Tang DaLong 唐大龙

I’m spending a week in Hangzhou, and I think it was not the best choice. It’s not as cold here as in Lanzhou, but it’s close, and somehow everything holds on to the cold longer, like it wants to be frigid. Or maybe that is just because I still think it should be warm here. I have noticed that effect more as I get older, that what I believe changes everything about an experience.

Jumping in a cold pond is refreshing, but a cold shower is just painful. The dentist still hurt until I learned to take my mind away from the tools, focusing on forms or stories, anything to distract myself from my expectations. Sometimes it works. Being here is similar, not painful, but uncomfortable.

In Wanzhou 万州 I expected more distance. I only stayed a few days because I didn’t know how it would be. I thought it would be awkward, or uncomfortable. Maybe cold and boring. It was calm, but wonderful. The food was amazing, the fight to communicate more difficult, the time around the fire, perfect.

They decided for some reason I didn’t catch that I needed a real Chinese name. Until now I have been using Zhanmusi 詹姆斯, a rough phonetic translation of James. It comes up in the dictionary tied to LeBron James, or James Bond, but it is definitely not Chinese. Zhan詹 can be a Chinese family name, but mu 姆 has a female character in it, which matters in China. Names have meaning here, people believe that your name can dictate your life. I have had friends who changed their children’s name in order to give them a better future. I never really cared about them myself.

I have had a dozen names in my life, been given nicknames, translated names, or ones I chose, but this is the first time someone actually gave me a name, Tangdalong 唐大龙. Tang family Great Dragon. The first is my friend’s family name, so I am now part of the family. They were going to give me Xiaolong 小龙, the same name as Bruce Lee, but apparently while I am younger than my new sisters, I don’t qualify as small. So it is Big Dragon, Older Dragon, Great Dragon. It is not what I would have chosen, but somehow it suits me.

We were sitting around the fire when the subject came up. It is fairly easy for me to tell when people are talking about me here. I can get enough of the Chinese that I know the subject, even if I don’t really know the details. I did learn a new word though, Zhongguotong 中国通. The closest translation I can get is something I’ve been called before, a Sinophile, someone who loves Chinese culture.

I still don’t think that really fits who I am. I love culture and what it says about who we are as people. The interaction between how we define culture and how it defines us. The perception of time, gender roles, creativity, logic, even how we express compassion and love are all limited and expanded by changes in our culture. And the best way to understand my culture is to leave it and find one that can hold up a mirror to what I carry with me.

The culture here can be beautiful, the country is relatively safe, and progress continues, but I am an American, and I don’t think I will ever feel completely comfortable here. We complain about government oversight as it is, but here the government decides how many children you can have, gets notified by every hotel you stay in, and makes sure everyone is safe for the greater good. I really don’t like anyone I don’t know to have that much involvement in my life. Safety over personal freedom. Most people I have met here accept it because that is the way their world has always been. Personally, I know how my government acts when it gets involved in other countries and it worries me what they would to us if it was ever allowed.

It was always hard for me to understand these things when I still lived in the States. I could never really find a place to start asking questions simply because I didn’t know what questions to ask. Philosophy helps, but most of those questions have no real answers, and it is hard to find personal answers until you have real experiences. Like the college philosopher, knowing everything before they have ever stepped out beyond their campus. They know the words, but true meaning comes with truly being alive.

That is what I am looking for out here, the experience of being alive. To experiment with all these weird theories of life that I have, to find out how wrong I am, and hopefully to become something more than I imagined.

Posted in 2019-02, Hanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cigarettes and Sunflower Seeds

I spent a week in Chengdu for training, shorter than it should have been, but still intense in a lot of ways. My Chinese family went south for the winter, so I rested and spent time with my Peace Corps friends instead. I knew the coming weeks were going to be filled with friends and meals, and I need to prepare myself for that.

It was like before I left Lanzhou, I stayed indoors for three days straight. I talked to people online, I cooked everything that could go bad, and I hid from the cold. There is no sign of depression there, it’s just cold outside and most of the people I know have been gone from the city for a week. The winter wasn’t as bad this year, but my blood is still Californian.

Chengdu was fun, but it is strange for me to be with foreigners so much. I still want the connection to them but at the same time I always feel like something is missing. It happens with my local friends too, but it is hard to know if that is the language barrier or something that is all me, a constant distance from the people around me. There are always reasons, but I love kungfu because I feel more connected to those people than to almost anyone else in the world these days.

Connection is something I am always looking for, that core of any adventure I might be on, or any story I am a part of. It’s something that I don’t even realize I want most of the time, but it is never more obvious than when I find it. Intellectual, emotional, or physical, I have that need for them all. It’s something I realized long ago that I don’t particularly care if people in general like me, but I still need that connection. Finding that is when I feel most alive.

I left Chengdu and headed east to Chongqing a couple hours over. Then I found out it was the wrong city and I had to buy a ticket south to a city called Wanzhou another hour and a half out. My local friends are very bad at sharing the full directions. I was lucky enough to get one of the last seats out here on the next train where I slept as much as I could in the tiny seats.

My friends live almost next door to the train station partway up the mountain in a large but old home. It feels like a home, more than most places I have been to in China. Big rooms with old tile, clean spaces, crumbling concrete, and a fire pit out front where everyone spends most of their days and nights sitting around eating sunflower seeds and talking. Sometimes I can follow it, but they often speak a local dialect that is fast and loose when it comes to pronunciation. I typically understand the first half of the sentence, then lose it in the details. Probably for the best since they keep asking about Trump but I can’t understand the question well enough to answer. The best I can tell them is that Americans rarely like anyone in the government these days.

They invited me to a modern Chinese wedding, simple and complicated at the same time. The dress was western style, the person overseeing it was more like a M.C. than a religious figure, and half the people never stopped eating dinner while the ceremony was going on. It was like the reception and the wedding were pushed together to simplify the whole process. There were bowls of cigarettes and sunflower seeds where you signed in and the food kept being piled on top of each other when they ran out of room on the table. The food was good, but my friends are chefs, so the wedding was the least delicious food I’ve eaten since I arrived.

They made fish in soup that I loved, and I don’t like fish. They made the equivilant of pork shoulder soup and cabbage, just like my mom makes except she doesn’t try to convinve us that the skin is the best part. The first night we went out to hot pot, and I found out we have volunteers here.

I was intending to meet up with a couple volunteers here when I arrived, but I figured they would be hours away. Nope, just a bus ride to the other side of the city. Still an hour and a half out, but only about 10 miles from where I am staying. Sometimes the fates work in our favor, and sometimes they just want me to walk up two hundred fifty stairs to catch the bus home. The three of us walked for hours, talking about philosophy, fantasy, and language practice. One of the ideas I was told was about using duolingo with Chinese as the default language to learn a third language.

The idea is that your brain won’t try to use three languages at once, so you will really begin to think in the base language of the program. So by learning to translate between Chinese and Spanish, I’m forcing my brain to think in Chinese. It’s definitely something I am going to experiment with one my own and with my students. I’m always up to try a new way to learn.

I have been eating shao baozi fir breakfast here, basically meat filled dough that are one bite each. It has always been an annoyance to me that I never found good baozi close to home in Lanzhou, and here they are everywhere. One day my friends made spicy noodles for breakfast, apparently too spicy though. A few other people in Lanzhou had trouble with Sichuan hot pot because the food in Lanzhou is never that spicy. I am glad I am not one of those people. My friends here couldn’t finish theirs. Too hot. I finished easily, but painfully. Absolutely worth it.

We went into the mountains to check on their other home here, their sister’s home I think. People here always talk about how rich Americans are but a lot of them seem to own multiple houses, one where they work and one where they spend the holidays with family. That is a very rare thing back home these days.

My vacation is only beginning, but it is full of things I have come to accept, and still more things I never really expected. I leave for Hangzhou soon enough, and we will see what that brings me.


Posted in 2019-01, Uncategorized, Wanzhou | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Stage

The last of the classes are over and I am heading back to Chengdu for training. More or less. There are things to do, meetings, medical, and we’re going to start preparing to leave. There are plans and possibilities, but I am not really sure what I want to do yet. Maybe teach over the summer, if I can get the job, maybe just go and never look back.

Plans are starting to solidify, but there is too much that I want to do, and there are still a few worries I have to tend to. Happiness now in travel, or looking to retirement. There are too many places I still want to go to, and too many fears and demons I still want to fight. Part of what I found out here is that my demons don’t fight as well when they are away from where they were born.

In a new country, society, and place, they point to dangers that are irrelevant, or simply to things that no longer exist. It’s hard to fear going to work when you love your job. It’s hard to fear a meaningless existence when you can see the look in the eyes of those you help. I may never change the world, and I doubt I will ever feel that I have done enough, but that is just part of my personality at this point. The fight between what I want to do and the weight I always carry.

That is the problem for me, I think. I had hoped that the fears would quiet out here in the world, or at least there would be some change, but they never really have. They still rail against life, even if their arguments don’t make sense anymore. They still have to be fought before I can I can do what I feel I need to, and they never really relent. I get tired of fighting sometimes, but they never do.

It’s fascinating that that is the part of me that is relentless. Whispering or screaming, they are always there. Everything else good and bad seems to come and go, but fear never leaves. That is probably why I relate to Don Quixote more than anything. Not the man, but the story. Sometimes I am Quixote and sometimes I am Sancho, or Aldonza, or even the cynics and fearful, staying at home questioning the sanity of all that is happening.

The world is a stage, and we are just players. Wearing masks as we change roles, moving through as many or as few roles as we can, but it’s hard to accept the cynicism of this idea. That we can never just be ourselves, and that any role we choose has been played over and over throughout the millennia. I like the hope of it, that we can change, that we can take new roles, but I know from my actor friends that the roles are often limited by how you were born as often as by your skill.

It will be interesting going forward, a bit of travel before I come back and finish my final semester at this university, and the next semester has promise as well. I was able to be a bit lazy this last semester, with so few classes and so many of them being repeats, but from what I have seen from my next schedule it will be busy, and so much new material will have to be made. In a way, it will almost be like starting over, but I am getting better at fighting while my fears try to hold me back.

Posted in 2019-01, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A New Year

Some of it is the holidays, some of it just that I have time, but I have been eating with friends a lot more recently. My Chinese friends came over one night, and since I had time, I cooked. It is amazing to see how fascinated they are by salad, the idea that you can eat something that has never been cooked. I made a simple alfredo sauce over ziti, and again it was something they had never had. I baked the last of my potatoes also, and they were amazed that I would eat the skin.

This comes up with nearly everything I make for them, the awe at what we would consider normal food. Not the food itself, but the how of it. How we prepare it. How we eat it. Milk and potatoes to make soup. Uncooked vegetables in vinegar and acid. Just the base food with salt, pepper, and garlic so the meat is the center, not a seasoning.

It never occurred to me how different food is until I started to cook for them. The Mexican style of cooking everything twice in different ways, like frying the rice in oil before you add the water or marinating meat in lime juice to soften it and add flavor. It seems that the how of cooking is so much more important than the base ingredients.

I don’t know if it is just me, but I always have issues with what I cook. Usually it’s just not as great as I would imagine it to be, like most things in my life. My dreams have always been greater than my reality. But cooking for an audience gives me a different perspective on my food. I know it is not professional level, I never really wanted that anyway, but it disappears too fast to be as mediocre as I believe it to be.

I have always aimed for a Jamie Oliver style of cooking, making something amazing without working too hard at it. I like the idea of beautiful food, and I try to understand the science like Alton Brown, but I have never had that level of precision in my life. At this point, it’s rare that I can’t fix something bad, but I still tend to over-season more than I would like. But when it is done, most people I feed seem happy.

Not just what they say, because that is easy to chalk up to exaggeration. I am proud of the fact that I was able to make a pretty good turkey in a toaster oven, but it was not the best ever. But you add in volunteers missing home and a year or two away from the holidays and they speak poetry about it. But it is the actions that speak so loudly to me, more than words ever will.

Some of the volunteers and I went to WuWei武威 a few hours north of Lanzhou 兰州 for the new year. The place was decent enough, some cool things to see, amazing food, and colder than what I am used to, but a standard small city in China. There were statues of horses lined up for a parade, the beginning of the lantern festival, and beautiful, quiet parks and temples. It was strange to be inside the city and hear so little noise.

We headed back and spent the night playing games and eating roujiamo 肉夹馍, meat and bread, basically. We laughed and talked, cycling through word games and tactical games. I was able to throw together some hummus that everyone seemed to like, and I failed to make potatoes in the oven. There is no reason potatoes should take an hour to cook. I didn’t burn them, they just never finished cooking. From now on I use the microwave.

We welcomed the new year, took photos, and ate smores. It was a good night, one to remember. We made stupid jokes, talked about the future, and how fast the last year passed. It was a good year in China, and there is still much more to see as the semester ends. Vacation starts soon, and there are miles to go…

Posted in 2019-01, Uncategorized, WuWei | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment