Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Soundtrack for the Mundane

I've learned in the last four months that I am most eager to blog when I should be getting something else accomplished. Today the task is studying for my Mandarin class, which I'm almost as excited about as drinking cough syrup. Most weeks I look forward to practicing my Chinese, but for whatever reason today it feels more like a chore.

So my study breaks have been increasing in number and duration as I've been perusing my music library and attempting to put together a soundtrack for my afternoon. I'm hoping background music will help motivate me, and I've been working on a little project anyway.

I read the blog of a man I know in Austin who is quite the music nerd, and he's always writing music reviews and "top 10 album" lists. But my favorite is when he occasionally puts together compilation soundtracks for movies that have yet to be made. 

I've always dreamed of working as a music consultant for independent film makers, but as this is not an option at the moment  — a thing that is evidenced by my current salary — I like to make compilations for loved ones instead. And today, with Kester's recent listing as inspiration, I'm coming up with a soundtrack for the current day in Guiayng, though ever so mundane. Maybe you need something a little snappy as well. Feel free to adopt it as your own. 

Lauren's Soundtrack
1. Keep the Car Running — The Arcade Fire
2. Bridges and Ballons — Joanna Newsom
3. Skinny Love — Bon Iver
4. Wildfires — Josh Ritter
5. An Ocean and a Rock — Lisa Hannigan
6. Start a War — The National
7. Collide — Rachel Yamagata
8. Give a Little Love — Noah and the Whale
9. Furniture — Final Fantasy 
10. For the Interests of Few — Norfolk and Western
11. Backwards/ Forwards — Sarah Jaffe
12. Marry Me — St. Vincent
13. Quiet Houses — Fleet Foxes
14. Olive Hearts — Bowerbirds
15. Mr. Blue — Catherine Feeny
16. The Penalty — Beirut
17. Blue Umbrella — Dana Falconberry
18. Amiss — The Long Lost
19. I Don't Know if I'll be Back This Time — Sea Wolf
20. The Greatest — Cat Power

High on a Hill was a Lonely Goat

My friends and I traveled to FengHuang with a travel agency as it was both the cheaper and more convenient rout to go. On the way back to the city the itinerary landed us in a minority village about three hours away from Guiyang where a famous hot spring is located. 

I was not thrilled about this plan. I'm not the greatest swimmer, and the thought of dozens of Chinese people crammed in tiny swimming pools didn't seem like the most appealing way to spend the afternoon, especially because the day was warm and the natural surroundings all too enticing.

Luckily, my friends shared similar thoughts, so we set off to explore the rice terraces and old fashioned architecture of the village instead. The afternoon was just the medicine my tree-starved soul needed, and the people of the village were so intriguing.

And out of nowhere, as we meandered around, my friend Sharon broke into song, sharing her renditions of music from the "Sound of Music," with her friends. In these situations, the best response is to join in the merriment. And so my Chinese friends and I walked along the terraces — more of a balancing act, really — singing "High on a Hill was a Lonely Goat" while eating the chocolate ice cream we bought from a vendor up the road. Very satisfying. 

This afternoon in the village was the perfect way to end my vacation to Hunan province. No deep thoughts, no burrowing issues. Just sheer enjoyment and some much needed time in the sun. 

My Latest Obsession

Ginger candy and dried kiwi. Totally sustainable. 

The Festival I Didn't Attend

China is dotted with minority villages of all sorts, and the most prevalent of the region in which I live are the Miao people. When my friend and travel mate got word that there was a special Miao festival taking place about 45 minutes away from where were staying, we decided it was too great a cultural experience to pass up.

We set out to catch a bus to the village where the festivities were taking place, which provided to be a more difficult task than imagined. After trying to find the bus station for an hour — mind you I was traveling with Chinese people — we finally found a micro-bus headed toward the countryside. Of course we hopped on.

The scenery along the way was breathtaking, and I became more convinced than ever that I live in the most beautiful piece of China. I completely lost track of time until the bumpy yet pleasant ride came to a complete halt. Apparently this festival is quite popular, but the tiny dirt roads can't handle all the traffic, especially after having been rained on for two days thus making them quite sticky to vehicle wheels. 

And true to form, most of the drivers got out of their cars to assess the problem, which accomplished nothing accept motionless vehicles that all needed to get to the same place. And so we sat and waited and napped and waited until I had almost lost my mind.

I believe, sans the aroma of stinky tofu, that I have acquired a great tolerance for many things in Chinese culture that would have once made me crazy. But something I don't understand about the Chinese is why they find it necessary to honk their horns incessantly when they know full well that it will resolve nothing. Why would an individual lay on their car horn for minutes at a time when half of the drivers on the road aren't even in their vehicles? 

After finally regaining motion, we were dropped off three miles from the fair because the parking was so bad the bus couldn't travel any further. I didn't mind. I wanted to move my legs after being stuck on a bus for hours. I enjoyed observing the minority costumes the Miao were wearing until I also observed that everyone was moving the opposite direction as us. Bringing this to my friends' attention, we soon discovered that we had in fact missed the fair all together and were now caught in a tangle of people who were moving toward the place we had waited so long to get away from. 

So we turned around, at this point up to our knees in mud, and continued walking. I kept trying to think of a comparison to this situation. I most likened it to a crowed day at Six Flags when the mass of people is overwhelming and the ride not nearly as satisfying as the long line would assume. 

While I did enjoy the beautiful scenery and the festive clothing, I think I would have been a much happier version of myself that day had I actually made it to the festival. 

On the Road Again

One of the strongest and dearest memories of my time in Fujian was the wealth of international literature at my disposal. The director of the China Studies Program had bookshelves stocked full of titles like "River Town," "The Poisonwood Bible," and "The Ugly American," books that have since helped me better develop my worldview.

The other 10 students in the program were some of the most veracious readers I have known, and soon we had developed a sort of unofficial book club among us all. Toward the end of the semester we spent about three weeks traveling the country of China, sleeping on overnight trains and stopping along the way to take in the beautiful countryside. And all the while we passed around our books to one another, utilizing our time the best we knew how as we spent endless hours in train stations all across the country.

I strongly believe that a person reads more intensely when traveling, and I hadn't realized how much I missed doing just that until last weekend when I got to revisit this cherished activity. 

Some girls from work invited me to spend May holiday with them in the ancient river city of FengHuang, which is located about six hours away from Guiyang. Besides the wonderful company I found in these girls, I could not have been more thrilled to spend a solid 12 hours reading and soaking up the Chinese scenery outside my window. 

I had been purposefully saving Muhammad Yunus's "Banker to the Poor," for a special occasion, so I tucked the book in my overnight bag, hoping it would serve as a sufficient companion for the long drive. I would soon find that this book was the perfect read for my short trip to Hunan province, and the intwining of Yunus's stories and the images  I saw outside the foggy bus windows provided some really interesting food for thought. 

Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work as founder of the Grameen bank, an institution that provides micro-loans to the world's poor. This man has for sometime been one of my heros, as his work has gained wild success across the globe and micro-finance has given what Jeremiah would call a "future and a hope" to people who have little to nothing of which they can call their own.

I heard an interesting commentary on NPR several days before leaving for Guizhou. The man being interviewed talked about how China is a facade of growth and development, and for that matter who hasn't seen the countless images of cement-laden Chinese cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen smeared across our television screens? But China is still very much a developing culture as I was keenly reminded last weekend, and most of it's inhabitants don't have a Stackbucks at their disposal. Rather they live like the people I saw on the roads linking Guizhou to Hunan: with very little.

I guess you could say I'm in the process of learning how to respond to these realities. I took lots of classes in college where I learned about the economics of developing cultures and the pressing issues that face the world's poor. But the situation looks a lot different from a Chinese bus window than it does in a text book. I don't mean to sensationalize the situation or propose that people with little material wealth don't experience joy and contentment from life, as I would be out of line to make such assumptions. But I wonder what it looks like for me, Lauren Emily, to play into this dynamic by getting outside my test-tube life and helping others on a very real level. It seems like such an abstract idea, but I believe individuals like Muhammad Yunus teach us that it can in fact be done if we can open our eyes to catch the vision. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Keeping it Fresh

I've found after writing for the past two months that it's hard to keep a blog fresh, to give my readers new and interesting insights into my world rather than posting twenty photos that all look similar and constantly rehashing the same issue in each post. I'm a sentimentalist at heart, and as I result I find this blog at times is a bit too sappy for my liking as a trained journalist. But I hope that for today you will humor me, as I have news that I believe is worth getting a little sentimental about: Today marks two months I have been in Guiyang.

Yesterday, I was coming home from yoga class and running late to meet a friend for coffee. I walked about 15 minutes out of my way, which I normally do, to chase down the sweet potato vender who I often buy my lunch from (They move around a lot. It's hard to keep track of them.) I kept thinking about how Rufus was probably ready to get out of the kitchen, where he stays when I leave the house, and how I needed to prepare some more material for my adult class that evening.

These are very normal thoughts and activities — meeting friends, getting lunch, thinking about work — but it occurred to me what a transition I have made in the last two weeks. For about six weeks I had been living in Guiyang. I am official resident here, my paycheck comes from Chinese employers and my community is almost completely Chinese. But several weeks ago I felt a shift had taken place as I realized I am no longer merely eating and working and living in Guiyang; I have a life in Guiyang. And there is a significant distinction between the two.

I have a dog, and I regularly go to a yoga class where my instructor and classmates know me. I don't feel nervous anymore about teaching, and the faces I see when I walk into my classes are familiar ones by this point. I have well-established friendships, and I'm no longer the new American girl at work. I'm just Lauren. Lauren who is willing to go significantly out of her way to buy a sweet potato or a piece of corn on the cob. Lauren who likes rice dishes more than noodles and doesn't prefer to eat meat. Lauren who lives on Jiahu Lu and who no longer gets lost when navigating the city. It's nice to be known and to feel comfortable in my environment. So today, on my two-month anniversary with Guiyang, Guizhou, China, I feel gratitude for the last eight weeks and excitement about the 16 that still await me.

Dreaming in the Colour Green

This is the lot I was cast, to sit here on this sharp, jagged point between two centuries when so much of everything hangs in the balance. I get to choose whether to hang it up or hang on, and I hang on because I was born to do it, like everyone else. I insist that I can do something right, if I try. I insist that you can, too, that in fact you already are, and there's a whole lot more where this came from.

That manner of thinking does not seem to be the fashion at this sharp, jagged little point in time, where the power is mighty and the fashion is coolness and gloom and one raised eyebrow. But still I suspect that the deepest of all human wishes, down there on the floor of the soul underneath the scattered rugs of lust and thirst and hunger, is the tongue-and-groove desire to be understood. And life is a slow trek along the path toward realizing how that wish will go unfulfilled. Such is the course of all wisdom: Others will see the front and back, but inside is where we each live, in that home where only one heart will ever beat. There we have to make our peace with all we need of sorrow, and all we can ever know of the divine, by whatever name we can call it.

What I can find is this, and so it has to be: conquering my own despair by doing what little I can. Stealing thunder, tucking it in my pocket to save for the long drought. Dreaming in the colour green, tasting the end of anger. Don't ask me for the evidence. The possibility of a kinder future, the existence of God — these are just two of many things that fall into the category I would label "impossible to prove, and proof is not the point." Faith has a life of its own.

Maybe the cynics are on top of the game, and maybe they're not. Maybe it doesn't cost anything to hope, and those of us who do will be able to live better, more honest lives as believers than we could as cynics. Maybe God really is just a guy on the bus. Maybe those really are his wife's measuring spoons hanging up there on my garden trellis, waiting to dole me out a pinch of grace on the day I need it. Maybe life doesn't get any better than this, or any worse, and what we get is just what we're willing to find: small wonders, where they grow.   

  -Barbara Kingsolver