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HUNGRY, TIRED and LONESOME

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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.

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”.

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.