Monday, November 11, 2013

The Writing on the Wall #1

One of my new jobs requires that I visit factories. (Yeah! I get paid to visit factories. How cool is that.)

The other day, in the entry of a factory's administrative building, here's what I saw:

It sent me off into a little cultural reverie.

The Chinese take a certain (justifiable) pride in their ability to "eat bitter" (chi ku/吃苦), i.e. to endure hardship, so that fit right in. But the (american?) upbeat of the "enjoy" startled me. I assumed that Enjoy/Endure somehow came out of the tradition of Chinese proverbs expressed as 4 characters, like get the moon from the bottom of the ocean = 海底捞月, but the factory's laoban, the Boss, pleased & amused when asked, credited, instead, a European playwright whose name was escaping him... (like Chinese names inevitably escape me...)
Well, it turned out (thanks to Google) to be Goethe. One of my early friends & guides-to-life here, the German artist Petra Johnson, used to often remark on the sympathy between Chinese & German philosophical positions...which, given that what I know about either fits into a teaspoon, I had to take her word on. And then, suddenly, here's that connection, 18c Weimar to 21c China, writ large on the factory wall.

The Boss says that once, unexpected words, arriving in his mailbox, saved him from despair.

There's lots that I love about the factory visits. For one thing, there's the familiarity & pleasure of being in a workshop: so far, the factories resemble not the sweatshops of one's imagination but the production studios of various artist/craftspeople back home, just greatly expanded. For another thing, there's a kind of ease of communication because, while we have no spoken language in common, the workers & I share a language of materials and processes... something a kin to what I imagine musicians experience across cultures.

But what I love most about going out to the factories is how it shakes up my consciousness. The reality  in which one lives appears so steadily & unwaveringly as Reality... & then, encountering all these lives, all these dreams & aspirations, all this endurance & hard work & ingenuity & pride out at the factories, it so vividly brings home that there are so very many Realities out there, some so dramatically different from one's own.

And yet, proves the writing on the wall, between centuries & cultures & lots in life, there's connective thread... It ain't just a job.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Things That Don't Fit # 11: Ghost Mansions

Walking home last night, I was admiring the three-story-brick paper mansion in front of the Buddhist Offerings Store on Bao An Lu, only to turn into our lane to find one set into a chalk circle, ready for fire.

There are earlier posts on silver joss paper ingots & on the addressed red envelopes that the ingots get stuffed into... (though, by the looks of it, this particular photo was taken for the "four of my favorite things" category..)

...on the ghost circles left behind after "festival" days... 

 but here in action is the making of the ash pile:

That's as far as I got with picture taking before I was told "bu yao," meaning "not wanted." So I apologized & quit & just watched as the whole structure collapsed in flames. The rectangles of white cloth (forward of the flame in the photo) were added to the house's embers & then it was the turn of the red envelopes & joss paper cubes (in the foreground) to go up in smoke.

I left the pyre then, feeling that I'd been intrusive enough already. Perhaps, the rites were for the old man whom I had seen, once or twice while he was being evacuated by ambulance, & many more times in the back lane while he took his constitutional supported by a cane & an attendant who invariably announced his age, most recently: 101 years!

The paper mansions reminded me of one that I bought years ago outside a temple in Kunming. The Chinese are very superstitious about what might invite death in so I have kept it out of sight, folded flat inside an album. Once, a westernized Chinese friend who collects beautiful things from the past, showed us some densely embroidered burial shrouds from the Republican Era that he'd unwittingly acquired in a trove of Deco furniture, but he scrambled to hide them as other, Chinese, guests arrived;  he said, "it will make them so nervous if they know these things are here in the house."

But, today, I was suddenly curious about the mansion I owned, apparently a "mod-con" one,  complete with silver Buick:

Note the 4 flower pots on the window sills on the right. They appear on the two other windows sills that frame the doors, so that's 4 again. Number 4  - si/四 - is a homophone with the word for die/death/dead - si/死. You might think, gentle reader, that I am reading too much into this but the Chinese point things like this out to me all the time.

As for the garage... best I could tell, the paper engineers intended for it to fill the rectangular space outside the front door. Which means that you'd have to go thru the garage to get to the grand [coffin-ish?] first & second floor entries. But, then again, probably that ain't no thang for ghosts.


It suddenly occurred to me, after writing this post, how inured I've become to a certain category of experience here that was so startling to us when we were newly arrived: the weird intimacy you have/had with strangers by virtue of how much of life is/was lived not behind closed doors.

It happens much less often now as life here has gotten more familiarly middle-class but in earlier years, you'd be in a cab, stalled in traffic, look left & right there, and I mean really, just right there, would be a guy dressed only in his boxers, at an open tap, soaping himself up inside his shorts. Or, at one very busy intersection that included a fire station & its training building, which I regularly biked thru on my way to the studio, a woman squatting on the curb with her head out over the street, a mere foot or two from the tires whizzing by, rinsing shampoo out of her hair with a tranquility I can't even manage in my shower. Or, seen so often we stopped commenting, shop owners seated behind the counter of their frontless shop, brushing their teeth. Death, funerals, so often kept well out of view in American life...& here I just pop in on one, on my way home for the day. Startling...and, apparently, not.