Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Good Beginning, Word Ocean, Prep!

I went to some classes on Thursday, but otherwise it was a quiet day. My first class was the History of Song and Yuan dynasty literature class over in the philosophy building. The professor was having some trouble with his microphone. It was obvious to me that the trouble was the volume was too loud, so there kept being a lot of feedback. Every time he turned to write on the board, a terrifying vibration would start, gradually getting louder until it seemed to shake the room. I'm not sure if the volume was adjustable or not, and didn't want to draw attention to myself by going up to check. The feedback problem got worse when he renounced the microphone by unclipping it and setting it on the lectern also. Sigh, nightmare. He doggedly talked through it, though. A very good professor.

His subject was supposed to be Ouyang Xiu's early years, including his posting in Henan. However, he quite inspired himself, and began talking about the deep importance of making a good beginning to things. Then somehow he began talking about a dissertation he had been asked to evaluate which used no sources other than the Siku quanshu (Four Treasuries Complete Books), a notoriously flawed and censored Qing dynasty imperial compedium. He waxed very eloquent on the reasons for its many mistakes--compilers (at least according to him) would deliberately introduce mistakes into the texts presented to the emperor for review. Then when the emperor would catch them he could feel clever. But if the emperor failed to catch them, what then? The text had been personally approved by the emperor, so it COULDN'T be corrected after that. That would be like saying the emperor was wrong. Thus the mistakes would stand, and stand still to this day in that edition. (Got the picture from here.) That's why no one uses it as a base text, or rather no one should. This dissertation did, and our professor proclaimed that he simply couldn't let it pass because it was a disgrace to the school.

I'm not sure that we ever did hear much about Ouyang Xiu's time in Henan with Mei Yaochen et al., but the whole thing was quite interesting, despite the microphone troubles.

Next, I trotted back over to Third Classroom Building for historiography again. It was the day on Shiji and Zuo Zhuan (weirdly in that anti-chronological order). You might expect that this would be a useful day for me, but I didn't learn much I didn't already know. I'm mostly in it to learn about later practices of history-writing and evaluation that I know less about. On the up-side, I understood it better than usual, because most things he said were already pretty familiar. During the break, my friend Crystal mentioned that she had a jiapu or genealogy which is book-length. I was impressed by this. She also mentioned--I'm not sure why, possibly related to some point in the lecture that I didn't understand?--the practice of executing the three sets of relatives as a harsh punishment. I attempted to hold forth on why I thought this was a flawed practice, but was perhaps less than effective in my rhetoric, because she opined that the "death by a thousand cuts" was much more cruel. Actually, macabre though it be, it's somewhat an interesting question. Is one's own unbelievable pain from bodily torture more weighty than knowing that you will be responsible for the execution--perhaps quick and nearly painless--of your parents, children, and siblings? The cruelest, of course, would be both, but if you had to choose? I'm not sure how we got to talking about this, but it was certainly lively.

After that class I went straight home because my cell-phone battery had died I hadn't realized it until after leaving. So many little details I never had to worry about before--recharging cell phone batteries, hm. I actually was supposed to go to a class, but it had been not very useful the last time I'd gone to it, so I didn't feel too bad about skipping it.

I did little things at home, none of them too important, and then dashed off (late as usual) for school to go catch the Classical Chinese class for foreigners, which I'd missed before. I did find it, though I was a little confused about which room it was supposed to be in, and was of course a bit late. I wasn't sure why the professor paused and glared at me so fiercely when I slipped in the back door and quietly slid into a vacant seat. A few minutes later, when a whole crowd of others came in, and he said "Okay, I'll have to say it again: on Monday do NOT come late. It has a bad effect on your classmates' learning." Actually he ended up saying it about two or three more times. I think it really just had a bad effect on his pride. As for being distracting to learning, his fussing had a worse effect. But if I go on Monday, I will be sure to go early.

Despite all this trouble over tardiness, class was fairly interesting. The text for the day was Fan Zhongyan's "Record of Yueyang Tower," a sort of Song dynasty prose poem. Although I had not prepared the text, I followed his discussion reasonably well and the textbook also had very good annotations. It's the sort of thing that's pretty to read in the original but almost impossible to translate well, because parallelism comes out elegant in Chinese and monotonous in English, and the vocabulary in Chinese has a more picturesque quality than could be easily introduced into English. Maybe later on by way of review I'll give it a try, just for fun.

That was the end of my school day. My last task was to call up YHz's student SXb, because he'd suggested we meet. I thought maybe he meant meet that day, but when I (trepidatiously) called him, we decided on the next (Friday) afternoon. I still hate calling people, even though it's a firm necessity in my life here. Arranging things by e-mail is just so much more comfortable! But there's no help for it, I have to do it.

However, now that I had no more responsibilities for the day, I felt very freed. I went to the hitherto unexplored second floor of the Farm Garden cafeteria, and tried out some of their other dishes. I think the students' opinion of Farm Garden is that it's overpriced for what you get? But for me the difference between fifty cents and a dollar doesn't trouble me that much, and it looks cleaner than many of the other cafeterias, though that could be just a misconception on my part.

After this, I headed home, going back out only long enough to make the daily book purchase, a copy of the bestselling Chinese dictionary, Word Ocean (Cihai). I hadn't owned one before, believe it or not. I went for the one-volume version, even though the print is quite small. The thing is, in my experience with the other big Chinese dictionary, Word Source (Ciyuan), I realized that having two volumes is a major pain in the neck and tends to prevent me from actually using the dictionary. So squinting at one-volume is better than never using two.

I confess that I squandered most of the evening previewing a book from Repressed Librarian's reading list (Repressed Librarian has a really cool blog, which I found by accident--check it out), called Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Of course it's far too new to appear on any of the online book sites that I frequent, but I read it on Amazon by clicking "Look Inside" and then clicking "Surprise Me" a lot of times. I think I must have read about 50 pages in this manner, though in totally random order. The book stood up admirably well to this sort of reading abuse, however, and I found it very easy to identify with its protagonist, a girl from Indiana who suddenly finds herself in a high-class east-coast prep school. I would say that I went through the same torments as she did when I first got to Harvard, but I wasn't nearly so self-conscious then. Most of her torments came from being acutely aware of class issues that I couldn't even begin to fathom at that time. Probably it's easy to identify with her because her response to the world is like mine NOW (though thank goodness I at least don't have to live in a dorm). Take this for example:

Ain't that just exactly how it is?

Well, that's about it for Thursday. Not a bad day all in all, if only I didn't have to cough so much.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Class, Cats, and Mooncakes

I was still not feeling well yesterday morning, and had a hard time getting out of bed. By the time I had done morning things and was ready to head out, I was pretty nearly late to class even without the commute. Probably the fastest thing would have been to race to school on my bike, but I just didn't feel up to that kind of effort. So I did the second most extravagant thing, which was hope in a taxi. There were a line of empty ones waiting at a red light, and I saw the woman in front of me hop into one, so I hopped into the next one. I don't think the taxi driver was very pleased, especially when I told him that I just wanted to go to the East Gate of the University. He should have been pleased, because there's a 10 RMB minimum, which probably would last twice that far. But I think the idea of a student taking a taxi to class didn't sit well with him, or maybe he just didn't like the trouble of a short fare. Well, he took me there anyway.

Myth and Legend class was kind of a soupy blur, especially because I was about 10 minutes late. But also because the professor is just plain hard to understand, and the texts are hard too. From what I could gather, he was discussing comparisons between the Classic of Documents and the Shiji and the Mencius. I considered asking him whether there isn't any book that has done this already, but decided it would be impolite. Instead, I just took note of the passages and resolved to check on it later. Sometime in that great "later" that will happen eventually. Most of the stories were about the blind father of the sage-king Shun and his homicidal brother, and how the whole family hated and resented Shun because he had been chosen to succeed the sage-king Yao--a triumph of meritocracy over inheritance. And also various moral issues related to that, as well as some of Shun's deeds. Certainly the story of the king's blind father has a certain mythic resonance to it, doesn't it? And although I shouldn't mention it, in discussing "The Sandman" doesn't Freud say that blindness equates to castration? And wouldn't being the subject of your ruler-son be rather...? Well, we won't go there, but anyway.

While my attention was wandering from the murky discussion up at the front, I noticed this cute little graffito in the inside of my desk. I present it with the caveat that of course I agree (since there's only one shuai ge--cute guy--for me) but that it's not an objective fact about the institution. And I'm not making any sad faces--it's fine with me. But SOMEONE was disappointed. Maybe she should have been hanging out in the philosophy building rather than in ghetto old Third Classroom.

After class, I had a really light lunch of egg-drop soup and steamed bread. It was fairly satisfying to me, but clearly comprised of two side dishes as far as cafeteria pricing is concerned--it cost an almost shamefully cheap 0.9 RMB. I decided to double the price by finishing it off with this intriguing looking offering from the dessert counter. Could it be... fungus and wolfberry soup? I had my suspicions when I tasted it, and these were later confirmed during a quick stop in the grocery store for honey. Yep, they sell something called "white fungus" and it looks just like this. But aren't the red wolfberries (they have no taste but are supposed to be medicinal) rather picturesque? And isn't the delicately sweetened liquid so…delicate? The whole thing, I confess, was really odd--but not bad.

Then I went home and tried to sleep but I coughed too much whenever I lay down. Nothing like a chest-cold to make you feel like you are dying. If I were in the US, I would drink hot honey lemonade, but I haven't seen any lemons for sale here. I drank honey ginger orangeade, but it wasn't quite the same. Nonetheless, I managed to drag myself out to go to class at 5. It was a class I hadn't been to before, "History of Ancient Chinese Literature 1." All about the Classic of Odes. The professor did not look like my picture of a Chinese intellectual (which the "History of Ancient Chinese Literature 3" professor REALLY REALLY does), which is to say he was not old and bent with a sculpted bony face and heavy plastic rimmed classes behind which lurk sarcastic knowing eyes. Instead, he was short and heavy-set and energetic, looked and talked like a Chinese businessman. He untiringly promoted the memorization of the poems we were looking at, and many of the poems he discussed were clearly already memorized because he didn't bother to mention the numbers and when he recited them about half the class chimed in.

It was only a little bit deeper than our standard treatment at UO, where I had my first history of Chinese literature class. He had an amusing way of making the traditional interpretation seem shockingly absurd, and then explaining the textual support for it. But there was a strong sense of "the way we read it now" being just as important as the traditional reading. I had a hard time following it, since I didn't have the text or anything. But I knew some of the odes well enough that I could recognize them when he started to talk about them.

After class, I walked through the strange little residential enclave that sits in the middle of campus like a paramecium engulfed by an amoeba but stubbornly indigestible. It is called Yan Nan Yuan, and has, according to our tour guide, been there longer than the university. So the university, I guess, just grew up around them. I wonder how they feel, living right in the middle of a campus?! Students trek through their lanes all the time. There is also an amazing population of feral cats. I suppose the feral cats must control any potential rodent problems, and that's why they're kept around. I happened to pass by while they were feeding, though, and it was fairly disturbing.

I knew just what I wanted for my own dinner, readily if expensively available and the "QuickCafe" (Kuai Can). A whole 5.5 RMB expensive, I mean. It's…Meat Pellet Soup! I suppose I should call it Meatball soup, but I can't help thinking of that word in Chinese as meaning pill or pellet, so to me it's "Fragrant Clay Pot Meat Pellet Soup with Rice." It may not be chicken soup--it's probably even something gross like pork soup--but it surely has more or less the same effect. It was certainly comforting and tasty.

And since I'm on a roll with the food photography, here's some more about mooncakes. They were being sold a la cart outside the Farm Garden (Nong Yuan) cafeteria today. They are being sold everywhere. And for mama, who didn't know or forgot what they were, here's also a picture of some I bought just for her--though of course it's I who have to eat them. They're typically heavy and dry and sweet. I think the ones here, selected at random, turned out to be "fruit", coconut, and…hm…two "brown". Perhaps I should read more carefully next time, because "brown" was nothing to write home about (even though I am). "Fruit" was pretty good though, as is pineapple.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Chest Cold, Basking, Literature and Reality

For several days my lungs have been feeling uncomfortable. At first I thought it was because of the lack of rain and increasingly bad air that results from that. But then it rained, and my chest was still feeling bad--if anything worse. Finally yesterday I had to admit that I had a nasty chest-cold, complete with sore throat and disgusting wet cough. Still, I made an effort to go to class yesterday morning. But I wasn't too crushed when the class wasn't there.

I had my bike, so I went slowly out the east gate and then south toward the Hypermart. I thought I might pick up a few things, including some vinegar to clean the turtle tank and maybe some treats for them and me. Traffic around the Hypermart was insane. And remember, I'm on a bicycle, and there's a dedicated bike lane. Still, I got stuck in traffic for some time, and was getting pretty thirsty. A melon-slice seller behind me started up his pitch "yi kuai yi kuai YI KUAI" (1 RMB) in such a lusty loud voice that I turned around. Sometimes you can tell by looking at it that it's about the best melon you'll ever taste. So I had a slice. "How is it?" he asked proudly, already knowing the answer. "It's really good!" I said, "better than the others'." It was. It was perfectly sweet all through, and crisp with cool freshness, very soothing to my poor aching throat. Of course, it was a trick to enjoy this treat while maneuvering my bicycle through traffic, so after I crossed the street I paused to finish eating it. A policeman materialized next to me. "You know you shouldn't eat those," he said. "They come from--" I think he said Xinjiang? I think he said they're somehow dirty? It wasn't clear just what the objection was, but it was clear that I wasn't supposed to be eating them. I protested, "But this one is especially good." He just shook his head and walked off. If policemen really don't want you to eat them, they shouldn't let people sell them on every street corner. But maybe he was just trying to be friendly. Anyway, I will never find another melon as good as that one, so I might as well give them up.

I puzzled over greens in the Hypermart for quite some time. According to websites like this one, turtles are supposed to be offered some greens, and they give lists of good and bad ones. But that list doesn't mention whether such greens as dragon-this or unidentifiable-grass-radical that are okay or not. I eventually settled on kongxin cai (empty-stem vegetable) because it seemed the most harmless. I didn't succeed in finding any fishy things that looked healthful for turtles. The website says that prey should be live or freshly killed, but these guys are too small to take anything but the smallest live prey, and I'm not up to chopping things up just yet. Maybe later little turtles. For now, how about turtle pellets? When I got home, I managed to catch them basking. Yes, they can climb the plate-ramp! I saw Queequeg up there balanced on the bottom of his shell with all his four limbs poking straight out. He looked incredibly comical, and even more so a second later when he saw me and scrambled hurriedly back into the water. When I leave them alone and close the curtain in front of them, they climb out again, which is how I got these pictures, though I apologize for the quality--they are really fast snaps!

By the time I had cleaned out their tank, I was pretty exhausted. So I lay in bed for several hours with my computer, reading The Scarlet Letter. I have been really grateful for online literature sites like this one, because buying books in English here seems expensive and pointless. But I still do crave books in English even though I ought to be concentrating on improving my Chinese. In this case, it was actually for the sake of the Tuesday literature class that I like so much, so it was somewhat justified. As for The Scarlet Letter, which I had never read before--it's quite a story, actually. Hawthorne is dislikable when he's too preachy or sentimental, but he knows how to do a plot. I will add, though, that as much as I like online books, the ads that appear beside them are sickening:

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The last one was especially persistent in appearing at the bottom of each chapter. So after each chapter, you get the message: "Don't Waste Your Time!" --i.e., don't waste your time reading this thing (as well as trying to write an essay on it). Just get one from us. Then you don't even have to read it.

You know you've got uncomfortably comfortable with a country that does not guarantee freedom of speech when you catch yourself thinking, "They should shut down websites like that!"

I hadn't quite finished the novel when I had to leave for my 2:40 class. I admit it was a real effort to drag myself out of bed and down to my bicycle. But I was kind of late, so I had to pedal fast, veering through traffic with an almost Chinese recklessness. Also, the class would have to be on the 5th floor (no elevator). I was at least 10 minutes late by the time I got there. It was to have been LL's class on the Dao de jing, and it wasn't there. At first I had some dark suspicions such as that he had moved the class without telling anyone but his favored students, in order to reduce enrollment. But then I saw a (rare!) note on the board saying that he had fallen ill and there would be no class today. I could empathize. I was feeling pretty ill myself.

I bought some more green oranges on campus, and then went coughingly back to my room and finished The Scarlet Letter, rolled around miserably, looked at stuff on the internet, and sneaked peeks at the basking turtles. I felt pretty wimpish, and almost decided not to go to the evening literature class. But by 6 PM I was also feeling pretty bored, just a bit too scatter-brained to do any work, and kind of lonely. So I thought I'd take myself out to dinner and then see how I felt.

The place I decided to try was a little restaurant quite nearby. It turned out to be a bit of a fancy place, with a big fat picture menu and a 1:1 staff/customer ratio. They always look at me funny when I come to eat alone. I looked through the menu while the waiter hovered attentively. I told him apologetically that I would need some time and he said that was fine but kept on hovering. I saw an awful thing on the menu, which was one of the exact same kind of turtle I had seen in the Walmart, except this one was "swimming" in red broth surrounded by vegetables. I turned the page fast. Why do I somehow feel less bad about ordering lamb--a mammal like me? I guess I just have a greater affinity with reptiles, or maybe it was the fact that the little soft-shell was served whole. Anyway, the lamb and greens I ordered to go with it were pretty good and nourishing, but really extremely spicy! And not just red-pepper (though there was plenty of that) but also numb-spice.

I took a long time to eat the big dinner, but by the time I was done, I felt quite refreshed. Maybe because my mouth was burning so much I didn't feel my lungs aching. So I walked down to the campus and went to the class (which is from 7:10-8:50). I'm really glad I did. The professor got quite inspired discussing some poems by Li Bai and Du Fu, and although I didn't know them well, and had barely passed my eyes over them, I felt inspired as well. All the same, I thought he was introducing an excessively simplistic theory about literature. It goes as follows:

What is the relationship of literature to reality?
It's not simple imitation. He offers examples of literature that contains fantastical elements. Then he offers more subtle examples of realist and naturalist works that pretend to strive for nothing more than faithful mimesis, but shows how they differ in artistically superior ways from the writers' actual experiences.
It's not just an expression of the writer's emotions. He makes some arguments about how no one exists in a vacuum, and life experiences will always affect their work.
Literature surpasses reality through the act of creation. A work of literature creates something that was not there before.

All well and good. But it is an awfully simplistic idea of reality, as if reality were some transparent pool we could all look into. Furthermore, once the act of creation has occurred, doesn't the product become part of reality? Or is reality just material reality, in which case the problem would be much bigger than the relation of literature and reality, but really more like the relationship of reality to mind, or to anything abstract. So my answer to his repeated question, "What is the relationship of literature to reality?" would, I suppose be something more like "Literature is one part of reality, maybe one that helps us understand and organize our perceptions of other parts of reality in non-obvious ways." Something like that? Of course even though I might be able to approximate that in Chinese, I don't get the sense that it would be appropriate for me to say in class. After all, it's just an undergraduate survey, aimed more at getting people to appreciate literature and have at least some concept of what it's about, than at profound theorizing. Anyway, the fellow's strength is in discussing the concrete, which is mostly just good practice for my listening comprehension, as he has a beautiful voice and way of speaking.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Classes and Yunnan Food

On Monday I went to three and a half classes. Yeah, I'm still shopping around a little bit. There's a "grass is always greener" component. Or looked at in a nicer way, I'm more interested in getting a broad sense of what's being taught and how than in closely following every session of a few specific classes.

I have been going pretty faithfully to the Historiography class, but that's as much to foster my connection with my classmate Crystal as anything else. Also because there's nothing else to do at that time. On this occasion, the topic was the Spring and Autumn Annals which is in some ways connected with my research, so I did my best to understand. Somehow this professor has an especially difficult voice, but I think I'm getting a little better at understanding him. After class, Crystal asked me, "Do you have class now?" But unfortunately I did. On my way there, I was thinking about it and thinking that I should be more friendly and social toward her. So I sent her a little text message asking if she wanted to have dinner with me?

Then I went to the second class. At first I didn't have much hope because the classroom seemed really unoccupied. But as I was standing there someone passed by and said "It's been moved to such-and-such place, didn't you know?" So I went to that place and sure enough, there was a class there. It was a foreign exchange student classical Chinese class, and I was just dropping in to see what it would be like. What it was like was: the professor wrote the name of essay on the board and said we should translate it into modern Chinese. This would depend on having the textbook, which I didn't, so after about 10 minutes I left. I'm sure other things were going to go on, but I suppose they would depend on having the textbook too. Actually, I like a class that makes you do stuff like that, and I think I'll try going back again next session, on Thursday, with the textbook.

To that end, I wandered down to the nearest bookstore. They had not only that textbook but also the textbook for another class I was going to later that day. Textbooks, though, relative to ordinary books, are quite pricey! So I didn't quite have the cash on me for all of them. A rare event. Then I did some running around related to changing departments. I myself don't much care if I am affiliated with the history or the Chinese department, but my Professor YHz's grad student seems to care, and maybe YHz cares as well. What's more important than anything is to give YHz a sense of responsibility for me, so if that means changing departments, that's what I'll do. It turns out to be a tremendous messy lot of paperwork. I have to write an application explaining my situation, have it signed by my history department advisor and the history department chair, then take it back to the foreign students' office, who will do some mysterious processing of it, and the other step would be to have the advisor in the Chinese department write a letter which then has to be approved by the head of the Chinese department. "You know it doesn't really matter which department you're in," the foreign students' office woman said, echoing my sentiments as well. Indeed, I would have dropped the whole thing, except for that the grad student SXb had said he would be happy to help me with any procedures that might be involved. So very bravely, I called him up and explained the situation. He said it was no problem--documents like this were very commonly drawn up and weren't much trouble. We agreed that I would write him e-mail regarding the circumstances and he would change it into such a document.

I also had a quick lunch. Then I decided, since I had some time still, that I'd run home and get my bike (I'd walked in because it was raining lightly in the morning) as well as some cash for the textbooks. I did that. It was a near thing, and only the fact that it is so much faster riding a bike through campus than walking allowed me to get there in time for YHz's class. This is a course for foreign students on "Chinese Research Tools," which you'd think would be pretty boring, but she's a good teacher and enlivens the lesson plan with stories and facts I hadn't known, and it comes out like an easier version of Professor BE's bibliography course back in the States, but with all different stories. I like it. And more crucially, it gives me an excuse to see YHz every week. This is especially good because, for example, she'd said she would call me and I could have dinner with her and her grad students over the weekend, but then I didn't hear from her at all. I didn't mention it and neither did she, but she had brought for me a relevant dissertation on Qing dynasty Shiji studies, which she said I could borrow for as long as I wanted to look at it. I mentioned to her that SXb had suggested I switch departments, and she said to have him help me and also to have him explain to her what she would need to do. I hope SXb doesn't mind having been appointed my academic baby-sitter.

After the Research Tools class, I had a free hour, so I ran over and bought the books and then sat and ate a mung bean popsicle. Crystal had texted back and said we were on for dinner. I relaxed some, and then went off to find the next class and make sure I would be on time. It was in a different and much less ghetto building. Still really really crowded, of course. But this one had microphones for the professors, which was very good for me, and no construction going right outside the window. There was even an air-conditioner, though it only turned on for a short time at the beginning. And the class was great. It was part three of their two-year history of Chinese literature sequence, which meant it was focused on the Song and Yuan dynasties, very relevant to the research I'm going to be working on. It was very detailed, much more so than our analogous one-year sequence, and also very interesting, enlivened with little stories and poems and anecdotes. I didn't understand everything, but definitely understood enough that it was useful. The above picture is my "tea flower," which I nursed all day, adding hot water periodically.

I met Crystal at the library at 7, which was the least confusing place I could think of. We biked out the Eastern gate and she showed me quite a number of restaurants between campus and Wudaokou. We decided on Yunan food. A feast! We had a whole fish fried very crispy and wonderful; a little pot of chicken soup and a big pot of another type of soup that they mixed at the table with vegetables and noodles and meat strips and little tiny eggs; also sugared oily crackers (I don't know what they're actually called) and small dishes of spicy cabbage and peanuts. We chattered on. It was really fun, although Crystal--being from Hong Kong--has quite an accent and I understood only about 60% of what she was saying. I also sneakily managed to pay the bill. We compared living conditions--she lives in a dorm room with three other people from her native place, and they have no AC, no electricity at night, live on the sixth floor without an elevator, and have to shower in a communal bathhouse between 4 and 9 PM. I have AC, a washing machines, an elevator, 24 hour hot water and electricity, pet turtles and a room of my own. But I pay probably ten times as much. She's never lonely, and I have my privacy. It's just a trade-off I guess.

By the time I got home I was very tired. But I also felt very proud of myself. A social event actually initiated by me. A sense of what it might be like to be friends with a classmate. That is a good accomplishment even if it doesn't go any farther than that.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Research, Activity Day

Sunday I spent most of the day in the library again, getting some good reading done. It's funny about non-circulating books: even though you think you're losing a lot of time by taking notes by hand and such, you make up for it with added diligence. If you can check the thing out, you're likely to bring it home, toss it on a shelf, and never look at it again. If you have to make a special trip to the library for it, you're sure as hell going to read it while you're there! The picture is part of a decoration in the library atrium. I'm not sure whether to call it a mural or a sculpture or an engraving. Anyway, it's striking if not exactly beautiful!

I took a break for lunch because the reading room did. I should add that it's funny how Sunday is a much more regular day here than in the States. I think even the post-office is still open, and the reading room is open from 9-12 and 1:30-5. I think in the States there would probably be no morning hours. Anyway, I had lunch at the "Art Garden" 艺园 cafeteria, which I thought might be fancy but was actually really ghetto. Food came in mushy cardboard containers that were clearly recycled and recyclable. If you didn't eat fast enough, the liquid from your food soaked right through. Also, at the clearing station, I saw a decrepit old man who was sorting the food actually open one of the containers than had meat leftover in it and eat some. That's good I guess, but it was also kind of gross. (No, I'm sorry, I didn't get a picture!)

In the afternoon, I went most reluctantly to a Communication Association activity day. I went late on purpose, and planned to duck out early, but it actually turned out to be somewhat entertaining. We played a sort of complicated game of tag, as well as having performances (singing and dancing) and another game a bit like a bi-directional game of telephone. This game was quite interesting and to me showed the pitfalls of transmission. It involved sending a query up the line and getting a response back down the line before passing the thing on and repeating. But things were going in both directions, so you had to send things both ways, and everyone was so concerned to keep the whole thing going by watching other people that they often forgot their specific parts and actually did more harm than good. Also, where the things crossed (see picture at right) things got extra-funny and confusing. Two different little girls who were hanging out in the green with their families requested to join the fun and were accepted. They were much better at the games than we were. Sorry I didn't get any good pictures of them. But more pictures of the impromptu "talent show" below.

When it was getting dark and starting to threaten rain, the activities broke up and I fell in with my little tutor Valerie and another girl who turned out to be a Japanese graduate student studying Tang and Song poetry. The Japanese girl didn't really speak English, so I actually got to hear my tutor speak Chinese. We three had dinner together at the Art Garden again, a funny coincidence. It was ghetto but jolly. The Japanese girl didn't speak much Chinese either, but we had a lot in common, and if we get confused I can always try Japanese. She gave me her card, so I will hopefully get to talk to her more in the future.

While at the library, I had written so much that I'd run my pen out of ink, and my fountain pen wasn't working even though it had ink in it. I suspect cheapo Chinese ink to be unsalutary for it. So I bought some expensive imported ink (Quink--more than $3!). Then I rinsed out the pen really thoroughly, which incidentally made some beautiful ink patterns in the water that I had to photograph. After being refilled with the Quink, I am pleased to report, the pen works much better.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Horse and Cart, Library

I hereby do promise that I'm not going anywhere without my camera, ever. For I saw the most amazing thing as I was biking to school on an ordinary day yesterday, and wouldn't you know it, I didn't have my camera with me. Readers of this blog may recall a previous post where I showed a picture of an amusing street sign--no horses and carts on the freeway? I repost it here just in case. Now what did I see, as I was crossing this intersection (which is quite a huge one: six lanes each way)--but a calm steady bay pony pulling a big heavy cart full of sweet potatoes. It was clopping along right through the middle of the traffic, and heading straight for the "no horse and cart on the freeway" ramp. The driver gazed upon the sign for a few moments, and without even bothering to shrug, headed on up the ramp, where I lost sight of them. People around me were looking me like I was crazy, I was laughing so much. I am never forgetting my camera, ever again. :P

A sunny Saturday morning and I spent it in the library reading room. Yes, I finally got it together to get into the library, figure out what I wanted to look at, figure out which of the many disparate rooms it was in, and manage to get hold of the item. And that made me feel like a winner, even if it was a sort of loserish way to start of a weekend. I spent nearly three hours looking at the book and making notes, the first sustained chunk of research time I've had in a while. Of course I didn't have my camera with me, but here is a picture of the atrium in the library from the second-floor balcony, which I took when I went back there today.

It involved no small amount of organizational skill. Among other things I brought with me was chrysanthemum tea, another Walmart purchase. One of the things that has been making me so dehydrated is the fact that I am so leery of the water. It has an odd taste and smell, even after boiling, and it's hard to make myself drink it. But I can't be drinking tea all day either, because in addition to just getting more dehydrated, it makes me bounce off the walls. But chrysanthemum flowers are non-caffeinated and have an interesting taste. In fact, there are many many choices of fruit and flower teas like this. I shall have to acquire a whole range for variety.

The reading room closed at noon, so I went out and had lunch in a cafeteria before grabbing a couple books and the bookstore and heading back to my apartment.

The turtles were basking when I got home. One was lying half on the edge of the plate/basking surface and one was comically balanced on top of a rounded shell. They both leaped into the water indignantly when I arrived. They don't like people to see them basking. They are semi-aquatic turtles, so they spend most of their time in the water but like to get out bask when practical. Silly things, they are so skittish. But then little turtles have a LOT of predators, so one can hardly blame them.

And that's really all there is to say, I have to confess. I ate in, and didn't do any of the scary things I was supposed to do--like, I don't know, call people and remind them I exist. I was just feeling tired and tired of being a stranger in a strange land. I ate natto for dinner, which other people might consider a punishment, but I like very much. (It is Japanese fermented soybean which gets gluey and stringy like melted mozzarella when you stir it.)

To make up for being so boring, here is a superb video I came across. This is totally worth watching if you have the bandwidth. I thought it fit nicely with the horse and cart theme.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Queequeg and Yojo, the Wrong Lock

I must apologize to my more demanding readers for the lack of exciting outdoor photos. Yeah, I still have my camera. It's just that what with the new bicycle and all the excitement, I've been having a hard time remembering to bring it, and remembering to take pictures when I do bring it. I have tried to make up for it with ex post facto indoor ones...

Yesterday I woke up galvanized with concern for my little turtles' health and habitat. So I started searching around for a pet-store or something. Such things are remarkably hard to find, at least in my part of town. But then I remembered that there was is a Walmart next to the second closest subway stop. Doesn't Walmart usually have a pet section? Now the more socially-conscious among you might scold me for patronizing the evil monster corporation. I'll tell you, though, the evil of Walmart kind of blends into the background in Beijing. Or let's put it another way: every big store is a sort of Walmart, so there's less contrast. I admit, I was also a bit curious to see what it was like.

Walmart-haters will be pleased to know that it was not as crowded as the Ikea or the Carrefour. Possibly that was just the time of day (Friday morning). But it wasn't much cheaper than or even much different from the Hypermart or Carrefour. So there was no particular reason for it to be mobbed. It did not have much of a pet section, though--just one little tank of goldfish beside some gardening things.

Downstairs (it was a three-storey building), in the food and housewares, they did have some big tupperware boxes, though, which are recommended by turtle enthusiasts on account of being extra easy to clean. So I got one of those. Then I puzzled for a long time over tank furnishings (they are supposed to have a basking area--big rocks are recommended). Well good luck finding any big rocks around here. And I don't think construction rubble is such a good idea. I finally settled on a dish and bowl that are rough and ridged on the outside, enough that I think the little nippers can get traction on them and climb up. I also put in some shells that they climb on.

I have decided to name them Queequeg and Yojo. They have their separate territorial corners, but they go visiting a lot and often climb right on top of each other. They are eating, which is a really good sign.

Their environment is far from perfect, but it's better than some Chinese turtles get, and better than most of their unsold siblings back at the Wudaokou market. And as opportunity arises, I shall improve it. Another thing that made me feel less bad about my animal husbandry was the seafood section of the Walmart food market. They had several tanks of soft-shelled turtles and--there's no nice way to say this--they weren't being sold as pets. It's almost enough to make a person want to turn vegetarian.

Moving onto happier subjects, I got this bright yellow melon, which I think of as a Korean melon, but it was labeled as "Toyota melon." It was nice and ripe and had a ripe smell coming from it. It made me miss my family a lot, remembering how many of those we ate when we were in Korea.

I didn't want my trip to be wholly frivolous, so I also got a lock to use in the library--if you recall from my earlier post, you can't bring a book bag into the place where the books are, so you have to lock it in a locker. After I'd got back home and rested a bit, I decided indeed I would go out to the library. I got there and optimistically looked up a title I wanted to look at… only to find that the lock was just slightly too big for the lockers. Argh! Also the room I had to be in was going to close at 5 and it was already after 4. So I realized I might as well give it up for the day and show up bright and early the next day.

On the way home, I saw a woman selling straw shapes she had made herself. There were many of them and each one has a separate meaning. This one means family harmony, which is kind of off since I am so far from my family. But I liked the shape a lot, partly because I know just how to make this shape with origami with a number of variations. No, it's not as cool as the green leaf bugs, but I decided that it's better to spend a few cents here and there than regret not spending them. So I hung this straw decoration from my salvaged bamboo plant (someone had thrown it away, but I thought it looked like it still had some life left in it), and realized that it would make a really good Christmas ornament.

I felt a little sad, and so I went to have my favorite pulled noodle dinner. The noodle chef gave me extra vegetable and maybe extra noodle as well, and it was a hearty, filling meal. Somehow the fact that the noodle-chef and the counter-girl knew me, even if not by name, made it taste better. I was missing home.

After I got home, I stayed up late watching the last two episodes of Smiley's People, a brilliant BBC TV adaptation of a brilliant novel by LeCarre (available from Netflix). We hadn't quite managed to finish it before I had to leave, so Colin sent me the last two episodes. Oh it was so good. Parts of it were so like what I imagined in my head as I was reading the book that I felt like I had almost seen them before. And Alec Guinness as Smiley was amazing, especially toward the end when his look was so expressive that he didn't even have to say anything and you knew how he felt.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Beijing Bicycle and Turtles

I confess I didn't go to a single class all day, although I tried to go to one in the morning, only to be stymied by the alternate week thing. But I am really close to getting it figured out. And I had a lot of other adventures instead.

One thing I had been considering doing for a long time was buy a bicycle. I had been set on getting a second-hand one, but one of my professor's grad students explained how that only contributes to the problem of rampant theft, so I changed my mind. He suggested going to the campus bike store, since it's awfully convenient, and buying not the very cheapest and not the very most expensive, but something in between. So I did that. I'm not sure if 180 RMB is cheap or expensive by local standards, but it's the certainly the cheapest bike I've ever bought, at just over $22. An extra 10 RMB for the basket and 35 RMB for the best lock they had still put it under $30. What a deal.

Of course it's the most awful piece of crap, just one speed and in every way "made in China" cheap to the touch. You couldn't even find a bike this crappy in the US. But that's kind of what makes it wonderful. There's a market for exactly this sort of bike, and a bike-mechanic on every corner to fix it cheaply when it goes wrong. And it actually rides quite comfortably. I think Chinese bikes are slightly different in shape. I notice that everyone rides low, so that your knees never completely straighten. I had them put my seat on the highest setting, but it's still lower than a bike in the US would be. The handle-bars on the other hand, are much higher, so you sit more upright when you ride. The result is pretty good.

Of course everyone rides very very slowly. People drive and walk slowly too, always alert to prevent potential accidents. The bike lanes are enormous. They are full-sized car-lanes on either side of any major street, and they are generally protected from the motor traffic by a fence or a median strip. Motorcycles and occasionally taxis also drive in them, but they are still pretty safe if you keep your eyes open. I would say that biking around here requires more attention than biking along the Lakeshore path in Chicago, but is no more challenging than, say, driving a car in traffic.

NO one wears helmets. But by now I'm used to being stared at, and I brought my damn helmet all the way from the U.S., so yep, I wore it. And boy did I get extra stared-at. But I knew it would make my mama happy. I drew the line at wearing it on campus though. On campus, there's almost nothing big or fast enough to knock you down, and I think it's a fair compromise.

Next, I decided to have an adventure and bike to Wudaokou, just to see how far away it is. It turned out to be quite reasonable, maybe only 10-15 minutes, faster than the bus (because there's less traffic in the bike-lane and you don't have to stop every few blocks)! So having a bike makes the nearest subway a lot more convenient, and also brings me closer to my fellow Fulbrighters, for what it's worth.

I parked and locked my bike and wandered into an outdoor market, which reminded me a lot of Korea. Every sort of thing being sold. Lots of socks, clothes, kitchen utensils, and flower pots. Also unidentifiable dried things. I rounded a corner, and first got very excited about some goldfish I saw. But then I got even more excited about some little tiny turtles. I have wanted a little tiny turtle for ever so long, that you can't exactly call it an impulse buy.

Mind you, the turtle-selling guy and the U.S.-based turtle-enthusiast websites I subsequently consulted differ significantly as regards the ease/difficulty of their care. Chinese turtle-salesman: they need to be able to get in the water, get out of the water, and here are the pellets they eat. Turtle-enthusiast websites: you need three kinds of filtration, aerating stones, live plants, a basking light that will also provide UVA and UVB light, a thermometer and aquarium heating system, a variety of vegetables as well as live and pre-killed seafood for its diet, preferably gut-loaded with healthy foods and dusted with vitamin powder, oh yeah, and test the water you use to change their tank for ph and potential chemical imbalances.

I know turtle- enthusiasts will probably get really mad at me here, but I opine that the truth is somewhere in between. I haven't really found a pet-store here where I can get fancy filtration and bubbling equipment. I'll feed 'em some seafood and veggies in addition to their pellets, change their water often, and see how they do. They are Baxi turtles in Chinese, otherwise known as red-ear sliders--actually native to the U.S., which I hadn't realized. But I'm sure these little guys (I got talked into two) were bred and born here. They are very small, and would be illegal to sell in the U.S., apparently because toddlers have a tendency to put tiny turtles in their mouths and catch salmonella. Don't worry, I won't. The picture is of one of them in the temporary tank I got for 10 kuai from the turtle seller. The websites at least convinced me I ought to get a bigger softer home for them than this, though, which I actually did today.

Anyway, I put the turtles and their house in the little basket of my bike. Meanwhile, an old fellow who had been sitting nearby came up and very attentively helped me in various ways. Oh--it was an attended bike-parking lot, and he was the attendant. I hadn't even noticed. But there are almost no bike-racks in Beijing, certainly not as many as there are bikes. Most people lock their bikes only to themselves, which is probably why bike-theft is so rampant: you just chuck the bike into a truck, lock and all, and break through the lock later at your leisure. It reminds me of a story told us by a bike-shop guy in Chicago, who had locked his especially nice valuable bike to a lamppost with a good sturdy lock. The thieves chopped down the lamp-post. Well, bike-theft is easier here, though what with so many bikes equally stealable, whether yours gets stolen is merely a matter of luck or fate unless you have an especially nice one. Anyway, the bike parking lot attendant thing is one way of getting around that. The cost, payable upon departure, is 2 mao (1 mao is 1/10 of an RMB)--almost exactly 2 and a half cents. Worth it!

I and pedaled home very softly and delicately, trying not to jostle them too much. I'm sure they didn't like it, but the recovered okay. Just as I was locking up my bike, my phone rang and it was JZ and FL wanting to know if I'd like to hang out. Yes, actually, I would. I barely had time to get the turtles settled in, when they arrived, so I dashed out the door with hardly anything, just my wallet and keys. I was most dismayed to have not brought my camera when, a few minutes later, they informed me that we would be going to a nice temple about an hour away to drink some tea. There was no going back for the camera, though, as we were already in traffic. I felt very regretful about it but there was nothing to be done. Along the way we passed a river which FL said was the water source for Beijing. Hm. No wonder we have to boil it. There was a fence all along it ("fence" was a new vocabulary word for FL), which he said was to keep country people up in the hills from doing their laundry in it. Thank god for small favors.

The temple was very quiet and peaceful. It was not a functioning temple, really just a rustic setting for a rather good restaurant and extremely expensive tea-house. But it had lovely turtle ponds and very ancient trees. The restaurant was most romantic, lit by hanging lantern-lights. We sat on the second-floor which was a balcony around the outside so you could look down onto the first floor--just like in a martial arts movie before someone comes and tears the place up. But no one tore the place up. Instead, we had really tasty, mostly vegetarian dishes, and yellow wine in cups pre-supplied with a plum pit. Yellow wine tasted a little like plum wine, but I don't think that had anything to do with the plum pit which I believe was there to keep you from drinking too fast (?). It was served warm like sake, and I drank a lot of it. It's funny how I can drink much more stuff like that than I can beer. I pretty much kept up with FL and I was only a little tipsy.

After dinner and jolly conversation, we went over to the tea house, where the cheapest pot of tea cost more than my bicycle and turtles combined. FL and JZ both grumbled about it. "Paying for atmosphere," JZ said accusingly to the waitress's face. But it was a lovely atmosphere, alone in the courtyard with only some gnarled old pine trees, stars coming out overhead, and not even any mosquitoes. We sat along the edge of the courtyard on a sort of porch under some calligraphy, and JZ and FL played Chinese chess while I earnestly studied the rules. Then we switched to pente. JZ kept saying she was bad at both games, but she won every single time, almost apologetically. It was fun, and we were mellow and in a good mood. How important the human factor is in experiencing things. I would have had a totally different experience if I had gone there alone, and not as good either. But with them I felt perfectly taken care of and had the warm feeling of fellowship, so that the place was not the main thing, only an enhancement. Some places can stand up to the challenge of being the main thing, of course, and those are places that may be best seen by oneself. But this place was perfect just as it was. If only I'd had my camera...

When we were going out, they had already closed the doors. "Hey," said FL, "how do we get out?" I thought they answered, "The door!" But it turned out they'd said, "The door in the door." Inside the bigger doors, which were closed and barred, there was a smaller door that could open freely. It was funny, and it prompted me to recall the story of Yanzi, the dwarf-statured minister of Qi, who went on a diplomatic mission to the country of Chu. The Chu people wanted to make fun of him, so they ushered him to a very small door at the side of the main gate. This was a great insult, but he actually made to go through it, remarking that when in the country of humans one uses a human door, and when in the country of dogs one uses a dog door. I think, as the story goes, they were ashamed and had him come in through the proper door instead. I, on the other hand, really enjoyed the door inside a door.

We got lost on the way home, but we were in a car so I didn't mind about it. And we eventually found our way back. I thanked them both very much, though I'm told one doesn't thank one's friends for things because it is a distancing sort of politeness. Well, I did it in English, so I hope it's okay. Then I went to see about my bike.

I had been observing the bike-parking situation for some time, and had realized that people park in front of my building during the day, but not during the night. Some people take their bikes up into their rooms, but that's a major pain and only exacerbates the already-cramped elevator situation. So I asked the security guard about it. The security guard looked about 15 years old. They hardly know anything about anything, though they do some greatly military version of the macarena every night around 7, loudly shouting out numbers in Chinese. However in this case I lucked out. He directed me to building 2, which in fact was where the "supermarket" was, that had so incensed me when first I moved here. "But," he added, "you have to pay 3 yuan." I considered it. Fifty cents didn't seem so much to make sure my bike was safe, but on the other hand, it would add up. "Three yuan a day?" I asked. He looked shocked. "Three yuan a month!" he hastily corrected me. Wow, hurray for China. So I have easily sorted out the bike parking issue which had so worried me before, and I dropped off the bike with its 24-hour/day attendant, and headed back up to sleep. What a day!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Hot Day, Disanji for Real

This is a very short post because really, almost nothing happened yesterday. I went to my ancient history and legend class, slightly but not wholly unprepared. The professor was trying out some pedagogical techniques I associate with Western graduate classes, i.e., making students translate classical Chinese on the fly. It was very stressful for them, because it's actually a pretty big lecture class, maybe 50 students. Translating anything in front of 50 students is kind of rough, so they tended to speak softly and get stuck a lot. I could barely follow, though I more or less could understand the original. The second part of the class was better. The professor discussed Sima Qian's final comment on the chapter, and said some things about his criteria for including things. Then he drew out a big genealogy of the supposed line of mythical early "sage-kings" and pointed out some problems with it, and some reasons why it might have been devised in the way that it was.

This class was from 10-12. Then I raced to the dining hall to get some lunch before my next class at 12:30. It was horrifically crowded. I just grabbed the first dishes that came to hand, which turned out to be an odd cooked cucumber thing and a vegetarian dish with these sort of chewy tofu cubes. I didn't have time to grab anything to drink, so I got kind of thirsty. I sat at a four person table with three other people, all perfect strangers to me and to each other. No one said a word, just all shoveling it in as fast as possible. It's rough if you have two classes in a row over the lunch hour. Then I took off for the next class.

It was really just one I was sitting in on, Yuan and Ming drama. It was incredibly boring, maybe because I didn't know much about it, maybe because the young female professor sounded like she was just reading from her dissertation. Long lists of names I'd never heard of. Minutely analyzed periodization schemes, carefully justified. Occasional quick plot summaries. Quoted words of fulsome praise for this or that playwright. The room didn't have any windows, and the weather was extremely hot. I was so thirsty too! Eventually I fell asleep for a while. I general I decided that although it would have been a useful class for me to take if I were writing my dissertation on Yuan and Ming drama, I wasn't going to be getting much out of it as things stood.

I should have gone to one other class, but I was so exhausted and hot that I ended up just going home and staying there. I stayed there, working on my blog and doing various other little things, right up until evening. I decided to go out for a walk and a bit of fresh air, and I found the real Disanji bookstore. It turns out that the one I'd gone to before was just some big book market, and wasn't in the Disanji building at all (sorry for the earlier misinformation). The Disanji building was amazing: the first five floors were a shopping mall and restaurant, while the top floors were a sort of book emporium. It was very different from something like a Borders. Each type of book had almost its own store, except you could freely move around. Various things were showcased in the halls in between: new books, remainders, specially recommended books. Among the remainders I made a hilarious lucky find. There was a book simply titled Sima Qian. Naturally it caught my eye, so I picked it up and looked at it. It turned out to be a historical novel about Sima Qian's life. I was tickled and of course bought it, along with a two-volume reference work on place names in the Shiji and a silly popular book on allusions to phrases in the Shiji, which might nonetheless be fun. Good discounts at that place--got four volumes for almost exactly 100 RMB.

And that was really all there was to the day. I ought to have taken some pictures of the giant weird bookstore but...well, next time.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Busy Two Days

I am very sorry to have missed a day, for the first time since I got here. It's just that I was so tired last night when I finally got home, and I still had quite a lot of work to do to prepare for my Wednesday morning class.

So what's the latest?

I decided to turn over a new leaf and try again with classes. I sat down Sunday night and made a whole new exploration schedule, and complete with notes about classes I was pretty sure had moved, and which I should go investigate. First thing Monday morning, I went to a class with an unsuspicious room number…only to find there was no one there. Okay, I should have gone to the department to look again at the notices before. As I was on my way out to do just that, I happened to see a girl I had sort of started to recognize because I'd seen her in several classes. She was going in to the Historiography class I had decided to abandon. She looked questioningly at me and so I decided to go back to that class after all. It was the one that I had found completely incomprehensible the first couple times. This time, though, the professor had finished the wide-ranging introduction and settled down to an ordinary chronological treatment. Well, that at least I could understand. And I was able to figure out more this time, so it was less of a total waste.

I had sat down near this girl I recognized, and she pointed out that there was a syllabus--another nearby student had an extra copy and gave it to me--also telling me which of the "recommended" books were particularly recommended. Then she told me her name, which was Crystal, and we exchanged phone-numbers. I think she must be from Hong Kong, as she speaks quite good and slightly British English but sort of Cantonese-accented Mandarin. After the class, we both together to the Chinese department to ask about a class we both wanted to take but hadn't been able to find. We had to wait in a long line at the department office, and eventually found out that it was on a very complex alternating-week schedule with rooms different even from the announcement. I tell you, around here schoolin' doesn't come easy.

Went back to the foreign students' cafeteria to have lunch, and somewhat to my horror some random person sat himself down directly across from me. I will add that there were plenty of empty tables. It was clear that he had decided to have a conversation with me. He asked me standard things about myself, and I ascertained that he was a professor, though I didn't quite catch what he taught. We had a longish conversation about a variety of things, including the average age of marriage for girls in America. Ugh. It was somehow very wearying, even though I should have welcomed the change to practice my spoken Chinese. Unfortunately, I had thoughtlessly gotten two bread rolls instead of one, and I somehow felt constrained to keep talking to him until I had managed to eat all of both of them! Decided I would stop eating lunch at the foreign students' cafeteria.

While in that area, though, I did manage to capture a prize: my so-called "campus card." There seem to be all kinds of IDs here, and the campus card is the one I need before I can get my library card. I had first gone to the place I had got my photo taken before (they'd said "come back next week"), but they said to go to Shaoyuan, the foreign students' building. So I went there and wonder upon wonder, they actually had my card.

In the afternoon, I had the Chinese Research Tools class, taught by the professor I came here to work with, YHz. She still hadn't answered my e-mail of Saturday, but during the break she came up to me and said that she had received my e-mail, and had given my name and number to one of her students and he would call me. She also said some things about my dissertation topic, suggested that I might concentrate on Song, Yuan or Ming Shiji studies, as she has basically done Han-Tang and a grad student of another professor, APq, has just finished a dissertation on Qing. I know I would do things differently than any of them, but it makes good sense to start with what has been least done, and what she might be most willing to help with. She also recommended a book that's a good brief introduction to the subject, and finally added that she was going to get together with her grad students for dinner this weekend to sort of get to know each other, and that I was welcome to come. So I felt very pleasantly included even at the same time as I felt very stressed out.

The latter part of her class was a lesson on how to use the four-corners method for looking up characters. Believe it or not, I had never learned this method, and it was good to be taught it in a systematic way. In fact, I'd say this was the first piece of concrete knowledge I had thus far acquired.

Above is a picture of one of the stairwells in the classroom building. I have not yet managed to find any classrooms that are empty enough that I can sneakily photograph them, but I will soon.

Below are some pictures of the construction that is going on on either side of the classroom building, and creating such a racket of construction noise that I can barely think straight, let alone here what the professor is trying to say. Of course, one can always close the windows, but then there's the problem of the classroom getting hot and stuffy. I was impressed by the sheer amount of manpower in evidence in the second photo, as well as the general absence of power tools. That's China for you, huh?

It was a miserably hot day. I decided that after the Research Tool class I had had enough and went home. Being successful in connecting with YHz was of course a very good event, but was stressful in the way good events sometimes are, and I was exhausted. By the time I got home, Google told me that the temperature in Beijing had reached 92. Argh. What season do they think it is anyway? Isn't fall supposed to be starting sometime?

At home, I worked very hard on preparation for Tuesday classes. I also watched a great television program about an earthworm farmer, and all kinds of things about earthworms. The earthworms reproduce so fast that "Mr. Chen" had a hard time giving them enough to eat. He raised chickens and ducks and things--I guess the earthworms can eat their droppings?--but it wasn't enough. So he contacted a neighboring dairy farmer and made a deal with him to get some cow manure. After the earthworms had "processed" the manure, what was left was good fertilizer and was also a preferred food for the chickens and ducks. (Gross!) Soon a local environmental protection guy became interested in Mr. Chen's worm farm, and tried on the worms on various types of industrial sludge. They weren't so good with chemical sludge (it was quite sad to see the worms leaping around so miserably) but they liked the paper-mill sludge just fine, and processed it in such a way that (they claimed) it was no longer toxic. I have my doubts that the worms were really as miraculously efficacious as they claimed, but it made a good story. (Photo not by me but from the CNN, which ran a similar story on an Indian worm baron.) I admit it was on the English channel, so I wasn't even practicing my Chinese... but sometimes a person needs a break.

In the evening, I sat on the couch reading until I realized that something was biting the heck out of me. A big fat mosquito. I recalled my long-drawn-out mosquito stalking expeditions in my bedroom back in Taiwan. Asian mosquitoes are horrifically clever and fast. They seem to have a sort of prescience about when you will be trying to swat them and have already long disappeared by the time you do. And they disappear into thin air--I have no idea how they do it. Some kind of mosquito martial arts trick. I got this one in the end, though only after she got me a few more times. The key is to turn on absolutely all the lights, even the horrible florescent ones that you ordinarily don't touch. Then it's much harder for them to hide. Who knows how she got it, as my windows are well screened. She must have come in the door or (shudder) in one of the vents. (Who sits long enough to let a picture like this be taken while a mosquito is biting them!? These guys, apparently; sorry to be unoriginal, but better them than me.)

* * *

Yesterday morning first thing, I went to get a meal card, using my new campus card, and was successful in acquiring one. Now all the cafeterias are open to me, and my word there are quite a few of them. There are practically as many cafeterias as there are classrooms--at least that's how it seems.

Then I headed to my first class, on Qing dynasty evidential scholarship. This is the class that I had tried unsuccessfully to locate on Friday and that Crystal and I had gone to inquire about the day before. Now she and I met again in another quest for the correct room. The room mentioned by the department secretary was full of people silently studying English and business administration, which she and I agreed was a bad sign. The room next to it, which was the one that had appeared on the room change announcement for the course had two professors disputing about who should get to teach in the classroom. One of them turned out to be ours. The other one vanquished him by suggesting that her class was in 401 and his was in 407, but the 7 had been smudged so it appeared to him like a 1. (The department secretary had told us 403.) We went en mass to 407, but there was a class in there too. The professor disappeared briefly. "He's gone to do evidential scholarship on the matter of our classroom," Crystal quipped. He came back and said that since the class was supposed to meet on Tuesdays and Fridays on alternating weeks, today wasn't supposed to be a real meeting anyway, but just a question period. If we didn't have any questions, we could go. Well, Crystal and I didn't have any questions yet because we hadn't been to the class yet. The only question in our minds was, if even the professor can't figure out what room the class is supposed to be in, what hope is there for us? (These photos depict the two buildings where I have almost all my classes.)

After this I had some free time so I made another (unsuccessful) attempt to get a library card. This was actually the third time I had gone and tried to get a library card. This time, I had the right stuff but didn't have 500 RMB in cash. Why do I have to pay over $60 to get a library card? But that was what the grumpy lady said and it didn't seem negotiable.

I went home for lunch because my meal card wouldn't work until evening. I made myself some jiaozi (gyoza/ mandu)--I got a big bag of frozen ones for amazingly cheap, and have been eating them about once a day--and watched a television program about jade. I am usually not much for TV, as anyone who knows me can testify, but I have decided it's practically my duty to watch it as a way of helping my Chinese. After all, lots of people learn English from TV, right? Well since I have a big TV in my room, it seems worth a try. (Colin: like this picture but a lot lot cooler and not for sale.)

YHz's graduate student called me when I had just finished eating. I feel I didn't do such a good job in talking, but it was almost impossible for to, I was so nervous about it. Well at least it's over now. This guy, SXb, suggested I just go ahead and buy a new bicycle instead of trying to wait for a second-hand one because most second-hand ones are stolen and one wouldn't want to contribute to the problem. That seemed reasonable. I will just try to go buy an ugly one maybe. We got done talking about bicycles, and then we had to think what to talk about next. I said clumsily that I was very glad to talk to him because I don't really know any of my classmates. And he gave me his cell number and said I should call him anytime and not worry about being polite. But then I asked him what he studied and was a little confused about the answer. He does not take classes because he is preparing for the qualifying exam. And it has something to do with the Hanshu bibliographical treatise, but I got confused with that and the class on same, and I fear my response may not have been quite right in retrospect.... Maybe I didn't give him a very good impression of my Chinese listening comprehension, but he at least seemed friendly. He suggested I go to the history department and ask them if I could change over to the Chinese department, because some things might not be very convenient otherwise. I thought this was a sage suggestion and may go do that this very day. Or tomorrow.

I really need to hire a tutor to work on my spoken Chinese. I'm starting to feel like a real chump, always stammering and not knowing what to say. I saw several "experienced Mandarin Chinese tutors" advertising in the same Beijing expat classified ad website that I found my apartment in. So maybe I'll try some of them out. They're cheap and if they're not good I can always not continue.

After this stressful success, I went to LL's class on the Daodejing. It was less crowded than before, but still crowded. I got there early and sat in the very back corner. My old roommate, KS, had been planning on coming but at the last minute he had a conflict, so I had to go it alone. There was a lot of mutual distribution of papers among the favored few who were LL's students and whom he actually wanted in the class. But I wasn't the only left out one sitting on the "loser's bench" in the back either. I asked for a look at one of the papers--it turned out to be LL's notes on what he was going to say. Would have been useful, but LL speaks pretty clearly and I had fortunately brought my own copy of the Daodejing, so I was pretty much able to follow what he was saying. He was mainly just going through the text one piece at a time, starting with the famous, "The Dao that can be spoken is not the constant Dao." He was more or less analyzing variants that occurred in the earliest excavated manuscripts, and discussing how they might have come to be different in the transmitted versions. He didn't talk about Hanfeizi at all, so I guess maybe that was just an offhand remark of his at the last class.

In the absence of any clear syllabus, there is so much that is a matter of nuance. As a non-native speaker, I have a hard time telling, when a professor said, "You should read x," whether he means, "You should read x because that is what we are going to be discussing in the next class," or whether he means, "You should get around to reading x sometime in your life." My sympathy and respect for foreign students who brave a trip to the US becomes ever higher. But at least most of our classes have syllabi!!

Even without the notes, the class was pretty interesting, enough that I think it worth trying to continue. He did say again that he really wanted the class to be smaller (it was about 20-30 or so people) so that we could have student presentations instead of just him talking. Then he added, "Best would be three. Four would be too many." Well, my going or staying will not have the effect of reducing 20 people to three, so I might as well stop worrying. But it would be nice if one could get the notes…

I had picked up 500 RMB back at home, cursing that it was five whole days worth of books. This library thing better be worth it. So after LL's class, I went straight to the library and hit the ID desk for the fourth and I hope final time! (Here is a picture of the library.) The ID desk woman was very annoyed that I had showed up because she was about to leave, and had no hesitation about showing it. But she angrily wrote out a receipt for me, took my two IDs, and told me where to pay the money. Unfortunately, she was irritated and in a hurry, so I had absolutely no clue what she said. It sounded like "bluh bluh stairs bluh bluh bluh door bluh bluh." I wandered around a bit, but I felt I should hurry. I noticed some other Americans who had also been at the ID desk and who seemed to have a Chinese person with them. They were chattering in English so I asked them. They had absolutely no clue. Then I decided to ask the people in the photocopy room. I was a bit apprehensive about that, because if there's anything that would make me mean and grouchy, it would be photocopying things for a living. But the photocopy room women turned out to be very helpful. They pointed and when my angle of departure was off by 20 or so degrees they called after me and we played a warm/cold game until I found the right hallway. "Hurry!" they called. "They're leaving soon!" I made it in time and received the esteemed privilege of forking over my 500 RMB. I wonder if it's some kind of deposit maybe? It really is a lot by local standards, and I'm certain it's more than any of the Chinese students have to pay (grumble).

By the time I got back to the ID desk, she quickly handed me my cards and another receipt and said, okay, you can use it now. I guess that means I don't get a separate library card? or I do but I have to come back for it later? and what about the receipt? Do I need to keep that because it will enable me to get my 500 RMB back at the end or do I just have it because everything's in triplicate and they had to do something with the extra copy? I hate being so confused.

One good thing was that my meal-card definitely works. I had dinner in the huge and luxurious Nongyuan (farmer's garden) cafeteria, which is the one nearest my classroom buildings. I really liked it because all the food was laid out kind of buffet style. You didn't have to know the name of anything. You could just walk by and take what you wanted. I had a really good dark leafy greens dish, and one that was an odd combination of potato and chicken pieces which were indistinguishable from one another in a dark brown sauce. A bit odd, but not bad.

After dinner I read for a while in the fading light, acquiring several new mosquito bites. Then I went back to the "Concept of Literature" class. It was a bit slower this time. I guess the idea is that you're encouraged to read the books, but since it's unlikely anyone can read them all, he summarizes each one. He had a good way of telling a story, and it was interesting to hear the story of Hamlet and of Oedipus told in Chinese. I was starting to get pretty proud of my listening comprehension. But when it came to a book I hadn't read, I barely even got the gist of the plot. Sigh, back to the drawing board. Also, the guy's book isn't quite as interesting as his class, though it does have its good bits. All in all, I think I'll keep on but maybe will do slightly less work for it.

The girl sitting in front of me was really nice to me during the break and we chatted for some time. She is a German major, but her English was also very good. She had studied Japanese too. I suspect she may be one of those lucky people who are language geniuses. In any case she was really friendly and complimented my Chinese and we talked about different languages and how hard they are--German, we agreed, was harder than any of the others, maybe even harder than Japanese. I gave her my contact information, though I forgot to get hers. But anyway, this whole thing was good practice. I need to practice making friends, even if some of the friends I make are just "practice friends" and I never see them again. It's something I've been bad at all my life, but I suppose it's not too late to change.

I also discovered that Mr. Lime-Green, who was mean to me last week, is a philosopher. Huh! I should ask him what he studies, but he's such a bully I don't really want to talk to him! I thought I wouldn't be able to recognize him, but in fact I had no trouble at all. He is just so big and aggressive and practically vibrating with combative enthusiasm. One of the things he is most enthusiastic about is to prove the over-riding importance of intellect in the study of literature, which is in direct opposition to the professor's rather more romantic and "expressive" view. I decided that part of Lime-Green's meanness was really just a lack of social skills not uncommon (sorry Colin) among philosophers--at least in my observation. (Colin: I'm imagining a Chinese NS…)

After the class, with some trepidation, I approached the professor. He's rattled off a really long list of things we should take a look at for next time, but I'm not used to hearing Western names pronounced in Chinese, and I just couldn't keep up. So I had to ask for a repeat. Lime-Green was, of course, hovering in attendance. He nodded knowingly when he heard me say that I hadn't quite caught the reading. (Just what he'd expect from an ignorant barbarian.) But he didn't say anything snide, and even helped the professor to recall which things he'd mentioned. Of course he was just showing off his attentiveness, but help is help. I'm not choosy! And I have in readiness the most perfectly civilized cutting response should he give me any more trouble. Yeah I know it's not so cool to devise witticisms in advance, but on the other hand being prepared is better than being cool.

A 7-9 PM class is really exhausting. I hadn't had one since my brief experience with the Harvard Extension School while I was working in Boston. I'd forgotten how rough it is. But then everything is kind of rough here. Finding water to drink, steeling oneself to use the awful bathrooms, trying to figure out what paperwork you're supposed to do or supposed to have done, finding which classroom you're supposed to be in. So the small matter of evening classes pales in comparison.

Going out the southwest gate I saw a bunch of fruit-vendors. How well-placed they were! They were doing a brisk business, and I could understand exactly why. Fruit was just what I wanted. I decided, cautiously, on grapes--big red ones, not green! I selected such a modest number of them that the vendor laughed at me. They were fun to eat. They were huge and the best way to eat them proved to be squeezing them out of the skin. The skin was really too tough to eat, and besides, who knows what pesticides were on it? There were about one or two seed per grape, but the seeds were also enormous and easy to find and spit out.

So there I will leave me, eating grapes and working frantically on my reading for the Wednesday morning class until I couldn't keep my eyes open any more.

Below is a picture I took yesterday afternoon which I thought was really pretty but unfortunately just a tiny bit blurry. Let's call it "soft focus." It depicts the chrysanthemum truck. All over campus there are these slightly monotonous flower arrangements consisting of potted plants ringing any thing that can be conveniently ringed. But just this one image of the chrysanthemum truck reminded me how, at age five, one of my ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up was a truck driver: a flower-truck driver. Well, this fellow has realized my childhood dream...