Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Embarking on our choral tour in China, I packed Lisa See's tea book: perfect timing to read it. While the Dragon Well Tea Plantation we visited is in Hangzhou, this story is set in Yunnan Province, close to the borders on Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. The tea-growing Akha people live in the mountains, comprise one of China's fifty-five ethnic minorities. Geographically, Yunnan is a Global Biodiversity Hotspot. With only 4% of the nation's land mass, is "home to more than half its mammal and bird species, as well as twenty-five...ethnic minorities" along the Tea Horse Road.

The story opens in a remote Akha village in Yunnan, where rigid social rules, superstition and unbridled passions lead to tragedy. The story unfolds, revealing the enormous changes faced by tea growers in recent decades. The action happens in Yunnan, Thailand, California and Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, as we travelled, our Chinese guides told us a bit about China's ethnic minorities. One detail that fascinated me was the fact that unlike the majority Han people, minorities have never had the one-child policy applied to them. On the tour, I was also learning about various Chinese government campaigns -- for instance, against smoking. In the book, I was astonished to read about the campaign "Fifty-five Minorities; One Dream." Until recently, the Akha feared the birth of twins. Yet before the Beijing Olympics, the central government sought out fifty-five sets of twins, one from each minority, and created a spectacle to make the nation proud.

In the rare moments I was able to snatch for reading my novel, I was learning more about the Akha. A tribe with animistic beliefs, they believe that "Everything on earth has a soul, even a single rice kernel." Their rigid adherence to rituals create intense conflict within our protagonist, as well as among villagers, and between her and the many non-Akha she meets along the way. Another fascinating aspect of the book is the wealth of information on tea culture. See's many pages of acknowledgements thank an impressive array of scholars on both these topics. I was astonished to learn that "the Pu'er Tea College...has a GPS system that can locate every tea tree over a thousand years old on Yunnan's twenty-six tea mountains."

Following from the first story line, a second tale develops in California. An adopted Chinese daughter is growing up happy and privileged with her white parents, but she can't get over wondering about her real parents back in China. And she's not alone. Many other Chinese adoptees have arrived in the US; they and their adopting families share similar challenges, including the combined need and the fear of discovering who they "really" are, and why their birth parents gave them up. Were they among the estimated 30,000 to 60,000 Chinese children illegally trafficked and exported? Can organizations like Roots and Shoots Heritage tours help them come to terms with their dual cultural identities?

On the Chinese side, the book alludes to some of the side effects of the One-child policy that was in effect for many years and prevented an estimated 400,000,000 births. At one point in the story, "there are 30 million more young males seeking mates...than there are prospective brides." In an echo of this idea, our Beijing guide Amy tells us, only half-jokingly, that girls now get to pick and choose husbands with education, money, homes and cars. Speaking of cars: if you live in Beijing, you have to enter a lottery for the privilege of buying one. It used to be held every two months, but now will take place only once a year. This is one of the many initiatives to control the number of vehicles on Chinese roads, and thus alleviate the congestion and air pollution they create.

Before travelling to China, I got an app called WeChat to keep in touch with family, since I knew a lot of the apps we use here would be inaccessible there. Chinese use WeChat for communication, and for all kinds of shopping. You can tap and ride a shared bicycle (and they're everywhere), or buy an ice cream in the Dairy Queen at Shanghai Market. Incidentally, even though I saw several Starbucks outlets in China, I was astonished to learn from Lisa See's book that coffee is now being grown in Yunnan Province. She also mentions the ubiquity of WeChat app, and describes a tasty and simple dish I enjoyed a couple of times while I was there: scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

See's tale of tea and trouble is dramatic, indeed quite harrowing in places, but not ultimately tragic. After Li-yan's  many adventures and misadventures, our Akha protagonist is able to express the universal message "Suffering has brought clarity into my life."

In China, John Crozman and Dean Marshall were our Culture Path musical guides and arrangers. They've arranged musical performances in China many times, and have long-term relationships with their Chinese counterparts. "They have their own way of doing things here," says John. "And once they decide to do something, it gets done. Every time I come, something else is new."

Finally, I'd like to express my gratitude to Vancouver novelist Janie Chang for introducing me to the work of Lisa See. Without Janie's recommendation, I may not have discovered this wonderful author whose work I've found so educational, especially as I travelled in China. Like Janie's, Lisa See's words cast much light on that enormous and fascinating country that is both incredibly ancient and incredibly modern. I admit I knew relatively little about China until I was granted this unexpected opportunity to visit and learn more.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Rediscovering green tea in China

Recently, my fellow choristers and I went to China on a Culture Path tour. We shared a cultural exchange with a local choir, and performed in five cities with two Celtic fiddle groups and renowned tenor Ken Lavigne.

Our group leaders also created many wonderful opportunities to see and experience some unique aspects of Chinese culture. Long before we visited the Dragon Well Tea Plantation, I noticed how delicious was the green tea we drank on our visit to China.

This made it all the more delightful to visit a place where the tea is grown and processed. By luck, we arrived shortly after the first picking of the new buds in March, the best part of the crop. Green tea, I learned, contains no caffeine as unlike black tea, it is unfermented. In fact, explained Mr. May, who studied tea at Zhejiang University, it contains many substances that are good for health.

Left: tea bushes in foreground, with terraced hills of tea behind them. Below: a glass of freshly brewed green tea.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Tang Dynasty show and dumpling banquet

Xi'an (direct translation of the word parts means west harmony) is the historic and cultural capital of China, our city guide Judy told us.

This gracious performer greeted theatre-goers arriving for the Tang Dynasty Music and Dance show. We sat at tables to watch dancers and singers in exquisite costumes on gorgeously coloured sets. During the show, we were served an amazing variety of tiny and delectable dumplings. The sesame duck resembled that bird, and the goldfish dumplings had fan tails and green peas for eyes. My fave was the purple sweet potato dumpling.

After performing in the choir with various musicians in five concert halls in five Chinese cities, it was a relief to sit in the audience for a change.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Terracotta warriors of Xi'an

These authorized contemporary replicas of the terracotta army of Xi'an are made of clay, bronze and even jade. Today wealthy people can commission a statue with their own faces. Originally, the artists also based each figure on the face of a real man who lived back then. Many have open hands like the kneeling archer in the foreground; the warriors once carried real bronze weapons.

The clothing and hairstyles reveal the different ranks. For instance, the simple topknot worn by the ordinary soldier is positioned to give the right-handed archer (the majority) easy access to the arrows from the quiver on his shoulder. Generals wear beards, and body armour over cotton robes, square toed shoes and flat backward-sloping masses of hair. Chariot drivers wear special gauntlets as well as padded armour to protect their necks.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Enormous terra cotta army of Xi'an

The terra-cotta warriors of Xi'an were ordered by the Qin (Chin) emperor after whom the united China was named. Rank upon rank of cavalry, infantry and chariots were created to guard the emperor's privilege and power in the afterlife. It is estimated that it took 720,000 artisans forty years to create the terracotta men, weapons, chariots and Mongolian horses. Behind the haunting beauty of this art lies a story of profound violence. The Qin emperor was so cruel that he the killed the creators when their painstaking works were complete.

After his death, a general who had served him took revenge on the former boss who had put his father and son to death. The general first had his army take the real bronze weapons from the warriors. When they then attacked the tomb, figures were broken and the pit filled with ashes.

The first part of the tomb was discovered in 1974 by a farmer drilling for water, and the remainder came to light in 1976. The site was opened to visitors in 1979. Today, archaeologists from seven  nations work as teams in a few pits. It can take three archaeologists nearly a year to reconstitute a single statue and set it back in its original place. The relatively small number of figures in the photo have taken forty years to restore. Vast numbers of others remain untouched below ground.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Aboriginal women poets read at Canadian Authors event

In celebration of National Poetry Month, we heard readings by three poets, hosted by Kevin Spenst. Jonina Kirton's latest poetry collection, An Honest Woman, has just been nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Prize.

We sampled her wise words: "My turtle mind, slow, steady, walks me to the dance floor, where my snake self dances me," alluding to "a trail of marooned memories."

Joanne Arnott shared these deep truths: "Our bodies are what we are good at and unconscious of," and "Watching the earth breathe can become habit forming." She also made us laugh a lot, once with her quip, "I have poetic licence."

Joanne closed her presentation by singing an altered version of Rockabye Baby, with an ending in which the narrator promises to catch the baby and cradle, if they should fall. What a relief. I've always hated the brutal ending of that traditional nursery rhyme.

Wanda Kehewin shared work from In the Dog House, as well as her upcoming collection. "I heard the word forgiveness, and I asked myself, in what language does forgiveness begin?" A new poem, "My Brother," evoked the deep pain of an elder sibling's helpless concern for her brother in an abusive foster home. Moments later, Wanda's zany humour had her audience in stitches.

Though some poems carried sadness that was hard to hear, in other moments, poets and audience laughed together in joyful unity. Overall, a stellar evening.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Lingering Garden in Suzhou

The Lingering Garden in Suzhou, China is a UNESCO heritage site. We were there at the best possible time, with magnolias, redbuds and other flowering trees in bloom. More time to linger would've been nice!