Friday, September 18, 2015

Beggars of Jiangnan Xi

Jiangnan Xi has been the location of my residence for three years and more or less the centre of what I'd call "my neighbourhood" for the whole time I've been in China. It's a food hub that's only getting hubbier, cool alleys, a rustic canal and high density living. I want to introduce three individuals who also have strong links with this neighbourhood, three people who have their own way to be. The one thing they have in common is that they're all explicitly or implicitly seeking others' loose change.

I blog about them not in annoyance or in the inglorious name of "poverty porn" but to share about their lives and my reflected struggle around them with sense of charity.

First up is 孤人 The Loner

In an society where people doubt the authenticity of beggars, thinking they rake in millions and buy Mercedes, The Loner is beyond reproach. He's there every night, just in shorts, his curved back is painful to see and he often falls asleep on the curb, mouth open. He's authentic, alright. He used to have a piece of wood introducing himself as 孤人 saying he needs saving. He doesn't any more. He just chalks his wisdom of human nature on the pavement, sometimes after some analysis of a newspaper, and then falls asleep on the pavement, mostly unclad. When he walks, he has a clear hunchback. Often he puts his medication out on display as that is what he wants as much as money. 

Guangzhou has many chalkers. They often have deformities and will crawl their way down the pavement writing some story, often rhyming, about their plight. I've always seen The Loner as above and beyond. He doesn't ask for help any more. There's a bag open. He does his thing. He lives on. He's Guangzhou's answer the late, great Blanket Man of Wellington. He's probably the most common recipient of my loose change. I don't think money will ever save him. It'll only ensure his comfort as he goes on.
The Waterboy

It took me a while to see the Water Boy but it seems like I've never stopped hearing him. We're above Jiangnan Xi, 26 floors up to be precise, and the most common sound is the rhythmic cry from below of the Water Boy selling his water. It was there every afternoon but I'd not seen or at least noticed him on my errands, but boy did his voice travel. 
"Help me buy a bottle," he'd say in  a way that one knows there might be an extra chromosome, or perhaps just a defect of some sort. If you try to buy a bottle he'll often try to sell you the lot, usually a 100 bottles. He says he can't go home till he sells the box. Recently he has moved up to a bicycle cart that can carry more bottles.
"I'm hungry. Buy these water bottles."

One assumes the worse, perhaps a handler or a parent using his disability to make money. One could say that he isn't really a beggar because he really is vending a product, a girl guide at your door. I'll buy his bottles one day soon.

The Cripple

There he is again, always with his crutches there, one slipper cast aside. He often says something quickly and indistinctly at the coming people. He's the Cripple. I believe him to be authentic but he is the one person I don't give to. Perhaps all of the people are really in need of help but I don't take to people who don't respect others. His crime: He usually sits in pedestrian bottlenecks, a strategy to get noticed perhaps, but not one that gets my Renminbi. He also is pretty grim. He stares desolately.

There are others. I've bought calligraphy off an occasional visitor who writes with his mouth. He has no hands. There's Big Head Boy. He's always at the back of a cart. He must have some disability with his legs as well as his intellect. There's the Bearded Man in the wheel chair. His legs are shrivelled. There's the Fallen Woman, not because she actually fell but that's her pose no matter when or what day you walk by.

There are others too, both likely genuine and some quite dubious. It's a wild world and it's not a surprise that some people don't weather the changes. I write this in recognition of them. Not to forget them. To occasionally give to them. But to feel bad not to have helped them. 

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Emei to infinity

Was it all the fitness I'd done in the last year? It will remain as one of the times I've most surprised myself.

Context is always a factor in a story: I'd headed to Chengdu in Sichuan province for a three day conference. The previous day I worked half a day, then flew in in the evening, hotel at 10:30pm, went out snacking and drinking baijiu quite liberally till about 3am; got up at 8am the next day, got my bearings and read my book, spent the afternoon in sessions, dinner out in a scenic area, drank a lot of baijiu, went to a bar, drank more, boss got drunk, she kept ordering whiskey for me, got to the hotel at 3:30; woke up 10am missing the panda tour, went with another group for sightseeing, had Sichuan hotpot that evening with all the delegates then after speeches with a few small bottles of baijiu, walk/ran 7 kilometres on a whim to our hotel (everyone else took a taxi, I'd tried to get someone to come with me but no takers), with two others went for a massage but went to "the wrong kind" of place, went for street side drinks instead until 2:30am; got up at 8am the conference's final morning and went to sessions, went out for food in the evening and initiated others who were staying for the weekend into baijiu, drank and ate spicy food till about 1am and got up at 6am to catch a speed train to Emei mountain for a two day hike. And on the train, I wasn't the least bit sleepy.

In other words, the context was a mountain of sleep deprivation and booze before one of the more extreme fitness challenges. In my uni days I had student conferences with equally arduous party schedules but without the alcohol nor impending physical exertion. I'm quite proud of it alone.

Anyhow, with the hike now contextualised, let's talk mountains. Emei Shan is one of the key Buddhist mountains in China. It's huge, too. Other mountains here you could ascend and descend in a day on foot; on Emei it isn't an option for anyone but the superfit. It tops out at just over 3000m above sea level, starting about 500m with long tracks up ridges and traversing gulleys. I ascended by the longest route, doing about 33 kilometres of flats and ascents in a quickish 6.5 hours. There were gorgeous gorges, a macaque attack (I lost one of my bottles) and the joy of powering past lots of young people.

One of the joys though would be the monasteries: they're the accommodation! They're basic but had hot running water, a basic canteen, often vegetarian and most importantly self-selected awesome people (those who eschew cable cars, are daring enough to walk the track and be fine to settle in a monastery are clearly different from the majority). 
I woke at 5:30am to eat, check out, see the sunrise and then head onward. I charged through the other early risers but at the following temple found someone of roughly the same fitness. He was a 23 year old hair stylist from a neighboring district. The route to the summit was another 25 kilometres but with more sharp ascents with some descents. We summitted around noon where the cable car carried throngs amassed. The astonishing temple and gold Buddha was something to be seen while they were concealed then revealed from wafts of clouds.

And then, 3000 metres up it began to rain. The whole route was paved with concrete stairs which became perilously slippery. It'll remain a mountain I've never descended. I cable-carred and bused back down and we all know that doesn't count when it comes to mountains.

The remaining time in Chengdu was a time of lethargy and fatigue. My body knew the party was over and it wasn't having a bar of me having much more fun. But that's where the reflection comes in. In terms of sustained action it was an unprecedented five days. I'm not going to do it again so I'll just let it sit coolly in my memory, like a disco king, in the corner after dazzling on the dance floor.

Interlude: Brazier's Bookstore

Humanity might never resolve its association with objects. We hang onto trinkets. We travel to inert places where somethings-ever-been. Bookstores, secondhand or otherwise, had already lured my youthful mind in a way that the adult mind could not help but to follow in tune. The books. The smell. The every-corner-a-wonder. The chess book on the opening style you'd always wanted. The tome on a history seldom delved. The guidebook to lost languages. The classic to the unknown religion. Musty must-haves, five to fifty dollars in your hand.

It didn't change from the bookstores of my youth that my grandparents took me to, or the later discoveries of my independent self. Jason's bookstore crossed that boundary but Brazier's bookstore on Dominion Road was strictly a wandering-in of my indulgent 20s. Brazier's name meant nothing. But the window display was well chosen. Often the blue old lady as there. Often the young man. The old lady had a sharp eye, often dismayed at the growing collection of books from the rusting of time that gathered on the teeth of her shelves. The younger man, Graham, a little less commited but no less in love with the printed word, thought not about the calcifying crust of literature in the sho, but keener to direct you away from the dross.

Graham died the other day. I get death more these days. His mother died barely years ago. He's a guy I met who died, from a shop down the road. He also was lead-man, in a band, Hello Sailor, whose only memorable song to my brain, Blue Lady, is accessible on Baidu music freely in China. Listening to it now. Sounds of a man that I met but barely ever heard. Baidu barely remembers at the best of time and yet recalls a band from New Zealand, from decades ago.

He's a reader. Or was. He talks but his words are just an echo. Because he's dead. He's no longer even an object but once-places and recalled moments are all that's left. If anything it clarifies fame and art. It lingers. And it fades. Blue lady.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Filial piety

竹叶青 (literally "the green of bamboo leaves") is the name of an infused wine as well as a variety of tea. At the foot of Emei Mountain, after an arduous two day hike, I thought about which gifts to take home and one of the first I thought about to buy gifts for was my father-in-law. He likes his wine and tea and 竹叶青 tea was a specialty of the region. I vetted various tea types in a half hour long tasting session and bought a packet specially for him.

Meanwhile, I was reading the second novel in a kungfu trilogy, The Return of the Condor heroes, in which the protagonist discovers that those who raised him for part of his youth also were elemental in the death of his father. The phrase 养育之恩 often comes up ("the grace of being raised"), which is the obligation to a child to be repaid to those who raise him, and this competes in his heart for a desire to avenge his father's death (杀父之仇不共戴天 literally "you cannot share a sky with those who killed your father").

It's fair to say that the concept of filial piety (孝顺) infuses the culture here, these being two examples of many. This refers to the obligations to your parents for their raising you. In China these were codified by that man Confucius, 2500 years ago. In western culture we rely on individual enlightenment to the necessity to take care of our parents. In the Orient, parents expect care, money and support while the children are educated from a young age their filial responsibilities. In the West children will often say they didn't choose to be born, and parents would feel awkward with overt support. It's two different systems of social expectation and obligation.

Flying back from Chengdu, a China-based American author, Zak, sat next to me for the flight and one of the topics we touched on was filial piety. We both felt increasing bond and responsibility with our homeland based elders. There was the irony of desiring to be abroad but feeling increasingly obliged to serve those at home. For me it manifests in serving my local "parents" and my imminent move back to New Zealand.

I drink the tea and watch my father-in-law for his appreciation. It's nice tea. It's beautiful tea. You place the leaves in a cup and pour water on them. They all rise to the top and then progressively drop to the bottom. Some leaves drop a little then float back to the top. It's all a dance of water and leaves. And then you drink.