Post-New Year’s update

JISHOU, HUNAN — My exams are marked, final grades are calculated, and I can now start my Winter Holiday! Phew!

The campus is pretty empty right now. University students have four weeks’ break, officially, but many left for home as soon as possible after their last examination. Left on campus are a few exchange students, assorted graduate students with work still to submit, and faculty.

In China, Spring Festival — celebrating the lunar New Year — is a big family affair, like Thanksgiving and Christmas are in the States. Imagine rolling Independence Day (fireworks), Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve into one holiday, and you can begin to understand what a festive occasion awaits us here.

With some time on my hands — finally — I can recap what has happened in the last several days since my last post.

When we last left our hero, he was recovering from a long day in Fenghuang shooting for a TV show….

The following day, I helped make and eat dumplings at the home of a freshman student, Fu Xiao, whose father is a local government official. Fu Xiao and her friend, Tian Fang, another of my students, helped me buy a space heater for my apartment, since the heat pump does a crappy job warming any room besides the bedroom. Xiao’s father gave me a gift of Xiangxi tea, grown in the mountains around here, which I swear is the best damned tea I have ever had. Sweet and fragrant. Aaahhh!

Earlier in the day, XiaoDi had called me, to tell me that the ETV crew once again needed my presence in Fenghuang, this time on Saturday. Since she had an exam, I was deprived of my favorite interpreter, so I asked another friend, Yang XiXi, a senior, to help me out. Her spoken English skills are also very good, and fortunately, she was able and willing to come along.

So, it was on Saturday afternoon that the ETV crew picked me, XiXi and her boyfriend up for another trip to Fenghuang. Alas, the beautiful ETV emcee, YoYo, was not with us this time, but the buoyant energy of the crew made up for her absence.

This time, they wanted to shoot a scene with me photographing a lovely Miao girl by the river, who would sing a courtship song to me, and I would have to sing something back — in Chinese.

The Miao and Tujia are ethnic minorities here, and have lived in this part of Hunan (Xiangxi county) for thousands of years. Singing is an important part of both cultures. When entering a Miao village or home, local people will sing a song, and the visitor has to sing something in return (and drink a bowl of rice wine) to be granted entry. Miao and Tujia men and women court each other by singing songs back and forth.

But who would be the lovely Miao girl by the river? YoYo was not with us, and none of the women in the crew seemed willing to take on the role. Instead, they insisted XiXi do it.

Asking XiXi to come along was thus serendipitous, because XiXi’s father is Miao and she knows a lot about Miao culture. She does not know the Miao language, however, so while the crew negotiated with a local boatsman, XiXi learned part of a Miao love song phonetically from a nearby older Miao woman. (Miao do not use Chinese characters for their language, so XiXi had to write down the lyrics in pinyin.)

Originally, both I and the Miao girl would be in boats passing on the Tuojiang River, but the crew decided the logistics would be easier if I stayed on the quai and the girl was in the boat. At this point, XiXi’s enthusiasm (she had only signed on as a translator, after all) plummeted to zero. She can’t swim, and the idea of getting in a boat the size of a canoe did not exactly thrill her. The crew insisted, and with encouragement from me and her boyfriend, she donned Miao clothes, and ventured out into the river.

Despite freezing weather and her misgivings, XiXi did an excellent job in her role, prompting one director, Zhou Jie (Jane), to praise her as a very good actress. Jane also managed to coach me to sing a few lines of a Chinese boatsman song in reply, so after several takes, we were all able to wrap up this shoot in time for dinner. No midnight marathon this time.

Jane has since given me a rundown of the program the crew is shooting. It is a four-hour presentation of the culture and scenery of Xiangxi county. The Fenghuang segment is only one of five they have been shooting since Jan. 1. If I had not had exams to administer, I may have very well been asked to appear in other segments. The program will premiere on the 17th here at the university, to kick off the county’s celebration of the New Year.

The program is also a way to divert people’s attention away from the economic turmoil here. In September an elaborate and illegal investment scheme fell apart, leaving thousands of local people with losses totaling 1 to 2 billion yuan. There have been intermittent protests by the government buildings downtown since then, and the police have been on enhanced security watches practically non-stop. Today, I saw a small army patrol downtown, and their bivouac at the Jishou Sports Arena.

It’s a mess that the government would like to make go away, but is not prepared — rightly so — to reimburse all the unwise and unsophisticated who risked their life savings in the get-rich-quick scheme. Some families are now completely broke. Spring Festival is a time for big family meals, monetary gifts to youngsters, fireworks and visiting all your friends and relatives. With no money left, many local residents are upset, and expect the government (which looked the other way when the illegal investment scheme first began) to help them out.

Meanwhile, life goes on for everyone else. Downtown is still as busy as ever, with the usual crowd on the sidewalks. I have eaten and shopped downtown several times in the last few days with no problem, though the continual cluster of police and residents by the government building tends to slow down both vehicle and foot traffic on that block.

With school out and more time on our hands, I have been to spend “quality time” with a good friend who leaves today on a sightseeing tour before she heads home to her parents. My friends in town, most of whom are either teachers or students, have plans to keep me busy during the Winter Holiday, with sightseeing excursions, dinners, karaoke outings, a family Spring Festival celebration, a birthday party (mine!) and Chinese lessons. In early February I will be an honored guest at local Miao and Tujia cultural activities.

So, while the campus is relatively deserted and Jishou’s citizenry a little tense, I will be busy and happy.

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