Letter from James
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A Letter from James
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Dang. I haven't written a "lazy man's e-mail"--one of these letters--in almost three months. Lazy indeed!
A LOT has happened. It's a rule I learned during my brief stint as a blogger: the more there is to write about, the less time there is to write! A real Catch-22.
So what finally spurred me to write today? Well, yesterday, February 5th, marked my one year anniversary in China. Let me take this chance, then, to write what I hope will be an annual (yes, I think I can commit to writing annually):
State of the Sojourn Address
Ahem. Thank you for coming. Well, it's been quite a year. I can sum it up with a brief story:
A few weeks ago I was sitting around with a bunch of the regulars at Moondance (my third home), and one of the "Old China Hands" was talking to a "newbie." "Vell," he said, "The first year you usually stay home, because you don't know what to do or where to go, and you don't know anyone. You chust go to vork and go home. Zen, in ze second year, you start to discover more. By the third year, you are much more comfortable." "Oh, really," said the newbie, "but what about James?" "Oh, him," the veteran said dismissively. "He's unusual."
Is that a compliment? I remember this story, from my blog of May 8th):
The point is in the parentheses: "You are strange in a million ways"! Is that a compliment?
Yes, I have taken to life here like a duck to water. In discussions of "home" (a recurrent topic with some expats) I often find myself asserting that home is where you are; when Tom Wolfe said, "You can't go home again," he was right, if home is conceived of as a place where you used to live. But as the Temptations sang (sort of), "Wherever we lay our hat is our home." Perhaps it was my stint in Japan that eased the way; or maybe it was my seemingly-inborn security. But whatever it was, I found myself "at home" here very quickly.
What follows, then, is a long ramble about my current "home." To help you skip the boring parts, I have divided the ramble into categories, offered in no particular order. Within each category is a review of the past, a report on the current state of affairs, and sometimes a glimpse into the future. And the categories are: This Homepage, Friends, Work, Possessions, China/Chinese, Religion, Health, Education, Romance, Residence(s), Food
This Homepage: I've gone from trying to keep this thing up every day (and writing backlogs when I missed) to, as of now, one entry in 10 weeks. It's evolved from a blog that was meant to be a virtual diary to a homepage that, while being useful to a wider audience, still allows friends far away to share in my experience.
I don't know why I'm surprised, really. I have boxes and boxes of diaries that were begun and then left off. That sort of record-keeping is just not in my nature. So "The Temple Guy" is the natural heir to, first, The Barefoot Fool, then The Temple Gate. In the interim, I began writing these Letters, again imagining that I somehow had the discipline to write at least weekly. Hah.
I have some excuse (but not much). When the Letters dropped off back in November, I had just started staying back at school (see Residence(s) below). I was in one place, my computer in another, and it took weeks to get connected again. Meanwhile, I had developed a more intense circle of Friends, so there was less and less time to write.
But enough whining. The past can't be undone. All I can say for the future is: I'll build pages when I can, write letters when there's time, and try to keep in touch by quick e-mails otherwise.
I am currently in the midst of a five-week holiday. I had originally planned to go to Taiwan, but then I realized: The reason for going was to see temples, but I already have information in my computer on about 75 temples in Japan, 5 or 6 in Shenzhen, and 10 or more in Hong Kong, all of which need to be turned into pages. If I spent my holiday seeing more temples, I would never catch up.
So I would stay home, and bring all of this up to date, right?
I have been tied to my chair for hours every day, but what I have been working on is not the temples I've seen in the last year. Rather, I have been revising my old "Aki Meguri" pages. (Follow that link now, and you'll see a derelict. But in a week or so, my oh my.) I walked for 10 weeks in Japan in late 2001, and made a homepage every day. What you will see here by mid-February is a revision of that output--originally around 200 pages, with over 1,500 pictures! I have pared it down, but I think there are still something like 120 pages! So believe me, those who like to read what I write will be kept busy. Moreover, there is an audience out there for information on The Old Tokaido Road and the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage, the two main portions of the page, along with the great old monuments around Nara, Asuka, and Koya in the Yamato interlude. So I think it's important to get these pages back on line.
But meanwhile, the temples of 2004 languish in storage. I hope to get at least Shenzhen, and maybe Hong Kong, up before I go back to work on February 21. The many pilgrimages I did in Japan last summer will have to wait a bit longer.
But please keep checking back on the What's New page; there's plenty coming soon.
Friends: I am well and truly blessed. Buddhism has taught me so much about causes and conditions, the awareness that I am embedded in a net of cause-and-effect. In fact, in its most radical form, this idea leads to the conclusion that there is no me, that in fact "I" am only the sum effect of many causes. Had any one of those nearly-infinite causes been different, I would not be what I am.
This philosophical preamble is all to say: my friends are a gas. Taking some of the current people in my life in more-or-less the order I met them:
Aside from those in China itself, there have been a few from outside the borders who have been of great significance during this year. In Tokyo, Bishop Sim and Yumi gave me two-and-a-half weeks of lodging and loving friendship last summer, Shie arranged for me to see lots of old friends, and Stu as always made me drink too much. Prince Roy remains a prince, and my most faithful reader, and a real help with Chinese conundrums. Mike and Pey in America, and Stephanie wherever she is, correspond occasionally, and I read their mails with delight; my mom and my sister keep the home fires burning.
Future: I have a new "pen friend," a smart, spiritual gurl from the Philippines whom I hope to meet this week. She lives in Dongguan, a city next to Shenzhen, and shares a lot of my interests. I have begun hanging around with Maggie, who's a friend now, but who knows?
Work: Things have been great at Shenzhen Polytechnic. After the drudgery of seeing 600 students every two weeks last spring, I was able to have a little more creativity in the fall. Besides my first-year students I taught three groups of second-years; a world of difference. I also had some "Stars": first a group of three speech-contestants (all of whom are now my friends); then a group that Keri and I taught, using classics of the West. I have reason to believe this variety will continue next term.
Outside of my main job, I have been fortunate to teach everything from a group of four middle-schoolers in a home to a mixed group of aggressive adult students; from eight engineers to twenty staffers at a five-star hotel; from a one-on-one with a company director to "salons" of up to a hundred. I have purposely chosen varying assignments to give me a greater sense of what Shenzhen is all about.
In the coming year, I have an opportunity to go into "hospitality management." I can't say much more yet, but it involves food and drinks, music, camaraderie--all of my favorite things. More as things develop.
Possessions: Every month I pay $58US to keep my "stuff" in storage near L.A. That stuff is mainly books, papers, photos, and CDs; with a complete darkroom and a few small pieces of furniture. I haven't lived with all of my stuff since January, 1995 (10 years!), although some of it came out for six months in 2002 when I was living in Pasadena. Otherwise, I lived in Park City with the Urichs, or Santa Fe, or Japan, or with my parents; I haven't set up a "proper house" in years.
So here I am, in a "Communist" country, with more material goods than I've had since the end of my marriage! I have: a TV, two DVD players (both currently broken), a washing machine, a refrigerator, a microwave, a juicer/blender/food processor, a rice cooker, a fan, three heaters, a shrine, a desk, a bed, a closet (armoire), three stereos, dozens of books and CDs, a full kitchen of plates and glasses and so on, two vases, PLUS the computer, CD player, and two cameras I brought with me.
Why TWO DVD players and THREE stereos and fans? First, because they're CHEAP; and second, because I have two residence(s), which are also cheap. There's a stereo, a DVD player, and a heater in my Xili room; a stereo and a heater in my Futian bedroom; and a stereo, a DVD player, and a heater in my Futian living room.
Yeah, life is good. My hourly rate for outside work is about eight times what a skilled office worker makes, so it's pretty easy to work a few hours and still maintain an above-average lifestyle.
First, I've learned that, compared to Japan, China is like a bottomless pit. You can choose a subject in Japan--religion, say, or history--and wrap yourself around the key points in a fairly short time. No such luck in China.
And it's not because of the much-touted (and totally unsupported) claim of "5,000 years of history." One of the few things I am sure of is that when people throw around words like "China" and "Chinese," I always need to ask myself: "Which China? Which Chinese?" Guangdong Province, in which I technically live, is a world of difference from "The North." Yet, Shenzhen, within Guangdong, in some ways has more in common with Northern culture than Southern--call it "Putonghua (Mandarin) culture." We are dealing with many layers of cultures and subcultures.
China, like most areas of the world, had many communities which developed in isolation, thus developing a wide variety of ideas. Unlike many countries, however, many of these Chinese communities have come into contact with the wider culture only recently. So there may be many names for one personage or phenomenon. Mix in the multitude of languages involved (we may call "Mandarin" and "Cantonese" dialects of the one Chinese language, but some find them in their spoken form to be as different as Dutch and English!) Add to that that there is a long history, so that names and concepts have changed over time. We end up with something like the great historical figure Guan Yu having multiple names, including Guan Di in his popular deified form ("Di" being a title), and Chien Lan or Jie Lan among Buddhists because of a subsequent incarnation! (Many of the finest figures of history are believed to have come many times, and so have many names.)
A second problem is that things in China seldom fit neat, academic categories. In my chosen field, religion, things are downright slippery. I have found extremely useful books on "Chinese gods" (but are these gods gods?). But Keith Stevens, an expert on temple images has written: "A major problem has involved the contradictory stories and legends, with temple staff giving different versions during successive visits." It seems that temple-keepers are sometimes the worst source of information. I have had temple-keepers who were unable to tell me even the barest details, other than the name, of the main figure on their altar! Not a birth year or even a dynasty, not a deed, not a trait. (So why do they worship these guys? Because "Other people before us reverenced him, so we reverence him.") Stevens also wrote, "Temples keepers generally...refer to their particular deities or heroes as having lived 'a thousand years ago' or 'during the T'ang dynasty.' Both mean, 'I don't know when they lived, but it was a long time ago.'" I myself have received this answer more than once. Not only the details, but even the religions themselves are not discrete: Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of Buddhism, is also most definitely a goddess in popular religion.
Both of these issues rest on a common cause: That the Chinese paid little heed to Aristotle. The "either/or-ness" of Western thinking--that A is never not-A--had little influence here. Guan Yin is a Buddhist bodhisattva and a folk goddess--as well as being a man and a woman! This creates great fluidity in thinking--and great frustration for the Westerner who wants his questions answered. After badgering a temple-keeper (through an interpreter) and ending up empty-handed, I have more than once apologized for my "Western-style questions." This is partially because I want to answer these questions for my readers, who haven't yet discovered how elusive these answers may be; and partially because my Western education has left me the conviction that there must be an answer, and I can't believe that "the guy in charge" doesn't know what it is! Stevens has written of more than one case where the main figure of a temple was identified for him by one temple keeper--and identified completely differently by a different keeper!
Despite these hurdles, I have learned some things. Yesterday I was interviewed by the Shenzhen business newspaper (another piece of searing investigative reporting on "what foreigners are doing for New Years in Shenzhen"). Yanni was interpreting for us, and later told me that the reporter and photographer were very surprised at my knowledge of (trivial) Chinese religious and cultural practices, such as the placing of amulets on the front door. I have asked a lot of questions. The problem is, I've often gotten lots of different answers! But it has given me a good sense of the folk knowledge around me. Tons to learn, though.
About the language: James Michener has a scene in The Drifters, in which a main character takes French lessons (I think). For the first several lessons, the teacher simply talks at him in French. Eventually a change comes over his face, and the teacher stops. "Ah," she says, "you are ready." At first the student heard only noise; when it separated into discrete words, he was ready to learn.
After one year, that's about where I am. The sound of putonghua is starting to make sense to me; I have picked up probably a hundred words (though most people can't understand them used in isolation, without tones); and I can say a few useful phrases, like "I don't know" and "I don't understand" (OK, and "Give me a kiss"). So I think I'm ready to learn in earnest, which will be essential if I do the hospitality management thing.
Religion: I'm reminded of a story about Calvin Coolidge. "Silent Cal" had been to church, and his wife had stayed home. When he returned, she asked, "What was the sermon about?" she asked. "Sin," Cal replied. "Well, what did the preacher say about sin?" she asked. Cal answered: "He was against it."
So: Religion? I'm for it! Seriously, though, the relationship between "this" and "that" continues to be my major focus (as amply evidenced elsewhere in these pages). Although there is little in the way of formal religion in my life, simply the act of living among so many people whose assumptions are different from mine forces me to continually look past the surface--to the heart, as it were. My devotional life has improved, with a genuine Guan Yin shrine in my living room, and frequent visits to temples.
But perhaps the most interesting development has been my ongoing dialogues with Keri (see Friends), who has charitably described me as "not a non-Christian." We have been to the evangelical church she regularly attends in Hong Kong a few times, and she and Luz went with me to the Anglican cathedral for lessons and carols at Christmas (I returned alone the next day for Eucharist--my first since Easter 2002, from the hands of my old buddy Fr. Mort).
These dialogues have focused on various questions about the nature of God (my question: Does God love Satan?) and our relationship to God (if God is everywhere, us he even in the heart of the sinner?) No answers, but an increased depth of sensitivity. Keri, who speaks from a very orthodox but reasonable position, has said that these discussions challenge her to grow as well.
I have never felt animosity toward the faith I grew up in; but these talks with Keri have made me feel more at home with than I have since I started wandering. On the other hand, the frequent attacks by Chinese evangelicals: "You're not a Christian? Why don't you believe in God?" (as if the two were synonymous), and "What? You used to be Christian and now you're not? So you became stupid!"--these things remind me of the closed-mindedness that caused me to start my spiritual journey in earnest.
Perhaps the strangest case is the good friend who became a Christian because of the reasoning taught him by a missionary: America believes in God; America is rich. So if you believe in God, you, too, will become rich. Ay-ay-ay. From premise to conclusion, this is specious. But it again keeps me mindful that there are wolves in sheep's clothing (as Someone said).
It's easy to get all romantic and think that the East is "open-minded" and the West "exclusivist." But there are fundamentalists in every place and every religion. The ones I mention here are Christian, but there are Buddhist, and Taoist, and folk fundamentalists, too. It's a human trait. There are also open-minded Christians, like my bud Keri, who maintain a strict standard for themselves but do not demand it of others. This is a balance I'm learning to maintain here.
Health: Overall, a great year. here in the land of SARS and the seedbed of many of the world's flu epidemics, I have had nothing worse than a couple of colds and sinus infections. I finally got my blood pressure under control (through medication); the next step is to lower it by lowering my weight. The BP doctors also noticed some chemical imbalances in my blood, probably weight-related. I hope in the quiet after the New Year's celebrations next week I'll have a chance to get in and get that figured out. But I continue to feel great.
Education: Stagnant, at least formally. I came here hoping to continue pursuit of my PhD, but it also seems so distant and inconsequential now. I'm learning too much to waste time on classes! But the President of my university comes through Shenzhen from time to time, and I hope someday to meet him here and discuss my options.
Meanwhile, I should start working on the Chinese language. Also, I have a phone number for a sort of "culture teacher," someone I can pay to teach me more about the stories I hear, or to help me understand the pictures I take.
I also continue to read voraciously, especially Joseph Campbell and works associated with his teachings. I've always been more successful as an autopedant. (Why does that sound dirty?)
Romance: It started with a bang (not literally), became a whimper in late summer, then faded to silence. Now there are whispers, rumors of ships just over the horizon, none of which is expected to come in for quite a while.
I don't quite know what to say about me and Hailan. Circumstances, I guess. I arrived (read the blogs for that saga) full of shared hope; in April, she became ill (not too long after we started living together--coincidence?); and in late summer she moved back to her hometown "to recuperate." Although we've never actually "broken up," she called at Christmastime and said she expects to get married near the end of 2005. So I'm pretty sure that means it's over...right?
In the latter half of the year, I often joked with Keri (see Friends) that my friendship with her left no time for a romance. But it's not such a joke: when you find a friend that really gets you, and who lives next door to you, and who furthermore is planning to leave China in a few short months--well, you really don't want to squander that.
But the time is coming, I guess. I'm certainly better situated to date (see Residence(s) and Possessions) than I have been in years; and Lord knows with a female-to-male ratio of 4:1 in Shenzhen, there are plenty of wonderful women to choose from. And Spring is coming. I have never been aggressive about dating, being happy with what (whom) Fate has brought me. And Fate has been soooo kind. Nearing 50, and knowing that I hope to continue to wander the earth, I think it would be nice to nail down a companion-for-life sometime soon, but it's not really an "issue." Yet.
I've met Maggie, and she's great. But so young (27). It's really too soon to tell what will happen there. There are a couple of other women, in their 30s, married, with a child--that sort of thing. As my mom used to say whenever we asked for something she wasn't prepared to give, "Let's wait and see."
Residence(s): It's pretty funny to think that a guy who is fundamentally homeless in America has two homes in China. Remember that I earn an awful lot of money compared to the locals--if I work close to full-time, I make an "American" salary in an economy that in many ways compares to "third world."
So, for convenience's sake, I have two homes.
One, in the center of town, is a two-bedroom place that costs me about 1/4 of my main salary, including utilities. I consider this to be my "first home," the place where I prefer to stay. Although it's not close to school, it is near the center of Shenzhen. It's on the subway line, and about a three-minute bus ride from the border crossing to Hong Kong. It's a real home, with a sofa, and a dining table, and actual separate rooms instead of that "studio" feel. Best of all, I can walk out anytime, day or night, without feeling that my students and colleagues know my business.
My "second home" is a school dorm room, similar to this one, with a small kitchen and a BIG bathroom. This costs me another 1/16 of my salary (both of these figures include an ADSL connection, by the way; and don't forget--my "main salary" is sometimes only half of my actual income, based on working less than 20 hours a week!) The dorm room is nice enough that, for many of my friends, this is the only home they have in Shenzhen. I am in the minority when it comes to housing for foreign teachers (and I mightn't have done it, either, if circumstances--and Hailan--hadn't led me to). I stay in the dorm when I have early classes, as my "first home" is about a 35-45-minute bus ride from the school, and use it to catch naps or work on the computer when I have a split schedule.
There is a "third home"--the bar called Moondance. This is where I meet my friends, and entertain. It's closer to my second home than my first, so I often bring students and colleagues there. Best of all, it's where Gary and Yanni are! (But currently, it's closed for New Years, and will probably remain so for remodeling, so I'm 1/3 homeless right now--that is, down to only two homes.)
Food: I have maintained my vegetarianism, despite the odds. There are plenty of vegetarian Chinese foods that I love, as well as Indian and Thai in Shenzhen. I generally cook at home--rice and veggies in the rice cooker, and I occasionally splurge on some Mexican fixin's, like refried beans and tortillas, but they cost an arm and a leg, and the shops where I can buy them are about an hour away by bus. Taco Bell has opened a "Taco Bell Grande" in town, but "disappointing" doesn't cover it. Their official press says that they "decided to tone down its spices to cater to blander tastes" and "We use much better materials — very little rice, no beans. We also obviously adjusted the sauce while remaining true to the Mexican heritage," their president said. Read that again: bland, no beans--this is Mexican food? I'd rather stay home. But hopefully, this beachhead will give someone else the courage to open something more autentico.
So that's where things stand, more or less, at the end of Year One. This year promises to be amazing, in terms of new career directions and an expanded foothold in this no-longer-alien place.
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