Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ten Moments from the West

National Holiday, 2015: Ellen and I Go to Visit Ellen's Family in Xinjiang

So there we were, mere minutes after being released from the airplane and then from a two-hour car ride from Urumqi Diwopu International Airport to Shihezi, when suddenly the trunk opened and I was instructed to carry a large, frothy lamb carcass up the stairs by its hind legs to its ultimate destinations: the frying pan, and then the stomachs of various members of Ellen's extended family, and my stomach, in the first moments that we met each other. A seemingly-quiet aunt pulled out a large hammer-ax and went to town on the carcass, more and more food kept getting made, Ellen kept pulling on the cheeks and nose and ears of her ninety-three-year-old grandpa, and I kept smiling and nodding and not really understanding...many of which were trends that continued.

So there we were, at every meal, stuffed to the gills with such a great variety of dishes that the mind recoils at the shocking realization that so many tastes exist and can manifest themselves on one table. Fortunately, the stomach - my stomach - did not recoil, as I found myself the guest of overwhelming culinary honor: there were chicken and vegetables dishes, potato dishes, tofu dishes, spicy shrimp dishes, breads of all shapes and sizes, beef stews, porridge, various vegetable dishes, pieces of meat on a plate, pieces of meat on a stick, fried bread, lamb legs, lamb chunks, rice of all sorts, dumplings, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (alright, let's be honest: I made those...Ellen's mom and cousin each put one down but declared them "too sweet"), noodle dishes, and probably just as many other dishes that escape my memory now. There was food, yes, in abundance, but there was also hospitality, care, love; Ellen's family and I couldn't talk very well - my bad, 我的错 - but they did an amazing job of making me feel super welcome, super taken-care-of, and super fat; someone was always prodding me to eat more than I ever thought I could. Breakfasts were so heavy that I rarely felt very hungry by lunch. But I always kept eating. And the family kept on showing me love.

So there we were, singing and dancing, dancing and singing. At one moment, we were in a karaoke room singing and clapping along to the oldest communist revolution songs you'd imagine exist; at another moment, we were singing Maroon 5 jams at the top of our lungs; at another moment, we were on the street, in the town square, late in the evening, getting instruction on how to dance like the locals. There was plenty of music on this trip, in all shapes and sizes. The karaoke sessions were intense. Ellen's mom has a knack for belting out songs from her youth at an incredible volume, and Ellen's cousin Shan Shan picked a variety of poppy modern songs for us to bounce around to. The night dancing was not as abundant but was much more appropriate for experiencing local culture; many Uyghur folks - the largest minority group in Xinjiang - were excited to see us arrive and offered to teach me (Ellen didn't need any instruction) on how to dance their best steps. I tried hard. We'll be back out there soon, spinning around and flipping our hands this way and that.

So there we were, at the Hui Minority Specialty Street, when suddenly we saw it: a camel. Yes, it was a two-humper, sleek and handsome. I tried to get on its back, but it was too tall, too high. So we went to eat a whole bunch of lamb, fried bread, and various other breakfast pastries, instead, and climbed a tower, and enjoyed life. Dotted throughout many a Chinese city is an "old town" area, where tradition and culture may still thrive, or where the tourism industry makes it seem like tradition and culture still thrive, while in's just some folks in costumes, some animals chained to fences, some entrepreneurs trying to make some cash. In Changji, the food was very real, and very delicious, and that was enough authenticity for me. Anytime there is a camel...

So there we were, on a boat, in the middle of an amazing park, so I thought that it would only be fitting to take an odd photograph, one in which I think I look like a vampire. There are various things about Chinese culture that I don't understand, or don't care for, or don't anticipate ever really getting into, but the culture of parks is one in which I want to retire. In Chinese parks there are always old people hanging out playing cards or a board game, or playing music, or dancing; I could watch them dance forever. There are weeping willows hanging over the canals and lake waters; there is bound to be a white Oriental-looking bridge at some point; there is probably someone singing karaoke somewhere. And then there are the pedal boats, in strange forms like swans or turtles or warships, not usually in tip-top condition but always available to rent for an hour or two. The steering is simple and slow, the pedaling usually isn't ideal - my feet almost smashed all over Ellen's mom's pant legs with every churn, and the speed is - wisely - as slow as an Eskimo chess match on a Tuesday. But those pedal boats somehow have my heart (I think maybe it can be traced back to one Sunday afternoon in Seoul); I could ride one calmly and uneventfully every day, and I would be happy. Even better to be on one with a beautiful lass, the lass's mom, and the lass's cousin.

So there we were, in the middle of a vineyard, under the hugest sky in the world, mountains out to the west, covered in snowy snow (the mountains, not the "we"), clumps of round and bursting maroon spheres everywhere, fresh dirt beneath our feet, boxes waiting to be filled with one of Xinjiang's most famous exports: grapes. Grapes, grapes. I ate at least seven thousand grapes out west on the trip, mostly while sitting around playing "Heads Up" or watching TV, sometimes while in transit. I also partook in one of the most Chinese traditions I can think of: hauling local food product en masse back to my home after a trip to share with friends and loved ones. I couldn't check it as luggage at the airport, so in order to bring this box of grapes the size of two Simons back home with me, I constructed a packaging-tape handle that would have made Red Green prouder than proud. It didn't break. There was no way it could break. Damaging these grapes was not an option (which made my trip back to Beijing stressful) because of this important fact: Ellen and I (and her uncle, and her uncle's friend) had picked the grapes ourselves. Which made my package of local food product infinitely more important and meaningful than the packages of local food product that all the other passengers on my plane hauled back home. Everyone else, I am sure, had merely purchased their local food product at some point during their time in Xinjiang, or even - gasp - at the airport, but we'd obtained those grapes with our own bare hands, out in the wilderness, under the hugest sky in the world, with mountains covered in snow to the west, dirt all over. Boxes. Spheres. Delicious food and ownership. We win.

So there we were, Ellen and I, and there they were: dinosaurs and their bones, in every shape and size you could imagine, in every pose and stance that the museum designers could imagine. For a random town that few "Take No Prisoners" blog readers will ever encounter or even hear about again in their miserable lives, Changji's dinosaur museum was pretty sweet: there were games and activities for kids, excellent architecture, a crappy gift shop (no museum is complete without one), a film (wouldn't recommend it), a wealth of dinosaur and prehistoric creature information, thorough documentation of China's extensive dinosaur fossil excavation, and of course lots and lots of bones. I was taken back in time to when I was a boy enthralled with every species of dinosaur, to the days when dinosaur posters adorned my room and plastic dinosaur beasts surrounded my bed and dinosaur puzzles and coloring books and videos were scattered around my family's house in Roseland, Minnesota. I even had dinosaur sheets. Thank you, Changji, for being destined for me prehistorically.

So there we were, not really able to talk because my Chinese is so bad, but brought together by relationship to and with Ellen, excited to meet each other because of the important roles we each play in Ellen's life and also because of the love of Jesus that we both share. The first meeting between Ellen's grandfather and me was punctuated by the chaotic party atmosphere of my first evening in Xinjiang, and the final one was characterized by silence...until we busted open a Bible and together read Psalm 23. Could I understand the Chinese characters on the page? No. Did I know all the Mandarin words that Ellen's grandfather read aloud? No! But did I recall each and every word that I had memorized from that passage of the Bible at some point in my elementary school years at Central Minnesota Christian School in Prinsburg, Minnesota? I did. So we read the Lord's word quietly, out loud, and together. And it was good. I hope that God was pleased to see one of his much older children and one of his not-very-old-but-slowly-advancing-in-years children reading his truth together. I liked it, at any rate.

So there I was, standing in a mall in Beijing, not quite sure which way to turn, because I'd never tried to tackle the Chinese tradition of giving gifts when visiting. I had a list to consult, and some advice from Ellen, but I'd never met most of the people I was shopping for. In the end, I may not have gotten enough gifts for everyone who should have received one (which means everyone I met! They were all so nice!), but the items I did bring were - I think - appropriate, fitting, and, if they weren't, Ellen's family was still cool enough to smile and happily accept any lame gifts I may have gotten them. The one I was the most excited about was the puzzle clock, which Ellen, her aunt, and I put together one afternoon and then mounted the next afternoon. There it hangs, in a nice white home in 兵团 142, near Shihezi, despite the fact that clocks are actually not polite to give as gifts because it is a reminder to the recipient that death is ticking and tocking toward him or her at all times.

So there we were, away from everything, in the middle of everything else, under the bluest sky we could ever want in a land far, far away from home. Or were we very near home? It didn't matter. We were together. Every morning, when I woke up hours before anyone else and sat in bed wondering if I should chance a trip to the bathroom or if someone else was in there and then if bumping into that someone would result in a disastrous, language-transcendent bathroom confusion that would result in not only a burst bladder but also relatives madder, which made me usually just stay in bed and read Jung Chang and Jon Holliday's biography of Mao Zedong...I would wait patiently for the angel Ellen to quietly creep into whatever room or space I slept in and brighten up the day. She always came to wake me up with a large smile on her face. She would, perhaps, let me wander and traverse the unknown later in the day, perhaps by sending me to the market with her mom, or some such adventure. But the best part of going to Xinjiang was hanging out with this foxy lady.

So there are no more words to be said, except that - of course - a blog post by some bearded caveman cannot do this trip justice. There were moments that I cannot try to document, that I would not feel right trying to recount. The value of understanding more about where Ellen was from and whom she was from added depth untold to our relationship. Just being together and knowing each other more deeply was, of course, the most important result of this journey. Fortunately, there will be more trips of this sort for quite a while to come.

Bonus photos: