Posts from the ‘Tours’ Category
Our Journey to a Chinese Storytelling Village
Following our sightseeing in Beijing, we will be visiting the traditional storytelling village of Gengcun. This is the center, this is the heart of our tour.
There, a plethora of tales and myths will meet us amidst a tradition so grand, that the researchers have deemed this rural farm community…“An Ocean of Stories.” This year we will be participating in their annual Geng Festival that lasts several days. Music, dancing, special foods and storytelling will celebrate the founder of the village—General Geng, the step-father of an Emperor.
What is the Gengcun Storytelling Village?
We will be welcomed by this story-loving village, home to over 134 storytellers capable of recounting age old yarns, legends, personal histories, folk tales and myths drawn from the communities’ centuries old legacy of listening and telling. This ancient village was once along a major merchant trade route and within the walls of many a tavern and inn. Along its alleys and rest stops at the watering holes, the Chinese storytelling traditions were fostered, nurtured, and preserved as these farmers, goat shepherds, and brick factory workers maintained its rich narrative heritage.
Telling Between Two Worlds East and West
The master tellers of Gengcun are well-versed in over 500 stories, mid-level tellers may know 200-300 stories, and yes, even the children tell stories! Eth-Noh-Tec brought tellers of all levels with them as these Chinese storytellers invited their Western visitors into their homes and in their “Hall of Stories” to not only share their Chinese lore, but listen to stories from other parts of the world. Children peak in, listen, some tell, and then scoot out with giggles.
This delegation will be hosted by the Nu Wa Team: Nancy Wang and Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo of Eth-Noh-Tec (San Francisco) China Journey 2014 will be the sixth visit to the village lead by Eth-Noh-Tec. Previous delegations took place in 2002, 2006, 2007,2010, and 2011
Give yourself and your loved ones the gift of a lifetime!
Did we view into a portal? Brigadoon?
The other day, in the taxi, we passed by a park nearby where we saw people doing tai ji, badminton, social dancing, and fan tai ji. Waiting until our last day when there will be no class, we hope it won’t be another lost attempt to actually be amongst them like in Beijing when we couldn’t find the same at the Temple of Heaven.
So, with the first day of blue sky and our last day here, we eagerly walked to see China’s ordinary citizens being healthy and socializing with their friends and colleagues. We were not disappointed!! It was full of people young and old. Lush with tropical greenery and magentas and deep reds, we walked from one lovely activity to another: graceful ladies floating with Chinese dance movements, Chinese opera scenes by elders, women and men taking turns singing popular Chinese traditional songs, badminton, tai ji sticky (push) hands, croquet, waltzes and tangos, ping pong amidst the bamboo trees. What a wonderful way to spend a Sunday — or every morning for some of the retired persons. Next time I’m here, I’m joining the ladies to learn some of the graceful Chinese dances!
After a wonderful experience there, we left the park toward a very busy alleyway, where we found rows and rows of wood sellers for making all sorts of beautiful crafts, then rows of antiques, then jade, then books, furniture, odd and ends, beautiful plants — all grouped together by items being sold — some items presented for blocks on end.
Old Section of Hai Kou, Hainan
Hours later we caught a cab to the ‘old section’. Again blocks and blocks, actually miles and miles of narrow crowded streets and alleyways lined with shops — again grouped together. So for blocks on both sides there would be shops selling light fixtures, or red fancy paper decorations, or Santa objects, or tools, or cloth, or frame shops. The Santas looked decidedly Chinese…
Turn down an alley and blocks of every imaginable dried meat or sea animals including sea horses and star fish; turn down another alley and there are the live sea animals — turtles, cobras and sea snakes, every kind of fish, then down another alley and it becomes the live rabbits, chickens, and OMG cats, and yet another with dead cleaned fish and squid to take home to cook.
Every narrow alley is crowded with people walking, people selling, people buying, people on bikes, people on scooters, people pulling loads on 3 wheel carts of piled garbage or boxes of goods, people people people!
We finally found a place to eat in one of the alleys — amazing food! Turnip pancakes with green onions, carrots, and egg. It was also a bakery! Fresh out of the oven, we tried the most tasty, light and sweet bun with coconut flakes sprinkled on the top while the middle had been rolled lightly in sweet red bean paste. There were so many kinds to savor, but we were too full! Later, we mourned that we hadn’t bought a variety of pastry for later or on the plane.
Where we’ve been staying seems to attract the young, and so at the old section, it was wonderful to finally see the wizened faces of elderly women and men eating, playing mah jong, fan tan, cards, and shopping for fresh meat or fish. Unfortunately, we also noticed that it was often the poor and the old women and men who dragged the heavy wooden three-wheel carts loaded with bags of garbage or other discards. Strong and wiry, but where are their children who should be taking care of them? Still, we heard later that Hainan has the highest population of elders over 100 years old. There are 48,900 citizens of China that are over 100 years old most of whom have lived and worked in the countryside all their lives. One couple just celebrated their 90th wedding anniversary!!
Here we saw people engaging with people — hardly anyone on cell phones, texting, or playing computer games. People were in relationship to each other in a myriad of ways — cooking together, eating together, playing together, running a business together… We felt like we were in a sea of humanity flowing in a current of vital life energy.
Finally, we headed home, our feet and legs tired, but happy for the experience of old and new China in Hainan.
Well, we spent one last night in Beijing in a hotel near the airport. And behold! A mattress like home sweet home!
We hired a driver after some swift price bargaining to take us to the houtong district where we stayed the first nights so we could shop shop shop!
We took our sweet time roaming the alleys and stores looking for any last minute desires. Though back in the freezing weather, we were able to just take our time, savoring the sights and sounds of this last night in China. We once again saw chefs rolling the dough to make fancy dumplings, lovely ladies offering little cups of tea for sampling, the silk shop, the plaza store of everything under the sun to buy, life size bronze statues of Chinese of a past era visiting, reading, trying on new shoes, and so on, depending on what the store was selling.
We ended up eating in the Taiwan district (which is interesting given the relations between the two countries) at a Korean restaurant of all things. However, not after we had two long sticks of roasted garlic lamb from a street vendor. Of course this meant we had left-overs because as usual Robert ordered many dishes. But with the left-overs plus a packed roast duck, we were assured we wouldn’t starve on the United flight home. We remembered they didn’t serve dinner, just lunch when you got on the plane and dried up egg and nasty sausage for breakfast before landing. That’s 9-11 hours in-between! (This is a warning if you are considering traveling to China on United).
One Last Glimpse of Great Chinese Food!
Here’s a peek at several photos we took of great food, the varieties, the flavors and the cheap prices — all will be savored in salivating memoirs and flavored by photos.
We waved goodbye to China and thanked her for an extraordinary month of so many different experiences and places. China is so huge and has so many different kinds of terrain and cultures, we can’t but wonder at the amazing thrill it must have been for Marco Polo, who spent 24 years in China and still didn’t cover it all. (Ironically, when he returned to Italy, his published journal accounting all the cultural wonders, inventions, architecture and science he saw was nicknamed “The Millions” — which his critics implied — millions of lies. He was sent to prison.) As we now know, he was an exceptional friend of China and reported the absolute truth of China’s treasures.
Home Sweet Home
Still, we were ready to come home. And so it is that we close this part of our adventure and hope you have enjoyed sharing it with us.
Hainan — The Hawai’i of China: December 6, 2011
After leaving Gengcun, we made our way back to Beijing by train and then left the next snowy morning for Hainan, an island in the south of China. We craved some warm weather, more retreat time to write, and wanted to study Chinese at the Language Institute there.
We arrived in pouring rain…but there were palm trees, coconut trees, a balmy breeze! It was warm! In the 70s! Ahhhh…For the next 3 days it was overcast with high clouds, still in the 70s until yesterday when it felt like San Francisco in the low 50s. Everyone bundled up. We donned our winter jackets again. Today, however, the sun has peeked out. Lovely breeze — the low 70s.
What did I (Nancy) learn the first lesson? That I’ve not understood my own Chinese name all my long life!!
I’d been told by my parents that my Chinese name meant Perfect Jade — which I viewed as a heavy burden!! Now it turns out that due to my not being able to write my Chinese name clearly, the teacher gave me three possibilities for the ‘perfect’ character depending on how it is written. It could mean 1) whole or all, but usually this one is used for males; 2) a bamboo fish trap (!); or 3) fragrant — all depending on whether it has 2 crisscrosses above the character, or if it has a crossed line, or if it has neither! Now which would you choose? Both my parents have passed, so I have no way of knowing.
Am I Whole Jade (the closest to perfect) or Bamboo Fish trap jade or Fragrant jade?!
One of the things Robert learned was how to say mixed blood in Chinese!! The way he looks and with his last name, he’s been a curiosity!
This school is really quite wonderful and relaxed. We’ve met students of all adult ages from the US, Russia, Germany, France, Canada — all studying Chinese for various reasons. Mostly they’ve said that they are studying because it’s an important language to learn in this era.
We all laugh a great deal in our attempts to speak the language in class. The teachers are friendly, fun and patient. However, once we’re out of the class, and we attempt to speak to the taxi driver or at the market or restaurant, all they do is look at us oddly and shrug their shoulders! It’s those dang tones!! And to think, Mandarin only has 4, while Cantonese has 9 to 11!! Still, we’re loving it!
This is our 5th time in China (actually Nancy’s 6th), so it’s about time we learn the language – not that we can imagine being fluent! Luckily they use Pinyin (Roman letters) on most every sign throughout China!
The Chinese are still surprised that Americans can look Chinese. I’ve just learned to say that my ancestors came from China. I’ve been saying that I am Chinese American, but they might think that means I’m part Chinese and part white since most people around the world think Americans are only white, or black as well because of American sports and movies.
Today we had many children who are learning English come to our class and they loved that Robert was part Japanese because they all love Japanese Anime. But I must say, the children seem wild here — not like the Chinese kids in America. They explain that it’s because they are spoiled as an ‘only child’ due to the one-child policy. They call them Xiao Huang Di — Little Emperors, named after the first Emperor Huang Di (who built the Great Wall). The girls would be called Xiao Huang Hou — Little Empresses (according to online translator). And if they are really ornery…hmm maybe instead should be named Ci Xi — the Empress Dowager! Some of these single children, in their one-child only households are quite energetic!
The Streets and Traffic
Like everywhere in China (and many places around the world), there is little attention paid to what we would call traffic rules when it comes to driving a 3-wheeler, a bicycle, a car, a truck, a bus, taxis or a scooter. Forget the pedestrians! There is one rule that is maintained: the Rule of Survival!
One takes one’s life completely in one’s own hands. Sometimes there are no lights for pedestrians to cross. There is so much jaywalking. Scooters will drive against traffic — i.e. on the wrong side of the road. Even scooters and bikes ‘jay’ drive! You look for where the most pedestrians are crossing and join them, hoping that safety in numbers will stop a car from driving over you!
Cars park on the sidewalks. Scooters park on the sidewalks. Bikes park on the sidewalks. As pedestrians we are constantly changing from walking on the cement platforms in front of large establishments, then down a few steps to broken tiles as sidewalks, then down off the curb to walk on the side of the street because either there are no sidewalks or they are crammed with vehicles. It all seems so impossibly unruly! I keep thinking of the American game – the Chinese Fire Drill!
On a positive note- we do see that the majority of scooters, bikes and motorcycles are electric thus cutting down on fossil fuel consumption. Boy, I wish we could get our hands on several of these electric bikes. Last time we asked about costs, we were told one could be purchased for only $200- $300 US Dollars. (Hmmm, the problem would be how to get it into the airlines over head luggage bins!).
The cars are darling. Small, gas efficient. Some even had eyelashes!
The streets are filled with vendors selling fruit of all kinds. Their displays are so very colorful. There are absolutely no chances to starve here. The Chinese love food and Robert keeps saying that the Chinese culture has the most varied dishes in the world. So we’ll see tiny stalls serving soup, others dumplings, others noodles, others meat on a stick. Restaurants are plentiful with amazing prices ($4) to prices almost like in the states. We did however stop to buy a mango and it was $10! It was from Australia. We put that baby back and got one from Hainan.
Our hotel is called Hai Kou Hotel. I think it means ‘welcome’ — hai meaing hello and kou meaning mouth. Don’t necessarily trust me on that, though…It is situated in a very busy busy neighborhood full of stores, karaoke clubs, restaurants and huge buildings full of stores which they call plazas. Besides Chinese clothing stores, there’s Playboy, Esprit, and Calvin Klein and lots of McDonalds and KFC — which seem to be the favorite food of the kids that came to our class.
Luckily there is a non-smoking floor here and a fairly bouncy mattress. Our balcony looks out over roofs and across to other tall buildings. Noise is constant, especially at night with the clubs and Karaoke singing. But, they have put double sliding doors so the sound is kept out pretty well. The cost? $30/night. It’s not the penthouse, but it’s just fine.
We see a canal blocks away from one balcony, but not the beach. Hainan is a pretty huge island. We’ll be skipping seeing the beaches this time. Like in SF, we rarely see the ocean.
Bustling Boom of High-rises
Like any tropical point of destination, especially in a booming economy as China, Hainan serves to offer relaxation and great weather. With the rise of a middle class comes rising real estate, and towering high rise apartments for vacationers and the youth, income-generating urbanite. Just googled an image what this waterfront property formerly looked like: the bird’s-eye view showed hutong style villages — similar to the old style single family home, probably belonging to local fishermen, service workers, low-skilled laborers and their families. All of this bulldozed to make way for the modern towers.
Here an old couple maintains a small oasis of agriculture amidst the construction rubble — still able to produce lush green vegetables.
As the Chinese have been on a fast track to modernize, so have they inherited the woes of an alienated, urban dominated culture. The breakdown of classic, rural-based social structure, the sweeping advances towards capitalism and massive increase in urban populations have caused an increase in what we in the United States have become eerily accustomed to: the homelessness.
Having some evening downtime with no phone ringing for us, no junk mail to go through…basically no distractions have given us well needed time to work on our long term projects. I write the blog (which we found out is bo-ke in Chinese) and just relax after class now that I have bronchitis and a cold…bummer. But, I’m taking a very effective syrup from here and it’s working!!
Robert in his spare time after class continues to work on the Kojiki — Japan’s Creation myth. It’s so complicated and we’re slated to perform it in April, so lots to do. It will be at least one hour long! Mixing pleasure with work is a good thing, giving meaning to our time.
But stay tuned for Part 2 of this final segment of our China trip for more ‘pleasure’!
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