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!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Quick Catch-Up: the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

I didn't want to skip over the Pipsqueak's Gotcha Day, so now I'll jump into the WABAC machine and revisit some fun stuff we did back in late June.

If you live in the DC area, you probably know about the Smithsonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival on the Mall downtown.  It's changed a little over the years, morphing from a truly massive event of US-only displays, re-enactments, food, demonstrations, etc. that covered almost every square inch of the mall from the Capitol all the way down to the Washington Monument to a (still very large) event located mainly along the central section of the Mall and focusing on an ever-changing selection of other nations & cultures.

This year's Folklife Festival featured Kenya and China, so of course we had to go! Of course, the only weekend that we could attend also happened to be the weekend that Metro shut down the entire central section of the Red Line (our easiest & most direct route) for track reconstruction, so there were a couple of days of back-and-forth between family members over exactly what do to. (I'm not naming names, but each family member applies extremely different levels of zen & acceptance to travel adventures & complications, with Mom having the most practical and thus least zen-like approach...)

After spending some quality time on Metro's website (which I have to say is not as well organized as it should be and -- sin of all sins to a former web developer -- includes a plethora of broken or nonfunctional links) I figured out that if we drove to either the Maryland end of the Green/Yellow, Orange, or Blue Lines, we could get where we needed to go without having to deal with bus transfers, Metro's temporary shuttles through downtown along the closed portion of the Red Line, or blocks-long walks for our slightly creaky senior family members. A final decision was made at the last minute, and we drove about half an hour to the end of the Orange Line (coincidentally a short walk from where I had my first "real" job many years ago) so we could have a straight shot to the Smithsonian station.

We got to the parking garage easily, gathered our things (including, after much consideration, one of Miri's strollers), and headed downtown. Oops, no, first we had to stop at the colocated MARC station so Miri could use the bathroom. Then we had a little confusion over how the SmarTrip machines worked, until everyone had what they needed. I already had a SmarTrip card from back when I used to commute downtown, so I figured I'd just check my balance and add money if needed. Hmm, that's funny, the machine can't read my card. Let's try this one... uh oh, okay, let's try this one... Nope, maybe this one over here...? I finally had to go to the station manager's kiosk, and the lady there took all of about 10 seconds to scan the card and tell me I still had over $21 available on the account. Feeling better, we all headed for the turnstiles... where I again had to go from scanner to scanner to scanner until I found one that would read my card and let me in. Luckily, there were just a few other people passing through so there was no problem.

We were a little worried about how Miri would react to the subway, since her only other experience with a train involved a fairly open antique car on the Strasburg Railroad last summer. She said she had a good time on the train, but we also remembered several of the typical "railroad" sounds bothered or scared her. Not to worry; she handled the ride in like a champ, enjoying everything from the passing scene at each station to the loud whoosh and HONK! when the train entered the underground section of the line. She also enjoyed the swaying and occasional jerk forward or sideways, happily sitting on Mommy's lap and looking out the window.

We got off at the Smithsonian station as planned and -- after I tried three turnstiles before finding one that would read my SmarTrip card -- took the escalator up into the heat & sunlight of the Mall near the old Smithsonian "Castle," just yards from some of the Folklife Festival tents. A few cell phone calls & texts later, we had met up with Uncle M and Aunt D (who'd already been there for over an hour) and our entire group headed off to see what there was to see.

We passed by some kites and a two-story high "gate" into the China exhibit area and wandered from tent to tent for a while. The app I had so carefully installed on my iPhone the previous night proved to be invisible in the bright sunlight, so we found a schedule and watched a Miao folk dance performance. After the first couple of dances, they invited the crowd to join in, so AJ took Miri up front and joined in a big circle dance. We then continued through the various crafts displays, watching a middle-aged woman making dyes out of strong tea and (as usual) marveling at the intricate needlework and worked silver on display. (Mom commented that the extensive silver headdress, necklaces, and breastplate of one particular Miao costume looked amazingly similar to folk costumes we'd seen decades earlier on native Chilean indian costumes.)

There was lots of other cool stuff from China, much of which was either new to us or  only vaguely familiar. It's easy to forget that "China" is still no more a monolithic culture than the USA, and that one only needs to travel a few hundred miles to find (at least the remnants of) an entirely different tribal culture. Some of my favorites were the incredibly small and yet incredibly detailed clay figurines being made just a few dozen feet away from "old" wood block prints being carved & printed in the next tent, representatives of tribal cultures that are geographically separated by almost a thousand miles.

We paused for a while at the open area listed on the maps as "People's Park" (where I actually spotted a lone protestor's sign bobbing along above the crowd, calling for a boycott of everything Chinese). The area was supposed to be the locus for an ever-changing series of public performances but what we found was a group of young women practicing a fan dance. After watching for a few minutes (and quietly laughing to myself that until I got close enough to see the little yellow ID tags they were wearing, it was literally impossible for me to tell the young women were from anywhere outside my own neighborhood), I noticed that the gal leading the group looked... well, different. I don't mean different as in, "from somewhere else," I mean different as in... well, just really not matching any of the other young women in any way. It finally dawned on me (and apparently some of the watching crowd around the same time) that the "gal" leading the rehearsal was a guy -- complete with heavy feminine makeup, bouffant 'do, low-slung pink jeans, and a tee tied in a knot to show plenty of skin. As if I needed any more reminders that good ol' H. Sapiens is pretty much the same species anywhere one goes...!

We wandered through several more displays, many of which I didn't really get a chance to see because I discovered that I was the only member of the family trying to keep track of where all the other members of the family had wandered off to... thus I soon found myself standing in a hot, sunny bare patch of dirt in the middle of the Mall (with Miri's unused stroller, packed with all the "just in case" raincoats, etc.) watching my uncle & aunt disappear through the gateway into the Kenya exhibit while my parents rendered themselves invisible in a crowd watching a Chinese artist behind me off to my left and AJ & Miri wandered into the tent with a massive dragon cart off to my right... Ah, the joys of traveling "together" as a family! (Dude, next time, put GPS trackers on 'em... or tie everybody together with a rope!)

As we began heading toward the Kenyan portion of the Festival, Miri caught sight of the carousel over near the Smithsonian "castle" and it quickly became obvious that a detour in that direction was most definitely What We Were Doing.  Mom & Dad sat on a bench & I tried getting some good photos while AJ & Miri rode 'round and 'round for a while. (I clicked the shutter more than a dozen times, but I think I got exactly one photo where both my sister's and niece's faces can be seen. Later on, I even found one photo with neither one of them in frame at all -- that's a fast carousel!)

We all eventually ended up within a few feet of each other watching a group of Kenyan tribal dancers warming up for their performance in a nearby tent. Their headdresses were of feathers (I heard someone say "ostrich" but I couldn't verify), their instruments looked mostly to be genuinely handmade, and the costumes were colorful... but that quiet voice in the back of my mind wondered aloud which African tribes considered Nike and Adidas products to be genuine "tribal" attire.  That other voice inside my head (What, doesn't everybody have a conversation group living inside their heads?) quickly shushed him by pointing out how many times I saw people in China posing in "genuine tribal costume" with Nikes, Adidas, or even Keds poking out below.  Like I said, H. sapiens doesn't vary that much...!

After passing through a couple of the display tents (and taking a timeout from the blazing sun in one well-stocked with crayons & African animal coloring pages for the kids, courtesy of one of the Kenyan agencies involved in the Festival), the heat & crowds & general tiredness began to wear on us all a bit. We started back toward the Metro station, passing a reconstructed coastal fishing boat of a design essentially unchanged for a two or three centuries commonly used by one of the Kenyan tribes... and I found that if I squinted just a teeny bit, blew the boat up to about twice its actual size and added a mast... well, it's almost the same shape as some of the Chinese junks I've seen in NatGeo books. (To be honest, I saw exactly one "junk" during our entire time in China, and it was a big, modern, neon-covered, mast-free motorized tour boat in Guangzhou.)

We decided to walk all the way down to the Folklife Festival sales shop that was set up in a trailer outside the Museum of American History a couple of blocks away... and ran into a couple of members of our group of "adoption friends" along the way. After blocking the sidewalk momentarily for a couple of quick group shots, we continued to the store... or, more correctly, to the end of the line of people waiting to get into the store. Since our friends had already mentioned that they found a hanging set of little cloth Chinese zodiac figures for $35 in the store that was an almost exact duplicate of the set they had purchased in China for less than $5, AJ and I elected to stay outside with Miri while our folks checked out the goods with our uncle & aunt. After a few hot but fun minutes outside (my niece was in an entertaining mood), Mom said we should see what was inside... plus, it was air conditioned! AJ & I wandered through with the Pipsqueak, finding that we had indeed purchased a number of crafts & pieces of art in China for a fraction of what the Folklife shop was charging, so it wasn't long before we headed back out into the heat and set course for the Metro station, past the kite exhibit and ginormous Chinese "gate" marking the entrance to the Folklife Festival.

When we had first arrived, the Smithsonian station had people moving through but wasn't crowded; now that we were hot, sweaty, and tired... of course there were lots more people. It wouldn't have mattered as much if we had just gone through the turnstiles, but noooo, my SmarTrip card once again insisted on not cooperating. It was only when I tried the sensor on the very last available gate that I was able to get into the station proper & head for the platform with everyone else.

The trip back out the Orange Line was uneventful, and as excited as she was by all the sights & sounds (and the bright red stuffed horse Grandma & Grandpa had bought her), Miri soon succumbed to the rocking of the train and was asleep before our train had reached the aboveground portion of the line. Once in the station, I tried every turnstile gate but none would read my SmarTrip card and let me out of the station. One of the Metro employees, after watching me try every one of the turnstiles a second time, called out to me and let me out through the employee gate. I explained that I'd been having a problem with the SmarTrip card all day and suspected it was so old that it needed replacement, and he responded that it would be a simple fix -- I just had to go down to the main business office at Metro Center, explain the problem, and they'd issue me a new card on the spot. I decided it would be an inopportune moment to point out that I had no way to reach Metro Center with a malfunctioning SmarTrip card, and we headed for the parking garage.

After the usual "discussion" of the proper route home -- and this time I have to admit AJ would've gone the right way if both Dad & I hadn't insisted she use the other exit ramp -- we all realized we were hungry, so we had a family dinner out at the "slop chute" (Old Country Buffet) before finally calling it a day.

Miri had a couple of bug bites, AJ and I were both sunburned, our folks were both having trouble walking... but all in all it had been a good "together" day of glorious weather with many a smile, and that's how we're all going to remember our trip to the China exhibit at the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall.

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