Temple Garden

Carefully nurtured curls of colour graceful between etched Chinese vines remind me of the meditative gardens humming with the sweet dissonance of deep singing bowls stirred by monks in maroon and mustard robes.

©2012 N.M. Weigand, Temple Garden. Flameworked glass, Approx. 7 inches.

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Tokens from the Sea

K and I recently had the good fortune to be on Crescent Beach at Cape Elizabeth, ME on a chill and cloudy afternoon.

As the ocean rolled over itself onto the rocky sand in rhythmic white breaks, our eyes searched what it left behind.

Between bouts of quiet contemplation and screaming joy as freezing ocean water flooded over bare feet, our eyes and fingers found interesting stones and possible bones and vacant shells that were former homes. A few bits of coiled rope washed ashore. A single piece of sea glass.

After visiting Stonewall Kitchen and picking up some wonderful wild blueberry and sour cherry jams for my co-workers, I realised the empty jars would make wonderful vessels to remember our time together on the ocean. I arranged one for each of us.

When you open them, they smell of the sea.

Noodles

Winter mornings dawned cold, wet and white in the chalice bowl created by the convergence of the Wu and Yangtze Rivers, as the fog thick as a concrete sweater (and often the same colour) settled into the valley and the damp chill settled into your bones. Students would dress in layers and we’d do finger calisthenics to warm their swollen red hands before writing. Teachers were a bit luckier (at least foreign teachers were) because we had a bit of heat in our apartments. I had a small wall unit in my bedroom that served as both heater and AC, as well as an oscillating fan space heater that gave off a tremendous amount of heat in a small area and was, I’m certain, a fantastic fire hazard.

But I had a hard time getting warm that first winter.

Six months in to the Peace Corps experience, still battered by endless waves of culture shock, unprepared for the incoming ideological culture shock, terrifically lonely, having just had my teaching abilities challenged by the majority of my students plagiarizing their journalism finals, and discovering infidelity in my long-term relationship – it was a chilling place to be on every level.

***

Gansu was as far from Chongqing as any rural Midwestern town is from Anchorage, Alaska – not quite in physical distance, but in food, people, feel and liberation.

All of the PCVs were there for training, but I wasn’t feeling at my most social.

One day, on a trip to climb a mountain, Bei Xiang and I took a detour when everyone else stopped for lunch. We navigated cramped, brown back-streets where dust hung in the air with the smells of dried spices and both clung to our clothes. There was an open air market in an alleyway, with live animals in various states of animation beside their butchered and hung-for-sale counterparts, beautiful, bent-back grandmothers jockeying to grasp the hanks of meat with bare hands – lovely faces lined like maps of their lives and withered lips pursed in intensity as they began the bargaining process.

This was not the farmer’s market from home, nor even the brilliant green shock of vegetables ever available in the warmer climate of Chongqing, and we would not find lunch here.

Still, my fingers ached to be freed from the confines of gloves and pockets and dipped deep in a rough burlap sack of smooth green mung beans, to dance over a dozen different kinds of fungus. (I wish I’d known K then.)

And then it hit us.

Like the lilt of a snake charmer’s flute, a warm, soya, oniony broth arrested our senses, and both of us turned.

A man in a long white apron over a brown striped polo shirt and a wrapped white chef’s cap was stepping out of the ceiling-to-floor strips of thick overlaid plastic that are so commonly used to keep heat or cool in. With him had come the irresistible draft, and now we could see the source.

Another man in cooking attire stood inside, dusted liberally with flour and standing before what looked like a fantastically large cauldron. Under one arm he held, like a baby, a baby-sized block of what appeared to be dough – in the other, an oddly-shaped knife. In smooth, repetitive motions that seemed absolutely second nature, he ran the knife across the top of the block of dough and a long, thick, triangular wedge of noodle backflipped into the pot.

Transfixed, we moved inside and took a seat, watching as our portion was shaved off the top, boiled, and whisked away for a few moments while something magical happened to it involving soy sauce and scallions. Bending over the shared bowl with one of my dearest friends, I suddenly realised that comfort food could exist outside of one’s own culture. I would find many comfort foods in China, including Uighur lamb, hot pot (as unlikely as that may be), and pretty much everything my Chinese mother cooked, but it’s this moment of shared savour, biting into those intensely-flavoured, thick, chewy, spicy ribbons of warmth that I remember thinking I could continue on this journey.

It was reluctantly and with runny noses (spicy!) that we wound our way back to the group, but there was nothing disappointing about that day. I had found new heart, and new appreciation for the whimsical and downright odd things we passed (amusement park equipment standing old and idle at the foot of a holy mountain). As we climbed, we found ourselves above the smog-level of the city, and though it was unnerving to see the layer of brown spread like peanut butter below us, the clear blue sky above was a revelation all of its own.

The sky wasn’t the only thing that was clear. We were able to drink from a crisp cold stream that had its genesis in the mountains. There was a hollow cavern with a narrow aperture in the roof, and on each solstice, the sun would shine directly through. And there was a deep but small pool for women to reach into, and what they first touched would determine the gender of their first child. I shed my protective layers and reached my entire arm in to the shoulder while Bei Xiang looked on. But what I felt remains known only to me.

Do you know what else I felt?

Hope.

Perhaps that’s why I loved those two weeks in Gansu so much, despite the pain that came with them. Or why the moment I returned to Fuling, I sought out the local noodle joints to see if I could get Dao Shou Mian (Knife Hand Noodles, as those are called). I could, by the way, just outside the front gate of my university, and I spent many hours reading the Harry Potter series and talking with students over a bowl of my favourite comfort food. Perhaps that’s why I’m trying to recreate them, even now, six years back in the States.

And why am I writing about noodles tonight?

I had a preferred brand of instant noodles in China as well. I ate them when I was very busy, or very sick – so, a lot. K and I spend a lot of time visiting Asian food stores, and I’ve tried to find those noodles. Not so much because they’re transcendent, but because they’re transportative. Unfortunately, all I could remember was that the package was red.

Never one to turn a new red package down, I picked up one while shopping for the ingredients for my Chinese mother’s famous dumpling-stuffed eggplant last week. Tonight I tried it.

Transportative indeed.

I don’t care if it’s not a word, Spell Checker – one minute I’m standing in my kitchen looking out at a cat chasing a bird, and the next I’m sitting at my kitchen table on a grey day in Fuling studying pinyin. If that’s not transportative, then I don’t know what is.

We eat so much without thinking about it. I’d like to be more conscious about what I consume, both in terms of health and of memories. Life is too short to consume dross.

Making the Case for Peace Corps China

White mists thicker than wool cloaks blanketed the river valley where the Wu met the Yangtze, as groups of young women congregated of a morning behind fixed rickety desks in folding chairs, kneading their exposed fingers for warmth in the unheated classroom.

These were the daughters of farmers, of laborers, of the men and women who toiled with their hands, whose bodies told the stories of their professions – shoulders bowed from heavy yoke or fingers callused from scythe and sickle. Their parents worked in the city, or the terraced acreage climbing the mountains just beyond the university gates, or perhaps in a province hours away by rocky bus ride. Nowhere was easy to access, as rural as we were. And these daughters, with the occasional son hidden in the back of the room, were the sum total of their parents’ hopes and aspirations – each family was allowed to bear only one child.

This was my China.

I travelled to China in 2004 as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. My primary project was teaching English at a teachers’ college in a rural area in the heart of the country. Rural was much larger there than it is to me now, but in a country of over 1.3 billion people, that’s to be expected. This was no Beijing, no thriving east coast city. I worked with over 1,200 students in my two years, teaching not only English, but also educational methodology classes, that is, teaching teachers how to teach. Our students worked hard to develop the tools that would allow them to obtain jobs teaching, often in even more remote areas, and ensure that the work of Peace Corps was spread far beyond each volunteer.

In the summers, we organized trainings for middle school teachers from surrounding rural areas, offering English and education classes which were eagerly attended. This is how you spread a small number of resources over a large area and empower those in need, while establishing real cross-cultural exchange in the process.

Representative Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, doesn’t understand this. He made an attack on Peace Corps China that appeared in Friday’s Denver Post: “Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman wants Peace Corps out of China.” In this article, Rep. Coffman expresses “shock” at seeing volunteers teaching in universities and demands that Peace Corps China be immediately suspended, as a symbol of poor usage of tax funds.

I hope very much that Rep. Coffman is misunderstanding and not using the Peace Corps as a political soapbox.

It is true that Peace Corps China is not the conventional Peace Corps assignment of digging ditches and building latrines, and teaching children in villages of 150 people. This model is not feasible in China. Nor could Peace Corps insist on it, since the first goal of Peace Corps is to help interested countries meet their needs for training. It would be alarmingly arrogant to assume to set those needs ourselves. We teach the teachers who return to rural areas and teach, and our lessons are passed on ad infinitum. In addition, we maintain peace and build stronger friendships between undeniably important nations. These ties will only grow more vital as we move forward into a global community.

And Rep. Coffman said himself that we did it for a “small amount of money,” quoting a representation in China of 0.5% of the total Peace Corps budget of $2.9 million.

The cost of Peace Corps China is small, the benefit to the U.S. is significant and the positive impact on rural China is immense.

This is a time for increased understanding, and I hope that those considering the Peace Corps and its funding will take the time to weigh the small costs of an effective program versus the potentially painful consequences of making insignificant cuts.

Knitting in the Wind

As I drove home last night, the moon a bleeding red ball looming over the east horizon, I could see where I was going almost a full half hour before I reached my exit. That’s one of the beautiful things about living on the plains – the entire world stretches out before you. Growing up in the twisting hills of the trailing Appalachians, moving to the purple mountains of central China – I never developed the appreciation for these sprawling expanses of openness, monochrome in a dismal February, verdant and leafy in a late July sunset. But last night, the lights of the grain elevator guided me with as much purpose and oblique beauty as those of a New England lighthouse. My lifelong love affair with the Midwest.

It continued tonight, marveling at the streaming sunlight, the compelling wind, the capricious moods of industry, agriculture and the state budget.

It’s seldom light when I leave the office, so it was a pleasure to step out into the fading twilight, perforated by birdsong. Those who love purple martins among us have much to smile about. There are fresh morels in the IGA. The rough stone of my front stoop scraped gently against my palms as I lowered myself next to the candle that burns on nights of peace or sorrow. I put the kettle on. As the sun lowered gently, until the streetlights blazed into life, I sat in the constant wind, cast on a baby sweater in a butter-soft yarn in Easter greens and ocean blues. Watched the light dim and thought of another evening, years but not so long ago.

The train ride had been hellacious, if I stopped and thought about it. A suitcase I could barely lift, a suicide on the tracks, a six-hour delay. Changing cars at the crack of dawn, noise and crowd and foreign tongue. I remember feeling only free. Seldom in my time in China had I felt as truly open and alive and safe as the moment my plane lifted into the air in Beijing, reading pop fiction on the rocky banks of the Danube, and of course, that first breezy night in Paris.

I poured the boiling water into a shallow sauce pan, around a grass green artichoke, strong stem removed with a wide Chinese cleaver. I’d had artichokes before that night – tinned, sickly sweet and strong with Italian marinade, slippery and unpleasant surprises hidden in the cheese on a pizza. But it was my first night in France, on a balcony so small it barely held the diminutive table and efficient chairs we balanced between the potted plants photosynthesizing in the Parisian sunset. I remember perfectly the settling darkness, soft and somehow luminous with lavender lamplight. The warm, heavenly baguette from the little patisserie down the street. The bold and heady Bordeaux in slim-stemmed goblets. And the artichoke you cooked in a shallow pan in the narrow galley kitchen of your dormitory.

Even now, as I separate the tender flesh from the unyielding blades with my teeth, I can feel the incandescent darkness surround. Your long musician’s fingers gently freeing the sharp leaves from the heart. Rich balsamic and saucy Cabernet bring back the deep, unnecessarily broken silence on the balcony, as the purple clouds left trails that might have been stars in the moonless night.

That a Terre Haute artichoke can evoke the tastes of the Seine-fed valleys speaks to me more clearly of divinity than all of the Sistine Chapel ceilings ever could.