My Own Paparazzi by Emily

  • I’ve lived in China long enough to become a bit immune to things like bamboo forests, more skyscrapers than I can count and a dog riding with its owner on an electric scooter.

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Then our friend Kathleen visited for six weeks.  I knew that with her arrival, the charm of China would return.  And it did.  She was intrigued by everything:  street sweepers’ homemade brooms,

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pink suitcases, cigarette boxes, the subway system being built, ceilings in airports, kumquat tea,

 

the messy conglomeration of electrical wires twisted together along telephone poles.

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The list was endless.  Truly, everything intrigued her.  

Her amazement was reflected in the number of photos she took:  almost 30,000 pictures, over 700 pictures a day!  With her exuberant, friendly personality, hearts opened everywhere she went.  After photographing card players on the street, she was invited to join, and she did, in a game she was absolutely clueless about.  Another time she happened into a restaurant on opening day and photographed the décor, food and employees.

She strolled in a mostly abandoned apartment complex.  When she bent to look at a bean plant a young girl, who was following her, bent to look as well.  Then the girl had an idea.  She led Kathleen around, showing her different flowers blooming among the broken sidewalk and crumbling garden walls.  At each place, the girl picked a flower.  When Kathleen left, the girl gave her the bouquet.

Kathleen got the idea to take photos of a Chinese couple getting married. and I asked around but couldn’t find any engaged couples who wanted photos taken.  Meanwhile, Kathleen flew to Hong Kong for a few days.

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One morning, at a red light, she glanced sideways and there, inches away, was a bride in her white dress.  With her were the groom, a photographer and the assistant.   Quivering with excitement, Kathleen followed and snapped pictures from a distance.  Soon, the entourage invited her to join them.  For hours, the five of them traipsed up and down streets, taking pictures.

Kathleen took pictures of Tim teaching,

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Zoe at the West Lake,

 

 

 

 

 

 

and Sumner looking mysterious in his Sherlock Holmes coat.

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And for the first time, I tasted life with my own paparazzi.  Of the 30,000 pictures, need I say that I am in more than a few?

 

Here I am in my classroom.

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At times I felt awkward having my photo taken up close on a crowded bus, and at times Tim was irritated that Kathleen lagged so far behind when we were trying to get somewhere fast (which is the only way that Tim knows to walk).  But now, as I scroll through the photos, I re-experience China through Kathleen’s lens, and I feel even closer to my friend.

Furthermore, I feel so valued, validated and known.  So much from our daily life — the people and things we experience — are captured in print.  The photos say that we/they/it/this matters.

The pictures also make me want to buy a good camera and give others the same gift.  I don’t know if I will, though, anytime soon.

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Meanwhile, my dear friend, Kathleen, just know that you can be our  — as Tim is now equally touched :) —  paparazzi any day.

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Note:  We’re imitating the Chinese with the rabbit ears/peace signs. It’s so common here that I’ve seen two significant public sculptures of people and they are doing the rabbit ears/peace signs too.  :)

Picking Yangmei fruit in Zhejiang Province

Our family visited our friend Stacy in her village of Jinyun. Her father took us to Yuewang Mountain to pick yangmei, a.k.a. red bayberry or yumberry. The latter is most accurate. Yangmei ripens only late May to early July, and throughout June we saw lots of people carrying baskets and crates of yangmei as gifts. After we walked through the rain and mist of the mountain to the yangmei trees we found out why. Yangmei has a rough, slightly scaly skin, but is a succulent, tangy delight, like a cross between a plum (it has a seed you spit out) and a raspberry. The darker the outside the sweeter the inside. We were supposed to take a couple of bushels back to Stacy’s home, but we probably ate one whole bushel before leaving the mountain. Wow. Zoe and Sumner used bamboo rods to pull the fruit close enough to pick and put into baskets, then Sumner went ahead and climbed into the tree to expedite the harvest. A great, juicy experience in our last family trip in China.

Oh God, Oh God, Oh God by Emily

Tim and the kids flew to Urumqi, in the far northwest, close to Pakistan and Kazakhstan.  Two days later, after school, I flew to meet them.

The plane was late taking off. Somewhere along the way we were supposed to stop to let some people off and more on.  Due to turbulence the seatbelt sign stayed on most of the trip.   A Chinese teacher and her mother sat next to me.  She spoke some English and we chatted.  Eventually they fell asleep holding each other’s hand.   From my aisle seat, I strained to see the sky but the wing blocked any view.

I brought along a book by an American who lives in China and writes about the changes the country is going through.  What makes it so interesting is that he also follows the lives of people that he befriends.  I read while the flight crew made announcements in Chinese and in English, but sometimes they forgot to do the English and then I was clueless as to what was going on.

I asked the flight attendant if I could go to the bathroom and she said no.  I returned to my book.  Suddenly the plane jolted and hit something hard.  I yelled, “Oh, Lord Jesus!”  It felt like there was a hole under us!  I waited for the plane to explode.

Then I recognized the sounds and sensations  – it was the plane’s wheels hitting the ground.    We were merely landing.  More words, “Dear Jesus, dear Jesus.”

My pulse was slowing back to normal as the plane came to a stop.  We sat on the tarmac, waiting for clearance to proceed to our gate.    Suddenly a young man in jeans and a dark T-shirt stood up and began to walk towards the front.  Two flight attendants, from their seats in the back, called for him to sit down.  He didn’t respond, and they yelled louder and louder.  He just walked faster up the aisle.  The attendants yelled more.  We passengers silently watched him.  I wondered, “Why am I just sitting here?  What if he’s dangerous?”

He reached the front of the plane and another flight attendant, from his seat, reached out to the passenger.  And then I couldn’t see the young man anymore.  I waited.  Was he being tackled?  Did he sit down?  All was quiet.

A few minutes passed and the plane taxied to its gate.    While my heartbeat again slowed to normal, I thought of another incident this week.   Tim was out of town and the kids and I had been inside all morning.  We were barking at each other and it was getting worse.  “Get dressed, we’re going to the lake,” I finally ordered.

With treats in hand from a French bakery we passed the bronze buffalo in the water and crossed the Broken Bridge that isn’t broken.  Zo and Sum posed with giggling teenagers who wanted a photo with foreigners.   We watched a dressed up woman badly singing karaoke.  At the lake there is always karaoke with older adults singing to intently listening crowds.

We left the park and started across a busy street.  I was in front when suddenly I heard a terrifying scream from Zoe.  I turned to see a bus turning the corner and only feet away from her.  I pushed her backwards and shot the driver a look mixed with warning and gratitude.

On the sidewalk I wrapped my arms around her and felt her bony spine.  Zoe hung limp against me.  We stood together, my eyes closed.   There was no afternoon heat, honking of horns or smell of Stinky Tofu from nearby vendors.  The world was gone.  It was just my daughter and me. For that moment, my little girl was safely in my arms and that was all I knew.  Then, I had the overwhelming urge to get home — back to the den with my baby cubs.  I clasped both of my children’s consenting hands and hurried them down the sidewalk as I chanted, “Oh God, oh God, oh God.”

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We got to a bus stop and I clutched my cubs close to my chest.  Sumner said, “Mom, I don’t like when things like this happen because for the rest of the day, you look serious and sad.”  “Hmm,” I murmured, squeezing him closer.  My lips were pursed, my head shook side to side in disbelief as I chanted over and over,  “Oh God, oh God.”

Sometimes the words that fly out of my mouth cause the kids, with enlarged eyes, to say, “MOM!”  Though not holy words, in those moments, my gut is reacting again with horror to the fact that I’m not in control.

I try to be careful, but I can’t control everything.  Oh God, I can’t.  The terror of that descends upon me at times, swiftly and unexpectedly.  It is a nightmare.  And I react. I fight – like the time I pounded a speeding driver’s side mirror with an empty box when he almost flattened us in a crosswalk.   Or I run.  I flee.  I try to get back to the cave where I feel safe.

For now we are together.  I don’t know tomorrow.  Oh God, if I did, I would despair.

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But the words that occasionally fly from my mouth show my belief that, come what may, I realize that I do not walk alone. For He Himself says, “I will never leave or forsake you” (Hebrews 13.5).  That doesn’t take away my responsibility, not does it take away my fear of bad things, nor does it even guarantee bad won’t happen — though I sooo wish it did. What it does mean is that I am not alone, and that someone and something greater than me will walk with me — and our family,  And that I desperately need to know.

 

On time zones, patriotism, and memory

This last week I made two interesting trips courtesy of the Fulbright visiting lecturer program, which funds visits to universities across China to offer lectures, in my case, in American history. So far I’ve given 1 talk on the Civil War, 1 talk on slavery, 1 talk on American labor law, 3 talks on the American opium trade to China, and, suggesting what Chinese people are really interested in, 7 talks each on the history of American exceptionalism and on the Second Amendment and American gun rights and laws.

For the first trip I traveled to the city of Urumqi in northwestern China. When I told my friends in Hangzhou of my plans they were surprised. One said he thought foreigners weren’t even allowed to go. Two weeks ago Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang attacked a shopping center in Urumqi, killing 31. Uyghurs, about 43% of the population of Xinjiang, are Muslim, different from the Chinese majority Han people, who are largely secular, or Buddhist, or Christian (in Xinjiang there are also, in addition to Uyghurs and Hans, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Hui, Kyrgyz, and Mongols).

Security in Urumqi, already tight, has obviously become moreso. I thought of canceling the trip, since the whole family was scheduled to go, and the American embassy actually called to say, “have a great time. Be careful.” But the invitation was in place for some time and I hardly wanted to chicken out.

The trip proved interesting, of course. Everything is interesting. Urumqi is very much like…Ankara, Turkey. A lot of government and university buildings and associated state security. Stores sell beautiful veils, dried apricots, nuts, silk, and inlaid, razor sharp pocket knives, for which Xinjiang is famous. There is a beautiful huge mosque in the city, complete with sparkling minarets, the first one I’ve seen in China. My basic Turkish expressions “Merhaba, nasilsiniz?” and “Tesekkur ederim,” (Hi, how are you?  and Thanks very much) went a long way in the marketplace: Uyghur is a Turkic language.

Park sign in Urumqi: "Please Show Mercy to Grass and Flowers," in English, Mandarin, and Uyghur languages.

Park sign in Urumqi: “Please Show Mercy to Grass and Flowers,” in Uyghur, Mandarin, and English languages.

 

 

Sumner ready to stop shopping in the Muslim Bazaar, Urumqi.

Sumner ready to stop shopping in the Muslim Bazaar, Urumqi.

Urumqi is 3,900 km northwest of Hangzhou. But China has 1 time zone. The effect of this – both horological and political – hit me the second night we were on a street. I saw a big clock show it was 9:30 p.m. Funny – it was still pretty much bright daylight. I asked a student about what that was like. “Yes,” came the explanation. “the time system we have makes summer days very long.” Pause. “It’s 9:30 in Beijing. But it’s really only 7:30 here.” Huh? “Well, we consider the local time 7:30…. Beijing time is communist time.”

Zoe in the long shadow of Urumqi's central mosque.

Zoe in the long shadow of Urumqi’s central mosque.

Not really by design, when I finished the visit to Urumqi I flew, in fact, to Beijing to give additional lectures. Urumqi’s weather was turbulent: blazing hot the first day, hard rain the second, winds so severe the third day, cracking car windshields, that a day trip we had planned to the ancient Silk Road city of Turpan was canceled.

Beijing was more predictable – hazy, windless, and, given the significance of early June, thick with security.

Journalists’ reports seem largely true that the government has made the events of a quarter-century ago this week a matter, a little like religious belief, of private conscience, kept by older people, now pushing 50 or more. I mused to a student with me on a Beijing subway, “I guess the square tomorrow [the 4th] will have a lot of security.” The student replied, “Yes, of course. The Uyghur terrorist attacks a few weeks ago have made everyone a little nervous.”