Tag Archives: China

Beijing Streetview

Beijing, China. April 2013.

My first view of a new city is almost always in motion, from the window of a taxi cab.

A classmate in university once spoke of her year in India and how it contrasted with her experience of Canada. In Canada she said, the landscape is full of colour, rich green trees that flare up into autumn flames, the deep blues and copper blue-greens of fresh water and glacial lakes, the open palettes of wildflowers. On the other hand, we build in brick and concrete and stone, paint our walls in a staggering spectrum from beige to white. In India, she said, the landscape was colourless, a wash of earth-tones and that, as if to compensate, everything else burst with colour–painted walls and signs and fabrics. Even the food was bright.

I was reminded of that in China. The landscape from Shanghai was a pale monochrome that stretched the length of ride on the train. But from the taxi, details of blue and green decoration danced and gold leaf and the red, the brightest red in the signs and painted characters, the temple doors and arches, an accent and an undercurrent at the same time, not a bass beat but the staff the music is written on.

Sacks and Boxes

Shanghai, China. April 2013.

Sacks and boxes have been on my mind.

It’s that time in the school year, the year of an international school I suppose, where there’s a lot of packing up and moving along. Some of us are just packing up our classrooms to keep things out of the way of the kind workers who fix everything over the summer. Some of us are moving offices or classrooms and need to truck our stuff from one place to another in the building, or to another building. Most of us, students and teachers, pack our sacks and boxes for vacation with equal parts glee and exhaustion.

And always in the life of an international school, there are those of us packing up for a bigger move. We are transient populations of global nomads and third culture kids. Like turtles, we carry our houses upon our backs, or at least it feels that way. For myself, this will be the first time I have lived in the same apartment for three consecutive years since I moved out of my parents’ house more than twenty years ago.

Sacks and boxes. The selling of furniture and appliances and the accumulated stuff of a life, stuff that’s nice, but not necessary, that doesn’t travel well or is easier to replace than to move. The shedding of material skins. And what’s left, the essentials, the sentimental, the milestones and markers of a journey still underway, these are tenderly wrapped in tissue and bubble plastic and cartoned and labeled for the move to Moscow, Sarasota, Bangkok, Tanzania, Kuwait.

For some friends, it’s the first move overseas in a decade. When they pack their things they will need to pack up their children too, who didn’t exist when they last packed their lives into a baggage allowance of two suitcases, fifty pounds or less. Another friend sent twenty years of worldly possessions in her sacks and boxes, on a ship that broke like an egg on the Indian Ocean. Her loved and collected sentimentals have scattered to the flatfish and the back-pocket mysteries of the sea. All she has left is a sack on her back and a box we will send her at summer’s end. By air mail.

But how do you pack up the non-things? How do you pack up a city of movement and light and technology and gales exhaled by the sea? How to pack away your connections to colleagues and friends and students and parents and the waiters and waitresses from your favourite restaurants? What will they think when at last, you do not return?

We visited Barcelona two years after we had lived there and walked the path of our old commute to school. We passed our daily bakery and peered in the window. The woman who worked there saw us and remembered and waved us in. We hugged, though we never had when we lived there.

And I am thinking of this as I pack a suitcase for Canada, of how when I open it next I will unpack familiar things like t-shirts and shorts, but there will also be connections to unpack, relationships to take up and dust off and climb back into. Daily bakers to hug.

Because in sacks and boxes, we bring it all with us where we go.

Shanghai To Beijing From The Sightseeing Car

Between Shanghai and Beijing. April 2013.

The truth is, there’s not that much to see. We often take trains when we can as a way of seeing a cross-section of the country we’re traveling in. We booked passage on the train from Shanghai to Beijing and when we took our places, we found them at the end of the train, in a car with only four seats and big windows. The sightseeing car.

But in five and a half hours, the sights were remarkably homogenous. There were what felt like three minutes of rocky hills, and seven minutes of coastal wetlands, and the rest of the time, we sped through a dusty brown landscape of farmland only occasionally sewn with crops. But the oddest thing to my foreign eyes, was the construction. There were highrises that looked to be apartment blocks being built amid the wash of brown dust and yellow air, near no other building town or village on the flat horizon. Something about it felt like science fiction, like a premonition of Blade Runner or the ending of Mad Max where the lost children find their way home to the desolate skeleton of a once-great city.

“Those what had gone before had the knowin’ and the doin’ of things beyond our reckonin’. Even beyond our dreamin’.” – Savannah Nix

Confetti and Fairydust

Shanghai, China. April 2013.

I’m not really a gearhead. I like technology; I like the things it allows me to do, but I’m not one of those people who can recite a litany of brand names and model numbers. I don’t name my gear after women or think of it as my baby.
I used to be fastidious about my camera care. I’d clean it before every shoot with lens paper and fluid and a lens-pen and blower. And then I really started to travel and that’s a lot of stuff to carry around and it was always awkward to break out a cleaning routine in the middle of a temple somewhere just because I wanted to change lenses. So I stopped being so fastidious and as you might expect, my images got dirty.
But what I didn’t expect was that the mistakes I’d tried so hard to avoid for so many years–—things being out of focus, things being blurred by shaky hands, lens flares from pointing into the sun, having dust and dirt on the lens–—that these things would become what I find the most interesting in my photography.
I took these shots in the old town in Shanghai, near the old tea houses and the Yuyuan Gardens. It was a gorgeous day with gorgeous light, but mostly what I like about these shots is the overexposure, the lens flares and the light artifacts cast by the spots of dust on the lens. I like the texture, like confetti and fairydust. I like the feeling of squinting into the sun, the idea of something too brilliant to look at directly.

Fives and Nines

Beijing, China. April 2013.

Of the Ying and the Yang, the Yang is held to be the positive. It is also the hard, the active, the logical and the male. And the odd. Numbers, that is. Our docent tells us that because they are Yang, the Chinese value the odd numbers from one to nine highly, the numbers greater than nine being some combination of the numbers less than ten. In particular, they value the number five because it is in the middle of the odd numbers from one to nine, and the middle is the most stable, most true position. So the gates to the Forbidden City all have five openings, even if you can only see three of them from a distance. There are five sets of stairs and five bridges over the rivers, but no one walks on the middle path. The middle path is the path of the star, the path of the emperor.

The Chinese also have a special reverence for the number nine, because, well, because it is the biggest of the odd numbers and everyone loves a superlative. Each of the five sets of doors in any gate in the Forbidden City is studded with nine rows of nine gold studs.

We worked our way through the fives and nines, among the thousands of visitors, until our docent pointed up and showed us the only occurrence of a ten. The corners of the roofs are adorned with little animal figures, more like action figures than gargoyles, little bipedal animals that face out in neat lines. The more animals, the more important the building, the more important the people in the building. At most, there can be nine animal figures. Except on the roof of the throne room. The throne room is the highest building in the Forbidden City, raised on a dias, its nine doors closed. At each corner of the roof, ten animals look out over the crowd. It’s hard to see from the ground, but I think the tenth might be seated in a chair.

The Ephemeral Palace

Beijing, China. April 2013.

The Forbidden City is the Forbidden Palace and it’s massive and sprawling and made of hard things, durable things. Wood and stone. It feels like it will stand forever, like it has always been there. It feels aside from time, permanent. But then there is the warmth that these firey walls seem to long for. The emperors and servants and concubines and generals and soldiers and annoying cousins. And teachers. Inhabitants, whose once throbbing veins have spilled or dried up, who became first memories and then stories and then whispers on the tongues of tour guides and foreigners. And those tourists now, who spend a few hours but pass everywhere in moments with a giggle or a sneeze or the fractional snap of a shutter. Such passings. The palace is hollowed stone, a vessel for the ephemeral fluid of human lives.

The students at the school where I work are amazing artists and amazing musicians and filmmakers. My favorite events of the year are the senior art exhibition and a concert they call Studentainment. But there’s a challenge in teaching, where your work is to nurture the creative fires of your students, that sometimes you neglect your own. We can forget that we too are artists, forget to be artists. So this last weekend, a new event was held at our school. An art exhibition of work done by the adults in our community, the teachers and administrators and parents. We are potters and painters and ceramists and quilters. And photographers. That’s me. I showed the these two photographs from Beijing along with a third, a Part II of the Whispers in the Forbidden City series I posted a couple of weeks ago.
The artists in our show were offered the opportunity to sell their work and donate the proceeds to Charity Water, the organization our student council has been raising money to support all year long. These Ephemeral Palace photographs have raised a few thousand yen for clean water. And even if this is a moment that will slip away, today that makes me a happy teaching artist.