There are large booms and great flashes of light going off just outside my window at irregular intervals. I jump a foot each time one starts up, thinking “air raid!!!”, though having never lived through an air raid, how would I know? They are, of course, just fireworks. Lots, and lots, and lots of fireworks. Which in turn, keep setting off car alarms. As soon as the cars finally give up on the notion that they are being stolen, broken into, or otherwise abused, another round starts up and there it all goes again. Yes, it’s a laugh-a-minute here in the lunar new year.
I hope that everyone is living up the two-week spectacle that is Chinese New Year… the occasion is marked most noticeably here – beyond the endless fireworks late into the night every night – by empty streets and closed shops, TV variety shows with bad music and astoundingly complex choreography performed by a few thousand dancers in elaborate feathery costumes (this is the year of the chicken/rooster). The streets are crowded with vendors hawking good fortune for the coming months, often in the form of cuddly stuffed chickens (with, in one case, frightening light-up red eyes that gave one the impression that this plaything might actually be demon-possessed) (why stuffed demonic attack birds are considered auspicious is beyond me, aside from the fact that the color red, when not signaling spirit possession, is lucky).
My goal for the week was to get a lot more work done than I actually ended up doing, which is very often the case on vacations and school breaks (a difficulty to which I’m sure many of you can relate). Well, technically, I still have two days to get it all done before the archives reopen on Wednesday, but may I just take a moment to say, HAH! Part of the problem was a new Korean soap opera (“Sweet 18,” for anyone who keeps up on these things).
Why these are so addictive is hard to explain to anyone who has never watched one, but they really, really are. It doesn’t matter that you are confident from the outset that two leads will get together in the end, or that before they do there will be a few car accidents; a fire; a fight; a case of amnesia; a few drunken antics; a chase sequence involving a few characters, a Matter of Life and Death, and an (often exotic) animal; maybe a death; and certainly several tear-filled confrontations in posh Seoul coffee shops. The question becomes specific to the plot at hand: but who exactly will the gangsters kidnap? How will the male lead be saved from the bribery frame-up? At least this one did not pose the incest conundrum, where the male and female lead are suspected erroneously of being half-siblings (which I’ve now seen several times and never fails to disturb me) and has a few rather amusing sequences involving an elderly man in traditional Korean dress and a karaoke bar.
The much better distraction was the visit of my friend Lancelot (down from Korea, though not himself much of a Korean soap opera fan) (hard to say why, really, given the above). Upon his arrival in Nanjing last week, this was officially the fourth country we have met up in — the others being the US, Korea and Taiwan — without traveling together to any of them. We celebrated this unique accomplishment with dinner on Hunan Road (a popular shopping/dining district). I was unimpressed with much of the restaurant we chose, but I have to say, I was even more unimpressed with my Chinese when I accidentally misled us into ordering snake meat instead of shellfish (er, whoops). When the serving plate arrived, it was obvious from the first glance at the scaly black and white skin what manner of beast had been sectioned and roasted for our dining pleasure, and let me just say, no meat should ever arrive at your table looking that much like the original animal. At that moment, I remembered what character I had misread (too late, too late).
Chalking it up to one of those “what doesn’t kill you will make a good story” life experiences, we each took a large piece of snake in hand (cheers!) and bit down. In case anyone is harboring a life-long dream of sampling this delicacy, let me tell you that snake is one of those things like snails, sunflower seeds, and whole artichokes that is not worth the kind of effort that goes into eating it. After twenty minutes struggling with leathery skin and a truly astounding number of tiny, sliver-like bones, I’m not even sure I ever got enough of the meat to tell you what it tasted like, other than “creepy.” Fortunately, we later washed down the snake taste (and, to be honest, almost all of the memory) with a bottle of Korean ginseng wine (and along the way, learned something: when sampling exotic Asian “wines” for the first time, check the proof first. If it happens to be, say, 35% alcohol by volume, do not finish the bottle. Good lesson).
Lancelot, much to our dismay, arrived in Nanjing just in time to experience some of the worst weather we’ve had all winter. When it’s not cold and rainy, it’s freezing and snowy. We made an almost half-hearted trek down to the city’s Confucian temple on (Chinese) New Year’s Day, where we browsed the large rooster-themed lanterns and found a nice, heated restaurant for dinner, but I think our interest in wandering the city and looking at fireworks was somewhat offset by our general desire not to die of exposure on the first day of the New Year. So when Friday turned out to be miraculously sunny and around 40, we took advantage and headed off to the most famous tourist attraction in the City of Nanjing (and, likely, all of Jiangsu Province): the final resting place of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.
Well, first we went out for lunch to work up some energy for the mountain trek to the grand memorial. This time, I won the toss and we went for Korean food. It is the great irony of our lives and our friendship that although Lancelot lives in Seoul, he far prefers Chinese food to any Korean culinary creation, whereas I live in Nanjing and would take Korean food over Chinese any day of the week. I ordered my winter soul-food favorite (no, no Seoul-food puns here, not me, nope, wouldn’t think of it), bibimbap without meat, while Lancelot got some manner of fowl, defeathered and disembowled and floating in soup (ok, so I’m not equally enthralled with all varieties of Korean cooking), with a side order of kimchi pancake for both of us. When the food came, my stone-pot covered rice had meat on it, which I pointed out to the waitress. She admitted she forgot about the meat.
What followed was like one of those commercials demonstrating the opposite of good customer service. The girl grabbed my spoon, pushed the egg to the side, and started scraping the meat off the top of the rice. I tried to protest, claiming total vegetarianism (a lie; after all, I was picking snake meat out of a web of skin and bones just days before. But, of course, as most of you realize, I am generally a hometown vegetarian and, of necessity, a flexible traveler). (On this issue, by the way, what kind of “meat” is snake, or, for that matter any kind of lizard, turtle, snail or frog? Are any of these partly aquatic animals considered “seafood?” Is there a special term for meat derived from cold-blooded creatures or insects? Perhaps I am a lacto-ovo-pesco-serpo vegetarian….) She ignored me, continuing to scrape off the meat and dump it into the spicy sauce (she did bring me a new dish of sauce), and when it was down to just little crumbles, she pushed the pot across to me and told me to enjoy.
Out of revenge, I went to the women’s restroom after lunch and tore the door to the stall off its hinges in a fit of temper. “That’ll show them,” I thought maliciously. I suppose one could argue that the door – precariously attached to the wall with well-rusted fastenings – simply fell off of its hinges after I spent too long confusedly pushing on it with complete and total disregard for the fact that it opened by pulling. I prefer the previous version. Having completed my property destruction and eaten all of the free watermelon they had provided as an apology for the confusion, we took off for the mountain park and Fun with Dead National Figures.
The approach to the tomb of Sun Yat-sen is a majestic, tree-lined avenue that ends in a large gateway in white marble with blue tiles that bears a striking resemblance to the gateway marking the entrance to the Chiang Kai-shek memorial in Taipei (unsurprising, as the white and blue motif is supposed to represent the colors of the Nationalist Party flag). There is a small room with an engraved slab noting the greatness of the first Republican (this term has a, er, different meaning in China than it does in the US, mind you) president, and from there it is up a massive marble staircase to the hilltop mausoleum. Inside, there is first a seated statue of Sun surrounded by engravings of the texts of some of his most famous writings, and two signs for the visitors that command: “Silence!” and “Salute!” We adhered to the former (mostly), but noticing the failure of everyone around us to snap-to, disregarded the latter.
From there the crowd tightened up, and soon we were shuffling forward into the crypt, pressed hard into the people around us. There was nowhere to go but forward, so forward we went. All of the mosh-pit-like pushing and shoving led us into a circular room that held the coffin, which was covered with a marble statue of a prostrate Dr. Sun (no waxy dead bodies lying in state in perpetuity, a treatment apparently reserved exclusively for communist dictators). The whole thing was a remarkably grand and imperial way to bury a Republican president: so exactly and precisely the opposite of everything that Dr. Sun, when alive, would have requested.
Back out in the fresh mountain air, we strolled past an array of souvenir stands that were hawking everything from vacuum-packed pressed duck to Minnie Mouse parasols. The latter really speaks volumes about New China, I think. East meets west in new and bizarre ways… you half expect to see classic images of the Chairman in his Mao suit and a pair of Disney mouse ears (It’s Communist Revolutionary Mickey!). Now that I’d pay to have on an umbrella.
Oh, and in the spirit of Communist Revolutionary Mickey, East-Meets-West, and Bourgeois Capitalist Excess meets Proletarian Socialist Utilitarianism, I recently picked up a new music album, the marvelous 2 disc “China’s Rock and Roll Vanguard.” 32 total tracks of hard rock renditions of old classics, like “Beijing that Good Night” and “The Internationale” along with new favorites like “The Long March newly on the road to rock and roll” and “In the end the guitar rises like a tommy gun.” My personal favorite is “Socialism is Good” – head-banger edition!! If anyone is interested, I’ll send the music file on request (takes about 3 MB, which I won’t do to your email accounts unsolicited but would be happy to provide to the curious). Be prepared to dance.
It was late afternoon when we left the Dr. Suny Af-sen Marsoleum (the English spelling of which we learned from the side of the mountaintop “sightseeing coach”). I think this one is number one on my favorite list of English spelling mistakes I’ve seen here, in part because whether or not one can spell “mausoleum” – I’m sure some Americans can’t either – one should be able to come up with a more accurate Romanization of the father of one’s country. Of course, the problem doesn’t end with spelling mistakes; there is a also the problem of misused English. I smile every time I pass a restaurant that advertises “spicy chafing dish” as among its specialties. I had a small, private chuckle on the plane down to Shenzen when I noticed that my noodles were served with a package of “Aviation Pickles.” For weeks I only read the English on the sign on Beijing West Road that reads “Take Care of Chest Vocational Industry” and assumed it was some sort of heart-and-lungs medical clinic. When I paused long enough to look at the Chinese, however, it proved to house safety-deposit boxes. But Dr. Suny Af-sen will always hold a dear place in my heart.
With what was left of the day, we went on to the Linggu pagoda and climbed up the long circular staircase to the eighth level and panoramic view of the countryside (this struck me as bad planning on the part of the Linggu Temple Buddhists. Surely in the past some young monk has rushed up that tightly-wound staircase only to reach the top and in his dizziness fall over the side and plummet to his death in the forest below). From there we started the walk down the mountain, and lacking the time to visit the Ming tombs, hopped on a random bus with no sense of where it was going (other than down) and returned to the city. It took us a long time to find a restaurant that night, as Lancelot was insisting on finding a place with pictures of everything on the menu (I suspect he was put off by my snake-ordering skills earlier and in no mood to trust me even when I swear I know what’s coming).
Hmm, I still have a monkey story to tell (and who doesn’t enjoy a good monkey story), but I think I’ll put that off for the next email given the length of this one already. When writing in the serial style, it is always important to leave your audience with a cliff-hanger, right?
Copyright 2005 by Meredith Oyen