I was rubbing the bump on the side of my head. I was thinking about how lucky I am. A little bit to one side and it could’ve hit my temple! – possibly turning me into a mumbling vegetable! I didn’t feel any stupider than I normally do, so I figured I was fine. The extra that was holding the gun was super apologetic about accidentally hitting me -“So sorry. So sorry”. But that’s what happens when you are holding back a pack of oncoming Japanese soldiers with guns and bayonets.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from the same Chinese agent I had worked with to get the wonderful Pat Nixon part in China. In this email, she was telling me there was another part for me – so I went back to China for 2 weeks to play a character in a mini-series called “49 Days” . It is a Chinese TV show about the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking (which was the capitol of China back then). This invasion is also known as “The Rape of Nanking “ because there was a documentary about it with that same name and also because there was a lot of that going on. I played Minnie Vautrin – a real-life hero who risked her life and later her sanity to help protect the Chinese from the Japanese. She was a missionary who ran a school in Nanking for 15 years and then helped to run the International Safety Zone during the invasion.
The TV show was directed by Zhang Li – a tireless director who had been filming the show every single day since February. He told me he once did a show where he shot continuously for 10 months. But, he added emphatically, he loved the work, so he worked around whatever schedule the producers could give. I couldn’t help but compare every step of this production with an American TV shoot I had worked on before going to China. (I’ll let ya know when it airs.) At that shoot, I remembered getting extra pay (a ‘meal penalty”) because they broke us a little late for lunch. In China, they work through continuously, until they are done. Generally they are either filming or moving to the next location (with a few 18 hour days thrown in there). Sometimes the crew had to get some rest when it could
These were some of the toughest people I have ever worked with. I watched them shoot a scene outside where that abnormal blue Beijing sky had suddenly given way to a torrential downpour. There were no rain jackets or umbrellas pulled out- just a well-worn tarp to cover the cameras, as everyone got drenched. I actually saw the film crew cleverly saran-wrap a camera to protect it from the rain.
When I first touched ground in China , the first thing they had me do was to fit me for my costume in the hotel . We were all staying at a hotel in Mantoaguo – a ‘town’ of a few million people about 15 minutes from Beijing. When you drove into the town at night, the rims of buildings, the edges of the bridges and the sides of the river walk, were all lit up in bright colored neon, giving you a warm, trusting feeling that Tinkerbell might arch the skyline at any minute to remind you how magic is made. The costume fitting in the hotel went fast because the dress they made (from the measurements I sent them), fit like a glove …. a glove, that is, that is made out of two layers of the thickest wool ever to shield a Chinese winter. Beijing was experiencing a heat wave and we were going to be shooting in an old factory with no electricity, much less AC, so I was fearing my fear of discomfort.
Again, I thought back to that American TV show fitting. I tried on a Hugo Boss suit and Christian Dior shoes in a Bloomingdales fitting room, where the attendant brought us coffee and cookies from Magnolia bakery. To change into that outfit on that set, I had an air-conditioned trailer that included my own bathroom and a small bed — just in case I wanted to nap between takes and breaks.
For the “49 Days” fitting; I climbed into the back of a utility truck stuffed with racks of costumes. The costume designer held up a blanket so I could change behind it into my long wool dress without being watched by the extras – who were standing below, sifting through piles of costumes.
But oh, was it oddly fun. I got to do heroic things in this show that I have always fantasized about doing. Bombs were going off around me – cascades of soot and dirt raining down – as I frantically directed screaming refugees out of harm’s way. First by preventing a stampede when I see one of them fall and almost get trampled to death and second by rescuing a child who is crying over her dead mother. Cut to a shot of me. Close up of me running to the child – a bomb explodes overhead, I grab the crying child and shelter her with my body, protecting us both as another bomb goes off. I carry the crying, frail child in my arms, safely and securely away to safety and then I go back to save more refugees.
After the second take, I found out that the frail little girl from the first take got scared and didn’t want to do it again. On the second take, that little girl had been replaced with another, less traumatized, but much heavier kid. When I went to pick her up, it was like trying to lift a bank vault and my inner hero went soft. I tried to fake it as best I could, heaving dramatically, but in the end I had to lower my heroic standards and ask someone else, who I figured had a stronger back, to carry her away. Here’s a ‘behind the scenes” look:
The set was fantastic. It had been built in an old factory, just outside of Beijing. It looked like a bombed out shelter with its vintage hospital beds, red cross flags and a make-shift office area cleverly constructed out of bookshelves and filing cabinets.
The props were as vintage looking as the set. In one scene, I made coffee using this contraption. It looked like something you’d see in a scene from Breaking Bad, but it actually made coffee. I like to think that when the Chinese people watch it on TV they will be amazed at how authentic the middle-aged “Laowai” looks making coffee with a chemistry set.
After a few hours, the first day I was there, I looked around for something to snack on. I realized there were no craft services. There was no cart of pita chips, organic dried fruit and chocolate covered what-nots to graze on before we went to a lunch of free range salmon, grass fed chicken, intricate salads, and ethnic-sounding grains that were rounded off with an entire table of deserts and fresh smoothies made by a guy wearing an apron and chef’s hat with a smiling sun on it. I realized I would not be finding any of that on this shoot. I made a mental note to bring snacks and water with me the next day. But there are deep, sweet memories of the times they brought us bags of ice cream bars that were incredibly delicious and bizarre – green tea lychee stuffed with red bean paste.. It suddenly took me back to family reunions where I sat anxiously waiting for the ice cream to be ready while feeling like I was completely where I was supposed to be.
Although it was much simpler, lunch on the China set was delicious. Each day the meal would be served in 3 large pots
There were dishes with mushrooms that tasted like a cross between fish and beef and vegetables that were a cross between baby corn and califlower. After a few days, all of the honkeys – or the “Laowai” as we are called there – started to sit at the table on the make-shift office set and it began to have the feel of a family meal.
There was a gal who had come back to China with her husband, because he had gotten a full scholarship to get his PHD in accounting at a university there. There was a guy who worked at an International School that had done enough roles there to get recognized on the street There was an ex-Marine who had gone to China, become fluent in Chinese and was now going to an International Medical school that cost a small fraction of what it would in the states. There was a gluten-free, martial arts, holistic health practitioner from Dallas who had moved to China to become an actor 8 months ago. There was a Californian hot-Chinese-chick loving guy with impeccable Chinese that lived the acting life of hustling multiple jobs, but he was soon leaving because he had been accepted to UCLA for screenwriting. They were all fascinating and adventurous and had terrific stories about China. This experience was certainly one they would be adding. We were all getting to play out the heroic fantasy thing – the script was very generous to us!
But the true heroes of the shoot were the crew and the extras. They weren’t tough in a “I can bench press 300” kind of way, but they were tough in a “I have to run around in 90 degree weather, carrying a camera that weighs half as much as I do, while letting my rain soaked clothes air dry to my body, which is beginning to shut down from hunger pains and still be civil, fun-loving and professional after 12 hours of work “ kind of way. The extras ran back and forth under layers of sticky fake blood and quilted wool clothing, carrying real bodies in stretchers while running from Japanese soldiers. They didn’t strip down to a hidden sundress, the minute they heard “cut” – like I did. They didn’t curse the sweat dripping down their crevices while lying under a canopy bed fanning themselves with their script. After a long days work, they dug their own shoes out from a huge pile of shoes dumped out of a plastic bag and then lined up to get paid the Chinese way – in cash.
I never heard any of them complain. Now, I know you’re saying “Well, Laura, that might be because you don’t speak Chinese, idiot!” And Ok, yeah – point well taken there – that is certainly something I need to learn. Still, I saw them joking around and although I had no idea what they were saying, it didn’t feel like complaining. Nothing seemed taken for granted. I don’t know. Some people would just rather be part of a story being told – no matter what level of discomfort
It reinforces to me, once again, that there is a human need to do that – to hear stories and tell them. I don’t know that I’ll ever figure out why I feel like it is something I am supposed to be doing – especially considering the highly potentially uncomfortable livelihood it can afford. But I do know that when I see it, I feel like that is where I am supposed to be. Running among the bombs, telling my part of a story and having a blast – every step of the way.
These are some of the Chinese stars that were in the TV show. At the end of this leg of the shoot, the producers threw us a spectacular party with copious amounts of gastronomical delights, stacked on top of each other because we ran out of room on the table. Afterwards, there was sort of a ‘come on up and do something’ time. I actually had enough “Great Wall” Cabernet to sing an a capella version of Tammy Wynette’s “Because Your Good Girl Is Gonna Go Bad” in full florescent lighting with iPhone cameras being held steady. The next day that ‘Great Wall’ gave me a ‘Great Depthsofhell’ hangover that had me moaning in a Beijing supermarket over a punctured gallon of orange juice… but that’s a different story.
Thanks for listening to this one!
I also want to say BIG BIG BIG thanks to Lisa, my agent In China. she’s the one that got me the Pat Nixon gig too – this gal is fierce!!
We are driving into the parking lot for the High Peaks area in the Adirondacks and I’m already planning our next trip. “Next time, I want to see if we can get a ride up here, so that we’re just paying for gas.” We haven’t set foot on the trail yet – haven’t even put our backpacks on and already I am looking for a cheaper way to make it back up here. What is it that does this? What is it makes me willfully choose to repeatedly come back to something that is such a colossal pain in the ass?
You have to plan ahead for everything when you’re camping – everything you’ll be eating, all the trash you’ll be making and even the crap you’ll be taking (literally). You have to rent bear-proof canisters that you store your food in. You have to bring a shovel to bury your “call of nature” about 200 feet from any water source because you don’t want a heavy rain to come along and have your ‘call of nature’ be someone else’s giardia. You also pack a water purifier (so you can pump -rather than carry in – all your water for drinking, cooking and cleaning), and an inflatable therma-rest (to put under your sleeping bag). You have to weed out ANYTHING from your pack that you might not be using because you’ll be carrying this 50-pound pack for many miles over rocky terrain that involves occasional butt-sliding and even a ladder, at one point.
You’re also supposed to start that trek nice and early so you aren’t feeling the onslaught of fatigue-shaking knees right about the time you realize you can’t even see the rocks. Unfortunately this part didn’t quite pan out for us and I got to the point where I was wobbling over the rocks like a geriatric paraplegic. Don decided that he would run off and find a campsite in the dark while Paul and I rested on the trail. That’s when I got Big-Footed.
Our travel buddy, Paul, had been watching the Discovery Channel ‘s program about Big Foot and he re-counted it all with outrageous and incredible detail. It was love at first listen. Maybe it’s because Big Foot fills that black hole that was punctured the minute I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real (June 9, 2002), or maybe because it’s so cultural – they even have Bigfoots in Canada (“Sasquatch”), The Himalayas (‘Yetis’), China (“Yin Ren”) and Europe (“Germans”). Either way, by the time Don came running back to take us to our space, I was deep into designing ways I might find Big Foot and develop a friendship while learning about edible plants, nighttime walking and Samauri Chatter (the official language of the Bigfoot)
Don took us to our sight, we pitched our tent and found a “kitchen” spot about 200 feet in the opposite direction of the ‘triangle’ you’re supposed to make with the food and the tent. It was a huge rock bed with a running brook that looked like something out of “Lord of the Rings”.
After a couple glasses of box wine and Indian food, we were ready for bed.
The next day, we got off the trail and climbed down ‘John’s Brook’ until we found this swimming hole. We had it all to ourselves, so we pulled out a picnic and went for a dip. Hours later, right before we left, I went inside the woods for the requested 200 feet with my shovel to answer a call and change out of my swim suit. As I stood there, exposed in what’s probably my most vulnerable state, I heard a ‘whoop’ in the distance every so often. I t went on for 15 minutes. When I got back, I was shocked to find out that not only were Don and Paul not making that noise, but Bigfoot has been known to give a sort-of football -like ‘whoop’ to communicate. The excitement didn’t escape me any more than the irony did. The thought that this creature could possibly have came to know me during my most vulnerable moment, made me feel like I had been inducted to some new, earthy, cavernous culture., where one day I too could walk through the woods naked at night, spying on mankind. I only hoped these creatures weren’t more advanced than I was giving them credit for- with telescopic lenses and access to Facebook.
Days later, walking back to the car, I feel like I’ve had a reverse IV – where the New York slowly drips out of your system and becomes inconsequential. I’m singing as I walk along the trail, still planning a return to the woods. There is always so much more calling me back- things bigger than us- unplugged solitude, expansive peace and hopefully- fantastical creatures. I don’t believe you can find this anywhere but nature.
I searched the rest of the trip, but Bigfoot must have been shy- knowing that he might end up here on the page. I think we all will be glad to know: you can keep on believing. Bigfoot remains at large. With everything else that’s going on in the world, isn’t it nice to have something big to believe in?
Have you ever wondered if your world might be improved if you were to be imprisoned? That maybe 80 square feet and a locked door might help you do the things you can’t seem to make time for. That maybe it’s liberating to know that your focus isn’t competing with the tornado of deadlines, bills, homework, shows, dinners, classes, insurance, laundry, mail, …
That’s what New York is to me – a big fat tornado of distraction. Don’t get me wrong- I’m willingly addicted to New York Shitty, as I affectionately call it, but it’s a hard place to get anything done that you don’t really have to do- like flossing and blogging.
I really enjoyed writing this blog when I was in China, but when I got back that enjoyment seemed to feel like an irresponsible luxury. There, if felt like time could expand enough to absorb writing and reading for pleasure. Here, it feels like we are drowning in a sea of illuminated words and that any attempt to add more words to the screens of already existing words will just turn you into homework.
Nobody wants to be homework.
But I have a few more stories – old stories from past trips – and if I don’t get them out, they may dissolve in my distraction tornado. So… here’s one from our trip to India.
As always: hit ‘escape’ without guilt.
Don and I were two days into a safari. Three days before, we were on a 19-hour train ride to get to one of the westernmost cities of India – Jaisalmer. It’s a sand stone city in the desert 50 miles from Pakistan that feels futuristically backward.
My camel had some kind of mouth thing going on that caused him to foam up with spit bubbles. He gargled like Chubaka and when he sneezed, he flung the putrid foam into my hair as if he knew what he was doing.
We rode on camels for hours. The ride was monotonously mesmerizing and infinitely interesting. Even something as simple as just sand and the sky can take on so many fascinating combinations. I figured out how to get my seat sweetly set up so it was nice and chill. We bounced along until we stopped for some delicious Indian taco-type-thing with some kind of green vegetable that was like a cross between asparagus and green beans. It was all mixed up with some kind of meat and spices. I could tell that the two guides that led us had been raised in the desert. I wasn’t surprised that they maneuvered the camels and the sand like they were an extra appendage, but I was amazed that they had culinary skills to boot.
We rode a bit more and then we stopped for the night. The meal this time was surprisingly shitty compared to lunch, but we were all hungry, so we didn’t say anything as we huddled around the campfire getting to know one another. There was an Italian couple and two Israeli guys – older guys that were best friends since they were kids and went on an annual trip together.
The guides unpacked the camels and laid out our pallets on the sand. They placed a thick rug on the bottom and then a couple of blankets were piled on top. After dinner, we rotisseried our bodies around the fire to keep warm until the embers died out. We brushed our teeth and did some sand squatting before crawling into our palettes. The sun had completely disappeared by this point and it had gotten as cold as Dick Cheney’s colon in a cryogenic barrel. (yeah, I said it!)
We grabbed our blankets to our bodies as tight as possible. The stars were unbelievable. They seemed so close. I felt like if I coughed, it would send a sound wave separating the stars with a ripple. The camels were making their own sound track to accompany it. They each have four stomachs and are in a constant state of equalizing their system by burping. It was like being around an aging team of football players – but this volume went to 13. I could NOT fall asleep. Now, I don’t like to think I’m the type person who would actually say what I’m about to say, but it seems to be the truth:
If I don’t sleep, nobody sleeps.
Because he sleeps so good, otherwise.
If he doesn’t have some red-faced woman shaking him awake and hissing “this is ridiculous! It’s cold enough to freeze my pee. I am going home TOMORROW!!” So poor Don, if he doesn’t have something like that, he can sleep wherever he wants for as long as he wants.
My friend once said he had seen Don take a snoring, blanket-less nap on a cold, dirty cement floor in a warehouse. He said Don slept like a baby. The man can go without. But when he has it, he enjoys it.
And that’s just what he was doing – enjoying that sleep, until I shook him awake hiss-whispering about how ridiculous everything was in a way that sort-of insinuated that it was somehow all his fault. I laid there not only cursing us going on a safari but cursing the very concept of anyone EVER going on a safari. Don dozed right back into snoring in a way that let me know how worried he was about my not getting enough sleep.
Finally, the sun came up, and I watched as the guides assembled breakfast. As I gnawed my way through it, I noticed their paper thin clothing that had shielded them from the night. I felt spoiled in my fleece jacket and hat. They moved through everythings like a sand ninja. Their efficiency around the camels was beautiful, but their culinary skills had seemed to evaporate since those taco-type things first set the stage for what could be possible. I imagined their wives preparing these taco-type things for them to give to their guest. After those tacos ran out, the guides had to start preparing dinner on their own and then it just went downhill from there.
This breakfast that morning made dinner last night taste gourmet. Grul. That’s what I call it – Grul. It tasted like something that would be slapped on a silver lunch tray in a Turkish prison. The looks on some of the other people’s faces at the morning fire made me realize my taste buds were not alone in their disappointment. Another woman, spitting her food out into the sand, sarcastically asked if there was any way to get some ‘variety’ in the food and a guide jokingly said “sometimes.”.
I walked away to find an unoccupied sand dune. As I walked, I passed by the other guide as he was cleaning the dishes. I noticed he was cleaning out the pots, plates and pans with sand. That’s what they use instead of water. They roll the plate in the sand until the grease and everything comes off and it is nice and smooth. Then, they put it back in the camel’s pouch and move on.
By the time we got to lunch, the food tasted like a styrofoam smoothie. The woman that had asked about getting some ‘variety’, now asked the guide what he meant by “sometimes”. The guide explained that it was sometimes possible to have meat with the meal but it cost “a bit of money”.
About 200 Rupees (a few dollars) per person.
There was a communal “pffffftttt” while everyone agreed verbally that we could all pitch in for that, so we did. After pitching in the money, we all packed and saddled up for more hours of mesmerizing monotony in the saddle. The thought of eating something palatable made me less adamant about going home. So I decided to stay – it was easy to come to that decision since there was no other way to get home but by camel.
Along the way, we stopped for a water break and a man with candy magically appeared from a sand dune. He was wearing a turban, a ratty old military jacket, cut off pants and sandals. He was selling the candy for about 5 cents a piece, so I bought the whole bag and gave multiples to everyone. He also had orange sodas so I bought a few of those and gave them to the guides and anybody else that would have one. I felt so rich! I may buy all my clothes at the half-price day at Salvation Army…. but the next round is on ME!
Later, after more hours of mesmerizing monotony, we stopped for the night. This time Don and I are ready. We have been boy-scouting all the many ways to stay warm while sleeping outside. We were going to put all of our blankets on both of us together to let our bodies heat things up. We would heat rocks and then put them in our blankets to have them warm when we are ready to get inside. We would brush our teeth and then go to hang out by the fire to get warm….. But these were just plans and the sun hadn’t even gone down yet.I thought about our dinner and wondered who they would send to the market (although my first thought was ‘supermarket’) to get the meat.
In the distance, I saw the candy man walking towards us. He had a kid walking with him, holding a baby goat in his arms. Our guides greeted the candy man and then got some string from their pouch. They drove a stick in the ground and then tied one end of the rope around the stick and the other around the goat’s neck.
We were spreading out our own palettes when we glanced over into the goat’s eyes and realized there would be no supermarket.
As we assembled around the fire, one of the guides came to Don and asked him if he could borrow his Swiss Army knife. I pretended not to hear this as I put rocks in the fire. My mind goes back to the supermarket and now it’s accompanied by elevator music.
I watch as the baby goat runs around, frolicking with the rope. He looks like he is a little worried. I decide to go for a walk to pet the goat; to get him to “calm down a bit”, as I am sure that I can do. I feel the awareness of the others as they think about the goat and watch me get near it. My encroaching presence startles the goat and he goes into a spastic wiggle that eventually frees his neck from the rope. I gasp when I see this and it causes the other campers to snap their focus to me. Unconsciously, I run to catch the goat. It’s a zigzagging, sand-stirring rush of flurry as I wrestle it into my arms.
As I re-attach it to the rope, I can actually remember bending down to the goat, getting my face on an even plane with him so that he could “better understand me”. I put the back of my head to the people – who I knew were watching me – so that only the goat could see my face and watch my lips as I said: “Maybe there’s reincarnation, you know? And you’ll get to come back as something even better than being a goat. And you’re just a baby goat. Maybe it’s better that you don’t live to know what it’s like to be an adult goat. Who knows? But I do know that I really appreciate the meal you are about to give us. Hey! Maybe this is your purpose in life anyway? It just came a little sooner. There you go, yeah, now you’re calming down. See. Enjoy every second. You never know when it’s going to end!”. Then, I cooed and awed as I cradled the goat in my arms until the guy that had Don’s pocketknife came to get it from me. He gave me an approving “thumbs up” and a bizarre wave of guilt flashed through my body. When I turned back to my fellow campers, there seemed to be a quick flick of their heads in the opposite direction – as if they didn’t want me to see them watching me.
I began to walk back over to everyone but one of the Israeli guys called me over. He was sick and lying on his palette, but he sat up on one elbow as he called me over. It seemed like I remembered him earlier saying something about being in the Israeli military, so I figured he would have some interesting comments to share. When I got there, he said: “When they cut the neck of the baby goat it will cry and you will probably hear it. Will you be able to eat the meat after hearing those cries?”
My mind went to a loud static as it searched for a channel to host all the excuses I was about to come up with. Finally my conscience squeezed on my vocal cords and out popped a “Yeah. I’m. Sorry”. I played around with ways to explain it, but I gave up quickly because there’s really no excuse. I wish I was vegetarian- I really wish I had that spirit. They are better people. I truly believe they are more virtuous and I really do wish I could muster that kind of commitment. But, I’m just ….. I don’t know…… a Texan? I eat everything but my own kin.
I apologized to the guy for being this way and I thanked him for letting me know his thoughts.
The candy man turned up again when the goat stew was dished out. He had two friends with him and they reminded me of a elderly opening band for the Beatles- looking so guru-cool in their turbans and tattered military jackets.
The stew tasted good. Depravity always heightens your taste buds, so the previous days’ grul made this stew legendary. The disdain for the trip got swallowed down with the stew and slowly, my enthusiasm for all things rustic surfaced. We brushed teeth, sand squatted and then warmed up by the fire as we laughed and told travel stories.
When it came time to go to bed, we crawled into our toasty cocoon. We took out the rocks. We stacked the blankets on top of each other. We spooned ourselves into position. Our body heat kept the heat from the rocks going until it got warm enough to poke our heads out of the blankets. We watched the stars, as they gently appeared; shyly popping out, one by one, like kids in a school play. They seemed to be moving closer and closer, just waiting for me to cough and send out a ripple. Eventually, they hung so low that they pressed into our eyes, closing them shut into a luxurious darkness that made me feel like there was no place else in the world I would rather be.
I don’t want to let go. I’m retracing memories, trying to keep them fresh like a taste I want to hold in my mouth.
I touched down on my home turf – from Hong Kong to Hell’s Kitchen-to a pattern of turning on the cell phone, digging through the mail, unpacking the suitcase. It seemed to fall into place too quickly, as if there was supposed to be something cataclysmic that should’ve happened. But this is the sign of a good trip- everything is ready to be picked up right where you left off.
Still, I don’t want to step into it here too deep. I still want to tread in where I was.
So I’m going to share the Hong Kong stories I didn’t get to earlier and a few others I never got to publish. It haunts me to think that the image of fishing the cell phone out of the porta potty – funny as it was – might be the final image some have of China. That wasn’t the final story, just a silly prelude to a few more. I love telling these stories so I’m going to indulge myself.
Getting to Hong Kong was a display of paranoid planning. After going through the wallet ordeal, I was going to be a traveling fortress. I had all my money on me and that had to last he rest of the trip. I no longer had an ATM card to get more money, so I had to hold on tight to what I had. I was going to be traveling alone on an overnight ‘hard sleeper’ for eleven hours. The hard sleepers are long compartments with three bunks on each side of the walls that section off the trains. There are no doors between these walls, so it’s sort of like a rolling dormitory. I had the top bunk, which means you only have two feet of space to the ceiling but at least no one will be crawling down your bed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I’d heard stories of people waking up to find their backpack slashed open with a knife and a “five finger discount” on their valuables, so I didn’t put anything important there. Instead, I sewed it into my bra. Two square packs of money protruded through my bra as if I had been a victim of angular breast implants gone horribly, wrong. I safety pinned my cargo pant pockets to seal in my passport and my son (the iPhone), put the earplugs in and slept like a warm embryo. I made sure to make friends with people around me, who were as sweet and kind as anyone can be, so I felt tucked in by their security.
Morning came without a worry and I climbed down to sit by the window and eat my just-add-water noodles and coffee. The views began to get tropical and metropolitan as we made our way to Shenzhen – the ‘shipping capital to the world” as commercials had told me over and over when I had watched TV in the mainland.
Once off the train, I walked to the Hong Kong side. After months of traveling, my backpack had gotten really heavy and slugging through customs and immigration made me wonder if some Chinese stowaway was sitting on top of it. Going to Hong Kong is like going to another country, although it’s still part of China. They have their own currency – (the Hong Kong dollar) and their own leader who is (in keeping with the financial status of the region) called the “CEO” of Hong Kong. Even Chinese nationals must go through these steps to enter Hong Kong and Hong Kong residents must get a visa to go to to China.
So… here’s some interesting historical trivia that many of you may already know and want to skip, but I found fascinating and want to share….
Hong Kong was ceded to the British after a lengthy battle that involved opium. When English merchants arrived in 1793 to do business with the Chinese, the Emperor basically said ‘we don’t need your money’ and denied them their commerce. The English decided they could offer something other than money and began using opium as their ‘currency”. They bought tea, silk porcelain, etc. and paid for it with opium they had cheaply acquired from India. It wasn’t long before the Emperor noticed that silver was diminishing while addiction was growing, so he ordered all opium stockpiles to be demolished. The British retaliated by bombing Chinese ports for two years until finally, an “agreement” was reached. The British would now trade in money and the Chinese would accept their money and by the way, they were going to take the islands referred to as Hong Kong for 99 years. After 99 years it would go back to China but there would be another 50 years of transition time and then after this 150 year period, China would fully re-acquire Hong Kong. The 99 year mark hit in 1997 and although Hong Kong was handed back to China, it decided to keep it generally as it was, giving rise to the “One country, two systems” principal. In 50 years, something else will happen (that I don’t fully understand) where Hong Kong will also hand back its capitalism (fat chance there).
Traveling through Hong Kong makes you wonder if this might be what mainland China will be like in 20 years. Futuristic skyscrapers growing out of vintage decay, solid infrastructure and an insatiable thirst for wealth.
Housing in Hong Kong makes New York apartments seem palatial. A normal sized bedroom is about 5X10 feet and many families of 4 or more live in less than 450 square feet. It’s surprising considering that there’s thousands of acres of untouched land surrounding this sardine city. Thank God a friend of a friend took mercy on me and let me stay at his place. Michael is a dear friend of my dear friend Brooke and has been living in Hong Kong for 5 years.
I was fortunate to get to tag along with him and see what his Hong Kong life is like. He is the number one foreign voice over artist in Hong Kong. I went to the studio to watch him do voice overs for a Japanese cartoon and met some of the other actors. There’s a thriving community of ex-pat theater in Hong Kong and the actors all seem to be traveling to some Asian hotspot when they get free time. Within three days I was wondering what it would take for Don and I to move there.
Despite the pockets of butt to butt crowdedness, I loved the diversity of what it offered – beaches, mountains, back alley discoveries, super city efficiency and close proximity to great Asian get-aways.
On Wednesday nights Hong Kong has horse races and half the city seems to come out for it. Maybe I should have checked the horses belly; rumor has it that they fix the races by giving some of the horses water before the race to slow them down. My horse clearly didn’t hear my inspirational threats from 200 feet away and so I lost 4 bucks.
Near the racetracks are double decker cable cars that look like something Oliver Twist might be driving (except for the ads they’re covered in). I went back to that part of the city the next day and sat at the top of the cable cars with a great view (and comfortable feet) picking out all the interesting and bizarre shops I later went to on the way back.
When I was in Macau – the Chinese island inhabited by the Portuguese – I found some great tid-bits.
This is a plate that a Chinese porcelain maker created based on stories he had heard of the crucifixion. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen an asian Jesus.
I also learned that tea came from China in two places. If it came from Canton it was pronounced something like ‘Cha”, so as it was carried to places as India and Japan, they kept some variation of the name. Likewise, if the tea came from Fukien it was pronounced something like “tea” so variations of that name traveled to England and most European countries. So there ya go. Something to talk about next time you go to a PTA meeting.
I already shared all the video I thought to take while I was there, but I wanted to pass these stories on before they evaporate from my peabrain. I still have another post or two about China in me and then, who knows…. I’ve had so much fun doing this, maybe I’ll continue it if anyone is along for the ride.
In the mean time, may the white lady of love bring joy to your day.
I always imagined Hong Kong as a crowded city. Signs hanging over the streets, people running into each other, everybody dressed in expensive designer wear….
It is those things but that’s just dipping your toe in the water.
Hong Kong – or “Honkers” as my gracious host Michael calls it – is more of a small country than a big city. It’s called an “SAR” or “Special Administrative Region”. When you look at the area that comprises the SAR of Hong Kong, the city of Hong Kong is a relatively small, densely populated area that spreads from the tip of the peninsula to the top of Hong Kong Island. Now, most of you probably already knew that, but lil Miss Rand McNally here golly-gee-wiz’ed herself over it.
Once you get out of the city, it opens up to beautiful beaches, lush jungles, peaceful villages and green mountains. The roads are first class, the buses are in excellent shape, there are clean public toilets everywhere and best of all…. they even have toilet paper!
However, as great as that is, it can’t solve all toilet problems of the world.
We went to the Clockenflap music festival one night. There was a girl who had accidentally dropped her cell phone in the porta potty when she went to squat. When she told the attendant, he opened up the back of the potty and told her she could ‘dig it out’.
Dropping my cell phone (AKA “my son”) out of my pants pockets into those vile toilets as I traveled through China was a paranoid fear of mine- all my photos, movies, contacts, you name it… so my heart really went out to this gal. She declined the digging.. That’s a tough call. But I I guess the thought of lifting the phone to your face every time you get a phone call might bring back some unpleasant memories no matter what level of sterilization you had achieved.
I have no idea why this is the eleventh hour story I choose to share for Hong Kong, but that’s what the keyboard clicked out.
Well, it’s late and I leave early in the morning to head back to NY. There’s so much I want to share about this city -like what it was like to kick Bruce Lee’s butt
I can’t believe it’s the last night – I iknow there’s a big vat of poetic reflection out there, but I can’t tap in to it now.
I never liked goodbyes anyway.
I do want to say how much it meant to me to be able to share this with all of you. The reply posts that were sent were the highlight of my mornings – like a cupcake I couldn’t wait to inhale. I had a blast writing the post and making the videos but it really really meant a lot to know there was someone out there reading them. Thank you thank you thank you for letting me share China with you. Going there was a big dream of mine for a long time and I just can’t believe it’s ending.
Man, what a blessing it all was.
That’s what I love about traveling. I worry and I get neurotic, but it all works out. Then, it sheds a little light on the possibility of everything else working out too. Maybe that’s why I need it so bad, because it gives me faith or something. I dunno. But I do know I’m never going to stop.
Well, here’s a few things I actually remembered to get some footage of. It got a little long, so I didn’t put the monkeys in. I’ll just have to show those to ya when I see ya….
which I hope is real soon
I write this as I leave mainland China with little sniffs bubbling up in my nose. I am off to Hong Kong, but I will miss so many things about this place that I better not begin for fear I miss my bus.
Last night there was the biggest fireworks show i have ever seen, I watched it from a roof top and it really added umph to my feeling that I got a lot of bang for my buck on this trip.
this morning i went to the annual
tug of war’ It brings out about a thousand locals and it was a lot of fun.
As I leave this place, I feel a little tug in my heart to come back, so here’s a little tug of war that’s par for the course:
When Chinese people refer to their country they say “Zhong Guo”- that’s how you say “China” in Chinese and it translates to “Middle Country”…. That will be all for today’s lesson. Get your tickets now for the school dance!
I stepped into my teaching shoes yesterday at the middle school here in Yangshou. I taught theater games to three classes. There are SIXTY students in each class. My head is still spinning from the experience and I thought it might be interesting to anyone who has ever been through a typical American Middle School experience to compare.
Now, back in my day (the paleolithic age) we called it “Junior High”. But awkward pimple-faced puberty by any other name is still a rose (thorny and blooming)
In China, when kids go to middle school (and High School), they live at the school in dorms. This school had over 1500 students from the outlying area. Students may leave Friday at 5:30 to go back home but must be back for Sunday night classes by 7:00pm, Sunday.
Here is a schedule of the school day:
6:00 Many students wake to shower, etc. There are about 6 students in each room with one bathroom that has two squat toilets and a shower.
6:30 Music blares through the school speakers to wake the students. All students must go down for their morning exercises. Students all wear uniforms – a track suit style pants and jacket- and sneakers. They stand in neat rows in their places and move to recorded counting.
7:30 Breakfast in the large cafeteria- usually it’s porridge or noodles.
8:30 – 9:15. Class
9:15 -10:00. students go to the school yard and do more exercises in rows (as you can see in the video below).
10:00 – 10:45. Class
10:15 – 11:00 students stay in their classroom seats and do their “eye exercises’ to recorded counting (also in the video).
11:00 – 11:45 class
11:45 – lunch
12:30 – 2:30 free time to nap, study, do your laundry, etc.
2:30 – 5;30 more classes with breaks for physical and eye exercising.
5:30 Dinner and free time
7;00 – 10:00 All students study in their homeroom classrooms with their teacher and do homework.
10:00 return to rooms to prepare for bed.
10:30 lights out
This is the Monday to Friday schedule Sunday classes are 7:00 – 10:00 pm.
oh – and I’ve heard that classrooms aren’t heated until the government decides it’s time to turn on the heat (if the classrooms have heaters) … and heat is expensive, so… layer up!
Many of the kids come from the farmland that surrounds Yangshou, where I’ve heard a monthly income might only bring in $150. Students have to buy their own books (they’re said to be quite expensive too), which is difficult for many families.
There was also an “exchange student” from Germany here. She said she was loving it.
These kids are so sweet and tender considering how tough they are. They learn lessons about getting along and being independent that most of us don’t get to until adulthood. I asked these kids if there was much fighting in the dorms and they didn’t even seem to understand why I would ask that.
Here is some footage of the school I went to.
The rice terraces I last wrote about sprawl over a large territory, so after seeing all I could of one village (Ping An), I wanted to see more. I decided to take my backpack and hike the four hours it takes to get to Dazhai. After the first hour and a half, I passed by a woman who would end up turning my lonely hike into what I would later call “The Sublime Secrets of the Huanglo Yao Sisterhood”.
Po-Po (that’s what I ended up calling her because it means grandmother) looked to be in her 70’s- one eye covered with cataracts and what she lacked in teeth, she made up for in spirit. She laughed when I said I wasn’t interested in taking (and paying for) photos, but she was saying something else I couldn’t figure out, so I followed her to see where she was going. She walked over to a basket of tree limbs she had been collecting and took out her machete. She whacked away at a few limbs to try to get them all to fit. I wondered who would be coming by to pick the basket up- it easily weighed as much as she did. She took the left over limbs and put them in a neat little pile and then crouched down and lifted the entire basket pn her back. I was overcome with a torrent of guilt – I had been complaining to myself about my 20 pound backpack, plus- how could I let an old woman carry something so heavy? I tried to help but she shooed me away, so I picked up the pile of sticks she had left. She was delighted to have the help. She said something about eating and I figured she wanted me to buy her lunch, which I was thoroughly glad to do. Hell, watching her carry that load, I wanted to buy her a personal masseuse and a four wheel drive wagon!
I followed her down the path, knowing that we must be close to the next village (Zhong Liu). The path is a series of slippery uneven rocks that she delicately floated over like a gazelle. We passed by a collection of 7 foot long tree limbs that someone else was collecting. I was leading the way and when I looked back, I noticed Po-Po had an ax in her hand. Had she left the ax there or did she swipe it from whoever had collected the 7 footers? We walked a bit farther -my arms already tired from my paltry collection of limbs- but when I looked back at supergrandmawwoman, I saw her hiding the ax in the shrubs. Was that where she kept it so she didn’t have to haul it back home? After 15 minutes or so, we came upon two other Yao women with the “long hair hats” (like the one from the previous video). They picked up their sticks and joined us on the long haul back to the village. Along the way the cluster of women that had been collecting the 7 footers came by and there was much whispering among the ladies I was with. They were intent that I understood I would eat with them- or something like that…. I wasn’t sure what they were saying, actually. I think they wanted me to stay at their place for the night, but I had to make it to the next village to make the morning bus. I think they were saying they would be cheaper than a place in Dazhai, but Po Po sweetly held my hand and shewed them away and I think (or like to think) she was saying I could just stay with her for free.
Finally the village was in sight and we stopped just short of the village so Po-Po could put her traditional dress and skirt over the t-shirt and pants she was wearing. I helped Po-Po take off the basket and massaged her shoulders. I pulled out all the food I had to share – bacon, eggs and toast- leftovers from my morning breakfast and we shared my coffee as well. I was imagining the meal I wanted to buy for her- something that massaged her from the inside and pampered her like a Swedish Spa.
As we got closer to the village, I looked around to see where a restaurant might be, but I could tell this was not a village for tourist. No restaurants, tourist trinkets or signage anywhere indicating you could buy something. I followed Po-Po to her place to drop off her load.
The bottom of the house was like a barn with things strewn about and small pens that looked like they once housed animals. They took me upstairs and insisted I sit down and it was then I realized that they were going to cook ME lunch. I tried to explain I wanted to buy THEM lunch, but they were already in meal making mode. Po Po was concerned I was hot and she insisted I take my shirt off (Okaaayyy?), then she got a stiff rag to wipe down my back and brought a shirt of hers for me to wear.
When I travel, I love to give away the clothes I bring, so I decided she was the perfect person to get this one:
I visited with the other ladies as Po- Po disappeared to her garden. They dressed me up in the traditional attire and we had some Kodak moments. Another woman came over with her baby and we all giggled like teenage babysitters.
I heard that they have an “open mind” about relationships and I am wondering if this might also be the matriarchal tribe of women I’ve heard about that ‘call the shots’ in the relationship – choosing who they will marry and if they want to stay with them. There was a man in the house when I was there, but he never came out.
After lunch, we said our goodbyes in a delicate “wonder if I’ll every see you again” kind of way. I hope I do and do it with photos in tow, because they really cemented a memory in my brain and I’d love to pass it back.
I began the long trek to the next village. Along the way, I saw another women that had collected a huge pile of 7 foot tree limbs. She was about to haul it on her shoulders and I asked her if I could try it. No way. It was like trying to lift a dead Sumo wrestler. This gal had the body of a third grader- about 4 foot 10″ and 95 pounds and she too glided like a gazelle on these slippery steps, passing me on the path as I stepped like a cautious cripple.
Once I made it to the next village, I got a room for $5 and dissolved into a pile of aching muscles.
I hiked the rest of the trek to Dazhai the next morning and then caught the bus that ekes out a long descent through pristine countryside that’s just perfect for reflecting on the Huanglao Yao sisterhood.
Here’s a little Ladies Home video Journal .
Here is a short video of one of the women I described in the previous blog. It’s pretty amazing!
After the week rolled by, I had fully recovered from the stolen wallet, so I decided to strap on the traveling boots and try to make it to the rice terraces once again. This time I superglued my money and essentials to the inside of my armpits where no one could get them.
Getting to my destination – Ping An- was an ordeal, but as usual, the people showed me the way when I floundered. I don’t know if they thought I was pathetic or just mildly retarded, but they were friendly and helpful as ever.
I was too cheap to take the tourist buses that go there (plus I have to watch my money now that I have no way of getting more) so I took the local buses. At one point I was in the middle of nowhere, sitting on a dirt pile on the side of the road, waiting for a connecting bus while a sweet man kept signaling for me to wait as bus after bus went by. Finally a rickety thing that looked like it might be held together with nails and duct tape came rolling by and he motioned for me to flag it down. It ws standing room only.
Kids had just gotten off school – it was 5:30- and the bus was full of them and elder tribal ladies in their ethnic attire, weathered faces and bizarre head gear that looks like it’s made out of hair. After a long and winding road that would even be breathtaking to the Beatles, we made it to the gates of Ping An where we began walking. There are no cars or bicycles allowed because the houses in the village are all on the side of the mountains with stone steps leading everywhere, so walking is the only way to get around. Once inside the village, it’s a maze of surprisingly-easy-to-get-lost-on stone paths.
Many of the women here are from the Huanglo Yao tribe. They only cut their hair once or twice in life, when they are 18 and later, if needed. They then save this 3 foot long pony tail and later, as their hair grows out all the way to the floor, they wrap their hair around their ‘childhood’ ponytail. (I’m sending another video of it – it’s amazing) The river of hair is then curled in a bun worn at the top of their forehead. Here is what they look like when they “let their hair down”:
As soon as I settled in my hotel, the village’s labyrinth was yelling for me to come out and play. I didn’t think to bring a coat or a flashlight, both of which I needed as soon as the sun went down. The waiter at the outdoor restaurant-with-a-view where I ate saw that I was cold and brought me a tablecloth to wrap myself up in. I covered my shoulders and head with it, to get that “just released from a Russian gulag” look, and enjoyed my meal. On the way home, I got completely lost as I tried to light my way with my iPhone. Yet another sweet Chinese boy showed me the way – taking me all the way to my door after seeing I was unable to follow difficult directions like “go straight”.
The next morning, I laid in bed enjoying my view:
Finally, I went for a walk around the rice terraces. These paths are better marked, so I only got lost once (but it was a good lost) The harvest happened about a month ago, so now the fields are covered in autumn colors. They’re mesmerizing in any season, as you can tell: