Thursday, December 31, 2009

Giant Rat!

It was odd walking out of my building yesterday and suddenly seeing a giant rat. I mean, a GIANT rat, taller than us. It turns out that the giant rat is a Chicago union tradition, signaling a strike, and perhaps in particular a strike where there are or may be scabs involved.

As an object and a symbol, it is really effectively threatening looking, I think. It was a pretty quiet day yesterday. Had breakfast in the Caribou coffeeshop downstairs because we were too low on supplies and too tired to get to the grocery store. Then went to the grocery store. Later we ventured to Target to spend our holiday gift cards on various small stuff. In the evening I worked on dissertation revisions and such. For some reason I couldn't get to sleep until very late. Jet-lag plus traditional winter break worrying.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Castle Gate

Seattle (Sea-Tac) Airport. We arrive at our gate for the flight to Chicago. And the gate is a castle. I have no idea why. There was a long explanation in small print, but it was located right at the jet-way door, a place where they don't tend to let you loiter. So... whatever the point of the display was, it was lost on me. But I will say, it sure was different. The airline people working the flight kept having to duck behind the banner/curtain thing on the right to get... "back-stage". What was back-stage? I have no idea.

Unlike flight out, where we got got stuck in Salt Lake City for 10 hours, the way back went very smoothly. On the Seattle-Chicago flight, we were seated in the "nursery" section of the plane. Quite literally, there was a child under three in every row, diagonals included. Clearly my bio-clock is going, because I thought that they were all really cute, even when they were fussing about the pressure, boredom, etc. When I was coming back from the bathroom and about to climb back into my row, the little boy (about a year old I think?) in the row across from us grabbed my elbow. I looked down at him and he gave me a thousand watt grin. Awwww.....

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fear of the Ocean

Pocket of Bolts and I are in Miami for the weekend: a college friend of his is getting married. The wedding wasn't until three, and being on our customary schedule, we had time to kill. Although I have a bad cold just now, around noon or so I finally decided that, what with the place we're staying being steps away from Miami Beach, it would be silly not to go swimming. I mean, how often do you get to swim outside in November!? Well, maybe very often if you actually *live* in Miami, or Hawaii... but for me it's a rare experience.

Interesting to say, I find swimming in the ocean very terrifying. When I was a little kid, we went to Huntington Beach in California, and somehow I didn't get properly instructed as to how to deal with breakers. Somehow or other, I got tossed around by a rough wave, and have been a bit phobic about them ever since. This, although I know *now* how to duck under waves if they are too big. And besides, this was an Atlantic Beach and the waves were fairly modest. No ocean features named after Satan, as Pocket of Bolts would say (unlike in Oregon).

Pocket of Bolts plunges into the ocean. He loves swimming in it. He is so strong, and it is so strong against him; it's like clashing of titans. I went in more cautiously, catching my breath whenever a big wave seemed to be forming. But--it is so no difficult to grab a breath and slip under. The roar of the water is instantly muted into a sandy trickling noise, and the threatening white thundercloud of wave disappears into mild bubbly swaying feeling that just passes over your body and then leaves you behind.

Not mind you that I am the picture of elegance diving under wave or anything. I tend to plug my nose and leave my ankles up in the air. Pocket of Bolts said, If you don't plug your nose, it's like saline nasal rinse. Good point!

Friday, October 16, 2009


Grading is pretty unpleasant, but now and then there's something really sweet. I was reading essays written by my first year Chinese students on the theme of "my hero". Their vocabulary is still very basic--they really can't say very much at all. But here's one that was... just... awww...

"My hero is my mom. She is fifty years old. She is a college student."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sister of My Heart

Last week I had a sudden and unexpected visit, almost completely without warning, from this dear girl whom I had thought lost to me. Thinking her lost, I wrote her a letter... sort of to say goodbye. She was my brother's girlfriend for many years, and she and I were particularly close, at least for some of that time--when geography permitted. The three of us were roommates off and on one year, and there were visits and travels... But then they broke up and she was gone.

There was no answer to my letter, but I didn't really expect one. It was like a message in a bottle--why does anyone put a message in a bottle? It is written for the writer, not for some unimaginable reader.

Then suddenly, at 1 AM one day, she sends me an e-mail: she will be in Chicago for 24 hours. I wrote back to her at 5 AM. Amazingly, at 3 in the afternoon, my phone rang and it was she (calling from a payphone--she has no cell). I rode the bus to Union Station where she was waiting. She was standing on a shoulder high wall holding an accordion in her arms. The wind was gusting so hard and her red hair was long again--I'd last seen it cropped short. Despite the stormy wind, as she threw herself into my arms, the sun came out, I kid you not. I got us a taxi and took her home.

I had been worried it would be too urban or too alienating or something for her... but a person changes so much between her early 20s and her late 20s, no? Besides, who knows how much all of those old misunderstandings were ... just misunderstandings. Related to other things than what they seemed to be about.

She had been going to sleep in the airport--she was so afraid of being trouble to us--but it was so easy to treat her like family. She felt it. She wasn't a guest, but the sister of my heart.

We took her up on the roof and showed her the vast blue of the lake, the complex lines and curves and colors of the skyline. We brought her down and abandoned her because we had an unbreakable dinner engagement. Well, at least it was a perfect reassurance that she was not putting us out at all! When we got back, she was repacking her backpack (she's en route to a year of roughing it in Europe, something I was already too old for at her age!), making it lighter, still lighter. She gave us a funny assortment of things to find a home for--my favorite was a pair of pale blue wool socks, which I just had to wear, the very next day.

She slept in the guest bed, that isn't much to look at but no guest ever complains... it is outrageously comfortable for a grad school futon. In the morning, I woke her up at her request for my usual early breakfast-time and she wrapped her arms around my neck like a child. Such sweetness. We fed her mooncakes, and she walked me partway to work, promising ... nothing, but ... open heart to open heart--I feel that I will see her again, somehow or other.

She will spend the winter in Spain picking olives. She will spend half of each day drawing. She will observe the cultural differences in the treatment of young misfits in school. She will practice her accordion in wild windy places. I like to think of her, without any desire to hold on, even in my thoughts. I feel happy to know her, to have found her again.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ph's Mini-Me

Pocket of Bolts' dept. chair, Ph, is an interesting person. We used to live very near him and his partner (also in the dept.) and so we kind of developed a nice social relationship despite obvious barriers of age and status. I always get the feeling they think we are lively and fun... which is really about all we have going for us, socially awkward and anxious as we both are... but it seems like maybe enough.

The amusing thing is that now my new job gives me a lot more in common with Ph. It's like he's president of the US and I'm president of... Luxembourg, or Andorra, or something. Presidents still have certain things in common, though. Dinner party on Saturday--I had had a bit of champagne--I characterized myself as his "mini-me", which he said was cool.

He said something about my situation which was very comforting, though you might not think so on the surface. He said, "Really it's a job more properly done by someone with more experience. But on the other hand, they are extremely lucky to have you." (Ph thinks--also hopes, because of PoB too--that the institution will make an effort to keep me as well, to make my job more permanent after the three years are up.) The reason, anyway, that Ph's proclamation was comforting was that it effectively explains my feeling of being overwhelmed and ignorant about everything. Well of course!--it's a job for an old hand, not someone brand new. And yet on the other hand, enthusiasm and dedication can make up for much of that lack of experience, especially when everyone's pretty much on my side. I have encountered no opposition to anything I have wanted to do, quite the contrary. My only enemies so far are inertia and my own fears.

Another funny thing that Ph said, that there are three rules for guys:
1) Never play cards with a man called 'Doc'.
2) Never eat at a place called 'Mum's'.
3) And never sleep with a girl whose problems are worse than yours.

I just had to pass that on because it seems like such fantastic advice.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Sitting at the Bar

Last Sunday Pocket of Bolts and I had dinner with my Korean cousin Ae. This was actually a very new experience for me. She was in Chicago with some girlfriends of hers from high school, visiting another of their friends who has settled here. She made a very particular effort to schedule a visit with me as well. I was puzzled but intrigued. I remember her fondly even from childhood--incoherent impressions, but just a feeling that she was very older sisterly, kindly, safe. I was never especially close to any of my cousins though. I think the major impression she must have had of me was that I was "very shy."

We met her at her hotel and walked down to Quartino, a really nice Italian restaurant. It was raining hard. I had never been to Quartino before, but Pocket of Bolts, who did all the research for this particular outing, had very nice things to say about it. It was all family-style, meant for sharing, but not the kind of portions you associate with that. It was more like an Italian version of tapas. We got an a la carte antipasto plate (PoB chose the stuff--it was SO GOOD), fried polenta sticks, arugula pizza, grilled octopus, and shrimp risotto. A nice bottle of not expensive wine to top it off. I was nervous. We kept Ae talking about her career--being a CPA for a major firm, switching to startups in SF for a while, not hitting the business cycle right, getting married and having kids, going back to a steadier job again with another major company. It was interesting. I hadn't really been aware of any of it. Not indifference, just general obliviousness. It reminds me that I have through most of my life been weirdly oblivious of many other people's lives, even other people that it would make sense to care about. It's like the bandwidth for my gossiping ability is really really narrow...

We chatted about other stuff--advice from her about starting a family, stuff about her kids, about other cousins. She told us that if we were going to have kids, we needed my parents to live closer by. Also, she told Pocket of Bolts he would absolutely have to help out around the house and do his share of the cooking. Pocket of Bolts, who does 90% of the cooking and about 75% of the other housework (especially lately) bit his tongue and nodded politely. It was very funny. I don't think Ae (a rather traditional sort of gal, I think) can even conceive of what a degenerate wife I am. Oh well, PoB seems to like me okay this way. I have the best will in the world to do things... I just get oblivious....

Ae really wanted to have coffee or something afterwards. I was teaching in the morning, so a drink wasn't really in the cards. I was also nervous at having probably exhausted everything I could think of to say to her. But a Korean gal tends to get her way, when she gets her mind set on something. It was still raining. We wandered around looking for someplace that was open and looked interesting--ended up sitting at the bar at Ruth's Chris because why not. Ae and I split a bread pudding and had decaf cappuccinos. PoB had a martini. I am not accustomed to sitting at a bar--it seems so ... exposed ... but Ae promptly made friends with the bartender, who turned out to be (as I suppose bartenders often are) a very gregarious, interesting, friendly sort. He seemed quite happy to talk and chat with us.

Ae gave us a long and kind of adorable disquisition on how one should always sit at the bar because it's more fun and you can still get most or all of the menu but with less formality. She clearly has such different associations with it than I do (well, I have next to none), memories of courting her now-husband, good times in the pre-child-rearing days. That, plus another nice experience I had recently, and after all I may come 'round to it after all. I mean, the bartender was so nice he didn't even mind that Ae and I weren't drinking.

We parted with the assurance that we would try to hang out again at Christmas. Ae and her husband, like PoB and I, alternate Christmases with the different families, but it seems like we're on a convergent cycle. Perhaps, if I'm not too much in a state of post-dissertational collapse, I'll actually try to make it happen. Certainly Facebook makes things much easier to organize...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Comparing People

There is some very interesting way of comparing people. There's a Facebook application called "Comparing People", but it isn't very interesting. Who's hotter, A or B. Whom would you rather marry, A or B. Who's funnier, A or B. That's not comparing, that's simply rating. In the Six Dynasties period (in China), there was a really sophisticated discourse of character analysis and comparison, preserved to some extent in the anecdote collection _A New Account of Tales of the World_. The thing about that text is that it's not, for the most part, Who's smarter, A or B. Who's more virtuous, A or B. Comparing people is pointless unless it gives you some kind of insight, and the insights there are delivered through narrative.

Comparing people seems like a very touchy subject in our society today. The more serious the comparison, the less comfortable people are with it. In my world, Who's hotter is just--whatever. Whose book or idea is better? Who is the better scholar or thinker? We hardly dare to say. I was thinking about this during and after a long talk I had yesterday with my friend and colleague S-dot.

It is a difficulty with blogging these days that I really want to write very specific things about very specific people, and don't want to bother with pseudonyms and anonymizing... but I have to.

S-dot said, about himself, that he had high self-esteem but high levels of insecurity, but that a nightmare ex of his had low self-esteem but low levels of insecurity. It seems strange that these things could even come apart. I hadn't even considered that, but having done so, I think it's true. Furthermore I can theorize about why they do: you get self-esteem through your parents' love and approval, but you get insecurity or lack thereof from early interactions with peers. If your parents love you too much and your peers too little, you end up like S-dot--or me, as well. If your peers love you too much and your parents too little, you end up like "nightmare ex"--which I suppose is much worse.

I do think I much more like S-dot in this way, though I alienate people slightly less. Without a point of comparison (nightmare ex), it never would have occurred to me, though. In fact, I am like S-dot in many ways, but none of them superficial. S-dot is like a brother to me: underlying commonalities and wildly divergent surface traits. I am never nervous to arrange a meeting with S-dot, or even to talk to him on the phone (although I am generally very nervous to talk to anyone on the phone). I care about him quite a lot, but on the other hand, he also irritates me deeply about 20-30% of the time. That's 70-80% less than he irritates any of our other colleagues, who have urged me to "teach him some manners."

But I really shouldn't say more about that.

Last observation about comparing people--all the most interesting things one could say, the narratives one could relate, are unanonymizable specifics! I give up.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Treeless Mountain

A week ago, Pocket of Bolts and I went to see a movie called Treeless Mountain at the Siskel Center. It's a Korean movie about two little girls. The girls' father is absent, and their mother is unable to take care of them. They are shuffled off, first to their father's sister, and then to their grandparents. Left very much to themselves, they look for ways to try to fill the empty place in their lives where others have family.

The striking thing about the movie to me was how with only very minimal dialogue, it succeeded nonetheless in being intensely psychological. The camera was almost invariably very close in to the girls' faces, and was an incredibly realistic portrait of childhood unhappiness and discomfort. The little girls, especially the older one, Jin, are not always sympathetic in their unhappiness. They whine and fight and cheat and do bad things. But it is all against such a stark background of dislocation and neglect that the viewer is drawn into the dramatic condition of childhood, where seemingly small things assume tremendous psychological significance. The little plastic piggy bank (pictured above), a central object in the story, teaches the girls that there is no magic in the world. And while the kindly halmuni (grandmother) in the end is, I think, supposed to be a ray of hope, Pocket of Bolts walked out of the movie saying it was about the most depressing thing he'd ever seen.

I walked out babbling my long-forgotten childhood Korean.

The dialogue of almost the entire movie was just at the level of the Korean I must once have known: language used by, with, and for little kids. They're words I couldn't spell to write them out in this blog, but they sprang fully formed into my comprehension and even production. Hey you, get over here. I'm hungry. Yum. It's okay. Thank you. Grandmother, grandfather. One two three four five. It's already been a week and I am forgetting again, but man, it was amazing. All that stuff's still in there somewhere, primary linguistic data. The film was sad, of course it was. But I felt weirdly exhilarated.

Also, the blue princess dress that the younger girl clings to throughout--I had a dress very much like that, at very much the same age. And I wore it about like the girl did. "What can't you PLAY like a princess too?" her aunt scolds her, while scrubbing at the dirt stains. But what good is it being a princess if you can't climb to the top of the dirt-pile, or scramble around in the field trapping grasshoppers to roast and eat? No doubt being an actual princess is no fun at all, but the idea of being a princess is to feel glamorous and special at every single moment, no matter what you are doing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dolorous Tuber

Moving madness continues... with Pocket of Bolts on crutches: a mystery foot ailment periodically brought on by something vaguely definable as "overdoing it". It is showing the four signs of inflammation (hot, red, painful, swollen), which I gloss as "cauldron of rhubarb and dolorous tuber." In fact, PoB's foot looks like a dolorous tuber. To his credit, he has done absolutely as much of the unpacking as he can while standing in one place and/or on one foot. But in an unfortunate role reversal, I have done most of the heavy lifting!

Also, as it happens, I have been going to work in my new office every day. I am excited and intimidated in equal parts. Classes start Monday...!

I am currently writing form the study in our new place. We had barely gone into it at all because it was so full of disorderly furniture and boxes still waiting to be unpacked. Last night PoB and I sat down and did a lot of measuring and head-scratching, trying to figure out how to fit all the furniture we want in here. So many constraints! One full wall of closets is all very well, but closet doors have to be able to open. One part of one wall is curved. The futon has to be able to open easily into a bed. The file drawers have to open. My desk is insanely long and big. The hermit crabs also need a place for their home.... etc. It took us all evening, but we finally got a configuration that's not only workable but cozy and pleasing.

Now I am dead tired and ready for bed. Will try to post pictures soon!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Done Deal

Last night we slept at our new place for the first time. It was fantastic. There are small quirks and problems, but this just makes me all the more grateful for my handy husband, who has set to work right away. (He has already unclogged the garbage disposal, figured out how to work the built-in espresso machine, and was working on replacing the toilet seat when I left.) Now I am back at the old place to finish up the last bits of packing. Life is good. The actual move will be on Tuesday!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Summer All At Once

Apparently, Chicago is trying to cram two and a half months worth of heat and humidity into one weekend. Hitherto, we have had the coolest, most pleasant, moderate summer I have ever experienced. Now all of a sudden, 90 with 90% humidity, hotter tomorrow. We camped out in the bedroom most of the day (it has our one window-unit AC), with the rest of the time being spent in air-conditioned public spaces--the coffee shop, the community center. Boy the central air in that condo is going to be great.

In between bouts of more or less productive work time, we got into a long happy conversation about furniture upgrades--when, to what, etc. In the course of this, I decided we needed to measure how many books we have in linear feet. I reasoned that this would help us decide on what kind of bookshelves we'd need and where they could go and so on. In case anyone is curious, we have approximately 88 linear feet of books, of which I'm hoping 20-24 linear feet can be moved to my office. (Forgot to measure those bookshelves.) The wonderful built-in bookshelves we have now--on either side of the fireplace, so vintage-y!--hold a whopping 30 linear feet, for loss of which we're going to have to compensate. With the Ikea catalog and a lot of calculator work, we think we can do it affordably enough...!

Friday, August 07, 2009

A Note to Luddites

I went running today, in the rain. I don't go running too often, since I don't like it much, but I'm temporarily between gyms, and was feeling unusually virtuous. Anyway, I'm going along the lake-shore path and suddenly I see, oncoming, a guy with no legs. Running. Fast. I mean, the guy did not even have any knees. He had an impressive pair of prosthetics with curious, long, flexible feet. His gate was slightly odd but he didn't seem in the slightest danger of falling. And as I said, he was very fast. (Faster than me.) I mean, and it was even raining and everything. He also looked really happy. It was one of more inspiring sights I have ever seen.

So here's the thing. You can say that technology has its dark side. You can even say that medical technology may have its dark side. But this guy's legs? That's the bright side, and the existence of things like that, which give a guy that kind of freedom--I guess I just think it's worth a lot.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Fifteen Minute Clean

Pocket of Bolts and I are not the tidiest persons that ever lived. We have different tolerances and intolerances. PoB hates clutter and I hate filth. He's pretty tolerant of filth, and I generate clutter somehow everywhere I go; it's my natural habitat. We have got along on this issue with only minor friction over the course of our nearly five year relationship--mostly because PoB doesn't hate clutter THAT much, and I am willing to take action regarding filth that really bothers me. Also because PoB is a valiant dishwasher, and I don't mind doing all the toilet-cleaning.

We both always wish that the place were clean all the time, but neither of us care about it THAT much. So we live in congenial semi-squalor. Just like most people, I think.

Recently, though, we got a notice from our landlord about people being in and out to look at the apartment. If we can get the apartment rented early we can get out of our lease and save an entire month's rent. I mean--assuming the real estate thing works out. Which is looking pretty likely. SO. We are highly motivated to, as the landlord's letter delicately puts it, keep the place in a clean and tidy condition.

So I proposed a plan which has proved strikingly and incredibly effective. Every morning after breakfast, we both simultaneously spend fifteen minutes cleaning the apartment. That usually involves doing a few dishes, making the bed, picking up migratory clutter and scholarly detritus... all of which takes between five and ten minutes. The rest of the time can be spent on limited but in depth projects. Pocket of Bolts cleaned the pantry the other day. Once day I mopped the kitchen, dining room, and living room floors. Quickly, but quite effectively. Another day I did the toilet and the sink. Another day I cleaned the front closet.

Not only is the apartment now in a constant state of "ready to be viewed" and even "ready to have friends over"... but the fifteen minutes of vigorous activity (accompanied, of course, by energetic music) wakes us up and gets our blood flowing, makes us ready for the day. And we have actually succeeded in doing it every single day for ... over a week I think. It turns out that half a man hour is a lot. And now we neither have to live with a messy place nor do we have to spend any significant amount of time on cleaning the rest of the day. Hurray for good habits.

(We'll see if it lasts...)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Biggest Purchase

Pocket of Bolts and I are contemplating the biggest purchase of our lives to date, a condo in the South Loop. After a hectic and fascinating few weeks of shopping, we've found one that has just about everything we're looking for. The people living there now have it decorated in a style that is very "not us", but at the same time gets us both thinking about a different kind of lifestyle. Less cluttered. Cleaner and more elegant. Stylish even.

If the deal goes through, I'm sure we'll change a lot of things--just the presence of us and the basic necessities of our lives will change the feeling of the place. For example, there's currently not a single bookshelf in it!!! But maybe it will change us too. Maybe even in a direction we're both a tiny bit interested in going.

Monday, June 01, 2009

China! Day 4: The Tourist Experience

I could say that I signed us up for the "east line" tour to, hmm, be ironic or something. I could say I did it because the guidebook kind of implied that everyone did. Or, best yet, because I wanted to act as a clear-eyed investigator of what these tours were really up to. Honestly, though, it was just because I was a little overwhelmed by CHINA, that whole-body whole-mind immersion into the wholly other. I hadn't quite got my China legs, and didn't feel up to negotiating with a taxi driver and doing the research about where to tell him to go.... I just kind of wanted things to be easy.

The day was rainy. We went in a small van with various other tourists, mostly European. They were a pleasingly low-key group in fact. One young woman had very beautiful dredlocks, which of course I noticed.

We went first to Big Goose Pagoda. It was pleasant.

There was a Buddhist temple there also. I did obeisance to the buddha of prosperity. I've decided to make a habit of this, a little as a joke, but also because it can't hurt. On the synchronicity principle, you see. Make clear what you want, and it will come to you somehow or other.

After that, we went to Banpo village. This was the actual site of the village. They had excavated it and built a big building over it, that had been turned into a museum. Pocket of Bolts and I agreed that it was rather a melancholy sight. The Banpo people were excellent potters, and made some very distinctive pots. But it was sad to see the erstwhile residents lying exposed in their opened graves under plates of glass.

Saddest of all were the many many "jar coffins", large, deliberately broken pottery jars into which were placed those who had died as infants. These were not buried in the main cemetery area but near the houses. For reasons unknown, although some theorists make theories. It is easy to make theories when nothing can be proved either way.

After the Banpo village, an unannounced visit to (ugh) the factory where they make high quality reproductions of terra cotta warriors.

Whatever man. We were left there longer than I would have liked. Pocket of Bolts and I listened to the explanation of the making with some interest--they were made by hand, and that was kind of interesting to see--but when we were given "free time to look around and shop for high quality objets d'art and furniture", PoB and I both bolted for the door and sat on the back step, watching the rain.

After this, we were taken to lunch at an establishment that clearly specialized in tourist lunches for tourists being dragged around to the factory and then to the site for the warriors. Sigh. Unremarkable Chinese food served ostentatiously banquet style. I couldn't help thinking of the real banquets I had been treated to in Beijing and Wuhan...

I was being an English speaker on this particular day, pretending to know no Chinese for the fun of eavesdropping or just so as not to be singled out. But one incident occurred during which I could not keep silent. As we were finishing up lunch (strangers sitting awkwardly together at a round table for eight), the server came around with a comment card asking us to write comments and suggestions. She gave it to the person nearest her, a French girl. The girl shrugged and started to write on it. But then the server, a cutesy young Chinese woman with a girlish haircut and flinty eyes, stationed herself inches away from the would-be critic and peered down at what she was writing.

I found this extremely irritating for some reason and suffered some modulated form of China rage. I caught the server's eye and said conversationally in Chinese, "You know, where we come from one doesn't ask someone for a written evaluation and then look over their shoulders while they are providing it. Doing that makes them feel uncomfortable." The server looked startled and averted her eyes, maybe pretending to ignore me? maybe actually not having comprehended what I said. I think I may have said one or two more sentences elaborating on the theme. The French girl finished her comment, and the server snatched up the card and disappeared.

Then of course I felt a little bad. Was she peeking on her own initiative or had she been ordered to by her doubtless extremely sleazy bosses? One never knows if one is doing wrong, lashing out like that. There's always an excuse for something that seems idiotic or unjust or is just plain irritating. Sometimes it's even a good excuse. Other times, people are just putting one over on you because you are a dumb tourist.

We were given lots more free time to shop around in the hall of crappy but expensive souvenirs. Pocket of Bolts and I took pictures of sodden fireworks and a cracked fountain. There's a certain poetry in the run-downness even of tourist traps like this one.

The hotel agent in the CITS office had sworn we'd be given 120 minutes of free time to wander around and look at the terra cotta warriors. I'm not sure what our guide would have done if we'd actually tried to go off on our own. As it was, though, we were herded pretty effectively through the halls, roughly at the tour guide's pace. Although in the last hall, with its half excavated broken figures (which I found far more wonderful than the assembled ones) and really interesting informational displays, I lagged considerably.

These are the views I liked best. The whole warriors have a kind of sameness to them, all carefully reconstructed and replaced in their trenches. The ones half excavated and abandoned in their original configurations seem much more real, much more true to the realities of war. Aren't they more like the ravages of time, from which not even the best-preserved, best-protected can really emerge whole?

My falling behind caused Pocket of Bolts a lot of anxiety. I kept thinking, who cares if they have to wait for me? It's their own fault. But PoB didn't want to get lost. I can't blame him. I can blame CITS though, the liars. I was still more or less forgiving, however, until at the end we were herded into yet another souvenir hall. I saw it coming and started to turn tail. Thoughts of sneaking back into the museum to see some real stuff. Certainly the time allotted to shopping on whatever schedule our guide was following would be generous. However, one of the dressed up souvenir-supervisors spotted me and called out to our guide, who was chatting with pals outside the hall. He came bustling over and herded me back into the shopping area, chattering volubly. He had good English, I'll give him that. I looked at fake bronzes for a while. One good way to discourage overeager salesgirls to tell them in Chinese that you are not going to buy anything at all today and that you are just looking at these *reproductions* because you are actually interested in history.

I wandered around a bit looking at all the crappy things, and then I sat out back and contemplated the world. Joined after not too long by the rest of the group as well. When we had waited the requisite time, we set off.

On the walk back to the parking lot, there were a lot of elderly women trying to sell peaches to us. They were somewhat furtive, and of quite a different class from the middle-aged sellers of post-cards or the youngsters working in shops. I suppose that they were just trying to get in on some sliver of the tourist market by selling what they had to sell. They were very elderly. In pre-industrial China I would have bought those peaches, but god knows where they were grown and under what conditions, and anyway buying things here is pretty traumatic for me. I only summon up the nerve if it's something I really really want.

On the van-ride back, the guide let his patter trail off. I slept some and watched the rain some. The guide tried to drum up interest in a dinner song and dance theater show. Yeah right. Proposal met with dead silence. Then he chatted in Chinese to the driver and I listened. He said something to the effect that we were a bum group of tourists, not spending any money. Ha, so much the better.

Actually it was an interesting day. It was interesting to see what your average tourist get treated to and the ways in which it doesn't suit me anymore. I caught several errors in the guide's explanation of the tomb (well, it is part of my field of expertise). And although he was fairly amusing and witty, he would periodically lose track of which parts of his spiel he had recited, and repeat himself in identical words. I guess too I prefer to think my own thoughts rather than being talked at, go at my own pace instead of feeling obliged to calibrate with a group. In short, no more guided tours for me. If I hadn't been so lazy I would have done the calculation and realized that for us to hire a taxi for a day would probably have come out cheaper, even with my usual ineptitude as regards bargaining.

On the other hand, it was interesting seeing the pagoda and Banpo village, neither of which would I probably have gone to on my own. The factory on the other hand... eminently skippable. Due to my mulishness and what was, in fact, a reasonably generous allowance for photograph taking, I did get a fair amount of time to look at the terra cotta warriors. Plenty, in fact. They were interesting. But if you think harder, they are not the happiest of cultural symbols. Conquered and conscripted, unique faces perhaps but stuck onto mass-produced bodies.

I found this display in the museum to be particularly telling therefore:

Giant marionette warrior and slightly less giant marionette stereotypical little Chinese girl. I heard they danced at the Olympics. The intended message was CULTURAL CONTINUITY, I'm pretty certain. The subtext may be something else? Cultural conformity? Or was I overreading because of who and where I was?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

China! Day 3: Beilin (Xi'an)

The Beilin (Forest of Stele) really deserves its own post.

We went there in the grey and drizzly later afternoon. We had to wander around in scholar street again to find it, which was quite a pleasure in itself.

First there was a garden with little pavilions, mostly closed up.

I guess these housed the less exciting steles.

Then outside the main buildings there was a block with carving from the Classic of Filial Piety. Here is a kid looking seriously up at it while his mother looked on.

Here is a detail view of some characters on it, including the characters for "filial child".

Inside the hall were the remnants of the Tang dynasty "stone classics." I was a bit blase at first, then I got more and more excited.

Here's me looking quite unstable in front of the Classic of Changes stones.

We saw stones having to do with Xuanzang, the historical basis for the monk in Journey to the West. We saw a Nestorian Christian stone carving, which is historically important... at least to people who are interested in the history of Christianity. I had worried that Pocket of Bolts would be pretty bored, but he had charge of the camera and seemed to enjoy taking pictures of things and of me looking at things. Here is a picture he took playing with reflections.

There were also a lot of pictures that came about because I said, "Hey Pocket of Bolts! Come here and take a picture of this one!" Here is one that PoB found all on his own though. He doesn't know very many Chinese characters, but he can recognize many of the numbers. This is the so-called "autobiography of Confucius": "When I was 15, I set my heart on study" and so forth.

By the last hall I was really worked up. That hall was thick with the smell of ink, and there was a team of people making rubbings.

They also had stele with pictures on them, which I liked a lot. In the end, I even had to buy a rubbing of this one. It's the God of Literature pointing at the Big Dipper (with his foot). He's all made of Chinese characters.

The whole Beilin experience made me quite excited and overwrought! Pocket of Bolts was highly amused, but also pleased.

Friday, May 29, 2009

China! Day 3: Xi'an

As the price of our hotel in Xi'an did not include breakfast, we decided to go out in search of some. It was seven in the morning, but it does not seem an especially early-rising sort of town. The Starbucks was still closed. We rambled around the Drum Tower. Some shops were just starting to open, but nothing food-related. Pocket of Bolts saw a woman eating something as we walked by. He said, Whatever she has looks really good. I hadn't seen it clearly, so I decided to go back and ask her. She was not a young woman, and not a wealthy one. She grinned at me with very bad teeth and said something of which I understood barely a word. By her gestures, though, I gathered that one could buy the kind of thing she was eating in the alley behind the Drum Tower: go straight down there and turn left, something like that. She seemed tickled that we had so much interest in her breakfast.

The narrow streets behind the Drum Tower did indeed turn out wonderful. We ended up with two youtiao ("oil-sticks", rather like deep-fried croissants), two of the things the woman had been eating, which proved to be jiabing (kind of like a pita sandwich but deep-fried, and containing vegetables and meat and glass noodles), a cup of sour plum juice, a sticky rice ball that was not all the way warm so I ate part of it and threw it away, and a large bag of peanuts fried with red peppers. When we were buying the youtiao, I asked in Chinese for "two sticks" and the guy selling them laughed. I said "two pieces?" and he laughed more. The woman standing by considered the question seriously and pronounced: either one is fine.

Later in the morning, we went up the city wall of Xi'an.

It was a grey, windy day, pleasantly cool. We thought we'd just walk a bit, take in the sights, not worry about going all the way around.

After a while, though, we were tempted by one of the bike rental places. It was interesting biking on the rough cobbly wall. Pocket of Bolts, who was a little too big for his bicycle, complained of a sore ass. Meanwhile I, who have been suffering a bit of tendonitis in my wrists, started to get itchy all over my arms from the vibration. Peculiar.

Nonetheless, it was really fun and we saw many interesting sites.

One of these was a lone half-demolished house in a field of rubble. In front of the house, there was a man taking a dump.

We made it all the way around the wall in the 100 minutes for which we'd rented the bikes. Then we headed down. We were heading for a lunch place recommended by the guidebook, First Noodle Under the Sun. On the way, we happened to stumble on a wonderful little street, which Pocket of Bolts dubbed "Scholar Street"--or perhaps "Culture Alley." It was a marvelous place.

Here are some birdcages hanging up near there.

A grave, dignified fellow doing calligraphy.

I was quite distracted from my hunger. Scholar Street eventually petered out into a more ordinary little street. Ordinary people walking along it. One man dropped a pack of cigarettes on the ground. We and an old woman saw it at the same time. I picked it up. It was empty. "It's empty," I told her in Chinese, showing her the pack. "Too bad!" She laughed and said, "I think so too!" It was a random interaction but amusing somehow.

We had a very noodly lunch at First Noodle Under the Sun. The starch o.d. made us sleepy and we went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap--on vacation after all...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

China! Day 2: Shanghai --> Xi'an

We were tired enough to sleep most of the night: woke up briefly at 2 AM or so, but went back to sleep and slept until 6. Then we uploaded pictures onto the computer and looked at them, drank tea, did various small things. Around 7 we went down to a sumptuous breakfast buffet in a sumptuous hall. Dumplings (both baozi and jiaozi), cooked vegetables, rice porridge, soy milk, cereal, pastries, fruits (including dragon fruit and dried kiwis), bacon and sausage, toast, cheese, hot chocolate, noodles, interesting breads, carrot/apple/orange juices. We ate many helpings until we were quite stuffed full.

Then we took off for a walk down East Nanjing Road, a nifty pedestrian zone that people have begun using in particularly wonderful and ebullient ways.

There was a long row of signs with cartoons on how to be "wenming" (civilized and polite) for the upcoming Expo.

Many were very funny.

Just as funny was this fellow who was gravely examining them.

Here is me hugging a magnolia flower.

After this nice walk, we headed back, checked out of the hotel, and went to the airport for the flight to Xi'an. As before, I was impressed by how even on a short two-hour flight, we got served a sumptuous lunch. Chinese domestic flights are so much more awesome than their US counterparts.

In Xi'an, a bus took us straight to our hotel. We had paid a bit extra for a room with a view, and it does not disappoint.

The Bell Tower, with its ring of flowers, is a magnet for swooping swallows by day and fluttering bats by night. When I am awake at 2 AM (as seems to be a regular occurrence, unfortunately), I like to look at the taxis going around and around the rotary. Actually, they are probably not going around and around, but because all taxis look the same, that's the impression I got.

We checked in and rested a little, then headed down to Lao Sun Jia restaurant for a Xi'an specialty dish called Yangrou paomo. Aside from some little cold dishes, that's the only thing the restaurant serves. First we each got a bowl and two dense white breads. We were instructed to tear this up "small small." We started in, rather naturally, tearing them in halves, then quarters, then smaller.

We had scraps about the size of pennies by the time a guy at the neighboring table (pictured in the background above) peered over and scolded (in Chinese): "Too big!" I said, "Still too big?" And he said grumpily, "It won't taste good that way!" He held up his bowl which had bread pieces about the size of crumbs. His dinner companion, whom he seemed to have brought along to help with the bread-tearing, since she was working on his breads too, was scraping minute pieces off a mostly intact half-bread. Hmm. Pocket of Bolts and I had a lot more work to do.

We were down to about the size of peas when PoB voted for quitting. He said the people at the table behind ME were less perfectionistic about the whole thing, and they seemed to be enjoying it fine. Actually, they were a boyfriend and girlfriend having a big fight. (I couldn't see them, but I could hear them.)

When the bread was torn up enough, we took the bowls up to the front counter and they filled up the rest with a kind of stew, lamb and glass noodles. We had condiments we could add ourselves: chopped cilantro, red pepper sauce, and pickled garlic. The overall effect was surprisingly successful. It tasted like a comfort food, so warm and starchy.

After eating it, though, we were deeply full. We walked around the neighborhood a little bit, trying to drum up some interest in dessert, but not succeeding. Pocket of Bolts: "My stomach is like, 'What? Did you just eat a loaf of bread?'" Incidentally, so far our stomachs have been just fine.

Around 8 I got deeply deeply sleepy again, so we headed back to the hotel where I could barely summon the energy to brush my teeth and get into bed before I was out cold.

By the way, blogger access is blocked here. I can only post this by logging on to the VPN from school. I am curious whether the e-mail-to-post option would work, but a bit too busy right now to find out.