2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Dragons and tigers

(Written June 23)

Our final blowout trip has been the micro version of the stages of the year:

1.  Plans adjusted at the last minute, aka “In China, all expectations explode.”  We intended Tibet, but in honor of the 60th Anniversary celebration of the “liberation” of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army, foreign travel permits were shut off, just about the time we asked.  Of course, our Tibet plans were never yes or no, but rather a “no problem” fading to maybe to maybe not.  So on last Thursday we put together a Plan B to begin on Saturday, with a flight to Chengdu and on to the southwest town of Lijiang.

2.  Excited arrival followed immediately by dense confusion.  From the sleek airport the ride to town is more a path for dirt bikes than a road — apparently in this part of the country to make a new highway you simply rip out the old and start building, leaving the workspace open for hapless drivers who need to get from A to B with or without road.  But the jarring ride ends in Lijiang, a charming maze of narrow streets among red lanterns and beautiful carved shutters and eaves.  Leading to…

3.  Advanced planning is usually insufficient.  I had the hotel address in English and Chinese.  The town is all pedestrian, which is great, but from the south gate on we were on our own.  And, as usual, the old town turns out to be much much larger than expected.  Everyone was wonderfully helpful of course, and the first four informants were consistent.  But after that folks were all stumped.  We had a street name and we thought we were on it, but the numbers restarted almost every block.  After an hour of wandering, we found # 83 in an alley between 79 and 86.  As it happens, this wasn’t even the actual hotel, but at that point someone could lead us the rest of the way.

4.  _______ is so beautiful!  In this case, Lijiang.  That town was the essential image of old China, with cobbled streets, bubbling clear canals, and a sky with real clouds.  Tourists, mainly Chinese, have noticed, making it very crowded — but we didn’t care.

5.  …and the landscape too!  One day we hired a car to take us to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, where…

5a.  If you love it, put a cable car on it.  This one ascends to over 14,000 feet.  From there everyone climbs slowly to a platform among the glaciers and not too far from the glorious summit.  We ascended into dense cloud but over the next hour holes opened toward beautiful peaks and ice fields.

6.  Someone gets sick.  This time, Cheryl, but fortunately she recovered in time for …

7.  More, more!  The phase of great enthusiasm.  The other landmark in these parts is Tiger Leaping Gorge, so named because a fleeing tiger leapt its narrowest part. (7a. It takes a vivid imagination to get the names of things.  Neither tigers nor jade dragons appeared to us this time.)  The summit-to-gorge drop exceeds that of the Grand Canyon, but we found this out 14 miles later, after a 2 day trek.  If you hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, you need no other trek — just ask your feet.  On day 1 we climbed the 28 bends to the summit of the range on the NW side of the gorge, about seven hours of walking.  Happily there’s a guest house at the end of that chunk.  (5a1.  If you love it, build a hotel on it.)  The next morning we continued along the gorge edge on a spectacular trail, eventually snaking down to the edge of the lower gorge, a sheer cliff down to the churning Yangtze.  The trail down was a toe-jamming knee-destroying mix of chutes and giant stairs, at the end of which Cheryl declared that she would not climb out, ever.  At this point, the river surges like a muddy Niagara Falls.  After the trail down, we concluded that there had to be some other way up.  Unfortunately, they haven’t added a cable car yet, so without any foreknowledge we took the “skyladder” which needs no imagination to believe in its name.  Leading us to stage …

8.  _____ is exhausting.  But what a great time.  The retrospective view is splendid — we survived, endured, witnessed something astounding, and brought back pictures and stories.

Now we are in the 11th hour of sitting at the Chengdu airport, waiting for thunderstorms to clear up north.  Since the remaining task is to wait, we enter stage…

9.  _____ isn’t so hard after all!  We ran into a Tianjin neighbor, another Meiguoren (American) who pointed out that the walkway was pulled back from our idle airplane (a bad sign) but that its reconnection will be a very good clue that boarding is imminent.  I realized that we foreigners have to become adept at reading clues in every situation.  And that we may have actually gotten pretty good at it.

So, on this trip and throughout the year mistakes were made.  My assumptions have always been wrong.  But eventually it gets straightened out somehow.  China has been absolutely reliably unexpected from start to finish.

P.S.  After this was written, the crowd at the gate grew restive and finally we were all herded to buses and drove for about half an hour to a hotel in Chengdu. For the night, I assumed.  But about an hour after checking in, the phone rang and we were all herded back to the bus.  The flight left at around 3 AM and we collapsed into our apartment just after dawn.  Ready for the next adventure.

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My brain on China

Lightning, looking south from our apartment

In another life, I take brain scans and convert them to sound-and-light shows. It’s a hobby, and a research interest too ( http://www.frontiersin.org/theoretical_and_philosophical_psychology/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00063/abstract ). It’s also a metaphor … for many things. The world may be a lumpy sluggish thing, but the experience of the world is the dance of a water drop on a hot skillet. I regard the stream of consciousness to be flowing like music. You could put that hypothesis in two bins: science, or art. As art, I make the case by converting the cavorts of the brain into music.

The basic method is to treat the brain like a pipe organ, with parts of the brain as keys. So, for example, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is middle C. When that part is very active (lots of neurons spiking, which is indirectly read by fMRI), middle C is very loud. Meanwhile, another region is another note, also getting louder and softer according to the activity of that region of the brain. And so on.

But Middle C is simple compared to the incredible complexity of activity in any region of the brain. Middle C is also simplistic in comparison to the cacophonous symphony of consciousness. Instead of Middle C, maybe for each region of the brain I could put in a more complex sound, a loop that gets louder and softer when its brain area gets more or less active.

Now, where can I find sounds that capture that raucous tumble of conscious experience? I know… CHINA. Over the last year I’ve been recording sounds all over, and in this video they are the imagined pulse of the brain. Listening to the mix, I hear again the extraordinary cauldron of this country, where I have been so lucky to live.

Here’s the video:

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Party schools

Tomorrow is graduation day at Nankai University and for days now students have been everywhere in their gowns, which apparently they rent for a full week. That’s a full week of photos in every possible setting and with every possible group. I was out by the blooming lotus pond with two students to take my minor place in the digital scrapbooks of the class of 2011. As I walked around on this hot summer day, I thought about the idea of a party school. Nankai is certainly not a party school, but there are party schools here. Thinking about them led me to speculate about…
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are the three well-known terms of the equation assumed in a Western-style democracy. They are traditionally assumed to work together: as you get more of one you get more of the others. And it’s assumed that you want them together: if you are lacking in one, the others will also diminish. Under the L, L, and P of H model, history is a long march toward democracy (and, maybe, capitalism). The ideas make sense together, but has the political equation been subject to empirical testing? What if Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness just happen to occur together in the US, or happened to work for a certain era (like, before the rise of mass media, or before trans-national corporations, or before…). It seems to me that there are a few big experiments under way, checking the hypothesis that liberty is necessary for welfare and happiness.

One of these experiments is probably India — not a country I know enough to comment on. Another is certainly China. In China we see all the ingredients of a Western style nation frying in the wok together, including capitalism. But not liberty. So the Chinese question is, if a government can build a system that provides for the material welfare of most people, will happiness follow even in the absence of the freedoms we know well: speech, press, assembly? When we first arrived, we were impressed by the apparent freedom people enjoyed. In conversations, many people spoke completely freely about the political system. China Daily, the free (that is, no cost) paper in English, was surprisingly open about the problems facing the country. And we noticed right away that China mobilizes instantly around big projects, like high speed rail or green energy. Indeed, the country seems to be perpetually mobilized under the mantra “Build, baby, build.” Deng Xiaoping ought to be the guy in Mao’s tomb. He said “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the rat.” So practicality (and capitalism) replaced ideology, and the leaders of China are technocrats. Possibly ruthless, corrupt technocrats but plausibly wonky, calculating, circumspect technocrats, or maybe some mix of both. President Hu and Premier Wen (or is it Premier Wen and President Hu?) are the picture of wonky corporate directors, with slicked back hair, nerdy glasses, and black suits. And everyone in power dresses and acts pretty much the same, and (as far as I can tell) talks the same talk, a careful bureaucratic style that must be very boring past ten seconds. How do they get that way? By going to a party school. That’s right, a Communist Party School, where proper governmental etiquette is overlearned along with powerpoint skills — there’s a system of these schools separate from the universities and professional schools, and rising Party members attend for various periods to get Politically Correct. The technocrats seem to be working scientifically on all the big problems, which they will talk about in the press: inflation, income inequality, pollution, corruption. They certainly seem to have the interests of the people in mind, and in fact hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from dire poverty to modest but sustainable standards of living. In 20 or 50 years China might have a large middle class, clean air and drinkable water, a little more living space, options for more than one child in each family, and so forth. And what then? Will the absence of liberty be a shrug, or a burning need?

By the way, as the year progressed we became increasingly aware that the street-level freedom everyone expressed was absolutely as far as it went. The technocrats rule with an iron keyboard. Move outside of face-to-face conversation, and you enter a zone of surveillance and police control. In general, China spends more for internal security than it does for national defense. In particular, there are many anecdotes of mysterious phone and internet outages following hot button words. “Protest” seems to be one; say it twice and your phone call will be cut off.  Presently this blog is freely accessed in China, but should I even mention a certain large square in central Beijing I would be converted into “Internet Explorer has stopped working.” Yesterday I googled “Vermont State Police contact” or something like that, and lost google altogether for 20 minutes or so, a slap on the wrist. Following the Jasmine revolution, the crackdown was palpable, and even the slightest whiff of protest got hammered. There was a call for a “walking by” demonstration for democracy, which you could participate in by strolling through certain areas. The walking part was probably to give participants plausible deniability. (“Protest? What protest?”) The effect was that people who did walk by, for whatever purpose, were hauled in for questioning or perhaps jail time. Western media folks who were trying to cover the event where challenged and intimidated by the police as well. Now, everyone knows how to get through the Great Firewall, but this too is at the discretion of the government — they shut my portal during this time as well. So as I write this paragraph I’m disturbingly aware of a reader over my shoulder, and weigh the risk of being shut off in China against telling the story. And that leads to hedging my words, pulling back from the strong conclusions. The Orwellian message is, if you are thinking about protest, think again.
Will this fact of life bother the Chinese citizen in the year 2020 as she walks to her BMW? That’s the question.

There’s one more variable in play in the Chinese experiment. The corollary to the L,L, and P B equation is “power corrupts.” A single party state is, in theory, inevitably corrupt, and thus undermines the welfare and happiness of its citizens. A part of the Chinese experiment, then, is a test of this equation as well. Every day the paper reports on corrupt officials being brought to trial and punished (sometimes with death), and on the deep concerns the government has with the corruption issue. (Every day there’s at least one story of tainted, illegal food.) One practical proposal is to require all government officials to publish an account of their personal assets and property, and a listing of the jobs held by all their family members. Nice idea, but then yesterday’s paper also reported that the plan would be slowly implemented without a definite time table. “Any good system has to have accompanying measures and a proper environment to become feasible,” explained Wu Yuliang, deputy secretary of the Central Commission of Discipline Inspection of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, a wonky guy with glasses and slicked back hair. Should the full-disclosure proposal bother the midlevel bureaucrat, with an official annual salary of $10,000, as he walks to his BMW? Apparently, not at the moment.

The other ongoing experiment with the democratic equation is the good old U S of A, to which we return in about a week. At home I follow politics pretty closely, but here I’ve taken a break. But occasionally I pick up the thread. Every time I look at how the game is played in American national politics, the word that comes to mind is Silly. I’m reminded of that other kind of “party school,” the American college version. I feel like our leaders are only pretending to act in the interests of the citizens who elected them. I hope no reader is offended to hear that I blame the right wing for polluting the rhetorical waters, but really no one in congress seems to live in the real world. I suspect we are also subject to one-party rule, and that is the party of the Rich. Corruption comes with it as well, not only in the buying and selling of influence but in the manipulations of the press and onslaught of other media designed to undermine rational choice (ads, for example). Democracies are inefficient, but for us the question of the next decades is whether the government can improve the welfare of all, and face the issues that China also faces: income inequality, pollution, corruption. Often, lately, our government has been incapable of acting at all.

So we have two systems with serious needs for reform. Who can foresee the decades ahead? It is possible, on the one hand, that China will behave like a good Enlightenment state and move from permanent emergency to democracy. But it is also possible that the experiment of freedom will wind down toward various forms of state or corporate control. Future leaders will still go to party schools, but what will they learn?

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Now that spring has irrevocably sprung, the mystery of the disappearing season — winter — has emerged like a mountain from the mist, along with its solution. First, summer: hot, humid, cicadas to shout over. Then, precipitous chill, and season 2. Psychologically, initial incompetence transformed into habitual incompetence, and bedazzlement subsided to routine wonder (“I’m in freakin’ China!” lost its exclamation point.) The log of staggering events still grew, but then one day it was … March. And then April. What happened to the inbetween? What terrifying force could suck up the passage of time into a blink?

One clue: We came to China but winter stayed at home. Connecticut was buried, repeatedly. We read daily of school closures, storms so backed up they had to take a number, snow so deep you needed a core sample to find your car. The kids were envious; I felt both guilt and relief. Meanwhile Tianjin hovered in the 20s beneath a gritty sun, save for a pathetic centimeter of white some weeks ago — at which the entire Chinese civil service bureaucracy was summoned, wielding brooms.

In other words, Tianjin does not have weather. Seasonal change is beneath notice, and each day is almost the same as the day before. With subliminal seasons, time does not pass; its landmark events pile into an undifferentiated bin marked “over,” and one does not change.

The missing weather is compounded by the other absence in this urban vast: nature. The trees have been brown for four months now. There never have been any birds… or squirrels … or clouds… or stars … or sky. Or even sun, since (as reported earlier) here you can stare at the sun without hurting your eyes. The sole herald of spring has been the return of the diabolical mosquitoes, who enter our apartments by secret tunnels.

The Chinese world view blurs nature and human worlds under the heading of the beautiful. Several of the great nature sites here are half artifact. Mount Tai (September) is a big calligraphy scroll; even the county park, “Lion’s peak,” in Nanchang (February) is a crawl of aphorisms and self-referential description (“This is such a high mountain”…”Yes it’s high all right”….) Gardens, of course, are thoroughly designed. And everywhere we observe the maxim, “if it is beautiful, it is even more beautiful with loud elevator music.” These are the classical examples. Nowadays when nature threatens a drought, the government responds by seeding clouds, not just once but in more than 10,000 locations over several weeks. We owe our dusting of snow to this effort. So when it snows, the kids ask, is it fake?

So I expected Huangshan, Yellow Mountain, to resemble Taishan (Mt. Tai), a carved relic of several dynasties, a formal staircase (3,000 steps) among souvenir shops and hotels, perhaps with a soundtrack. A few slogans set me up: “When you have seen Huangshan, you do not need to see any other mountain” and Deng Xiaopeng’s comment that to see Huangshan is to discover the beauty of the motherland. Both of these would look nice carved in gigantic red characters on a cliff. But Huangshan is too big and too rugged and so perhaps humbled the chislers. Before cable cars, it’s hard to imagine climbing it at all, though various monks, hermits, rebels, and philosophers have intruded over the years. Officially it’s a massive tilted igneous uplift carved by ancient glaciers to leave a bouquet of sharp peaks, but you’ve probably already seen it. Most classical Chinese landscape painting depicts mountains like this, many of them depicting Huangshan itself. I thought the look of these paintings was just a style, a form of exaggeration, but Huangshan really does look like that. We arrived by cable car on a warm, sunny day to make our lofty way up hill and down dale to our hotel, one of three up there. Every few hundren feet we gawked at viewpoints, each labelled “Best view of Huangshan,” which was always right. We finally arrived at “Cloud dispelling hotel,” named after a viewpoint on up the trail. We unloaded and snacked for a bit, excited to be looking out across the high ridges.

Near sunset we walked further toward “Cloud dispelling platform.” And like all the other tourists, we were astounded by the “sea of clouds,” a cottony plane out to infinity from which the forlorn spires rise. It looks like a magic ocean, and it moves. While Rianna and I watched the sunset, the sea of clouds tsunamied a thousand feet, almost to our perch, swallowing mountains as it surged, and then it sank again in minutes. That night the sea rose into rain, but the next morning cloud dispelling platform continued dispelling, but now the sea gathered in cloud icebergs rising and falling across precipitous canyons and crags, while cloud waterfalls poured out of hanging valleys. That’s weather! That’s nature! We were traveling with my guh-guh (big brother) and soutze (sister-in-law), and the kids were on spring break, and by majority vote this was the Mountain Tour. I was thoroughly convinced that indeed after Huangshan, you need see no other mountain, but nonetheless we set out for hard-to-pronounce Zhangjiajie, China’s first national park (1980s). And … it’s different. You’ve seen this one too: Pandora! They played clips from Avatar on the giant digital screens (very Chinese) at the park entrance, and the Pandora landscape is exactly Zhangjiajie, even “Hallelujah Mountain,” which maybe floats — it was fully lost in fog (real weather!) when we were there. Unlike the other nature spots, this really had been a wilderness. Now it’s had the China treatment, and is crisscrossed with paved paths, stone stairs, and concrete railings that plausibly simulate wood. Our last day in this wonderland was spent one park over on Tianmenshan, Mt. Tianmen, a mile high platform that observes another Chinese maxim, “If you like it, put a cable car on it.” In this case, the cable car begins downtown, lifts off over the avenues, cruises just above the tenements, the suburbs, orchards, villages, and fields, and only then ascends stright up along peaks and canyons like Zion with trees. The trip takes 35 minutes, the longest cable car in the world. At the top, there’s a sprawl of restaurants and a temple complex. For me the most amazing part was a “plank walk,” a concrete ribbon stuck into the side of a 1,000 foot cliff, with those nice concrete railings (make this out of wood and I stay home). It’s not Tianshan or Huangshan but still very Chinese: The infrastructure built on this incredible chunk is astounding, far beyond any national park I’ve seen in any other country. As a result, people visit, lots of them, many in groups with guides with loud PAs. In China, you have to walk many miles to get away from it all, vs. the 100 yards to solitude in an American park.) The Chinese seem to have little taste for roughing it (perhaps life is already rough enough), so a good park has to handle grandmothers in street shoes. Camping and RVs — nonexistent. Westerners, also nonexistent, at least in Zhangjiajie, where we saw no Westerners for two days.

Will time start again after this shock of nature? Have to wait and see.

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The Year of the Bunny

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

One of my Oberlin teachers once told a story about taking his 4-year-old daughter to Times Square.  As they gazed at the flow of light, suddenly David noticed that his daughter was crying.  “Honey, what’s wrong?”  he asked.  “Daddy, it’s so beautiful!”

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen;  but it comes at the end of this, the story of the new year, the Year of the Rabbit, the spring festival.  In fact the episode really begins with the train to the Ice World, and the Tianjin train station waiting hall, a typically Chinese cavern, too big for the light to effectively reach the floor, so big that the birds migrate from the north end to the south every winter, big enough for a boulevard of palm trees down the middle, from tracks 1 to 24.  (Beijing South is similar — the banner image at the head of Tianjin Diaries.)  Emerging from the escalator on January 6, we were startled to find the place so crowded that you had to edge and weave your way, even down the middle.  “Carry-on” was redefined.  Our modest wheelies were dwarfed by colorful tarp sacks the size of bean bag chairs, amoebing the floor.  This was no longer travel — we were witnessing human migration on a Chinese scale.  Imagine if almost everyone in the US decided one day to hit the road — here, 300 million people were going home to their families in cities and villages, home to celebrate the new year.  “The largest internal migration in history,” said the China Daily.  As usual, we had stumbled into tumult — but still, the new year was nearly a month away.

This was our first clue that among Chinese holidays, New Years is big.  In the first two weeks of the  January exodus, Tianjin lightened up in the way New York does in August, a dip from the usual street jam.  Our campus emptied completely by mid-January, going dark and quiet.  And everything turned red.  Paper cutout banners flanked every door, with intricate patterns of fishes (= prosperity, by some pun) and rabbits (zodiac animal for the new year), and most commonly the character for “fortune” (as both luck and money), but upside down.  Why?  Because the word for upsidedown sounds like the word for “enter” — hence, “enter fortune.”  Red also became the color of clothes;  if you are born in a rabbit year, you are obliged to wear red (for luck, of course), so all the stores filled with red items.  Since not everyone chooses bright red for daily wear, the red items were either traditionally ceremonial, the high collared jackets or dresses, or discrete — undies or shoe inserts.  Of course all of these were inscribed with incantations and characters of luck.  And red gifts.  Everything in every story and at every street stand appeared in giftable cardboard suitcases:  fruit, eggs, meats, teas, booze, nuts, food supplements, energy drinks, coca cola and other sodas, bottled water, juice, instant coffee, vitamins, chocolate, honey, ginseng, just to name some of the recognizable items.  At the moment I’m breakfasting with a can of “Alpha amygdaline drink,”  from the case given by Ms. Shen, the kids’ daily cab driver.  Alpha amygdaline drink is derived from apricot pits, according to googlemind.  It’s good for your health, of course.  To me, it tastes like a vanilla milkshake, while those with senses of smell think first of paint thinner.  But probably the biggest intimation of the holiday to come were the fireworks stalls that sprang up on every other corner everywhere — the big intersections usually had two.  Typical stands were about thirty feet long, selling explosives from a spectrum of fire.  At one end, the little stuff, suitable for toddlers:  three foot long sparklers (here, made with gunpowder, more like handheld fountains) and spinny whistling fliers that shoot to the second storey.  Then, along the middle table, a boy’s dream of firecrackers.  When I was a kid, we smuggled strings from Canada, and a big one might be a weave of skinny two-inchers about the size of a potholder.  Here, the small size was a folded mat of red fingers, as big as your arm.  The largest firecracker unit was a wheel like a fat manhole cover.  Either was good for a wall of noise lasting about a minute.  Then you got to the big stuff, the aerials and fountains, ranging from basket barrages about the size of a cookie jar to colorful cubes equal to a shipping trunk, easily three feet on a side, a bundle of cannons with a single ominously short fuse.

Of course we wanted to be a part of this.  But apart from our growing awareness that this was the Big One, it wasn’t clear how an expat quartet of ignorant illiterate aphasics could fit in.  The kids had a week off from school, a pitiful nod of a break compared to the month or so of real holiday.  We seized our chance to visit Hong Kong, and then Nanchang, also in the mid-south.  Both visits hinged on the enormous generosity of our students, a student of mine in HK, and one of Cheryl’s in Nanchang.  First, Hong Kong.  Hong Kong is to China as Manhattan is to the US — compact, cosmopolitan, comfortably international.  For us, then, far easier than life on the mainland.  The British colonial remnants include driving on the left, “mind the gap,” and English, spoken even by cab drivers.  Fireworks are illegal there, and in general we got the impression that New Years was not such a big deal, kind of like the holiday in the US:  A party, a cheer, and a brunch.  Our sense of ease in Hong Kong made it seem familiar, but looking back on it, the feeling was merely relative — in fact HK is as much phantasmagoria as any of the amazes we’ve seen.  We had Leo and his girlfriend Carrie to take us to their favorite neighborhoods and the big, wonderful skylines, and guide us into food territories we could not have visited otherwise.  The Liyeungs embraced us as family, with mind-boggling generosity, and we began to get New Years.  It’s about gifting, not just on arrival and first meeting, which we successfully anticipated (cherries to us, nuts to Mrs. Liyeung, a tie to Mr. Liyeung (useless in China, but graciously received nonetheless)).  Gifts passed with every meeting, including the big family dinner, when Leo’s aunts all had something for the girls.  A special custom is the “red envelope,” for cash for the youngest family members.  Rianna and Morgan were raking it in, while their parents felt guilty, having underestimated the volume of this custom.  New Years is obviously all about family, as is most of Chinese life and culture.  And that means Food.  It’s always family style here, generally grabbed from the turntable of platters directly, so any meal consists of some of every dish served, and the correct amount of food is enough to cover the table in platters stacked two deep.  This is not an exaggeration.  Chinese restaurant dishes are served when they’re ready, in any order that the kitchen makes them.  So it is not unusual to get a sweet baked dessert within five minutes and some huge fish or meat platter 45 minutes later, when one is stuffed beyond imagining.  Usually the table quickly fills with big bowls and platters, but then more comes.  The present plates are consolidated into smaller dishes, and soon new plates are stacked on the intersecting corners of old.  We foreigners strive for the clean plate club, but in our experience real Chinese diners are content to leave half behind.  (Incredibly, I’ve actually lost a few pounds here.)  Chinese food combines tastes and ingredients infinitely, the Cafeteria of Babel, but the Liyeungs took us to new summits.  This included the seafood restaurant where dinner swam in terraces of bubbling tanks.  You point to what you want, and waiters snatch it from the water and head for the kitchen.  Dozens of species swim (their last) in this Galapagos.  King and horseshoe crabs, oysters, clams, weird skinny crustaceans like giant waterbugs, and every species of fish including bass (or like it) the size of dufflebags (reserved for special feasts).  I pointed to a bivalve that looked like a giant clam with an enormous tongue, I said, “What is that?” and Leo said, “You want some?”  The next night, then, at the Liyeung extended family dinner, the big item was roast suckling pig.  It’s the Chinese style to serve animals with their heads attached, as some eaters think these are the most delicious parts.  So also with the pig, who lost his as the server cleavered rounds for each of us.  The head stayed on the table, but at our table at least there were no takers.  Morgan, by the way, was alerted to the pig in advance, and was out windowshopping for this part of the meal.

Now the New Year was two days away, and we flew to Nanchang, in the inland province of Jianxi, “Cradle of the Revolution,” full of Mao-slept-here sites.  Nanchang is a city of about four million, not on the tourist list — our count of Westerners per day was around two. 

Nanchang riverfront -- spectacular fountains.

Now we were part of the Li family, and again with every hello gifts were exchanged.  Li Ying, Cheryl’s student, was our host and guide, but the center of the family was Ying’s grandmother, an 80-year old bundle of hugs and laughter, adored by our children and us too.  She was a Hero of the Revolution, the highest honor, for those who fought with Mao before the establishment of the PRC in 1949.  She was an entertainer, the MC at the shows for the troops at the front lines.  The Party arranged for her marriage to a captain in the People’s Liberation Army.  The ceremony consisted of bride and groom bringing their pillow and blanket together in public, and a toast to the Communist Party.  Boom, married.  In this case, happily and for more than 50 years, until the death of her husband, two years ago.

Again, food.  Big restaurant feasts on the night we arrived, new year’s eve,  new year’s day, and so forth, with snacks at Ying’s grandmother’s apartment in between.  But now the backdrop was not Hong Kong skyscrapers but a mounting cacaphony of fireworks.  Back in August, when we heard a string of firecrackers going off (to mark any auspicious new beginning), we raced with our cameras toward the sound.  I really believed I might not get to see real Chinese fireworks if I didn’t catch one of these quick displays.  The New Year is a beginning for everyone, and fireworks are mandatory.  Any sidewalk affords the space required for the red carpets and for the aerials too.  I have a video of a barrage of firecrackers in a stairwell.  With Li Ying we bought some of our own, and took these to a large square in Nanchang, and fit right in with the general uproar.  (The photo at the top of this entry is the morning after.)

Our week on the road was great, but I felt a little sad to have missed the event in Tianjin, which is now our home.  I thought that by the third day of the new year people would get over their fireworks, but not so.  The fifth day was marked with a continuous rumble and sometimes a few minutes of immediate din.  And so the year began very auspiciously indeed.

The holiday ended yesterday with the Lantern Festival, set on the first full moon of the new year.  I googled what I could find about it (the Google doodle commemorated it), and asked around about the customs and activities of the day.  During the day, I went to a Temple Fair and luckily caught the midday performances at “Prince Zhuang’s mansion,” a mini version of the Forbidden City owned by a Qinq dynasty prince.  It included a Festival custom of riddles, fluttering on banners under a trellis of lanterns, a clear pleasure for young and old.  (I wondered how Watson would do with them.)  Also, I finally saw a Lion Dance.  The two lions were each two guys, a head man and the lion’s ass, in charge of the wiggles and shudders that make a standing animal look alive.  They danced, fought, and jumped over each other to loud recorded music.  Then the concubines (I guess) presented a stately dance, as did the eunuchs (really guessing now), and then all joined with the gong bearers and heralds for a procession.  Like a lot of things Chinese, it was simultaneously profound and cheesy, deep myth and loud muzak. Cheryl is down south at a conference, so this was on my own, but after the kids came home we pushed through homework and set out for dinner and a walk.  At dusk the people’s fireworks got started.  Following our quick dinner, we walked in the Water Park, a beautiful park a few minutes south, which we had not visited since our second day here, back in August.  We were suddenly struck, hey, we’ve lived here for six months!  And from the oppressive heat and humidity we’ve swung to the opposite, a frigid park of stiff winds and frozen lakes.  The Tianjiners didn’t seem to mind, and neither did we, because from lakeside you could see the skyline, which was alive.  At the maximum, we counted eleven simultaneous displays of fireworks.  Many of these shoot straight up in the canyons of highrises — we see blooming edges, sudden flashes illuminating facades, resonating booms in all directions.

We were getting cold, so we hopped a cab back to campus, weaving under half a dozen aerial displays.  We felt like we had finally gotten the full new year’s ride, as only a city of ten million and ten megatons could provide.  But I had also heard that a downtown tourist site, the “Ancient Culture Street,”  down by the Haihe river, was a good place to go for lanterns, so the kids got out at home and I continued.  As we got close, the traffic jammed, so I paid the cab and started to walk.  I had imagined a street festooned with lanterns, an urban “lantern wall,” something pretty and colorful to walk through, especially with the crescendo of din.  But as I rounded the last building between me and the river, I gasped as I realized how completely wrong I was.

In earlier postings I’ve commented on the Chinese view of nature, which is not distinguished from human works.  As a sign near the path to “Lion’s Peak,” a beautiful rocky hill near Nanchang, says:  “More civilized, more beautiful.”  And so Lion’s Peak is climbed on stone stairs among big hand carved inscriptions (“The past and the present are one,”  “Eagles do not fly as high as this,”  “The heavens and the earth are one,” and “Take a break,” among others.)  The scale of the Chinese rewriting of the landscape has been consistently breathtaking — the Great Wall, for example.  But over the city last night, the people of Tianjin rewrote the sky.  What I didn’t get about the lanterns is that every person had one, and that they fly.  Each is a hot air balloon of tissue with a blazing lump of something at the base, about three feet tall and almost as wide.  The night sky last night was a new galaxy altogether.  Bright planets, new Mars and new Jupiters, scudded low overhead.  Other beacons passed in front of darkened skyscrapers, and above that and out to the horizon myriad red stars, down to the tiniest pinpoint, twinkled in ever shifting constellations and nebulae, a strong breeze making a parade out to infinity.  Tens of thousands were there, providing the second spectacle:  the city of Tianjin walking on the river.  I had been wondering if the ice was thick enough, and here was the answer.  As far as I could see, people were launching lanterns (quite a delicate process), careening on little sit-up sleds pushed by sticks or friends (without brakes), dancing with sparklers, and setting off the aforementioned cubes of boom.  I crossed a pedestrian bridge over the center of the river, so I could see miles in both directions, lantern launches in progress to my right and left,  lanterns racing overhead and processing along and ever higher, eclipsing the full, distant moon, bombs and starbursts above, ahead and behind, over the river and along the built canyons in every direction, the sprawl of thousands celebrating on a wide river between the sleek modern facades.  Just then I said to myself, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and like David’s daughter I admit I blinked back tears.  It was so China, but before and above that it was simply overwhelming.

I didn’t think much over the hours following.  I went down on the ice, ran out the memory and battery of my camera, crossed under and over bridges, got dragged into group photos, greeted children in puffball snowsuits (“Hello Ni hao!” — parents seem to really like the little English lesson), dodged bobsleds and tumbling hindenbergs, cheered to myself as each group of family, romance, and friendship got their lantern to fly (impossible to launch solo). 

Finally at around 11 things slowed down and I began walking home, very cold.  I hailed a scooter/rickshaw to get a little whitewater headlight terror to round out the evening.  This is a little hard to describe:  I felt turned inside out.  The buildings, so darkly imposing over vast Tianjin, seemed to lose substance, to fade.  Instead, the people thronged the river without things and stuff — just themselves and … fire.  Traditionally the lanterns are inscribed with wishes for the year ahead.  Once you get your lantern flying, your wish is dispatched to the universe, but it recedes only very slowly from your sight, in the presence of thousands of other wishes.  Meanwhile, the fireworks strobe the world with dazzle and sudden shadows, and wonderful echoes.  They provide lightning glances, quick takes of the mainly invisible world of matter.  Being me, I thought of the mind.  Through quick flashes, insights, glimpses, our thoughts make things, a staccato of fireworks like Chinese characters, creating — not discovering — the world.  But among the instants linger wishes, desires, and memories, steady embers in the shifting constellations that orient the chaotic flashes toward something a little steady.  So ultimately the people weren’t really there either, not for me and perhaps not for themselves either. It was a night of stunned awareness and abiding aspiration, all the particulars of one’s worried life burnt off and blown away.  Instead, in fire symbols, Tianjin, and I, write our minds across the sky.

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