Tag Archives: the east is red

Bus Culture (The East is Red)

28 Apr

Trying to sleep is hopeless. 

 The voice drones on, a self-conversant logos giving rise to tile roofs in corn within an expanse rolling and half-darkened, somnolent and mist-sunken.  We are off to photograph the south slope of Changbai Shan.  Or I should say, I am off to photograph the mountain; the rest are off to photograph one another upon the mountain.  A great number of people I have met in China find landscapes, absent the human figure, a bit lonely, and the members of my “photography association” provide no exceptions.   

 Outside the bus, over scarecrows tilting, a red sun rises in mist, warming tarnished autumn fields.  Ridges follow one another in wash: reflections of nearer wooded humps with ponds in their crotches.  Hills gradually squeeze out fields while the fiftyish man just behind the bus driver intones tirelessly into the microphone.  A woman takes over.  She introduces herself and then belts out, “Welcome New Friends; Cherish Old Friends”.  She invites another to the front.  Each person sings or tells a tale or a joke. 

 Most songs are standbys.  “Bitter Coffee”, “The Moon Bears Witness to My Heart” “Play Happily; Play with Joy”.  It’s a medley: rose-scented chansons de tristesse, a few ballads that resound with the space and spirit of frontier areas, along with heady anthems forged during the era preceding the Cultural Revolution:    

 The east is red; a sun is



From China emerges Mao Zedong,

He the happiness of the people—

Shout hurrah!

He is the savior of the people.

 Chairman Mao loves the people.

He is our helmsman

Charting the course to a new China!

Shout hurrah!  Lead the way!

 The words, as if recalled from an almost imagined age, are often stumbled over.  I dutifully get up and try a song.  Nobody is familiar with my Chinese pop tune, but all clap along until I hit a wrong note and can’t recover.  We all laugh.  I choose someone.

 On the way back home, it all happens again, but this time washed in 140-proof baijiu and up ten decibels.  Out of bitter experience, I decline.  At the back of the bus, as drinks are pounded, they bellow, yi, er, SAN!

 Bus rides to and from the weekly destinations of our “photography” group always feature this Bus Culture, literally qiche wenhua

 Back at home I have a look at my photos.  I can almost re-experience the transcendent emanation of tranquility that emanated from tianshi or the lake within this cooled volcano.  On my desk now, I have a small bit of pressed ash to help me recall.  I couldn’t help but end up with a snapshots of figures that burst into my path and commenced posing.   I get to thinking about this word, culture.  Of course, few people in my own background would think of referring to bus-ride revelry, however colorful or ritualistic, as culture.   But then culture is like a scent in your own house.  You don’t notice it until someone else, stepping among your darling terriers, holds her nose.  “Experiencing” culture—as opposed to floating along in one’s own—tends to be a ride in a raucous wayward bus of miscommunication, minor mishaps, and discordant expectations.  

 For me, the novelty of living in a foreign place wore off after a year or two.  I felt like a battered tug on the bounding main.   Just the language provided daily confusion, turning simple tasks to hurdles.  The word “ma”, as a single example, can mean to belabor someone, a horse, mother, or spicy, depending on the tone used.  And if a fourth tone precedes a fourth tone, better change the first fourth to a second.  I have been guilty of repeatedly mispronouncing a word, with an increasing sense of frenzy, into the faces of bewildered listeners.  Once, I stalked through a market demanding mifan (cooked rice) when what I wanted was dami (the actual grain). 

 After a while though, the sounds of the storm become more familiar, a voice in the background that one understands that one does not need to understand. It strikes me, after all this time, that I am learning something important: at least for me.  That is, to sing and then laugh, with everyone else, at myself.