Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tomb-Sweeping Day and White Collars

One of the hard parts of being half way around the world (when it is 8AM there, it is 8PM here) is that I cannot be there for my friends. Jean, Arnie's auntie, died last week. An amazing woman whose life was transformed over the last year and half by living with her "favorite [and only] niece," she, nevertheless, was French at heart and her ashes will get spread in Cannes. I thought of her today, more than once...

Today is the Buddhist holiday, called Tomb-Sweeping Day or the Clear Bright Festival (Qingming in Chinese). Its observance was reinstated as a public holiday in mainland China in 2008, after having been previously suppressed by the ruling Communist Party in 1949. The auto company does not have classes, my doctors did not have class yesterday, and TOEFL instruction is suspended till mid-week. Perfect English was closed all day.

I met my Chinese friend, Fiona (that is her English name), at People's Square at 10 AM and we walked to Banruo Temple. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Changchun and one of the four major temples in Northeast China. For luck, people burn incense sticks and they pray, bowing thrice, to Buddha and the eighteen gilded statues of Buddhist saints.

There was a throng of people there so we left after a while and wandered back down Remin Dajie to the Indian restaurant, noting the Peony Park and a Children's Park along the way. She was impressed that I knew the word for China's national flower, but I reminded her that I live on Mudan Jie (or Peony Street).

Fiona is a "country girl" and likes the big crowds and crossing the street here about as much as I do. She was born in 1989, she tells me. I say, "Oh, an important year in Chinese history." She looks at me quizzically and I say, "Tienanmen Square." She says she knows what the English word "demonstration" means, but that she is not aware of what happened there in 1989. I decide not to educate her about this. Not my job or my business here.

She tells me about her childhood (both of her parents are rice farmers to the east of here near Chang Bai Shan). She and her brother biked to school every day after fixing themselves their meals, because mom and dad had already gone to the fields. She has a sibling because she is Man zu guo, an ethnic minority that we refer to as Manchurian. China has 54 ethnic minorities; this is the ethnicity of the last emperor, Pu Yi. Many of the Manchurians whom I have met are proud of this. Fiona is agnostic on this topic and, seemingly, on religion. She has no desire to throw money into the fire nor is she burning to participate in any of the other rituals at the temple.

Fiona is a university student and wants to study abroad. She has always liked school. America is the country she mentions when I ask her where she would like to go most. She says she likes American food and mentions hamburgers, steak, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I laugh out loud and say that I am embarrassed. That KFC is to American food what the shitty General Gao's chicken you can find at every "Chinese" restaurant is to Chinese food.

She told me that once you get academic approval to study abroad, you must also obtain a certificate showing that you are able to meet the financial obligations of studying abroad. This will probably never be an option for her, barring a bleeding heart foreigner like myself, or some other piece of unusually good fortune. It breaks my heart. She is smart and ambitious--our language and cultural exchange came about when she approached me at a local expatriate bar with some friends and her English professor in tow. Her father wants her to be a teacher, but when I (the teacher) ask her what she wants to do, she says only, "I want the white collar."

Over lunch, we talk about books. She asks me what is my favorite and I tell her Dostoyevski's The Brothers Karamazov. She will look for it, she says, in Chinese translation. Then she helps me to find a barber where for twenty RMB I get shorn. We say good-bye and she boards the bus so she can finish reading The Scarlet Letter and writing a paper about it. I head for another friend's apartment and we go get Chinese hot pot, which is like fondue except that you have broth for boiling your greens and meat, instead of cheese to dip it in.

Altogether, it was a great way to spend the day.

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