Monday, August 4, 2008

55, 63, 71, 82... the ages of my new Naxi friends

The past couple days have been a wonderful reintroduction into Lijiang after my 4 day hiatus. Returning to my slowly familiar town, I was more chatty, talkative, inquisitive.

It’s interesting.

Hanging out with foreigners for four days actually made my Chinese better. I became the translator for the gang, and they oddly trusted me… maybe because I pretended to understand every time people spoke to me, maybe because my Chinese really is progressing-- I think the former: my Chinese really is atrocious. Nevertheless, by traveling around with others relying on me, I had to talk more, be more boisterous, more confident. And it worked.

On Sunday, with Shani, my friend from Israel, I went into a Calligraphy school in Lijiang's painting square. The lao shi (teacher) was so kind, rushing around his studio showing me pictures of the other foreigners he has taught, patiently yet excitedly showing us how to paint characters. Despite my multiple tries at “calligraphy” as a kid in Chinese class (this involved writing one & two & three over and over again, interspersed with drawing disease-struck bamboo & ladybugs), I had no idea that the starting element to calligraphy are the eight quadrants. Eight blank and lonely quadrants. A thin paper sheet with squares is used to practice on—each square is divided into four more squares, and each quarter square becomes two triangles… voila! 8 triangular quadrants. The goal is to imitate a given character, “cong yi dao wu” (from the first to the fifth quadrant), “cong ba dao er” (from the eighth to the second) and so on, following an already-painted character’s strokes. (Sound confusing? I'm even skipping the hardest part—learning how to hold the brush perfectly vertical and only move your wrist!) I asked to take lessons from him each morning.

After our visit to the painting school, Shani and I went to the Zhouyi Market, oddly untouched by other tourists, and sat down to an intriguing lunch in a little darkened hole across from the market's fish area. As we slurped our sour & oily noodles, I made friends with the Naxi women sitting there. They taught me to say things in Naxi language, such as:

Do zey = Hello
Bu ga muo = Goodbye
Gyei = Water

That is, if I heard them correctly. I learned the most important words, huh?

The women were sweet, laughing at us, chatting us up, continuing their banter to my nodding but un-understanding head. One woman (was her name Hou si hua?) lived in Lashi Lake, a gorgeous lake just outside of the city; she offered to take me there. And the other woman (maybe her name was Heuh Chueh Xiao?) and I made a lunch date for the next day. When she saw us again in the market, she wrapped my hand around her shoulder as we took this picture:

Ahhh, I finally made Naxi friends! It was invigorating.

On Tuesday, I went back to meet my friends for Lunch. Unfortunately, when I arrived, the cook told me they had just left, so I left plans for a later meeting. As I was leaving the market, buying some lychees and plums, I struck up conservation with the women selling fruit. I’ve made fun of my half-Asianness before, but I really think it helps people get comfortable with me (and maybe because I don’t walk around with a huge pointed camera!) Their questions about where I am from, bets if I am Chinese, response when I answer that “Yes, wo mama shi Xianggang ren” (my mother is from Hong Kong), all seem to show a general interest in me. They are just as curious about my background and what it represents, as I am curious about theirs. It’s mutual, and I like it.

As I was buying my lychees and plums, a smiley woman came up to me—friends of the fruit seller. Naxi women are very comfortable, even proud, of their age. Without even me asking, the fruit seller proudly stated, “I am 55, she is 71” with smiles and slaps to the knee. The 71-year-old, elegant in her stripey-green Converse sneakers and blue felt vest, with the traditional Naxi sheepskin cape & navy blue hat, patted me on the shoulder, saying “I am going to Si Fang Square to Dance. Come, I’ll take you.” Without waiting to see my response, she walked off, expecting me to follow. And follow I did… why miss this invitation! She sped through the streets, all maybe 85 pounds of her, taking me through back alleys and over bridges so much my head spun. I pummeled her with questions, and she just laughed at me, offering choice answers. She said she danced everyday, both at 9 in the morning, and at 2 in the afternoon. She also said she was from the Mu family (which I’m assuming is the same ancient ruling family of Lijiang). When we passed the Mu Family Palace on our walk, I asked if her Mu was the same Mu… she nodded, laughed, and pounded on a pillar. Perhaps that means yes?

When we entered the main square, she deposited me on an umbrella-ed bench, next to another elder Naxi woman. My dancer friend took her place across from us, along with her other sun-capped fellow dancers. Other Naxi elders were slowly flocking in, also coming to sit on the benches, or on stools in little circles. And of course, as always, other tourists—Chinese, Western, young, and old—waddled through the square. My bench partner was a sweet 82-year-old woman (I do believe that was the first thing she told me, and defiantly so). Her ears were droopy with the traditional silver hoop earrings of Naxi women, but with a green jade stone also linked around each hoop. (I later found out that this decoration marks that a woman is over 80-years-old, another symbol of pride in a woman’s age.) Through her two cute teeth she mumbled in Chinese to me; while I believe she spoke Mandarin, there was no way I could understand her accent. Still, we bonded over my non-pierced ears and her pierced ones, her Naxi-style crinkled skirt and my dirty blue jeans, and my offered lychees & sweet plums. I thought about my own Chinese grandmother—similar in age—and compared their similar yet utterly different crudely-structured life stories in my head.

Something else interesting I saw? Rather than just throwing the bits of lychee skin and seeds onto the ground, my new two-tooth-full friend held them in her hand. Only when the woman sweeping the streets came around, did she throw the trash away—into the woman’s mobile dustbin. How I wanted to ask her why she did this: why did she not litter, why did she try to keep her city clean? What were her thoughts about the water canal just 5 feet away, and how had it provided for her family for her 80 plus years? What did she think about these tourists when they started to filter into her hometown? And—did she even think about these sorts of things, or take them for granted?

These questions, this hesitancy, this barrier… this is where I reach the lower limit of my Chinese skills, and the maximum limit of my frustrations. I have been able to get comfortable with so many people here… becoming friendly with them, getting to know them, feeling trusted by them and vice versa (or at least I hope), sharing and receiving with them as they do with me… but then my language skills falter and I cannot find out what I hope to. How easy it would be if this was in English! Or, even in French! I’m not asking for much, just slightly deeper comprehension—but that seems months, even a year away. I am stuck with the skills that I have (and yet thankful that I have at least some).

The problem is, though: having an interpreter would not be the same. The otherwise-helpful sidekick companion would make things too structured, uncomfortable, artificial. With an interpreter, someone unfamiliar beside me, I feel people would not tell me things. A couple I met, students from Beijing’s best university: Tsinghua University, told me how lucky I was to do a student project abroad. They say that this sort of thing never happens in China, the idea is not known; no wonder people are confused when I say I’m doing a project here. While I could easily find an interpreter through my many connections, I feel that their aid would be ultimately futile. I’ve learned from my mistakes, too. In Cameroon, when I did this sort of project, I went from meeting to meeting, overwhelmed with formalities but in the end not getting anything worthwhile. I didn’t learn, just copied, and what is the use of that? What is the use of formalities and methodology when you don’t have the friendly connection & sharing first?

My proposed plan of visiting and interviewing the city’s Water Authority, and methodologically interviewing local Naxi people—farmers, shop keepers, restaurant workers, hotel owners alike—now seems a farce, almost insignificant. Such a proposed project would be for a later date, after my Chinese comprehension has gotten better, after my own familiarity with the people and the city had reached a comfortable plateau… perhaps after two months or more. And there is not enough time for that. So I have to decide—what is better? Methodological yet shallow data, or fuller yet more spontaneous and haphazard learning? As this is a student project—prone to obstacles, new pursuits, and limited knowledge, yet filled with a wealth of new learning and excitement—I am hopeful that my professors and grant-givers will forgive me! The scale of the project that I proposed, while I once felt doable, is seeming more and more like a long-term undertaking. So--I’ll just do the best I can now, to meet everyone and learn everything I can, in my own way… and while I have the time. Maybe this week I'll just meet people. Next week, I'll ask the questions.

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