Monday, June 26, 2006


I have been waiting all day for Colin to cover the distance between here and there. He has been at a sort of philosopher/ neuroscientist cross-over conference where he and one of his classmates (I will call him G) gave a paper on the "upside down" goggles, the ones that reverse your vision upside down (or left and right). Actually, I remember studying this in high school psychology class. The story you hear there (and I have always taken it as unproblematically true) is that after some time wearing the reversing goggles, your vision flips so things look right side up. Then when you take the goggles off, everything looks upside down for a while. Apparently it's a lot more complicated than that, and the experiment wasn't even designed to test this kind of hypothesis, and the truth is more like you become disoriented and then you learn to adapt, and after a while maybe some things look right side up but other things don't, and then when you take the goggles off you feel disoriented again. Anyway, it seemed like an interesting paper, though unusually I didn't actually get to hear a practice run. Colin said it went fairly well, it "didn't convince anyone to abandon their views...but did convince everyone that they need to think more about Kohler" [the guy who did the experiments].

Meanwhile, Colin has also been having a very good time at Oxford. I include a picture I particularly like of Colin the Natural Philosopher. It is remarkably color-coordinated, I think. Even the blue stress-fracture boot blends in admirably. I am absolutely certain that this was completely by accident.

Speaking of accidents, Colin has granted me permission to post the following incident regarding distance and dislocation (and most especially Newton's third law):

A quick funny story as I'm back to change my pants. Why, you ask? Because I just went for a delightful afternoon 'punting' on the Chatworth river with G and DD, famous philosopher. As we were getting off the punt--slightly woozy from afternoon sun and mid-punt beer--DD offered me a hand up...

It was only a quick application of my shoulder mid-fall that prevented DD from going into the river with me---I managed to sort of tackle him into a nearby docked boat. I was of course not so lucky. Thankfully, I had forgotten my camera, and my passport turns out to be reasonably waterproof. And my foot was more or less ok, and DD was pretty forgiving---amused, even.

[This happened a few days ago. Now Colin adds:]
I've been going around with neither shoe nor crutch, and my foot has been largely fine. However, my calf has been *killing* me. At first I assumed that it must have been some sort of sprain or atrophy from over-use after a long time. Then I started worrying about all sorts of terrible things, like what happened to my dad when he flew back home recently, etc. [some kind of weird blood clot/blood thinning problem where his leg swelled up terribly]. Then this morning I actually looked at it, and I have a very large bruise shaped roughly like the edge of a punt. So that explains that!

My clumsy fellow. We are well-matched in that, though I have never yet pulled a famous philosopher into the water.

And just one more story from across the Atlantic, which I cite without permission:

Best quote from a talk so far: "Now, we had to keep our equipment free of water, but the Dolphins make big bow wakes as they splash around. So it turns out that the best way to do that is with lots of condoms. And let me tell you, as embarrassing as it is to buy condoms a hundred at a time, it's even worse when you say, 'oh, it's for an experiment with a Dolphin'."



Yesterday I did something I have never done before: I went to a friend's baby-shower. Now I suppose that at 30 I ought not to feel shocked by my peers having kids. But somehow it's shocking all the same! My friend, SL, was a near and dear buddy from summer 2000 in Taiwan. She is French and … well, inimitable. Unique. We have not been in especially good touch, despite the fact that we live only an hour and a half apart. Somehow the rigors of grad school … I don't know. But I have always felt very affectionate toward her when I have seen her. And she is one of those rare people I feel comfortable asking a favor of, maybe because she is so considerate and seems to get satisfaction from it. Maybe it's just the fellow foreigner bonding phenomenon. In any case, a really nice relationship.

Not being greatly perceptive about the markers of socio-economic class, I did not discover until much later that she and her husband are extremely well-off and so are many of their friends. I was reminded of this at the baby shower, hosted by one of her friends, SB, at a Central Park West address (near the Natural History Museum--a nice part of Manhattan). The lobby of the building was sort of like a palace, and it took not less than three doormen to get me from the outside to the place I was supposed to be. None of the apartments had numbers on the doors (this must be on purpose). Fortunately, SB had put tiny baby-shower accoutrements on the door so I was able to figure out which one it was! As for the apartment, I've seen Asian art museums with less. Glass cases--in the living room. In the hall. Soaring bookshelves full of really good useful books. Stone statues and embroidered robes and bronzes and pottery. A view of the skyline beyond the green band of Central Park. It was amazing.

Most beautiful, however, was SL in glowing good health with her belly roughly the size of a watermelon!

It was an interesting experience, much more relaxing and fun than I had anticipated. SL has a lot more women friends than I could muster in an analogous situation, and they are extremely varied in age, occupation, nationality etc. Professors, tour guides, graduate students, various other professionals, even a garden designer. Some were hard to talk to, but others were very interesting. As more and more often in settings like these, I realized how exceedingly much I like women. Women are great! Or can be. Of course, I am still often wrong-footed and ignorant in their ways, but gradually I have been growing more comfortable and, more important, more eager to try and be accepted. Which I sometimes am and sometimes not. What I lack is not good manners exactly, but something one step deeper. Maybe tact or--a sense of what I ought not to say. It is much easier to say the wrong thing and offend your average woman than your average man. In fact, men who are easily offended are really difficult for me to deal with! But some women aren't easily offended, and perceive my good intentions despite my mistakes, and these are the ones I get along with the best.

Anyway, SL's baby is "probably a girl." Apparently if it's a boy they know right away but if it's a girl it's just "probably." I found this curious. Also she is not allowed to eat any sugary things and is only allowed one piece of fruit a day, on account of being borderline with worries about gestational diabetes. This sounds awful to me! Another weird and specifically baby-shower related thing was the amount of paraphernalia that attends child-rearing in modern Manhattan. Many articles and accessories whose uses were quite mysterious to me… I kept wondering to myself, does one need all that? What do peasants do?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Few Pix

My apologies that these are all in the hotel room and of me. There was just so much other stuff going on that I couldn't be bothered to carry a camera also, let alone remember to use it. That this orientation was a highly practical matter and not in any sense merely ceremonial was shown by the fact that no group picture was taken. (Or perhaps this was for security reasons? odd thought.)

Then there's me just about to go out to the first, informal dinner. That is around the time I made the first post to this blog. To my eye, I look weirdly big. I always think of myself as smaller than I am, I guess. But I'm, I don't know, downright stocky.

Now as was clear from my posts, I wasn't too happy about having to wear a suit. It's a nice suit, of course. I believe that dad bought it for me in California back in... oh, 1998 or so? Amazingly, it still fits and is in reasonably good shape, though there's a faint stain on the jacket that the dry cleaners always worry about (Colin assures me it's not at all noticeable). But just the feeling of wearing a suit--just not that nice if you're not accustomed to it.

And finally, here's me: very very tired at the end of the long day.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Getting the Goods

The second day of orientation was mostly devoted to tips on how to actually carry out our research. Obviously, this would vary a lot depending on what kind of research one is doing. The day started off with Professor HT, an old but vigorous scholar of the Song dynasty. (Working on the Song, that is, not dating from the Song!) His stories about getting into archives and libraries were most a propos for my particular challenges. But his general message was relevant and useful for everyone: a lot of times the answer you get starts out "no" and changes into "yes." The key is to be extremely patient and persistent, and never ever lose your temper.

He also told a true fairy-tale about going to an archive where the senior archivist had just returned from a visit from Harvard where he had been very well treated. As a result, HT (a Harvard grad student at the time) was given a full copy of rare text. When he brought it back his professors insisted it was a forgery because it had never been mentioned by anyone. But considerable research showed that it wasn't. It was the real deal. So this kid got first crack at it through serendipity. The flip side being that the archive had just been sitting on it. My prof. here, AP, once said that librarians and archivists in China consider their job to be protecting books from the public, not making them available! A number of times through the day this sort of thing came up--the idea that in closed stacks libraries and archives, no one wants to give you anything that hasn't already been worked on and published. Thus building a relationship is essential, so you can soften them up, get them to like you, and eventually they might hand you something you didn't ask for.

To all this, of course, my main reaction was one of dismay. I went into the dusty tome reading business because I thought it would be the one thing where I wouldn't have to use people skills!

Endless problems. Online catalogues do not match actual holdings. Parts of the collection are mysteriously off-limits. Hours change without warning. Photocopying is limited and expensive. Hand-copying is laborious and slow. Digital cameras and computers are often not allowed. I guess one just has to learn one's way around. And take a bibliography class. And bring letters of introduction from everyone. Archivists are sticklers for formality.

A funny story: one girl had found the photocopies she needed were just not forthcoming, day after day. Eventually she managed to talk to people and discover that problem had nothing to do with her being a foreigner or any such thing: they were out of toner and hadn't been able to get more. So she ended up donating a whole bunch of toner. Why not, huh? One of the subtexts of many stories is ways in which you can lubricate the system very tactfully and subtly. Because no one wants to see themselves as corrupt; no one wants to take bribes. Yet on the other hand it is natural to have a certain give and flexibility in the rules. As HT said: the last thing you want is to be dealt with according to the rules, which were written at a time when things were much more rigid.

Happily for me, I got my admission letter to Peking University (invariably referred to as Beida 北大), along with a tuition waiver. I was one of the lucky 25 (about half of us) who could put our minds at rest. The question of affiliation, a great source of stress for me in the past few months, was settled. The letter came with a pre-filled visa application that said, among other things, that I was married. I sort of liked that, frankly. I had already considered pretending something of the sort, having heard it is a highly effective antidote to unwanted attentions. And aside from that, it just seemed like a good omen.

At the beginning of the lunch-break, I boldly walked up to Professor HT and introduced myself, also saying that I'd really enjoyed his presentation. He had earlier mentioned some work he was doing on later views of the Three Kingdoms hero Zhuge Liang, and we fell into a conversation about this topic, which is quite relevant to mine in a methodological sense. Disconcertingly, it seemed that he knew a fair amount about me already. Perhaps he'd been involved in reviewing my application? In any case, he made some great suggestions. An article he'd written. The recent work of van Ess. German scholarship on the Shiji in general, and that I should seriously consider a post-doc in Germany. (Poor Colin.) That it would be a great way to launch my career and give me an in with the most serious work on my topic that's being done in the West. We had lunch on the patio, and were eventually joined by other archivally-minded FBs. It was nice to get them all selected out so I knew who they were.

The discussion inevitably became more broad, and ended up on the topic of unexpected Chinese perceptions. I should add that HT is about as white as white can be. But he told a story about arriving in a fairly small town late at night, and being turned away by the few hotels that were said to accept Westerners. So as a kind of last resort, he went into a smaller, wholly Chinese sort of inn. It turned out that he was able to negotiate for a room with the lady at the desk, and it was all going smoothly until she asked for his work unit ID. He said he didn't have one and offered his passport. At which point, the lady suddenly became hysterical and began screaming, "Waiguo ren! Waiguo ren!" (Foreigner!) HT said he was speechless. Like, that wasn't obvious before? She must have thought he was some kind of Uighur, or something? There are a few fair-skinned minorities, but gosh, he was pretty American looking! (A grand compliment to his skill in speaking Chinese, I would say!) He managed to get her calmed down and managed to be allowed to stay the night, but the next morning some grey, official vans picked them up and took them to one of the officially recommended hotels, which now of course mysteriously had room for them.

HT has a daughter who is half Chinese, and has spent some time in China, so I was naturally curious about her experience. Actually, just to emphasize what a small world it is, I gradually recognized her as someone Jesse had met during his workshop in Dunhuang two summers ago… but that's only by the way. He said she got all kinds of different reactions, from people just assuming she was Chinese, to being stared at for long periods of time, to being asked straight out. About like my experience in Taiwan, I guess.

In the early afternoon, we split up into groups. I was quite pleased with mine, as it was run by the former FB fellow who was an archivally-oriented PhD, a friendly-looking girl (bearing a slight resemblance to Renia, actually) who seemed most like me of the FB alums. It turned out her bf moves in the same circles as Kern, does Tang dynasty stuff. Small world again. Anyway, it was a great pleasure to meet her. She showed tell-tale signs of grad student insecurity (don't we all have a bit of it? Or everyone that's remotely human, anyway). But she did have a lot of good stories and bits of advice, and she was good at appealing to other people who might have expertise, while at the same time not being too self-effacing.

Again, I learned more concrete tips than I can possibly write down here, as well as many things that were not necessarily useful but extremely interesting. Advice on how to do interviews. (Boy, my advice to the FB people would be to insist that anyone planning to do interviews as part of their project get some training on how to do them! Some of the kids just seemed like babes in the woods. I mean, I'd be too, but I'm not planning to do any.) Miracle finds in dusty bookstores. Tips for putting off unwanted mail attention. How to structure time. The way the advisor system works. (Apparently, the university appoints you an advisor, who may or may not be helpful, may or may not be who you asked for. But they do have official responsibility for you. This was great to hear!) I also learned more about different people's specific projects. Male marriage mobility and cross-border marriage. Techniques of behavior control in pre-schools. Treatment of historic places within urban contexts (Shanghai). And so forth. The more intellectual, less activist projects, generally.

In the FB orientation setting generally, you felt kind of bad if you weren't doing something really contemporary and socially conscious. Others I talked to agreed. A certain envy, because the relevance for those folks is so clear and obvious. And (there were a couple of alums whose interests ran in that direction) they would get so swept up in what they were doing that their personal life and their project became one, total emotional commitment. That just isn't possible for dusty tome people, at least not all the time. But it's actually important to remind myself that there are trade-offs. It's important for some people--even a lot of people--to focus on the worst that humans can dish out to one another, and try their best to put it right. But (here the amorphous commitment to "intellectual cadres" has an intuitive sense) it may also be important for some people to look at the shining shining past, the ways in which people are admired not just for compassion in the face of atrocity but for brilliance and sophistication, for producing some of the best stuff humanity is capable of.

Well, civilization was a double-edged sword from the very start. Social stratification freed up some people's time for non-essential cultural production and condemned others to lives of mindless drudgery. Should we all be mindless drudges (a hellish averaging of the world income)? Should we all be leisured cultural elites (a utopian vision of some kind of highly mechanized future)? Probably there will always be some inequality. The future is a curious unexplored land, a murky obscured distance stretching so far and mysteriously we spend our whole lives in travel and discovery only to find that we die having experienced but a small piece of the seemingly infinite total territory. Perhaps that's why I like the grand vistas of the past. There are still frustrating uncertainties to be sure, not to mention trompe l'oeil illusions and deliberate deceptions. But studying the past is like getting to live for more than 2000 years, the early bits a vague and fairy-tale childhood, the middle parts full of painful and exciting growing pains, the most recent parts like being an adult saddled with the full and overwhelming complexities of life.

But I am going very much astray from my subject.

A pretty important fellow talked to us in the afternoon. He was a former ambassador, and current member of a think-tank. Right now he's working on mediating an improvement in Sino-Japanese relations, and was able to give a really informed view about them, as well as about Taiwan (it was one of his ambassadorial postings), U.S.-China relations (his specialty in the think-tank) and so forth. He was a fascinating guy, a real moderate, which I must emphasize because for some reason "conservative" and "think-tank" are so often associated that the latter almost seems to imply the former. But not in this case. Or if so, then I'm drifting right without noticing it. China, in fact, is a complicated political issue. It makes strange bedfellows, such as a different--quite anti-China--think-tank he mentioned which is comprised of former cold-war hawks on the right and labor activists on the left. His general view of U.S. policy toward China was that it has been basically unchanging for six successive administrations. Various presidents have tried to change it with disastrous results. It's stayed the same because there's no way to change it, at least no way that brings improvement.

The fellow talked for a while, but mostly answered questions. He struck me as very candid and very well-informed. I think we got to have him talking with us in order that we can have the best possible information on what's going on politically insofar as it relates to us, a real cut above the news media, if you see what I mean. Well, we're the State Dept.'s investment, after all, and we're a better investment if we're better informed! So it was again a feeling (for me) of getting a crash course in current events. This one was a really good crash course. Uncharacteristically, I was quite riveted--probably because it lacked the eye-glazing repetition, sensationalism, and obvious propagandizing of news media.

One thing he said, which brought together a bunch of other things I had been hearing, was that the only way to achieve human rights objectives with China is by focusing on issues that the government is either tolerant of or outright in support of. One that's hot right now is the idea of "rule of law." (Not a new one for China of course, if one looks at the whole of history!) American expertise in how to achieve this is actually reasonably welcome, though he emphasized that China has a long way to go (despite their de jure liberal constitution). Envision a supreme court ruling going against something the party wanted--that's how far. Still, in many things progress could be made and in fact is being made.

I could go on and on about all this, but it's getting late. There's nothing much notable about the rest of the day. Warm goodbyes to new acquaintances (friends? contacts?). I made my way back through the three separate trains. I was totally worn out by the time I got to the Junction, and, realizing I would face a half hour wait for the shuttle to Princeton and another half hour walk home (with suitcase in tow), decided on a 10 minute taxi ride instead. Exhorbitantly expensive (I really hate taking taxis in small towns, or at all actually)--why, it was like $2 a minute!!!--but it was pretty great to collapse into my own little house at 10:30 PM rather than 11:30 PM.

Today I have been exceedingly unproductive. The weather has been awful (rainy, hot, muggy), and I miss Colin a lot. He won't be back for another two days. I have to go to a baby-shower in the City tomorrow. I don't feel like virtuously working on my China trip or on my dissertation or on packing, all of which I really should be doing. Instead, I shopped around for a lighter, more reliable laptop. Bought a bigger suitcase and some Princeton junk for little presents to Chinese contacts (as recommended). (That crap is expensive.) Contemplated time differences. Ate weird food as part of the clean out the fridge effort. Got a headache. Eventually, I did some interesting bits of dissertation research, but haven't quite had the energy to write them up. Sigh. A downish day after all that excitement. Well, perhaps tomorrow will be better.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Orient Orientation

FB fellows are people who know how to get places on time. After all the other hoops you have to jump through, getting there on time seems a relatively small one. So breakfast was at eight outside on the patio, and at nine every chair was full. In an almost creepy display of planning, they managed to have exactly the right number of chairs, presumably so they could tell at a glance whether everyone was present. Then there were some opening speeches. It takes a particular talent to make this kind of speech interesting, and I'm not sure these guys from the State Department really had it. The basic message was, it's all about mutual understanding. The government's interest in this program is to promote world peace through cultural connection on the individual level. Actually, of all the government's goals (some more, some less laudable) this is one that it's not too hard to get behind. It's actually pretty uncomplicatedly good, even if the implementation is at times imperfect.

Interesting trivia: The FB program was originally funded by the sale of surplus weapons post-WWII. Everyone seemed to think this was a wonderful and powerful symbol, but I couldn't help thinking about where those weapons might have got sold to. Some place we were wickedly trying to destabilize? Because I bet it wasn't exactly a swords into plough-shares sort of deal. Few things, I think, sell better than weapons, and I bet maximizing profits entails NOT turning them into plough-shares first. But oh well, one can't be too pure I suppose.

Interesting trivia point the second: the first FB fellowships were to China. Yep, in 1947 or so. Not really the best time to be muddling about in China, actually, and as it turns out some poor fellows didn't make it back until the mid-50s because they got put in jail. But this was all mentioned very jokingly. They keep better tabs on us these days.

Finally, McCarthy condemned the eponymous Sen. William FB (it was his bill that got the FB program going) as being half-bright, which makes everyone feel amused and pleased to be associated with FB's name these days. Since I tend to relate to the contemporary events through analogy to traditional China, it reminds me of Song dynasty factional politics, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, etc.

This was most of the morning, together with brief self-introductions during which--since I knew I wouldn't be able to take in much anyway--I did a slightly less rough demographic survey (still not perfect, slightly fudged, but probably good to within +/-5.

Female: 37
Male: 12

PhD student: 16
Recent grad: 35

Asian heritage: 23
Eurasian (est.): 6
African heritage: 2
White(ish): 23

The total should be 54, but I obviously failed to tally all the data in some places. In any case, it was surprising and interesting.

Then another speech by a government guy. I should interject that this orientation conference was incidentally like a crash course for me in all the China-related current events stuff that I was assumed to be already quite familiar with. One example here, so-and-so's important speech about how China needs to transition into being a "responsible state-holder"--a term which apparently caused consternation in China for some time because it has no good Chinese translation. Well, no surprise there. I couldn't even say what it means in English! It's obviously some weird political jargon, and if anyone reading this can define it please let me know.

The only other thing really worth mentioning about this guy's floor-time was a very arch question he received from the floor: "If you were your counterpart in China, what would you be telling our counterparts in China?" The question didn't exactly stymie him, so much as cause him to give a more candid answer than maybe he meant to? He said, he would probably say (among other things) that he considered China to already be a responsible state-holder and that the U.S. should look to itself! Good exercise in putting yourself in the other guy's shoes, huh?

Next came a panel of FB alums talking about the topic of the day: daily life in China. I won't bore you with all of even the set of things I considered potentially useful enough to write down. There were many! But here are a few from my notes: Bring small things that you love, like your favorite soap. Glasses are cheap and easy to get. Bring your own mosquito repellant because Chinese brands may well have scary chemicals. Bring your own chest X-rays. Bring a winter coat because although they are obtainable, they're also very expensive. If biking, bring your own lock and helmet. (Bikes are cheap, theft rampant, and cycling generally terrifying.) Buying a cell-phone in China is absolutely de rigueur, and do not skimp on the price. Be careful who you give your number to, however (past incidents have included stalking and marriage proposals!). Be philosophical about things that go wrong. A good apartment finding service is called "Wo ai wo jia" (I love my home). Bargaining for rent is expected (AARGH!). Gyms are common and all the alums had joined one. It's good to have a daily routine. Don't expect to get very much done in a day, because things take a lot more time in China. Expect to burn 3 or 4 weeks just getting set up (!). Do volunteer stuff. But absolutely under no circumstances (1) accept any compensation for anything--it's against the FB rules--or (2) let yourself be pressured into becoming someone's English tutor or teaching classes. FB is buying your time and doesn't want it spent in other ways. Trustworthy family members are preferable for the money-handling than direct dealings with a bank. Let embassy people know about all travel and address changes. Name-cards are also de rigueur, and cheaper to get in China. Have two types is recommended (one with the cell-number, one with just e-mail). Chinese professors with students by getting roaring drunk on baijiu; if you can't drink, don't even start. (This caused me to contemplate whether I should start working on my tolerance…?) X-visas, F-visas, archives, give back to the community, letters of introduction. Last, a sobering thought: China has one of the worst pedestrian fatality rates in the world. Go with the pack in crossing the street, as there's safety in numbers. Additionally, don't just look left and right before crossing--look 360 degrees. :P

Well, that was about the content-level of day one. I should add that this was all carried out in an atmosphere of "business formal" dress-code. Being unused to it, I found it extra-excruciating and exhausting. However, the comfort-factor of all this information was well worth the discomfort-factor of wearing a suit. I resolved, however, that my next suit purchase will be a pants-suit. Suit-skirts are an oppression.

Speaking of oppression, we watched a fairly sickening installment of something called Wide Angle, focusing on the gap between rich and poor in China. Now any television program that takes the gap between rich and poor as a theme is already likely to be disturbing. But this was really awful. Apparently the way to become rich and famous in China is real estate development. The couple featured is really at the top of the heap. In every luxurious high rise they build, the wife said (completely unabashed), she keeps one apartment out for themselves as a collectible item. Meanwhile, the migrant labor used for construction of such buildings sleep on cardboard palettes in the units they work on, put in ten hours a day, and when paid at all get wages that translated into dollars sound meager by Great Depression standards. Greatly depressing all right.

Directly after this already full day, the schedule called for us to next go have dinner at the Official Residence of a Chinese Minister of Culture embassy-type. The weather was dripping hot. We got loaded onto little buses and taken into the wilds of D.C. embassy-land. No one sat with me in the bus. Then, waiting and chatting as we all slowly filed in, I offended a pol.sci. grad student by accidentally mentioning that I found reading the Chinese newspaper too boring to be able to keep up any proficiency in it…she gave me this icy look like, what kind of alien from outer space are you? There is a general trend among these kids--most of them very thoroughly hooked into the modern world--to consider what I do a weird eccentricity. But I should try to avoid making it worse with such ill-considered comments, argh!

Anyway, the house was old-fashioned mansion-sized, mostly organized vertically. There was no AC. The culture guy gave a speech Chinese to the effect that the warmth outside was to reflect the warmth inside, and then a speech in English involving a parable about two neighbors. Upon reflection, this parable had a nasty undertone, but (in good Chinese politician form) very hard to pin down the terms of the metaphor. Family A wants to entertain family B and decides to clean the carpet, but has no vacuum cleaner. Family B has a vacuum cleaner and family A asks to borrow it. But family B says it can only be used in family B's house, so suggests that family A bring over their carpet, which they do. Sometime later, family B wants to entertain family A and decides to mow the grass, but has no lawnmower. Family A has a lawnmower and family B asks to borrow it. But family A in turn says it can only be used to family A's house, so suggests that family B bring over their grass. [This was told with much greater laboriousness by the fellow, I will add, while sweat was soaking through all our suit-jackets.] That was the parable, to which he added the remark that China and the US are like neighbors. Any thoughts anyone? Our State Dept. guy quipped that next time he'd bring his lawnmower if the other guy brought his vacuum. I guess it must have been a criticism of the US (a.k.a. family A) asking for impossible terms--but at least in my reading of the story, family B started it by setting the terms to begin with, which A only reciprocated albeit in stronger form. So is China actually supposed to be family A responding with impossible terms only because the US (as family B) made such absurd terms to begin with? But it's hard to see anything as really impossible for the US….

Enough to give one a headache, obviously--a not wholly successful communication. Next, a buffet of tasty and unusual Chinese foods, eaten standing, still no AC. But casting around for something to do, I noticed a couple Chinese fellows (staff of some sort) chatting with one of my fellow Fbers in a corner. I went over first with the idea of rescuing him, but then decided to have a piece of the action because one guy in particular he was talking to was very cool to talk to. Some people just put you at ease when you speak Chinese to them, and this was one. So I talked to him for a long time, not a really deep conversation, but an enjoyable one.

One comforting thing that I tend to forget in all-Western groups (but remembered at this point) is that Chinese people never need to be convinced about the value of studying antiquity.  You never feel like they are looking down their nose at you and considering you an impractical person.  Instead it makes them feel good that you are learning about what they consider the best parts of their civilization.  A small minority remember classical Chinese as a horrible high school experience, but most appreciate the best stuff, and Shiji usually makes the cut. So generally it's great social smoothing. I imagine they are downright pleased that you don't want to talk about uncomfortable topics like gender inequality, migrant labor issues, or Taiwan-China relations.

That being said, a lot of the projects people are doing ARE really cool.  Some make me almost wish I were in another life.  Like, there is this former Fulbright girl who was studying rural education. She got hooked up with a lot of NGO's (I know what that means now...), went out to the countryside and has a lot of energy for developing limited and practical solutions. Things are just so can-do there, it seems. Even little efforts to help are magnified by the great efforts the people themselves make to put them to good effect. Anyway, she just radiated this sense of being on a good path.  It reminds me that there are two ways of trying to change the world: you can wear yourself out fighting the bad stuff, or you can go seek out and act in service of the good stuff.  The latter really makes people very cool to talk to, as well as probably ultimately more successful. As for me, I suppose I'm not doing either one, myself, but it even feels good just to meet and appreciate the people who are.

Actually, in the atmosphere of idealism and "giving back to the community" sometimes it's hard to feel that anything other than changing the world is important. But--it's interesting--the government types were all careful to acknowledge the importance of seemingly irrelevant PhD projects. They have a vague dogma about "the importance of the intellectual cadres" who do stuff with paper. They don't even really know what the importance is, but they have a minor commitment to it. Fortunately, we intellectual cadres can live fine on the crumbs!! Just don't ask us to go dig toilets in the countryside!

Ugh, I am such a bourgeois reactionary.

On the ride home, everyone was very weary. A girl I had known from Middlebury sat next to me, and we had a brief conversation about how we are diametrically opposite in every way. She is far S.CA., very tall and skinny, fashionable in a bold racy way, very uninterested in the past, very interested in the present, loves to bargain for things (she offered to help with my rent!), does some business-y, economics-y thing. We didn't have much use for each other at Middlebury. I love the classical tradition and she hates it--it was clear on the first day. But, both two years older now, we have equably accepted our differences; finding ourselves in the same network, we may just be able to do each other good turns. You never know. She also told me about a bad bike-accident she had, in which she ran into a bus. (At least it wasn't the other way around!)

After all this, I confess to an utterly unproductive night. (We got home around 9.) Though I was invited out drinking again, I couldn't think of anything getting out of the damned suit, flopping down on the huge clean white bed, and watching some HBO. Saw the last part of Star Wars III, and then had a good long sleep.

Originally I meant to get fully caught up with this record, but clearly I am too long-winded and will have to finish with the orientation tomorrow!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

An Informal Dinner

Just one day older than I was yesterday, but somehow I feel so very different.

Like the stereotype of the head-in-the-clouds academic, I turned out to be quite mistaken about both the order of events and the dress-code. The informal dinner was last night, the embassy dinner tonight. The dress-code in general--even for daytime--is supposed to be "business casual," which I wish I had known when I packed since "business casual" (whatever that means) excludes jeans.

Fortunately, I did show up in jeans to the dinner last night. First, since we were all meeting in the lobby of the hotel, there was some very energetic networking. Viewed from the elevator doors the distance was enormous. By which I mean, I was gazing at a room full of clean-cut, well-dressed young people talking at high volume, mingling and networking and shaking hands with terrifyingly energetic determination. How many of these have I gone to, these mixers where they forge connections and you somehow just don't? (A fleeting recollection of eating alone in the freshman dining hall during college.) I haven't, since then, gotten much better at forging connections, but at least I've hardened my sense of independence. Charisma, the ability to generate admiration in those around you, makes life a lot easier of course. But if you haven't got it (or rarely), you can still get by. The first thing to learn is to overcome hard feelings about it. Or no, the first thing is find the fine line between caring too much and caring too little.

The mixer glob of future FB fellows was hovering over the only chairs in the lobby, so I had to be absorbed by the glob just to sit down. (No one else was sitting down.) But I sat down, just to adjust and come back from the far shores of alienation and caring too little. Actually, why not sit and say nothing? I made a rough demographic estimate. I listened for the distinctive voices. But then I saw a guy with a clipboard checking people in. Bureacracy includes everyone, and that is one of its underappreciated good points. So I got myself checked in by JA, our mother hen, and as with all people who have such jobs, he diligently set me rolling into conversations which I will not record in detail.

The worst thing about these mixers is that there is nothing for it but to ask the same obvious questions that everyone is asking and answering twenty times over. Where are you from? where are you going? what is your project? Are you a recent graduate? There is really little more to ask than that, and the answers are all interesting. But you can't help sounding like a parody of yourself. A glass-blower from RISDE going to Guangdong. A grad student with a law degree studying the Chinese legal system in Beijing. A recent grad from I've now forgotten where studying infant mortality (depressing!!). Sustainable agriculture.

We walked to Dupont Circle and had dinner and crowded into a restaurant there. Fifty-four, the biggest China group ever, thanks to Senator Liebermann's recent bill (it seems) upping the level of funding for cultural exchange with China (a good thing, too). Bamboo slips from the Guodian tomb. Foreign relations on the interpersonal level. China's energy resources as photographic subject. I ordered prime rib. Somehow by then I was actually in a talking mood and had already said how I was a vegetarian at home. So everyone thought it was quite funny when what arrived for me was a big bloody chunk of beef. I explained my carnivore convictions, and mentioned having once executed a chicken. Small talk and smaller talk.

After dinner, to my surprise, I found myself swept up in a group of people who were in search of alcohol and merriment. Flattered to be included, but within certain limits. In a way I felt oldish. No one had much idea where to go, and most of them had probably been of legal drinking age for less than a year. Someone mentioned Brickskeller, a bar of many beers (apparently thousands, any one you can imagine or have ever heard of, a menu like a book as it turned out). But no one knew how to get there. The law guy, a tallish Asian guy with an improbably huge bass voice and an utterly unserious extrovert personality to match, took charge of asking directions. By the way, may I express my disgust with the street layout of DC. They have a promising grid system... but alas, nothing runs straight. Grids are meant to intersect at right angles! But we got there eventually, and it was rather glorious.

Film academy hopeful. Migrant education. More sustainable agriculture (but China can use all it can get!). Women's employment. I learned a new drinking game, something like rock paper scissors, but involving forming the characters 中 and 大 with your arms and body, followed by stylized representations of "male", "female", or "transvestite", one of which the other person has to guess at the very moment you are forming it. Somehow the funny gender stuff is what makes the game hilarious. I was awful at it, but formed a very good theory about the psychological tricks that were employed to defeat the guesser. "You're really into this analysis stuff, huh." "Well, those who can't do analyze--the story of my life." General hilarity, though anyone who was drunk had to have been an incredible lightweight--we only had a beer each, or two at most. I actually didn't have a beer at all, but a Belgian Framboise lambic, which was incredible. Essence of fresh raspberries.

I started a slow movement out at 11:15. After all, it was a 30+ minute walk back to the hotel, and our activities would begin at 8 the next morning. I felt exhausted (after that early trip to the station, then all those conveyances, and all the talking), but good. Like the distance was less, despite the extreme youth of everyone but me, despite how different my project was, despite the damned dress code. I spread out in the king-size bed. I felt located rather than the reverse, a little out of place, but not so out of place as I might have feared.

The next day--today, that is--was even more full of fascinating information, so much I took pages of notes as I knew it would run out of my head like water. But I will have to finish this story tomorrow...

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

But First: Washington Oxford

It's all about geography. Today seemed like the end of the old order and the beginning of something momentously different. As luck and the will of diverse schedulers would have it, Colin and I both left Princeton on the same day, today, June 21, also the longest day of the year. I drove C. to the Junction for a 5 AM train to Newark, thence to England where he is presenting at a conference and visiting friends. Then I caught hour or so more of restless sleep. It was shaping up to be another soaking hot day (for to say "burning hot" implies something dry...) by the time I finished off an impressive number of errands and began the first leg of my multiply-articulated journey. But the real first leg was that 4:40 AM, 10-minute drive home from the Junction. If home is where the heart is, and if you are said to be on a journey when away from home...well, I have been journeying since then.

Two buses, three trains, and a quarter-mile walk later, I am here in the DoubleTree, Washington DC. My trip to Beijing begins here, the China-Fulbright orientation. At first I was nervous about it, but Colin and I distracted ourselves in a very jolly way over dinner last night, speculating on what the other Fulbrighters will be like. I omit further description here, for reasons of tact, but suffice it to say that I am going to be observing more carefully than otherwise I might, just because of Colin's imitations and our laughs.

How many of them will there be? (A little digging around suggests about 40.) Will there be anyone like me? (A graduate student who spends most of their time digging around in classical Chinese books?) All these questions may soon be answered. There will first be an informal dinner and then a formal occasion of some sort at the Chinese embassy. I am deeply consternated about clothing, and what to say, and all the rest, but will just have to do my best.

Meanwhile, I get to enjoy this posh hotel room (king size bed, very empty when one is used to sharing a full size futon), mountains of pillows and towels, a marble desk and a brocade armchair, wireless (for $10/day) and of course the signature DoubleTree cookie. I remember the cookie from Colin's and my "honeymoon" in Niagara Falls. Before anyone gets nervous, I just mean an off-season trip we took there when we were newly going out--actually to celebrate my passing generals--when we stayed in a magnificent top-floor DoubleTree room on the Canadian side, with a view of the giant ice-clouds coming up off the Falls. I'm on the top floor here too, but the most ready object of view from my window is the National Paint and Coatings Association building and a large white blooming magnolia tree. Oh well, at least I'm looking down on them and not straight across. So really my only complaint is the absence of Colin, and the fact that I have to wear a suit soon.

In fact, quite soon so I shall stop blathering on. I should add, however, that slightly over-the-hill strawberries, sliced and topped with a sprinkle of sugar and a dollop of creme fraiche, is a highly recommended breakfast. Sometimes that pre-moving fridge-cleanout isn't really so bad!