Dispatch from the People’s Republic: Fireworks Magic Time

beijing-fireworks-161171809On a relatively modest list of my favorite things in life, seeing fireworks in the sky is nearly at the top. I think of the Fourth of July in my hometown, on a hill by my parents’ house. Sometimes New Year’s Eve, depending on where I am or what I am doing. Exploding lights and colors in the sky awakens a very sentimental and romantic part of my being deep down inside, and, spending this year in the People’s Republic of China, I have had many opportunities to feel this love stir. During the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year (celebrating the lunar new year in January of February—depending on the movements of, well, la lune—instead of the new year of the Gregorian calendar celebrated in the West), which I came back for the tail-end of after having been in California, Chinese folks certainly like setting off fireworks. And none of that namby-pamby nonsense of concentrated locales and designations for how these bursting sirens are given to the night sky; everywhere I turned, there were fireworks. Anyone in those moments could have been the Gandalf of Chinese New Year, raining down fiery goodness around us. In Beijing, for my return at the end of the holiday, each night up through February 14 featured a demonstration of evening pyrotechnics, with the most bang coming on this final night. (The previous evenings to the final night sounded like some sort of aerial bombardment—I am glad that I am privileged enough to not actually know what this sounds like.)

From the rooftop of my apartment building in Beijing, each direction in which I could turn contained a show. Electric color shimmering through the milky night—while noxious to breath, the infamous Beijing air pollution rendered this night beautiful. Running down from the roof and out to the surrounding plazas, the roar of the fireworks was absolutely deafening; eventually I retreated back inside due to a soreness in my sweet ear-holes. Some sounds were simply loud explosions, felt in the ear and in my chest. Some fireworks shimmered like thousands of tiny comets pinpricking the night, creating the sound of heavy rain hitting a window. Families were in the streets, setting off smaller fireworks to the jubilation of small kids. Slightly older kids were making little bonfires from the cardboard refuse of these wonders. Having retreated to my apartment, drinking tea in my veranda-kitchen, I attained a moment of pure fixation when a series of fireworks were set off in the street directly below me so that the radiance of light thundered directly at the level of my eleventh floor windows. I was blessed for a moment in what seemed like my very own fireworks show, enjoyed from the comfort of my kitchen table.

While this episode is recent and fresh in my mind, it did not mark the beginning of fireworks magic time in my Chinese sojourn. When I first arrived here, six months ago at this point, I needed to stay in a southern city called Ningbo for a time in order to help out by teaching in one of my company’s English programs. Ningbo is a lovely city, south and around the corner from Shanghai. The high school in which I was teaching is located in a suburban district, slightly off the beaten path. One evening after classes wrapped up, I was told that it was too late to catch the bus back to my apartment, and I would need to take a taxi. I walked out of the school to a forlorn-looking intersection of this suburban night, and not a soul was stirring. In that moment, melancholy set about me; I missed my gentleman-friend and my loved ones at home, and I felt alone with no way to get home. Standing there, waiting for a taxi that did not seem to be coming, I was bummed. Another moment passed, and I had given into the eventuality of starting the somewhat long walk to the apartment, when *WOOSH* *BANG*!!! Above the intersection, from behind a building, a series of fireworks rocketed into the night sky and cast their light upon the whole street like the flares of a shipwrecked soul in the endless sea. The red, green and yellow florescence of light burned away my despair. Moments passed, and fireworks continued shooting into the sky. I stood transfixed, enjoying the surprise and delight of the moment. However, the fireworks ceased after awhile. As the cacophony faded from the night almost as instantly as it had arrived, a taxi drove up. I flagged it down, entered, and got home.

[Travelogue] I ♥ Shanghai

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Fun juxtaposition of wild graffiti art and monotone urban cityscape.

Picking up where I left off in gushing over Hong Kong, it is about time that I turned my attention to Shanghai, a place that has come in two visits to be one of my favorite collections of urban nuttiness on this planet. It has turned into my traditional destination when I finish teaching at Wuhan University in July; the perfect place to wind down from  the mainland China experience, as it feels more cosmopolitan, globalized and international than other Chinese cities, such as Beijing and Wuhan. This year I stayed right off People’s Square in the heart of the city, and everything was a stone’s throw via the lovely Metro system. In returning with fellow teachers in the Wuhan University teaching program, I certainly enjoyed a fair amount of leadership roles, including as an informal adviser to the general China experience; while this is always the most dramatic when I use my select but effective repertoire of Mandarin language skills, it was often the most enjoyable when navigating groups of friends through the Beijing and Shanghai metro stations labyrinths, changing trains and seeing the sights.

What is is that I enjoy about Shanghai? Despite having had a relatively short existence so far (especially by Chinese standards of the conceptualization of the history of time and civilization in the Middle Kingdom), Shanghai has an intense history to it: Communists vs. Nationalists;  imperialism & the fruits of globalization.  I attempt to remain critical of the sense that I love Shanghai the most of the cities in China precisely because it is the most familiar, a true world-city. What does that mean for me? More ‘European’ or more ‘like New York’? Folks are actually pretty chill on the subway, not necessarily bum-rushing the doors, yet the raw numbers of the crowds gives it a certain level of intensity. While I get this feeling, I still rub against the pure Chinese ambiance of the city that remains through the haze of chicness. There are certainly still fruit-marts, and steamed buns and dumplings on the street. One can bounce between a host of cold beverage joints that serve highly sweetened kumquat/lime juicy-drinks, such as Happy Lemon and Coco.

To be explored.

[Travelogue] Back on the train!

It’s funny how hanging out with friends who are writers (Lania Knight and Matt McBride linked, but come right back here folks) when traveling makes one want to write more; I turn to an old post about my joys, experiences, and personal literary connections around taking trains from days of yore (in relation to this record, at least) to re-ignite my own writing through this web journal. On my recent third trip to the People’s Republic of China, a fair number of trains were taken in various contexts. I have been going to Wuhan regularly now during the summer, and there will be a return in a short few weeks, so I am only going to get more of train travel in China. This represents an easy means of initiating some reflection around my recent return from Round 2 of the teaching at Wuhan University, and my upcoming and (temporary) relocation to Beijing.

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Looking down the cars on the Shanghai Metro.

One of the most enjoyable things for me in China is being able to ride the subway in the major cities; Beijing and Shanghai are rendered manageable because their metros are quick, relatively clean, and affordable. 2 kuai, anywhere in the vast metropolis which is Beijing! The carriage can be absolutely sardine-like at many hours, including rush, but overall I find it very exiting and enjoyable.  To tread into the cliche, China seems to be a country on the move, and this is so well-exemplified by an afternoon on one of the subways. Jam-packed at all sorts of hours, riders whisk back and forth between exits and transfers. The carriage doors separate, initiating the dash on and off, simultaneously in and out all in that moment.  Yesterday evening, having returned to my beloved San Francisco, I found the rather proper, lining up of the BART commuters so quaint in comparison. While exhausting, I love the no-nonsense feeling I get from the metro riders in China—I find it reminiscent of the vibe I get in New York. One of my regrets on this latest trip to Wuhan is not having had the opportunity to ride the relatively new Wuhan Metro, despite a somewhat determined effort to do so. With some intention there, group trips to Hankou from Wuchang ended up being cab-based; the one time I made it to Hankou by myself, the metro closed for the night as I arrived to the platform, and I was instructed by the eerily-accurate English language voice to leave the station immediately. While I managed to get to Hankou more than once this year (a goal from last year), I feel satisfied with knowing that eventually taking the Wuhan Metro can come with a future trip to Wuhan.

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Here’s the train we took coming over the Yangtze River bridge, eventually passing Wuhan’s famous Yellow Crane Tower.

Taking the overnight train from Beijing to Wuhan is a repeat experience which goes far in making the overall Wuhan experience so much fun, and I believe I am starting to appreciate it in the way that ritualistic train rides have grown on me in other travel experiences. This ride again afforded me the chance to hang out with my fellow teachers and build our eventual friendships—with 8-10 folks jammed into a four-person sleeper card to play Apples to Apples, this year’s overnight ride was so enjoyable, as we drank warm beers and bulshitted about 90’s music, tellingly revealing our generational place. The night passes quickly out the window, and eventually one wakes up to Hubei Province spinning past—some pastoral-light, leading into a tell-take sign of the suburban Chinese experience:  rows and rows of anonymous, identical apartment towers.

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High-speed train, Shanghai to Suzhou!

The last time I took a high-speed train, I was a green traveler going from Paris to Nîmes, so I was excited to continue my rail journey and experience in China by taking the quick train from Shanghai to Suzhou for a day trip. Despite a little confusion in actually finding the place at the station in which a foreigner can buy a ticket, involving a nice, hot long walk around the entire station, the whole high-speed rail experience was so easy; additionally, it was a quick 25-minute dart to Suzhou and back. The whole thing really put our train experience here in the States to shame! It makes me a little frustrated and sad that we are having such a hard time getting something similar up and running here in California.

(Still) not learning poo from history?

Quickly, Octopoe returns to this concept that we (Americans as generally manifested on the global geopolitical stage) often miss those vicissitudes of history which could otherwise inform our current set of predicaments. It is my sense that our public discourse has increasingly sensationalized an adversarial duality between China and the West, some of which twinges on talk of a seemingly impending military clash. In drawing some connections between this contemporary dilemma and a time from the past, we do not have to jump back to antiquity as before to dig up a historical precedent long since missed about our devastating involvement in Afghanistan. We need only skip back about a century or so to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cheery years filled with fierce nationalistic rivalry for political and economic domination of the globe, intensified by the imperialistic expansion of the industrialized powers – the United States, Europe in many of its national manifestations, the Empire of Japan. Images of industrial war modeled on this period have been featured on Octopoe in the past.  In the one hundred years leading up to the end of the Second World War, nearly every corner of the world had been touched by the global economic order (via imperialism or imbalanced foreign relations) and affected by the industrial-scale wars which left swathes of Europe and Asia destroyed. While the history is admittedly complex and nuanced, one can draw simple tropes from the record, such as the reluctance of those powers in relative control of the global geo-political scene to make room for the rising players while nationalistic rhetoric fuels competition and ultimately conflict. Some writers whom I have read on the subject speak to a relative unlikelihood of conflict with the trade connections between the two and the general troublesomeness it would create for a region which will only thrive with continued stability. A country which can barely keep the top on its on kettle at times, and flinches at the mere hint of a whistle (thinking about the Western media’s recent reporting of increased crackdowns within China against artists and dissidents, such as Ai Weiwei) may desperately avoid a destabilizing war. Being an internationalist pacifist and a language educator who has nothing to gain from conflict between my people and my number one client, I hope this recent bout of nationalistic propaganda does not drum us into the horror of the trenches and camps, the aerial bombardment and atom bombs.

[Travelogue] I ♥ Hong Kong

I do love a thick, teeming city, and Hong Kong is certainly no slouch. Those attributes which make me absolutely swoon over New York — the stark vertical landscape bristling with sky-scraping buildings, trains and buses and non-automotive methods of transit, and a hustling populace who had managed to find a foothold within — are present in Hong Kong. Only the systems of Hong Kong are seemingly much cleaner and more efficient. As discussed in a previous post, I love when the tension of our habitats causes a feeling of insignificance, the sense of being a small part in an otherwise moving, thoughtless machine in which we participate, but over which we have only a fraction of agency.

Before I ever set foot in the city of Hong Kong, I had clocked a good amount of time in the Hong Kong airport en route to other destinations in the region. Getting out of the airport and finally seeing the city was the culmination of a fair amount of anticipation. Hong Kong has been amongst those fantasy destinations to which I have been plotting an escape. While an expatriated existence has been in mind for years, becoming an English teacher (a teacher of English to speakers of other languages) has provided some considerable impetus and instrumentality to the aim. As the final stage in an overall trip to China, I was in Hong Kong not only to finally check out this vibrant city, but also to evaluate it as a potential future locale in which to live and work.

Sitting on the Airport Express making its way to Central, I was glued to the window, absorbing what visuals I could. Getting off this train and stepping out into the MTR, Hong Kong’s subway system, delivers you right into the complex which is the north side of Hong Kong island: cold steel buildings and scampering buses, cars, and people at street level, connected by subway and high-end shopping malls beneath the surface. This underground entanglement of trains and retail spaces always seemed to be inhabited by a sea of people, crowded and bustling no matter the time of day. After San Francisco and riding the subway in New York, it is rather discombobulating to find a Gucci or Coach outlet waiting for you on the other side of the turnstile. At every turn there actually seems to be a shopping mall for your convenience, below or above ground.

The cityscape is so immense, from within while at street-level, or when you manage to reach an elevated point such as Victoria Peak. What little space is available is certainly not wasted, and the scale matches the space. I was amazed by pencil thin buildings, maybe only three or four rooms to a floor, but reaching far into the sky like a reed of grass. Delightfully these stick apartment buildings would have charming names such as “Chungking Mansion”, or “Pacific Manor”. This monolithic cityscape is traversed by an ecstatic amount of public transit, which positively excites me as mentioned. Not only is there the MTR, but also various levels of bus service, double-decked or otherwise.

After having traveled on the mainland, my first meal in Hong Kong was at Life, the perfect throwback to my life in San Francisco as it focuses on raw, organic, and vegan delights. While the food on the mainland was incredible in its own right, having posh mini pizzas and a glass of wine was totally refreshing. Life is right off the escalator in SoHo, so named for its resemblance to the eponymous neighborhood in New York. Only if we had some of those escalators in San Francisco.

While I find the city exciting and thrive off the density and the glow of neon lights, the one element which I did find troublesome is the rampant commercialism. The city seems steeped in a money intensive culture which clashes with my non-materialistic California laxness. As mentioned, you cannot throw a stone in Hong Kong without hitting a luxury shopping mall. While there are endless options for getting around on public transit, there is also a fair share of sleek luxury cars floating around the streets. I was reminded of driving along the 101 south of San Francisco, where office buildings dot the landscape with their requisite software company name emblazoned across their tops, for Hong Kong harbor is littered with giant buildings, obelisks to corporate gods with titles scrolling across their peaks. It also seemed that Hong Kong’s art scene is not as vibrant as I would like, yet I would love to hear from any webfarers out there who know otherwise and can share their experiences.

Even with those faults, I am considering Hong Kong as a place to teach. However I have a few years until I reach my MATESOL, and I may find some other metropolis for which to fall in the intervening years.

[Travelogue] Get on the train

When having to move from here to there with the distance not being practical for your own two feet to carry you, trains are a delightful alternative. More passive than piloting your own automobile through the cosmos of spacey drivers out on the endless roads, riding the train can lend some quiet meditative space. Unlike the droning, stale-aired tube that is modern air travel, one can often move more freely on a railed vessel, not to mention exit entirely. Waiting for the next stop is usually the best option for getting off, but if one simply must exit with haste – let us say due to being chased amidst intrigue, attempting survival in light of burning or exploding carriage, et cetera – the likelihood of landing in one piece is better when jumping from a train than an airplane. You are afforded the experience of sensing the progression in movement of your journey across the landscape when you ride a train as well. Underground lines can be a little noisy, crowded, and potentially stiflingly hot; but subways are often fast and convenient, being located in dense urban centers which suffuse them with practical use and influence over lifestyle and terrain, both in formation and identity.

It is certainly much easier to engage in conversation when riding on a train, as you are not focused on navigating your individual wheeled metal box. Riding trains in France brought many delightful encounters and different contexts in which to practice the language. I met a young woman who watched my friends and I play cards, claiming she had no idea what our game was, asking to have the rules explained and to be included on the next round. After a brief tutorial, this young lady was dealt a hand of cards, and she proceeded to trounce us all within a single round of cards, behaving most politely and modestly the entire time. We knew a ringer, and stopped playing. My friend met a charming music performer on one of our trips through France, and his promotional posters adorned our future apartment windows in Santa Cruz. The past few years I have celebrated the winter holiday season by splitting time between the Los Angeles and the San Diego areas, and I have been making an enjoyed and anticipated tradition of taking the train from Union Station. This past year I unexpectedly ran into one of my own ESL students from San Francisco in my compartment, and we ended up sitting in the same quadrant of seats and conversing about our travels.

Some very interesting written representations occur on trains, getting us into the field of travel narratives. Christopher Isherwood opens his novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains with the meeting between his neutral protagonist and the infamous Arthur Norris while they are sharing a compartment crossing Europe. Isherwood and his close friend and writing peer W.H. Auden, a poet, left a record of a very interesting conversation shared while riding a train. They had been commissioned to write a travelogue and journalistic account of the war between China and Japan during the 1930s, which gave us their combined work, Journey to a War.  We get this image of them sharing a train journey in this excerpt:

“Thrown back upon each other’s well-worn company, we got through the long hours as we could best contrive—emptying out our heads like waste-paper baskets for the least scrap of amusement or interest. We told the old anecdotes, each secretly hoping that the other would remember or invent some new detail, however palpably untrue. We improvised parodies and limericks. We lost ourselves in interminable arguments and speculations: ‘What would happen if the world ran out of oil?’ ‘What would you describe as the unhappiest day of your life?’ ‘Does a man become a different person in a different place?”

The time and space the train travel gives us is a good time for conversation, and can yield interesting material in allowing so much space for discourse as you may only have conversation or sleep between you and a long journey. The speculations above are definitely interesting. Is it not absolutely disconcerting that a pair of intellectuals were casually discussing the ramifications of reaching peak oil in the 1930s? Are we different people when we travel? Who are we when we lose the surroundings, routine and acquiantances who help define who we are in our space? It is interesting to consider the conversation above, our own social place riding on trains contemporarily, and the potential future place of trains as we attempt to mitigate the affects of climate change, let alone game changers like peak oil.