Tea and Me

Whole wars have been fought over tea. The Brits thought opium was a good thing to trade for Chinese tea. The incipient ‘muricans thought they’d teach the Brits a lesson (somewhat passive/aggressively IMO) by throwing tea into Boston harbor rather than paying the tax necessary to bring the tea off the ship onto the dock (I think that’s how it went). The first ship belonging to the new nation of the United States of Murica went to China carrying furs to trade for tea.

I always found tea to be an insipid, pale watery beverage especially compared to coffee. But in my current life, tea has an important place. Tea is social. My neighbors and I have tea parties — sometimes planned far in advance, sometimes occurring at the spur of the moment, just, “Come over for a cuppa’.”  I love this. It’s absolutely sweet and important and a custom to be cherished and nurtured. Where once I didn’t even have any tea in my house — well, maybe a faded package of Celestial Seasonings Assorted Herbal Teas — I now have a pretty fancy selection. All tea bags, except for a fresh can of Chinese Jasmine Tea with its evocative and nostalgic fragrance. I’m never going to be an artist of tea, and I like people to choose what they like.

I can’t make tea without thinking of Arthur P. Dent (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxie, etc.). His determination to get a machine — the Nutri-Matic — to make a REAL cup of English tea, causes the system of the Heart of Gold, the most advanced spaceship in the universe, to crash.

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic examination of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

As a kid, I remember my mom and friends organizing “coffees” and they were along the same lines, I think, but there was a lot more fussing involved than goes into our tea parties. There was a light, friendly competition over who could make the fanciest dessert AND the women really dressed up for these events. Of course, it was the early 60s so, in general, women dressed up.

In China — well, it’s impossible for me to even describe the importance of tea. It was everywhere. I’ve written about “all the tea in China” before on this blog in a post called, “Hot Drinks in China.” I had coffee while I was there — I made sure of it — but tea was much more common and easier to get. The most common tea in the United States is called “Hong Cha” in China, or red tea. It’s black tea, but a pretty red in the cup. It’s still the tea I like the best. The variety I acquired in my new tea-drinking life is Constant Comment. I like the oranges mixed in.

In the early 80s in China having coffee involved good luck at the export store, a gift from someone who happened to have coffee from Hainan Island, or a trip to Hong Kong. I had no coffee pot. I used a kind of tea pot that had a basket in the top. I lined the basket with toilet paper and poured boiling water through slowly. It was a very successful method even if it looked a little odd (and probably sounds a little odd). No milk, either, except powdered. I got used to that, and I developed a taste for soy milk in my coffee. And in my tea.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/tea/

Bus Vision

It was dark, and most people were home cooking their meals, cleaning up, washing clothes, helping their kids with homework. I know this because I watched them through the window of the slow-moving bus. It was early summer, already very hot there on the Tropic of Cancer. There was no air-conditioning except in fancy restaurants and hotels for foreigners, some stores, so people lived outside. Not that it was cooler outside, but there was a little fresh air.

The bus windows opened from the top and were down as far as they went. The sounds of the street mingled with the vision through the windows. From time to time I caught a glimpse of my own reflection.

A man in a sleeveless white cotton T-shirt (something all of us wore under our shirts to let perspiration do its job on a hot day) stood fanning himself as he cooked green vegetables in a wok nestled in the curved top of a terra-cotta charcoal stove.

I suddenly saw China, the world outside the bus windows, as a show through which I was carried by the bus. It was only a short step of thought to see life the same way.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/passenger/

First Passport

I got my first passport in 1982 and the reason was China. My relentless yearning to leave the country and GO SOMEWHERE had landed me a job as a foreign expert in English. It was truly a dream come true for me.

China was a difficult country to get into back then. It was backward and impoverished and where it had “modern western conveniences” it was only on the surface. For instance, we had a bathtub in our apartment, but no hot water, a good metaphor for the whole country. They revealed themselves to a handful of people they trusted to teach English. It took me a little while to convince the Foreign Teachers Office of my college (and the Foreigners Office of my canton) that I wasn’t judging anybody. I just wanted to see things. Finally I was allowed to buy my own bicycle (which were registered and licensed just like cars are) and I was free to roam anywhere I wanted. I could speak enough Mandarin to manage pretty well.

Guangzhou was a city of 5 million then. It was surrounded by countryside, and I lived in a village to the north. Guangzhou was a five mile bike ride past farms and even smaller villages.

My passport was kept in the Wai Shi Ban (foreign teacher’s office). If I needed it, the office arranged visas and brought it to me. It was a combination of control and safety. I didn’t mind. Because I worked for the government, I carried the same ID card Chinese citizens carried, and it was a better deal than my passport would have been.

In 1982  Hong Kong was another country. Leaving and returning to the good ol’ People’s Republic of China required a visa even though Hong Kong was just down the river about 80 miles.

 

 

In those days the space of land between the two cities was mostly farm land and the journey — any way you took it — was through swaths of green farms and the sharp hills of South China. It was beautiful, an emerald, and from the comfy confines of any kind of conveyance, a person could fall in love with it. I had definitely fallen in love with it and remained in love with it even after I knew what it REALLY was. A miserable miasma of mosquitos, cockroaches and humidity, not to mention the occasionally heavy-handed thump of Communist totalitarianism, which, if you stayed on the right side of it and you were an “honored guest” was not a big deal.

I hated to leave and was “homesick” for years after I got back. I used to listen to this and cry. But I had no idea that China would “progress” so quickly or that, when my “dime dancing” was through, I’d want to be in Colorado. I had no idea what the 30 years between would bring.

There is no passport to the past.

***

 

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/passport/

 

Tourist vs. Traveler

I’ve done some thinking about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. Neither is intrinsically better than the other, and many times a tourist turns into a traveler and a traveler into a tourist. Of course, I’d rather be a traveler, but I also know that’s not always possible. So, anyway, what’s the difference?

A tourist is looking at things with home as the reference point, concerned about sharing the experience with people at home, showing things to people at home. Souvenir shops are a real draw. Everything they see demands a photograph. There is something between them and the place they’re visiting. They have objectives and destinations. They often have their bucket list of sites and experience they want to “cross off.” Tours are designed for tourists. They are organized, timely, hit the main sites and offer comfort and convenience.

The biggest difference between a tourist and a traveler is that the traveler is not thinking about home. Therefore, a traveler has no list of destinations, can’t imagine anything in a souvenir shop that would represent what they’re traveling for and is generally more curious about what is around them. The traveler seeks a more intimate relationship with a place than the tourist does. The traveler will not see as many things, but they will see what they do see more deeply.

I first recognized this when my best friend came to visit me in the People’s Republic of China in 1983. She was a tourist. I was living there; I was a traveler only because I knew I would not be staying. When she first arrived I asked her what she wanted to see. Her response was, “You have been living here; just show me what you have liked.”

A traveler isn’t going to see the sites; only accidentally. I didn’t know where all the temples were, the pagodas, the jade shops. I knew where there was one temple that had taken on a spiritual and human significance to me (and so I returned often). I knew where there was ONE pagoda because it was near that temple. I had no interest in or money with which to buy jade, so I had no idea about that. What I did know was which peasant in the nearby open-air market was my friend and saved the best chilis for me, or potatoes, or any other thing she’d learned I liked. My friend was quickly frustrated by the local bus that I took all the time to go into town — if I didn’t ride my bike which was usually what I did. Our cross country journey to Hangzhou in the Aeroflot plane scared her and the public bus trip frustrated and angered her. Inconvenience was a fact of life in the People’s Republic of China and my friend became angry at me for accepting that. That people went home at noon for two hours and things closed was, to her, reprehensible and could only happen in a communist country where people were paid whether they worked or not.

The biggest problem was China was not her IDEA of China, but it was its own place. She would never have had to deal with this if she’d chosen to be a tourist rather than link up with a traveler. Unfortunately, because I didn’t “get” it (I could have arranged a tour for us) she had a bad time and left almost 2 weeks before she’d planned to. “You love this place,” she said. “I can’t love it. In fact, I hate it.” She’d suffered during the two weeks she’d been there; near heat-stroke, roaches, broken-down busses, scary toilets, scarcity of food, unpredictable transportation — basically everything that would describe the People’s Republic of China. She’d been forced to travel.

My then mother-in-law, who was also with us on this adventure, was a traveler. When she was gently mocked for carrying a fork everywhere, she learned to use chopsticks. When waiters didn’t understand, “Green beans” or “Ice cream” she learned to say those words in Chinese. The scary toilet was “No worse than in Greece. They’re actually more hygienic since you don’t have to touch anything.” Never mind that this 72 year old woman was obliged to squat and carry her own toilet paper. She didn’t care. On the breaking-down bus, she stuffed tissues in the windows to keep them from rattling. When we found ourselves obliged to hitch-hike, she was interested in the scenery. I think her month in China and Hong Kong was a major highlight of her life. She was born to travel. A tour would have been OK, but she’d likely feel she hadn’t seen “real China.”

Because of my friend, I saw things in the city in which I had been living that I hadn’t seen the whole year I’d lived there. And, during her tourist visit with me she took these photos (and more) and I’m so grateful now that she did. Because of my mother-in-law I was able to relax and share the experience of living in China. I benefited greatly from both perspectives — and my friend went back to try again. I think she enjoyed it more the second time around.

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https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/tourist/

Water

Living so long in California during the drought (I think it’s time we stopped calling it a drought and started calling it “California’s climate” as it has gone on more than a decade) makes where I live now, the San Luis Valley of Colorado, a high mountain desert, seem like an oasis. The Rio Grande threading through it is, to me, a miraculous thing as are the aquifers and hot springs that are the result of the pulling apart of “our” two mountain ranges, the San Juans and the Sangre de Cristos.

But where I live, water is a complicated substance, something that can be said anywhere in the west and anywhere there’s farming. Right now water is rushing through the irrigation canal and into the fields according to “shares” — a system I’d probably learn to understand if I had bought some property outside of town.

My grandfather was a “ditch rider” back in the 20s and 30s in Montana. I don’t know much about what that means except that he rode (a horse) along the ditch easement and opened and shut gates and monitored the use of peoples’ shares. The family was proud of him for this because he was re-elected over and over, showing he was a very fair man and his neighbors appreciated his work. I think of him every time I drive to Alamosa (the “city”) to shop at a big supermarket. Along the way, there is a small, old wooden structure beside one of the irrigation canals of a type that was very common in my childhood. I have no idea what it is or why there are no longer many of them, but in the dim recesses of my memory (before I was five) there’s a faint image of my mom pointing out one of these little buildings and saying, “Your grandfather had all the keys.”

Back in the late 50s and early 60s when my grandmother was alive, the houses on her street used an irrigation canal to water their yards. I really loved it when it was “our turn” and my uncle opened the gates and the water flooded the pasture. The irrigation water supplemented rain and the opening and closing of the gates depended on how much rain had fallen. The ditch manager kept track of that, too. Farms, of course, had first “dibs.”

Here in Colorado, there has been — for many years — disagreement even who owns the run-off water from a rain storm. The state VERY, very recently gave approval for people to collect rain water at their houses. Before that? The runoff was the possession of someone somewhere according to arcane principles involved with agriculture.

In South China, where there was no shortage of water, there were different devices to move the water in and out of the fields. Some of them were beautiful — there was an elegant waterwheel pump operated by a well-balanced person (often a kid and his pals) who “climbed” it like stairs.

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One of my most beautiful memories of South China is riding home from the city under a full moon, and passing a cabbage field that had been recently flooded. The rows in the field were at 90 degrees to the road so as I rode by, I saw the moon reflected over and over in each narrow channel.

Of course, my favorite kind of water is…

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https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/water/

Bernie Sanders, a Confucian Parable

“Struggle” was a common vocabulary word in Communist China. In fact, everything that was worth anything came at the price of a “struggle.” The great prize of Communism could not be reached without it. It was a way of justifying the incredible hardships everyone went through from, uh, well, yeah, we’ll pander to the illusion, from Liberation on. It’s a good idea to indoctrinate a people with this idea because it means they will never, never expect life to be either easy or happy. The elderly Chinese I knew did not live with axiomatic “struggle;” whatever terror their lives had held (and that was a universal element of lives lived during WW II and the Cultural Revolution) they still lived with an “…expectation of the dawn.”

Life was supposed to be hard. If life wasn’t hard and you were actually ENJOYING it, you must be some kind of bourgeois loser. To become a modern country, China had to struggle, but the struggle didn’t begin with Mao and it did not begin joylessly.

Some thirty years ago now (?) I was researching and writing a book about Pearl S. Buck as a writer in the Chinese vs. the Western literary tradition. I have/had a good case for this. She, herself, said that her background as a writer was different. BUT…A major element of the Chinese literary tradition is the motive behind someone picking up the pen to write a story. Since, for centuries, novels were severely frowned upon in China, and those who wrote them, if caught, could be punished by death or castration, those people driven to write them wrote them secretly, published them secretly and acted like they’d never heard of it if the Emperor’s men came to question them about it. Novels were written for the pleasure of the writer and anyone he might share the stories with. Pearl Buck insisted this was her world, too. I was so wrapped up in this when I was working on the project that a simple truth didn’t occur to me.

She sought publication for The Good Earth in the United States and became a best-selling novelist then, for the rest of her life, struggled hard to remain a best-selling novelist.

But in this research I learned a lot about China in the early 20th century, the pre-Mao “struggle” to simplify the characters so people could learn them more easily and faster. I learned about people — young people — going from village to village teaching people to read and write. I learned about the protest against foot-binding and how that really played out in action — and at what cost for some young women. I saw absolute shining hope.

And THEN…

WW I

And THEN…

Back to modernization.

And THEN…

Warlords tear the fledgling nation apart, subvert efforts to educate the people and move the “nation” forward. Famine, drought, flood, oppression

And THEN…

The Japanese.

Fate. In stories written by Pearl Buck’s Chinese contemporaries there is often an old woman, an Amah or an Old Mother, who lifts up her hands in resignation at some point, utters “Ay-yah!” and puts the whole thing down to fate. In earlier Chinese fiction, the inescapable fateful situation is set up in the beginning of the story where a human’s will comes up against supernatural powers and loses, but not immediately or there’d be no story. The story is, then, about the protagonist’s “struggle” against fate.

At one time in my life I owned every one of Pearl Buck’s novels and other writings. I don’t think I have any now. I think they were jettisoned with my move. But I do have a copy of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, autographed (and stolen by me from the San Diego Public Library) and her translation of Shui Hu Chuan (The Water Margin retitled as All Men Are Brothers) a very old Chinese novel about conscientious, poetry-writing, sometimes cannibalistic bandits and their overthrow of a corrupt dynasty. It’s a great book.

I found the project yesterday in the garage. It’s in one of those very-common-in-my-generation blue canvas binders, printed out on old-style computer paper with a dot-matrix printer. The computer of the era was an Amiga. Yesterday I thumbed through the pages and thought of picking up where I left off but soon realized the struggle to retype that whole thing would be more than I wanted to undertake.

Apropos of this post: “China Buries Memories of the Cultural Revolution.”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/struggle/

Short Mountains

I’m 5’1″ and I used to be cute, I mean cute as in young woman cute not cute as in old lady cute. I’m also very smart. I know this because it’s been measured numerous times and I really had no significant problems surmounting the hurdles of academic life even though I didn’t try very hard or like it very much. I’m also (here’s a nasty word) “creative.” I’m also very serious about what matters to me BUT I might laugh about it and enjoy it. In spite of being small, I was always, also, physically strong with good endurance and speed. I am also very independent, generally optimistic, like to laugh and have a comparatively “out there” (meaning irreverent) sense of humor. In short, I’m a formidable entity in a short body.

None of this is bragging. I look at it all as the result of a genetic soup that I had nothing whatever to do with. I only hope I did pretty OK with it because it was a nice gift. One of the most difficult parts of this, though, was (and is!) being taken seriously by other people. The men with whom I worked — those in my generation in particular —  could be very obnoxious. Because I am little and cute, many of them actually patted me on the head, stood too close, and often hit on me. Female co-workers disdained me because I was not as “serious” as I should be (hard to be “serious” when you spend every day of your life doing EXACTLY what you love to do) and they (unconsciously?) assumed that a petite, playful person who likes to laugh is not working, does not care, will not do well, is not paying attention. Somehow, on some level, I believe I came across as a child to my colleagues.

Over the years I’ve realized that small, happy people are often underestimated.

But, in South China, I was a pretty average height. It was great. Standing on a bus, I could easily reach the overhead railings. Riding the bus, my 6′ husband – for whom life was simple in the US – had to stand under the ceiling air vent and open it in order to stand up straight.

Still, in China, I got a lesson that showed me that I shared the bias against “short” things.

One afternoon, as I was lecturing in one of my writing classes, smiling and happy as usual, one of my students raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, why you smile all the time? You think we’re funny?”

“No. I don’t think you’re funny. I think you’re all great. I smile because I’m happy.”

“Why you happy?”

“I’m teaching, which I love and want to do, and I’m in China which is a dream come true for me.”

“You’re happy to be in CHINA?”

“Oh yes, very happy.”

“You like China?”

“I love it.” Suddenly LOTS of hands were raised.

“How you love China and love America, too?”

“How you love China? Life is very hard for you here compare to America.”

“Why you happy to be teaching?”

I explained everything to my class and watched their eyes widen and smiles grow.

“You think China beautiful?”

My heart was in my mouth. “Yes.”

“America is not beautiful?”

My heart rose to my eyes, thinking of the Rocky Mountains which I sorely missed.

“America is beautiful, too.” My heart spilled down my cheeks. My students saw it.

“You homesick, teacher?”

“No, but I miss the mountains. Let’s get back to our work, OK?”

They were then talking amongst themselves and the head of the class (every class had a “head” in China at that time) then stood up and said, “We want to invite you to see something, teacher. Will you come with us?”

“After school?”

“No. Now.”

“OK.”

We packed up our belongings and left the classroom. We walked past the village into an area that was being built into a park. At one point in the area a moon gate had been built. A moon gate (if you don’t already know) is a circular gate, an opening in a wall, that might be for going in and out and might just be there to frame a scene. This was to frame a scene. Above the arch were four characters, an actual Chinese poem. They were, “Wind, Sky, Water, Mountain.”

风 天 水 山

A pretty lame poem in English, but in Chinese characters it looks pretty and placed where it was, it exactly described the order in which people would naturally observe the scene beyond the moon gate. We stood in the wind, under the sky (Heaven), in front of the gate was a pond, above the pond the large hill behind the agricultural college; a mountain.

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My students, understanding I missed the mountains, had brought me to see one. What a gift, one that took me half a lifetime to understand. At that point, I had not learned to respect a mountain under 10,000 feet. I underestimated them and called them hills, but in time I learned not to underestimate any mountain, even the short ones, or a poem that is only four words long.

***

Moon Gate, West Lake, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, Asia

Not “my” moon gate, but a famous moon gate in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. You can see there is a “poem” over the arch. 🙂

 

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/underestimate/

My Bible

When we’re kids, we are the story, and life is a string of scenes and episodes. When I was ten, there were the episodes of catching fireflies, drawing pictures, planting a row of radishes with my mom. There was the wondrous episode when the grownup men went to get sweet corn from a farm and bring it home RIGHT NOW to be put into boiling water and eaten RIGHT NOW with butter, salt and pepper. There was the explosive episode of my dad and uncles taking us out of town to shoot off illegal firecrackers they’d bootlegged from Wyoming. I learned anarchy from those happy men in their khaki pants and white undershirts, sleeves rolled up over Old Golds and Lucky Strikes, talking about the war and when they were kids and firecrackers were legal. “Hell, everything was legal, well, except hooch.”

One of these episodes was, it turns out, a turning point in history as well as in my life. It was 1962 when I was 10 and, for two or three wet autumn days, Dad was 15 floors below ground at Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters on Offutt Air Force Base, and we were forbidden to go outside. My little brother and I felt our mother’s dark anxiety everywhere.

After 36 hours of constant underground vigilance, my dad came home, remaining on- call. “Let your dad get the phone.” The waiting went on until, in early-dark late afternoon, the phone finally rang. “It’s over. My God. We were inches away from nuclear war,” said my dad, a war-gamer for SAC. And then we were — inexplicably to me still — going shopping on wet streets in still-spitting rain, heading to a huge discount store in west Omaha.

I knew all about nuclear war. We had ludicrous “duck and cover” bomb drills at school (ludicrous since my school was less than 20 yards away from the base, so we WERE the target). We’d watched the weekly documentaries and the films that simulated nuclear attacks — like that on Hiroshima — but on London, New York, Paris. My brother and I had seen (more than once) the crater at Alamogordo and we knew all about Fat Man and Little Boy; we’d seen the casings of their brothers. I could see hundreds of B-52’s from the top of the hill on my walk to school.

When we got to the store, my mother gave me a dollar to spend any way I wanted. I bought a Bible. It seemed appropriate given the danger we’d been through, and I thought it would make my mother happy.

When I took the Bible out of its gold and maroon box, I noticed its particular aroma of leather, paper and glue. I opened it with proper reverence and, in my careful, neat, lopsided, newly learned curvy cursive, using a fountain pen because it was more formal than a ball point, I wrote my name and the date. I imagined my Bible would someday be filled with names, the name of my husband, my children, my grandchildren. That moment, that day, marked the end of my childhood and the beginning of, “I wonder what’s going to happen?”

It was a big, black Revised Standard Version with no pictures and no red writing. My Bible (of which I was quite proud) and I finished kid’s Sunday school, and together went we “went forward” to publicly accept Christ as my personal savior. We attended the Bible study leading to my very literal immersion into the Baptist Church. It went through my brief fling being born-again at summer camp, and my Bible went to college with me. In 1972 I got married, and I wrote my husband’s name in the Bible, even though I felt, even then, that writing it was a mistake. When we divorced, I crossed out his name, and, for a time, I liked my Bible less for that. In 1982 it went with me to the People’s Republic of China. It was there my Bible met its destiny. I never imagined that Bible would have a story of its own, or one so filled with irony.

The Chinese government flew us from San Francisco to Guangzhou, and that included a flight from Hong Kong, which is only a few hours train ride away. My then husband, Jim, and I expected a long Hollywood-style interrogation when we landed behind the Iron Curtain, but the only question the People’s Liberation Army customs officer asked me when I got off the plane (an Aeroflot, which I found amazing) was whether I had brought any “religious material.” By that time in my life, I had self-identified to a proselytizing Jehovah’s Witness in Denver as a Zen Baptist and what was and what was not religious material was an open question. I said no. I didn’t know that there was a whole (large and well-funded) mission in Hong Kong that relied on American tourists to smuggle Bibles into China. In any case, I don’t believe in converting anyone, and my Bible was there for me to use in helping my students understand the Western literature I would be teaching.

Soon I was involved in my classes, and my Bible (with its indomitable Bible fragrance tying me to my childhood and home) sat on a shelf in the bright room I used as an office. I liked that it was with me in that very foreign place.

In one of my classes, I met a Chinese woman my own age with whom I became close friends. She came from Hainan, a large island in the South China Sea, straight across the Gulf of Tonkin from Vietnam. Looking at its location on the map mesmerized me.

During WWII the Japanese occupied Hainan and established air bases to supply their invasion of French Indochina and the Philippines as well as to coordinate their attack on Pearl Harbor. After years of fighting, Hainanese Communist guerilla fighters (people from the various mountain tribes as well as coastal Chinese) succeeded — with the help of the American Army — in pushing out the Japanese. During the Cultural Revolution in the ‘60‘s those so unfortunate as to have learned English during the anti-Japanese War, were imprisoned, tortured, killed. Survivors talked of suicide as if it were a disease. One of these was my friend’s elementary school teacher, Mr. Hu. His first wife, Mr. Hu explained, had “…got the suicide” while he had spent most of five years in a tiger pit.

With the fall of the Gang of Four, Mr. Hu married again and was transferred from Hainan to teach English in a high school in a village near my university outside Guangzhou. English was in; Russian was out and any Chinese who could speak English was an important government property. He was a lovely man and his students — past and present — adored him. He and his wife made a beautiful lunch for me and we talked away the afternoon in American English. China (to avoid looking as if it might have changed its mind about the United States) usually hired British teachers as Foreign Experts in English. I was among the first “wave” of American teachers, and I seldom heard an American idiom or nuance of American speech. This man came out with phrases like, “Oh boy,” and “OK,” and, “You bet,” and “Not worth a plug nickel.”

“You speak American English, Mr. Hu. Where did you learn it?”

“In the anti-Japanese war,” he answered, “from American army. I was a clerk.” Most Chinese would have said, “clark” in the British way. At the end of the afternoon, I invited himand his wife to my apartment for Thanksgiving dinner I had, at that moment, decided to prepare. American food, though not turkey. I thought I could get a chicken and make potato salad.

I had invited a few of my own students, too, as well as Mr. Hu who arrived with my friend and her husband. As I put the meal together, Mr. Hu entertained everyone with the story of the, “Pigrims randing on Prymoth Lock on the Mayfrower.” In his voice I heard exactly what he had done in that tiger pit to keep himself sane and not “get the suicide.” A good memory from his past had kept him from losing his mind and had kept him alive. There was more to it, something I didn’t suspect.

Some days later my friend came to my apartment and asked me to take a walk with her. I was still naive. I didn’t realize that many of the walks I took with friends in China were taken so it would be difficult for anyone to listen to our conversation. The irony of Chinese life under communism then was that the more public we were the more privacy we had. We left the campus, walked across the rice fields of the agricultural college behind us and up the small mountain. “Do you have a Bible?” she asked.

“Yes. Why?” I knew she and her husband sincerely regarded religion as superstition.

“Mr. Hu,” she answered.

I would take a bus halfway to Mr. Hu’s village to a stop that connected to many other buses, no big thing for me to do this, completely normal. There was a store near the stop where foreigners often shopped. He would meet me at the stop, and after giving him the Bible, I would return home.

The night came, cold and pouring rain. I wrapped my Bible in newspapers and tied it with pink string. Chinese were always carrying newspaper-wrapped bundles tied with pink string so this would not be unusual. To keep it dry, I slipped it into the plastic envelope that often contained the poncho I would be wearing, also completely normal. If anyone noticed — which was doubtful — it would look simply as if I had given Mr. Hu a poncho.

Twilight turned to night as I waited beside dripping palm trees, holding my red umbrella and my bundle. Finally, a bus stopped, and the disembarking crowd rushed up the street. Someone pushed me. I looked up, relieved it was Mr. Hu. I opened my mouth to speak; he shook his head very slightly. I continued walking, passing him the bundle as if it were a hand- off in a football play.

I held a party for my students on Christmas Eve, and, of course, invited Mr. Hu, but he was “too busy.” On Christmas morning, I found a beautiful card with a silk painting, an anti- American propaganda tract from the height of the Cultural Revolution (in English) and several Mao buttons had been slid beneath my door. Mr. Hu. I never saw him again.

My Bible, bought at the end of the hottest moment of the Cold War, was smuggled to a Chinese man who’d learned English and become a Christian while working with the American Army in WWII. I was sure that the story of hope told in the Bible, and his memories of his young glory as a resistance fighter against the Japanese, had kept him alive while he was harassed and tortured by Maoist mobs during the Cultural Revolution. I, the smuggler, am the daughter of a man who had the US Government’s highest security clearance during those years of ideological warfare and whose politics were clearly established in Ayn Rand’s Anthem.

Going to See the Dalai Lama

Daily Prompt Journey Tell us about a journey — whether a physical trip you took, or an emotional one.

Any halfway decent physical journey will be an emotional one. Many who like to travel go out seeking transformation. Some philosopher guy wrote somewhere something like, “To travel is to be born and to die every minute.” I don’t remember who; I just remember what. Some people travel to far away countries and never leave home.

I’ve done a bit of traveling to faraway places, but some of the most transformational journeys did not involve leaving town. When I was in my 20s I desperately wanted to get out of Denver and see the world. I was profoundly influenced as a child by a couple of books and watching Lowell Thomas Presents. I remember watching him meet the Dalai Lama and thinking, “Wow, that’s about as faraway as it’s possible to go. I want to go that faraway someday.”

But there I was, stuck in Denver, working an office job, plodding through life, waiting for something to happen, not knowing how to make things happen, and not even knowing what WAS happening all around me. Some great stuff was happening, but I couldn’t see it. I was single-focused blind on SOMETHING SOMEWHERE SOMETIME in spite of the good reminders left in coffeehouse toilets saying, “Pee here now!” (Sartre) One afternoon, a friend, the secretary of an amazing man, Ved (Ved was actually trying to date me but he was so far away on a completely other plane that I didn’t notice that’s what he was doing) called to say Ved had gotten us tickets to see the Dalai Lama, that very night. There was a reception and then the Dalai Lama would be speaking. What? In Denver?

We went.

He had been invited by the Naropa Institute and the University of Denver College of Law (where Ved was a professor). At that time, the Dalai Lama didn’t speak English, so he had an interpreter. People who wanted to ask him questions wrote them on index cards so they could be translated. He would answer them after his talk. He spoke and his interpreter shared the Dalai Lama’s words with us. It was a great speech. He spoke about being discovered to be the Dalai Lama when he was a baby and moving with his family from China to Tibet to start learning his job. He spoke about finding one’s way through the dark forest of life. He said that each person has his/her own unique way through this forest and it is one of our life’s purposes to find that road. He said no one can tell us what our road will be, that finding the road is why we are alive. He then spoke about having left Tibet and rebuilding the community in Ladakh, in India. He spoke at length about the political situation in Tibet — in those days, 1980, it was very, very dark and the People’s Republic of China had only begun digging itself out from under the detritus of the Cultural Revolution.

I did not know that, in just a couple of years, I would live in China, but I wanted to. I was studying Chinese. My teacher was an English professor from Beijing Technological Institute who was studying at the university from which I’d just earned my MA. It was clear to me that the Dalai Lama’s agenda was creating sympathy for Tibet much more than giving spiritual guidance to people in the audience. His spiritual message was clear; it was every man for himself in that regard. He couldn’t tell anyone what to do.

He was right.

The time for questions came and each question was a version of “What is the way?” He looked through several cards and said, “You are all asking me what is the way. I have said I cannot tell you your way. That is why you are alive. You must find your way.” Then there was a question about Tibet and then this trick question, “What did you learn when you left China and moved to Tibet?” It was another way of asking, “What is the way?” The Dalai Lama laughed. His eyes sparkled. He grinned. He answered, “Tibetan.” Then he giggled.

That night I spoke on the phone with my Chinese teacher and told him about what the Dalai Lama said about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. My teacher had the Chinese line down pat. “They were living in poverty, very backward, living in superstition. All their wealth went into the monasteries who took from the people and gave nothing back.”

I didn’t disagree with my teacher, but I thought, “I imagine the people thought they got something back.” I didn’t know, but it seemed they loved their Dalai Lama and had a right to be whatever they wanted to be, even if it was backward, ignorant and superstitious.

I did all this traveling in the space of two and one half linear miles. Interestingly, within that same distance, a few months later, I also met Lowell Thomas. And, on a Colorado ski slope 70 miles away, the very next winter, I met Sir Edmund Hillary.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/journey/

Chiles

Daily Prompt Food for the Soul (and the Stomach) Tell us about your favorite meal, either to eat or to prepare. Does it just taste great, or does it have other associations?

I’m not a “foodie.” I don’t find food intrinsically interesting. I like it and there have been periods in my life I’ve been a good cook but food as a subject of contemplation, reverence and enthusiasm? No. In fact I think it’s kind of weird the fetishism around food these days, but there are many things I don’t understand.

Food has a different importance in a country where it’s not easy to get and where you cannot be sure what you will have to eat. Food was interesting to everyone in China when I was there because most people alive then (1982) had lived through at least ONE period of lean times if not real hunger. Famine has been a problem in China for millennia. This is why the Chinese do NOT greet each other with “Ni hao, ma?” (You good?) but “Chi baole ma?” (Have you had enough to eat). That says everything.

I grew up eating Mexican food. I’m “white”, but, as some of my Mexican friends have said, I have a “Mexican heart.” I also learned that food becomes important when you are a long way from home. In China, I was a little homesick for Colorado — only at times. I think when we are in situations of rapid change and a steep learning curve, as I was in China, we want to retreat to our normal life for a while. I missed green chile.

We shopped in an open-air market in the village of White Stone (Shi Pai). Fish hung from strings as advertising. Vegetables — picked and carried in on trains by peasants in the early morning — were spread out on boards under blue, pink and white striped plastic canopies. It was a scene from National Geographic. Our meat was allotted by the Central Committee (meat was rationed) but chances are that sometime during the week we heard, off in the distance, our future pork being slowly bled. It is not the kindest way to kill a pig, but as our meat had lived its life untethered and roaming freely around the village and roads, its last moment was the one dark moment in its life.

Chinese pork is great. There were chilis in abundance in the market. I had a good recipe. But what could we eat them with? No tortillas! We begged permission for a trip to Hong Kong with empty backpacks filled on the return trip with cheese, white flour (no cornmeal), dried beans and some other “normal” food. As soon as we got pork, we went to buy chilis. I set out beans to soak and then boiled them. That afternoon, after class, I came home and made chile verde. Then I made flour tortillas.

I always bought chilis from one woman. I don’t know why, exactly, but I liked her. She was funny. Most of the peasants working in the market spoke a dialect of Cantonese. I didn’t speak even Cantonese, only Mandarin. Most of the peasants were illiterate. Well, for what it was worth, when it came to Chinese, I’m pretty illiterate as well. I didn’t know that what I was saying in Mandarin might as well have been English for some of the people selling vegetables, but that was so. I don’t even know if my favorite vegetable vendor understood me at all — but I think she did. Money and numbers make sense to everyone and there was (is?) an underground in Chinese culture of people who had fine educations hiding in the countryside to avoid the PLA (Peoples’ Liberation Army) during the Cultural Revolution. “My” peasant could have been an intellectual.

Then, one sad day, chilis went out of season. I had never lived in a world that was dependent on nature like that. NOTHING goes out of season in the US, though I remember when one couldn’t buy strawberries in January except frozen and then even frozen strawberries were not in giant bags but in small white boxes that cost a lot and were only for dark moments of strawberry desperation. My vendor was there, and when I approached, she said in Mandarin, “Mai yo! Mai yo la jiao!” — “I have no chilis.” She attempted an explanation that I could somehow understand and I knew I’d have to wait for more chili verde, but how long???

Three months. A season passed. Then a day arrived that I arrived in the market and she called out, “Ma Sa! Ma Sa! La jiao! La jiao!” holding out both hands filled with Serrano chilis! I wasn’t just thrilled by the chilis, but by the fact that she knew my name! I bought 5 mao worth (1/2 jin, more or less 1/2 pound) and went home and made chile verde.

I wonder how many homesick Americans have gone to China and eaten Mexican food?

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/food-for-the-soul-and-the-stomach/