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Archive for August, 2009

HUNGRY, TIRED and LONESOME

file:///Users/colette/Desktop/restaurant.jpg

China Restaurant WindowHungry, Tired and Lonesome

JANUARY 2006

 

Im tired tonight, and a little lonesome. After being out most of the day (and lacking the energy to venture any further) I wander down the street to the tiny restaurant near my building for dinner. I hesitate slightly as I am greeted by the bold images of duck, octopus, dog and Santa Claus painted on the storefront window, but I intend (optimistically) to avoid any dish listing “dog” on the menu.

The menu is so dirty I am almost tempted to lose my appetite. But hunger wins out, so I give it a try. “Sauteed Large Intestine with Pickles.” Another time, perhaps. “Sauteed Sliced Pig Bag with Lard.” Not what I had in mind. “Spicy and Hot Bean Curd”. Yes. Also, “Fried Rice with Egg and Baby Shrimp” – the hamburger and fries of China. I don’t feel like being adventurous tonight. Add one big bottle of beer.

Tired, lonesome, cold and hungry – ingredients for introspection. I find myself writing in my notebook, “How I muddle through life with my introverted ways, I’ll never know”.

The tofu arrived – so far so good. Nice flavor, but the spicy bean curd is swimming in a thick, opaque oil. This massive mound of rice is good, too, but it could feed a small family. I continue to wonder why the majority of Chinese are so thin.

The family proprietors are hanging out in the restaurant – except for grandpa who relocated his plastic chair to the sidewalk. The little boy, maybe 5 years old, was just demonstrating how he could jump on and off the curb, a performance created especially for me. Now, on the chair next to me, he is singing to himself and writing his lessons, “t, t, t.” It looks like a “t” but is more likely a basic Chinese character.

I take consolation in knowing that there are accomplished, introverted people in the world. Maybe I should quit trying to pretend otherwise and accept my fate. I remember a story that I read years ago. Third graders were asked what they wanted to be in life. One little girl said, “I would like to be myself. I’ve tried to be other things but always failed.” Actually, having instant recall of this bit of Reader’s Digest self-help philosophy makes me feel even more pathetic.

I offered the boy a mint on my way out. Special mints, from a tin sporting the image of President Bush with accompanying print that reads, “NATIONAL EMBARRASS-MINTS”. The little boy shook his head “no” until his mother tried one and said “Hao”. He then took two and swallowed both at once.

THE SEAL

COLETTE HOSMER / “THE SEAL”

JANUARY 1996

“Art is a harmony parallel to nature.” 
– Paul Cezanne

babyseal

 

Although I enjoy walking the Oregon coast in winter, I found this January day, featuring snow and gale-force winds, to be particularly challenging. As I pulled on layers of clothing, I was encouraged by the thought that I would have the beach to myself since it was doubtful that anyone else would be crazy enough to venture out in such weather.

The beauty of this icy coastline, with its no-nonsense attitude, reminded me of how I began to make art in the first place. I was romanced by art from an early age but the natural sciences presented tough competition for my attention. Unwilling to forsake one passion for the other, I began to use organic materials as a medium for my art. I’ve since learned, through the dissection of hundreds of animals, that we are all mostly indistinguishable beneath the surface.

I had been laboring against the frigid wind for more than a mile when I spotted a hawk perched on an obscure mound. As I headed over to investigate, the big bird flew a safe distance away and watched as I claimed its cache – an adult seal that had apparently come in on the tide the night before. Until the fatal head injury came into view, the seal looked as though at any moment it would realize my presence, turn and make its way back into the sea.

It was my birthday and I wasted no time in justifying this find as a “gift”. Reinforced against the cold with a new enthusiasm, I headed back to the cabin to collect the tools I would need to explore the mysteries of this sea mammal.

The long stretch of beach was deserted except for seagulls — and gripping the edge of a twisted log, leaning forward into the wind like an Art Nouveau hood ornament – a solitary crow. I returned to the place where I’d left the seal – a small cove protected by cliffs. I was grateful to be out of the wind and for the intermittent winter sun and it’s illusion of warmth.

As I opened the seal’s abdomen, a large sac spilled onto the sand. Knowing it was positioned too low in the body cavity to be the stomach, I made a careful incision and held my breath as I reached inside. A beautiful, perfectly formed fetal seal emerged, its iridescent, white pelt reflecting light for the first time. I sadly contemplated its premature death for several moments before cutting the umbilical cord.

As I set to work to remove the pelvis, skull and limbs of the mother seal, I recalled the first time I attempted to dissect a fellow creature. It was winter then too, and at nine years old, I was kneeling in the snow trying to command my frozen fingers to fillet minnows taken from an icy creek at the edge of my rural North Dakota town. The feeling of awe and reverence that I felt as I studied the insides of those tiny fish returns each time I skin an animal.

I began to toss bits of meat to a circle of seagulls that had formed around me and was soon enveloped by the din as my rowdy audience increased in size. Aware only of the sea, the wind and the seagulls, I was absorbed by the mystery of discovery. I remember glancing up nervously every few minutes to scan the beach for intruders, feeling a sense of communion with the human scavengers who had come thousands of years before me. At that moment in time, thousands of years of cultural evolution fell away without a trace.

The seal had the size and appearance of a large dog, but as her limbs had been transformed into fins, her body took on a torpedo-like shape. Stiff whiskers framed her gentle face and the dark spots on her gray back migrated down to the white underbelly. The light began to fade and I regretted that I would not have time to properly skin this mammal so as to recover its splendid coat. My sense of intrigue at how strikingly similar we mammals are below the surface was reawakened.

Our bones, muscles and organs share the same names and functions with other animals, although the shape of each may vary according to its job description. The seal’s thick, but drastically shortened femur is a marvel of biological evolution; the elongated finger and toe bones are perfectly adapted to operate flippers. And, an absolute miracle of creation, the seal pup, was still curled into a fetal position and lying in the sand at my feet.

I finally surrendered to dusk, and feeling exhausted but grateful to have the wind at my back, left the greater share of the mother seal for the birds and the tide, shouldered my portion, and retraced my footprints back to the cabin.

The next day I arrived at the airport with a heavy, frozen box and checked it along with my suitcase on a return flight to New Mexico. Several hours later, I was greatly relieved to see that semi-frozen package slide onto the luggage carousel in Albuquerque.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” said Albert Einstein, “It is the source of all true art and science.”

THE PIG FACTORY

pig factory photoLi Wen’s “contact” met us outside the gate of the Pig Factory. He said something to the guard, which I later learned was, “This woman is going to buy a lot of meat.” The guard waved us through.

We walked around the side of a very large, white tile building to a place where pigs were being herded through a small pig door to an interior holding pen. A pig is lying on the floor, loose in the room — back against the wall. Outside, some men are moving a pig on a flat dolly…A second dolly appears next to me and I jump aside as the pig thrashes about and falls off. Two men drag the ill-fated animal by its ears and deposit it nearer the pen. It doesn’t take long to figure out that these few unfortunate pigs have broken a leg in transport or unloading. All three are now silent, so I encourage myself to believe that they are in shock and can’t feel pain. I begin to film but am quickly told that it is not allowed. I put my camera away and retrieve the paper and pen that I brought along as a backup.

When the pen is full (20 – 25) the pigs are hosed down. Many more pigs wait outside.

As I prepare for the bloodletting to begin, I survey the machinery. Everything looks washed and clean. There is no unpleasant odor. A conveyor belt with big metal hooks snakes along the ceiling. Its first stop is over a large square pool of steaming water that looks to be just at the boiling point. A round metal machine is perched above water level and separates the hot tank from a cold emersion tank.

Workers began to gather around, most wear rubber boots and aprons, some hold knives. My attention returns to the pen where a pig is being lifted up and out by a cable attached to one hind leg. It is pulled up to the conveyor and moved down the line a short distance. Suddenly, a man steps forward and makes a short, vertical slit in the pig’s throat. The blood gushes out and spills into a grated floor drain that runs the length of the sizable room.

Li Wen said that 1600 pigs are killed in this factory each day. There is also a second pig processing plant of equal size on the mainland, right across the bridge from Xiamen,. The pigs, 5-6 months old, come from large pig farms. I say, “they look too large to be so young.”

“This is hormone pig,” answered Li Wen. “Grow very fast.”

Now there are six pigs hanging in a row. The first few pigs in line are quiet, some of the others are still struggling. I notice that one of the men inside the pen is holding a device with a cord attached to it. I watch as one worker flips a pig on it’s side – the animal falls limp instantly as the other man presses the oversized 50’s telephone receiver to it’s neck. Another man slips a loop around a hind foot – motors hum, and the pig begins to rise.

I hear a loud splash and turn to see water slosh out of the boiling pool – then another splash and another – five pigs bob and steam in the tank. As the conveyor moves the pigs along, each hook is tripped at a certain point above the tank and the pig falls. When the first pig is sufficiently scalded, it is guided to a horizontal conveyor belt and moved up, out of the water, to the barrel shaped machine. I am startled when the contraption starts up with a roar and tumbles the pig around inside. Wet clumps of hair fly in all directions.

A pink, glossy animal emerges abruptly from the spinning container and slides into the cold-water tank. Just as quickly, a man is there with a flat bar, hook on each end. The hooks are inserted, one at each hock, and as additional slick bodies slip into the pool, the first pig rises and sways as it moves down the conveyor to another line of waiting workers.

I hear a loud thud. Over by the killing place a pig is lying on its side in the blood, legs thrashing. It must have dropped from its’ cable. Mercifully, it appears to die in moments – stained bright red. Someone walks over to hose it off.

At the next station, the glistening pigs are slit from mid-belly to the initial throat cut. Entrails appear down the line and I move to a better position to witness the next step, when without warning, the tall skinny gate guard with bad teeth, bursts into the room – gesturing and talking wildly.

“You did not get agreement from factory boss! We don’t know what you are doing! This is secret! You must go!”

As Li Wen translates the guard’s loud ranting to me, he offers a speculation of his own, “Also we might want to make his pig factory.”

As unlikely as it sounds, this is probably the manager’s biggest concern. Here is an obvious foreigner in his factory without his knowledge, attempting to photograph and take notes. He probably thought I was an investor looking to build a pig factory in Xiamen – getting a good look at the competition and stealing his secrets in the bargain.

As we are being escorted back to the entrance by the still irate guard, I think to myself, “You damned idiot. You’ve gone too far this time.” I imagine having to answer some questions from the authorities, or at the very least, the factory manager. I feel considerable relief as we reach the gate and are allowed to keep on walking.

Li Wen and I have lunch and discuss our great escape, and his next assignment. I want to go to a big pig farm and film a pig giving birth. I think there is little chance of being able to schedule such a thing, but he says, “This is easy, they know when it’s going to happen. They will call me the day before.”

SEASONED BEGGARS

Seasoned Beggars

FEBRUARY 2006

I detour to meet the old man who is rushing to head me off – scuffing his shoes on the granite path with each short step. His white chin whiskers are sparse enough to count, and he appears bowed under the weight of his layered jackets. We exchange a smile as he shows me his begging bowl – the bottom of which is covered with coins and ½ yuan notes, and I suspect his good fortune is owed to this beautiful day.

After a week of cold and rain, the sun has made a comeback – kites are flying, fishermen are catching fish, and today, those hulking ceramic pipes, that unashamedly channel their odiferous liquid to the sea, barely rate a derogatory glance. It is low tide and the clam diggers are out, levering their long-handled shovels, making big sandy piles where eighteen vertical feet of sea stood just six hours before.

This perfect weather tells me that the beach park will be crowded today. A typically large number of non-casually dressed people will come to the seashore. They will meander along the beach or sit on protective sheets of newspaper – men in suits, white shirts and dress shoes – women in fake fur-collared jackets and high-heeled boots, who will leave their little, exclamation point footprints in the sand.

The locals in semi-tropical, south China, consider winter weather – which hovers around 60 degrees Fahrenheit – to be life threatening. Close fitting long underwear, worn by every man, woman and child, is a first defense against the bitter cold. I attended a meeting upon arriving in Xiamen, in which the keynote speaker was smartly attired in suit, tie and long underwear – the sleeve of which, poked out from beneath a starched white cuff.

The morning began to heat up, so a friend and I sought out the shady side of the street as we strolled to the market. He commented on the summery weather and to punctuate the point, pulled up his shirtsleeve and jacket sleeve to show me his bare forearm. “See”, he said emphatically, “My pajamas stay home today.”

Near the row of pork vendors, a middle-aged man in a blue Mao-era jacket, sits spread-eagle on the meat-flecked floor. One pant leg is rolled to his groin, revealing scars from an injury that mangled his thigh and apparently cut short his working life. It occurs to me that begging attire lacks a foundation of long underwear. Comfort is not the look they’re after.

My attention returns to my pajama-less friend, who is saying something about the warm weather and a cold I suffered recently.

“You get sick because you like to take your clothes off”, he announced.

“Excuse me?”

“In the afternoon when it gets warm”, he said earnestly, “You think, ‘It’s warm, I will take my clothes off.’ “Don’t take some clothes off”, he cautioned, “because then you will become sick.”

We pass by an impossibly thin girl – her even thinner legs are twisted beneath her on the wet concrete. I continue to the far end of the market lane and moments later, turn to find her at my feet with outstretched bowl.

I am reminded of a recent television spot, showing a smiling, well-groomed man in a wheelchair, using a public phone that had been lowered from standing height. The city of Xiamen ran the promotional ad, in conjunction with a weeklong Beijing symposium held to celebrated the 10th anniversary of the “Promulgation of the law on the protection of handicapped people”. The Xiamen ad proclaimed, “We will work to make the city more accessible to its handicapped citizens.”

The regulars who work the larger university shopping area are becoming familiar fixtures. There’s the thickset woman who displays her elephantiasis foot on a comparatively tiny square of cloth – right next to her battered begging bowl. I am fond of the sweet-faced young man with shockingly dwindled legs, one of which he slings over a shoulder so you’re sure not to miss it. I also like the man with clear, intelligent eyes (and I suspect a sense of humor) who otherwise looks like the live-chicken-eating-cannibal in the county fair I frequented as a kid. They all dwell at street level, therefore looking even more pathetic and downtrodden – except for the upright ‘cannibal’, who’s ensemble of filthy rags and wild, unwashed persona, says ‘wretched’ in any position.

These are not fair-weather beggars – I have seen them at their posts, hunched up against the cold and damp – and it pleases me to think of them enjoying a balmy winters day.

Thoughts come to me unsolicited, and I wonder, “How do these people get to their begging locations?” And, “Where do they go to the bathroom?”

These ruminations evoke memories of the first time I came to China. I was invited to participate in an international sculpture symposium outside of Tianjin. My home for six weeks was the Golden Sail Hotel. It had everything I needed – a bowling alley, Karaoke bar, revolving carpets in each elevator that correctly announced the day of the week, and a Japanese restaurant, “…located to second floor,” where I was invited to, “Come and taste the delicious odor to your own pleasure.”

The lobby of the Golden Sail Hotel offered a small, but beautiful restroom, equipped with lotion, hand towels and – a steep step up from the rest of the room – a row of three, equally narrow stalls. The door of the furthest compartment displayed an impressive brass plaque, on which Chinese characters were inscribed, and above those, printed in English, was the word, “DEFORMED”.

NOTES FROM THE MARATHON RUNNER

Notes from: The Marathon Runner

MARCH 2006

On my way to the market at 9:30 am, I saw a big air-filled red arch across the walk path by the park, and people with running clothes & numbered squares of cloth strapped to their chests.

When I returned I grabbed my camera and went down to photograph. Stood around and watched – big speakers, blaring marching music– an announcer with a microphone declared something in Mandarin as each runner crosses the line.

There were lots of sweat-drenched runners milling about who had already finished.

There’s an ambulance parked nearby…doors open.

10:45 a.m.

Tried to take a photo and found that my battery was dead so I stood for a while longer watching the runners come in. I decided to go to apartment for a spare battery. Came back down and proceeded to take a video of people crossing the finish line along with the sound of loud march music broadcast from huge speakers.

Suddenly I saw a man lying on his back in the grass. He was very near me — arms and bare feet sticking out from under a Robin egg blue, rectangular sheet of plastic. It only took seconds to comprehend that he was dead. A small clump of medical people, one nurse in pink, four men in white lab coats were standing away from the body. The other pink nurse was taking blood pressure readings at a little makeshift stand, 20 feet away.

The man had a red flag lying across his ankles and a small red plastic bag by his feet. He was lying straight and flat on his back, face up, arms at sides, legs straight and together. I saw him clearly when the plastic sheet blew up. He was 40’s, maybe. Fit looking.

Stragglers continue to cross the finish line with him on grass 15 feet away. The music was blaring and T- shirt and flag selling continued. People are milling about in the park, crossing back and forth.

Someone shut off the generator that keeps the big red arch blown-up and it deflates. Another man is gathering up colorful flags that were posted along the finish line.

The medical staff is now sitting under squat palm, not too far from body.

Other runners had friends and family waiting at finish line – offering water, giving back rubs. No one around the dead man, no one seemed to be a friend or relative. No one is paying any attention to him now. Backs are turned…. It looks like a regular week-end in the park.

Medical staff stands up….someone important looking showed up. Medical staff sits down again, this time squeezing closer together to catch more shade from short palm.

An old ragged couple are busy collecting empty water bottle containers and boxed drink containers for recycling.

11:00 a.m.

Someone tucked the ends of the plastic sheet under the dead runner’s head so it won’t blow up anymore.

A girl with handheld megaphone is broadcasting loudly – trying to gather her bus group.

The old ragged couple choose a big shady palm to sort their trash and stomp to crush plastic bottles.

Nurses and white-coats pack up their make-shift blood pressure station and carry folded tables. They head straight for the opening in the fence and have to detour around the dead man’s feet.

The medical group has dispersed.

I notice that the dead runner’s skin is turning a deep shade of purple.

A city trash collector wanders through picking up scraps of paper, a few are quite near the body.

I am sitting on one of the exercise contraptions, kids play around me.

One old man, dressed in running clothes, sits with his back against a short palm – 10 feet from the body and facing away. He takes off his shoes.

Only a few people remain, sitting on grass.

The T-shirt/ flag-selling stand is almost packed up.

The medical staff leaves!

The old man under palm is organizing his gear, pulling long pants onto his long bare legs.

1:00 p.m.

Most people have left – a few remain sitting on a low, yellow railing.

The old man under the palm, eats his lunch.

The dead man is still lying there.

Two young Chinese girls from the business college across the street come over to chat. One has pretty good English. I keep looking over at the dead man as we talk. I point out the dead man to the Chinese girl and tell her that he died while participating in the marathon. She looks over, her face drops, eyes widen for a moment…says, “ooooh”. Then bounces right back with a smile, “but running very healthy for you”, she says, as she saws bent arms back and forth in a running motion.

I almost feel an obligation to stay until they take him away.

People are riding by on those two and three person resort bicycles – the dead man lies six feet away as they peddle by on the sidewalk.

No one looks sad, no one is paying much attention. Many people walking or riding by fail to notice, but the ones that do look as long as they can without coming to a stop.

1:12 p.m.

A little police van shows up– 4 officers – men sitting on curb across the path get up and talk to police. Lots of talk. No one looks over at the dead man. There’s a police station one and a half blocks from this spot.

I once saw a woman – shot , dead, lying in a supermarket parking lot in Santa Fe. Her ex-boyfriend had been stalking her and shot her as she was coming out of the store with her daughter.

The police and ambulance were on the scene immediately. Yellow tape went up within minutes – cordoning off a large area. Police held up big white sheets, while they recorded the crime scene, effectively keeping the operation out of sight.

Very different culture.

Now a uniformed man is taking photos of the dead man. The policemen are writing reports.

A small case of instruments appears and rubber gloves are donned. Now a crowd starts to gather because something is happening. The plastic sheet comes off.

A grandmother and little girl with hair poking straight out of her ponytails stand by the yellow metal fence, watching every move closely. It looks like the little girl is asking questions – pointing at the body. I wish I knew what the grandmother was telling her.

The man’s sleeveless athletic shirt is purple and yellow. He looks as though he believed in exercise. Someone had tied his shoelaces together and put his shoes between his feet. The shoes had miles on them. The forensic man cut off the dead man’s number, 862, and his shirt.

His skin was mottled purple and a lifeless pale color. Foam was coming from his mouth. One of the investigators grabbed his wrist and pulled the arm until the body flopped over stiffly. Legs straight out, his stiff neck held his head in the same position. Now he is stomach-down, with his face smashed hard into the grass, neck not giving at all. The rubber-gloved forensic man is finger-poking on the purple back. He conducts a gloved examination of head and back of skull (for injuries?) As the body is turned back over, blood streams from the mouth.

Bystanders crowd in. Some right up against the policeman who is writing the report, craning to look over his shoulder to read what he is writing. Police leave. Now it’s just him and me. I am under a short palm not far away. There are a few people sitting on the curb, across the path.

1:54 p.m.

It’s getting breezy and cooler. Lonely.

I am struck with a vivid feeling of the truth in the statement “you die alone”. It’s Saturday, and the park is crowded, bikes, pedestrians, buses and cars. People are cutting through the park. But the dead man is totally alone.

This man just lies there. Unaccompanied. No one crying, just curious looks—slowed walking – no one stops.

He’s lying there cold on the cold ground—while life continues on around him – in fact, life didn’t skip a beat.

I should leave but I can’t.

I am watching people’s faces as they pass, watching as it sinks in that it’s a dead body they’re looking at. His arms and feet are sticking out from under the blue plastic. I wonder what they’re thinking. Every face takes on the exact same expression — concentrated puzzlement.

The racing paraphernalia has all been hauled away, the man’s running uniform is covered. There’s just this dead body, bare armed, bare footed, under a blue plastic sheet.

No one stops.

2:21

A white and purple van pulls up and backs up near the break in the fence — as close as it can get to the body.

ZHONG GUO MIN ZHENG is printed on side.

No media ever showed up.

More talking, crowd gathers now that something is happening once again.

A man approaches the body with long lengths of a gauzy fabric and a black plastic sheet. He lays out strips of cloth on the ground, unfolds the black sheet and places it on the strips.

2:30 p.m.

Three men use squares of brown paper to protect their hands as they lift the dead man onto the plastic – one man on each arm and one lifting the feet. They fold the black sheet over the body and tie it tightly around him with the cloth strips. They lower a red coffin-shaped box (white inside) from the van, and lift him into it.

A man comes along behind, rushing now (because it looks like an afterthought) to put the dead man’s shoes and red plastic bag, into another plastic bag. He also looks at a few scraps of paper that were lying next to the man. Looking on both sides (maybe something he could use to identify the man)? Is it possible that he arrived in his running clothes and had no identification with him, and no one knows who he is?

3:22 p.m.

Ineke called and I told her about it. I choked up with unexpected emotion. She said that she saw a man die on the street by the old gate, near McDonalds, and he lay there for most of the day. They covered him but left him there. She said that Chinese people are very afraid of dead people, and believe that the soul takes a long time to find it’s way, and if you get too close it might come into you.

I’ve also learned in talking with people here that the regulations and traditions dealing with dead people are complex. Someone suggested that the authorities wait as long as possible for family members to claim the body in order to prevent complications. A dead body brings with it certain rights and responsibilities …both legal and cultural. It is not unheard of for a funeral facility to charge a family ransom for the dead body of a relative.

Maybe someone is missing this man now.

I won’t easily forget this experience — sitting in the grass near the dead runner. Keeping watch, as it were, for 3-1/2 hours.

Life kept on flowing around us, but at a distance. He was lying alone in the middle of that big empty space. We were alone together, since long before I’d moved to one of those squat palms near his body. No one paid much attention to me either.

INTRODUCTION TO XIAMEN

INTRODUCTION TO XIAMEN

INTRODUCTION TO XIAMEN

DECEMBER 2005

My daughter, Sam, and I flew into Xiamen on a frigid Siberian tail wind, December 15, 2005. Ineke Gudmundsson, the Director of the Chinese European Art Center (CEAC), greeted us at the airport with flowers. “Strong ones”, she said, “so they will last”.

Although CEAC’s description of the art residency apartment, “Two bedroom, 1-1/2 bath, large studio room with work table, balcony facing the sea, washing machine, air conditioner and maid”, was accurate, Sam and I soon found cause to read between the lines.

This eight story high rise was built only five or six years ago, but our apartment appeared to have been constructed from odds and ends of older, now demolished dwellings; metal doors (one with a man/woman public toilet sign still glued to it), sinks (with ducked-taped holes that once held other faucets), and thin drapes that fluttered and danced in front of drafty windows. The deep enameled bathtub, a seemingly friendly oasis in this vast expanse of glaring linoleum, filled to one inch before the hot water ran out. A few belligerent cockroaches stalked the crackers and fruit that Ineke had cached for us.

Over the next few days, jet lag fading, Sam and I reclaimed items of furniture that had been exiled to far corners of cold rooms. We bought woven floor mats, plants and large colorful wall maps. We christened the room off the “balcony facing the sea” as The Studio.

Our first restaurant meal included grisly snails, whole octopus and boiled chicken including heads, feet and skin. The second — “vegetarian” noodles covered with a generous helping of mystery meat. My fault. I missed the bold images of dog, pig, shrimp, chicken and Santa Claus painted on the storefront window. We began to forage for stores and shops that might stock rare and treasured items like olive oil, coffee and peanut butter. Not an easy undertaking — packaged items are sometimes difficult to identify, even with added English – as in, “Meat Floss Biscuit.”

Our three weeks in China also included many morning beach walks, saunas, massages, superb dim sum; visits to the exotic island of Gulangyu; seeing old friends (from my 2004 stay in Xiamen) and meeting many new friends; hosting a dinner for Dutch art residents, featuring green chili chicken stew preceded by Tequila Sunrise cocktails: fascinating introductions to stone, bronze and metal factories; several extraordinary Christmas and New Year’s parties, brunches and beach banquets; ancient botanical gardens; McDonalds with squat toilets; ferry shuttles and life-threatening taxi rides. Each experience infused with the captivating culture of China.

And now this first unparalleled chapter has come to an end. Sam began her long journey back to Santa Fe a few hours ago. God, how I miss her.

CAGED BIRD | view from my Chinese apartment

From my position on the worn, overstuffed chair I can see outside the window and through the bars of my second story balcony to a wall of similar Chinese apartments beyond the narrow alleyway. A neighbor across the way has an identical balcony only the rusted bars of her confine support a few potted plants, and the door to their kitchen is flanked by two red Spring Festival banners with gold letters — another banner is pasted horizontally across the top. A caged bird flutter-jumps from perch to the top of the cage to perch to bottom and back again.

The woman of the house is slight, middle aged and gentle looking –neatly bobbed hair frames her round, expressionless face. Sometimes I see her sweeping the balcony floor or watering her two plants while the husband watches television at a deafening volume. A small window reveals images shouting from the screen in 1 to 2 second intervals. It is always on and he is always sitting in front of it, his presence exposed by clouds of cigarette smoke during the day and the glowing tips of cigarettes in the night.

I look up from my book as the woman appears on her deck. I begin to pay attention as she reaches for the cage. Leaning forward in my chair, I see her slide her hand through the tiny door. In one quick movement her hand appears outside the bars of her own cage and I watch as the bird catches flight.

A lovely smile animates her face as she puts her hands together and bows in the direction of the freed bird.