Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Culture Corner: The Village

Yes, a real culture corner.  I don't know why, I just felt like writing one.  However, I couldn't think of what to write, that is, until I went to eat supper in the little village near my campus and was reminded of something quite humorous.  Here goes.

When I say village, perhaps the image of a quiet little gathering of buildings, maybe a gas station or a luncheon, maybe a few houses and a short main street springs to mind.  Strike this from your imagination immediately.  This is not the Chinese village. My campus lies an hour's public bus ride from the city center and is considered countryside, though you and I might just think of it as industrial wasteland.  It's comprised of only two colors: gray and yellowish brown.  The yellowish brown is the abandoned yards and fields surrounding my campus.  They have tall, unkempt grass and bushes, stray pieces of rusty steel and bricks, and bits of rubbish fading in the puddles.  Sporadically growing from the weeds are dilapidated factories, wood shacks, and all other manner of ramshackle structures, their gray facades smudges in the dusty vegetation.  Some are inhabited, some not, no difference in the appearance to say which is which unless you see a thin path worn to a door or hear a dog bark if you get close.   There are also a few new buildings just recently constructed, their technology and industrial ability touted on big signs.  But no more life comes from them than the abandoned buildings, their shiny existence seeming to have no connection with anything around them.  Snaking amongst the fields and buildings are sludgy canals with opaque brown-green water, patches of leafy green vegetables growing on their edges.  A line of hills runs to the west, and on the rare day there isn't incredible humidity, you can see a rather elaborate tea house on one of the distant hilltops, it's elegant architecture an anachronistic watchtower over the wasteland below.  

A five minute walk from my campus's north entrance is a village, one which from above I'm sure is indistinguishable from the other "development" around it.  Not the one horse town you might think it is, this village is home to a few thousand people, the vast majority of which live in poverty and provide the only life visible in the wasteland aside from my university.  The buildings are mostly one story brick, tin roofed, and quite filthy according to Western standards.  The streets are open, begging for rain to wash away the discarded food and packaging mashed into them, anything beneath the soles considered a rubbish bin in China.  Dogs, some of which may have homes, trot about in a manner well practiced, dodging bicycles, people, mopeds, cars, and the like, stopping to lick the occasional chicken bone or watermelon rind they may find.  Cart vendors line the sides of what few streets comprise the village, selling hot potatoes, sweets, shish-kebabs, knick knacks, fruits and vegetables, milk tea and the like.  Behind them are the slightly more established entrepreneurs hoping to make a few dollars.  There are beauty salons pumping techno at volumes far greater than the speakers they are using were designed for, the bass buzzing on every beat.  Shops sell new bicycles carefully wrapped in plastic, the only thing protecting them from the grease and oil coating the ground, walls, and people working around them.  And along with the steam emanating from the restaurants comes the rich aromas of soup and noodle dishes, fried meats and sweet breads - all manner of tables set up on the street sides.  At the back of the village beneath a decaying concrete awning is an open air vegetable market and butchery.  It's odors and sights not for the faint of heart, those at the tables work from early in the morning to late at night just to earn a few yuan on a commodity that rots before their eyes.  There are occasional rubbish disposal areas that provide a most organic reek, their contents spilling out onto the road and providing the only real bright spots of color in what is otherwise, as described, gray and yellowish-brown.  

In and around all of this people move about, the 10,000+ students at my university mingling with those who call the village home, conversing, holding hands, shouting gleefully, and arguing about prices.  The gray of this village is simply part of a larger gray when you are standing beside the tea house and overlooking the area, the noise and commotion of these people coming and going from this little nexus the only sign of life amongst the dirt and decay.

Most of you will probably think what I have described is fairly bleak, and maybe you wonder what I could find so attractive about living here.  My campus is only six years old and the apartment where I live on par with Western standards, however I find this village to be far more interesting than anything I see standing in my apartment.  I like the dirt.  I think it's real, and to some degree, necessary.  It literally adds flavor, as dishes you buy in pricey Chinese restaurants can be bought on the village streets at a fraction of the cost but at ten times the taste.  The only mostly clean dishes and pots add something that has been sterilized to taste heaven by the ongoing development and modernization.  Dirt is also the color of humanity.  Mary May's kitchen from a Lysol commercial is a pipe dream, and I would daresay she gets just as many colds and flus as people in the village.  She’s just another victim of looking at corporate advertising, something which - by the way - only puts you in danger of tripping over stray dogs when walking the streets.   Ha!

The people in the village are real.  They know the hardships of life, and as a result reality plays a more prominent role in their thoughts and words.  It's much nicer to talk to a person such as this, that is, rather than one who spends money they don't have on things they don't need, and then looks to others for help...  (Are you listening America?)  In many ways, the village is a connection to China's history, and in it you can see people practicing ways of life that will be gone in 15, 10, 5 years or less, the government demolishing such places, dispersing the locals into modern apartment buildings and "civilizing" what remains.  

In the middle of my village, or what counts for the middle in such an unorganized area, is the village square, distinguishable only by its open concreteness and three trees.    This large concrete  pad is mostly used for bicycle parking and pedestrian traffic and I'm sure doesn't even have a name.  On most nights the older women of the village take over one corner and practice sword and fan dances.  I've also seen a sheet hung on a piece of rope between the trees and used as a screen for a reel to reel projector, the audience those passing by or those stopping to smoke a cigarette and watch a few minutes of whatever vintage film was being played.  And on one night I even saw a traveling sideshow, a family from the remote province of Xinjiang arriving in a small van, rolling out a carpet and setting up a small stereo, the daughters collecting money in cheap plastic bowls while their father strode about breathing fire and knife swallowing.  Their clothing stained and dirty, I could see the ethanol the father was using running in glistening streams down his throat and soaking into his shirt, but scraping by as best they know how in this world.

But nothing beats what I saw one night last spring--or autumn, I can't remember which.  I went to the village to have supper at one of the small and filthy but delicious eateries, and upon finishing my meal, went to the store adjacent to the concrete gutter otherwise known as the village square to buy a few things.  When I emerged, I noticed that a moving truck and a few vehicles had pulled in and begun setting up for something.  Based on the other oddities I'd been witness to there, I eagerly waited to see what it was. 

First came a rickety stage, complete with a gaudy neon pink backdrop and flashy bunting, not to mention a wobbly spotlight shining weakly from across the square.  Two massive speakers were erected at either side of the stage and almost immediately began pumping bass at high volumes to all corners.  (This is known as advertising in China.)  Doing all of the set up was a troupe of young men.  Dressed in army fatigues, they really had me wondering what was about to happen.  At the back of the stage a Chinese playboy wannabe-gangster emerged - cool as a cat, of course – to sit down behind a table, a few of his cronies alongside him, all sporting sunglasses.  Since I assume most of you don't know a lot of about what is fashionable in China, let me quickly explain this version of the playster/gangboy.  

Like the poor's credit cards in America, he was maxed out.  Stallone's Cobra style sunglasses at night, a cream white three piece suit with thin black tie and collar turned up, and hair done in one of the trendy fraggle rock/troll doll styles I laugh at every day in class.  Suffice to say, I didn't dare to get to close for fear the slime would just leap off.

Seeing all of the preparation, the things falling into place, and especially the emergence of the playster, my curiosity was genuinely excited; the arrangement was too incongruous for my brain to come up with any plausible scenario as to what was going to happen, mobile karaoke the best I could think of.  As curious as me, quite a crowd had gathered around the stage by this time.  I thought it would be mostly university students, but when I looked I saw it was actually the villagers, surprisingly me a little.  How could an old lady who sews trousers all day care about techno, gangboys, and pathetic stage set-ups?   We all waited for something further to happen, but nothing did.  

Eventually a group of girls came out on stage, each dressed in a miniskirt, small pink top, and heaps of makeup.  They managed to arrange themselves in lines to either side of the stage and the show got started.  A middle aged man in a suit – a normal suit – leapt up onto the stage and began talking very quickly into a microphone.  My Chinese is improving, but I could only understand a word here or there, certainly not enough to ascertain what I was witness to - or about to be witness to.  After a while, people in the audience started raising their hands and reaching towards the stage, to which the stage girls dispersed pamphlets of some variety.  Somehow faster than before, the man began shouting, exonerating, and drawing even more hands up in the air, all grabbing these flyers.  "What the heck?" I definitely said to myself.  "Are these lyric sheets for karaoke?"  But after a while the hands disappeared, the girls re-aligned themselves, and as quickly as he'd popped on, the man leapt off stage and the music was turned back up, the army troupe continuing to hold ground around the periphery of the stage.  Nothing more happened for several minutes, leaving me to worry the end had come, but it turned out the pause was just for dramatic effect.   

Standing slowly to his feet and ambling out to center stage as though he had no cares in the world, the playster picked up the microphone and in his best Elvis baritone, began a soothing entreatment, a silky plead.  Slow and warm as it was, I still had trouble understanding his Chinese dialect, and was even more curious after he pulled a watch out of his pocket.  Dangling it to his side like a man posing with a prize trout, he spoke at length about what I knew not.  Then the watch fell out of his hand and hit the stage.  An accident I thought!  But then he picked it up and dropped it again, and again.  He then asked for a bottle from one of the girls and proceeded to pour water over the watch.  What the…?  Wait, they're traveling salespeople!!  This whole setup, the bunting, the spotlight, the techno, the pin-up girls, it's all to hawk watches!  

Sure enough, the boy sat back down after a while at the table among his gangboy wannabes and the middle aged man bounded back up on stage to light another fire under the people.  His voice bursting over the sound system, the music was cranked to ear decimating decibels, and soon enough money, literally hand over fist, was flying back and forth between the pin-ups and the audience, the latter in return receiving a box containing a cheap imitation Rolex.  I looked on in amazement.  How could these quiet, sedentary villagers be so easily taken in by such rubbish?   An old woman tugged at my sleeve and let me have a look at her marvelous purchase and urged me to go buy one – or two or three as some people were doing.  How could this old lady who starves every penny she earns for as many grains of rice as she can get be willing to spend relatively so much more on this man's pathetic smoke and mirrors?  

My belief the villagers had such a firm seat in reality was taking severe blows.  There were second and third waves of persuasive speeches by the man and each time the ordinarily frugal audience responded in kind, scrabbling to get close to the stage, thrusting their fistfuls of money in the air. 

But after a while the frenzy died down, the girls took their places once again, and the man disappeared.  As I had secretly been waiting for, the playster stood to his feet one last time, took the microphone, and romantically slipped into song.  (A show is not a show in China unless someone sings, no matter if you're inaugurating a president or peddling toilet cleansers.)  True to appearances, however, we were treated to only one verse and half a chorus before the camouflaged troupe of boys began packing things up.  Within fifteen minutes the whole scene was gone, the square open to the night sky once again.  Where did they go?  Off to another village to milk them of their rice money?  Willy Wonka world?  We don’t know; it remains for the poets to sing.

I still think back with interest upon that evening.  It was like being taken back in time to witness what things may have once been like - without the techno and troll hair, of course.  How long has it been in the Americas or Europe since we've had such traveling sales shows?  Going town to town, pulling a ramshackle cart, selling bottles of tonic with a bowtie, twirling a cane, sure to cure what ails ya', just 10 cents a vial….  It would seem the poor in China are no less grounded in financial reality than the Americans when properly primed, they just don't have credit cards yet.  Anyone know the new business number at Visa?

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