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Living and teaching in Hangzhou

15th Day in China: Bad Air, Good Day

CHINA | Monday, 20 April 2015 | Views [229]

Ferrari's and cast off sofas

Ferrari's and cast off sofas

The day begins with the bad air headache, windows closed, yet a good sleep. It is obvious that people here have accommodated the shifting quality of the air they breathe, just as they accommodate the smell of sewage, the new towering buildings and disintegrating neighborhood streets. So we learn to put aside our Western images of how buildings or shops ought to look, and continue to wander the neighborhoods all around campus. When we show images to, or ask questions of, the students they have not seen these places. Many of them are here from other parts of China and they stay on campus, or within the area that the circles of their social activities take them. 

Today was warm, and the families are on campus. Even with the bad air (I am wearing a mask) even the smallest children are out, unprotected. People on motor bikes and bicycles tend to wear masks more than others do. After morning studio time, we head out to explore an area that we only glimpsed from the bus as we returned from downtown yesterday. We walk down a formal divided road with the most organized plantings, all the way to the even bigger elevated road. Under the road overpass on one side is a public park area, seating and spaces organized for play and visiting, and a planted waterway along the side. Incredibly wonderful in some ways, this area is also coated in dirt on every surface. Families are indeed here, one parent reading a newspaper, a child holding on to the bench and jumping up and down. On the other side of the road we are walking is the parking and a public restroom. We proceed past this into another alley populated with a string of tiny eateries on both sides, along with garbage collection piles. This alleyway leads to another main road, with bodywork shops, a metalwork shop, more eateries intermingled, and an intriguing stairway leading up the hill behind. Laundry is hanging on a line strung between the trees across the divided road. There are people all over here, working, backing cars up along the sidewalk to get to the body shop, and laundry hanging, even shoes propped up to dry.

We decide to retrace our steps and try one of the eateries. Our criteria: there is no garbage dump immediately next door, there are pictures of food in which we can see some vegetables, and the clincher- there is a table of young women already there. So we use our phone dictionary and show the word vegetable and vegetarian. The woman, who is clearly in charge along with her husband who is in the back room cooking, nods, smiles and in Chinese tells us that she can offer us all kinds of good things, and shows us a multi-page menu, no pictures. So I pull out my phone again, and look up the photos I took of the meal we had for lunch yesterday. Okay! She disappears into the kitchen and we sit down. This is made to order food, and we wait while a few other dishes appear for the girls. Then our cabbage arrives (with lots of pork rind – a kind of translucent sliced bacon).  Next comes the homestyle tofu dish – beautiful with peppers and carrots and a few bits of pork (for flavor no doubt). Rice and beer and we have a most wonderful meal for about $5. The girls loan us their bottle opener, and a driver of a van pulls up, says “hello” and then parks his van and comes in. He hovers at our table, peers at our tofu smiling, and I show him the word “vegetarian” to which he smiles even more, nodding. He sits in the next room and we watch the woman grab a live fish from a bucket and carry it into the kitchen. It will be his lunch.

From there we return to the shopping area we know, passing a sweet plant market on the way. Rob is on a mission to help me find some clothing, since I’ve been hankering after the lightweight loose linen/cotton style I see around me here. Eileen Fisher stand back! The tiny shops mostly carry similar items, and the girls working are very encouraging, “Try” they say. I look diligently. Shopping is not my pleasure, but with Rob by my side, I can tolerate a certain amount of it.  To my surprise, I find a dress and over-wrap that makes sense to me. Then we go to the art supply store on campus to buy Rob’s paper, and I see clothing there too. A dress is particularly interesting – homemade, no label. I try it on and it fits! So I approach with the question, is it for sale? No. But she can make me one, in a different fabric. 200 Yuan (about $34). Then she tells me to go upstairs, among the linens for paintings and rice papers for calligraphy, and find fabric I like. So I do, and when I bring it to her, she changes her mind and sells me the dress. It took 4 different students in the store to help with the communication, and even then it was amazing we figured it out.

We are using the most basic activities to peel off the first few layers of this place and feel the genuine life here. Of course we are staying in a “fancy” hotel in a “public park” of a campus. That, in and of itself, separates us. We stop and look at the clothing hanging in the alley, with the older woman and her sewing machine right there. No sense of design, and fabrics of any old kind of material, turned into blouses, dresses, little pouches, shopping bags. We’ve seen her there day after day, sewing. We’d love to buy something but cannot. The materials feel like polyester, or of such garish color combinations, and in fact, are made slapdash. This is not unlike some of the student works. Earnest and intent, but messy. Rob encourages them to hone their skills, mind the quality of the craft, but that is not where their attention goes, except for a couple.

Yet we speak to each other of how little we can rely on what we think here. Rob’s translator for the lecture mentioned the complexity of translating from the Western words to the Asian mind. “Asian mind” has come up several times. The questions and responses that echo back to us seem at times to reflect a completely different conceptual orientation. I cannot say that this is more or less functional, or valuable. I can only pry open my own patterns of thought to make new spaces. It is like absorbing meaning in poetry, or from any art form really, in that specificity is present but not a defining or limiting feature. We accept the situation that both parties in these interactions may turn aside scratching their heads in an effort to make sense of it. It is frustrating for Rob in his teaching role, since he so wants to communicate what he has brought to offer the students, but he is also witnessing what they are getting from him, and of course, it is not always aligned with what he thinks he is teaching. Some of it is the mere fact that he stays with them throughout the working period, that he meets with them one-on-one and discusses their ideas, that he will sometimes make work right alongside them.

Our evening ended with a nearly disastrous noodle dinner, again requesting vegetable and ending up with “special beef noodle dish” with an egg in it. Luckily the broth was actually good, the noodles, also, and there were a few pieces of bok choy and dry mushroom in it. The beef was minor, and easy to avoid. We then went to the grocery store and bought tiny speakers for Rob to play music in class. 39 Yuan got us the better of the two cheapest sets. We chose it after amusing the clerk by plugging in the shelf model of both and trying them!  What will the kids make of this? After silent classes, they will have Stee Winwood, Led Zepplin, Ali Farka Toure, Neil Young, Nora Jones and BB King, and who knows what will happen?

We are aware that our time here is like the movement towards fall, ever shortening now. Checking the weather for the week, planning how the class will go, thinking about lengths of time for assignments, and seeing this as our last whole weekend in Hangzhou. Next weekend we will go to Suzhou on our own, by train. Then it is our final week. Our treasures come in small ways. I’ve been hand washing our clothes nearly every day, hanging our drying clothes in the room where the staff has shown us, by moving our hangers the first day from where we put them to where they dry better. We are learning about generosity and graciousness in so many ways. 

Tags: air quality, asian mind, decrepit but good, eating out, generosity, local culture, shopping, vegetarian with pork

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