Monday, July 18, 2011

Tianjin, missives from a dual-core city: the second in a series of postscripts, reflections, or with-hindsight travelogues

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Let me begin by aping the beginning of someone else's blog post: I went to Tianjin knowing virtually nothing about Tianjin. When I say "virtually nothing" I mean I went there knowing that Tianjin was a) a Chinese city, and b) the place to which I was going. I found out two months later (in America) that Tianjin is the 6th-largest city in China, population-wise (5th in urban land area). It is, like Beijing, governed as its own municipality. It has (as alluded to in the title of this blog post) two city cores (as opposed to Beijing's one, around which the ring roads concentricize): the older city and what wikipedia tells me is "the Binhai New Area." I stayed in Tianjin for one night, and I have no idea around which core my stay was focused. 


1. I ate their famous baozi, a dish similar to jiaozi (see my previous post entitled "Consider the Jiaozi") but different in very key ways, namely the packaging. The casing for jiaozi is thin and salty, whereas the baozi has a noticeably heavy, doughy wrapper in which is contained various meats, vegetables, etc.

2. I rode a ferris wheel (see: image below), the Tianjin Eye.

3. I went to Little Italy (a note on the name: I can't remember what they called it. Italian Town, Italy Town, Italian Part-of-town—something). Here we saw some European architecture, ate some gelato, waited several hours to go to the train station for our later-than-expected departure, and note 4....

4. I rode around in a motorized rickshaw for half-an-hour minimum. Bored in the Italian Town, a few friends and I paid a driver to squire us around and show us the sights. He brought us to a couple of old-looking buildings, one of the rivers, a bigger, more-financial-business-based-looking building, and to a series of statues in various states of coitus. 

5. I, with 10ish classmates, visited Guwenhua Jie (Ancient Culture Street—a huge market-type area), whereat I bartered for various goods (re: chopsticks, calligraphy supplies) and a certain aforementioned travel companion purchased some old-school Chinese money from before Mao's time, during Mao's time, and not-long-after Mao's time.


1. The current world's fastest supercomputer.

2. The other core of this dual-core city (core unknown).

3. The Boxer Rebellion Museum (a rebellion played up in US HS textbooks but one that doesn't seem to get as much airplay over in China) and the Tianjin Museum.

4. Temple of Great Compassion Zen (a Buddhist Temple).

5. Tianjin Water Park.

6. The Water Drop, or, Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium.

7. Countless other things probably well-known to locals but not easily (note: easily being the key word) researchable online within the limits of my short attention span.


1. An immense sense of JOY to be surrounded by so many smiling people, strangers, friends, and dear ones alike.

2. A DESIRE to return to said city with more knowledge of both it and the Chinese language.

3. A curious trace of BITTERSWEET SADNESS at the transient nature of our one-night, one-and-a-half-day trip.

[end of missives]

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Qingdao, the city where they brew Tsingtao: the first in a series of postscripts, reflections, or with-hindsight travelogues

"If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it." — Willy Wonka, as played by Gene Wilder, in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971), music and lyrics for "Pure Imagination" by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

I've already said goodbye to you, and yet here I am, writing. I suppose this is because I realized, after making my last post, that I can't really say I've wrapped this blog up yet. At the height of my maniacally busy last month in China, I experienced a lot, but I wasn't putting any of it down onto paper or, more aptly, computer hard drive. I was digesting it and processing the information, but anything going on around me remained untold to you, my sweetest reader, who is still here after knowing full well that I have returned to America. Today is a summertime day, and I am feeling industrious as I so often do during summer when the responsibility and therefore desire not to be industrious is gone; I'll write, then, and fill you in. For anyone still out there with an interest, I present to you the untold stories (beginning where I left off: spring break).

The last leg of my (and my dear travel companion's) spring break three-city monstertruckjam megatour was Qingdao, the coastal city in Shandong province known primarily for its chief export: the ubiquitous (in China) and less-oft-found-but-still-known-about (and-definitely-less-highly-regarded) (in America) Tsingtao. Each spelling of the beer/city leads to the same pronunciation: Ching (like the onomatopoeic sound of a cash register)-dow (as in DOW Jones). Ching-dow. Tsingtao. Qingdao. What's in a name? The beer's spelling follows the old Wade-Giles system of Chinese romanization now really only seen in reruns of Monty Python where they spell Mao Zedong "Mao Tsetung" and proceed to confuse the hell out of everybody. The city's name, Qingdao, uses the superseder-system of romanization known as Pinyin, the system by-and-large used when foreigners learn Chinese or whenever necessary, really. The beer, known in some necks of some woods as Local Hero, is a sharp-tasting, hollow draught that will not tickle your taste buds into amour; however, after a few bottles, the beer's sleeve-card is its ability to deceive you into thinking it's good, and, after a few more bottles, it doesn't matter what you're thinking, as the beer has administered its medicine and already had its intended effect. The city, on the other hand, manages to charm without such trickery.

To be fair, my travel companion and I didn't get to venture out for long enough into the bowels of Qingdao to really get to know the innards of the place. Our hostel, a great and highly recommended place called the Old Observatory Youth Hostel, was situated decently close to the ocean, though we didn't know it upon arrival. The cab driver complained as we pulled in at what must have been one or two AM that the hostel's location was inconvenient and too far from the city's center. The next day, though, as we walked through the haze of the town, we saw something off in the distance—something big and blue and watery. Yes, watery. We neared the big watery thing, and as the haze distanced not only did we realize the watery thing was water but that it was the ocean [ed. note: actually Qingdao Bay], perhaps the wateriest thing there is! Our cab driver, I remarked, what a jokester! He thinks we want to be near concrete and steel; this is where it's at! Sand and water! *I looked at the beach* And also rocks. Yes, rocks! Lots and lots of rocks! (the child-geologist in me fought my sarcasm and actually enjoyed said rocks) We all just want to go to the beach and look at some rocks!

My alabaster travel companion and I flew a kite on one of those clearer Qingdao days. We climbed monkey bars and ate the juiciest baozi you ever did see. We sat on a sandy beach, relaxing, our toes dipped in cold spring oceanwater, and a child approached. This little adventurer jumped in the water (up to his knees) and ran back up to where we sat, smiling, repeating his previous circuit. The tiny young man spoke to us in Chinese, but children (to my ears) are rather hard to understand, so I simply asked, when he told me I was a foreigner, if he was Chinese. He responded positively and jumped into water. His mother found him and smacked his legs up on higher ground. He cried as she changed his pants. An old man laughed at the scene uproariously with great heaving guffaws, spittle flying, and we assumed this must be Grandfather. But the old man left, still laughing, and we realized he was simply enjoying the misfortunes of a small boy. My milky travel companion† and I reminisced on this scene later and thought that one day, in this boy's future, he will remember a tableaux of a mother above him, angry, an old man in mid-laugh, a sparkling ocean, and two waiguoren (foreigners) sitting near the water in the background, and he will remember having spoken with us, and perhaps this will have made some impression upon him.

The city of Qingdao was, by us, largely unexplored. We were too busy meeting new and interesting characters (an English-speaking German man of South-Chinese descent, bespectacled hostel hosts, mountain-climbing women) and lounging about at the beach to check everything out, yet the short time spent in this city stands out to me as a wonderful time in my study abroad independent travel experience. My only regret is that, in the waning days of travel, we were unable to enter the Willy Wonka factory that is Qingdao brewery††. There is always, though, another day.

†Apologies to my pale travel companion, whose very white skin is only remarkable because Chinese people remarked upon it.

††Apologies to my all-wavelengths-of-visible-light-reflecting travel companion, who made a similar comment already in her blog.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Upon arrival in America, during a six-our layover in Seattle, after tearful Goodbyes (or, the End)

"Oh, I love you" – Simon & Garfunkel, "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her" (1966)

I haven't posted in a month—technically just over a month now—and that's due, I suppose, to myriad things: trips to Tianjin and Tai Shan, internet going down for a while, final papers being due, a big Chinese final, trying to cram everything we wanted to do and hadn't yet done into frantic final weeks, spending time with close friends—and now, finally, here I am, posting, but not from China. 
I'm currently sitting at Gate S6 of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington, USA, charging my computer and my phone and waiting (for only 3.5 more hours!) to get on a flight to Minneapolis, where I'll wait another hour for a flight to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where family members await me and I truly return home. I don't quite know what to say in this post. It's too early to really tell how I feel about leaving China, but I can say with certainty that leaving the people I met in China—friends, teachers, language partners, and a very special lady—is one of the hardest things I've done in a long time. To everyone who may read this who I spent time with in China: thank you. Thank you for simply being there. Thank you for making this study abroad semester so so so worth it, and thank you for being you. You're amazing. I love you all.

There's a Southern gentleman with two children near me (at the airport) speaking in an awesome accent, which leads me to say I better knock out all the personal stuff because I do believe I'm gettin' the vapors. My Chinese improved greatly over the course of the last four months (our director equated my progress to roughly three American semesters of Chinese), but I feel like I'm at a crucial stage in my studies, so I need to keep practicing. I feel like I've grown as a person for too many reasons to write about, some of which I probably wouldn't want to write anyway and some of which I cannot put into words.

Alliance friends:
We climbed mountains.
We biked through a banana plantation.
We stalked city streets.
We shoved on the subway.
We rode cross-country night trains.
We ate duck heads.
We lived in China.
We loved each other.

Advice for those considering studying abroad: do it and don't think twice about it. You'll have no regrets.
Advice for those who met me in China: keep in touch, please.
Advice for all others: As trite as it may be and as saccharine as this whole post will end up being: love each other.

Again, I cannot express what I'm trying to get at, here. This was an amazing experience I'll never forget. I am a changed person. What else is there to say?

(endnote: And to you—yes, you—you who know: keep carrying it)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Verdancy, Verdancy

"You and me were never meant to be part of the future." — Wayne Coyne, from "All We Have Is Now" by the Flaming Lips, off Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)

Atop the the tallest pagoda at Linggu Temple in Nanjing, looking out across the forest on Purple Mountain, there are endless waves of trees that stretch and yawn, jostling each other with treebark armbranches, shooting out from that verdant mountaintop all the way to the base of the concrete city in the distance, a smog-masked metropolis: Nanjing. The Temple is outside the main swath of city most people would refer to as Nanjing, but it's still technically within the limits. The actual Linggu Temple sits deep in these woods, and if you depart a subway station near one of the beltways and decide to trek your way to the mountain and make your way into those woods, you'll find that the distance is greater than you may have imagined. The Linggu area is actually a series of attractions: the Temple itself, a series of tombs, Beamless Hall, Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum, the aforementioned pagoda, a nice park with stone sculptures, etc. The Temple is functioning and more than just a tourist attraction; monks still live, study, and pray there. Visiting Buddhists come to pay respects, not to see the sights.
Beamless Hall sits in the middle of the wooded area. The building was constructed entirely of stone; not a single nail or piece of wood was included in its original incarnation. Along the halls of the Hall are glass cases with eerily realistic wax figures of historically-important people (think Sun Yat-sen et al.). These cases have Chinese and English placards that tell the tale of Chinese resistance to foreign invaders, dynastic rulers, and internal corruption.
Outside the Temple proper is a small fountain, the Dragon Pool of Eight-Virtue Water. The fountain is set in the earth, and a small stream flows through it. Two gargoyles in the shape of dragonheads spit and drain water (one spitting, one underwater, draining), and when no tour cars go by and no shutters snap open-closed, there is perfect tranquility. You stand, leaning on the stone banister surrounding the fountain, and look down at life's perfect representation: one dragon is beautifully spouting water into the liquid-glistening pool (parts clear, parts murky), and the other is submerged, peaceful, but darkly waiting to take it all in, to let things pass. The latter dragon lies in wait, reminding you all things must end, or at least transform in the cycle.

Establishing shot: a skewed black elongated pyramid with a gigantic, stretched, unnaturally proportioned, defeated female statue cradling a limp child in its faded bronze arms. This is: Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, or, The Memorial for Compatriots Killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression. The memorial/museum is here in remembrance of the victims of the Rape of Nanjing (Dec. 1937), where the deceased alone numbered 300,000 (not to mention the beaten, the raped, the robbed, the humiliated, and the countless emotionally scarred). There is an insistence upon fact here, a felt need to tell visitors, "Hey, this really did happen, and it really did happen on this large of a scale," an unfortunate need that rises out of Japan's negligible addressing of the historical event. There are human remains on display, and despite signs asking for silence, patrons wander through chatting or on cell phones. Hot empty stone-and-rock courtyards. A lone flagpole. A statue with "Peace" written on it at the foot of a long pool. 
In some areas loudspeakers play a choral loop of ominous minor-chord singers wailing mournfully, and you wish you could find a big black room at the center of the complex where you could sit in darkness and let these ominous voices reach a staggering climax of high-low crescendo that pounds at your eardrums while you squeeze your eyelids shut and clench your teeth.
There is a field of lights in a darkened room with a bell toll and the sound of a ticking clock; one victim's face at a time is projected onto a far wall, and an eternal orange flame burns in front of it, an everlong sacrifice. The names of the dead encircle the room engraved on all of its walls, and a massive "300,000" shoots up onto the ceiling in stark white light.

Meanwhile... At Linggu Temple...
On the peripheries of the roaded woods sit the tombs of important Chinese figures, and at one of these, I stood and looked out at the surrounding trees, all taller than me at least three-times over. I stooped down and looked at the brickground I stood on and saw a small cicada, chirping incessantly, loudly, vibrating hard, and when I tried to touch it, it flew away. The noise at that tomb was deafening, but it wasn't the sound of travel-drunk tourists at Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum or the screeching, neutered grind of the Nanjing subway coming to a stop. It was the sound of millions of uncountable cicadas all calling out to each other, a frighteningly natural insect chorus. They buzz unseen and let you know with that primeval whine that these woods are theirs, and they were here first, and they see that stone tomb and say We'll still be here when you're not. They own this forest. And outside, back on the paved roadway, tourists wait for the next bus home. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Eating Face to Save Face

"Mm ba ba de / um bum ba de." — Freddie Mercury, "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie, from Hot Space (1981)

Let me begin by saying that I don't want to tell you a story that involves a lot of suspense, or that climaxes with a terrifying vision, or that involves any sort of narrative tension, so I'm just going to lay out exactly what happened on a certain night in Huangshan and retrace a few steps afterward, going into detail and discussing what exactly was going through my head at a restaurant with an unrecognizable menu and tight-lipped fuwuyuans (waiters/-resses). The day my travel companion Emily and I returned from climbing the mountain (Huangshan), we ate a big bowl of duck heads. 
A series of events: eat a delicious noodle/beef/pepper lunch; wander aimlessly around the city (Huangshan); spot pagodas; climb the tower of a bank; stand around an elementary school; eat cake; waltz through a construction site; reminisce; nap; go in search of dinner (enter restaurant; guess at what we're ordering; ignore snickers of waiters[-resses]; receive bowl of mysterious food; realize food is duck heads [consider leaving; whine; remember eating scorpion; think about how cows also have heads; a young child in basketball shorts with a full fish in hand; using corn as bait; mallards off a dock's-edge from youngerdays]; take tentative bites; give up and try to leave; waiters[-resses] give you more food; eat vegetables; leave restaurant); return to hostel; discuss day's events.

So, Duck Heads, now you see how we arrived at this. Entering the building, what should have first tipped us off to the curious nature of the restaurant were the ubiquitous Donald Duck images; certainly the character wasn't legally being used at this place—Disney probably hadn't signed over any rights—but he was everywhere, pants-less, welcoming guests with an outstretched winghand. China is full of such uses of other people's (or companies') creations, so it wasn't extremely bizarre to see D.D. hanging out there, and we assumed we'd be eating duck (a popular dish, especially Roast in Beijing). I remember thinking that Donald Duck was a traitor to his species, like Charlie the Tuna ("Eat my people," they seem to shout, "Take my own flesh, my own blood, and eat, please."), but I didn't know D.D. was willing to go so far...
The other mistake we made was assuming that if we ordered blindly, despite trying to converse with the waitress ("We also like chicken and beef," I recall saying, hoping she'd point it out to us, and she didn't), we'd get something we had before, or at least something not too unfamiliar, something palatable. Emily told me we ordered some sort of duck in addition to vegetables and some sort of vegetable-ball thing, and, remembering childhood Christmas Days, remembering the denouement of that filmic institution A Christmas Story, I joked: "I hope it doesn't have a head," and, minutes later, when served, the exclamation (after the realization): "It's all heads!"

And speaking of realizations, here: the bowl arrived, a great silver half-moon, and in it a potpourri: spices, vegetables, unknown slices of unknown things, and, atop the melange, a dozen-odd T-rex-skull-fossil-shaped pieces of... something. I pulled one out with my chopsticks and commented on the odd shape and texture of the meat. We wondered if it was some sort of liver, or, well, we only knew it was a hard object. I flipped mine (I had been looking at the bone), and saw a cross section (they had been split down the middle, all) of what looked like a head, and, in the half-intact beak, I saw a lolling tongue (lit. lolling out the bottom) and what could pass for a brain, and as my mind raced, I looked at Emily, who was poking around the cranium with her own chopsticks, and said, "These are heads. I'm pretty sure these are heads." And after a brief spell of unbelief, we both accepted that they were, indeed, the heads of ducks. I poked around the bowl desperately for other meat, but only found vertebrae, neck, wing, and, perhaps more disturbingly than heads themselves, a full-on foot: a webbed spindly clawed end. Where was the rest of the duck? Where was the breast, the meat? I thought of ditching out on the place, of DFW's "Consider the Lobster," of all the animals I had eaten before that were, when served, already sans head.

I remembered that every time I eat meat, I'm eating something that had, at one time or another, a face. Eyes, nose, mouth. An identifier. An expresser. I thought that the burgers I eat regularly and the chicken I have almost every day probably lived a rougher life than did these ducks, probably were prepared in less hygienic ways, probably had more chemicals pumped in them throughout life, yet I found this, the duck head, disgusting. I came face to face, pun horribly terrifically intended, with my own meat-eating, and I considered, briefly, that eating meat might be something I no longer wanted to do.

Then I bit into the duck head. Never had I cracked a skull open to get to dinner, but that night in Anhui Province, at the lower-lying regions of a mountain range, I did, and it wasn't as bad as I had worried. I learned that what I find delicious isn't what others necessarily do. What delicacies are served in China are not the delicacies of other nations. That different cultures think about what they put in their mouths every day for sustenance differently, natch, and that, though I thought it'd be disgusting, I just needed to learn to try something new, something other people crave. 

Who am I kidding, I hated it. I was horrified by each bite I took, and I'll never eat something's face-meat again.

Emily ate a heart and gained the courage of a duck. This courage allowed her to eat more heads than I. 
The waitresses(-ers) had a station near us, and they watched the entire time we ate, giggling.
When the vegetables were served, they did so by removing the duck from the big silver bowl and filling it with some sort of red broth (I worriedly thought blood), brought it to a boil, and chucked the veggies in.
We cleansed our palates with Oreos later at the hostel.
Weeks later, finally prepared to write, tiny pages of notes next to me, I'm still too focused on the event, the spectacle (to me) of eating heads, to focus on what sort of insight may have been gained, what sort of conundrums were raised about my own meat-eating and carnivores in general, and what I learned about anything.
Duck heads, head-ness aside, don't have a bad flavor.

Memory, speaking, has too soft a voice.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Am Made Of What Mountains Are Made Of

"The reality we can put into words is never reality itself." — Werner Heisenberg

—A young boy flying over the heads of a crowd, jumping from rock to rock, teetering on the abyssal edge
—One dozen people sleeping in a bedbunked room; a huddled pair, middle cot
—Lotus Peak, the Highest Point, awarded medals, celebrate with Dr. Pepper, picture with old woman
—solitary-ish morning walk through a dense mistvapor shroud
—16 hours total of up-and-down stairs
—sharp granite fingers thrusting up through the crust of the earth, reaching through the clouds for a gossamered sun, crumbling fingernails with crawling, four-limbed miniatures sliding down the face

In Huangshan, one can be bring keys and padlocks to secure to the protective ropes and railings at the higher points of the range. Thousands cover the barricades, some rusted, some shiny and new, some seemingly about to fall apart. The old story goes that if one fastens their lock to the top railings of the mountain, makes a wish for the health of family or a loved one and throws the key into the chasm, their wish will come true. A hailstorm of lightweight keys constantly peppers the beat-cut bushes of the sudden-drop valleys, dotting the landscape with bits of invisible common earths. Thousands, millions(?) should have good health; thousands, millions are loved.

—Calves hard as rock, tired, though not as large and stony as the calves of workers who climb the steps each day
—Impossible views of mountains emerging darkfaced from the mist
—stealthing through a half-lit hotel for the rich in search of warmth and privacy
—the Mass Tourism of a UNESCO World Heritage Site swarmed by uncountable visitors dropping peanut shells at the feet of trees and half-empty water bottles at the tops of mountains
—"The mountain is inspecting your behavior while you are appreciating its beauty"
—the state of being a tourist and knowing the surreality of your visits, hoping that knowing grants something more

Taking notes on Huangshan while climbing Huangshan and sleeping on Huangshan and thinking about Huangshan for days and days post-Huangshan isn't a bad way to find yourself unable to write about what it really meant to go to and see Huangshan because at least you still have the notes. What I remember thinking is that these mountains were made somehow, and it couldn't have been from a fault line because I remember how that works from Geology 101. They definitely weren't volcanic. Only later did I find out that these sharp granite peaks were formed beneath the waters of a great sea that drained millions of years ago, and these stalagmitic juts from the earth were once covered in mesozoic seaweed. What's more, glaciers came through and cut all this up, sharpening the tallest of the teeth. And this granite, these pine trees, they share with me the base ingredients of everything. Make of that what can be made.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Only Compass That I Need (is the one that leads back to you)*

"It's been so long..." — David Bowie, off "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" from Let's Dance, 1983†

On returning from an eight-day spring-break vacation that spanned three cities, two major bodies of water, and one mountain range, upon arriving in Beijing on a rumble-roar red-eye train at 5:45 am with gunk in my eyelids and more sleep on my mind, when standing in line at the subway station with a leaky right eye and a stomach that screams for breakfast, I realize that I've been returning all the while to Beijing as if it were my Ithaca, my home. The idea must have been inceived somewhere between our trip to Yunnan and this very travel from which I have just returned, and it is alien, strange. Is it possible that over the course of a short two months I've become so accustomed to the busybodysea of Beijing that I could call its iron-and-concrete sprawl home? Maybe it's because I've been forced to become fast friends with 20-odd students around the same age as me who are now like a small family, maybe it's because the program I'm enrolled in has been so welcoming, or maybe it's because of a certain crazy-for girl, but the prospect of sticking around in Beijing is actually almost comforting. I don't plan on living here, and I certainly plan on returning home to my friends and loved ones in America this June, but still, there's something there in that first microgranular thought in the dark night of that train ride when I thought, "I'm going home."

There is nothing worse†† than being ripped off as a tourist other than being ripped off as a tourist while being fully aware of and helpless against the fact. So were we, my travel companion Emily and I, stuck in Huangshan at the base of the mountain: a ride, needed; a taxi, the only available. We had trekked the small town around the mountain looking for the bus back to the city (also Huangshan), to our hostel, asking hotel managers and restaurateurs alike for directions (Emily's Chinese is a few levels beyond mine, so she did most of the talking) but to no avail. We wandered into a Traffic Police station to find the place open yet empty, a cup of tea still steaming on a desk, the place silent and muggy. A tripod series of pictures propped up near the entrance featured grisly scenes of motorcycle crashes with Blood on the Pavement, the traffic police's deterrent against unlicensed driving or something. We found out, finally, from a few clerks at a Super-8, that the bus stops running at five pm. It was 5:30. Emily called the hostel we booked at, and they told her we could only take a cab. 
The taxi manager knew right away what was up. He was like a dead-eyed dog: he could smell our helplessness. Beneath brash attempts at bartering with his price, he could see that our only option was to take one of his cabs. He knew it and he took advantage, and though the price we paid was considerably less than others have paid in the past, and though in the US the price was more than reasonable, we knew that for what the meter would have been and what a Huangshan native would have paid, we were certainly ripped off. What could we do? We sat on our hands and thought spiteful thoughts. Emily hoped he had kids to feed to justify such dealings. I hoped (and later wished otherwise for the man) that he lived alone, that his only real happiness in life was earning rip-off money—a poor happiness, indeed. As a tourist, though, such is expected. People yell "hello" to you, they snap pictures, they mutter "外国人," they stare. 怎么 No harm done. When you're a tourist, you have to realize that you're already (in the pessimistic light) leeching off someone else's real culture†††, so you should, theoretically, just bite the bullet and take what karma kicks your way. 

So maybe that train ride home in the pitch hours of a lightless seaboard gave me peace of mind because I knew I'd be returning to the familiar, to a place where folks didn't care if you were different, to a place (Wudaokou) where the familiar thing was the foreign student intermingling with the Beijing native. Maybe Beijing felt like home because in Beijing the slurred-speech cabbies always run the meter. Maybe I was comforted by the quasi-family that mitosis'd in the fluorescent halls of a high-floored dormitory. Either way, Beijing felt like home, and though there's another home out there waiting for me, the fact that something feels like a duck and looks like a duck is enough, right?

*From the song "Compass" by Jamie Lidell

†It has been so long (since writing here, since being in Beijing). I'll update throughout the next week or two regarding the actual trip: climbing Huangshan, visiting Nanjing, cruising the coast at Qingdao, accidentally consuming duck heads, seeing the reaction to the Nanjing massacre ~70 years later, etc.

††Of course there is worse than being ripped off while traveling. There is being robbed/mugged, trafficked, killed, becoming a homeless stray, nearly starving, running out of money, finding our you were adopted, losing all one's teeth, getting in a knife fight, and on and on. It's only a figure of speech.

†††There is something to be said, though, about the certain types of tourism that permeate such places as the Grand Canyon, Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum, or even Huangshan: is there really a local culture being leeched off, or has the place been robbed of anything real it once had and turned into a corpuscle of pure disgustingly-fat greasy-boned mass tourism? When thousands flood a crevasse in the recesses of Huangshan to fight for position at the stairs leading, eventually, to Yingkesong, is anyone being leeched off of, or is the rock dry?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Homesickness ≠ foodsickness, but it may as well

"There are you—you drive like a demon from station to station [...] It's too late to be grateful; it's too late to be late again." — David Bowie, "Station to Station" from Station to Station, 1976†

From my dormitory window I can see a portion of the neighborhood of Wudaokou, and from my vantage point the the buildings seem to quake down from a high rim to a low center, a conical slide from the tips of the Microsoft and Cernet towers to a low point near the subway station, and this dip—this fat, low dip—like an enormous sinkhole, drains right down to an epicenter where the energy of Wudaokou trembles and erupts. You can walk to this epicenter, this lowpoint in the staggered concrete, and there you'll find (sandwiched between a restaurant and a lingerie boutique) a two-foot wide window and a long, thin kitchen where they sell hot dogs. 
The place is called Holy Fries!, either an exuberant statement about the nature of the blessed french fries or a 1960s-era-Batman-TV-show Robinesque exclamation, either of which works for the little 饭馆Holy Fries! suits the neighborhood, a university-dotted area known for its terrible pedestrian-laced traffic and its high level of diversity (due to the amount of foreign students pouring in). Holy Fries! is owned by and operated by a husband-wife/girlfriend-boyfriend duo (I haven't done my homework) of Australian or German (him, and again, I really haven't done my homework) and Chinese (her) descent. Like Wudaokou and its residents, theirs is a marriage of two hemispheres (unless he's from Australia, d'oh!), and the American or Italian style dogs and the "French" fries are enough to remind any worldly student of their greasy hometurf food. 

I went to Holy Fries! at the suggestion of a friend who once lived in Beijing, and the real reason he suggested it and another friend and I went was to quench our thirst for that rarest of sodapop gems, nearly impossible to find in China: Dr. Pepper. Hujiao Boshi, in the parlance of our region, isn't processed here (like Coke or the Chinese variety of Mt. Dew). Rather, it is imported by daring restaurateurs like the folks at Holy Fries! or the owners of Grandma's Kitchen††. It is a sweet/sharp reminder of home, and, when returning from Kunming (to Beijing, as noted in an earlier post), I strangely longed for such a taste. On that plane, that three-hour jaunt across the country, I felt my first real pang of homesickness, and the first thing it directly latched onto in my mind wasn't friends or family but food, oddly enough, and I craved a deli sandwich or a plate of nachos, and finally this craving for recognizable food led to a desire to see friends and family, to tell them stories, to hear what they have been doing, to listen to them simply speak, and finally to simply be home, to be in an open grassland where there is near-silence and solitude, to bike along a gravel road in the Midwestern countryside and be at peace, with what I don't know, but to simply be at peace. And this longing, as real as it may be, can be curbed by drinking an imported can of soda.

What I need to say though, is that in about three hours I leave for Huangshan (黄山), and though homesickness may hit me from time to distant time, there is entirely too much to see in the world to return home at the slightest tinge of desire. Until then, I'll drive like a demon.

†A twofold footnote here: 1) I will be leaving for Huangshan, Nanjing, and Qingdao very soon and won't return until April 17th, so I won't be posting anything for at least a week and a half. 2) David Bowie's Station to Station is not only the man's greatest album (IMHO) but boasts his largest and deepest-diving lyrics possibly in his career. Each song has catchy hooks and Bowie wailing, of course, but he packs some amazing punches beneath all the production. Check it out, maybe.

††Grandma's Kitchen, yes. When my friend and I first went to find Dr. Pepper, Holy Fries! was closed due to a power outage, so we ended up going to the only other place we knew of that sold the stuff: Grandma's Kitchen. Unfortunately, they sell the imported goods for 20 kuai a pop (pun unfortunately intended). The cost one must pay for perfection, though, is great, so we grabbed a few cans despite and enjoyed them for all they were worth.

Friday, April 1, 2011

For those who go abroad

(the following was written by me and published in The Dakota Student at the University of North Dakota on March 29, 2011 — I think all the rights belong to them now, not sure)
I am in China, and that's the first thing you need to know. The second is that David Foster Wallace killed himself 12 years after writing, in Infinite Jest, "That everyone is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else. That this isn't necessarily perverse." The third is that I have no credentials, that my age is a mere blink in geological time, and that this article has been written before by better writers than I. That this is all you need to know technically means you can stop reading here, and that's your prerogative, and just as Britney has hers, you can exercise it. I hope you don't.
Someone once told me that they were studying abroad because they wanted to experience another culture, and I thought, "admirable," and I also thought, "impossible." Then I chose to study abroad, and I spoke similarly. Why China?To learn Chinese. Why Chinese? Challenging, relevant, useful. What do you plan on doing with that? I don't know. So why China? Uh, I want to... Experience another culture.
But this isn't entirely possible, because you can only scratch surfaces, and if you try to shoehorn your way into a culture, all you're really doing is imposing yourself upon it, right? If you think by spending four months in, say, India you're going to knowIndia, you're going to somehow be a fount of information regarding India, you're going to, more or less, becomejust the tiniest bit Indian, the truth might lie somewhere closer to you poking at India (as if an entire nation of over a billion people were definable) with a yardstick.
Or maybe I'm looking at this wrong. Go abroad, please. But take what you're learning with a grain of salt, not because those teaching you are untrustworthy—no, they're probably terrific pedagogues—but because you yourself can't be trusted. I'm speaking from experience (and here's the can of worms about my experience: what makes me think Iknow anything?). If you're really serious about going abroad, please admit that your knowledge is already flawed, and that it still will be when you return, and that worldliness does not equal knowledge. That knowing and understanding are two different coins altogether.
On March 17th a Buddhist monk in Sichuan self-immolated in response to 2008 military crackdowns in Tibet, the second self-immolation since. The thoughts vaporized in that human pyre are not known, and what escaped into the immediate air, flaring up from a wet bald head, could not be seen.
If you go abroad to some strange place—the neck of some woods—that you don't understand, realize that the very woods you're in don't understand you. This is the first step toward reconciliation. If we fear what we don't understand (source: everyone ever), the problem lies not in what is feared but in our lack of understanding. I've seen fights break out due to lack of ability to understand one another on the most basic of levels: language. When you go abroad, you might not be able to get your point across, and in that moment of perfect frustration, ask why you and your conversational partner can't make sense of each other. Is it because you're both speaking different languages? Is it because you have differing perspectives? Is it because no matter how hard you try, no matter how big your metaphorical trepanning trephine, you can never really get into the mind of another person and examine their thought process? Is it because you will always be in your skull and your skull only?
As a semi-official representative of UND's Study Abroad program, I shouldn't tell you that you don't needto study abroad, but you don't. If it is financially viable and you are willing, by all means, go, you will never regret it, but when I talk about "those who go abroad," I don't just mean those who travel; I mean those who want to get at something more, something in the emptiness between minds. You can cover the world and still retain your same opinions, your sameWeltanschauung, your kanfa—you can choose to think what you think and always think those same thoughts. But know that there are other perspectives—just know it—be aware of it, and the fact that everyone around you has their reasons for doing whatever it is they do might be enough to stop you from blowing your top, or at least slow the boil. I guess what I'm saying is, When I talk about going abroad, I am trying to get at something—for lack of a simpler word—something metaphysical. An intangibility. By "abroad" I don't mean anyplace physical; maybe I'm talking about transcendence.
My god, this is preachy. I'm a dick sometimes, and you might be a dick, and our varying degrees of dickishness may be at the root of disagreements and minor altercations, but, as Wayne Coyne sang, after ruminating on our deaths, all of our inevitable deaths, "Let them know you realize that life goes fast; it's hard to make the good things last," then, as the music moseys along with Coyne's fragile voice, and the riff comes back, he asks of us, "Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?" Well, do you?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Putting the Banana in Xishuang Banna, or, Me and You and Everyone We Think We Know

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." — Carl Sagan

Imagine you've been sick for a week—your nose is running, you have a defiant nagging cough, your sinuses are all out of whack—and as you disembark the plane you're hit by a rush of warm rain that greases the Richard-Nixon-staircase at the plane's exit and almost makes a Charlie Chaplin scene out of the whole thing. The next morning you hike for three hours in drizzle, you wear sopping American clothes, you wipe your nose on the edge of your sleeve wrapped around your cold shaking hand like a three-year-old. Imagine this is you, and you will have the first leg of my trip to Xishuang Banna.
I make it sound more miserable than it was. It wasn't miserable at all, but what has been written cannot be unwritten, lest I start writing like an actual person and do a little something called revising. No, instead what happened was I went on this miserably wet hike, and despite my illness, I had a great time, and at some point, like the phoenix before me, I rose from sopping wet ashes and returned to form, a Bo Zhongzhi for all seasons. Our reward for finishing this thousand-year-old-tree-spotted walk was tea with the villagers, who cooked it in bamboo shafts and served it accordingly. We then ate lunch with them, possibly the most delicious Chinese meal I have ever had. They sang local songs, hand-clapping, grinning, and when it came our turn to show them a tune, someone piped up with the "Star-Spangled Banner," and so we extended our soft power instead of reaching out with a nice cultural hello (which came later, in the form of popular music). That a juxtaposition between traditional Yunnan drinking songs and American pop music caused such concern. That in the end both songs were really only about alcohol.

We rode a boat. Down the Mekong River. A dingy, really. We played volleyball on the beach, and we rode bikes to another village, a pack of foreigners pedaling through banana plantation fields to get to a village about which they knew nothing. We met Buddhist monks. We removed our shoes and met Buddhist monks. Outdoor temples where the wind blew through unabated. We ate. A beautiful girl in hiking shorts smiled at me and said my name. Each moment passed with such dreamlike diffidence that the shy reality of all was impossible to get at in the moments themselves, and pictures, snapped though they were, are only lazy representations of what once existed in my mind.

In the village we biked to a group of lackadaisical boys were ready and set to play us (the Alliance) in a game of basketball. We got shirtless and stretched; they kept their clothes on and smoked. Really, their gametime preparation was to smoke a pack of Kools [ed: brand actually unknown]. Our director, Bing, warned us that these villagers had never been beat, had never lost to the Alliance, that the altitude provided them with a stamina advantage and that their whole plan was to plainly outlast us. We put on Nikes and they played barefoot.
At halftime we were up by 11, probably, about, more or less, 差不多, and Bing came to us beaming, "You guys are making history." 
The second half was a slow descent into mediocrity for the Alliance program, and as our two main shooters trailed off with miss after miss and our strange pattern of substitutions threw off our team chemistry, the villagers swept back in and took the lead. The fourth quarter came around and I sat in a chair and watched for the rest of the game, content to let others play, unaware that we were actually losing. A beautiful girl in hiking shorts sat with me and I didn't care about the game. I reached out a daring finger and touched the hair on her head, and I dared with my other hand to touch her waist, and she smiled and tousled my messy hair, and me, covered in the most disgusting sweat I can imagine to date, and her, not seeming to give a damn, there in that chair by the concrete court in a village in Xishuang Banna (note: I am still unsure of Xishuang Banna's state of existence. It is within a province, but it is referred to as some sort of region. It has a capital [though I'm unsure of it's officialdom] called Jinghong, and is peppered with villages, and it's not a city. I just don't know what it really is).
Anyway, we lost the game when, down by one point, a friend of ours who loves basketball, who adores basketball, who played basketball in high school and talked about basketball the whole day leading up to this game—we lost when he caught a long-ball near the hoop, running, and missed a lay-up at the buzzer. Lost by one. I don't think any of us really minded.

And this is what stands out from Xishuang Banna (or, as Boston Mike called it, Xishuang Banana). We did other stuff, too, but this is what stands out, more so than the bars or the club or the cheap DVD store or the hotel or the market or any of all that jazz. And what stands out even more than the things we did is who we did it with: friends, cute girls, a guy from Boston who swears by protein, a beautiful girl in hiking shorts who smiles like a lens flare, a roommate and a director and a guide who all do what they do well. Villagers who eat with us after a hike; villagers who play ball with us in bare feet and cigarettes in their mouths; boat drivers who don't speak English but smile all the while at our half-hearted songs. These people stand out, and if pictures could capture them, they'd be captured, but it's better that they can move on, free, ethereal to those of us who only visited and as real and concrete as the Mekong River to those who love them everyday. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fever Dreams in Kunming (then Dali, then Lijiang...)

"And Here My Troubles Began" — Maus, Title, Book II

About five days ago I returned from a nine-day trip to Yunnan Province in Southern China. Tasked with writing a blog post about the experience, I have no idea where to begin. The surreality of it all—or maybe surreal is the wrong descriptor? is unreal more accurate?—the otherworldliness is still too present in my mind for me to accurately describe just how it all went down. I'm waiting for the actuality to sink in, to hit me, but I don't know if it ever will.

It all began with a fever. The night before we left I topped 100 degrees fahrenheit, and I think I managed to break it on the plane. Three hours from Beijing to Kunming, and during the last leg, when the air pockets stagger over the mountains, we hit turbulence that just wouldn't quit. In a fever pitch, our group laughed and ooh'ed and I felt ill, and I developed a major sweat, and for the first time ever on an airplane I reached for the barf bag and said to my next-door neighbor, "Watch out, I might end up using this." But we came in for a landing and the turbulence was over and my pre-puke rumblings ceased, and I was left in a cold sweat feeling like, I don't know, a survivor, I guess.
I spent the night in Kunming at a hotel, and for the sake of readers who plan to study abroad, I will summarize the evening's events (that I missed, thankfully) in three short phrases: one minor knee injury, one missing student, one arrest. I was awoken in the middle of the night by Mao Shan, who burst into the room voicing concern over the troubles of our classmates. The next morning, Bing, our director and savior, instituted a curfew. Well deserved, I might add.

The next two cities passed in a blur. Dali and its beautiful lake, Erhai, were both stunning. We took a boat to an island or peninsula or something upon which sat an old temple and a pagoda, and there we drank tea and took pictures, and all was well. We took a bus to Lijiang the next day, and again the city was beautiful. We hiked Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and my illness lashed out, twofold revenge on a body that tried to do too much. The temperature dropped (in the air) and I went to bed early each night, despite the lifting of Bing's curfew. Rest was simply more important. I ate at Pizza Hut with a friend, and the atmosphere was one of quiet romance, not the family bustle of the same chain in America. Zhang Yimou's impression show dazzled by sheer amount of spectacle alone, and Xuan Ke, a man imprisoned for only six years less than Mandela, discussed the show's fakeness. A representative of the Naxi minority, Xuan Ke was assuming and unassuming both, a timid way of carrying himself that masked a different personality—a justifiably upset man who only ever really wanted to play music that spoke to him.

Before a flight to Xishuang Banna, my cold lifted, but the surreality or unreality continued. However, that is another post. Two distinct travels took place: the trip of the downtrodden, bedridden, ill Joshua, and the warm-weather adventure of a spritely Bo Zhongzhi. More to come.

view from atop the temple in Dali

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Learning Chinese

"不到长城非好" — Chinese idiom (tr: until you reach the Great Wall, you are not truly a man)

To learn Chinese is a lifelong commitment. It is a language that, for the average English speaker, obliterates all else in its path. In high school, I started to learn Spanish; I maintained a rudimentary understanding of it throughout college—that is, until I began Mandarin classes. Any attempt to speak Español now comes out as a strange pidgin tongue mixing tones and rolled R's, an indecipherable gobbledygook. It's not that I can't remember Spanish, that's not the problem. I begin to form a thought, and as my tongue wraps itself around the first "Yo" or "Tu" of the sentence, my mind starts changing itself and commands of me a "Wo" or a "Ni." Even as I wrote that last sentence, I wanted to type "tu" but my fingers said "ni," and I had to go back and change things around. 

Here, in the student dorm at Beiyu, we speak another pidgin language called Chinglish. I ask for a plate of jiaozi or say "throw me a ping of pijiu," and we understand each other, but to the people outside or the friends back home, it is meaningless. Conversation is peppered with new vocabulary words, but the grammar remains firmly English, and any attempt to reconcile the yufa and the shengci of the two languages leaves me spellbound—what exactly am I trying to do here?

Out at the foot of the Great Wall in a small village in Hebei province, I met a boy who spoke beautiful Mandarin, and it shouldn't surprise me at all. He is seven years old, he was raised in Hebei, he's of (I could only guess) Han descent, and his father and mother work at the Wall itself as tour guides, sherpas-of-sorts, or what-have-you. For a brief moment I forgot that Chinese was as innate to this boy as English was to me, and I was blown away. For one millisecond I was jealous, even, until I realized what exactly I was thinking, until my mind snapped out of a daze and reminded me that yes, Mandarin is spoken by billions—children, adults, natives and non-natives alike. I playfully fought this boy with a wooden stick and a plastic sword, and I could only say "ni zhen lihai, xiao pengyou," but it was basic communication, and it really didn't matter what language we were speaking because he was happy, laughing. 

A certain foreign policy professor told his students that they had pretty much missed the boat for the Chinese language. The trail has been blazed, the jobs are snatched up, et cetera blah blah, but I'm not in this for a job (and even if I was, China is gigantic). I can't pinpoint what it is that I'm really doing, but I know I am enjoying it, I'm meeting wonderful people, and I'm hoping that my language skills continue to increase, not to increase my marketability, but so that I can more effectively communicate—with whoever. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Consider the Jiaozi

"There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other." — David Foster Wallace

Jiaozi, pot stickers, gyoza, momocha, jiao'er, or, more simply, Chinese dumplings have existed, been cooked and eaten, for, at the most liberal side of the estimations, at least four thousand years. The guotie, or pan-fried jiaozi (the most delicious and least good-for-you variation on the Chinese dumpling) has been around for a less-hefty one thousand years (all according to Wikipedia) and is reportedly good for the human soul, though, metaphysically speaking, the sustenance of the soul is a mystery only penetrated insofar as knowing that metaphorical versions of chicken soup possess the ability to lift a soul in a low moment, though (and this is philosophical backtracking) the notion that there can even be said to be "metaphorical versions of chicken soup" let alone a soul that consumes them — that notion requires a house-of-cards stack of premises that is, alas, a bit fragile. These guotie (called Peking ravioli in Bah-ston), regardless of their supposed ability to sustain the human soul, do possess the uncanny quality of filling the human stomach with meat, vegetables, and a starchy outer layer in one convenient package without resorting to the sandwich-stack Western style of doing things. And, ah, the kicker: you can find them (really) anywhere in Beijing, and they're dirt cheap.

In 2006, the average yearly salary for an urban worker in Beijing was 1,759 yuan (US$1,517). Compare this to the average weekly wage of a Manhattanite: $2,404. In China in 1959-61 somewhere between 14 and 40 million people died of famine. The national population in 1949 was about 400 million; today it is roughly 1.6 billion. Violent crime has increased steadily since the 1980s. The burgeoning gap between rich and poor defies the notion of a classless society.

In Beijing, steaming, squat, ill-painted little food vendor stands pepper the busier neighborhoods (really they're all "busier" neighborhoods), operating year-round to supply the cheapest, best taste-to-price ratio dishes of any restaurant, bistro, snack bar, or rathskeller in Northeastern China, and these often-family-run mini-businesses sweep in the tourists, the students, the bustling work crowds to their facades — their sliding windows — to offer up what you might call fast food or takeaway but would more accurately be referred to as street food. One of these stands with an indecipherable name (one might say inscrutable, an inscrutable name) pops up from the concrete in front of a place called the U-Center in Wudaokou, and most people refer to the little noodle shop as, simply, The Jiaozi Stand, though, to be fair, dozens of other jiaozi stands exist within a half-mile radius of this one. Despite its rather plain sobriquet, the stand, with its quiet fry chef and ever-smiling, matronly shifu, has some of the best food in the neighborhood, and its specialty (you guessed it: jiaozi) can be had for the steal-of-a-price of only six kuai (for a plate of ten). Upstreet there's a McDonald's. Downstreet there's another McDonald's. KFC is a block away. A Big Mac combo is 22 kuai. A chicken sandwich with fries is 14 kuai. A plate of jiaozi is 6 six kuai. Six renminbi.

Han Dynasty, 200 AD, generations away, in the dead times, cold times, evolutionarily infinitesimally close, no one knows anyone anymore, cold mountaintops open freezing plains plateaus iced over, before us — here Zhang Zhongjing, a medical practitioner, author of Treatise on Cold Pathogenic and Miscellaneous Diseases — here he took two jiaozi and said to the cold and ultimately dead, Here, warm your ears.

Making jiaozi involves a lot of crimping, a lot of folding over and pinching and massaging. To make jiaozi you have to trap the filling and close it in, then you can boil it or steam it or deep-fry it or, if you're a Beiyu student with a hankering for the cheap, pan-fry it. Jiaozi is often dipped in vinegar or various other sauces, but it can be eaten plain, too, or with some noodles or rice, or it can be eaten as part of a full meal as a main or supporting dish. To eat jiaozi you have to get a firm grip with your chopsticks, but if you squeeze too tightly the jiaozi will be sent flying and ah, what a pain. To make jiaozi, to eat jiaozi, you need to have a steady hand, you have to be just a bit careful, but you can still take risks so long as you keep that hand steady. You can even get fancy. Just remember that the jiaozi is old, older than you, and when you're eating something that has a history spanning empires —literally spanning empires — well, something's going on, and maybe someone sat where you sit and warmed their ears, and maybe not, maybe they just kept on moving, because they didn't have time to do anything but stay alive. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright (or, The Half-True Story of a Tiger in Beijing, or, How One Man Stopped Traffic With a Mighty Right Hand and Ate Jiaozi With the Other, or, Mao Shan and The Wudaokou Kid)

"Don't be a tiger." — Han Bing

In the dusty twilight hours of a mid-fireworks smognight in Beijing, on a crowded street (almost goes without saying here), at an angry-red-man crosswalk telling you no, don't cross here, you can't cross here yet, fool, when the sun is barely visible through a brown haze and glows apocalyptic red and the beautiful mountains in the distance can't be seen by the eye, naked or otherwise, and all are hustling to their allotted appointments, dates, rendezvous, places of work, evening big-desk meetings, trysts or gin-soaked beginnings of a cloudy midnight — in these hours, when the cars rush by all do-as-they-may, one must hold an unshaking palm to the rush and say, wrist stiff, "Duibuqi — I am walking here." At least, you have to if you want to make it across the street and to your appointment, date, etc. on time, punctual, professional you. 
I did such a thing — sorry, do such things whenever I hit a crosswalk in Wudaokou, not because I feel entitled to cross or privileged to do so or "above the law," but because crossing at your own leisure is the norm, and, as they say, 随俗 (ru xiang sui su — our best English equivalent: When in Rome, do as those wacky Romans do, baby). To cross or not to cross does not depend on little green and red men blinking at you and beckoning but on the mettle of the crosser, the gaps in the indubitable hammer of car after car across the sticky pavement, and your own Frogger-like abilities to dodge vehicles, bicycles, rolling barrels/logs, and, believe it or not, Rip, other pedestrians. Forearm shivers are probably both rude and unnecessary but may be deemed appropriate when another tiger dares cross your path on the walk, a new-wave animalistic dominance-dance that comes down to awkward sidesteps and well-placed shoulder-juts — a Bighornian cliffside headbuttle for the modern citydweller.
The past few years in the Beijing-metropolis have given rise to the electric bicycle, a contraption meant to remove the necessity of bipedal travel and the difficulty of traditional bi-wheeled travel, as well as (removing) the pollution-coughing gasoline'd models of old. These electro-bikes emit such faint nothings that, walking down a sidewalk or alleyway, you may find yourself no longer alone, you may feel the hot breath of a national sliding up all formidable behind you, and before you know it WHAM — you are in their way, and they will honk, or ring bells, and you will, ashamed, sidle.
And then there are cars themselves whose numbers in the city now are so great (Chinese leaders ask, If America can have two cars for every person, why not China?) that they are spilling over from the roads to the walks, the edges of wrought-iron fences, spilling like Tribbles from the USS Enterprise, self-reproducing, slick, chrome, furballs. It is these you'll eye most strangely as they creep a solid 5 km/hr through crowds of people, honking, as if to say I own this sidewalk — but these you'll find most rare.
"What's good, Boss?" Mao Shan asked me, that Princetonian/Southern gent whose adopted Chinese name won't account for that all-too-white demeanor, that wavy politician's hair, "What's the 'noon saying?"
I drop my hand, the stopper, and cars pass me by in the middle of an intersection, and I take my throwaway chopsticks and pop a jiaozi in my mouth, whole, and turn to Mao Shan, hands in his pockets, and I say to him, "We gotta be tigers, man." And we step across those parallel lines, long stride Abbey Road steps, and the onslaught of vehicles tears at the air, blaring their cutthroat horns, asking us, "Do you feel like a tiger today, punk? Well?" And we keep walking with broad shoulders and pride in our eyes. "Well? Huh? Do ya?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Down and Dirty Days in Beijing (a Post-Script to Jean B.)

"I'll give you television; I'll give you eyes of blue. I'll give you men [a man] who want[s] to rule the world." — David Bowie, "China Girl" from Let's Dance, 1983 (see also: Iggy Pop)

P.F. Chang's China Bistro boasts a current restaurant count of over 200 in at least five countries altogether, is owned and operated by Arizonians Paul Fleming and Philip Chiang, and has its own "authentic" frozen Chinese food product line under license to multinational corporation powerhouse Unilever (see also: Dove, Lipton, Axe body spray). Their market share in imitation Chinese culture/East Asian lookalike/exotic "vibe" dining establishments is upwards of 52%, a majority stranglehold eclipsing those of Panda Express, Magic Chopstick, and unaffiliated yet similarly-named restaurants all called Hunan Buffet (source needed). Last year, their gross income and net profit overshadowed the posted profits of Wal-Mart, McDonald's, conglomerates such as NewsCorp and Viacom, and the GDP of several small European nations (source not found). P.F. Chang's China Bistro is at the forefront of major business ventures in the agriculture, food production, and service industries—a Zenith of Restaurateurs.

But P.F. Chang's isn't actually Chinese food, Chinese culture, or Chinese people. You'd be hard-pressed to find an authentic Chinese dish in any of the 200 P.F. Chang's found worldwide, yet it's perceived as a Chinese restaurant, in the same way Taco Bell is a Mexican restaurant, or Sbarro is an Italian restaurant, or McDonald's is an American restaurant (though, to be fair, a McDonald's-as-American-emissary argument can certainly be made). The ethnic food restaurants peppered across the US are simulacra of actual ethnic food, which is sometimes itself just a facsimile of an older style of preparing food or an "original recipe." One representative, prototypical ethnic food doesn't really jump out at the gourmand or eater in reality—there are simply too many variations. If you want to eat jiaozi or gongbao jiding in China, for instance, you'll find such variety in the dishes served to you that (while some seem indistinguishable from others) they may seem to be different foods altogether. The same could be said of any foodstuff that isn't mass produced, I'm certain (by that I mean a hot pocket is a hot pocket is a hot pocket).

We probably don't think too much about the simulations-of-reality that are these ethnic food chains, assuming that some inkling of the original culture is represented within, until we come across something that is a simulacrum of our own culture—and we taste that old medicine.

Yesterday I went to a small eatery called Helen's Cafe in the Wudaokou neighborhood in Beijing. The facade was log-cabin-esque, Abe Lincoln-style, with an at-home porch and shrubbery clinging to the steps. Inside, the walls were marked with the slang of various countries, mostly in English, but covering the bases from America to Ireland to England to Australia to gibberish and nonce words. "Chillax" was definitely featured on the front page of the menu. Something about Shrek was written above the doorway nearest our table. They served hamburgers and beer and pasta and all that jazz, and the nightly specials were all about free beer, free cigarettes, or cheap food—not too un-American at all. They also served breakfast for most of the day—a staple of American cafés, no doubt—so I ordered an "American breakfast" (eggs, toast, bacon, hashbrowns) with a gin and tonic (why not), and ended up ordering a vegetarian omelette on top of that after finishing the first plate (my appetite seems to be growing here).

The simulation wasn't perfect, though. We were still speaking Chinese with the waitress, and we still had to pay in RMB, but the American-ness—the Americana?—certainly filled the place, whether perfectly (yards of beer) or otherwise (Top of the Morning to Ya). The whole thing—the idea of a faked other culture— is pretty pomo, as someone'd probably say it. I don't know what it means to find a simulation of my own culture in what is probably best termed a foreign city; I don't know if it is especially meaningful in any way whatsoever, but I do understand that culture is something able to be simulated, that it can be faked in part, and that those little things that separate us don't really make us that fucking different from one another, even if we think they do. P.F. Chang's China Bistro is a simulacrum, and Helen's Cafe, too. But what isn't, these days?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Wudaokou

"Let's sway; you could look into my eyes. Let's sway under the moonlight—the serious moonlight."
—David Bowie, "Let's Dance"

In a club in Beijing, in Haidian District, in the Wudaokou neighborhood, there's a dance hall covered in my sweat, a dingy basement with spilt-beer floors and low-hanging ceiling lights, a local DJ spinning American tracks on Chinese turntables, two bartenders serving Tsingtao in green bottles and brand-name liquor that is all actually white wine mixed with different flavoring. There are Chinese women who ask me my name in Mandarin, women to whom I have to respond: Bu dong, bu dong, I don't understand. Beautiful women I can't hear over the pounding music. In a club in Wudaokou I danced like a belligerent, slipping in time-space, waiguoren, spilling.

I took a flight from Grand Forks, North Dakota to Minneapolis. Easygoing. From there I was supposed to connect to Seattle, but mechanical troubles kept the plane on the ground, and I missed my connection in Seattle (to Beijing). So Delta gave me a hotel voucher and I booked at the Days Inn. The next day, I was on the tarmac for an hour, waiting for my flight from MPLS to Tokyo (after the change) to take off, when the captain finally revealed the reason for our delay: security problems: a weapon found on board. Flight delayed, all passengers sent through security again, arrive in Tokyo late, miss connection to Beijing, Delta provides hotel voucher, go through Japanese customs, sleep overnight in Tokyo, eat strange breakfast, fly to Beijing. I never found out what the weapon was.
So I made it to Beijing. Disembark. Went down to the luggage carousel, only one of two bags circling. A new Zhongguo pengyou from the MPLS flight helps me at the lost luggage office. My other bag is in Osaka.
Cabby drives up. Give him fast, loose directions to campus. We are en route, unsure of actual destination, Program Director not picking up phone. Finally he calls back, talks to cabby, talks to me, and we arrive, safe. Broken Chinese conversation goes well.
Three days later, baggage arrives. Chinese dictionary finally in hand, new shoes on feet, fresh underwear, pleasure reading.

And so I ended up in Beijing. I could write about eating scorpion in Wangfujing (silkworm and snake), walking the same walk Mao walked on the Forbidden City gate, running through Tiananmen, bartering at the Silk Market, taking placement tests, or watching Chinese acrobats, or I could just say that I left it all on that dancefloor, that I spent my last few days before the semester's commencement he-ing some pijiu, burning those empty calories, meeting my new friends (from Iowa, New York, Georgia, or Bah-ston). That I tore up a rug in Wudaokuo. And that would work, for now. Suffice.