Last night at a business dinner, all members of our party put on plastic cafeteria-lady gloves and gnawed the meat off of massive pork bones. They then proceeded to drink the marrow
out of the bones with a STRAW
. I can't make this shit up, people.At that moment, I remembered that I have a blog, and that it's times like these that I most enjoy telling my story.
It's been an embarrassingly long time since I've experienced the magical combination of a few spare minutes, inspiration, motivation, and internet access that results in a blog post. Celebrate with me, friends. That moment is upon us.
And thus, I now give you Kaci and the World
's first blog post of 2013. Try not to go out of your mind with excitement like these crazy people:
Okay so actually, that picture is from a hike I went on with the Outdoor Club of Libo on March 15th, which is as good a place as any to start this post. (February is going to be covered by my friend Meredith Freeman, who spent ten days with me in China during Spring Festival. Guest post coming soon!)
From what I can tell, the Outdoor Club of Libo is made up of sixteen to twenty Chinese people who all share these traits: 1) They own fancy cameras. 2) They really like to hike. 3) They really, really like to drink. 4) They really, really, really like to combine hiking and drinking, which sounds like it should be a cool idea but actually results in dehydration and a very early bedtime. Or maybe that's just me.
That day, we hiked to a "spring," which was actually a little bamboo pipe sticking out of a rock, which was supposed to turn on when you hit said rock with another rock enough times. We all took turns hitting that rock, but we never saw the water. Luckily there was enough beer in everyone's backpacks to ensure that no one was too disappointed.
About a week later, Matt came to visit me, resulting in one of the most important moments of my life. He proposed! (In the airport, the night he arrived in Guiyang. So sweet!)
We are getting married at a vineyard in May of 2014, and then we plan to move to Shanghai. Is my life awesome or what?! I'm extremely happy and grateful and excited and ... well, happy.
After the proposal, Matt and I spent a wonderful ten days together in China. We did things like watch chickens being sacrificed and a massive meal being laid at Nainai's gravesite on Tomb-Sweeping Day (oh! the romance):
And hang out with old ladies in forests:
And take traditional Chinese engagement photos.
In Guiyang, we went to a Buddhist temple...
...where Matt got so close to this monkey that it hissed and lunged at him. Scared us both half to death.
We went to Shanghai, where we kept things classy (very classy, Blue Label classy) at the Johnnie Walker House:
And went on a beautiful VIP boat tour of the city at night. (Thanks, Sarah, for being a VIP!)
And then Matt went back to the States (there were tears), and I picked up Bob, a boat technician from Missouri, at the airport and brought him back to Libo with me to solve some problems we've been having at the marina. (Like, for example, the whole "use people instead of a vehicle to drag the trailer into the water.)
Bob and me on an impromptu hike, after a long day of work:
We saw an actual cockfight on the streets of a neighboring village:
And then Bob headed back to the States--but just long enough to brag to his friends, pack up his stuff, and get on back! (His words.) We're excited to have him on the Libo team this summer--the foreigner count in Libo is on the rise!
Back in August, my incredibly thoughtful (and sneaky) boyfriend Matt threw me a surprise party the weekend before I left for China. He even got two of my best friends from out of town to fly in for it! It was an unforgettable night, and made me feel so blessed to have such supportive people in my life.
But two days later, the party was over and I was off to the airport with my enormous, overweight suitcases in tow. Adventure beckoned, and I was ready!
So today I'm celebrating my 100th day of being in China (with only 15 more to go until I head back to the States for Christmas!). I'd like to begin by giving you a recap of the entries I've written over the last three months.1. Spiders and Green Tea and Smog, Oh My! (September 1, 2012): "
My first night in Libo, I was disheartened by the dirty, noisy city bursting with nocturnal energy and gasoline exhaust outside my window, refusing to let me sleep. But by the light of day, my love of the surrounding beauty and my desire to better understand the local culture was once again renewed." 2. A Message from the Deputy General Manager (September 13, 2012): "
Going out and exploring Libo and its surrounding mountains always makes me feel renewed after a week of red tape and Chinese bureaucracy has me ready to go all kung fu on the nearest Asian. (Which would probably be a horrible idea, considering the likelihood that my kung fu skills are far weaker than theirs.)"3. An Afternoon Hike to the Local Temple (September 15, 2012): "
We also talked about language itself. Alexy likes to write Chinese poetry, and he asks me all the time which word is correct in a given situation. On our hike, we discussed the differences between "gracious" and "graceful," and "ankle," "angle," and "angel." It pains me to correct his English sometimes, because I often prefer his creative phrasing. When we started on our hike, the sun was beating down on us and Alexy took the opportunity to ask me, 'Have you pasted your face with anti-violet cream?' Brilliant." 4. Four Weddings and a Funeral (September 21, 2012):
"The death hit me harder than I thought it would. But instead of grieving with Big Mountain in the traditional American way, with hugs and the shedding of tears and a quiet evening remembering the deceased, I was thrust into a Buyi Comedy Funeral, which is the celebration of the life and ascension into heaven of any person above the age of 70."5. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Rural China Edition
(September 25, 2012): "I'm disturbed to notice that today of all days, after three merciful weeks of no bites, I've awoken with an enormous mosquito (or spider?) bite on my face, just below my left eye. It has the unfortunate effect of making me look like I have just been punched in the face. I hastily apply cover-up, which infuriates the bite and makes my eye water from the itching. But you know what the stars say--beauty is pain."6. Chinese Tea Party (October 6, 2012)
: "After the conference, all 75 or so attendees filed out of the conference room and downstairs to the ballroom, where tea was in fact being served. The air quickly filled with cigarette smoke and the sound of fifty people speaking loudly on their cell phones at the same time, as is typical at Chinese functions such as this. After about 30 minutes of settling-in time, where the attendees found their assigned seats, enjoyed a moon cake or two in honor of the Mid Autumn Festival, and caught up on nicotine and voicemails, the party really got started."
7. The China Diet: October Update
(October 6, 2012): “On our way back to the office from a meeting one day, the weather was hot and Alexy recommended we try a traditional Guizhou treat for sunny weather. I was of course willing to check it out, but when I saw the street vendor ladling clear, wiggling jello out of a bucket and into a bowl for me, I got nervous.”8. Trip to Qian Dongnan Region (October 7, 2012):
"This is a place where government propaganda touting the importance of keeping your babies, even if they are girls, is plastered on crumbling walls. Its inhabitants look perpetually exhausted--women bent with age and malnutrition, thin teenage mothers with heavy breasts and fat babies strapped to their backs, men with tanned skin and far more wrinkles than teeth. Only the children are full of energy, running through the streets chasing after wild dogs and roosters, oblivious to the occasional moped or car speeding recklessly through the village."9. Hiking in Maolan (October 21, 2012):
"Although the hike was a training exercise, the men acted more like boys on a field trip, singing traditional Chinese songs, whooping and hollering, and generally making mischief. Some of the more serious hikers engaged in a race, but most of us concentrated on not slipping on the rocks as we climbed (sometimes using our hands)."10. Qiuyu's Birthday (October 26, 2012):
"Americans, who are trained in the art of cake-eating, would notice that something was a little different because of the olive oil, but I don't think anyone would necessarily think it was a bad thing. Overall, I was really quite proud of myself for this creation."11. Shang-high (November 18, 2012):
"Shanghai has the ability to take the assumptions I have about myself and turn them upside down. I find that I am able to slip seamlessly into the jostling fray of elbows and high heels and caffeine. After just a few hours there, I already look at myself differently in the mirror."
12. Guzang Festival in Leishan
(November 27, 2012): "When we returned to the village Tuesday morning to observe the 'festivities,' the air was rife with the sound of shrieking animals. It was a horrific display, but necessary for the villagers. The pigs were slaughtered and then divided among the grown children in each household; relatives from near and far traveled to the village to celebrate, yes, but also to claim their share."And don't forget the updates in the "My Kitchen" section of this site:1. Citrus Olive Oil Cake
(October 20, 2012): "Miracle of miracles, I now have access to an oven in China! Granted it fits on a counter top and looks more like an oversize toaster than anything else, but it works! And last week, I baked Big Mountain a cake for his birthday. (The oven is his, by the way. Purchased in my honor.)"2. Qiuyu's Birthday Cake (October 26, 2012):
"I'm sharing the recipe with you just in case you have similar ingredient constraints (maybe you're baking in rural Panama, I don't know!) or maybe you're opposed to butter (I'm sorry) for health reasons."3. Thanksgiving in Shanghai (November 23, 2012):
"When I took a pre-shopping inventory, I discovered a quirky assortment of gadgets, like a tool for peeling and sectioning a grapefruit in one motion, a set of colorful silicon potholders, an immersion blender still in the original packaging, and a display drawer full of German spices that were long expired and 'just for show.' Mysteriously absent, however, were any oven-proof dishware, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, or typical kitchen stand-bys like butter or flour."~
If you missed any of these posts, I encourage you to take a closer look. If you use the widely recognized mathematical equation of A Picture (P) = 1000 Words, P + [Number of Actual Words] = Total Number of Words, you will be amazed at how long and well-written some of my entries are.
But this wouldn't be a real 100th day post if I didn't tell you something new now, would it? So I think I'll take this opportunity to fill you in a little bit on our marina project in Libo. To keep things informative, here is a step-by-step program for anyone out there who'd like to give it a try:
Step #1: Unload boats from enormous truck. (Or, "Everyone stand around in a circle with your jaws dropped, and wait for someone else to come up with how to get these boats out of the truck without the use of a forklift.")
Step #2: You did it!
(Or, "Pay an unfortunate sum of money to hire security for the boats while you wait until the technicians from Shenzhen have time to come all the way to Guizhou to teach you how to install fuel tanks and wire engines.")
One week later . . .
Step #3: Utilize a creative, slightly unorthodox method of getting the boats onto the trailer.
(Or, "Nervously sweat through your clothes and try not think about liability issues as your coworkers are hoisted into the air to balance out the boat as it swings precariously side to side.")
Step #4: Utilize a creative, slightly unorthodox method of getting the boat (which is now on a trailer) into the water without the use of a towing vehicle.
(Or, "Send up a silent prayer of thanks for the overpopulation problem in China, which ensures that you always have enough manpower to physically tow your own boats.")
Step #5: Congratulations! You have a boat in the water! Now go figure out how to drive it. Nothing like a little hands-on, practical learning.
(Or, "Sweat nervously through your clothes as you narrowly avoid enormous rocks and experience firsthand the necessity to trim the motor up when in shallow waters.")
Step #6: Dock your boat at your beautiful, brand-new, fully constructed floating marina.
(Or, "Sorry boss. We . . . well, we didn't actually build a marina yet. But if we nail tires into the first two steps and cover the bottom one with sandbags, that's basically the same thing, right?!")
Update: The floating marina is now on its way (being shipped here from a neighboring province). Bet you didn't know you could mail-order a marina, eh? We do it classy here in China. Bought it online.
And now we know how to install fuel tanks and wire engines ourselves, so that means if we ever need to repeat the process, we can save ourselves some time and money during Step #2.
Overall, I'm still amazed that nothing that bad actually happened throughout this whole process. Winning!
Our main job at the marina now is engaging in the rare and unpopular sport of hunting down the elusive and mysterious Wintero Touristus. (Or, "Marketing.")
If you read my post, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Rural China Edition," (see above) you'll recall that even back in September, I was on my way to becoming a local celebrity in Libo. Our marketing efforts are furthering that effort, and my picture is now proudly featured in hotels and noodle shops all over town. I do not design the advertisements myself, so imagine my surprise when I found this on my desk Monday morning . . .
On Monday I packed up a backpack and once again headed deeper into rural Guizhou, this time to attend a festival held by the Miao people of Leishan once every thirteen years to honor their ancestors. I went with Big Mountain and a family of Australians who have been RV-ing around China for nearly six months. (Please read Fiona's blog, Life on Nanchang Lu
. It is absolutely fantastic, and I can guarantee that she will make you laugh out loud.) Big Mountain has friends from a remote village outside of Leishan called Paiweng, and this is where we went to observe the "festival."I say "festival" because what I experienced over the past few days lacked many of the attributes that we, as foreigners, might imagine a festival from this region would have; for example, singing, dancing, bull fights, traditional rites or ceremonies. That's not to say that
what I observed wasn't fascinating, but it most certainly was not what I expected. (After this much time in China, you would think I'd have realized by now that it's best not to have expectations of any kind; this country is basically just one surprise after the other.) The Guzang Festival in the village of Paiweng has several major, easily observable components
The cardboard carnage featured in the photo above is the byproduct of one family's pyrotechnic display. In a village with dozens of homes (all made of wood, to the concern of apparently no one), the effect is quite overwhelming.
I'm sorry. I know that was gruesome. But I have far more gruesome pictures that I have chosen not to share for fear that you will run away and never read my blog again, so consider yourself spared. When we returned to the village Tuesday morning to observe the "festivities," the air was rife with the sound of shrieking animals. It was a horrific display, but necessary for the villagers. The pigs were slaughtered and then divided among the grown children in each household; relatives from near and far traveled to the village to celebrate, yes, but also to claim their share.
As a Westerner, I found this bit particularly tough to endure. But the reality of the matter is that if I cringe to see an animal killed, even an animal who has led a good life, cared for by villagers who truly depend on it for sustenance, then I am not fit to consume meat. I should find it easier to eat an animal whose origins I am familiar with than to eat the meat I'm used to buying pre-packaged on a white styrofoam plate in a grocery store. So instead of letting this experience turn me into a vegetarian (a lifestyle that, even if I wished to practice, I would find nearly impossible to sustain in rural China), I will let it influence the way I view eating meat at home. I will eat less of it. I will be more careful about where it comes from. I will investigate the actual meaning of "organic," "free range," pastured," and other labels, and make my purchases accordingly.
Anyway, back to the festivities.
3. Consumption of slaughtered pigs.
On this trip, I came much closer to eating those animal parts I try my hardest to avoid. I even sampled intestine (though I did not succeed in actually swallowing it). It was a lot like a spicy, pig-flavored rubber band. I kept chewing and chewing and it just wouldn't leave my mouth unless I spit it out. The villagers ate heartily, though, and watching them enjoy this special, rare treat was satisfying enough.
4. Drinking lots and lots of moonshine.
Those are not rice bowls.
Those are rice wine bowls. But if "rice wine" connotes a nice, sweet-tasting wine to you, then you, my friend, are sadly mistaken. I cannot describe the taste, but I can promise that I may have fewer taste buds left now. The large container in the back of that photo that looks like it should be holding bleach or gasoline? Yeah. It was full before the festival started. The only major advantage is that it probably succeeded in killing any bacteria hanging out in the food or tableware--my stomach is no worse for the wear after a few days in the countryside.
Here are some excerpts from my journal about the experience:
26 November 2012
We are sitting in what I can only describe as a living room--a wooden room open at one end with a moveable brazier in the center and tiny benches around it. We've been munching on sunflower seeds and chatting with the locals for the past hour. Every few minutes, another deafening round of fireworks goes off outside the door and the whole house shakes.
Women in various degrees of ethnic dress are seated around us--some in full attire (black velvet blouses, embroidered with brightly colored flowers, silver medallions hanging about their necks, and hair done up in a multi-layered bun studded with ornaments).
An old woman cleans fish in a large bucket in one corner.
The fireworks that have been going off for the past six or seven minutes straight come to a temporary halt and the room heaves a collective sigh of relief. Now the room has filled with chatter and--miraculously--with the sound of a television blaring from a back room. The home is perched on a mountain and appears to have been recently wired for electricity; whether the hut has plumbing remains to be seen. [Note: It did not.]
After four years of college Chinese, a semester in Beijing, two subsequent trips to the mainland, and three months in a small Chinese town, I am still remarkably inept at understanding what is said to me by these women. Their language only remotely resembles the Mandarin I learned in school; I can pick out words but lack the ability to decipher full sentences.
27 November 2012
We are at our second feast of the day, and our host is passing around a bowl of raw congealed pig's blood.
[Side note: Check out those pants! In Vogue: Rural China Edition?]
As the meal progresses, I look around the room and realize that I appear to be dining with a band of slightly impoverished Chinese vampires--their mouths are stained with fresh blood and their hands are rust-colored from the pig slaughtering earlier this morning. A quadruplet of octogenarians are huddled together in the far corner, feeding each other moonshine out of small shallow bowls. Every time one of them drains his or her bowl, the entire room erupts in a chorus of, "Ohhh!"
They don't look too rowdy in the picture above, but looks can be deceiving!
Earlier this morning I had the opportunity to wear a traditional Miao costume. It was all velvet and silver and bright shades of blue and pink.
The bells hanging down our backs tinkled with even the slightest movement, and our heads were weighed down by a crown of jingling silver.
The steep paths up and down the mountains are red with the remnants of fire crackers and pig's blood. In the corner of the room, a dog licks some blood off the floor. A toddler sits on a bench, listlessly chewing and swallowing stick after stick of double mint gum.
"It is in all of us to defy expectations, to go into the world and to be brave and to want, to need, to hunger for adventures, to embrace change and chance and risk so that we may breathe and know what it is to be free."
No, of course the title is not a drug reference. Please. I just don't know what else to call the feeling I have when I'm there. Shanghai is electric, insistent; it is throbbing with reckless energy and made of windows upon shiny windows reaching up to the sky. The air smells like opportunity and tastes like success. In Shanghai, the East and West dance a constant tango that sweeps me off my feet and has me dizzy with excitement, adrenaline, and awesome potential. It is an intoxicating, life-changing place that I find both thrilling and terrifying.
But if you know me, you know I am not a city person. I prefer out-of-the-way places like Saint Louis or Tübingen or Libo to their Chicago or Stuttgart or Guangzhou counterparts. Cities overwhelm me with their exhaust-filled air and noise pollution and crowded intersections--after a long weekend in New York or Berlin, I am always ready to head for the hills (literally) and leave the inhabitants to their commotion. The hills, after all, have much to offer: fresh air, enough room to spread your arms wide open and run around in, and quirky locals with stories to tell and the time to tell them.
But Shanghai has the ability to take the assumptions I have about myself and turn them upside down. I find that I am able to slip seamlessly into the jostling fray of elbows and high heels and caffeine. After just a few hours there, I already look at myself differently in the mirror. Maybe this sounds dramatic to you, and it might very well be. If I actually lived in Shanghai, perhaps the high would wear off and within weeks, I would be reduced to my normal, no make-up, Toms-wearing, country-loving, sensible self. But I am not so sure that's the case. I've visited dozens of cities on four different continents, and not a single one has ever made me feel the way that Shanghai does every time I'm there.
I honestly don't know what to make of it. I am back in Libo, but my heart is beating faster now than it was when I left. The city is magnetic; I can feel its pull sharply now. I've got work in the morning and I feel like I'll need a cold shower to wake me up out of this Shanghai-induced haze.
Luckily for me, a cold shower is easy to come by here . . .
Big Mountain's daughter turned six on Thursday, and Little Miss Personality *loved* the attention showered on her--even more attention than usual! She got to have two birthdays: one on Thursday, with just her immediate family (and me) and a Chinese birthday cake, and one on Friday with extended family, friends, and an American birthday cake made by yours truly.
Excitement over her Chinese cake, with Grandma looking on:
The Chinese cake did not do it for me. The texture of the cake was angel food (never been a favorite of mine), it was barely sweet, and the frosting tasted like canned whipped cream that hadn't been refrigerated. In between the layers there were pieces of fruit, which was good, but otherwise I thought it would be no competition.
My mom sent a bunch of things over for Qiuyu, mostly involving helping her learn English. She absolutely loves to practice writing English (speaking not so much, but we're working on it) so the gifts my mom sent were a huge hit.
And now, of course, onto the cake. My cake. Baking this cake was an affair--I took my two hour mid-day siesta, which I guard jealously--to make the first layer, and made the second one before dinner (meaning I left work an hour early). The cake had nothing on what I'd be able to make in the States, since I used olive oil instead of butter and store-bought Betty Crocker frosting (from Guiyang) instead of making my own (no powdered sugar), but I was pleased with the result. Qiuyu loves white chocolate, so I chopped up a bar of Ghirardelli that Matt sent and threw it in the batter. Americans, who are trained in the art of cake-eating, would notice that something was a little different because of the olive oil, but I don't think anyone would necessarily think it was a bad thing. Overall, I was really quite proud of myself for this creation:
Click here for a link to the recipe!
Qiuyu's dinner party was huge--there were at least twenty people there. She was beside herself with excitement the whole night because we were all going to sing karaoke afterwards and she was allowed to stay up really late. Dinner concluded around 9:30, and we headed to karaoke, where it was determined that we would eat the cake. But apparently, karaoke was (for once) not what everyone else wanted to do. Big Mountain, his wife, his brother-in-law, and his brother-in-law's eight year old son were the only people who showed up to our karaoke room. And when it came time to have cake, Qiuyu's excitement ended with blowing out the candles. She did not eat a single bite of the cake. It broke my heart.Big Mountain and his wife made a show of eating a few bites (they both despise sweets), but everyone else seemed to really like it. And since I had made a rather large cake in anticipation of lots of guests, I took the remainder home with me to share with the people in my office. It was a much bigger success today after lunch than it was last night, and now, the only thing that's left is a few crumbs and a smudge of icing in the box. On a completely unrelated note, I just wanted to share with you a text message I received recently from a friend here that made me laugh. I hope it has the same effect on you!
Being friends with the head of the police force in Libo has its benefits. I met him at Nainai's funeral, and he immediately insisted that I call him "Liu Ge" (Big Brother Liu); at the time, I had no idea that he happens to be "kind of a big deal" in Libo. Like a lot of people here, upon meeting me, he insisted we take a photo together:
This past weekend, Liu Ge invited me to go on a hike with the local SWAT team. Let me be the first to tell you these guys were not messing around. The hike was conducted in full uniform as a training exercise. In other words, it was really, really hard! We hiked for five hours up (and down) four mountains averaging about 2000 feet each--a total of eight miles. The mountains were densely forested, but instead of being shady and cool, the forest acted as a humidity trap, ensuring that all of us were absolutely drenched with sweat within the first twenty minutes.
For the record, the mountains you see in front of us in the picture above are not what we were climbing.
This photo is of the last mountain we hiked over, taken from the village where we rested and had a late lunch before heading back to Libo:
Although the hike was a training exercise, the men acted more like boys on a field trip, singing traditional Chinese songs, whooping and hollering, and generally making mischief. Some of the more serious hikers engaged in a race, but most of us concentrated on not slipping on the rocks as we climbed (sometimes using our hands).
The Maolan forest is famous for "python trees"--trees whose branches have twisted around each other for a snake-like effect. Apparently, the forest is home to black bears and monkeys, but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, in the case of black bears) we didn't see any animals (just insects . . . lots and lots of insects).
I once mentioned to Liu Ge that I am interested in learning kung fu; I figured since he's Mr. Badass Head of the Local Police he would probably know who could teach me. Little did I know that on the hike, I would be introduced to Zeng Shifu, my kung fu master.
He may not look like a crouching tiger . . .
but he is most definitely a Hidden Dragon.
My first lesson:
Another new friend, Deng Ge, proudly presented me with a tiny crab he caught in the river. He was so pleased with his gift to me that he insisted we document the exchange. Even more incredible than the fact that I'm holding a crab is the fact that Deng Ge is taller than me! I can count on one hand the number of people I've met here that fall into that category.
As we drove back into Libo, Big Mountain's daughter called me to invite me over for dinner. Even though I was exhausted, I find it nearly impossible to refuse her anything, so I took a quick (and mercifully hot) shower and headed to their house. By 9 pm, my muscles were yelling at me for having condensed an entire month's worth of exercise into five hours, and Big Mountain suggested we go get Thai massages.
Music to my ears! Had I ever had a Thai massage? No. Did I know what that entailed? No. But I was game--anything to ease the pain.
If you are a knuckle/neck/back cracker, then this massage is for you. Every limb was yanked, twisted, pulled and pushed into what I would have thought to be impossible positions. There was the usual kneading and massaging as well, although at one point the woman was doing chopsticks (with her hands, not actual chopsticks . . . funny that I need to specify) on my forehead. She used her knees, toes, elbows, and entire body weight during the massage; at times, I had a hard time keeping a straight face, especially if I looked over at Big Mountain having the same procedures done to him across the room. (By the way, in China, going to get a massage is like going to get drinks--you go in groups. Everyone in your party is in the same room, and you all change into silly looking pajamas and drink chrysanthemum tea and eat tangerines. It is as great as it sounds.)
Here are some images from the internet of Thai massages, to give you an idea:
Just kidding about that last one. But the second to last one? Yeah that happened.
After my massage, I felt like I had been hit by a magical bus that turns muscles into jello but also kind of hurts at the same time. But the next day, I thanked my lucky stars that I went. I expected to be immobile the day after, but aside from mild discomfort at the thought of going up or down a staircase, I was a-okay.
I know you were curious, so here's a picture of me in the silly pajamas.
Wee-ew-wee-ew-wee-ew! The fashion police are on their way.
Last Monday, I went on a true adventure to the real rural China. I think of Libo as rural because it's a town that is hard to get to, it has a population of 170,000 people, it has no Western amenities (restaurants, stores, foreigners), and the buildings don't have heat. And I will continue referring to it as rural even after I admit that in reality, it is not. The real rural China is so remote that the roads leading to it are unpaved, the villages have fewer than 50 homes, the villagers have never seen a foreigner, and most buildings don't have electricity or running water.
This is a place where government propaganda touting the importance of keeping your babies, even if they are girls, is plastered on crumbling walls. Its inhabitants look perpetually exhausted--women bent with age and malnutrition, thin teenage mothers with heavy breasts and fat babies strapped to their backs, men with tanned skin and far more wrinkles than teeth. Only the children are full of energy, running through the streets chasing after wild dogs and roosters, oblivious to the occasional moped or car speeding recklessly through the village.
And surrounding the village, rising up to the sky on all sides, are green peaks speckled with terraced rice paddies.
We stayed in a cabin high above the village, reachable only by a narrow path made from dirt and rocks twisting up and around the paddies. It is difficult to describe the sound of a rice paddy; you might think, like any other type of crop, that it grows in relative silence--a rustle of grass in the wind, a bird calling overhead, the chirping of crickets at night, the occasional shouted greetings of the villagers below. But standing in the middle of this mountainous watery field, I was constantly surprised by the bubbling, slurping, gurgling sounds of the paddies' irrigation system.
I spent a good deal of time during our trip writing in a journal. Below are a few of my entries.
2 October 2012 5:00 am
I'm lucky I found this pen abandoned in the corner of the room I slept in last night, for although I had the foresight to bring a notebook, I managed to leave without packing a writing utensil. The camera Big Mountain's loaned to me for the trip is already nearly out of battery, so while he and his friend set up tripods and snap away at the sun emerging just above the mountains, I'm sitting here in the relative comfort and warmth of a comically cramped SUV, observing my surroundings through mud-spattered windows and listening to the hum of the car engine that Big Mountain never seems to shut off.
The rice paddies are the most graceful piece of man-made handiwork I have ever had the good fortune of seeing with my own eyes. Without knowing anything about their history, I am stunned by how long it must have taken--how many centuries of back-breaking toil must have been required to build step after step of miniature water-filled field.
The morning is foggy, but the sun is bright, making the fog appear even denser than it is and our pictures appear blurry even though they're not. Big Mountain keeps repeating the phrase, "It's really not ideal," as though its a mantra or an inside joke. And I understand his disappointment--we drove for ten hours (with frequent stops for photo breaks) yesterday through less than ideal road conditions to reach our destination.
While the location is incredibly remote, there are photographers everywhere. Its location prevents it from becoming a tourist trap, but this place is clearly no secret. And indeed, how could it be? Deep, twisting forests dense with pines suddenly rise upward into soft slopes, curved like a woman's body. Villages built on bamboo stilts lie perched on narrow plateaus, and beyond the villages, even larger mountains rear up to guard their backs.
We've just returned from another evening of scampering up and down rice paddies and driving curve after curve of semi-paved road in search of great twilight shots.
We've made it back up to the cabin for dinner. Three of the four doll-sized tables are full of weary photographers (and in some cases, their aged parents and small children) enjoying a meal of what I've come to view as "Chinese comfort food." Hot pot--I can see the appeal. It's chilly outside; how better to warm up than to sit around a pot of boiling soup stock, cooking various cuts of meat and vegetables and dipping your findings into a fragrant bowl of "lajiao" hot pepper sauce? I'm certainly not against the principle--in fact, in Beijing I relished the nights we treated ourselves to a night out in Houhai and cooked up thin strips of lamb, sweet potatoes, and bok choy while sipping on fresh watermelon juice.
I have found, however, that eating hot pot with native Chinese people is an all-together different experience. I suppose that our Americanized version of hot pot in Beijing wasn't authentic, but but at this point, I think my life in rural China is authentic enough. I don't need the added reality of pig brain and cow intestine to enhance the flavor of my new life.
Big Mountain is an incredibly perceptive person, which partially explains his success as a photographer.
[This is his photo, taken on one of our stops along the road with the camera he loaned to me for the trip.]
He has noticed my aversion to strange animal parts and taken pity on me. Last night at dinner, he cooked a dish especially for me with soy nuts and pork belly, and onlookers marveled at how I could prefer such a dish (it was delicious, by the way) to the chicken bits (feet, combs, and everything in between) simmering in the pot on the table. Big Mountain is also acutely aware of how much "heat" I can handle. I'd like to think I can take a decent amount of spice in my food, and like my language skills, my ability in this area is increasing with each passing day. But my maximum capacity for spicy food is nowhere near Big Mountain's or that of his friends. He compromised at lunch by cooking a dish that, while far from mild, was a very tolerable level of spiciness that had my lips tingling but not burning after the first few bites. For himself and his friends, he prepared a separate bowl of finely sliced hot peppers, seasonings and salt, to which he added a few spoonfuls of hot pot broth at the start of our meal. If it weren't for Big Mountain, I would be very hungry on this trip . . .
As much as I appreciate the beauty of a spectacular landscape, having a mother whose profession is portrait photography appears to have influenced the kind of pictures I found myself drawn to take on this trip. Each person I passed had a face with a story behind it; maybe it's my mother's influence, and maybe it's also my writer's mind that finds a photograph with a person in it generally more interesting than one without. As I learned more about how to use the camera I was given, my ability to capture faces improved.
The photographers at work (click to enlarge):
They took pictures of me taking pictures too, but until I get my hands on them, here are a few of me doing other things (like eating grasshoppers!):
It's time for another round of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Chinese Food Edition" . . .
Alexy and I went exploring one Saturday afternoon for a good spot for lunch that isn't the seventh floor of our office building. We found this gem around the corner, which is always packed and famous for their scallion pancakes (in the background). My go-to dish is a spicy beef and cabbage stir fry over rice.
This next one was a bit scary, but ended up being quite delicious. On our way back to the office from a meeting one day, the weather was hot and Alexy recommended we try a traditional Guizhou treat for sunny weather. I was of course willing to check it out, but when I saw the street vendor ladling clear, wiggling jello out of a bucket and into a bowl for me, I got nervous. In my head, I was thinking, "Kaci, this is exactly what you are not supposed to be doing. Eating food on the street that comes out of a bucket. If you get sick, you deserve it." But I didn't want to chicken out, so I went ahead and let Alexy choose my toppings: thick molasses, sesame seeds, peanuts, raisins, and some sugary candy. The result was certainly a unique blend of flavors, but overall quite delicious. And I didn't get so much as a stomachache! Win.
Last weekend, a friend of Big Mountain's invited me over to his home for dinner. His daughter is twenty-one and a student at a university in Guiyang. She's studying philosophy, English and Japanese, and loves to sing and play the guitar. She was too shy to speak much English, but we had a great time talking about music (she loves Green Day and Avril Lavigne--angsty or what?!) and travel. The family served the dreaded hot pot, but this time it was full of only things I like! Mushrooms, normal cuts of beef, stewed pumpkin, and cabbage were some of the hot pot ingredients. We drank wine that Mrs. Mo made herself from grapes in the family vineyard. After dinner, we headed out on the town for some good old-fashioned karaoke, where I once again confirmed the fact that I will never be able to sing Beyonce's songs. Ever.
To celebrate the Mid Autumn Festival, I went to Big Mountain's house for a special dinner. As usual, it was delicious--spicy chicken with bamboo (center), beef and celery, bitter melon, edamame with ground pork, and homemade sausages . . . The list goes on and on. After dinner, we looked at the moon and gave thanks, and of course enjoyed a traditional Libo moon cake filled with sweetened red bean paste.
The night of the Chinese tea party, Eric and I found ourselves hungry on the way back to the office. We stopped to sample some street food, and Eric recommended I try the infamous "stinky tofu."
Chinese escargot. The only way I am eating snails is if they are served in a French restaurant and smothered in butter and garlic thankyouverymuch.
Nothing like some good ol' raw fish heads to whet your appetite. Am I right?!
Mmm . . . Pig brain.
And now, I present to you: fried grasshoppers.
These are under the "Ugly" category because they don't look too good, but let me be the first to tell you that they were actually quite delicious! I ate two.
Here's a fun game for all you non-Chinese speakers out there! It's called, "Find the Dog on the Menu." (Hint: It's somewhere in the right-hand column.)
This game is also known by another name, which is, "Make sure you go out to eat with someone who can read Chinese."
The phrase "tea party" brings to mind several distinct images for me. The first is of playing 'tea party' as a child with my cousin and grandmother, using a beautiful old tea set and equal parts cream, sugar, and English breakfast tea. The second is of taking high tea in London with friends last year. And the third (for whatever reason) is of a page from a middle school history book about the Boston Tea Party.
My guess is that upon hearing that you have been invited to a tea party, at no point does your mind associate that with, "belly dancers," "braised pork ribs," or "grain alcohol." You can imagine my momentary confusion, then, when I attended my first Chinese tea party last Friday. The party was hosted at the "fancy" hotel in Libo following a conference between government officials and commercial investors. To the amazement of everyone who didn't know me, I gave a speech in Chinese about how thankful my company is for the government's support, etc etc. Then I sat back, relaxed, partook of the complimentary fruit plate, and understood very little of the rest of the meeting's proceedings.
After the conference, all 75 or so attendees filed out of the conference room and downstairs to the ballroom, where tea was in fact being served. The air quickly filled with cigarette smoke and the sound of fifty people speaking loudly on their cell phones at the same time, as is typical at Chinese functions such as this. After about 30 minutes of settling-in time, where the attendees found their assigned seats, enjoyed a moon cake or two in honor of the Mid Autumn Festival, and caught up on nicotine and voicemails, the party really got started. Performances by ethnic minority groups (mainly women in traditional costumes dancing and singing) were the main event, and to be honest, I was quite transfixed. I had never seen traditional Chinese dances like these or heard music like what was sung and played that afternoon.
Having participated myself in many concert choirs, I found the differences between American and Chinese choral performances striking. To have a nasal tone in the States is anathema; in China, it is required. Still, I wholeheartedly enjoyed the performance, especially the movements they incorporated.
The final performance startled me, as it was more reminiscent of Indian dancing than anything I've ever seen in China. It's fascinating to see how various Eastern cultures must have influenced each other over thousands of years.
After the performances, dinner was served and the toasting began. I was asked to give a karaoke performance, so in front of a large audience of Chinese businessmen and government officials, I sang Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," the subject of which may not have been the most appropriate given the venue. I banked on the fact that no one would understand the words, and to my knowledge, no one did. Unfortunately, giving that performance meant that almost every single person in the room came over to toast me personally afterwards, which was becoming a problem until I managed to fill my grain alcohol pitcher with water instead of "baijiu". This also meant that I didn't eat dinner. Womp womp.
Gan bei! ("Bottom's up!"):
This title may be a bit of an exaggeration. Am I rich? By American standards, definitely not. I've got the equivalent of eighteen dollars in my wallet to last me more than two weeks, but I'm not even sweating. It should be plenty. Though I may have to give up my afternoon bubble tea towards the end . . . And as for the famous part, well, I'm getting to that. It's all relative, right?
This morning I took a bit of extra care during my primping routine. It went something like this . . .
8:15: My alarm wakes me from a dream in which I live in the attic of an old, colonial-looking house with a family of enormous spiders. I'm so tired I would almost prefer to sink back into my spider dream, but instead--
8:17: I enjoy a cold shower for the fourth or fifth day in a row. I've learned to judge the coldness on a special scale, which goes from This-Water-Is-From-The-Iceberg-That-Sank-The-Titanic-Cold to I-Can-Nearly-Convince-Myself-This-Is-Lukewarm-Cold. Most days the water is a tolerable Pool-Water-Cold; just like getting in the pool, it feels freezing at first, but once you're in long enough, it's actually colder to be out of the water than in it.
8:25: I shiver myself into my clothes, chosen with special care this morning. Instead of my usual capris, decent top, sweater, and worn-out Toms, I opt for a nice shirt/sweater combo, khaki suit-skirt, and (omg!) high heels.
8:30: In honor of the occasion, I put on make-up (a first since arriving in Libo) and brush my hair twice. I'm disturbed to notice that today of all days, after three merciful weeks of no bites, I've awoken with an enormous mosquito (or spider?) bite on my face, just below my left eye. It has the unfortunate effect of making me look like I have just been punched in the face. I hastily apply cover-up, which infuriates the bite and makes my eye water from the itching. But you know what the stars say--beauty is pain.
8:40: I consume my last protein bar. Sad face.
8:42: I clean my room, make my bed, and put all my clothes away. Today I imagine that I will be having visitors.
9:00: I collect my computer, cell phones, and notebook, pack my bag, and head down two flights of stairs to work.
Why all the fuss, you ask? Because--because!--today, I filmed a segment for a local TV station! "A Day in the Life of the Foreigner in Libo" will air as a short news story tomorrow evening, and as a longer spot later in the week. I completed a fairly long interview rather successfully in Chinese, talked about my work and my new life in Libo, and even let the cameraman into my room, where he filmed photos of my loved ones and shot Alexy and I playing a game of "American cards" (gin rummy). I received notice that this interview would take place today just yesterday afternoon; apparently two nights ago I agreed to do it during dinner with my boss and some of his friends. Clearly, my strategy of nodding, smiling, and cheers-ing people when I don't understand what they're saying has some room for improvement.
And of course today, for the first day in what seems like forever, I actually had work to do. The rest of the day was spent contemplating the merits of various life jackets, officially hiring my second staff member (a marketing assistant), and reviewing ticket designs, among other things. At 6:30, my coworker Sophie and I went upstairs to have dinner with Eric and (as usual) some members of the government. It was hot pot again, which means that all manner of raw animal parts were hanging out on the table for us to boil in individual hot and sour soup pots by our plates. As you might imagine, this is not my favorite dining experience, but I've learned to live with it. I almost feel like the fish and chicken heads are my friends, winking at me at various points during the three-hour dinner as they spin around and around on the mechanical lazy susan. The beverage of choice tonight was brandy, which was consumed in such large quantities that by the end of the night, the only possible option was to go sing karaoke.
And guess what?! Tonight, I sang my very first ever Chinese karaoke song! Check it out:
To me, this accomplishment felt every bit as exciting as the prospect of being on television is. It was a smashing success, and further solidified my place as coolest foreigner within a hundred-mile radius.
I'll try to video tape the interview tomorrow on my iPhone to share with you all. You will be extra impressed, because chances are, you won't understand what I'm saying, and it will therefore sound perfect. Everybody wins.
One final thing of import happened today: my Chinese name was changed. My Chinese name, Xiong Wenlu (shee-yong when-LOO), has thus far been met with mixed reviews. Some think it sounds beautiful and traditional, like a movie star name. Others think it sounds like a boy's name. I have no way of knowing; all I know is that the name belonged to a Chinese girl in one of my classes at Vanderbilt and happened to be the only name I knew how to write when I went to Beijing.
Today, a government official christened me Xiong Xiaoli (shee-yong shee-yow LEE), which means that my first name is now "Little Li" -- "Li" as in "Libo". Adorable!
Sigh. It's almost 1 in the morning, and the spider dreams are beckoning. I will keep you updated on my "rich" and "famous" lifestyle as it unfolds, but for now, I must bid you wan'an--good night.