News flash: I got an email from my friend Luba, who writes:
Conde Naste, the world's #1 travel magazine, just named San Miguel de Allende the best city in the world. Check it out! http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/16/travel/cn-traveler-top-cities/
It shouldn't matter, but I feel validated!
This morning I met Shell at her school building, who is one presentation to her teacher on pre-Raphaelite art away from getting her Bachelor's degree in Art History. Here is Shell:
First we went up to her classroom to drop off my backpack for the day. There were two other students in there, studying by themselves. It was a large room with windows on two sides, provided with thick curtains so that projected visuals could be seen. There were about 30 desks arranged in rows, like old-fashioned elementary schools. The room was shabby, messy and dirty: depressing. We left and walked about four blocks to West Lake, Shell holding my elbow or my arm everywhere we walked: an honored elder thing which I figure by now I've earned. On the way we passed one of the many rent-a-bike stands, but here you can rent not only a bike with one seat but bikes with two or even three seats. And with or without canopies!
West Lake is so spectacular partly because it's surrounded by heavily wooded hills – which people here call mountains. (Coming from Seattle, my notion of mountain means “snow on the top.”) Without an airplane it's impossible to give you a sense of the panorama of West Lake which is very big, so these two will have to do.
I enjoyed Shell's company very much and certainly enjoyed the beauty of the lake, but was aware that my experience of the lake itself was not as profound as my experiences of the Suzhou gardens had been: the lack of solitude made a significant difference. I mean Shell's presence, not that of others, and the necessity to make conversation, interesting though it was.
The lake not only attracts tourists from all over China and other countries but is also a hub of local life, especially for retired people. We came across a large group of them listening to an impromptu singing performance, like a talent show. For pleasure or for money? I asked Shell. For pleasure. These two women were accompanied by three men playing traditional Chinese musical instruments. With amplifiers.
At the end of a song, very few people applauded. In fact, many people just seemed to be staring glumly into space, like the people in the background of this picture. Shell tells me that Chinese people don't normally smile but do respond to a smile with a smile, something I've certainly noticed: they smile at me a lot.
At another place, they were dancing. In each place the sound volume of the music was turned up to ear-splitting.
Although the surroundings were sublime, I surely do hope these folks have more to do in their retirement years than this. They certainly didn't look very happy, but perhaps a glum expression means something different here.
Shell insisted on taking me out to lunch, even though I protested she is a poor art student. She pointed out that when other guests come to visit her she does this. Okay. The restaurant she took us to, not on the lake, had tables under umbrellas on a patio. I asked her to order anything she thought was especially Chinese – I am game for anything. I could not believe the amount of food she ordered:
You can see the little wooden teacup, holding maybe two ounces of tea, and four of the maybe eight dishes she ordered. In the northeast with a flame under it to keep it warm was a cabbage dish; I think steamed first then mixed with a sauce. At the northwest was a Hangzhou specialty, pork with potatoes underneath. If you imagine a piece of bacon not 1/8 of an inch thick but instead two inches thick and then stewed in the sauce, that's it. I managed not to think of the fatty part as yukky. In the southwest was eggs, damned if I know how they did it but the egg white was gelatinized, like glycerin soap, and the yolk was blue-gray. You can see greens and beans in the bowl. At the southeast is a dish of peanuts in sauce, the red papery shell of each peanut perfectly attached.
There was also soup and rice and I think one more thing, and something she called “green tea cookies,” consisting of a pastie thing made with dough and obviously green tea, with toasted sesame seeds pressed around the rim.
I loved it all! Totally unfamiliar and wonderful tastes. But how much can one eat? Shell ate far more than I did but still we hardly made a dent in it all. She insisted that she and two friends could normally eat all that, and look at the size of her. The metabolic rate of the young! She took two containers of food home and I took one container of the remaining three green tea cookies, which I had for dinner last night.
At one point I mentioned that Chinese people don't seem to drink things with their meals: aren't they all dehydrated? No: people drink soup with every meal. I've been wondering why I've been seeing soup tureens at every breakfast buffet. (So far at least they've all been extensive buffets.)
I asked her about sex selection in China. Yes, she said, she knows many unmarried young men, but it is assumed they are unmarried because there is something wrong with them: they are not ambitious, they don't have an apartment or a car. What a pity, not to be able to get a wife and then to be blamed for it! Shell told me about her family. She has a younger sister, yes unusual. She has been told that when her mother was pregnant with her (Shell), her father was urged to abort her because she was a girl. Her father chose not to, and so she gets to have a life. There is a big education campaign going on about this, with posters in villages that say “A daughter is just as good as a son.” I asked whether it is possible to be openly lesbian here, or openly gay. Well, among her generation it is, but probably these people don't discuss it with their parents. But Shell was born in Xi'an, a large city, so I'd think that in smaller and/or more remote places that is still not the case.
Her father works for the railway and is regularly away from home; now her sister is also working for the railway and living the same life. Her mother used to be a cook but bending her head down so much to look at what she was preparing hurt her neck, and now she sells insurance. You can imagine, by the way, that if I got so much information it was a measure of how good Shell's English was – halting but correct and with good vocabulary and pronunciation. She said students learn English in China from the early grades on, but rarely have a chance to speak it. I know from learning French that way in school how totally different it is to speak a new language with a real person.
After lunch we walked back to West Lake and took a boat to an island in the lake. The island was a pretty good Chinese garden in itself, with interior lakes and lotus plants. Here, especially for my friend Marc, are two pictures of masonry paths that to my eyes were as beautiful as the rest. The curved stones, actually bricks, were baked that way.
And here is a picture someone took of Shell and me.
By now it was a lot of walking, despite the rests I took for my aching back and hips, and I was getting pretty tired especially because I hadn't slept well the night before. We walked back to her school and I gratefully accepted her offer to go up and get my backpack. The plan was to get a taxi to the train station but getting one was fruitless: shift change, want to go home, no more fares today. That was a lot more time spent standing with my heavy backpack on. We finally took a bus to the station, and I took the bullet train to Shanghai. You can imagine how thrilled I was finally to lie down in the hotel, especially because I feel I have a fever and a cold.