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CHINA DIARY: CELEBRATING PURIM AND PASSOVER IN CHINA
by Marion D.S. Dreyfus
The winter gear is coming off, but the women look pretty much the same: Skin-tight jeans and decorated leather boots, midcalf high, with 3-inch-high stiletto heels. They wear cutoff croped jackets and feminine sweaters or pullovers. That they look so comehither is of no mind, as they dress the way most everyone of their size and shape and age dress.
The children are adorable, especially tiny. they wear padded outfits in hectic colors, often not matching jackets or bulky little vests and chunky handmade shoes in felt or corduroy with animal faces intricately involved in the front or back or top. Their headgear is equally adorable, and when they are afoot, they are impishly awkward, barely able to toddle with all the clothing and protection. When truly young, they wear trousers split entirely up the tush, so they can answer nature's call without needing to pull the trousers off or down.
Teachers who are not just graduated are the only people around who actually look like adults. they wear sober suitings like their parents probably wore 30 or 40 years ago. Navy or black or dark suits in unexciting cuts and materials that say respect and Dignity and No fooling around here.
I try to get friendly with these teachers, but i am racing and they are teaching in different buildings, different subjects. The new teachers, who are indistinguishable from the students, and are only a year or two older than they, wear what the students wear, but usually with a bit of a suited look. They teach listening, a big topic here. The entire class and teacher are to be seen sporting large earphones in class, and little can be heard, since they are all intent on their listening to tapes or CDs or whatever.
I met and went to lunch with new teacher Tina. She lives off-campus, has a 3-year-old son, and her husband - dismissively less important than her job, graduate aspirations and child - lives in faraway Senzhen. We ate in the cafeteria, where the air is grey with aerosolized burning oil and smoke from coal under all the woks. It is impossible to see properly owing to the watery eyes resulting from choking on the air and breathing the assorted coal-tar derivatives hanging over one. After one has begun to calm down from choking, one tries in vain to order food not choked with pork or capsicum chili hot enough to scare the horses.
The cooks in the dirty alley wear cold-weather clothing, as they stay out from early morning to the wee hours, sometimes selling their wares in the light of a single tiny bulb or even a single candle. They wear cut-off gloves and workclothes and scarves. They are genial and friendly, and once I have bought from them the noodles and veggies I favor, they never try to chili-up my next meal. They know enough not to try to serve me meat. I avoid it all bec. I can't tell what has or does not have pork running through it.
For Purim, I rustled up strawberries, yogurts, dates, chocolates, apples, pears, banas and nuts for the staff here, along with a festive card telling them the meaning of these victuals and such. They'll be mystified until someone translates my card, and even then they won't get it. but I feel better I gave it to them for the holiday.
I have been given four new classes, somewhere downtown, in some school, but all I know is that they will be on Friday. Not that I wanted it. But I accepted graciously, because the school volunteered me,and perhaps I'll meet some more expats and see more of the city than I do now.
Soon, must decide to go bowling with Noah or film-finding with Lee tomorrow. I must think on the relative merits of each activity. Sundays mostly devoted to dread for the upcoming week and whether my class plans will be satisfactory, fun, instructive, educational, appropriae or accessible enough. Each week they come close, triumph. Sometimes, if I feel they fall short: a desolate sensation pervades.
Went to the 4A -- Best Tourist Spot -- Yellow Crane Tower with new
friend Gayle, from New Zealand, a crackerjack art teacher, learned
calligraphy 3 years with azen master, and all-around polymath. We
bought crazily and artistically, enjoyed oselves, and forgot for a few
hours where we were in our delight at finding mosaics and ceramics and
silks and architecture to ooh and ahh over.
It's not every Seder that has most of the meal prepared by a 12-year-old boy home for the holiday.
I teach my Chinese university students here about heroism. I don't mean the derring-do swashbucklers kind of heroics familiar to renters of DVDs and current governators of California. I mean the quotidian heroism of fathers and mothers, the average-Joe Citizen bravery of those who plug away at the nobler and sanctified task of educating their young while making a living. Getting up at 7, making breakfast for the kids, buckling up, taking the kids to school, and themselves to a job.
The first Passover night this year, in the home of the most hospitable and community stalwarts - R. Lipson and T. Plafker. Their eldest son, Jonathan, in Beijing for the start of this spring holiday, cooked pineapple crumble, potato and leek 'pie,' a raft of various other delicacies. Even macaroons that I, ahem, helped with. (Mine turned out to be toll-house wanna-be's, flat and curious, though good if you forgave their unforgivably chometzdik appearance. His bore the outstanding look and time-honoured sturdiness of the real deal.) I decorated them all with a candied walnut segment that redeemed my shame, somewhat, at having produced such off-putting, Saharan flatlands of the traditional baked goods.
There were 20 to table the first night, with people from the US (Boston), Israel (Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem), Hong Kong and elsewhere in China. Professions represented ranged from high-end medical supplies and arcane equipment to embassy staffers, teachers, business people and journalists, full-time students on a PhD track, to the hosts' two younger sons, attending school in Beijing. All the sons of the house are handsome devils: whippet-smart, caustically witty and charmingly entertaining, if a bit rusty on the Four Questions. The Haggadah we used, though with curiously little Hebrew, featured the usual highlights. The retelling of the story of Passover was earnest, mostly in English, and the participation no less enthusiastic for the Anglicization or omission of some of the favored passages.
My background was almost 100% in the Hebrew mode, so reading in English always strikes me as a newfangled and exotic. Partaking of vegetarian delights that sang in the mouth, and were beautifully presented on the marvellous table, we sang the hoary-endless "Who Knows One?" and "Chad Gadya," songs from Hallel and the ages, drank the required four glasses of wine and ate the memorable charoset (my personal favorite, year after year). One difference from many Passover tables was that the shankbone was indeed not a shankbone but a carved beet, though it was cunningly similar to the original. As the hosts are vegetarians, the fabulous meal was entirely meat-free. Much was contrived from tofu and other local substitutes, and there was no lack of dishes or lip-smacking doubles (and triples) of portions consumed.
I had come from Jew-less Wuhan to celebrate with other co-religionists, as arch as that might sound, because there is not only no matzah in Wuhan, city of nearly 8 million, but there are either zero Jews - YoTai, in Mandarin - or they are pretty adept at concealing themselves.
The next seder night, at the Capital Club, site of the regular services of Kehilat Beijing, there were close to 90 attendees, counting the under-10 set, at round tables seating 10. Having been told (by the erroneous informants at my hotel) that the Club was "ten minutes' walk away," I hoofed it. An hour later, I was in a near-panic, as the sky was florid and night was fast approaching, and I was nowhere near getting there. Two kind Indian residents of Beijing got me there, genially inviting me to their restaurant the next time I visited Beijing.
I arrived at stations Carpas (dipping green vegetable) and R'Chatz (second washing of hands).
Two community people led the seder, a man and a woman, lending their own spin and texture to the songs we'd sing and the tables that would recite various responsive parts alternating with other tables. I had never heard some of the melodies. Other well-known songs were put to melodies such as "We shall Overcome," a first for me to overcome. A staff working very hard provided one of the best meals I've had in months. The Kehila never serves a bad meal, I have noticed in several holidays spent under their comforting eaves.
Guests here came from New York, Hong Kong, elsewhere in China, various southern venues in the northern US, and Florida. There were many little children, mostly playing outside the hall where our seder was being conducted. Many converts, many women from China sitting respectfully with their Jewish boy friends or, mostly, husbands. Businessmen, lawyers, restaurateurs, public relations in great number (the field seems to be as heavily represented here as are embassy staffers, for some not-too-arcane reasons). Hospital people, doctors, professors, students, artists and jewelry designers. One long-time couple, Jewish/Chinese, is getting married next week and moving to Boston.
I teach my students the meaning of user-friendly, a useful Americanism that can be applied to all manner of things and events.
The next day, Wednesday, I went to Chabad, where I prayed not only Shacharit and Musaf, but - to some good-natured grumbling - Mincha, too. The genial rabbi and his attractive, warm-hearted wife have three children, too, as do the Lipson-Plafkers. All the Lipson children are male; the Freundlich kids are all female. The home is full of visitors and local residents, about 20 on Wednesday midday. To the seder, there were perhaps three times that number the night before.
Dini and Shimon are heroes, too. They carry on a valiant presence with authenticity and kindness, surrounded by (mostly) incomprehension. Passover is a Big deal to us, but among the Chinese, it is not very well known. April Fool's Day and Valentine's score much higher in the richter of their consciousness, but who can fault them for not knowing what many, perhaps even most, Jews aren't fully cognizant of.
The service at the Chabad House is user-friendly, too. Every prayer is announced, the pages given, so there's none of that frantic page-flipping that characterized my teen years when no one deigned to tell anyone where the prayers were in the prayer book. As they switch around from 320 to 73 and back to 242 by the moment, it was a pleasure to be able to follow the service.
When I leave, Dini, the rabbi's slim and attractive wife, gives me some matzah to take back to Wuhan. I am not fixed for anything other than fruit and vegetables back in the Hot Grim Gritty. Matzah will make a great snack, sustain me for the next five days, and be a great conversation starter for my classes, who like nothing more than in-depth low-down on cultural manifestations outside their narrow sphere of thoroughly atheistic middle China. They loved the pranks I pulled on April Fool's. And in December, they forced me to teach them "Jingle Bells" -- though I ruefully informed them that Xmas was decidedly not my bailiwick. Didn't make no never mind. They love Xmas, all the stores feature mock Santas in red felt floppy hats, and any Westerner is a presumed bearer of Yule-tide song and cheer.
I may have come a ways since I was a sprat, but the unchanging melodies and remembered accents of Hebrew liturgy bring me flying back without a time machine. Or rather, the prayers to me are time machines. For all my vaunted apostasy, I feel deeply at home in these precincts, with these accents, lilts and pronunciations. The mechitza is very light; the room is divided into two equal sections of light-filled seats. Women on one side, men on the other. The men are handsome enough, some with Botticelli locks and eyes to die for, others clean-cut avatars of industry in neat trousers and shirts, that I would indeed be distracted from prayer were I to gaze on them. During the meal, around a long table laden with victuals and tasty traditional savouries, we all chat and swap humorous tales and stories about our lives. From my vantage point of Wuhan, where I am starved for adult male biped company, the meal is a mere forshpeis for the attractive conversation and company. Most of the males, if not all, are married, as befits serious captains of industry or labor outside the puerile prolonged adolescences of Manhattan.
As important to me as are the appurtenances of the holiday - the special blessings and foods, the separateness of this holiday from the rest of the calendar year, the constant awareness of differentness - the warmth and welcome of the Freundlichs and their keen-eyed and adorable little girls are equally valid in the tally of user-friendliness. I feel welcomed and at home. Everyone smiles as I come in and sit down. The children fix me with their piercingly intelligent eyes and recall when I was there last, and we play with my jewelry for a few moments and share insights, mine no better than theirs.
I congratulate myself at having found this place inside a compound called Kings Garden Villas. This is not so small a thing here in the exotic locales of China, where one can discover that even the Chinese are fairly clueless as to where things are. I find most addresses by good instinct more readily than depending on the direction-sense of strangers who speak the tongue. When people wave me toward something, I almost instinctively follow my own mind rather than their hazy gesture.
All the women ,and some of the men, help in the kitchen, serving the delicious preparations of Dini and the gentle local helpers. We sing zmirot, holiday songs, the rabbi gives us a vort (brief homily), a quick dvar Torah, which makes the meal also a religious occasion and sanctification, and I offer my three cents in another linguistic exegesis on the parsed meanings of the words Pharoah, Pesach and phorech (hard labor). We chat with Canadians, Australians, Brits, Philippino residents and Hong Kong citizens. Some of the men are currently enrolled in one of the schools I am thinking about attending this summer.
My plane leaves two hours later than scheduled, but robed in a nimbus of good feeling about the yom tov (holiday), I don't really care. Hashem (G-d) in Heaven seems to be taking care of me, I feel surrounded by goodwill, even with a drawn-out departure that gets me back to my little apartment in Nanhu Gardens, Wuchang, after 1 am. Well after 1 am.
Marion D. S. Dreyfus is a journalist, a film critic and an intrepid traveler. She is currently in Wuchan, China, where she teaches at the University and does a radio talk show. Her address is: Marion D. S. Dreyfus, Reception centre 8301, Huazhong University of Science & Technology, English Department, Wuchang Branch, Nanhu, Wuchan, Wuhan 430064, P R China.
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