Archive forDecember 12, 2010


“With coarse rice to eat, water to drink, and my crooked arm for a pillow, is not joy to be found therein?” The rest of the quote goes “不义而富贵,于我如浮云,” or “Riches and honors acquired through unjust ways are to me as floating clouds.”

I really find a lot of meaning in Confucius’ stuff. Not all of it; I’m really uncomfortable with his ideas of filial piety and subjecting oneself to one’s ruler, but it makes sense given his context of civil war, famine, and chronic unrest. The idea of the root of all happiness coming from one’s family and sense of morality, the important things in life being compassion, humility balanced with conscious action, and the desire to learn new things and improve the self, all of that I can really get behind.

However, I think a lot of the Neo-Confucian stuff that built up the Qing and the later feudal empires in East Asia went in the wrong direction–an interesting one, but not one that made society progress or improve much, and that’s what mattered when they ran into the likes of de Gama and Peary. It  really stagnated China at a time when it “should have been” developing, industrializing, trading, and building a commercial-colonial empire like England and France.

Maybe it was partly because Japan and Korea were too weak–after the Crusades and the Renaissance, the competition between France-al-Andalus, Italy-Spain, Spain-France, Spain-France-England, and France-England was so intense that I bet it really sped up the colonization and industrialization timetables, probably by an order of magnitude at least.

China had no real regional rivals, not in the same sense. It had bandit tribes in the north, but China would just get conquered, absorb, and sinicize them instead of drawing a territory along permanent geographic/ethnic/linguistic borders and competing directly with them. This happened, like, every two hundred years, almost like clockwork. Japan was, to China, rarely more than a few annoying pirates, and was too far away to totally conquer without a really good reason. Korea was basically a cultural colony as it was, and was protected by a buffer zone of bandit country until the Qing, who by then needed a buffer against Japan. Who else was going to threaten China’s agricultural heartland into developing Manchesters and Birminghams, Vietnam? The Kazakhs? Tibet?

Anyway, too much has happened lately for me to just wax poetic about history and philosophy. Busy times, you guys!

Thanksgiving, that’s a good place to start.

Heroines of the day! Because I cannot cook my way out of a cardboard box!

 Anyway, it is always nice to entertain at the big empty house we have away from campus and everybody else, and a bunch of Dickinson alums came as well.

If anybody has pictures, btw, please upload those, and if you can, send some of the good ones to me or someone else with a blog and we’ll post ’em. But yeah. We had pieces of turkey I picked up from Carrefour (Wal-Mart in Frog-talk) along with some tasty stuffing that Courtney had brought in from New Hampshire and prepared. There wer also a bunch of other things–stir-fried string beans Trang fried up, a soup I made that had been salty to the point of death (next-time I get low-sodium chicken broth) that the girls saved from dishonorable death, and some other things I don’t remember. There was Chinese cornbread (doesn’t hold a candle to yours, Mom. I could really go for some of your chili and skillet-baked cornbread) and some of the prepackaged bread products they pass off as being western here. Think twinkies by way of Hong Kong.

Anyway, that was lots of fun, and some Dickinson alums came as well along with a Chinese friend of mine and some friends of hers. My former coworker/boss Anna, who left the position I may be being groomed for, brought along her boyfriend, who is the first person I’ve met here who has been proud to identify himself as Communist. They’ve been together for a while, since she was at Beida herself over two years ago.

We had a nice chat about politics, which I have missed so badly, while he was politely berated by his girlfriend. The story about how they met is painfully cute and if I wasn’t afraid of both bandwidth issues and gagging midway through I would tell it here.

The Anna I'm talking about is on the right. There's another Anna (L) and Courtney (C) and some of the spread (foreground). Eventually I should really learn how to work my camera's flash.

She is not actually a ghost of palest moonlight, I just never read the manual, as I am a guy. Anyway. Thanksgiving. Many people contributed to cleaning up the dishes, and there wasn’t even a whole lot of food, but…


It was kind of amazing. And this was after people were sneaking into my kitchen to wash dishes for me for like an hour.

Went to Karaoke with some Dickinson people, Anna, and her beaux later that week. I actually only learned last year that it was invented by the Japanese, although Americans don’t seem to like talking about that. As long as Asians can’t innovate, after all, and they send their best and brightest to work and study in the US, it’s okay that they’re smarter than us. Blah.
Karaoke was fun. I am jealous of Anna’s boy–he speaks really good Spanish and was singing a couple of cute pop songs in Mongolian and some southern dialects. For those of you who have never been to a karaoke bar in China, it’s usually a fairly cozy, private, upscale affair, often with a dinner buffet and bad booze. This helps distract us roundeye from the fact that we don’t know any of the songs and any attempts to sing along are hampered by the fact that the subtitles are in traditional characters, as China’s pop music, such as it exists, is headquartered in Taiwan and Hong Kong, which do not use the characters that were simplified by the Communist government to make reading and writing easier for people to learn.

Zoom in for an overview of Chinese characters, going from ancient to modern print.

My personal rule of thumb is that if it looks like crop circles, it’s Korean; if it looks like squiggles, it’s one of the simpler Japanese alphabets; if it looks blocky and really detailed it’s Kanji or traditional Chinese, and if it’s blocky but more streamlined it’s simplified.
But Taiwan and Hong Kong do more harm than simply making song lyrics difficult to read. They are bastions not only of rightist imperialism but also of truly hideously lame and sappy pop music. I really wish I could say that I am lying when I say that the Backstreet Boys are considered edgy by many here. There are a couple of harder acts, like the Tang Dynasty Band and some underground people who do live shows in big cities, but they are few and little-known.

These guys have a really sweet cover of the Internationale, actually.

 However, a lot of their pop music is based on American Top 40 hits, so our karaoke machine had loads of songs by the Bee Gees, John Denver, the Beatles, the Carpenters, and various boy and girl bands and modern poppy stuff–Ke$ha or however you spell her name and Beyonce and N’Sync and so on.

I realized that night that Scary Spice probably started my thing for black girls.

 So that was good fun. Beatles sing-alongs and Nina freaking out to Rocky Mountain High and bad wine and so on.

What else…I got a raise. I mentioned that Anna is my former boss–she got tired of getting WAY underpaid and WAY overworked and given NO latitude for teaching, so she left for another more solid job that gave her more moolah and more freedom to do what she wants. So since she was covering  90% of the school’s English classes, I picked up a couple of shifts and got a promotion–I think Wang might like me to stay on and take over for Anna, but I really don’t want to do that, and she’s not trying to put all her eggs in one basket any more anyway.

I want to get a real gig–the money’s great and I’m only working six hours a week, but I’d like to do something a little more involving, or at least something a little more consistent. I might try for a job at one of the night schools around here, teaching English. Not much I can do without a work visa, not legally, but such is the pitiful suffering of being a member of the international bourgeois.

Seriously, I really need some kind of pressure to perform, this is kind of driving me nuts here. I’m used to wearing retail uniforms to class under my shirts, biking like a maniac to my job after the bell, working six hours, and then going home around ten to start my homework and maybe spend some time with my girlfriend before bed. Being a student who isn’t an American scholarship kid is really weird to me; I’m not used to getting handed all this stuff, even if it’s what I’ve wanted for years and studied before when I learned about European education and economic systems.

And…oh, the jazz bar! Some people had been mentioning how much they missed swing dancing, and I miss NPR, so I found a couple of jazz bars on Lonely Planet and took Courtney and Nina to one about a week and a half ago. So much fun! Cover charge was 50 kuai, the bottle of iffy house wine was 200 (I’m not actually drinking that much here, for the record, just socially), and the wait was interminable, but the band was awesome, and we got to see an exhibition by some of the best swing dancers in Beijing. And they were good. Lovely trumpet solos, crazy drummer, bandleader talking in broken-English jive talk. Also, the bar is owned by Cui Jian’s former saxophonist.

Cui Jian was the first Chinese rock star. He wrote a song called 一无所有, Yi Wu Suo You, Nothing to My Name, which is generally considered the first Chinese rock star. He’s like Elvis, only instead of stealing black folks’ music and throwing in some of his own stuff he stole Keith Richards’ and David Byrne’s. Then he got involved with the big thing that starts with the letter T that is a bad idea to mention on blogs here and the political movement that starts with a d, but he has since been “rehabilitated” and is now considered a pretty conventional and influential musician rather than a radical.

So the bar is owned by his former sax player. Who came out and sang during mid-set. I was kind of flabbergasted. I mean, I’ve seen the Police live, and various members of the Marsalis family play, but this was like standing five meters away from Ringo on a subway and listening to him whistle “God Save the Queen” or something. Someone so foundational to hundreds of millions of peoples’ interpretation of music and life, just casually singing along with the visiting band and watching the customers dance.

There really is nothing better than watching happy people be happy together. If pigs ever start flying and my family rides one to Beijing, I’ll probably drag them there.

At some point I have to talk about the huge feast we had at my host father’s house with his extended family, but I think right now I just want to get this posted and pass out for a while. It was an experience.

Oh, P.S., apologies for the crazy randomness of the last post. All the people here just wandering around the internet probably think I’m crazy and all my friends and classmates probably think I’ve lost it. But what are blogs for, if not to allow us to vent all the nutsier thought out of our heads and keep them out? Certainly not for public edification or information spreading. 

Also, I am probably just jonesing for childrens’ programming. After class in America, I would go to the Cumberland County library almost every day and rent a bunch of Disney movies or Kratt’s Creatures episodes and watch them while I did my Chinese and German homework or read articles for class, or just unwind after a 14-hour day of classes and selling calculators. Those VHS tapes became a vital point of daily recovery.

It is therefore entirely within the realm of possibility that my “second language” centers in my brain have become linked to my “people getting hit with falling pianos and walking away making accordion noises” receptors. This could have disastrous consequences, but I suspect that there is also a way to manipulate this…

More on this later.