Thursday, February 21, 2013

An Accidental Traveler in Nanchang

“You went to China and spent half your time in Nanchang?” I could see by my friend’s expression that she thought I’d gone off the rails. To her it was as if a tourist from China planned to linger only a day or two in New York and San Francisco, with the core of her trip played out in Des Moines, Iowa. The city of Nanchang, about five hundred kilometers northeast of Hong Kong in Jiangxi province, certainly wasn’t competition for the glitter of Shanghai or the charm of Suzhou. My friend, Elizabeth, her three-year-old daughter Isabel, Elizabeth’s friend Judy, and I had traveled together from New York City, and had reluctantly cut our time short in the tourist meccas, because Elizabeth had things to do in Nanchang.

The major part of our trip was as a group of four, but, in traveling with friends, I nearly always find little pockets of adventure on my own, and this trip was no exception. The Lonely Planet guide to China dismisses Nanchang as “nondescript,” condemning its streets of boxy concrete buildings as “color deprivation at its worst.” So we were startled when, on the ride in from the airport, a Western-style department store of several stories suddenly emerged like a mirage of brilliant light in the desert of darkness. All glass and glitter, it bustled with customers, even at eight p.m. 

More surprises awaited us at the Gloria Plaza Hotel. We had arrived on December 20th, and had looked forward to escaping the madness of Christmas in the States. This was China, after all, so we were unprepared to hear strains of “Away in a Manger” as we entered the hotel. In the lobby we gazed at a table loaded with stacks of stuffed animals, gift-wrapped boxes and a Plaster of Paris Santa Claus featuring painted two inch-long eye lashes. Gingerbread houses were draped with blinking white lights, extravagant sweets were for sale, and Elizabeth pointed out a chocolate delicacy labeled “Youlog.” Someone had worked hard to make us Westerners feel at home. The jolly sounds of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” followed us through the halls each time we left our rooms.

The dining room resembled a poor man’s Trader Vic’s, complete with touches of thatch on the ceilings, and replicas of wooden boats tacked to walls. The buffet dinner was tasty, and offered ample choices of Western and Chinese fare. The servers―renamed "Betty", "Carrie", "Ron" and "Susan", for the convenience of us Westerners―were friendly and helpful.  I joyously gobbled up delicious cabbage hearts, and tried cracked hardboiled eggs swimming in soy sauce, which were terrific. But we all passed on pig's blood, goose intestines, sliced pigs ear with jelly fish and some kind of cat braised, I think. I wanted to expand my cultural horizons but, not yet, Lord. 

The next morning I woke as the light of day pushed through ragged openings in a blanket of smog. My friends were still asleep, and I didn’t want to wake them, so I decided on a solo foray into the neighborhood. Although the area near the hotel had an industrial feel to it I passed a few apartment houses, some of which featured carcasses of small animals hung, like laundry, on balconies. Hmm. How different “animal carcasses” sounds from “beef,” “drum stick,” “steak,” and the like. Perhaps some “roasts” or “short ribs” would land on the hotel’s menu for the pleasure of us Westerners who don’t care to eat cats.

As I meandered, I discovered that the streets were busy, even at seven in the morning. Some men and women pedaled along the streets, carrying impressive loads of sugarcane and boxes or bags of mysterious cargo on their bikes. A man squatted over a grate in the sidewalk to brush his teeth. He looked satisfied at finding a practical solution for caring for his teeth, rather than someone to be pitied for his apparent “homelessness.” As I thought about that, a pile of slimy, bloody, fresh-caught fish grabbed my attention. I stepped past the mass of creatures pathetically struggling for life, and picked my way carefully down wide stairs, slippery with water sluicing toward the river I could now see below.

At the bottom of the steps men and a few women swabbed decks or unloaded their catch. Dozens of sampans, about the size of rowboats, their wooden bodies topped by straw-covered bonnets, jammed the harbor. Boats just like them had been taken out on the waters of China’s seas hundreds of years earlier. I felt I had walked back in time, where the basics of life never changed. Later back in the hotel, Judy and Elizabeth were anxious to go out, but first we all wanted lunch. In the dining room, we were warmly greeted by "Carrie", a waitress who had gone out of her way to befriend us the evening before. After breakfast while I waited for my friends to make a brief stop in the restroom, "Carrie" and I chatted. She surprised me by confiding that she didn’t like her job, and planned to resign soon. Perhaps she would work in her husband’s business, she said. But that was a problem, because her father did not get along with her husband.

"Carrie" explained that soon after her marriage her husband had visited her father’s heater factory, had taken a close look at how it was run, and promptly opened his own heater business. The competition meant that her father was able to eek out only a meager living. With only a short pause, "Carrie" looked at her shoes and murmured, scarcely above a whisper, “I know my husband loves me, and I love him.” Then, inexplicably, she looked up at me and asked, “Do you think I should get a divorce?” I wasn’t about to play instant-Oprah, so I was relieved when my friends appeared, just in time to save me from an awkward response. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what I had missed in not continuing the conversation. Even the few comments we exchanged provided a glimpse of the culture unlikely to happen on a proper tour with a proper guide.

For our afternoon excursion we settled on the Tianning Temple where we joined other visitors and a few monks in long brown robes praying at altars.  The more subtle statues were painted in gilt, others in a garish orange-yellow. Three-year-old Isabel followed the example of local people, kneeling on a low bench, and bending from the waist with palms together. We adults were more restrained. Brilliant cerise sticks of incense and fat red candles burned beneath larger-than-life golden replicas of Buddha. Renditions of fierce dragons sent Isabel into shrieks of delighted fright.

Our time as tourists in this allegedly dreary, boring town passed like a blink, we had not been out in the evening at all. My friends decided to call it a day, but I wanted to see what, if anything, went on after dark. It was about nine when I decided to explore a side street toward the back of the hotel. I discovered numerous pocket sized restaurants, and a few cooks at work right on the street. They stood over small fires, and juggled long-handled woks, as they tossed greens into the air. I had walked three blocks when I noticed a building with a wide doorway, where a number of twenty-something, dressed-up men and women congregated. I approached and they giggled at me. A man slightly older than the rest of the group stepped forward and in halting English asked what I wanted. 

I asked, “Is this a hotel?” 

“Dancing,” he said. That response made me eager to go inside, but the charge, the equivalent of twenty dollars, was too high for a visit of only a few minutes. I explained my situation, and the man beckoned me to follow. Up several flights of winding stairs we went, and at each landing I was surprised to see paintings or sculptures of glamorous naked ladies. Perhaps this was a brothel? A strip joint? Nothing so exotic, I discovered, on arriving at the third floor.

I entered a hall where tables and chairs formed a half-circle in front of a small stage. No one was dancing. Adults and children of all ages, eschewing the available chairs, crowded close to the stage. I joined them. A middle-aged man in a suit, shiny with wear, held a blank sheet of paper aloft in his left hand. He turned it this way and that, so that we could see that it had no bulk, then rolled it into a cylinder. A moment later a green, silk scarf materialized in his right hand. Slowly, he poked it inside the end of the cylinder. Next he pulled a pink scarf from the opposite end, and unrolled the paper to show that it was once again a simple flat sheet. Adults and children laughed delightedly.  

Someone pushed through the crowd and asked in English whether I would like a drink. I was sorry to decline, but it was after ten, and I held out the faint hope that, back at the hotel, I could persuade my friends to return with me. I wondered how many entertainments we might have missed each night, right at our doorstep, in this city where Lonely Planet claimed there was nothing to do. As I walked out toward the stairs, I thanked the man who had escorted me to this delightful entertainment.

As we reached a landing, he paused and began to twist his hands together. Clearing his throat, and looking over my right shoulder, he said he had something to ask me. After apologizing several times, he finally blurted out that he wanted to mail a teapot to a friend in Michigan, but the postage was prohibitive. Would I mail it for him from Seattle? He had been kind to me and I wanted to say yes. But I could imagine myself at an airport, claiming that a stranger had given me an item to carry on the plane. What a scenario for unexpected consequences! I declined, but asked how much it would cost for postage from Nanchang. Forty dollars, he said. I guessed the tea pot had cost less than five dollars, which made the situation seem preposterous. Still, I felt sad that I could not comply with what seemed a small favor. The mystery of the tea pot still intrigues me. 

On the way back to the hotel, I was passing another club when a woman standing at the entrance gestured to me to come in. I stepped to the doorway, and paused just long enough to see a large hall, where there were several dozen of what appeared to be church pews.  On a stage at the far end a tiny man in a Santa Claus suit raced back and forth, with the pace of a frenetic talk-show host, spewing fast patter into a microphone, while periodic bursts of laughter erupted from his audience of perhaps a hundred people. 

So much for my “gray-on-gray” trip to Nanchang. All those small happenings took place along one street of perhaps three blocks. At odd moments I find myself picturing a return trip. I could walk more streets, find a fluent English speaker, and conduct in-depth interviews of each person I had met.

Or, instead of all that, I could explore some “nondescript” U.S. city, such as Des Moines, Iowa. There’s no telling what delights I might encounter in such a place.




In “Traveling Solo: Part One” I described my good luck in connecting with Ahmed who helped me use the phone, find a hotel, and then led me to the soccer stadium where I secured the last ticket to the Whirling Dervish performance. Had I been traveling with a friend, I would have been reluctant to give up the seat to her, but also unwilling to take it for myself. So, in this instance, traveling alone saved me from having to deal with that dilemma.

A couple of hours after Ahmed left me at the hotel I retraced my steps to the stadium where the performance would take place. I scarcely recognized the bright new look flooding the streets. Gone were the frumpy, gray cloaks that dominated the scene earlier that afternoon. Hundreds of splendidly dressed men and women poured out of tour buses. Men wore western suits. Women were draped in fashionable, flowing silk scarves. The stadium, a cavernous cold, gray place, was made lively by men and women selling beads, sweets, images of saints and other religious trinkets. The marriage of commerce and holiness -common as it is - always surprised me. I wondered what Mevlana would have made of it all. 

Mevlana, born Celaleddin Rumi in 1207, escaped massacre by Mongols in central Asia, settled in Konya, and became a much beloved Sufi mystic and poet. He instructed his followers to “pursue all manifestations of truth and beauty, whilst avoiding ostentation,” and to “practice infinite tolerance, love and charity.” Mevlana revered music and dance, and founded the Whirling Dervishes, or sema, which is believed to create union with God.  

My assigned seat was high up in the stadium, and it was hot. I hadn’t slept enough the night before, and I soon felt overwhelmed by drowsiness, unable to stay fully awake, yet too uncomfortable to fall asleep. I was relieved when a couple of dozen musicians finally entered the far end of a stage, so small and distant it was dwarfed by the rest of the huge stadium. The musicians set up long metallic looking tubes and string instruments in shapes I had never seen. From my seat half way to Heaven, I couldn’t see them clearly. 

The sounds began. Low dirge-like emanations alternated with higher, almost screeching, notes. If there was a rhythm or melody, it escaped me. A man stepped to a microphone and spoke in a low sonorous drone, perhaps explaining what had been played or what we were about to hear. I wished I could understand. Where was Ahmed when I needed him? I might even have welcomed a guide. But if I were a mystic, maybe I wouldn’t need to understand the literal words. I might simply intuit the message. A mystic probably wouldn’t be distracted by the hard bench with no back.

Other speakers, including two women, alternated with the music. Mevlana, according to my guidebook, had advocated a higher status for women in religious and public life. Perhaps he would have been pleased to hear the women speaking. At times I thought the performers were praying, at others they sounded like poets. Perhaps for Mevlana, a religious poet, it was all the same. The recitations soothed me, nudging me even closer to a desperate need to sleep. As my head drooped, I silently complained that they hadn’t started their ecstatic dancing to wake me up.

After half an hour we were given a break, and I didn’t know whether to be sorrowful or glad. The glad part was the opportunity to take a little walk, a moment’s respite from my sleepy doldrums. The negative side was that I would have to endure still another wait. On the stairs and in the hallways women and men I thought of as "trinketeers" peddled holy medals and images, and crowds gathered around them, eager to buy. 

The intermission had energized me, and I returned to my seat fully alert. Soon, men dressed in ankle length black cloaks entered the court in a two-by-two procession. The pace was funereal. Slowly, each man discarded his cloak.  I had read that the tall camel’s hair hats they wore represented a tombstone. The cloak stood for the tomb itself, and the white gowns for the shroud. Shedding the cloaks symbolized leaving the tomb, and casting off all earthly ties. Entering into this ethereal world would be a challenge for me, but its very strangeness intrigued me. This was what foreign travel was about, wasn’t it?

Taking small, graceful, stylized steps, each pair of men, about twenty paces apart from each other, inched around the arena. There were perhaps a dozen duos, in all. The stadium floor seemed as large as a football field, and it took slightly less than forever to traverse just one side of it. At the far end of the arena the seyh, or current head man, awaited each pair, who turned toward him briefly, then bowed to each other. The seyh leaned forward and appeared to kiss each of them on the tops of their heads. The pair straightened, making room for the next pair to approach, bend, bow and, receive the kiss. They then proceeded to twirl around the other side of the arena. Was this the twirling? The performers were turning around and around, but not at the fast pace I had expected. Slowly, they advanced around the periphery of the arena several times. I had arrived at 8:30. It was now 10:10. 

At last. What seems to be more serious whirling begins. Cloaks gone, each man’s white gown, with its full A-line cut, creates a swirl of soft white. Expectantly, I wait for the dancers to spin faster, and faster and faster, toward a state of ecstasy. That is my fantasy about ecstasy. As a child I had delighted in holding my arms straight out from my sides, while I spun around and around as fast as possible, thoroughly dizzy, until I collapsed onto the ground in a paroxysm of joy and confusion. Ecstasy. But in watching the performers, that childhood association turns out to be way off the mark. 

The dancers continue at the same pace, still in pairs, and gradually circle the court, as they whirl opposite each other. Twirling, whirling, still slowly, their delicate steps resemble no dance I have seen. Skirts flow gracefully around them. With each twirl they advance a few steps until every pair has made the revolution of the arena, and then they float around again. There is something almost girlish, something very sweet, about the sameness of the pace, the steps, the billowing skirts. The dancers, my guide book says, represent the heavenly bodies, revolving in their own space, at the same time as they revolve around the court. There are three stages of the dance: knowledge of God, awareness of God’s presence, and union with God. But I am unable to distinguish one from the other. Each performer points his right hand upward, and his left to the floor. This gesture signifies that grace emanates from the heavens and is distributed to the people. The Dervishes represent the symbolic conduit. 

I am mesmerized. As if mimicking the dancers, I float in an ephemeral universe, coasting along, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. But now I’m content to bask forever in that altered state. I would not call it ecstasy. I am not in a condition that’s frenetic, excited, or high. It feels closer to zoned out. Dreamy. Or meditative. Whatever it is, I’m content with it.

But, ever so slowly, deliberately, as if in a trance, the dancers once more pull their black cloaks around their shoulders. It is as if a reel is running backwards, at the same languorous pace as the whirling began. I postpone facing the reality that the performance - and my wondrous, mental free-fall - will soon disappear. I am not yet ready to re-enter the frenetic, jangling world. The dancers make their round of the court one more time and then they are gone, wafting off the stage, like ether. They have spirited themselves away, but left me in a state of serenity. I am aware of a faint smile on my face, and hazily remember that once I might have called such an expression sappy. Now I am pleased to be in the lap of a tradition where all is foreign to me.

I muse about the meaning of the dancers’ religious ecstasy, and try to prepare for my transition into worldliness. Lazily, I let my gaze sweep over the vast stadium walls, which are covered with dark red drapes of rich velvet. In graceful folds, they fall from ceiling to floor. White loops of what is apparently Arabic script appear. Their graceful curves, mysterious to my Western sensibility, dance across the cloth, and I am enchanted. Do they spell out a prayer? A poem? With my eye, I trace them. But a moment later a slight shift in the drape makes the white lettering clearer. The “graceful curves” spell out a different message in very different, very large letters:


Monday, February 4, 2013


         My beloved friend Ruth Goodman died yesterday at the age of ninety-one. Over the last fifty-three years, Ruth and I grew even closer and more important to each other than we were in the early days of our protesting the Vietnam War. So my loss is great, but mitigated by remembering Ruth’s dedicated activism in several political campaigns, including the movement for Death with Dignity. She died as she lived, true to her principles.
           It is one thing to say you will take your own life when the time is right. It is quite another to follow through and do it. The right to die with dignity was as important to Ruth as the other civil and human rights she had championed, so I felt confident that she would put her beliefs into action. When, shortly before her death, I wrote her obituary, she made sure I included the (anticipated) fact that right to the end she was in control of her death. It was my privilege to spend the last five days of Ruth's life with her, and the day before she died she wrote this letter to be sent to newspaper editors after her death:

I am a ninety-one-year-old woman who has decided to end my life in the very near future. I do not have a terminal illness; I am simply old, tired and becoming dependent, after a wonderful life of independence. People are allowed to choose the right time to terminate their animals’ lives and to be with them and provide assistance and comfort, right to the end. Surely, the least we can do is allow people the same right to choose how and when to end their lives. By the time people read this, I will have died. I am writing this letter to advocate for a change in the law so that all will be able to make this choice.

As far as the eye could see we were they only white folks present among for the Black Mambhzaza concert. Thousands of dancing, drinking, joyously welcoming black folks graciously welcomed us.
Ruth is dead, but her courageous work for Death with Dignity lives on.
We had heard numerous sad, infuriating stories about the way blacks were treated by the South African apartheid government, but there were many moments of joy as well, and Ruth had a smile on her face every day. She said this adventure in South African was the best of all her trips, and being part of the huge crowd that filled a soccer field to hear Black Mambhzaza's music was a welcome relief from the horrifying stories we had heard.

Ruth always said she wanted to "go out dancing" and she came might close to doing that.
People danced on rooftops and the hills around the field, and if you look closely you can see Ruth having the time of her life in the crowd. When she tired of dancing she wound up resting with someone's little boy by her side. I feel confident that she would like seeing this part of her wonderful life remembered here.

Obituary for Ruth Goodman

            Ruth Goodman has led a life of resistance to war, a commitment to the environment and social justice. Her family fled Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century to escape war and anti-Semitism. Ruth grew up in a union household, and in 1940 she married Henry Goodman. She found a job in the shipyards where, as a clerical worker, she was paid $20 a week. When she discovered that welders made $1.25 an hour she joined the wave of women’s participation in wartime industrial production.
            After the war, Ruth and Henry moved to Washington State, where Ruth gave birth to two sons, Michael and Dean. Soon she joined the American Friends Service Committee, organizing annual peace marches, and picketing the Boeing Company in protest of their manufacturing aircraft used in the Vietnam War.
            In 1966, worried about their sons becoming eligible for the draft in a few years, Ruth and Henry left the United States to settle in Vancouver, Canada. But their anti-war activism didn’t stop there. They offered U.S. draft resisters a safe haven in their home, and Ruth volunteered at the War Resisters’ support office. But her participation in political campaigns was not confined to international issues.
Through her personal experience of two illegal abortions in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ruth developed a heightened awareness of the importance of a woman’s right to reproductive choice, including abortion. Her strong belief in the right to legal and safe access to abortion led her to be among the first volunteers for the Everywoman’s Health Centre, an abortion clinic.
Ruth’s life-long commitment to justice has made her a staunch advocate of the right to Death with Dignity, and she died true to her principles. With the support of her children and a host of devoted friends, at the age of ninety-one on February 2nd, 2013, Ruth chose to end her life. She is survived by Michel Goodman and his partner Sharon Sjerven, Dean Goodman and his wife, Janna Levitt, as well as grandsons, Henry, Eric and Gabriel Goodman.
            To carry on his parents’ commitments to justice, Michael Goodman has established the Ruth and Henry Goodman Fund for Social and Economic Justice. Instead of flowers, donations may be made to that organization.