21 May 2008
Subject: Trembling and Tittering

Dear Friends and Family,

Thanks for the shout-outs last week. Just to reassure you again, I am quite well in Xiamen, tucked away at the edge of the China Sea across from Taiwan, and over 1000 miles from the recent earthquake disaster in Sichuan province. The earthquake occurred last Monday after the midday meal and rest, and I woke up with a start at about 2:30 pm, though I didn't feel or note anything. I went to teach class like usual, though it turned out class was postponed for another reason.

The Olympic torch was, at that very moment, being carried through Xiamen in the official relay, and passing about 20 meters in front of our apartment. I was an hour away, at our school, but Mitch was at home and watching from our fourth-floor apartment. Though news traveled more quickly and freely than in recent history of national media reporting, the local populace was so distracted by the Olympic festivities that we didn't know about it until much later.

In case you hadn't heard, the earthquake in Sichuan province with an epicenter near Chengdu, destroyed the homes of 5 million people and killed upwards of 50,000 people, with estimates still rising. Particularly destroyed were school buildings, while most government buildings stayed intact. The main earthquake was originally documented at 7.9 on the Richter scale, though that has been revised after the fact to 8.0, as it is more auspicious. Coincidentally, the earthquake occurred 88 days before the Olympic Games, scheduled to start on 08/08/08 at 8:08 pm. Chinese numerology fanatics (i.e. the general populace) read much into this.

Allow me to take this opportunity to pass on some sound earthquake advice while it's on the mind. If you ever find yourself in an earthquake, do /not/ duck and cover under your desk. I know I was taught this at school, along with standing in doorways, but 100% of victims were crushed to the thickness of their bones when ceilings collapsed on top of their rickety desks. The best place to curl up during the tremors, if you are inside a building, is /next to/ a large strong object (like a couch) that will compress but leave a life-saving triangular space next to it. If you are in bed during the quake, roll out onto the floor just next the bottom of your bed, but not under it. If you are in your car and near collapsing concrete or overpasses, get /out/ of your car and hunker down on the ground next to it. Of course, the best place to be is naturally outside away from man-made rabble, but if you are stuck indoors, find your way close to an outer wall-- it greatly improves your chances of an escape route. Avoid stairs during, and even after, a quake, as they are the least structurally sound part of a building as they swing at a different pendulum rate and are likely to collapse with you on them, even if they look safe.

I grew up with a different set of emergency response trainings along the San Andreas fault line, but keep in mind, most of the houses in Northern California are made of wood, so completely different measures can be taken. (I believe "duck and cover" was the default stand-in for our earthquake, air raid, and terrorist drills, though flood and fire drills took us outside to line up in the playground.) Sadly, with concrete monsters infesting our world, (rearing up and gnashing glinting windows against the sky), earthquakes "cause" so much more damage and loss of life than they need to. I suggest major reforms in building practices in risk-prone areas.

Enough news and solemnity. News and hilarity? Well, at least funnier than a breadbox!

Hey, remember the 90's? Yeah? Me too! I relive them often, by hand, in Notepad. Because I am that h4rd[0r3!!! And by "hardcore" I believe I do mean "quaint". So I have a small but pleasant surprise for those who have been following my site:

http://www.mollybee.org/china.html (NEW PICS)

In the interests of Science, no-- Justice, and Art, but mostly just wanting to avoid public shame and private painful occular spasms caused by merely glancing at my own monstrous Frankensite, or, gods forbid, trying to scan to find a now-dusty photo album, I... learned an HTML tag(!) Just one! I still refuse to do it properly, because of lazinessH^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^ tradition. So if it looks like I spent about 10 minutes reading over a web tutorial a decade ago before running off to study in Mexico and plaster the internet with luscious, wet, sweet, ripe fruit pics... and then never learning another lick, well... that's fairly accurate.

Also, the animated GIF /stays/... because, well, aren't they just so cool? YES! Also, animated GIFs are good for parties. Just like baby duck hats! (For those of you who do not remember the 90's, that was a reference to the SNL sketch _Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy_).

So what are these amazing photos I'm linking you up with? Wandering between the alleys and hidden side-streets of a down-trodden area near a major shopping street, I snapped shots of mostly gray-scale communities of compartmentalized concrete. I was very discreet about photographing this area, as not only is it hidden from the average person's sight and conscience, but also, these people have left their (possibly shameful) personal entrails and proof of relative poverty strewn about. Garlands of underwear and bras hanging from wires pinned between two drab blocks of manufactured sand conglomerations, and so forth. I don't know them to blatantly help myself to their street-side visual offerings, yet I am fascinated by each mundane detail and truly find beauty in them. This disclaimer is to convey that I am not in any way trying to portray these people, Xiamen, or China in a poor or embarrassing light. I would take these photographs wherever I was, not for the exoticism, but for the pure aesthetics. I say this here plainly, because there has been some concern (mainly from Chinese friends) about why I am taking pictures of trash and such. Plain answer? It's interesting trash.

Next up are a couple of albums from a walk up a mountain road that lead me (eventually) to the butterfly pavilion in the hills. It's a right gorgeous and little-trafficked road that wends its way through natural (for the most part) forests and intriguing side-tracks. There is an old bathtub hunched up in the murky woods (not pictured), which inspires the Bathtub in the Woods song whenever I pass it, but I can only remember how I invented the ditty when I am within several yards of the rustifarian dirty body tank. And at last there are long-awaited shots of butterflies. Perhaps several too many.

But the most high-larious pictures are from the Senior Level Two spring excursion. We went to a temple that had a statue at the top of a mountain stair-climb hike. Literally stairs up a mountain, Mitch says it's the highest and steepest set of stairs he's stepped up, but I have distant memories of walking sideways up Aztec temples... perhaps not as high, though. We wandered into the woods behind the top landing (I'm such a terrible influence on these kids) and enjoyed dappled sunlight amid the heady scent of wild gardenias and relatively sweet silence above and out of the suburbs, until we were almost late for the bus!

Then we went to the zoo! At first, I thought I would be dragged by horrid cages filled with depressive animals clinging to the bars or worse, sitting catatonicly in the corners. But it wasn't at all like that. This was a safari wild animal park, where we, en masse, were let into a large enclosure where all sorts of animals roamed together. We were greeted by some zealous and assertive ostriches, and then shown around by the pesky emus. Baby camel galumphed alongside Mama camel, and smaller flightless birds ran a-fowl. Guineas, turkeys, some heavy ducks. Goats, pygmy and nanny, ran amok with the miniature horses and tiny ponies. Asses, deer, and antelopes either rested warily or pronged about nervously, all in fine style.

I don't think there is such a park in the United States, where we would just be able to walk in, in such a huge group, basically unsupervised, and harass the creatures for photographs and unsolicited scritchings. I scritched a zebra! In the States, I don't think I'd be allowed to touch a zoo creature without a guard blowing a whistle on me, "Miss, please don't fondle the inmates!", let alone without being formally apprehended. In another area, I stepped into the wallaby hut to get a closer gander at snoozing marsupials, imagining a concerned and flustered bystander muttering, "Miss? Miss? I don't think you should be, uh, trouncing around inside the wallaby hut. Miss?"

Another strangely unique aspect of this zoo was the bus safari that drove us inside the lion and tiger area. We circumnavigated all fifth of a kilometer of it, and returned to catch a circus show, but not before one of the students purchased another live animal to feed to the tigers. He selected a ruffled chicken, and carried it by its wings up to the roof of the building overlooking the feline enclosure, and dangled it over the edge, attracting the attention of a pride resting in the afternoon shade. They loped over and sat transfixed, focusing keenly on the flex of his fingers and the tremble of the chicken. Then: drop, snatch, dash.

The circus show was fairly entertaining, and I only booed once (when the guy smacked the tiger in the face before shoving his fist down its throat). They had a tiger and a lion take turns riding a horse galloping around the arena, and all sorts of feline fire-ring tricks. They also brought out a monkey riding a goat, the latter of which climbed a ladder and walked along a metal strip, turned on a coin, and walked back to the middle to balance on a small disk affixed to the tight wire, whereupon the monkey balanced on the goat's horns in an impressive handstand. Then, the bicycling had to happen. Not that I am against bicycling! Au contraire! I am, however, against bears being shackled to their wheeled mounts by chains hanging from tender nose rings. All in all, though, it was the best zoo experience in my world travels. Of course, any barbarity of entrapment and imprisonment is made better by copious petting opportunities. (You can quote me on that later, when I'm back in grappling range.)

So those are the pics, what else of interest? ...heh. EHeheheh. So, my neighbor, Liqi had a baby girl in January, you might recall, of which she made me the proud godmother. Ke Han is getting large and rollypolly now, well fed on her mama's fine breast milk. I know there are a lot of traditions concerning proper child-care in the local tradition, including a period of enforced bed rest for the first month post-partum. But there are apparently also some local superstitions and traditions concerning a healthy mother's breast milk that I wasn't aware of.

I was sitting in their house when an old woman came over and knocked at the open door, poking her head around the jamb. I understood she was requesting something, and Liqi set about cleaning a little teacup and looking a little hesitant about something. Halfway through, she abandoned the cup and, all the while clucking in Minnanhua dialect, approached the woman still in the doorway. I didn't understand the exchange, so I was quite surprised to see the woman ushered to sit on a little foot stool while Liqi got up on her tippy toes above her. Then she hitched up her shirt, bared a breast and smoothed some milk towards her aureole, while the old woman tilted back her head, squinted and held her lids open so that Liqi could then successfully squirt milk from her nipple directly into the old woman's eye. That moment was so priceless, the confusion and perfect surprise worth not having learned any basic Minnan dialect.

But I'm still studying Mandarin. I am starting to come out with proper Chinese grammar occasionally! It's usually accidental or based on simply just "feeling right" instead of any concept of rules or patterns. Though I am picking up lessons from friends, I am mostly learning organically, like a baby ...muskrat. Yes, like a baby muskrat, who... lost his whiskers in a tragic bird-watching accident or baptism by fire, perhaps... and is now blindly sloshing his intrepid way through the clattering shoals of a rocky riverbed at night, his tail knotted to a plank scraping along behind him or perhaps surging on ahead dragging him through deeper rapids. Yes, exactly. An intrepid valiant baby muskrat who also has a severe hankering for salty snacks.

The other day I broke down and bought a bag of potato chips for the first time. I had to. They were lychee flavour! John and Gayla, if you ever again attend/host a geek game party whereat you construct BDSM scenes out of Legos(tm), this would be the perfect snack food. Why? Well, as you have the goodness of both of you in the same room for such events, you can simultaneously experience the goodness of the sweet, cloying, salty, fatty, crispy, tangy, crunchy, musky-fruitastic qualities that we all enjoy. A veritable mishmash of both of your manias! I will see about smuggling back a sample.

Today was a fine day for fodder-finding. My hands are still stained with mulberry juices from a tree near a coffee shoppe I'm familiar with. The mint was purloined from the premises, as well as some (oh glorious day!) nasturtium flowers, all of which I brought home for Tina to try. Berry stains and spicy flowers are a goodness... but in the same day?! And what's more...

A new fruit! Hark! It is called a red bayberry, an evergreen tree particular to the south of China, with some growing here in Fujian province. At this point in the season, they are small reddish-maroon globes, the size of large round grapes, and have a waxy-like residue on the outside. They are nubby spheres of tiny rounded bumps on the ends of fleshy stalks radiating out from the small center pit. You can spread the surface gently apart anywhere around the sphere to see a ways between the pulp-stalks. Launching into it, the juice is quite acerbic and tangy, yet sweet and cheery in its red (flavinoid or iron-rich?) brightness.

Just now, between clicking out these characters you currently read, I fabricated a most interesting of beverages with the red bayberries. I grated them against a little hand grater until the juices ran thick and pulpy. In each glass, I muddled a sprig of fresh mint with a pinch of brown sugar, then added several large spoonfuls of the glimmering garnet slurry, some cracked ice chunks, and spring water. The only thing that could make that possibly better (in the absence of vodka or gin) was a little beer... a fizzy, salty, and heady finish to bind the sour and sweet to the mint. This is on par with honeyed lavender-lemon gin coolers. In fact, hey Van, remember that incident in your kitchen with fresh turmeric, ginger, honey, ice, and rum? Well, it wasn't quite /that/ good, but this red clean-up reminded me of that yellow clean-up ;)

Speaking of which... hop to.
I remain,
Your Mollyberry