Friday, February 12, 2010

New Semester, New Year, New Blog Posts...

I promised a blog post about two weeks ago, and it never came. But I've finally gotten truly settled down in my home-stay again, and we've had a break from orientation activities today, so I figured it was a good time to do some catch up work.

First, the new students for this semester have arrived, and I'm optimistic about almost all of them. For the most part, they seem to be a lively, upbeat and motivated group thats jumped right into the 'China' thing in which they've found themselves. I'm thinking they're going to help make this upcoming semester a pleasant one.

As for a record of my trip, I'm going to post my regular updates as I did before, and include some of my favorite stories as I have time to put them down. I've just gotten too busy to spend the time to put all those stories down on the blog in one blow. I hope you enjoy them.

Last, this weekend marks the Chinese New Year, so I expect to have many stories and pictures when I'm forced back into school on Tuesday. Tomorrow, the plan is to go to one of the many "temple fairs" that take place at the famous temple sites around Beijing. Included will be Peking Opera performances, mutton sticks, Beijing snacks, and great people-watching. When I get back home in the afternoon, my host family is taking me to Grandma's house, where we'll eat dumplings all day and night to welcome in the New Year. It's going to be a good weekend. And without further ado, here's the continuation of where I left off weeks ago:

Wudangshan, Part 1, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chinese Funerals

Coming here was a bit of a split-second decision. As I was leaving Huangshan, the weather turned mighty cold and wet, and the weather forecast didn't look a whole lot better in western Hubei, where sits Wudangshan, but I felt drawn there, so I bought the tickets and left.

Most people go to this mountain for its tradition of martial arts. It has a wushu style comparable in fame to the Shaolin Temple in Henan, only instead of the bo staff as the weapon of choice as in Shaolin, they prefer swords. Cool, huh? So I guess that's why I went. But what I found was in many ways superior to the images in my head.

When I first arrived in the town beneath the mountain, the first thing I noticed was that this was a real backwater town, with merciless cabbies and lots of dust. But after renting a cheap room at a grimy, but quite passable two-story inn, I started hearing fireworks from the street. I went towards the sound, and began seeing the huge paper flower-wreaths local guests bring when they've been invited to a funeral. I stood and watched as each family hauled the brightly colored wreaths up an alleyway, towards the sound of karoake singing and loud conversation. One of the women passing by said, "Don't worry! Come on in!"

That's all the invitation I need.

Despite this, it's not the most comfortable thing going to a funeral to which you haven't been invtied. Compound that with the fact that you're obviously a foreigner, and you have trouble understanding the local accent, and you have a recipe for a kind of awkward experience. But by and large, people were extremely welcoming, and willing to answer any questions I had about the event.

The celebration took place in a large alleyway that led up to a rather large house at the end of the way. Along one bay of the alley, chefs were cooking enormous vats of soup, hauling five-foot diameter steamers filled with dumplings about, and yelling to clear people out of the way as they hustled another course up the alley to the house, where thirty or so tables (each seating ten) had been put up.

Along a second bay to the right, a professional-looking stage had been assembled, featuring singers belting out pop tunes, cheesy magic acts, and a strange, albeit fitting, performance in which professional singers don completely white outfits and wail about the death of "their" loved one. Who, by the way, was Old Mama Li.

In a lull in the action, I felt like it was time to go. I grabbed my stuff, and headed to the mouth of the alley, but stopped in awe as I saw, laid before me, the makings of a fireworks show like I had never seen. I believe I mentioned in my post from Suzhou about the self-contained firework-launchers-in-a-box they sell here. During the New Year, they had one. Here, they had sixty. All lined up in three rows, these things could bring down a small plane. This had to be one of the most dangerous, chaotic, but stunning fireworks shows I'd ever seen. Some of these fuse-operated boxes launched the traditional "flower" pattern, some shot salvos of five to eight that arched across the sky, and some just shot airborne flashbangs. During the show, I found myself lucky to be wearing a hat and glasses; I got pelted by falling shrapnel a few times.

This seemed like a good sign to stick around. Not long after the show, I was invited to join the revelers for dinner. I sat next to a few local businessmen I had met while watching the stage, and found ourselves neck-high in no less than twenty different dishes, all huge, all delicious. I'm afraid I fail to remember what those dishes were, since along with the food, was some decently potent baijiu, or local rice wine.

Now don't think that I came expecting to drink. But Chinese drinking culture down south is like this: with baijiu or a beer in your hand, you never drink alone. You toast someone, adding a good wish for fortune, or recognizing their accomplishments, and then you drink together. Well when you're the lone foreigner in a group of nine sturdy Chinese businessmen, you're in for a short night. I failed to keep count of the number of "Hey! To our foreign friend! Bottoms up!" that I got that evening. Nice guys.

I still do vividly remember shaking my hosts hand, and thanking him for such a wonderful evening. In return, he drunkenly (having been smashed since 7:00pm) blurted out, "Sure! Be sure to come back tomorrow!" I asked one of my business buddies what he meant. He replied, "On average, these parties go on for three to four days."

I believe them. That night, they continued to bombard the town with fireworks; once at around 11:00pm, and again sometime early in the morning. Even after getting back two days later from hiking the mountain, I still heard fireworks going off down the road.

I take one thing away for certain from this experience. Professional cryers aside, I want a funeral like that.


  1. Listen. I'm coming to your funeral if it's like that, and I'm inviting all the weird people I see on the way there :P
    What a great story :D!

  2. I really want fireworks at my funeral.

  3. Haha I suppose you could say you went out with a "bang!" ;) Sounds like an amazing time though! :)