2015 Hong Kong

February 24, 2015

Why Hong Kong?

It always starts with Why, so I’ll tell you why—I was invited. Invited back, actually, which is an even bigger deal.

I’d been there 2 ½ years ago, training a group of Hong Kong sex therapists and sex educators. They invited me back, offered me good money, we agreed on a program, and so next week off I go.

Hong Kong is both more exotic and less exotic than you might think. On my last trip I was struck by the intensity—a bit like New York on steroids. You can’t go for a walk in downtown Hong Kong like you can on Fifth Avenue, because the streets are too crowded. The Hong Kong style of dining out is not casual—it’s frenetic, with no lounging about before, during, or after the meal. And while New York offers tourists a million things to do, Hong Kong has only a handful, mostly centered on Victoria Peak, Victoria Harbor (see photo above), and very pricy shopping.

Hong Kong, however, has a complex past with which it’s still wrestling. It was pretty sleepy when the British arrived in the early 1800s. Within a few decades it was the port through which the British (and Americans) were shoving tons of opium down Chinese throats. When the Chinese overthrew the ancient Qing dynasty in 1912, refugees (and entrepreneurs) started rushing for Hong Kong, a flood that continued through the Japanese invasion of the mainland in the thirties and the chaos of post-WWII civil war.

In 1997 the British transferred Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China, which promised the continuation of Hong Kong’s autonomy and individual rights. Everyone acted as if they believed these promises. Ever since, China has been steadily eroding these political and individual rights. Last fall’s three months of the extraordinary Occupy Central demonstrations ultimately resulted. Presumably they have changed nothing.

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Since this is my second visit, I’m looking forward to slowing down and getting to know the city a little better. I’ll walk some outer neighborhoods, and probably take a ferry witih locals to an outer island.

After five days in Hong Kong, I’ll fly across the border to southern China, where I’ll walk, drive, and raft through ancient villages and rice paddies along the Li River. I’ll fly to Hangzhou to consult with a new entrepreneurial outfit developing sexual health spas, couples intimacy retreats, and adult sex education. And finally I’ll take a 200-mph bullet train to Shanghai and return home.

I’ll be writing each day, so if you’d like to follow me, do subscribe (top right part of this page, under my photo), or check in daily from March 3-16. Oh, Happy New Year—interestingly, different people say this is the year of the Ram, the Goat, and the Sheep. Gong Hai Fat Choy!

The Visit Begins

March 7, 2015
Hong Kong

I’m finally done working: 2 days training psychologists in sex therapy, and a day training family planning personnel, educators, and policy-makers in sex education design. My feet are killing me, but I’m satisfied. I learned how to pronounce “vagina” in Chinese, and got two rooms of professionals to repeat it along with me, albeit with blushes and giggling. In this field, small victories matter.

One of the things I did to prepare for my trip was to read John Carroll’s excellent book A Concise History of Hong Kong. Published just a few years ago, it’s a wonderful narrative of the last two centuries: British colonization, the Opium Wars, the Chinese revolution, Japanese occupation during WWII, another Chinese revolution, commercial and social modernization, and the British handover in 1997. I had dinner with Professor Carroll last night, and we spent a hearty evening discussing the world as it used to be, hopping across continents and centuries like long-lost travelling companions.

Hong Kong has been many things to many people. It is now a colorful, noisy cash machine, and the subject of one of history’s crucial experiments: how long can China allow Hong Kongers relative freedom of expression as it continues to strangle its own people? How long will China allow Hong Kong its own identity, rather than swallowing it up via deliberate immigration as it has done with Tibet, Mongolia, and, inevitably, the Muslim west?

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I very much recognized the city I had visited and taught in two-and-a-half years ago. But I saw and heard important differences: the excitement and failure of Occupy Central is still a recent memory; there is a rising tide of complaints about coarse-mannered tourists from the Mainland (including those who come here just to give birth); and there are almost daily reports out of Beijing about increasing the integration of Hong Kong with “the Motherland.”

Oh, and the divide between rich and poor is getting worse, while young people have trouble finding jobs and the cost of an apartment has become prohibitive for most (sound familiar)?

Still, everyday life goes on here. Traffic is miserable, but public transportation is reliable and incredibly cheap. The air’s getting worse, but the harbor is still magnificent. There aren’t 10 buildings in the city over 50 years old, but the shopping malls are among the world’s largest and finest. And the thousands of skyscrapers are miraculous: thin, impossibly graceful, and taller than most of New York’s.

Every young person has a smart phone, some of them smoke (the kids, not the phones), they dress like young people everywhere, and they hold hands in public (unlike their parents, either today or when they were young).

Why should they care who controls the press, whether they can elect representatives directly, or whether their university admission and success will depend on their political views?

Teaching Sexuality in Hong Kong

Hong Kong
March 8, 2015

“Yam tho.” It’s pronounced “yomm toe,” except you form the syllables in the back of your throat rather than the front, and you end the words with a tight jaw rather than a loose one.

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It means “vagina” in Chinese, and it became my secret weapon. When I can’t get a non-U.S. group to loosen up and participate in a seminar, I have them teach me how to say vagina in the local language, and then a few bold ones and I practice together. By doing this periodically for the length of the seminar, everyone eventually gets involved. So I got good at saying Yam tho, and they got good at saying it as well as at hearing it.

Other than “yam tho,” most of the group of 32 professionals hardly said a word; in fact, some of them looked down when I spoke to them.

I taught The Sexual Intelligence Approach to Therapy, and I worked my butt off. How many different ways can you say “Any questions? Any comments?” and still get silence in return? When I asked “does this material seem relevant to your work?” they still stared at me blankly. Did I mention that I was working my butt off?

Fortunately for me, I have taught in many Asian countries, and so I expected this. But it was still frustrating—all the more so because I had to respond to the silence and blankness with my own big smile and renewed energy.

But that’s the Hong Kong way: respect the authority of the teacher. Don’t talk about your own experience, even if the teacher begs for it. The interesting exception: over a third of the participants came late, straggling in by ones and twos during the first half-hour of the seminar. They apologized perfunctorily.

By the end of the day most participants were at least smiling, and I ended the day by talking about their silence and my informal style of teaching. I discussed how our patients want to show us deference, which can either help or hinder the therapy. And of course therapists have to find a way to show respect to patients—without hindering the therapy as well.

I told the group I understood they wanted to be respectful to me. I said that challenging their own inhibitions would be one way to do it, and that coming on time the next day would be another. They nodded, and the next day, they were all on time. They even spoke during the day. And we talked about it all as a therapeutic issue, which was a first for almost every one of them.

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In Hong Kong, most young people live at home until they marry, which makes dating an interesting activity. Almost no one has a car. Pre-marital sex isn’t that common, and so we have the interesting phenomenon of newlywed couples who are sophisticated in every way—except sexually. This is different than virginal couples in, say, Pakistan, who lack sophistication in most ways in addition to sexually.

Will that change with a new generation of young Hong Kongers? It doesn’t appear so. The 79-day Occupy Central event was no Woodstock, no 1969, no anti-Vietnam War movement. Although young people did mobilize together for the first time, there was virtually no lifestyle component to it, certainly nothing involving sex or drugs (or even progressive music). No one is going to suddenly leave their parents’ home and live a new way.

The power of sexuality to transform lives, then, is still a sleeping dragon for young people here. Sexual expression, of course, is the ultimate form of personal autonomy, which is why both authoritarian regimes and organized religion want to control and limit it. Most young Hong Kongers have still not personally experienced sexuality freeing them from the earth’s gravitational pull. They’re not demanding more access to it, and still rarely kiss or hold hands in public.

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And so teaching therapists about sexual empowerment and integrity, and how to bring such topics into the therapy room, wasn’t quite so straightforward as it is in the U.S.. Our two-day seminar at Tung Wah College progressed slowly, although the feedback was that it had been profound for many participants.

The following day I lectured about sexuality education design and delivery at the Hong Kong Family Planning Association. I had two primary messages: that we should be teaching young people life skills, which they can then apply to sexual situations and decisions, and that sex education should not be focused on harm reduction but on life enhancement.

Hong Kong’s young adults need that just as much as their eight-year-olds.

Stepping Back in Time

March 10, 2015
Yangshuo, China

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A 90-minute flight brought me to Yangshuo, a picturesque town of about 400 miles northwest of Hong Kong. The area is kissed by clear winding rivers, dozens of karst limestone peaks, and crisp air as clear as the rivers.

I was met by a driver and my guide “Naomi” (almost all modern Chinese now have Western nicknames). After a 90-minute drive on a poorly constructed, badly maintained road that could only be described as “pretending to be paved,” I arrived at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, an eco-resort facing the Yulong River. Built and decorated traditionally, it’s furnished almost entirely with local bamboo.

It was drizzling out, so I walked less than half an hour before settling into my room. The dusk and the drizzle combined to create a lovely melancholy landscape, as individual features like trees and peaks gave way to a timeless palette of grays and soft shapes.

After the non-stop bustle of Hong Kong and modern commuter jet service, it was a welcome change. Now I had to slow down to match the pace of life here, a challenge and a relief. I ate, had several hundred cups of the local green tea, and climbed into bed. The room had no phone, but it did have a DVD player, and so I watched the 1993 Chinese epic “Farewell My Concubine,” a Netflix disk I’d brought from home. Apparently, I fell asleep around 1937, just as the Japanese arrived.

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The following day we drove out toward a village where several families manufactured rice wine. Walking down a damp lane, I peeked into homes with packed dirt or uneven stone floors, naked light bulbs hanging from exposed rafters, and a few wooden stools. Virtually all were inhabited by people in their 60s or 70s, who smiled or waved cheerfully. Through my guide, I reconstructed various life details: this one’s father was in the Army, that one’s daughter lives in Beijing. That lovely jade bracelet? A birthday present from a son many, many years ago.

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The largest house I visited was over 300 years old, continuously inhabited by the same family, going back to the Qing dynasty. I met the current owner, 75, and his wife and sister-in-law. They were variously pumping water, washing clothes, and cooking—the women, that is. Apparently the men of this village spend a lot of time playing cards, smoking, drinking, and critiquing the women doing chores. This guy wasn’t doing any of those, but as he happily showed me around the place, it was clear I hadn’t interrupted him from doing anything in particular.

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The biggest surprise was not the grinding poverty or the complete lack of middle-aged or younger people, it was Mao’s picture hanging in almost every home. “To many people he’s not just a politician, he’s a god,” said Naomi. “These are simple, older people who remember Mao as rescuing their country from feudalism, warlords, the Japanese, chaos—it was a long time ago, and he is one more ancestor they now worship.”

Mao starved the people he loved with his insane economic ideas, murderous cult of infallibility, and destruction of traditional rural social support systems. These people are still hungry as a result, and all they can do is thank him. For what?

And did I mention that both my Sexual Intelligence blog and the blog you are now reading are blocked throughout China? Mao’s descendants are still starving the people, and they’re still thankful.

Knocking On Wood With Confucius

March 11, 2015
Yangshuo, China

Today we drove almost two hours to Langshan Village, built in 1882 by descendants of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). The driver went incredibly slowly, and had never learned to downshift–meaning that we slowly shimmied up hills and practically crow-hopped away whenever we’d slowed for carts and bicycles.

Most important of all, he was obviously getting sick, coughing and speaking in an increasingly raspy voice. Hanging out in rural China with someone getting an undetermined bronchial bug was simply not an option, so I spent my would-be relaxed lunch time getting the driver replaced. Yesterday’s lunch had been spent getting the car replaced (nothing that a few shock absorbers, seat springs, and new tires couldn’t help), so I was getting used to the regimen.

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But after an aggravatingly slow drive and administrative talk, here I was in Langshan. Six surnames were sufficient for everyone in the village. The classic Ming and Qing architecture was pleasantly different from the grinding poverty I saw yesterday. It featured carved screens across the upper floor, water flowing through a groove in the front courtyard (good for feng shui, and yes, they really believed that then, and still do now), and stone dragon and phoenix profiles to keep ghosts away.

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A few fancy houses had bands of painted tile ornamenting the top of the exterior walls. Though broken and faded with time, they had clearly been quite lovely, and still retained their charm, a welcome line of color and grace in the dour drizzle.

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Inside, the houses were the same temperature and dampness as the outside. Cement floors may be cheap and clean, but they do not warm a place. Central heating was absent, which was also true in the restaurants and shops I visited. And curiously, the facades of houses were covered in either plaster or brick, but the sides and rear were rough and unfinished.

We drove toward the larger town of Gongcheng, and after rejecting several places because of their temperature (too low), their chairs (too low), or their menu (way too low), we had lunch in the only decent place in town—the wedding banquet hall. It was actually the best meal I’d had in the last four days.

Gongcheng is renowned for its Confucius Temple, built in 1607 and renovated in 1842. The outside was beautiful in it symmetry, balance, and peacefulness. The sacrificial incense trough, which can be overpowering in the humid summer, was a pleasant distraction from the cold, gray damp. Five-centuries-old basalt tablets recorded the examination marks of long-dead students for all to see. The large stone turtle holding up the slabs had, predictably, been damaged by the Red Guards. The inside, unfortunately, looked strictly kitsch, with everything from plastic stuff on the altars to sales of non-religious souvenirs.

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Nevertheless, the Temple was a cash cow for the town. Since his elevation to virtual sainthood and even god, Confucius had become the metaphorical patron of students. His Temple was a pilgrimage site for students who prayed for good grades on the all-important examinations. Which family wanted to take a chance on something that critical to one’s future?

From the gables of the poor houses of Longsheng to the feng shui of the houses’ design (such as water flowing through the courtyard) to the candles and incense for sale that would help one importune the Great Teacher, the Chinese have a relationship with ghosts, spirits, omens, and luck that are simply invisible and unconsidered by most Westerners.

In that respect, we are the relaxed (or naïve) ones and they are the concerned (or realistic) ones.

Knock on wood, of course.

Hiking Up to the Dragon’s Spine

March 12, 2015
Longshen & Ping An, China

The river outside my room shone in the morning sun. It had finally stopped raining, so of course it was time to leave Yangshuo. After breakfast I packed up and steeled myself for the 4.5-hour drive north into the mountains. The now-clearly-sick driver dutifully wore the surgical mask we had bought for him. He was going to take me the 90 minutes to Guilin, where we’d pick up a new driver.

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Just three minutes out of the resort, however, the road was blocked by a truck with a small crane. It was unloading tree after tree, swinging around and plopping them down near roadside holes that were being dug with hand tools by an already-tired-looking road gang. How many trees? “Two thousands.” Who is paying for this? “County.” How do you like this work? “It’s work.” One last photo–now I was the one blocking the road—and it was time to leave. Three minutes down, 4-plus hours to go.

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Guilin, a small town of five million people (which means it would be the second-largest American city), was sunny and full of lunch-hour life, so I leaped out of the car and enjoyed a brief walk. Foreigners weren’t very common here, so I was alternately greeted by “hellos!” and stares. Like everyone else, I bought some bananas (great) and tangerines (so-so) at an outdoor fruit stand.

It was soon time to continue heading north, and so we did. On the edge of town buildings were scarcer and carts replaced cars. Every few minutes a thirty-foot long red banner with large white letters was stretched between trees. Apparently the government was planning to widen the road to two lanes in each direction (meaning 3 or more lanes of cars, trucks, carts, motor scooters, and bicycles jockeying for space at the same time). It was exhorting the owners of the adjacent rice fields to move to other farms, as the deadline had passed.

And that’s the story all over China: abrupt decisions dictating development everywhere, people being displaced and traditional social networks being destroyed with little to replace them. China’s now reversing its “one family one child” policy because there’s no social net for old people to replace dependence on adult children. When all is said and done, it will be interesting to see how much of China’s social engineering (OK, and India’s as well) will be deemed a success, and how much a failure. We know, for example, that Mao’s absurd economic policies created the disastrous and unnecessary famine that killed millions.

An hour before arriving at the Ping An Lodge, we stopped for lunch at a simple guest house. The food was totally different from what I’d been eating further south—not nearly so spicy, and with vegetables I didn’t recognize. I went into the kitchen and saw various pieces of a butchered pig—at least some of which I’d consider edible—being slowly smoked over a wood fire. Ears, feet, lungs, other stuff—more than anywhere else, in China they really do use every part of the pig except the squeal.

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We then drove the final leg of the trip, around hairpin turns further up into the mountains. The road actually ended at the foot of the village, which is where the fun began: the village was actually up a long and steep series of stone stairs that could only be climbed by foot. So local porters elbowed each other for the privilege of carrying my 40-pound suitcase and bulging backpack in a wicker basket on their back (the traditional style, and no suggestions, please).

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Even free of luggage, I huffed, puffed, and rested periodically during the half-hour ascent. We passed simple guest houses and colorful souvenir shops made of bamboo, but this was not fun. I was wishing we’d be there already, but didn’t really want to stay in any of the too-rustic places facing the climb up. We finally arrived at the Ping An Lodge, and it was impossibly beautiful. I trudged up to my room on the third (top) floor, which faced centuries-old rice paddies—the “dragon’s spine.”

Once I went to the bathroom, had some water, and soaked my feet, I decided it was definitely worth the work. Tomorrow I’ll be hiking to another village, and get to decide all over again. And I’ll tell more about this unique lodge, built by international photographer Ken Su.

Mountain Villages — Then & Now

March 13, 2015
Ping An, China

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Looking out the window this morning I could see absolutely nothing. The clouds and mountain mist obscured not just the valley below, but the balcony of the room twenty feet to my left. It took hours to burn off, gradually revealing the green landscape of rice terraces and pine forest, and the tiny village immediately below my window.

The Dragon Spine Rice Terraces are built into the 2500-foot mountain quietly slumbering beneath me. They were established in the 14th century by the Zhuang people, who were chased out of more conventional farmland closer to sea level. “Where there is soil there is a terrace,” they say, and today some 16,000 acres of rice fields coil around the Longji Mountain. They are irrigated by local streams which feed an ingenious, ancient system of tiny canals. Season by season, the fields turn from brown to green to gold.

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The plan today was to hike from Ping An to a neighboring village and enjoy both the natural and ethnic sights. Well, lesson one about hiking from one mountain village to another: you have to go around or through the side of a mountain—which isn’t flat. So I spent a couple of hours climbing up and down narrow ridges and stepping on river rock washed smooth by the centuries. Throughout the journey I was accompanied by the sound of running water, the sight of the terraces below, and the gentle mist of low-hanging clouds.

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Lots of mist. When does mist become drizzle? I’m sure mountain people have been discussing this for ages.

As we walked the old path, we saw the occasional wooden house or shed. Occasionally we would come to a small group of wooden buildings built into the mountainside, complete with a few muddy lanes, stacks of firewood, a few rusty motorcycles, and chickens strolling around. Behold a village.

The people in these places were invariably nice, smiling with whatever teeth they still had. The older women (which was almost all of them) wore towels on their heads (an ethnic tradition). The older men (which was almost all of them) often smoked, and apparently started drinking early in the day—that is, about now.

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I had envisioned visiting these villages as a rich ethnographic carnival. Alas, the people, friendly as they were (often offering me tea, food, or cigarettes), had very little to say, and weren’t that interested in this fascinating foreigner dropped into their world. I went inside a few homes, sat on some rickety furniture and admired the cacophony of faded posters and stopped clocks on the wall, took some photos and left.

With a two-hour return trip looming, we turned around and headed back. I passed a tour group of a dozen Malaysians, and periodically a group of Chinese tourists, all of whom seemed more interested in photographing each other than in actually seeing their surroundings.

Occasionally the road between villages would widen and even accommodate the stray cart or motorcycle. Where the road was sort of paved, cafes and guesthouses were being constructed with spectacular views, each rushing to grab a piece of hillside. It was all too familiar, too predictable, too unstoppable, and unbelievably sad. But here I was, wanting to enjoy the area, and so did others.

In fact, it was the owner of my eco-lodge, Keren Su, who had started the recent tourist boom here. The famous photographer (of, among other things, the Chinese pandas) published a series of spectacular pictures of the area in National Geographic eight years ago, and it apparently started a frenzy. He spent years building this lodge using traditional technology, without a single nail. Despite it being all wood, the place is remarkably warm and quiet.

Late in the afternoon my guide and I stumbled back into the lodge, muddy, damp, and hungry. She left, I stayed, and the kind kitchen staff offered me soup and dumplings. They were good. I was tired. The ancient rice terraces bathed in the mist, unmoved.

Now THIS Is a City

March 15, 2015
Hangzhou, China

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A gorgeous (and really bumpy) two-hour drive down the mountain back to Guilin (population 5 million), and an uneventful two-hour flight brought me 800 miles northeast to Hangzhou, a city of nine million. They say Beijing is for government and Shanghai is for business, but Hangzhou is for living.

This wasn’t altogether obvious at first, because I was blinded by neon and overwhelmed by the sounds and jostling of traffic. We eventually made our way into the main part of the city, and it became clearer: there were trees everywhere (a rarity in urban China), people did stroll around the beautiful West Lake, and I saw men and women holding hands and hugging—the first time since I arrived in China.

In fact, I actually saw men and women of all ages here, not just the countryside blend of elderly and babies that is a psycho-demographic time bomb resulting from China’s forced rural-urban migration. In that way the busy streets felt quite “normal.”

What didn’t seem quite so “normal” were the tremendously long lines to get into restaurants at 5:30pm on Saturday night. In front of upscale places and Pizza Hut alike, groups of 4, 6, or more waited on the chilly sidewalks, chattering for up to an hour just to get a table. And where would these diners be at 7:30? Dessert places, the cinema, or karaoke, said my new guide Cherry. Remember, mealtime is not a leisurely activity in China—they literally get through meals as fast as possible, loitering neither before nor after eating.

The other thing lining Hangzhou’s streets were enormous versions of upscale shops—Cartier, Versace, Gucci, and the largest Apple store I’ve ever seen—“the flagship store,” said my guide proudly. Feeling very protective of my little Silicon Valley, I had to clarify that it was the flagship store of China, not of the world. Hangzhou is a city whose people are affluent, and who enjoy spending their money. It was a staggering contrast to the rural simplicity I had been living in for almost a week, and even dwarfed Hong Kong in splendor, if not in intensity.

After checking into the Grand Hyatt for my last two nights in China, I joined the crowds strolling the lake. It was an odd experience—look right, and see a mist-shrouded, centuries-old idyllic scene. Look left through a protective screen of trees, and see modern restaurants, futuristic high-rises, and—I am not making this up—dealerships for Mercedes, Rolls Royce, and Lamborghini.

Disconcerted and a little giddy, I returned to the Hyatt and got ready for my big date. I had been invited to dinner by a big local entrepreneur involved in a range of sexual health businesses—lingerie shops, health spas, sexuality seminars, and more. She and her assistant were charming people, and although language difficulties slowed everything down, it appears as if we are a good fit. They paid for our enormous banquet, a good sign. After dinner we drove five minutes to their shop, a high-end emporium in a high-end shopping mall. I continued enjoying the low-key VIP treatment, and gladly gave them periodic suggestions about marketing, western-style.

I came back to the Hyatt, and I entered my lovely lake-facing room to an enormously amplified Chinese voice, followed by stupendously loud music, both coming from outside. As I turned to the phone to begin my surely-futile complaint, I looked outside the picture window and saw the beginning of the famous (apparently) dancing fountain show. Each night the city presents a spectacular liquid version of a sound-and-light show. With the lake as backdrop, thousands of jets of water spray in unison, creating a graceful watery ballet accompanied by romantic Chinese music. Let’s agree that I saw moving tableaux of broken hearts, brave warriors, and redeemed love.

And no, I didn’t complain to management. Although I had just come from the countryside, it was time to be a city slicker.

Last Day in China — Unexpected Ancient Serenity

March 16, 2015
Hangzhou, China

There’s more to Hangzhou than Gucci, Pucci, and world-class sushi.

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Today Cherry and I drove about half an hour to the Longjing tea plantation. Rather than being up on the slopes of some remote mountain like the plantations I’d seen in India, this place was just acres and acres of gently rolling hillside, interspersed with the homes and shops of local urban villagers. We strolled around for a few minutes admiring the scenery.

Despite the drizzle and damp, it was mobbed with Sunday visitors. After a short wait, we were taken into a spare, furnished room and given a demonstration and explanation of the ceremony for green tea. We started with the water—boiled, but then allowed to settle down to 80 degrees centigrade. This explained the mystery of why half the tea I’d drunk in China seemed tepid—they use 100-degree water for black tea, but 80-degree water for green tea, and I’d been alternating randomly.

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After the big news (to me) about the water, our hostess displayed the various kinds of leaves. The most expensive were much larger than anything I’d ever seen or used—“the full Emperor leaf,” she smiled, encouraging us to chew a few (my report: it’s like chewing leaves). After preparing each of us a cup with some fanfare, she went into a long description of the health benefits of green tea. About half-way through I realized I was being given a sales pitch, which featured not only the tea, but pills with concentrated crushed essence of the tea—“since no one can drink the twenty-five cups per day that are necessary for the full benefits of the tea.”

The pitch, in perfect English, was slick—warm, relevant, inviting. All credit cards and currencies accepted, and shipping arranged to anywhere in the world. It ended with the inevitable “So which of these teas would you like, and how much? Or would you rather have the green tea health and longevity pills—or both?” I took a deep breath and said “this is wonderful tea and you are a very skillful salesperson. I’m just here to learn, not to buy.” Both the hostess and my guide seemed a little surprised, especially since I hadn’t given an explanation for this apparently odd behavior.

Leaving our little room, the exit was through the gift shop, starting with tea products and tea sets, and then expanding beyond to clothes, jewelry, and various souvenirs—fairly common made-in-China stuff hawked by dozens of fake-friendly young women. I was getting increasingly disappointed and annoyed with this place, and asked about its structure.

Cherry said the plantation had been here for a thousand years, run by the villagers, until the government took it over in 1949. “Oh, so the people owned it for a long time, and then the government stole it from them,” I said simply. “Well, the government manages it for the people,” she replied. “It seems like the villagers managed it perfectly well for centuries without the government’s help,” I said, “and I’m sure they would have gladly continued just that way.”

“Yes,” said Cherry finally. “But that’s not the way it happened, and this is how it is now.” I knew this was less a statement of her own ideology and more a statement of simple reality. But as with every religious fundamentalist, her answer ended the conversation—a conversation she wasn’t eager to have and from which I couldn’t possibly get any satisfaction. The shop, like the plantation, was owned and operated by the Communist Party. You got a problem with that, dude?

Speaking of religion, we then drove another half hour to the enormous Lingyin Buddhist Temple complex, originally founded during the golden age of Buddhism in 326CE.

The location was spectacular—again, gently rolling hills with a couple of lively streams skipping around large boulders. And caves—not with closed ends like cul-de-sacs, but more like short tunnels that we walked through. High above the entrances of the tunnels were large niches into which were lovingly carved large, gorgeous Buddhas in various poses.

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As we walked alongside the stream, more and more cliffside Buddahs-in-niches came into view—over 300 in all. Since it was Sunday, we were surrounded by bustling crowds of families, couples, pensioners, and tour groups. It was easy to imagine the spectacular serenity that this place offered when empty. Nevertheless, even among chattering crowds and poking elbows, it still offered a temporary emotional retreat and soothing aesthetic experience.

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We slowly walked up a gentle incline toward the monastery and two large Buddhist temples, satisfied in our own thoughts, listening to the rushing water. What a resonant, classic sound, the ancient sound of our own blood, of the very planet on which we’ve always walked.

We arrived at the temples—one crowded, the other impossibly crowded. “This is the more impressive one,” gestured my guide to the right. “I’ll take the less crowded one further up,” I replied, and we did. It was perfectly fine—the usual symmetrically-landscaped entry-way, the fine calming courtyard, and inside the garish (to me) statues, booths selling candles and incense, and believers praying, each in their own style.

We enjoyed the gardens, remarked on the behavior of the various faithful we saw, and then headed back to the car. As we got there it started to rain, and by the time we got back to the lake, it didn’t seem a boatride (next on our itinerary) would be much fun. Besides, I was tired and had to pack for the Big Trip home tomorrow. I said goodbye to Cherry, promised her I’d be on time in the morning, and headed up to my room. In just a little while, I’d transition from Buddha to bullet train to business class.

Soon enough I’d be in my American home, thinking about what it all meant.

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Thanks for joining me.

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