Images of Xiamen

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The Chinese operetta (by Jonah)

Our English speaking Chinese friend had these tickets to a Chinese Operetta, but she was busy that day, so she gave them to us. My mom said it was in a part of campus we haven’t been in before, so she said we might not be able to find it. But our English speaking friend pointed in a direction in a different part of the campus and said it was a really old and beautiful part of the campus and had two really old red roofs. But by the time we thought we saw where it was, we showed the tickets to a random Chinese person on the streets, and he pointed to a building we were right by. So, we went in there and sat down in our seats. We thought we were in a big hurry, but we weren’t. We thought it started at seven, but it started at seven thirty.

Our seats were high up, but they were centered perfectly. Then an English speaking Chinese person who works there said that we should move to V.I.P. seats instead, which I thought was weird because we were not V.I.P.’s but I guess it was O.K. because I knew she worked there, because she was wearing a badge which all the other workers were wearing. It was centered perfectly, and it was on the third row! But then these older people came and made us leave, so we went back to our old seats. The workers were there wondering why we weren’t in our V.I.P. seats. Then we told them that the older people came and told us to leave, so they led us to front row V.I.P. seats! So then that’s where we ended up sitting. I thought it was kind of weird but I guess they would automatically give V.I.P. to westerners since we were the only westerners in the whole entire hall. And TRUST me. It was PACKED with people. So then, we realized that the people sitting next to us did NOT look like V.I.P.’s. I thought they were mainly people who had some connections with one of the actors or directors.

The stage had just seats and desks with name tags on it (written in Chinese characters of course), and it started with people in suits sitting down. These guys with cameras kept getting in front of us and then moving out of the way. Every once and a while this guy would shine a light on us or take a picture of us. Only two guys in the middle had microphones, in which they said the names of the other guys sitting down, and the other guys would stand up and the audience would clap. But then these ladies in identical suits came along with music playing in the background and gave the guys in suits this pile of fancy boxes wrapped in a ribbon, and then the ladies would go off stage and these COMPLETELY random people would come along. And trust me. They were completely random. They had like dyed hair and baggy shirts. The guys in suits would stand up and give the completely random people the boxes with ribbons wrapped around it, and then they would turn around and everybody would clap. And trust me. The completely random people wouldn’t even smile, but they WOULD do a small bow. Then, one of the guys in the middle made this extremely long speech, and everybody in the audience would start talking, and talking, and nobody actually paid any attention to whatever the heck he was saying. And we couldn’t even UNDERSTAND what he was saying because it was all in Chinese. Even the other people on stage were thumbing through these books and even THEY weren’t paying any attention to what he was saying. And then the women in fancy suits with the same music playing in the background came again and gave the guys in suits these giant awards and then they gave them to these other completely random people they would turn around and the audience would clap, they would do a small bow—exactly the same.

Then, the operetta started. The play was supposed to take place in the late nineteenth century. It started out with this lady dressed up really fancy, this old man with a long beard and these ladies holding puppets. Then these ladies on the side would do this dance where they pretend to be puppets on strings. My mom read online later on that that dance was a special dance to Fujian province (the province we are located in in China), and it was originally from old Operas in Fujian province, China. Then the old man with a beard’s stick that he would always carry around with a cloth on the top with Chinese charecters broke so he fell to the ground. The dressed up women were talking in Chinese how to fix it, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and neither could my mom. Then she would say stuff and everybody in the audience laughed, but we didn’t. But I thought it was a little funny how everybody laughed, but we couldn’t understand what they were saying. Then, the next scene was where this guy came along and sang this long song in Chinese which seemed to me a little more middle-Eastern than Chinese. Every time people are walking, then they made these click-clack noises, and when something silly happened then it went ‘DUIN!’ Then the middle-eastern looking guy ran into this girl who was at the beginning and they were riding around on each other in this weird way. Then the dressed up lady ran into the police where they had this really long conversation, and then they brought out their big and fat policeman with a mustache and they kept taking, when the dressed up lady got a hold of the policeman’s gun, and then everybody was scared of her all of a sudden. So the dressed up lady and the old man in the beard (who was all of a sudden fine) were in prison, and the police guard was drunk, so they got a hold of his key! So then the old man with the beard and the dressed up lady were free and the police were looking for them. Every once and a while the two girls with the puppets would show up and talk to each other using the puppets on strings. So the police were trying to find the dressed up lady and the old man with the beard. The dressed up lady and the old man with the beard knew that the police were coming, so the old man with the beard hid and the dressed up lady put on a Buddhist cape and got in a praying position and pretended to be a Buddhist statue. So, when the police came along past her, they looked at her and he was stupid enough to not figure out that that was the person they were chasing the whole entire time. Then, when the police men looked away, she stole one of the policeman’s stick and when the policeman turned around she set it on her arm holes and was back in her praying position, but the policemen didn’t notice. So, they kept searching. Then, the middle-eastern looking guy and the girl at the beginning were still riding on each other in a weird way back to where this was going on, so they got rid of the middle-eastern looking guy because he was trying to kidnap her and they were all fine!

P.S.: That’s just really what we THINK the plot was.

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Kunming (Yunnan), mid February 2011

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Before heading to Xiamen, we spent a week or so in Kunming, in Yunnan province. Here are some of the photos.

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“Protected” from the internet

[blinking in strong light of virtual totalitarian bulb . . . ]

We’re back on bamboo civet time, but it’s unclear for how long. The recent country-wide crackdown on speech and organizing means that Chinese officials are now seriously enforcing their internet firewall, so we can’t go on many internet sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. WordPress has been blocked in the past, but right now it seems okay. Until last week, we had a special configuration (set up before we left the States) that enabled us to get around the censors, but that system has been disabled by a third party.

Totalitarianism is interesting here, because it’s not just the enforcement of raw power. Rather, it’s paternalistic, and reinforced by the literal paternalism of the family. For instance, grown children consider it perfectly appropriate to have their careers and marriages dictated by their parents. So when the government make similar moves, it’s operating within a cultural precedent. Hence governmental control of the internet is justified by a discourse of protection: if people were allowed to read any old thing, they might be hoodwinked by malignant bloggers, fake news, or pornography. How could they learn the truth?

This attitude is hard for me to accept, but then again, my family lived through a very different version of the 20th century. So, without fully accepting it, I’m making an effort to empathize–although Chris is, of course, in a panic. What if Abe Vigoda dies while we are in China?

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Happy Tomb-Sweeping Day!

Ivan has Monday and Tuesday off for Tomb-Sweeping Day; it’s a major holiday here. Chinese people are supposed to remember their ancestors and burn sacrifices to them. In addition to receiving the traditional offerings of (fake paper) money, the upwardly-mobile Dead are now demanding (fake paper) ipads and iphones, complete with (fake paper) USB cords. Plus the real estate bubble has reached beyond the grave:  it’s also possible to buy and burn small paper condominiums.

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The courtyard and the weather (by Jonah)

The courtyard

We have a courtyard right outside our apartment.  This is what it looks like.

I play soccer in that courtyard when I’m bored of our apartment.  This is the soccer ball I use, but today the part of the soccer ball where some of the skin peeled off by accident hit the wall, so now that popped, so the ball went flat, and we don’t have a pump, so now we have to get a new one.  But this is the old one popped.

We bought it at a nearby store.  The part of China we’re in is hot all year, so we don’t need to worry about snow, or jackets, or anything like that.  Although all of our Chinese friends we know who speak English have been saying that this year is very weird and usually it’s much warmer.  But trust me.  Chinese people still wear jackets in 75 degrees.

The popped soccer ball


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Sorby Laoshi

I’m still buzzed after teaching Elizabeth Bishop to my fab fab grad students.   They have spent their lives studying for highly competitive standardized tests:  no drama club, no organized sports, no smoking in the parking lot. Before I came here I assumed that Chinese people were not trained to think creatively, but the fact is that they are the most engaged, curious, and, yes, creative students I have ever taught.  They totally fly in the face of stereotypes about Chinese students as benumbed technocrats.  The problem is not a lack of creativity on the part of Chinese young people; the problem is that their society offers so few outlets for creativity.  I never really understood the serious value of “bohemia” as a state of mind (and a network of people and neighborhoods and lifestyles) until I arrived in a place that squelches it.

My students are amazing readers of poetry but when I ask them if they write poetry, they titter nervously and say, “No one does anymore.”  By “anymore,” they mean “since 1989,” but I don’t think they know this is what they mean.  The date does not loom large in the Chinese collective imagination, the way it does in the West.  Before 1989 there was a resurgence of poetry on Chinese campuses, so the medium does have a fairly recent history as a relevant art form.   My sense is that China has tremendous literary and artistic potential.   Is it possible to educate people beautifully while simultaneously constraining their imaginations?  The evidence I’ve seen says:  no.  Education makes people think (even when it’s not designed to), and thinking makes people creative.  People here are creative.  All they need is a bohemian infrastructure.   Or rather, “bohemia with Chinese characteristics.”  But that’s easier said than created (or even imagined) in a country that fears–with good historical reasons, mind you–dissenting subcultures.  But then again, who knows?   This is also a country where anything could happen; indeed, that’s why people burn so much fake money and incense trying to keep the Fates on their side.

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