CHINA JOURNALThursday, May 16 through Sunday, May 19, 2002
Roses are the city flower of Tianjin, and they are in full bloom now---en masse all over---in the apartment grounds, in the parks, and along all the major streets. Many different colors are mixed together and, glory be, they are fragrant!
When I read about and then first came to China, I was told never to drink the tap water. In preparation for that, I brought along a clever water bottle that has a built in filter. I just finished mailing it home as unnecessary baggage. The answer for Westerners may be the readily available bottled water, but on the trip I noticed a different approach. ``We Chinese'' all traveled with our lexan water bottles or small thermoses. There was always hot water (boiled water) available if you planned ahead. At night and in the morning you filled it from the large thermos in every hotel room and at noon, or at any stops, you filled it from the restaurant hot water supply. Sometimes it tasted a bit as if noodles had been cooked in the same pot in its past and sometimes it tasted as if water had been boiled in the same pot for a hundred years and there was some from a hundred years ago still in the pot---but you knew it was safe.
My office mate, Ren Hai Ying, has been taking my films home and her husband takes them to the photographer to develop and make prints. (She confessed today that she was making money because she never gives the money I pay her to her husband!) When I came back from the trip with six rolls, he took them all in. The developer packaged each packet of negatives separately but just gathered up all 216 pictures in one batchin no particular order. Aaaaargh. It took me one whole evening matching pictures to negatives to get them in order. (Hey, those temples and gardens all begin to look alike.)
I looked out from our school office window on Thursday and saw a half dozen tall conical wicker stands with almost identical arrangements and black ribbons across the street. Someone had died that day in one of the apartments. I've been glued to the window for two days!
Flowers kept arriving, all looking like they had been made to the guide book specification for funerals. Actually it is a spray for special occasions because the same pattern is used for store openings and celebrations. It is a large spray with bright flowers in reds, oranges, and yellows along with greenery. In an amazingly fast time, twenty-four of the wicker stand bouquets arrived.
But a dozen or so of another variety I have not seen before also arrived. They were round and about a yard and a half in diameter and had either legs or the wicker stands. They were bright and shiny like huge pinwheels. There were concentric circles of different colors and designs---much multi-colored aluminum foil shaped like petals which reflected the sun (yes, there was sun that day). There were also paper flowers worked into these. A close up look, when I made an excuse to walk past to the newsstand, showed that many of the paper flowers had been made from recycled newspapers because the Chinese newsprint showed on the backs where they had not been painted. Several of these had colored papers woven in and out of what may have been a wicker stand so it looked like a Mexican painted skirt. They were quite top heavy and kept blowing over in the wind until the family got them all tied up.
There is no room inside the small apartments for this kind of display of floral arrangements, and there is no service in a church or funeral home, so this was all carefully arranged on the sidewalk in front of the apartment. All the bikes in front of the building were moved and the stands of flowers were arranged in front of the building. Another row was arranged by the curb, facing the street (and our office). A row made an entryway and lined the downstairs hall of the apartment breezeway. The big aluminum pinwheels had the place of honor in the hall and close to the entry.
I grabbed my camera and went upstairs to the window outside the fifth grade classroom where there was no tree to partially block the view. Two of the boys were watching the proceedings across the street. One was the boy most teachers call the ``troublemaker'' or ``fighter'', but he and I get along real well. Both of them saw me pull out my camera and frantically motioned to me in a mixture of English, Chinese, and charades that I shouldn't take a picture. When I looked surprised or questioning, they both motioned---you die, cut throat, die. It reminded me of Daisy Chow, one of our older interviewees in Bakersfield looking at a photograph of the funeral procession for her father (the only funeral picture we had). She was surprised to see it because, ``We never took pictures of funerals. You just didn't.''
In the face of that strong, solicitous warning, I didn't dare take a picture. When I got back to my office I mulled over whether to take some in the privacy of my office but decided, ``No. If the boys feel that strongly about it, I need to respect the feelings of the man who develops my film.'' So there are only vivid pictures in my head.
Pretty soon the men began to put together a pre-fitted wooden frame out on the sidewalk. It was like a wood and plastic version of a camping canopy. Good wooden chairs were brought in and a couple of small tables. Ran Hei Ying said that was where friends would spend the night singing and playing the flute, drum, and erhu or similar stringed instrument. I was sorely tempted to spend the night at school. By the time I left for home another dozen or so flower stands had arrived.
Friday morning I got to school early, hoping that I could catch some of the singing. No such luck. We had not known who it was that died, but on Friday we got the information that it was a man. That came because a papier mache (or rather just paperlike chicken wire stuffed with paper) about three-quarters of life size, three dimensional white horse and sedan chair arrived. Since it was a horse, that indicated the deceased was a man. If it had been a woman, it would have been a white cow. (How disgustingly appropriate!) The horse stood in front of the apartment with all the flowers and looked like a wonderful merry-go-round horse...all white with black eyes and a bright red harness. The sedan chair was a burst of color and had all the parts, carrying poles, the cover over the top, side curtains, covered seat, etc. Leaning up against it were eight little bamboo poles, each with a two dimensional paper figure of a person with pink and red clothing and the white mask-like face. These reminded me of large stick puppets. They apparently represented the eight men who would carry the sedan chair holding the deceased.
White is the color of mourning in China, but there has been some color confusion in recent years. My theory is that happened because wedding ceremonies with white gowns became so important to the Chinese of a particular class. So the ribbons on the bouquets were black, but the horse was white. I was told that the family would dress in white. The only evidence of that I saw was on a man who was apparently the son. On Friday he was dressed in normal, informal clothes with a big white sash tied in a large bow in front. On his head he wore a form fitting white head covering that ended in a topknot. He came out for a while on Friday to check on the flower arrangements.
The normal time schedule is that on the third day, which would be Saturday, the body would be put in a box and taken ``to be fired''. I was ready to come to school all day Saturday to watch, but they wanted me at the office. On the way home Saturday night, we happened to drive past the school. There was absolutely no sign that there had been a death or flowers or a shade stand. It was all gone.
It was about 6:30 at night. I was about to say the weather was balmy. But it wasn't really balmy, or hot, or coldjust absolutely, delightfully neutral. As we drove home down the street that has lots of little restaurants and sidewalk food stands, it seemed as if everyone had moved outside. There were tables and chairs and people eating and visiting all along the sidewalk. What a great, neighborly scene. We went to that third floor gardenlike restaurant and had a delicious tou fu flower pudding.
Sunday I spent the day getting all the pictures put in the little album folders and by the afternoon I was ready for a walk outside. At 5:30, Zhang Jie came in and said, ``We go play in Bin Jiang Doa''. So apparently ``play'' is the Chinese version of our ``shop'' not just Cui Hua'sand it may be more appropriate. We left the house at 5:45 and ``played'' until 9:45, the whole time looking for shoes. Since that has no interest to me, I spent my time watching the human scene and waiting. Once as I was standing with my hands folded in back of me, I started to giggle because I had a flashback to my father who used to strike what we called the floorwalker pose while he waited patiently for the three women of the family to finish shopping. (And he often got asked questions appropriate for the floorwalker to answer.)
I have been moving towards comments on physical fitness in China for quite awhile. Once I get a feeling I focus on making more observations to see if it holds up. My observation has been that there are no grossly overweight people in China such as there are in the United States. Most notable are the men. You don't see beer bellies. Many young ladies are rail skinny as they are in many cultures. The middle age women look strong and healthy, not skinny but not fat. The older women mostly have that matronly I-have-born-children barrel look, but among the very old they are often thin again and somewhat fragile looking, some quite twisted and shrunken. You don't see men built like Mao Tse Tung out on the streets. After observing in the upscale stores for three hours, I've revised my observation. My earlier impression is mainly from watching two groupsthe people in the park who are out exercising every day, and all the working people in the neighborhood of the school. I've decided the working people physically work hard and stay trim. (Most of the teachers and staff at the school ride to school on bikes.) In the upscale stores, however, I noticed a few beer bellies and some pudgy women. Affluence definitely has its downside.
However, I am constantly impressed by the large number of people who participate in some kind of exercise such as Tai Chi (they pronounce and spell it Tai Ji) or the drum corps. The best part is that it is so widespread and expected that no one feels self-conscious. At home if I walk down the street doing some sort of exercise with my arms or hands as I walk, I invariably quit if I see someone within eyesight so they won't think I'm off my rocker. Not here. People walk around the park each one doing his favorite motion. The same is true in front of stores in the morning or any time. The one group I don't see out are the twenties and thirties age groups. I wonder if that has always been the case or if the pattern is changing (or perhaps they get out even earlier than I do). The school children all participate in great morning exercises every day. That is one of the best things in Chinese education which I would like to see get incorporated into American education. It is quick, simple, predictable, and good for you.
One other funny incident that happened in the second grade. I wanted to pass out some envelopes with their names on them to the right students. Since I have not learned the names, I needed help. The students themselves could not read the pinyin (western alphabet) versions of the names, nor did the Chinese teacher (a new one) seem to know what I wanted. So I read out the names. The children were uproarious in their laughter at my pronunciationsbut they could figure out whose name I was saying so I figured I wasn't too far off.