The Shenzhen Education Bureau handed down late notice of yet another 5-day vacation for yours truly on Friday, in honor of May Day. You’re thinking right now that I don’t actually have a job, and you are about 30% correct. In the case of my lovely roommate, Jess, you’re closer to 90% correct, as her school has decided that she is only teaching one class on Wednesday mornings from now until the end of contract.
My Saturday-Wednesday vacation was spent on another rapidly planned trip, this time with Carrie, Jenni, and Gen. We hopped the express train from Guangzhou to Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province and very near to Shaoshan, the hometown of the one and only Mao Zedong. We were told that in Shaoshan, 80% of the citizens have the surname Mao. We got in late to the hostel on Saturday night, but luckily there were beds available for us. We wandered down the street at 10:30pm until we found a place for a belated dinner, and had the most delicious fried 饺子 (dumplings) ever. Sunday we got ready to start our day in the company of Jun, a Guangzhou native who was traveling alone and asked to spend the day with us. He was small, polite, and very helpful since he spoke Chinese and could help us navigate the buses we needed to get around town. He also ordered our breakfast in this hole-in-the-wall shop near the restaurant: fresh, hot, Guilin style rice noodles. We spent the day riding buses and wandering over Yuelu Shan. The mountain is home to one of the most renowned classical Confucian schools in the country, Yuelu Academy, established in 976AD, where Zhu Xi and Zhang Shi both lectured. It officially became a university in 1926 and is now known as Hunan University. The academy buildings trail through the mountains, surrounded by trees and ponds, and include Confucian temples, pavilions, and towers.
Wandering the mountain (our circuitous hike down included stops at various tombs, a temple, and viewing pavilions) took most of the morning and afternoon. We stopped for lunch at what looked to be a decent restaurant but ended up being one of the filthiest places I’ve ever eaten, and when we finally got to the Hunan Provincial Museum at 3pm, we were told it was sold out for the day due to high traffic. We went to the “walking street” instead where we said goodbye to Jun and found an amazing little place called Caco Cafe. Sitting on the patio with our drinks engendered endless stares by the passing Chinese, which was even more disconcerting than usual.
That night we went on the biggest Ferris wheel in the world (not really, it’s second to the one in London, but it was sufficiently huge; we had to take an elevator five floors up in a hotel to get to the loading dock). I was nervous. But the cages were enclosed and the Ferris wheel went so slowly that there was very minimal rocking and as we were going up there were gorgeous fireworks in the distance and the line of headlights from cars on the street and from buildings was beautiful. I did think how in Michigan a Ferris wheel like that would put you right up into the stars. There weren’t any stars, but China puts on a grade A fireworks show. Makes sense, since they were invented here.
The next day was our day trip from Changsha to Shaoshan, Mao’s hometown. The morning dawned cold and overcast (we didn’t have a single ray of sunshine for the whole long weekend), but we assumed that it would warm up to the usual muggy eighty that we’d been dealing with for awhile. We assumed wrong. It was windy, cold, and drizzly in Shaoshan and we were dressed inappropriately in shorts or skirts and tees. We stood in the longest line ever, fighting to maintain our place against the pushing Chinese tourists behind us, who have absolutely no conception of a line as an orderly institution that dictates when you will participate in an event. This one old woman ducked under the rope to cut in front of us, and she was so boldly unapologetic and friendly about it that we let it go (“我要看一下。Wo yao kan yi xia,” she said about Mao’s home. “I just want to take a look.” Haha, oh, is that why you’re in line like the other three thousand of us?) To pass the time (we were in line for about an hour) she started humming. She was cool. The women shoving into us from behind, and the children who tried to squeeze between our legs, however, we held our ground against.
Mao’s home was a small country farm style house, and his bedroom was just across the open atrium from the cattle barn. I imagined the smell every morning and thought it was probably just what Mao deserved, even if he didn’t know it. For awhile I got stuck behind the old humming woman as we went through the house (in the same pushing line as before), and it was so interesting to watch her. She read every plaque slowly, out loud, by holding her finger up to a character and pronouncing it, then kindly pointing out the English to me or the other girls if they were nearby. In the kitchen she paused for a long time, standing by the door to the next room and just staring. I wondered how much of her life, as an elderly Chinese woman, was spent in a kitchen: first her mother’s, then her own, and now perhaps her child’s, taking care of the grandchildren. I wondered if she was imagining what it would be like to be Mao’s mother, what she’d cook him for breakfast, how she’d wash his clothes and keep the house clean. I hate the man and most everything he stood for, but most of the Chinese I know are fiercely loyal. It doesn’t occur to them not to be.
Eventually I left Mao’s childhood home to watch several girls take a picture of themselves touching a “Do Not Touch” sign. Clever. They were also photobombed by a completely clueless woman who wandered into their picture and stayed, looking confused, which was sincerely hilarious.
It was very cold at this point, but we wandered through the souvenir stalls and then found the Mao Zedong Relic Museum, which is this absolutely gorgeous modern building and a completely tasteful museum filled with all of Mao’s personal artifacts from his life: clothes he wore, the utensils his assistants used to comb his hair (ironic, I thought, to think of this Leader of the Peasant Class having his hair combed by what amounts to servants), books he read and poems he wrote (also ironic considering his vendetta against intellectuals and the reeducation of scholars that often ended in torture/death that was such a huge component of the Cultural Revolution), forks he ate with, pottery he used, pipes he smoked, slippers he wore, music he listened to…basically anything that had touched his person and could therefore become an object of worship to the Chinese people. The museum made him seem like a pretty stand-up individual. Propaganda’s a powerful, irresistible force. We’re all subjected to some form of it everyday, in the news, in the stories we’re read and told, in our history books, in media from commercials to movies to music videos and we don’t even know half the time but it shapes everything about us. I have my own opinions about Mao because of Western propaganda and the Chinese have theirs because of museums like this.
We tried to go to Di Shui Dong, Water Dripping Cave, after the museum, but it was so cold and truly raining by that point that we gave up to take the bus back to the hostel for more clothes and a rest before heading out to dinner. That night’s dinner was the best of the trip and also probably one of the best of my life: fried pork baozi, spicy sliced potatoes, a spicy grab-bag bowl of lotus, shrimp, pork, peanuts, and broccoli, a dish of eggplant and eel, and fried rice. We went to a coffee shop called 5th Tone afterward to meet one of Carrie’s contact teacher’s friends, but he wasn’t working that day. We instead had a long chat with Sarah, an American who’d been working and living in Changsha for 6 years. She had started as an English teacher but now works full time at the coffee shop. It’s a really community-focused place with a weekly English corner and live music on Friday nights, and it was cool to talk to an expat who wasn’t the sleazy kind found so often in Western bars in Shenzhen.
After the coffee shop we decided to go back to the walking street where we had noticed a lot of bars, but the street was mostly closed down. We found an open bar and sat down to play dice and cards for an hour or so, and we were lucky enough to witness the following: a group of young Chinese–likely university students (Changsha is a college town if there is such a thing in China: there are a bunch of universities around the area)–getting riotously drunk. One of the young men apparently lost a bet, and a bad one it was. His chubby friend bared the upper half of a round, jiggly white bottom, and the first guy had to kiss it. The kisser then proceeded to dry heave, but it was mostly for show, because he didn’t learn his lesson. He was back to betting in a second, and later lost again: this time he had to approach the four of us and give us a “gan bei!” or “bottoms up,” which meant he cheered us and then chugged his beer while we took a sip from ours to humor him.
The next day was our last. Our train was in the afternoon, so all we wanted to do was visit the Hunan Provincial Museum, have lunch, and then get to the train station. My heart sank when the guard at the museum said “今天不开.” Not open today. The astoundingly well-preserved remains of 2100 year old Lady Xin Zhui are in there (! wah, so old!), as well as a bunch of relics from all over China. It’s supposed to be a damn good museum and I was bummed that we couldn’t see it.
But, well, we went to a Tibetan Mastiff Exhibition instead. Our taxi driver told us the island we wanted to visit was also closed…things in China usually shut down on Monday, if at all, but everything had been open on Monday because it was May Day, so it was all apparently closed Tuesday instead. The driver had dropped us off at a place he thought we might like to see, a Windows of the World which looked like a worse version of the very kitschy one we have in Shenzhen anyway, but luckily we spotted this Exhibition right next door… so we braved the smell and petted drugged up puppies and dogs like the one in this picture for awhile before heading out for lunch and then back to the train station to Guangzhou and finally to Shenzhen. It’s always that, in the end: back to Shenzhen.