Sunday, April 11, 2010

Under the Huang Jiao Tree

I reviewed Under the Huang Jiao Tree - Two Journeys in China by Jane Carswell (Transit Lounge) on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon last Thursday. Winner of the 2010 Whitcoulls Travcom Travel Book of the Year Award, this book slayed me. 

It begins with a quote: 'There is a meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveller'  by Deitrich Bonhoeffer,  and it is this mystery in the book - Jane's not knowing entirely what the journey's about - along with the meshed journeys into both China and Jane herself, and the subtle, evocative way she writes, that makes this book so powerful.  Nay, more than that - unforgettable. 

Jane Carswell gives me an insight into a way of being that I had not properly considered or understood before, and I carry that with me now. Here are my notes from the review - tidied up a bit, but essentially notes. The radio review is linked at the start of the post if you want to hear it. 

Jane Carswell (her mother's maiden name) was a farmer's wife in rural Canterbury (NZ) who raised children and taught the piano. She always felt an outsider and was aware of an interior dissonance - she was complex, awkward, too analytical. At 56, Jane was offered a job teaching English at a foreign language school in China - the city of Chongqing (an industrial city in mountainous Sichuan, 7 million in metropolitan area, fog-bound for half the year). She felt an affinity for China and the Chinese, and thought vaguely this might give her an opportunity to write, something she'd always wanted to do. 

1. Arrives - a little terrified - 1200 students and a few hundred teachers live together - she has a basic apartment - no toaster, no phone etc -  'mysterious household equipment' - gadgets that don't work - a muddle and a baffling lack of logic to it e.g. a table but no chair, and finds this extends to the rest of her life in that city - and yet people seem sanguine - 'perhaps tomorrow' is the catch phrase.

The phone: finally gets one, it doesn't work, 'perhaps tomorrow' - gets a large number of 'wrong number' calls - explained by the fact that there are a large no. of 8s in her phone number - eight sounds like 'rich' so people can't help dialling it. 

Jane struggles with teaching and with coming to grips with living in China:  
- random changes to the timetable - few resources - unclear what expected of her - but the students are alight with the desire to learn and energy and curiosity
- people she meets have an openness - lack of coyness - politeness and generosity that is refreshing - but on the other hand, there are many enthusiastic invitations to visit that come to nothing
- a difference between the official and unofficial versions of things at all levels - and always the need to be patient, to wait...

2. The humour in cultural and language mistakes: a conference where the badges say 'extinguished guests', someone wishing her a ' have a very tight sleep' , a fellow teacher gives her an egg in a jam sandwich half way through the meal and calls it 'toast' 

3. Loves the simplicity of life in China. The simple interactions between people and between people and the environment - the acceptance of their lot in often cramped apartments (toilets a 500 metre walk for some) - believes they are more economical and sensible than wasteful unnecessarily complex western households 

- when the invitations to visit do materialise - people don't look in the pantry first - they just give what they have - a woman she doesn't know gives her a pear when she's out walking -

Jane longs to live this simplicity but: 
'I'm too soft, too complicated, the knowledge of how to live simply has been bred out of me. Education and affluence have left me unfit for what I long for. How would I get on without books, antibiotics, travel?' 

The strength of the writing is the way the mystery is allowed to be and Jane's thoughts circle as she tries to understand the place, her journey, herself. She wonders, for example, if simplicity is really poverty 'pinched of hope' and is horrified by the poverty she sees.

4 Jane becomes homesick for the countryside, and when it's foggy - for light. She misses music at first  - her 'ears hungrier than eyes', she notices the sounds of mahjong, a man singing, music on loud speakers.

5. Politics rears its head - the bureaucracy, the feeling of always being watched - public property vs privacy of self, the need to say the 'right thing' publically, the way joining the communist party is the right thing to do to get ahead - whatever your beliefs, the community expectations - conformity, obedience, long ceremonies and mass exercise vs. those with different preoccupations (of the mind), who don't meet expectations, are more sensitive, or  suffer from mental disorders/depression  ...  what of them?

6. Jane becomes comfortable with her own interior dissonance - people have always told her she's cautious, easily pleased and patient - and she find this nature of hers fits well with the Chinese people  - she doesn't feel so 'ineffective' here - 

7. The illogicality of China outside the school e.g. the Dinosaur Lantern Festival which includes a 2-storey high dinosaur made from condoms. Jane realises she needs to respect the mystery of difference, because she can't understand everything. She's learning at a deeper level about herself  - feels the 'pieces moving inside'. 

8. Jane went to China - partly - as a Christian presence.... she thought she had to 'teach' to do that, but she realises that her presence was really as a disciple, she was there to learn. One day she sees a man standing under a Huang Jiao tree - his eyes shut, simply standing there at peace in the bustle of this crowded city - the images sears itself on her brain. 

9. Epilogue - Jane returns to NZ - sifts through her experience - feels enriched but is not sure the journey has given her more than that - but finally she comes to a point of understanding about herself which is that paradoxically rather than understanding herself, she needs to simply stand and wait like the man under the Huang Jiao tree. As an overly analytical person, this resonated with me, and continues to resonate. 

To receive gifts, she says, you need empty hands. I don't know how many times I've said this to people since I read it. It's so hard to do - to have those empty hands - but it transforms things. I've seen it.  

In the end, this knowledge she's brought back from China leads Jane back to God, and to twice-daily meditation as a Benedictine oblate. Two journeys, indeed. 

Note, Under the Huang Jiao Tree still isn't available in every bookshop in NZ. Even Whitcoulls - who sponsored the award Jane Carswell won for this book - seems to have trouble stocking it. The trick is to ask your bookseller to order it. Insist. 

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