Category Archives: China

Chinese New Year

 

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Happiness

I always celebrate the Chinese New Year. I like being aware of what energies the new totem carries, asking people which year they were born, and what the astrology says about me. And there is a certain excitement with the Lunar New Year, because it means spring is on its way.

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I was just out of high school when I learned there was a whole way of keeping track of time by the moon. That always felt like a more accurate way to base a calendar. Plus, I like looking up at the night sky, I like remembering that the power that moves the moon moves through me.

The study of astrology came naturally to me. For decades I did charts for people, and had causal conversations with others. It was always fun, the Chinese Zodiac, in particular.  I liked the perspective that instead of one sign a month, there was one for a whole year. Not the year like we in the West knew it to be, one that started in February, and that made a difference. For instance, my father and mother are born the same year, but he is a Dragon, and she is a Snake. (And they so are.)

The characteristics are there, for sure, with a particular bent for men, and another for women. Men who are Tigers, or Rabbits, or Dogs seem to stand out in my life. A dear female friend is a Fire Monkey, born in the hour of the Monkey. She totally fits the profile. (And is totally looking forward to this year!) I admire the energy of the creative Dragon women, and the active Roosters. My year – those of the Sheep/Goat, well, we are quite the bunch. My graduating class has yet to have a reunion, and we just passed the big 30.

bluemoonsm300Here’s an except from my memoir, A Blue Moon in China, about the time when I was 21 years old and in China having a conversation with an American woman who was 45 years old that I had met the day before. The words come basically straight from the journal I kept while I travelled through China in 1988.

Chapter Seven: The Way to Yangshuo, A Blue Moon in China

“What year were you born?” she asked, popping the pineapple into her mouth.

“I was born in the spring before the Summer of Love,” I said. I liked thinking of it that way.

“Ah, 1967. I knew we had a kinship,” she smiled. “In the Chinese horoscope you were born in the Year of the Goat, like me.” She took a sip of her drink. “Supposedly we are born to love.” She rolled her eyes.

“I know, that’s why I call it the Year of the Sheep. I like the image of a sheep grazing on a green hillside, happy as can be.”

Our year was the only one of the twelve Chinese horoscopes to have two different totems.

“Sheep are vulnerable to predators,” Sherry countered. “Year of the Goat. That suits me better. The surefooted ability to scamper a mountainside, self-reliant. Fits with me always being off on adventure.”

 

As a special New Year’s Gift, if you order* the softcover of my memoir, A Blue Moon in China, you will receive a little black bag that reads: If you want a vacation, go to Hawaii. If you want an adventure, go to China.

*orders from website: abluemooninchina.com, while supplies last, in continental USA only

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The two photos were taken at the Lan Su Chinese Gardens in Portland, OR. I did a reading there while on my book tour. The Chinese character was made for me. You can see a video of it on my youtube channel, only it’s sideways (I don’t know why it came out that way).

 

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Excerts from A Blue Moon in China – Musings on the One Child Policy in 1988

People on a bus in Guangzhou, China 1988

People on a bus in Guangzhou, China 1988

From Chapter Three, Black Bicycles set in Guangzhou, China

A billboard caught my eye. It was a picture in pastels of a smiling mother, father, and a very round little girl with rosy cheeks. Curiously, the message was bilingual, both in Chinese and in English: One couple, One child. I had only recently heard of the One Child policy. It was a collective effort; sacrifice really, for the good of the country, a necessary measure for population control, handed down from the government. It looked like Big Brother in action. I wondered how it was enforced.

From Chapter Seven, The Way to Yangshuo

Sherry and I stopped for a moment to sit on a park bench. Across the street was a billboard for the One Child campaign.

“Do you know why it’s in English?” I asked her.

“Propaganda of some nature, I’m sure,” she said. “I did hear that birth control is widely available and that women are ‘encouraged’ to have abortions.” Sherry made it clear there wasn’t much choice. “What grieves me is the killing of baby girls. The rumor is they drown them. At least out in the countryside. The Communist Party doesn’t condone the infanticide, but certainly seems to have turned a blind eye to it.”

I was stunned. I didn’t want to believe it. At first I couldn’t speak, then I stammered feebly, “That must be heart-wrenching for the parents.”

“A male farmhand is more valuable than a female,” Sherry stated matter-of-factly. “Maybe it’s easier to do it because males have always been highly prized in traditional Chinese society. The old concept that females are expendable, less valuable than men – being that they are merely there to serve, lingers tenaciously on. We have Confucius to thank for that.”

“Confucius? How?” I was surprised. “Didn’t he preach virtuous conduct and being a good person? Noble pursuits? How does that translate to favoring men over women? Wasn’t he about the betterment of society?” I felt so upset I was babbling. Confucius says… I took a breath, shut up, and looked out at the city. Who was I kidding? I knew the words of well-meaning influence have often been perverted throughout history. Just about every wise man’s benevolence had been manipulated by the corrupt in search of power. I knew that ordinary men dominated most societies, many with an aim to keep women submissive and in the background. Barefoot and pregnant was the phrase that came to mind.

“It’s all a matter of interpretation, isn’t it?” Sherry’s voice was cold. “Anyway, it is a rare culture than honors women. You know that.”

I stared up at the billboard and wondered what other choices this country might have to keep its population down other than to regulate the number of children born. I had a feeling, religious belief or not, that having an abortion was a big deal emotionally, regardless of the reason. I totally agreed with the legal right for a woman to choose; it is her body and raising a child is a big deal. I was lucky I lived in the U.S. and had the right to decide for myself what I felt was best.

Young girl on a boat to Yangshou

Young girl on boat to Yangshuo

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A Blue Moon in China is my memoir about the 2 months I traveled through China in 1988 when I was 21 years old. I went alone with only $400 in my pocket.

Buy My Book here

ebook coming soon

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A paragraph from A Blue Moon in China, musings on the One Child Policy

“I stared up at the billboard and wondered what other choices this country might have to keep its population down other than to regulate the number of children born. I had a feeling, religious belief or not, that having an abortion was a big deal emotionally, regardless of the reason. I totally agreed with the legal right for a woman to choose; it is her body and raising a child is a big deal. I was lucky I lived in the U.S. and had the right to decide for myself what I felt was best.”

A Blue Moon in China

one paragraph of me contemplating the Chinese One Couple One Child policy in my travel memoir set in 1988.

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One Year Later, June 4, 1989. China

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That photograph was taken in 1988. It couldn’t be taken today. This post is the epilogue in my memoir, A Blue Moon in China. It’s titled: One Year Later

I watched with the world as tanks rolled through the streets of Beijing. The People’s Liberation Army was ordered to use lethal force to disperse millions of China’s own citizens, unarmed and peacefully assembled – the very people the PLA was sworn to protect. (I learned later that the violence erupted in 70 cities across the country.)

I can’t describe how I felt seeing bloodshed in a city and against a people I had so recently visited and come to know. The knowledge that my peers led the protest was poignant; it touched me deeply. Even now, 25 years later, tears fall from my eyes as I write, my heart breaks.

Over the course of the 55 days that culminated in what China’s citizens call the June Fourth Massacre, people from all walks of life became involved in the protests. University students led the demonstration for democracy, freedom of speech, for freedom of the press, to choose their own job, for higher wages, and against corruption among Party officials; the working person was angry about inflation, loss of jobs, and work conditions.

No one knows how many lives were lost in the cold-blooded suppression. The most common estimate is 2500 people died in Beijing alone, some put the number much higher. Tens of thousands were wounded. The hospitals were overwhelmed. The dead were piled up on the streets and in the morgues. Afterward, thousands were arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. Many of those who formed a workers’ union were immediately executed. With the help of unsung heroes who risked their lives, many of the student leaders and intellectuals on the government’s “most wanted” list managed to escape to foreign lands. They are still there in exile today and have been living abroad now longer than they lived in China.

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Small World, Chapter One from A Blue Moon in China

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The train pulled into the station. Dimly lit lamps dotted a long platform that disappeared into obscurity. The light flickered yellow against a dark sky. In and out of shadows people burdened with big plastic bags stuffed full with everything and then some trudged toward the station door while a grating voice crackled on a loudspeaker. I nestled myself into the thick comfortable cushions in the carriage. Their deep-blue hue enveloped me – dark, cocoon-like, safe. I was in no hurry to move; it was slowly sinking in where my tangents had led me: China.

Why in the world China?

I remembered standing as a young girl under the tall pine tree that towered over our colonial brick house and staring down at the dark, rich soil, imagining a hole tunneling right through to the other side of the world, all the way to China. The pictured passage was tangible to me, as the darkness suggested nothing and everything at once. I remembered putting my hand on the rough bark, letting the pine essence engulf me with the scent of adventure. I felt ready to step into the unknown, to fall like Alice into another world.

Little did I know that moment was a harbinger of this journey I had begun.

What did I know about this land of legend?

I knew China was the land that inspired the venerated old master Lao Tzu to write the meditative canons of the Tao Te Ching, exalting the life-force found in nature, the balance of the yin and yang. I knew China was the birthplace of the scholar Confucius who preached virtuous behavior as the means for social harmony. I knew about the Great Wall, and that there was once a Last Emperor. I grew up wandering the halls of a grand museum with Chinese ink paintings on silk hanging on walls. I saw images of wise sages with long white beards walking with canes down dirt paths on mystical mountainsides. I envisioned porcelain vases with blue dragons, intricate shadow puppets, and scrolls of paper covered in black calligraphy. But this was all a distant observer’s impression of China’s ancient past.

The only information I had of China’s present was the little bit I knew about communism. This was told to me by a beady-eyed retired Marine who wore straight-legged Wrangler jeans and chain-smoked filterless cigarettes. He was an artist now working out of a drafty old warehouse in downtown Detroit, but back before I was born he had been among the first to land in Vietnam, before the public even knew the U.S. had sent troops. His depiction of communism was bleak and insidious. It was scary.

The eerie quiet of the empty carriage told me it was time to leave this safe haven, my last vestige of a connection with the Western world, this train out of Hong Kong. I invoked the calming image of water flowing around a rock, smoothing rough edges while the current took it wherever it was going. The serene picture reminded me to surrender to what was before me, to find the path of least resistance around whatever obstacle might be in my way.

And what was in my way right now was that I had no idea where I was going to stay the night.

Confucius says… Good people plan ahead. And here I was in a country whose language I couldn’t read, write, or speak, without any sort of guidebook to show me the way. I was totally clueless what traveling through China would entail. But my travels were always a caprice that landed me… somewhere. I’ve done this before, I reassured myself, and stepped out of the train.

Pollution hung thick in the humid air. I made my way across the now deserted cement platform. My hand gripped the cold metal knob on the glass door leading into the station; I paused and looked at my reflection. The girl staring back at me shook her head: Now what have you gotten yourself into? I shrugged and pulled the heavy door open.

Cigarette smoke enveloped me, stale body odor blasted me, a deafening racket disoriented me.

My mind went blank.

The clamor of the Chinese language bounced off dirty cement surfaces; the discordant notes reverberated inside my skull, rattling my nerves. It was quick and sharp, a high-octave frequency, rising and falling in short syllables, beyond my ability to process. It was a thousand screeching voices vying to be heard. The rush of it all made me dizzy.

An incomprehensible shout over the loudspeaker was followed by a human stampede. Another train was pulling into the station. A surge of people came at me. Hundreds, maybe thousands, swirled around me. I felt I would be swooped up, hurled down a current, out of control, landing at some unknown port. I fought the urge to shut my eyes, wanting to make it all disappear. Nothing in my travels had prepared me for anything like this. A wave of apprehension came over me. I reprimanded myself, What was there to fear? Not knowing the future was the predicament of life. I took a deep breath and let it go, very slowly. I was on the brink of something big, that much I knew.

I stood still and took in my surroundings.

Everyone looked about the same height, neither short, nor tall, with straight black hair that shone blue under the white lights, and dark brown eyes. Their faces appeared stoic, yet set with determination. Gradually I realized something: there was an underlying calm in the midst of the madness. It was palpable.
I was perplexed. Maybe this was the necessary state of mind to maneuver through all these people and their cacophony? A natural juxtaposition to the chaos? Maybe this is why the Taoist philosophy of finding the path of least resistance came into being here?

Another jarring crackle on the loudspeaker snapped my attention back to the moment, to the task at hand, the one I didn’t particularly want to think about, let alone deal with. I had to find some direction, some
information, some sense of what to do; I had to find somewhere to spend the night.

There was no information booth, no reception desk. I looked around at all the signs. Straight lines crossed up and down, side to side, this way and that, their message indecipherable to me. I sent out a prayer for help, wondering if I should just hit the streets.

A man caught my eye. He seemed to be making his way toward me. His stature was distinct from the
multitudes streaming through the station. He stood a head taller than the rest of us and looked bohemian, aristocratic, with poise and ease, not at all like the masses around me. His style of hair was long, below his shoulders, hanging loose and free, swaying with his long strides. When he finally came into full view, he became more singular yet: he was wearing a white linen suit, freshly pressed, and white sneakers. I couldn’t help but see him as an angel, the influence of my mother’s Catholicism rising reflexively in me.

“Do you need help?” he asked, though I had a feeling the answer was obvious. “I am Yang Ling,” he offered his hand in greeting. It was that of an artist: long,tapered. “Please call me Ling.” I wondered if Ling was his first name or his last. I wasn’t sure if I should trust him. I was wary of strangers, being that I was a girl, but Good Samaritans were part of my journey through life, most especially here in the Far East. I first landed in Asia on a bitter-cold March night in Seoul, Korea. I became lost in a maze of alleyways thick with the smoke of charcoal. A young boy was sent out into the frigid air by his two sisters to escort me to the hotel I couldn’t find. In Bangkok, a woman went well out of her way to make sure I found the American Embassy. Neither she, nor the siblings, asked anything of me; they just wanted to be of help. Unsung heroes, my mother would say, and tell me how her parents would feed hobos passing through town in search of work.

I looked into the eyes of the man who stood before me – they exuded kindness. I prayed to my Guardian Angel for protection and took the chance.

I put my hand in his, and smiled, “I need a hotel for the night. I am a student. My name is Elizabeth.” I had learned this was the easiest way to convey I was on a tight budget.

“Please, follow me.” He kept hold of my hand, gentle, yet firm, and turned toward the front entrance. The sea of people parted before us, opening a route straight out of the station and onto the crowded streets of the city of Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, China.

The night air felt balmy, but smelled slightly noxious. Ling had me almost running to keep up with his long strides. A little wide-eyed, I held his hand tight, still feeling dazed from the psychic assault of the station.

We crossed a wide street, dashing between bicycles, rickshaws, buses, trucks, and pedestrians. Ling kept us moving at a quick pace. A few blocks later he stopped in front of a three-story brick building. It looked shabby – a good indication I might be able to afford it. Ling held the door open for me. Operatic singing was blaring in the background. The mournful cry of the singer sounded like a dreadful shriek to my ears. I did my best to tune it out.

The man at the front desk was wearing a short-sleeved orange polyester shirt, snug to his body. It was unbuttoned at the top revealing a dingy white tank top. His chest gleamed smooth and hairless. He held a
filterless cigarette between nicotine-stained fingers, and was missing a few of his brownish-yellow teeth. While Ling conversed with the proprietor, I checked out the scene.

The lobby made no pretenses, simply furnished with a well-worn couch and a banged up old coffee table, a couple of floor lamps and the radio. The walls were a sickly hue of pale green. The stench from mounds of crushed cigarettes in several ashtrays filled the room. Even as I stood in a dense cloud of tobacco smoke, I decided the hotel looked clean enough.

“There are no rooms,” Ling informed me. I was puzzled; this didn’t seem like the kind of establishment many people would stay at. “We will go to another, there are many nearby,” he assured me. But then the next hotel was full, and the next. After what felt like hours of going place to place, through alleyways, around dark corners, and across poorly lit streets, my building frustration began to fall into resignation. I didn’t understand what was happening. Wanting to scream, I turned to Ling and asked, as calmly as I could, “Why is everything booked?”

“It is May. The annual Guangzhou Fair is now,” he told me as we came upon a well-lit, busy street. “It is very big. People from all over the world come here to shop goods made in China.” Goods made in China?
I was intrigued; everything in America seemed to be stamped: Hecho en Mexico or Imported from Japan.

Ling led me across a broad boulevard to a hotel with a doorman. My heart sank with futility. It was obviously way beyond my means. But I felt too tired to stop him and allowed myself to be escorted inside as the likelihood of returning to the train station to bed down on a cold, hard bench began to weigh heavy over my psyche.

The lobby was serene, beautiful. Classical music played softly in the background. The crystal chandelier lighting the room sparkled. Under it was a round table topped with polished white marble that had red, black, and gray lines running through it. A large bouquet of fresh flowers created an ambiance of lavish welcome. Everywhere I looked there was opulence and elegance accented in marble, dark wood, brocade drapes, and more fresh flowers.

Ling conferred with the clerk, who looked me up and down with disdain. I felt embarrassed. I was wearing my favorite purple sweatshirt, threadbare and full of holes. My long brown hair was in its usual tangle, pulled back into a ponytail. I wore a pair of dirty blue jeans and dirty white sneakers. Hanging off my shoulder was a school-sized purple and pink backpack bursting at the seams, and quite grungy from the months of traveling afar. I had four hundred dollars to my name, and no means of getting any more. It probably cost half that much to stay one night in this dazzling fantasy before my weary eyes.

The good news was the clerk knew where I belonged – a youth hostel for Westerners; the bad news was it was located on the other side of the city.

“Excuse me, please,” a cultured voice came from behind me. I turned around. A middle-aged man wearing a sharp, navy three-piece suit, possibly silk given its sheen, smiled at me. He had a round, sweet face and carried himself like a real gentlemen: refined and graceful. “My name is Vijay. I am here from Fiji for the trade show. I have an extra bed in my room if you are in need for the night.”

Caught off guard, and rather susceptible to poor judgment, I took a step back, gathered the biggest, baddest city girl vibe I could, given that I wasn’t big or bad, and, hand on hip, looked straight into Vijay’s kind eyes, “What do you want in exchange?”

“Nothing,” he promised, with such sincerity I could only trust him. “It is no problem. I am happy to help.”

I went to give Ling a hug of gratitude, but he was gone, my vision in white vanished into the night. He had delivered me to safety; his job was done.

Vijay led the way through the elegant hallway. His quiet demeanor was respectful and polite; I was his honored guest and he, my regal host. He held the door open for me to cross the threshold into his room. Inside, heavy brocade drapes in a rich maroon and deep brown hung to the floor, hushing the sounds from the world outside. A plush beige carpet gave the space a sense of light, while still more fresh flowers continued to extend a welcoming invitation and sweeten the air with fragrance. True to his word there was an extra single bed. And a marble bathroom! Immediately I took a shower, relishing the strong pressure of the hot water, and the rose-scented soap, such a change from what I had become used to. It was blissful. As I lathered off the grime from the gritty city air, I questioned why I was wandering aimlessly through Asia rather than focusing on a life purpose – Why was I pinching pennies rather than amassing wealth so I could live this sort of life?

Too tired to answer myself, I snuggled in under the comfortable blankets, glorying in the fresh scent that enveloped me. My heart was full of gratitude as the cool, crisp linen sheets caressed my clean skin. It was luxurious. I fell into a deep sleep.

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A Blue Moon in China  is the true story of the two months I traveled through China in 1988 when I was 21 years old. I went alone with $400 in my pocket. There are 18 black and white photographs in the book; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map.
Buy my Book links herebluemoonsm300

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There is nothing like Good Press, especially from the Library Journal.

A Blue Moon in ChinaPilar’s memoir of her trip through China as a 21-year-old is a look back at a very different country and a barely remembered manner of travel. In 1988, travelers could not use the web to check reviews on youth hostels and restaurants, sightseeing spots, or train schedules. Google Earth was not around to provide a close-up look at destinations, and no one was carrying a smartphone to make the journey easier. In 1988, Pilar hopped on a train from Hong Kong into China with no guidebook or language skills and no idea what was ahead of her. On her journey of self-discovery, Pilar learns about herself as she wanders through China, forming connections with trekkers from around the world and with the Chinese people she meets. Based on Pilar’s journal entries, the reconstructed conversations are creative and add life to her tale. One year before Tiananmen Square, China in 1988 is in the midst of change, and Pilar reflects the conflict of some of the people she encounters.
Verdict This title is a nice addition to women’s studies readings as it chronicles the kind of travel undertaken with a tattered map and the recommendations of students met on trains.Library Journal*

* I kept the reviewer’s name private as this is a subscription-only periodical with librarians and academics in mind.

A Blue Moon in China

If you want to read my story, I’d love for you to order it from an local bookstore and ask your library to add it to their collection.

Softcover: $18.99.   ISBN:  978-0-9904251-9-9

there are 18 black and white photographs I took while there, an index, recommended reading, movies, and music from the book. I hand-drew the map.

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Map of my trip through China

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hand-drawn map by elizabeth pilar 2014

Chronology:

A comfortable train out of Hong Kong into the port city of Guangzhou. From there the journey through the mainland began with an overnight boat ride up the Yi River and all day on a local bus across to Yangshuo. Departure was in early morning on a different boat to arrive in Guilin by the early afternoon. The first train adventure begins – and defines hard-seat-style – going west across the south via Guiyang to the city of Kunming in the providence called Yunnan. It took over 48 hours to arrive. Buses became the mode of travel for the next round of movement. Three days local-style to go further south to Jinghong and the Autonomous Region of Xishuangbanna. And back. Another two buses to Lijiang located in the foothills of the Himalayans Mountains. A couple more to another destination and back. The final bus ride was ten hours to a train station… somewhere. The second train adventure began with an overnight north to Chengdu, and 12 hours more to the city of Chongqing on the shores of the Yangtze River. Three days on a boat down to Wuhan. Less than 24 hours on a train north to Beijing. An overnight back down to Guangzhou. And then outward to Hong Kong.

A good way to look at the landmass of China – it’s slightly bigger than the United States of America.

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 In the book, there are 18 black and white photographs I took while there; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map.

Library Journal‘s verdict was that it’s a “nice addition to women’s studies readings as it chronicles the kind of travel undertaken with a tattered map and the recommendations of students met on trains.”

Feel free to contact me: elizabeth@elizabethpilar.com 

Buy A Blue Moon in China links here

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