When I was nineteen, a counselor I saw in a neighboring city helped me practice techniques for memorizing information. I was told a series of directions, and was told that I would be tested on how well I could remember everything. I immediately tried to think of how I would do that. There were only around five or six instructions, so what I did was quickly invent a bizarre mental image for the transition between each direction. When I was able to reproduce all the instructions, the counselor could tell that I had already grasped the purpose of the exercise; mental associations help with memory (and thus test scores and in theory work and career success).
Having split up my year into so many varied fragments, the associations become much simpler. The longer one spends somewhere of course, the more the mind gets accustomed to the environment the way it does to a person. We form relationships with the people, places and things. I like to spend just enough time somewhere for the walls, chairs, views and sounds to become familiar, only to move on to return later.
Each of my drawings has a memory associated with it. Maybe it doesn’t matter what it is for the drawing itself.
Not long ago, an English guy mentioned to me that the reason he smokes is because he likes to do things with his hands while he stands, walks or talks. I figure I’m the same way but with a pen (and maybe you can tell, part of me wants to be writing when I’m drawing, and drawing when I’m writing).
It’s easier to start things than to finish them. What I might be trying to do here is express a will-towards-architecture we could say, without having the stamina to go through with actually completing a building, and seeing it come to fruition. I just want to suggest the structure, then the movements: nexuses of gravity pull in all fragments of matter as they swim in, splinter out and return, forever. All description and logic is just this movement, in infinitely many ways.
People, cities, the insides of rooms, landscapes have appeared and gone like clouds. There are whole worlds of people in a city you’ve never heard of who will never remember you.
“Don’t burn yourself out” someone told me a few weeks ago. Here I am wondering how I am going to adjust to staying the same place for more than a week.
People often say they ‘don’t get’ modern art. Neither do I. But what often gets called ugly or simple or childish doesn’t mean the creator is that way; he’s making sense of specific moments and sharing them to the world outside. I see enough cities and I start to just see this:
“I am working a good deal and quickly these days…By doing this, I seek to find an expression for the desperately swift passing away of things in modern life.” –Van Gogh
We visited a bar earlier in the day and took group photos. There weren’t any customers. I hate walking in groups like this when I don’t know the destination, so I have a tendency to wander away from the herd.
This was the evening after we walked through the forest, admired the scenery, took photos, and remarked on the symbolic significance of mushrooms growing out of the dead wood.
This city of one million felt at times like a ghost town. These ‘small’ Chinese cities have a way of feeling uncrowded, even as they are full of hundreds of millions. I got this same impression in Beijing’s Old Town and parts of JianShui. The Burkean ideal of public safety, prosperity, order, and peace is tangible in this place.
Purple light glowed over the small group as we listened to one another take turns and perform playing the guitar and singing. I even took a shot at it myself, though I mostly succeeded in making a fool of myself. I recognized one or two of the Chinese songs. I sat and talked a while with some of the group before going home, feeling the Chinese phrases flowing more smoothly as I kept talking.
I had a couple of hours to explore the Old Town on my own. I wasn’t the only one walking around with a camera. What is there left to say about the architecture of Chinese Old Town? I envy their unity of style, and look forward to the day when Western cities wake up from their brutalist, box-shaped architectural ways.
I checked my watch. I wanted to see as much as I could before I had to be back for tea, and to catch the train to our next destination.
More from Spain, in July of this year. Walking in this park in Valencia, there was a concert playing nearby. I wish I remembered the name of the band playing, because the shoegaze-type music drew me closer and I wanted to keep listening. I got a glimpse between the trees at the band, and saw people (including families) enter the stadium. A friend and I found an area where a tightrope connected two trees, and a smiling American hippy-like character with blue-painted toes came over and gave me a quick lesson on balancing. He was also teaching some people nearby how to juggle.
The sun set, and we walked through the old city, with its towers, statues, fountains and cathedrals.
On my last day in Madrid I went for a run in the park shown here. This structure, the Temple of Debod, is an ancient Egyptian structure built in the 2nd century BC. It was disassembled and rebuilt in Madrid, and opened to the public in 1972.
When travelling or living in China, there are a whole bunch of experiences a newcomer is going to have to get used to. Like anywhere new, there are adjustments you have to make, as well as pleasant surprises. There are also brief moments when you are happy to experience that moment, and wouldn’t be anywhere else for the world.
China is experiencing a key moment right now, in which much of the country is developed, with a lot left still to go. Learning about Chinese language, culture and history is a worthwhile endeavor no matter what, and China is also becoming the world’s biggest market. Many believe that China will be the world’s biggest economic powerhouse in as little as ten years. Getting accustomed to China and Chinese culture could be very useful for a young person today.
Here are some things you will experience if you’re in China:
People Will Be Curious About You.
Chinese people will ask you where you’re from, and what you’re doing there. This virtually never intended negatively, they’re simply interested in you. Someone who has gotten themselves to China is probably interesting in some way; are you a traveler? a teacher? Are you learning a new skill? If you speak some Chinese, how and why did you learn it? Do you like China? How about Chinese food?
2. Some People Will Stare at You
If you’re not ethnically Chinese, walking down the street of a small town (of about three-hundred thousand — that’s a ‘small town’ in China) I was such a novely that a man walking opposite to me stopped and stared at me. I kept walking but looked back at him, rather amused at how transfixed he was. Many people of course don’t look at you, and some might not even notice you. When people stare at you, they’re not being rude or intending to intimidate. Many don’t usually see any non-Chinese around, so their picture of foreigners comes from depictions in media; movies,
3. The Driving
Riding in a car in China, especially on the highway, can be an unnerving experience. I once was sitting in the back seat of an SUV while on the highway, when the driver decided to turn around because we had missed our exit. He backed up, dodging coming traffic which was fortunately scarce, and then drove up onto the dirt road where we meant to go. It was at this moment I decided to check the statistics on car accidents by country. China’s vehicle-fatality rate is almost nineteen per hundred thousand. This is about midway between many European countries, whose fatalities are in the low single digits, and parts of Africa where they’re in the twenties and even thirties. When you’re walking across the street in a small city like I did most of the time, you have to learn to simply walk into oncoming traffic. The good thing is that cars are usually going slowly enough that this is not too dangerous.
4. You Will Drink Tea
“All tea comes from China” a friend once told me. Tea is ingrained in the culture, and several times when I was walking around town, I was invited into ceramics shops and offered tea. What I had to get used to was how often people have tea after dinner, even shortly before going to bed (which in my mind rather defeats the purpose). This is a key element of Chinese culture that should not be missed. You’ll try different kinds, and perhaps witness a tea ceremony, which is meant to create a kind of serene and thoughtful atmosphere. Given that smell is strongly associated with memory, someday you might try that flavor of tea and be immediately brought back to the times you spent around the table, feeling yourself be energized by the authentic tea leaves of China.
5. …and BaiJiu
BaiJiu (literally “white alcohol”) is what Chinese typically drink when at a restaurant, in addition to tea of course. It’s common for people to invite one another to “He Yi Kou” (take a sip) of BaiJiu at various times throughout the dinner as a way of being social. There are different types, some made with corn, others with grapes, and so on, with varying degrees of alcohol. For those who have never had it, it is not terribly dissimilar to vodka. Not everyone will drink it of course, preferring to clink their cups of tea instead of BaiJiu.
6. The Culture of Politeness
You will likely both appreciate and suffer from the major difference in manners between East and West. On the positive side, people are generally quite nice to one another, and will probably treat you with a respect you’re unused to in the West. When the people around you are kind, this rubs off on you and makes your soul feel much lighter. However inevitably there will be times when people are polite to your face, but complain about you behind your back. This can be for all sorts of reasons (just like at home), but a major one can be a failure to reciprocate. If someone offers you a gift or to do something for you, the onus is usually on you to do something in return. Just because someone doesn’t display their desire to get something in return for his kindness doesn’t mean he doesn’t expect it. This requires being alert, and making sure to give back to those who have helped you. You also need to remember that in most cases, it is rude to refuse a gift when it is offered. You will probably be cut some slack as a foreigner, but it depends.
7. Spicy Food
Sadly, I can’t really handle spicy food too well. This is an unfortunate reality that I just have to grapple with. This means that when selecting food in China, I have to be quite careful not to choose anything terribly spicy, which is not always easy. There is plenty of great authentic Chinese food you will get to try if you go, spicy and non-spicy. Even if you like spicy food, do yourself a favor and avoid the tiny red peppers at all costs. You’ll thank me.
There is plenty more to life in China, so these are just some things you’ll definitely experience. As to more optional things, I’ll write more on that soon. My observations are taken from my experience in the South, so bear that in mind. If you want clean air and nice weather, I would say the South is the place to be. If you’re not going there for work, it’s likely you’ll need a Chinese citizen to write an invitation for you in order to get a visa. This is an annoying obstacle for many people, but for those who really want to go to the Middle Kingdom, it is possible.
As I noted last week while walking by the canal seen here, the image below rather sums up twenty-first century China up in a nutshell; calm water between walkways lined by trees and red lamps, while in the background cranes scrape the sky.
I never get tired of seeing these roofs. I tried to avoid the couples in these photos, who were enjoying some quality time on the bridges.
Our group drove out to a place called ZiXi Mountain Scenic Area (紫溪山景區), which unlike what I’d seen in Taiwan and Yunnan thus far, bears resemblance to mountains and forests in Europe and the United States. People in the field by the entrance ride ponies, eat corn, walk around, and shoot slingshots. People there really love shooting slingshots, attempting to hit pine cones from far away, or setting up water bottles on top of stone monuments or tables and doing target practice. While walking by someone who used her slingshot to shoot upwards, I wondered what the likelihood of being hit in the head. I figured the chance was low so I didn’t worry much.
This is a statue of the “Headcloth King”, who in this area is said to have been fathered by a dragon. He could turn “bamboo into horses and beans into goats.” He wrote a letter to his father, the dragon, attached it to an arrow and shot it toward the Black Temple where the dragon lived. Instead, the arrow landed in the ChuXiong government office, compelling the government to send armies to attack. In the end the Headcloth King was defeated by spell-casting Taoists.
There was a young boy with his mom, who asked me who I was. “I’m a monster and I eat children!” I said, and he tried to get by me. I blocked him for a while by just moving back and forth as he tried to get around me, like basketball. He soon got too quick for me and returned to his mom, who was watching nearby.
Water streamed beside us, mushrooms grew on dead trees, moss covered the steps. It was peaceful. We walked.
We took a train brought us from JianShui (建水) to KunMing (昆明). Across from us were an old woman and her granddaughter. When asked, she said she was seven years old. She had a small plastic ‘suitcase’ of toys. She didn’t have an English name. She was playing a game on a smartphone that requires you to touch the notes of Pachelbel’s Canon (why is this tune everywhere in China?) in sequence, kind of like guitar hero. She kept playing, which meant everyone heard the familiar notes. A man near us kept asking us questions, especially who I was and why I was there. The accent is thick in Yunnan Province, so given my Taiwan-trained ears it’s hard to tell what people are saying. I was the only foreigner around. A police officer saw me and asked to see my passport. The seats were full, so some people stood, and watched me as I talked to the girl and the man. She kept handing me her phone, so I helped her advance in the game. Green hills, red soil, farms and buildings passed us outside the windows.
Then we got to KunMing station where we went outside to find food in the form of noodles and dumplings. Then was the train to ChuXiong (楚雄), where we were picked up by friends and driven to a restaurant, where I was encouraged to drink BaiJiu (白酒), literally ‘white wine’, which is the typical liquor of the Mainlanders.
We stayed in a hotel. Here is the view from the room:
We went to a friend’s tea shop, which was decorated with Buddhist art and iconography, as well as traditional Chinese designs and artifacts.
I went for a walk outside the tea shop. The area is more dominated by Muslims, many of them from Myanmar. Lots of seemingly identical Burmese-run shops around the city sell jewelry. One of the shop owners said hello to me, and wanted me to come into the store (the entire outside wall is open during the day, with a shutter closing over the entrance at night). I asked him how long he’d been in China.
“9 years” he said in Chinese. I looked for a few minutes to be polite. I asked where the photo on his wall was taken.
“Saudi Arabia” he said. I thanked him and went back to drink more tea.
We ate lunch at this spot by this canal. It runs through the city’s Old Town (古城), which is extensive.