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Living and teaching in Hangzhou

Days 10/11 More Puzzle Pieces

CHINA | Wednesday, 15 April 2015 | Views [283] | Comments [1]

Lovely garden spots

Lovely garden spots

Our way of operating has been slow to adjust. We tend to ask a question or pose a possibility to see how things would work. As soon as we mention anything, our hosts create a plan, jumping into action. When we consider the situation and choose differently, they are just as quick to graciously undo, but we wonder if this bothers them. Of course we cringe to think we are offending them, and they rush to assure us that whatever we want is right. 

The transaction of getting train tickets for a weekend jaunt to Suzhou showed us the effort that our hosts go to, and also the bureaucracy they deal with all the time. Trains are crowded, no trip is casual, and bookings are made in advance. So we could not actually go the weekend we wanted to go, to be out of town the same weekend that our host is out of town. We now are booked to go the same weekend that we had planned to go to Ningbo with our host. Well, there goes that plan. Seeing this issue with the trains, we thought we ought to book our train to Shanghai in advance as well. But that became a confusion too, with plans made to show us around Shanghai being dashed as we decided to stay in Hangzhou and simplify matters. Where will our regrets appear, who can say? Perhaps we already wish we could go to Shanghai for our last night and head to the airport from there, or perhaps we will be very glad to have a day in Hangzhou after the final class, exhibition of student work, gathering for dinner and celebration of the course.

The rectilinear assignment seemed to pose all kinds of new processes for the students: the constraints of the grid, the requirement to do drawings after making the configurations, and then to come up with their own ideas in twice the scale out of a material of their choice. Rob’s translator expresses the puzzlement of the students, and gives Rob insights into how to deepen his interactions and explanations. He knows his students now. He watches them processing and has met one-on-one to explore their design ideas for their self generated pieces. I can only imagine how much this means to them. Their choice of materials covers quite a range, and Rob helps them solve dilemmas, asking for more development or simplifications. They respond well.

My only planned activity so far was to connect with a graduated art student who met us our first night, and have her accompany me downtown to find wool or to see the silk market. This was arranged directly and I was excited about it. It morphed as all plans do here, into a day downtown, walking the shopping streets, asking stall vendors where the wool store might be, and then sitting by West Lake for tea on a gorgeous afternoon. I met several other young people, including a local fellow from Hangzhou, and another art student from Hunan, and had a great time taking the #4 bus back to campus all the while seeing beautiful scenes of the landscape around West Lake, and the charming faces of school children of all ages as they piled on and off the bus.

The “girls,” my 24 year old companions, invited us out to dinner, saying that they would take us to an organic farm restaurant for good vegetables. Well, we were picked up in a large BMW by a young man who does interior design and sells art, and whisked off to what is like a suburban farming area where the other fellow, an insurance company manager, is friends with the restaurant family. What a stupendous meal. This was by far the best we have had. Not at all oily, the fish came from the nearby river, and we had spicy asparagus (large and chewy with some kind of tripe or other nameless meat-product), spring bamboo (with chunks of ham), a tender green shoot chopped small that is something we do not know, amazing sweet potato starch slabs, and more. The meal ended with fresh little sweet potatoes served whole. Talk was in Chinese and one student also spoke fair English making it feel easy and lively. We are overwhelmed with the generosity here, but also a bit stupefied by the obvious wealth.

Yesterday our morning walk took us in a different direction off campus into an obviously working class area.  There were huge blocks of apartment buildings, and many more rising on the horizons. The existing housing stock was half demolished and half lived in, and every tiny piece of land was tilled and planted. This was both beautiful and a bit confounding, as sewage, garbage and run off was adjacent to the garden patches, and it raised serious issues in our confidence that these foods are actually as “healthy” as people say. “Eat this is healthy,” we hear again and again. We took the class translator and his girlfriend out to dinner to a place of their choice, and they took us to a noodle/rice place in the shopping mall. They both had plates of rice with ham and egg in it, as well as pork soup dumplings. Neither tends to eat vegetables. Of course we tried to order something vegetable based, but everything was meat infused.  He explained these gardens by saying that these are the farmers who have moved to the city from the country and they plant like that. Perhaps so, but we see people carefully tending the fenced plots along the roadsides, weaving bamboo fronds between the stakes to fence off their gardens. Even across the driveway from the hotel’s main entrance there is now a beautiful garden plot, beans and peas already coming up. We have watched the man turn, till, and plant there in the last week since the rain stopped.

We see the pieces of this puzzle but we do not know how to put them together. Yesterday we met a Frenchwoman who now lives and teaches in Australia, who has been here for 5 days as part of a workshop/seminar to develop a hot glass studio here on campus. Her observations are similar after visiting factories where they clearly have the industrial fabrication of glass down to a T, but have not integrated or design in that medium.  She says the business class are driving Ferraris and the workers are dying young. This echoes what we have been told about retirement plans that the government provides pensions and payroll deductions for bureaucrats, office workers, and even factory workers (all at different levels and forced retirement at different ages for men and women depending upon the field of work), but the farmers get no pension benefits at all. How will this get sorted out it is hard to say. Our experiences of being driven by young entrepreneurs in their very expensive cars and being very well treated does speak to a fast growth in disposable income.  Falling asleep last night, we wondered if our modest, penny-pinching lifestyle in our walk-up in Brooklyn, with our hard-work old house in upstate New York would seem just as confounding to them.

Tags: city farming, country kitchen restaurant, generosity, hangzhou downtown, neighborhood blight, wealth, west lake



the graciousness on both sides reminds we are all tethered together.
It is always difficult to know how to be a kind guest.
I would say consider how you are when hosting another.
Remember, we are all just walking each other home!

  Lenny Apr 18, 2015 2:22 AM

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