Monday, October 30, 2006

Art at 798

Saturday was beautiful and sunny, even warm. Sun streamed in through my big window and I gave the turtles a good dose of natural UV. I had some vague thought of trying to find the big market my tutor had mentioned, but decided against it as I needed recovery time--I always seem to, after Friday madness. I even got some work done and had an instant noodle lunch. I think this is the last batch of instant noodles I'm buying for a while. I'm pretty sick of them.

My friend CC called at around 2:30 in the afternoon. We had met at the orientation at DC and somehow I'd got the feeling that she seemed to like me so I decided to like her too. She is based in a different city, but she travels around quite a lot and this weekend she was in Beijing. She was going to wander around a contemporary art area of the city called 798 and did I want to go too? Why not? Of course 798 is not marked on any maps. Fortunately one of her friends had a rough idea of where it was. It was about a 10 minute phone conversation with a lot of triangular back and forth regarding what to tell the taxi driver, the general area of the city, and so on. Then I got dressed and went out to get a taxi. It went off completely without a hitch; the driver knew exactly what I was talking about, and I beat them there. I probably could have taken a bus even! But it was only a 40 RMB taxi ride, though it was all the way on the other side of the city.

When I got there, it was a street with a very different feeling from my barren but high-tech "silicon valley" neighborhood. It was a cute funky row of shops with its back to the "art area". They were partly international-oriented, but only superficially. It was, you might say, a downscale tourist area but not as grubby as the foreign-student district in Wudaokou, which is my nearest subway stop. "Toggery" wins the Chinglish prize for the day as a translation of "clothing." It was a toggery sort of street. I waited on it for some time, and happened to see three mule-drawn carts clopping down the road with heavy loads of bricks. It's hard to understand why that's an efficient way to move bricks but it must be. I also got a cup of soy-milk and a great pastry from a bakery window. I was extremely satisfied with this snack, not sure why exactly, except the pastry tasted exactly the way I thought it would taste from looking at it. If I describe it, it won't sound good--sticky, oily, dense, crunchy, sweet--but when it's mid-afternoon and you had instant noodles for lunch, that sort of thing really hits the spot. From a nearby newsstand I bought a magazine my Chinese tutor had recommended, and passed the time very pleasantly except for having to fend off an extremely aggressive beggar.

CC's Chinese friend was driving a BMW with many many gadgets including a proximity detector that actually showed you a picture of the proximity as well as making warning noises. He explained it was a company car. We went into the 798 area and wandered around. The story of 798, as well as I could figure out, is the same story as any urban artsy area: it started as a super low rent warehouse district but suddenly became a highly commercialized hot and trendy spot. Extra-elegant graffiti in a light industrial setting, and block after block of art galleries with open doors and hip attendants. Then in among the galleries: expensive clothing and jewelry stores.

I mostly didn't much care much for the art. These are pictures of some sculptures which looked like blobs of colored beads from afar. If you looked closer they are actually hundreds of tiny human figures struggling across shattered landscapes. If you looked closely, they were very sad. CC was mildly interested in them and took some photos with her enormous camera (I had big camera envy). I said they were interesting but there was something not quite right about them. She agreed that they were shallow. But I wouldn't put it that way. Kind of the opposite problem. They were deep, but from far away too unaesthetic. The message would have been more interesting if from far away they were beautiful and tended to draw you in to look closer--and then you'd see the struggling little figures. But from far away they just looked confusing.

But contemporary art is so much an exercise in judgment and selection. It's hard to imagine that there has ever been so much crap masquerading as art as there is in the current contemporary art scene. But I suppose the crap level must actually be reasonably stable. It just that crap from earlier eras of history end up in the dumpster, or a hotel room, or a museum in Ohio, or destroyed in natural disasters, or something. Whatever. I was fairly underwhelmed.

Also, a dressed up model with a really shallow kind of sex-kitten look was roaming through the corridors and galleries followed by a roving pack of male photographers. She would pose, the light guy would raise lights and umbrellas, the cameras would click, she would move on. I did not dignify that activity, even ironically, by photographing it. I was fairly disgusted.

In addition to incomprehensibly abstract stuff and downright ugly pop-art, there were painting in a whitish snowy barely colored style that recalled misty Chinese landscapes except the perspective and figural techniques were Western. I was initially somewhat interested, but there were so many of them. Then there were lots of Mao-era photographs, a few blatantly political things (tanks, blood, etc.), photographs of grubby peasant kids and harsh countryside living. I found the spaces more interesting than the art in them.

It was easy to spend a long time there. CC's Chinese friend headed back to work in his fancy car, and CC's other friend disappeared periodically for long phone conversations with: his Chinese ex-wife, his Chinese ex-girlfriend, his current Chinese girlfriend. :P As CC said, he gets a lot of attention, a mature, leonine sort of white guy, not tall but not short either (especially not for here), stock, sandy-haired, rugged-featured, a teacher of business English here in Beijing, sigh. Actually the first person of "the type" that I've encountered during my stay here, but he was it in spades.

When I saw the moon coming out I made some pictures and then begged off the rest of the evening, first arranging to have dinner with CC the next evening because we hadn't really had a chance to talk. I was pleased and happy that she wanted to. She seems mostly to hang out with people who are more into art than I am.

Back home (I extravagantly took a cab again, just because I couldn't be bothered trying to figure out what street I was on) I had a pretty unsatisfying dinner at the same dumpling restaurant I had considered excellent my first week here. Oh how quickly the standards rise. Then I went to a bookstore and bought a big set of books for just over 100 RMB, investing in my future. On the way home I gave in to the temptation to try something new and bought these tiny tiny oranges They were delicious, skins so thin that after you peeled them off they were almost translucent, and easy to peel like clementines. Also with the same extra-sweet taste as clementines. The orange-seller was mad at me because he couldn't talk me into buying three jin, which was a hefty sackful. I insisted on only half that and he was grumpy. But even that many are more than I can eat!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Friday Adventures

Clearly I have found the shortest route between my apartment and my tutor's office. I know it because I got a late start yesterday morning and didn't get on the road until 9:15. Last week it took me 45 minutes to get there and so, I thought to myself, I should still be able to make it on time. But ten minutes later I heard an unpromising crunch, and my bike pedals started spinning freely instead of driving the wheels. Whatthe…? And where are those grubby little bike repair stands when you need one? Nowhere in sight.

I pulled my bike over to the side of the road and stripped off my helmet. Yes, I always wear my helmet when I got to my Chinese lesson because it's a really long way and involves riding on the Beijing freeway-equivalent, the eight-lane ring-road. I could see the problem: the chain had slipped off its gears on the back. But how to fix it? I'm telling you right now, I'm not expert at bike repairl One time last winter my coat got caught in the rear brake and I drag/carried my bike all the way home because I didn't realize it was a two-second job to release the brake and pull out the coat.

However, I got a good start on this bike repair job by flipping the bike over so the wheels could spin freely, the pushing and pulling the chain until it gradually moved over onto its gear. I bet there's some way of making the chain all lose, but I don't know it. Anyway, this worked well enough, even though my hands got absolutely coated with black sticky grease. Since toilet paper and hand sanitizer are strictly BYO in Chinese public bathrooms, I had a good supply of both and used them on my blackened hands. Then hopped back on the bike and took off somewhat more gingerly. No idea what caused my one-speed bike to suddenly derail, and no idea when it might happen again.

This whole incident took more than 10 minutes, so I thought for sure I was going to be late. But in fact, I wasn't, which means I made the trip in a record-breaking 35 minutes, pretty close to what my tutor stated as the amount of time it should take.

It was a good lesson. I asked lots of questions as usual, to warm up. Then my tutor quizzed me on the idioms we had studied last time and the time before, and I got them all right. Then we studied some more idioms. I am working hard on idioms because in Chinese they are redolent with history and culture and actually make your speech sound elegant and good rather than cliché or slangy as in English. I never put much effort into studying them before, but this time I am.

Finally, we talked about other objectives for our lessons. I had suggested, via e-mail, that I would like to supplement my university courses by doing a bit of the Chinese high-school curriculum, which is exceedingly rigorous and intensive. In my classes at university, I really feel the gaping holes in my background when a teacher starts reciting a poem and the whole class joins in from memory. So I told my tutor I would like to try and learn some of the things they learn. She thought it quite an intriguing idea and said she would try to get something lined up for next week.

She is expensive, but one of the most worthwhile things I have spent money on here thus far. She prepares well, and is more than generous with the time--I have reserved 90 minutes a week, but she gave me a whole 2 hours this time, to make up for a couple interruptions. She is warm and friendly and very present: it's interesting to her, she says she learns things too. And of course I learn a lot from her. So it's good!

Her office, however, is really cold. I remembered it from last week and so took care to wear a sweater. Still, when I emerged at noon, I was shivering so much I could hardly ride my bicycle. Two more weeks still until the heat goes on… I stopped in at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to see if I could get warmed up. By accident, I ordered about 4 people's worth of food--hot and sour soup that was WAY too sour, and stir-fried something and cabbage. The something was some cross between bread and noodle, almost tortilla like. It was weird but not bad. Certainly warmed me up.

On the way home, I saw a man with a tricycle trailer covered with bananas. For some reason, I really had been wanting bananas. I think it was connected with the lingering soreness in my legs, and remembering how last time I'd overdone it and got all stiff and sore mom suggested that the potassium in bananas might help. Not sure if it did, but it was enough to set up a psychological craving. Anyway, I pulled up and asked casually how much for a jin, the standard measure of weight here. Not sure what it is in units I understand, but I'm slowly getting a sense of it. A small bunch of bananas, for example, is just over two. The banana vendor was very impressed with my Chinese. So many foreigners here can barely speak a word that people are not difficult to impress, if they are in the mood to be impressed at all. I felt that the banana transaction went very smoothly.

On the little road next to my house, I was stuck behind another tricycle trailer, this one with a hard-hatted guy in back. He stared and stared at me. People always stare at me when I wear my helmet. But I was in a good mood, so I rapped on the helmet with my knuckles and said in Chinese, "It's not good-looking, but it's a lot safer." "It's good looking, it's good looking!" the guy said. As I passed them I heard him and his companion marveling over the fact that I spoke Chinese. Like I said, easy to impress.

I spent the afternoon trying to work and finally succeeding. At dinner time, I headed in to campus to print out my work and get a bite to eat. But then I got a call from LGs, whom I had been going to meet early this morning, asking if we could postpone until Thursday? No problem. A little opportunity to sleep in on a Saturday morning was highly welcome. Just hope the postponement doesn't represent a lack of enthusiasm… I think not, though. The amount of stuff he had to prepare was fairly large, and retire professors in China remain busy men because prestige has its own sort of momentum here.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Potentially Offensive Art

Just to let you know that if you are easily offended by art, you might want to skip this post!

Due to the strange way the academic schedule works, every other Thursday I am busy with classes, while the remaining Thursdays I am completely free. It took me some time to get used to this. Yesterday was my busy day, and I started it off wrong by sleeping right through my alarm. This rarely happens to me, because I am a light sleeper, and it wouldn't have yesterday morning either if I hadn't been wearing ear-plugs to drown out the noise of the fridge turning on, which wakes me up. The weird downsides of living in a one-room apartment.

Anyway, had a very fast shower, dressed, and tossed boiling water over one of my jasmine tea "flowers" and then I was out the door. A fifteen minute morning. The upside of having short hair and not being vain. The 8 AM class is always worth it. How I adore the Song Dynasty literature teacher, with his sad downward sloping eyes hugely magnified behind thick round and large lenses. He lectured on Liu Yong, the king of Song songs. The music has all been lost, what's studied now is just the left-over song lyrics as poetry. Some are pretty good, but I suspect it suffers a lot from being read instead of sung.

One of the songs he was discussing was about the Lantern Festival, which is a rather sexy and romantic holiday. It's this that should be called the Chinese Valentine's Day ("Lover's Day" in Chinese), he opined, not the Seven-Seven day, which is supposed to be when the Herdboy and Weaver Girl cross the Milky Way on a bridge of magpies to meet for their once-yearly tryst. They're married, he said. What kind of "Lover's Day" is that? It should be called the Husband and Wife Day. As for the Lantern Festival…

Well, it was too late. The entire class of young undergraduates was in fits of overexcited giggling and whispering. It occurred to me that due to the crowded dorm conditions (4 to a room) and generally conservative sexual mores, it was probably a roomful of 18 and 19 year old virgins with raging hormones, for which probably the only outlet is the idea of such holidays. Well, and making out by the lake, reputedly? though it strike me as rather public for a make-out spot, not to mention plagued by ants and mosquitoes. (The crass-minded can always go to the East Gate and check out this reasonably well-endowed stone lion, as well.) Well, Song dynasty song lyrics were notoriously sexy and scandalous in their time, so I suppose it's the kids who were in the right mood. The prof was trying to sell them on the notion that what made Liu Yong's song lyrics so much better than the others was the depth of personal experience he brought to his compositions…that they weren't all just about pretty girls…but this is the opinion of one whose blood has cooled!

My 10 AM historiography class was canceled. I stopped by home briefly to look things up and grab a different set of books. Then back to campus for lunch, and the library, and one more class. I checked out my first library book, not without difficulty. The circulation said it wasn't working and sent me to the ID card desk. The ID card desk tried to convince me I had to pay another 500 RMB. Nothing doing; I even kept my receipt. Then they did some magic to my card and it worked. Yay me!

The afternoon classical Chinese class was an extended discussion of specific vocabulary words instead of a discussion of literary pieces as it had been the last time I dropped in. I suffered and slept.

Here is a funny thing I saw on the way home. It is one of those turning billboard things, where each vertical strip has three different potential ads, and they turn in sync, cycling through the ads. But this one is getting its ads changed. It was the weirdest thing to see. I assume they have these in the US, but I've never seen them change one before. They paste a huge sign on to the vertical pieces and then cut them one by one into strips. It requires careful organization and (in China) at least 10 people. How many Chinese does it take to change a light-bulb? As many as possible. Anyway, I thought the billboard-changing process was pretty cool to see.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Campus Begins to Change Color

My updates seem slowly to moving toward an every other day pattern, I suppose because the days are so small and quiet that it hardly seems worthwhile to mention them. I suppose everything seems small after my Great Wall adventure. However, today I am turning over a new leaf and will try to go back to daily.

First: here are some exceedingly small and exceedingly curious fruits. I actually got hold of them when I went to the barbecue place on Tuesday night--I smuggled them out wrapped up in my napkin. They seem like an unripe something, some fruit with a stone, like a peach or more probably a plum. However, they are tiny (size of large blueberries) and an improbable color of green. They are also extremely sweet, but with a very odd flavor, artificial somehow? But they seem more fresh than pickled. It's a puzzle. I asked the elevator girl, but she had no idea. I am at a loss.

Yesterday morning, I was still full from all the meat I ate on Tuesday. One thing about eating a lot of meat, though--and I can really notice, because it's such a rare occurrence: it makes my metabolism run very high and warm. I was downright toasty all night, and that's not because it was any warmer than usual in my room. I could feel the cold air all around me, but in the middle of it I was just burning like a fire. This must be what it's like to be Colin. Anyway, I delayed breakfast until around 9 when I was heading in to school, and caught the last of the breakfast carts. There is streetside breakfast of great variety sold all along the road if you get out early enough. I had millet porridge (comes in a sealed cup, which you perforate with a giant-size pointed straw) and a rice and bean Chinese doughnut (a ball covered with sesame seeds, rice-flour, sweet bean paste filling).

For once I got to class early. My history and legend class is proving to be one of my most worthwhile courses. It's clear that the professor is not a "believer," which is really important. If you want to know how important, it's like having a course on the historical composition of the Bible. You're probably going to get a very different story from someone who believes that a Divine Hand was at work than from someone who--well, doesn't. And from the point of view of textual scholarship, I guess I'd rather have the non-believer, whatever the advantages of the believer may be. Of course this is a whole different tradition from Biblical stuff. It's been worked over so most of the deeply improbable things (miracles, etc.) are out, and what's left is almost plausible. But also, completely mythical. Myth reworked as history. We are not really looking at this bewildering forest-type issue, though. We are more focused on the intricacies of individual trees and for me this is great. I have no deep interest in mythology, but I do have interest in the implications of some of these smaller issues. How does the enumeration of pre-historical dynasties from one philosophical line to another? When did the four directions become the eight directions? When and how were the groupings of rulers extended? And so on. The only thing that loses me most of the time is the endless bickering about surnames. I find the surnames unreasonably boring, for reasons I can't quite explain.

This is the first really impressive yellow tree to appear on the campus this year, as far as I know. The colors have been nothing much, but we then haven't had a frost yet.

Nothing much else to say about yesterday, except that I had pulled noodles for dinner and felt a lot better about it than last time. I think the key is not to try to talk to my favorite noodle-chef. It's unfortunate but true that we don't communicate too well. But I like to watch him make noodles and he knows it (he actually looks around to make sure I'm watching before he makes mine, so as to be sure I won't miss it. But I am always watching). Beyond that, there's only the ritual of purchase and preparation. He always puts the ingredients in carefully and generously (he doesn't ask me anymore if I want cilantro because he knows I do), and always gestures to the vinegar and hot pepper which I am to add myself. The last time I went, I felt badly because my asking him questions upset the ritual and he forgot give me the chopsticks and napkin and got flustered. In this case (unlike for Confucius), the asking of questions is not the correct ritual. Some people can get actually friendly with their local noodle chef, but I think that for me it's better as-is.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Quiet-ish Days, Random Pictures

It has been a quiet few days after all the excitement of the weekend, so I have no choice but to post about quiet and small things. Yesterday I had classes all day. They went well except that I had a pronounced tendency to fall asleep. It's such an awful feeling trying to force yourself awake only to discover that you are slipping down again a moment later… I made a resolution that I will do more reading in advance next time. It is easier to stay awake when you can follow what's going on. It's hard because there is little or no assigned reading. There are just books that you're generally supposed to follow along in. But somehow I find it harder to get motivated to do that when I don't have set page numbers.

I sat with my friend Crystal in the historiography class, and she nudged me awake when I started dozing. Then I nudged her awake. We both drank coffee at the break. That's 8 AM classes for you! :P In research tools class, I don't have any buddies because all my classmates Chinese and Japanese undergraduates who are bored and restless, while I am trying had to learn things. They are cliquish and not interested in me. I mostly talk to the professor at the break, as she is (informally) my advisor here. I don't think that helps much either. Well, they don't appreciate her, and can't see past the fact that she's got a very boring row to hoe, teaching this class, just as they have taking it. It's actually a useful class--you just have to know in advance how you'll want to use it, in order to find it interesting. In history of literature, I sat next to my sort of Japanese friend NT. She is nice to me and seems to like having me sit next to her but doesn't seem interested in doing anything outside of class, though I have suggested it several times. It may be a problem with the language barrier. We'll see, as her Chinese improves!

And that was it for yesterday. (Do you see the chestnuts in this picture?)

Today, I spent most of the day in my room. First, I mopped the floor and cleaned my turtle-tank. Poor turtles are in very sorry shape. It's clear that their problem is temperature, and an aquarium heater is on the way, but I'm not sure it will get here in time to help them. I have looked for such a thing around here without success, so the poor creatures will just have to wait. They are really sluggish though. I refilled their tank with bathwater-temperature water, but it's so cold out lately. (Indeed, it looks as if it might actually freeze tonight--well, maybe. For the first time, when I went out this evening, I wore my winter coat.)

I was just thinking about going out to grab some lunch, when I noticed I had received a phone call yesterday that I hadn't answered. There is no voicemail here, so you just have to bravely call back whoever was trying to reach you, often without knowing who it is. In this case, I wish I hadn't. It was--someone from the school? They definitely remembered calling me and knew what it was about, but had no luck explaining it to me. I had some vague ideas but nothing you could call a hypothesis about what the person was trying to tell me. I am bad on the phone in Chinese. Then I hear, "So you will?" "Will what?" Then a Chinese word I understood as "attend" though it can also mean "participate." "Um, you mean just go see?" Another incomprehensible fast-talking flood. "Okay? Do you have time now?" "Now?" I decided that the best policy was to go over there and get things straightened out it person. I had better luck understanding where the person was than what she wanted.

Incidentally, my quads are absolutely killing me from overdoing it on the Wall the other day. So keep in mind that every step is more of a shuffle and I can't descend a staircase without leaning heavily on the rail and whimpering frequently. I haven't even tried to ride my bicycle, because I figure that walking has got to be less strenuous.

So I dragged myself up to campus and found the lady. As usual, communication was much smoother in person, given my heavy reliance on the use of visual aids and gestures. Oh, it's the international student talent-show/exhibition! Oh, and I have unwittingly agreed to be the MC! Not on your life. I explained in graphic detail that I have terrible stage-fright and every time I even think about going on stage I throw up, etc. This was all completely made up, I'll have you know; I'm pretty composed on stage, but that doesn't mean I get any kind of kick out of it. I just have no exhibitionist streak, nor any desire for applause or attention of that sort--it just does nothing for me, but give me a bad case of dread beforehand and a feeling of foolishness and exposure afterwards.

I felt bad for having to disappoint these ladies, especially since they had already thanked me for agreeing (!) to do it. (I also explained to them that I'd had no idea what I was agreeing to.) And then I slithered away feeling very guilty and very relieved. This isn't the first time I've wiggled out of being an MC at a Chinese event; my language skills are decent enough that I'm a fairly natural choice for it. But I have just such an aversion to the MC persona, that putting myself in that role feels like going out in public wearing a badly cut outfit, one that leaves me bare in all the wrong places!

Sorry to disappoint you then, but there will be no blog stories about Zapaper presiding at this year's Beida International Festival. Parents, you will have to hope your daughter attains some other sort of fame. It's not in me to get there by this path! (This is a topless persimmon.)

I went back home and worked for most of the afternoon, reasonably productively really. I am starting to get a sense of the research I want to do, and realize that the next order of business is to find someone I can go to with my classical Chinese questions.

For dinner I thought I would try going to that Korean barbecue place again and see if I could say hi to the kid who works there, who I met last time and with whom I have exchanged a few e-mails. But it turns out he doesn't work there anymore. Oh well, had a nice meal, ate way too much meat, got nothing done after dinner, and now here I am. Eleven-thirty on a school night and time to turn in.

Monday, October 23, 2006

It Really is Great

So sorry about the lack of postings the last few days. I had too little to say about Saturday and too much to say about yesterday, and somehow nothing got said at all. Saturday: I stayed in all day until dinner and got a headache from staring at the computer screen for too long. When I wasn't staring at the computer screen I looked at some books. Then went back to the computer screen. Planned to take myself out for an expensive meal at the do-in-yourself Korean barbeque but it was mobbed so I had fast-food Japanese rice-bowl instead. Pretty tasty.

Had a very frustrating time at the DQ in the same food court. Chinese Dairy Queen? Yep. I wanted a dip-cone. I really wanted a dip cone. Unfortunately, I didn't know how to read the first character in the name of the dip-cone. After confused pointing at the menu and me trying to read out the rest of the name, the counter girl pulled out a handy picture menu. Good. I pointed at the chocolate dip-cone. I put my finger right on it. Did I want a dish? She asked, pointing to the sundae above it. No, a cone. What's a dip-cone without a cone? I thought I was doing pretty well, but what did I get? A stupid plain vanilla soft-serve ice-cream. Sure it was on a cone, but what's a dip-cone without the dip? The counter-girl seemed so pleased that she had managed to communicate with the problem foreigner that I lost my nerve and walked out with my stupid non-dip cone instead of complaining. But I have never eaten an ice-cream so resentfully in all my life. What part of the picture don't you understand?! Yeah, I know it's a pretty silly thing to be angry about but what can I say? When you want a dip-cone, you want a dip-cone...

[I made myself drool about a quart looking on Google image search for a picture of some unattainable dip-cone to paste here. On second thought, I'm skipping the picture.]

And on the other hand, I should have complained, but clearly it was somehow my fault. If I had known how to correctly read the Chinese character for "wearing a chocolate skin" I would have gotten what I wanted. Somehow, this is no comfort.

So much for Saturday, a highly forgettable day.

When I woke up yesterday morning and looked out the window, it was clear and sunny and perfect. I was not going to stay in all day again, and have late-night DQ rage be my only reportable experience. I was determined to make the most of this clear, cool, sunny day on which I had no pressing work or nor any commitments. Hey, I'm in China. Why not go see the Great Wall?

So that is what I did. Not for me, overpriced package tours with built-in stops and dubious tourist destinations. I'll take the city bus, thanks! On the advice of my guidebook collection, I went to a part of town I'd never been, asked several times, and finally located the proper bus-stop, not marked with anything like "Great Wall" (hey, the package tour people have to make a living somehow) but with the correct number bus and a lot of tourist-on-a-budget Chinese people toting plastic bags full of steaming hot corn-on-the-cob. I snagged a window seat for the 1+ hour bus-ride and settled in with headphones.

After about half an hour we stopped at a "Sinopec" gas station. I looked interestedly at the price of gas: 4.83 RMB/L. Unfortunately, my math skills were not up to calculating what that is in $/gallon, but it seemed an interesting figure to know anyway. My seat-mate was interested too. I removed my headphones and asked in my best effort at smooth fluent Chinese, "Would you say that's pretty expensive?" My seatmate, a Chinese guy about my age, just stared out me with his mouth open. I quickly replayed my mental tape. Did I accidentally just ask him if his head was up his ass, or some other horrendous rudeness, without realizing it? Nope, I don't think so. He regained his composure and said, "You speak Chinese!?" Oh, is that all. I never did find out whether he thought the price of gas in Beijing high or not, but I got asked a lot of questions. How long had I been here? Only two months?! How did my Chinese get so good?

This is such an incredibly standard conversation path here that I have become as used to it as I am to the one about whether or not I'm Asian. Somehow it never even occurs to Chinese people that Americans might study Chinese in America the way they study English in China. Also I think the standard at tourist spots is especially low. Anyway, other questions I got asked by this fellow and his friend (both from southern China, and seeing the Great Wall for the first time, also both perfectly polite and not creepy) were, How long was I staying? Did I believe in God? How old was I? Was it really possible to get used to living by myself? Why do Westerners like to do things by themselves (e.g., seeing the Great Wall) when it is so much nicer to do things in groups? This last one stumped me and I said maybe it was just me, but personality or something, but they assured me that lots of other Westerners had been spotted at Beijing tourist sites all by themselves. Search me. My experience usually is that the bigger the group, the bigger the inertia--it takes forever to get started, turn corners, etc. And since it's already hard and slow to get anything done in China, maybe it just seems more efficient to go it alone. But I'm just speaking for myself.

On and off we had a view of the Great Wall off in the distance, looking slender but wonderful.

It took a little over an hour to get to Ba da ling, the standard tourist entry-point for the Great Wall. I had been well-prepared by my guidebook for outrageous loads of tourist crap, but it really wasn't so bad, actually pretty non-invasive with a few exceptions and even somewhat convenient (pay-toilets that were actually the type you can sit on, tasty snacks). I hiked up the road to the entrance, paid my discounted student rate (hurray!) and climbed the steps.

Okay, I admit, the Great Wall I was walking on did not date back to the Qin Dynasty of 2200 years ago, or even to the Ming Dynasty of 500 years ago. As guidebooks had warned, it has been liberally restored and I say, Thank Goodness! It was hard enough walking on it with it being fully restored and in damn good shape. Frankly I shudder to think what it would be like to walk on if it were crumbling and decrepit. I guess that makes me an old lady, but I'll leave the wild hikes to 20-something males with a death-wish. The restored wall was plenty steep and treacherous enough for me, and that's with good sturdy railings on both sides!

I went south first because there seemed to be fewer people that way. In fact, it really wasn't that crowded at all, despite dire warnings of weekend tourist gluts. Perhaps the briskness of the wind discouraged some. Not that I had the place to myself, but I could move around in perfect comfort and take whatever photos I wanted without people passing in front of my camera. The mountainside shrubs were just starting to turn red, and the air felt clean, clean air for the first time in months! It was delicious just to breathe. And, guess what, the Great Wall really is great. There is just no doubt about it, and no jaded and deflationary guidebooks can make me think otherwise. I've seen it with my own eyes and do hereby endorse it as something a person should see in their life-time if at all possible. It does not disappoint.

It's one of those rare man-made things that enhances the landscape rather than detracting--at least I think so. It emphasizes the complexity and endless endless curves of the mountains so that you see the mountains even better than you had before. And yet it is not flashy or brightly colored or bizarre looking. It is a simple line, trying as best it can to follow an easy and natural route. It was not even meant to be a work of art, but it is one.

The other thing I had been worried about was not being allowed to hike as far as I wanted. Let me assure any normal person that this is not a problem. I went as far south as I could (ending at an un-restored section undergoing restoration with the help of a troop of basket-toting equines, one horse-power each). Then I turned around and headed north, already feeling well-exercised, but still determined.

I admit that along the wall at various points there were people selling tourist kitsch--postcards, plaques, paintings, "I climbed the Great Wall" t-shirts, shawls, quilts, mugs or key-chains with your picture on it, etc. I resisted it all without even trying...until I saw the one thing I just couldn't live without. Actually it wasn't a thing--the photo I got of it was merely secondary to my immediate (upon seeing it) and irresistible sit on a camel. Laugh at me if you want, and I deserve it. It was probably the worst and kitschiest touristy thing they had there. (Okay, the "imperial throne" next to the camel was actually the worst.) I also felt a momentary impulse of guilt toward the very polite and pure white horse that was standing patient and neglected off to the side, yet another picture prop. But it wasn't the picture I cared about. I just wanted to the experience, even if it was just for a second. The humps were covered with wiry hair that was extremely clean and not at all smelly. The camel felt really solid in a way that a horse doesn't. You didn't feel in danger of sliding off because the two humps are like the world's tallest saddle. And you can always grab on to the front one when in doubt. It's like giving someone a hug (which I am covertly doing, if you can tell from the photo). All the same, it's also much higher than most horses, so I felt mildly shaky after I came down, or maybe that was just the excitement.

I will add that I did not pay the utterly outrageous 200 RMB that was demanded of me for the very smallest size photograph. I heard 200 and turned right around because however much I wanted to ride a camel for 30 seconds, I didn't want it $25 worth. Everything's negotiable up there though, generally annoying, but in this case I got it down to less than half that. I'm sure I still got robbed blind, but seeing as I'm horrible at bargaining, I felt that I had at least made a respectable showing. And it was my one and only indulgence.

Continuing on up the north side, I bought cheap soy-sauce eggs when I was hungry and passed up "Great Wall certificates" (certifying that yes, I climbed the Great Wall) and bronzed Great Wall segment paper-weights and copper astrological pendants. I drank Britta-filtered water from my own water-bottle, hurray! At one point, the Wall is made deliberately and rather infuriatingly discontinuous, perhaps so people will have an excuse to stop. We are not talking about a stroll in the park here. It is more like doing a stair-master continuously for--in my case--about four hours. At first I felt pretty darn proud passing up all those huffing and puffing Chinese smokers. But the Great Wall will wear you out. It's just a question of how long it will take! After the discontinuity, the population dropped precipitously and also got a lot whiter. Aussies, Europeans, and your occasional extra-tough American hiking dude type, one or two discouraged Japanese, and a very very few Chinese--again, tough hiker types. This may be attributable to the energy-burning hill of doom, a brutal climb and a brutal descent and then nothing but more of same stretching on and on, together with the prospect of having to go back over on the return trip.

Feeling like a bit of a wimp, I turned back not very much later. But here is a picture of me at the farthest point I reached. I am actually feeling much happier than I look in this picture. I'm just a bit out of breath!

It was a very hard hike back to the entrance, and still took more than an hour. Fortunately, I had some White Stripes with me, otherwise I never would have made it back over the hill of doom. (White Stripes, for you old fogies out there, is music that could motivate you to rise from the grave, or at least a really heavy and exhausted torpor.)

When I finally made it down off the Wall, the sun was setting. It was getting really chilly. I walked down the street toward the bus stop--and who should be walking behind me? But two big camels, one of whom had posed with me on its back and holding its lead rein, for the princely sum of $10. Just like a horse, the camel snatched a bit of some roadside shrubs. I inquired and was told that they lived "just down there." I would have liked to have lingered but an ominously solitary Beijing-bound bus was waiting as if waiting just for me (false impression--the bus made a big circuit all around the park, collecting passengers until it was standing-room only), so I made a dash for it. I had a nice single seat which was good because the ride back was more than two hours, and it was another two hours before I made it all the way home. A long long day! But glorious!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Roasted Chestnuts, Learning So Much

Greetings dear ones and strangers too. I am very tired after an overflowing sort of day, but I thought I should at least post some of my recent photos and say a few words about things before I get too far behind. First, I forgot to mention that yesterday for the first time there were people roasting chestnuts and selling them. They have a giant wok over a flame, and the wok is full of shiny black gravel, which the vendor constantly turns and stirs, turns and stirs. (The shine, I think, is a sort of oil.) In the gravel are chestnuts, each with a long slit in the skin, and slowly roasted to perfection. When you buy them, they are still very warm but the skins come off easily. This picture was taken by pointing the camera down into the little brown bag. Aren't the chestnuts beautiful? I love their smooth brown glossy chestnut color, too. I think I got something like half a kilo, and I ate almost all of them in one afternoon. I am sorry I did not get a picture of the person roasting the chestnuts. I will try to in the future!

This photo is of the opera cast receiving their flowers. It was quickly snatched and not perfectly in focus, but somehow I rather like it.

The other leftover photo was another quick illicit shot down into the courtyard of the National Library. Do you recall I mentioned the tacky old yellow dragon that had clearly been demoted from a major courtyard ornament to a piece of rubbish? Well! It just so happened that on Thursday when I visited again, they were in the process of smashing the dragon to pieces with a sledgehammer. It is mostly intact in this picture but it was an unrecognizable jumble of metal by the time I left. What luck that I was able to snatch this photo before it was too late!

Moving on to today: I can't believe it's already Friday again. Sometimes the time has dragged here in Beijing, but this week has flown by. I suppose it's because I have been rather busy. In any case, I had my Chinese lesson this morning. After a long internal debate about the relative merits of bus or bike, I decided on bike. I would leave plenty early this time, I promised myself, as I had yet to be on time to a Chinese lesson! I left early, and wonder upon wonder, everything went very smoothly. So far, it is a 45 minute bike ride, but my teacher insists that if I choose the route properly I should be able to get it down under 30. I allowed an hour, and so arrived at my Chinese lesson not only on time, but actually early.

While I was waiting for ten o'clock to come, I wandered out the side door of the building and took this picture from the landing of the backstairs. It's of the high wall of the apartment building opposite, which looked kind of grimly marvelous to me despite also being so ramshackle.

My Chinese lesson was really helpful as always, but not quite as smooth as before. I was just having a bad talking day. Those of you who have been in foreign language immersion situations I'm sure can understand this feeling very well: there are good days and there are bad days. You can tell when someone is feeling tired and strained trying to understand what you are trying to say! But at least I pay her for her patience. Am I a freak, that I feel so much more comfortable with someone I have hired than with someone who is just a friend? Yeah, I thought so. Well, I learned a lot of things despite my inarticulateness.

This is a picture I snapped on the way home, while waiting at a red light. It is a house-wares vendor. I think they have a very hard job because their wares are so heavy!

Back at home, I put some of my new learning to use in brushing up my presentation notes, relaxed for an hour or so, and then headed back to campus. I printed out the presentation and had some time to spare, so I went to the History Department and (finally!) got all the requisite stamps and seals and signatures on my department change application. Hurray! I was afraid if I brought it to the next stage in the process I would be late for my 3 PM appointment, so I shall do that on Monday. But I think the hardest part is behind me. After all, it's the department you are leaving that is likely to have hard feelings and make trouble. The department you are going to must feel fairly well-disposed toward you? At least I hope so!

My three o'clock meeting was with Professor LGs, whom I have mentioned before. We spoke for some time about the information I had gathered, and he discussed with me his ideas on the most efficient way to write a research paper. He is a greatly experienced advisor of many graduate students, and one definitely did get a strong sense of venerable wisdom emanating from him. He is a small man and very thin (I am taller and heavier by almost 10 kilos, as it turns out!), but in talking to him one gets a sense that his mind is enormously full of things: texts, ideas, thoughts, arguments, disagreements, associations, more texts, more and more texts. When he talks about having an idea, he says it is in his stomach, which I find incredibly cute and funny. "In my stomach I have a lot of thoughts and ideas…" I think he feels the pressure from his grandly distended mind and his aging body: he wants to get his ideas out there, to express them, at once! He is nearing eighty years of age, both he and his wife are fond of saying. He wants to see things written! published! now! (Meanwhile, his wife wants him to conserve his energy and think less of scholarly immortality and more of extending physical mortality as long as possible.)

The sense he gives off, of driving force, is very good for me. I am inclined to be a very slow and plodding researcher, wasting lots of time on tiny tangents and writing at a snail's pace. But now when I am tempted to be slow, I think of LGs and how old he looks, and how I should use our time well. It is a good inspiration for me.

He is very positive about collaboration and suggested an initial plan, an article of limited scope, perhaps to be followed by others if it works out, and published both in English and in Chinese. I am sure it must be possible to accomplish such things. He, of course, can publish anything he wants here in China, but shouldn't I be able to use my connections to do the same in the US? I don't know, because I've never really had anything that seemed worth publishing. But I will find out. At the very least, it will be a great exercise; it has the feeling of a sort of apprenticeship.

I stayed on to dinner. I am hoping it wasn't trouble to his wife. She was clearly in a rough mood today, and quarreled with LGs in the kitchen in the interval between our talk and dinner (door closed). But I think it was not about my being here because we concluded early enough that she didn't absolutely need to invite me. I think she had had an upsetting phone-call, or perhaps there was something else, but in any case she was warm and laughing at dinner, and the two American girls were friendly too. One is very smart and one is very young. They are like (but aren't actually) a quiet clever older sister already on her path and a rowdier more awkward younger sister just getting her bearings on life. They are cute.

For some reason, we got to talking about weight and kilograms versus pounds, how kilograms are completely meaningless to us Americans because we don't use them, and then LGs got inspired and pulled out a scale from under the couch. A public weighing! It was a bit like a public execution! But dutifully, dutifully we went to be weighed. The younger girl had to be strongly persuaded. Hey, the scale was in kilograms (was my thought) and didn't mean anything to me. I was the heaviest, though. The girls found it hilarious that I was laughing and bragging about it. I can, though, because I have lost enough weight here that I don't feel overweight anymore. (I just did the conversion.) Okay, I haven't lost that much weight. But it has been redistributed to muscle or something, because I feel more husky than fat!

We set a time for another meeting, much hard negotiating with the wife ZWx. She is protective and doesn't want LGs to wear himself out. I hope I won her trust by saying that I understood completely and that she is the boss. She grinned at me then and said approvingly that I was an obedient child. I felt bad to have come on an afternoon when she was in a bad mood, but at least I made myself useful when, sometime during our discussion, a man came to receive their old desktop computer. I hated to see such venerable people carrying the big components, so I and the man carried the big bits and they followed with the little cables and cords and accessories. I hope I am learning. I think that relative to other people of their status, they are very patient with cultural mistakes and awkwardness. They host exchange students every year, after all, so they know our ways. So I am hoping very much that I have done right things without being utterly terrified of the thought that I might not have!

And now I am so tired I can hardly contemplate resting. It is cold in the apartment, very cold. I am wearing my red sleep-sack. I have reason to believe that the heat won't be on until mid-November, and I felt cold during my Chinese lesson, and cold in my meeting with LGs too. They wait as long as they can before firing up the heating system. As long as you're not actually freezing TO DEATH, they'd rather conserve resources! I'm very glad for the cozy enveloping warmth of the polartec sleep-sack. Thanks Aunt J! Okay, I'm going to go curl up with a book now, a guiltless blogger.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Where Does My Time Go?

These are the days of sweet potatoes and fresh fruit coated with carmelized sugar shining glassily on long bright sticks. It has been perfect fall weather, at last, with the dirty feeling of late summer left behind. And I have been terribly, exceedingly busy and have not had time to post properly. By the end of the day, my brain is so tired, all I want to do is read news or (better) about the lives of extraordinary ordinary people, who are witty and tired and brave and dismayed and stubborn. I know that a few people are disappointed when I fail to scatter a bit of my own news into the general blog mix, though, so I will try to say a few things. I'm sorry that it will have to be a pale and scattered reflection of what I usually write.

Yesterday I saw part two of the Peach Blossom Fan, but much of it was not as good as part one. Long lamenting love-songs could have been cut without being missed, and I would rather have had more of the exciting battles, gallant sacrifices, and dynastic tragedy. I guess that's why I study narrative history rather than traditional Chinese chick novels. But the battles etc. were really exciting, and made it worthwhile for me anyway.

I did work. In the middle of the night I woke up in a panic, realizing that much of what I had done was really off-topic and would end up being cut. I also panicked about several other useless things, such as whether I would have an 8 AM class (I didn't), whether I would hear my alarm clock through my ear plugs, whether I had locked the door, whether the turtles would be too cold. One has no sense of proportion at 4 AM.

I woke up very tired. I went to the National Library and it all went off without a hitch this time. During the long bus-ride I read a totally random copy of Anne of the Island which I had picked at a newsstand that sells a truly bizarre assortment of books from time to time, the dollar table. Never been an Anne-fan (heresy), and thought this one pretty bad too, but somehow it was bad in an enjoyable way that made me want to keep reading it.

Had a rather grubby little lunch in Library cafeteria (funny concept). I got what I needed to get as far as notes are concerned. On the way home, I bought some cleaning supplies, a few minor groceries, and some nasty whole fish for the turtles. They have not been eating, and smelly foods are supposed to entice them. They weren't interested. I am worried about them.

All afternoon, I worked fitfully. Went out briefly and managed to get my department change application form signed by the advisor I had not yet met. It was an embarrassing way to meet: hi, how do you do, I'm fleeing your department. But we carried it off well, I think. Then I ate and came back home to work fitfully some more. My work at this point is about rendering some large chunks of English into small chunks of Chinese, so I can present the main ideas concisely when I meet LGs tomorrow. That is very HARD!

I also had several interchanges with a little Chinese pen-pal I met at a restaurant, and stayed up too late writing a proper bilingual message complete with inspiring story. The Chinese part of my brain is painfully tired, and the other parts too, so I have to get to bed--right now!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Dead Ringer for Harry Potter

Yep, it's official. In silly quiz number two for the day--this one very silly but also very cool--I look like Harry Potter. Okay, not a lot like, but a little. I am thrilled. Many of the other people, I don't know who they are. But I'm impressed by the consistency of the results, which kept a fair amount of common ground despite using different photos. However, if I use pre-China photos, the results change completely. This suggests that whatever process they use is highly sensitive to facial fat. Anyway, this one is fun to do but you do have to do a pesky registration. :P Anyway, what do you think?

I think the reason this particular quiz is so fun is it's cool to see yourself surrounded by beautiful people. Just my guess!

By the way, sorry no good original post tonight. I just felt like looking at celebrity faces instead of writing. Some nights are like that.

A Somewhat Less Silly Quiz

All right, it's still a little silly, but it has quite a lot of fun questions, some of which are thoughtful and require thought. Repressed Librarian posts the best quizzes. I couldn't resist.

The Maid of Honor
Deliberate Gentle Love Master (DGLMf)

Appreciated for your kindness and envied for all your experience, you are The Maid of Honor.

Charismatic, affectionate, and terrific in relationships, you are what many guys would call a "perfect catch"--and you probably have many admirers, each wishing to capture your long-term love. You're careful, extra careful, because the last thing you want is to hurt anyone. Especially some poor boy whose only crime was liking you.

Your exact opposite:

Random Brutal Sex Dreamer
We've deduced you're fully capable of a dirty fling, but you do feel that post-coital attachment after hooking up. So, conscientious person that you are, you do your best to reserve physical affection for those you you can respect yourself.

Your biggest negative is the byproduct of your careful nature: indecision. You're just as slow rejecting someone as you are accepting them.

ALWAYS AVOID: The False Messiah, The 5-Night Stand, The Vapor Trail, The Bachelor

CONSIDER: The Gentleman, someone just like you.

Link: The 32-Type Dating Test by OkCupid - Free Online Dating.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Peach Blossom Day

Since my last post was rather gloomy, let me list the excellent things about today. First, the weather was beautiful. It was clear and cool all day, and what is finer than being just a little bit chilly in a long-sleeve shirt?

Next, my stomach is better. Not one hundred percent better, but enough better that I managed to do things rather than lying around in bed moaning. The turtles, miraculously, are better as well. Last night, before I went to bed, I changed their water and refilled their tank with warmish water, just a little off bath-water. I think they liked that, because today they both hopped off their basking shelf and tried comically to swim away and hide when I peered at them. Very normal turtle behavior. And while Queequeg is still a bit sluggish, Yojo is much more active again. Reprieved from the guilt of poor turtle husbandry, at least for now!

As I was getting out of the shower, there was a knock on the door. I looked through the peep-hole and it was the postman! So I shouted apologetically for him to wait, quickly threw on my house-dress, and opened the door . What was he bringing, but a lovely box from my wonderful, thoughtful, caring, considerate guy. Little things from home that I'd left behind or hadn't known I needed, and a little present too, a brilliant-colored turkey (rooster?) finger-puppet.

When I got my bicycle out of its overnight sleeping place in the apartment complex's basement market, it was in a good temper too: instead of making its usual metal-on-metal scream and whine and ding, it just mumbled a little.

I went out not in a hurry, planning just to have a little lunch, look for a book, and talk to my professor after lunch. So I ate and then wandered leisurely through the bookstores. They didn't have the book I was looking for, but that was all right. I then went for a long walk on the north side of campus, where I hardly ever go. There are ponds and bridges, and there were lots of people painting the ponds and bridges. It was pretty cool. Far in the northwest corner there was a sort of run-down abandoned pond thick with lotus leaves but not well taken care of. The only living things there were a couple of fat insouciant magpies. (Magpies, like bats, are common here because they are considered lucky.) It was so nice to be outside, it made me wonder why I don't do it more often!

Slowly, I walked back to my professor's office and called her as instructed. She said came up and take away this pile of books! She had found me some really useful books, some which would have been quite expensive to me, because she had worked on some of them. We stuffed the books into my backpack, an embarrassment of riches, and she laughed at me and said I looked like I was set to go climb a mountain. Then we had a very pleasant chat, and she asked me some more questions about my program and my plans. We discussed writing things in English versus in Chinese. Also, I remembered my lessons from AL, and asked her (as AL had suggested) how she might recommend going about this research. This proved to be a good and appropriate question, as it got me some useful advice and further offers of help and consultation. I left feeling very cheered and inspired.

After lugging my books home and temporarily parking my bike outside the gate, I loafed around the house for the afternoon, resting and watching a little TV--which really is education insofar as it helps my listening comprehension. I put the little turtles up on a table by the open window so they could catch some real UV rays, purported to be good for them. I also caught up with a few e-mails, and didn't go out until around 5. After some searching, I successfully located the book I was looking for at the big four-story bookstore down the street.

Then I went to the play. It was a performance of the The Peach Blossom Fan, as I mentioned earlier. That play is a classic of Qing theater, completed in 1699. It was not (just) a languishing love drama but also a magnificent tragedy (though not in a Greek sense) of dynastic fall. And in some sense the love story and the political story are allegorically intertwined, but it's not simple and easy to unravel, at least to my fairly uneducated ear. The really enjoyable thing was, the play had subtitles in English as well as Chinese, so I wasn't lost at all, as I'd feared I'd be. I could follow it just fine.

My favorite moments were: when the handsome young groom carries his beautiful bridge across the threshhold, and suddenly the translucent screen behind them becomes transparent as they are plunged into a romantic semi-darkness, while the orchestra behind the screen is lit up and fully visible, providing the wedding music! Also the moment when the messenger comes to the marvelously martial and dignified old general, announcing that the unthinkable has happened--that the emperor has hanged himself--and the general throws the messenger across the stage in his dismay. (The messenger is a skillful tumbler and acrobat so you don't have to feel sorry for him, and it is a wonderfully expressive, stylized moment.) In general, I liked the sudden sense of stillness when various characters heard the bad news. And on the other hand, I also liked very much the way the narrator invariably came on stage with a huge cackle of laughter.

Overall, it was a very fun experience and I'm looking forward to going back again tomorrow night for part 2!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Going Nowhere!

I have been mostly home sick today, which is frustrating because I was mostly home not sick yesterday. If I had known I would be sick today, I would have gone out and done something more fun yesterday. Anyway, given that it's mostly just two more days at home, I thought I might as well write them all at once.

Yesterday morning I stayed in and worked until lunchtime, and then I went out and continued my self-imposed discipline of trying new foods. This time, in one of the small row of restaurants under the big bookstore, I found the food that dad always talks so fondly about from his time in Manchuria: thin Asian-crepes with green onions and a salty brown sauce. Of course, it being a prosperous country in the 21st century, there was also a large pile of thin-sliced pork to make it into a real meal. But I'm almost certain it's the right thing.

It made a pleasant meal, I will say, a welcome change. Sometimes one gets tired of stir-fries and noodle soups. This was more restrained, with discrete ingredients. In the same little plaza, I saw this fish-pond.

After my nice meal, I went to Starbucks planning to get some work done. I ordered an ordinary coffee (still $1.50, but the cheapest thing on the menu). Apparently they were out. Out of normal coffee? Was Americano all right? By the time I understood this, I'd had to ask for clarification so many times that I agreed out of embarrassment. Patrons of foreign Starbucks branches: don't do this. Americano, priced at an exorbitant $2.50, is code for absolutely crappy, watery, disgusting coffee. As an American, I felt insulted, though at the same time I had to admit that it resembled certain sorts of American coffee…such as that which can be purchased at gas-stations and Dunkin Donuts. When I'm paying Starbucks prices I expect more!

I was so irritated by the bad coffee that I didn't manage to stay very long, and instead wandered home. I failed again in my ongoing quest for a grilled cheese sandwich. In case I haven't mentioned this, the pot that came with my ceramic burner is an incredibly thin piece of crap not good for anything but boiling stuff. I had bought an expensive heavy-duty new pot, but the ceramic burner seems unable to sense it and won't go on. It's useless trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich in a very thin-bottomed pot, so this time I thought I would try filling up the thin pot with water and putting the thick pot on top. This might have worked eventually, but after 10 minutes I ran out of patience, rinsed and dried the thin pot, and put my sandwich on it. Burnt to a crisp within seconds. This made me blue, and I felt to discouraged to go out and find something else to eat. Instead I cobbled together a highly miscellaneous meal, had a gloomy and unproductive evening, and went to bed.

A bad night for sleeping. Before first light, I started tossing and turning and had a very sharp stomachache. I will spare you further details except to say that something in my cobbled together meal had clearly not agreed with my guts. I considered going to my 8 AM class, but decided ducking out to the bathroom every ten minutes might attract unwanted attention. Instead I lay around drinking hot water and feeling sorry for myself. I was feeling a little better by noon, so decided to try to make it to the 12:30 class taught by my advisor here. My tutor told me that it's a traditional practice to always attend your advisor's class if you're a grad student, which I had been doing anyway, and it seemed well to make a good showing. Unfortunately, I was feeling too poorly to bike at my usual speed, and arrived 10 minutes late. YHz didn't seem to mind. The other problem was that I was feeling pretty bad, and the crowded classroom and necessity of focusing made me feel a lot worse. YHz came up to me at the break, and I apologized for being late, saying I was not feeling well. She said I should go home and rest. She also mentioned that she had some books for me! I felt bad but she said I should just call her office at a convenient time and go get them. When might you be around? I asked. I'm always there! she said, and we had a laugh. Then I skipped the second half of the class and wobbled home on my bike.

The whole afternoon was a complete waste because I wasn't feeling well enough to do anything. I started to wonder if maybe it was some kind of flu? If it was food, my major suspects were either pumpkin juice (who knows if they pasteurize juice here) or milk. By evening, I was feeling a little better and very hungry. I had slowly eaten a small pot of rice through the day, and a bowl of instant noodles, all fine. I carefully avoided both milk and pumpkin juice. But I did have a very small wedge of the brie I had been so happy to find at the supermarket. It was perfectly clean, well-packaged, imported brie, but I suspect it was that which made me sick because not very long after I ate it I started feeling much worse again. I don't get it--it's not like it was really sharp smelly brie. It was gentle, well-refrigerated brie. Anyway, brie can go without being refrigerated. But I don't see what else might have made me worse again, as I didn't eat anything else I'd had the day before. Unless it be the Nutella I've been carefully nursing for the last month and a half? But with Nutella you can usually tell when it's going off, and this Nutella is relatively young. I've eaten much more venerable and dubious Nutella with no ill-effects. I suppose I should throw out the entire contents of my refrigerator and start over. I suppose I should just eat dirty street-food as it's clearly safer! I am disgruntled and annoyed.

I also have to sadly report that not only am I not feeling well, but the little turtles aren't either. It has been colder outside, though still mostly mid-70s in my room (if my little thermometer is accurate). I have been keeping the windows closed, and giving the turtles a really nice warm basking lamp all day, but at night I do have to turn the lamp off. They have become increasingly sluggish and don't hop into the water in terror when I peer at them. I have not seen them go after food either. For a while, only Queequeg was really sluggish, but now Yojo is too. He's probably caught whatever Queequeg has, but I didn't have the heart to quarantine Queequeg, because it seemed like giving up on him. They just sleep all day and all night unless I push them off into the water, and then they sluggish crawl back out.

Begin rationalization here: this is a land where turtles are sold in grocery stores (for eating), so I don't need to feel horribly guilty for my failures in turtle husbandry. For that matter, there is a here certain amount of scandal involved with a pet much closer to most people's heart: dogs. Dogs are sold from baskets in street corners, I'm told by various ex-pats. The problem is that they're so highly inbred that many have heart defects. One guy I met at a party said he'd inquired about it from a puppy-vendor and the fellow had agreed, saying cheerfully that, "yes, these are temporary dogs."

None of this rationalizing really makes me feel any better about my possibly temporary turtles. But here's another: Colin says, maybe turtles have a short life-span. They don't! I contradicted. They can live up to twenty years in the wild, and even forty years in captivity. Colin argues that that's assuming any given turtle has the potential to live that long. Maybe they have a wide variation of potential life-span! I actually found this rather comforting--some websites do say that some very small turtles just seem to die for no reason. Young turtle mortality in general is pretty high, which is why they lay so many at a time. This still doesn't cure my nagging suspicion that I'm doing something wrong. I have been cleaning their tank very faithfully, and have offered them at least some variety of healthful foods in addition to turtle pellets. But it's a cruel world for little turtles, so I wanted to write and prepare you for the worst.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Working a Blue Streak, Microcredit

Yesterday, a Saturday, I got up late. After breakfast and the usual morning things, I mopped the floor with my new mop. I straightened the books on the bookshelf and reshelved many that had migrated to the floor or the bed or the couch. I did all the dishes and cleared off the desk, and then I sat down and worked all day on my dissertation. That's really what I did, and that's about all I did. I didn't leave the house until after dark, and then only to grab a little dinner at a campus cafeteria and copy one page I had missed while copying a longer work. Alas, that is just about all I have to say about the day. The photo is of white sediment settled at the bottom of my blue tea-cup from the drinking water I had just poured in. It makes a pretty photo, but it is an uninspiring sight when you are considering whether to drink it.

My news pick is three different articles about the Nobel Peace prize-winner for this year, Muhammad Yunus, the fellow who invented microcredit (which, given my occupation, I keep accidentally reading as microedit). Is it a good thing? Does it work? Some folks think so. Others are less convinced. Still others are so thoroughly skeptical it comes off sounding like sour grapes. A 55% failure rate is still a 45% success rate, and that sounds pretty good to me, when the goal is to help people out of poverty--a tricky proposition. But the point is well taken that there are certain problems and certain things that could be done better. I guess to me the interesting thing about this issue is that I didn't know anything about it until I read these articles, and I like having a variety of viewpoints to choose from. Yay free press.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Whipped from the Mud

Yesterday morning I got up early because I was planning to bike to my Chinese lesson, and I wanted very much not to be late. My tutor had said that it would take about 35 minutes, but I was planning to give it more than an hour, since I had never navigated there before. However, I didn't get out of the house until slightly after 9, which meant I had about 50 minutes. Things went pretty well at first, with my only problem being how much other commuters stared at me and my goofy helmet. The traffic was just tapering off rush-hour but still heavy, especially in the bike lane. But bikes en masse moving slowly are surprisingly safe as along as you keep your eyes open. I started getting lost as I got nearer the place I was supposed to go. Which bridge did her directions say? Did she mean go straight at this bridge and exit after, or exit at this bridge? (I still haven't got the hang of directions in Chinese.) And I had my map book, but the bridges (ring road overpasses--the major and only reliable landmarks) are marked to be comprehensible to cars, with road signs like freeway exit signs, so not exactly where the bridge is and not always visible from underneath.

After some unnecessary and confused back and forth tracking, I was pretty close when AL called me at 9:54. It still took me about another 15 minutes and another phone-call to actually get to her door. The last little bit is especially rough. AL expressed confidence that next time I would be able to get there just fine, and in under 40 minutes. It's a bit of a trek, but good exercise.

The lesson went well. I asked my list of questions. She was especially interested in a rather scholarly question I had about translating something like "the anglophone world" into Chinese. We had an interesting discussion about the fact that you can of course say it in Chinese (literally, English-speaking countries) but generally for the purpose they use the phrase "Western countries." People assume that everyone in the West speaks English, she explained, although, she added, she knew this wasn't correct. Still, saying Western countries would sound very natural and saying English-speaking countries would sound marked. Since I was specifically trying to contrast French and American scholarship on a particular topic, that would just have to do, though.

When I was done with my questions, we talked a little bit about my classes, and then about Chinese mythology, which she thought might be an interesting and useful addition to my cultural literacy--not the specialized semi-historical stuff I'm learning in class, but the popularized stories that everyone knows and maybe even believes. I was especially struck by one (she knew I would be) which explained the creation of human beings. In this particular story it is, most appropriately, a goddess rather than a god who brings humans into being. The goddess, Nüwa, begins by shaping humans out of river mud or clay. However, it is rather tedious to shape them so painstakingly one at a time. So she broke off a willow twig and lashed the mud with it. With every stroke there rose up a number of splashes and splatters. These splashes and splatters also became people. And (here's the kicker), the ones she shaped with her hands became the wealthy and privileged and talented people. The ones she whipped from the mud with the willow twig became the common-folk. Class society built in to the very origin myth, as the Judeo-Christian builds in the notion of sin. Ouch.

We debated for a while whether this creation myth expressed anything true about the human condition. I said I thought it was really troubling, and could be used as an excuse and justification for holding people down below their potential and perpetuating a system of rigid class rules. Okay, I didn't say it quite so articulately in Chinese, but that was the gist of my argument. AL argued delicately that she thought there was something quite true in it, and was amused by my quaint American egalitarianism and commitment to social mobility. In short, some people are just whipped from the mud and no matter how hard they struggle they're never going to move up in the world. Does she really believe this, or was she just playing devil's advocate so I could practice arguing!? But certainly class differences here are striking. Doesn't an American construction worker, truck driver, or farmer have a certain sense of "I'm as good as the next man, and why shouldn't my kid go to college"? You don't treat them like dirt and get away with it. Is that lacking here or is it just harder to recognize? Is it a new China or isn't it?

After my 90 minute lesson I was pretty hungry. I took my leave and pedaled slowly homeward. Because I wasn't stressed out about time, I had more time to be stressed out about the feeling like I was riding my bike on a freeway, on-ramp and all. So the ring roads aren't quite like a freeway, but they are some eight lanes wide, with fast cars and ramps (cars have to cut across the bike lane to enter and exit) and not very many stop-lights. Here is a homely picture of my wearing my helmet, and below a boring picture of the scene behind me, but just to show the sort of road it was. (Also it was an overpass, which is not entirely clear from the picture, with a river flowing underneath.)

I was very extremely hungry by the time I got all the way home, but somehow didn't feel like stopping in a restaurant. I dropped by the little alley just south of my house instead and bought a bag of dumplings right out of the steamer. As I was balancing these and my bike and my helmet and my bag and my sweater, I saw an amazing candied fruit man come by. All right, the man was ordinary but his display of candied fruit really wonderful. I wish I could have taken a picture, but I barely managed to by one stick and juggle the whole mess home. Below are some pretty pictures of the candy though. The fruits, I am almost certain, are called hawthorns in English, a type of fruit I have never had before. At first I thought they were crab apples, but the seeds are completely different, much larger but still multiple (not like a plum). If I had to guess, I'd say they're a sort of apple-cousin, but they have a slightly different flavor. Really cool. Below is a picture of the stick (minus one that I had to tear into even before I got home). Also a picture of my lunch, very round.

After all that biking, I had to rest for most of the afternoon. I managed to go out grocery shopping in the evening, with the firm intention of buying a mop. I'm not sure if it's because I spend so much time in this one room, or if it's because dirt comes in from outside (though I have mostly taken to closing the window), but the place gets really filthy really fast. At first I thought I could mop by pushing a cloth around with my feet (it's only one room, for goodness sake) but it turns out there is way too much dirt for that. So I bought a mop and comically carried it home together with my groceries. I also bought some m&m's and discovered that in Chinese they're described as "milk chocolate beans." Pretty cool, huh?

My news pick for the day is the melancholy almost Romeo and Juliet story of a Pakistani man who went to the house of his betrothed and insisted that they get married immediately (the wedding was set for December). In his excitement, he waved a gun and started firing bullets in the air. One ricocheted and he thought it had hit and killed her, so he committed suicide then and there. Actually she was fine, but now bereft of fiance. What was he thinking he was going to do with the gun anyway!? There are so too many guns in the world. But I'm thinking the root cause of this tragedy is the lack of sex before marriage. Why else would he be out there waving his gun and trigger-happy, trying to hurry things up, when your average American guy would probably be lurking at home with cold feet...?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Persimmon Harvest

I went to one class yesterday. I was egregiously late, for no reason. Although I do not live far from campus, there is no way to predict with certainly how long it will take me to get there. And, okay, I also left late. That was especially unfortunately because the class was specifically on the Shiji. On the other hand, that is the part I know best, so it was less of a loss. Still, embarrassing. I spent much of the class agonizing over a phone-call I had missed on the harried scramble to campus, from LGs, presumably in response to my e-mail about our possible collaboration. When the class got out at noon, though, I managed to call back and set up a meeting for next Friday. I was very pleased, although as usual I am greatly assailed by doubts and worries in the aftermath. I should remember that I liked him and his wife a lot and felt very comfortable at their house and talking shop with him! It is hard to remember, though.

After this I felt very relieved so I went to lunch with my classmate Crystal and her roommate. It was kind of awkward somehow, but pleasingly sociable. The roommate, also in the history department, works on Africa and South America, which I found quite fascinating. But as she's only an MA student, she had nothing in the way of specifics to say about her work. She's just starting. Actually, she said, she'd wanted to work on Europe, but there had been a mix-up! Work on Europe. Can a person do that?! I mean, can that even be considered a field of 'specialization'? Similarly of course with Africa AND South America, but at least there are potential comparative topics, I guess. Well, I guess I "work on Chinese history and literature" which must seem equally astonishing to Chinese people.

The pictures below are of persimmon trees! I noticed them a few days before because they had begun to drop ripe golden fruit. The highest fruit is first to ripen, and being high it falls hard and splatters bit. So it was easy to notice. But then yesterday I saw people industriously harvesting them with pole-knives and cloth spread between two poles to catch the fruit. It was hard to photograph, but I did my best. I assume the harvesters must have been officially sponsored, as a campus security station was right down the street.

After this, I accomplished almost nothing. I have been having stunningly unproductive afternoons and evenings lately. I picked up a copy of The Peach Blossom Fan, the play I'm going to go see in a few days, translated into English and changed from a drama into a novella. The translation (Chinese text was on the facing page) was pretty weak and occasionally downright wrong. And plays often get pretty flat when translated into prose--this was no exception. However, I thought it would be good if I could at least begin to get a sense of the story, since I'd never studied it. I'd had no idea how political the work was; amazing it survived. It was written during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), but it dealt with events surrounding the fall of the previous dynasty, the Ming. Very politically sensitive stuff. It's been translated properly by Cyril Birch, but they didn't have that in the bookstore. Well, I'll try to have a crack at the original before I go see it.

Aside from that--nothing. Here is a very dark picture of me sitting on my window seat. I'm not sure if it will show up for you at all, but if not, then imagine me just sittin' in the middle of that dark square.

I've decided to do the news for the day on which I'm writing rather than the day on which I'm writing about. It just seems to make more sense. So my news pick for the day is a fundamentalist Christian who wanted to serve his country but ended up believing that what we're doing in Iraq is a disaster. The article had many interesting points, including a good demonstration of how you sign your rights away when you join up, and also--something I didn't know--that there are (apparently?) pacifist hotlines for military personnel, manned among others by Quakers. They must hear some stories all right. Anyway, the article's really worth a read.