Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Caliban's Dissertation

I like using the Jackson Pollock website to make things Jackson Pollock never would have made. Here is a picture that expresses quite clearly how I feel about the dissertation writing process.

"You taught me language, and my profit on 't
Is, I know how to curse."

But he was being disingenous, a little, because it's also a beautiful thing. He just feels himself unbeautiful, unequal to the task of mastering it.

A Quick Note on Nietzsche

I have been reading The Gay Science over breakfast and sometimes over dinner. I like to read when I have to eat alone, as it makes me feel like I have company. I like the The Gay Science best of all Nietzsche's books, I have decided. I think Nietzsche always has a sense of humor, but in his other books it is too easy to take him over-seriously, or take him seriously in the wrong way. The Gay Science, all in pieces and parts, doesn't lend itself all that well to sustained interpretation, so in order to get anything out of it, you have to let each little section sink into you and understand it patiently, bit by bit.

There are many bits I have found meaningful and could quote here, but I couldn't resist this little one, which I read this morning.

I have discovered for myself that the human and animal past, indeed the whole primal age and past of all sentient being continues in me to invent, to love, to hate, and to infer. I suddenly woke up in the midst of this dream, but only to the consciousness that I am dreaming and that I must go on dreaming lest I perish--as a somnambulist must go on dreaming lest he fall. What is "appearance" for me now? Certainly not the opposite of some essence: what could I say about any essence except to name the attributes of its appearance! Certainly not a dead mask that one could place on an unknown x or remove from it! (#54, trans. Kaufmann p.116)

I like very much the breaking down of the appearance/essence dichotomy, and I like very much the idea of the whole human and animal past crowding about within us and making us peculiar, and other than the rational beings we believe we could be.

And although it is cliche, the passage has an immediate and irresistible correspondence with this:

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (trans. Watson, here)

Ancient commentators fretted about the line that there must be some distinction. For example, one writes that there is not in fact a distinction in any important sense:

At an earlier time he dreamed he was a butterfly, and had such an extremely happy time. Now he becomes Zhuang Zhou, and also says it suits his wishes. This suggests that waking from the dream does not make a difference. Between Zhuang and the butterfly, how can one argue that one is true and the other empty?!

But Zhuangzi does actually say that there is a distinction. The commentators generally go on to interpret the distinction as one between life and death, and that one should not love life or fear death, a common theme in Zhuangzi. (Also Nietzsche: We should part from life as Odysseus parted from Nausicaa—-blessing it rather than in love with it.--another of my favorites.)

The modern commentator Chen Guying says, "It means that the border between things and me dissolves, and the ten thousand things are mixed and transformed into one."

Is that what it means, or should we take him at his word when he says "there must be some distinction"? Whatever the distinction is, I think Zhuangzi has a similar problem with the very idea of essence.

Nietzsche (continuing):
Appearance is for me that which lives and is effective and goes so far in its self-mockery that it makes me feel that this is appearance and will-o'-the-wisp and a dance of spirits and nothing more--that among all these dreamers, I, too, who "know," am dancing my dance; that the knower is a means for prolonging the earthly dance and thus belongs to the masters of ceremony of existence; and that the sublime consistency and inter-relatedness of all knowledge perhaps is and will be the highest means to preservethe universality of dreaming and the mutual comprehension of all dreamers and thus also the continuation of the dream.

Small Changes

Sunday, at least most of it, was as unproductive as Saturday was productive. By 10 AM I sensed the hovering doom of unproductivity, so I decided I needed to go out of my apartment for a bit. I went to buy groceries. This qualifies as THE adventure of the weekend, unless you count intellectual adventures. It's not saying much.

On the way in I noticed that the overpriced yarn store had a sale on an unpopular color that I actually liked (dark reddish brown) so I bought some. Still on the expensive side, but I decided to treat myself. I'm going to need another little blanket when my parents come to visit anyway, and it's a good way to unwind...

Inside the store, it was thick with decorations for the spring festival. So much red! Not just red lanterns and fireworks and papercuts, either. Red slippers and underwear (lots of that) and jackets. Red "stuffed fireworks" made of cloth--cloth imitation fireworks. Red everything for sale. I got into the spirit and bought myself some of the cheapest silliest decorations. Actually, they make the place feel rather festive.

When I got home, I made another change in my environment as well. I decided that the three tall bamboo plants (rescued from the garbage can, in what has been my only dumpster dive in Beijing) just couldn't keep on living root-bound in the ludicrously small vase on the table. So they moved in with the fish Tashtego. Tashtego is not so sure--he is spending a lot of time in the extreme opposite corner--but I think he will get used to it. Maybe even get to like it. And the bamboos should be happier, assuming they can stand the cold. It's much colder over on the window seat.

I started making a small blanket with my yarn, from a pattern I had copied into the back of a novel just before leaving the States. The novel was not so great, but the pattern, as it turned out, was very nice. It doesn't look like much at present, but I have a good feeling about it. I resolved to go buy more yarn in order to be able to complete it.

It wasn't until after dinner that I actually managed to get started working, but once I did, it was actually quite productive. I worked until after midnight. Thus ends another eventful weekend.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Green Monster

This post is brought to you by the green monster I made on the Jackson Pollock website (which is really fun, by the way).

I know I'm a bit behind with blogging, but I will have to get more caught up tomorrow. I am too tired tonight to do anything but make more Pollock monsters!

These Are the Things I Can Do Without *

After another quiet weekend, it's hard to find very much to say. There is, for example, very little to say about Saturday. It was a good day. In fact, it was a great day--for being productive. I woke up before my alarm because I was worried about having to much to do and never getting any of it done. Then I got down to work, and I spent all day writing. That's it. That was Saturday. Not much of a story, is it?

So let us leave me tapping away at the computer, and turn to a bit of an overview on my life in China. I do that more rarely than probably some of you would like, so I thought that this time I would make a short post about ten things I am used to having in the States but don't have here.

1. A drier. No one has a drier. Everyone dries their clothes by hanging up a clothesline somewhere in their room. And you know what? It works great. It is absolutely no problem at all. You have to plan ahead a bit, because it takes 12-24 hours between the time you start a load of wash and the time that load of wash gets done. But you get used to it fast. No one who lives in a place where they need a humidifier should need a drier too, and that's what I have to say on the subject. We could save a lot of electricity this way.

2. A microwave. Actually, we didn't have one in Chicago either, but I'd always had one before that. The uses of microwaves are actually quite limited, or would be if they didn't sort of invent their own uses. The only thing a microwave really does that's hard to do without it is defrosting meat. And since I almost never cook meat at home--and here, never!--that's not a problem. As for popcorn, you know what? You can make great popcorn in a heavy pot on the stove with a little olive oil. I never knew this until Pocket of Bolts told me. Or there's always Jiffypop, which is fun but a bit strenuous. I have an electric kettle for hot water. And what else is a microwave good for anyway?

3. Plastic wrap. They sell it here but I just haven't had any need for it at all. I think this is the result of having fewer leftovers here though.

4. A conventional oven. Now that, I miss. In fact, it's nearly one of the things I can't do without. I love to make and eat pie. It's a family recipe, and a family tradition. I eat pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Chinese people, on the other hand, do not seem to eat pie. None, zero. The only thing that even begins to approximate pie is egg custard tarts, which are egg custard in a tart crust. But I like fruit pie. I like chewy chocolate chip cookies, but they seem to prefer crunchy ones. And no one cooks with butter here--all pastries seem to be made with some disgusting oil that has a slight whiff of artificial coconut. If it weren't for chocolate bars, my sweet tooth would be just about cured by now. But I realize, not having an oven, that it's not only dessert that I like to make. I like casserole, and roasted vegetables, and quiche. I like spanakopita (a lot). I like lasagna. In fact, almost everything I enjoy cooking requires the use of an oven, which I suppose is why it's been hard to get into cooking here!

5. A food processor. I don't miss it so much, although we had two back home! However, I am a pickier eater in the U.S. Most of the things we used the food processor for were pureed soups or Pocket of Bolts' really good salsa. Now I am not picky and eat my soup without pureeing it. As for salsa, anything that even slightly tastes like Mexican food makes me want to weep with homesickness, so chopping up onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, and cilantro is a close enough approximation, without the refinements like pureeing garlic and tomatillos and whatever other secret ingredients Pocket of Bolts used to use in his salsa base. It would be cool to make a smoothie now and then, but now worth actually buying an appliance for it.

6. Toaster. Okay, I do miss toast. And a toaster oven would stand in well enough for a conventional oven. But I haven't made up my mind to buy one. I used to be able to make toast in a decently heavy pan on the stove, but I don't have one of those either.

7. Buying new clothes. I have been here for over five months, and have bought only long underwear. Nothing else fits me (actually the long underwear is a bit dicey as well). And although I went through a brief phase of being sick of everything I owned--after all, I only brought the clothes that could fit in one suitcase, where they had to share space with books as well, and half of them were summer clothes that I can't wear now--I am totally used to it. I am more convinced than ever that our attitude toward clothes is completely messed up, and a cruel conspiracy to waste our time and mental energy. I just don't think about clothes right now. It doesn't even register in my mind. I have one or two Slightly Nicer outfits, which I wear if I am going to meet anyone I know. Otherwise, I just grab whatever's handy and temperature-appropriate.

8. Nylon stockings. Forgot to bring any, haven't had occasion to wear a skirt anyway!

9. Shaving cream. They do sell it here, but I just can't be bothered to buy it somehow.

10. Forks. I'm sure they sell them somewhere, but I haven't seen any. As a result, I don't have any, except for a couple of the tiny disposable plastic ones that come in bucket-ramen. I use these to scramble my eggs.

Okay, we now return to your regularly scheduled blog post, which is me wrapping up my unusually super-productive day and giving myself a well-earned rest. Yes, I confess it: on Saturday I did not leave my apartment AT ALL, all day. :P

* Yeah, I know that in the song it means "There are the things I would like to do without." And some of the things on the above list I would really like to have, an oven being really the most sorely missed, and this mostly because of my desire for pie... however, it still makes some kind of sense.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Quintuplets, Vacuum Cups, Chestnuts

Here I am cooking dinner for one on a Friday night with no plans--how superb it is. What makes us unhappy about not going out on weekends? Is it really the not having out, or is it the idea that we ought to be going out? For me, at least, having purged myself of the latter (after years of effort), I'm just as happy not to go out. More happy. In fact, I'm in quite a good mood at the moment.

It has been a very bright and brilliant day today, but yesterday was a white day. I stayed in all morning, eking out a couple of hard-won paragraphs in Chinese. Can I say that if writing a dissertation in English is hard, trying to write similar level scholarship in Chinese is like pulling teeth and bashing your head against bricks, at the same time? Maybe that's the secret to writing a dissertation. First, try writing it in your non-native language. Then it's such an extravagant joy to get back to your native language that all the anxiety simply melts away. I can dream, can't it?

In the late afternoon, I rode my back to the library for a book I needed in order to eke out the next couple paragraphs. On the way over a few flakes of snow started to fall, but then no more fell. I felt oddly good. It's nice to break the routine, and to actually get some of the dread writing done.

At the library, I got distracted. I have recently discovered the "Social Science Area." It is one of the rooms of the library, none of which allow you to bring in bags or books but some of which, like this one, have open stacks. It is a strange combination room, containing philosophy, history, and literary criticism in Chinese and Western languages. I find it especially amusing that literary criticism counts as a social science. I think that in Chinese the line between literary criticism and history is just too fine to be able to sort them out, and that's why they're rubbing elbows in the Social Science Area.

And what else was there? A defective copy of Gregory Maguire's Wicked--apparently someone understood it as being a historical work? I was tempted, but given that it's missing pages 187-215, I decided it would just be a recipe for suffering. Instead I opted, at random, to look at Bobbie Ann Mason's Feather Crowns. This was not a real copy of the book, but actually just a bound, uncorrected proof. Given that the book actually came out in 1994, the proof probably should have been destroyed (as instructed on the cover) some years ago. But instead here it is in a Chinese university library.

The typeset is awful, but premise eye-catching (based on a true story): woman in rural Kentucky, spring of 1900, gives birth to quintuplets. This being before fertility treatments made quints a relatively familiar phenomenon. It's probably my biological clock acting up, but I'm a sucker for a birth story. Also, it is this sense of, I dunno, American rural peculiarness that ain't quite wholesome but it ain't wholly unwholesome either. It reminds me of my childhood on the farm. I was hooked and read right up until closing time, but I was wise enough not to check the book out. Hey, it's nearly 500 pages long. If I checked it out I just would have kept on reading all night.

Instead, just in time, I remembered to borrow the book I was actually there for. Then I collected my bike and took it over to the shop. It was becoming a matter of urgency for me to put some air in the front tire. I was determined to do this on my own this time! And I did it, after only a little fumbling. The way the nozzle works is pretty confusing, but I think I have it down now.

Flushed with victory, I headed off to get a little dinner before going home to get some work done. I decided on jiaozi, that is, bits of minced filling wrapped in a thin flour case and boiled or steamed (these were boiled). I always feel that eating them is healthy, though I don't know for sure. In any case, they are satisfying but simple.

I had just sat down and got started when a skinny little guy sat down across from me. This is not uncommon when the cafeteria is crowded, as it was. But it turned out this one actually had sat there because he wanted to strike up a conversation. I was wary. While Chinese women are generally fine, Chinese men who randomly start talking to you can be problematic.

This one turned out to be fine though. Actually, he was a professor, teaching art I believe. The conversation followed the usual course. He was stunned by how good my Chinese was. I never take this to heart. It has less to do with my Chinese--which is good enough mostly to communicate, but rarely stunning--and more to do with my face. If I had an ABC face, people would be stunned by how bad my Chinese was. Though probably they wouldn't strike up a conversation with me in the first place, as I would be less conspicuous.

Anyway, skinny art professor recounted going out drinking with a fellow art professor, an Italian who spoke no Chinese. Neither of them spoke much English either, and so after getting frustrated with English, they switched to drawing pictures. I actually found that story very charming.

Skinny art professor then observed that all American seem to love exercise. I was non-committal. He has a friend who runs marathon, he said. Do I run? Not at all, I said. I used to when I was in high school, I added jokingly, but now I'm too fat and it makes my feet hurt. Skinny art professor considered me. I suppose you are a little fat, he owned.

Cultural difference cracks me up. I am quite used to being told I am a little fat by now, though I admit that the first time it was a bit of a shock!

Skinny art professor had much to say on the subject of marathons. I contributed my standard response, which is that they can't be good for you since the first person to run one died of it. That's about all I have to say on the subject of marathons. The 10ks of my adolescence have convinced me that running a marathon is something I don't need to be spending my time and energy doing, even if it is good for one's confidence or mental focus or whatever.

After all this, I went home and played more solitaire than I should, and read more blogs than I should, and generally didn't get anything done. Talking to strangers gets me all jittery, and I have to spend a lot of time calming down. I did finally get some more written, though.

Then today, this bright gorgeous day with only a slight scum of brown haze on the horizon, I rode my bike to my Chinese lesson, practicing the poem in my head but not getting lost this time. Colin says, when I get very depressed about the air pollution, that it is a solvable problem and once they start using catalytic converters things will improve considerably. Though not burning high sulfur coal would also be a good step.

The lesson went well as always and along the way AL attempted to convince me of the following proposition as regards being and catching cold:

When you get warm, your pores open up. Then if you are exposed to a cold wind, the wind comes into your pores before they have a chance to close. Then they close, and the wind stays trapped in your body. Then it moves around in there and causes your body to hurt, and also may cause you to get sick. Then she further tried to convince me that the application of vacuum cups could get rid of the wind that is trapped in your body, and although it hurts in the process, after that it feels very good. Also they cause giant hickeys, though naturally that wasn't the word she used!

I am fairly skeptical about the whole thing. She argued that if you haven't "caught a wind", the vacuum cup doesn't stick or do anything but just slides off. But if you have, it makes you feel very good afterwards. Why should that be, if there weren't something to the idea that the wind gets in you? And furthermore, Chinese have been doing this for centuries, and they wouldn't do it if it didn't work, right?

If anyone out there has thoughts on this wind and vacuum cup thing, feel free to share them!

Meanwhile, she says she will try it out on me one of these weeks, which I will be very interested to see.

I am very cavalier about getting cold. I feel that it's a matter of what you're used to. Changes of season are hard on me, and I am invariably more cold in November than I am in January, even though objectively it's much colder in January. At this point, I'm so used to the temperature--and it has been quite a mild winter so far anyway--that it hardly bothers me at all. Also, my body doesn't hurt if I get cold. Why, sometimes I even go from the library to the coffee-shop without retrieving my coat from the library locker. It's only a few steps after all. I prefer to think of it as "bracing." AL says I have then most certainly caught a wind. We shall see!

I was very tired by the time I biked all the way back home, although my bike is in reasonable working order. An hour and a half of biking a one-speed up and down overpasses is quite a lot when you only do it once a week! Especially when one is a little bit fat. Though AL says that I have lost quite a lot of weight. I think I'm gaining it back since my discovery of deep fried eggs. But since I have no scale here, there's no way to tell and that's okay by me.

Anyway, I rested at home for an hour or so, ate an omelet (deep fried eggs) and headed to the library. Yes, I confess, the fact that I wanted to read some more of Feather Crowns DID play a part in my decision-making process. But hey, I photocopied one article that bears a methodological relationship to my dissertation, and I checked out another book that I need for this stage of the writing. Then I abandoned myself to the joys of historical fiction for an hour and a half. It's Friday! The babies are born and the problem of getting them enough milk is looming serious. Every time they need to eat (and that's often), it's a big worry. The doctor think they pick out the strongest ones and let the others die. The neighbors keep bringing over cow's milk. The only nursing mothers that live near enough to help out are an unwed one and a someone's black servant. Is it okay to get the black woman's help? For some reason, this is an issue for them, and they're not sure, but they do. They were just trying to get the babies started on cow's milk (but how to get the cow's milk into the babies? no bottles in sight) when that distinctive music started up, and the canned announcement that it was time to leave the library. If I hadn't already reached my five book check-out limit, I surely would have borrowed the book.

And why, as an aside, do I have a five book checkout limit, dammit?! It is very clear from other people who borrow books that THEY don't have a five book checkout limit. Furthermore, I had a pay a heft 500 RMB deposit, which they didn't have to pay (that's over $60)--which is enough to buy a whole stack of uncorrected proofs and defective printings, even in the US, so I don't know what they're worrying about! Grumble. How can a body live with only five library books at a time? I've had to pirate several just so I don't have to do a juggling act.

(Getting a whole book photocopied here is lamentably easy and economical. You drop it off at the copy shop and collect it the next day, slightly enlarged and nicely bound--with glue and a card-stock cover and everything--all for about $2.50. It's nearly irresistible, but I only do it for books I couldn't buy or which would cost me more than $50. Because face it, until or unless I have a research budget, $50 books are off limits.)

Here is the picture of the tall tall trees on the campus near the library. I took it just as I was coming out at 4:30, and the light was pretty. It was such a clear day it might almost have been autumn.

I ran out of cash recently and had to get more (I tend to do that only twice a month), so today I walked around with that rich payday feeling. I'd been stringing out my last hundred for days, mostly just from laziness. But on the way home I bought jello and chocolate and a whole jin of roasted chestnuts. How much is a jin? Search me. Something like a pound or a kilogram, but I'm not sure which or whether it's not something different entirely. I just know that a jin of chestnuts costs 10 RMB and it's about twice as much as I could eat in one sitting, if I were making a whole meal of chestnuts.

But I did not make a whole meal of roasted chestnuts. As it was still early, and I was still full from lunch, I made another bean soup. This one was the best yet, with garlic, rosemary, some roasted chestnuts, and--in the last stage--some peppers and onions that I had fried up. It was done by 8:30 and now my stomach is happy! Colin watched me eat it over skpe, and got really jealous. :)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Three Days, A Fractal Coastline

What can I say about the last three days? They have all been approximately the same. I get up, talk to Colin, go to the reasonably empty library and work until lunchtime. By contrast with the library, the cafeteria is a zoo; the lunchtime crowds truly unbelievable. But I should be used to that by now. Then back in the afternoon to work some more until the library closes at five. Then I either go to a coffeeshop and eke out an hour or so more before dinner, or just go home. In the evening, I take care of e-mails, or blog, or just relax a little, then try to do a quick gallop through my other projects, which keeps my mind a little fresher. Before bed I read a chapter or two of Moby Dick. In fact, this is a highly agreeable life for me, but there isn't much to blog about I'm afraid.

I have to admit that research is like a fractal coastline. You zoom in on one small bit and it opens up into nearly infinite length and complexity. You zoom in again, and you find the same thing happening. In the end one has to accept the hated "logic" of generalization and case study, where your readers have to accept that the case study you present is truly representative. The ideal would be completeness--discuss every piece you have read, and then show how your conclusions have grown organically out of it--but in reality time is finite and what people want is just a good meaty case study… It's a flaw in my disposition that my training has only exacerbated, the insistence on perfection… One ends up investigating everything and writing nothing.

No, better to just at some point get started writing things up.

On Monday and Tuesday, there was a man squatting outside the Farm Garden cafeteria, making quick cartoonish drawings with a fountain pen and colored pencils. It was very cold, and I don't know his hands didn't go numb. I suppose he was selling the drawings. A crowd gathered round to watch him draw--he could draw so swiftly and sure with those hands. I wonder what he does when he's not selling Chinese New Year drawings outside the Farm Garden? He drew so fast and fluently, he could have had a career as a cartoonist, perhaps, in another possible world.

I did not buy any of his drawings. On the second day, when the crowd around him was considerably less, I considered asking for one about romance between sheep and rabbit (Chinese astrological signs of Colin and I) or one about the amusing menage of a dog, two rabbits, and a rooster (my nuclear family), but I felt too weary to embark on this adventure of art, commerce, and negotiation. Instead I took this picture from behind the glass.

Lately I have been feeling very misanthropic. I suppose it is a delayed feature of culture shock, or a side-effect of working too hard, or a manifestation of home-sickness. In any case, I mostly just want to be left alone to do my work.

On Tuesday as I was walking home, I saw from a distance a young man and a young woman selling what appeared to be small plastic fruit. Hmm, plastic fruit. Why would anyone want to buy that? They were tossing the plastic fruits up in the air and catching them again. Just as I walked by (trudging misanthropically along with headphones on), the girl threw down one of the fruits she was tossing. It was a pink strawberry and it landed on the top of their box--with a splat! It was squished flat! They were squishy plastic fruits. I couldn't help it, I involuntarily let out a giggle as I walked past. They shouted after me excitedly, but I kept on walking. Yeah, okay, it was funny but what would I do with a plastic fruit, and besides, who knows what chemicals are in there? Buying and selling, buying and selling--people are so desperate to capitalize on any flicker of interest, it is both pathetic and exhausting.

Near the same intersection, I saw this guy with his tricycle trailer full of mysterious vegetable matter, for which I may never know the name. I think I may have eaten it before, but I have no idea where it comes from or what it is. I followed the guy into the middle of the street to get this picture, as he crossed against the red light!

Last night, I finished filling out the FB mid-term report on my activities. It was an astonishingly long process, big multi-part form. But I put some thought into it, and it was a good chance to evaluate what I've accomplished so far. So much of what I've done has the character of getting set up. I hope that from here on out I will be able to use everything I now have gotten set up, and actually make some good progress. I hope I can.

But speaking of that, I think I will get to work now. I am breaking the pattern today and staying home. I think it is time to stop digging around for sources, and just sit down, and write things up.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Shorn and Grouchy

Saturday: I stayed in. I did some work, and also spent a lot of time reading Ursula, Under. I had mixed feelings about Ursula, Under. The author does know some things about China, but there are also some horrible howlers. Probably the worst, which had me howling at least, is that the assertion that the alchemist character Qin Lao had "the same surname as" the First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Um, no. Qin, from which (it is true) our word China derives, is the name of the First Emperor's original state, which was ruled by his family for generation upon generation. Qin Lao would have heard of the guy. He was the king of the land. In fact, if Qin Lao was living that close in time to the unification, it is highly unlikely that he would have had such a long and peaceful life. As far as I know, alchemists were not exempt from the draft, and there was a lot of war and turmoil going on…

In any case, unless Qin Lao was royalty, he and the First Emperor would probably not have had the same surname, and either way, it would not have been Qin. And then there's the question of where Qin Lao got his surname in the first place. If he was found on a doorstep and adopted by his alchemist teacher, why didn't he take his teacher's surname? That would have been more normal. There are many small consistency problems like that, and others harder to put my finger on. The Chinese parts just didn't feel very…well, very Chinese. I'm not a huge fan of Amy Tan (I tend to prefer Maxine Hong Kingston if I'm going to read Asian-Am lit) but at least she gets the mental voice right.

From all this I conclude that I should just steer clear of American fictional representations of China. They're just not that pleasant for me to read. There's no taste of the exotic for me. I'm living the dream, ha ha, sigh.

The rest of the book was fairy enjoyable, though I found the constant ancestor coincidence-pointing too heavy-handed. The echo and reflection of motifs reminded me a little of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Salt and Rice which I also liked pretty well except for the long religious digressions. He does it with reincarnation instead of relatedness, but the same effect. I liked the mining camp story, despite its being so sad.

I am supposing the author must be a Mormon, given the fact that she has twelve children and an obsession with ancestors. Interestingly, Mormon libraries are the best resource for people who are interested in research topics related to Chinese genealogies. Traditional Chinese families kept careful records called jiapu, but they became a liability during the Cultural Revolution, and somehow or other the Mormons ended up buying up a whole lot of them. You might think you'd want to go to China to study Jiangnan lineages, but no, you're better off going to Utah. Just a by the way. I myself don't actually do that kind of history.

In the evening, I went out and got a haircut. My hair had been getting really shaggy, and I was tired of it. I decided to try the place that just opened up on the ground floor of my building. They didn't give a massage, alas! But they did give a better haircut than the other place and didn't try to talk me into a perm, thank goodness. The guy who cut my hair was charmingly homely, and didn't have that overwrought rock-star look that most male hairdressers do here. He was kind of ugly and wore a baseball cap. It put me at ease and made me feel comfortable. He asked only the usual ordinary questions, so I was able to answer fine, and he quoted Zhuangzi. He flirted with me in a professional, good-natured way: "Is your boyfriend Chinese or American?" "American. How did you know I had a boyfriend?" "All pretty girls have boyfriends!" Like that. Again, just enough to make me feel pretty and to diminish the insecurity of being blind whilst listening to scissors snipping around my ears. Not enough to be uncomfortable.

I don't usually get along very well with hair-dressers of either sex. They usually expect me to care more about my appearance than I actually do--I just don't have anything to say about it, and spend as little time or money on it as possible. This is alienating to people who make a living off people who care about their appearance. Sigh. But this time was okay in that regard. I didn't succeed in taking a good picture of the results--front a little too short, back a little too long, but in general not bad and better than last time I think--but Colin gives it the seal of approval, insofar as he can see via the $7 webcam and the touchy skype connection.

Sunday I left the house early just so I could say I went somewhere. Also I was out of milk, and I can't drink my morning tea without milk, so I thought I'd have it in the coffeeshop instead. I got a couple good hours of work done there, delving into the "events in the life of" the fellow I'm researching. Interesting how we don't have a very good word for that, which in Chinese is the (very commonly heard) nianpu, a chart of years. "Chronological biography" is most descriptive, but a bit clunky sounding. Anyway, here is my computer and the coffeeshop in the background.

I went and had lunch. I was feeling irritable, probably from having coffee instead of tea and having it later than I'm used to (because it ALWAYS takes me too long to get out of the house). The cafeteria was full of people, and they were clearly not students because they were queuing up on the cash station. Paying cash at the cafeteria is possible but complex. You decide what you want, get a ticket, pay the person at the cash station, take the receipt back to the food section, and then get your food. There was only one person at the cash station, and the line was fairly long. I shrugged it off and ordered a random stir-fry from one of the food sections. Do you have a card? the server asked me warningly. I produced it, she handed over the food, I swiped the card, and started to turn away.

Then I hear a brassy voice in Chinese saying, "Hey, classmate! Can I give you cash and use your card?" I understood perfectly. But you know what? For all the disadvantages of being a foreigner, there have to be at least one or two advantages. And I think, given how often people assume I don't understand when actually I do, I should have a right to pretend not to understand when it suits me. I know, I'm mean and wicked. If it had been a hapless and confused American student, I would have done it no problem. But this was someone who wasn't confused--she just didn't want to wait in line (or pay the 15% surcharge) and so hoped to swap her inconvenience for mine. No, the boundaries of good citizenship (or really good alien-ship) did not extend that far today, and I walked away as if I had no idea someone was calling after me, "Hey! Classmate!"

I know I'm bad. But you know what, fortune doesn't always favor the bold.

Here is a scene I saw on my way through the campus. It's kind of amazing that you can see scenes like this in the middle of a modern city, on the campus of (so they say) the best university in the country. Doesn't it look like some poverty-stricken village somewhere? Hard-packed dirt and crumbling bricks...

I got bad karma for my lunch-time misbehavior, because when I went back to the coffee-shop it was nothing but trouble; some girl sprawled at a table right next to mine, so I had trouble getting in and out, and had to ask her to move her legs each time. Her boyfriend chain-smoked until I thought my eyeballs would smother. And in between sprawling and smoking, they did a sort of languid cuddling thing, which seemed to be more for show than anything. Okay, maybe I just added that because I've been too long away from my sweetheart. Yeah, I know, it's only been 18 days since he left. But it's been a LONG 18 days!

For some reason, while I was eating my instant noodle dinner, I ended up watching a television historical drama about the conflict between the states of Wu and Yue during the Warring States period. It was horribly melodramatic, but I'm such a sucker for those, and this one was actually dealing with a period I knew. It was fun, and also cool to know that I can follow a story quite well with only Chinese subtitles. (It would have been hard without the Chinese subtitles, because there was so much classical Chinese sprinkled in--most historical dramas have them.)

I watched that for way too long and then was feeling low about my unproductivity, so I did something that often cheers me up: I set a timer and worked for fifteen minutes on each of my projects, for a total of one hour. I call this "a gallop" because it feels like galloping through things at high speed. Is it really that productive? I don't know. It might add up if I did it every day (I don't). Mainly, it just creates the illusion of productivity, and makes an hour pass amazingly fast. But it also gets my spirits up. I may have wasted a lot of hours, but here's one that wasn't wasted.

Head in the Clouds, Clouds in the Head

Friday: I left early for my Chinese lesson because I knew I had somehow or other to get the seat of my bicycle fixed. Fortunately, in the little side-street by my house the lock-man and bicycle mechanic had already set up his tricycle-trailer stand. He was wearing a dark green army coat and a hat with earflaps. I showed him the problem. He looked at it for about half a second, selected one of the two wrenches he happened to be holding, tightened the bolts many turns, and the thing was as good as new. I asked if he wanted money and he laughed and said, Get on with you.

It took only about five minutes or less. The rest of the time was taken up with my getting lost. I was pedaling along, reviewing in my mind the poem I translated in the last post, and suddenly I realized I had forgotten to turn east and had gone very far off course. No wonder everything looked different and kind of interesting… The undignified scramble which ensued, I will not describe in detail. I did make it to my lesson on time, and that's all that matters.

As usual, a very good lesson. I told AL the woeful story of the duck king, and she said that on the one hand, it is a fairly normal thing for a friend to force upon a friend (she taught me the Chinese word for "venting"), but on the other hand that WW seems like a bit of a strange person and perhaps not necessarily the most productive of people to associate with. Tell me about it!

AL also told me more about the language program, of which she is the director. I was interested and impressed to hear about it. The summer intensive session sounds like a lower cost but still very high quality version of Princeton in Beijing, but with more personalized attention and more exposure to real Beijing people and life. I know if I had known about it back when I was struggling to learn Chinese in my hometown state school, I would surely have been interested and profited by it. Well, of course it didn't exist then, as that was a long time ago. In any case, if you're looking for a summer intensive Chinese program, this one would be worth looking into. Intensive instruction within the environment is really the way to go, and why pay more when you don't have to. End my plug for AL's summer language program!

The only other thing of note was that I waited around all afternoon for the travel agency to deliver my tickets. They had called the previous afternoon, saying they could get a cut-rate ticket but the return date would have to be the twelfth. Sorry, no. It would be more expensive for me to find two more days lodging than for me to pay the original price. Okay, then they'd issue the original ticket and come deliver it to me on Friday afternoon.

Actually, I could have gone to the library, because AL said they'd probably give me enough advance warning that I could get back in time, and anyway, I would be perfectly justified in keeping them waiting after the big deal this has turned into. But I was also quite tired from the longer-than-intended bike ride, so I sat around.

At ten to five I called them. It should be out for delivery! they said. Call this number. After a few moments hesitation, I did. The sullen travel agency answered, and said, yes, he'd be there soon. Just hang on. I hung on. At seven, he finally showed up. Ah well. At least the saga of the tickets is finally at an end. I have the ticket in my hand, very old-fashioned looking with the red carbon paper and all. I'll have to be sure I actually remember to bring it to the airport! I haven't had a paper ticket since the last century...

Hollowed, and a Poem

I have not been feeling at all like posting lately. January here is cold and dry. I have been working hard. I miss Colin. It's hard to see that there is much else to say. But I'll try to write one thing about each day I have missed, if I can remember anything!

Thursday: still very worn out from marathon dinner with WW. Pocket of Bolts said I should tell her that waiting until after thirty to have children is a type of population control. Andrea, in the comments below, suggests mentioning to her that in my culture it's rude to go on about that sort of thing. Should the opportunity arise again (heaven forbid) I will keep both of these suggestions in mind. I tend to be so busy trying to understand what is being said and keep up a conversation that I forget to get offended until later...

Anyway, in the morning I tried to work at the café but ended up dozing off. Spent the afternoon in the library bustling around collecting sources, so as to prevent myself from dozing off. Discovered, to my great inconvenience, that I have a five book check-out limit. Came home and made bean stew with the skin from the leftover duck. It was good, but somehow I felt all at loose ends.

Here is my rough translation of the poem I was memorizing for my Friday Chinese lesson:

Untitled, by Li Shangyin

Hard to meet again,
so hard too to part;
The east wind has no strength
yet scatters a hundred blooms.
Spring silkworms only in death
exhaust the thread they spin.
Only when the candle burns out
do its tears ever dry.
The morning mirror shows you glum,
how your temples are greying,
And I at night murmuring verses--
how cold the moon's light.
From here to the Immortal Isle
the way is not so far;
I will send an eager green bird
ahead of us to look it out.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The King of Ducks

The Duke of Zhou says that if you dream of climbing to a high place and gazing far out over the land it means it has already been settled that you will get a promotion. He should have added that if you dream about quacking ducks it will mean that the duck king is going to have his revenge on you for eating innocent tender duck webs (see below). Anyway, it was a good day for rights, and for beginning one's studies (hurray) but a bad day for praying or getting married. Also, it might have added, for being treated to dinner, but alas, there was no such warning...

As you might expect, all my recent productivity has had its roots in a little deadline of sorts. It happened that we dropped by YHz's office last week so that WW could borrow her library card, and YHz said that she would be busy until Wednesday, but that we should meet then and have dinner. So yesterday morning, I wrote her a quick text message asking what time would be convenient for her. Now, she said, or at 3, or tomorrow morning. I decided on 3 and dashed around for the next four hours in a frenzy of getting things prepared.

At 3 I showed up in her office. Her middle school age daughter was there, so we went into the lounge. I felt nervous, but I started to discuss the things I had been working on. I had prepared three different things to talk about, one of which she clearly found very exciting and interesting. She suggested I focus on it for a start, and see what I could give her in a month. I felt ever so slightly glowing. I like having a manageable challenge, and a manageable deadline. As we were wrapping up, WW ambled in.

What Colin said about YHz not liking WW all that much never really occurred to me, but after he said it I notice it a lot. WW really likes to hear herself talk. She talks on and on, also repetitively, telling the exact same stories in the exact same words, to the point where it's not even very good listening comprehension practice for me to listen to her because I know it all by heart. YHz is a busy lady and has trouble tolerating it. The two of them tend to deal with the situation by falling into an antiphonal "praising Zapaper" session.

I am starting to hate this. At first it was encouraging and reassuring, but lately it has started to feel condescending and distracting. Okay, we've established that despite being a woefully ignorant American I can more or less read and talk and understand things. Now can we just get on with it already?

In a momentary lull in the praising session, I made "yielding the floor" motions and suggested that WW might have some question she wanted to ask our teacher…? She asked her question. It was something I knew a lot about. It was something I knew a lot about. It was something I knew a lot more about than she did. I was able to contribute quite productively to the ensuing discussion--not in a show-off way, just a way that quietly demonstrated to YHz that I was familiar with the topic. That made me feel a hundred times better than being praised to the skies… especially since, when I really think about it, I am really being praised for abilities roughly approximating those of a high school student... or maybe a five year old...

Then WW wanted YHz to go to dinner. She REALLY wanted her to go to dinner. YHz, who had her daughter there and clearly didn't want to subject either herself or her daughter to more of WW's company, declined. WW pressed embarrassingly hard and YHz declined very firmly. WW pressed to the point where it went way past being polite as far as I was concerned. I suggested that YHz's daughter would surely be bored. YHz said her daughter had an exam tomorrow--it just wasn't a good time for her. WW wouldn't quit. If I were better at acting like a classmate I suspect I would have interceded and made things right, but it is hard with not understanding cultural norms quite, and being halting with the language still. Still, I did my best, putting on my coat and making to leave.

YHz made her escape. I was stuck with WW. I made impotent noises about going to the library, but WW wanted to take me to dinner. If she couldn't nab YHz, she would at least practice her English on me.

We went to the Duck King restaurant, arriving around five. The place was empty. WW ordered and made a big fuss about it. She complained about everything, the menu, the way they prepared the dishes, just everything. She kept asking for vegetables, and not seeing anything she liked on their vegetable menu, turned over a few pages and then said again, Why am I not seeing any vegetables. The waitress was amazingly patient, even when WW said loudly that they must have changed chefs recently, the menu wasn't as good as it had been. When the appetizers came, she said, they weren't as good either. She was clearly in a bad mood from the failure of her plans to persuade YHz to come, but I don't see it was necessary to take it out on the waitress.

The waitress warned that it would be an hour wait for the duck. WW said, fine. We ate duck livers and duck webs. The livers were good--I'm getting a taste for them--but the webs were disturbing. They had the duck equivalent of Achilles' tendons still attached, sort of the duck's ankles, and I didn't like that at all. But I didn't say anything, just praised the food mildly, and gently suggested that WW shouldn't bully the waitress.

Then some painful English speaking on WW's part. I was to sing for my supper. I sang for my supper. Also I got treated to the same narratives of how undiligent American students were, how they had no interest in Chinese culture… then the same exact phrases about how amazing it was that I had managed to choose YHz… then how if I weren't so amazing she wouldn't be interested in me at all. I don't mind speaking English with a beginner, but I'm getting horribly sick of all this.

Dinner arrived somewhat on the lukewarm side, as if the waitress had left it deliberately to sit for a few minutes. I didn't blame her at all, though lukewarm duck is rather lackluster.

I never bully the waitress. You think they won't dare have their revenge on you, but you never know. They have control over your restaurant experience in a dozen ways, and especially in a culture where there is no tipping, they have nothing to lose. I am as polite to them as I would be to millionaire.

One thing I did find out was how much WW makes a month (she claims a university professor makes about that as well). I won't say how much, but I will say I was quite surprised. I think of her as very affluent. But I guess it's more power and privilege than wealth, or maybe her husband makes a good bit more than she. All I'm saying is, her total monthly income is about the same as my monthly pocket and book money--what I spend excluding rent and lesson fees and unusual expenses. I suddenly realized why people are so horrified even by my "adjusted" monthly rent--it's three-quarters the monthly income of a well-off person here, whereas it's just a fraction of mine. WW wanted to know how much a university professor makes in the States, and was suitably impressed by the answer.

In general, though, it is frustrating to talk to her because (I mean among many other reasons) she loves to be the expert on Chinese culture, but she is completely uninterested in hearing comparisons with American culture, unless she herself makes them based on her limited experience. Well in essence she likes to talk but hates to listen. Or maybe she finds my Chinese to slow for her taste and only wants to hear brief phrases. She has an annoying way of saying, "That's right, wouldn't you say?" so you have to either agree or attempt to raise an objection and get bull-dozed under her next flow of rhetoric culmination in another "That's right, wouldn't you say?" I was ready to cut her some slack last time, but this time my patience was wearing thin.

She talked on and on. It was cold in the restaurant and--I am not exaggerating--hours passed. I smothered yawns. I now know several things about WW that are in the TMI category, such as that she has shy bladder syndrome (actually she told me that last time, but elaborated on it at great length this time). She also has step-mother around her own age. She told me all about the fabric she prefers for her underwear. Also, she told me about 16 times that I need to go back to the States and get married as soon as possible. At my advanced (spinsterish) age, I should start having children right away--before it's too late!!Thanks WW.

I was annoyed at the time, but I'm even more annoyed now. Yeah, I know that Chinese culture is different on this point and it seems a perfectly acceptable thing to say. But it doesn't have to be said over and over again, especially when I don't have any choice in the matter: I will be here until June or July and that's that. As for getting married and having kids, well, that's not entirely up to me either, you know? If I were hesitating over staying another year it would be one thing, but I already clearly said I wasn't going to. Grrr.

At 8 I started stirring and making my best let's get going? motions. She went and paid the bill (about which I felt really guilty, now that I know her income--I wish she would let me treat sometimes but she never will. She says condescendingly that aren't I a guest in her country? I tried out all my best lines that my teacher AL taught me, but without success). Then WW came back saying one of our dishes hadn't come. It seems the waitress "forgot." I suggested we just tell them we didn't want it. I was very full and very tired. She said that would be a waste of money wouldn't it? Can't you get it taken off the order? I wanted to know. Apparently it doesn't work that way here.

At least it was a soup--not a very good one to my taste (no salt!) but hot and not too filling. I ate it fast to try to move things along, all without success. She talked on and on. I contemplated whether treating someone to dinner and not letting them leave would be called "passive aggressive" by those who use such labels. I don't, usually, because it never helps anything and if you accuse someone of it to their face it just pisses them off, unless they are ironic about it. Still, in this case, I did not feel it was socially acceptable to suggest we move along, and I wonder if she was keeping me on there just because she was enjoying my discomfiture. (Or am I being over-sensitive? Maybe she just doesn't read social signals well, or the signals are somehow different in China...)

I didn't walk in the door of my room until 10. That's five and a half hours of WW. I felt like I never wanted to hear another word in Chinese again. I was so tired by the end I was stumbling over my words--I'd gotten up at 6:30 that morning, worked hard all day… WW didn't fail to say again, in the car, that she was afraid if I didn't have children soon--well, she was worried about my fertility. I regretted ever admitting my age to her, though it's hard not to answer a direct question. I have prepare myself in advance, as I have on the matter of rent. I tell myself, I will avoid or lie about the question of my rent. (Almost all of us foreign students do. A Western standard of living costs more than seem reasonable to most Chinese people…) I never thought to avoid or lie about my age though. I'm not ashamed of my age. But sheesh, having aspersions repeatedly cast on my putative fertility is a pretty hard thing. Especially since I've never even tried to get pregnant, and have gone to great lengths to avoid it. I mean, I have another ten years or so don't I? I'm only 31. Ha, there I go again, admitting my age to the whole blogosphere…

But this is all by the way.

All I'm saying is, I was feeling pretty battered and weary by the time I walked in my door. I will have to have one more dinner with YHz and WW next week, I think, although I may be able to avoid it. Hard to say. YHz seems to take a sadistic delight in encouraging WW to spend time with me, telling her she can learn a lot from me. Thanks YHz. Equal parts pragmatism (more time with me, less time with her) and compliment (the kind of compliment that gets one stabbed in the back). But after next week, I'm quitting. Enough is enough. I hereby declare that I am going to be prepared in advance to say, No, I'm sorry, I have something I have to be getting to just now… If I prepare in advance I should be able to do it. Maybe I can get some advice from AL on this matter...

Okay, sorry for the big long rant, but it's nice to bitch about it all.

Surprisingly Accurate

As seen at Repressed Librarian's and, I agree, startlingly accurate. Especially laughable is the "mind of an artist without the talent" bit. Kind of mean but right on, ha ha. As is the rest.

Your Birthdate: November 29

You have the mind of an artist, even if you haven't developed the talent yet.
Expressive and aware, you enjoy finding new ways to share your feelings.
You often feel like you don't fit in - especially in traditional environments.
You have big dreams. The problem is putting those dreams into action.

Your strength: Your vivid imagination

Your weakness: Fear of failure

Your power color: Coral

Your power symbol: Oval

Your power month: November

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The God of Research

These past few days I have been in such a studying groove that I haven't even had time to look at lucky and unlucky days, or the Duke of Zhou's dream interpretation, even. Though since I've already photographed the picture, and I have little else to put up here, I might as well. Are these amusing for you all to look at and hear about or am I the only one who likes them?

The Duke of Zhou says if you dream of a road stretching smoothly out ahead of you, a large shipment will get through. Ha ha, a large shipment of texts got through into my head, thank you very much. Now there is no room to even make dreams or roads or anything else… Apparently it was a lucky day for getting married and for throwing stuff away, but an unlucky day for funerals or breaking ground.

There is some deeply-engrained academic rhythm in me, which tells me that mid-January is my most productive time. All distractions are removed, but unlike summer there is a fast-approaching deadline--the semester will start again in February. So it's a time to revel in research and get some real stuff done! I'm not just saying this either.

Monday I put in a seven hour day at the library, and I don't mean just downloading stuff--I was really doing work, non-stop, all day. I made several good discoveries. My classical Chinese reading got faster and faster. I had a Chinese burrito for lunch, also a chicken leg, and mala tang for dinner. A highly satisfactory day, especially after my weekend listlessness.

The Duke of Zhou says if you dream of water gushing out from a small spring, it means that a good thing is on its way. Unless, that is, the water is yellow, in which case it means you should wake up and go use the bathroom. Okay, the Duke of Zhou didn't say that. It's my own addition. It was a bad day for hunting and weaving, but a good day for sacrificial rites and for capturing things. How capturing things differs from hunting, I'm not entirely sure, but I think I'll be staying away from both…

Indeed, I hardly had time for anything but books. Yesterday, I was in the library working for ten hours, from 10 AM to 8 PM. (A ten o'clock scholar's time-frame, I know, but whatever gets the job done.) I had a quick lunch at the café (I had forgotten my meal-card) and a quickish dinner of iron-plate tofu at a campus restaurant, reading all the time.

Here is a picture of my walk home. It is not a very good picture, but somehow it captures the feeling I had, walking home in the dark after such a long day. I'm sorry I don't have anything more interesting to say, but when the fickle god of research sweeps you up in his cold white hand, it's best to be grateful and roll with it. It's the first real extended research groove I've been in since I've been here. I will add that I feel totally worn out, and have been taking huge doses of vitamin C and drinking lots of hot water so as to try to avoid getting sick.

Monday, January 15, 2007

All-Alone Weekend

Another totally unlucky for everything day, especially big things. Good thing I didn't do much the whole day, then!

I did some translation work in the morning, alternating with reading one of my new books, Mirror Mirror, by Gregory Maguire. It is the story of Snow White transposed into Italian history in the time of Lucrezia Borgia--quite a good idea and pretty well-executed too. I liked it. I liked it so much that I ended up reading the whole thing. Oops!

It reminds me of one summer when I was (as usual) doing a long-distance relationship. That was back when I was living in my hometown, though, teaching Chinese two hours a day, and doing some editorial assistant work for a professor another few hours a day. So aside from the regular routine of these responsibilities, I kind of let myself go the rest of the time, and ended up reading a book a day almost every single day! In fact, I had to set myself a limit and not read more than one book a day, because I noticed that if I did it had an averse effect on my disposition. Because of this limit, I would sometimes race through the day's book, and then feel at a loss for what to do with myself. I read everything I could get my hands on, none of it terribly high-brow though. I think the longest book I read in a day during that period was Caleb Carr's The Alienist, which was over 700 pages. I was up until 2 AM!

Well, I don't have that kind of time anymore, but it was fun to be irresponsible and read all of Mirror Mirror, just this once. Of course my English language books are a bit limited--after this one, there's only one other. Of course I could get them from the library or the bookstore. But the ones in the bookstore are fiendishly expensive (imported) and a motley selection. And the library mostly doesn't allow Western language books to circulate…

Oh yeah, or I could be working on my dissertation.

In the afternoon, I went to the grocery store. It was an inauspicious day at the grocery store. The place was mobbed as usual. I forgot to weigh my tomatoes and ended up abandoning them at the checkout (you have to weigh produce in the produce department--checkers have no scales). Then the barcode on my bell-peppers was screwed up, so I had to abandon those too. Apparently, big things like buying produce were right out, today.

I did buy some dry beans though, and after a late lunch of egg and cheese, started a long slow-cooking bean soup going. It might seem like the plainest thing in the world, beans boiled up in water and salt, with a little garlic, onion, and herbs. But I'll tell you, it was such a Western-food taste, it was like heaven! See, Western food is available here but it's all fast food. Even the Italian food here is mostly either just pizza or spaghetti. When you haven't had basil, oregano, or rosemary for months, it tastes amazing even in something so plain as bean soup. I guess making bean soup is a small matter, because despite the inauspiciousness of the day, it came out just fine.

A lucky day for sacrificial rites, and also for weaving. Not so good for praying or seeking favors. That's okay, I didn't want any favors from anyone anyway. Wish I did have time for weaving though…. I was reading in Moby Dick about Ishmael and Queequeg weaving a sword mat, the deterministic warp, the weft of free will, and careless Queequeg tightening the cloth topsy-turvy with the sword of chance. A grand image.

I spent most of the day working on correspondence. For those of you responsible for assembling and sending me my January care-package, thank you so much! I loved it! Letters of more personal and detailed thanks are on the way.

Also, here is a joke picture. It's titled, "Colin in China."

I did some more translation too, and toward the end of the day finally managed to put in a few good hours of work on my Song dynasty character essay project.

I watched the Shiji lecture on television. I admit it is a bit appealing to be in a place where they give televised weekend lectures on one's dissertation topic...

In the evening I went back to the grocery store because I'd eaten up all the bread and had no breakfast food. I succeeded in acquiring peppers this time, also some rice to throw in my bean soup and make it a complete protein, the next time I make it. I've really missed cooking. I used to be a regular subscriber and reader of Food and Wine, if you can believe it. But my kitchen here is a disgrace for anything but soup or deep-fried things...

Not much else to say about the day, I guess. I'll try to be more interesting tomorrow, but no promises!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bad Bicycle, Missing Stars

Friday: the Duke of Zhou says, If you dream that the sky is shaking and the earth moving (fancy way of saying an earthquake), it means you will change jobs and probably be demoted. It was unlucky to move earth or engage in buildings in renovations, but it is a lucky day to sign a contract or to do business generally. Darn it, I should have waited until Friday to buy my ticket!

I found my bicycle tag at last. It is green on one side and white on the other side. It turns out it was lying on a white table-top, perfectly camouflaged with its green side down, in plain view. Well, this is why chameleons haven't died out long since. Their strategy for remaining unnoticed is quite an effective one!

After more than a month of not bicycling, I was clearly out of shape. Maybe my bicycle was too. We made very slow progress anyway. Fortunately I had anticipated this and left the house early. It took me nearly an hour to get there (it's usually a 35 minute ride), and I arrived at my Chinese lesson red in the face, just barely on time, quite out of breath.

It was a good lesson. I think I have recovered most of the ground I lost while Colin was here. I had prepared in advance a long "Report on Buying Airplane Tickets." I don't mean prepared in the sense of wrote down and memorized, but prepared in the sense of decided what to say and rehearsed in my mind the order of events. I think my teacher was amused, which was definitely the goal. She was most amused that I had talked to her without realizing it, and said she had had no idea I didn't know it was her. What a silly situation!

We also talked politics some--I wanted to explain to her about the program I had watched on television. She said I should have been a politician. Ha! I am over-educated and under-socialized, at least of politics in the US. I know that if I were a Chinese politician, though, there would be two goals foremost in my mind: environmental clean-up/protection, and rule of law. If these two areas could get sorted out, I think China might have a shot at becoming a pretty great place. Of course there's still the problem of form of government--who makes and enforces the laws--but really this is less important in practice than the idea that there be laws. Besides, as far as cleaning up the environment is considered, in the short run (an possibly even the long run) not being a democracy could very well be a tremendous advantage. Environmental protection, while being against nearly everyone's short-term interests, is vital to long-term interests. Since people care more about now than tomorrow, it's a problem that democracies are singularly ill-equipped to resolve. It's one of the very rare issues where I'd say the end justifies the means.

Anyway, I chattered on so long (but that's part of the point and very good practice) that we hardly had time for the lesson. But I did get my poem for the week. I'm not sure how many of these poems will stay stuck in my head, but as I work steadily through them at least I can be assured that I'd recognize them again if I heard them. It's a start.

I had Korean food again for lunch, which agrees with me well. And then the long road back, cursing my increasingly decrepit bicycle. It began to have that maddening problem where the seat gets loose and begins to rotated back to front, guaranteeing a totally uncomfortable ride. I will definitely have to fix that before next Friday.

After a brief interlude at home, I managed to drag myself into the library and spend the afternoon and evening working. A highly virtuous day!

Apologies by the way for the recent lack of pictures. I have just really been not in a photo groove. It sometimes feels like everything I see lately I've already seen a hundred times before, or otherwise--if it's fast-moving or people will think it a weird thing to photograph--I can't seem to summon the psychological energy to try to photograph it.

Here is another picture I made though. It is hard to paint stars--especially when you hardly remember what they look like!!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ticket Troubles, An Army Gal's English

Wednesday: don't engage in important matters. Nothing furthers. The Duke of Zhou says, if you dream that the sun and the moon are shining on you, it is auspicious and fortunate and you will get what you desire. Too bad I didn't dream about that. I'll have to work on it.

Quite as my calendar suggested, sort of a rough day. I got up on Wednesday morning, called the travel agency and asked them when they would be bringing my ticket. The guy dithered a bit, and finally said, afternoon. Would he mind telling me what time? Four, three or four, he said. I went to the library. Of course I had rather a late start, so I arrived around eleven. Students were pouring out. Is it closing? I asked the security guard. I don't think so, he said. Oh, I said, it's just that everyone is coming out. They're going to eat lunch! he said. Ha ha. (I had had breakfast only an hour before.) More space for me.

I got a couple hours of downloading in. I am still working to collect all the texts I need from the online Four Treasuries Complete Books (Siku quanshu) database, which only works in the library.

By 1:30 I was pretty hungry so I went and had fried noodles. Then came home and waited for someone to deliver the tickets. No one came. I was working on my blog--the time slipped by--before I knew it, it was after 5. Where were the tickets?!

At some point, WW also called me. She wanted to meet the following day. Meet and do what, I wasn't sure. It caused me stress. But I had said I would meet with her, so I gritted my teeth and agreed to it. I got a strong sense that what she really wanted was to come to my house, but since she didn't come right out and say it, I kept saying that I was sure to be at school and it would be more convenient to meet there. Yeah, I'm sure she would love to see the inside of my exorbitantly expensive little apartment, but she's not getting the chance. My home is my castle, even if it is a very small castle, and no one I don't like gets to come in!

Thursday: not a good day for mending wall or filling up holes, but auspicious for praying and sacrificing. The Duke of Zhou says that if you dream of big waves or flowing water it means that wealth is on its way! As an added bonus, this is one of the rare pictures I am able to identify: it's the Han Emperor Gaozu (otherwise known as Liu Bang), dynasty founder, and one of the major players in the Shiji (which in case you tuned in recently is an early history of China and is the subject of my dissertation). Emperor Gaozu lived in the third to second centuries BC. If he looks worried, well it only makes sense because he had a fight a long war in order to gain control of the empire and found his dynasty. At times he was hanging on by the skin of his teeth. Once, he was fleeing from his enemy in a carriage, trying to evade capture, but it looked like the carriage was going too slow to make it. So, he threw his wife and child out to reduce the weight and make better time. His rationale--well, he could always get another wife and child, but there was only one Liu Bang. Nice guy. Don't worry, his wife had a momentous revenge later on...

I got up early and left the house early so as to avoid being at home when WW called and risking having her invite herself in! I went to Café Paradiso, the American-style café across from the library. Colin and I spent delightful hours there during his visit, quietly working together, so now I have very good feelings about the place. WW was delayed in traffic. Poor lady, she has to drive all the way over from Chaoyang, and traffic in this city is nightmare. In a way it was good, though, because it allowed me to get a good morning's work in. I hadn't brought my computer, but was working on reading some of stuff! Slow progress, but reasonably interesting and productive. I'm starting to have some ideas…

WW arrived just before lunchtime. We had lunch in the cafeteria. One time when I do like being around someone bossy and decisive is when a decision has to be made about what to eat. WW like black rice porridge, so we had two bowls of that (it has lots of nuts and dates in it also), two portions of white rice, and one portion of eggplant. Not particularly proteinaceous, but tasty and filling. We talked politics. I tried to explain American anti-intellectualism, the conservative stand on Iraq, and changing political situation and possible outcomes…

Then we went to the library and I showed WW the databases. It is slowly dawning on me that she is less advanced than she pretends to be. I mean, of course she is a native speaker of Chinese, which is an advantage. But she doesn't really have a sense of scholarship, or what she really wants to do in that direction. She liked the databases, though--who wouldn't?

I found out something new about WW. She is in the army! I think that explains a lot. The army here seems to have a much higher status than it does in the US. WW is used to people being impressed and intimidated by her, and many of her annoying mannerisms make better sense in light of the fact that she must be uncomfortable and insecure as a "non-traditional student"--in a place where that isn't really all that common.

At this point, I asked her what she wanted to do or talk about. After all, she'd wanted to come talk. She got shy, so I obligingly pursued the matter until it became clear that what she really wanted was help with her English. Except that she was too terrified to speak English with me. She said she thinks and thinks about it, but never manages to say anything. Another good explanation for her weird manner at times--ah the hell of unfulfilled desires. As I know perfectly well, it's hard to speak to your classmates in their native language, no matter how passionately you want to practice it.

It's easy to be kind and compassionate to people you like. It's much harder, and also more meaningful really, to be kind to people who irritate you.

So I took pity on WW, led her back to Café Paradiso, looked at her little English reading comprehension textbook, queried her on her teachers' pedagogical method, and gently encouraged her until she managed to say one or two things. Pedagogical method: listen to the teacher "discourse upon" the text (in Chinese), memorize what it means, read the text out loud in English and answer questions (in Chinese) about the meaning of specific sections. Frankly, not very useful at all. I tried asking about some of the easier words--nope. They only learn the meanings of the hard words, and these by rote. I explained some of the easier words. I tried chatting with her bilingually, or talking in English while she translated what I said into Chinese (with difficulty). I tried getting her to say first what she wanted to say in Chinese, then slowly translate that into English. Generally, I just tried to get her used to the idea of using English.

I confess, I am not an especially good English teacher, but she seemed happy that at least she was finally trying to speak.

She has some very unattractive opinions. She complained how foreigners (except me) don't seem to have any interest in Chinese history, and so she doesn't have any interest in them. Also foreigners (except me) seem so lazy and don't work hard. I said that actually I could sympathize with this--I can--I work less here than I do at home. It's hard for foreigners living in China, I said. It's hard for you to understand. No, it doesn't have to do with the living conditions which are reasonably comparable to other cities (bathrooms aside…). I wanted to explain how wearing it is to be so totally conspicuous and so frequently stereotyped… but in the rudimentary English and broken Chinese we were using, it was pretty hard to get this across. I am not good at switching languages back and forth. Even my English goes to pot.

In the midst of all this, I was also dealing with the travel agency thing. I had called on the way to Café Paradiso using (this is key) the list of recent calls on my cell-phone to get their number. To my surprise, a different person answered the phone. Instead of the sullen guy, it was a very friendly and helpful sounding woman. She knew exactly what I was talking about though. The only thing that had surprised her was that I had already paid for the ticket. She said she would check into it and call me back.

Sometime in the middle of my conversation with WW, my teacher AL called me. I was a little surprised, but apparently the travel agency had explained to her what was going on. She explained that the travel agency had suddenly found a specially priced ticket that would be about a hundred dollars cheaper and they were looking into it; it would take a little extra time. Would that be all right? Sure, I said. As long as my teacher--who can communicate freely with them--is helping me, I don't see any need to be anxious.

After I hung up, though, I pondered. Then I checked the numbers. Then I was bemused and mildly mortified to find that instead of dialing the travel agency the first time, I had called my teacher instead. No wonder the woman had sounded so friendly (and in retrospect, so familiar!). When I thought I was talking to the travel agency, I was actually talking to my teacher! I spent a few hours being mortified, and then I started to see the really funny side of the whole business.

From now on, I am so going to store numbers properly according to name, though! That's definitely the lesson to be learned. That, and also that my teacher is more helpful and friendly than travel agencies, and I should call her first on purpose rather than by accident.

I talked to WW until after 5. You can say I was being saintly, but probably the more honest interpretation is that I--while putting on a saintly face--was enjoying being in a position of correcting and encouraging and reassuring the bossy lady who has been lording it over me for months. She has played the cultural superiority card pretty often, and perhaps for understandable reasons. But it's a two-way street sometimes. When she wants to learn about my culture, she has to admit that I'm the expert. Surely reluctance to do that has been part of her shyness!

I should add that she is a long way from having any hope of translating the Shiji into English just yet. She's still working on, "Which do you like better, coffee of tea?"

After all this stress, I had a fairly relaxing evening. I watched some TV--a recent Chinese drug bust, televised in full detail, of some people smuggling drugs from Pakistan--and then, on the English language channel, a discussion of Bush's recent speech about policy in Iraq. The striking thing was that they had got a couple of American professors, here in Beijing on fellowships, to discuss the political situation. Gosh, those guys were smart. They said what you always wish the US media would say but somehow never does. They were straightforward in their criticisms without being overtly partisan. They talked, they analyzed, the looked at both sides of the question, the discussed potential political fallout. But without any bullshit, because their time was limited and they clearly wanted to have their say. Not sure much of anyone here understood what they were saying (the host didn't really seem to?) but I certainly enjoyed it!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Our Harabuji

I received word from my father this morning that my grandfather has passed away, one day before his ninety-sixth birthday. He had been in decline for some time, so it was not unexpected. But it is a sad thing for the family.

My digital photo archives do not contain very many pictures of my grandfather, I discovered, going through them today. Most of the time I have had a camera I have lived away from home. (In the few pictures I do have, my grandfather tends to look slightly startled or alarmed!) This picture, actually scanned years ago from one of my dad's albums, is of my grandfather at a very young age, with my grandmother and my dad, just one year old. Through the bottom on the right hand corner, you can just barely see Japanese writing--it was taken during the Japanese occupation of Korea, which I assume has something to do with it.

My grandfather was a very stubborn man, as you can perhaps see even in this early photo from the set of his jaw. But he also knew how to pick his battles, and in most matters was fairly mild and accommodating. When he did pick his battle, though...

I did not really know him well, though he lived with us almost all my life. I learned much more about him from my father's memoir than from living with him. He was born in 1911, can you imagine? When he was born China was still an empire, and there hadn't even been one World War, let alone two. No holocaust, no North and South Korea, no nuclear weapons.

In his youth he nearly died of tuberculosis, and attributed his survival to God. He was a Christian of the Swedenborgian persuasion, converted by missionaries and perhaps with the encouragement of his older sister. As for the details of his biography, I will not go into them here as my father's memoir is far more complete an accurate than I could be.

I will add though that my grandfather's direct descendants number more than thirty, including descendants to the fifth generation (son's son's daughter's daughters, my grandnieces), whom he actually had a chance to meet. I remember one family reunion at which we totaled them all up and tried to make projections about how long it would take to get up to seventy, which was the number of some biblical patriarch's tribe though I forget who--Abraham? Jacob? (I will add that according to the clan I was projected to have only one child, if that.)

My one and only literary portrait of my grandfather appeared in the context of a (true) story about a kitten we had when I was in high-school. It got up into a very tall fir tree next to our house and couldn't get down--for weeks. If I recall correctly, my grandfather's contribution to our (many and varied) efforts to coax the kitten out of the tree was to make one of his smelliest fish soups and bring it out to the base of the tree, where he stirred it and the steaming hot smell rose up and tantalized the loudly meowing kitten. Though I am sorry to report that his attempt was no more successful than any others, the kitten did eventually fall out of the tree and survive with only minor damage. (Surely it used up one of its nine lives.)

When we lived on the farm and had a woodstove as our only heat, my grandfather used to chop wood every summer. He must already have been over seventy(?) but he was good with an axe. Not only did he chop the wood, but he stacked it in beautiful beehive-like patterns to preserve it through the winter. There are pictures of that somewhere, but I don't have them here...

My grandfather was a very scholarly man--he had many many shelves and boxes of books, almost all in Korean so I really don't know much about them. Apparently he was proud of my effort to learn Chinese, and once or twice we managed to talk in a little about Confucius or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms--talk enough to establish at least that we were both familiar with these things, even if we couldn't exchange much information about them. I know no Korean, and his English was fairly limited--the language barrier was pretty severe between us two, which is probably part of why we didn't know each other better. But it makes me happy to know that he approved of my chosen career, despite its impracticality…

This is a rather scattered and unorganized tribute to my Harabuji*, but it is written and posted here with love and respect. This is a picture of him as an old man--taken some years ago--catching a nap on the couch. He had a long and amazing life and I hope he now rests in peace.

*This is the Korean word/term of address for grandfather, and is how we always addressed him and knew him.

Why I Hate Buying Things and Three Photos

It was a good day for sacrificial rites (I keep wondering if the calendar company is also in the business of sacrificial rites paraphernalia...) but a bad day for breaking earth or having a funeral. According to the Duke of Zhou, if you dream that the whole sky is full of falling snow, it means that someone is going to cheat you. I didn't dream that the whole sky was full of falling snow, and I really hope I am not going to get cheated, for reasons that will become clear as you read on.

Yesterday was a low day, in completely uninteresting ways. I had to buy a ticket for my trip to Hong Kong in February. My Chinese tutor had recommended a good travel agency ("tell them I sent you") that would give me the lowest price. She taught me the right questions to ask, and the procedure, and what they might say. I was putting off calling or some time, but yesterday morning I happened to check the price of a Hong Kong ticket--over $700. Since people on the FB group had been talking $400, I decided I should get off my butt and start working on the ticket. I thought, "I'll do this in the morning and get it out of the way." Yeah right. I called the travel agent, but they didn't say the things I expected them to say. Their price was good though, $400 plus tax. Every exchange was a struggle though. Why do people have to talk so fast and so mumblingly on the phone!? I hate using the phone. Did I want the ticket? Yeah sure.

I was then instructed (with much struggle on my part to comprehend and his part to explain) to go pay at the bank. See, no one really uses credit cards here. Long distance transactions are done by depositing money directly into the person's account. This is a feature of Chinese commerce that I hate. Here's another: there are no e-tickets. Everything is the old paper-ticket system. You buy a ticket, they deliver it to your house. My teacher had said that you get the ticket first, then pay. But the travel agent said it had to be the other way around. This made me nervous, so instead of going to the back right away I wrote a quick e-mail to my teacher, lay down in bed with my novel (already totally exhausted) and proceeded to forget the whole thing. Before my teacher answered, though, the travel agent called again to ask why I hadn't gone to the bank yet. Oh, I was supposed to go right away? Okay okay. I also asked what time of day the ticket was for--because they hadn't asked my preference the way my teacher had said they would. He couldn't say just now, he could look it up and call me back.

Suppressing my misgivings, I did the bank thing. I had just returned when my teacher called back, having called the travel agency, saying there was some confusion, but that she'd called the travel agency and I shouldn't have had to pay first…but that they had given me the lowest fare and all. Fine. I didn't bother telling her that I'd already paid, just thanked her. At least she'd confirmed that things seemed all right. By now it was like four in the afternoon (LONG line at the bank; banks here are like the DMV--you take a number and wait…). The travel agent called too. I told him I'd done the deposit already. He said it was an afternoon ticket--just what I didn't want, because I was actually supposed to attend some preliminary evening function. But at this point, I just wanted to get the damn ticket done with and besides I had already said I wanted it. It's still possible I might make it to that function and even if I miss it, so what. It doesn't seem all that interesting or important anyway from the description.

Then I waited around for the ticket to arrive but it didn't. Must have been too late in the afternoon already, but I felt worried and unhappy and frustrated.

So that was how I was able to spend a whole day on a single errand and still not accomplish it. Sorry for the long and boring story. Now on to some photos to brighten up this rather gloomy blog post:

First, this is a box of Chinese Cheerios. There are two interesting things about it. One is that the Cheerios are multi-colored, kind of like fruit loops, but not fruit-flavored: they are in five different colors representing the "Five Grains", an almost revered categorization in Chinese--some ancestral memory of the Neolithic revolution perhaps. I thought this was cute, and much more interesting than just plain oat flavor, or whatever US Cheerios are. On the other hand, they can't be the original five grains--which have at least a 2-3 millennia history in China--because one was corn (which of course is a new world grain). The others (don't quote me on this) I think are rice, wheat, oat, and barley? The other thing to notice about this box of Cheerios is that it specifies, "Not a fried food"! This makes me laugh. They must look kind of fried in the picture? I find it amusing to think of fried Cheerios!

Another funny photo I thought I'd post today was my "lazy person's affirmations." This is a new idea I had from the depths of my gloom. Colin's mom had given me this memo-pad (regift?), which is really a highly not-me type of message--I try to be in my happy place whenever possible! On the other hand, I really was not in my happy place yesterday, and every time I looked at the memo-pad stuck on my fridge, I felt even less in my happy place. Then I decided that maybe it would make me happier if I crossed out the "not." I crossed out ten "not"s and felt actually a bit better. So there you go, for the next ten grocery lists I will be--still frazzled and frumpy looking--but at least not not in my happy place, ha ha.

Finally, when I talked to Colin in the evening I was still too gloomy and irritable to do work. I asked him for advice about what I should do and he said I should draw a picture. Of what? I said. The view out your window, he suggested. Of course for him it was, like, 10 in the morning. But for me it was 11 at night. It's all dark, I protested. So it'll be more of a challenge, Colin said. So I turned off all the lights in my apartment (otherwise the only view out my window is me looking back at me), mixed paints in the dark, and painted this rather silly nightscape. I won't say I took a lot of time on it or that it's a great work of art, but it was kind of fun.