Sunday, April 24, 2011

Abu Dhabi Dreamin'

Allah In'shallah

"Is this your first time in the United Arab Emirates?" The deep resonance in his voice startles me.
I am not prepared.  My passport is quickly lost in his ebony hand.  The best I can do is to squeak out a weak, "yes."
Sitting tall in his white robe and head scarf, he looks through me.  
"Where are you coming from?"
"Beijing."  I figure he thinks I'm nervous because somehow our cultural roles are reversed and in this part of the globe, it is I who could be the terrorist.
He smiles.  I try to smile and be as worldly as my passport claims I am.  But...please don't look at...
"Where do you live?"
I am relieved by the repetition.
"Beijing."  Why? Because I am proud to come from China?  Or now we are both sure that I am an American who can't possibly see the world from a strictly Western slash Judeo-Christian vantage?
The light gleams off his dark eyes.  He knows more about me than I would like to share.  He is regal
and I pretend he is all knowing.  If his white teeth break out again under the goatee, I think I might faint.
It's a long overnight from Beijing.  Maybe I've been in Beijing too long.
"Welcome to Abu Dhabi".  It is a kingdom and all the men are princes, I think as I walk away
trying to avoid the eyes of all the other members of the royal family.

It's clean.  Suddenly instead of spitting and snotting, men, tall men, glide in their stride in their white shimmering robes.  The streets are immaculate.  No garbage or dog poo, no donkey carts.  There seems to be order at crosswalks and at street signs. And it's hot.  The blue of the sky is interrupted only by the white minarets which reach toward Allah.  Driving home with my friend on the five lane road amongst palm trees, I feel like I am in LA, an LA without traffic.  Except, there are the robes, white and black, which seem at ease floating beside the blondes in shorts and others in suits.  In the Paris airport the contrast in dress seems awkward.  Here you want to wear a robe like the Emiratis. I want to be an Emirati.  My friend tells me there are no poor Emiratis.  When you turn 18 you get a car and a house.  There is a lot of oil in this small land and the population is not as vast as Saudi Arabia.  So the wealth is distributed.  You can feel the oil money, of course like anywhere, some have more than others.  Yet this is one reason they do not fear any kind of revolt.  The poor people here are immigrants, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Philipinos.  Immigrants can't stage a revolution. But everybody here knows that the country would come to a halt if the Indians stopped working.  It is the Indians who are the middle managers, administrators and bank workers.  The Emirates depend on them.  But then I have to remember that if I were an Emirati, (and I like saying it-Emirati) I would not be wearing white but black.  The thin material of the abaya falls loosely when you slip it on and the black head scarf too easily falls off one's head.  When my friend took us to the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque commonly referred to as The Grande Mosque, I got my chance to wear one. It is instantly slimming.

I know, right about now I am supposed to get into the whole male-female Arab Moslem power divide.  It's pretty obvious where that goes.  There is more testosterone here and I can see that as a good thing and a bad thing.  I know the whole polygamy, more than one wife situation is a bit weird and then I think about the benefits of having a part time husband.  Either way you go with your position, the arguments seem evident.  In the end, of course, I would have to speak up about having to wear black instead of white in that heat. 

Although Abu Dhabi is a new city located where forty years ago there was mostly only sand, its history dates back to the 3rd millennium.  Its origins come from a culture called Umm an-Nar.  It was a village inhabited by nomadic camel herders, fishermen and pearl divers.  Like much of the Middle East, it was a tribal culture headed by powerful Sheiks with the unavoidable interference of colonial powers, Portugal early on and later the British. The houses back then were made of palm fronds and the wealthy lived in mud huts-until 1952 when oil was discovered.  At this time the seven sheikdoms unified into the present federation of states.  The making of Abu Dhabi as a world-class metropolis started in 1966 when the mud huts were replaced by luxury hotels and high-rise buildings making up the now memorable skyscape.

My favorite thing to do here, besides catching up with my friends, is to go to the private beach, Corniche gate three.  There is a 10 dhiram ($2.50) entrance fee and for five dollars more a Philippino follows you to a padded lounge chair of your choice and opens up an umbrella.  And there you are right in front of the famous skyline on a fine white sand beach staring out on turquoise blue (did I say clean?) waters.  It's unbelievable.  I love Abu Dhabi.  But I have to admit, since this is only March and I spend most of my time under the umbrella, that it must get insanely hot in the summer.  I take many dips in the sea to cool off.  No, it must get a crazy hot that I have never experienced.  My friends say walking outside in summer is like opening the oven door- the heat just overwhelms you.  You can't breathe.  You have to move quickly from one air conditioned setting to another the way we in Beijing scurry to warmth in the winter.  The sun could scorch you to ash; Make-up melts down your face.

The well-known Abu Dhabi malls provide acclimatized environments in which to move around and of course to spend all that oil money.  They are destinations even for people who don't much like to shop.  The architecture of these little cities is fascinating. They have indoor gardens, children's playgrounds and even massive aquariums.  They are manmade habitats for the heat, really, a place to pass the day.  The sport of shopping is contagious here and I take lessons from my friend's sixteen year old daughter who somehow convinces me to buy high heels and Ray Bans.  I wonder how I my ankles will fare on the uneven streets of Beijing.

What I will miss most (besides my friends-the kind of people you meet in the world who give you a sense of home wherever they are-the kind of people who teach you that home is about people, not place) is the call to prayer five times a day echoing from every mosque in the city simultaneously.  Starting at 5:53 AM (the time changes in relation to the sun) --- a man's voice sings-beautiful -tones which reach deep into a self so easily forgotten.  It doesn't matter if you are Moslem or of another faith or of no faith at all-those notes in varying pitches reach for your soul, calling for your return.  How does sound effect in that way?  Every day the calls are different.  The calls to pray structure the day.  It is easy to keep track of time.  I can count on an open reminder for my ancient self to be called back.  It feels like safety.  The kind of safety you have and understand when you say Allah in'shallah- God willing.  I will see you again, Allah in'shallah-if it is meant to be. You can count on that.  Really, it is all you can count on.  I hope to return to Abu Dhabi-Allah in'shallah.  Or at least I now have it in my dreams.





Sunday, February 6, 2011

Evil Spirits don't Like Smoke

A New Year in China

In spite of my vow to never be here again for the number one holiday in China, last night we ushered in the year of the rabbit. The Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, comes at the start of the lunar calendar and in fact it is suddenly warmer here in Beijing. A year ago nobody had warned me so when the explosions started outside my window; I ended up curled in bed, shaking from the heart stopping vibrations and blood-curdling noise.  I was terrified.  I had never experienced anything like it.  I was supposed to go out that night, but was too scared to walk in the streets which looked and sounded like a war zone.  Every family left in the city had invested in major fireworks and they were not timid to blow them up on successive corners.  It went on 24/7 for days.  After all, the Chinese were welcoming the year of the tiger which is aggressive, dynamic and forceful.  I was a physical and psychological wreck by the fifth day.

This is a new year.  Not only did I go out last night, but I was not paralyzed or put out by the enormous rockets ignited on the other side of the street as I walked.  A spark had even hit me and I simply moved on.  Had I changed?  What was different?  At about 11:30, I decide to walk home to make it back just before the midnight onslaught.  I watched myself happy amid the crashing and banging that was picking up all over the city.  My gaze went up in admiration to the cascading, colorful lights which streamed through the sky.  This year I even stopped to watch and appreciate the bright blasts.

How strange it was to be glad, making it home just before 12 to see the massive display.  I didn't even need the Winnie-the-Pooh eye cover and ear plugs I had purchased to protect myself from the mayhem.  I went to bed still watching, delighted by the mesmerizing sights even as debris hit my window.  When I got tired, I went to sleep despite the noise.  Somehow this year it was comforting.  Could the year of the rabbit really be that different from the year of the tiger?  Apparently.

My friend told me her uncle spent two thousand dollars on fireworks every year.  He would open the window to his apartment and hope the smoke would blow in.  The bad air was one of the things I hated most about Beijing, so of course I asked, "Why?" "Evil spirits don't like smoke", is what she said.  So today I did something else which surprised me, I opened the window in my apartment and could smell the smoke, a by-product of bottle-rockets.  I don't like smoke either, but I'll try anything to get rid of those pesky evil spirits.

I can't help thinking it is a new year here in China.  At first I think I just may have made it through another "blue period" of my life and may be emerging and that's why it feels new.  I think it is my perpetual, unnatural clinging to a shred of optimism that might be renewing itself.  But if it is not that, what else can it be that makes this year different?  I don't think it is my yearning for something good to happen that brings this about.  I could say it is my courage to start my life over again and again, but there is something else here.  That isn't even anything new for me.  This one isn't about me, I suspect. 

I don't like loud noises, smoke or chaos.  But that is just the beauty of the whole thing.  It doesn't matter what I think.  I see my attachment to my limited assessments.  I need these disruptions to keep me from a self-manipulated definition of anything.  It's not exactly that I need the smoke in my house to scare away the spirits; I need to be able to open the window to ideas which are foreign and illogical to me.  I need the Chinese who see the world differently than I do.  I need the external input, redirection, guidance.  I can't figure my life out on my own.  I admit my limitations.  However strong I may have proven myself to be, I cannot pretend to have enough of anything to figure this life out on my own.  I need those loud noises to wake me up.  We can make all the internal adjustments we can think of, but without taking in some of the external contributions, we have very little.

It's not a new year just because I walked through the fire lit streets of Beijing instead of huddled in my bed.  It's not a new year because I feel renewed confidence in myself and my purpose in the warmth of the Spring festival.  It's not because I have a new outlook on life as I learn to speak Chinese to the people I meet.  I am old enough to have done all these things before in other countries and in other languages.  Yes, these are good and help a person to reinvent oneself, but it's not what I am talking about.  What if there really is a difference between the tiger and the rabbit?  What if I am really more dependent on external factors than I thought?  What if I need the moon to move around the earth just enough times to shed light on my path?  Is that really so crazy?

The Chinese calendar moves in cycles of 60 years.  Whether or not one can understand the two interactive systems of the five heavenly elements (in order, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water) in their yin and yang forms and the twelve Zodiac animal signs, it is clear that the calculations are a way to measure time.  This ancient system has been in place since the Shang dynasty (1600 BCE -1100 BCE) long before the Gregorian one.  Yet both systems recognize man's external relationship with time and perhaps the marking of times and the changing of times.  That's what I really needed to remember.  Times change and no matter how I handled myself or what I thought or did, different time periods would have perhaps more bearing on my life than my individual will.  I found the thought I was looking for when I considered the Cultural Revolution in contrast to succeeding years.  During the Cultural Revolution intellectuals were chained, tortured and publicly humiliated.  Just years after Mao's death, going to college and being smart made a man a hero in his town.  The man who lived through both times was not different; it was the times which were.

This year is different, for better or worse, for its ebbs and flows, regardless of what I think.  I can't help liking that.  My efforts are only a piece of the complex puzzle of existence.  Timing plays a big part, a huge part in all of this no matter which calendar you use.  It's the only way to explain certain things.  Evil spirits and I don't like smoke.  I hate to admit that we have anything in common. But that doesn't even matter.  What really matters is who is going to be left after the smoke clears?  Like the rabbit, I'll be here reflective, gentle and ready for my next jump.

The Red Ribbon is on Cars and not Lungs

It's not just because of the Beijing traffic gridlock that the Chinese government has decided to limit new car registration.  It's the overwhelming increase in car purchases by the new Communist bourgeoisie.  This just means that there is no hope in sight for our lungs.  Another day, I can't breathe. We go days on end when the Air Quality Index surpasses 400.  That is hazardous according to the American Embassy.  On the "crazy bad" pollution days the reading is over 500 which is supposedly the maximum.  It's hard to say how a reading could overreach the maximum, but maybe this has symbolic implications which I fail to see or am trying to ignore.  The obvious meaning to me is that science is confirming what I already know;  it is hard to breathe in Beijing.  

I have done some qualitative research on the effects of hazardous air pollution and before I lose my ability to think altogether, I must write it down.  There is nothing scientific about this research, it is purely anecdotal and conclusively observational, the most fallible kind.  But the physical symptoms make it hard to gain mental clarity, I have found. Yes, breathing contaminated air more days than you can count must have some detrimental effect on the brain's ability to function.  Perhaps this is just the result of the dulling headache that persists in strange throbbing ways.   Thinking is like trying to find a sharp edge in pea soup.  The cognitive functions seem to mirror what the brain sees, haze.  Indistinct images appear and disappear in the thick smoke; I think those were buildings.  Sight is casualty. One has to strain to see and I am sure unwanted contaminants are attaching to my retina.  I have had to increase the magnification on my reading glasses 100%.  During the day it looks like the sky decided not to come out.  At night, the colored lights of the city blur into bizarre, unrecognizable shapes.  

It's surreal at first, but after a few days of heavy pollution the physical effects start to impinge not only on the intellectual processing centers of the brain, but also the emotional.  On good days I have trained myself not to look beyond the immediate.  My first year in Beijing, I thought this was a great Buddhist practice. I was living in the present, not looking outside myself for validation. The sphere I focused on was the space of about five feet.  My motivation was not based on external conditions, but instead it came from a place the size a small bread box inside my solar plexus.  I remember last year everyone said it had never been so bad. "This is the worst it has ever been".  Until of course this year, this November.  The bread box theory worked for a couple of days and then started to disintegrate of its own accord.  Turning inwards is not so pleasant with the head and stomach seething.  Other side effects are dizziness, loss of coordination, disorientation and heart palpitations.

I might sound like a hypochondriac, but I swear I am not.  Most of us Beijingers (definition for my unscientific purposes: residents of ten months or more annually)  try to carry on with our days pretending we are not subjugated by the poor air.  We are so beleaguered by insufficient levels of oxygen, we don't have the strength to talk about it.  Low level exhaustion is a constant.  It feels as if some days you never wake up, because what you see is unreal, dreamlike.  I'm sure depression is an escalating risk here.  How could it not be?  Detached from a recognizable reality, I go through days with a sickening floating feeling.  There is no other way to describe it.

I didn't want to do it, but I decided to look up what I was breathing.  I knew it was going to be a list of chemicals with names that sound like monosodium glutamate for the lungs.  The most common pollutants according to the U.S. Embassy are ozone (the bad kind which is a result of a reaction between different oxides of nitrogen), inhalable coarse and fine particles, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.  I have no idea what any of these are, but I get it, it's not good.  Of course, then I found the actual index and now I know why I feel the way I do.  A good day in Beijing the reading is in the 200's.  That's "very unhealthy".  

0 to 50 Good 
51 to 100 Moderate 
101 to 150 Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups 
151 to 200 Unhealthy 
201 to 300 Very Unhealthy
301 to 500 Hazardous  

Knowing more is only making me realize I better not have any long term plans to stay in Beijing.   Each of those distinct pollutants has a different set of hazardous effects.  According to the U.S. Embassy, "ozone affects the lungs and respiratory system in many ways." This can cause "coughing, throat soreness, airway irritation, chest tightness, or chest pain."  There is more.  That is only one element of the bad air. Breathing particles may cause people to experience chest pain, shortness of breath and fatigue. "Particle pollution has also been associated with cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks."  That's enough, don't you think?  "Carbon monoxide enters the bloodstream through the lungs and binds to hemoglobin, the substance in blood that carries oxygen to cells. It reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the body’s organs and tissues."  This sounds like a horror movie. Carbon monoxide affects mental alertness and vision in healthy people.  I wish I never looked this up.  I haven't even gotten to the effects of sulfur dioxide.

I can't breathe.  I guess the unscientific research had already made this evident.  Having it confirmed, though, means I am not losing my faculties due to age and puts new meaning on "crazy bad".  I wish there were a happy ending to this, a big ribbon to wrap up this package for the Beijing inhabitants, holiday cheer to see us into the Western New Year, but the truth is that there were 20,000 new cars sold in Beijing the first week of December (http://www.asiaone.com/Motoring/News/Story/A1Story20101209-251794.html). For the Chinese, owning a car is an important status symbol.  It is part of the new world order.  It doesn't matter what the government does to regulate registration or how many people they put on the street with flags to control the flow of traffic.  The Chinese are going to keep buying cars.   The red ribbon is on the cars not the lungs in Beijing.  Merry Christmao!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Old Beijing Bus Stop

Old Beijing Bus Stop

Bikes are rigged with flat beds carrying bricks and produce.  A red blanket on the sidewalk  lies under some tired, wilted vegetables.  A few extra kuai for these greens are worth the time and effort.  Did they fall off the flat bed?  These are entrepreneurs.  A man has cages with birds.  Men are always in charge of the birds.  It is tradition.  Another is selling goldfish in plastic cups and hamsters in shoe boxes.  The lady with the handicapped girl is in the same place every day popping popcorn for sale alongside trinkets and hair bands.  This corner on the way to my bus stop hasn't yet been modernized.  It is busy with Chinese.  A fruit and separate (legitimate)vegetable shop are etched into the side of a building.  Meat is stacked in bloody slabs on the other side of a window which opens when someone wants to buy.  Right beside that is window which yields Chinese pastries that look and smell nauseatingly sweet.  There is always movement on this corner.  Steam comes out of the local restaurant before 7 AM where some are already slurping noodles. I'll even tell you there is a door to a sex shop and a massage parlor where later in the day skinny girls will sit in a window of their own.  This is the old Beijing.  A small side street lets out numbers of Chinese onto this corner. They are coming from a  tiny village that is tucked out of sight, somehow hidden, but right next to, the luxury high rise where I live.

This corner scared me at first.  With the garbage which never gets cleaned up in spite of the man with sticks who is sweeping,  the overwhelming bombardment of indecipherable and undesirable smells, the adult spit and the excrement which could be from animal or child,  I can't help but hold my breath as I walk through, every day.  Every day it is the same and yet every day I find something new.  Chinese toddlers don't wear diapers but have slits in their pants.  It is said that during the Cultural Revolution when there was little food, these arrangements would result in little boys losing their units when dogs would ravenously come for what had been excreted.  Mao's presence is still here.  Around the trees there is dirt, not grass.  Grass was too bourgeois, so Mao had it ripped from the Beijing ground.

I pass the same old, limping man who takes his daily exercise with great patience and care.  Short, determined grey-haired women walk together pounding on their arms.  Grandparents hold infants.  Before 7 AM, the employees at the gas station are lined up and standing at attention ready for the start of their shift  The manager is conducting the ritual to ensure company loyalty.  He shouts a series of calls which they respond to in unison.  A reminder of their collective purpose and a demonstration of their dedication to their jobs.  There is a lot going on in the morning.  It's okay to wear pajamas out and about.  This is the Beijing that is disappearing because of people like me who can afford expensive apartments.

I must admit, when I thought about Asia before coming here, this is what I feared it would look like.  I guess, though, I had pictured snakes and dead monkeys hanging from buildings along with the laundry.   And I must confess that I probably involuntarily gasp everyday I walk by, trying to protect my feet from the occasionally flying snot.  Crossing the street can be dangerous as it is not just traffic that needs to be timed right, but there are schools of scooters and bikes which have to be maneuvered through as well.  It becomes almost impossible to get across when they perhaps have decided to go the other way on the wrong side of the street.

It's a seven to ten minute walk from my building to the bus stop depending on what I might encounter or need to avoid on a given day.  Yet what I can't understand is why I don't mind it as much as I thought I would.  Those Chinese have let the white woman walk right through the dance of their day.  They never look sideways at me.  When I got brave enough to buy vegetables there, I walked away with a bagful for what was the equivalent of 2 dollars of Mao money.  They didn't overcharge me and they gave me back all my change.  For the vegetables I got,  I would have been happy to pay five times as much.  No, I don't mind it as much as I thought I would.  In fact, I am a little apprehensive of  the inevitable,  that it may happen sooner than they or I am ready.  It is only a matter of time before these shops and that village are destroyed to make way for the new Beijing, the Beijing that is the capital of the soon-to-be biggest economy in the world.  I find myself wanting to walk right through there, because one day this corner will look like my side of the street.   It could happen any day.  And if I'll miss all this mess, how will it be for limping man,  popcorn woman or man sweeping with sticks?  

Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Sawadee Kha": Safety Procedures

For "my friend" Kendra

Sitting in the Chiang-Mai airport, the slurring of consonants and the lilting intonation over the loud speaker apparently call passengers.  People all over the room gather their belongings and families together and move in the direction of gate 15.  No one looks familiar to me, no one looks like me.  And it is 11 o'clock at night.   There is a strange, almost eerie feeling to be in such an unknown place.  Yet as soon as I settle into my chair, I realize how much there is to see in an airport waiting room.  The combinations of people together, the variations in races.  I guess I wonder why there aren't more white faces here. Simultaneously, I consider why it has taken me so long to travel to the other side of the world.  Why?  I think the problem is- we feel we have something to lose.  There is something to be said for not feeling you have much to lose. Yet it seems many of us are in the protection game more than the living.   Is this a fear of risking?  An attachment to things?  Attachment to identity?  To what we know?  You know you are a big girl when you can travel from Chiang-Mai to Bangkok on the way to Beijing on your own in the middle of the night.  What a feeling to be in a place which is so foreign and somehow not so frightfully scary as you had made it out to be.

What do people feel they need to protect?  I just wanted to think this through.  First we protect ourselves-from death, injury, illness.  The amazing thing is that for white people, Asia is safer than Europe or America.  In the land of tuk tuks and a plethora of street food stands and the smell of curry that I cannot get out of my nose, we are safer.  So the idea that we are in physical danger is false and made up.  Do horrible things happen to people in these places?  You bet, but it is not the non-stupid white person who is at risk.

I know people fear they will be taken advantage of or that their property is in potential danger.  I have to admit that this can happen.  I have heard of pocketbook snatchers, although no one ever seemed to look twice at my open bag.  Also, one has to negotiate prices for goods and services in advance so there is agreement.  The taxi to the apartment cost under three dollars.  A tuk tuk for two hours cost almost eight.  I think we might have ripped him off in the end.  Everyone is bargaining for the lowest prices or the highest depending on what end of the negotiation you are on.  At times you will walk away with a deal on a gold Buddha head that you don't feel quite right about.  You think you may have bargained too hard and left the seller with little profit margin.  Whoever carved the statue must have made but pennies and your stinginess is the root cause of their poverty.  And it had even been blessed in a monastery.

Once we were ripped off when the massage people, ironically friends had even introduced us, had told us that it was 120 baht (four dollars) for an hour foot massage.   Then when we went to pay, the price jumped exponentially to 460 baht and it wasn't even a good massage.  The masseuse simply rubbed oil all over our feet ignoring the pressure points which would have surely been hit if we were in China.  We thought something was strange when a German woman came from a mysterious back room complaining that her body rub was no good and that she was told it was going to be 200 baht when in the end, they were now asking for 250.  She was furious and we, with our feet in oil, thought she was being a horrible, arrogant abusive Westerner swindling the poor Thai out of a couple of dollars. Little did we know that we would soon feel the same.  Since the foot massage was my idea, I really felt I had to stick up for my friend, I didn't want her to pay too much.  So I insisted and said we wouldn't pay the extra.  There was a lot of back and forth through the beaded doorway.  After about three or four passes through the beads, each bringing a different underling to demand their new and improved price, I was asked to go back through the beads to talk to the owner.  I didn't want to go.  I had already imagined the crowded living arrangements, the smell of fish was already in my nose mixed with wafts of confusing, sharp spices and complicated poverty.  At first I refused, but I had no choice.  I looked back at my friend as if to ask, "will I return? And will you come get me if I don't?"  I was also looking for assent, but I knew I couldn't hesitate too long or it could be construed as...  I turned and went in pretending I was an American female James Bond, unafraid.  I saw what I had dreaded.  Massage girls crouching on the floor around a foot high round table eating mushy greyish food from bowls.  I held my breath.  I don't like stinky.  I wasn't sure I wanted to see where we were going next.  It seems a small dingy corridor lead behind the shop next door where schools of skin eating fish were in tanks.  I had seen this all over Chiang-Mai.  Apparently the owner of the oil rub place had this shop as well and she was getting a treatment on her feet as they were submerged in water and the tiny fish came after them to eat the dead skin.  In the end, we paid too much but not quite what they wanted.  We left quickly and unharmed.

People fear feeling uncomfortable and not able to continue with their habits.  Yes, when you travel this will happen. This was clearly the case in the beaded transgressions to the fish eating flesh shop. Or if you are in an airport all night, like tonight-I will not sleep in a bed and this is uncomfortable.  Not knowing how to get around is awkward, not knowing where to get food or where to eat results in unpleasant situations and at times hunger.  If you are someone who expects to do the same thing at the same time every day, you will be challenged.  I will admit that I have eaten some frightening food (I don't even want to mention the chicken livers for fear of bringing the taste of fat back) and have ordered dishes in restaurants which have haunted me.  I have endured smells I don't have the words to describe and would never have imagined could exist but in a nightmare.  It is all true.

Perhaps people fear losing their beliefs.  Are these their culturally ingrained customs?  It's as if, if they do something different they will never be able to come back to their former ways or somehow have betrayed them?  As if, if they walk barefoot in a Buddhist temple they will then somehow be Buddhist?  We fall back on wonder and shock when we do or see anything outside of our limited view of ordinary.  I remember feeling shocked by the numbers of white men with young Asian women and thought there was something terribly wrong with this. This is not a custom where I come from.   I felt personally offended.  But then I had to think this through.  Isn't my disgust rooted in the fact that I am an aging white woman who watches men my race and age go for much younger Asian versions? And no, there is no proportional inverse to this which would somehow give me the attention of Asian men of any age.  But what I have come to realize is that this arrangement gives both what they need.  I cannot begrudge a man who doesn't need a partner who can speak his same language any more or less than I can find fault with an Asian girl for wanting whatever she may get from the balding, overweight Westerner.  Even if it is only financial security.  That has got to be better than wondering where your next meal is coming from.  None of this really jeopardizes who I am and what I want out of life.  In the US, I would never have looked at those guys twice and the fact that this is the kind of relationship they choose only reinforces this.  If you know who you are and what you believe in, it does matter what anyone else does.  And although what you believe in may change with experience, you are the one, after all, who decides this.  Besides, I really liked waking barefoot in the temples and I may even chant Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya subconsciously.   But I figure I could use all the help I can get.

Aren't all these fears about losing some kind of control?  And if you lose control- a spiral of destruction waits just outside lingering to wreak havoc like the devil waiting to lead you astray?  One wrong move and your life can fall into a well of darkness and murky confusion and you could lose your family and friends-like losing control of your environment is synonymous with addiction, which would inevitably lead to homeless destitution?  What if the man in the saffron robes makes you doubt yourself or his beliefs seem to come into contrast with yours?  Would this be the end of the world?  Do you really need to protect against this?

The question I ask myself now is, do I really want to protect myself against the irreplaceable challenges that traveling has faced me with?  I ask myself, what am I really protecting and is it worth it?  I, like all humans, am programmed to guard against hazards which threaten me physically, but the worst threat to my physical wellbeing, as I have been traveling these last 20 years, is really digestive, when I have not been able to process all the spicy foods.  But this has happened to me in the US as well.  We also think that only in the US will we get quality medical treatment.  Unless you have traveled you will never know that people come thousands of miles to get the medical services and care that is provided in the Bangkok. Everyone in Asia knows this. 

There is a reason the world is round.  It defies our linear logic -if we projected our linear logic it would go right off into the cosmos-into the stars.  Profound wisdom must have a circumference-must wrap around.  It holds every single dot of existence, making a point insignificant.  I keep thinking there is a reason the world is round-if you travel in any direction you will end up where you are or where you started.  There is no hierarchy in terms of place.  If the world is round there is no up and no down, no Middle, no Near and no Far East. The great thing about the world being round is that there aren't just two sides, but a whole spectrum to every thought and every experience.  And none of them are really given a preference.  A globe is a true whole unlike a point or a line-it has so many dimensions.

I am in Asia on "the other side" of the world.  This place always seemed so far away when I was growing up.  This must be what we say to each other.  This idea must be passed down from one generation to another.  For my parents Asia was further away- and for each generation it will come closer and closer.    It is 13 hours away by plane.  But Rome is 9 hours away and that never seemed so far.   Ideas originated in the mind are not always true. Ideas need to be tested and challenged.  There is a strange tension in the mind- a paradox?- I am now in the place that was once so far away.

There are so many things to know and understand-that you would never be able to get- if you had never been to Asia.  First of all, It is four hours by plane from Beijing to Bangkok.  Bangkok always occupied a dark spot in my mind-which must have come from the movies.  I pictured opium dens and child prostitution, what I got instead when I arrived was an array of beautiful yellow, purple and green colors and rich fabrics and people with their palms together in recognition of your presence.  I imagined it inherently uncivilized, what I experienced was quite the opposite.  "Sawadee Kha", the stewardesses bow in unison at the end of the safety procedures.




A Grub in the Thai Jungle


For "my friend" Kendra


Then we took another plane from Bangkok to Chiang-Mai, the second largest city in Thailand where Thaksin was from.  It is a rambling, loosely organized city devoid of skyscrapers.  It does not have the massive numbers of people that Beijing has, so we feel put at ease.  (Ironically, since it is still very busy, with a lot of movement.)  It is warm and tropical.  We are but a short drive from Burma and Laos. Which explains why in its extenisve history, it was originally controlled by Burma (1296).  It was made part of Siam in 1933. All I can think is that there are stories here.  A lot of stories and I won't get a fraction of them on this trip, but at least I get how much I don't know. More than one person mentions the old opium triangle, and more than one inssits that the Thai no longer grow opium since 1977.  This implies that it is still grown in Burma and Laos.  At least now I know where the Mekong River is and I find out it is the third longest after the Nile and Amazon.

There is another ornate Buddhist temple every few feet, 121 to be precise within the city limits, 300 in all here.  Screaming traffic by the incensed gold stupas is a vision.  Young monks barefoort in saffron robes, everyone removes their shoes to enter.  Our tuk tuk driver tells us he only spent seven days as a monk.  It is something you can do when you have money, not when you are poor.  Dedication to spiritual practice is a luxury that many can't afford.  I thought when you couldn't earn a living in the West, a last option was to join a monastery.

As soon as I entered the grounds of a Wat (temple)-and we went to many-Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Jet Yot- the list goes on- my heart rate slowed down and I had time.  I felt myself present, my breath dropped-I became almost instantaneously calm-peaceful-whole.  The temples were not crowded as the tourist season is from November to mid-February.  Walking barefoot around the temple grounds, absorbing the good blessings that have accumulated after centuries of meditation in this place.  There was certainly a different vibration, a different air quality.  Entering the temple where many giant gold statues of Buddhas preside are altars with flowers and incense and many replicas of enlightened beings.

The old city is still bound with the crumbling old walls, a moat surrounding.  Tiny streets, intricate single lanes tangle together and even a map won't help.  If you venture down one you will see gardens and shacks or manicured two story teak houses.  Every walk of life side-by side and at the present, at peace.  On every corner a small Buddhist shrine-a gold house on white stilts, fresh incense burns.

Curries-red, green-coconut milk and chilies.  I love the Thai soups and vegetables-fish souffl├ęs in banana leaves.  I went to Thai cooking school for a day and made spring rolls and Pad Thai, pumpkin in coconut milk(what else).  Kaffir limes-the bumpy kind-smashed garlic, don't take off the skins and bird's eye chili-don't swallow.  By the time I had gotten back to China, my digestive track might never be the same again.

This seems to be a handicraft and weaving capital.  The tribes who have migrated from China or other destinations live in the mountains surrounding the city. And the city has one bazaar after another of beads and woven change purses, bags and scarves.  The merchants seem to be constantly setting the goods out and taking them down.  There is more stuff than could ever be sold.  Supposedly the Thai government is supporting the hillside tribes-the Hmong, the Karen and the Mien  They still live in their traditional ways.  The Hmong live in the mountains and now only come down for education, commerce and to work in the fields.  The women do the weaving, take care of the children, stay home-the men can have many wives.  There many types of Karen the white, the red, the long neck.  The white are the ones where the women have to wear white if they are virgins.  The women weave and the men, what we saw were the men sleeping behind.  The women's weaving is what provides clothes for the family and the way they make money and the men are the emissaries to the outside world who bring the weaving to market.  It is said, if a woman can't weave she cannot have a family-it means she cannot take care of her family.  The long necks are the tribes where women wear solid gold for about a foot long wrapped around their necks.  Long necks are a sign of beauty-but we are told that the gold protects the throat from tiger attacks.  Gold is also worn on the knees for this same reason. 

My friend and I are on an elephant.  Elephants are the symbol of Thailand.  There are many here and are deemed good luck.  This is not a dream, but it feels like one.  The lumbering steps of the giant beast rock us back and forth and we had no idea where we were going, but apparently the jungle is the destination.  I thought we were going on a tourist expedition around in a circle near camp, but we just keeping lurching side to side on a steep path.  As soon as we are out of sight of civilization, our elephant driver cries out in a high pitch squeal bringing his large metal hook near the head of the majestic creature.  We get the crazy driver (I make up the story that he is an opium addict, and none of the elephant drivers speak English so...). Of course at first we gasp-but then I realize this is his fun: looking for a reaction from the tourists in the middle of the jungle.  My mantra from this point on is, don't react.  Don't let them see you react.  That is what they are looking for.

The next stop was bamboo rafting.  No one told us to bring a change of clothes or our bathing suits.  All I can think is, do any of these businesses have insurance?  This whole thing is a civil suit waiting to happen.  Our mantra came in handy.  As we are in the middle of nowhere sitting on bamboo stalks lashed together with rope on a river that has got to serve as the passing towns' sewage system.  The natives (they seemed to be from the tribes) stood at the front of makeshift rafts pushing off the bottom and rocks with yet another bamboo stick in a form of ancient steering. Our raft captain was wearing boxer briefs which had a gigantic rip down the back. "Don't react."  It became a game of his to slap the surface of the water near us in order to splash and get us wet.  Really, who was going to stop them?  Again, I assured my friend that no reaction was the best way we were going to get out of this.

I found myself eating in open air roadside restaurant on the way to the jungle.  Bare benches, uneven wooden tables and dirt floors.  So far away from home and any known signs except, of course, Coca Cola- I was hungry and so sidled up beside my friend who assured me it would be okay.  The vegetables were crisp and clean tasting and the boiled potatoes were warm and wholesome.  The cold Chang beer (I never drink beer) seemed to go well with the meal.  And I found a simple happiness.  A surprising, profound contentment.  An unexpected completion, as if I had found something I had never known I was looking for. Who would have known this would make me happy?   Thinking back over my life, I can't really say which turn brought me here. I wonder how it all led to this place alongside a road in the middle of the Thai jungle. 

And it is at that moment that I get the feeling of overwhelming simplicity.  Like really I am just a grub on a leaf. (Thank you Zorba the Greek). There are eventualities you would never be able to plan for.  There are blessings for which you would never know how to pray.  And suddenly without any intention on my part, this moment becomes magnified.  My life does not expand out, it seems to expand inwards.   And I am that grub tasting the leaf of the earth, touching it, smelling it, beating on it.  I tremble.  I am reaching and peering beyond the end of the leaf into the whole terrifying magnificent mystery.  I am too dizzy and delirious to say I like it or not.  And it wouldn't matter anyway.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guan Yu-God of Wealth 02/10

I went to bed with explosions banging outside my Beijing apartment on the fourth night of Chinese New Year.  They began again this morning around 8.  Today is the fifth day, a very important one in the 15 day celebration.  This is the day the Chinese pay tribute to the birthday of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of wealth. The fireworks, that everyone seems to have is supposed to get Guan Yu’s attention and bring prosperity. My friend said it another way, “this is the day you bomb the **** out of poverty.  This is a big one.”
I can’t imagine how this could get any bigger. I can’t believe that nobody told me what it was going to be like in Beijing during this time of year.  I don’t know what to make of the whole Spring festival celebration.  There seems to be so much more to it than ushering in the year of the Tiger.
One thing is for sure, this is the most important Chinese holiday; there can be no doubt about that.  My nerves can attest to it.  A westerner could never imagine the intensity of the first night when the Chinese welcome the deities of heaven and earth.  Beijing became a simulated war zone for incessant hours on end. These flashes of light and horrific blasts are also meant to scare away Nien, the children eating monster of Chinese mythology.  I should have suspected something when I saw fireworks tents set up on virtually every corner a week before the big night.  My ears are ringing.  And it is not over.
There is so much to know about this holiday, so many ancient stories, so many rituals.  I am sure I won’t begin to understand them this year.  I like the one about the Jade Emperor- Tian Gong-heavenly grandfather-Taoist ruler of heaven, man and hell.  On the eve of the new lunar year, the Jade Emperor comes down and assesses the deeds of men and rewards and punishes accordingly.  His birthday is the ninth day of the festival, so there is clearly more to look forward to.
What most people do know about Chinese New Year (Chun Yun) is that it is the largest yearly migration on earth when the Chinese must reunite with their families if at all possible.  The ritual cleaning of the house and red decorations help dispel evil spirits.  Ancestors are worshipped.  The food preparations begin weeks in advance to ensure large quantities for the New Year’s dinner.  After dinner the Northern Chinese make jao-zi (dumplings) together which they will eat at midnight and of course blow up state-of-the-art fireworks.
I thought maybe I should get out in the streets today and explode some poverty of my own, but given the way a number of Chinese survive here (no sanitation, no heat),  I am going to leave it to them.  I can’t help wonder how a devoutly secular state can be so superstitious.  Is this how they became a world economic power?  No doubt some Chinese would say so.  And since China’s rising world standing is based on it’s economic strength, maybe this day does have a role in Chinese optimism. How little we know about anything that happens anywhere outside our sphere.  When China does rule the world, we will know which gods are honored and what rites are performed on every day of this festival.  Until then I have learned that the fifth day is for the God of wealth.  I wonder if Washington knows this when the President meets with the Dalai Lama later today.