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.
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!"):
Libo is located in Guizhou province, which is heavily populated by several of China's ethnic minorities. One of my bosses, Big Mountain, is a member of the Yao ethnic minority. Above, I am pictured wearing traditional Yao clothing. The Yao people are generally quite short, which explains the skirt length on me.
The clothes I am wearing, which Big Mountain presented to me as a gift, took six months to make. The embroidery is all done by hand, and it is a dying art: Only the old women of the villages know how to do it any more, because most of the younger women have moved to big cities in search of work, and young people in general have lost interest in these types of traditional handicrafts.
The people in Libo are very friendly, although they often seem at a loss for words when they catch a glimpse of me through the car window or out surveying the property. I am the first foreigner many of them have ever seen, or at least the first tall blonde American woman they've come across. As the property we are working on develops further, I suspect the locals will become much more accustomed to seeing Westerners than they are right now. But for the time being, I am trying to take the gawking and pointing as a compliment (and trying not to feel like I'm on the wrong side of a cage at the zoo).
Above is Big Mountain, bargaining for the Yao costume I'm wearing. It wasn't for sale, because (as I mentioned earlier) it took someone six months to make. They sell cheaper versions without the detailed embroidery and hand-drawn ink patterns, but he wasn't having any of that nonsense. Mine is the real deal.
If the strangers I meet on a daily basis are friendly, then the people I am coming to know, and with whom I will work closely in the coming year, are practically treating me like family. In fact, in China, the workplace is meant to be a community, and the lines between personal and professional life are often unclear. Lunch and even dinner are spent at the office with coworkers, and a Friday night off probably includes karaoke with the bosses. Maybe my company is a bit extreme because of its rural location, but I've heard from other people that they have had similar experiences.
Here's a shot of the whole gang having dinner at the office:
Not a bad crew, right?
On the first evening of the Shanghai Boat Show, one of the yacht clubs had a fancy party for its members. And because they happen to be one of our boat dealers, we got an invite to attend. The party was a lot of fun, and was catered by an Italian chef (yes!). We sat with some Italian wine distributors and had a good time chatting about expat life in Shanghai.
The highlight of the night (pun intended) was a "bartender" who specialized in lighting bottles of alcohol on fire and juggling them. It was an impressive performance, but not for the reason you might think. Yes, he was good--but not good enough. He dropped flaming bottles of liquor not once but *three separate times* throughout his performance. The impressive part wasn't so much the juggling, but the fact that he didn't light any of the guests on fire. Win!
Here are a few more exciting pictures from my time here.
Riding the high speed train from Nanjing to Shanghai:
The health code rating at our hotel in Shanghai:
I like to consider myself as a person who has taken the "road less traveled." I have made it my mission to explore places far away from home, to understand cultures once foreign to me, to communicate with people in languages that are not my native tongue. This is especially true in my new job, where I will be helping to pave the way for American outdoor leisure companies to expand to China (and in the process, teach Chinese people how to enjoy the great outdoors while preserving the environment).
But rarely do I get the chance to literally blaze my own trail, spastically waving a piece of dead bamboo in front of me to destroy any spider webs in my path. So thank you, Big Mountain, for giving me such an opportunity.
Libo is a place of dazzling beauty, surrounded by mountainous "karst" formations that make even those who are only mildly enthusiastic about hiking (cough cough, me) feel the need to climb something. The national park has already been somewhat developed, so much of my trip was spent looking at (and participating in) the various activities offered (rowing a boat, touring a cave, taking a leisurely stroll through a swamp) and working with architects to brainstorm ways to make these activities more enticing to tourists.
One of the more popular locations in the park is the Waterfall Forest, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Though rather slippery and unkempt in some spots, there was indeed a path to follow on the hike:
Little did we know, however, that the Waterfall Forest was a mere warm-up to the main event: the Feral Pig Bamboo Forest. (Feral pig is their translation of "Wild Boar," which has a slightly better ring to it.) Big Mountain showed off his knowledge of his namesake and took us quite a ways off any sort of beaten path in an attempt to show us the entrance to a cave where he wants to offer ziplining. We never made it to the cave, but we did see a lot of bamboo. Luckily, the feral pigs were nowhere to be found.
It's not quite clear from the pictures how much we were forced to use our hands as well as our feet on this hike. My chief concern was that one of us would twist an ankle and have to be somehow carried out (the hike went from the parking lot down a series of mossy old stairs, through the bamboo forest, into a riverbed, up a steep slope of mud, and to another riverbed, this one with water in it, which is where we chose to turn back.).
Big Mountain, who is a world-renown photographer in his spare time (no joke, he works for National Geographic), taking a picture of some mushrooms:
Tim lends Tai a hand crossing the second riverbed (which was larger than it looks like in this picture, and also where we decided to turn back):
Stop to smell the roses? Please, this is China. Stop to use your cell phone is more like it. Hey, at least there was service! Not bad!
Now that it's all said and done, and all of our ankles made it out of the forest intact, I can safely say that this hike was one of the best parts of my trip to Libo.
I have so much to report about my trip in China thus far--I had hoped to keep up better with writing these posts, but busy days, late nights, and questionable internet connections have made it a difficult task to accomplish.
So where better to begin than the most exciting parts?
Adventure #1: Driving Conditions in Libo. There are waterfalls covering roads, roads that are more pothole than pavement, one-way roads up steep mountain paths, large trucks barreling towards you on said one-way steep mountain paths, and maniacal drivers who somehow manage to get you where you need to be without so much as a scratch on the car.
Two things are clear in this next picture: There is definitely a car coming at us from the other direction (far left), and Eric is not pleased with the situation. What's not as clear is how steep the drop-off is, or how difficult it will be for us to reverse out of the "situation."
We try the "wait it out" strategy, but it doesn't get us anywhere. (Obviously.) Here, we've already reversed about 300 meters through tricky terrain and are about to be able to turn around.
The driver of the offending vehicle leans out to see what's holding us up.
As there is literally no other option, we are forced to bow out of this game of chicken and head back down the mountain the way we came.
Adventure #2: Extreme Wilderness Hike is coming soon!