Monday, March 31, 2003

I had to make an apology today.

I only see Wanda once a week, if that, and this weekend when she arrived, I bombarded her with China. I couldn't shut up about it no matter how hard I tried. "You're obsessed!" she said to me. There could not have been truer words because I am obsessed but have to admit that it's enjoyable to be obsessed about China, a country that (if you love Asia) will get underneath your skin and draw you to return to experience it's smells, both foul and's beauty, both natural and man made and it's culture, both chaotic and serene.

If I haven't already mentioned it, I'm currently reading, "Dear Alice - Letters Home from American Teachers Learning to Live in China." The book is 326 pages in length and I'm almost finished reading it, having only gotten the book last week. Several of the letters remind me of my trip to Beijing last March and my memories are enriching, always bringing a smile to my face.

Today I read a letter from a teacher about the tea houses in Guangzhou, Guangdong, near Hong Kong. Reading that letter plopped me back in the smokey tea houses I frequented in Beijing and the surrounding areas. To the Chinese, tea is as commonplace as coffee is here in the states. In my hotel room, a large thermos of hot water was delivered every day, twice a day, along with clean tea cups and bag tea called "Scent ted" tea, which had the aroma of "eau de soap." But tea houses were a totally different experience.

I'm not sure if other foreigners felt the same as me, but the first time I entered one of these tea houses I was afraid how to act. Everything struck me as so ceremonial, the hosts dressed in beautiful silks and treated me with such attention and grace. The Chinese tea ceremony is only a vague memory now, a hazy recollection of gorgeous tea sets, different varieties of tea with exotic names, and the "three sip rule" for "HAPPINESS, LONGEVITY and A BRIGHT FUTURE." By the time I had entered my third tea house in two weeks, I discovered that my definition of "formal" and theirs are two totally different entities.

The Chinese spit, hack, dribble, smack, slurp, fart, burp and smoke openly in these ancient and traditional tea houses and suddenly my fear of how to act had dissolved into disappointment. Not to worry though, as by now, through my experience, reading and contemplation of their wild, exotic and chaotic culture, I have begun to accept these nuances in comparison to my standards.

The teacher in Guangzhou, Guangdong writes of his experience involving a traveling ear picker. He is in a tea house, observing a gentleman who moves from customer to customer, delving into the upturned ears of his client's with long-handled instruments, cleaning out their ears.

To most, the shear idea of this - coming from a culture that teaches you from a young age never to place anything bigger than your elbow into your ear - would only horrify. But, to me, I'm intrigued and can't wait to see one of these guys in action. I'd probably have to try it myself, although I keep my ears pretty clean with my own custom set of tools fashioned from varying lengths of wire and paperclip.

Odd? Not to someone like me who was born on the border of Mexico and grew up experiencing the poverty of a third world country. Hell, you don't even have to leave the U.S.! Just travel to any major city such as New York, Los Angeles, Seattle or Philadelphia. You'll see people selling their wares and demonstrating their expertise in things the average citizen could not imagine. In Mexico, for a few pesos, you can get your picture drawn in cartoon caricature, participate in a electroshock competition for a free drink or purchase a trained butterfly which will sit on your shoulder all day (and be dead the next day).

So, today I am sitting here reading my book, sipping my cup of Longjing tea and reflecting on a culture I MUST return to, that beckons me and has a pull that I cannot resist. Please be tolerant of me while I sift through this obsession and reflect on what draws me to such a foreign and (as Wanda puts it) HARSH culture.



Web Analytics