Sunday I went to a book-fair with SXb. SXb is another student of YHz, just getting ready to take his qualifying exams. She had kind of hooked me up with him earlier and he helped me with some stuff, and then disappeared into qual exam studying land. Last week I heard from him again, making good on his promise to take me book shopping. It turns out there was a giant book market at the Altar of Earth. It's a long way away. We took two buses to get there, maybe an hour each way. There may have been a faster way, but this, he said, avoided traffic. I followed along like a little duckling following a mother duck. On the bus we talked shop.
SXb said (among other things) that the retirement age for professors here is 63. "It's really a pity," he said, "because it's really only when they get into their fifties that professors really start publishing worthwhile things, so by the time they have to retire, they're just coming into their prime!" I thought this was grand. I remember, when I was a little child, watching sports on television and thinking what a pity it must be to be in a profession where you're washed up by the time you're forty. I made up my mind that I would do something where I'd just get better with age. That way, round about the time I started feeling depressed about losing my looks and not being as agile or strong, I could at the same time be consoled by the fact that I would be getting better and better at what I was doing. "Traditional Chinese scholar" clearly fits the bill in that regard.
What my childish plans glossed over, however, was the enormous start-up cost involved! The flip side of something that only gets better with age is the long long years of apprenticeship.
SXb also mentioned that this year has been a very bad year for elderly professors--three have passed away. One was in his 90s, but it was still sad. Another was in his 80s, very sad. A third was only in his 70s--why, to have him die so young, it was a tragedy!
Like I said, no sense of "old" being equated with "useless." In fact, quite the opposite.
He also told me that one of my professors back home is actually famous in China, mostly because of his Ivy League-centered blog. Who'd've known? It seems he has many young female fans!
It was a chilly day. We went into the park at the Altar of Earth. Nothing much there usually, SXb said. Not much of a sight-seeing destination. But today it was set up with long rows of book-stalls--it felt like miles! Lots of dross of course. But also big reference books, hard to find out-of-print books, deeply discounted primary sources, and so on. Very very cool. I was also entertained by the eclectic selection of western language stuff. At one point I got very excited because I saw a LeCarre book...until I realized that it was in Spanish!
All the books were susceptible to being haggled over. The one big purchase I made, SXb considerately did the haggling. He bought a few books as well. I enjoyed the petulant, querulous, old-mannish note in his voice as he would call to the owner of the stall, Hey mister, how much is this one. So expensive! Never mind. Really? Well how about... And so on. But all in an (affected) tone of great weariness and botheration. He could hardly be troubled to buy such trashy books, but maybe, perhaps, this one.
His own project was to assemble a complete set of his prospective PhD advisor's complete works (he's planning on shifting advisors), some out of print and difficult to find but all in decently good condition, so he can flatter the guy by asking him to sign them. He related this as if it was normal practice. My eyes about popped out. But then I thought of what I knew about the guy, and figured he'd probably be extra-pleased. Ugh.
It colder and misty, making the scene quite charming--the bustle of the booksellers, the push and shove inside some of the better stalls. Always around the corner there was the possibility that you would find the perfect thing--but you'd have to balance the sense of perfection with the necessity of dragging the thing home and also finding a place for it on your already over-crowded shelves. We didn't stop until it got too dark to see the titles.
I'm sorry I didn't take any pictures, but I didn't want to look like a weirdo in front of my classmate. I'm thinking I will go back though near the end of the fair (which is a two-week long bi-annual event), because I heard you can get some real bargains then!
While we were there, a loud-speaker announced a wind-chill warning. There's going to be a big wind and we were advised to take good care of family members and stay warm. I thought, oh my, it's going to be a cold week. Indeed, it has been.
Both SXb and I got sleepy on the long bus-ride home, as we had both (as it happened) stayed up late the previous night. I considered trying to treat him to dinner, but he made a point of having us get off the bus at the proper stop for my house and was himself heading back to the cafeteria, so it would have been kind of weird. I'm starting to get a sense of him as a person, which I had trouble doing before. He's low-key, not huge into etiquette or favor-calculus, embarrassed by gratitude. He only does the favors he genuinely doesn't mind doing.
Anyway, I'm doing him another favor, kind of a big one, which is helping one of his classmates with her graduate school application. So I don't feel bad. He was going to the book-market anyway, and I'm pretty sure I wasn't a nuisance.
Furthermore, I really felt like having a quiet dinner on my own. I went back to the rice-porridge place and tried a different flavor. I though, from the English menu, that it was chicken and black walnut. But then I noticed that it was something called "crow chicken" when I actually ordered it in Chinese. Furthermore, when the thing came it wasn't the walnuts that were black, but the "chicken." I really worried about what that mystery meat might have been, but I didn't dare to ask. I gingerly ate the less bony pieces--all the pieces were really small and had an odd taste. I hope it wasn't, like, frog or turtle or something I'm really fond of in its living incarnation.