Friday, January 10, 2003

Over the Bridge

China has a lot of beggars. I don't imagine that this was the case during the cultural revolution. Now, however, they are in swarms. Many of them appear to be persons with one problem or another, while some just seem to have taken the idea that someone else ought to support them. Today 3 little children chased Geoff and I down the street. Geoff gave each of them a piece of candy. That, he thought, should have done it. Well, it did, depending on what the definition of it is. Walking became an Olympic event. I wandered all over the sidewalk trying not to trip over these kids who could walk backwards right in front of us and not bump into anything. We ducked into a shop, as they won't go there, and they, thinking we were going to be there for a while, found new donors. But where there had been a few, many were waiting. We had to cross a foot bridge over the main road we were walking along. And on the bridge, they waited. They knew that the bridge was narrow and at the same time where many would pass. The stairs up to the bridge were clogged with beggars. A blind woman sat quietly thinking that her son was watching the tin cup. He, however, had discovered traffic flowing below them on the 6 lane road. From somewhere he had acquired a length of bamboo. This he dangled between the railings, taunting motorists with visions of possibilities. Well he knew that the only person who cared would never see him. Not 5 feet away she sat smiling. His quietness not giving the alarm it should have. A man covered with rags rolled back and forth from side to side, covering a lot of the walking space with his floundering. And there were others until...

Just before descending the stairs at the far side of poverty's gauntlet, a young husband and wife sat smiling. They had two dishes for gifts, and both were full. He had no legs or hands. She was missing one leg. On the walkway they had spread out paintings. And he, with brush tucked into the sleeve of his coat, was painting beautiful Chinese pictures and writing perfect Chinese characters artistically along the side. Then he would lean forward and blowing hard on his work send the paint off here and there in ways that gave the work an air of long planning and perfect execution. Geoff and I stopped to stare. The contrast between this happy couple and the hopeless before them was startling. How much was a painting? They said it was 28 yuan. That is about $3.50. I will have mine framed and even when I am not looking at it will remember and admire them.


Friday, January 03, 2003

Chinese New Year

On New Year's Eve, my Parents' wedding anniversary 70 years ago, I was in Hangzhou with Ben, Bess and Geoff. Jeri had decided to stay in Hong Kong. At the stroke of Midnight, we expected great fireworks in China, the birthplace of the firecracker. After all, in Hangzhou, there are fireworks shot off every day of the year. An evening doesn't pass but what the sounds and sights of fireworks don't come from some corner of the city where there is something to be celebrated. And without even hearing a countdown, we knew when the hour had struck. The booming began and we rushed to the rooftop of the apartment building for a better look. All was silent by the time we arrived. Silent and dark. We waited, peering into the smog of the city, but saw nor heard nothing but an occasional voice or the honk honk of a horn on a taxi or bike.

We got up early in the morning, because Ben's class was planning a New Year's breakfast for us at a teahouse near West Lake. It was to begin at 10:00 am. We arrived on time and were led to a private dining room where we would enjoy our meal together. The tea is 50 Yuan, or about $6.50. But with this expensive cup of tea, one can eat from the buffet all that he or she might wish. Or in our case, might not wish. They had (besides pistachio nuts, dried pineapple, rice porridge, fresh fruit, gelatins, hazel nuts, candies, vegetables, and ice creams) boiled chicken feet, fried rice with tiny creatures from the deep, there were sausages of questionable origins and skins that should have been used for the soles of shoes. Ah, but those things which were good to eat were very good to eat indeed. We ate for over and hour, and noted that no one seemed to be in any hurry to leave. We wanted to get out and about, but everyone sat. They told one sad story after another. Stories of the sales that had begun the night before at midnight. We had not known, sleeping, while others got 60% off of their purchases from midnight until 2 am. And then one of the students said he was leaving and would be back later. I asked what this meant. The explanation was refreshing. We could leave at any time and go out shopping or sight seeing or just for a walk. Anything. And come back later and eat more when we were hungry again. The party would continue until 6:00 PM. We returned at 4:00, and were amazed to see most of the same people throughout the restaurant that had been there 6 hours earlier. What a great smorgasbord. After eating for the second time, I headed back to the kids apartments. They had gone on their bikes, and since I wanted to see some of the city, I decided not to ride a taxi, but to walk a ways and then catch a bus. What did I see?

Men from Mongolia sold furs that smelled strongly of fat and lanolin. There were got and mink, dog and leopard. Lots to choose from. they were made into shabby garments or some lined silk vests that looked quite warm and tempting. A man sold candy beside the street. When he noted that I was not interested, he gave me a free sample. It both looked and tasted like balsa wood. Men sold little toy puppets, controlled by thin string and wriggled from the salesman's hand in such a way that gave the appearance of magic. Vendors sold everything they could think of. And the streets were filled with shoppers anxious to buy just something. Long Johns, hot water bottles, mittens and mufflers, along with sweaters and blankets, jackets and boots, were for sale in the street markets.

People dropped trash wherever they stood as if it were hot or contaminated. Others coughed and spat, but everyone was friendly. Bicycles wove in and out of the traffic, which seemed to have no order or direction. I stood at one corner and watched as the intersection lights changed from green to red to green. It phased no one. They crossed from whatever direction they wished whenever they wished. A girl of about 11 sat on the back of the bike her mother guided through the mass of honking vehicles. Bus drivers seemed casual in their approach into the tangle, and the girl sat there playing with a small toy she may have gotten for Christmas, unaware of her possible peril. I found my bus stop and waited. Somehow, I was the last to board the bus. I didn't seem to have the ability to wedge my oversized body between others, as they were doing to me. And ere I knew it, I alone stood outside the door. And I just stood. There was no room for me. But then there had been no room for the previous 30 or so who had boarded, so I forged ahead. The door closed behind me in ways that reminded me where "behind me" exactly was. The driver shouted for people to move to the rear (I can't think of what else he might have been saying, so have interpreted his shouts as that). No one could nor did move. But he was a poor driver. The brakes and accelerator were used in rapid succession, and then in unison. The result being similar to shaking a jar of dried beans until there is more room at the top for the last few in the bag, waiting to be placed in the jar with the others. And, in a few blocks when he stopped again, another hoard of commuters climbed aboard. I got off as they did so, not wishing to be in the middle of the mass, eventually boarding again. People on the bus smiled and talked to me. They wished me a happy new year and shook my hands that were pressed to my sides. It was a wonderful trip. When the bus stopped near the hospital, I got off and walked quietly without anyone squeezing or pushing, to the apartment where the kids stay. I was glad to have been in China for a Chinese "New Year".

May your New Year be cozy and moving.


The Lunar New Year is often called Chinese New Year. I celebrated the entrance of the year 2003, in China this year. That to me was the Chinese New Year.