Monday, January 18, 2010

Update from Southern China

Hello loyal readers!

I'm writing to you from Dali, in Yunnan Province, in Southern China. The skies are blue, the mountains are tall, the air is clear, and the sun feels wonderful, especially after months and months of cold, windy weather in Dalian.

So far, we've been taking it easy: lots of reading, studying Chinese in our little hostel courtyard, exploring the Old City, and meeting other backpackers. Unfortunately, our relaxing little vacation took an unfortunate turn when a member of our crew, Sarah, fell off her bike and hurt her arm badly. We then experienced the Chinese hospital system, which was fascinating unto itself, but is an entry for another day. Long story short, her arm needs surgery, so we had to scramble to get her onto a flight to Kuala Lumpur, where her parents live. This girl was such a trooper, I can't even tell you. She was in major pain, but stayed in fairly good spirits until her departure.

So now our group is smaller, sadly, because Sarah is awesome and we were all getting along well. But! Onwards to Lijiang. Aside from blogging and checking Facebook, internet access in the hostel means looking at the news and all the photographs from Haiti, which is devastating. It feels awful that one can't do anything but give money, but it sounds like that's what they need right now. My friend Alice works for the American Jewish World Service, and they do very good work in Haiti - so I encourage you to donate to them (or any other aid organization) if you haven't already.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Profiles in Awesome: Adria Pass

Another long overdue blog post of appreciation, which is especially timely because I'm about to leave for a month-long travel adventure. I'll be away from my computer, my bed, my cozy apartment, and my favorite "home" memento: a beautifully crafted cloth scrapbook my aunt Adria made for me before I left.

It's an amazing book, filled with collages and photographs and messages from my family. I was so moved when she gave it to me - I honestly forgot that my leaving affected anyone but myself. A selfish thought, I know - but this book reminded me of the family I'm so lucky to have, especially my aunt. Adria is so modest about her skills, but she is an incredible photographer, chef, quilter, craftswoman - the list goes on and on. She's also a very genuine and thoughtful person and whenever I'm at her house (which is awesomely close to my parents' house), I feel a sense of safety and warmth. I definitely miss that while being in China.

So, thank you Adria: for both your beautiful quilts and your constant support. I miss and love you.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Founding of a Republic

A while back, I went to 和平广场 (Peace Plaza) and saw "The Founding of a Republic," a big, long, epic movie commemorating the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. I was so pumped about it afterwards - not because it's an especially great movie (it's not), but because I'm always interested in how countries view themselves and their histories. Especially China. Especially today.

Last year, I contributed to a film site called "Critic's Notebook" with some other fine writers. Martin Tsai, the editor, has kindly kept me on, despite being in Dalian. He posted my review here: Bullish In A China Show. Upon second reading, I realized that I need to re-acquaint myself with punctuation. My run-on sentences are terrible! And I'm an English teacher! What a pity.

Martin had some really nice things to say about my review, but mentioned that
the scene involving Soong May-ling might be more of a comment on the Western objectification of Asian women than one about the libido of black men. It's a good point and I should have acknowledged it.

That being said, I'm fairly satisfied with the piece and I welcome any and all comments and criticism!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Note About Christmas

I know Christmas has come and gone, but I've been meaning to address the topic for a while and I think we're all still in the holiday afterglow anyway. My friend Ned asked what the representations of Santa and other Christmas-related things are like in China and it's actually pretty interesting.

This season, at least in Northeast China, Christmas paraphernalia was everywhere. I found this odd, seeing as most of the people I meet are either Buddhists or non-religious. I asked Lucy about it and she said it's a modern, youth-driven desire to adopt Western customs.

Teachers at the DUT Kindergarten decorate their Christmas tree.

Santa Claus on a bicycle in Harbin.

Truthfully, I think being Jewish gives me a different perspective on this phenomenon. While many young Chinese (and probably most Americans) view Christmas as a commercialized, secularized, holiday-for-everyone, I've never felt that way. I really enjoy the Christmas season (snow! music! magic! "It's A Wonderful Life"!), but I never believed in Santa Claus as a child and I always viewed Christmas as a religious holiday. A fun, wintry holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. So in a nation of non-Christians, it does strike me as a little bizarre.

That being said, Dalian and Harbin are both cities with a fair amount of expatriates and cosmopolitan influence so the cities might be catering to that. I'd be curious what it's like in the rest of China. Hannah, any comments on the Hangzhou Christmas scene?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

LOVE MOVIE: The Fiasco.

About a month ago, Jessica and I were judges in an English competition on campus. The student organization hosting the contest approached Jess about a possible movie night and discussion. Jessica generously referred them to me, as I have a film background. "Sure," I said. "That sounds like fun. Just tell me what you want me to do."

"Anything!" they said excitedly. "We were thinking you could show clips of different movies."

"Okay," I said. "Do you want me to talk about film history...or film analysis...or...?"

"Anything!" they said (again).

Total freedom, I thought. So I went about gathering clips for the presentation, which I conceived of by mentally walking through the Museum of the Moving Image. I ended up with a short silent film, a clip from "Singin' in the Rain" to talk about the transition to talking pictures, a video about foley artists, a clip from "Goodfellas" to talk about cinematography, a not-too-overly-quirky Miranda July film to talk about shorts & independents, and a clip from "Mean Girls" because it's awesome.

Then I get a text message from the organizer: "Can you make the presentation about how to learn English from movies?"

Uh, I guess so? It's pretty self-explanatory, I think: Watch English movies with subtitles. Try them without subtitles. Read about the movie beforehand to get a sense of what it's about. But I wrote back, "Sure!"

Another text message: "Can you send me a photo of yourself for the propaganda?" (Their neutral word for posters and advertisements). I looked through photos of myself and I realized I don't have any professional-looking ones, but I did the best I could do.

The lecture was supposed to start at 7:00, so I got there at 6:30 because I know technology has a way of working against me. Everything looked okay, until I started the presentation, and suddenly the sound didn't work. Since the whole shindig revolved around showing movie clips, this was going to be a problem. The organizers just stood there helplessly, while Jessica seemed to be the only person trying to find a solution. I riffed for a while (not my strong suit) and then went over and asked, "Um, should we move this to another night?" The organizer looked at me and said, "Maybe you can just talk about Christmas? They're all really interested in Christmas!" Jessica's eyes were shooting daggers at this girl, which I appreciated.

After some more yammering on my part, the team's solution was to put microphones up to the laptop that was connected to the screen, so that the audience could (kind of) hear what was happening. Since I am a film school snob, this was tearing at the essence of my soul. Post-college, I've become the kind of person who needs a film viewing experience to be as close to perfect as possible (lights out, high volume, correct aspect ratio) and this was just torture. Finally we ended it and the poor students were allowed to leave. I got a weird little notebook as a gift (the cover says: "Life is a sweet thing for one who has a pure conscience") and some weak apologies from the organizers. It was a shame, because it was going to be a fun and interesting presentation, at least from my perspective.

On the plus side, Lucy and Jessica and I found some remaining propaganda on a bulletin board outside. So we stole it. It's now decorating our apartment. And that's the end of LOVE MOVIE: The Fiasco.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

新 年 快 乐 ! (Happy New Year's!)

Happy (belated) 2010! I had one of those great New Years celebrations that only happens when you have low expectations and zero plans. NYE is one of those holidays that has so much hype that it can often be a letdown, but our night ended up being a nice mixture of low-key family fun and typical alcohol-fueled expat shenanigans.

First, our friend Lucy generously invited us to her mom's apartment in Dalian for dinner. We got the opportunity to make dumplings, which I've wanted to do for a while. Lucy's aunt showed us how - Jess caught on quickly, and I eventually got the hang of it as well.

Once we were done making some weird, misshapen dumplings, we sat down to a delicious dinner, complete with tons of fresh Dalian seafood.

Lucy's family is...wonderful. Sometimes being with family, even if it's not your own, feels really good. Also, they didn't speak much English, so I got a chance to practice my Chinese, which was fun.

Next stop: Hopscotch, a local bar that we've been to a bunch of times. It was packed and full of cigarette smoke and weird music and a mixture of Chinese people and ex-pats and classmates from the international school.

We danced, we drank, we created our own countdown. It was great.

What could make this evening better? Getting home at 3 a.m. and reading an e-mail from my cousin, Jen, telling me that she's engaged! I think my reply e-mail just said "AHHHHHHHHHHH." (I love love). Congratulations Odie & Jen! What wonderful New Year's news.

!!!!!!!!!! (I'm still kvelling).

Monday, January 4, 2010

HARBIN Part 5: The rest of it!

We went skiing! (Well, we did a few runs. It was icy. )

We went to the 731 base, where the Japanese performed horrific germ warfare experiments on POWs and civilians alike.

And lastly, we went to eat some delicious Russian food at a warm, cozy cafe downtown.

Piroshkis, which were delicious.

So that was Harbin! It was a jam-packed, beautiful, cold, interesting, exciting, tiring, light-filled holiday weekend with my ladylove. Next up: New Year's recap!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

HARBIN Part 4: The Jews of Harbin

In addition to being a beautiful and interesting city, Harbin also has a very Jewish past. About 20,000 Jews used to live there, as they viewed it as a safe haven from the discrimination and pogroms that plagued Eastern Europe and Russia in the early 20th century. While the last Jew of Harbin died in the 1980's, the old synagogues and schools still remain. Additionally, they fixed up the "new" synagogue in 2004 and included a full exhibit on the Harbin Jewry.

One of the first pieces of Jewish history we spotted was close to our hotel: the former Jewish Middle School.

Across the street was the old synagogue - another beautiful building that now houses a cafe and clothing shop.

I took a peek inside. Irony of ironies? A Christmas tree!

Inside the other synagogue, a few blocks away, was the exhibit on Harbin's Jews. It was really impressive - three floors & nice and quiet. I was the only person there.

After working at a few museums, I view all exhibits in a much more academic way and I question why certain things are included or excluded. This exhibit had some life-size plaster figures to represent Jewish life in Harbin. It was a little strange and wax museum-ish, but probably more interesting than just a room full of furniture.

Most of the English explanations were clear and easily understandable. Except this one below. If you can decipher it, you get a prize.

Most of the text was full of praise for the Jewish residents (for bringing a lot of commerce and art to Harbin) and for the city of Harbin (for welcoming Jews and not discriminating). It was pretty much a total lovefest, which I enjoyed. I also liked this wall of photographs and the description.

Overall, I would have liked to see more photos of intermingling between the Chinese and Jewish people, but the Jews of Harbin seemed to be a pretty insular community. However, there were a few exceptions:

It was a pretty interesting exhibit and it made me want to do more research on the Harbin Jewry, as some of the explanations were a little lacking (there was a large emphasis on one "hero," Jacob Rosenfeld, and very little details on what he actually did). In terms of human rights, China doesn't have the best record --- but overall there seems to be very little prejudice towards 犹太人 (youtairen). Which, from my perspective, is cool.

UPDATE: Hannah made a good point in the comments. There are pretty widespread stereotypes here about Jews - for instance, I've been told numerous times that we're all accomplished and smart, like Einstein. I think I was blinded by the fact that these are positive attributes, but it's good to remember that stereotypes are stereotypes. Even positive generalizations can be harmful at the end of the day.