When I say "Four Weddings," what I am really referring to is the four hundred different types of weddings taking place in my imagination and on my Pinterest page at any given moment. With our boats stuck in Chinese customs indefinitely, it's become difficult to scrounge up enough work to keep me busy for more than two hours of each eight-hour work day. Enter Pinterest, and my favorite subject to pin: my future wedding. In fact, I've pinned so much to the board "Then comes marriage (later!)" that I've had inquiries via friends of friends of whether or not I've recently gotten engaged? The answer is no, you silly gooses. I'm otherwise engaged in rural China for the next 345 or so days; that's not really an ideal time to be planning a wedding. But that fact can't stop me from planning many, many imaginary
weddings, and some day (when I have a real live wedding to actually plan), maybe I'll be thankful that I did all this preparation in advance. Even if I completely switch themes between now and Actual Wedding Date--if my 'autumn rustic chic' turns out to be more of a 'December classic elegance' or '
springtime garden nuptial'--no harm done, I say. Pinterest is serving its ultimate purpose right now, which is keeping me at my desk and entertained in a fantasy wonderland of lace, falling leaves, and an alternating dark green or grey color scheme with chocolate accents.When I say "A Funeral," on the other hand, I am unfortunately referring to an actual funeral. On Sunday, Big Mountain's grandmother passed away. Just last week, I was sitting across the dinner table from her eating rice and braised cabbage. This week, I was experiencing the very bizarre, disorienting event that is a Buyi ethnic funeral party.
Because she was 93, it's easy to think that perhaps it was her time. Although she had seemed to be in perfectly good health the last time I saw her, that's where my mind went when I heard of her passing. But when I heard the details--she was hit by a drunk driver while walking home from dinner at her granddaughter's house--I could scarcely believe my ears. I've always known that road traffic in China is dangerous; some of you may remember a photo I posted way back in 2008 that I took in Beijing entitled, "The crosswalk of doom." (See below.) The Chinese government is wising up to the situation--propaganda advising against "Driving drunkenly," and "Driving while tired," is posted along every major highway here nowadays. But it seems that at least one person didn't get the message, or failed to heed its warning. And now Nainai is no longer with us.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. It
's an interesting concept, and one that I think I can understand. If a 93-year old woman passes away in America of "natural causes," I'd like to think that typically, her funeral is an occasion in which smiling to honor her memory as well as shedding a tear at her loss would both be appropriate. But if that same person's death--even at age 93--were the result of a tragedy, the funeral would probably have a slightly different feel to it. I think that sentiment was expressed during Nainai's own funeral, for although the attendees seemed to be in good spirits, the eyes of her family members were sad.We pulled up to Big Mountain's neighborhood, but instead of turning in, we parked on the opposite street
and walked up to the entrance. I quickly realized why: The street, which is narrow to begin with and lined on either side by tall apartment buildings, was filled with brightly colored tents and people milling about, chatting and munching on sunflower seeds. I was overwhelmed by the clouds of incense, briquettes and cigarette smoke, which at first masked the smell of a hundred people crowded into a small space. The tent closest to the door of Big Mountain's home held Nainai's coffin, which was draped with a velvet cover brightly embroidered with suns and flowers. In the second tent, there were two tables; one held paper and clay pots filled with burning incense, the other dishes of fruit taped over so that the fruit could not be touched. On the wall above the table of incense, a shrine to Nainai was laid out; bright fabrics swathed the wall, and a framed photograph of her hung in the center. At various points throughout the evening, people would come to this tent and light a few sticks of incense; then, facing her picture, they would kowtow three times and place their incense into the pots. In the center of the tent, there was a small fire burning. At any given time, several people would be gathered around the fire, placing brown sheets of paper into the flames. I asked Big Mountain's brother why they were doing this; he explained that the paper symbolizes money for Nainai to take with her to the next world. In ancient days, real money would have been used. The small fire was a favorite of the children in attendance, who were mesmerized by the crackling sound it made and the smoke swirling toward the top of the tent. The tent also held several stools, and at the back was a large stereo set with enormous speakers and flashing lights. In the stools sat four percussionists, who banged cymbals together
in a hypnotizing rhythm every five minutes or so. After I went inside to give my condolences to the rest of the family and say hello to little Qiuyu, who was playing obliviously on the computer upstairs with her similarly-aged cousin, I was taken back outside and given a seat of prominence to watch the funeral performances. I should mention here that it was very obvious who was related to Nainai, because each relative wore a long, cloth head covering with a red circle painted on the top. Some relatives, like Big Mountain's youngest brother, wore clothes made of the same cloth, tied at the waist with a piece of twine. Six women dressed in pink and white clothes bedazzled with flowers began to dance to the lilting tune of an erhu, which was played through the loudspeaker by a man sitting sitting in the corner of one tent. One of the women held a microphone, and began to sing in a shrill, nasal voice not unlike what you hear at the Peking opera. The singing might have sounded pretty if it had not been at a volume easily three times what a normal person can withstand. In America, funeral or no, this would have resulted in a very serious noise complaint from every neighbor within a two-mile radius. As it was, neighbors could be seen watching the dance from their balconies or windows
high above the commotion; none of them seemed upset by the volume or the time at which this was taking place (10 pm on a Wednesday). The Chinese are much more likely to respect tradition and honor their ancestors than we are, which can be attributed to the fact that their culture and these practices are thousands of years old. This is one of the reasons why I am fascinated by this country and its people, and I am constantly reminded of how little I actually understand the place in which I live.The dances and shriek-singing continued for at least an hour, with costume and instrument changes
every few songs. After being assured that it was not disrespectful, I took a few pictures (see below). Eventually, Big Mountain came outside and invited me in for red wine and a late night snack, which was a welcome relief for my pounding ear drums. I sat down in his kitchen with eight or nine of his male relatives and friends, who thanked me profusely for attending and told me how much it honored them that I, a foreigner, would be there. I tried to explain that I knew her and that I couldn't imagine not being there, but my voice was soon lost in exclamations of "Gan bei!" ("Bottom's up!") and the clinking of glasses. Over the next hour, I proceeded to drink too much wine in proportion to the amount of food I was eating (a few slices of spicy cucumber and a small bowl of noodle soup). Though I luckily haven't had to attend any funerals in the US recently, I know that drowning one's sorrows in a drink or seven is commonplace in my culture, too. By the time we finished the fourth (fifth?) bottle of South African Tall Horse
* Cabernet Sauvignon (Big Mountain's favorite), the festivities outside were winding down. One of my new drinking buddies, the police chief of Libo, was kind enough to give me a ride home (he drank far less than the rest of us), where I managed to coherently Skype with loved ones before falling into a deep sleep.*Please click on this link. The website is definitely worth your time, and the wine is delicious--buy a bottle or six if you can find it.
The Crosswalk of Doom in Beijing, 2008. Nearly every day for four months, I made my way across this street in varying degrees of abject terror, depending on the number of buses hurtling at me from each direction.
Grieving family members burn paper to ensure Nainai's financial security in the next world:
Ethnic dancers perform wearing Miao headdresses and costume:
Young girls bow and burn incense at their great-grandmother's altar:
Last weekend on our trip to the natural bridge, we passed by a mountain outside of town with a tall temple at its peak. Alexy and I were both enchanted by the thought of hiking up to it, and today we finally got our chance. With a general sense of direction (up) and high spirits, we set off on our journey.
Surprisingly, getting there didn't take as much time as we'd imagined. By flagging down a local man zooming by us on his moped, we figured out which fork in the road led to the temple. Before long, we rounded another bend and lo! It was before us.
Alexy and I scampered up the rest of the path to marvel at the structure before us. It's a new temple, and as we stared up at it, we wondered aloud why it was built. Alexy thinks it was supposed to attract tourists, but with no signs leading the way and only two other people at the top, it's not really doing its job. Whatever the reason, I'm glad it's there. It's beautiful!
The view from the top of the mountain was stunning. From above, it's even clearer how small of a town Libo truly is, and also how remote. Nothing but mountains, fields, and nameless, five-home villages exist beyond the town.
I posed triumphantly on the edge of the temple's gate.
Since the hike up took us less than 45 minutes, we decided to continue exploring the surrounding mountains. We found another pathway that wound up into nowhere, and once we reached the top of the mountain, it led back down into the distance. We stopped for a final view of the temple before making our way back into town.
Our outing gave Alexy and me a chance to talk about topics other than work. Our conversations were mostly about the types of trees and plants we encountered, and whether I knew their names in English. We saw cotton, palm trees, stalks of bamboo six inches in diameter, chestnut trees, peach trees, and vines of bitter melon. He showed me a fruit that's used by local villagers to make oil for lamps if they don't have electricity.
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?"
In other news, after returning from my hike and taking a long (and blessedly hot) shower, I ate the most incredible kiwi I have ever tasted in my life. I had no idea kiwis could even be that deliciously good.
Tomorrow, Alexy and I are heading to Guiyang to see if we can't sort out my work visa issues, of which there are many. No work visa = no pay check, so I'd like to get that fixed sooner than later. Then I can buy as many kiwis as I want...
So far the most common question I get about my life here is, "What are you eating??" If you've seen my Facebook page recently, you know I'm on the chicken feet and various other animal part fad diet, which turns out is very good for the feminine waistline. But here are some images to satisfy the more curious of you out there.
The Good: Breakfast noodles at my favorite noodle shop. The owner may or may not know my name.
The Bad: A restaurant outside of Libo County that specializes in "Whole Animal Hot Pot." Don't let it's faux wooden interior and harmless-looking soup fool you. That soup will be full of beef entrails, chicken livers, and who knows what else in a mere matter of minutes. I've already eaten there twice, and let me tell you what the result is every time: I am force-fed Chinese grain alcohol and end up eating the entire plate of garlic green beans as my meal.
The Ugly: Duck tongues. This, my dear friends, is the Chinese version of a midnight burger run after drinking too much.
You asked to see it. Don't blame me if you lose your appetite. Actually, maybe the fad diet works by proxy, too! Look at this picture, and then go have dinner. I bet you'll eat less.
But enough about the food! Onto more palatable topics. One thing I don't have to worry about is accidentally being fed dog. The Chinese people here LOVE dogs and most of them have at least one as a pet. Here's a picture of Alexy with his cousin's boss's brother's puppy. A-dorable. Her name is Amei (Ah-May) and she stole my heart right away.
Last weekend, a friend I met on the Governor's Trade Mission last November came to visit me in Libo. It was a lot of fun playing tourist in my own city, and though I'd been to all the places before, the beauty of my new home never ceases to amaze me. 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.)
Here's a picture of Chris and me on the river where (some day) our Tracker pontoon boats will reside.
And here's Alexy, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to relax...
After we went boating on the river, we drove to the site where the spa/villas/lavender field is to be located. Imagine my delight when I discovered the valley full of beautiful purple flowers! The flowers are not lavender, as it turns out, but the effect is pretty much the same.
We then went into the park, where we hiked to the natural bridge and waterfall. Here's a picture of me with one of the project engineers, who agreed to be our tour guide for the day. His favorite activity (besides chain smoking) is making fun of my Chinese by shouting something at me in dialect and then saying, "Do you understand?!" It's all in good fun, so I don't mind.
The highlight of the day was, by far, our decision to take the rowboats out onto the Mandarin Duck lake. The day was hot, and some of the other boaters had the idea of getting into a splash fight with us. Large wooden paddles can kick up some serious waves, so by the end of our trip around the lake, we were completely soaked. We had attacked plenty of boats, though, and felt good that most of the other boaters were wet, too.
Yep, you guessed it. I'm back in China.
Getting here was an adventure in and of itself, as I had two very overweight checked bags, a rolling carry-on, and a back-breaking backpack that had my shoulders in knots before I even reached Chicago. But I haven't been working out all summer for nothing! Somehow, I managed to survive three flights, four car rides, and two long trips on the subway with my unwieldy bags, and all five of us made it to Libo in one (aching) piece.
I spent two nights in Hong Kong, though my jetlag was so bad that I only managed to check off one item on the "Must See" list. The first morning I was there, I woke up very early and took the tram to the top of Victoria Peak. At 7:30 am, a would-be chaotic mess of tourists was a peaceful, misty mountaintop, empty but for a few locals walking their dogs. I explored the area, blissfully free of shouty peddlers or the thick, wet heat of midday.
When I arrived in Guiyang, my Chinese assistant, Alexy, and I were picked up in the company car at the airport and driven nearly four hours to Libo. After setting up camp at a hotel nearby, we headed to the office for dinner.
Fun fact about my life in China: My office is on the third floor of our office building. My bedroom (as of yesterday) is on the fifth floor. And the dining room, where I take nearly all of my meals with my colleagues, is on the seventh floor. I literally live at the office. (There is no elevator, by the way. By December, my newly defined quads will thank me.)
On weekends, the office cook doesn't always serve meals, and attendance if she does isn't mandatory. So my dear friend Big Mountain, whom you may have read about in earlier posts, has invited me to eat with his family instead. Our arrangement is this: I can go to his house every weekend for dinner, as long as I help his five-year-old daughter learn English.
This is an excellent trade for me. Not only do I get to hang out with Big Mountain's adorable daughter, Qiuyu (chee-OH-yew, meaning "Autumn Rain"):
but I also get to eat the most delicious Chinese food on the face of the earth:
Awesome or what?!
(Clockwise from upper left: homemade sausages, cucumbers in hot peppers and vinegar, boiled lettuce (better than it sounds), Chinese-style steamed rolls, extra hot pepper sauce, eggplant, bamboo chute stir-fry, edamame, green beans with pork and tomatoes, taro root with pork belly and tomatoes, fish in hot pepper sauce.)
On Saturday we didn't have to go to work, so Alexy and I set out to explore our new home. Before we left, I presented him with a Bass Pro Shops t-shirt, which he promptly put on with excitement:
We made our way around the city, avoiding the occasional speeding moped or angry taxi driver. 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.
We chatted as we meandered our way across a bridge and into a park teeming with lush palm trees and sweet-smelling flowering bushes. I discovered that Alexy's favorite movie is Lord of the Rings, and that to practice his English, he memorized the famous speech given by Elrond ("Strangers from distant lands, friends of old, you have been summoned here to answer the threat of Mordor..."). This explains his occasionally strange, archaic choices in vocabulary, but actually makes me even happier that I chose to hire him.
My room on the fifth floor of the office building is surprisingly spacious, and even has a working air conditioner. It does have a few quirks; for example, no electricity and a broken shower. No matter! This morning I went down two flights of stairs to my office, where I could charge my phone and wash my hair. (Yes, my office has a shower in it. Be jealous! Though I should warn you that the water smells like a lake and there is a family of spiders living in one corner. But there is running water, and by the time I was done it was even getting warm.)
While I was writing this, the office secretary and jack of all trades came in to announce that my light has been fixed and the shower now works. Huzzah!
Usually, I take my meals in the "fancy" dining room with the rest of upper management, which has air conditioning and a rotating table, not to mention chairs instead of buckets to sit on. And yes, I said upper management. Today, someone hung a shiny plaque on my door that says "Vice President" (in Chinese of course). Only in China could I secure myself such a ridiculous title at age twenty-four.
However, there's something to be said for eating with the rest of the staff, who are all much closer in age to me. On Saturday, Alexy and I ate lunch with them (since upper management had the day off, and I had just moved my things into my room at the office building). The food is more or less the same, just fewer dishes which are served in tin bowls instead of china ones. Sitting around talking with people my own age, I got a glimpse of my future here, and it does include friends after all. One of my colleagues offered to teach me to play Mah Jong, and after I taught Alexy how to play Gin Rummy yesterday, he's decided he will teach me the famous Chinese card game, "Beat the Landlord." It requires at least three players, though, so we'll have to recruit one of my future friends for the task.
While Saturday was a day off, Sunday has proven to be a much more exciting day at the office. Upper management held a lunch meeting to prepare for the return of the CEO this evening, who has been in Beijing for some days. As I actively contributed (in Chinese, with frequent help from Alexy) to the discussion of our marina plans and the American architect's visit coming up next week, I had to concentrate on stifling the huge grin that kept threatening to surface on my face. I'm finally doing it, I thought to myself. I am working in China. I am conducting business in Chinese.
And it's only Day 1.
I could write beautiful, descriptive lines about the mountainous landscape of Libo, the emerald valleys dotted with thatched granaries and the occasional water buffalo, the terraced rice paddies that are thousands of years old, or the green and blue color of the water that is unlike anything I've ever seen before.
But that would be a lot of work, and you still wouldn't really get it. These pictures should help you understand a bit more clearly how breathtaking this area of China is, but a trip there to see it yourself would be better . . .
The entrance to the Tianhong cave:
Bizarre stalactite formations at another entrance to the cave:
Big Mountain explained to us that the stalactites point away from the cave for a simple reason: They have plants growing on them, and the plants naturally grow toward the sun. Over millions of years, the rock itself has thus shifted direction.
Traditional wooden house in Libo:
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!
The internet connection here is pretty shoddy, so for those of you waiting for pictures of Libo, I'm posting these right away! I'll go back and fill in with the details later.
On the drive from Guiyang to Libo: