The spring semester is well under way, yet it's still cold here in Beijing and doesn't feel much like spring. A few weeks ago I celebrated my first Chunjie, Spring Festival, in China. This year Chunjie started on February 14th, the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and ended 15 days later on Yuánxiāojié, the Lantern Festival. By coincidence, one of my students from last semester is named Jiang Chunmei. Chun means “spring” and mei means “younger sister.” She chose Spring for her English name. This semester Chunmei is helping me learn Chinese. Tonight after our lesson she showed me how to steam zishu – purple sweet potato – and admonished me to not eat fangbian mian, (instant noodles), too often.
Last Friday was a sunny day so I went to see Yonghe Gong – the Lama Temple. The complex was built in the Qing Dynasty in 1694 as the residence of Prince Yong, and converted into a Tibetan lamasery in 1744. The many halls are filled with colorful statues of the Buddha in his myriad manifestations – Amitabha Buddha, Maitreya Buddha – the laughing, fat-belly Buddha – and a host of Bodhisattvas and Arhats. I especially like the surreal blue-faced and many-armed Buddhas. In one building the Buddha was flanked by statues of luoban, those freed from the cycle of rebirth.
I watched people as they burned sticks of incense, bowed rapidly, and then threw the slightly burned sticks into a huge cauldron of fire. I'd come to see the statues and the architecture, and for another reason less clear to me. I'm not religious – not in a frankincense and myrrh way. But now and then I feel an urge, like the speaker in Philip Larkin's poem Church Going, to visit a holy place.
For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here
Interesting that the Chinese word for poetry – shī, 诗 – contains the word for temple: sì, 寺.
I don't know how to be authentically holy, and doubt plus science keep me from praying with sincerity. Nevertheless, at times I gravitate to sacred places – maybe just to be near those who do know how, or to catch a whiff of some numinous energy. Perhaps I was thinking I might find some way to ask an accoutred frowsty diety to help Jiang Chunmei's father, and Chunmei.
I saw him last Saturday; his name is Jiang Jinlong. Chunmei told me this week that her father has been in an ear-nose-and-throat hospital for a month, and would be there for at least another month. So yesterday, a Saturday, we took three or four, (I lost count), buses to the hospital to pay him a visit.
Even though he couldn't talk we had a nice chat: he wrote, Chunmei read to me, and I replied. Chunmei told me that he'd probably never speak again because of the surgery to remove his throat cancer. He'd been a life-long smoker. I told him his daughter was a hardworking student and that her English is good and is improving rapidly. Jiang Jinlong was pleased to hear it. Chunmei's mother stays at home because her health is also not good. When she's not in class or at the hospital, Chunmei is at home helping her mother. She told me she wants to learn English so that she can have a better chance of getting a good job with a good salary, because she wants to help.
I also enjoyed meeting and chatting with Wang Wenhua, one of Jiang Jinlong's hospital roommates – also not able to speak. They told me that Mr. Wang is a famous calligrapher, that people pay large sums of money for his works. He gave me a short lesson and remarked that my handwriting looks like a child's! I laughed and told him that learning a new language makes me feel like a child. He invited me to his home in Tongzhou to study calligraphy and play taiji with him – he's also a taiji master. I'm looking forward to going.
During Spring Festival I took a train up to Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. One morning, in a park beside the river, I stopped to watch a couple of men doing taiji. It was sunny and freezing that morning, typical Harbin winter weather. One of the men was whipping a sword around and the other was giving instructions. They wanted me to have a try with the sword. I told them I didn't know how to use it, so I did a set of Yang style 24 – not easy while wearing a thick down coat, jeans and Rockports. The teacher gave me some tips, then the other man gave me another tip: “Go inside, it's freezing!” “Hao jianyi!” I replied – “Good idea!”
One morning in Harbin I discovered an interesting place to have a cup of Meishi (American style) coffee: the US Bucks Bar on Zhongyang Dajie, a walking street in the Daoli District. There they play a short loop of American music – I hadn't been there very long before I'd heard “I Believe I Can Fly” three times. The walls of the US Bucks Bar were covered with photos and knickknacks, all with a guns/hunting/sports theme. For awhile I was the only one there. While I drank my coffee and wrote in my journal a barrage of firecrackers went off outside. The people walking by seemed used to it, though some had their fingers in their ears.
In China people set off fireworks and firecrackers pretty much non-stop throughout Spring Festival. I watched the fireworks on chú xī, Chinese New Year's Eve, with my student Zhang Te, (English name Johnny Potter). I'd spent the afternoon and evening at his grandparent's house in yan shan shi hua 燕山石化, a Beijing neighborhood that's close to some mountains. Before dinner Zhang Te and I went for a walk through Yanshan Park. On the way to the park I was surprised and thrilled to see an MiG-15, a Korean War era fighter jet, parked in an elementary schoolyard. Zhang Te said it had been there for as long as he could remember. When he was a kid he and his friends climbed all over the plane and even into the cockpit, probably pretending they were brave Chinese pilots shooting down evil Americans in their F-86 Sabres.
That evening, after a meal of at least a dozen dishes, we watched the gala celebration on TV. Just before midnight Zhang Te, his mom and I drove to a place called yan hua xing cheng, 燕化星城, to watch an intense display of fireworks. In America, on one night – the 4th of July – people gather in parks and county fairgrounds, cordoned off at a safe distance from the launch zone. The city-sponsored display lasts for about an hour, there's a tepid flourish at the end, and that's it until next year. In many cities firecrackers are illegal, though if you're lucky you can twirl a sparkler. All very safe and sensible.
In comparison, Spring Festival in China is a Dionysian blowout. It seemed like nearly everyone “played fireworks”, daytime and nighttime for more than two weeks. And on Chinese New Year's Eve it was like being within the fireworks display. Above us colorful blossoms lit up the night sky along with gut-thumping booms, while long strings of firecrackers with teeth-rattling bangs were going off all around us. The intensity grew and reached a crescendo at around midnight. Probably the closest experience I've had to being in a war zone – without shrapnel falling down on my head.
I read that the Chinese set off fireworks to frighten away demons. I think there must be few demons in China during Spring Festival. I imagine they're all gathered on the borders – huddling in Mongolia, lying low in Kazakhstan, poised to spring back in Myanmar – waiting for the diligence of the Chinese to slacken, giving the demons a chance to flood back across the borders and resume their mischief.
A few days later I got a respite from the noise when I settled into my seat on a train headed for Harbin. I traded text messages with Zhang Te for awhile – while I was headed north he was on a high speed train headed south to Shanghai. Then I watched the scenery, read Peter Hessler's “Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China”, ate some fangbian mian, and napped as the train rolled through farmlands and made stops in Shenyang and Changchun.
When I arrived 8 hours later, I was welcomed at the train station by some colleagues who were already in Harbin visiting family. They helped me find my cheap and cozy hotel, the Tian Lun Shishang Jiudian, conveniently located in the Daoli District, a short walk from Zhongyang Dajie, a walking street that's actually an architectural museum encompassing several blocks. My room's walls were cheerfully painted bright pink and yellow. The shower had warm water in the afternoon, hot only in the morning and evening. My first morning there I tried the free breakfast: corn porridge, bread, shredded-fried potatoes, and some small deep-fried balls – meat or vegetable, I'm not sure. No coffee or tea.
I spent my first morning in Harbin walking, taking pictures, and freezing. Eventually I sought refuge in the US Bucks Bar, where I thawed out, drank coffee, ate an imported granola bar, and listened to dated American music. After awhile a few more people came in, so I listened to the conversations of a couple of families. I turned my head when one of the men said “laowai” - foreigner. His wife elbowed him and said, “Ta ting dong.” – “he understands what you're saying.” I confirmed that and greeted them.
I had a meandering conversation with Harry, Mark, Lucy, and a couple of other kids, culminating in a picture-taking session. I took pictures of them, and their parents took pictures of the kids with the laowai. Then a woman took a picture of the sign above the bar. I hadn't noticed that it said “STAR*UCKS BAR” – the first B replaced by a brass insignia: a shield with wings and a star on top.
Just before noon I decided to leave, because I was hungry and because the two men at the next table had lit up and it was starting to get smoky. Actually, the little boy, eager to be useful, lit their cigarettes for them with a lighter – did a good job of it, too. After that he pushed at the bottoms of their glasses of beer, telling them to drink up. Learning by doing, I guess.
Friday morning I crossed the Songhua Jiang, the river that bisects Harbin. I'd gone down to the river halfway between the Binzhou Railway Bridge and the Songhua River Road Bridge, thinking that I'd have to use one of the bridges to cross the river. No need. Near the cross-river Cableway I saw that the frozen Songhua Jiang was being crossed by people using a variety of conveyances: on foot, horse-drawn carriages, dogsleds, etc. I followed a trail in the snow across the river, and halfway across a small car passed me. On the other side I explored the Sun Island Park with its old Russian buildings, then I rode the cable car back over the river.
In the evening I went to Zhaolin Park, not far from my hotel. There I paid 100 yuan to see the Disney Ice Show. The ice buildings were all smaller than what's at the main show across the river – the Ice and Snow World. But the Disney Ice Show hosts an international ice sculpture competition, and the many crystal clear ice sculptures are intricate and exquisite.
Saturday morning I headed out to the Songhua Jiang again. That's when I ran into the two men doing taiji. On the river some men in Mongolian garb were giving children rides on their horses. I stopped to watch two old men ice fishing with a net. They brought up 6 or 7 large fish. One of the men was not wearing gloves and watching him made me shiver.
Saturday night was the highpoint of my trip. In the early evening I took a taxi to the Ice and Snow World – Bīngxuě Dà Shìjiè, 冰雪大世界 – the big show on the other side of the Songhua Jiang. The cab driver stopped at a place along the way and went in with me to help me buy a discounted ticket. Buying the ticket was quick and convenient – better than standing in a long line out at the ice show – but they no longer offered a discount, so I paid the regular price of 200 yuan. The driver apologized about a dozen times on our way to the show.
The Ice and Snow World was amazing! Ice block buildings and towers – architectural icons from around the world – giant snow sculptures, and lots of ice slides for the kids. I had to take my gloves off to take pictures, and after every two pictures I had to put them back on quickly and stuff my hands into my coat pockets. Despite the freezing temperature and wind, the place was packed with people.
At night the ice monuments are lit up with colored lights, and sometimes the colors change as you watch. The festival is in a park that's not surrounded by buildings and other lights, so the colored towers stand out against the darkness. Many of the ice blocks are transparent – you can look right through them and see another spectator, a nearby ice sculpture, or just nothing but the darkness.
Though the encircling park was dark, inside the festival it was all colored lights and happy noise. People were laughing, shouting, “Yi, er, san,” as they took pictures, yelling “Come look!” There was music: a singer up on a stage singing Chinese pop-rap songs, while the crowd below her formed a long train dance, kicking and jumping to the music. Looked like a good way to keep warm.
When I was ready to leave I negotiated with a small group of taxi drivers for the return trip over the bridge. The first one I talked with wanted 80 yuan, but cut it down to 40 when I said no and walked away. I told them all that I'd paid 20 yuan to get there, and that the return trip was the same distance so should be the same price, and besides that: I could just walk across the river if I wanted to. A small group of drivers had gathered around me. “20 yuan; who will take me?” I asked them. I figured they wouldn't support each other for a higher price. One of them came down to 25 and since I was dong si le, freezing to death, I went with him. He still made out like a thief because he had two other fares and I think he got 30 yuan each from them.
But it was a fortuitous choice because the two young Japanese women in the back seat turned out to be friendly and interesting people. They didn't speak much English – even though Ryoko Kitazawa had majored in English at her university in Tokyo – so we spoke Chinese. Since we were all headed back to Zhongyang Dajie we decided to have dinner together at a Russian restaurant. We chatted as we ate piroshki, Russian sausage, and a hanbaobao – a Russian-style hamburger, served on a plate with a spicy sauce, no bun.
Ryoko Kitazawa and Kumiko Matsuba, (from Osaka), had both come from Tibet where they taught Japanese. They were participating in a volunteer program similar to the Peace Corps. We exchanged phone numbers and invited each other to Beijing and Lhasa. We took pictures of each other and then headed off to our hotels.
On Sunday morning, before leaving the hotel for a day of walking and sightseeing, I asked the young woman at the front desk to give me a wake-up call the next morning, because my train was scheduled to leave at 6:15. It was snowing that morning – the first snow since I'd been in Harbin. It was a dry snow that made walking easier and made crossing the streets somewhat safer – the cars, that normally ignore pedestrians, had slowed down a bit.
A short distance from my hotel I found a place with an interesting name for my morning cup of coffee: The O-berlin Bakery, next door to the Oberlin Plaza. I asked the waitress if she knew about the origin of the name, and I told her that I'd gone to Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She didn't know – thought it might have something to do with a city in Europe. While I drank my coffee someone set off a long string of firecrackers outside the O-berlin Bakery. Flashes of light, loud crackling pops, red paper and white snow flying up. I was sitting next to the window and for close to 30 seconds my view was obscured by the smoke. Red bits of paper pelted against the glass. People with snow-dusted coats and jackets continued to walk past without giving it a glance. A few seconds later I could smell the smoke.
On Monday morning my train pulled out Harbin precisely at 6:15. I'd barely made to the train station on time. No wake up call, but fortunately my mobile phone alarm went off at 4:30. I woke up the night staff, who were sleeping on cots behind the desk, checked-out and walked fast to Jingwei Street to catch a taxi. When I didn't see any I started to worry and started walking. Then a taxi pulled up across the street; the driver got out and entered a shop. There were three other taxis parked in front of the shop, so I crossed the street, stuck my head in the door and said I needed to go to the train station. The half a dozen men stared at me for a second, and then one of them said “Bu dao.” – “Not going.” “Weishenme?” I asked, feeling a little annoyed because the night before the drivers were eager to drive me across the river for inflated fees. “Bu dao!” replied the man. I guess he really wanted to have breakfast.
I finally flagged down a cab. The driver made me nervous because he kept pulling up alongside pedestrians, then he would reach across me to roll down my window and ask them if they needed a ride. After he picked up another fare he continued to hunt for more. I grabbed hold of my window handle and told him to go to the train station.
For the trip back to Beijing I was in a sleeping car, which I didn't like. The berths were uncomfortable for anything but sleeping. When I tried to sit in my berth to read or write the berth above me forced me to bow my head. But eventually I did sleep because I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before. I'd had too much caffeine during the day, and the hotel was noisy until late at night. The hotel walls were thin and I could hear everything from the adjacent room and the one above me.
A family was in the room next to mine: a man, his wife, and their little girl. I'd chatted with them in the hall at one point during the weekend. After I'd gone to bed I listened to them talk – to practice my listening skills. They went to bed soon after I did. But the couple above was a different story. They'd been there a few nights. Each night they made love – twice – before settling down. I can't blame them – they were on vacation. The woman was pretty vocal about it. On my last night there, when the couple started up I heard the father of the family cough and clear his throat loudly – either to mask the sounds of love-making so his daughter wouldn't hear, or to send a message to the amorous couple.
On Sunday afternoon, the day before I left Harbin, I walked several blocks to see St. Sophia's cathedral, built in 1907. It's a beautiful work of architecture on the outside, but the interior has been neglected, with paint peeling in many places on the walls and domed ceiling. The foyer was a souvenir shop, and the square nave now holds a photo exhibit of the history of Harbin. I wish I'd gone at night and just stayed outside to see the church lit up – an antiquated monument against the darkness. But something made me pay the 20 yuan fee and enter. Maybe, like Philip Larkin, I just wanted to be in a place where holy things used to happen.
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious
Sunday evening, my last evening in Harbin, I had some Italian-style seafood pasta and a salad at the Euro Plaza. I then went for one last stroll on Zhongyang Dajie and took pictures of buildings and people. At both ends of the long avenue big spotlights were sending beams of light that swept back and forth in the night sky. I heard a boy shout to his mom, “You duo xing!” – “It's full of stars!” There were no stars in the overcast evening sky, but as the beam of light swept overhead the falling snow glistened and twinkled like stars, as if the beam were full of stars, made of them.
The temperature was dropping. People were dressed in thick down parkas, mufflers wrapped around their necks, chins and mouths, wearing hats of various kinds. Everyone was dressed up, relaxed, having fun, with beautiful faces and rosy cheeks. Smiles and laughter everywhere. Mothers and daughters, women friends, holding hands or walking arm-in arm, talking happily and laughing often.
How we stay warm in the cold, how we light up the darkness – with lights, lighted towers of ice, star-filled beams of light, laughter, love, smiles, clasped hands, camera flashes, fireworks, cups of coffee, writing, a brief glance and a smile. . . John Lennon said, “Whatever gets you through the night is all right.” Whatever helps you keep the demons at bay. Well, maybe.
I especially love those brief encounters – those moments when eyes meet and smiles bloom. It happened often on Zhongyang Dajie in frozen Harbin, amongst the happy travelers and vacationers. It happens often here in Beijing, too. I don't know who smiles first: them because their tickled to see a laowai enjoying their world, or me because I think they're such beautiful and happy people. E.M. Forster said “Only connect.” Good advice for teaching and for life in general. I love those connections, no matter how brief. When I'm cold and tired and my feet are sore from walking, the chance for more of those encounters keeps me going. I suppose their all brief, those encounters – even the ones that last for years.
One that stands out in my mind happened on a Beijing subway several weeks ago. I boarded the car and stood not far from the door. A group of students followed me on and moved further into the car. One of the young women, wearing an orange coat, flashed a warm smile when our eyes met. She nudged her friend and the two of them giggled.
The car filled up with people, and my new friend in the orange coat disappeared behind the crowd of dark coats, and even though I was taller than most people in the car, we couldn't see each other. At the next couple of stops, as people exited and others boarded, I continued to catch glimpses of orange, and once or twice saw her face again. Each time she was looking my way, looking for me, and a big smile spread across her face when our eyes met.
Her stop was before mine. Just before the stop I could see orange pushing through the crowd and moving toward the door. I could hear her and her friends talking and laughing but I couldn't see them. The subway car stopped, the doors opened, people started to spill out. I watched, hoping to catch one last smile. But she was too short and there were too many people between us. But at the last moment an orange arm popped up and a hand, barely above the heads in front of me, waved to me. The hand dropped, the doors closed, the car started, and we moved on to our next stops, our next brief encounters, our lives having been briefly warmed and lighted.
The night before I went to Harbin I got a text message from Chunmei. She said, “Have.a.good.journey.My.dream.is.visiting.a.lot.different.place.” (She told me that pressing the key to make a period is easier than using the one to make a space. Makes sense.) I sent a message back to her: “Me.too.”
After I returned from Harbin I caught a cold; had to teach my first week of classes with it. A week later I'd pretty much recovered from it when Chunmei said to me, as we were walking past the library, that if I get sick I should let her know and she would take care of me. I guess she's sort of in the caretaker mode these days. I thanked her and told her I was never going to get sick again. “Yes you will,” she said, “if you keep eating fangbian mian.”
I'm told it will start to warm up soon, the snow on the ground will disappear, and the famous Beijing springtime winds will come. The roses around the sports field will bloom again, the ginkgo trees that line Qingyuan North Road will be green again, the children that play in the courtyard below will grow up, and one day spring will be gone.