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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Life revealed

There is something that nags at me when walking the streets of big cities like Taipei or Hong Kong or Lanzhou, or yesterday Urumuqi. Chinese cities. When the light is just right, like yesterday, and swatches of light cut across streets, or into small alleyways I have a feeling like I am on a movie set, like I am seeing scenes that are so familiar that I must have seen them somewhere before. Most of the action happens in the shadows, away from the heat. With a camera I await what might happen in the light, or at the interesection of light and shadow where the best shots are often found. When I take long walks like these I find myself wishing that I could describe in detail every single moment, that I could share with those who haven't experienced this every smell and sound, every small interaction, every fascinating face. I can't, of course. But why do I have such a desire? What is it that I see in these Chinese cities that, despite the filth and the chaos and the noise, make me feel as if I am in a good place, a right place? And now I think I might have the answer, an explanation for why everything feels like a movie and for why I can walk for hours on end without getting tired and without getting bored. Walking through these city streets, I am watching life out in the open. Here life does not go on behind closed doors as it does in so many American and European cities. Many people here do not worry about putting on a special face for appearing outside of a suburban home or a city home. They are who they are.

In Urumuqi there are several twenty-plus story buildings being built. There are two or three big streets dedicated to serious shopping, with electronics stores and clothes stores. These streets are filled with women carrying bags of new purchases and men looking good. There in front of the stores though, are other men, wearing dirty outfits that are likely worn three or four times a week. They lounge in the shade of the umbrellas covering their wares - tables loaded with bananas and watermelons and grapes and a fruit called wu hua guo, or five flower fruit. Here are cars driving on sidewalks and children handing out cards.

Then you turn off onto a smaller road, one without a central dividing marker, and without sidewalks. These are the same streets I grew so used to in Taipei, where there is no separation between human and vehicular traffic. Diagonals of light cut across the street. Men bearing long wooden wheelbarrows appear and disappear. Men sleep under low overhangs of buildings. Men and women play cards or Go, or the game that Natalia and I played for awhile in Taipei until I got angry because I thought she was cheating even when she wasn't and after that she didn't want to play with me anymore (N - do you know what that game is called?). People lounge on the steps of their narrow restaurants, half-heartedly calling out to potential customers, or perhaps watching their children play with a small dog. A young boy, maybe three, backs out onto the sidewalk, squeezing through a small crack in a set of rusting, red swinging doors. To get out he bends down a bit and reveals split pants and a chubby naked rear end. Then he hobbles out onto the sidewalk.

Walk onto a smaller road still. Smoke mingles with the light. There is a donkey tied to a pole. A woman sweeps garbage into a tiny garage that is already half filled with rubbish. Here and there all over this street and others are small piles of rotting watermelon and sweet melon rinds. Over in the corner there, or just against the wall a man relieves himself. Around another corner is a squatting young girl doing the same.

Back onto a main road and here is a junior high school. It is Saturday afternoon, 6 o'clock Beijing time which means about 4 o'clock in the unofficial local time. Huge groups of students are grouped in the large open area in front of the school. A few shoot basketball, but most wait for their turn to face a few people standing on the front steps, guiding them through a variety of what at times seem like stretches, at times dance moves, and at times military drills. Later you see these same students in the roads and streets radiating out from the school.

Now we come to a Muslim quarter. There are mosques squeezed into tiny spaces between buildings. A series of low crumbling brick buildings are backed by three skyscrapers. The heaps of garbage are more here. The sounds are everywhere: a hammer on copper, welders, carts creaking, sellers calling to buyers.The street is filled with people weaving small zigzags through the just winding road. There are people selling rusted chains, pots, large spoons, shiny silver food stalls meant to be used for grilling kebabs, or perhaps for making soups. There are a few keymakers, and some people selling shoes. Other people have little wooden stalls behind which they repair shoes. Let us not forget the fruit vendors or the people selling bread or kebabs.

Through all of this you peek into open doors walked past. You see two women talking, one of them holding a sleeping baby in her lap. You see a woman lying on a low wooden plank, raised maybe a foot or two of the ground sleeping. You see a women sitting in front of a tub of water, scrubbing clothes. You see people just inside the doors, staring and watching, but what they are watching or seeing you can not be sure for there is something of a vacancy in their eyes. Inside the countless "mei rong jian kang" shops which appear to be barber shops but also offer massage services, and you often suspect something else, you see women bored and sleeping, or staring at TV's, or perhaps playing cards.

Life is everywhere, and it is revealing itself - the everyday lives of these people, the routines that carry them through their days, right in front of you. It is not what you are used to, or how you live. Even if you are used to it, something inside of you trembles at the rawness of it all, at the thought that the world's first big cities were probably not much different from this. Interaction is impossible to avoid. Being a stranger you receive stares. Being a photographer you attract attention. You are photographing their lives, and you see something when certain people take a moment to stop and be photographed. You see that they are changing their face the tiniest bit, wanting to appear just a bit more handsome, a bit more at ease. Others, though, don't know how to do this. They try to pose themselves, or put on a smile and they can not do it. Their awkwardness is beautiful in its way, and again revealing. Some people, they don't care. They want you to see them just as they are.

The last of the light drains from the day, the city orange for a while and then dark. But of course it is never dark. There is neon and there are cars and there are street lights. You come into a night market. There must be a hundred stalls selling a variety of soups, or more likely selling kebabs. There are neon arches over the street running through the market, placed every ten feet or so. Because of the amount of smoke they are almost invisible. Couples stop holding hands to cover their mouths and cough. These people are probably tourists if they are not used to the smoke. People sit at tables and eat and drink beer. Uigher men come and try to sell you fruit, often resorting to very underhanded tactics (especially because you are a stranger here, and you have to hold yourself steady, even when there is a knife a foot from your face, not being used in an explicitly threatening manner, but still - you have seen the way that knife slices through fruit, and this man really wants money for the melon you told him you didn't want and he cut up for you anyway). Children with dirty faces and sometimes hairy patches on their faces come and try to sell sunflower seeds. Women sell little packs of tissue paper. The owners of the stalls chase these people off when the customers start feeling too great a pressure to buy. And then the beggars come and through it all you eat your meat or fish or fruit and you drink your cheap beer.

Old friends talk louder and louder as they get drunk. Your new friends, the people you happened to sit with: a seven-year-old girl and her mother. The girl is the third best in her class of 170. You knew she was one of the best because her intelligence is obvious. A student becoming a pilot who will go to America soon, his girlfriend quiet and shy beside him. The two of you drink a beer, and then another and share stories of life in your countries or in the places you have been. He cringes and laughs at the Uigher man with his fruit and tells you to be careful. He thinks you don't really know what you are doing. You are out of your element here. And still, you talk with him and realize that though you are a stranger, you belong because this is life and everybody is out here sharing in it.

When you part at 11:30, you say good-bye and wish each other luck.

It has been a long day. You go back to your hotel, escaping it all. You are going back to your little oasis of calm, but in this city, in the city there is no calm. There are men and women in the hall screaming. There is an angry service woman who yells at you when you complain about your fan not working.

"Are you crazy?" she asks. "How can you be hot? It is so cool, and it will be cooler (at the time it is about 80 F in your room). If you use this you will catch a cold!"

And you laugh because past her anger, here is something your mother would say to you. Your young looks seems to attract such motherly concern from a good number of people. You realize that perhaps she is not angry but exasperated because in this hotel, she is expected to solve the problems, to be there for those wishing to escape the outdoor life and retreat into something that they can not have.

An hour or two later, after a shower, you fall asleep, exhausted by the day - by life. The phone rings at 2:30 and maybe it is a girl offering herself, or maybe something else entirely. You jus't dont know because in the fog of interrupted sleep your language skills disappear. You fall asleep again, and it is a wonderful sleep. Ahead of you lies another day in the heart of life and you are filled with a tremulous excitement at what might be in store next.


Anonymous Dad said...

Alan, your writing is really descriptive. I printed out this particular piece and showed it to a number of people who were impressed with the minuteness of the detail you are capturing. Keep up the good work.

5:03 AM  
Anonymous Dusty Rhodes said...

Your Dad's friend, Dusty says...

Absolutely fascinating - sounds like a trip of a lifetime. I'm really enjoying your reports. Stay well.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Natalia said...

The game is called "Shiang Chi"

I can picture all these descriptions in a book. What do you think?

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your report is patronising.

11:35 PM  
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