China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: A rainy day in the life of small town China.
Date: Mon, 27 Jul 1998 19:41:34 -0700

18:39 Kilometer 18, G310; Shaanxi--China :: MO 27 JUL 98

"There's not alot going on in this town."

Early afternoon and we were sitting in the fanguan (restaurant) across the main street from our binguan (hotel) in this little town. Rain fell steadily here since the drizzle began yesterday at the landslide just down the road. A little later in the afternoon, the sun will make an appearance or two between broken clouds and large patches of blue sky. The terraced mountainsides will gleam a brilliant green. But at that moment the clouds hung low and threw raindrops at us while making of the mountain tops shadowy shapes difficult to discern from just another cloud.

I looked down main street, 300 meters of concrete after 30 kilometers of yesterday's dirt road. On either side one or two story buildings of brick or concrete construction. One story: shop. If two floors, the first was a shop of some sort selling dry goods, or food, or clothing, or a retaurant. One merchant's floor space was devoted entirely to bags of seed and grain. There are at least three hair stylist/barbershops in town. And, as always, carts and umbrellas lined the street. The shops in the two story buildings had the advantage; the second story--probably residential--overhangs the first enough to shelter the front stoop. People sat in stools bantering, as many as five people per narrow shop. Other folks would duck in out of the rain to make a purchase, or just have a look. Some of these would join the banter, others would move on to another shop. The buzz of human voices was constant. It still is, outside the window of our hotel room.

The street itself was no stranger to traffic. Cars and trucks, minivans, the diesel single-piston trikes which account for so much rural cartage--of people, stock and goods. These were rather sparse, but a constant stream of people carrying umbrellas walked up and down main street. Familiar faces and outfits, again and again. Or people entering the town from either the north or south, and leaving again laden with purchases, or perhaps a few yuan from a sale. But the street itself was never quiet for a moment.

And I was thinking how different this scene was from typical small towns in the places I'd lived all my life. We don't walk anywhere in North America, and on rainy days we cling to our homes and our television sets. Or maybe I'm missing something? Maybe I need to get stranded in some backwoods town in Canada, just sit there on the front stoop of a restaurant sipping tea watching the goings on?

So I'm sitting there, thinking on how alive with humanity this place is, this little town between two fringe cities on a dirt highway. And Emma says,

"There's not alot going on in this town."
I tell her my perception is exactly the opposite, that the town is alive with activity. It takes her a while to explain what she means, and I'm not sure I can fully express it myself. For example, she uses tonal variants for the word "shopping" to differentiate between something like casual window shopping and heading out to the supermarket to buy the week's supplies.

Emma's been living in Korea for two years now. She's used to the amplified and accelerated buzz of Seoul so that even big towns and cities like Baoji and Xian seem sedate. She sees no urgency or necessity in the motions and actions of the people in town. It's not that people are killing time, it's that time itself doesn't appear all that important. It's not that there's not much in the way of productive activity it's that productive activity is not primary in the scheme of daily life.

Or something like that.

Perceptual differences like these between people intrigue me. While I'm comparing this little town I don't even know the name of to other little towns I don't know the name of back home, she's thinking in terms of the megalopolous that's been her home for two years. Our conclusions are not all that dissimilar once we talk them over, but the initial expressions of them appear to be contradictions.

Life is like that. So much of what we perceive in each other as conflict comes from the same place, or means the same thing.

~~~ Responses are cool ~~~
Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men
doesn't try to force issues
or defeat enemies by force of arms.
For every force there is a counterforce.
Violence, even well intentioned,
always rebounds upon oneself.

The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn't try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn't need others' approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 30
trans. Stephen Mitchell