I’m back. Back in China after over a year away. I was reticent to leave, wondering again how it would be possible to pause life in North America, missing wasteful hot showers and clean air already. But, just a few minutes after hailing a cab from Beijing’s International Airport to my new lodgings, my taxi driver took a toothpick out of his pocket, tipped his head and did a thorough ear cleaning with it. My first thought was, this can’t be safe – especially at 45 miles per hour. My second thought was, I’m home.
Ever since I first visited China in 1996, the place has resonated with me on the deepest levels. No other place on earth has vibrated for me in this way, not even in nature. When I was 16, I assumed this was a latent genetic familiarity from my ¼ Cantonese heritage, ringing with pleasure at a return ‘home’. I still feel this is part of the puzzle. Over time, I have also come to believe that this tacit communion is also a simple luck of innate tendencies: to favor mealtime over all other times, to emphasize ritual whenever possible, to tirelessly strengthen family and friendships, to unlock a pictographic language embedded with symbolism, to eat very very very spicy things, etc. The distant, sometimes so-polite-it-can-feel-cold Midwestern culture is also in my bones, but it doesn’t ring the inner bell quite like the absolute din of sitting around a banquet table in China.
Of course, these differences in culture and society bring with it another set of pressures and issues, pressures that I am fortunate enough to only dip into for months at a time before I go home to North America. So, who can truly say? Maybe, the toe that I dip in is enough and too much would prove the ‘greener on other side’ theorem true. For now, all I know is that when I am here, I am resonating in a way I don’t anywhere else.
And, if China resonates with me on this level, shadow puppetry just tips the scale. There is, still, nothing else that enraptures me like this form and all the practitioners, families, enthusiasts and scholars who are apart of it.
This chunk of fieldwork is being graciously funded by a Hanban/Confucius Institute Joint PhD Research Fellowship (孔子新汉学计划) and an additional Concordia MEESR Travel Grant. My research is supported by Beijing Normal University and the Folk Culture and Literature department, in particular, Professor Yang Lihui who is a Chinese folk culture specialist.
As I’ve just entered the ABD (all-but-dissertation) portion of my PhD work, I’m going to be focusing my fieldwork a bit differently than before. Instead of serving as an apprentice with my co-participants, I’m shifting gears to include more formal interviews and inquiries into Chinese shadow puppetry’s current situation and possible future outcomes. This work will be co-theorized with the participants and be included with the knowledge from my previous fieldwork in the thesis. Which I will, of course, be writing furiously as I travel around China…we hope.
Either way, I am so happy to be back and resonating in hazy Beijing, ready to begin the shadow puppet hunt again.
Thanks for reading~