There are just . . . so many options here. It's overwhelming.
I went out for lunch with my colleagues the other day and couldn't resist snapping some photos of the menu for your viewing pleasure.
There are just . . . so many options here. It's overwhelming.
Below is the long-awaited, much sought-after, first-ever GUEST POST (!!!) from my friend Meredith, who came to visit me approximately one million months ago and has just now given me her spiel on the adventure. I am so excited to share this with you, and so is she! With only very minor edits (and the addition of pictures) and without further ado . . .
Hey, remember that rainy, lingering winter month way back when… you know, the one we all wish we could just remove from the calendar? February. Yes that one. Sorry if you wanted to forget that month, because I’m about to take us back there. But it’s going to be great. I promise.
Before transporting us back to February, I want to say: Hi! My name is Meredith Freeman. A trained eye may have noticed that the opening phrase was probably syntactically deviant from Kaci’s beautiful writing style. That’s because … it was. It was my personal crazy phrasing that Kaci has graciously allowed me to spew on her brilliant blog. So before I start spewing I want to say thank you, Kaci, for this gift. It is truly an honor to blog on behalf of one of my favorite writers and dearest friends. I can only hope and pray that my words do this honor justice.
And actually, let’s begin by discussing this blog. Kaci’s blog that is. The picture-filled adventure book full of witty remarks and brilliant descriptions of strange foods, new faces, fireworks, pig's blood, costumes, and all of the other shenanigans that illustrate life as the only foreigner in her corner of the world.
I read Kaci’s blog as anyone who has not actually experienced any of this chaos would: Amused, engaged, curious, impressed. But as I sit in my comfy real-people sized western chair and scroll through her photography while sipping some afternoon coffee in a warm office, I now know that my amusement is slightly detached. I’m reading about KACI, without really understanding her WORLD, because her world and her words are SO foreign that they feel as if they only exist on paper and in cool photography.
Well friends, I’m here to tell you that THIS SHIT IS REAL. All of it. Kaci is a real life bad ass and she not only ate the crazy food she was blogging about, she EATS that food. Present tense. In her real life. Every day. Without a break for pancakes or coffee or even toast! Ever.
She REALLY speaks Mandarin, and can read road signs which have NO phonetic or logical basis whatsoever. Her face is REALLY on posters all over her city. And she REALLY runs a business and manages people that are so culturally different that even the way they think and problem solve is FUNDAMENTALLY different than anything we have ever known. And she does it all without a warm shower. (Most of the time.)
So this is the title and the subject of my blog: KACI LIVES IN CHINA. THIS SHIT IS REAL. And I apologize in advance for some of the four letter words. It really is the only way to convey the depth of my amazement at all of it: Kaci’s life, the lack of safety regulations, the food, the people, the pollution, the cab drivers, the massages, the boiled water that had me sick for an entire month after returning … All of it.
So grab yourself a nice Western snack and settle in, because you’re in for a wild blog ride.
Confucius Say: You can sleep when you’re dead (and other sacrifices we make for progress).
While this mini-chapter title might imply some wild story about our arrival adventures and the planes/trains/ automobiles required to get us to Libo on our first night (and trust me, there was much in those first 24 travel hours that was blog-worthy)…that is not actually what this chapter is about. This chapter category is really called “What we sacrifice for the sake of progress”. Subtitle: “comfort schmomfort,” “warmth is for wusses”, or “the toilet is out back, and this floor is cement, but smile! Let me take a picture of you with my iPad and then my extremely expensive Canon camera … and don’t mind the rooster walking in the hallway as you walk out”.
We as Americans make sacrifices for the things we care about--Sleep for fun, sleep for progress, almost anything (sleep, quality, quantity) for convenience—and we don’t think twice about it. Our highest values are can I get what I want, when I want it? And we want a lot of things. I want a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. I want food right now. Not just food—I want ice cream. No, Thai Food. Ehhhh.. Maybe pizza. Doesn’t matter—we can get it. Even if it’s midnight. Where there is a will there is always a way.
Some might call this the pinnacle of progress. We have secured all things that are necessary—life, liberty, housing, cars, —and we can now focus on the pursuit of happiness. We have become SO efficient in our pursuit of progress that we can focus not only on production, but quality and worker safety, and convenience, and things like…building tree houses in work places to promote creativity. Like I said…Pinnacles of progress.
But our journey to get here was a long and dirty and polluted one. To illustrate this point, let’s play a game. Close your eyes, and imagine a scene out of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. If you haven’t read it (or haven’t read it since you didn’t actually read it in 7th grade American History), here is an excerpt:
"Jurgis heard of these things little by little, in the gossip of those who were obliged to perpetrate them. It seemed as if every time you met a person from a new department, you heard of new swindles and new crimes. There was, for instance, a Lithuanian who was a cattle-butcher for the plant where Marija had worked, which killed meat for canning only; and to hear this man describe the animals which came to his place would have been worth while for a Dante or a Zola. It seemed that they must have agencies all over the country, to hunt out old and crippled and diseased cattle to be canned. There were cattle which had been fed on “whiskey-malt,” the refuse of the breweries, and had become what the men called “steerly”—which means covered with boils. It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face; and when a man’s sleeves were smeared with blood, and his hands steeped in it, how was he ever to wipe his face, or to clear his eyes so that he could see? It was stuff such as this that made the “embalmed beef” that had killed several times as many United States soldiers as all the bullets of the Spaniards; only the army beef, besides, was not fresh canned, it was old stuff that had been lying for years in the cellars."
Yup. That filth was America. Oh how far we’ve come.
So somehow you were able to read that last paragraph with your eyes closed (see instruction #1) … so I know you are all cheating and have your eyes open now. SO NOW … close your eyes again and imagine living in filthy, stinky, industrializing New York City during the time of Gangs of New York. Where things like plumbing and heat and private space were luxuries. Where out-houses were common place and all of these foreign people who just arrived in this strange land from their home countries were cooking all of their crazy nonsense in their small crowded kitchens, and the smell of their Old Country cuisine permeates through their crowded, shantily built quarters in one very consolidated industrializing area with pollution rising from the factories where they all work across the river. Comfortable, right? But hey—it’s progress!
Okay, so is this image burned into your brain? Okay…good. Now place Kaci in that image. In the rainy cloudiness of February. In a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, with foreign people, eating chicken feet. Image burned into your brain? Good.
And like all good stories I begin and end with a phrase. KACI REALLY LIVES IN CHINA. THIS SHIT IS REAL. But now I hope that that sentence gives you as jaw dropping a sense of awe as it does me. Kaci, dearest, I applaud you. You have managed to become a real life rock star—complete with posters and billboards all over town with your face on them—and you are RUNNING A BUSINESS in an extremely foreign, and extremely dirty country. All without warm water. Dang girl, dang. I am so proud of you. And I hope you, dear readers, are proud too.
To Kaci! Gan'bei!!
Below are some more pictures of Meredith's adventure in China. Thanks for the awesome (and very flattering!) blog post, Mere! You're welcome back in China any time ... if you dare ...
Monkeying around in the park:
Exploring the Forest on Water:
Learning to play mah jong:
Ringing in the new year with China's favorite invention:
Enjoying a relaxing evening at the spa, complete with silly pajamas:
Hitching a ride from the friendly Libo cops:
Getting ready for yet another breakfast of champions:
It was great to have you here, Meredith! You should come back now that it's 90 degrees and 100% humidity--you won't have to complain of the cold at least! And we have hot water almost all the time!
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."
Hello, my name is Kaci. My parents have a hard time keeping me at home.