Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Movie Night

I worked amongst a sea of expectant faces trying my damnedest to hook the school’s projector and speakers up to my computer. All three pieces of equipment were balanced on a wooden desk about half a foot too small on all sides, teetering on the rocky soil that made up the front of the school grounds. Students hovered around me, some offering help, some just too excited to sit still in their seats. I did what I could to keep the surrounding chaos at bay, gently swatting away tiny hands from the lens of the projector so that I could deal with the mess of cords in front of me.

Fifteen minutes later, with a large piece of white tarp nailed in place as a projection screen, the movie’s language turned to Chinese and the speakers finally working, the dozens of students quieted down into a mixture of laughter and hushed conversation as the antics of Bolt and his animated friends came to life on the screen.

Movie night occurs every other Monday at Guan Ai school and lasts for about 40 minutes. Because of these time constraints “Bolt” had been shown over the past month without finishing. On those previous days when the bell rang to signal the start of the next class, walking carefully over dozens of tiny sandle-wearing feet into the middle of the tight circle of students I hesistated for a minute or so before I paused the movie and turned off the projector. I knew that once I flicked that switch a wave of dissapointed groans would come next. So luckily today the students would finally be able to see the movie to the end and I could turn off the projector guilt free.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

City of Lights

When I hear the electric hum rattle roll of a trolley train
there’s a rumbling in my soul.
My eye’s look out at the sea of lights,
reds, greens, flashing characters,
struggling to take them in and I’m lost.
This city.
This city, it’s too clean. It’s Porsche’s and Ferrari’s sparkling,
like toy cars taken right out of the package.
Sony, Samsung, HSBC all shine from Hong Kong Island,
leaving pools of color in Victoria Harbor.
The sounds of the sea mix with the chatter of passing crowds
spoken in a dozen tongues.
I look at the red night sky and the drifting clouds,
Is the moon shining on her too?
This city of millions can have more than one dreamer.

Friday, March 27, 2009

洪水 Flood

Yesterday as we piled into the school's white 面包车 to head to play some basketball, 杨效长 excitedly asked me if I was bringing my camera since we were going to see 黄河. The river is more than ten kilometers away from our village so I wondered why we would have to make such a long detour when me and some other coworkers wanted to shoot some hoops in the first place. Turns out we wouldn't have to go as far as we thought, the river had come to us.

As we looked off to the side of the road we saw a sea of brownish water where acres of farmland had stood the day before. Swollen from rapidly melting snow in the mountains, the river had flooded it's banks and was engulfing factories and villages kilometers away from it's shores. Talking to the locals who were milling at the edge of the waters with their cellphone cameras out, we learned that this is an event that happens once every thirty to forty years. I could now understand the excitement that 杨校长had. As a lifelong resident in the area, the last time he had seen this was as a child.

The next day I went back to the site we first visited and saw that the water had gone more than 50 meters past yesterday's boundary. The steady rain that lasted through the night had certainly not helped things. Guarding several properties against the approaching tide was a hastily made eight foot wall of earth that stretched for a half kilometer in the direction of the water before making a right angle, creating a large square that was still safe for growing the 小麦and油菜 that was currently in season. Large tracks from the backhoe that the government services had used to build it the previous night could be seen all along the muddy soil.

Looking at a map of the area, I would estimate that dozens of square kilometers have been covered by this flood and I don't know if the water has reached its peak yet. The loss of crops must be tremendous, as the majority of what is underwater now was farmland.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

停电 Power outage

There are several things to get used to living here in Houjiazhuang Village, some more subtle than others. The minute-long stares a foreigner will get from children who don't know how to hide their curiosity is pretty much accepted soon after you get here. The toilets, the 40-minute commute to a shower and having to heat your own water become ways of life. Yet, one must also come to the hard realization that water and electricity supplies are not guaranteed 24-7 like in most cities. Which is a definite pain in the ass when your office happens to be on the same grid.

Worst is that these utilities often go without warning, unless you count the cursing that comes from co-workers who have suddenly found themselves in a front of a blank computer screen. A shortage of water comes even more quietly, making itself apparent only when you turn the faucet to wash your dishes and all you hear is the hiss of air escaping from the tap.

Life goes on in the school though without skipping a beat. During a power outage, the 'ding-ding-ding' of a manual bell replaces the rapid ringing of the usual electric school bell to mark the class periods. Teachers setup chairs outside to prepare their lessons in the sun, and me and my co-workers take it as an opportunity to practice our ping-pong skills.

I guess it's not all too bad, the power does always come back on eventually.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

蒲剧 Puju

Last night when our cab pulled into 侯家庄村 we found the street that leads to the front of Guan Ai school blocked by a stage and an audience of dozens of villagers. An elderly member of a local family had passed away the night before, and to mark the occasion the family hired a troupe to perform 蒲剧 (pu2ju4), this region’s version of Chinese opera, outside of the house. It’s a part of this place’s culture, whose rhythms follow along with the natural syncopation of life and death. The show’s are free to the public, the performers are invited to the village on occasion of marriage and funeral. Sitting in the audience you can witness stories first written in ‘The War of Three Kingdoms’ over 500 years ago along with more modern comedies and dramas.

In the open air of the country street, the erhu, a two-stringed instrument played with a bow, takes on a lively air of the fiddle that one recognizes in blue-grass. This mixes with the click and rattle of drums and symbols, the raise and fall of the singers voice and a low tremor of an electric piano that has come to replace deeper toned string instruments to create something captivating to the eye, ear and heart.

I watched a scene in which the performer mourned for the recently departed family member. The heavy-set woman, standing elegantly dressed in traditional costume, white from head to toe, paid tribute to the deceased in song and gesture, constantly returning again and again to a table that displayed a solemn picture of the deceased in the center. Lighting incense. Throwing her long flowing sleeves out and then gathering them back with a quick flick of the wrists. Singing sometimes delicately in a mournful voice, sometimes in sonorous bursts of passion that definitely didn’t need the already loud sound system to carry them throughout the village.

Like several performances I’ve seen before, the audience was composed almost completely of elderly members of the village, some holding their grandchildren in their arms. Other children and young adults moved at the margins of the crowd. Like many traditional customs it seems that this is one kept alive by the oldest of the society. Several of them could be heard quietly singing along to the lyrics. At a recent 庙会 (miao4hui4), temple fair, I met an elderly man that had walked for hours up and down the hills that bordered the temple, just to catch that day’s performance.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Beijing Morning

Frank's eyes opened at 6am on their own accord. It seemed his mind didn't care that his alarm was set to go off 45 minutes later. He had been up at this hour every day for the past two months so that his daily hour-long commute to school would end on time. Classes had ended a couple days before but he still wanted to get up before the sun rose to enjoy the crisp winter air and exercise. His body just wasn't ready to leave his cocoon of a bed at the moment though so he was left to stare up at the ceiling of his girlfriend's apartment and let his mind wander.

Lying on his back in the darkness, his long slender frame stretched almost the whole length of the queen size bed but only occupied an eighth of it's width. Ann, his girlfriend lay on the opposite side of the bed leaving a no man's land of about half a meter in the center. Besides the sounds of her quietly snoring and the faint rumblings of the apartment complex's elevators all was still. Lying in this pool of darkness with his head on the pillow, Frank explored the various dim shapes and shadows that made up the apartment with his eyes.

The red glow of the morning sun was starting to bleed past the large curtains that covered the windows to his left, slowly getting brighter and more yellow, giving hints to the mess of objects and unpacked boxes that littered the room. A suitcase lay at the foot of the bed, next to it lay a camera bag with a little used Canon 5D. In the shadows and darkness that still remained there also lay the hidden dreams and regrets that Frank had accumulated during his one and a half years in Beijing.

This play of light and darkness, reality and dreams lasted until the alarm finally rang.


Language is one of our greatest gifts as a species, with it we have recorded our history, developed our maths and given names to all of God's creatures, even given God a name. It's one of the dearest parts of human culture, it helps shape our thoughts, desires and dreams. So then why the hell can it be so frustrating every now and then?

Scientists have been able to give name to almost every creation under the sun but the feelings that reside in our hearts and minds often defy all definition. The feeling of love is one of those words that can inspire a million different interpretations, pages of poetry and clinical investigations but we are still left with just four symbols on paper, a man made shell that tries to hold some part of God's mystery.