dear mom and dad,
warm days are here, and the streets and lanes get ever sleepier.
i discover more and more back alleys and lanes that wind about
between big buildings and crumbling old houses of brick or white
plaster. today i got lost for a few minutes on my way to an
interview and ended up in a lane called "salt alley." its
narrowness shut it off from cars, giving it an impenetrably drowsy
feel, with old people nodding off in chairs, or middle aged people
stirring the mahjong tiles with a clacking sound.
these two weeks of interviews begin to give me a sketchy picture
of luzhou of 20 or 25 years ago, between mao's death and deng xiao
ping's early reforms. it is startling, things here that strike me
as deeply rooted in local culture turn out to be recent
introductions from elsewhere. mahjong, played by half the married
population, was rare until the 90s'. tea houses were very few.
apartment buildings that give off a weary look of grey age turn out
to be only 10 years old. it is a real challenge to ask the questions
that will get people to tell me the specifics of their everyday life
of 20 years ago, because these old details they regard as mundane as
dust balls in the corner, hardly noticed anymore or commented on.
but when they do, it is fascinating. the man i just interviewed
came from the countryside, and he told me how he and his friends
used to burn chilli pepper leaves and peppers near one rat hole and
hold a bag over the other hole. when the rats came running out, they
grabbed it tight, slammed it on the ground, skinned the rats, and
cooked them up.
of course, most of the time i am just struggling to figure out
all the administrative terms and government bodies that shape
people's lives -- the new terms, like "dibao," or minimum
maintenance, a kind of welfare stipend, or the old terms, like
juweihui," or resident's committee, the lowest level of
administration in neighborhoods up until the 90's. there are people
who politely let me into their houses or offices and answer my
questions, and there are people who grab the interview and turn it
into the story of their life, which is what i want. a woman who saw
my picture in the paper last sunday called out to me in my chinese
name the other day as i walked by her restaurant. "Han zhi jian!"
she said, "if you want to know anything about this place, you ought
to come talk to me!" and she promised to find for me "lots and lots"
of old women "over 90" who could tell me all the stories of the
place. so i am planning to call her on monday and take my tape
it is always the details that fascinate. the guy who told me
about the rats said that local people call roaches "touyoupo," a
dialect term translated as "oil-pilfering grandmas," for their
propensity to be drawn to oily things.
or the fact that until recently, kids playing ping pong in this
city would use several terms that came from the english of the
flying tiger fighter pilots who were stationed here in the 40's! so
dad, maybe you could bring a book on the flying tigers when you come
here. it is too bad i only found out about the flying tigers
recently -- a little sooner and me and richard could have gone out
to the airport that was once their airfield. apparently the
japanese bombed the city during the war.
there is the sadness of rivers in decline. all old residents
note that the water levels are far lower than they used to be. the
way of life that was the river has died as well. one of the guys i
interview worked 18 years on the river and finally lost his job
when the highways opened up. there are still ships and barges going
up and down, but not like before, and the old wharves are gone,
leaving only the names of bus stops: middle wharf, upper wharf,
etc. so a lot of my interviews are probing people's memories.
there is frustration in the fact that i must wait for these
nieghborhood officials to find me interview subjects, who often are
people working in the office and too busy to find time. but i am
realizing that hanging around in teahouses and other local spots is
an easy way to hear just as many interesting things as from
"official" interviews, which are often a little uptight anyhow. so
i am relaxing a bit on that score. maybe i will go to salt alley
one of these days. though typing up my notes and listening to only
some of the tapes takes up lots of time. i am realizing there is no
way i can interview 30 people each week and still be able to
organize all the notes.
the used computer i bought a couple weeks ago was doing fine
until a couple of days ago, when it froze up, so i am concerned
about that -- even a couple days of no typing means pages and pages
of rough notes, and memory losing freshness.
farmers are all over with their shoulder poles hefting two
baskets, with fruits and an old metal scale. occasionally a man
will be walking down the street with a big catfish hanging from a
pole and a scale in his other hand, a walking fish market. last
week cherries suddenly appeared, and disappeared just as fast. they
were pale and small, rosy pearls, heaped up in a shallow basket with
sprigs of leaves covering them. farmers stood on corners with the
small baskets in their arms in front of them. i bought some. they
were delicate and sour, and quick to wrinkle.
war is in the future, and the sides are already drawn: the US
and Japan against China, with the two Koreas possibly moving to
join China. taiwan is the eye of the storm. it is all so clear, and
has nothing to do with personal feelings or decisions. it is not in
the hands of individual leaders. these powerful nations are sliding
against each other like tectonic plates, and the decisions of each
one are made on a calculus of power that has nothing to do with
reason. every week new events arise to shake the region like subtle
tremors, and every person i talk to sees it as clearly as me, with
some differences. we all say we hope for peace, but the structures
of power will not allow it, and we down here, ordinary people far
below the vast scaffolding of trade and weapons and money, can look
up and see the swaying and hear the creaking and know what will
occur. but there is nothing we can do. even if some leaders were to
become conscious of the danger ahead, to voice such concerns would
immediately turn the powerful interests against them. and then they
would fall, far down, and land here amidst us, and say, i tried.
how did cherries lead me to this?
anyhow, i am doing well. the routines that make my life routine
are returning at long last: running every other day and making 5
flash cards every night.
i hope you are well.