?), “do not be offish and unmoved, do not be coarse-grained and malicious”….please tell it to the Chinese government! At 3:30 we return to the museum and it is much nicer than I recall from ten years ago…in fact it is a whole new museum. The mummy I remember as being a white floating whale of a woman, with her organs floating in formaldehyde, was now a shriveled old gal with a full head of black hair. Memory is very imprecise….or we are seeing a “new” mummy! But the rest of the museum was quite well done. From there we head to the river where Mao swam and then decide to check and see if the road to Mao’s college has opened up. It is after 5pm, hot, we are tired, and it is still another hour or more to our hotel in Yiyang. I am concerned that we cannot do it all, when Eve says her “sponsor” Uncle Li, the man who has helped her financially through college, has a banquet planned for us that evening. I try to convince her that we are too tired, we need to do it another night, or we can’t go to Mao’s college, but her real uncle, the driver, says we must go to Mao’s college, so we go. The First Normal School of Changsha, is a teacher’s college still in operation. It was accessible by car, over a road completely torn up. The building is a European inspired design, dark gray walls with white trim. It is a lovely building, with serene courtyards and lovely gardens. It is here that Mao transformed into a Communist. We spent quite a while there, looking at Mao’s homework and classroom and learning that he was good in Chinese, but not so good in math. And despite the need for a bathroom, Katie and I decide the open pit toilets are not going to do. So we head out of Changsha for Yiyang. After 7 we arrive at a toll plaza and Uncle Li is there to greet us and lead us directly to the banquet. I put my foot down and say I have GOT to go to the hotel first, check in, pee, breathe, change my clothes, wash up. We have been up since before 6, in 100 degree heat, going all day. So we go to the Yiyang hotel for a half hour and arrive at the banquet after 8. We open the door and there is a room full of men, all men, smoking, drinking, watching TV with a full spread of food getting cold on the table. I am totally embarrassed that I made this whole group of people wait. And I feel horrible that I had been pressuring Eve to try to get us out of this. Clearly, she was caught in the middle, trying to please everyone and I was completely insensitive to the situation.

It is the type of night out that I have read about, but never participated in. All the guys, toasting each other, drinking and smoking too much. I was blown away by Eve, all of 20 years old, holding her own in this room of community leaders. She was charming, funny and an amazingly talented at keeping everyone up to speed on the conversation in two languages. Our limited Mandarin was useless - they all spoke the local Yiyang dialect. I have no idea how Katie processed all this, but the men treated her as a curiosity. I am sure she has never seen so much alcohol consumed in one meal. At the end of the evening we bid adieu to Eve’s real Uncle Zeng Jiande, the driver for the day, who headed back late to Changsha.


We are met in the morning by one of Uncle Li’s employees, who is also his brother-in-law, Mr. Liao who will be our driver for the day. We head to the new Children’s Welfare Institute, where director Zhu is waiting for us. After a few opening remarks we get a tour of the facility. There are now less than 60 children here, down from several hundred just a few years ago (lots more on why this is so, check Brian Stuy’s blog). Most of the kids are special needs. The nannies are wearing clean (maybe seldom worn?) Half the Sky t-shirts. The kids are on the mats, although one boy is stuck in a cardboard box. Some had head deformities, one infant had major cleft palate. We stayed for a few moments and then went upstairs where some toddlers (mostly boys -- or girls with real short hair) were playing. They too had special needs but all were walking and able to line up and respond to their names. We also saw an Albino teenager, but not either of the two teens I remembered from 2005. Aftter the tour we went back the conference room and asked for access to Katie’s files, (as well as two girls in our travel group whose parents expressed interest in us finding any new information). There was nothing much we didn’t know except for one page with the name of the man who found Katie at the orphanage gate and a photo of the orphanage director at the time she was abandoned. The current orphanage director provided a few other details on the other two girls but I don’t want to share much of any of this until I talk to the other families. After that, director Zhu invited us to lunch and we agreed. At lunch we realized that there might be other info that we needed from the files and they agreed to let us return to take another look. I can’t quite remember the sequence of events, but we got some more info on Katie’s finder and on the other girls. Then Stephen offered to help the orphanage with some item it might need and Director Zhu suggested we get a solar hot water heater so the older residents could take showers. So we all pile into two cars and head to the solar hot water heater store. On the way, we drive by the old CWI and hear that the building and almost every other structure on the north side of the river, will be razed by the end of the year. We drive through block upon block of rubble that looks like a war zone, as this whole old community falls to the wrecking ball. The only structure still standing is a Norwegian Christian Church, established at the turn of the last century and still in operation. The minister, a Chinese woman, comes to greet us. She says there are about 500 members of the congregtation and says there are hundreds of Christian churches in Yiyang, which both Eve and I find to be a bit suspect. We then head to the center of Yiyang, purchase the solar hot water heater and part company with Director Zhu. From there we head to a memorial that has been established in Yiyang for a local resident, “China’s Schindler”. Dr. Ho Fengshan was orphaned and raised in the Norwegian church we had previously visited. He attended Yale-in-China in Changsha before going to grad school in Munich. He later become a diplomat in Austria and issued visas to Shanghai for thousands of European Jews. His daughter lives in Boston or Maine and works for a newspaper. Another extremely hot and full day. We head back to the hotel to cool off and clean up before heading out to Eve’s familiy’s home for dinner. We take a taxi and Eve is waiting for us on the street. It is a six floor walk up, enter into a room with a round table, frig, wooden couch, and posters of Mao and Deng Xiao Ping on the wall. There are two bedrooms off to the right, and a dimly lit cooking area to the left. There are windows on both sides of the apartment and from the back we can see the river and the steeple of the Norwegian church on the far side of the river. The sun is setting. There is no AC, but a ceiling fan keeps us comfortable. Eve’s father greets us with a great big smile and handshake. He looks very young, handsome, well dressed in a polo type shirt. He reminds Stephen and I of our old friend Couper Gardiner. Eve’s mom also has a great smile. Her hair is neatly pulled back into a bun. Clearly, she has been cooking all day. There is a lovely spread of food, sticky rice, corn on the cob, sweet fresh tomatoes, chicken, and other assorted home cooked delights. Eve’s father seems very quick, bright, direct. The mother seems quiet and sweet. Neither of her parents have had steady work since Eve was 12 and her dad is quite candid about their income and their humble offerings. I ask many of the questions I’ve asked the parents of my other students, one of which is, if it hadn’t been for the cultural revolution, what life would you have had, what job might you have had, what dream job would you like? Eve’s father dismisses the question quickly. Clearly he does not want to entertain thoughts about “what might have been”. Maybe it is what Eve has told me about him, or a sixth sense, but I feel very sad about him, about what so many of this lost generation must be feeling, missed opportunities, don’t look back. We stay until after 9 and I am sorry to have to leave. They have raised an extraordinary daughter, in spite of their tough situation. Stephen and I both want to do something to thank them, but don’t know what is appropriate.

Thursday. July 3

Uncle Liao meets us at the lobby of the hotel and drives us to his village just north of Yiyang City. He has a lovely house, modern, two story, abutting a rice paddy. He no longer farms the land (works for his wealthy brother-in-law and clearly is doing well himself), but everyone around him is a farmer. Today there were local elections for the village chief and we go down the street to meet a group of men, who have just been involved in the election, including the village boss, a tall man who looks more Mexican or Latin American than Chinese. I say I’d like to meet some local women to talk about the birth control policy and we are driven down the road to a pig farm. On the driveways along the way, everyone is drying rice in the sun. It is hot, there is little shade, but I am in heaven. We are surrounded by rice paddies and farmland and pigs! Cute little squealing babies to enormous oafs. The pigs are wedged into two shelters on either side of the road and the women who run the pig farm are doing quite well financially. There are probably a dozen people sitting in the room adjacent to the pig sty just hanging out, shooting the breeze, laughing. No one seems to be working too hard, and several of the women are quite overweight, so I am surmising that pig farming is a heck of a lot easier than stooping over a ride paddy. I ask a lot of questions while Katie and Stephen take a walk to visit some new puppies across the way. The village chief is sitting just outside, within earshot, so I’m not sure I got fully honest answers. And of course, I’m a stranger, a westerner, and no one is going to get into controversial topics. But no one knew anyone who abandoned a baby, or adopted another villager’s child or paid a fine. They say the one child policy is being strictly enforced. But many of them have more than one child. (in rural areas, two are allowed if the first is a girl). They don’t know of any rewards program for bringing a baby to an orphanage. They want to know if Katie wants to know who her birth parents are and I say yes, and they all look serious and solemn for a moment. But then they all say Katie is so lucky and go back to yukking it up. I do notice a few beer cans around and an open bottle of booze on the floor…and it is before noon. A little bit later, I sit in the next room over, with just two women, one of whom has just come in from the ride paddy, and she says the one child policy is not being enforced strictly…not sure what stories to believe. This woman is fawning over Katie, and when her teenage son comes walking down the street she yells out to him, “hey, come meet your sister” and the boy looks at Katie with a disgruntled look on his face. On one hand, I think Katie must be bothered by all this, but on the other hand, she is beaming. She loves being out here with the animals and the farmers. She took a zillion pictures of dogs, pigs, farmers, and seemed to relish the whole experience. After the village, Uncle Liao takes us to a local restaurant where Stephen gets to pick out which live chicken and which live fish they will slaughter for lunch. The village chief and Uncle Liao’s wife meet us at the restaurant. After lunch we take a long drive to see Uncle Li (Eve’s benefactor) at his new factory. We drive through old country roads, beautiful farmland, ponds, woods, hills, idyllic! I have been dreaming of doing this for ten years, ever since we first drove out to Yiyang in January of 1998. We arrive at Mr. Li’s enormous factory. It is several acres in size, and when it opens in six months will employ 800? people. He takes old plastic woven bags (that fertilizer or seeds come in) and recycles them. I think this is only one of his businesses. Mr. Li is the most unassuming guy you can imagine, plastic flip flops, rolled up cuffs on his too-long pants, buck teeth but a great smile….and he is a multi-millionaire in the middle of Hunan Province. Li says he has no use for money, he just gives it away. He tells his workers he’s going to take a drive and puts us all in his Mercedes for wild ride around Yiyang’s rural areas. He takes us to a lake where we skip rocks. On the lake is the modern mansion and a closed down deluxe hotel as well as some sort of fish farm in the middle of the lake. It is very peaceful. We then get completely lost, meandering through village after village, but I am thoroughly enjoying the whole scene. We end up back in Yiyang City at a restaurant. I am now not feeling great, too much driving, and Katie is nauseous too. The fact that the window display is of snakes in jars, and we order turtle soup with the turtles floating around in it, has me losing my appetite rapidly. Uncle Li is now insisting that he drive us to Changsha that night, and we sleep at his house there and he will take us to the airport in the morning. We are feeling like this guy has been incredibly generous already, all our meals, driving and we suspect hotel room, has all been paid by him. How can we say no? But the thought of packing up and driving again is too much so we respectfully decline. Uncle Li is totally enamored with Katie, as is Mr. Liao who has joined us. They want to arrange for their kids to go to school in the States and for Katie to return to Yiyang to stay with them, Kid Swap. We laugh, but I think they are half serious. We finally say goodbye but I will miss both Li and Liao, but especially Li. It was a very, very, very wise choice to NOT go to Changsha. I was up all night with the beginnings of a very nasty stomach bug.

Friday. Armed with a bottle of Immodium AD, we head out to Changsha. Sometime after we were refused entry to Hunan TV they decided that I wasn’t going to try to steal their show ideas, and invited me to come back today, to give a lecture to their news operation. I needed to get the embassy and the consulate to send an email verifying who I was first. Security bizarreness! So I get a quick and not too detailed tour of Hunan TV and then give a brief talk and QA to their news staff. We then part company with Eve and head to the airport. I am so impressed with Eve, what she has come from, her difficult family situation, complicated by warring relatives, yet, she is wise and charming and sophisticated beyond anything I might have been at her age….or am now!

The flight to Urumqi, makes a stop in Xian (this was not indicated on our itinerary!) so it is a long flight on a sick stomach. But the scenery outside the plane is spectacular, barren dessert, the Kalakalam is the second largest desert in the world, bordered by snow capped spikes to the south. We arrive after 9, but the sun is still bright out here in western China. We go to the hotel, no dinner, about 45 minutes away, only to be picked up early the next day to return to the airport for the next leg of the journey to Kashgar. Why the travel agent did not book us at the airport hotel I do not know.

This has been a full week. In retrospect, I wished I had allowed more time in Hunan, but we will return!

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