Friday, 20 September 2013

China Snapshots

I'm actually a better-than-average photographer. You'll just have to take my word for that, because I can't offer you any proof, not now. Every time I see something worth photographing here in China--which, when I am outside, is every other minute--by the time I've got my camera ready, it's gone. And besides, you have to keep your wits sharp when you're out and about here. No walking around and staring up at skyscrapers; no goggling at over-loaded rickshaws driven by tiny, weather-worn grandmothers; no swerving around to look back at the entire family of four perched on an electric bike, shopping piled high on the back. In the two seconds it takes to point and focus, you could be flattened by half a dozen cars driving at top speed. California gets a lot of flack for letting its drivers turn right on red lights, but at least there you have to come to a complete stop first, and other cars and pedestrians get right of way. In China, not only do you not have to come to a complete stop, you don't have to stop at all. In fact, you don't even have to slow down. Crossing a street here demands your full attention as does walking along the sidewalk, where you may compete for right-of-way with electric bicycles, motorcycles, bicycles, and even cars. Believe me: I have lost hundreds of incredible, National Geographic-worthy shots, and it is only because I value my own life over art. It is agonizing to have lost so many wonderful photo opportunities, though, so tonight, on my way home from work, I decided to write my photos instead.

I took all of these word photos at six thirty in the evening, in a crowded alley between two narrow rows of  restaurants and bars. In China, there is a lovely custom: people go out in the evening and fill the parks and public spaces, where they chat, play games, dance, do martial arts, parade grandchildren, and generally hang out in the cool of the evening.

Photo 1:  A little boy dressed in a white shirt and blue trousers is sitting all by himself at a table, frowning at a pad of paper. He is chewing on a pencil, his face screwed up in concentration, his  features as serious as a six-year-old's can possibly be. It is obvious that he doesn't see anybody around him--all his attention is focused on the pad of paper. Suddenly his eyes widen and his mouth opens. He grins and pounds his fists on the table, then jumps up and cries out, at the top of his lungs, waving the pad of paper about. He has solved his puzzle! None of the adults around him pay him the least bit of notice.

Photo 2:  Three seconds away from the little boy, six college-age girls in short skirts and tight blouses sit together around a small round table. They are all holding mobile phones, and although their mouths are slightly slack -- they all have eerily similar expressions -- their thumbs are working hard. They take no notice of anybody around them.

Photo 3:  Next to the girls, three middle-aged men sit on park benches, smoking. Two of them have their white T-shirts hiked up so that everything but the tops of their shoulders is exposed. Half-smoked cigarettes hang from their mouths. Believe me, this cannot be described as an attractive look, and it is odd that only middle-aged men here feel the need to bare their chests. The men barely look up as we pass.

Photo 4:  As we turn the corner past the men, two more college-age girls come towards us. One girl is dressed normally, but her companion is eye-popping in a hot pink Minnie Mouse-style short taffeta skirt, fishnet stockings, five-inch heels of some glitzy silver-and-white material, a strapless silver top that seems to defy the laws of gravity, and what looks like half a pound of make-up. As they sashay past, I do my best not to stare, but it's tough. The girls don't seem to notice us, though.

Photo 5:  Around the corner there is a small public square where a CD player is blasting out music. It is so similar to the folk songs you hear in Japan during the summer festivals that I stop, filled with nostalgia. A dozen middle-aged women are dancing together, synchronizing their movements, their arms lifted high one moment, then swooping down in graceful arcs. They strut and dip and turn; they move backwards and forwards and sideways, and it is obvious how much they are enjoying themselves, how happy they are. We stop to watch them and they keep dancing, showing not the tiniest trace of embarrassment. My admiration is complete. One of them flashes me a broad smile, but they keep dancing.

My camera stays in my backpack all the way home.


Mirka Breen said...

Thanks for the snap-shots. I think you also just invented a good writing exercise.
The word *bustle* popped into my mind as I read your pictures.

tanita♥davis said...

Gosh, didn't realize you were there already - thought we'd catch you in Scotland later this fall. However, viva la adventure, looking forward to more word pictures, which tend to be less obtrusive and far easier to get than camera shots anyway.

Lisa Shafer said...

This is beautifully written.
I can't help but notice how much China has changed since I was there in 2001 if NO ONE is noticing you, a white foreigner. Even in Beijing, people stopped what they were doing to stare at me. Sometimes small groups of people even encircled me and talked about me -- on the sidewalk as I tried to pass by.
And they're not even glancing at you? Wow. Times, they are a-changing.

A.T. Post said...

I hate it when that happens.

Anonymous said...

So happy to read your word-pictures about life in China! Can't wait to hear more!

Mary Witzl said...

Mirka -- Snapshots are easier to compile than a whole, integrated composition, so this is a writing exercise borne of laziness. ;)

As for bustles, in the kind of heat we've got here, I hate to think how hot such a contraption would have been, even with bare shoulders.

Tanita -- You're going to be back in Scotland this fall? We'll miss seeing you--AND Scotland.

I always see the lovely photos other people take which seem to capture people looking so unaware and unposed. I can never manage this myself and dread taking photos of people without first asking them if it's okay. Which, of course, makes them even more self-conscious.

Lisa -- Thank you. My husband was here almost 30 years ago and he had the same experience you did, as did other travelers I've met who were in China in the 80s and 90s (stories involving doorless ladies' toilets were the most shocking, as I recall). Now there are so many obviously non-Chinese people here (Indians, Africans, Caucasians, etc.), we're barely even noticed. When you DO see somebody goggling, you tend to think they've just arrived from some very remote place out in the sticks.

ATP -- When what happens? Tell me--I'm dying to know!

Elizabeth -- Thank you-- I just wish I had more time to write about everything here.

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

Loved this post! Wish I would have been there with you to see it in real life. I have a name for these this little "scenes" for filing purposes: SMOBS (SMallOBservationS)

I've never been to China, and this is just lovely to readsee!

Anonymous said...

Mary! Happy to know you've landed safely. I had the same thought as Lisa -- what? You're not a curiosity anymore? That must be refreshing. I wonder if it's because you're in a port city [if I have my geography correct] instead of inland? Maybe the locals think you're just another sailor...

Franziska said...

Really enjoyed 'looking' at your photos!

Franziska said...

Enjoyed 'looking' at your photos, Mary!

Barbara Martin said...

Reading your descriptive prose brought me right into the streets, visualizing everything. Perfect.

carole said...

Mary I had forgotten to visit your blog but have just had an incredibly pleasurable time reading your posts.. They bring out a smile and are just..... lovely

(i particularly liked the 'writing my photos' )