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, April 4, 2011

More Museum Shops than You Can Shake A Stick At (July 21, 2010)

I'd like to say we awoke bright-eyed and ready for another adventurous day, but the truth is more along the lines of, "I fumbled for the phone when we got our recorded wake-up call and then we both tried to talk each other into getting out of bed." The Pipsqueak didn't have the greatest night, waking mommy (and occasionally Jiujiu) several times and not always going right back to sleep. Bleary-eyed as we were, we couldn't blame her; not only did the crib scare her so much that she was sleeping with AJ in bed, the poor kid hadn't been in the same location more than 4 consecutive days for at least two weeks, and was subject to being carried/rolled/coaxed to new places every few hours every day. Frankly, I suspect the only thing allowing any of us to get some sleep was the resulting exhaustion! (Although I've still kept my promise of not cussing at my "too hard" bed here at home... gaaah...!)

In any case, we had the morning routine down pat and managed to get downstairs early enough for a leisurely breakfast despite none of us actually having our eyes fully open. I don't remember if I had watermelon juice or banana juice (or both?) but we discovered a chocolate cake that it worth hauling our tired tail feathers down the 25 stories for breakfast... and then it was back upstairs to make sure we had everything we needed, and right back down to board the bus with the other two families for a trip to the Guangdong Folk Art Museum.

The traffic in Guangzhou was no better than the traffic in any other city we'd visited, but by now we were all slightly blase about it. (When the count of close calls enters the realm of 5-digit numbers, you stop counting... sometimes you even stop gasping and closing your eyes...) The ride wasn't too long, and we rolled through some more construction into a nearly empty parking lot surrounded by tall, grey stone walls. There were hi-rise buildings all around, but the low, grey building in front of us was obviously from another time. There were highly detailed bas-relief panels in the walls, and the roofline was broken up with more carvings.

As we got closer, I realized there weren't a few shapes carved into the peak of the roof; the entire roof was crowded -- jammed! -- with three-dimensional carvings and free-standing figures. While I shot multiple photos, Lucy explained that all the statuary & carvings depicted either scenes from Chinese folklore, scenes from history, scenes designed to invoke celestial goodwill, or scenes designed to show the greatness of the Chen clan, the original builders & owners of the complex. (I was so interested in the figures that I didn't notice AJ taking photos of yours truly.) The free-standing figures along the peak of each roof were all ceramic, and looked very dark due to the age & weathering of the colored glazes; the bas-relief figures immediately below them were more brightly colored because they were made of soapstone (which would not hold colors permanently) and the government had them repainted after the rainy season every year.

We walked through the huge double doors -- each with a massive protective spirit painted on that dwarfed passers-by -- and encountered a large wooden screen with multiple carved panels. Back when this was the Chen clan's compound, this screen could tell you how important they thought you were; the screen would be folded out of the way so VIPs could walk straight in, but more common guests would have to walk around it. (Dude, you're just a commoner, get over it...!)  Lucy reviewed the meaning of the carvings -- each panel told a different story or had a different meaning -- and then the entire group began moving slowly through the compound. There were large panels on either side of the doors that gave a brief history of the compound, both as the Chen Clan Academy and as the Guangdong Folk Art Museum; based on my knowledge of , I caught myself wondering just how "voluntary" the Chen clan's handing over of their ancestral hall to the local government had been... But here we were, and it was a truly impressive place to be.

Unfortunately, one of the very first things we all noticed was -- you guessed it -- it was HOT. Even walking in the shade of covered walkways, the heat was making itself felt with a vengeance despite the relatively early hour. The entire courtyard area is open-air, and many of the display rooms opened directly onto the courtyard; as interesting as the exhibits were, we seemed to be moving progressively slower as time passed. (It wasn't just us; more tourists, both Chinese and foreign, trickled in throughout our stay, and most were either talking about the heat or sitting down and mopping their brows every few minutes.)

Heat aside, we enjoyed walking through the various exhibition rooms, each dedicated to a different form of art (and a few simply showing how the wealthy lived in China in the previous century). Walking from room to room, I couldn't help but keep marveling at the statuary on the roof; it was as if the Chen clan had the last laugh, with scenes of their family history overshadowing displays of other artists' and clans' work. I'll stop talking for a minute and just put up a few more photos:

I was also struck by the contrast between the very old and the very new, more pronounced here than many other places we'd been. Visitors who kept their gaze straight ahead would see the ancient building and the (sometimes astonishing) arts & crafts displayed there; all one had to do to break the impression of being in a very old place was to step out from the roofs protecting the walkways from the sun and look up, and the surrounding hi-rise buildings would immediately jump into view. Of course, there were also some good, old-fashioned touristy photo ops along the way, and we were happy to take advantage of those as well. :-)  Still, seeing those very modern apartment buildings looming ever closer over the intricate & ornate roofs of the museum complex made me very glad it had been designated too historic to be turned into yet another construction site.

One of the other things that we all slowly noticed was that this museum had more souvenir shops than any other museum we could think of. We'd see an exhibit on wood carving... and then encounter a related shop... then move on to paper cutting... and encounter a related shop... then move on to statuary... and encounter a related shop... and so on for each of the disciplines on display. It wasn't bad; you can handle newly-made items in the shops that you can't get very close to in the displays, thus getting a much better look at some of the artists' work (we missed many of the artists, but the few people keeping the old arts alive regularly work at the museum). Even better, all the shops had large fans to keep visitors cool -- and I quickly perfected the fine art of locating the closest cool spot in each shop we entered.

We picked up a few souvenirs, and spent a pittance on some very nice papercuts for ourselves, and continued through the various displays & exhibits while everyone slowly wilted in the heat. (I really enjoyed the museum and would like to go back for a better look at some things, maybe catch more of the artists & artisans at work... but maybe I'll try it in the spring or the fall instead of mid-summer!) We came to one of the last galleries, where artists both modern and ancient had created works of needlepoint art using multicolored silk thread (some quite large), many of which looked like finely-done paintings and a few with so much detail they could be mistaken for photographs from just a few feet away.

One of the very last displays shows visitors what a wealthy woman's quarters would have looked like early in the previous century. One piece of furniture made us all laugh: the bed. Where we would put a mattress was a bare wood platform; where we would have pillows were ceramic boxes. Lucy told us that the only linens used were covers for warmth & privacy; no padding was used to soften all the hard surfaces. When asked if she slept like that, she laughed and said there was no way she could, and that most Chinese had long since adopted Western-style beds. (Would someone PLEASE explain that to the hotel chains?!?)  With a few last photos of the intricately-carved wood & glass windows, we bid farewell to the museum and made our way back out the door to the bus through the usual gauntlet of vendors hawking all kinds of tchochkes, toys, and snacks.  (I think the girls got a couple of inexpensive souvenirs from one vendor this time.)

Once again, a simple trip -- this time to a nearby restaurant for lunch -- was turned into an adventure by the traffic. As I said earlier, you eventually reach a point where you simply don't pay attention to it; your mind adapts to the apparent insanity of the drivers and lack of space between vehicles. Still, there were a few moments when I just had to pay attention; it's one thing to see two vehicles attempting to jostle each other out of the way, but it's a whole 'nother story when whole herds of behemoths attempt to simultaneously occupy the same point in the time-space continuum! By the time our driver pulled over to the curb to drop us off, I think we'd all reached the point where we would've welcomed being back out in the withering heat instead of the air-conditioned "comfort" of a vehicle in Guangzhou traffic! (Just for reference, there are three full-size tourist buses simultaneously cutting us and each other off in the photo to the right.)

The building we entered was apparently Restaurant Central; we walked up to the 2nd floor for lunch, but there seemed to be at least 2 or 3 restaurants on every floor. (Ignore the color scheme of the facade; although one place seemed to be a fast-food joint, there wasn't a Mickey D's in sight.) We had a good lunch, even with the Pipsqueak insisting Mommy's food was better than her own bowl of congee, and were soon all fully recovered from the combined effects of walking around in the heat and being repeatedly scared out of our gourds by traffic. (As I mentioned in our travel blog, "The chicken wasn't looking at us, but we did get a whole fish.)

As we waited for our driver to take us back to the hotel, we watched a small, white cat dodge foot traffic on the sidewalk (almost as crowded as the roads) and then finally give up & slink into an opening where the pavers had been torn up for work smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk. About the time I realized it was the first stray animal I'd seen in the city, I noticed a nearby security guard apparently keeping an eye on the work site. More correctly, I noticed a nearby security guard who was apparently supposed to be keeping an eye on the work stie -- what he was doing in Chinese is called shui mián... or in plain ol' English, sleeping. How anyone could snooze in a chair in the middle of the median strip of a major road surrounded by all that crazy traffic (where the car horn is used more often than the car brakes)... well, more power to the guy, I guess. 

At this point, the day's plans sort of came apart. The original idea was to return to the hotel and just chill out for a couple of hours (maybe a fast shower, or a quick swim) before getting ready for the oath-taking at the U.S. Consulate.  However, the harder our driver tried to find a road that wasn't blocked, or jammed, or just acting like a parking lot, the heavier & more sedentary the traffic became. I kept checking my watch and doing math in my head, coming up with progressively less favorable numbers as the trip wore on (and on and on and one and...) It didn't help much to notice Lucy was beginning to look concerned... then worried... then really worried... and the traffic simply would not budge.

Eventually, the short "twenty minute" drive back to the White Swan concluded with just enough time -- if we moved really, really fast! -- to change clothes, grab our papers, and meet up at the lower entrance with all the other families who had Consulate appointments that day. Lucy had taken advantage of our being a captive audience on the bus to ensure we knew cameras were DEFINITELY NOT ALLOWED inside the Consulate for security reasons, so I snapped a couple of quick pictures of the Pipsqueak in her new "special appointment" outfit as she investigated the contents of mommy's purse and then we ran (literally!) out the door.

NEXT: Happy Tears!

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