Thursday, May 31, 2007


Easter basket my mom brought me from home. Me in an absurd mood. Nuff said.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Flowers of Beijing I

My buddy Twintree recently mentioned that he really likes taking pictures of flowers. I like doing that myself, not that I do it seriously of course, but I have gotten up quite a collection. I keep meaning to put them all together in one big post, but I keep putting it off. So I decided to post them one by one and make a little series.

This was taken in April, when I first got back from Beijing. In Chinese, the name of this bush is "Welcoming Spring Flower."

Monday, May 28, 2007

Why Potatoes Are Our Friends

"...And I'm going to have to get some pliers or something," I said.

"Why?" asked Pocket of Bolts.

"Well last night I went to turn on my reading lamp, and there was a terrific flash, followed by darkness. Oh well, I thought, I was sleepy anyway. So I just went to sleep. But when I woke up, there was the lightbulb in bed with me, minus the bottom part that screws into the lamp. That was still screwed in and I can't get it out."

"It's a good thing you don't thrash around in your sleep like I do," PoB remarked.

Yes, the light-bulb and I shared the double bed peaceably enough, it's true. But as my aunt J. once remarked, there are two kinds of people in the world--those for whom a reading lamp is a necessity rather than a luxury, and those who can't understand that. In general, I am the former.

"Here's what you do," PoB went one. "You get a potato and cut it in half--"

"A potato!?" I interrupted. "I don't have a potato. And besides, how would that help?"

"I am trying to tell you," explained PoB.

I somehow had visions of hooking a pickle up to a battery to get a glowing pickle. New potato-bulb reading light? But doesn't it work with a pickle only because a pickle is acidic? A potato isn't acidic, is it?

"...You make double extra sure that the lamp is unplugged. Then you cut the potato in half and jam the cut side down into the place where the light-bulb goes, and it will give you enough friction that you can unscrew the bottom of the bulb. It's an old home repair trick."

"How about an apple?" I offer. "I have an apple."

"Too juicy," PoB opined.

Now potatoes are not really standard grocery store fare around here. No ovens. And they're just not a general part of the cuisine. Potato stir-fry? Actually, there is a fairly decent potato stir-fry type dish, potatoes stir-fried with cucumbers and little chunks of chicken to be exact. If cooked cucumbers strike you as weird, you're not alone; I'm with you on that. But the dish tastes pretty good actually, and the chicken chunks look so much like the potato chunks, that it's a constant game of hope and expectation. However, I digress.

I am fortunately located in close proximity to an extra fancy grocery store that has so-called "organic" vegetables, some imported from the U.S. even. Not sure the exact provenance of the little bag of Yukon golds (or Chinese knock-off Yukon golds, more likely) that I managed to acquire, but they proclaim themselves "delicious and safe."

I promised PoB that if his trick worked, I would put it on my blog. Of course if it's really as old a trick as that, I'm probably the only one who doesn't know about it. As you can perhaps guess, it did work. Though it took several tries, adjustments to the shape and such. And you really have to jam it in there. But at last:

Pondering how much the potato I would be able to salvage and eat, also how I'm going to go about cooking it, I cleaned the inside of the socket as best I could and screwed in the new lightbulb I'd optimistically bought at the same time as the potato. Incidentally, two lightbulbs cost the same as 4 organic potatoes, about 75 cents. Then I plugged in the lamp. Success! It went on. Then I flipped the switch to turn it off. And it was still on.

It has become a monstrous zombie reading lamp that never sleeps. I'm guessing the flash of light the other night indicated something going wrong with the switch as well as the bulb. PoB is now deeply suspicious of the whole thing. It's true that 220 V electricity is nothing to mess around with. It puts our wimpy 100 or 110 or whatever it is to shame. However, having invested so lavishly in potatoes and light-bulbs, and seeing as I only have another 24 days here, I think I'm going to try to tough it out. After all, the light can be turned off by unplugging it.

PoB says, "I would keep an eye on it!"

And I will. Never know when a monstrous zombie reading lamp, having failed in its first attempt to do away with me by bombarding me with its bulb, is going to sneak up on me with some yet worse dastardly plan...

(And just for Chaz: Boku no imo wa kawakute, ii tomodachi da yo!)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Portrait of Zapaper in Coffee

Some days ago, I decided that what my dissertation needed was an infusion of caffeine.
Though I am to some mild extent a caffeine addict, my drug of choice is usually tea, and generally not more than a cup or two a day. But then sometimes I get to thinking, I bet I could get so much more done if only I had more energy!

Fortunately, I had just received a bag of Abyssinian coffee from my dear families, and decided to put this plan into action. But of course, I ended up monkeying around with my camera instead.

As usual when I try this trick, it worked swimmingly for a day or two. Then I started getting caught up in the strange reversal effect, where no sooner would I drink a strong cup of coffee then I would immediately pass out and sleep like the dead for half an hour. Go figure. Coffee does funny things to me. Including turn me upside down and make me look a little blurry. But aren't I also a marvelous portrait of dissertation-writing determination?

On Being Temporarily Wealthy

The standard of living that can be enjoyed in this country by someone receiving the most paltry of American stipends is astonishing. I have about got over it, and begun to pinch pennies as usual, gripe about my rent, deny myself luxuries... when suddenly my bank statement arrives and I realize just how many renminbi I have at my disposal. Why (don't tell the government) I've hardly managed to spend half of my grant. I say this not to brag, because I know for sure it does not make me better than the people around me; it is merely an accident of currency exchange.

Say the rate were set at 2 RMB the dollar instead of 8 (which I think is about what it naturally ought to be). Then I would be living like a pauper without internet or AC, eating only the "economical" food in the cafeteria, and scraping money together to buy--or more likely photocopy--only the most necessary of books. Coffeeshops I would forgo entirely (Starbucks, in particular, is priced so that it still costs more for a cup of coffee than in the US, the smallest coffee of the day being 12 RMB, or $6 at the natural exchange rate!), and going out with friends would be a carefully rationed pleasure. Having my bicycle stolen would have been a significant loss, and buying a new one a matter for sharp bargaining.

In short, despite my naturally parsimonious nature, in small ways during my time here I have lived like a king. Yesterday, after some hesitation, I bought a fine $3 black tanktop, decent quality too. A few days ago, again after a pause, I finally made up my mind to buy an expensive 7-volume set of books which I had been going back and forth about all year--what's in them is high quality, but the printing isn't; they're a flimsyish paper-back edition. But the problem is that they're not going to be reprinted in hardback anytime soon, and having them photocopyied from the library (which would cut the price in half) seems a bit embarrassing. I mean, it's seven volumes we're talking about here. (I should add that copyright is nothing here. A copy shop will happily undertake to photocopy a whole book for you by tomorrow, and bind it nicely too. It is one of the most charming things about being a scholar here, say I.) So I just wander in and buy the thing, and a 25% discount too, amounting to just over $50. I thought the clerk might swoon, but instead he paid me pretty compliments and did his best to be generally agreeable. My cell phone costs me about $5/month, TV less than that, internet my biggest regular expense outside of rent at $15/month. I would cheerfully treat friends to any meal they have a fancy for, whenever I get a chance... which is not often, but...

It is actually irksome sometimes to think of going back to the U.S., where a small slip-up in my health insurance paperwork has recently cost me over $400 (!!), and a website error while making our summer vacation plane tickets cost a cool $100 to change. The chance to live like a millionaire is not something everyone gets to enjoy, and it has been quite a marvel to enjoy it here. Only--the joy of it probably depends on my having lived in modest circumstances for so many years. Maybe luxuries like the above are things everyone enjoys in the U.S., even if they have to go into debt to do it. I actually have no perspective on this at all, I realize.

However, I have recently been listening to the librivox rendition of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, quite an amusing book even though I have identified one or two fatal flaws in the plot. Never mind, it was meant to be satirical, not historically accurate... Occasionally, as I trudge back and forth to school, the biting satire and infuriating and mildly endearing bravado of the Boss makes me chuckle a bit. But no part so far has made me laugh so hard as Chapter 32, "Dowley's Humiliation." I quote part of it here, because if you read it to the end you will see why it expresses so perfectly the feeling I have being here--though never would I do to anyone what the Boss most incomprehensibly does to Dowley (and seemingly for pure spite). To understand the background, by the way, you have to know that he and King Arthur are traveling about disguised as commoners, and are staying temporarily in the cottage of a rather humble couple, Marco son of Marco and his wife. The Boss invited the blacksmith (one of the wealthiest man in the area) and a few others to the house of the Marcos for dinner, and the boss has ordered some provisions from the store--goods to be brought on Saturday, and the bill to be sent on Sunday, the night of the dinner.

Dowley was in fine feather, and I early got him started, and then adroitly worked him around onto his own history for a text and himself for a hero, and then it was good to sit there and hear him hum. Self-made man, you know. They know how to talk. They do deserve more credit than any other breed of men, yes, that is true; and they are among the very first to find it out, too. He told how he had begun life an orphan lad without money and without friends able to help him; how he had lived as the slaves of the meanest master lived; how his day's work was from sixteen to eighteen hours long, and yielded him only enough black bread to keep him in a half-fed condition; how his faithful endeavors finally attracted the attention of a good blacksmith, who came near knocking him dead with kindness by suddenly offering, when he was totally unprepared, to take him as his bound apprentice for nine years and give him board and clothes and teach him the trade -- or "mystery" as Dowley called it. That was his first great rise, his first gorgeous stroke of fortune; and you saw that he couldn't yet speak of it without a sort of eloquent wonder and delight that such a gilded promotion should have fallen to the lot of a common human being. He got no new clothing during his apprenticeship, but on his graduation day his master tricked him out in spang-new tow-linens and made him feel unspeakably rich and fine.

"I remember me of that day!" the wheelwright sang out, with enthusiasm.

"And I likewise!" cried the mason. "I would not believe they were thine own; in faith I could not."

"Nor other!" shouted Dowley, with sparkling eyes. "I was like to lose my character, the neighbors wending I had mayhap been stealing. It was a great day, a great day; one forgetteth not days like that."

Yes, and his master was a fine man, and prosperous, and always had a great feast of meat twice in the year, and with it white bread, true wheaten bread; in fact, lived like a lord, so to speak. And in time Dowley succeeded to the business and married the daughter.

"And now consider what is come to pass," said he, impressively. "Two times in every month there is fresh meat upon my table." He made a pause here, to let that fact sink home, then added -- "and eight times salt meat."

"It is even true," said the wheelwright, with bated breath.

"I know it of mine own knowledge," said the mason, in the same reverent fashion.

"On my table appeareth white bread every Sunday in the year," added the master smith, with solemnity. "I leave it to your own consciences, friends, if this is not also true?"

"By my head, yes," cried the mason.

"I can testify it -- and I do," said the wheelwright.

"And as to furniture, ye shall say yourselves what mine equipment is. " He waved his hand in fine gesture of granting frank and unhampered freedom of speech, and added: "Speak as ye are moved; speak as ye would speak; an I were not here."

"Ye have five stools, and of the sweetest workmanship at that, albeit your family is but three," said the wheelwright, with deep respect.

"And six wooden goblets, and six platters of wood and two of pewter to eat and drink from withal," said the mason, impressively. "And I say it as knowing God is my judge, and we tarry not here alway, but must answer at the last day for the things said in the body, be they false or be they sooth."

"Now ye know what manner of man I am, brother Jones," said the smith, with a fine and friendly condescension, "and doubtless ye would look to find me a man jealous of his due of respect and but sparing of outgo to strangers till their rating and quality be assured, but trouble yourself not, as concerning that; wit ye well ye shall find me a man that regardeth not these matters but is willing to receive any he as his fellow and equal that carrieth a right heart in his body, be his worldly estate howsoever modest. And in token of it, here is my hand; and I say with my own mouth we are equals -- equals "-- and he smiled around on the company with the satisfaction of a god who is doing the handsome and gracious thing and is quite well aware of it.

The king took the hand with a poorly disguised reluctance, and let go of it as willingly as a lady lets go of a fish; all of which had a good effect, for it was mistaken for an embarrassment natural to one who was being called upon by greatness.

The dame brought out the table now, and set it under the tree. It caused a visible stir of surprise, it being brand new and a sumptuous article of deal. But the surprise rose higher still when the dame, with a body oozing easy indifference at every pore, but eyes that gave it all away by absolutely flaming with vanity, slowly unfolded an actual simon-pure tablecloth and spread it. That was a notch above even the blacksmith's domestic grandeurs, and it hit him hard; you could see it. But Marco was in Paradise; you could see that, too. Then the dame brought two fine new stools -- whew! that was a sensation; it was visible in the eyes of every guest. Then she brought two more -- as calmly as she could. Sensation again -- with awed murmurs. Again she brought two -- walking on air, she was so proud. The guests were petrified, and the mason muttered:

"There is that about earthly pomps which doth ever move to reverence."

As the dame turned away, Marco couldn't help slapping on the climax while the thing was hot; so he said with what was meant for a languid composure but was a poor imitation of it:

"These suffice; leave the rest."

So there were more yet! It was a fine effect. I couldn't have played the hand better myself.

From this out, the madam piled up the surprises with a rush that fired the general astonishment up to a hundred and fifty in the shade, and at the same time paralyzed expression of it down to gasped "Oh's" and "Ah's," and mute upliftings of hands and eyes. She fetched crockery -- new, and plenty of it; new wooden goblets and other table furniture; and beer, fish, chicken, a goose, eggs, roast beef, roast mutton, a ham, a small roast pig, and a wealth of genuine white wheaten bread. Take it by and large, that spread laid everything far and away in the shade that ever that crowd had seen before. And while they sat there just simply stupefied with wonder and awe, I sort of waved my hand as if by accident, and the storekeeper's son emerged from space and said he had come to collect.

"That's all right," I said, indifferently. "What is the amount? give us the items."

Then he read off this bill, while those three amazed men listened, and serene waves of satisfaction rolled over my soul and alternate waves of terror and admiration surged over Marco's:

2 pounds salt . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 200
8 dozen pints beer, in the wood . . . . . 800
3 bushels wheat . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2,700
2 pounds fish . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100
3 hens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 400
1 goose . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 400
3 dozen eggs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150
1 roast of beef . . . . . . . . . . . . . 450
1 roast of mutton . . . . . . . . . . . . 400
1 ham . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 800
1 sucking pig . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 500
2 crockery dinner sets . . . . . . . . . 6,000
2 men's suits and underwear . . . . . . . 2,800
1 stuff and 1 linsey-woolsey gown
and underwear . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,600
8 wooden goblets . . . . . . . . . . . . 800
Various table furniture . . . . . . . . .10,000
1 deal table . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,000
8 stools . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4,000
2 miller guns, loaded . . . . . . . . . . 3,000

He ceased. There was a pale and awful silence. Not a limb stirred. Not a nostril betrayed the passage of breath.

"Is that all?" I asked, in a voice of the most perfect calmness.

"All, fair sir, save that certain matters of light moment are placed together under a head hight sundries. If it would like you, I will sepa --"

"It is of no consequence," I said, accompanying the words with a gesture of the most utter indifference; "give me the grand total, please."

The clerk leaned against the tree to stay himself, and said:

"Thirty-nine thousand one hundred and fifty milrays!"

The wheelwright fell off his stool, the others grabbed the table to save themselves, and there was a deep and general ejaculation of:

"God be with us in the day of disaster!"

The clerk hastened to say:

"My father chargeth me to say he cannot honorably require you to pay it all at this time, and therefore only prayeth you --"

I paid no more heed than if it were the idle breeze, but, with an air of indifference amounting almost to weariness, got out my money and tossed four dollars on to the table. Ah, you should have seen them stare!

The clerk was astonished and charmed. He asked me to retain one of the dollars as security, until he could go to town and -- I interrupted:

"What, and fetch back nine cents? Nonsense! Take the whole. Keep the change."

There was an amazed murmur to this effect:

"Verily this being is MADE of money! He throweth it away even as if it were dirt."

The blacksmith was a crushed man.

The clerk took his money and reeled away drunk with fortune. I said to Marco and his wife:

"Good folk, here is a little trifle for you" -- handing the miller-guns as if it were a matter of no consequence, though each of them contained fifteen cents in solid cash; and while the poor creatures went to pieces with astonishment and gratitude, I turned to the others and said as calmly as one would ask the time of day:

"Well, if we are all ready, I judge the dinner is. Come, fall to."


By which you can see that the Boss is as silly a man as the blacksmith, only he is not made to pay for it. And at heart I am as silly as both of them, for producing four dollars and scorning the nine cents change--I confess I have just the same feeling, and the Boss's satisfaction rings true to my own secret heart. But you mustn't begrudge me it as it will all come to an end quite soon and I will go back to being a pauper again and cursing because my green onions--my god, in the U.S. they may cost as much as 12 RMB. It's highway robbery! And a fine dinner for two will set me back not ten dollars but fifty. Ah, alas. But I have enjoyed this aspect of life here, at least, and enjoyed the idea of it even more, if that makes any sense.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dialogue, Just Like Sharks

I don't often blog about television, for the obvious reason that I don't watch much. Probably I could learn a lot from watching Chinese language television on a regular basis--a lot of Chinese, I mean--but I can't bring myself to do it. It's not that I can't follow what's going on. It's just that I can't drum up sufficient interest in the programming.

Then there's the English-language channel, CCTV 9. By and large, I don't like watching that either. For the most part, the information flow is to slow, because announcers who are non-native English speakers take a painstaking long time to get to the end of relatively simple and obvious sentences. Occasionally, though, I chance upon the political news discussion show Dialogue. For some reason, I find this show really fun to watch.

For a country that doesn't have much freedom of the press, the show is remarkably free of bullshit, a lot freer than television news in the US as far as I can see.

Then, the guests that they have doing the actual discussing are intellectuals, generally university professors of political science visiting Beijing, clearly people who are intelligent and stay up on current affairs but yet probably aren't in the pay of anybody, at least no one with a controlling interest. They're usually politically left-to-moderate, and the perspective they offer is refreshing.

Not to say that the show is the most sophisticated piece of political analysis you'll ever see. I kind of like it because it's not all that sophisticated. Tonight it was the resignation of Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank, a news item that wasn't really even on my radar. But I learned quite a bit about it in the half hour I spent watching the show. The questions asked by the Chinese host were entertaining too. Is the call for his resignation a media crusade against him? Political revenge for his role in the Iraq war? Is the spate of resignations of top figures going to affect the future of the Neo-Cons? (Neo-Cons is a word I have only heard on this particular news show, but they do like to use it!) And the girlfriend he was giving money to, is she going to break up with him? Who's going to replace him? Is there a chance it could be Tony Blair? (One of the guests on the show, a young Irishman, answers with a resounding no.) What is Paul's political future? Is his reputation completely destroyed? (I wonder: in China, would he have been executed? I mean, if he'd've been fingered in the first place, of course.) How does he compare with Robert McNamara? And so forth.

Resounding conclusion: the host suggests that there is a sort of "media carnivore", a happy coinage based, presumably, on a Chinese mishearing of the word "media carnival"? Someone offstage is heard to burst out in muffled laughter. The Irishman runs with it and says, why yes, it does seem like the media smells blood and senses weakness, then moves in for the kill. "Yes," says the television host serenely, and without any apparent trace of irony, "the media are just like sharks."

Hilariously un-self-conscious? or ultra-subtle, ultra-self-conscious?

That's the thing about China, you just never can tell.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Overdue Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

So today you get a book review, which I promised to write months ago and like a typical academic (even if only a wannabe) I am pretty late in producing. Course you all may already know all about this book, as it was on the best-seller list and got some awards and such. If you've already read it, I doubt I have anything profound to say that you haven't thought of. If you already intend to read it, I suspect I may have some spoilers in here, depending on what you consider a spoiler to be. But if you'd never thought of reading it, please read on.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

As its subtitle suggest, Fun Home is both funny and sad, an autobiography in graphic novel form, but with a level of narrative skill and seriousness that few graphic novels attain. Alison's dad Bruce is infuriatingly incomprehensible--obsessed with home renovation and largely unloving toward his wife and children. He is initially figured as Dedalus (from the Icarus myth), a clever artificer but seemingly cold and heartless. Yet as the narrative progresses, winding back and forth through time and developing the girl Alison's bildungsroman, a different picture of Bruce emerges, reconstructed after his death from stories and snapshots, maps, letters, reexamined memories and the books in his library--Alison gradually discovers his human side, and as she comes to terms with her own queerness, she comes to understand his as well.

There are many marvelous things about this book. It engages the Western literary tradition--from Proust, Joyce, and Fitzgerald to James and the Giant Peach, with lots in between--in a way that would be hard to carry off in another genre. But the fact that it's all a cartoon makes the literary excursions fun rather than pretentious. The characters relate to the books in a very human way: they flip through them, read them for class, misguidedly model themselves after them, find flashes of insight or just incidental and almost meaningless correspondences. A few frames showing Alison reading (Delta of Venus; Colette) with her hand down her pants struck me as especially honest--isn't every true book-lover occasionally a ...well, ahem, lover of books? (Or am I just projecting...)

Alison's character in the novel is drawn very androgynously (except when her father forces upon her that velvet and pearls that he admires so much). The effect of this, at least for me, is surprising and thought-provoking. It does something that mere words would have a hard time doing--brings it home to you how from page one, and on every page thereafter, her sexual identity is in question. The pictures do it, so in a way the words don't have to, and the narrative is freed to explore other questions, most pointedly that of parents and children.

Based on my own experience and discussions with others, I would say that straight people can sometimes find queer lit. a little alienating--even having "nothing against" homosexuality, heck, even being quite sympathetic, fully in favor of gay rights, etc.--sometimes we just feel like it's a party that only cool people get to go to and we're not invited. So reading about it is potentially like crashing the party. But Fun Home is a reading experience that puts no wall between gayness and straightness; it is a book about being human, and sexuality of whatever sort is a part of being human which refuses to be denied. Then too, Alison's voice is confiding--about everything from the tenderness of budding breasts to the initial terror of approaching her first lover. She writes as if to someone dear to her, and in the process makes you want to hold her dear in return.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the one illustrating the development of her OCD as well as how it was "cured." What she expresses really well is how calling a phenomenon like that a mental "disease" misses something profound about how our minds work. The whole disease was just a symptom and symbol of something deeper that took on a life of its own. Getting over the symptom was one thing, and understanding its underlying causes was something else, and the two did not (as Freud would idealistically hope) necessarily go together.

This rather scattered review in no way does justice to a wonderful book (and thank you to Syd from With a Y for sending it to me! your personalized mini-review in the front cover puts mine to shame, but then you ARE a pro...). I heartily recommend it to anyone, even people who might ordinarily find queer literature off-putting or hard to get into, and even people who don't ordinarily like graphic novels. It is a carefully structured, highly readable, fascinating and thought-provoking story.

A side note, something I am curious about, and would very much like to know if anyone knows the answer to: is there a direct relationship between this book and the television series Six Feet Under? Because the similarities are incredibly striking.
1) Father is a funeral director
2) Father suddenly dies, killed by a car
3) Family lives in a funeral parlor
4) Three siblings, two boys and a girl, one of whom is gay (of course in SFU it's one of the boys)
5) One of the parents is obsessed with flowers (here, the father; in SFU the mother)
6) One of the parents is obsessed with house-renovation (in SFU, the mother and in a metaphorical sense but still...!)

I admit I've only watched a season and a half of SFU, and possibly the resemblance is coincidental, but I'm just saying, it's eerie. The two are totally different in tone and genre and overall direction, but a number of the incidental elements are similar, as is the overall feeling of silence and constraint in the family atmosphere...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Haidian Restaurants

On the suggestion of Sandra at Not that Desperate, and because my brain is too fried to do anything else, I am going to write a bit about restaurants in Beijing. Scratch that, I mean places and things to eat in my corner of Beijing. See, I rarely go to restaurants because I don't much like going by myself--it's culturally weirder here even than in the U.S.--and I'm mostly by myself. When I do go out with people, it's mostly expats who are craving American food. I know lots of good places to get American food in Beijing, but I doubt that interests you at all!

So anyway, given my lack of qualifications for the world restaurant project, I think I will not play by the chain-letter-type rules, if you don't mind. You can see them back on the original post here if you like. As for tagging others, anyone should feel encouraged to do this because it's fun and interesting, but I won't name names.

Restaurants, Beijing: here we go.

I live in the Northwest corner, known as Haidian. My favorite places to eat here are:

Famous Chef from Jiangnan 江南厨子, located in the Disanji book building just off Haidian Bridge. Local food tends to be harshly spiced, but this place specializes in food from the more mild Jiangnan culinary tradition. Their dishes are beautiful and dependable. Their menu changes seasonally, and I have loved almost everything I've gotten there, though I tend to stay away from high-priced specialty items. The "ordinary" stuff is anything but ordinary--this time of year, for example, the cold vegetable dishes are wonderful. This is my "holiday" restaurant--see these posts about it from Thanksgiving and Christmas, which include photos. This is a really good place for vegetarians, as they have a wide variety of appealing options. Great value too: even if you order enough food to thoroughly stuff two people, plus beverages (beer, tea, fruit smoothies), you'll be hard pressed to spend much more than 200 RMB, about $25.

Hometown Relatives and Geese 家乡亲家乡鹅, on Suzhou St. a bit south of Haidian Bridge and a bit north of Renmin Daxue. Again, reliably delicious, with a slightly more casual atmosphere than the above, but still nice enough to make it feel like a special occasion. I was first taken there for a group birthday party (sorry, no picture there of the actual food), but went there again recently. Both times, the food was delicious. I particularly recommend the millet cooked in a whole pineapple (who'd've thought that'd be good, but it was totally delicious), the flavorful duck slices with lily bulb, and the pork roast, which tenderly falls of the bone. But really everything I had there was delicious, except maybe the whole goose heads. But those were just for a dare. Pretty, courtyard style building. Prices similar to the above.

Fat Cow 华牢肥牛, also on Suzhou St., right next to the above. Yeah, okay, I'm lazy. But it's good to know what's in the neighborhood. This is fun place to get hot-pot, the Chinese version of sukiyaki. You order a plate of raw meat (they also have vegetarian stuff, tofu, mushrooms, vegetables, etc.), and cook it yourself in your own individual pot of flavorful soup over a flame. I especially recommend the "Sunshine Lamb" taiyang yang 太阳羊, which is a lot of meat for one (but I did polish one off once by myself), about right for two. There is a choice of broth, which is nice, and also fo dipping sauces. Make sure to ask for the (free!) sour plum juice. It's free, but they won't give it to you unless they ask. For a Westerner's budget, this place is so inexpensive it's hardly worth mentioning. Dinner for two weighs in at $5-6.

Good Medicine 善药, located on the Beida (Peking University) campus, right next to the tennis courts. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant can be a bit hit-or-miss, but they have one absolutely great dish, which is their "Iron Plate Tofu" tieban dofu 铁板豆腐. Tofu, onions, browned and flavorful crisp thin slices of potato and other things arrive sizzling on a black iron platter, and it's a really satisfying dish. I have had other really good things there as well. One worth mentioning is a dessert-dish, "Fried Buns" zha mantou 炸馒头, which doesn't sound that good, but trust me, it is. It comes with a dipping sauce of sweetened condensed milk, and is just a superb comfort food.

The street. I have had great luck with street food, I'm not kidding. Nothing around here has made me sick, though I admit that I have not eaten the hot dogs or sausages. Delicious street foods include jianbing, a cold noodle dish called liangpi with sesame paste and cucumber strips, delicious roasted sweet potatoes, fresh pineapple slices, drinkable yoghurt (called suannai), fried eggs wrapped in a soft chewy bread reminiscent of nan, melon slices, lamb kebabns (chuar), Chinese donuts, and bubble tea. None of these should cost more than 5 RMB (50-75 cents) and it's easy to make a whole meal of this kind of stuff. That's not just true of my neighborhood in fact--anywhere in Beijing you can find little stands selling this type of stuff. The sweet potatoes should be peeled carefully--don't eat the peels--and anything with meat or eggs in it should be cooked before your eyes. But otherwise, I would pronounce street food pretty darn safe, at least if you are fairly robust.

Darn it, now I'm hungry from thing about all this food...

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Pomegranate Flowers

I spent most of the day fighting sleep and trying to get work done. In the afternoon, which is always the worst for me anyway, I interspersed translating sentences with reading news articles from National Geographic online. I read about a planet in another solar system that has hot ice, and that's H2O ice too. That is bewildering. Also that the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are colliding. There's nothing like astronomy to make a person feel tiny and strange, but at least it kept me more or less awake.

So maybe there are limits to what a great infusion of caffeine can do for my dissertation. I wouldn't've thought that I could drink a strongish latte in a coffeeshop and then fall asleep immediately after! But that's what I did.

Well, tomorrow is another day. As for today, the most interesting thing I saw was a pomegranate tree. I hadn't realized it was a pomegranate tree, but its brilliant red flowers caught my eye, first like trumpets and later like stars.

When I looked a little closer at them, and at one that had gotten almost to the fruit stage and fallen, I realized that it must be a pomegranate. Doesn't it look like one? This is the fallen infant fruit that I clumsily dissected with my thumbnail.

And a picturesque branch spilling down in front of a color-coordinated Chinese house-building, with the sun slowly going down in the background.

Friday, May 18, 2007

After a Fashion

You will almost never see me writing anything about clothes on this blog. By and large, I try to ignore them, buy or wear them only when absolutely necessary, and consider that anyone who judges people by them is shallow and misguided. However. Spring does funny things to a person, and all of a sudden I have, well, at least a couple of things to say about clothes.

First, the use of nylon stockings here in Beijing shocks and horrifies me. I know, fashion is the most ephemeral and relative of arts, and there is no such things as objective beauty and ugliness as far as it is concerned, only this year's rules which were last year's taboos. That being said, there are some things that my eye finds terrifically ugly. It started with the first warm days, when I was already wearing t-shirts and sandals. Beijing gals were still wearing their long underwear, but they did start wearing skirts and dress shoes. And nylon stockings over their long underwear, so the bottom of the long underwear showed--under the nylon. Without the nylons I might be into it as a sort of funky look, but with the stockings it just makes me cringe.

Now that the days are much hotter, everyone has finally left off with the long underwear. But now there comes a new peculiarity: ladies wearing ankle-high nylon stockings with knee-length skirts. We're not talking stockings with special patterns and lacy tops or anything, which would still be iffy but at least defensible. This is just plain old nylons, with their tops very plainly visible. Presumably the rationale is that it's too hot to wear full stockings (I concur). But I guess they just don't want to put their bare feet into dress shoes. It would be pragmatic, except for that if you were really pragmatic, you'd be like me and wear pants or cheap sandals that can handle your bare feet. I'm just saying, whatever effect gals are trying to produce by wearing short skirts and fancy shoes is totally ruined (at least for me) by the ugly sight of their nylon stocking rims at ankle or mid-calf height--you know?

Or am I just being old-fashioned? Is this a new look that has oozed into the world fashion scene while I wasn't looking? I'm sorry I don't have any pictures by the way. Every time I see it, I am too shocked and horrified to remember to pull out my camera.

Okay, second--weird t-shirt slogans in English. Now I suppose it's possible that Chinese people seeing the way Americans use Chinese characters on their t-shirts and tattoos might have a similarly startled reaction. I once saw an American girl with the character "dry' tattooed prominently on her shoulder. Huh? After a lot of thought, I finally remembered that there's a rarely-used variant pronunciation of the character which means "heaven" in the Classic of Changes scheme, and since that stuff is more well known to Americans than, say, the Chinese word for dry-cleaning, the presumably that's what she meant. But the first thing that I think would come to a Chinese person's mind would be... "dry."

That being said, two wrongs don't make a right. The other day, I saw a girl walking down the street, a cute girl in a cute oversized top with a picture of the cute happy little dog in the corner and next to the dog it said in large letters, "Living is the best revenge." Huh? What? The translation part of my brain twists and squirms, trying to figure out what kind of Chinese translation would make that seem like a good thing to have on your t-shirt--but I'm afraid I'm drawing a blank. There are many many examples of things like this, of course, but that doesn't make it any better!

Finally, I have to confess that I am in love with the Suicide Girls fashion icon, Zoetica--and I mean that in the absolute most shallow and ridiculous way: I love the way she dresses. After poring over all of her weekly columns I concluded that if I could choose to look like someone, it would be her hands down. Now that is a bad thing, because she spends far far more time, money, and thought on her "look" than ever I could. Furthermore although we are actually the same height (5'4", and I find it endearing that she is so short), I probably outweigh her by a good forty pounds, and can't see myself pulling off the sort of things she tends to wear. But I can't help it, adoration is irrational.

Actually, I don't like (at all) the super-cutesy girly barbie-doll aspects of her style, but more the tougher tom-boyish side (see also). But still, it's bad enough. The reasonably sane part of my brain bemoans how far I have sunk (god, I'm even confessing it all to the world) and hopes it is just a phrase. But if y'all see me traipsing around in Chicago next fall in big socks and short skirts that just make my big ass look bigger, well, blame Zoetica.

By the way, adolescent crushes aside, Suicide Girls is rapidly becoming my favorite news source. (National Geographic is up there too--funny combination.) Although I ignore almost all the music news 'cause it's just not my thing. Still, the rest is fun and irreverent, with enough anger and bitterness to be interesting, but not so much that it's tiresome.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A Big Wind Blows

A huge wind has been blowing for two days.

Since the arrival of summer, I have slept with my windows open, and this is the second morning that I was awakened by the curtains blowing wildly and knocking things off my desk.

Despite making life feel even more hectic and chaotic than usual, the wind improves the climate considerably as far as I'm concerned. First, it blows away all the pollution that usually hangs all over this city. Who knows where it blow it to, but that's someone else's problem. Second, it prevents the city from becoming the 90+ degree oven it has been lately when there's no other weather. Apparently that's the default temperature for this time of year, and I despise it.

Unlike the dreaded Beijing sandstorms, this is a cleanish clearish wind. The mountains are clearly visible outside my window, with benignly puffy white clouds above them. It's fun to look out and watch flying pigeons banking madly to avoid being smashed into the towers of my apartment complex. It wrecks havoc on the carefully composed hairstyles of woman, which as a short-haired person who rarely even remembers to comb her hair, I find amusing and satisfying. (That "wind-blown look" is not much different from my normal look, maybe even an improvement.)

I'm afraid I don't have much else to report. If I were to write down my days they would look like: work work procrastinate work work go to class procrastinate. That's about it really. I have decided to try to give up eating desserts and reduce as much as possible on other sweet things like yoghurt and pre-sweetened beverages (read: bubble tea). It's actually easier to do in China than in other places, 'cause the desserts aren't really worth eating anyway most of the time. We'll see how successful I am, but that's the plan anyway.

Aside from that, nothing much to say. More catch-up posts from the ever-more-distant past soon--oh, and my promised words on Beijing restaurants.

A Poet's Translation

In my Chinese lesson today, we came across a character I did not initially recognize, gan 竿, a type of bamboo. Then I said, "Oh of course, I should know this character because of the poem by Li Bai, 'The Ballad of Changgan.'" At first she couldn't even think of what poem I was talking about, confirming my suspicion that it's not one of Li Bai's better known efforts. After I described it a little she remembered and seemed curious as to why I happen to be so familiar with this particular poem (there are so many much more famous ones that I don't know).

So I explained to her that "The Ballad of Changgan" it has in some sense been in some sense immortalized in English by Ezra Pound's 'translation,' better known as "The River-Merchant's Wife." I have no idea how he went about translating it, or who helped explain it to him. But since he uses Japanese romanization for almst all the place names, and even for the author's name (he calls him Rihaku), one wonders if it wasn't a Japanese person. Did Ezra Pound even know that "Rihaku" was a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty? Did he mistakenly think him a Japanese poet?

If a Pound scholar out there happens to read this and knows the answer, please let me know. Or maybe someday I'll do the research and figure it out. I have a deep interest in and fondness for this poem, not least because it doesn't matter how good or not good Ezra Pound's Chinese was. There are other translations he has done that don't come off too well. But this particular one just clicked somehow. For once the translation seems almost to match or surpass the original.

The River-Merchant's Wife
by Li Bai, translated by Ezra Pound

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the lookout?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fo-Sa.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Painting the Fish Tashtego

It's hard to make photos of paintings, but just to give you kind of an idea...

Afternoon, Blue Loneliness, the Fish Tastego

Bamboo, Sun Sets on the Fish Tashtego

Nightfall, He's Lonely, He Misses his Shells

An Ordinary Day

Since I've gotten plenty of blog mileage out of my rather unwelcome key adventure, it's seems fair that I should get to post a mundane ordinary type post in my usual vein--what I did with my Sunday, plus pictures. I've really fallen out of the daily record discipline I intended to keep when I first got to China, but it lasted so long that it seems worth going back to. Anyway, turning over a new leaf...

I spent all of this morning preparing for my classical Chinese lesson at 2. Around 11:30, when I finished preparing, I made myself some lunch, my best effort at pasta given what's available, my pathetic hot plate kitchen, plus laziness: angel hair pasta tossed with dried basil and olive oil (I finally broke down and bought some), peeled and sliced cherry tomatoes (very sweet and delicious), freshly-shelled pine nuts, and parmesan cheese. A note on freshly peeled pine-nuts: they are incredibly delicious, about a hundred times better than ordinary pine-nuts that come pre-shelled. The down-side is, they're an absolute bitch to shell, being tiny and slippery and odd-shaped. I'll make a separate post on these eventually, because I have a feeling that that bag I bought is going to be lasting a good long time...

After lunch, I embarked on a much-needed cleaning of my fish-tank, window-seat, and kitchen. I decided, surveying the prodigious algae growth, that it was time to just take the rocks and shells out of Tashtego's tank, which would make cleaning a lot easier and therefore I'll (hopefully) do it more often. But since I was retiring the rocks and shells for good, I gave them a very thorough and time-consuming scrubbing.

Next thing I knew, it was 1:50 and I was a total disaster area, still unshowered, up to my elbows in soap, algae, rags, ,and wet grubby clothes. So I texted Pillar and pushed back the lesson an hour. I didn't feel bad since he had done this to me twice already, and anyway we do the lesson in his room so it's not like he'd have to wait or go back and forth.

The lesson was good, if oddly uninspiring.

Afterwards, I went to the campus Korean restaurant by myself and had japchae, chewy translucent noodles with strips of meat and vegetables and mushrooms. Every japchae is different. The amount of variation in what is basically a pretty simple dish always surprises me. This one was on the sweet-ish, mild, oily side, but good. And yes, that means I did eat noodles for two of my three meals today. Here's looking at you, Pocket of Bolts.

Having eaten all those noodles, I decided I should go for a walk after dinner. Heading toward Unnamed Lake, I found a little stream with absurdly beautiful yellow irises. I think irises may be my favorite flower. They are almost done blooming now, but still pretty; here are some of the pictures.

I sat by the lake and tried to work for a bit, but I was overcome with heat and sleepiness. Apparently the temperature was in the 90s today, and felt like it too.

So I went home, and continued to fail to work. See results of procrastination in separate post.

Curious Coda

After finally getting back into my apartment, I plugged in my cell phone, ignored it, and collapsed with a novel for the whole rest of the evening. By morning I had received a slough of text messages, mostly from my landlady.

Apparently she had posted an ad for the apartment on the school BBS. I have never been in to online bulletin boards. I'm not even sure how they work. And especially in Chinese--I don't think it's possible to be any less interested than I am in the sort of crap that shows up there, not least because it's written in a special Chinese youth argot heavy on the funny phonetic borrowings from English which turn my brain inside out. However, HJ once told me that in general Chinese students' attitudes toward these things is positive bordering on obsessive. It's the first thing they look at in the morning, the last thing they look at at night, and they keep up with it during the day too when possible.

My landlady, when checking her ad, noticed that someone else had placed a notice saying, keys found in the library on such and such a date, [name-brand American university] key chain, and success-in-study talisman. Yep, those would be mine. Landlady, knowing I came from name-brand university and that I had lost my keys on that day, had forwarded me the notice.

It's easy to put it together now, of course. While e-mail here is not such a big thing necessarily, BBSs are huge. Why trust some poker-face security type in uniform at the lost and found, when you could do the good deed for your fellow classmate yourself? If I had been any ordinary student, it would have worked just fine, too. You know, because I had my computer and of course I would have been reading the BBS.

So I rescind my last post condemning to hell whoever picked up my keys and did not turn them in. Cultural difference: it makes you feel wrong-footed about every single time you manage to get good and mad.

I met the guy outside the library to receive the keys. Despite the trouble he had caused me, I handed him in return my spare key-chain, the exact (but newer and shinier) twin of the name-brand university officially licensed paraphernalia one which had drawn my landlady's attention in his notice. Cause even misguided good deeds should be rewarded, and besides, I'd bought them as presents but presents just ended up never seeming appropriate.

Now I have all my keys, and a spare one besides. And several long-term plans to ensure that this doesn't happen to me again!!

Friday, May 11, 2007

My Adventure Concluded

It is a great relief to be back in my own room again.

After I made the previous post, I checked the lost and found again (still no luck) and then after some reflection wrote an e-mail to Pillar. Pillar is my classical Chinese tutor, a friendly and very conscientious young graduate student, who was expecting an e-mail from me and probably would be checking. You might not think it would be such a rare thing to expect someone to be checking their e-mail on a Thursday evening, but although people's cell phones are constantly with them here, internet access can be restricted, inconvenient, unreliable. Things are done through cell phones, which is a convenient limitation on international communication, given how expensive overseas calls are. In any case, the other advantage of e-mailing Pillar was that my classmate Hammer had mentioned that he might be hanging out with Pillar that evening.

And why, of all the people I know in the city, did it feel most comfortable to impose on Hammer? When Hammer introduced me to Pillar, only the third time Hammer and I had ever met, he introduced me as tong bao, the one who comes from the same womb as I did. Actually in Chinese it is a perfectly conventional term meaning something like "my fellow countryman (or woman)", as I was perfectly well aware. But that didn't stop me from feeling small familial glow when he said that. And in truth, Hammer is my brother in study. Our areas are so similar that we'd step on each other's toes, if it weren't for the fact that our backgrounds, goals, views of the world, and methodologies are completely different. We can talk about texts. We indulge in a little friendly competition and sizing each other up. But we don't have to be at each other's throats. We both feel safe to share what we know.

Besides, I think Hammer has been in China long enough (seven years) that he has absorbed the Chinese way of closeness with one's friends. And yet, it has also made him almost larger than life in his American-ness, an ex-pat contrary motion of personality so to speak. Or maybe he just reflects the influence of a ruder side of Chinese manhood than I ever see. In any case, he can be most coarse and unmannerly at times, and I have no more attraction to him than I do for my actual brother. (My actual brother is a study in refinement by comparison!) However, while he is not always the most satisfying company, Hammer can be entertaining when he bothers to try, and underneath that he strikes me as deeply trustworthy. Not to mention that he lives just down the street from the library.

The solution came together perfectly, though the frenzy of worry that my e-mail provoked in Pillar was a perfect example of why I didn't feel like going to any of my Chinese friends. However, he dispatched Hammer to the library with precise directions about where to find me, and I was both glad and deeply sheepish at seeing him. Hammer persuaded the guard at the lost and found to get bring his enormous bolt-cutters, and come with us to my locker. Most fortunately, I remembered with certainty its exact location. I floundered for a minute when it came to describing its contents in Chinese. Blue backpack, yes, but there wasn't much inside it... The guard with the bolt-cutters already poised around the lock hesitated. Two brown notebooks, I finally stammered out. This was more to satisfy Hammer than the guard I think! Hammer is used to a higher level of distrust from people than I am. The guard was perfectly ready to cut the thing with only my "blue backpack" but looked deferentially to Hammer. It was kind of funny.

It was a great relief to have my wallet and phone back, and to not have to carry my computer under my arm any more. We made our triumphant way out of the library with "closing time" music just starting up behind us. This was when I had to explain to Hammer that ALL my keys were gone. He wouldn't hear of me getting a hotel room, as I had sort of been planning to do. He lives on a Chinese income and doesn't quite realize how far my stipend goes here. It had been such a relief to see him that I didn't really want to decline his offer of hospitality. Of course, we had to walk all the way to his house, but he pushed his bike with a reasonable approximation of gallantry. I could tell it didn't come completely naturally, but it was there. I was glad I had been there before, so that I wasn't discomfited by the series of shabby alleys we had to make our way through.

The street outside his complex was exceedingly lively for 10 PM in China. I had confessed to not having had dinner but had denied being hungry. Still, he greeted by name the guy who was roasting meat on a little portable grill, and enthusiastically recommended his fare to me. "I'm going to have some anyway," he said, which overcame my resistance. We got drinks from the little wide-open convenience store nearby, which was populated by an entire extended family, all of whom were on familiar terms with Hammer and had to be introduced to me. Then we sat on a couple of low stools (I mean, like six inches off the ground) eating delicious cumin-spiced chicken on skewers and talking (in English) about the life of scholar, trading quotations from Confucius and Mencius (in Chinese), while the man grilling the meat and the family in the store eavesdropped with wonder and amusement. Hammer seemed to know by name every person who went by, and was liked by them all. It was such a small neighborhood feeling, I felt quite amazed. As if I had suddenly wandered into a completely different city.

Lately I have come to realize that a city has many faces, and which one will predominate depends most heavily on where you choose to live, though also partly on who you are. There's Hammer in this cheerful squalor (we were entertained watching the denizens of the "beauty parlor" across the way, and Hammer said filthy things about them in English though I am always doubting his confidence that no one understands), a neighborhood curiosity eating street food and living in an apartment... well, we'll come to that. There's the Lama in the cleaned up hutongs, which are foreigner friendly but still underlyingly very Chinese, an area full of cool coffeeshops and quiet places to sit and drink and talk, casual restaurants with delicious food, bright colors to delight the eye and long winding walks through lively alleys to distract the mind. But where am I? Where have I been? Never mind, next time I live abroad, I'll have the leisure to choose more carefully. Confucius says, make your home in the neighborhood of benevolence...

Hammer was the benevolent one yesterday, though. For someone so generally boorish and intolerant, he was remarkably patient with my fairly brainless state. I almost wandered off and got lost in the complex while he brought his bike around, but he kept his sharp tongue in check and only laughed at me a little bit.

He had a fold-out cot. When folded out, it filled the entirety of his sitting room. He shuffled sheets and blankets around. To the great wonder and curiosity of the family in the little store, I had bought a toothbrush. "I'm sorry," I wailed half-jokingly, "I am totally ruining your reputation here!" The bathroom had a squat toilet, the shower was an afterthought, just a showerhead, no curtain and the entire bathroom smaller than a shower stall anyway, just one sink (in the kitchen). The kitchen just as rudimentary as mine but grubbier. A mosquito coil burning with a not-unpleasant smell. The place was a bit small for two. He sat me at his computer with an interesting flashcard program he has--to keep me out of the way while he set up the bedding. We talked for a while, companionably enough. I looked at some things he had written in Chinese, and at some of his books.

Around midnight, I finally lay on the "cot"--a wooden board on a frame, the hardest bed I've ever slept on if you can call it a bed, but padded with the double layer of his comforter--still wearing all my clothes, which were fortunately quite comfortable. Though of course if I'd worn jeans I wouldn't have gotten into this mess in the first place. He retired to the bedroom to read classical Chinese before bed. He is ten times the scholar I am, I'm afraid. I think I fell asleep before he even put out the lights.

But I woke up only a few hours later because it was raining. Hard. The sound of rain is very different in his two-story building than in my 18 -story one. Rain on the roof. Rain pouring off the roof and hitting the ground in a loud continuous spatter. I woke up all the way and full of almost unbearable anxiety. Landlady! Keys! Argh, and I had forgotten to post the update saying that I was fine--what if my dad read my post and worried himself to death! My classes tomorrow! What if Pillar was put out! What if I had to go to the bathroom, and woke Hammer up! What if I fell sleep and snored! And so on. One thing that also occurred to me: it was a very good thing that me and my computer were not out on some park bench.

I must have dozed off some, but I spent quite a lot of time conscious of being awake and lying in bed. Around 5 the birds started up. The construction noises started at 6. Around 7 I got up and did things. Hammer slept on oblivious. At 7:30 I could hardly bear not to be up and about and trying to solve my key problems. I timidly attempted to wake him up but he was out cold. So I left him a chatty note and struck out on my own.

No sign of the keys still, but I called my landlady and she was most understanding. She would copy the key this afternoon, she said. I had coffee and a sandwich for breakfast in the coffeeshop where I sometimes go to work. Then I went and bought myself a $10 pair of jeans. You'd think that after 24 hours in the same clothes, it would be the shirt that'd be unbearable, but in my case you'd be wrong. I needed pockets, even though I didn't have anything to put in them. I needed to look at least partially presentable. To kill time, I went to calligraphy class, then lunch, then the library. I was too tired to work though, so I started packing up. Just then I got a call from the landlady. Could I come pick up the key at such and such an address. Gladly! So I jumped in a taxi, made it there and back in time to get reacquainted with my apartment and even shower before my meeting with YHz, had a terrifically self-indulgent evening, and here I am. Barely worked a lick all day, but feeling incredibly grateful not to be homeless anymore.

This key? I'm guarding it with my life. I'm taking a leaf out of RS's book and getting an enormously long and large chain and chaining it to my body. I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm doing something.

And people who pick up someone else's keys, but fail to turn them into the lost and found? I wish Dante had invented a suitably horrible punishment for them in the inferno, because that's where they deserve to be.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Do I Get to Say "Poor me" Now?

I spent the whole day working, which tired me out considerably--I'm not used to it! I don't mean, partly working and partly slacking off. I mean, I was at school by 9, took only half an hour off for lunch, and it is now 7. I have been working literally the whole day. As those of you who know me are probably aware, my averagely reliable brain is a dead loss when I am tired, especially when it comes to concrete physical details. This isn't an excuse for what follows, but just a circumstance.

Because I was in the university library, and needing to go in and out of the specialized rooms where they don't allow backpacks, I locked up my backpack in one of the little lockers, and only kept out what I needed for work: my computer, the power-cord, my library card, and my keys. I worked until my power ran out, wandered around the library looking for an outlet, plugged in for a bit, then went up to one of the reading rooms where I promptly became engrossed in a vaguely dissertation-related book. A couple hours later, around 6:30, I was starting to get hungry so I stood up and gathered my stuff. This is when it hit me that something was missing.

You know where this is going, right? Computer, check. Power-cord, check. Library card, check. Keys...?

It was easy to backtrack because I hadn't been to very many places. It was even easy for me to identify the last place I had seen them, which was most probably the place I accidentally left them, namely the chair I'm sitting in now where I had plugged my computer in. But they're certainly not there now, nor at the library's highly official looking lost and found place, nor at circulation, nor in the reading room either, where I searched and asked for good measure.

I know what you are saying: Bad planning! The problem is that usually I wear jeans, and habitually keep my keys in my pocket. I've never had a problem with that, and am also not used to keeping track of keys because they're always in my pocket. Only today I don't have any pockets. New rule for self: library is a jeans-only zone!

Meantime, here I am sitting, relying on the honesty of some human being, but that honesty hasn't kicked in after potentially as long as three hours, so I'm getting pretty worried. What I don't get is, why would you pick up someone's keys and not turn them in? I mean, they don't have any identifying markings on them as to where I live or what my bicycle looks like, or whatever. I can't see that they'd be of any use to anyone but me.

Let's take stock of what I have: a computer and a power-cord, a place to sit until 10:30 PM (namely, the library), an internet connection (hence this post). A lot of books available to me, since this is a library. I can also go in and out of the library with the library card, for example to pester the man at the lost and found desk, which is just outside the door. And I have lots of stuff I can work on, including the entire Siku quanshu database which I have just finished installing on my computer (if that name doesn't mean anything to you, think: almost every important book ever written in China up until the eighteenth century, and probably the entirety of my primary sources). Heck, it could be the best thing that ever happened to me. I could sit up all night and write my whole dissertation (that's a joke).

Let's take stock of what I don't have: apartment keys, money, phone, food, water, a place to sleep unless I locate said apartment keys, phone numbers of anyone I know (because they're all stored on my phone), or a clue what to do next. So technically, I could e-mail someone I know and hope they check it. But I am a bit short of people who I could do that to. My classmate Hammer, perhaps, who lives not very far away and owes me one, but I don't have his e-mail. Most other people I know well enough to have their e-mail live across town, and they would have to actually come get me since I don't even have bus-fare. Given my low mortification threshold, I confess I'd probably rather sleep on a park bench.

I believe my actual plan is to ask again at the lost and found, ask if there is a campus-wide lost and found, and finally ask if they might be willing to bust open the toy-size padlock (mine) on the locker where my backpack is. Then at least I'd have money and my phone, so I could get dinner, a hotel room, and/or (dread thought) call my landlord.

It is going to be an interesting test of my language and persuasion skills in any case!

To add insult to injury: in a glass display case outside the lost and found room, there is an enormous pile of keys and key-chains. Water water everywhere...

Update: so that no one gets worried, I did manage through a clever and circuitous route to get in touch with my classmate Hammer, so at least I had a roof over my head. Funny how I feel so much more comfortable imposing on a fellow countryman than I would on any of my Chinese friends, even female ones. More about my adventures soon!

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Last Jianbing

A jianbing is a Chinese crepe. I may at some previous time said it as a Chinese burrito, but that was just to console myself when I was particularly missing burritos. In fact, it is a sort of crepe. It is made in the following way:

There is a circular metal griddle about the size of a medium pizza. The person making the jianbing uses some kind of solid fat in a paper cup to grease it. Then there may be a choice of several batters. One I know is made from black rice flour. It's purple and I often choose that one because it's easy to say. Another may be a sort of bean, and one a sort of wheat or millet. A ladleful of batter is dropped onto the griddle and spread around with a sort of scraper. Once it's thin and flat, the person cracks an egg onto it, breaks the yolk with the scraper, and spreads the egg around too. That's the protein. On top of that, a handful of cilantro and a handful of scallions, scattered about. With two flat turners, the jianbing chef works around the edges of the crepe and flips it. It almost always works perfectly. On the clean, cooked side of the crepe, the sauces get brushed on with an expressionistic brushing. One is dark reddish brown. The next is bright pink. The next is invisible against the other two, and the last (optional) is hot pepper sauce. On top of this canvas now is placed a crispy deep fried cracker sort of thing, which covers about half the surface. With the turners, the chef folds the two sides over the cracker thing, and makes two crisp, shallow cuts, dividing the rectangle roughly into thirds. The ends get folded on the cut marks, and what's left is a hot, savory, tasty, multilayered square of goodness, speckled with cooked egg and herb-green.

After several days of unlucky eating experiences, for dinner today I finally went to the Yannan cafeteria and got myself one of these perfect jianbing. It's always the same girl who makes them, not that she recognizes anyone in particular. I mean, how many dozens of these must she make? I arrived near the end of the dinner hour, and she looked tired. Still, she was perfectly neutral about my request for an extra egg. Like Pocket of Bolts, she can crack an egg with one hand, but unlike Pocket of Bolts, she doesn't do two at once. The jianbing came out perfectly, and I have had enough of them by now to count as a connoisseur. Gloating over it, and my little dish of lightly marinated cucumbers, I went upstairs to sit.

The table I was sitting at looked down over the railing, directly above where the jianbing chef was making her last few jianbing. I watched her, wondering if as a result of making jianbing every day she in fact has come to hate them. Does she hate the very smell? As I watched, her last customers walked away. Then she set to making a last jianbing. I watched with interest. Perhaps I was wrong, perhaps she was making her own dinner. Perhaps she gets to be the jianbing chef because she has a mad passion for jianbing. When she got to the egg cracking stage, I was surprised to see that the egg had a double yolk. Still, like me, she opted for a second egg, and I was even more surprised to see that this too had a double yolk. One double yolked egg is an accident, but two are by design. From doing this job every day, she must be able to get a sense for which eggs are likely to have double yolks, and furthermore she must save them out. She was extra-generous with the cilantro and scallions, and more precise with the sauces. When this big four-yolk jianbing was done, she put it into a to-go bag. Then she set to work cleaning up. She took the leftover crackers to the bread stall, presumably for storage. She dumped the wheat batter into the bean batter. She scraped the grill.

I had long finished my own meal, but was lingering over my cucumbers, wondering what was going to happen with the last jianbing. One of the other servers came by, a man of authority who gestured to the jianbing in the bag, as if saying, "What's that?" I was too far away to hear her response. I wondered if she was getting in trouble for making her own dinner?! For a minute it seemed like that. But her face had a bantering look to it. After several more exchanges, the man picked up the jianbing and took it away while she finished cleaning the griddle and stowed it under the counter. I wonder if she'd originally intended it for him? I wonder if he knew about those double yolks?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Airport Eavesdropping

It was hard leaving Chicago of course.

Actually, hard in more ways than one, because after we had said quick goodbyes at the airport (why prolong something sad?), I ended up waiting there for more than nine hours.

If you've flown recently you've probably heard the TSA announcements, orange alert (whatever the hell that is), suspicious people etc. It may be an annoyance if you have to hear it three or four times, but try hearing it every ten minutes or so for nine hours!

The only good thing was that because the trouble was mechanical difficulty, we got meal vouchers and such. I purchased 24 hours worth of wireless and hung out online. It was comfortable enough.

It was a big plane though, lots of people in exactly the same situation as I was, using their laptops to entertain themselves. That's to say that competition for electrical outlets was fierce.

My electrical outlet requirements forced me to hear a rather embarrassing conversation!
There was a French priest with visa problems, and a bilingual (but originally French) nun there interpreting for him. But she was not traveling with him. And then somehow or other there wa a Southern business man of some rather strong Protestant faith who spokes no French but had undertaken to use his business connections in China to help the priest. To cement their new connection, they embarked upon a theological discussion. Because of the language barrier involved, the conversation was undertaken at high volume and was completely impossible to ignore.

The businessman proudly owned that after his wife married him she quit her job and stays in the home teaching the Bible to their sons. Yuck. He then pointed out with the profoundly rhetorical air of a preacher that of course one must believe in things even though we can't see them--like air. You want proof that something exists beyond that which you can see? Close your mouth and plug your nose. Ah, God is like the air. Etc. Which makes me ponder how dominant the sense of sight is among our senses. Also, we can't see a fart. But there is all kinds of evidence for the existence of farts. Well, and air for that matter. Evidence for God: only that people really WANT one to exist.

But then the irrepressible businessman went on to discuss the importance of the Word, entering, I believe, into rather shaky territory with the nun and the priest, but they were being patient. He was being pushy. "If a person dies on an island and no one is there to give him Last Rites, will God hear his prayers? God will not forsake him!" The nun was looking edgy and gesticulating as she made her translation. Fortunately, I had thought to put on my headphones and much of this dialogue was being drowned out by the chorus of, "Pablo Picasso is not an asshole", a song I am not usually fond of but had come up randomly on my playlist and was quite welcome.

Still, they were so loud I couldn't drown them out entirely without damaging my hearing. The businessman liked to use names, so I know that that the nun was named V and the priest is named Father A. V the interpreter eventually departed, which I thought meant I would be able to put away my headphones. But businessman pushed on in much-simplified English to explain that "I've been to China and I've seen what it's like--the children need you Father A. I can't help the children, but I can help you, so I will be helping you help the children!" "I understand I understand," Father A says, and picks up his book. "Thank you." Then he stared into space, turned to a marked page, crossed himself, and began to read. Father A had been to Africa. He must know a lot about the needs of children. He looked profoundly weary.

Priests, real ones rather than the naughty ones you always hear about, are a bit interesting to me, but only because they strike me as rather tragic.

Nothing tragic about the businessman, who can have his cake and eat it too.

Soon after, somewhat wilted by Father A's relieved silence, the businessman began recounting the whole story to someone else on the phone. "They're real traditional!" he said, crowingly. They were rather, all dressed up in costumes as if for a play. Well all the world is a stage. Father A certainly had enough English to know he was being talked about, but he pushed on and huddled into his book.

Me, I was glad when the long-delayed boarding process caused me to lose sight of the both of them.

Of course, all this was all more than a month ago. I wonder if Father A ever got his visa sorted out, and if he's helping Chinese children somewhere. I don't have to wonder what the businessman is doing--he's helping someone Chinese make a lot of money, and making a bit himself into the bargain. I overheard him explain to V--with WAY too much sleeve-grabbing and arm-patting, which she stoically tolerated for Father A's sake no doubt--all about his business arrangements. In fact, it's amazing how much you can learn about people from overhearing them getting to know one another. When you are freed from the necessity to participate in the process, your attention is much heightened, even involuntarily, even when you're trying your hardest to drown them out with loud music.

Here is a picture of the side shining down on the polar ice as we crossed over again. It's banal to say so, but it's really true--quite a lot has happened since I first saw that ice back in August. It was hard coming back to Beijing, but not as hard as going there to begin with. At least I knew where I'd be staying, knew the basic shape of my life here. And only a few more months to go...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Crumbling Pile

[Here is my last post about Wisconsin. Be warned, it's kind of a long one.]

Our final day, on the way (or rather out of the way) home, we decided to see a most peculiar attraction.

It was at my insistence. Shortly before we'd left for Wisconsin, my mom revealed to me the fact that she had once spent a summer there as an adolescent. One thing she remembered seeing was the House on the Rock. "I don't know if it's even still there anymore," she said, "but you should try to go check it out."

Since it showed up in every glossy rack of tourist brochures in Wisconsin Dells, we could be pretty sure it was still there. Pocket of Bolts balked a little at its middle of nowhereness, but the fact that there were penny squishers seemed to carry some weight. Mind you, I'm the one obsessed with squished pennies, not PoB, but he is exceedingly indulgent of my passion.

In short, on a monstrously rainy day we breakfasted at Cracker Barrel and began the long journey into nowhere. Eventually we arrived at in a surprisingly populous parking lot. I was quite taken with the reptilian strawberry pots. (In my picture, you can see how hard it's raining!) Of course, what I'd really like is strawberry pots with real lizards lounging on them. Well, you can't have everything.

Though the creator of House on the Rock certainly tried.

Let's just call it eccentrically eclectic. I mean, we can start with the ladies' room, where there was a totally unmotivated collection of blue and gold glass bottles set up against a glowing wall. I have no idea why, nor was there a similar collection in the men's room, according to Pocket of Bolts. But that's how the whole house was, one strange thing after another, accretion without rhyme or reason.

The thing itself was vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright, but kind of FLW on a bad trip or having nightmares. Wikipedia gives a possibly apocryphal story of how Alex Jordan Sr., a great admirer of Wright, once showed him some plans and got snubbed and sneered at with such viciousness that on the drive back AJ Sr. vowed to build on some impractical pinnacle just to spite his former hero. The house itself was created by the son, Alex Jordan Jr., apparently his life's work. And yet he never actually lived there. He seems a strange and disturbed man, something like a bourgeois American version of the character in J.-K. Huysmans' Against Nature--that is to say, a collector with a prodigious grasp and a short attention span.

A lot of what was in there was second-rate (tenth-rate) Chinoiserie. I have not much of an eye for Chinese art, but I could recognize blurred copies of what I'd seen and studied. Buddhas and bodhisattvas, a Tang sancai horse, the Daoist ox and boy motif, teacups and the like. It a way, it was better that they were blurred copies, because it would be weirdly incongruous if the real thing were moldering away there.

Initially, I was pretty enthusiastic about the place, despite how dark and strange it was. (It was even darker and gloomier because of the stormy weather outside.) It seemed like a place that was at once huge and cozy, a burrow or a warren that seemed underground even though it was built on high rock. It was not particularly in harmony with its surroundings--if FLW had been been building it, it would surely have been much lighter and airier, more windows, more view. But it seemed the nature of Alex Jordan to turn away from the real world and make his own darker and often miniaturized or mechanical version instead.

We ended up liking the Infinity Walk the best, because it actually did take advantage of the light and the view. It was a long walk suspended out over nothing, and a cheap trompe l'oeil trick to make it look even longer. Cheap but kind of witty. It seemed like it would be a good place to pace back and forth, but nowhere to sit.

Speaking of mechanical, one of the least attractive things about the place (to us) was the automated music. Take the concept of a player piano (there was one) and extend it to whole ensembles, one in nearly every room, playing the same tune each time, whenever someone stuck a token in. It was odd and clever the first time, then mad and maddening. However, it could potentially be very eerie if done right. I could see the place as a very promising haunted house, much more psychologically creepy than the cheap tricks with slimy eyeballs and spiders we generally get, going for gut-level disgust. This picture was one of the more interesting ones, a music box made to look a little like a cubist painting, amusing but too weird to satisfy, too inhuman.

As museum, the place was even more exhausting than museums usually are. Especially the Streets of Yesterday. Maybe we were already tired; or maybe yesterday wasn't long enough ago to be interesting. In any case, we went fast mostly just to get through and soon moved on to the Heritage of the Sea with its 200+ foot whale-type thing, locked in battle with a giant squid thing and preparing to swallow up a small boat. According to the sign "it is part White Whale, part Killer Whale, part who knows what." Surely, Alex Jordan had read and been influenced by Moby Dick, but he must have skipped the informational parts that give magnificent detail about whale anatomy. Melville would have been disappointed.

Frozen in its plaster sea, the whale formed the center, while a multi-story sloping ramp ringed it round and round with the contents of a nautical museum which AJ had purchased entire. This was wearisome too--the context was just so strange for a sudden profusion of historical items--but I was mildly interested by the scrimshaw. I had always heard the word before, but had never really seen it or understood what it was.

Another thing I liked a little was the way the gulls hung in the sky, made to look higher than they were by a trick of scale. Probably gulls wouldn't be out flying around in a sky as dark as that, but the whole thing was not overly influenced by realistic considerations anyway, and it was an appealing effect in a strange way.

It was hard to see this place as a product of the mid and late twentieth century (though it's hard to really see what other era could have produced it either, in retrospect). Before we located and read the informational signs we were trying to date the thing (partly by the books in the library) and would have guessed much earlier. But then the architecture did, in a demented way, bear the stamp of Frank Lloyd Wright... No way would we have guessed that it was still being added to when my mom saw it in the sixties, that its creator actually lived on into the nineties. It was a place as out of tune with its time as it was with its surroundings.

But now recovered from the exhaustion of seeing the place I'm glad we went. It was a strange accident of history, a strange part of this world. a strange thing to have seen... but I'm not about to go back anytime soon.