Monday, December 17, 2012

Drawer # 7.4: White Cat in Yellow

I had no way of really truly imagining what it means to be illiterate until I moved to Shanghai. 

Even today, my spoken chinese is strictly transactional (He Whom I'm Trailing's equation is that we speak chinese about as well as our Korean dry cleaner in the States speaks English) and no matter how long I stare down those lovely Chinese characters, rarely do they give it up and resolve themselves into comprehension. Out of the 3,000 characters that it takes to read the newspaper, on a really good day, & it really does come and go, I can read 150. Doesn't get you far.

Those first weeks & months in Shanghai, every trip to buy a cleaning product became an adventure of deciphering the clues... dishwashing liquid, toilet bowl cleaner, bleach, floor cleaner: same shelf, similar package, if there ain't a picture...

And then this slightly sinister looking, jaundiced cat! Not exactly Hello Kitty. 

Photo credit for open drawer: Lisa Movius
But at least there were dishes drawn towards the base of the bottle. The product within was thin & just barely sudsy. When things got grubby in public places, I'd think: they're as clean as Chinese cleaning products can get them. And then I learned from a real Old China Hand, there since the 80's, that when White Cat (as the characters say in Chinese: but he's yellow! Even when you can read the characters...) came on the market, it was considered a high-end, expensive brand.White Cat was destined, it was clear, to disappear....

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Monday, December 10, 2012

Drawer # 8.6 : Things for the Dead

We don't especially know the other people who live in our lane and they don't especially seem to know each other: it's hard to imagine anyone here on our lane organizing a block party.  In winter, we mostly see our elderly neighbors on sunny afternoons, huddles of small old women, made smaller & squatter still by the layers of their padded clothes, set on short-legged stools close to the ground, escaping their small damp rooms. 

We do, however, know when one of them passes away. In the mornings, sometimes we find the markings of a funeral rite: a large chalk circle drawn on the ground, at its center the charcoal smudge of a swept-up pile of ashes. The chalk circle encloses the departed soul's earthly place, protects that soul from wandering the earth as a restless ghost. Much has been burnt to accommodate the soul into its after life: paper money, paper mansions complete with garage & Lexus, dvd player & large screen tv, paper clothes & cellphone, cigarettes, medicines, all the material things of this life sent along by fire & smoke to the ancestral life. Sometimes at night we come home while the family is standing around the circle, quietly stamping their feet against the cold, chatting on their cell phones, waiting for the fire to burn down. 

Once we sat drinking coffee at a smart cafe on the futuristic side of the river, inside the photo view that is Shanghai to the world. For two hours, three employees of the cafe nonchalantly fed an unending supply of joss, spirit money, into a small brazier just to the side entrance of the cafe. Wads & wads of flimsy rice paper embossed with a thin metal foil square, all going up in smoke, to someone.

Sometimes the joss sheets are folded into boat-like shapes, paper counterparts of the traditional ingots of gold and silver. On the days leading up to certain dates of the lunar calendar, the old women sit together in the sun on their stools folding hundreds & hundreds of silver & gold paper ingots. They bundle them in red sacks & take them to the temple to burn.

I'm a fire person so I love all this: it reminds me of an elder's advice in a entirely different tradition:  
“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said:  Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts:  now what more should I do?"  
 The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said:  Why not be totally changed into fire?”                                                                                          
                            -(LXXII) from The Wisdom of the Elders, Thomas Merton

Drawer 8.6 from bottom: 1. Funeral circle made w/ in-laid silk pins,  heads dipped in some material the color of bone   2. Joss paper, pre-folded into ingots at the Buddhist goods shop, still in its store wrapping 3. Tin container containing Chinese medicine 4. Cast concrete souvenirs of the Terracotta Warriors, beneath a plastic pipe insulated with used plastic bags against winter cold ( drawer photo credit: Bruno David)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Things That Don't Fit in a Drawer # 2

In honor of my father-in-law, James Moreton, who passed away yesterday in Los Gatos, CA. An image shot by his son at the Temple of Bliss in Harbin, our first winter in China. (photo credit: Patrick Moreton)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Drawer # 2.7 : Dormer Window with Blue Hose

"Mr Ma was London's first gentleman of leisure. If it rained, he didn't go out. If there was a sharp wind, he didn't go out. If there was a fog, he didn't go out. He smoked his pipe and stoked his fire until it blazed. On the other side of the window was the beauty of the swishing rain, the fog, the wind. A Chinese can recognize beauty anywhere."
- from Mr Ma and Son: Two Chinese in London by Lao Shu, translated by W. Dolby

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Things That Don't Fit in a Drawer #1

The back lane, very early fall, pre-flower box heist. Insty courtesy of He-Whom-I'm-Trailing.