Thursday, May 22, 2014

Episode 17: Silk Worms and Bats

Tassel cart
One thing I absolutely love about our life in China are the people with carts, blankets, and make-shift tables who set up shop along the back street every day. The people who come to sell things are different every day. They come, they set up their blanket/table/park their bike, and then they are gone, never to be seen again. I have learned to seize the buying opportunity and it is always with giddy anticipation that I peruse what is for sale that day. Currently there are lots of cherry sales-people, bikes with baskets loaded with lovely red cherries, as cherries are currently in season. Three weeks ago it was strawberries and mulberries. Before that, throughout the winter, apples.

Fruit seller outside back gate. This week
featuring cherries, mangoes, and mystery fruit.
It is always a big surprise to me who shows up to spread their wares. This week lots there are women with small carts selling red tasseled embroidered charms, which I am assuming is something related to the upcoming holiday, Dragon’s Boat Day, but I have yet to ask. Last week there was a man selling beads and old silver coins. Today I bought three house plants from a man with a lovely selection of rich-looking orchids, cacti, and various philodendrons. Ten yuan each (about $1.50).

Because the back gate is directly across from the primary school, it is an ideal location to hawk gewgaws and food snacks as parents and children are milling about four times a day: drop off in the morning; pick up for lunch; drop off after lunch; and the mad dash home at the end of the day. We have seen people selling small mice, bunnies in cages, ducklings, cotton candy made on the back of a bike with a small generator, tong hulus (fruit on a stick covered with sugar). All of keen interest to small children coming and going from school. About two weeks ago there was a man with a dingy canvas spread on the ground and a cardboard box. Children were clustered around him, shoving one yuan bills into his hands as he rustled around in the box and dropped a few things into a cone made from cast-off paper, handing the cone to the eager child.

Baby in a basket.

Hmmm. We craned in for a closer look. Caterpillars. White-ish and grubbish looking. Nothing as pretty as a monarch caterpillar or those furry orange and black varieties we regularly see back home. But the man was doing a roaring business.

It wasn’t long before I began hearing the scuttle-butt about the caterpillars, or actually, silk worms. Apparently, this is a long-held tradition for school children in China. Zephaniah’s tutor, Olivia, waxed nostalgic about the silk worms she would buy and watch metamorphose as a little girl. As it turned out, most of Zephaniah’s friends had already started their cardboard box of silkworms, sold to them by the man near the gate. The man was also selling leaves – someone told me mulberry, but that didn’t seem right; they certainly didn’t look like the mulberry leaves I know – to feed the worms as they only eat one thing.


Mystery fruit up close: spiky and fuzzy-textured, but
sweet like cherries (with a pit). "Yang Mei" in Chinese.
Growing up in Missouri and Nebraska, Zephaniah has always had monarch caterpillars in the yard. We collect one or two each summer, typically in August, and feed them milk weed or bind weed and watch them become chrysalises (monarchs make the most beautiful jade-colored, gold flecked chrysalises of any insect I have ever seen), and then watch them unfold into wet-winged butterflies that we let go into the garden. We are pros at nurturing caterpillars through their life cycle. Or so I thought.

Silk worms doing what they do.


A few days later, we stopped and bought our own paper cone of silkworms, placing them in a cardboard box and dutifully refreshing their leave diet every morning and evening. We had a couple casualties; two turned a bad color and then curled up and died. I was getting extremely nervous because we were running out of leaves and I had no knowledge of where to get more and the man at the gate had disappeared (I have learned that I need to buy whatever I see at the gate today and now because tomorrow it will be gone and then I will suffer deep regret). We ran out of leaves with one remaining silk worm still foraging around. Not being able to stomach the idea of starving a silk worm, I had Z release it into the garden with the hopes that there would be something out there it could eat – or at least it could become a bit of breakfast for a sly bird instead of dying in a box in our apartment.

Three little worms actually did their duty and spun their silk worm cocoons. Z was immediately talking about how he could take the pods to the tailor and have her make silk out of them and then a suit . . . The tailor is amazing, but I think creating silk out of pods may be beyond her expertise. 
Silk worm cocoons.
Z was impatient for the silk moths to emerge from the cocoons. I warned him that touching them would likely not urge them forward in their evolution. Impossible advice. When he went to Simon’s house and saw that Simon’s cocoons had all emerged to lovely, fluttery moths (silk moths can’t fly, so they just reside in the box until they die, I guess). He came home from Simon’s and immediately picked one of his cocoons open to see what was taking so long. “I knew it was dead,” he said, as the brown-ish, armadillo-looking casing of something fell out of the pod. “Well, it is now,” I remarked. “Leave the other two alone, bub.”

We have yet to have any moths. The little silk pods are looking quite lonely in their cardboard box surrounded by dry, shriveled leaves. Z shakes the box a bit every day. I am sure that is not helping things. Juan said the moths live in the box and lay eggs on the old cocoon wrappings and if you save the eggs, they will hatch the next year. Simon immediately warned us, “But don’t try to take them back to America with you! It is forbidden!” Good advice. I don’t really want to get snagged by customs on my way back into the U.S. because of an interest in the life cycle of silk worms.

I’m not sure that silk worms, especially their cocoons, can be considered “pets,” but being denied the  company of resident felines for the past 10 months, we are both missing creatures in the house. That is why when the bat showed up a couple nights ago, we were seriously considering whether we could actually just keep it, you know, as a pet. They’re nocturnal. We would be asleep as it flew around and ate whatever mosquitoes were in our place. We would get rid of the pesky mosquitoes and we could talk to the bat as it slept during the day. It could happen, right?
"Happy Mother's Day" sign that Zephaniah
made in calligraphy class.
I was just putting Zephaniah to bed when the bat surprised me by swooping up and down the length of our hall. “Bat!” I exclaimed. Neither of us are strangers to bats. We regularly have them in our houses in Lincoln and St. Joe . . . in fact one year a little brown bat decided to hibernate at eye level in our basement. One spring day it was gone. I opened up the basement door and I guess it found its way outside. Consequently, bats don’t freak us out. We find them cute and interesting. But it is always exciting to have one in the house; we like the fast-paced logistics of figuring out how to get it back outside where it belongs.

Z came running and was nearly beaned in the head by the swooping creature. The bats that typically find their way inside tend to be young, the teen-age version of flying mammals – stupid and careless. They curiously or recklessly crawl into a hole, find themselves inside someone’s house and then can’t seem to figure out how to get back out. Because they are young, their echolocation is not as good yet (bad drivers), so they panic and just swoop around. And then people in the house start to panic and begin hitting them with things. It ends badly for everyone, but especially for the adolescent bat.

Just for the record, very few bats carry rabies. People freak right out and call animal control, but if you call animal control – no matter what the kind woman or man says who shows up with a net – that bat is a goner. They do not “catch and release” bats. They have to euthanize them. So, if you are faced with a teenage bat driving badly in your house, do the bat a favor and just open a window and shoo it in that direction. It doesn’t want to be in your house any more than you want it there.
Paint brush calligraphy; Z is writing a poem.
As we clung to the walls and watched the bat swoop back and forth, back and forth, I came up with a plan. I closed the doors to the bedrooms and went downstairs to notify the security guard, thinking perhaps he had a net or something. In China, bats are considered a sign of good luck and longevity, so I was confident the guard wouldn’t go nuts and want to smash the bat – as so many people in the states seem to do when confronted with a bat in their residence. He didn’t have a net, but he came up and we both watched the bat swooping and swooping, nearly missing us every time. Impressive wing span, though. Really impressive.

“Let’s keep it as a pet!” Z yelled from the end of the hall. “It’s cute!”

Frannie K. Stein, a crack scientist in a children’s books series of the same name, keeps bats as pets. Therefore, Z believes this is a viable option.

“We can’t keep a bat as a pet!” I responded as we all three stood by, backs against the narrow hallway walls, watching the bat sail by us, swoop and turn; sail back, swoop and turn. I thought, “Wow. You would think that little bat would be exhausted by now.”

The security guard asked me to get a piece of cloth. He attempted to toss it over the bat as it swooped by, but the wee creature was too quick. Finally the bat did grow tired and neatly flew up to the corner by the open door – s/he just couldn’t seem to figure out that the door was open – and nestled there, a small, blackish pod with cute little tea-cup ears sticking out.

“OK. Good. It will sleep there. Just close your bedroom doors. No problem,” the security guard nodded, smiled and left.

Huh? OK. I guess so. Why not? They are nocturnal. Perhaps s/he had done her hunting for the night. I was keeping an open mind. Not that I wanted to get in the business of running a bat youth hostel, but maybe an overnight bat guest wouldn’t be bad. Bats – especially young ones – typically sleep about 20 hours a day, so she was likely bedding down for the night.

With the 12 foot ceilings, neither the bat nor I had much choice. I couldn’t get up there to reach it (as a veteran bat catcher, I have had great success scooping bats into plastic containers or bowls and then releasing them outside). It was clearly snuggled in the corner and intended to stay. Both Z and I craned our necks upwards, bid him/her a good night, and went to bed.

S/he was there the next morning, sleeping soundly as we went about our days. Zephaniah played the violin, a breakfast serenade. We both dashed off to our perspective schools. When I returned at 5 p.m. s/he was still snoozing in her corner. Z came home and reported on his day. We had dinner. The dusk began closing in. Olivia came over to help Z with his Chinese assignments. I was beginning to think something was wrong with the bat: time to wakey-wakey, but s/he wasn’t stirring. S/he was still snuggled up, nose tucked into the wrap of delicate wings, little ears peeping out of her/his folded-up self. I opened the nearest window, the night closing in and evening sounds of babies chortling, birds chirping, and distant dog barks emerging from the garden. “Come on, little bat! Plenty of mosquitoes! All outside. Yummy, yummy. Time to get up!” Nothing. I was thinking about getting a stick to poke the tiny beast into action, but decided to do dishes first. I didn’t want to be a rude host.

When I came from the kitchen less than five minutes later, she was gone. Not even a good-bye? I expected to have at least that. I closed the window and liked the idea of our house guest gobbling up pests in the courtyard, now just one of the many bats that careen around in the Xi’an night.

Another Trip to the Tailor

Fabric market: Gaudy Stall
My sister wants Song Le, the tailor, to make her a tux. We dutifully went to the fabric market and picked out the fabric and then took it to the tailor along with Dona’s measurements and the photos of the tux Dona had emailed. While we were ordering things from Song Le, Z had in mind a couple other costumes he wanted made: dramatic caftans, exaggerated suits, and heel-length capes of shimmery gold and fire-engine red lame. He loves drawing pictures of what he wants the tailor to do, explaining to her the fine details. He delights at how she can create exactly what he wants from his sketch.

SongLe and Z are a match made in heaven. She thinks he is a hoot and is committed to getting every detail correct for him. Together they will chat and draw and modify and discuss the fine details of each outfit he wants made. On the other hand, she is wholly uninterested in making my sister a tux. Or so it seems.

We dropped off the tux/costume order months ago. I called a couple times and she put me off. We had Tiantian call again and finally, finally Song Le said, “Come on Sunday.”

Z and Song Le
I was assuming, of course, that this meant everything was done (the tux and  Z’s costumes).

Nope. She hasn’t even started on the tux. Has no interest, really, in making the tux. She had, however, finished two of Z’s costumes. And – never to miss a moment to get more things made – Z gave her fabric and two more sketches for two more costumes. I am cutting him off after these two. We need the tux done before we leave. And at this rate, that is going to be pushing it.

Song Le works out of a very small room with bunk beds next to the women’s shower at the nearby Petroleum University (yes, a university where one majors in all things regarding petroleum – only in China!). She has mounds (and I mean mounds) of work that is waiting to be completed: hems and patches; repairing seams; material and sketches of clothing that people want her to make for them), but the only person who seems to be getting anything out of her these days is apparently Zephaniah.


One of Z's design sketches.

Red suit with cape
This time Zephaniah delivered unto her a green lame fabric with a design for a Sherlock Holmes coat as well as a black vinyl-looking latex/spandex “fabric” (a loose term since this sort of material feels more like Saran Wrap and would likely melt if he got too close to a campfire) for a “super villain” cat suit that has a red-glittery heart appliqued on the front.

When we go to the fabric market – several blocks of stall after stall of all kinds of fabric you can imagine, Z gravitates towards the stalls with all the “costume” fabric, the kind of place that is the haven of drag queens and beauty queens and people without a sense of what it means to say “gaudy.” Z immediately honed in on a black, rubber-looking material and then moved on to the shiny, shimmery, neon polyester. I thought, “If I know my child, that black rubber stuff is what he is going to come back to.” Sure enough. It was exactly what he needed for his cat suit design. As we were leaving the market, purchases in hand, Z said, “When I grow up, I am going to wear my black cat suit to work.” I suppose he believes he won’t get bigger between now and then? Or perhaps that the lycra in the fabric will stretch to fit? Either way, I worried about a line of work where the uniform or “appropriate business attire” included a black cat suit.

Zephaniah is always thrilled to see Song Le and I think the feeling is mutual. He is extremely complimentary of what she turns out and spends long minutes preening in front of her full-length mirror, vamping as various characters, and exclaiming over the luscious details of Song Le’s work. As Zephaniah and Song Le were discussing the finer points of his newest brainstorms, I kept trying to interject, “But work on my sister’s tux first.” Song Le politely ignored me. I said to Zephaniah, in English, “Tell her to do your aunt’s tux first.” He did, but he met with similar success. Song Le winked at him, a conspiracy that excluded me and my sister's tux.
Yellow tunic with cape.
Song Le told us to come back in two weeks. I am going to lose my mind if we go back in two weeks and the only thing done is the green lame Sherlock coat and the black rubber cat suit.

Z wore the latest hell-fire red creation home, cutting quite a picture. The full cape and suit are brutally hot (not unlike being rolled in plastic and told to walk along an asphalt highway at noon on an August day). Still, fashion first. Zephaniah was unwilling to even peel off the cape. Small children in our path would turn and gape, wondering what super hero was in their midst. I’m never going to lose him in a crowd, that is for sure. On the way home, Z turned to me and said, “At the Creative White Guys Convention, I am going to be the most fashionable.” Creative White Guys Convention? What does that even mean? And, yes, if there is such a thing, he will be noticed.

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