Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Post on Buddha's Buns

On a scale of 1-10, 1 being the birth of a child or getting married or being handed an entire Marzipan Cheesecake, 10 being, like, having your leg eaten by a crocodile or receiving multiple blows to the head from Newt Gingrich on an acid trip, for me, Thursday, 20 May, rated roughly as a 1,019. 

Bad enough that the entire campus received an e-mail stating that the only senior management person with a background in general education was stepping down; the same e-mail went on to name the new director of GE (no problem there) and to state that his first task would be to review the GE program.

That the program had been under review for the last two years; that this review had led to the development of a new, very well-thought-out, very well-researched, very sophisticated design; that three committees and a half-dozen full-time GE employees had spent the better part of 10 months implementing the intricacies of this new model; that you can’t really review a model that hasn’t been fully implemented yet—none of that seemed to matter.  There it was in the e-mail:  there was going to be a review.  Again. 

Now, any really good mid-level administrator/consultant will be able to walk away from something like this with his/her/its head held high, knowing that he/she/it had done his/her/its best and that this really isn’t his/her/its battle anyway.

Unfortunately, I’m only a moderate-to-good mid-level administrator/consultant, so what I did when I read this e-mail was scream at the top of my lungs, slam my head on the table, storm out of my office, and treat everyone I spent the rest of the day with like crap. 

Case in point:  we’re on the ferry to Cheung Chau Island to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday by going to the Bun Festival.  My colleague Chris and I are sitting on the back deck of the boat on an incredibly clear, warm May day, watching Hong Kong shrink into the distance as we steam out into the South China Sea.  The kids are lounging with us, finishing their snacks, when I turn to Chris and say, “I’m in kind of a bad mood today.”

“Really?” he said.  “I hadn’t noticed.”


“Nah.  You look like you would beat an old lady with a stick.”

“You don’t happen to have one, do you?”

“An old lady?”

“A stick.”

He shakes his head.  We talk a little.  I tell him about my frustration, and about my frustration with my frustration:  how I’m doubly annoyed that I’m annoyed, and letting my annoyance ruin a good day.  He commiserates—he too, he confesses, sometimes has a hard time letting things unfold.  What I should do, he says, is just try and forget it all and enjoy the Bun Festival. 

All of which, of course, leads to the questions, What the heck is a bun festival, and what on earth does it have to do with Buddha’s birthday?

As I’m sure you can well imagine, my mind is swimming with possible answers to both of these questions, any one of which would be sure to get me damned to hell—or even darned to heck (my mother has asked me to swear less in my blog)—though I’m not sure that Buddhists technically believe in either hell or heck.

The truth is, the buns in question are actually bao, steamed bread rolls roughly the size and shape of two-thirds of a softball.  Bao can be unfilled, but more often than not they are stuffed with any number of things:  lotus paste, sesame paste, red bean paste, cabbage and chicken.  Fresh, bao are amazing:  yeasty, warm, like the softest center of the softest loaf of bread you’ve ever had.  Probably my favorite way of having bao is with egg-custard in the middle:  it looks and feels like barely cooked yolk, but it’s sweet and flavorful and so hot you can only take small nibbles of the stuff soaked into a corner of the bun. 

Why a bao festival is part of the celebrations surrounding Buddha’s birthday is something of a mystery.  Valerie, our upstairs neighbor who was born and raised in Hong Kong before moving to New York and becoming a Puerto Rican, says it’s because bao are what Buddhist nuns and priests carry with the when they’re traveling.  Others say it’s because bao are often vegetarian, and it’s inappropriate to eat meat on the Buddha’s birthday.  Still others say that the round shape of the buns is reminiscent of the round, doughy belly of Santa Claus, and is thus a desperate attempt on the part of the Chinese to compete with western holidays.

Stop looking at me like that. 

In the end, it doesn’t matter what bao have to do with anything, because the Bun Festival is about so much more than steamed bread.  Pulling into Cheung Chau harbor, the ferry angles its way between rows of fishing trawlers ranging in size from modern ships with giant cranes to rickety sampans that look like they were anchored specifically so you could take quaint pictures.  I love sampans.  I love the way they seem to rest flat in the water, the straight up-and-down of their backs and the way that contrasts with the bowed fronts, the way their diesel engines thump and throb like the bass guitar in Power Station’s remake of “Bang a Gong.”

Cheung Chau Island is the most distant of the well-populated Hong Kong Islands.   It takes an hour to get there by ferry, but at night you can nevertheless see the lights of Hong Kong Island glowing like a child’s dream of a fairy city against the backdrop of the Peak. 

Cheung Chau is attractive, full of narrow streets and cobble-stone walkways, making it feel not unlike Lisbon, albeit without the Lisbonites and their  various political agendas.  Like Lamma Island, which is only 20 minutes from Central, Cheung Chau has a fair number of touristy shops and overpriced B&B-type hotels.  But unlike Lamma, Cheung Chau has plenty of sustenance shops—grocery and hardware stores, and so on—clearly a necessity for isolated year-round residents.  One small side streets is filled with flower shops and bakeries wedged between electronics stores and shops selling traditional Chinese medicine.  It’s all very sweet and all very charming and all very real.  This is not some Disneyland-style olde shoppe place set up to charm tourists.

Which means, ironically, that I should find it all the more charming.  But I can’t.  Because I’m in a bad mood.  And I can’t shake it, no matter how hard I try.

“Why’s daddy growling?” I hear Lucy ask her mother.

“Too much caffeine,” Ellen says.

But the weird thing is, I haven’t indulged in a coke or coffee or a Toblerone Dark for two or three days.  Nevertheless, I feel as though I’ve swigged six gallons of extra black coffee.  My back is tense, my eyes dry and bugging out of my skull.  Even from inside my head, I can feel my lowered brow, am aware of my constant grimace, can feel my own barf brown aura swirling around me like a slow-moving tornado.

Dinner helps some:  swirl-shelled dam in spicy sauce, deep-fried minced clam, welk in onions and garlic.  Afterwards, we visit the bun towers—more on those later—and the main temple, filled with spirals of incense and people burning fake money for the gods.  Then its back to the hotel for glorious, glorious, forgetful sleep. 


The next morning I feel slightly better, but only slightly.  We’re with our friends Chris and Valerie, and after breakfast we head out to meet up with a friend of a friend of Valerie’s—this is how Hong Kong works—who’s in a Lion Dance team.  They’re about to make the rounds of Cheung Chau island, visiting the shops of friends to ward off evil spirits and bring luck in the next year.  Outside it’s maybe 90 degrees with 98% humidity, but we hustle after Valerie and catch the lion dance en route along the harbor.  

You can hear the dance before you see it:  drums are pounding, cymbals are crashing.  The suona, a traditional, double-reed, Chinese instrument with a bell like a trumpet, is weaving its high pitched whine over and above the percussion, sounding for all the world like a snake charmer’s flute, only louder, and shriller, and only charming in the way something like, say, cold pizza or a coffee enema can be. 

We follow the parade for over an hour, strolling behind maybe two dozen men in white t-shirts that say Naper Paint.  Other lion dance teams sport shirts bearing logos from Coca-cola, Blue Girl Beer, and local shops.  Every 100 yards or so, the lion will pause in front of a shop owned by a friend of the Naper company:  a bakery at one point, a shoe store at another.  Then the lion—a gigantic head with huge eyes, a flowing mane, a mirror in the middle of its forehead, and a long flowing silken body—will engage in a an elaborate dance, twisting and turning in rhythm to the chaotic drums and cymbals and suona.  It’ll leap into the air, grab at its own tail, thrust forward and back, swing its massive shoulders from side to side while the music pounds and weaves louder and louder until there’s a natural climax.  At this point, the lion lunges toward the owner of the shop, sometimes cascading fake money from its mouth, sometimes just nodding violently as the crowd cheers and applauds. 

The music never stops.  Even once the lion finishes its dance and moves on down the lane to another store the pipes keep droning, the drums keep pounding, the cymbals keep smashing.  And the sun keeps beating down on your head and shoulders, making you squint against the sweat that’s running into your eyes.  And the people in the parade push and shove and bump against one another in the heat, and drop out to get water or a bao or to sit in the shade and pluck their damp shirts away from their skin.

It’s loud.  It’s overwhelming.  In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway describes the festival surrounding the running of the bulls in Pamplona as a descent into drunken chaos, people everywhere, noise, alcohol, food.  Robert, one of Jake’s party, falls asleep in the back of a shop where he doesn’t know anybody.  It’s pure, unreigned Id, almost savage in its intensity. 

Cheung Chau isn’t quite like that—Hong Kongers aren’t much for drinking, after all, and sexual libertarianism in HK means kissing your girlfriend in public rather than waiting until you get back to your flat.  So relative to the drunken, mattress-hopping orgy that is Hemingway’s novel, Cheung Chau is pretty mild. 

But even so, you find yourself melting into something larger than yourself, your circle of friends, your petty frustrations and desires. Part of it is the heat:  even in May the sun is so intense you can actually feel the skin cells dying on your nose.  Part of it’s the humidity.  Strolling out of the air-conditioned hotel is like stumbling into a wet-heat sauna: 97% by 9 in the morning.  It’s the sort of weather where you can pour a glass of ice-water over your head and by the time the first drops hit the ground, you’re already hot again.  In heat like this, you just have to give up, letting yourself slide into the sort of sticky wetness where when  you bend down to tie your shoe, the bottom of your chin sticks to your neck. 

Part of it is the lion dancing:  it’s crazy, vicious, poetic, powerful, rapid all at once.  That big head is shaking back and forth, fringes of green and red flying through the air, the sun sparkling off the mirrors and sequins that have been woven into the mane.  The lion never stops moving, and as much as it’s beautiful and a little funny, it’s also deeply powerful and a little scary.  You know there’s a man under there making all those leaps and shakes, but some primal part of you still knows—knows—that given half a chance, that lion will bite your body in half. 

And part of it, oddly, are the Chinese.  I love Hong Kongers, truly I do, and I’ve developed a dozen friendships that I know will last for years to come—the kinds of friendships that make you feel blessed.  But generally speaking, when you’re walking down the streets of Tai Po—or even across your own campus—folks you don’t know aren’t going to say hello, or even give a small nod.  Fair enough:  even dumb Americans like me don’t expect the rest of the world to act like dumb Americans like me. 

But Cheung Chau is different, at least during the festival:  after the parade, Valerie’s friend leads us to a small shop front where the lion team is assembled and the air conditioning is blasting.  We’re handed team T-shirts, bottles of water, cold lemon tea.  Later, I’m out front and see six teenagers in a circle, all drinking identical box teas.  I take a step to my right and raise my camera.  Normally this gesture is greeted with averted looks and acute indifference, but this time three of the kids smile and throw peace signs.  The same thing happens a few hours later when I’m trying to get a shot of the tiers of people gathered in a stairwell watching the parade:  as I focus, a kid in cool shades and a basketball T-shirt sticks out two fingers and grins.  Chinese New Year, back in February, was such a family holiday that most of the westerners I knew were complaining of feeling shut off from their Chinese friends:  Bun Festival seems the opposite:  there’s an openness in the air, an intermingling of people and small talk that makes me almost giddy.


The afternoon is parade time—big parade time, not this door-to-door stuff:  team after team of lion dancers float through town in a mile-long line.  There are dancers as well—little girls in gold lame costumes and acrobats dressed as monkeys doing flips and cartwheels. 

And then there’s the floating parade. 

How to describe this? 

Bizarre doesn’t quite do it. 

Nor does elegant. 

Surreal maybe?  A little creepy? 

Imagine a small child—say, four-years-old—dressed as an old lady:  she’s wearing a long, embroidered dress, owl-rim glasses, blue eye shadow.  Her hair is powdered gray, and she clasps a small purse that matches her dress. 

Okay, you say.  No problem.  I can picture this.

Now imagine this child floating ram-rod straight, right about level with your head.  Or a little higher.

Um, you say, floating? 

Now imagine thirteen or twenty of these children.  Some of them dressed as mermaids.  Some of them dressed as politicians.  Some of them dressed as historical figures. 

This—this—is the floating parade. 

Granted, the kids aren’t really floating in the air:  they’re suspended on some sort of carefully hidden metal-road/platform gizmo that holds them just above our heads.  Just how it works isn’t clear, though you suspect that it runs up the legs of their trousers or skirt, and that it somehow secures the entire body right up to the neck.  Just where the feet are is a little confusing—yes, you see shoes at the bottom of the trousers, but they look overlarge and oddly angled, like shoes on a scarecrow, maybe, or a badly arranged corpse (you know what I’m talking about, so don’t pretend you don’t). 

Making all of this all the weirder is that the long poles the children are standing on are attached to wheeled carts, which means that if you’re standing back from the parade, watching over the heads of the crowds, these kids seem to glide smoothly through the air. 

It’s a little creepy, I have to say.  And one of the few moments I’ve had in Hong Kong where all of the following are true:  a)  I don’t get it; b) I don’t think I ever will; and c) it’s still kind of cool.

But I mentioned creepy, right?  Because it’s definitely that. 


Will, Lucy, Jamie and I make it through three-quarters of the parade.  Finally, though, it’s just too hot and too loud, so we say goodbye to the others and head back to the hotel, stopping along the way to grab a couple cheap swim suits from a shop.

I think I know the way back, but the island is asymmetrical so we find ourselves lost in the narrow streets, a steep hill covered with tiers of buildings and steps on one side, a blue-roofed school on the other.  It’s still hot, and our ears are still wringing, and the sky is growing dark with clouds so for a while there I’m imagining one of those Kowlooned moments (see Sept. 09), similar to our early days in Hong Kong, where everything goes wrong and we end up with three tired, miserable, hungry children under the age of ten. 

But eventually we wind our way back to the hotel, passing the tattered ends of the parade, groups of lion dancers smoking cigarettes outside the local 7-11, a small girl in a maroon-sequined dress still suspended eight feet above them.  We change into our suits, rush down to the beach, and dive in. 

Instantly, we feel better.  The day’s sweat is washed off and our body temperatures drop.  The sky is heavy with clouds, but we don’t care:  the air is still warm and the water is cool.  In the distance, you can see the south side of Hong Kong Island, white skyscrapers shimmering in the heat.  It’s perfect. 


We skip the bun race that night:  three men ascending a 40-foot tower covered with bao, grabbing as many as they can on the way down.  It doesn’t start until midnight, and all of us are just too tired.  Instead we’re in bed by 11, the distant echo of cymbals and drums following us into sleep.

The next day something weird happens at breakfast:  the hotel restaurant is crowded so we have to share a table with a family of three.  They ignore us for the most part, except for one moment when the mother gets annoyed with Will for playing with a toy skateboard.  When two steamers of dim-sum come, the family claims them as their own, even though they’ve already got six dishes and the new dishes are exactly what we ordered.  We’re polite and don’t say anything, but after 15 minutes of waiting for our shrimp dim to come, we’re pretty sure we know what happened.  We give up and leave.

The town feels deserted.  Squares that had been thronged with people just 12 hours earlier are now barren, heaps of bamboo poles  and scraps of crepe paper the only reminders of the festivities.  The bun towers stand bereft of bao, their paper shells tattered.  Outside the central temple, giant sticks of incense, once 9 inches wide and 8 feet tall, are now nothing more than piles of gray powder. 

We find a bakery selling coconut buns and raisin bread.  Stuffing my face, I ask Chris if he’s ever read The Sun Also Rises.  He has, and I remind him of the last section of the book, after the festival has ended.  Brett, whom Jake, the hero, loves more than anyone, has ruined and then run off with a sweet young bull fighter; the hotel keeper, with whom Jake was friends for years and who treated Jake with a level respect reserved for only the truest of bullfighting aficionados, is not longer speaking to him.  The morning after the festival is over, the town is hauntingly, nauseatingly empty.  Jake feels empty and emptied out, cleansed of all emotion, good and bad. 

“It’s all about catharsis,” I say.  “Losing yourself in the noise and chaos, just giving yourself over to it.  Then walking out clean the next day.”

Chris nods, thinks for a minute.  “We’ve lost that in the States.  These days, festivals are too commercialized.  So many rules.”

“I love that book,” I say.  “I know I shouldn’t, but I do.”

He nods again and we follow the kids down a side road.  There are still buns everywhere, and here and there we find small lines of people waiting for a fresh batch hot out of the steamer.  Folks will buy six, eight, ten, a dozen bao in white cardboard boxes with a fold-on handle on the top.  I like bao, I’ll admit, but every time I see one of these boxes I find myself thinking they’re filled with Cinnabons.  Bao are good, yes—very good even—but until they mix cinnamon into the batter and cover those suckers with vanilla-almond frosting—well, let’s just say that until then, bao will remain a strictly Asian delicacy. 

Even so, we buy a few, bite into them.  They’re soft and yeasty and light.  At the center is a pearl-gray paste of lotus seed.  It’s sweet, but not too.  Lucy and Will are racing up ahead, and Jamie is running flat-footed after them, hollering for them to wait up, waaaaiiit up!  The sky is still low with clouds, the air thick with moisture.  It’s another sticky day.

In two days, I know, I’ll be back on campus, staring at what could be the collapse of everything the GE office has worked on all year.  Whenever I told someone back in the States why I was coming to Hong Kong—to serve as a resource as the universities there revised their gen ed programs—folks would say, “That’s great:  you can spend the year doing what you can, then walk away from it if everything goes wrong.”

Curricular revision can always go wrong.  Academics can be stubborn people, certain that they’re right, even if their Ph.D.s are in areas entirely un-related to general education.  It’s hard to tell someone who studied cognitive neuroscience or architectural engineering that they don’t necessarily understand general education, even if everything that comes out of their mouths indicates that they haven’t the first idea what they’re talking about. 

And I’m not good at distancing myself.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed that.  I have one gear—on—and one level of interaction—intense.  So walk away from a model that gets torn down for no reason?  Stroll away from colleagues who’ve worked hard all year to implement a model that is based on sound thinking and careful research? 

Not likely.

But even so, I’m calmer now.  I can see things a little more clearly.  None of this is the end of the world.  None of it is even the end.  Say the model gets killed before it even gets started:  in ten years, maybe five, some insightful dean or VP or Provost will notice that what’s happening the GE courses seems kind of useless, and will wonder if perhaps there’s a better way.  And then—who knows?

We’re walking along the harbor now, just wandering really.  Chris and I have found a good place to buy Macau-style pork buns, but it’s not open yet, so on this hollow day in this empty town on this abandoned island, we’re just killing time.  The boats in the harbor are still pretty though, and one of us stops to take a picture. 

When we turn around, there’s an old man there:  maybe five feet high, probably less, with lean, wiry arms sticking out of a khaki vest.  His head is nearly bald, his skin dark brown.  What’s left of his hair is pure white; so, too, are his eyebrows, which are an inch long and hang over his eyes like snowy curtains.  His fingers are narrow and lily-shaped, tipped by long nails.

He’s looking at the children.  And saying something.  In one hand he holds a rolled up plastic bag.  Will and Lucy are looking at him, not so much frowning as just watching, waiting to see what happens. 

He stares at Jamie first, placing a long hand on his head, lightly, just for a second.  And then he gestures towards Will, saying something again, but I’m not sure what.  Valerie is right there, listening, but we don’t ask her to translate.

Finally the man turns to Lucy, raises his hand.  It’s hard to tell how old he is:  maybe a hundred.  Maybe fifty.  He’s been around, though, you can tell that.  He’s had some battles. 

Eventually he finishes his benedictions, lowers his hand, says something again in Cantonese.  His shoulders are slightly stooped, and his mouth pulls down like the jaw of a marionette.  He seems neither agitated, nor confused.  He’s just looking at these kids in front of him, these specimens of another place and another race and another world that doesn’t, no matter how much he tries, quite makes sense. 

He says a final word or two, raises his hand again, gestures gently—then turns around and shuffles off. 

1 comment:

Duncan said...

So, on the one hand, everything you've worked for all year might get torn down for no good reason. But on the other, BUNS!

Sounds like a win to me.