Matters of Consequence

I see him coming. He’s shifting along the dusty terrace that separates the courtyard from the living room. I’m reclining on the sofa, but edging forward as he rounds the corner. There’s a tall glass of baijiu in my hand and I wish there wasn’t. He enters the room, “schlap, schlap, and schlap.” I sit frozen and confused. A white man in the headlights. I kind of welcome it. Then he gets me across the face. The blind man, in the living room, with the flyswatter.

The blind man in question is the 72-year-old father of one of my local teachers. He wasn’t always blind, I presume, but he sure is now. The flyswatter is his version of the cane we often see in the US. And, frankly, I much prefer its lovetap to a crack across the head with a solid piece of plastic. The man sits down across from me. There are ten of us in the living room: Four local teachers, three Teach for China fellows, the high school daughter of the teacher who’s invited us, and his parents. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in an actual house with an actual family. I don’t think I’ve set foot in a legitimate residence since I left the states. It was so comfortable, so warm and so friendly.

After the swatting, the grandfather and I exchange pleasantries. He’s sandwiched in between his son and his wife, who is probably around 70, but looks 150. Age catches up quickly here. He apologizes, but it’s immediately evident that everyone, he and myself included, had very little problem with the swatting. This man is a picture of joviality. He’s a caricature: Small, blind as a bat, and restless with energy. He successfully pours himself a glass of baijiu (the nose knows) and we toast over another laughpology. Fortunately, he speaks Mandarin, a bit of a rarity for someone of his age. I wonder to myself if he’s ever seen a foreigner before. It’s unlikely he has, especially if he’s been blind for long. Incredible that someone could go their entire life without laying eyes on a single person outside of their race. Surely not uncommon, though.

I treasure the infrequent chances I have to converse with China’s later generations. Infrequent because: many do not speak Mandarin, life expectancy is lower, and I simply do not have much daily contact with people over the age of 50. If you were born in China in 1940, today you live in a completely different universe than the one in which you’ve spent most of your life. Even in a rural village such as this, you’ve seen changes socially, politically, and economically that are almost entirely unrivaled anywhere else in the world. This time our conversation doesn’t progress much past the typical meet and greet. Mr. Liu is so clearly excited to have company that we basically just cheers a bunch and he scream-mutters incoherent minority language at me. He’s like a kid on Christmas and it brings an ear-to-ear smile to my face. We drink some more baijiu. I look forward to listening to him in the future, sitting over some shitty booze and talking about his life.

 

Today I took a trip to the doctor. As some of you may know, it was my second trip to the doctor in China. Sparing select details, this trip was made for similar reasons as the last. One of my local teachers, Mr. Yang, insisted on taking me this morning. The doctor’s office is immediately outside of our school’s campus. In fact, I often see the doctor about town. He’s in his late 40’s with a shockingly bad combover. It’s the kind of combover that when you see it, you know that if you ask this guy whether he is bald or not, he’ll look at you inquisitively and say, “What? Me? No, I’m only 45.” It’s a denial combover. Either way, the bald doctor is a good dude. I’ve never interacted with him professionally before and I’m frankly a little curious to see what the local health care scene has to offer. I’d surely be significantly less curious if my illness was of any serious concern. I’m only going to the doc because I’m being forced to and partly because I really don’t want to shit my pants in the middle of class.

We walk across campus and then no more than a minute to the office. The space is small. There are two rooms, one with a desk and a shelf full of needles and medical books. Many medical posters decorate the walls. I don’t read them, but the messages are pretty clear. Don’t drink, don’t smoke. Don’t do what everyone else around you is doing at all hours of the day. Might as well not eat rice either. The other room is decked with all different types of intriguing looking medicine that I would never be intrigued enough to use personally. The floor is cement, but smooth. As we enter, the doc is screaming vociferously into the right ear of an older gentleman wearing a newsboy. He’s screaming so loud, he’s up on his toes. It’s local dialect, so I can’t make it out. But I’m pretty sure he was just wishing him a nice afternoon. The old man nods, smiles at us, puts his new medicine in a bag accompanied by a carton of cigarettes, and walks out the door.  The doc promptly offers my colleague a cigarette. He takes it. He extends the offer to me. I refuse. He lights it up for himself.

Between puffs he asks me what the deal is. I give him the rundown. He’s got two solutions. Take a shot or drink some medicine. Shots are the universal method of feeling better here. In fact, if a student comes to class late from the doctor’s they will usually signal their arrival with a concise jabbing motion. That tells me where they’ve been. They weren’t out stabbing people; they were just feeling a little under the weather. I elect for the medicine. It’s the same medicine I had last time I was digestively incapacitated. It tastes like a damn hamster cage. It costs me 8 Yuan for a week’s worth. I consistently invoke the absurdly low cost of things on this blog, but that’s only because it never ceases to amaze me. That’s like a buck and a quarter. Not to mention, I can just walk right in without having to deal with an ornery receptionist. Not to mention, the doc offers me a cigarette for my troubles. NOT to mention, I have no insurance. What a deal. What a guy. “Doc, did you get a haircut? Looks fantastic.”

 

The word “落后(luohou)” is tossed around a lot by Heqing locals. Luohou means to fall behind, like a kid struggling with his grades.  It’s used here in contrary to “developed.” An area that has fallen behind is essentially an agrarian region. The infrastructure isn’t on par with the rest of the country. Things are coming along more slowly. It’s used negatively and it’s used very often. I’m consistently commended on my country’s development as though I had a great hand in it. Locals embarrassingly compare their home to the gigantic first world metropolises on China’s East coast. Funny, because they’ve never been there. They’ve only heard about those places or seen them on TV. The phrase “the grass is greener” is a beautiful contradiction in this case. Every time someone talks about how undeveloped, how behind, they are, I tell them what it’s like in Shanghai or Beijing and why they might not be right. “Everyone you pass on the street here is your friend or family, you grow plants that you eat, you live in a house with a courtyard and enough room for your parents and your children, you have a blue sky during the day and the stars at night.”

I am not a narrow-minded foreigner who sees only the good. I understand the struggles that come with living in a place like this. Farming is not an easy career. You certainly won’t make enough money teaching to travel much. When you are a part of this life, from birth til death, surely the point of view is a little different. But, there is a great deal to be said for the purity of life here. Things are as they seem. People are as they seem. Pretense doesn’t exist. Living is more important than appearing. It seems to me that as you develop you fall behind. You become overly disillusioned with what the Little Prince called “matters of consequence.” In reality, the matters of consequence are the things that you’ve developed out of: real food, a long meal with your family, and the beauty of an untouched sky.

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Getting from A to B

If you ever receive a diagnosis of Bradycardia, known to laymen as “low heart rate,” I have just the cure. Read closely. Here is what you need to do: 1). Buy the cheapest plane ticket from the nearest airport to any airport in any province in any county in China. 2). Pack your bags. 3). Get on the airplane. 4). Get off the airplane. 5). Take a taxi. Destination: anywhere. Steps 1-4 won’t do anything for your Bradycardia, they’re just trivial obstacles on your way to treatment. Once you get started on step 5, you’ll never see a doctor again. The whole ordeal should run the average person around $1,000 USD, surely cheaper than a couple visits to your physician. No shots, no pills, none of the old grope & cough.

            Driving in China is a sobering affair for the average person, a maniacal thrill for the average masochist. I’ve never personally been behind the wheel of a Chinese car. I do not have a Chinese driver’s license (but based on extensive firsthand experience, I can conjecture that the test must be pretty damn easy).

            A few things to note: In Northwest Yunnan cars are certainly a common sight. In fact, upmarket brands like BMW and Audi are ubiquitous. That being said, the majority does not have the financial means necessary to own a car. Very few of my students have a car at home.

            Unlike in the US, people in rural China who don’t own cars do not spend each waking second of their day hitting up their car-owning friends for rides to Subway or RadioShack. Because the carless masses of Yunnan all have places to go and people to see, it is incredibly easy to find transportation at almost any time. The major thoroughfare next to my school connects Dali City and the relatively large city of Lijiang. It’s called the Da(li)Li(jiang) Road. Anyone with a destination somewhere between the two cities can hitch a ride on a bus, van, or taxi headed that way. Simply stand by the side of the road and wave. I’ve never waited more than ten minutes. You tell the driver where you want to go. He makes up an unreasonable price. You repeat your destination. He makes up a reasonable price. You go. Often, passenger cars will pick you up. I have yet to be abducted. For some reason China and Chinese people give me a much less kidnapp-y feeling than American drivers.

            Prices are absurdly low. The 45-minute van ride from my village to the nearest city of consequence floats between 6 and 7 Yuan. That’s about one US dollar. I have no idea how drivers can afford the gas, which costs essentially what it does in the states, if not slightly more. However, there is never a shortage of people willing to be stuffed 12 to a minivan (4 in each row, 2 in the front, 2 in the trunk).

            So, now I’m shoved in a minivan with 11 Chinese people. The expression “elephant in the room” is interchangeable with the lesser-known “white guy in the van.” The average ride in the hills of Yunnan does not come complete with a pasty foreigner. Usually, there will be an extended silence of curiosity while they size me and my intentions up. Sometimes, someone, usually a middle aged dude, will initiate conversation with me. The incredibly boring conversation that ensues (China… America… peace… friend!!) has the other passengers on the edge of their seats (even though they already were on the edge of there seats).

            So I’m in the car. Cigarette smoke fills the air. This middle-aged dude is chirping in my ear. The people in the back and the trunk are elbowing their way to a better view of my China-very good-USA-very good conversation. However, the real show is taking place in the driver’s seat:

            A Chinese van driver is a caricature. Let’s break him down: First, it’s always a man. I’ve often asked questions to my local female teachers like: “Why aren’t you driving?”  “Why aren’t you drinking?” “Why aren’t you smoking?” The answer, spoken with concision, is always, “Women don’t drive.” “Women don’t drink.” “Women don’t smoke,” respectively. One time I saw my neighbor knitting. I asked her if she could teach me how to knit a sweater. Her answer was “No.” I suppose you can guess why. Second, he’s absolutely never wearing a seatbelt. I’m not even sure the cars are outfitted with them. In fact, if you try for a little safety yourself, you may very well get a strange look from the driver; something along the lines of “You don’t trust me?” I still haven’t perfected my “Hell no,” look.

            Next, with 90% certainty, he’s smoking a cigarette. That’s one hand that needs to come of the wheel every few seconds for a smoke break. Fourth, 50% of the time, he’s on the cell phone. He’s not having a “Yeah, I’ll be there in five,” kind of conversation. He’s screaming and laughing and carrying on into the phone.  I don’t understand the local dialect, but every conversation seems like vehement philosophical debate:

            “No, you’re wrong! There is no God!”

            “Erroneous! But, my friend, how can you say such a thing. You know not the truth!”

             “Hold on, let me not hit this goat.”

            At least that’s what I hear. Oh, and the radio is on blast. In the back, people are yelling about getting let off. Other people are yelling about stopping to pick people up. It’s bedlam in a box.

            But, the inside activity pales in comparison to how the driver is maneuvering the van. China is a country in flux. It’s transitioning from a society of subsistence farmers to a free-market with first world infrastructure. This means: perpetual construction and perpetual animals. The driver has to avoid “road work ahead” and audacious chickens and goats at the same time. Naturally, the “road work ahead” does not include any sort of signage or warning that there are people literally in the middle of the road carrying large things that could break cars in two. Secondly, and most unsettling, we’re on a mountain. The guardrail, if there is one is probably a foot tall. One false move and it’s a loooong way down. The scenery is nice, though.

            If you haven’t been cured of your Bradycardia by this point, don’t worry; you’re about to be.

            Maybe it’s because there are no traffic police, maybe it’s that there are no special lanes, or maybe it’s just that Chinese drivers are absolutely out of their fucking minds, but passing cars at 60 mph may as well be the national sport of China. Chinese drivers spend so much time in the left lane that the uninformed might think they were in London. During a 15-minute ride, you can expect to pass 10 cars, trucks, tractors, and motorbikes. Drivers pass directly into advancing traffic, often missing oncoming cars by what seems like inches without even the slightest agitation. “There is a gigantic truck loaded with giant steel bars that could crush everyone in this car into next week approaching in the left lane? No better time than the present to pass this car in front of me.” Drivers pass around blind turns. They pass around blind turns up hills. Usually, they signal their intention with a beep of the horn. Usually they don’t beep the horn until they’re halfway around the bend. It’s like being on a rollercoaster that has a history of accidents, except the operator is smoking a cigarette and talking on his phone.

            Despite the cathartic experience mentioned above, I’ve never been in an accident in China. I’ve never even seen a car accident. I still don’t know how that is even possible. I think a country’s roads say a great deal about it. Spend a few hours driving around on an average road in any country, and you will probably get a good feel for the way things run. How many cows are in the street, how much construction is going on, are there police, are there signs of any importance, how psychotic are the drivers? Hopping in a car in this part of China, you can quickly feel the reality of a third-world country rocketing full speed into the definitive world powerhouse. In many respects, it is utter chaos. The ultimate goal is quite clear, however, a lot of old has to be replaced with a lot of new. Only two things are certain about the end result, it must be done and it must be done as fast as possible. The van driver is going to get to the destination and he’s going to get there so fast that sometimes it appears that the means are putting the ends in danger. It’s chaos but it’s organized, just like China. It’s better to just relax and have that conversation.

            The driver goes for the pass, the car in front slows down, the people in the back hold their breath, the bus inches slightly to the right, the van slips through. On to the next one.