My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Monday, February 7, 2011

...and A Silk Factory, then Lunch (July 15, 2010)

As we rolled back through Guilin to visit the silk factory, Effie told us a little about the area. One of the main features is the Osmanthus tree; the name of the city (which was originally Ghizhou but changed officially in 1940) actually translates as "Forest of Sweet Osmanthus". In addition to being a very good shade tree in a hot environment (as well as a source of wood), at different times of the year its flowers can be used in making tea, wine, perfume, candy, and a seemingly endless list of other items. It became a group joke for someone to call out, "Osmanthus!" in response to Effie's pop quizzes.

We rolled back across the river on the same bridge we'd kept crossing the previous day, and I had to wonder why it had been so difficult to find our hotel; it was plainly visible from the bridge on the east bank of the river (it's the large building in the middle distance on the right side of the photo). I guess the road signs there were about as clear as the signage on I-395 along the Potomac.. (If you're not from the DC area, let's just say that's a series of interchanges & bridges that 's consistently shown up on the nation's list of ten worst examples of highway signage.)

In any case, we were enjoying watching the passing scene and being out of the heat (not necessarily in that order). The city stretches along the banks of the Li River, and most of the riverbank comprises well-used public beaches. (I saw small tour boats regularly make their way through crowds of waders following invisible channels... it was almost as scary as the traffic in Nanning!) The population density wasn't as heavy as Beijing or Nanning so the traffic was merely crazy instead of absolutely insane, and I was able to snap a few photos of the neighborhoods we passed through. We didn't see any really heavy commercial development until we got to downtown proper, where it seemed like every surface had a brightly-colored sign advertising one or another store, service, or product; even the buses were rolling billboards! I thought it was all purely Chinese businesses until reviewing the photos that night on my laptop... notice the Colonel peering over that bus in the 2nd photo, or the Pizza Hut sign a few doors back... (Remind me again what form of government all these entrepreneurs and American fast food franchisees live under...?)

It wasn't too long before we reached our next stop, the Guilin Xinfu Silk Products Company. There was a bit of a scramble trying to get the strollers unfolded, the kiddos placed, and everyone rolled through the door (a problem soon overcome by lots of practice) but once the dust settled a very nice young woman began to teach us about silk and how it's morphed from a dirty cocoon with a worm inside into some of the finest cloth in the world. There was a sample workstation set up near the lobby, essentially a big wooden tub on legs with a couple of large metal loops on top. A worker in a white lab coat was washing boiled cocoons in plain running water in the tub, opening them & discarding the silkworms.  (A number of worms of the best strains are kept for reproduction). Using just their hands, the workers flatten & stretch the cocoons into thin "envelopes" that they then stretch over the small wire loops. After several layers have been placed on top of each other, they're moved onto progressively larger loops, stretching the raw silk fabric to separate & loosen the loops of silk that made up the original cocoon.

To show us how strong the silk was even when stretched, our guide placed several layers on a larger metal loop and asked us to try hitting it. I was one of the volunteers, and I can vouch for putting a lot of force into a knuckles-first punch almost dead center on the stretched silk... and it absorbed all the energy while barely deforming, then slowly regained its original flat shape. (This stuff is tough!) As we moved on to the next part of the tour, our guide explained that there are several grades of silk, the best being known as "crystal silk" -- it's so strong & the fiber so fine, a single cocoon can yield a single continuous thread up to five kilometers long!

The next stop (up a flight of stairs, no fun with strollers!) was a room where several more workers in white lab coats were stretching sheets of cleaned silk. It looked simple enough: everybody just grabs hold and pulls in their own direction, further separating the fibers. Several of us tried our hand at it and quickly destroyed the piece we were holding; there's a real technique to that stretching! While the women prepped sheet after sheet of silk fiber (looking like very thin layers of very loose cotton fiber), our guide used her cigarette lighter to show us the material's natural flame retardant properties; this left us all a little more impressed but also twitching our noses at the smell. (Remember, silk is essentially worm spit -- and organic molecules don't like flames!) After describing how many sheets of the stretched silk were used in quilts or to make different types of cloth, and expounding on the toughness & ease of care of the finished product, our guide turned us loose in the company showroom. Not like we didn't kinda see that coming...

I don't remember exactly how long we were there, but there were a lot of choices of color, pattern weight, and so on...  AJ and I eventually made choices for ourselves and of a bedroom gift set for our folks, and while Lisa & Effie oversaw the purchasing process I wandered around a bit. (Note: All joking aside, both the quality and the prices were very good there.) The far end of the showroom had paintings on the walls and in free-standing frames that all turned out to be made entirely of silk thread, with stitching so close it looked like paint or ink until I was just a few inches away. One particular piece caught my eye: a room-sized screen showing a stylized scene of courtesans in a garden. As I admired it, the price tag caught my eye; this fantastic example of woodcarving and needlework could be mine for 380,000 Yuan, at that day's exchange rate just a shade under $61,000 US Dollars. (Needless to say, I left with only a photograph.) It was only as we were picking up our little "suitcases" of vacuum-packed comforters & bedspreads wrapped with plastic strapping that I noticed the small "No Photography" signs on the wall between display samples. I had been merrily shooting away with my camera (complete with flash), so I sheepishly apologized to the head saleswoman and offered to delete the photos. She just smiled and said (in heavily accented but very good English), "Not to worry, thank you, it okay!"

We piled back onto the bus and headed to lunch. The restaurant where where we had reservations was the "Tasty Castle," which despite its name consisted mainly of a central courtyard (with waterfall & koi pond) surrounded by large glass "rooms" that were mercifully air conditioned, with privacy afforded by diaphanous roof-to-floor white curtains.  Lisa & Effie ate at a table in the main dining room (we could see them through the window) but our group had its own glass dining room with a nice view of the central pond. As usual, every time we thought we had everything another dish would be delivered to the table, but none of us was complaining -- we'd really worked up a hunger walking around in the heat and maneuvering strollers up & down the stairs at the silk factory!

Lunch was marked by a couple of milestones. The first involved the Pipsqueak... we'd kind of gotten a goofy little half-smile a couple of times, but while she was being distracted by one of the girls (giving AJ a chance to grab a few mouthfuls of food free of grabby little hands), she delivered a full-blown, crinkly-eyed smile with accompanying chuckle. We were both amazed at how her entire face would light up with her smile, and I had a feeling that some magical invisible threshold had been crossed. The other big milestone involved Baby S; she was the oldest of the three little ones and seemed to be having the most trouble adjusting to all the changes. She'd been an extra-fussy eater, and we'd all been worried by her constant rejection of forkfuls of meat & vegetables or spoonfuls of congee & soup. At one point, Papa S tried giving her something with his chopsticks, and BANG! -- instant mealtime! All three little ones could be picky at times, but it looked like part of the problem had simply been our choosing the wrong utensils!  (One other "event' was a visit from a spider roughly the size of Rhode Island, which was bravely squished underfoot so our meal could continue undisturbed.)

After eating, we took a few minutes to watch the carp in the restaurant's pond. I can't call them "goldfish" because some of the darn things were easily three feet in length, with gaping mouths that seemed made for inhaling anything that got in their way. What really caught my eye was a group of the fish congregating at the base of the waterfall; they would sometimes climb almost completely free of the water, nibbling at the moss (or maybe little bugs?) on the stone wall. I was having a bit of an argument with my camera's auto-focus feature so I never managed to catch one in the act, but you can see a couple of fish preparing to scale the wall in the photo below. You can also see the restaurant's attempt at making sure their clientele stayed safe while watching the fish...

We were all refreshed enough by food & drink to take a short walk before returning to the hotel. There was a large park across the street that encircled one of the city's four lakes, and Effie told us there were some very pretty views to be seen there. We all made it across the street -- a feat not unlike playing a live-action version of "Frogger" -- and pushed & pulled the strollers along the uneven steps & walkways that wound through the trees. Just about the time it began to feel too hot again, we reached a scenic overview of the lake. Never mind the group of obviously well-lubricated workmen eating lunch nearby (even with a lot of beer in them, the locals might look at us curiously but we never got any negative vibes from them); a quick glance in the opposite direction gave us a wonderful view of the lake and its famous pagodas.

The Pagoda of the Moon and the Pagoda of the Sun (supposedly the world's tallest copper-clad structure) look ancient, but they were built relatively recently... which doesn't detract in the least from their aesthetic value. We didn't have time to get all the way around the lake to visit them, but we all took photos on the small platform placed there for precisely that purpose while a small crowd began to gather for the express purpose of watching us. This was another "China in a Microcosm" moment; the ancient-looking showpiece pagodas are practically next door to some of the most modern architecture to be found in the city, and here was another group of Westerners doing The Tourist Thing while the locals just stood and watched. After wandering a bit longer, we all decided it was time for some air conditioning and headed back to the bus. After running, hopping, and weaving back across the street ("Did you see that guy? He wasn't going to stop!") we were headed for the bus when AJ noticed a unique sign high up on the wall of a nearby industrial building; this sign is probably the most honest & accurate example of advertising I'll ever see!

On the way back to the hotel, Effie & Lisa said they could arrange something else for the afternoon, but suggested that we might be interested in a "longevity nap" -- something that sounded real good to the tired, overheated, sweaty group. In a pattern that would repeat for most of our trip, the Pipsqueak was occupied by the passing scene outside our bus until just before we reached the hotel, then fell asleep literally as we pulled up to the front door. Her mommy was happy to carry her in; her uncle was a little less happy but agreeably carried in the folded stroller, full day pack, large red bag of formula & diapers, and three large suitcase-shaped packages of silk goods. (AJ had warned me before we left that I had only three jobs: photography, luggage, and peeling her off the ceiling as needed. The latter was rarely needed, the former was ongoing by personal preference... but I rapidly became very well acquainted with the middle job as well.)

Still, I had to admit my niece looked doggone cute as she slept... Hey, waitaminit, she's actually asleep... we got work to do! Taking advantage of the little one's bonus quiet time, we began a cycle of digging out our dirty laundry, washing it in the sink, and hanging it out to dry pretty much anywhere it would fit. We took turns washing laundry, hanging clothes, and checking email while Miri snored a little bit (she still had that cold!), until the room looked like a small-scale refugee camp. The wall-mounted clothesline in the shower was straining to handle the load, the closet (with towels on the floor) was packed with drip-drying clothes, and any surface that didn't look water-soluble -- even the TV! -- had at least one damp shirt or pair of pants draped across it. It may have only been a hotel room, but we'd certainly moved in wholesale... AJ also took the opportunity to take a closer look at the scene outside our window. We never figured out if the opposite rooftop was a construction site or a destruction site, but the pile of bricks in the nearby courtyard seemed to magically shrink a bit each day. We also both commented on the older apartment building behind the nearest complex; it was obviously the typical 1950s-1960s Communist bloc "get it built and get 'em moved in" block of communal housing, a real eyesore compared to the newer buildings around it. (With the added counterpoint of the incredible shapes of the nearby mountains as a backdrop.)

This may not sound like an exciting way to spend an afternoon in a foreign land, but the truth is that we were exhausted from walking around in the heat and it was good to be able to just plotz for a little while and take care of the housecleaning. It all paid off at dinnertime -- everyone had more energy, our appetites were normal, and all the young 'uns were in fine form. The Pipsqueak's nap seemed to have helped her turn a corner; instead of just grabbing at plates & napkins, she was directing how we fed her and was really verbal. If we didn't get the next spoonful of egg drop soup to her mouth fast enough, she'd grab whichever arm held the spoon and pull it toward her; once she'd swallowed the soup, she'd use both hands to smear any leftovers evenly over her entire face and then clap her hands over her head in appreciation of her own performance. At one point she actually stood up in the high chair and babbled a happy little soliloquy at us before reaching for more food...! (There aren't any photos because we were not only both surprised, we were both kept busy shoveling food into the little one and/or working to keep her from falling out of the high chair.)

We had an early wakeup call looming in the morning, so we all just hung out together in the lobby for a few minutes and then headed up to our rooms. AJ & I had a nice, long Skype voice session with our folks (over an hour for just $1.25!) while puttering around the room, then gave Miri her last bottle of the day & got her ready to bed down for the evening. The Pipsqueak kinda beat us to it; in a typical, "Gravity? I don' need no gravity!" pose, she positioned herself halfway upside-down across her mommy's lap and quickly fell asleep, leaving my sister pinned to the bed & wondering how the heck she'd get the little one into the crib without waking her. I don't remember exactly how we did it, but eventually we were each in our bed with my niece in the crib between us, turning off the lights while looking forward to the next day's adventures.

NEXT: A sunburn-y, crowd crush-y, so hot you'll melt-y wonderful day's adventure...

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