Xian Update- October 2014

I made it to the mosque I mentioned last time, it’s simply called ‘The Great Mosque’. I took a slim covered alley off the Beiyuanmen, called Huajue Xiang, packed with stores selling trinkets to tourists, and ran right into it. Despite it being a national holiday there were very few people wandering the grounds, a couple groups of European tourists, a Muslim couple having their wedding photos taken, and a few Chinese tourists. I felt like we were all out of time and place, wandering under weathered archways and pavilions (the mosque was built in 742 AD) with our smartphone cameras. The haggling of the souvenir shops and beeps of scooters seemed centuries away.


In one corner of the grounds a man hacked pieces of flesh off a carcass hanging from a rope, I’m guessing a goat from the size of it. Further on I saw a woman picking up entrails off the ground under bamboo racks. The ground was covered in pools of drying blood, a brilliant red color. I forgot the smell of recently butchered animals, how pungent it is, the smell of death and food all at once. I flashed back to my childhood in Alaska and when my parents butchered a moose in my grandparent’s garage.


I walked up to the low fence around the prayer hall and tried to peer in, rows of blue prayer mats disappeared into darkness. A tour group from Turkey covered their heads and walked in. I knew I was not allowed inside, some places are not for you to see, some places are only to know about. I spent an hour wandering the grounds, retracing my steps over and over. I was afraid to leave, I had ventured into the city during the National Day Holiday.

National Day celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kai-shek (who fled to Taiwan) in the Chinese Civil War. My students refer to this event as the creations of ‘New China’ and often say that it brought the people of China much happiness. This means that half of the country has the entire week off. Everything is crowded. More crowded than usual. My students had warned me, but I underestimated how many more people would fit onto the streets here. Almost every public area now housed street vendors selling trinkets, maps, crafts, or ice cream bars. Many of them were old women who set up on huge blankets which they can roll up into huge bundles and haul back to their homes. There were also quite a few food carts out, which in China means an actual cart pushed by hand or bicycle with a grill on it. Grilled squid is very popular.

After arriving downtown I took refuge in a coffee shop, Pacific Coffee, a chain from Hong Kong. It is no different from Starbucks, standard coffee drinks, specials with too much sugar, a selection of Western pastries, and a few bookshelves and couches for décor. The service is perhaps a little slower than Starbucks, China has not really embraced the rigid efficiency and sense of urgency that American restaurants and coffee shops demand, unless we are talking about the infamous Portland ‘customer service’ one sometimes receives. There is actually a Starbucks below the Pacific Coffee, and menu wise they are essentially the same, but I prefer Pacific Coffee because it’s height gives it a better view of the Bell Tower and it has more seats. I ordered a mocha, because I don’t particularly enjoy coffee, which was acceptable, as far as I could tell. A small mocha costs 30 RMB, which is almost five dollars (this is more expensive than in America, right?); I can get a bowl of handmade noodles from a restaurant for 8 RMB. I wondered why I had just spent so much money on a drink that I was ambivalent about, but like Rheea said, you can stay there as long as you want and there is free Internet. Also, western toilets.


I journaled for a few hours and checked my email. I got sick of writing, I decided I couldn’t head back to my apartment without at least seeing one thing in the city. I picked the mosque because it was close. After I was done, I took the subway back to the train station where I catch my bus. The bus was, of course, more full than usual.


I did not go back into the city for the rest of the holiday. I stayed in my room and watched movies on Netflix, did yoga, and thought about what’s going to happen when I get back to Portland, which I do a lot since I spend almost all my free time alone. I was thinking about that guy who said Portland is a “five year city”. I lived in Portland for about six years. That’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere as an adult. When I come back I don’t know how long I’ll be back for. Maybe another year. Maybe another six years. Portland would be a nice place to “settle down”, if I knew exactly what that would look like for me. A house? An apartment? I guess I would have to have some kind of job that paid well and didn’t hate for that to happen. But the draw to stay is there and it’s all the artists I know there who are working their asses off to create new work in a city that’s getting more expensive every year.


Oh, about Hong Kong, since Martha mentioned it: The coverage on Hong Kong in China Daily, the English-language paper here, tends to focus on how disruptive the protest are to the economy of Hong Kong, which mirrors the attitude I remember hearing from the mainstream media in America back in 2011 when protesters occupied a financial district in New York. I also heard a sound bite from MSNBC that the US government urged Hong Kong police to ‘show restraint’ with the protesters, which I thought was pretty ballsy considering how efficiently they shut down Occupy Wall Street and how police in America are showing a severe lack of restraint as of late.


A few weeks ago I asked my freshman students about different places in China I should visit during the National Day holiday, and a lot of them told me I should go to Hong Kong. Because for many of them Hong Kong is China, it’s always been part of China, it should always be part of China. Taiwan and Tibet are also considered China, there is no distinction between them and the mainland. I’m actually forbidden to talk about these subjects with my students because they are ‘politically sensitive’, one of the only rules enforced on me. This idea of Hong Kong as China is not as simple as just propaganda from authoritarian rule, I think there’s something more to it, I think it has to do with the cultural identity of a country thousands of years old.


If I put my finger on it I’ll let you know.