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This page contains archives from the now-defunct Barefoot Fool blog.

Current Letters from James may be found starting here.

The Barefoot Fool: Archive
April, 2004

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

This is China, too (look fast)

Like many a Romantic Fool, I came here to see "the Real China."  You know, a willow tree overhanging a canal crossed by a half-moon bridge.  People drifting in swan boats on a lake, reciting poetry.  The full moon glinting off of temple roofs, as the sound of chanting monks fills the air.  That China.

But I live in Shenzhen.  You don't go to the concrete canyons of Wall Street to find colonial America, nor to the center of Tokyo to find "the real Japan."  King Arthur's Britain is not to be seen in Picadilly, nor Zorro's Los Angeles on Wilshire Boulevard.

Or are they?

There's sometimes a trick of light, caught in the corner of the eye, that allows one to see the essence of a place.  The "Real" place is not out there; it's in there.

And so, last Friday night, I sat on the patio of a cool, Tokyo-style jazz bar, drinking with Chinese friends.  One of them had driven us there in his ultra-elegant BMW, a car with an interior like a Lear Jet.  But hanging from the rearview mirror was a Mao amulet.  As we drank, I asked him about it.  He produced a laminated picture of Mao from his wallet, a kind of holy card, and announced quite solemnly: "He is a god."

So much for those who say devotion is dead, or that there's no such thing as "Mao worship."  (The irony that the God of Chinese Communism should be hanging in an imported German luxury car needs no comment.)

Many shops have small shrines to Kuan Ti (also called Chien Lun), sometimes styled "God of War," or Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  At the least, this is charming.  At the most, it reminds me that the desire for connection to "the Other" is alive and well, at least outside of the Apollonian, post-Enlightenment West.

Another corner-of-the-eye experience happened Sunday night.  I was leaving Hailan's apartment when I saw people with small bonfires on the sidewalk. One woman was methodically stuffing pieces of paper into hers.  Out of the bus window on the way home, I noticed a few more.

Then, Monday, Hailan mentioned that she was having trouble reaching some offices in Hong Kong because they were closed as a result of "the holiday."  She said it was a kind of day to remember the ancestors.  I looked it up: Qingming Festival is indeed such a day, also called "Grave Sweeping Day."  This article tells more about it, as well as the (gruesome) legend of the Hanshi or "Cold Food" Day that precedes it.  The sidewalk fires were built to ferry offerings to the dead.

That "This is China"--meaning the modern country, with all its ebullient confusion--can be seen in this article.  It seems that hordes of people return to Shenzhen to clean their ancestors' graves that day, and the government runs sting operations on taxi drivers at the train station and airport to ensure that they don't turn down fares who are only going a short distance.  Yes, This is China.

But the glimmer of the Real China is still there.

There is a busy place on Shennan Dadao, Shenzhen's "main drag." It's near the western end, by Window of the World.  In the daytime you would pass it without notice.  But after 10 p.m. or so, it's a major connecting point for outbound commuters.  Herds of buses converge there, disgorging their loads; and the mini-buses swarm around, their conductors leaning out the window shouting destinations, and waving new fares into the bus. 

In the midst of the hubbub last night, I saw a most amazing thing out of the window of my mini.  It was so fast that I'm now not sure if I imagined it.  A man was seated on a stool, playing the erhu, an eerie, almost-human-sounding two stringed instrument.  Next to him stood another man, dressed in a yellow costume, with a long (fake) beard, make-up, and a high collar.  To my untrained eye, he looked a little like Cai Shen, the God of Wealth.  This character was doing a sort of stylized dance, reminiscent of Noh or Kabuki, and wailing in a waivering, high-pitched voice.

I'm sure this was something out of Chinese opera.  I nearly jumped out of my mini-bus to see more, but "common sense" prevailed.  Besides, the flash that I saw remains on the retina of my mind, like a bolt of lightening--or a particularly wonderful dream.  Perhaps, if I had gotten out, I would have seen how threadbare the costume was, or seen one or the other of the two "artists" groveling for alms after the performance.  Better to keep it unsullied.

So: That China, the Real China, is here.  We just have to be ready for it to materialize at any moment, and to recognize it and cherish it when it does.  Check your peripheral vision, and look fast.
Posted 4/6/2004 at 11:30 AM

Sunday, April 4, 2004

More Lei Fengs

I'm closing in on finishing my article, with several good drafts finished.  Now I just have to cut it down to size.

Meanwhile, I had mentioned under "Separated at Birth" that I had seen student "Chalk Art" of Lei Feng.  Here are three examples.

Lei Feng Chalk Art

Posted 4/4/04 at 1:00 PM

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Update on yesterday's entry

First: I feel stupid.

One of my students had suggested that the sound I heard--I thought it was cows--was actually made by "florgs."  He even wrote it down.  After some questioning, I realized he meant "frogs."

Oh, no, I insisted, I know a cow from a frog when I hear it.

Well, there's a reason they call them BULLfrogs.  Dictionary dot com says that the bullfrog is "so named from its loud bellowing in spring."  (It also says they are found in North America...well, They're here.)  You'd think that first hearing them right after a big rain would have been a clue.

The first night I heard them, there were only two or three, and I was listening with the doors and windows closed.  Last night, it sounded like hundreds.  And when I opened the door, I could hear clearly: it was florgs.

Yup, I feel stupid.

Second: the image in the entry--of Lei Feng and my cousin Mark--sometimes comes up looking like a squashed postage stamp.  I don't know why.  I have tweaked it, deleted it and reloaded it--everything I can think of.  And yet, 25-50% of the time, it loads fubar.

If it happens to you, try this: click something on my navigation bar, like "A Fool's Life," and then click your back button.  That has worked every time for me.

Sorry for the trouble; but I think the image is worth it.  If all else fails, copy it and paste it into your favorite photo-editing program.
Posted 4/1/2004 at 1:45 PM


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