The PHT Protests

21 09 2012

Hordes of angry protestors gathered late Saturday morning outside of a Changsha department store to protest the spread of mass consumerism in an increasingly materialistic and money-hungry society. Wait… no, I got that wrong, it’s about the Diaoyu Islands, again. Less than a month after the Dongtang Pinghetang experienced a similar but smaller protest, the Wuyi Square location of the Japanese owned department store received the brunt of anti-Japanese sentiment. It’s difficult to understand why they crowd turned violent and ended up destroying the gates and doors of the store. The store, although a Japanese trademark, is run by Chinese. The police also were targeted simply because they were attempting to curb the senseless destruction of private property. One police car was flipped over by a group of protesters after being stomped on repeatedly. Further up Wuyi, a Toyota was also turned on its side. This was one of the numerous cars targeted because of its Japanese branding—never mind that it belonged to a Chinese person.

From my office window, I observed the frontlines of the protesters force their way up and down the main road. Several over-zealous protesters were beaten and detained by policemen. Once the riot police and MPs were deployed, they effectively moved the crowd down Wuyi road, the main avenue of the city, eventually allowing for the free-flow of traffic to resume.

For three days the area around the store was on total lock-down. Two sets of barricades lined by riot police with shields and batons separated the crowds from the building that was the target of their rage. These were my checkpoints on my way to work. Over the loudspeakers blared a message to protest peacefully and no to damage public and private property. Everyone must exercise love and respect for their country and not turn to violence.

Three days later, on September the 18th, the anniversary of the Manchurian Incident, parades of Chinese waving red flags and motorcades of electric bikes filled the main avenues of the city. The general feel was one of mixed emotions. It could just as well have been a celebration of an unlikely Chinese world cup victory. Many of the onlookers (and even the protesters themselves) were simply drawn in by the crowd. This day of great national shame became a mixed bag of nationalist fervor, xenophobia, personal desperation, and simple curiosity.

All this anger and out-rage seems to have missed its target (or targets). In the end, those that suffered most were Chinese businesses and Chinese people trying to get to and from work. The only ones injured were Chinese citizens, police officers, and soldiers. It is understandable why this anti-Japanese protest was tolerated by the government, but what did it prove and what did the protestors hope to accomplish? Was it simply a good way to get together and vent public anger, or was there a broader goal to it all?

The government’s sanction of these public protests is a bit shortsighted. This October and November, the central government will be completely reshuffled. Older party-members will be replaced by fresh meat in the Communist Party’s Politburo. It’s clear that they don’t want to redirect public anger towards themselves with a violent crackdown on protesters. As long as Japan is the official target, things are ok—so long as Japan is the target. For many angry protesters, or “criminals” as some officials dubbed them, Japan might be nothing more than a scapegoat for more deep-rooted contempt. Japanese hatred has long been accepted and even condoned by the government. It is possible, however that of the thousands of protesters that turned up in major cities all over the country, some were not there to trumpet their new-found nationalism. Some might have just been looking for a way to show their anger towards their plight in life. Now that they have gathered again in numbers and spoken their minds with force, who’s to say when and for what reason the next public demonstration on this scale will occur and how it will be dealt with.





Changsha: Redux

21 08 2012

Morning to Night: 4 months, 3 weeks

Down the 19th floors in the over-cramped elevators filled with silence other than the disgusting sound of 3 men chewing betel nut as loud as they possible can. I’m leaving my office / temporary hovel in the back for the 15 minutes worth of lunch i’ve afforded myself. The heat outside grabs ahold of you like a straightjacket. The dust today is choking. There is literally a km square area that has been totally razed for two of the largest construction projects in the province’s history. The brand new subway system, which one day promises to link the tri-city area, and what is rumored to be the largest mall in Hunan and perhaps the entire region. The sound of industry is ceaseless, as construct here continues in shifts 24-hours a day. Workers here are paid by the job, not the hour, so its to their advantage to power through the day and night in shifts. At night the area glows with the hot white of the blow torches, a universe of stars blinking in and out of existence. I’m immediately caught in the flow, like a cell slipping into the next artery. Across the street crowded with impatient drivers and distracted pedestrians. Past the mother with the burn-victim infant who breathes out of a button for a nose. I barely have time to react. Then comes the armless calligraphist, and the blind musician who looks like a depressing, Chinese version of Dick Van Dyke in Marry Poppins–strung up with little cymbals and clappers he triggers with his feet while playing a large erhu (a type of bridgeless Chinese violin). At the end of the row there is a man drawing replicas of the Mona Lisa in neon chalk on the sidewalk. I turn the corner around the construction barricade wall, and there is a man patiently kneeling, with no obvious disabilities, waiting for alms. Step up your game, man. The temporary housings span the entire wall. Corrugated metal and plastic two-story buildings that will serve as the dwellings for the migrant construction workers who follow their jobs across the country, seldom returning home more than once a year. On the corner a starbucks, one of four or five that sprouted up in my absence. Next to that a burn victim belts out karaoke songs with a portable microphone and amplifier, one tuft of hair in a head that’s a desert of scar tissue. 

I pick up my pancake egg and bacon wrap (that’s the best way i can think to describe it) to go, a bottle of iced-coffee and it’s back through the swathe of late-morning shoppers, fruit vendors, beggars and construction workers. 15 minutes turns into 20-25-30. Nothing can be done quickly in China, yet everything is changing at blinding speed. The scarred surface of the city is simultaneous totally familiar and completely foreign. You could take a picture, but it would do you no good. The city has rebuilt itself countless times. I realize that i notice no substantial change in the character of the town because the norm is change. If it had stopped in its tracks, then i would’ve known something was different. The only thing relatively unchanged is the people, as warm and short-fused as ever.

This was my first reaction arriving almost five months ago now. Now, a little afterword from this evening.

Tonight, on my way home from work (I have since found an apartment outside the office), I emptied my pockets of change into the old erhu player’s bag. I did this not because the thin dissonant sounds were any less harsh on my ears than they were any other day, but because of what had happened just the night before. 24 hours earlier, in the exact same location, the chengguang–or “city management” officers–forcibly removed him, pulling him by his arms , over-turning his belongings and sending him off with a kick in the ass. “Disturbing public order,” and panhandling is what they accused him of, shouting slogans and hateful curses. And tonight, in the exact same location, the old man had retaken up his instrument, digging passionately into the two strings with that crude horsehair bow, defiant, swaying his head with the quick jolts of his elbows. No greater act of defiance, no greater declaration of personal freedom, no greater celebration of the free market, no louder cry for individual liberty could this humble old man on bent knee muster than doing the one thing he knows and begging alms for it. It’s good that at least someone took notice. “See you tomorrow,” I told him as i dropped the money into his case.

Image

There Goes the Neighborhood.





China 2?

11 01 2012

There are some rumors circulating vis-a-vis this blog and the suspicion that it is soon to come out of retirement. I can not affirm or deny any of this hearsay at this time.





Guizhou as I remember it

27 08 2010

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To be honest, it’s been five weeks since I left Guizhou province in southwestern China. When I first arrived home from my year abroad, I got a bit distracted with rehabituation to American culture in all of its lavish decadence. But the photos haven’t changed and I hope I can give a fair idea of my time there in the few words to follow.

My first impressions of the province were misleading to say the least. I arrived by train 12 hours after leaving Changsha to find myself in the capital Guiyang, which turned out to be one of the most expensive cities in Western China. The province, with a population that averages the poorest in China, has been the target of extensive government investment to develop it as a transportation hub in the Southwest. The ridiculous irony is that it was by far the most tedious and slow-paced travel I have experienced thus far, the worst of which culminated in a nine-and-a-half hour bus ride that took me the 200-kilometer trip between Leishan and Congjiang.  This investment has apparently hugely inflated the price of living in the capital, which is so much more new and sparkling than the city I’ve been living in. Needless to say, I wasn’t all that interested in taking pictures of it. However I did meet a much smaller but very friendly expat community that seemed to consist of maybe a dozen students and teachers from the U.S., U.K., and Africa.

From Guiyang, my first stop were the falls outside of Anshun. This place was the final straw. I will never again visit any hyped-up, commercialized, and over-visited Chinese tourist trap. The crowds, the prices, the short-tempered condescension (however understandable) of those employed there… enough said. My room in Anshun was quite the opposite. I paid the equivalent of $2.94 for one night and the family who ran this dirty little guesthouse was incredible warm and welcoming.

Anshun – Kaili – Xijiang:

Xijiang was a Miao minority village in the Southeast of the province. I think the photos pretty much speak for themselves. I spent most of my time there wandering for hours in the rice paddies. I noticed curiously that the paddies, which were drowned in water at this point in the rice cultivation season, had large fish hitting the surface. I spoke briefly with a farmer tending his plot and he communicated to me through both simple Chinese phrases and characters written in water on stones, that these fish were raised here and later harvested along with the rice when the paddies were drained in the fall. They have been farming in this way for hundreds of years, cultivating two crops in the same plot by a totally sustainable means. There is something for us to learn here.

Xijian – Leishan – Congjiang:

Help from a nice girl on the bus over who I struck up a conversation with was the only way I would have ever made the bus in Leishan, which picked me up, with no seats to spare, on the side of some random road. I already told you how long this trip took because of the quality (or rather lack of completion) of the road to Congjiang, now you know how uncomfortable it was.

Just outside of Congjiang there was Miao village perched on the slope of a hill. None of the little wooden houses in the village had running water, very few had electricity, but there were a few with semi-functioning looking satellite dishes. The first floor of these homes housed the livestock, and the second the families. I was invited in by one of these families for lunch. They showed me the few photos of their family and fed me raw cucumbers. There, even those with nothing offered everything.

About two hours down the road towards Guangxi province, I visited the Dong village of Zhaoxing. The bus only took me as far as the next village over, the last 8 kilometers I did on foot. The most viscerally present memory of my time here was the meal I had. Niubie it was called, a Dong minority specialty [Niu meaning beef and bie translating confusingly and somewhat inaccurately as ‘shrunken’ or ‘shrivelled’]. It can only be described as sliced beef and young celery shoots cooked in what smelled and looked like the semi-digested contents of a dyspeptic cow’s stomach. Adding a bitter, sour taste to the beef, the celery sprouts and tar-black cow stomach juices actually complimented each other well and seasoned the beef in a flavorful way.

Really, I spent so much time traveling, I had relatively little time to enjoy the sights. You earn your vacation in China, and for that reason, I enjoyed those places so much more. Relaxation is more holistic when you’ve been hassled by beggars, screwed around by would-be tour guides, misled by those who claim to be informed, and stuck on buses that crawl across pot-holed dirt roads for the majority of your travel time.

Congjiang – Guangzhou

On my 17-hour bus ride I had the chance to watch the sun rise and then set and then rise again. The landscape passed incessantly. The terraced mounds like the variegated shells of giant land tortoises, the limestone hills rising like listless sentinels as dark descended, each one engrossed in its own personal vigil. I passed through Guilin at dusk like a memory. The mountains began to take on a darker hue of the same shade as the sky. Everything appeared as a reflection on the window of the bus, the hills marching slowly by, the digital clock, the lady in the fetal position behind me. The temperature read 55 degrees in the window’s reflection, and for a moment, I lost sense of space and time. I woke at dawn in Guangzhou.

The last leg of the journey is still to come.





Handover

31 05 2010

This is what I leave my successor:

A few words of advice and some snapshots.

Dear next-generation volunteer,

I’m writing this letter without the assurance that my position will even exist next year, but since my position is a pretty unique one and it’s never been held before in this location (which is the reason I wasn’t so lucky as to have any kind of handover letter or prior warning as to what I’d be doing), I think this will be valuable in aiding your hopefully smooth adjustment to this environment and this work. So without further a due…

The Apartment

Let’s see, where to begin… Well I’ll start with the living quarters, which are very simple and we can get out of the way immediately.

You’ll be living on the first floor of the “Foreign Teachers Building,” which houses you, one other foreign teacher, and basically the entire Chinese staff and faculty of Changjun middle school. Don’t ask me why it’s called what it is. My first strong warning to you is, since it is the first floor, and since most of the schools garbage is dumped directly outside the back entrance to the building, if you don’t keep your rooms clean and free of food waste, the rats will come. The rats keep to themselves mostly but, even so, it’s best you keep them out of your place—they are not clean houseguests. When you leave for spring festival, make sure you leave an immaculate house. I learned that lesson the hard way.  There are a couple of places where I believe they come from. The first is a basketball size whole where the piping from the sink in your washroom goes into the wall. The second is the same room’s squat toilet, which will be used as the run-off for your small and ineffectual washing machine. While I’m on the topic, there is no drier, so be prepared to wait three to four days for clothes to dry as they hang sopping and misshapen from a suspiciously high ‘drying pole’ (is the only way I can describe it).  There are also some ‘clothespin wheels with hooks’ (which is also the only way I can describe them) that I purchased and will be there for your use. The garbage is also the reason for the swarms of flies and mosquitoes that tend to linger in the hallways during the warmer months. That’s why I’m leaving you my trusty electrified tennis racket, but keep a can of Raid on you too.

You have two main rooms, one bathroom and a second bathroom, which was converted into a washroom. The school, realizing the apartments didn’t conform to Worldteach housing standards, clearly scrambled at the last minute and tore a whole in the wall between two separate apartments and put a door in. So you have a one bedroom and one bath and its mirror image. I have one room arranged as a bedroom and the other as a living area with TV, DVD player, two sofa seats and a coffee table. The floors are all tile and the walls are solid white, except for mosaics of splattered insects that the workmen left me (I did my best to remove as many as possible). The ceilings are probably 13 or 14 feet high, which means in winter there’s no hope for really heating the rooms with only the two small wall units that are there, and in summer they can get pretty hot (although the ACs do cool better than they heat). I would recommend getting additional heating for the rooms. What I did was purchase an electric blanket for about 180元, which is about 25 dollars American. This was by far the most intelligent purchase I made my entire time in China. The problem is, it doesn’t appear to be working to well right now, so you may need a new one. Anyways you’ll have an extra blanket to keep warm with. I purchased to medium sized rugs as well that should hopefully be there when you arrive. In the bedroom there is a desk, a bed that’s somewhere between a single and a twin, a desk (that’s actually quite nice) and chair, and a large closet. There is no kitchen and no counter-space, so what I did was I borrowed a couple of unused student desks and covered them with a cheap tablecloth. Although you have no kitchen you will have a decent-sized fridge, a microwave, a hotplate, a water dispenser (I would probably stick to bottled water), and I strangely useless contraption that does nothing more than superheat your dishes. Some volunteers got creative with these and were able to actually bake in them. Baked goods aren’t my specialty so I never tried, but it’s an idea. I will be leaving a very limited selection of kitchen supplies (as follows):

  • Cutting board
  • Butcher knife and a couple of other knives
  • Two soup bowls and corresponding spoons
  • Two plates
  • Three glasses
  • Set of wooden chopsticks
  • Wok
  • Shallow pot (for boiling water)
  • Two metal stands for hot dishes
  • Daisy Duck mug (purchased for me by my liaison for Christmas from the Disney Store)

On lazy summer afternoons, the workers will start trash fires out behind the building you will be living in. I suggest keeping your doors and windows closed at these times. Seriously though, its not all bad, you have all the privacy you want and at the same time you can open your door to students anytime. Just make sure they are aware that your space is your own. Sometimes a student, with a slightly different concept of what is and isn’t intrusion and harassment, will knock on your door ceaselessly at 7 am on a Saturday to go with him and his friends to an overcrowded theme park for his birthday. If this happens, politely make it understood that students are only allowed over when you give them permission and with prior agreement. Once this is clear, they are very respectful. Your neighbors can be a little loud at times also, but you only hear them when they are in the halls. Although the solid concrete walls are terrible at temperature regulation, they are good for one thing, and that’s keeping rooms relatively soundproof. Also, chances are they will be getting up far earlier and working far longer hours than you, so past 10:30 or 11 on weeknights, the building is silent.

You are surrounded by high-rise apartment building construction sights on three of four sides. They can be pretty noisy, but generally before too late, they quite down (although they never seem to stop working completely). And, whether or not you have your alarm set early, chances are at least a couple mornings a week, the tremendous explosions of fireworks that seem to be going off outside your window will start up (for some unknown reason) at 7 or 8 in the morning. These flares of pyromaniacal celebration can happen at anytime indiscriminately, so be wary.

The Neighborhood

Knowing China as well as an outsider who’s lived here for twelve months possibly can, this could very well change drastically between the time I leave and you arrive, but I will tell my experience. In terms of neighborhood, there really isn’t one. Not one you will be able to really explore well enough on foot. It is a very new area of the city with broad empty boulevards and construction sites springing up everywhere. There are still very few residents, it seems. If you go towards the river until you can go no further, make a right and then a left on a road that passages under a sort of archway, there is a nice farmers market where you can buy anything from fresh vegetables and fruits to dog meat and duck heads. I go there pretty often for fresh fruit and also a nice woman who sells a Chinese version of peanut brittle that will rot your teeth and leave you craving more. The end of the line for the 6 Bus is over one block from the school, and that bus will take you right into the heart of the city center for 1 or 2元. I had a second-hand electric scooter for most of my time in Changsha, so that made it convenient to explore the vast expanses of this area of town. If you don’t, it might feel a little bit distant and unwelcoming at times. On the upside, the air is markedly fresher at this distance from downtown, and the once you’ve been around the hustle and bustle of Walking Street long enough, you’ll appreciate the peace and quiet too.

The school provides you with free meals all week long and a card with 200元 every month that you can use at the school store. So even though your location is a bit out of the way, you can survive quite well without leaving until the weekend. But I still strongly urge that you get out as often as possible.

The School

You are going to get an earful about this during orientation also, but let me give you a little advanced notice. You need to be assertive about problems and needs with your liaisons. Song is delightful and always willing to help, but you perhaps will need to remind her several times before something is done. Hershey is perhaps quicker to answer the phone but less immediate and warm in personality. She is a beast though when it comes to getting forms through and passport/visa issues dealt with. Together I’d say they make a pretty good team. Just don’t expect them to come to you and ask you what you might need today or if you’ve been having any problems. As willing as they are to help, there are busy and they wont go out of their way to see if there’s an off chance that something is troubling you. Be vocal about what you need.

Most of my teaching effort is dedicated to the incredible small ‘International Department’ within Changjun Bilingual School. That means four days out of five I teach two classes worth of students (one group of Senior 1s and one group of Senior 2s). In addition, the groups are quite small. The senior 2s are only about 24 (it fluctuated) and the Senior 1s only nine. Next year, many if not all the senior 2s will have graduated and there will be (I assume) a new crop of senior 1s. This is as of yet unclear. At times my liaisons would speak of rumors that the international program would not continue after my year, but it’s impossible to say what will really happen. This means a lot more of my time goes towards lesson planning than actual teaching. I had about 14 hours a week at most points. About four to five hours for each group of seniors, and one day a week I would teach junior 1s in the normal school for four periods. That means that you have to plan a good eight lessons a week. So that I wasn’t overwhelmed, I’d often plan extended lessons for one group because many my classes were back-to-back periods. I would also usually ‘scaffold’ down or up one group’s lesson to meet the needs of the second, thereby reusing a lot of the material. Also, I would often teach from the IELTS Exam prep book on one or two days a week and then create my own lessons that tied into what they were practicing in IELTS on the other days. This also took off a lot of the weight of being continuously creative with lesson ideas eight times each week.

Now to the most important issue regarded the international department. The International Department is in almost all ways a complete misnomer. The ability of students in your classes will range from the most basic beginner to advanced levels of English knowledge. Some students are fantastic; others in the very same class seem to have just begun studying English. The idea behind this entire program is that this school will be sending all of these students to schools to English-speaking countries by the time they enter college. You will quickly realize that this will happen only for a very select few. This can be a huge challenge during both the lesson planning phase and the actual lesson time. I hope orientation will prepare you well enough for this, but chances are it won’t. All I can say is don’t let it get to you too much. Come to terms with it and find some way you can reach each kid at least once or twice during each lesson. The nice thing is you will have a lot (I mean a lot) of time with each student because of how the schedule is set up and how few of them there are. It will be overwhelming at first, but I have faith that you will adapt to it in no time.

Another important thing: You will realize eventually that most ways, this department has become largely a dumping ground for the children of very wealthy and influential people. Changjun has one if not the highest reputation of any school in Hunan. They know this, and they also know that many of their kids (who could care less about school) would never be admitted into the regular program. Somehow, as if by magic, they are admitted here for you to struggle with. If you feel at times that you are merely a piece of the façade that is this program, just relax and go with it.

There are some really good things about this placement, don’t get me wrong. One of the beautiful things about being the IELTS oral instructor for this program is you have a lot of say about what you teach and when you teach and you can really develop strong relationships with many of the students. Those students that I failed with time and time again in the classroom turned out to be tremendously friendly and generous outside of class. I found that it was in those moments outside of class (whether it was hotpot dinner or on the basketball court) that I really got through to those same students who would give me so much trouble in the classroom. You will have a handful of truly brilliant students also and it’s incredibly satisfying to have even a few who are right there with you the whole time during class. I couldn’t shake some of them if I tried.

One quick point: If you have a student that’s giving you a hard time (and undoubtedly you will at some point), take them to the teacher’s office and have one of the Chinese teachers duke it out with them. You will be dealing with some very spoiled kids. Chances are you wont have all of their attention at all times, and sometimes they may give you lip. Address it up to a certain point. Then, turn it over to their head teachers. Don’t let it get to you.

A Little on the City & Surroundings

You will have a tremendous amount of free time here. Spend it wisely. I had three-day weekends during the second part of the second semester. This allowed me to take a lot of memorable trips around the province and to neighboring ones. These were some of my best experiences and I strongly recommend that you do the same with any chance you get.

Changsha is a huge city and you will feel like you are on the remote outskirts of it. Don’t let this discourage you. It’s important to get into town as much as possible and the 6 Bus is perfect for that. There is a tremendous amount to do in this massive city, which is the reason I elected to be here. Live music at 4698 Bar is a great idea on weekend nights. The clubs, bars and restaurants of jiefangxilu, taipingjie, and hualongchi can also be a lot of fun. The computer market near the train station is a city of discounted hardware and software that costs next to nothing. Yuelu ‘mountain’ (foothill), which is relatively close to where you will be on the west side, is also a really pleasant (although often crowded) place to go on a stroll and to poke your head out of the smog for a couple hours. Really, I could go on and on about what there is to do, but the best way is for you to figure it out for yourself. I bought a second-hand electric bike for about 1400元 (about U.S. 200) soon after I arrived. Precisely because I am a ways out of the center—but not too far—this was absolutely crucial to me. I became dependent on it, and when it was stolen, I dreaded taking the bus. If you are brave (because it is pretty dangerous, you will soon realize, as you watch in awe the way people drive in this city), it is a blast and incredibly useful. With a scooter, traffic is no longer and obstacle, but the weather is doubly so. With the amount it rains in Changsha, be sure to bring plenty of rain gear.

To finish up, I’ll leave you with a quick list of things that I consider absolutely necessary to bring:

  • Rain gear
  • Deodorant
  • Pepto
  • Medicine you can read and understand (because you wont find it here)
  • All the clothes you’ll wear while here
  • Coffee (if you drink it. You can find it hear, but is uncommon and expensive.)
  • BOOKS (no English-language books in Changsha)
  • Trinkets from America for your students

The rest of the things will be in your orientation materials or is already fairly obvious.

I do wish you the best of luck. If you listen to anything at all in my letter, listen to this: for all I negativity I spewed on Changsha about and all the crap I gave my placement site, I absolutely loved the time I spent here. So will you.

All the best,

Leo B. Carter





张家界

19 05 2010

Zhangjiajie

Resting against his walking stick in one hand, and curling his long white beard around the index finger of the other, the philosopher and poet is at a loss for words. He simply stares. He has taken up residence here, under these heavenly spires that gouge holes in the rain clouds, the tips of which seem forever shrouded in mist and the dull white light behind them. He is a hermit. China is not yet China, but a series of boundaries and battle fronts, as of yet with out a true sense of itself. It is divided by several hundred different dialects and as many different cultures and ways of life. This man now wanders from Tujia village to Miao village, preferring solitude in the deep recesses and narrow canyons of this corner of the world. With rainwater he writes characters on the steep sandstone walls; the brushstrokes are rough but determined over the jagged surfaces. In other areas he chisels a more permanent mark on a pillar more than three thousand feet tall, inscribing it with red paint. Because he cannot describe them sufficiently, he gives them each names, sometimes spending hours deciding on the perfect characters. It is not just a word he is choosing, but an image, and idea a unique identity captured only by a unique set of characters never used before and never to be used again: 天外来客 “tianwai laike…” Roughly translated, this means “Visitor from beyond the sky.”

I look out at the vast expanse, my mind just as vacant as I had hoped it would be, looking and looking and finally thinking: “What?” I realized I felt just as I did when I used to sit on those old wooden recliners on the terrace of my Grandmother’s home in Italy staring up at the night sky wondering: “What the hell were the Greeks thinking?” All those years ago, they gave names to each pattern of stars in the sky. Some overlapping, reusing stars from previous constellations to draw up images (multi-headed serpents, centaurs, lions), that to many of us today seem absurd. Well, we know now the Ptolemy got some things wrong, but that’s not the point. Looking out at that expanse, the green so green it seemed worked over in Photoshop, the stone pillars balancing so precariously that they seemed they could fall at any minute, and yet there they stand and have stood for millions of years… you see what you want to see and that’s exactly what is so profound about a view like that. It clears your mind and takes over completely. In that moment, you are free thinking, a blank slate, your mind wanders without direction. The landscape impresses itself onto your brain, painting a picture for you because you can never hope to understand. You can only interpret, and you will inevitably lose something in translation.

My whole time at Zhangjiajie I stayed off the main paths. Even the constant rain barely had an impact on the influx of tourists (mainly Chinese and Korean) to the park that week. But for the two full days I was in the park I managed to avoid them almost completely. The paths I took were perhaps a little less ‘family friendly.’ Some of them were just slick stone and no handrail next to a thousand foot drop off, but I was as safe as I could be about it. Their air was the freshest I’ve breathed in a long time and my mind took a break from the thought pollution (which is only one of the many varieties) in Changsha.

Can you believe they still use these to carry lazy tourists up and down mountains?

Two full days of hiking up and down thousand foot staircases definitely took its toll, though.

If only my eyes could take pictures, you wouldn’t have to look at these…

Many thanks to the Romsas’ who were incredible hosts.

To all of you out there, visitors from interspace, One Love.





4698 Livehouse

19 04 2010

So, you might wonder what does one do on a rainy, foggy night in a place like Changsha. Aside from the clubs that recycle the same lowest of the low house and R&B tracks from the States and Europe, there’s actually quite a lot here to take advantage of. This is a city, as cliché as it sounds, that never sleeps. When I finally decide to call it at 4 in the morning, there is a fish and meat market open and crawling with farmers and shopkeepers with all the boisterous calling of a midmorning. It helps that the sky never really darkens here either. There is always a reddish-gray blanket of clouds and pollution that holds on to most of the light from the cities gaudy, brightly-lit buildings. Roadside food and drinking goes on well into the morning, and there are often few things that beat a hunk of deep-fried and blackened stinky tofu (臭豆腐) or flash-fried egg noodles (鸡蛋炒粉).  But I’m here to talk about the one safe haven of limited musical expression I have thus far found here.

4698 Livehouse is tucked away in the nook of a sordid and crumbling residential building, with a tiny sign that leads you up a flight of steps to an elevator that hardly runs.

Regardless, this is one of the only venues in central China that actually sees fairly well-known groups both from the mainland, and as far away as Europe and the States. The beer is the cheapest in the city and the bartender speaks excellent English, which is one of the reasons it has become something of an expat hang-out even on nights without shows. It is a breath of fresh air in a city where that is really a rare thing to come by.

Reflector (More or less a less-annoying Chinese Green Day)

Yakza - 'The First' Chinese Metal Band

A folk musician whose lead singer is his overweight cocker spaniel... i guess if it's good enough for youtube...

A mosh-pit in China is more like an over-zealous game of ring-around-the-rosie, where a few people fall down, but most of them are just at home and happy pushing against a mass of people.

It doesn’t matter that I would never fork over even the negligible cover (3 – 6 dollars) to see most of these bands if I were at home in the States. The fact that these bands exist and they are doing what they are doing in China for a strictly Chinese audience is something of a statement. It doesn’t matter that there sound is fairly derivative, a mixture of outside influences and popular culture that are arriving in China in a jumbled mass. Give it a few years and, once they sort it out, it will be undeniable that Chinese bands will have developed confidence in a sound that is uniquely there own. One band that performed at an Orange Island show incorporates a stage-full of traditional instruments—erhu (a two stringed instrument shaped like a narrow bamboo violin wrapped in snakeskin), pipa (a more ornate and complex guitar-like instrument) among many others—blending Chinese folk songs with metal guitars. Give it time, that’s all I say. All the greatest bands have taken as their starting ground the uniformity and restless repetition of the modern material lifestyle. What better place and time than here and now.

Raw pig brain and orchid - now, what could be more metal than that???

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OH RIGHT…

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I forgot.

Happy 4/20.