Sunday, May 27, 2007

Adventures in Lanping

I don't know what it is with me lately, I'm never in the mood to blog. I guess I just seem to be suffering from a powerful burnout (which is improved by the bright spots that are anthropological field work but is still mightily present) that touches everything from my work motivation to my blog (which, at least theoretically, I'm doing for fun and posterity, right?) In any case I'll make an effort.

So back to Lanping (which is now between a week and a half and three weeks in the past.) The trip from Lijiang to Lanping was supposed to take 4 hours, but about half an hour in we came upon what turned out to be a minor accident (and by accident I mean a single truck with one wheel off the road). But that single renegade wheel meant wall-to-wall traffic for at least 3 miles around. Our bus was stopped in a fairly idyllic stretch of farmland, surrounded by rolling mountains, for more than a full hour, possibly closer to an hour-and-a-half. That's what you get when you try to fit three lanes of traffic in one to one-and-a-half lanes of space, though. China, when will you learn?

Tania and I initially had planned to stay with our friend Jackson (Chinese name: Chun Yong) in Lanping, but May 1st is a major holiday in China (they call it Wu Yi Jie, literally "Five One holiday") and like everyone else in the country his family had friends coming in. Jackson, who is a truly good person and a fantastically loyal friend but who is a smidge overprotective, was convinced that if we were to live in a hotel by ourselves we would be harassed by the police or worse. Things got worse when we went to a multicultural performance celebrating the Wu Yi holiday --complete with lots of different dancing minorities (Bai, Pumi, and Lisu namely) as well as a bad skit by some high school students and a FANTASTIC breakdancing act with teenage Chinese boys in white suits. Walking in, we drew a lot of attention, which made us feel strange but wasn't anything we hadn't experienced before. We were ushered to the second row, behind all the important Communist politicians, but Jackson told us we should leave before the last act because "maybe some people will touch you or say bad things to you." As if we hadn't ever been in an audience with Chinese people before... Tania got pretty annoyed by the end of the first couple days, but I had a nice talk with him and he lightened up eventually. And it was certainly only because he wanted to look after us well.

Chinese people, though... really. It's all very well intentioned, but the constant worrying and the absolute positivity that, given that one is a foreigner, one can therefore do nothing on one's own, it can really get infuriating. Also, Chinese people and food are very odd. The entire nation is obsessed with thinness, almost worse than the US (because so many Chinese people are naturally thin anyway.) And yet, it's considered bad form if the host doesn't continually put food in his guests' bowl, and it's even worse not to clean one's own bowl completely. This means, usually, stuffing oneself inordinately in order not to offend anyone. I think the first Jewish mother took lessons from a Chinese person.

(Incidentally, while we're on the subject of Wu Yi Jie, I forgot to mention in my Lijiang entry that the last night before I left there was a huge pop concert outside my hotel. I was walking home from an internet cafe and came upon it, a big stage set up in a plaza in front of an enormous statue of Chairman Mao. The statue was all crazy and backlit, and there was some famous popstar performing, with a throng of shrieking fans around it. I stood in the throng for awhile soaking it in, but I had come at the end of the concert so really I just got a little microcosm of Chinese popular culture.)

Anyway. Lanping. Right.

I spent a little more than a week in Lanping altogether. Tania and I lived together in a government-run hotel, really too expensive for its own good but the only one where Jackson felt we were safe. During the days we went around and did interviews, often with Jackson's Christian friends (Tania's ISP topic is Christianity and Jackson is a Christian himself.) I hadn't really established a topic and was trying desperately to find a translator to take with me elsewhere in Nujiang Valley, so I tagged along. It was all quite interesting, as we interviewed people of Bai and Lisu nationality who had recently converted. The line between religion and culture and the subsequent ways many of them left their former identities behind was fascinating. I did what I could with the opportunity, framing the information for myself in terms of stories, the one thing I did know I wanted to study.

We met a few friends through these interviews-- Julie and Linda (both their English names) were about our age, maybe a few years older, had graduated from college and recently converted. They were both very sweet and could speak some English. Jackson also introduced us to his own friends, who took to us quite strongly. Before the week was out we had a legitimate group of Chinese friends who would call us to go have dinner, come for a visit, go for a walk, or go to tea houses after dinner. It was a really cool experience to see what that might be like, living in a place with a group of friends just like America.

We attracted friends on the street, too, just by virtue of being there. One woman we interviewed quoted a statistic that said that between 2001 and 2007 4,000 foreigners came to Lanping. Although Liuku dwarfs this number in terms of the rarity of foreigners, we were still something of a curiousity in Lanping. Once, while trying to find a highlighter for Tania, the stationary store shopkeeper struck up a conversation with us, and we ended up going to her family's restaurant in a village outside Lanping for dinner one night. Another time, a man driving a serious, serious SUV (this SUV would beat you up as soon as look at you) stopped and asked in accented but flawless English, "Excuse me, but where are you from? I haven't seen foreigners here in many years."

His name was Adam and he was what they call a "hua yi" here-- an emmigrant to the US. He had lived in California for 8 years in Silicon Valley making a living before returning to Lanping to get into the zinc mining business, which is one of the best in the world. He told us that he plans to work in Nujiang for several more years and then go back to the US to retire. We ended up going out to dinner with him one night, which was really interesting. He had all sorts of things to say about the Chinese upper crust and China in comparison to America ("Americans are much more straightforward and honest," for example.) It was also, in a way, a little bit like having dinner with a Mafia Don. For those of you out there who hate networking, never come to China: the principle of "guanxi" (literally "relationships") is the only way to get anything done here. You get jobs through guanxi, make friends, get around beauracracy, meet potential mates, get yourself out of trouble with the law, do well in the stock market, get good health care. It's all about cultivating relationships. And Adam was pretty much the ultimate source of it: he offered to find me a Pumi translator (an offer I didn't end up taking him up on, although I may this summer), told us he'd love to introduce us to his friends, and told Tania that she shouldn't worry about the police in Lanping because he was "good friends" with them and if we ever found trouble we should just call him. (Christianity is a hotbutton issue, as prosletyzing, or however you spell that, is illegal and they assume any Westerners talking about Christianity are trying to convert people.)

Lanping itself was quite beautiful. The city is nestled amid hills that hump higher and higher into peaks and eventually climb southward to merge with the Nujiang area mountains. It's not even really in a valley, per se, just kind of plopped on a couple of big slopes. There's a park in the middle, quite pleasant, with a little pond, several fountains, and a row of tea houses in the interior. We spent a lot of time there relaxing and talking to our new friends, asking them questions, watching the townspeople dance in the square in the evening-- everyone seemed to know the traditional dances. On days when we weren't interviewing, we went on adventures. One day we went to an ancient temple outside of town; another day, we took a 2-hour ride south to Yingpan, a dusty town by the Lancang (also known as Mekong) River. It was really interesting to see the river approximately 24 hours by bus away from the place I saw it last: in Xishuangbanna with Diana. Rivers are amazing that way-- simple but profound. Our trip to Yingpan was infuriating in a way, because the computer teacher we had befriended in Lanping was decidedly un-Chinese in his insistence that we first go to a water power project he had invested in some 45 minutes outside town. But in the end I got a few connections out of it and some information about Lisu culture. Plus, the town was just interesting to look at.

Another day, Tania, Jackson, and I, along with our new Lanping friends Julie and Linda, decided to go on a picnic. We bought an enormous amount of junk food and took a taxi to a park they new, but the park had changed and where there had once been a lake there was a mossy, smelly expanse. Instead, we redirected the taxi to the nearby river/stream, and located a likely-looking site across it. We proceeded to strip to our barefeet and make our way across the river. At first it looked like we could go from rock to rock, but the current proved a little treacherous and we had to make a few watery detours. Our picnic was great, very peaceful in a little clearing with the sound of water not far off. We played a few Chinese card games (one simple one is called "shei she xiaotou" or "Who is the thief?") and ate plentiful junk food, and then Linda and Julie went off to collect the plentiful wild vegetable that grew around. Chinese people are like that. On the way back, we had an equally tricky time getting across the river and I actually slipped on a mossy rock and fell in, saving my camera but soaking my pants from the butt down. We all thought it was quite hilarious, and now I can say I've fallen in a Chinese river. Hopefully I won't get water worms or anything like that.

On the last night before I left for Liuku, all of our new friends gathered in a teahouse near the park, drank juice, tea and beer; ate watermelon and sunflower seeds; and played cards, as Bai custom dictates. Tania and I taught our friends the American card game known as "B.S." (with a not so nice actual name,) which was neatly translated as "bu shi" ("not so.") We had a great time playing and screwing around until late at night. It was a lovely way to see me off into the next part of my adventure: Liuku.

Next time: The unexpected roommate and the unicorn.


Marianna said...

I remember when I was little and I had Encarta 96 on my computer, I would go into the languages section of the program and click on how to say "no" and "yes" in Mandarin, and I always thought it sounded like "shit" and "bull shit". Truth.

Candace said...

oh wow I didn't know you were in China until I clicked on your facebook earlier... LONG TIME there girly! I went to China last year and even I experienced major Culture Shock. I never identified myself with the Chinese (partly due to being brought up in a Taiwan-loyal home) and it was even more confirmed when I went to the country last year. Sadly, I wouldn't call it one of my faves and I got annoyed plenty of times with it but I do hope you have more fun than I did hahaha. I went with a group of friends from school and a Professor to shoot a documentary on pre-Olympic Beijing. So it was interesting in that aspect but I don't plan on going back for a long time lol. Take care! If you need anything just give a holler :)