Archive for May, 2010

My monthly Sunday is up at Go Girl.  Read here.


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Some upsetting and disturbing news that has particularly resonated with me – being a female traveler, sometimes solo.  Thinking of Aubrey Sacco, a girl I’ve never met but in some ways couldn’t know better.  More on Go Girl

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Ikebana: Week 18

On Wednesday, as I sat around the table on the floor pre-class, sipping tea, sleepy from a long day and only vaguely paying attention to my ikebana ladies jabbering away around me, did I realize how comforting it was.  Just as the taste of shiso leaf is one of home and nostalgia, so is the feeling of being surrounded by the low hum and occasional exclamation of older women speaking in Japanese.  Not a few of my younger years were spent as the only kid around my mom’s friends, as they caught up with one another on our visits home to Japan.  At the time, I’m sure I was bored and antsy, escaping into whatever heroine-protaganist fantasy novel du jour, but when I look back on it, it’s the same warm feeling as falling asleep during a movie in a room full of your favorite people.  There’s a safety in it that’s wholesome and inviting.  And to return to a country with a language that I can’t help but eavesdrop, I know I’ll miss the cozy background chatter that I’ve grown so accustomed to here.

Yellow calla lilies (1st), Gotto leaves (2nd), Steel Glass (3rd).

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The trip itself was fascinating.  I learned more about Chinese culture and history than I had ever known before, and it sparked a lot of questions about what it means to be a successful nation, how that success can be attained, what a country can and can not do for its people, and the differences between China and the other Asian countries I’m familiar with (notably Japan), and between China and the West.  Where Japan is quiet, subdued, and mannerly, China is boisterous, loud, and gregarious.  Japan’s version of rural is nothing compared to the poverty and poor infrastructure that still exists in parts of the Chinese countryside. If I think I get gawked at here (Japan) for my slightly Asian-slightly not features, it was nothing compared to the looks I – and even more so, my blue-eyed friend – received throughout our trip.  Though in many instances, they believed me to be Chinese and yammered away at me accordingly.

In addition, I think China might benefit from a program like the JET Program, with which I am affiliated.  There is a foreign person in almost every city, town, and village in Japan.  Japanese children are exposed to foreigners as young as preschool these days, and while there is still this huge sense of “outsider” vs. “insider” mentality in Japan, it is nowhere near as jarring as it might be if the past generation of Japanese kids wasn’t exposed to foreigners until their later years.

I was also surprised to learn that China just entered its Industrial Revolution less than one hundred years ago, compared to Japan.  In many ways, it is still playing catch-up (quickly, at that), but is stuck behind some major obstacles.  The water is undrinkable. The notion of waste (i.e. trash everywhere) is shocking to an outsider.  The backcountry enthusiast’s green motto “Pack it in, pack it out” seems to hold little social sway in China, where I was astonished to see so much debris along the country’s number one claim to fame, the Great Wall.

In my earlier post, I mentioned our guide with whom we did not get along.  However, meeting him really inspired a lot of thoughts, feelings, frustrations, and furthered my already instilled sense of privilege at being born a woman in America.  Here was a young man, born in 1984 in rural China to farmers, who worked his way through the seemingly grueling Chinese education system to become fluent in English and with a good job as a tour guide in one of China’s biggest cities. Bravo. Somewhere along the line, he began to question his country’s policies and even the rhetoric fed to him throughout the years about the Evil West.  He mentioned to us reading Orwell’s Animal Farm post-university and how it opened his eyes.  This is a book that almost every American reads in either Middle or High School and which many of us take for utter granted.  However, our guide often swung widely between stereotyping the West, particularly America, in a favorable light and an unfavorable light, taking his vast textbook knowledge and trying to apply it to a country he had not once yet stepped foot in.  Though he mentioned his enthusiasm at making many American friends, the only investment he seemed to have in us was for just that sake, and none else – that we were Americans.  There was no effort at getting to know what we, as Americans, were really like.  As to why, we can only guess that we two represented the unfortunate half of our species: women.  This case was further illustrated in such comments that his family was lucky to have had two sons (sidenote: the further out of Beijing you get, the more lenient the one-child-only policy is) and in his general behavior towards us.

China’s form of communism is also very different to the form I witnessed in Cuba (shhh) only a year ago.  Where in Cuba, it seems that everyone was in the same impoverished boat living off government staples and earning the same meager wages, China is obviously very capitalistic.  From what I could gather, China’s communism was based on: one single party consistently holding all the power; blocked websites such as Facebook, You Tube, and personal blogs; control of the press; such programs as farmers contributing money per household capita or a portion of the year’s harvest – which is really just as similar to our tax system; the fact that no one can own land; and it’s justice system, where rather than suspects being reviewed by a jury of their peers, they are judged by officials elected by (and therefore representative of?) the public.  How can two countries (China and Cuba) both be politically communist yet be so vastly different?  How is China able to reconcile its politics with a developed capitalist and focus on education, while Cuba flounders in the Caribbean?

In the end, I admit that that my view of China is widely incomplete and hugely elementary.  Spending a week in one city and on the Great Wall by no means a China expert make.  And, perhaps some of my opinions seem harsh.  We also met some charming, friendly, welcoming and open-minded Chinese people, particularly getting to share the generous hospitality of family friends who showed us the “local’s” Beijing, and meeting a college girl traveling solo with excellent bohemian fashion style who accompanied us on some sightseeing we did our last day in the city.   What I can state for fact though: that China is an onion of a country – layers upon layers of history and culture, and getting to travel there even for the briefest of times highlighted that which I value in travel (and life).  Exposure to new sights, sounds, foods, people, and ways of thinking.  So yes, my week was certainly Golden.

**This was definitely a mammoth of a no-photo post.  Thanks for getting through all the words.  Any thoughts and comments are always appreciated. KS.**

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Ikebana: Week 17

I thought this week’s shinputai was delightfully playful, with the aptly named Golden Stick as the shyu (1st), Okureruka leaf as the you (2nd), and Leucadendron as the ashirai (3rd).

To update on the previous episode of drama, my ladies asked me tonite if I understood what was going on with last week’s “meeting.”  When I told them that I did indeed understand and thought it was “interesting” to watch them tackle a problem by going around and around it, they laughed and asked if that’s the way things were done in America.  I said, sometimes.  They asked me to not think badly of them or take home “funny” impressions of Japan, and then proceeded to do what some women humans do best: talk shit behind other people’s backs.   And while I felt a little bad for Ikelady-san (who had despite her recent schedule-change managed to come and leave early tonite…) I was more oddly touched by yet another example of how we’re not so different, after all, are we?

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The Great Wall


Contrary to our nature, Ellie and I decided to heed the advice of several concerned parents and friends and elected to use a tour service for our Great Wall trip.  We were told that the Wall was dangerous and that camping along it was illegal.  So, for a relatively reasonable fee, we were hooked up with a private tour guide, a car to shuttle us from Beijing to the Wall trail heads, food, and two nights accommodation along the Wall (though we initially thought we’d get a chance at camping ON the Wall with our guide – our preference).

In retrospect, once getting to the Wall, hiking along it and finding somewhere to camp would have been no problem.  Parts of it are certainly in disrepair, but nothing that a little re-routing couldn’t fix.  Also, we discovered that while it is illegal to camp overnight in the renovated “Scenic Spot” sections of the Wall, most everywhere else is fair game, and undisturbed.  Though people will not tell you this.  And while I don’t know statistics, I would bet that 98% of tourists going to the Great Wall of China go to one of three renewed, government regulated, built-up spots.  This leaves miles and miles of real, often crumbling, but far more authentic sections of the Wall untrafficked and unloved.  Naturally, it is these places that held the appeal for us.  Further, I’ll put it flatly: we did not get along with our guide, who was a sheltered, young Chinese man the same age as us, who clearly struggled internally with years of hating America (per Chinese propaganda) and his recent idolization of stereotypical America and Americans, as the scales fell from his eyes in regards to his own government.  To boot, we were (are) women, and despite the fact that we were paying him for a service (i.e. it was, in fact, our vacation), our desires, abilities, and preferences were nigh taken into account.  Not exactly what you look for in a guided personal tour.


Gubeikou Section of the Great Wall

All that said, the Great Wall is an impressive feat in architecture, warfare and protection tactics, manpower, and natural beauty, and I am delighted to have discovered it.  Built primarily during the Ming Dynasty (between 1368 and 1644) to protect Beijing from nomadic Mongol invaders to the North, in the end, it did little to keep out the formidable Ghengis Khan.  It snakes its way along the ridges of the Yanshan and Xishan mountain ranges, a series of watchtowers interconnected by long expanses of, well, wall.  We learned that it was engineered to catch rainfall and funnel it only towards the Beijing side of the mountains, and here and there, the usual bricks along our walk were interspersed with fine carvings and etchings, detailing the year and emperor under which that section was built.



Etchings over top arrow windows

The first day, we began hiking on the Gubeikou section of the Wall, furthest North-East from Beijing.  The day was dry, hot, and hazy.  This section of the wall, while not renovated, hooks up with Jinshangling, a very popular section of the “Wild Wall,” where we stopped for the night and stayed at an Inn at the base of the Wall in the town proper.  The next day, we awoke to mist and cooler temperatures for our hike to Simatai, perhaps the second most well-known section of Wall in the area north of Beijing. (Second after Badaling, which we did not see, but which I hear is a tourist-trap circus.)  These sections were rebuilt in the 80s and 90s for tourist revenue, and do give quite a nice idea of the Wall in its hey day.  What original stones they could not use for the renovations, they produced similar likenesses.  The hiking was not very difficult at all, although some sections were a little stair-masteresque given all the steps.  After a late and delicious lunch of grilled trout (a specialty of the region), we drove to a village in a really remote section of the Wall, Jiankou.  Here, rather than paying the Chinese government for access, the villagers profited by charging tourists, and I was happier to see my money stay in the remote valley than off somewhere else.


Jinshingling Inn Courtyard - Ellie and I playing with our new birdy toy


View of the Fairy Watchtower in the Simitai section - we were unable to go beyond the spot where we were standing due to "dangerous disrepair." Although for 200 yuan (approx $30), you could bribe the teenage guards to let you pass.


Whole grilled trout in Simitai seasoned with lots of red chilli, cumin, and fennel. Delicious.

That night, we stayed in a guestroom of a local corn farmer, who had become famous in the area for housing many photographers in the 90s.  Let’s just say that while the beds looked decent enough, I was happy to have my own cozy sleeping bag with me for the night.  The last day was the best weather we’d had.  Clear blue skies and a spring breeze to the air.  This was officially the “Wild Wall,” off-limits to regular tourists and by far the most delightfully decrepit portion of the Wall we’d seen.  Footing was treacherous at times and my adrenaline was definitely pumping as I pulled, sidled, and balanced my way up the mountains, praying not to get hurt in remote China without travelers’ insurance.  Here, most of the stones and steps were crumbling away, and plants and trees had reclaimed the watchtowers and paths.  Certain sections, we hiked alongside the Wall for safer passage.  Looking behind me, I could see the Wall wind its way nearly encircling the entire farming valley below.  It was breathtaking and staggering and with sun on my face, my heart swelled.


The entrance and outside patio of the farming family's home with whom we stayed

Jiankou section of the Wall

Pondering upon the highest point of the Jiankou Great Wall

After climbing off the Wall and having lunch on the patio of our farmer family’s home, we returned to civilization in Beijing.  Though the distance was covered in less than two hours by car, the quiet view from our remote part of the Wall that morning and our smoggy and noisy evening entry into the city were worlds and worlds removed.

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After a week’s break, ikebana picked back up again last night, with nearly everyone bringing something tasty to share with the group.  I had purchased some random snacks from China, and enjoyed watching my ladies get a big kick out of translating the Chinese characters into something readable in Japanese.  Comments I especially liked were: Foreign candy is a little scary, no? and It’s not as scary if we try it together and This tastes like China!

Also, it was really interesting to get to do some ‘cultural observing.’  It had come to pass that one of the ladies’ schedule’s had changed so that meeting on Wednesday nights was no longer convenient timing for her.  After a private talk with our Sensei, they returned to our hang-out table where the Sensei spoke on behalf of (we’ll call her) Ikelady-san.  The conversation more or less went like this:

“Ikelady-san’s schedule has changed and now Wednesday night’s are difficult for her.  She does not want to quit ikebana, nor does her husband want her to quit, but she must now work Wednesday nights at their family temple.  While Ikelady-san has not and cannot ask to have the day changed, I am doing it for her.”

What proceeded was silence while the other women mulled this over.  Then, suddenly, everyone seemed to have an opinion, and problems with other days of the week.  (Mind you, without coming out directly and saying that it was a problem nor that other weekdays were impossible.)  Ikelady-san sat there mindfully the whole time.  It concluded with the women saying “Can’t you go back to your husband to see if you can change your schedule?” and “Just ganbare (read: suck it up and deal with it) and come after your temple shifts on Wednesday nights.”  Essentially, it was 10 minutes of round-about annoyance at being put out ending with a simple “There there, now shut up, dear” while Ikelady-san resigned herself to her fate.  I stayed silent throughout and watched the circus.

Anyway, enough talk.  Last night was another shinputai arrangement, in which we were allowed to select our own shyu or focus.  Shyu: Ansurumu, what appears to be in the Calla lilly family, but I’m not certain; You: Taniwatara leaf; Ashirai: Queen Anne’s lace

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