Wednesday, September 2, 2009

China Revisited

August 4, 2009
At the break of dawn this morning I got out of bed to urinate. It was still dark and I felt hot and sweaty in the Chinese forest temple where I had fallen asleep on the edge of a cot in front of an altar. The overwhelming scent of incense made my stomach turn. I groped my way toward a wisp of morning light around the altar stand that was cut into the side of a huge tree trunk. But I walked into a solid wall. I turned and headed in a different direction in the dark and unfamiliar maze. With my mounting bladder urgency I frantically sought a way to the outdoor. It would be really pleasant, I felt, to stand between the rows of corn in those lovely and well-tended farm plots we walked through in Michael’s home village and piss in the breeze. Or to relieve myself in that traditional outhouse in his grandfather’s yard that was so traditional that I had to take a picture of its seating arrangement. Hands extended before me I kept traipsing around and hitting tree trunks, locked doors, solid walls and massive statues in the strange temple. Till my hands fell upon a recognizable object, the buckle of my wide belt still threaded in a pair of jeans draped over the back of my imitation-leather office chair. What in the name of heaven is my office chair doing in this side shack of the Chinese temple? I had no recollection of taking my clothes off or of how I got into the temple in the first place. I suddenly realized that something unusual was happening. I felt my way back to the edge of the cot, sat down and summoned all my reserve analytical brainpower under the physiologic stress of the urge to empty my bladder: When I got out of the bed it was Michael, our Shanghai host, who was sharing the cot with me. I now reached over to wake him up and ask for his ever-ready assistance. My hand touched another familiar object, my wife’s buttock. She reeked of the Tiger Balm ointment she had applied to her aching knees challenged in the extreme only two days earlier by climbing down 1600 steps from a Taoist holy site followed by a walking tour of Confucius Temple compound. In a wakeful flash I suddenly realized where I actually was. I reached over, turned my bedside light on, and walked to the bathroom.

I had been sleepwalking in a vivid dream for the first time in my life. China had stirred me beyond reason.

On July 29, 2009, another strange event had taken place in the village of Dongmajia, in Zhaoyuan county of Shandong province. It will probably be remembered for years to come not only by Didi and me but also by over a hundred Chinese villagers. Judging by the way everyone in the village acted it must have been the most memorable thing that had ever happened there since the liberation of the region by the Red Army: A strange-looking foreign couple were the guests of honor at a wedding there. And we were that couple.

And two days later, on the evening of July 31, I was paid a great compliment: We were eating dinner at a restaurant in Zibo, a Chinese eatery maintaining the old regional rural culinary style and atmosphere. Pictures of all the communist big shots adorned the walls, from Engels and Marx through Chairman Mao and the six field marshals of the Liberation Army all the way down to the current presidency of China. We were hosted by the locals: the librarian sister of our primary host, her young teenage daughter, both with sufficient English fluency for basic communication, and her civil servant husband. I felt a certain intimacy with the pleasant mother and daughter team struggling to keep us engaged on subjects of food and family. They had presented us with a real China cup and saucer decorated with a classic motif. But what endeared the two to me more was the fact that the daughter had recently recovered from a bout of glumerulonephritis, a nasty and life-threatening disease, and the mother questioned me about the future prognosis for her girl. That put me back in my old benevolent caregiver mode where empathy with a mother concerned about her child counted at least as much as the medicines I prescribed.

Then my temporary emotional high was suddenly interrupted. The husband spoke no English and was deep in conversation with his brother-in-law. I was gnawing at the last morsel of the tendons on a knuckle I extracted from the donkey stew that we had ordered. (Sorry if that turns your stomach! Would it have been better to change the item to a lamb shoulder or to pig trotters? You either are a carnivore or not a carnivore; if you are, then the kind of carnie you devour is only of secondary importance.) Suddenly Michael turned to us and said:
“We are talking about you. My brother-in-law works in the city’s Department of Social Services. I have told him about the two of you. He says that their ministry gives an annual prize for individuals who set a good example of volunteerism and service to others. He thinks that he would have nominated you if you two were citizens of the country.”
He may have been just trying to humor us. But the sudden unsolicited praise caused the chopsticks in my hand to quiver and the bone to drop in my shirt pocket. How come no Israeli official has ever thought of that, I wondered? Had we belonged to the Chosen People we would certainly have been rewarded. Or if I were another Palestinian physician who had three of his children executed by the Israeli ‘Defense’ Forces and still blurted empty slogans of love and peace, I would certainly have been rewarded.

But this all happened in the second half of our second trip to China. First we visited the province of Yunnan where we started with a stop at Stone Forest.

Stone Forest, not far from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, is just that: a wild natural forest made out of rock. Not much can be added to the descriptive name in terms of a comment on the phenomenal outcropping of carstic rock that has been sculpted by natural forces and the flow of water over eons of years. The awe inspired by the scene forces one to fall back on the old cliché that a picture is better than a thousand words. And that is exactly what we did here and all along the three week trip; we took hundreds of pictures of natural scenery, of man-made edifices, of exotic and inspiring human forms and fashions, but above all of faces: faces of friends and acquaintances, faces of total strangers, of children and the aged, and of just about anyone we saw that had specially expressive features, faces shining with inner peace, trust and hope. And, of course, pictures of the two of us and of our beloved hosts, adding up together to the perfect three layered generational family package: Two children, their two parents and us, the adoptive or rather adopted grandparents. The Confucian tradition of filial piety and respect bordering on worship for one’s elders put us in the enviable position of demigods to whom the two younger generations in our group kowtowed and gave preference and primacy. Add to that the attentive care of the accompanying aunt of the family, attentive to every need of ours despite the absolute language barrier between us, who fits in the group rather well socially and chronologically, being of an age to be our daughter had we started procreating early, and you have a perfect setup for an enjoyable family vacation in the natural wonders of this beautiful region known to the Chinese as The Land of Eternal Spring.

This time around, our second visit to China, both times as guests of Michael and Limie Jiang, friends and former associates of our son, has a different flavor altogether. On our first visit our itinerary was planned as a sightseeing tour for visiting foreigners. This time we are joining the Jiangs on their holiday, seeing China as the Chinese see it. Originally the plan was to tour the more exotic Xinjiang but the outbreak of violent ethnic clashes in the region caused the travel agency to cancel all scheduled tours of the area for the summer. Our hosts switched their vacation destination to Yunnan and we followed suit. They must have taken our preference for rural environs into consideration for we wound up joining a busload of middle-class Shanghiese to a series of rural charming localities in Yunnan with a focus on the province’s exotic minority groups. The full exoticism of China having faded after our one-month long first tour, we were now looking at the matter as if through Chinese eyes, sharing our hosts’ experience and figuring things the way they do.

On the whole, most Chinese seem to deal with life as if they were totally neutral in terms of internal politics; The Communist Party runs the show and ‘we’ all trust in the ability of the leaders to make the right decisions. If political meddling is left alone, as it most certainly it was in the case of everyone we spoke to or associated with on this trip, China can be experienced as a most citizen-friendly system. For example, one is hardly aware of the existence of the traffic police. The speed and slalom-driving style of our bus driver combined with his minority ethnicity would have earned him a long rest in the slammer in an uptight legalistic system with ‘minority sensibilities’ like Israel’s. And at least on one occasion we associated socially with few village-level officials and they seemed like very decent people, not the sleaze balls they usually are in my community.

Yunnan had enough negative attributes to alienate me had I heard about it from a distance: Its financial prosperity derives mainly from its tobacco farming, a fact alone sufficient to dismay a public health hardliner like me. Add to that the indisputable fact that it is the world capital of mushrooms, the façade of many a house along our travel rout being decorated with murals of every shape and type of mushroom that exists from toadstools to the massive tree-leaf variety adorning the dilapidated trunks of old trees. Not that I have a gripe in principle with mushroom growing. It is rather a personal matter: It has taken me and my gastroenterologist colleague the better part of the last two years to discover the cause of my frequent intestinal obstruction-like attacks. Despite a most thorough work-up with multiple blood, urine and stool analysis and all the imaging procedures at the disposal of modern medicine requiring multiple technicians to assail my innards with their dredging equipment and contrast materials, the explanation remained a mystery. Till my village friend, Toufiq, overdid his hospitality routine with two cook-ups of a favorite dish of his, broccoli and mushrooms, and noticed that both times I started wreathing with intestinal colic an hour after the delicious meal. On further experimentation I confirmed his suspicion of a newly acquired sensitivity to mushrooms, formerly one of my favorite dishes, what with its zero calorie count and its old village romantic image as ‘the meat dish of the poor.’

And Yunnan has snakes, the curse that has inhabited my wife’s worst nightmares since ever she left snake-free Hawaii. Dali was the capital of a proud and separate nation from China till the Moguls conquered it some seven centuries ago. Today it is a major destination of internal tourism with a unique and engaging ambiance and a major Buddhist shrine, the Santasi (Three Pagoda) Temple. While stopping for a lunch break, we ventured to a visibly imposing old Pagoda, realizing that we lacked the time for a full visit to the Santasi Temple. Our taxi driver gave us the insiders’ scoop: It was named the Snake Pagoda in honor of the town’s legendary hero famed for ridding it of a massive snake that had menaced the farmers in the region for years, sacrificing his own life in the process. But with the dominance of the Three-Pagoda temple this one has fallen to disrepair and neglect. As we arrived to the out of-the-way compound the gate was barred with a length of bamboo pole which Michael pushed to the side. As we alighted from the car and headed to the abandoned structure at the far end of the enclosure, a woman we thought must be blind emerged from an equally ancient home to the side and came toward us swishing a long and thin bamboo stick on the surface of the ground overgrown with wild grass and bramble. She warned us not to go any further without the use of a similar stick; the grass was thoroughly infested with cobras. We beat a quick retreat.

In village after beautiful village in the green hilly countryside we came to appreciate the enviable Feng Shui geo-positioning of such communities with the requisite mountain behind it to the north, a river in front to the south and fertile fields on both sides. It is hard not to see the views as a series of brush strokes by a giant master artist. Houses are preferably oriented with the same plan as well, though China’s cities’ overcrowding has done away with such considerations in so many public housing divisions, not to mention those of the slum we found ourselves in late one night.

But that came later. In Yunnan our tour guide, himself a colorful member of a colorful local minority, went on for hours at end about what a great place the province was: It doesn’t take much imagination to see the outline of China’s map as a chicken. Yunnan corresponds with the part that lays the eggs. And what golden eggs it does produce, including 80% of China’s famed leaders and one third of China’s tax revenues, mostly from Dali’s tobacco agriculture. Dali’s unique historical grandeur and its long record of resistance to Mongol invaders was transmitted to us diluted and contracted down through translation. What seemed to enthuse our tour guide even more was the long spiel he gave about Tibet. He even sang a song allegedly written by the sixth Dalai Lama whom he informed us was a dandy and a womanizer. Though the man, a deity to his people, lived before air travel was known to man, the song spoke of how sweet it was to land from the air into Lhasa’s airport. Our guide proceeded to be down on Tibet picturing it as a dead-end stinking hole of little saving graces. It sounded like the man had a grudge against Tibet and its people, perhaps part of an inter-minority feud or something.

In Lejiang we witnessed the cultural edifices of the Naxi and the historical old city that has been granted the status of a World Heritage Site by UNISCO. The Naxi minority has the distinction of being a matriarchal polygamist society and, like the Tibetans, several brothers can share the same wife or vise versa. And they have the only living hieroglyphic written language in the world. Lejiang, their capital, has an endearing mix of natural beauty stemming from the layout of the ancient market town around a branching tame river together with a delicately reconstructed walls, waterwheels and cascading stone houses down the side of the hill that have been refashioned into tourist facilities. Somehow, the touristic hype doesn’t diminish the ancient town’s charm, thus turning it into the Chinese honeymooners’ Mecca. We walked along the riverbank one evening and soaked in some of the loud western music blaring out of the congested bars and the gaiety of the raucous nightlife and appreciated the magic of it all: a capital of exoticism, history, and joyful youthfulness. Somehow it symbolizes the stored regenerative energy of the Chinese people, their ongoing burst of reclaiming their history and their flourishing promise.

Then there were the other natural wonders of the high mountains of the region: The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain with its live glaciers and the Pu Dacuo Natuional Park, fashioned to match in its scenery and size that of Yellowstone Park in the Rockies. Here again, it seems, generalizing is of the essence: The majority of the thousands of internal tourists took the advice of the guide, rented a full-length warm coat and purchased a mini oxygen tank for the trek. We did neither and walked a total of over seven kilometers with little distress from the low temperature or the thin air. This led me to accuse my fellow internal tourists of innocent consumerism: a guide interested in his kickback from a store recommends an item and everyone falls for the trick. That wouldn’t have happened with most of your hard boiled American tourists. Yet the Chinese rightly pride themselves on their hardiness and endurance, witness the heroic Long March of which we were reminded on more occasions than one whenever we crossed a bridge or narrow pass where the Liberation Army crossed.

In Shangri-La, another exotic town granted the name only recently in hope of attracting tourists, we had a full yak experience: We ate yak stew, drank yak yogurt and munched on yak cheese with homemade buckwheat thins. I could resist no more and successfully bargained with an old woman for a yak bone inscribed with some Naxi blessings in Naxi hieroglyphic script. From another woman I bought a yak horn fossil at a fifth of the asking price in full expectation of it being a fake.

For a full week I travelled next to a man whose face looked quite familiar. His very short stature and disproportioned arms added to the sense of familiarity though I couldn’t quite place the character. Till my wife made a comment and it clicked: Indeed he was a spitting image of Yitzhak Shamir, the underground leader of the Stern Gang during the British Mandate destined to become Israel’s prime minister. Except that this one spat in Chinese. It was on our long walk through the Pu Dacuo National Park, shortly before the near full eclipse of the sun gave added magic to the nature scene around us, a lush expansive meadow with a huge lake all in the midst of a thick green forest. A fellow traveler with minimal English fluency asked where I was from. When I answered she and half a dozen other hikers in their long red coats and with their oxygen tanks hanging from their elbows failed to recognize any of the names I mentioned: Nazareth, Palestine, Israel, Gaza, and Jerusalem, When I said ‘The Holy Land’ she smiled widely and explained to her group including my bus neighbor with the familiar face: “Holland!”

That is when my wife said: “At least he should know; he looks like Shamir.” In fact I was happy to be away from it all, to be free of the fatal pull of the black hole named Israel/ Palestine. I was cut off from the internet and engulfed by masses that never even heard of my homicidal background. Only on one occasion a learned and well-to-do man who hosted our friends, and us by extension, seemed familiar with Middle East issues. He recalled marching in his college days in demonstrations in support of ‘the Palestinian man with the funny headdress.’ He then posed the challenging question to me of: “Why is peace evading you in the Middle East for so long?”
Not wanting to spoil the party’s dinner or to burden my friends with the job of translating a long soliloquy, I tried to be very brief:
“The inalienable rights of the Palestinians have been totally trampled by Israel which feels free to do what it wants because the USA, the strongest player in the international arena, has given it full and blind support. Neither side is willing to compromise to the degree demanded by the other. The Palestinians ask for justice and recognition and Israel asks for them to disappear as a people. It is time China stepped in to put an end to the only colonial project still in progress in today’s world.”
Perhaps I even put it more concisely. Discussion ended with the serving of the soup.

In Kunming we had an unplanned visit with a Muslim family, a young couple who had just opened a soft drink and ice cream shop and their mother who hovered around the tiny shop with her hijab style dress and offered sunflower seeds to waiting customers. Like most Muslims in the region she was a member of the Ma, knew herself to be a Muslim, and recognized the Arabic script prayer affixed above the door of the shop when I read it but couldn’t read herself. The whole family seemed pleased to have us visit the shop and may have taken it as a good omen to have a Muslim from the land of al-Aqsa mosque enter their shop on its day of opening. We enquired about other children and she informed us that she had another daughter with whom she usually stays; the daughter had married a Li who is not a Muslim and has one child, the reason the grandmother stays with the couple so as to be sure it doesn’t grow up in the tradition of the Li. This struck me as a little strange given the fact that most Muslim restaurants we ate at offered alcohol and that the old woman was the only one I had noticed wearing the traditional Islamic garb.

We then flew back to Shanghai. We needed a little rest from the incomprehensible guide’s loudspeaker. The continuous raspy cacophonous sing-song of his harangues was getting to us. After a day’s rest we hit the road again, this time in the Jiangs’ private car, Michael serving as pilot, guide, translator and overall organizer. Our first stop was at a costal village outside of the city of Rizhao. The children enjoyed clamming at low tide after which we had a wealth of fresh seafood for dinner. The next morning Didi ad I rose early and took a walk in the village. The proprietor of the mini-beachfront motel we stayed at would not let us out of his sight. When we stopped at a small shack with a few rickety shelves stocked with canned goods, toys, cigarettes and candies he followed us in. We bought a food item, paid for it and then I picked up the shopkeepers abacus and enquired about its worth using hand gestures. The man dismissed the idea out of hand. I made an offer of RMB 20 and proceeded to show more bills till I made an offer of RMB 50, the equivalent of seven US dollars and a half. He seemed troubled but continued to wave his hand in a dismissive gesture. He offered me a plastic toy abacus but I insisted on taking the real thing. Didi kept asking me to stop it out of a sense of pity for the old shopkeeper figuring that he must have a deep attachment to the grimy old article. Our companion then stepped in, grabbed the money from my hand and forced it on the shopkeeper. The deal was sealed and we shook hands and took pictures together. Down the road the farmers market was in full swing and our friend came through again acquiring a handheld scale for me for RMB 30. On the way back he kept taking out the two items and showing them to the neighbors who beamed at us, nodded their heads in approval and muttered in Chinese. Our friend seemed proud of us and our achievement. But then he could have been making fun of us. Who knows!

Then came the absolute highlight of the whole trip. True, we enjoyed the sightseeing and the multitude of natural wonders and cultural fêtes that we saw so far in this exotic land. But we usually find the social encounters and sharing in the lives of other peoples, despite the language and culture barrier, much more meaningful and unforgettable. Add to that the common bond I automatically sense with villagers and their agricultural surroundings. Our hosts knew this and saw to it that we would be exposed to their rural roots in the most authentic way possible. We drove up to the Jiang’s ancestral village where we met Michael’s parents and his grandfather, the recognized community wise man and predictor of things to come who had built the house in which Michael grew up and which is still kept in its original solid form with the traditional stove releasing its appetizing smells throughout the house and its hot fumes through the traditional zigzag air vent that runs under the brick bed stand.

The gracious parents who divide their time between this traditional village dwelling of the aging wise grandfather and their city apartment had arranged for us to visit two neighbors and to the fields so as to appreciate the life of average villagers still engaged in farming, in building their families, and in modernizing their homes. Our estimate of the cost of some of the upscale new bedroom sets that we saw ran up to ten fold of the actual price. Yet the grandfather’s storage rooms had such a variety of used tools, stoneware, pots and pans that I found it even more enticing for the constant clicking of my camera.

Then came the wedding party to which the good father had arranged an invitation for us. He advised us about what is expected from us as honor guests, about the box of sweets and the amount of the monitory gift placed in a red envelope that we should present to the groom (RMB 800 and not 1000 because of the good luck associated with number 8), and about the speech I should make. First we joined the bride’s family, took group pictures with them, partook of the food and drink at the joyfully decorated home, and then had our car decorated as well and drove as part of the bride’s entourage. As she stepped into her car, assisted by two elder uncles and welcomed by the groom’s family representative, her sisters and other family members proceeded to load her car and other accompanying ones with traditional presents of silken pillows and bed-covers and other household items. The strangest items however were the various sizable animal forms and dragons and the smallish decorative flowers all fashioned out of baked dough, part of which was forced upon us at the end of the formal proceedings as mementos from the auspicious occasion.

Every step of the bride, and later on of the groom, was guided by the professional wedding director and recorded by the professional photographer, the two outsiders (except for us) in the whole process. We first drove to a city park on the way to the grooms village some 15Km away. There the wedding director insisted on having us pose with the bridal couple for one photo after the other. It was rather embarrassing but we took it all in our stride and clowned our way through it all.

As the bridal entourage arrived at the groom’s village the real excitement began: The entrance of the village was decorated with a red inflated plastic arch in the shape of a dragon. As the bride alighted from her car various family members, hers and the groom’s, tended to her every movement including putting her red sandals on her feet as she stepped out on the red carpet, crossing under the arch to trumpet music and the tremendous explosive sound of fireworks and of the dozen canon shots spreading confetti over her head as she advanced supported on the arm of the groom. Every few steps she would slow down while few village men rushed to grab the length of red carpet that she had cleared and run with it to cover another few meters of the dirt road ahead of her. Till the party arrived to the groom’s family home and the groom was instructed to carry her up the ramp which he did despite the incessant heckling and blocking of his older brother. It was all done with much laughter, gaiety and applause of the younger generation of villagers. The parents-in-law had been seated on two chairs in the courtyard of their house. And the wedding organizer proceeded to cheer the bride on and instruct and quiz her on her feelings toward the new parents. After this formal greeting I was introduced to the crowd and asked to give a word of blessing to the bridal couple which I managed to do hoping that it would sound better in translation than it sounded in English. Finally the bridal couple was put through an entertaining set of exercises including eating a length of noodle each starting at one end and advancing till their teeth touched and downing a drink each simultaneously while ones arm is looped around the other’s neck. The organizer continued with more such acrobatics after leading the couple to their bridal bed having them sit cross-legged and facing each other while family children and women crowded the tiny bedroom giggling and screaming with delight.

At this point we were led out to the adjacent village communal facility where the festive feast was being served. But not before the groom’s brother led us to the family’s pigpen where we were introduced to the siblings of the one we were about to be served. We sat in the special room with only two tables and not in the larger one where most of those attending crowded. One of the two tables was for the elders of the groom’s and the bride’s families. On our table we were joined by such honor guests as the young elected village secretary, and the regional interior ministry official as well as a couple of local venerable former officials who proceeded to relate to us through our good translator their record of service to their community and nation. Michael’s father joined the same table but did not mention his record of service. Immediately after his graduation from college he was assigned to a job in a far away province where he served till age forty, able to see his young wife and children only once a year. At one point I brought up the subject of minorities and heard a series of mild objections to the central government’s policies of positive discrimination such as exempting minorities from the one-child limit on reproduction or the higher priority for minority students at college.

As the thirty-plus course feast proceeded we were toasted again and again, each fellow celebrant insisting on a series of three drinks; one for the bridal couple, one for us the honor guests, and one for whatever the occasion called to his or her mind. I labored under the influence to find an appropriate toast that would reflect my admiration for all these guys’ record of service and at the same time include me. I could neither toast ‘our’ countries’ minority policies nor ‘our’ record of service to ‘our’ countries. At last I found the courage to stand up and toast their record of service to their country. It left a bitter taste in my mouth though it was the only glass I emptied to the end as they had been demanding from me to do in every toast. I have no country. It just doesn’t feel good to be an orphan, not to belong.

Perhaps I should seek political asylum in China, join one of its 56 minorities and see if that may not quench my thirst for belonging. Historically an American physician of Syrian origin with the last name of Hatim accompanied Chairman Mao on the Long March. Would that bit of history facilitate my entry in the system, I wonder? Would it give me a shot at the first spot in China’s hierarchy? After all, a Georgian headed Russia and a black is now the president of the USA. So why shouldn’t I dream of becoming the emperor of China? My plans for reforms I would dictate from that position are simple and straightforward: Ban men from rolling up their T-shirts on hot days, offer silicon breast implants free of charge for young women, and impose the introduction of the technology of the water seal in all rural bathrooms.
And stop all arms trade with Israel.

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