Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Slow but Comfortable

Phewwwww. Another exhaustive 2 days!

Yesterday I again tried to meet up with my Naxi lunchdate friends... to no success. I slurped my noodles alone, chatting on and off with a man who wanted to show me "around town."

On my walk back, I poked my head into the Calligraphy School once again. The Lao Shi ushered me in, plopped me down at my own desk, gave me a mao bi (brush), a piece of paper, and put me to work. While my strokes against the paper looked as perfect and at home as a dog's muddy pawprints on white carpet, it was exciting to sit in the classroom, with my new 10-, 11-, & 12-year-old classmates. As I tried my best to copy my teacher's red instructive marks, his top 2 students (talkative & helpful girls of course!) always made sure to get me back on track when my hand fell astray. By the end of the lesson, my teacher was teaching me the characters for "water canal," and explained that in addition to calligraphy, his profession was surveying in Lijiang's Old Town. Perfect! Perhaps, in addition to his Shu Fa (Calligraphy) talent he knows more about the rough geographical ups and downs of this little city.

Today, I spent the day with my new friend Yana, volunteer at The Nature Conservancy's Nature Center, sophomore student in Environmental Science, and Lijiang resident of Naxi descent. I am so lucky to have met Yana. Not only is she kind, patient, (& speaks good English!), but she studies environmental science because she wants to come back to Lijiang and help make their environment more sustainable, healthier, better. She also wants to study the Naxi Dongba culture that she claims heritage to. (Perhaps the perfect solution for an interpreter? I asked her to help me, and she's excited!)

Interestingly, Yana is only half Naxi. Her father is Naxi, her mother is not. And yet, because it is her FATHER who is Naxi---she calls herself Naxi. (Unlike Louis, the student at the Dongba Cultural Center, who is not Naxi because his mother is Naxi.) In typical Chinese style, Yana fed me until I EXPLODED. We ate rice cakes in preparation of another breakfast feast: fire-baked baba (like a big fat pita), chickpea jelly (a spicy grey goop--pretty delicious actually), and stir-fried potatoes with pickled cabbage. Let's just say that it hurt to walk... especially since we were walking to our next food destination! This Chinese hospitality always seems to be the same, whether in Taiwan, Hong Kong, & the Mainland, or with my aunts in Canada & with my mom at Home... it's always eat! eat! eat! These are my kind of people.

In addition to popping our heads into Lijiang's famous stores, we made paper with Dongba priests (in a tourist shop of course), and asked the meaning of the Dongba wheel of life, which is centered around a frog. In Dongba legend, the frog (qing wa) was the first being to "jump" into life, and since then represents good luck and harmony. To be honest, Yana did not even know the meaning--despite being Naxi herself! You can see how much is being lost as generations evolve, though this has sadly been true in history since... well... forever. As Yana does not look Naxi, many people even mistake her for a tourist, completely sidestepping the fact that she is from Lijiang. Additionally, because she cannot speak the Naxi language, people make fun of her for not taking advantage of her special cultural heritage (my own dis-knowledge of Cantonese feels for her). She wants to learn though, hoping to study Dongba scripture after university.

After paper making, we took a cab to Shu He town, about 10 minutes away. Naxi people lived here before they made their way to Lijiang... the buildings and outline of Shu He's Old Town looks the same, similarly crisscrossed with gorgeous canals. However, the water here, unlike Lijiang, is crystal clear. It does not hold the trash, mud, and other crusty pipes that Lijiang's canals do. Yana says that Lijiang's canals used to looked like this--refreshingly clean--before the tourists came.

You can see why the canals system worked so well: Water right to your doorstep. Hassle-free, always clean, in with the good and out with the bad. If you live here, you appreciate it--you keep it clean. Tourists don't feel such things. As their transient hands throw food remnants, cigarette butts, and toilet paper into the seeping flow: Goodbye clean water.

I was mistaken-- people do not drink the water from Lijiang's canals anymore. Instead, drinking water comes from water company-provided pipes (or from small wells) and goes on to treatment plants. The canal water, however, still gets diverted from the Jade River, provides a flow where people can wash themselves, their vegetables, their clothes, & their streets in, and then shoots its now contaminated-self back to the river. I wonder if any cleaning happens before the canals' muddy muck rejoins the river. Yana also pointed out the cleaning system in Sifang Square, the main meeting space of the Old Town (and home to the old Marketplace years past). In the morning--though not during the rainy season--wooden planks are placed in the square's main canal, blocking the flow and forcing water through a byway into the square, cleaning the streets. The diligence locals have in keeping their streets clean is amazing; Lijiang really is a tidy place.

As you can see: my learning is slow, but comfortable. Tomorrow restarts the chatting, making friends, & feeling my way through who knows what--so that I can learn more of what I set out to! (And now, I can make friends with the hope of returning with Yana, my new guanxi.)

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