Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An Afternoon in the Pu

Only half an hour into our walk through the Pu, we had a group of about twenty teenage boys trailing us and shouting at ear-splitting volume. This is what it feels like to be a celebrity, I thought. This is what it would be like if I were Ben Affleck and showed up at the local mall.

My girlfriend and I headed out on a recent afternoon to what the foreign community here affectionately refers to as “the Pu,” Tuopu, one of the many small villages on the outskirts of the city that have been subsumed under urban sprawl.

The Pu lies out on Daxue Lu, University Road. It is a smallish community, set against a dark river into which people dump their trash. Tuopu is a mix of old-style Chinese houses set close together, and apartments of Soviet bloc architecture. As you go further from the main road, the spaces widen; rough gardens and fields of crops appear. A friend tells me that in the local language, there is a slur against people who live there that translates something close to “Tuopu hillbilly.”

After an afternoon walking around there, though, and getting treated like rock stars, it seems an unfair assessment.

What is true of the Pu, however, is that it seems to be a place in a city — where traffic is generally of the Mad Max variety — of even more boundless traffic freedom. 

We hopped off a bus and immediately were nearly run over by several motorcycles. We had heard that down the side alleys, parallel to the river, were some interesting old buildings. We found one and headed down.

We were quickly in a tunnel-like alley, where buildings seemed to lean in on each other. Kids on bicycles whirred by in twos and threes. The occassional motorcyle pinned us against the wall.

“They have school on Saturday?’ I asked.

“No not really,” my girlfriend, Moon, replied. “They just have to study all the time.”

Remembering her stories of the bootcamp nature of Chinese high school, it made sense.

After a few bends in a few different alleys, I saw what was clearly a cross poking up out of a mass of buildings. We walked over and sure enough: Tuopu Church. I added it to the list of five or six Christian churches I’d already seen throughout the city.

Walking on we came across a stone monument that had dates of 1120 and 1201 carved into it. Apparently, the area had been of importance to trade in the southern Song dynasty. I looked around at the dusty houses and fields. It was hard to imagine the sleepy suburb being a hub of trade, but a lot can change in 800 years.

We turned around and met our companions for the next hour or so, Jia Kun and his friends. We had turned away from the monument, and found one of the kids who had been trailing us on a bike peering up at us with wide eyes.

“Hey buddy, what’s up?” I said. He grinned and said something in dialect.

“I’m sorry we don’t speak your dialect, but we can speak Putonghua,” I said in Chinese. He seemed to take a foreigner speaking Chinese in stride.

He launched into an explanation of why he and his friends had been trailing us for the last twenty minutes.

“March is Lei Feng month. Our teacher told us we should do a good thing,” he said.

Lei Feng was a model, mythological Communist soldier who helped others at his own expense. “Lei Feng shu shu” translated roughly into something like “do-gooder.”

“So what is the good thing you want to do?” asked Moon

“We want to show you the road,” he said.

Ah, local guides. We were set. We followed Jia Kun on a tour of Tuopu, a tour that consisted mostly of his school and collecting a flock of teenage boys on bikes at every house that we passed.

After a walk that nearly took us back to the university, we made it to Jia Kun’s school, Tuo Dong Xuexiao. Although the school was closed, we were suddenly swarmed by another twenty or so teenage kids. One in particular was a character. “Si-KU-le!!!” he kept shouting, a version of “school” adapted into his native tongue.

I fell immediately into my role as teacher. “What is your name?” I asked the shouting comedian kid. “Yi Yan Bing!” he screamed.

“How old are you?” I asked. There was much chatter about what I was asking at every question. Then an answer was formulated in Putonghua. One kid usually knew the English equivalent.

Finally, Yi Yan Bing came up with his answer.

“Shi si,” he said. “Fourteen.”

I pretended to misunderstand. “Si shi?!! Zhende ma? Ni shi si shi sui? Zenme ke neng?” I said. “You’re forty years old? How’s that possible?”

This elicited the great gales of laughter that I had hoped for. Ohhhh, fourteen, not forty.

The boys took us over to their uncle’s place, where they played billiards on tables that had little net holders under each pocket.

But no women were allowed into the place, and as it was International Women’s Day, it seemed inappropriate to enter.

We tried to escape from the boys, who seemed to be replicating in numbers at every moment. We said our goodbyes and headed down the road. But after about a minute, we found ourselves surrounded again by kids on bikes.

Just before we reached DaXue Lu again, we came across the qilin on the side of the small temple. But it was mostly blocked by a car and the boys, sensing my interest, went into a shouting fest about how there was another. They took us to the back of the temple where there was indeed, a magnificent fresco of the strange creature.

The qilin was a mythological Chinese beast, with the hooves of horse, the body of a deer, and a single horn. It was supposed to be an omen of luck; I had been reading Gavin Menzies controversial book 1421 and had been intrigued by the fact that one of the treasure ships had brought back giraffes to the Ming emperor and had presented them as qilins.

I snapped some pictures and the boys led us on. I couldn’t help grinning at the kids. They were loud. They were obnoxious. But their enthusiasm was infectious. For a variety of reasons, I had been filled with sadness over the past few days, and had been waking up with sickening nightmares. After an hour or so just hanging out with the kids, I felt lifted out of myself. It was hard to be anything but happy in their presence.

Jia Kun sped off down the alley. He was waiting for us at the main street. He explained to us where we were, and we pretended that we hadn’t known and were grateful for his explanation. He was wearing a black sweatshirt that had “Turbo Charge Cataly at” on the back, in the usual and always surprising English found here. I chuckled as I looked at his feet and we waved goodbye — his outfit was completed by a pair of pink “Hello Kitty” slip-on sandals.

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