Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Today is My Birthday

I have spent the past two days at my first-ever Chinese academic conference, which deserves its own post. I'll get on that tomorrow. As you might imagine, there's a lot of whining I could do at this moment if I were of a mind to. Let's just stay it will not go down on the list of especially stellar birthdays. But my birthday has always been at a difficult time of year, the post-Thanksgiving slump, exam time during high school, usually cold and dreary and busy.

On the other hand, after spending all those hours in a hotel, in a high state of tension, my apartment really feels like a home. And I know I have a present or two in the mail coming soon--possibly even today and I missed it by not being here; I'll check for a package slip tomorrow. My room is warm. My fellow gave me a sweet digital present, and in just two weeks will be here in the flesh. I have half a lemon and much vitamin C to help me nurse the cold I've caught. I have a lot of different things to give to LGs when I see him tomorrow afternoon. And I don't even have to get up before dawn tomorrow (I was starting to get used to it).

I'm a year older, and I can say without hesitation that it has been an incredibly eventful year, a year where I made progress in ever so many ways. Not especially comfortable--rarely if ever comfortable!--but I've done lots of growing. I do feel kinda old. Mao Zedong and I overlapped in the world, albeit not by much. That's something I have over Chinese kids today, ha ha.

Anyway, the above pictures are from the beautiful garden attached to the fancy hotel where I've been. I have many more, which I will post tomorrow together with an as-candid-as-I-dare account of the event itself. 'Til then...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Cold and Busy Monday

It was a typical Monday, which means totally full schedule. The only way it differed from regular Monday was that I did not attend two of the three classes I usually go to. Somehow I was still really busy all day anyway!

I missed the 8 AM class because I was leaving the house at such a time that I would be only about 5 minutes late. Then because I have a brain like a leaky sieve, I had to go back for two important forgotten items--up the elevator to the 16th floor, down the elevator from the 16th floor--that in itself is like a 10 minute round trip. Then I would have been egregiously late.

With several dozens of other things demanding my attention, I just said, to hell with it, and spent the morning in the library. As I went in, I noticed these guys raking leaves. That's China: five men doing a one-person job.

At 10 I met with HJ to help clean up her personal statement. She had taken my advice to heart, I was happy to see, and it got much much better! By the time we were done, she and I were both really happy with it, and that was gratifying. Leaving aside the question of whether it's unethical for me to help her this much. Hey, I'm doing it for selfish reasons in part, so somehow that makes it okay. (I'm not sure how.) Perhaps it's partly because I'm learning a lot from trying to figure out how to rephrase these things from Chinese to English--after all, I'm doing translation work myself, and she's a more experienced translator (albeit in the other direction), as well as having a declared interest in translingual practice as a theoretical issue. So we actually spent some time talking meta, and it was educational.

Also, she took me out to lunch. And guess where? The second floor of Art Garden, exactly where I wanted to go at Thanksgiving. The universe was kind. The food was great too--tea, rice-balls stuffed with light, tasty meat filling, nicely seasoned duck stir-fried with Chinese chives and some new kind of vegetable that I didn't know and she couldn't translate but which was good and slightly resembled jello or jelly-fish (she swore it was some plant stem). Delicious. It was great to eat all that meat on such a terrifically cold day.

YHz's class was canceled because she's busy with the conference. So I went back to the library and plugged away at the translation. Actually speeding right along and am more than halfway done. Here is the dreary-looking breezeway outside the reference room, with lockers, at dusk. It was (literally) freezing out there.

Finally to class. I saw the professor at the door of what I took to be the classroom. I said, "This one right?" He said "Yeah, but I'm going to get some tea." Then I went in and sat down. After a while he poked his head in and made "not this one you idiot, the one next door" gestures. I always get them mixed up because they look identical. Usually I can only tell which one it is because the professor's in one of them, but I was too early for that this time. So I felt like an idiot, but at least the professor cared enough about me to go back for me!

The class was much harder than usual. Also I was exceptionally tired. We have moved on to a poet whose writing is difficult and full of abstruse allusions, whose main commitment was to novelty/originality, making him really hard to read. I kept falling asleep, even though in principle I like this poet. I thought I was recording the lecture so I could make up for me inattentiveness later on… but then realized I'd accidentally pressed play instead of record. Still, ZM's a great teacher. I was just a deficient student on that particular occasion.

Finished the day off right, though. On the way home, I decided I should get dinner, and I decided that for dinner I would try something AL had recommended, namely something called "ma la tang." I wish I had taken a picture! It's a big table piled high with different skewers of all kinds of things--vegetables, meats, tofu, fish, more vegetables, unidentifiable combinations of the above, noodles, mushrooms of different sorts, seaweed… When you go in you get a little basket, which you fill with the things of your choice. Then they dump those things into a big pot of rich stock, wait a while, fish them out all flavorfully cooked, pour a marvelous variety of sauces over (including hot pepper sauce if you want it; I did) and there's the finished product--steaming hot and pretty healthy and doesn't contain anything you don't want.

I had always been suspicious of these places before but after actually trying it I was in seventh heaven. The best is that the place (on campus) is clean and pretty reputable, also open late, after the regular dinner hour. A new habit is born. Next time I'll get a picture.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Last Post Today, I Promise: Draw a Pig

Okay, this site is awesome. Go try it. At once. I drew this pig in about two minutes, yeah, with just my computer mouse and not looking at a picture of a pig either. After you're done with your pig, learn what it says about you, ha ha! Then if you want to after that you can learn what mine says about me if you want to (aside from that I'm not an especially good computer mouse artist). I'm not sure if the results are accurate, but taking the test is fun as hell. No wonder there have been millions of pigs drawn here.

Hey, Thanks!

I just noticed that the number of visits this site has received has broken four digits, 1,011 as of this post. Many are probably me, but according to my world map many are not! Hey, thanks for stopping by. I know my posts are too long, but what can I do? I do this instead of speaking English, and I have always loved speaking English. Just isn't much of an option right now. Anyway, feel free to delurk in celebration of delurking week (or is that over now?) and drop me a comment if you feel like it, especially if you have a blog; I love reading blogs. Cheers!

Quiet Weekend

It has been a fairly quiet weekend, punctuated by short bursts of activity. Most of the time I have spent in my now so deliciously clean apartment (it takes at least a few days for it to get messy again, since I'm the only one living here) wearing these ridiculous pajamas. Don't laugh at me, they came with the place. At first, they were way too small so I just stuffed them in a cupboard. Recently, since I've lost so much weight on the "foreign student in China" diet (highly recommended!), I thought I'd get them out and try them again. They fit, but still look incredibly ridiculous. In case you can't tell, they are cut vaguely sailor-ish and are decorated with dark red anime figures. Let me emphasize again that I didn't buy them. I DID, however, wash them, so don't worry on that score either. Hurray pajamas! I didn't bring any from the States, considering them a bit of an extravagance. But now that I have some, I am enjoying them a lot.

All morning on Saturday I spent talking on skype. At least that's what it seemed like. In the afternoon, I went to the grocery store for a few necessities (resisted buying anything chocolate--gotta make sure those pajamas keep on fitting). Barely had a I returned when I was summoned out again for dinner with YHz, another graduate student CD, and my advisor from the States. He looked tired! A 14 hour flight will do that to you. But he was jolly enough. Actually, he was very pleasant when tired--took the hyperactive edge off him and made him more like a normal person.

We had a gorgeous meal at the hotel restaurant (the university's own hotel) including sizzling beef, radish rolls, duck and scallions, dumplings, beer (even me!), some really pleasant green vegetable (not sure what, but at least not bitter!), and "Eight Precious" tea. The last was especially grand because the tea leaves (and other precious items--flowers, berries) were in our cups and the cups were filled with hot water by servers with long-spouted teapots. And I mean LONG; we're talking more than two feet long. Presumably it was so they wouldn't intrude into your conversation while refilling your cup. I was tickled!

The language of communication was Chinese, only the second time my advisor and I had heard each other speak it! (The last time was such a disaster, and neither of us spoke that much!) It went just fine. We both got our points across, though neither of us was perfect. YHz was highly pleasant and complimentary toward me. The graduate students was shy but reasonably friendly. I drank enough to be not shy but not so much that I acted dumb. Overall, I'd pronounce the thing a success.

As for today, I woke up having had some kind of action/suspense type dream. I was mulling it over when my phone rang--my advisor seeing if I was free to have breakfast with him! Okay! I forgot everything about the dream, except that it was stressful. Got ready at top speed, managed to meet him only a couple minutes late.

I'm not one of those people who has a crush on my advisor or even a sense of overwhelming admiration. But over the years I have come to appreciate his strengths and understand the types of things he can and can't willing to do to help me. Sometimes it takes time to set this kind of relationship straight, and I am proud of what I have managed to do in that regard, especially given how rocky it was in the beginning.

So we had an amusingly ghetto breakfast at one of the cafeterias, scrambled egg, vegetable baozi (steamed dumplings), something rather like a meat-stuffed pancake, and black rice soup. It was my treat because I had a cafeteria card. I jokingly mentioned my dad's suggestion that I take him out for a nice dinner (not really a possibility since his dinners are all booked) and said that I was treating him to a sub-$1 breakfast instead. This made him feel better about my paying! Then we went in search of caffeine (not obtainable at the cafeteria), and ended up having a couple of cappuccinos. All the while discussing things.

Actually we talked rather little about my research. I always intend to talk to him more about it, but never quite do. I think it's because he takes a very hands off approach in that regard. The topic he originally helped me to develop has taken me into very different territory than his specialization. In fact, I get this reaction from most of my former advisors or people I consider very much more knowledgeable than me. It's not that they're not interested in my stuff. It's just that they don't feel qualified to give advice. I am hoping this is a good thing! But it also leaves me feeling kind of alone in uncharted territory.

Instead we discussed things like graduate school admissions, recent hiring decisions, differences in style between Chinese and American academic methodologies, pedagogical strategies here and how they've changed (or not changed) in the past 20 years, and things about my projected timeline for the rest of my time in graduate school. As usual it was him reassuring me that there's no need to hurry. I never know how to take that!!

The rest of the day I spent a) working on LGs's translation and b) looking at some bizarre things on the internet, some of its dark corners. Suffice it to say that some of the You-Tube videos are...weird to say the least.

For lunch I had this semi-Greek salad. No Calamata olives or feta, but I used ordinary cheese. No basalmic vinegar or olive oil, but I used white vinegar, salt, and pepper. The cucumbers here are exceptionally good--grown locally (not sure if that's a good thing, given all the pollution, but I peeled them at least) and at a pinnacle of fresh crispness. Why aren't our cucumbers this delicious! I bought them at the supermarket but they taste like they just came out of someone's garden. Also, for those of you with a social conscience, I bought ALL organic. Sure they cost at least twice as much, but when twice as much still weighs in under a dollar, I have no problem with that. Also, I washed everything in boiling water before eating it.

In the evening I did a bit of running around for my advisor and then had a pretty healthy dinner at the cafeteria. Now I'm back here getting set to work again. Must…work…

Friday Bustle

Friday was the usual dashing about, even moreso than usual this time. My landlady had insisted she wanted to collect the rent on this particular day and no other. I contemplated my schedule and suggested before 9. She said she could make it at 9 sharp.

So I slept in a little (at least compared to usual) and lounged around a little. Naturally, I was startled when she showed up at 8:20. I had to go to the door while putting my pants on! Of course, I was wearing long underwear already, so it wouldn't have been a total embarrassment if she'd just walked in--she of course has her own key. Glad she decided to knock first though. I handed over the wad of cash, feeling regretful. The place is a good deal for any American city, but I've learned that according all my friends it's practically highway robbery. Still, there are advantages to living in a brand new building with speedy internet and highly functional heat. I keep telling myself this for consolation. Besides, it would be rotten to have to move right now. My books! My goldfish!

After the landlady left, I got dressed and hopped on my bicycle to go to my Chinese lesson. As usual, I asked a number of questions. The most productive one turned out to be about vegetables. See, there are slight but important differences in vegetable naming conventions between here and Taiwan. You wouldn't think this would be a big deal, but if you want bok choy and you get cabbage, it's not so pleasant. Or if you want dark leafy greens and end up with celery? Want chives and get leeks? So I thought it best to get these things straight. Besides, it was clearly fun for AL to talk about something slightly less academic.

I told her two stories of how the things she had taught me came up in real life, which pleased her so much.

Then we studied another poem, this one about a child preparing to leave home for a long time. How sad it was. Appropriate for a homesick kind of Thanksgiving weekend.

Finally, we studied three proverbs involving roosters crowing. It seems that one technique for memorizing these things is to study thematically related ones all together. Then the contrasts in meaning and the different stories are so fun to think about. How the memory can stretch if you give it time and encouragement.

For no reason that I can fathom, I declined to have lunch with AL, pleading a one o'clock appointment. It's true that I did have a one o'clock appointment, but I had lunch on the way home and it took so long that I had to push back the one o'clock appointment anyway. I guess I wanted a little alone-time between engagements. But still, I somewhat regretted it because talking with AL is always very interesting and I was foolish to pass up the chance.

While I was at lunch, I got a text message from YHz. She was picking up my advisor from the airport tomorrow and would I join them for dinner? I would.

I spent the afternoon with HJ, working some more on her graduate school application: her CV, which was hard for me to help with, and also her personal statement. The latter was interesting. She had so little idea of how to write one. She asked what the rules of the genre were. Actually not an easy question to answer, right? I mean, if there were clear rules they wouldn't be so hard to write!

I emphasized the need for creativity. I looked through what she had, stood it on its head, shuffled it around, crossed out whole blocks, picked up a sentence here or there and praised it, suggested different ways to spin things. This is one lucky girl, I'm thinking. Wish I'd had someone to hold my hand like this when I was working on mine! Still, it is really not onerous. And I had to get her help for yet another thing relating to my internet account. Furthermore, she is actually a very interesting person to talk to, very knowledgeable, with broad interests and great language skills. I am hoping that the interactions we are having now will cement a good relationship between us over the long-term. That's worth a few hours of English-language editorial stuff.

As we walked back from the computing center, she told me about her experience of army training. They have to do army training for two weeks out of every year, boys and girls. It sounded like boot-camp all right! Hiking long distances with heavy loads, having to throw themselves down for mock air-attack drills, sleeping soaking wet, not getting to wash… nightmare. Surely this type of thing as a compulsory activity would never fly in the U.S. Some kid would get seriously ill and then the parents would kick up a huge fuss.

I was really tired when I got home, so I did very little for the next few hours, just messing around online. It wasn't easy, but I dragged myself out again to have dinner with LK the sociologist and a couple other Americans. We went to an Indian restaurant. It was interesting, somewhat, but also a bit depressing as always. Notable was the fact that not one of them had any experience with the blogosphere. "I just don't know what people see in them," they agreed. It was left to me, then, to defend the concept and the kind of stuff that's out here. But it was kind of a wake-up call for me, realizing how into it I have gotten lately! I maintain that it's a really neat phenomenon--a lot of creativity goes into it and a lot of interesting stuff is here to be had.

Have I said it before? Reality TV is real people in unreal situations. Blogging is real people in real situations, infinitely more interesting.

The embarrassing question that people always ask me is, "Oh, so do YOU have a blog?" I say yes but don't volunteer the address. After all, I want to write about them with impunity don't I?!

Friday, November 24, 2006

My Weird Thanksgiving

Hello dear ones. Sorry for not posting yesterday as promised. I was so tired by the time I got home I could barely think.

But a little late post about my Thanksgiving. On odd weeks I have Thursday classes and on even weeks I don't. So had it been an even week, I would have had the day off like the rest of you. Well, at least the ones in the U.S. But as it was an odd week, I hopped on my bike at 7:40, having had no tea or breakfast, and raced through traffic to my class. I made it just as the professor was parking his bike at the bike rack, and even had time to get a can of coffee. I'm not sure how they heat up the cans of coffee. They say, "add heat" but it can't be a microwave. I'm guessing maybe it involves submerging the coffee in the incredibly hot Chinese version of boiling water. You think I'm crazy, but Chinese boiling water really is hotter than boiling water in the U.S.

Class was lovely as always. I may tend to be late to and complain about my Thursday 8 AM, but it's really one of my favorites. Though as always the microphone malfunctioned horribly.

The second two hours of class was a trial though. Getting up to late imperial Chinese historiography is like going from a pretty clear if slightly winding road to the garden of forking paths. Oh well.

I had a lunch date with my Chinese tutor Valerie. Chinese tutor as in "person who is Chinese and who as a resume-building activity grudgingly agreed to participate in the tutoring program so she could practice her English." Since I have a real tutor now, whom I pay, I have almost gotten over being bitter about this program, and decided I was willing to try interacting with Valerie in English because making Chinese friends can be a value in itself.

When we arranged our lunch date, she had mentioned that it was Thanksgiving, so I knew she knew about it. She wanted to meet at the same ghetto cafeteria as usual though. I met her there, because I'm bad over the phone and slow in texting, but then I had a good idea--we could actually eat on the second floor, which was quite a pleasant restaurant. I said to Valeria, "Since today is a holiday for me, do you think you might have time to eat on the second floor? It's my treat." No, she didn't have time. She had to get back and work on her paper. She was practically thrown into a panic, in fact, at the idea of eating on the second floor. I didn't push in and went grumpily into the ghetto "Art Garden" cafeteria. This is the one where you get your food in soggy cardboard containers. Resignedly, I decided I'd at least try to pick something really warm and soothing, as it was a bitter cold day.

I saw a girl getting a delicious looking stew with many different interesting sauces and toppings--I didn't see the whole process of its construction but it looked good. So, following one of my old standby techniques for dealing with unfamiliar cuisine, I said, "I'll have what she's having." They looked kind of incredulous, always a bad sign, but they keyed in the price and I swiped my card. "Do you want x [something I didn't understand] too?" they asked. I shrugged noncommittally. Then I saw that x was a long crinkly length of intestine. "Uh, no, no, actually, I don't want that!" I said hastily, and the cafeteria workers exchanged glances and one said, "See, she didn't want it after all." Damn selective incomprehension of nouns. I know the Chinese word for guts, I just didn't expect to find it anywhere near my food.

The rest of the gut stew wasn't any better though. It seems I had picked a general "internal organ" stew, the main ingredient of which (aside from guts) was some dark reddish organ that was extra soft and buttery. I'm guessing kidney? I don't know because I've never eaten a kidney, but it wasn't muscley enough to be a heart. I do know that, being chopped, it had clear evidence of some plumbing running through it. It would have been a dreadful loss of face to refuse the dish completely after I'd ordered and paid for it and all, besides the fact that Valerie was waiting impatiently with her (in retrospect delicious looking) plain vegetables and tofu. So I received my stew with dread in my heart, sat down, braced myself, and made the best of it.

I confess, I was not giving thanks. I would rather have done without. Valerie said, in English, "That looks really good." I'm not sure if she was being sarcastic or serious. I made pleasant conversation with her for a half hour sitting in the smelly, packed, and noisy cafeteria at a table with two strangers also, while eating all the tofu bits and the dark red organ slices that at least had the fewest tubes in them, thinking longingly of the restaurant upstairs. Perhaps it isn't fair to blame Valerie for my mishap, but I resolved that I wasn't having any more lunch dates with her anyway. Not only does she not speak Chinese but she's not that interesting either. And if this sounds extra spiteful, it's because organs are the one thing that, despite being an enthusiastic omnivore, I just can't learn to appreciate.

Gratefully I took my leave of her and walked around the campus a bit, trying to soothe my insulted digestive system. Eventually I saw a white girl walking be eating a chocolate bar and I popped into the convenience store and got one too. The chocolate bar helped, at least to the extent of muffling the organ and garlic taste in my mouth!!

Then I did a few errands and came home. Some hours went by in a blur, I'm not sure where. Did internet things, maybe a little work? Oh, and I also had to collect the rent money. My landlady had texted me the day before asking in a way that was really demanding to drop by on Friday (a week early) to get the next three months rent please. But then the ATM I always use wasn't working Wednesday, and I started to get really nervous about daily limits, also paranoid about Bank of America somehow deciding to cut me off because I've been abroad for more than three months or something. But as it turned out, no, it was just that the ATM I usually use wasn't working. So I walked around to a number of different banks, drawing out huge wads of big pink 100 RMB bills. Why different banks? Why so many wads? Because there's a 5000 RMB daily limit per card per bank, and a 2000 RMB transaction limit. To get 5000 in the first place takes 3 transactions, and since for three months rent, plus utilities, I needed…well, let's just say, more than twice the daily limit. I hate having to carry that much cash even for a short time. I felt like a gangster. But I did manage to get it all together, and will not have to worry about it for another three months.

Oh, also I had to have another turtle funeral (see post below).

At dinnertime, I determined that I was going to do better than organ soup. I walked around, looking critically at different restaurants. I considered the vegetarian place, as an atonement to myself and the animal kingdom, but decided to try something all new because I notice that the first time I go to a restaurant I generally have the best experience. The second time never quite measures up. Nothing was really catching my eye, and I almost just went home with street-vendor sweet potato--still an improvement over organ soup. (Incidentally, the street-vendor I bought it from was hob-nobbing with a policemen, which must mean that not all sweet potato vending is illegal.)

Suddenly at the last minute I decided to go up to the over-priced looking "Famous Chef from Jiangnan" restaurant in the Disanji building. Not because I had any high expectations of the food, but because suddenly it looked festive and elegant. It was elegant. I was pretty underdressed in jeans and a big fuzzy black turtle-neck sweater. Attire was mostly business formal. Whatever man. They were willing to take my money.

Below is my little photo-essay about the dinner, my best approximation of Thanksgiving classics drawn from a "Famous Chef from Jiangnan" menu. (I'm not a great food photographer, but I'm giving it my best shot here.) I ordered too much, incidentally, which gave me an authentic over-full feeling. But it was all really good, believe it or not, and while horribly extravagant by Chinese standards, the total came to only about $15. Can't eat like that every night…or actually, I probably could but I won't…but it was worth it to give a sense of holiday-ness.

Table for one with virgin papaya cocktail:

Glutinous rice cooked in wine:

Roasted duck with a side of ginger and lotus root:

Lightly braised spinach in a shrimp and mushroom broth:

Chestnuts and winter mushrooms:

Not bad for $15, huh? It was at least enough for two people, too. My tastebuds considered forgiving me for the earlier outrage.

Then I went home and cleaned my apartment really thoroughly, I mean, I even mopped and dusted and stuff. I also cleaned out my former turtle tank, and redesigned it for use as a goldfish bowl. I realize I haven't at all mentioned my third (now my only) Chinese pet, Tashtego. I got him to go in the fancy goldfish bowl that came with my apartment.

One night, though, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of dripping. There was Tashtego darting back and forth worriedly in only about an inch of water, and a big mysterious crack in the bowl. (Can you spot it in this photo?) Colin, the only person I know who enthusiastically reads up on fracture mechanics, suggests it has something to do with temperature changes.

I dunno, but since then Tashtego has been confined to a highly inadequate and unphotogenic little square box, which the turtles originally came in. I felt for him, but thought adding him into the turtle tank permanently might be uncomfortable for him on account of the temperature (I'd put him in there for short periods while cleaning his little box). Now he has it to himself, though I have no great hopes for his life expectancy.

That was my Thanksgiving. Started out rocky, but really it could have been a lot worse. And I'm thankful that my life here is as good as it is, even if it has its downsides. Yeah, I think I'm finally adjusting to the foreign student life.

Rest in Peace, Queequeg

I clearly wasn't meant to be a turtle-owner, as on Thursday afternoon I had to hold another little turtle funeral. Kind of saw this one coming, though, as Queequeg has been ailing for weeks. Still kind of sad though. :(

Above is his final resting place in an origami lotus resting on all the rest of the turtle food. I'm giving up turtle ownership, at least in China. Below that, his not especially well-composed epitaph. Hard to know what to say except, you've been sick for a while and then one day you were floating. Sorry Queequeg. I hope you're off to the Pure Lands to be reborn as something less fragile.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Talking Turkey

Hello all. I will make a real Thanksgiving post tomorrow. For now it's late, but I just wanted to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving.

Also, to post something I've been working on for a while now, although "playing with" is probably a better way to describe it. See, a while ago I saw somewhere on the internet (I forget where) one of those pictures kids make in school of a hand turkey. Suddenly I was filled with a tremendous longing to make one.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays but they don't celebrate it here, and anyway I am far from my dear ones.

So--this was probably two weeks ago--I went to the Carrefour and acquired the nearest available approximation to the right supplies. That turned out to be watercolors in a tube, a three-brush set, and some drawing paper. This was not for any highly artistic purpose, mind you! Just the turkeys you see below.

My hand isn't really quite the right size or shape anymore, but I had fun.

And if you feel stressed out by overdose of family over the holiday, invent a teleporter and I'll trade places with you. Can't always appreciate a family holiday until you gotta spend that holiday alone!

By the way, no turkeys were harmed in the making of my Thanksgiving this year. I'm not even sure if there are turkeys in China...beyond the above exceptions!

Quadruplets, Hair Adventures, Eating Bitterness

Wednesday: History and legend class again, yet another presentation. The girl was a better public speaker than the last one, so superficially she sounded like a professor. However, there was no real direction to her presentation. She was just putting a bunch of passages about seasonal regulations together, reading them out in a slow clear voice, and then explaining them in modern Chinese. Again, possibly my slowness of comprehension, but I didn't get anything out of it that I hadn't known before. To my great surprise, one person did ask a question. I'm guessing she put him up to it. The whole thing was exceedingly tedious. I am thinking about stopping attending this class.

After class I went to the Farm Garden and had BE's favorite "lion's head" meatballs and a tofu thing. I guess I was craving protein. Unfortunately, the tofu thing was very heavy on a certain Chinese spice, tentatively translated as "prickly-ash," I think? Which causes numbness and buzzing in your mouth. It is an interesting flavor, but I have decided I don't care for it. It just feels too much like poison.

Slowly I am learning to get a sense of what dishes are good. ZY says the dishes have not changed for the past ten years at least, so hopefully this body of knowledge/experience will continue to come in handy.

On the way home, I saw these high school (or younger?) kids. I wish I could have got a good picture of them, but they were in constant motion and there were lots of interfering factors. I think you can get a sense of it though: walking four across they looked like scary blue Siamese quadruplets.

High school uniforms in China aren't as sexy as Japanese ones (which is probably for the best) but they do look more comfortable, being some approximation of sweats.

I went home and spent the first part of the afternoon finally wrapping up my chapter two to send to my advisor. I wrote the first 90% of it over the summer, ran out of time, came to China, was too scatter-brained to work on it for weeks… Even yesterday, I only finished it by leaving out two sections I had been planning to write, and writing the conclusion like a stream-of-consciousness free-association thing. I told this to Colin, lamenting, and he said, "Ah, now you sound like you're really writing a dissertation."

Well I sent it off. My advisor will be here in three days, and probably won't have time to look at it, but I thought I'd give him the option.

Then I spent some time working on e-mails and translations. Finally, in the early evening I went to get my hair cut. It was getting kind of scruffy. I went to the place I had gone before. The massage was much less hard and more lackadaisical this time. I think I prefer it hard. Also, since when am I fat enough to elicit the comment (from the massage girl while she was rubbing my back): "Hm, how to say this--It seems to me that Americans tend to be on the heavy side." Grr. But I answered politely enough, saying that we think the opposite, you Chinese tend to be on the tiny side.

Then I narrowly escaped getting a perm: it was one of those cases I've mentioned before where someone asks you if you want something and you don't understand quite what. Although I thought he just meant some kind of layering or something, which I was about to allow, but then I had a clever impulse and asked "if it would take very long?" Not long, he said, only 40 minutes or so. Then I pondered some more and thought about what he'd said, and decided it meant "curl". It was the same word that's used for sushi and scrolls--sounds like curl to me. "Oh no," I said. "I'm…in a bit of a hurry you see. I haven't eaten dinner for example." He was disappointed--perms are expensive?--and cut my hair just the way I'd asked but kind of hastily. Not so good to tell your hair-dresser you're in a hurry, but it was the first excuse that came to mind. Actually, I have zero desire for the kind of thrashed-looking curly hair women here get conned into! Or any curly hair, really. "Just a little, you know; it'll look very natural," he coaxed. But it's not natural cause my hair is not naturally curly. If it were, I wouldn't get a "very natural" straightening either. I want my hair not just to look natural but to actually be natural. :P "Well, next time then," he said enthusiastically.

I'm thinking next time I will be trying somewhere new. Still, I like the cut a lot. This picture isn't too good, but it kind of gives a sense.

After this I went to the rice-porridge restaurant. After all the protein for lunch, I thought light, hot rice porridge with maybe a vegetable side dish would be just the thing. I got almond and chicken again, and then ordered a vegetable that looked interesting. I forget what it was called, but it was green and fleshy and came with lily bulbs and pineapple. Doesn't that sound exciting? The waitress looked startled (always a bad sign). "Are you here all on your own?" she asked. "Yes," I said, worriedly "did I order to much?" I once happened to me that I ordered enough for a family of four by accident. "Oh no," she said, and bustled away.

The vegetable dish smelled pretty good. But when I took a bit, it was shockingly bitter. I got the sense that the wait-staff were covertly watching my reaction so I choked down at least have of the brutally big pile of the stuff. It's funny how hard it is to eat something that tastes very bitter. Our bodies tend to tell us that it's not good for eating, and try to get us to stop. Chinese people do sometimes eat bitter things, though, because they are thought to be medicinal. Not me, man! Next time I go to that restaurant I am totally checking to make sure what that stuff was so I'll never try ordering it again.

Kitler Interlude

I interrupt the regular march of days to announce that I have submitted the accompanying photo (taken last Friday) to a website entitled Cats that Look Like Hitler, Kitlers for short. Frankly, it didn't even occur to me that this cat bore even a passing resemblance to Hitler, but one of my readers pointed it out. In looking at the other cats on the website, and then looking at this one, I think he's up there with the best of them. He certainly has a wicked expression in his eye, and was in fact rather a wicked cat. He was interested in getting attention, but had no concept of petting or purring. There was just attacking and attacking. We'll see if he gets selected to be on the website!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Wicked Step-Empress, Favors, Willows at Dusk

Tuesday: after a mere five hours of sleep I really wanted to skip my 8 AM class, but I went anyway. Bitter cold morning. But the class was entertaining to be sure.

Today it was the story of the cruel Empress Dowager Lü, who hijacked the Han dynasty a mere generation after its founding and nearly ran the whole thing into the ground with her murderous selfishness. Thus runs history as written by the winners who managed to shake her and her clan loose. Telling terrifying stories about Empress Lü is one of those access points into misogynistic horror that can be fully justified--like the wicked witch of our medieval fairy-tales. Bloodthirsty Empress Lü. There was something unpleasant about the relish with which Prof. HZq related her stories, but of course they were exciting all the same.

My pick for the saddest anecdote (told in a mere three lines of spare classical Chinese): Empress Dowager Lü wanted to kill her son the emperor's younger half brother Ruyi, but the emperor (himself only a teenager) understood what was going on and kept Ruyi by his side day and night. They ate from the same plate and slept on the same pillow. The Empress Dowager could do nothing. But one morning the emperor got up early to practice archery. Ruyi was young and could not get up early. When the emperor returned, Ruyi was already dead.

The moral of the story is: the early bird doesn't get killed by the wicked step-mother. If the stories are true, Ruyi's mother met an even more terrible fate because their husband preferred her to Empress Lü. This poor lady, known as the Lady Qi, had her nose, ears, and hands cut off, and then was thrown into a pit and referred to as the human pig. Or so the story goes. Nice people.

WW, the same classmate who irritated me yesterday, was also in this class. In fact, it was she who told me about it in the first place. The issue of translation did not come up. She did, however, give me a copy of a book, not now available in bookstores, which I had seen in the library and coveted. So I really can't complain, can I. I don't think of myself as very materialistic, but gifts of rare books do tend to earn a person the benefit of the doubt as far as I'm concerned!

After class, I went home for a short while (having forgotten my wallet in my room!) and also to warm up. It was so cold! Then I headed out to meet HJ for another round of editing. I sat in the Western cafeteria, pictured here. It may not look like much, but it's one of the best places to study. (That says something about the potential study areas on campus--almost non-existent; everyone complains, especially since most students live 4 to a room with negligible study space!) Supposedly it also has wireless, though I haven't found out yet.

HJ was late but I had brought my computer and translation materials so I didn't mind. She was stuck on a bus in traffic! It's easy to see why everyone carries cell phones...

She treated me to lunch at a Yunnan restaurant, since it was lunchtime by the time she arrived. Everyone seems to like Yunnan food, but I find it rather boring. Bland and kind of lacking in character. At least they're not big on gross stuff--organs, feet, insects. And soups are very typical, which was nice given the cold. Also we got something that was like a big flat hashbrown. I really wanted ketchup, but there was none. How can you eat a hashbrown without ketchup?! But food always tastes better when eaten in company.

We went back to the cafeteria to do the editing. She takes criticism well and responds constructively--it bodes well. I was shocked by what a crock Chinese letters of recommendation are. I burst out laughing when one of the things I had to proofread for her was her waiver of the right to see the letter of recommendation. "Yeah, you don't need to see it," I teased her, "seeing as you wrote it!"

I actually learn a lot spending time with her, even if it's me helping her with English, because we communicate Chinese. It's interesting trying to explain why I made such and such a change, stretches my skills.

Really it's superb to do someone such a big favor that she'll never feel like she's out of my debt. I realize that that's the only situation in which I can ask favors with impunity. For her to be able to do something to help me is not only not a problem, it's a positive relief! I got her to help me sort out the internet thing I was having trouble with last week. She went with me to the office, and although she said they are mean to everyone, they weren't nearly as mean to her as they were to me.

I think it's done, though I haven't tried it yet.

After we parted ways, I went to the library to start preparing for my meeting with LGs. But while I was in the library he called to postpone. Then suddenly I was incredibly tired and didn't feel like doing anything beyond heading straight home. I only stopped to take some pictures on the way. Leaves were falling from the willow trees, as you can sort of see here. They looked wonderful in the twilight.

I went home and fell asleep at 5 PM. Of course I woke up a few hours later, had a bit of dinner and wrote a long letter to one of my few dear ones who doesn't read blogs. Lots of catching up to do!

I also worked on a craft project which I will reveal tomorrow. Oh, and with great patience and slight lowered standards, I actually succeeded in realizing my dream of a grilled cheese sandwich. Pictured here with some instant cream of mushroom soup, and an Ikea dog placemat that I don't particularly like and which looks like it wants to eat my sandwich (can't blame it)!

A cold day but less frustrating than yesterday.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A White Day

It's my own fault for writing that fog was my favorite weather.

Monday was a very white day, a thick fog outside my window like marble pressing in through the glass. Cold mist all morning, that even found its way into buildings. And still into the afternoon things looked soft but cold. Leaves are coming down without fanfare. The north wind is bringing a change of season.

The night before I had asked the waiter, "Is it fall or is it winter?"
"It's fall, but winter will be here very soon. Seasons," he added, "are only a habit. We still have everything."
Things are funnier and much more profound when taken out of context.

Barely, I made it to my 8 AM class on time, drinking hot tea from my thermos bottle. I listened with good attention and understood most things. After class I asked a silly question about a book, and the answer was no.

I went to the library. It was so cold. The reference room is only accessible from an outside corridor, and the lockers are there, outside. I got my computer and a book out of my bag and locked up the bag with a tiny lock, and a tiny key. I sat in the reference room, trying to make the most of my time.
An hour later I left for lunch and two librarians who were leaving for lunch too thought I was stealing a book and yelled at me. "It's my book," I said. They inspected it, looking angry. "You should have registered it when you went in," they said, as if this were transparently obvious, and I was no just a fool but dishonest as well. They wanted to take my book away but they couldn't think of a good reason. As if anyone could steal books given that no concealing bags are allowed in and all the library books have magnetic strips and elaborate detectors. Life in a closet totalitarian state.

This is a courtyard near the classroom. It is a semi-official semi-unofficial space. The grate, the one golden tree, laundry hanging, bare stark box of a building.

I had eggplant for lunch, because a lot of other people were having it. It was good, but had a lot of garlic. I smelled it all afternoon.

YHz's class at 12:30, after a two-week hiatus. The Koreans were rowdy, and everyone upset when she collected the assignment from those who had it and told those who didn't that they could have another week. They pretend that they want leniency but just like little kids, there's a part of them that longs for the strictness of consistently applied rules. That is exactly NOT the name of the game around here.

I had a short talk with YHz during the break but she seemed off. Still jet-lagged or is there something changed in her attitude toward me? My Chinese tutor says: "Don't mistake every tree and blade of grass for swords." This is an old Chinese proverb meaning one shouldn't be over-sensitive. Maybe it was the garlic, ha ha. I did ask her a few things, one about getting access to an M.A. thesis from another university, another about attending a conference. The answers were both yes.

Then the undergraduates thronged Yhz--probably she is still jet-lagged--and I went back to my seat and chatted with my classmate WW. WW is a non-traditional student who drives to class. I think she must be the wife of some powerful person. She is bossy and opinionated. She was talking about translation, a conversation we continued after class: she said how what really needs to happen is that there needs to be a new translation of the Shiji, or Hanshu, done by Chinese people, "because it's really impossible for Americans to understand the cultural subtext and really tell the stories as they should be told. Then an American should check it over." I said that cultural subtext is something that we (Americans who study China) are constantly working to learn. She said it was impossible. Only a Chinese person could do the job right. "After all, that language--it's even hard for us." (Let alone you poor loser barbarians.) "Fortunately," I said tactfully, "there are many good commentaries on these works to help us ALL figure out what they are trying to say." She made dismissive noises and returned to her theme of how a Chinese person should really undertake this task.

I changed tactics and said that, indeed, the Hanshu is a woefully undertranslated text. "There are quite a lot of Shiji translations," I started to say. "They're all BAD," she cut in. I wanted to ask, had she read them herself? I seriously doubted it. But I was on good behavior and suggested only that some were quite scholarly and well-informed. She made more dismissive noises. I asked which professor she had been talking to about this. She was evasive, but made some indications that it was YHz. I was annoyed but didn't show it. I only said, conciliatingly, that it's true that a bad translation is very unfortunate, a waste of everyone's time and effort. But I felt very angry.

Colin's l'esprit d'escalier (upon hearing my sad tale): Yep, it's true--only a person from that culture could do justice to this ancient Chinese work. So what we really need to do is dig up someone from the Han dynasty to do the translation. Failing that…

Anyway, translation is scut work.

I spent the hour between classes working on some background research for my dissertation.

ZM's history of literature class was beautiful as it always is. On this occasion he discussed Su Shi's shi poems, especially the short and charming and rather prosaic ones, and some prose. He did not discuss the "Rhapsody on the Red Cliffs" because everyone in the class had it memorized. I only fell asleep once, for only five minutes or so. I only lost one poem.

I had grabbed a bit to eat before class, but I thought I'd grab one after too, soup and a roll and I also wanted a little bowl of fruit. I swiped my card fine to pay for the soup and roll, but when I went to the separate stand where the fruit is, my card wouldn't work. I had just refilled it, so I knew it wasn't out. "You need a password," the girl stated. "I don't have a password." "A password, you need a password." "I've never needed a password before. I didn't need a password when I bought this just now," I gestured to the soup. The shades of willful unreason came sliding down behind her eyes. "A password," she said again. I think the real problem was that my card was slightly bent. But she displayed the price on the screen and said that was what I had to pay, somehow or other. "Can you take cash?" "No." Oh, forget it.

I had my soup and bread and headed home. What a cold night it was, after a cold day.

Accidentally, I stayed up until 1:30 in the morning reading blogs. I didn't mean to. The time just slid away.

"Let him be called from his hammock to view his ship sailing through a midnight sea of milky whiteness--as if from encircling headlands shoals of combed white bears were swimming round him, then he feels a silent, superstitious dread; the shrouded phantom of the whitened waters is horrible to him as a real ghost; in vain the lead assures him he is still off soundings; heart and helm they both go down; he never rests till blue water is under him again."--Moby Dick, "The Whiteness of the Whale"

Monday, November 20, 2006

Pseudo-Traditional; Book-sale; Upscale Vegetarian

Sunday: I got up reasonably early and went to the book-sale. Fortunately, I did some research ahead of time rather than blindly following SXb's directions. Another new life rule: take any directions someone in Beijing gives you as a vague suggestion, and make it so you're damn sure you actually know where you're going. According to my map, the bus he told me to take would have had me somewhere really far north of the city, whereas the place I actually want to go is near the south edge. Perhaps I misheard the number, although I had him repeat it twice. Perhaps he mis-remembered the number. In any case, I figured out the correct bus to take after some head-scratching.

On my way to the bus stop, I saw a strange event taking place. It was some sort of pseudo-traditional to-do in front of one of the restaurants down the street from my building this morning. It was clearly a publicity stunt, well covered by video cameras and such as well. I enjoyed the expressions on people's faces, though. It's rare to see people standing still enough but also in a situation where it feels socially acceptable to photograph them.

Although I suppose there's some possibility that it was an actual wedding (the red box is a model of a traditional bridal sedan). That would have been odd, but interesting. Actually, come to think of it, that makes a pretty good explanation for the scene, except that none of the non-costumed bystanders were wearing any sort of formal wear? I don't know. It was a mystery.

Distracted by the picture-taking, I didn't notice that some pick-pocket again managed to get my bag unzipped. I only figured this out because a pocket I hadn't gotten into was nonetheless unzipped. I'd learned my lesson well, though, and had all valuables in inaccessible inner pockets--so the thief found nothing to steal. Still, it was really sketchy, and astonishingly skillful, all rolled into one. I hate feeling like a target, but at least for once I didn't end up actually being one.

Then on to the bus and the book-sale. The book-sale was being held by the publishers of the best scholarly primary text editions. I'm always on the look-out for their stuff, and had a long wish-list. When I got there, though, it just looked like a grubby office-building. A security guard was standing in front. I almost lost my nerve, but managed to ask him where the books were being sold. He looked at me with deep skepticism (that foreigner thinks she can read books?) but told me laconically, the second floor. The ground floor was deserted and dark. I found a stair-case and climbed it. More deserted dark hallways. I passed through nervously, thinking that at any minute someone was going to yell at me for being where I shouldn't.

Then suddenly I was in a grubby big room with piles of books everywhere. Beyond that was another grubby room with some books in long rows (spines up) on the floor, other books piled along the walls, and some in total disarray. I've noticed that the one-volume edition concept (like the Riverside Shakespeare) hasn't really caught on here. Everything is published in multi-volume sets. These occasionally get separated or unevenly distributed, so that total disarray area was orphans from sets.

I looked through everything twice, finding one or two of the things on my list and a few other things. At half off, there wasn't much to lose, though I was kicking myself for not going the day before. It's clearly one of those things where the selection suffers when you come late, and the early bird gets the books without the messed up covers.

Never mind, I'm not one to judge a book by its cover.

After I had gone through all the books, and bought a stack that only just barely fit into my expandable backpack, I was exceedingly hungry. I went around the corner to a restaurant whose name was something like Old Home Meat-cakes, and had a Meat-cake. This was actually kind of like a quesadilla, except instead of cheese imagine ground meat with Chinese seasonings. There are all kinds of amazing things in Chinese cuisine that never make it to the U.S. The meat-cake was good, but the noodle soup I had was really mediocre.

As I was finishing up, some people came over and were obviously waiting for my table. They were kind of impatient, even though they didn't have their food yet, and perched on the chairs at the edge. I listened to them speculating about me. "Korean, wouldn't you say." "Yeah, definitely Korean." Then I thought they asked me a question, so I said, "What?" "Oh you understand," they said without embarrassment. "Somewhat," I said. "My father is Korean and my mother is American." Then I took my coat and left. If I were really Korean, would they be able to tell that I was a foreigner at all?

The bus home was very crowded. The ticket-taker was really fed up. "Why does it have to be so crowded today," she lamented as she stood squashed against the rear doors. "It's always crowded, every day," some anonymous passenger responded. That's China all right. I sometimes think how many American cultural attitudes and practices just wouldn't work here. Valuing every individual is great, but what if there's just not enough to go around?

At home, I can't say I was terribly productive but I got a thing or two done. In the evening (yeah, I know, book-glutton) I went to Disanji bookstore to see if I could find the textbook for my Tuesday class. I couldn't, but I picked up another book that was on my wish-list. Then I noticed that in the Disanji building, below the bookstore, there was a very fancy vegetarian restaurant. I noticed that vegetarian food in China only appears at the extremes: either it's extremely low and awful, like boiled cabbage and turnips, or it's extremely elegant and almost overwrought, like this place with a menu that resembled a coffee-table book and a sort of temple atmosphere with mood-lighting, a faux rustic fountain, real table-linen.

One of the most expensive solo-meals I've hand, weighing in at 66 RMB, or more than $8. I had a lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice and drizzled with cinnamon sauce; a plate of roasted mock-duck, fried tofu, and bamboo shoots; a skewer of wonderfully crispy and well-seasoned mock-fish; and a vegetable dish of some solid green stalk-type thing and baby almonds. Everything in delicate portions, but fake-meat is always pretty fillling. I was especially impressed with the fish-skewer, which was really very much like fish. Also, the whole experience made me miss Colin very much. I am so taking him there.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

And Today

Well, today was quiet. Not very productive, not very exciting. SXb had called to tell me about a fantastic book-sale going on yesterday (but I was already booked up), today, and tomorrow. He and his friends went yesterday, but I just couldn't drop everything. Well, I could have but I just didn't want to I'm afraid. I considered going today. I really should have done it. But I got up late and by the time I was done chatting with Colin and doing laundry (which HAD to be done) and having breakfast and a shower …it was 2 in the afternoon, and the book-sale was on the other side of the city, and I figured it was probably too late for today. Then the question is, should I go tomorrow? The whole thing made me gloomy.

I did get a bit of translating done while I was waiting for the laundry, but not as much as I would have liked. It would be good if I could spend a good solid day tomorrow working on it, but on the other hand, the book-sale…etc.

Had the Yihe Wang rice bowl across the street again, this time with black pepper beef, for my lunch. Once again, filling, delicious, and only $2 including the thick hot soy milk. Hurray!

To walk off lunch, I wandered through the Haidian Book-city. I have finally come to understand that the book city is not just the building, as I'd thought, but a whole alley that had once been devoted to book-sellers but has been crowded in on by sellers of DVDs, art, tons of ugly clothing, shoes, also street vendors selling fake stuff, and disgusting smelling meat sizzling in portable woks. A sketchy but interesting place. It took me so long to understand it because it's heavily under construction, carpeted with green cloth and strewn with rubble--a total mess. Didn't find any books I wanted there, but in the places near the school I found a few that were of interest, including one I've been meaning to buy for a long time, the Dictionary of People's Names from Past and Present. Unlike many of my other purchases, which are for the future, this one is for the present as well, immediately useful!

I also picked up my new business cards, in Chinese and English: a little clunky but still fairly cool. I won't post them here, as that would be foolish. But I wanted to mention it because it's exciting: my first business cards since 1999!

And then I just came home and killed time. Tried to do some shreds of work and got frustrated. Wrote this long post, so my left wrist is starting to feel achy. Read SO many blogs. Decided I should cut down. And finally feel like getting down to 10 PM, with bed-time only about an hour away.

Local Academic Politics, Day of Italian Food

Friday--my Chinese lesson went very well. I've mentioned it before, but I might as well say it again: these lessons have been extremely helpful for me, and are one of the most worthwhile investments I have made in my time here. I ask lots of questions of all sorts (language, culture, daily life), and then we study poems and idioms drawn from traditional culture. I am learning so much.

I wouldn't have a picture of my tutor except that she needed one for some public relations purpose, and her camera was out of batteries. Wasn't it sneaky of me to offer my camera for the purpose? I e-mailed her the picture, but now I have one too!

New Friday lunch tradition: lunch at Papaya Diner. It becomes a tradition the second time you do it, right? It was almost the end of the tradition, frankly, because the place was so packed with rowdy kids in sloppy school uniforms that it was more like a school lunchroom than a diner. I couldn't get a table and had to sit at the knee-stubbing bar--still contiguous with the room with the kids in it mind you--and then a lady sitting next to me at the bar was rude to the waitress, lit up a cigarette, smoked it, and then left without ordering anything. Not a top-notch Papaya Diner experience. However, the nascent tradition was saved by two things. First, the spaghetti with meat sauce I ordered was absolutely delicious. Sounds simple, right, but oregano is a scarce commodity and there's no pre-made tomato sauce in any of the places I shop, so spaghetti sauce has been out of the question for months. Never thought I'd miss it, but they sure make it good at PD. Then, the waitress apologetically gave me two 2 RMB off my next order coupons as I was going out the door. Now 2 RMB is barely pocket change, but you know, it was the thought that counted. So I'll go back again next week and hope for a table.

From there I went straight over to campus where I spent more than two hours helping HJ with her writing sample. Rough stuff. She wrote her paper on Kafka and the Bible, a complex topic about which I fear she took as being far simpler than I think it really is. Problem the first: she made no distinction between OT and NT. That would have been tricky even if Kafka were a Christian but, I pointed out, he was Jewish. But that was only later in his life, HJ protested. Before that, he was a Christian, right? So I explained, to the best of my own limited knowledge, about ethnic Jews and religious Jews and that it's important not to imply someone was a Christian when he wasn't, and so on. Why? she wanted to know. Ah the fluster of trying to explain a part of your own culture that you have unreflectively absorbed. "The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is something of a sensitive issue," I said, using the term that often gets used in talking about the changing winds of Chinese politics and what you can and can't talk about. It is, though, isn't it, sensitive in sort of that way? Something about which it's somehow easy to go wrong, so you usually don't feel qualified to discuss it…

I was interested to hear the horror stories of how connections can help more than they hurt. If you thought academic politicking in the U.S. was bad…. Professor A promises to get you into very prestigious school X, but refuses to allow his recommendation letter (which you wrote) to be used for any other school but school X, because to apply anywhere else would suggest that you don't believe in Professor A's clout with school X. Then Professor B, your advisor, puts you in essentially the same situations with slightly less prestigious school Y! And since Professors A and B don't get along with each other, there's no hope of being frank about the whole thing and your desire for some kind of safety net--because while connection are important in grad school admissions, everyone has the intuition that something could potentially go wrong somewhere along the line, and then Professor A or B could conveniently forget his promise, or fob you off with some consolation prize that you don't want, or whatever. Good grief.

I suggested: apply to school X with Professor A's letter and school y with Professor B's letter, and rustle up some other letters (I mean, since you write them yourself they're a much smaller deal--all you have to do is get a professor to agree to sign them) for some other schools, and don't tell anyone anything! That's only my intuition, though; in reality I'm not sure what the right answer is. Well, the right answer is to make the best damn application you can so you've a hope of getting in on your own merits. But with a writing sample like that [shakes head]… it read like an undergraduate paper to which I would give a B on a generous day. So I don't know.

At home I rested a bit. I was online when I got the bad news that fellow blogger AT's wife has suffered a final stroke and is now beyond hope, brain-dead. She fell ill some weeks ago of some terrible mysterious infection and the fight to save her life has been tremendous and of course very emotional. After all, she was two years younger than me, and had two little kids and a husband who loved her very much.... The hard-core prayin' people have had to go find something else to pray about, and I'm sad. It would have been worth being proved wrong about the lack of efficacy of prayer, if she actually had made a miraculous recovery. But no alas. It's one of those things that really makes you think about life; I'll leave it at that.

Friday night: LK the sociologist had sent me an e-mail inviting me out to pizza. So I guess I was wrong about our mutual antipathy, or it was an olive branch, or who knows. The restaurant, Kro's Nest, was awesome. It was a tiny piece of America, and one of the better kinds of pieces. Also, the ethnic ratio in it was roughly what you might find in an average American college town, no more that about 20% Asian; funny. The pizza was best in Beijing. It tasted right, and real. The owner himself dropped by for a chat about dogs and cats. I had a double gin and tonic because it was Friday and also because I feel I should get back in training. G&T, what a nice buzz; I'd almost forgot since I hadn't had a drop to drink in over two months! The pizza was so generous that a large was too much for three people. Here's a picture of LK and her friend and a small cat that wasn't quite tame but wasn't quite wild either and seemed to have a fondness for our table. LK does not possess a camera and seemed slightly annoyed by my photographic activities, but aside from that I was on my best behavior and I think it went all right.

Catching Up to Do, Favors, Me in Realtime

It's Saturday night and I am behind on my blogging again. I've done tiny shreds of work and lots of just surfing around looking at stuff, reading about other people's lives and having thoughts. The blogosphere is awesome. Before it really got going, there was the feeling that nothing again would ever be authentic--it was all too easy to fake, and there were just so many fakers out there. But now… well, of course there are fake blogs, but for most there is just no fraudulent way to duplicate the sheer depth of personality you have to invest in making a blog people will want to read. I'm sure people tell lies on their blogs, or make things up. I'm not saying all blogs are literally true. Just that they have popularized (if not quite invented) a new criterion for authenticity. The storyteller is a real person, even if the stories are tall tales.

I've decided to do my part by getting all caught up with this blog. It's not hard because two out of the three days I have to write about have been extremely uneventful. I'll make them separate posts, though, because short posts are more fun and readable, so I've heard. That means you're probably reading them all out of order, but it doesn't matter so much. One day and another are divided by the falling curtain of night, and sometimes I feel like everything changes off-stage and comes back looking all different.

Thursday: I procrastinated all morning. I think I was a little down because it was Colin's and my two year anniversary, and we were spending it apart. We make a point of always celebrating the 16th of every month, no matter how busy we are, by doing something small and special. And November 16 last year we went out on a date and smiled extra smiles. This November 16 we are geographically very distant, but no less in love. More in love, probably. But it's hard.

Unusually, I had three favors of varying sizes that people had asked me to do. So in the noontime, after a quick lunch at the school cafeteria (I had a spinach and meatball soup), I managed to get all those done: 1) going into the bookstore with a list of books my advisor wants, so he can pick them up when he's here--went very smoothly--they were delighted; 2) posting some ads for my Chinese tutor who has apparently agreed to help arrange a one-on-one Japanese teacher--am skeptical that anyone around here would be interested, but I posted the ads; 3) read a writing sample for a Chinese classmate applying to grad schools in the U.S.; I was dismayed at its quality, more on that later.

After doing all this, I sat in the reference room of the library and worked on my own translation… it goes so slowly. I am doing two translations right now, one in each direction. The one I am translating into Chinese is my own paper, which is what I worked on today. The good thing is that I can change things around at will, so if I'm stuck on how to say something I just don't. The bad thing is that it's hard to translated something out of your mother-tongue and into a foreign language. And much less satisfying than the other way around. Trudging along.

On the way home I picked up a webcam ($7.50 and that was totally without bargaining and only minimal comparison shopping woo-hoo). My anniversary present to Colin--a real-time view of me while we talked. That was nice, although it's oddly more tiring to talk to someone when you know they can see you. It was my first experience with that. Still kind of cool though.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Quiet Day Full Day

Tuesday morning: I was coming down with a cold. I could feel it as soon as I woke up, so I turned off my alarm, slept in, and skipped my 8 AM class. One ear was normal and one was filled with the sound of the sea. I remembered how my dad always says, each year in November, "Now be careful of your ears around your birthday time." For some reason, I often got ear infections around my birthday when I was a kid. I barely remember what they felt like. But the lop-sided feeling in my hearing suggested something was not right.

I lay in bed. I made excuses to my classmate via text messages. I'm not sure why, but I decided to say I was too busy instead of saying I was sick. I'm tired of being sick. Also in case I decided to go out and saw her later. Besides, I was busy. I worked hard on translating the whole day. Had about five times my usual dose of vitamin C. Drank hot water.

For lunch, I went across the street to the fake Kentucky Chicken, the Yihe Wang. It looks just like a Kentucky Chicken, even down to a picture of a pure white but Asian-looking colonel, and there's one next to every Kentucky Chicken. But it's a Chinese-food fast-food place. I had never been there before. For half the price of a breaded and fried chicken sandwich next door (I paid just under $2), I got a big bowl of rice, stir-fried chicken breast, steamed baby bok-choy, a perfect disc of fried egg, and a big glass of hot, unsweetened (and unusually delicious) soy milk. (Soy milk here by the way is incredibly delicious and totally different from almost all American soy milk. I really don't like soy milk in the U.S., but Chinese soy milk, I think, is actually made according to some different process, because both taste and texture are different, and better.)

I sometimes wonder if a huge part of the obesity problem in America is just the type of choices we're offered. If there were an Yihe Wang next to every one of our fast-food places that offered a healthy meal like this, would we be so fat? I sometimes think of Supersize Me, which was admittedly a very problematic movie, but it had one little cameo of a fat girl with her fat mother attending a talk (sponsored by Subway of course) by the semi-legendary Jared who lost so much weight by eating all those Subway sandwiches. "But," she said, standing half in tears beside her fat mother, "we can't afford to buy those sandwiches ever day." As if Subway sandwiches were the only effective slimming food in existence. Fast food mentality, narrowing of possibilities. It was sad. Yihe Wang rice-bowls are delicious, filling, and cheap. If only I could beam some over.

The sunsets are getting earlier. This one seemed to be full of dragons, what do you think? Okay, I guess maybe they had something to do with jets and reflections and stuff. But what would the ancients have thought, if they could have seen? A portent!

In the evening, I went gingerly out to the Carrefour and got some supplies. And another set of long-underwear. My ear was still rushing like an inconstant wind. I had soup for dinner and read a lot of blogs. Then I went to bed early.

By morning I was feeling much better, even perhaps all better, which was good because I had a long day ahead of me. I guess the right way to help my body fight off a cold is to drop everything and stay in bed most of a day. Hey, I like that! Above is my breakfast, hot milky tea and a funny (and utterly unhealthy--to make up for my lunch the previous day) type of pastry.

It's a fried and syrup-soaked bit of dough, much chewier than a doughnut, and sprinkled with sesame seeds on the outside. Due to a funny quirk of independently developing lexical strands, the name of this pastry could be translated as "marijuana flowers." Nope, no pot in it. It's just that ma is the word for "sesame," which is why it's in the pastry, I think--"big sesame flowers"--and also the word for "numb" or a thing Chinese identify as a taste which produces in your mouth the same kind of buzzing that marijuana produces in your head. So marijuana is "the big numb," rather apt, I'd say. Anyway, nice breakfast.

Wednesday: history and legend class. My worst misgivings regarding Chinese discussion class realized. A brave skinny kid got up and started talking fast and generally incomprehensibly about reading materials he had distributed only the day before (despite the professor's injunction to have them distributed by Sunday). He talked for about half an hour. I tried to follow, fitfully, unsuccessfully. The professor asked if anyone had any questions--dead silence. The professor asked if there were things people didn't understand. Dead silence. The professor--who must have spent some time in the U.S., I'm thinking--let the silence stretch out for what would have been an unbearably long time in the U.S. (as they sometimes tell you to do when no one's talking). The Chinese students were more than a match for it. The silence got slightly fitful as people started pulling out other work.

The professor gave up. He got up and lectured, first about how to give a more engaging presentation, then about the subject at hand. His lecture was not as good as usual because he hadn't expected to give it, and because the person giving the presentation hadn't followed his suggestions about key reading materials to pass out to everyone--so we didn't have them. I felt for the guy. I wish I were better at talking because then I might have been brave enough to make a suggestion--such as, require the presenter to prepare discussion questions. Maybe I will e-mail him. I am not a very good writer in Chinese, and I'm bad about how to do epistolary etiquette unless someone is helping me. But it may be worth the risk anyway, just to try to get things on track.

Class got out early so I got into the Farm Garden cafeteria before the lunch-time rush. I went straight to the crepe station. Crepes here are savory without exception. At Farm Garden you have your choice of a crispy fried thing--vegetarian, I asked--as filling (together with egg, lettuce, and sauces) or some chicken chunks. I prefer the chicken, though the fried thing is good and filling I will say. Ah, nothing like a piping hot freshly made crepe with delicious spicy sauces, fresh lettuce, and yummy chicken. The man's hand was hurting from repetitive stress, I could tell by the way he shook it. I felt a little bad, but there was really nothing to be done. He asked if I wanted the whole one or half. I liked at it. It was probably about a foot long. But a lot of the filler was lettuce. The whole, I said, to the dismay of the lady in line behind me. Tee hee. Then I ate the whole thing. And a bowl of extremely mild bean and rice soup for warmth and because that's what people here tend to drink with their meals instead of beverages.

I went home, did small chores. At two I set out for my visit to LGs. What a marvelous old man he is. Every time I go to see him, I feel nervous beforehand--but I shouldn't. He is invariably kind to me. He gets slippers out of the cupboard for me as I take off my shoes, and smoothes out the couch and rearranges all the cushions before inviting me to sit. His wife brings me a cup of coffee without asking. He shuffles into his study and comes out with his papers and an impish grin. Seventy-seven years old. He gets very excited about his little discoveries, just like I do. He showed me some stuff written in 1946 about my ancient historical work and explained the political subtext. It was amazing. I wished I could record every word. We'll definitely have to talk more on this.

Then I sheepishly brought out my list of questions about the translation work. I need not have worried. He explained everything very unjudgmentally, even happily. There was no "you should have looked harder for this before asking" or anything like that. With one sort of idiomatic Chinese word, which I hadn't found well-defined in any of my dictionaries, and which he explained in modern Chinese, I fished around and suddenly thought of the perfect English translation. He was delighted. His academic English is very good, so he can read it well, understands it, and has a good vocabulary, though he doesn't really speak. I was delighted too, to hear him say, "That's JUST what it means." He also told me some grand stories from history, relating to various four-character phrases. I'm studying this sort of thing with my tutor too, and for the first time in my Chinese learning career I'm actually having a really good time learning the phrases.

LGs wanted a copy of my list of questions! I only found that out after I had scribbled notes all over it. Never mind, he insisted, and went off to make the copy. He wanted the copy because some of my questions weren't so easily explained and he wanted to ponder them and write out proper footnotes to explain.

I do hope we can get this paper published, and hopefully published somewhere good. It would just make me feel so proud.

As I was leaving, I wanted somehow to express how much I appreciated all he is doing for me. So I said I felt very lucky. He said in a perfectly courtly way that he felt lucky too, because there were quite a lot of English-language stuff that I could go through so much faster than he. I also said, I was I was putting my shoes back on, that I just somehow felt happy every time I came here. Yes, he said. When he was young he had a friend who was a professor when he was just a student, and they used to have such talks, and he would feel just like that: unreasonably happy. So he could see what I meant. It is a kind of intoxicating feeling, when someone you respect takes you seriously and teaches you carefully.

I went home and rested, thinking about some of the stuff we had talked about.

At 5:30 I headed out to buy bread and cheese for the American grad students' potluck I was going to. I just have to note that my bike is working great now. There's a huge difference between riding a bike with a borderline flat tire and riding a bike that's functioning as well as a totally crap cheapo Chinese bike can be functioning. I was like that wind! I bought the supplies at the French market Carrefour. Bread and cheese might sound like a pretty ordinary contribution…if you don't know how rare actual cheese is around here. By actual cheeses, I mean anything above individually wrapped slices of processed cheese (think off-brand Velveeta singles) for which I have a passionate dislike. I thought I'd try a couple baguettes to go with the Camembert. We're not talking super-good Camembert here, but it was passable, you know? I chose the nicest-looking baguettes I could find, and headed for the check-out.

Now here's the part where I devise a new life-rule. As anyone who lives in a foreign country will know, there are always going to be those occasional moments when someone asks you what sounds like a yes or no a question except you don't know what the hell they said. You have two choices. You ask them to say it again, thereby admitting that you are the dumb and troublesome foreigner that you appear to be…or you can just say yes and see what life has to offer. Now as far as my personal philosophy is concerned, the latter option seems rather attractive, especially if I have at least a guess about what I'm going to get. You know--be open, spontaneous, etc.? Now this has already gotten me into trouble, as regular readers know who remember the "emcee debacle." But I thought I was pretty safe at the check-out, when the clerk asked what I though was "Do you want a bag for those?" I figured out a moment later that I had missed the crucial verb in the sentence, for as soon as I indicated my assent, she took one of my beautiful and newly purchased baguettes, gave it a few exploratory squeezes, and then began to attack and deform it with such enthusiasm that she tore the paper of the bag it was in. "No no!" I said. "Oh," she said. "You don't want it folded?" "Er, no, thanks." "Then there's no solution," she said dismissively and unapologetically, dropping the bag and turning to the next customer.

My new life rule is to figure out what you're being asked before you agree to it. Cause you know what, that question just might be something you really want to refuse before it's too late, such as "Do you want to be our emcee?" or "Shall I fold your baguette for you so it will fit in the bag?"

I think they're also not to used to the idea of baguettes here, or even just bread that doesn't come pre-sliced. Next to one bakes because ovens are not a standard home-kitchen feature here, and besides, the primary carbs are rice and noodles and steamed dumplings.

I took my abused baguette and pedaled toward the giant apartment complex where my colleague lived.

The potluck was fun, in a way, but also deflating. Which is to say, sometimes--especially after a good day--I get started thinking that I am a brave explorer into a strange new world where everything is different from what I'm used to and all my discoveries are unique and amazing. For example, these construction workers rebuilding the side-walk in front of my building, with about one worker for every square yard of sidewalk. Actually I saw another white guy taking a similar picture. It was just so marvelous. But that's part of the point. For almost every amazing daily-life story I have, someone else living here has one that's just the same, and usually better. In amidst the disappointment, though, I get a better sense of which parts of my experience actually are unique. And I get humbled, which is generally a good thing. Things are going so well for me here, that I occasionally get on a high horse!

Two people were working on orphanages and abandoned children, albeit from different perspectives. They had heart-wrenching stories.

I got some good advice about dictionaries.

For some reason, sociologists and me just don't mix. It's nothing personal, because talking on a personal level there's no problem--at least at first! It's just that when it comes to talking shop, all of a sudden there's no common ground. Not only do we not see eye to eye, but it's impossible to maintain anything but the shallowest semblance of mutual respect, if that. We actually are about ready to snarl at one another, except the sosh is too polite and I'm too confused. So she'll look down on me with carefully veiled condescension, and disapproves of everything I say, while I wonder why the I seem to keep on saying the wrong things. This is not the first time! Sigh, and probably not the last.

It was almost eleven at night by the time I biked home. I was wearing my helmet and my white jacket, so I was pretty safe and visible. The streets are relatively quiet by then anyway. It was cold. I stayed up later than I meant to, first chatting with my fellow, then reading blogs.