Saturday, August 2

Mr. Sandman . . .

Who else has had a tough week?

I’m a chronic insomniac, so not sleeping is just life for me. However, the trip made it so much worse that I’m actually seeing a physician on Tuesday, in hopes of getting some chemical help.

In China, I went without adequate sleep due to the 3/4” plywood that passes for a mattress in the hotels there. Now that I’m home, you’d think I’d be blissfully drifting off to dreamland in my own comfortable bed. But no.

We had dinner with Don and Brenda Tremblay last night and Brenda spoke about being “off” too, so I’m glad to know it’s not just us. But she and Carl are, at least, sleeping. Me, meh. Last night I finally hammered myself into a coma with the help of wine, vodka, an OTC sleeping aid, and Advil. Got five hours out of the deal—almost heaven.

If you have suggestions for beating jet lag/insomnia that are less expensive than the cocktail described above, I’m all ears.

Wednesday, July 30


Poor Kodak. My 400 or so snapshots would have required 11 rolls of film and made work for a lab. Instead, they made money for Canon, Adobe, and Sandisk.

Anyway, I put some of the best of my shots in a gallery, which you can see here:

It's in chronological sequence. If I figure out how to put captions with the photos (without it being mega-tedious), I will. Otherwise, have one of the travelers narrate.

I was actually a slacker compared to other camera-toters. I hope to see some of their work, too.

Saturday, July 26


Back on Terra America. I should fill you in about our trip to Zhujiajiao.

It was charming. People live in cramped homes fronting the canal or the narrow hutong-like streets, and don’t seem to mind the touring hordes peering into their dim domiciles as they pass by. Of course there are shops, with vendors hawking the same wares we saw just about everywhere else: packs of chopsticks, hats, fans, “jade” bracelets, Mandarin blouses, embroidered shoes. But here, also, were shops selling food—dim sum, spices, teas, vats of live crayfish.

Our guide (“Tony”) told us that people pay about $4/month for electricity, but then they don’t have an enormous array of electrical appliances. At least none visible to the casual pedestrian. Some homemade fans twirling over the food for sale to keep the insects at bay; a TV, perhaps a refrigerator.

On one of the bridges Tony told us about the Buddhist tradition of throwing a live fish into the river for good luck, and sure enough there was an old woman selling just this opportunity for five yuan, offering the fish in plastic bags. I didn’t indulge and I feel bad about that; what’s five yuan, anyway—about 75 cents?—for the good karma the act might bring. Who cares if there are netters underneath the bridge re-capturing the fish to sell again?


I think I speak for the majority when I say that I was really looking forward to non-Chinese food upon our return home. Sorry, China (and all sophisticates used to the culinary deprivations of foreign travel)! I wasn’t eager for a Big Mac (something I don’t eat at home), but I’ve been looking forward to my neighborhood pizza pie for about four days now, and today I was rewarded. Thanks, Mr. Shoes! (Micky furiously calculates the capital needed to start a Mr. Shoes franchise in Beijing)

More updates later. The trip’s narrative has grown beyond its temporal duration.

Thursday, July 24

Snapshots . . .

. . .. . . of stuff I forgot to put in previous posts.

Walking through a local farmer’s market and park at 6:30 a.m. in Beijing. Even at that early hour, the place is packed with produce shoppers, people playing ping-pong and badminton, or moving through tai chi poses in unison. I’m impressed that so many people rouse themselves at this early hour to exercise. Health care in China, Grace told us, is very bad. People take care of themselves.

Listening to harmonica players in a pavilion at the Summer Palace perform traditional Chinese tunes, then strike up Frere Jacques and Jingle Bells.

Feeling like the original ditzy American. Twice now I’ve given clerks the wrong amount of money for purchases, and stood there like a moron as they pointed to the money and waited for me to figure it out. “Can’t Americans count, for heaven’s sake?” they seemed to ask with their lifted brows. This morning I called down to the front desk to see when my laundry from yesterday might be returned, only to have two ladies from housekeeping show up at the door and point out that my laundry was already hanging in the closet. Duibuqi! (Oh geez, I’m sorry!) I simper with exaggerated expressions of surprise at my own stupidity, hands on cheeks, eyes rolling. I wonder if any of this translates into recognizable self-deprecation, or if they think I’m just simple-minded. I feel like I’ve let America down.

Singing for Mr. Wu. After he had given us his spiel about living in the hutong, he asked for a song. The chorus obliged with their rendition of Auld Lang Syne. The other tour group present (Chinese), and the TV crew listened quietly, and burst into applause when the group had finished. It was a very special moment.

Taking it to the street

(I was up until four writing that last post, so missed the sightseeing trip today. Instead, I hung out in our blissfully quiet and cool room and wrote the following.)

A few statistics might help to illustrate the challenge of describing the two metropolises we’ve inhabited. Beijing, pop. 15 million, a sprawling miasma of the very old overlaid with the hyper-new. Shanghai, the same thing, but with more people pressed into a smaller area. Both are growing steadily, both in numbers and in height, as old-style neighborhoods fall to high-rises as the cities strain to provide decent shelter and accommodate the upwardly mobile young.

Micky wrote about the Beijing hutong we visited. This is the traditional urban housing pattern of low, tightly packed dwellings, four of which surround small courtyards and house either extended families or are shared by non-relations as the case might be. They’re accessed through mazes of narrow pathways which somehow serve as streets. The rickshaws were perfectly at home there, yet around every turn there was a parked car or two.

Down the old walls run electric, telephone, and cable lines. TVs are ubiquitous and Internet-connected computers are common. What these old communities seem to lack the most is what our developers call amenities. Communal bathrooms are the rule, and apparently are the most objectionable aspect to younger people. The hutongs have become defacto retirement communities, as the older generation has been left behind by the kids who move skyward into the apartment buildings.

Yet, despite the changes and losses and pressure for land, tradition apparently retains some value beyond symbolism and tourist attraction. We were told the hutong district we visited is now protected and will be preserved. It still houses around one million people. How much interest tradition holds for younger folks is hard to gauge. I suspect it’s a misty concept for people who’ve passed through rolling revolutions political, cultural, technological, and economic. It might be the rural Chinese who retain a better notion of what the past means to the present.

Tradition is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when you set foot in the big city. Except for the Mandarin signs (many of them also in English), you could be in any American metroplex. LA and Atlanta have nothing on the traffic here, except for style. Rules of the road are clearly regarded as guidelines, as drivers and cyclists and pedestrians interact in a split-second, self-organized, spontaneous dance that reminded me of the magnified flow of corpuscles. Moderate speeds help to give a small margin for error. As I’ve grown to hate the control freak nature of American traffic engineering, I find this display of intuition and improvisation reassuring in a way. People can think for themselves. Of course, I might feel differently if I had been hit by that bus.

While I’m on this subject, here’s a factoid from Shanghai that might illustrate how others improve on our practices. Some intersections have traffic lights in which the yellow light is replaced by a numerical count down to green. Very cool. And the walk signals change before the traffic lights do, to give pedestrians a head start.

One thing had me buggin’: the absence of bugs. Where were the roaches? Even at night, I didn’t see one in Beijing. Nor were we hassled by mosquitoes. In a hot, wet, populous city, there should be pests, but not where we were. Weird. Not that I’m complaining. I arrived with a nice tattoo of bites and will return with hardly any.

In fact, Beijing was almost eerily clean and tidy. Thanks to the Olympics, we were told, it’s been on a beautification binge for several years. This at the same time as a building boom and renovation riot. (All right, enough alliteration already.) Gray concrete apartment buildings have been spruced up in pinks and pastels. Roadside plantings of flowers and trees have proliferated, and many freshly sown, young trunks are supported by bamboo trusses. Some of this greenery is of annual varieties, but much will remain past the season. Our guide said that Beijingers are very happy for the improvements the Games have inspired (and no doubt for the jobs they’ve brought, too), but Micky and I do wonder how enduring these benefits will be. Look what happened to poor Sarajevo, though smoldering rubble shouldn’t be an immediate concern for this town.

Our first encounter with China was at the brand-new and gi-normous airport terminal. Woof! Scaled for the influx of 400,000 next month, will it echo with a radio comedy slow water drip sound effect of virtual abandonment afterward? That’s what I thought walking through it, but I hadn’t yet seen that such enormity is the style here. We split town via the railroad station, which was also humongous. Appropriately, as the place was packed on a Monday afternoon. Get this: it was one of three rail stations in the city. An older building, it was still well kept and reasonably clean, reflecting its importance in keeping the society moving. It made me embarrassed to think of our pitiful rail system and our helplessness should the gas go away.

Twelve hours later, the rose-tinted glasses were slapped from my face by the station in Shanghai. Suddenly, we were in a Third World toilet. Or 1980s Manhattan. In fact, that’s what this town reminds me of. The gritty streets, the clutter and garbage, the chaos of continual building, utter poverty bumping against enormous wealth. Is this the universal face of barely-restrained capitalism? Or does this town have no time or need to hide its contradictions? Capitols are required to style themselves to reinforce the ideologies they promote. Commercial centers flaunt their mindsets without thinking about it; perhaps with greater honesty.

Foreigners are not an exceptional sight here, and we don’t get the smiles and waves we received up north. Our dinner companions the first night agreed: this seems much more like NYC, while Beijing felt more like DC. Micky commented that maybe Beijingers have been encouraged to be friendly and hospitable, while the people here haven’t been so motivated. I bet that’s true, if not the whole truth. The average quality of life might just be better there. It certainly is a more pleasant place to be.

That brings me to what I was most curious to find out about here. How do Chinese stand in terms of freedom of thought and freedom of expression? Since I haven’t paid any real attention to the country, I still had images of a grey/green Nixon in China atmosphere, with masses milling about in Mao jackets and PJs. No way, Ling Ling. While most people do dress modestly, kids in punk fashions, boys with elaborate hairdos, and girls with strenuously cute tee shirts are everywhere in the fashionable neighborhoods. Business suits, dresses, and casual wear is more common than traditional dress. It’s fun to see a well-dressed lady riding a bike with another woman in a long white skirt and matching hat riding side-saddle on the bar. People go about their business. There is grumpiness, there is laughter.

My mom was apprehensive when we sprang the news of our trip on her, not just because we were going a long way away, but because we were coming here. “They’re Communist, aren’t they?” she asked. Totally reasonable apprehension, as she remembers the cold war fears of Red China. My father probably fought the Red Army in Korea. Our dear friend Mike suggested we be a little careful talking politics, even in private. Might there be mics hidden in the mantelpiece? Who knows?

Our time and interactions have been way too limited to gauge the state of propaganda or repression here. Several folks have remarked on a certain guardedness, but I don’t know about what. It would be great to read any “fellow travelers” impressions about this. Please use the comments function of the blog.

Most of my impressions of daily life and culture so far come from our tour guide in Beijing, who is a very thoughtful young woman. Though she said the guides are rigorously tested on their knowledge of Chinese history and facts and figures of the cities and the nation, as well as licensed by a state authority, I didn’t get the impression she had a script to follow. Even when a few challenging subjects were raised (one that starts with a ‘T’), her responses were much more nuanced and balanced than a packaged official line.

I thought about how I might respond to queries about comparable matters in the US if I was interpreting our culture to a stranger. How would I defend the decency of common Americans when asked about slavery or segregation or genocide of native peoples or Iraq or health care or stolen elections or attempted world domination? Freedom isn’t free of contradictions or corruption anywhere.

I do have one thing to relate to those who repeated to me the old brainwashing that life just isn’t as important to “those people” as it is to us. The government has sent surgical teams to the earthquake areas to reverse tubal ligations for women who have lost their children - for free. And there has been an out-pouring of individual charity to the victims, with many people traveling to the region to work. I wonder how much the Chinese know about New Orleans and the Gulf Coast disasters, and how the People’s Republic has responded to their Katrina.

On such matters, I’m left with more questions than answers, but the wonder of an experience like this is the questions I never would have thought to ask. To my cynical mind the Olympic slogan, One World One Dream, sounds as creepy as any catch phrase from Stalin’s politburo or the White House press office. But, never mind. If people can embrace that spirit truly and run with it, we’ll all be a little more secure. I feel better knowing at least a little about these people and their nation.

Band on the run

We’ve been writing a lot about the vicissitudes of traveling and the people and places we’ve seen, but have only mentioned the concerts in passing, so let me try to catch up on that. They are, after all, the point of this exercise!

There’ve been ups and downs. Besides adjusting to the time change, dealing with the fatigue of strenuous sightseeing, and weathering the many challenges of a strange land, the singers have had to encounter, and sometimes overcome, five different venues and collaborative schemes.

Major Challenge #1: Risers. They’ve run the gamut from comfortable to hazardous to downright dangerous. Narrow steps, steep climbs, no railings. It’s fortunate somebody didn’t land on their noggin with some of the crazy stagings they’ve encountered. Does the Great Wall cast that strong a shadow?

Major Challenge #2: Pianos. Some have been downright decrepit. Hard for singers and embarrassing for the pianists. No, those weren’t their wrong notes.

Major Challenge #3: Audiences. People have been friendly and cordial and appreciative, but these are the noisiest crowds I’ve ever had to put up with. Did they come to listen to music or talk? Apparently to talk, loudly. During the music.

At first I thought it was disrespect, but then they did the same thing during performances by their own countrymen. It wasn’t just the possibly less sophisticated folks who attended the variety concerts, either. The nattering was just as obnoxious at the Forbidden City and tonight at the Shanghai Conservatory, where you’d expect the patrons to be more sophisticated. I hope it wasn’t as disturbing for the singers as it was for me.

Between these factors and other intangibles, a few of the appearances didn’t quite meet the goal. The festival opening was a long show at which ROS appeared last. After a wide variety of more or less folk-based music and non-western vocal sounds, our friends resembled one of those middle-school exam questions about sets: which one doesn’t belong? The venue was bad, the sound on stage poor, and the audience was addressed though a typically inadequate PA system. Still, a few groups excelled, including a spellbinding ensemble from Belarus.

Here’s the good part. After our three tunes, ROS was surrounded by adults in exotic costumes and kids of all ages, accompanied by a large concert band, to sing Auld Lang Syne! Beautiful but surreal, with confetti cannons providing an absurd but wholly appropriate finale. (See the photo on Brenda’s blog.)

Another wacky stop was the Military Concert Hall, where ROS participated in a choral competition – itself a wacky concept. Piano: useless. Acoustics: indifferent. Risers: vertiginous. Results: 3rd place!

ROS made only a brief appearance at the Festival closing ceremonies, with one number to open the show. I think they went on at 9:30 and were out by 10:00, with a nice glass trophy in Eric’s hands.

The two concerts that ROS headlined were presented in excellent concert halls. The 1400 seat Forbidden City room is a modern fan-shaped space of great clarity and balance. Note to Rochester: this is what a concert hall is. I’d love to witness an orchestra in it. ROS sounded great, in part I think because they could hear and be heard better than perhaps they ever have before. Maybe it was my romantic impression, but I think the folks recognized their potential in a way they hadn’t before and maybe came to terms with the whole we’re-in-another-country-singing thing.

That potential was realized more fully tonight in another fine hall, at the Shanghai Conservatory. The music was locked-in and took on a freedom of expression that has been lurking within for months. Promise of Living finally lived, radiantly. (Well, I’m a fool for Copland.) There were many brilliant touches that Eric asked for and received. Music, in short, was made.

ROS shared the show with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Accessorial Chorus (according to the program, that’s their name), led by the 95-year-old Ma Geshun, who acted not a day over 85. They did a lovely Ave verum corpus, a song called “How can I do not miss him” (pace the program), and an athletic reading of Komm, holder Lenz from Haydn’s The Seasons. Except for the indistinguishable German, they sounded good. They joined ROS at the end for two selections: Os justi – gorgeous in the big, round sound of a big, relaxed, attentive chorus – and “Flying Petals,” which featured Monica in her second solo turn of the evening. A crowd-charmer for sure.

Then came the ceremonial stuff. Little speeches from the stage by Eric and his distinguished host; acknowledgements to the folks who made it happen; photos with the banners of our city and state; admiration and good will all around; a great way to end this difficult, frustrating, chaotic, challenging, exhausting, exhilarating, and rewarding experience.

And more than a few thoughts were expressed to the folks who couldn’t make the journey and be here with their colleagues to share this moment. Grab on to this energy, folks, because there’s a new season ahead and new goals to strive for.

Micky and I have more to share. We’ll get home in a couple days and start processing the experience. We’ll write some more and I have bunch of photos to show you. But, now time is closing in. Tomorrow they’ve planned a busy day of sightseeing in very hot/humid weather. The next morning, we become property of the airlines again and will be incommunicado for several days. Thanks to all who have read and commented on our postings, and to Brenda for her encouragement. All errors are because I’m daft - please send corrections. And check back for our reflections, which we’ll catch up on as we recover normality back in Roch-cha-cha.

Love, Carl

Wednesday, July 23


Y’all are going to be disappointed in us, but, apart from the concert (which was fabu, but I’ll let Carl do the honors), we didn’t do squat today.

There were no tour activities scheduled in the morning, for reasons unclear to me. Not that I’m complaining—we were in need of some serious quiet time. Everything—and everyone—is so loud here. And given the crowds, everywhere you go, the noise level gets to be stressful after a while. In the afternoon, the chorus was due to rehearse and the non-singers had the option of visiting another temple. After thinking it over for perhaps ten seconds, I decided to hang out in the cool of the Riverside until it was time to leave for the concert. 

The gang is up on the 20th floor celebrating their successful Shanghai debut with cocktails, and I’m sitting here having some Great Wall wine in my green froggy glass, ready for bed.  

Tomorrow, there is a heat advisory, but we’re going full speed ahead anyway: Zhujiajiao, which is Shanghai’s “Venice,”, lunch at a farmhouse, the Shanghai Museum (yay!), and dinner and then some shopping in the evening for the truly insane die-hards.

P.S.: We did get moved to a quieter floor this morning. Our AFAI peeps talked to management about the noise, and the groupies remaining on the floor of horror got fresh fruit delivered to them this afternoon and a promise that the renovation work would cease until after we leave. Hooray!