Wednesday, May 4, 2011

China Chronicles-part 2

The China Chronicles, part 2

We left Hefei on May 1st, big festival in still-mostly-communist China. We had some time before our train was to depart so it was decided that we all take a walk together in a pedestrian area. Hordes of people flowed in the European style shopping street, red lanterns swinging, people of all shapes and sizes in constant motion, pushing and shoving, meandering, yelling, carrying their children like precious bundles (I have seen maybe 5 baby carriages since I got here! they just pick up their kids!). Chinese pop music blasting from the endless shops, luring people in to buy that shirt or dress pair of jeans that will transport them straight to America, make them young and beautiful and rich and happy, of course. Huge billboards above the mega department stores all boasted western beauties in Lancome, Chanel, Gucci and what not, while down below slanted eyes gazed longingly. When they weren’t adoring the super models they were mesmerized (and amused) by us: a group of foreigners in an otherwise totally Chinese place…(tourists don’t set foot in Hefei).

I am famous in many places in the world and accustomed to being stared at, but nothing could prepare me for the dropped jaws and shameless ogling I experience here… dark skinned curly haired stranger walks the streets! Everybody smiles at me shyly or boldly but always curiously…I am an oddity. They giggle and tell me I’m “bootifoo” (those that can say that word…all three of them J). It could have easily been the opposite: I could have been perceived here as vulgar and ugly compared to the slim black haired porcelain dolls the women here all resemble. In any case, I am an oddity. I guess every person should experience that at least once in their life: what it means to feel, and be, so totally different. It humbles you.

To escape the crowds we ducked into an alley where a vendor was selling fresh pineapples. Two steps into the tiny side street, the ‘other’ China shows its face: shabby, poor, dilapidated, dirty…laundry and seaweed hanging to dry side by side on a greasy clothes line, and the omnipresent smell …

Behind the glittering fa├žade, there is still much to be done.

After our walk in the human river, we took a train to Changzhou (CHUNG-JOE), checked into a pretty seedy ‘wannabe’ modern hotel that smelled funny, went out to dinner (celebrated Ofer’s birthday…) had strange food, and called it a day.

The next morning I was on a quest. A friend of mine, who lived there for a year, urged me to visit what he described as a fascinating, mystical, meditative place..a temple at the top of a sacred mountain. Gil, Florntijn and myself left at 6:45 am with a taxi for what my friend had said would be a 45 minute drive. It took an hour and a half, through a seemingly endless metropolis that finally made way for mountains. We reached a place called “Moushan” (he had said it would be called Emei Shan), there was a cable car (he said stairs)…and at the top, everything but tranquility: The place was packed with devout Taoists (I never knew such a thing existed. Truth is I am developing a stronger aversion to religion of all sorts with every passing day..btw, one of the nice things about China is that most people here are NOT religious! Thank GOD! J)

We witnessed a strange Taoist ritual whereby the believers take bundles of reeds that come in all shapes and sizes (depending on your status I suppose: the largest ones are over almost two meters tall and quite expensive), burn the tips in a medieval looking dungeon-like fire room, then walk into the main square and wave them around vehemently, chanting prayers and asking their angry looking gods for health and prosperity (I am guessing prosperity takes first place: money rules).It’s a pyromaniac’s dream come true. When they’re finished with the deadly fire ceremony, they start throwing pennies at brass towers and into dragon’s mouths…all in hope of bettering their luck somehow. And there are palm readers in every corner who will sell you any old story I suppose.

Later I discovered that there had been a…what shall I call it?....a slight misunderstanding. My friend (the relationship with whom I am seriously reconsidering) had indeed spent a year in China, but not in Changzhou but in Chungdu (CHUNG-DU). Sounds the same, eh..but, well, thousands of miles away, whole different ballgame, whole different temple. So, my quixotic quest can be chalked up to anthropological experience.

The concert in Changzhou was good. Mira and I are definitely getting the hang of it. I think we have unlocked at least some of the endless mysteries of the Chinese audience. I am saying my little Chinese speech at the beginning of my part of the show by heart now.. they love it! And when we sing in Chinese at the end, they go ga gaJ they participate so willingly when asked to clap or sing along…they are like children, full of wonder…

After the show, we met a pair of Israelis with their two children who had taken the train from Shanghai especially to see us. Talking with them was very enlightening, albeit disconcerting. We learned that the average Chinese makes about 3000 yuen a month, the equivalent of 1,500 shekels or about 350 dollars. In high tech you go as high as 700-800 dollars only! Our friends were amazed that so many people could afford to come to our shows. They also told us that in China there are no social security or unemployment benefits, and no health insurance! I was quite shocked to hear that. I was certain that in a quasi-communist state as this one, your compensation for lack of freedom on almost every front would surely be some sort of social net. But it appears that only your employer can give you health benefits. When you’re unemployed, you’re on your own. Self employed: pay your way. As a result, our friends explained, everybody works. Given no other choice you clean streets or help build the ubiquitous sky scrapers but whatever you do, don’t stay jobless. What’s more, we learned that many of those skyscrapers in the shiny new neighborhoods on the peripheries of huge metropolises are uninhabited! They are the government’s attempt to prepare ahead of time for the inevitable migration from rural communities to the big cities that they foresee happening in the next decade. Until then, they stand like the ghosts of enormous, petrified cement trees.


Well, to lighten things up, here is some comic relief:

Did you knowwwww…
That cucumbers are BIG in China? Yes, our very own melafefon! J

They are dished up in restaurants every which way, you can find them being munched casually by fashion-minded young Chinese cruising the boulevard, and most fantastically, our backstage snacks at many theaters include cucumber flavored potato chips!
Yes, clearly a cucumber obsession. J

And did you know…

That many Chinese do not put diapers on their babies? They believe in ‘toilet training’ (if you could call it that) from day one, so, what they do is dress these little cuties in pants or overalls that have a slit right where their bottoms are. And then, it’s Russian Roulette! Can you move the baby the few centimeters away from you that it takes to avoid being splattered, in time? Let’s see you! This phenomenon never ceases to amaze me here. The first time I saw it on a windy, rainy day in Tiananmen square I ran to the parents and tried to explain to them that their child’s pants had torn by mistake and his bottom was bare in the freezing cold! They looked at me like I was some crazy person.

Who’s crazy? I do not know. In China the word crazy takes on whole new dimensions.

What’s for sure is, the Chinese love their children. They dote on them, adore them, spoil them, invest in them, cuddle them, sacrifice everything for them. It is worthy of praise.

We were talking to a man on the airplane today. When I told him I had three children (unheard of here), he looked at me with longing in his eyes and said: you are lucky. When I tell the average European I have three children, he says: you are crazy. That sort of sums it up.

And one last anecdote:

If you are a female and have any plans of using the toilet in any place other than you very modern hotel room, you are in for a very “interesting” experience. First, prepare your gas mask. Or take a deep breath and hold it for 5 minutes, but whatever you do, don’t inhale! The scent is revolting in ways unknown to man. Second, bring toilet paper from home OR make sure you take it into the stall with you. Otherwise, its drip dry for you, girl. Third, if you were planning on wearing overalls, stockings, high heels, tight dresses, corsets, and the like…..don’t. J they don’t go well with the hole in the ground that passes for a toilet here (and that includes nice restaurants!!) Unless of course you are interested in exploring new yoga positions that will enable you to relieve yourself without getting all disgustingly splattered.

Modernity in China stops at the door of the water closet.

So, back to the tour: after Changzhou we took the train four and a half hours to Wuhan. (Chinese trains and train stations leave much to be desired).

Wuhan: yet ANOTHER big city with the combination of old slummy looking neighborhoods and new, super techy skyscrapers. The hotel smelled bad (for a change!) and the rooms were pretty scrappy. BUT, in keeping with the great Chinese tradition of just-when- you- though-you-understood-something-forget-it-‘cause-you-don’t, the concert was in a stunning hall which makes Carnegie hall in NY look like a dump, and I kid you not. All plush red seats, glimmering wooden stage, gold inlays on the walls, huge golden organ in the back, huge golden flower on the ceiling, wow! And breathtaking acoustics! natural reverberation from the source to the ear to the heart.

We had a great audience (900 people!), who were super enthusiastic (in Chinese terms of course J). After the show they were all over us and the vibe was very good. It was an uplifting experience.

At night in my room I struggled with my computer. Slow internet in most hotels makes it very difficult to use that international substitute for nearness called Skype. I saw my daughter Enea but could not hear her nor she me. Ayehli was nowhere to be found. It was frustrating to say the very least.

Truth is? I am so homesick I could just die.

China is interesting and enlightening in many ways, but I miss my kids and husband and parents and my mother’s cooking and my little baby’s smile more than I can describe. Every day I extract milk from my body (yes, I am still doing that..) in hope that she will still have something to take when I see her again…just for the warmth of it, the symbiotic joy of oneness that nothing in this life or any other can compare to. I don’t know if it will last..but I’m giving it a fight. I guess like China, I too am crazy.

Woah..its late..gotta go the to theater soon (did I mention I am now in …where am i?..yes, Chongqing.. In Szechuan province. Very modern hotel in a skyscraper forest…). Show tonight, our 6th! (3 more to go….)

No matter how confused, brokenhearted, homesick and tired I may be, the prospect of singing in a few hours, opening the doors of my heart again to let in whatever comes, and let out whatever needs to fly…. never fails to illuminate my soul. Thank you, spirit of the universe, for allowing me to do that….

To be continued…

I am back in my room after an excellent concert at the Chongqing grand theater, another monstrous edifice, 17 months old, enormous stage, ultra modern facility that makes most theaters in Europe look like outhouses. After the show, we drove by the river and had a view of Chongqing by night. We were all speechless. NY times ten. Blade-runner meets Fifth Element meets Matrix , and all smelling of fried fish.

I just saw both my girls on Skype. I couldn’t hear them, but they could hear me so I sang them “the itsy bitsy spider” and blew them kisses…

Good night all. I will send this off now. Tomorrow is a new day.

Noa, Chongqing, China, may 5 2011

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