I Column Like I See ‘Em: The Last Mandated Tour, or, Thinking Deeply Without All The Facts Hurts Brains

Standard

“The city we are going to visit is poor because there are lots of private businesses there.”
Say what, Tour Guide? I took out my earbuds. Lost in translation?
“They don’t like to pay their taxes so the government is weak.”
Oh, nope. Just China being oxymoronic… like usual… hold on a second, I see what’s going on here…

Train of thought (Moral of Story: Don’t make rash assumptions, especially when sleepy): Greed is pervasive in Chinese culture, even though the Chinese insist that they’re community-oriented (haha oriented)… but, those two things don’t go together, so China’s a hypocrite? Will I only find peace in studying China when I affirm that I can’t understand it because its culture is in flux? Wait… are my standards for hypocrisy different than the Chinese standards? Is it okay for concepts that don’t mesh to exist side by side? How do I say ‘standards for appraisal’ again, 评价的标准,right?Man, these seats are uncomfortable… am I, am I listening to Bob Dylan? Or is that Britney Spears?

…yep.

8 am is way too early to start blowing my mind.

———–
The gaggle of groggy undergrads and myself had flung our appendages about the tour bus seats (themselves so mod they would not be out of place on the cover of a geometry textbook), readying ever so gradually for what would be a taxing day. Part of participating in the Xiamen Program, Professor Yue’s pet project, is paying homage to a plethora of historical places. On Saturday, this meant spending a workday’s worth of time taking in various Confucian temple museums and the creepy robe-clad mannequins within. We weren’t so thrilled about rising with the sun and proceeding to involuntarily immobilize within seat constraints; I’d still managed to get a workout alongside khaki-clad businessmen at the track beforehand, as I anticipated sitting for the better part of the day. Even so, our group tries to make the best of edifying experiences, though why students would ever want to learn, I don’t know.

STOP NUMBER ONE: THE BUDDHIST/TAO/FOLK PARK

“No way,” I gaped, pointing at the tower of graduated roofs. “There is no way that is real. It looks digitally enhanced.”

We stood at the base of a skyscraper of a pagoda. It juts out from the ground in waves of rock, its peak seemingly flush against the clouds. I’m usually appreciative of architecture, but not maniacally so (buildings are just inanimate collections of stuff—a bunch of atoms you can’t really interact with [unless you count vandalism, but I won’t {publically} condone that]) but I’d never seen a pagoda before, and I was more impressed with rocks than usual; Too big for my scope of vision, it required more than a good stare, or even a scan of the eyes, to comprehend. While our tour guide gave us a lecture, Professor Yue simultaneously gave his own bonus lecture. Meanwhile, I noticed an expanse of chains reminiscent of a ropes about a ship’s mast at the top of the pagoda—structural or aesthetic, I wasn’t sure. I asked about them in Chinese (dumbdumbdumb), to which I received an answer (as expected) in Chinese, and came away with no new knowledge other than how to say ‘chain.’ I remain yet suspended in my understanding of suspensions.

We then checked out a giant wall embossed with three-dimensional images of creatures. According to the tour guide (who we understood despite the Chinese explanation this time), the big image in the middle was of one of the sons of a dragon that gave birth to nine ‘different skinned’ (unlike) children. This one happened to be, I think, a unicorn—but all the Chinese mythological creatures look equally four-legged, scaled, and fire-breathing to me in their temporal depictions, so I’m not sure. On either side of the ‘unicorn’ were cranes and a special kind of tree (whose name I didn’t understand despite the English explanation), representing Taoism and Buddhism, respectively. When I asked then, for which sect exactly is this yard intended, the tour guide and Professor Yue explained that while the yard is primarily Buddhist, conflicting faiths and ideas intermingle in China (Okay! Score!). Buddhism isn’t Chinese in origin, so it’s had to integrate itself into the culture with the help of native adaptations. According to Professor Yue, the laymen’s version of Buddhism isn’t even pure Buddhism. When we visited the yard’s main temple, presided upon by a family of intimidating golden buddhas, Professor Yue told me that I was right in saying that the purpose of Buddhism was to let go of material attachment—which is why it’s ironic that people pray to a Buddha. As he would mention again at the Confucian temple, people need something to pray too (I disagree), or something to ground themselves (I find plausible). I then asked about the tiny green aberration of a monster (in Chinese again- I NEVER learn) that was peaking out from behind a Buddha. Though my first stab at understanding let me to believe it was a bodhisattva, I later realized that it was a Buddha’s personal steed. In any case, it was seriously deranged in appearance; I could only imagine riding one at a rodeo. That would be one exciting way to re-enter the cycle of rebirth.

After that, we played in the courtyard and took pictures with shocked Chinese children. It was here that I would make one of my worst puns to date.

“Hey Alex,” I started, as Janice, Jaydee and Keeli climbed the roots of a fichus to pose for a picture, “how many Asians fit in a fichus?”

“I don’t know, Hannah. Do I want to?”

“Tree.”

I should have hung my head in shame, but Alex took it upon himself to complete that task for me.

STOP NUMBER TWO: I DON’T REMEMBER SO IT MUST BE SOMETHING SUPER IMPORTANT OR NONEXISTANT

STOP NUMBER THREE: THE MUSLIM MOSQUE, c. 1009

We stared at the ground, ambivalent. At a point in the distant past, the entire dome of the mosque’s prayer hall had caved in, covering the ground in priceless relics. The keepers of the mosque decided to build a new prayer hall rather than clear the scene, and time had allowed the ground to reclaim the dome and cover it with a lush layer of grass and other weeds. “If you like treasure, you should dig here!” our tour guide joked lightheartedly. I hoped that there were no imams in earshot.

The mosque also had a mini-museum with various documents detailing the ‘pedigrees’ of some families and ‘genealogies’ of others. Racism, or unintentionally poor translation? I never asked.

Other exciting stops and the inside jokes that accompany them (this post is long enough already…)

STOP NUMBER FOUR: LUNCH AT THE BLUE NUN (or, The One Where Everetttook our pictures as we ate Buddha only knows what)

STOP NUMBER FIVE: THE CONFUCIAN TEMPLE (or, The One Where I made even more bad puns, just like everywhere else, and Professor Yue taught us that Confucius is prayed to as a god even though he tells people that he can only help people who help themselves)

STOP NUMBER SIX: THE MARITIME MUSEUM AND ISLAMIC CENTER (or, The One Where we, tired, expressed Zoolanderesque astonishment at the model boats [‘Let’s hire different engineers, these ships are too small, and hey! Why are they testing their ships in stagnant water? There’s no wind here!’ ‘This rock is the first and only rock used as a boat.’ etc.).

As we walked through the museum, I accidentally turned off the filter between my brain and mouth and started rambling inanely about my personal philosophies.

“My conscious is telling me that I should feel bad for generally not appreciating museums, but, people are too attached to attaching meaning to things. They should just accept that this stuff is just matter (oh boy materialism, here we go) doing nothing right now. I know that on a deeper level they’ve HAD meaning before, and in the context of human existence they’ve meant major turning points in innovation, but… I just don’t feel like appreciating them. I’m utilitarian. Is it wrong that I only attach meaning to things when they apply to my life and ungraciously deny meaning to things that don’t directly influence my existence or help me? Or…”

At this point, Rich stopped me (thankfully, ‘cuz I probably wouldn’t have stopped myself).

“Woman, you’re trippin’,” he said, “most people don’t think this much. It’s a rock. A ROCK. Maybe you should just recognize that these stones and ship models are kind of boring and move on. Stop analyzing. Take a nap or start making sense.”

I was struggling to isolate my conscious from my ego while simultaneously trying to find meaning in the fact that I wasn’t finding meaning. Rich is right: no way these models, or anything really, deserve that much of my mind.

STOP NUMBER SEVEN: THE CONFUCIAN TOMBGARDEN er GRAVEYARD (there goes my English, oh dear) (or, The One With the yards that look like empty pools, replete with unused towels, and have really bad paint jobs; also, The One Where Rich decided that if when he becomes Ruler of the World, he will spend government money on creating a sculpture of a giant man on a horse with a raised hand to complement the one that exists on a hill at the cemetery, to represent The Most Epic High Five The World Has Ever Seen (‘Isn’t he just shielding his eyes from the sun?’ ‘NO IT’S A HIGH FIVE!’)

I SHOULD STOP WRITING BECAUSE I’M UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF CAFFEINE.

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