Week Two at the School
Our teaching schedule has continued to be quite demanding, with some 6th grade classes meeting with us for the first and only time, while others from last week continue for a 3rd session. For these we are now ‘coaching’ their pieces. Some are travelogues, others original poems, while others are monologues the students have written from parts of a book entitled ‘Seed Folks’ about a Vietnamese teenage girl coming to live in Cleveland, and the Chinese Language classes are telling folktales in Chinese. Now that’s been challenging, since we don’t speak Chinese. We ask them to paraphrase the story in English first but then they tell it in Chinese. We do our best! But it is a bit embarrassing for me (Nancy) to be Chinese and not know any Chinese except for Chinese food!!
All the students except the 2-3 minute travelogues, are asked to tell only 2-3 sentences for us to coach. Seeing over 400 students does not allow us to go much in depth with the coaching, but we do our best to get them to gesture, to use facial expressions, staging that keeps them open to their audience, and for group tellings, to create interesting shapes with each other that give pictures on stage every moment. We use the word ‘Big C’ all the time, i.e. ‘Contrast’. The eye and the mind love contrast, but if all there is is contrast, then it’s not contrast. So sometimes it’s good to throw in chorus-like movements to create contrast from contrast. Confusing?
Anyway, like teens everywhere, trying to get their arms to detach from the sides of their bodies was a major task! To get them to use dynamics in their verbal expression vs. a flat expression was another major task. Others were naturals, however, and what a delight that has been!! Contrast for us! Still, it is always important to acknowledge that everyone does their best no matter the result. Pushing the limits of each person’s comfort zone must be appreciated! And we did ask them to do just that!
On our last day, we did stay late to watch one of the classes perform their travelogues and there were some really wonderful successes!!
All the teachers, we’re happy to say, loved what we taught their students and have mentioned more than once that we should be on staff full time!! They know these kids, who are 52% Chinese from the US, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, and the others from the USA, India, Maldives, Qatar, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and so on, really need more than the academics. Kids everywhere do!
Gengcun, Storytelling Village
Well, we left Beijing, our penthouse, coal dust air and the school with not much fanfare and arrived 3 hours south of Beijing in Gengcun to visit our special friends – the storytellers. This is our 5th time to be there. However, whereas we take a group of American storytellers to swap tales and celebrate our common love of stories with us each time, this time we wanted to stay in the village to experience everyday life.
An interesting development on the way by private car was that the freeway was closed down due to fog. Where we were, there was no fog, so as we sat on the freeway as if in a parking lot with all the other hundreds of cars, we were all quite perplexed. But after an hour we began to drive again and indeed just about half an hour later, it was quite foggy.
When we got to Gengcun, it had snowed about 8” and we were told it was quite a blizzard two days before.
Here’s Robert’s scenic account of our arrival:
As we rolled down the familiar road (first paved by donations made from the 2006 delegation) we couldn’t help seeing the vast open fields that once grew tall corn stalks that flanked the road. We’ve always come in the Fall… now barren snow streaked furrows raked brown and white lines diminishing into the wintry mist.
The car pulled into the town weaving around snow piles and dodged mud holes, and slurries of ice and dirt through the sleepy village of Gengcun. An occasional motorcyclist, an elderly man, propane vendor on a three-wheeler would come by puffing of frost and curiosity as Nancy and I peeked and waved at the locals. Red drums welcomed us – four ladies dressed in their red jackets as we walked down the street.
Winter in the village casts an odd spell over the Gengcun, especially with the juxtapositions of decaying walls and new constructions, shabby one room brick huts next to walled two-story mansions… all with a powdering of snow. Local villagers in spanky new, bright plastic winter coats and boots, tip-toeing across muddy slushy streets… dodging snow and mud. A old makeshift cart, a brand new Toyota land cruiser, a huge diesel earthmover and an old tractor laden with bricks from the brick factory- all roll by, foretelling of the village’s slowly changing, but ever-changing evolution. The barking dogs seem to be the only time-held constancy here.
When we arrived in Gengcun, we were introduced to our translator. Luckily he was a most wonderful translator, a student with an English major from a nearby university and thus could understand the dialect of Gengcun: Yang Zai Liu (Frank was his western name). He was most soulful and so appreciated the storytellers and the elders. He said to us: ‘The most important thing as a translator is to be able to express the heart of what is being said.” Wow! We could not have done any of this visit without him.
We did not stay in a hotel as usual. We stayed in the home of a storyteller couple (Xu Hai Jiang and Guo Cui Ping) . She did all the cooking and interfacing with us as her husband had just had throat surgery for cancer two weeks prior.
We slept in her son’s bedroom and luckily there was a 2-inch foam mattress! Each night we piled on thick heavy quilts. Robert liked about 4 of them and I could only bare two they were so heavy. Luckily, we brought a hot water bottle with us, although their delightful 5 year-old grandson kept us hopping!
Still, we never took off our coats whether indoors or outdoors. Their cement block homes have barely any heat. We even ate with our gloves on in the freezing cement block kitchen. But oh, was the food delicious!! Three amazing meals a day for us – breads, soups, hot cereals, vegetable dishes, dumplings, oh so delicious!! All cooked on one table-top propane burner.
The outhouse was just that. Out of the house in a three walled cement structure… Brrrr…. But they gave me (Nancy) a shallow pan to do my duty in the adjoining cement room that was used for heating water. Thank goodness! It had a sink and a kang – I think that’s what it’s called – a cement block where the coal is burned underneath and one can heat things on the top.
Robert put together a video/powerpoint to show to the Gengcun tellers. It was of the class we taught this summer at East Tennessee State University on Global Storytelling. The students chose from 11 stories heard in Gengcun to either retell or tell a story from their own culture that was triggered by reading a Gengcun story. Robert then put together their thank you’s and all of them waving hello. He also included some of the messages from storytellers who have come with us over the years.
The streets that are mostly dirt roads and pathways down alleys were either muddy or icy. So, we walked to some of the elder tellers’ homes to say hello since it was too dangerous for them to walk. Unfortunately, we also found out in this past year, 3 more of our storytelling elders passed away. We are so concerned about the future of this 600+ year traditional storytelling village. With so many elders passing away, and the middle-aged residents leaving for jobs in a big city, who will learn all their stories? How will the tradition continue?
Smile Say “Eggplant!”
Here are shots of our storytelling Gengcun Gems! Say “Qie zi” (That’s their way of invoking smiles during photographing, like our version of “Cheese!”- actually means “Eggplant!”).
We were only there from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, but in that time, the village was preparing for three weddings! The auspicious lunar date of Monday the 5th of December had been chosen and so food preparations, decorations, special bedrooms filled with nine (good luck number) brand new quilts for the newly wed had to be finished. Posters of Chinese babies face the bed with hopes for a son soon!
What was so lovely, was that both sides of the family come together to make the preparations – and of course their friends. The cooking is all done outside over kangs with huge pots, the tips of long tree branches burning to provide the heat. As the tip of the branches burn away, they are pushed in further, keeping a nice hot fire going. There are several in the yard as well as outside in the street. All the prepared vegetables, meat, onions, and spices are all laid out in dishes on the many tables waiting to be cooked. Over a THOUSAND of Jiaoza dumplings are in the storage areas waiting to be boiled in soups and many fried fish waiting to be served. Whole chickens boiling in plastic bags. We assume it’s to keep the juices in the meat.
Men are the cooks and stand about the yard socializing. Women fold the dumplings and prepare all the decorations and quilts. The women are mostly inside the homes socializing.
First the groom must travel to the bride’s home to do ceremony there and then bring her to his home. They then travel in a procession of cars led by a brass band walking down the street to the groom’s home where all the preparation activity is going on. Long strings of red firecrackers are lit and the popping seems to go on forever! Once at the groom’s home, the bride goes through another ceremony, standing outside before an altar where later she will kneel for another ceremony. Between these two ceremonies, it is mandatory that the groom’s many male friends enter the wedding bedroom and play tricks, mock and tease the couple. We were told, however, that it is nothing compared to what they will do on their wedding night!
The bride wears a white western wedding gown with a red fancy jacket over it. The groom wears a western suit with a red silk flower. The father of both the bride and groom draw a mustache on their faces to represent that an ‘important magistrate’ has also graced the celebration. There are pink and red decorations to welcome guests and the wedding couple as they enter each yard. Children are running all over and dogs are eating anything they can find that has been dropped on the ground. There is a lot of waiting for who knows how far the bride’s home is and who knows when their ceremony is done. No one seems to mind. Lots of happy men smoking; lots of women happy and giddy. Only the bride seems exhausted!
Unfortunately, we had to leave too soon to witness more. And, we were invited to feast with each wedding party! Oh, too bad! It looked so delicious and the smells as they began to cook! Ohhhhh….. But….
Good News About Gengcun
Yes Good News!! This is what we found out from the Gengcun Folk Association president: They have assigned each of the remaining storytelling elders two residents to apprentice. In addition, they just received a 5 million RMB donation from a cell phone company to begin to build up the village so that it can become a more desirable place to showcase the unique character of the village. In this way, it is hoped that the younger storytellers will be able to make a living with their storytelling in the village attracting tourists, and thus remain in the village and carry on the tradition. Eth-Noh-Tec and our Nu Wa Story and Cultural Exchange project has been working with Gengcun on this goal together.
We have also arranged for our next trip to be in the spring of 2013 during their Geng Festival, which we will participate in with the Gengcun tellers! So start saving your money now! There should be a new Story Hall by then and maybe even the Geng Burial mound and temple will have been built! Their story murals will be spruced up and who knows what else!
NEXT BLOG: OUR ADVENTURE IN HAINAN – THE HAWAII OF CHINA