Dear friends and family,
A water buffalo pulls a plow through the mud of a rice field as a peasant farmer follows. A woman in a pointed hat that we've come to associate with an image of China, is bent over as she tosses shoots of rice plants with a delicate aim that spaces each plant perfectly in the water and mud. Another carries two loads of dirt on each side of a bar resting heavily on her neck. And as we bicycle on a path to visit villages on market day, we pass an old woman, bent over, without this burden on her neck. Lush, verdant fields lead to views of timeless mountains. Each juts like skyscrapers with sheer, steep decline. It is no surprise that some travel thousands of miles to rock climb these majestic, green promontories.
We have died and gone to heaven. Our hotel, the Yamshuo Village Retreat, is a vision of a well trimmed bearded Belgian named Gecht and his Chinese wife in their thirties. Gecht came to China four years ago to learn and eventually teach Tai Chi. After an injury, he started a hostel with friends. Its success led him to lease the two large buildings that they redecorated and staffed as the village retreat. A twenty minute walk from Yamshuo, it is nestled in a valley of large looming mountains that seem to rise and fall so quickly they recollect the volcanic "upside down ice cream cones" of Cappadocia, only they are much, much larger and covered with thick green.
We arrived in this refuge, an hour before Shabbos. As we hurriedly made plans to eat in the hotel's restaurant, lit candles, and shared gratitude, I reflected on what life would be without Shabbos. There glistening in the eyes of our family were candle lights flickering in the light late afternoon breeze on our balcony, as we shared our thankfulness for being in such a peaceful retreat, able to reflect on our blessings. It made me sad to think about so, so many lives of Jews who live without Shabbos. They don't have the opportunity for forgiveness and renewal, for nourishment and joy, for rest and spiritual reflection on a regular basis. Even as we rushed to make preparations for this awkwardly prepared Shabbat, given our new surroundings, we were filled with another perspective, a healing moment that peers out at the frenzy and applies a different standard to living in this world.
We have died and gone to heaven: to the mud, the lush rice fields, an amazing restaurant that really understands what it means to be vegetarian, right where we are staying. As we walk in the morning, we pass new homes that will serve as retreats for the millions of Chinese tourists who come to the area from cities like Shanghai. They are the new middle and upper middle class of this other world. And they are joined by a relatively few caucasians like us. Still our village retreat does not correspond to the tastes of most Chinese, who prefer the city center hotels where thousands fill the streets in evenings walking past shops that have inordinate quantities of shlock necklaces, fans, paintings, with an aesthetic that makes me wonder who ever buys them.
Fellow travelers to this retreat include an army staff sergeant from Spokane, Washington, who makes arrangements for burials of servicemen and their families and an Englishman, who imports scotch to China. In a short year, this very bright young entrepreneur owns a restaurant and has already negotiated distribution rights in large sectors of China. What a market! He holds tasting sessions for large gatherings of the Communist party, and the business compete with each other in ordering cases of scotch. "The Chinese love scotch," he beams. "If one businessman buys a case, another will buy three, and I'm thinking, okay, I can do this." "You mean, you're "polluting" China." I smirk. And he's too young to catch the reference. Neither he nor Avital knows that polluted is slang for intoxicated. Which makes me feel a little old. I am the only white bearded man in all of China, I think. With the omer, a time when traditionally beards are not trimmed, I make quite a sight for Chinese.
We attended a light show and concert last night, an opera of a story of a young woman with a beautiful voice, who is captured by an emperor and made captive, but who, in the end, is reunited with her love and they live happily ever after. The music reminds me of a blend of Chinese and Disney. The light show, designed by a famous director, who staged a similar event for the Beijing Olympics, has staged this "opera" with the talents of a cast of hundreds of local farmers. The light show in this setting, that makes for the biggest theater stage in the world, a lake divided by a huge platform, before an audience of a couple thousand, is so unbelievably grand. After the concert a woman in braces asks me to be photographed with her eight year old daughter. I feel so grandfatherly. She asks how I liked the performance, and I beam. She says, "but there are so many people," almost apologizing for her country. And I muse, "There are so many people everywhere. But there is something holy about how amidst so many people, crowds move together. In the streets at night, in this theater, they fill every inch of space. But they are respectful, understanding, it seems, of the numbers and the implications. There's never any pushing, no efforts to get around quicker, no danger of being trampled. There's even a kind of holiness in these massive numbers that I haven't felt before. And rather than claustrophobia, it induces a kind of peace and calm and wonder. Certainly, if there were these type of crowds, among Americans, it would have a different feel and concomitant danger. And this is not to say that they are by any means sedate. They are animated, interactive, even lively, but safe.
Between Michael and me, we make quite a sight in the streets. His scraggly beard and payes and my bush make the Chinese break out in laughter as they peer. It's not the laughter of ridicule that we encountered in Cracow. It's the laughter of bemusement. It's even respectful, with a hint of adulation.
But as we bicycle through the villages, we notice change everywhere. We move from old, run down shack like villages with chickens walking in the road to newly built brick homes set in glistening rice fields. They are the homes of newly middle and upper middle class. They do not have satellite dishes, but they certainly have electricity. One even has solar panels. They are not extravagant homes, yet, but they are certainly well built, most with three levels. Though the government owns all of the land, there are some who must be benefiting greatly from long term leases that bring them profits of the fertile land in a country of a billion and a half. Clearly. There has already been a massive relocation of population from the farm to the cities. I think I remember that it is the largest migration of people in the human history. Used to be that our grandparents were a part of the largest migration. New China has supplanted them. I'm thinking, "It might be an 'easier' life in the cities. So are they, but what beauty and connection they are leaving.
There are hints of democracy in this opulent display. A pursuit of perceived opportunity. The dress of Chinese is almost completely western in both the cities and the fields. There is nothing of the communist uniform, except in the odd policeman. The internet is everywhere. We don't get a sense from people that there is a movement to overthrow anywhere. We don't notice the government interceding much in any part of these worlds. Sure, there are the examples we read about as screaming headlines in American newspapers, but I don't get any sense of the hostility of a nation that we might imagine. Far from it. People are warm. They are alive with the new China and its opportunities. They are insulated from much of the political issues that we think about, but they are also simmering with changes that will one day lead to cultural upheaval no less important than the upheaval of the twentieth century. It is the tension between the urban encounter and the need for retreat. The tension produced when tradition and family of rural life are wiped out and the search for home and village in urban life begins. It is everywhere: in the clothing they choose, in the lifestyle changes to diet that they make, in the schlock that they pass in the streets, in the donuts that they consume.
It makes us feel at home, even in this utterly new and ancient world. Everything is a challenge to locate. Milk for our muesli, cheese for a sandwich. Peanut butter. Staples of another world. But we manage to feast and at rather reasonable rates, even in our plush retreat.
Wow! The beauty that suffuses us as we bicycle through the fields in the hot sun. Or take a morning walk. Or wait for the rains to abate so that we can kayak on the rising river. You might know that I've fallen in love with the shift from Shanghai to Yamshuo. I've died and gone to heaven in that other China.
In friendship and love,
Gary, Rabbi Gary, or what you will
For more: Heaven