Dear friends and family,
How are you all doing? I hope you all had a Happy May Two-Four! Finally I have some breathing room and can send you all a quick note! In our last installment, Joe and I had just finished our examinations, which went okay by the way -- our performance was average for the class.
In late April, two friends from Ottawa, Tom and Qiu, came to China to adopt a child. We were so fortunate to be able to see them while they were in Beijing and witness a small part of their unusual experience of becoming parents. I don't want to tell other peoples' story, so I won't say much... but I have been thinking a great deal about how the circumstances of our lives are arrived at through a twisty, twining network of accidents and choices. Take another branch in that network and it might lead to an entirely different life. Ying Ying was born 10 months ago in Nanning in dire circumstances. Although she is utterly helpless in this world, she now suddenly has two wonderful parents and is living in Ottawa. I am not saying that fate is the same as God, but I can't get rid of the urge to say thank you to someone...
After Tom and Qiu left Beijing, Joe, Madeleine and I took off for our spring vacation, first spending a few days in Shanghai. In the early 1900s, the Chinese were forced to "concede" Shanghai to the English and French who poured resources into it as a hub for their economic exploitation of China. While disastrous for China, these dubious origins resulted in Shanghai not only having grand boulevards and neighborhoods, but also other infrastructure, becoming the industry, commerce and banking center of mainland China. Style matters in Shanghai and you see this also in its modern architecture - every skyscraper is beautiful, with soaring walkways between buildings, observation decks above the clouds, spires, curlicues... Similarly, the people are stylish - nibbling croissants in their designer clothes while waiting for the bus. It's a far more cosmopolitan place than Beijing.
We walked along the French concession in a fruitless search for cassoulet. We strolled along the Bund, a long boulevard lined with beautiful old European-styled buildings so that you felt you could be anywhere in Europe. We wandered around the old city, which is a self-conscious development of the original Chinese neighborhood but still pretty nice. We ate wonderful Shanghai-ese food - which is lighter than Beijing fare. We had martinis on the 87th floor of the JinMao tower (the tallest building in China and supposedly the third tallest in the world). It was a really good time.
From Shanghai we took an overnight ferry to an island called Putuoshan (Mount Putuo), one of the four distinct Buddhist destinations in China. No private vehicles are allowed on the island - just cabs and buses. Most of the island is a nature reserve. The lack of vehicles and abundance of nature make Putuoshan the exact opposite of Shanghai. You can hear birds and smell flowers. You can walk on deserted white sand beaches. You can wander a small lane up a mountain past tea fields and come upon a monastery or nunnery not marked on your map. There must be at least a few dozen temples on the island. Some are old, some are newly constructed but all are beautiful. The newly constructed temples are just as intricate, just as beautiful as the old ones (but with hot water!). I found it reassuring that we modern people have not lost the ability to create places of lasting beauty. The island is a place to wander, which is ironic since it was crowded with Chinese tourists on two-day pre-arranged temple-praying tours.
With a large population of monks and nuns, living on a beautiful island with a great climate, in gorgeous temples, removed from the stresses of modern living, it's easy to be intrigued by their lifestyle. I kept savoring the fact that I was only a haircut and change of clothes away from joining them. Even though I turned away from that choice, I think it's true that as soon as the idea entered my head, a different universe was created where a different Kim did not turn away. That Kim is now praying, or meditating, or worrying about what Buddhists nuns do if they get a tapeworm since they aren't supposed to harm any living thing. (If she finds out about the tapeworm, I hope she finds a way to tell me because I'm really curious.) I know, Robert Frost said all this better...
Over the course of that week, we had lots of opportunity to observe the monks and nuns on the island. We saw several contentedly wandering the beach or meditating. In a few instances, we saw groups of monks or nuns watching Chinese soap operas on TV. Many looked happy in their life, some didn't; I guess that's just like the rest of us. One monk gave each of us a beaded bracelet, which I have worn every day since. While we were hiking, we encountered a young monk who asked us to sit down on a stone and talk. He told us all about his problems because he had no money and wasn't due at his new monastery for a week. Possibly a scam, but then I figured maybe that's the worst thing about scam artists; we become so afraid of being suckered for a few bucks that we deny ourselves the opportunity to help someone. Anyway, who cares... I needed to do something good so I gave him enough money for food for a few weeks and he gave me a picture of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, with a prayer on the back - she's framed on my desk looking at me now.
Another time at my favorite temple I sat down next to a monk. After a few moments we began to chat. He had been living in this particular monastery for a year. Prior to that, he had been at another monastery on the mountain top. I said, "You know, your life is very different from mine and very intriguing for me". He said, "No it isn't interesting! It's boring and I hate it!" And with that, he jumped into focus for me. Beyond the shaved head and robes was a very typical 19 year old kid. Who knows why he became a monk - maybe he had no choice. Perhaps in a different universe, he followed a different branch and is now happily writing computer gaming software.
I don't want to give the idea that all was hunky dory on Putuoshan. Our hotel literally and figuratively stank (we booked too late to get into the nice hotels). Although the island is packed with fresh seafood restaurants, we found most of the staff to be incompetent and unpleasant and typically the cooking was basic. We finally found a great place to eat, but by this time the bacterial load in our gastro-intestinal systems must have been sky high because we were already doomed to several days of at best feeling down, at worst throwing up.
Still, Putuoshan was a pretty big deal for me.
Since returning, both Joe and I had a lot of trouble getting into the routine of school. I continued to feel "off" until just last week but my appetite is now returning. We've enjoyed a lot of socializing lately - lots of dinners out and social visits. We went with the school to see Beijing Opera, which is an art form that has been revered and honed for 20 centuries, but it eludes me. To my uneducated ears, if you start with "Mating season on a cat farm" and add in a dash of "Kate Bush in a LOT of pain" you are pretty much there. This last weekend we went with some friends to a famous tea house and heard some pieces of Beijing Opera specifically chosen for foreigners' ears and it was actually pretty good so maybe I need to start with easier stuff and work my way up.
We are continuing to tutor two Chinese children (4 and 5 years old). Two weeks ago we got to see just how punishing tutoring can be if you lose control and the kids end up running the show. It was just like Lord of the Flies!! We were exhausted. Yesterday was a good tutoring session where we were better tutors, the kids were better behaved, and we made cookies, so a good time was had by all.
This coming Saturday we are going out with 20 or so of our Beijing friends to celebrate Joe's 40th birthday! Last year, a group of us made a point of being there for one another as we each turned 40 and so I think Joe is mentally suspending turning 40 until some of these friends from home arrive to visit Beijing in the summer - but hopefully this get together will be a good prequel to the main event and tide him over until July arrives.
Anyway, I should do my homework - we're up to 35 words a day now and it's pretty hard. We're both falling behind but there's only one more month to go in this term so it's not so bad.
As always I hope that this note finds you all well, and may the twisty, twining network of fate bring you happy times until we talk to you again!
- Kim (and Joe)
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