Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Who are the unknown, unseen, sometimes invisible people who have helped you in the pandemic?

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw them now, you would be strongly tempted to worship... All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.     --C.S. Lewis

When you are an ex-pat, far away from familiarities, you frequently depend on others' kindness and cheer. You don't expect or demand it because you know it is not always there to give when you need or want it. Sometimes you get lost or disoriented. Other times, you need someone who is willing to talk to you--even when they have never talked to a foreigner before. You know they need to be willing to leave their own comfort zone so you don't expect their cooperation or assistance. But when it comes, and often, so often, it does, there is a lump in my throat or a tear is brushed away. All these people, in some way or another, have rescued me in these pandemic times. Each of them, and there are plenty more, have welcomed a foreigner, a stranger in. And I am grateful. They make me want to connect, engage, speak up, and help a little more. They have lit my world with their candle, and they inspire me to carry a candle for another sojourner on my way. 

Who are the people who have lifted and buoyed you up this year during these pandemic times?  Who has rescued you with a smile, laugh, or even forgiven you? Who has reached out or listened to you? Who are those sometimes unknown, unseen, invisible people who are not vying for any credit or notice?  

This is Vicki who owns a scooter shop in Yangshou, China. In the summer of 2020, we came to Yangshou, one of my favorite places in China. At the time I came, I was sad since I could not go home to see my family that summer. But Vicki, in her natural and characteristic way, had me hop on her scooter. We spent two or three days together laughing and chattering away--with me on the back. Her cheer and happiness spread to my heart--something at the time I needed badly. I cried when I left her, and vowed we would be back. And then fast forward to...

November 2021... We came back. She still has her trademark smile and jokes. Again, she welcomed me again into her heart and home. How I love her...  Pandemics need friends to come back to...

              This is my friend who comes to my house. She is super funny, sweet, almost childlike--very devoted to her Buddhist religion. Around her neck is a voice pendant that repeatedly chants her Buddhist prayers. She loves to tell me how she goes to her Buddhist temples, but cannot go now because of Covid. She spreads cheer and is always laughing. Pandemics need cheer.

My friend, at Elias's opening ceremony for his art exhibit, is always supporting me by helping my Chinese improve, and Elias's art. I so appreciate her openness to talk with me--on a deep level and practice all the words I have been saving up for her. Pandemics need friends who you can speak about substantive and deep things. 

            Here is my friend who assisted Elias and me through our Shanghai quarantine. You can read the blog I wrote about him: Quarantine angel blog He recently traveled from Beijing to come here for Elias's art exhibit opening ceremony. Honestly, I owe him a lot. I always called him "our angel." Pandemics need angels. 

Often, very often, I marvel at the ability of children to love so freely without reservation. We met this little girl in a restaurant in Yangshou. She came to our table and started conversing with us. Her parents pled with her to join their table again. But she insisted on talking to us--showing off that as a five-year-old, she can speak French, Chinese, English, and a little Arabic. We were only too happy to oblige her because she was so adorable. Later, we talked to her parents and were shocked to discover that we had both lived in Doha, Qatar at the same time period. We did not know one another, but had a marvelous time conversing about our old home together. Yet, it took a little child to make that bridge or link. We adults would have never known without her reaching out to us. It was hard to leave her when the time came. Pandemics require us to still reach out--even to strangers. Who knows what back history you will discover?

            This was our driver on a recent trip to Guangxi province. He grew up in a small village in the middle of these iconic mountains. He knows their beauty, but he said as a child, there was not much food because the village had no arid land. He said, "Beauty does not feed the stomach." Pandemics need honesty. 

        Just last week at another one of Elias's art exhibit openings. The woman in the green is one of my best friends here in China. She owns an art school, and the other one is Elias's current art teacher. Their school is one of my favorite places in China--so much love and creativity in that space. You need some creative friends in a pandemic. These are some of ours. Their reservoir of creativity has made all the difference. 
                                  This little guy in the market just brought me joy with his panda suit on. Pandemics need cuteness. 
We were stumped on the Beijing subway, and this young woman came to our aid. She insisted on riding the train with us--even when she did not have to go to our destination--to make sure we arrived where we needed to go. Pandemics need helpers. 

           My neighbor, pictured here, is a famous photographer. She offers her help to Elias every time he has an art exhibit. She doesn't have to, but she freely offers her expertise each time. Pandemics need people who offer their help. 

          This man offered for us to come into his yard because he could see I was interested in his persimmon tree. He just opened the door, and let us walk into his yard Pandemics need sharers.

           We found a restaurant walking through a village about a month ago. That day happened to be the first day they were opened. They insisted that we eat a fine meal for free. It was kind, generous, and very unexpected. It made me want to do an unexpected kind gesture too. Pandemics need generousity.

                   Elias's first art teacher in China. She could say so much with so few words. Pandemics need efforts to communicate, and the realization that silence can is bonding too.

This man makes the best jyanbings or crepes in China. Our city, Tianjin, is famous for jyanbings. Always grateful when we can buy a jyanbing from him--with one or two eggs spread around on top. Pandemics need good cooks. 

This guy was so excited to teach me how to make dumplings. Little did he know, I have made them many times. But with him, it was my most fun time to fill the dumploings. Pandemics need fun times. 

        I met this older woman in a small village in Guangxi province. The surprising thing was that this group of older women invited us into their community space. We, dressed so differently, unlike them in appearance, but their inviting kindness really touched me. I sat next to this older woman. She told me she was ninety and then grabbed my hand to warm it since it was a cold afternoon. And then she grabbed the other hand to hold it. We sat there for about fifteen minutes, while we held each other's hands by the fire. She spoke a little Mandarin, but mostly a dialect I did not know. She did not want words. She just wanted to know someone was close by, and to warm their hands by her fire. Pandemics need warm hands. 

      These two lovely ladies invited us into their homes on a walk around their village this autumn. To not be afraid of a foreigner and be willing to speak to someone who botches their language is dearly appreciated here in China. When I am on the inside, how do I treat someone who is on the periphery or outside my own box? Pandemics need people to think out of the box. 

This wonderful young man is always full of hugs, smiles, and gifts to us when we come to teach art at his school. There is no guile, hypocrisy--just pure love that he delivers. And the other one with the ginger hair, well, he is just the same. They make a great pair! Pandemics need good friends. 

Have you ever met a person who you crossed paths with for a few hours that changed your life? It is likely I will never see her again. But when I think of cheerfulness and unconsciously reaching out to strangers, I will think of her. On a shuttle bus in Hainan, China, she turned around with a smile when she heard Elias singing. She knew I could speak Chinese, and then asked him if he could sing a Chinese song. He answered, "No." So she lovingly taught him one. Later, she told me she had taught kindergarten for 30 years. She was older than me, but was climbing through rivers and up mountains--always with her trademark smile. She unreservedly loved us. Later, she wanted to show us some dance moves and to sing together. I have to say she was irrestibley adorable--so full of spunk, fun, and energy. I thought to myself all the years of learning Chinese is worth it to meet certain people. We had an immediate love for one another. Her smile and cheer will always be with me. She made me want to go and spread some cheer myself. Pandemics need music, dancing, and spunk. 
I love this girl, this young woman, who I have spent countless hours with. She has taught me how to make videos in my yearning to be more tech-savvy. One of the important things in life for an older person (like me), I am told, is to hang around younger people. Instead of having a fixed mindset, younger people help us to have a "growth" mindset. The pandemic would have been very different for me without her. Pandemics need people to teach you new skills. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

China: Passionate Persimmons in Paradise

My mother said every persimmon has a sun inside, something golden, glowing, warm as my face... Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted. Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one will be fragrant. How to eat: put the knife away, lay down the newspaper. Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat. Chew on the skin, suck it, and swallow. Now, eat the meat of the fruit, so sweet, all of it, to the heart. 

Some things never leave a person; the scent of the hair of one you love, the texture of persimmons, in your palm...           

                                                                                       --Lip Young Lee, a Chinese-American poet

Helping with the harvest of the persimmons in a remote village near Guilin, China

My new favorite color since moving to China is a bold, bright orange--like a burning fire or apricot sunset. Orange is perky, and like Frank Sinatra said, "Orange is the happiest color." In the autumn markets here in China, along with the rotund pumpkins, you can begin to spot other species of the color orange--tangerines, kumquats, and drumroll... the persimmons. They are ubiquitous--everywhere. The persimmons' arrival at the markets always marks a new season of delight for me--like an old friend has come home.

In my kitchen last winter--a gathering of the orange...

Deep-orange persimmons have brightened my moods with plunging sunlight on gray, frozen days here in China. I even give them credit for increasing my happiness during the pandemic. Their juicy, succulent fruit is like honey or jam when you open them. They are like eating sunshine--to the very last drip or drop. (A delicious cake/pudding recipe with persimmons and apples I created is at the end of the post). I have painted and drawn persimmons, eager to see the yellows turn into a bright orange color. I freeze them and mourn their season's end at the end of February or March. Furthermore, persimmons are extremely healthy so there is no guilt to my passion. 😀

Persimmons have been in China for nearly three thousand years; 75% of the world's persimmons are grown here. Several weeks ago in Guangxi province, in the southern part of China, we were able to experience autumn in a new way--to see neverending mountains and groves of persimmon trees. I was dizzy with delight--like a child in a candy store. The endless orange patches of trees were everywhere. The fields and mountains were almost on fire--especially when the leaves fall off the trees, leaving only the bright, orange fruits. 

To watch some villages prepare and get ready for the persimmon season was so fun. Everyone was busily engaged, working together. My favorite part was helping to pick the persimmons with the farmers. To walk through the persimmon groves, with an occasional mound or random grave alongside the trees, well, it was like we were living hundreds of years ago in rural China. Visiting the villages, farms, and factories, where the persimmons are being harvested and prepared for market, was a day I will always remember. We were all celebrating the small, but mighty persimmon.  

Someday, I hope to have a thriving persimmon tree that grows sunshine and joy. 

Persimmon/Apple Cake 

4 cups of cut-up small apples

2 eggs

2 ripe persimmons, separating the fruit inside from the peel

2 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup of olive oil, 1/2 cup of water

1 cup of chopped walnuts

3 cups flour

2 tsp of baking soda

4 tsp of cinnamon 

Stir the first five ingredients together, and then add the flour mixture. 

Spread a small amount of oil on a 9 x 13 pan, and bake at 180 degrees Celsius or 350 degrees Fahrenheit

Helping to bring the persimmon crop in....💪😆

The following pictures are in Gongcheng, China, Guangxi province, near Guilin. There are several villages that exclusively grow and harvest persimmons. The season starts in October and ends in February or March. Everyone in the villages, both young and old, are involved for those busy few months. It was interesting to see the villagers collaborate--to grow, harvest, wash, sell, and get ready for the market. It was a beautiful day to be outside, with the misty Guilin mountains in the distance. 

Here is one of many graves of the villagers' ancestors' graves we saw as we tromped around the persimmon groves. The graves are just randomly between the trees.
Just grab a basket, and you can start picking the persimmon crop...

Washing the persimmons

Inside the village. Needless to say, persimmons were everywhere. 

Getting them ready to sell at the market

Elias and his teacher painted persimmons last winter. Obviously, we could not get enough of persimmons. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

China: Hiking though mountain villages in Guangxi province

These women let me come and pick out the soybeans to make doujang--a hot soy milk drink. People love to drink it usually at breakfast. They told me they had known each other their entire lives in this little village. They gossiped, sang, joked, and laughed together. I was happy to be a part of their work and laughter that day.

I have always been fascinated with villages. What made these people often live more separated from others? What were their customs and traditions? There are fables, folklore, and layers of family history around every corner. For the last few days, we have explored about four or five villages in Guangxi province. Today I visited a mountainous village perched amidst the famous rice terraces. The old houses, hundreds of years old, are now being replaced with more modern cement and brick houses. 

Modern times and technology have begun to permeate small Chinese villages. Yet, to walk from village to village was still like roaming through a National Geographic article. Until the early 1960s, villagers did not cross the boundary of another village--unless they had special permission from the leaders. Many of the old customs and rules still rule their lives today, but who knows how long that will last?

Since I can speak Mandarin, I had a most wonderful time learning about the life of these small communities of perhaps one-two thousand people in each village. All of the villagers speak their own dialect, maybe even a few others. The younger people speak Mandarin, and I can somehow filter some understandings from the older folk. These villages are only a few miles or kilometers apart. Anciently, they married one another and were quite separate from the modern world. Outsiders had to be met at the gate of the village, and the community leader would gather with some of the other elders to decide if they could come in.

We spent the night in a small village called Pingan, meaning peace. Roosters crowed, waking us up early, with smoke rising from the fire pits where food was cooked. I spotted several chickens, with wings flapping, going to kitchens to be eaten at the next meal.  

The next day we decided to go on a trek from Pingan to the next village over called Longsheng.  Before villagers could crisscross to other villages, there was no bridge--just a raging river to somehow pass over. In 1962, the villagers built a bridge. This bridge ultimately changed their lives and worldview. Suddenly, they could more easily traverse the rice fields and transport things back and forth. Twice I had a tear watching a few of them carry heavy loads as they ascended the steep hills. Their backs were strong from the burdens, and they smiled with cheer with their almost toothless grins. 

As China hinges on modern urbanization in the villages, I hope they protectively cherish, at least some of the heritage and communities, they have built. Many questions are being asked now of the social contract in the villages: can both modern times and ancient Chinese village traditions coexist? Which centuries-old governing rituals can be dissolved, and which should stay? Can different generations of villagers continue to work together to make a community? Tourists come and go. But hopefully, some people will feel a pull to stay, and not all young people will flee to larger cities. Yet, it is not hard to understand when they see that life does not have to be back-breaking or with little food. 

Instead of the governing powers in the village, urbanization means more state and government control and regulations.  As Nick Smith states in his book, The end of the Chinese village, "There is a real urban-rural tension" currently going on in Chinese villages. The traditions and elders who formally made up the power of the villages are quickly ebbing away. Yet, it is interesting to see (from an outsider's perspective) what is still intact and not disappearing. Some are losing long-held friendships and family relationships, which cause despair as the social fabric disintegrates. It seems that having a designated place to gather is critical for keeping the village and community traditions in place. As long as people can gather, they seem happy--even when urbanization and state regulations knock on their doors. 

 We were able to enter this older woman's house who is 85. She lives with her niece in a large 300-year-old wooden home--in a remote village. Her husband has passed on, and her children prefer to live in a larger city. She still does sewing work for a job to sell so I bought a small embroidered wall hanging from her.

                   The following pictures are in her old house. This is a picture of a rice grinder.

                                                                          A raincoat and hats made out of bamboo  
                                                                    Her kitchen 

                   A place to honor her ancestors in the Buddhist tradition. The picture is of her mother.

                                             Going up to the second floor. The bottom floor was for the animals long ago. 

                                              The bottom floor where the animals lived and all the firewood is stored now. 

                                  Clothes are often hung out of the windows on poles. There are very few dryers in China.     

                        Most everyone still carries things in baskets on their backs with poles or a basket that is like a backpack.   

                  A woman trimming the dried red peppers that are in the autumn season just being picked. 

                                                               Drying the rice outside their homes.

                                                      A farmer carrying potato leaves to his pigs

                                                        A signpost to tell us where to go in the village...

         The famous bridge in the area was made in 1962 to begin to connect the villages in the rice fields when there became more collaboration and cooperation. But I can tell many are clinging on to the old ways--suspicious, and scared of the urbanization that is settling in around them

          After the rice harvest, these are the bags of rice (106 lbs) that are now packed on their backs to their homes. This man was in his 50s and still carrying heavy bags up and down the hills. I was astonished at their strength and uncomplaining natures. 

                                          A farmer going home--across the rice fields to his home. 

 The Drum Tower, like a pagoda, high on the hilltop, is where the people gather. I am convinced the simple reason of having a place to gather, dispel disputes, and dialogue is what keeps the villages going as modernization permeates their villages.

                                                             The new and old architecture merging together

                                   Some of the wooden houses reminded me of high in the Alps in Switzerland...

                                                             Traversing and exploring the village 

                I had a few tears when I saw this man, with his almost toothless grin, approach us. He greeted us as if we were important visitors, and then continued on his miles/kilometers long journey to the next village.

                                                We loved hiking from village to village all over the famous rice fields.

    To sit and contemplate the centuries of toil and hardship as the villagers worked on the steep rice fields was amazing to see. And to briefly enter their villages and lives was a privilege and a blessing. To understand China, you must understand the life of the villages and the people who have lived there for centuries.