Friday, February 20, 2015

Making the Most of the Chinese New Year

The Lunar New Year fireworks here in Beijing were as expected; loud, continuous, and terrible for air quality. All day long on the 19th we could hear fireworks being lit, but it wasn’t until the evening that they really started to pick up. From our apartment we could see numerous locations shooting them off all night. Just outside our apartment someone decided that the middle of a 4 lane street would be a good place for large star bursts and stopped traffic for a few minutes. As midnight approached the intensity increased right up to 12. After that, I don’t know what happened as I went to bed. Unfortunately the air quality went from pm 2.5 at about 70 which is good, to over 400 by midnight, which is the most hazardous level and almost off the charts.
Today, the city has been largely quiet and slowly the air quality has gotten better, but it still looks pretty smoky out there and we can still hear a faint pop-pop. Since it was so quiet I thought I would ride Aya’s ebike over to Ikea to check out their damaged goods. I assumed not many people would be there as most people are spending the day with family. Of course, I was wrong. Ikea was packed, mostly with people gobbling 1 dollar sausages from the snack stand or sleeping full out on sofas and beds. A few people were actually shopping.
The place is so absurd at times, its hard not to ask "why?" The longer I am in China and Beijing the more I am getting back into being curious about the Chinese and China’s history. Before my work ended last week I decided I would check out a few sites around the city as not so many people would be there and so made plans as well as checking out some books about China from the library. That turned out to be a good idea. I went to the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower as well as the Llama Temple and Tiananmen at dusk for the flag lowering and the next day to the National Museum. Besides being sites around the city, they also provided a slice of Beijing life. At the drum tower only bits of one of the original 12 drums remain, likely the rest were destroyed during some revolution. There are so many in the past 100 years its hard to say when. At Tainanmen the soldiers and crowd were silent except for the couple right next to me who argued loudly the entire ceremony. At the national museum I had my ebike battery in my backpack so it wouldn’t get stolen. When I went through security the female guard asked me what it was. While I understood her question, I didn’t know the word for it nor how she couldn’t know what it was. Everyone and their mother has some sort of ebike in Beijing, they are everywhere. Thankfully the guy behind me saved me and told her what it was, denji? Not really sure, but it sounded like the Japanese denchi, which means battery so I am guessing they are similar.
I’ve also been watching classic Chinese movies each night like, To Live and Red Sorghum. Both of which I like and have watched before, but Zhang Yimou (the director) will be visiting my school next week, so I thought I would brush up on my viewing. I also have watched a few documentaries to fill in the non-fiction gaps such as the three part PBS series 'A Century of Revolution' and one on Tiananmen square 89'.  During the afternoons I had been reading up a bit from I Chose China, Last Days of Old Beijing, Postcards from Tomorrow Square, and Factory Girls. Last Days of Old Beijing has been the most interesting because its written by a foreigner living in the hutongs south of Tiananmen and I can relate most closely with his curiosity and viewpoints as he laments the economic progress of China razing its cultural history.  I actually saw a character 拆 Chai on a wall on the way to Ikea today! The city is still tearing itself apart.
So far I have enjoyed my break quite a bit. Though this place often makes me scratch my head, its never boring and I don’t think it will be for some time.  Now, one more thing to do before getting back to work on Monday, do my Chinese homework for my lesson on Tuesday!

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Turning 33

Friday was my 33rd birthday. It seems like that should be special in some way because of the double number, no doubt somewhere it is of cultural significance. In some ways I feel old. I look back on the last birthday that I remember, that was turning 30 while going to Nepal, and I feel like that was a long time ago. I was a bit more fit and the future was a bit more fresh and open.
About ten years ago I read an obituary in the Door County Advocate. Some guy on a motorcycle had died on the notorious 2 lane highway that stretches up the county. I guess he pulled out onto it when he shouldn’t have. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember he was a professor of some sort. What struck me about the obituary was the tone. It was celebratory of a life well lived, though this man was only in his early 50’s. One of his friends wrote about when he and the professor were kayaking up to a glacier in Alaska and the professor pulled out two glasses and some whiskey. They broke off a piece of the glacier and had some 10,000 year old ice. I thought that story was so cool, who does that?
What I think of the most are all over the past 15 years are the what-ifs and might-be’s. I would guess that most people do on their birthday, but I don’t think of them as regrets or dreams of what might have been. When I think of them what I remember is not the idea of uncertainty holding me back, but rather spurring me on. All those what-ifs make life exciting and interesting to live. They make me want to go see it, go do it, go eat it, jump from it and embrace it. Of course, I am afraid sometimes. Uncertainty is a vast and empty ocean. It would be madness not to be afraid or have doubts, but it would also be madness to allow that fear to dictate your life.

Though I was hoping that this year the number of countries I’ve travelled to would have met my age, it hasn’t yet. Currently I’ve been to 29, 30 will come in March when Aya and I go to the Philippines. Mongolia is near enough that I will probably go there sometime in the near future and a friend and I are talking about taking the trans-Siberian which would mean Russia and possibly some other Nordic countries as well in summer 2016. I’ve got a friend living in Denmark, which I haven’t been to yet, so that is possible too. Myanmar and Laos aren’t too far away either. It’s a big world out there and I would hate to miss it. Hopefully I will get to have a glacial ice and whiskey one day too, maybe to celebrate 50 countries at 50 years old. How cool would that be?