Sunday, February 27, 2005

One A Day


We're using a difficult book in my Chinese class - when they say "Gaoji Jiaocheng," they're not kidding. The book is full of complicated, academic language which at times falls into a literary Chinese style. It can take me a good hour to get through a paragraph - and that's if the paragraph is short.

I'm not very good with characters, actually. They don't stick well in my head, and I don't spend the study time necessary for them to do so. But a year or so ago I accepted that I was not going to be the superstar Chinese student. I work full-time and I have other things I do after work competing for the hours I have left. Besides, there are people in this class who have way more experience with the language than I do. It's the most advanced class offered at the university extension program, so a lot of pretty advanced students enroll to review, to punch up their vocabulary, to try and recover what they've forgotten. Plus we get "heritage speakers," Chinese Americans who grew up in the language to some extent. Me, I'm just trying to not forget what I've already learned and get a little better as I go along. I didn't learn much Chinese during the six months I lived in China when I was young - just some useful phrases. And apparently I picked up a Beijing accent - once in class, my teacher used this as an example of a phrase we were supposed to learn - "My first impression of Fei Lisha (my Chinese name) is that she has a Beijing accent." I'll keep that, thank you. I like the Beijing accent. It's sort of rough and growly - when in doubt, throw an "r" sound on the end of a word. I'm not so fond of southern accents, though a lot of people like them because they sound softer. But the Chinese as spoken in Taiwan, for example, drops certain consonant sounds. "Zh" which is a retroflex "J" sound, becomes "Z," for example, and there's already a "Z" in Mandarin. In my opinion, Chinese is hard enough without eliminating consonants! A friend of mine from class, quite a good speaker - she'd lived several years in Dalian - pointed out that Taiwanese tend to open their mouths really wide and smile a lot when speaking. Beijingers, on the other hand, barely open their mouths at all. It's a great accent to mutter in. And I'm muttering a lot more in this class than I used to, because now that I'm not the superstar student (I was pretty good my first two years), I'm feeling just a bit shy.

For example, struggling through a particularly obtuse sentence in our textbook - I pretty much understand what the paragraph means, but I can't puzzle out the sentence. "Ze, that means 'standard,' doesn't it?" I ask Laoshi ("teacher").

"No - yes," snaps out Youlan.

Youlan is one of the most advanced students in the class. He's a white guy, a few years older than I am. He's studied Chinese for something like ten years. He uses a lot of literary Chinese and he also has a tendency to stutter. These factors, combined with his accent, which a former student once described as sounding like an old man in a Peking Opera, makes him somewhat difficult for most of us to understand. And at times he gets impatient, because he knows a lot more than nearly everyone in the class.

I have to admit, sometimes he pisses me off.

"Thank you very much for that explanation," I reply coldly, in English. "You've been a great help."

He doesn't mean to be an asshole, I realize. It's almost like Asberger's syndrome or something. He just can't help it. The first time he came to class, I remember him saying that he felt more comfortable around Chinese people than he did around Americans. And during our break, he goes out of his way to strike up an awkward conversation with me. His form of an apology. I try to be nice back, but I'm still feeling kind of sick and cranky.

"It means 'as," Beide says to me in a low voice.

"Oh. It's a conjunction with 'er,'" I say, getting it.

Beide is a new student this quarter. Another lawyer. For some reason, we always get a lot of lawyers in Chinese class. His Chinese is excellent. He still sounds like an American when he talks - nothing like Youlan's exaggerated accent or even my Beijing inflected tones - but his pronunciation is correct and he really speaks fluently. Plus he actually seems to understand the text, one of the three students in the class, him, Youlan and a woman from Taiwan (also new, whose name I haven't learned) who does.

Some of the students would like to change our textbook, but so far, Laoshi wants us to keep at it. I can see both sides of the argument. It is ridiculously hard, with so many new words that only a few tend to stick. Plus the articles tend to be on the dry side. Chinese economic conditions are a favorite topic, and at times the ideology tends to influence the content (was the ancient pre-Zhou Dynasty Chinese peasant economy really collective? Every time we'd read the paragraph I'd remember that hilarious mural at Banpo Neolithic Village, the one with the prehistoric villagers gathered around the campfire making collective decisions in their primitive Communist society, one rosy-cheeked woman in fur raising her finger to make a point. I'm sure that's exactly how things went in Neolithic China).

On the other hand, once you finally parse one of these sentences, you really do gain insight into how the language is structured at a more sophisticated level than the typical, "How much is that beautiful porcelain tea-set?" exercise.

Besides, it's up to Laoshi. Laoshi is a few years younger than I, a graduate of Beijing Language and Culture University, and a truly excellent teacher. There's a word in Chinese, "renzhen." It means "conscientious," but for a time, whenever I thought of that concept, I could only remember "renzhen," and not its English equivalent. It's not quite the same, I guess. Laoshi is "hen renzhen." She takes her teaching seriously. It's a mission to her, to bridge the gap between cultures, to bring China to America through teaching the language, how Chinese embodies and reflects Chinese culture, what that worldview means in a larger, philosophical sense. So if Laoshi wants us to study this textbook, I say, we study this textbook. She's our teacher.

Laoshi and I made a sort of connection my first quarter of class. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was the Beijing accent. Maybe the connection continues because I've stuck with it, and pretty much any and all progress I've made in Chinese is due to her teaching. When I think about it that way, it makes sense. How rewarding it must be, to see a student start with almost no knowledge and continue to improve over time. To go from a few words and phrases to, if not fluency, at least a level of competence.

Studying Chinese is one of the best things I've ever done for myself. Given my peculiar history, I'd almost say it was necessary. Not knowing Chinese seemed to be some fundamental lack in my life, something I needed to make sense of my experiences. Studying Chinese - and returning to China - filled in a deep hole I'd barely understood I'd even had.

The first three years of class I made a trip to China every year. Always in winter, around Christmas. Anyone can tell you that December in Beijing is not the most pleasant time of year to be there, but on the other hand, it's cheap. And given that my first time in China had included living through a Beijing winter, maybe I felt some weird compulsion to repeat the experience until I finally got it right.

It's a lot easier now, of course. Buildings have central heating, for one thing. And complain about cultural imperialism all you want, there's nothing like a cup of Starbucks on a bitter, freezing winter day.

But the real difference is being able to talk to people, however imperfectly, in their own language. It's a terrible cliche, but really, language is the key that opens up the door to another culture.

I think this applies to any place, but if certain scholars can be trusted, perhaps particularly so to China. An article in the New York Times a while back (thanks to Richard for finding this in the IHT archives) talks about the differences between Chinese and Japanese, and how these differences might also reflect certain cultural distinctions as well.

Japanese uses kanji, characters that come from Chinese, and two other alphabets in addition, one for phonetic representations of Japanese words that aren't covered in kanji; the other used exclusively to represent foreign concepts and people.

Of all languages in the world, Japanese is the only one that has an entirely different set of written characters to express foreign words and names. Just seeing these characters automatically tells the Japanese that they are dealing with something or someone non-Japanese.

So foreign names, from George Bush to Saddam Hussein, are depicted in these characters, called katakana. What's more, the names of foreign citizens of Japanese ancestry are also written in this set of characters, indicating that while they may have Japanese names, they are not, well, really Japanese.

By contrast, in Chinese, no such distinction is made. There, non-Chinese names are depicted, sometimes with great difficulty, entirely in Chinese characters. Foreigners are, in effect, made Chinese.

The article goes on to consider the cultural implications of these distinctions, and what they might say about the futures of China and Japan. China, able to absorb outside influences, to "make them Chinese" may fare far better in a globalized economy and society than Japan, still protecting its island borders against outsiders.

Another scholar, Sam Crane, a professor of Asian studies at Williams College, used the Chinese tradition of Daoism to deal with his son's severe birth defects. He comments:
From the Imperial past until the beginning of the last century, any man (yes, there was gender inequality), even a 'barbarian' from outside the cultural norm, could become civilized. He could become Chinese. Mongolians and Manchurians, when they conquered and ruled China, became Chinese. It seems preposterous now that someone could change cultural identity, but the early conception of Chinese was more inclusive and accepting. So if I use a Chinese worldview to navigate my most difficult personal trials, and if I invoke the same ideas to make sense of other parts of my world, then by the oldest definition, I am Chinese.

Oddly enough, much of the ancient Chinese perspective has been abandoned by most people in contemporary China. You will not find many Taoists among the highflying young businesspeople and consumers in Shanghai today. A self-interested materialism is far more commonly encountered.

But that's OK. If I can be Chinese, then they can be American.

Of course, none of us can ever truly lose ourselves, can ever totally become something that we are not. But perhaps if more of us could lose ourselves just a little, can become a part of something we were not born to be, we'll all of us be more at home in this new world, the one we are making right now, that is always in the process of being born.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging

Spike Helps Wrap Presents
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

When Spike entered my life, he was a skinny, sickly, kind of pathetic, really, little cat. Supposedly full grown. I adopted him (he was on kitty death row at a local animal shelter) with the intention of fostering him for a while until I found a permanent home for him.


Now he is the size of a Rottweiler or small pony. He just keeps getting bigger and I can't seem to stop it. I am thinking of training him to be my attack cat. "Spike, kill!"

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"Weird walk mimics lad's online game characters"

A Shanghai high school boy addicted to online war games, cannot stop walking in a zigzag way, reports the Youth Daily.

But he was oblivious to the curious gait he developed, which subconsciously mimics the movement of characters underfire and dodging bullets.

Acting on the advice of doctors, the boy is now being forced by his parents to correct his walk by practising striding up and down along a tape measure.

With a disturbing number of youngsters becoming addicted to the Internet and online games, some 100 primary and high schools in Shanghai are launching a campaign to alert them to the dangers and help those already addicted kick the habit.

From China Daily's "Home Scene." Just scroll halfway down the page and look on the left. I'll leave the story about the exhausted goose seeking police help for you to read on your own...

Oh Show Me The Way

The other day I had my first stranger post a comment on this blog. She had found me via Peking Duck, a blog I frequent, whose owner, Richard, very kindly posted a notice about my endeavor. I say she was the first stranger to visit my blog, though there have been others I haven't actually met face to face. But I'd met them through email groups and in the blog-o-sphere, so they weren't strangers to me. Having someone I'd never encountered come to my blog and comment on it, this felt like pretty exciting stuff. Someone had found their way to my obscure outpost at the end of a rough, barely marked trail.

Moreover, this wayfarer has a blog, along the journey. Of course I had to pay a return visit.

Joann describes her blog as "my meanderings about life, books, news, and crossing-cultures." The place is thick with links and content. One major theme running through along the journey is also blogs themselves: what do they mean? What are they for? A series of posts reports from a recent bloggers' convention held in Canada. One post compares blogging to church (church is lacking by comparison) and mentions the spirituality inherent in the process.

I'm still a neophyte in this world. My points of comparison are mostly with the creative process as I see it and the need so many of us seem to have to express ourselves. To make ourselves seen and heard, to leave some kind of trace of our presence. But it's interesting to note the kind of language used when talking about blogs: "I frequent this blog." "I went there." Of course we've been talking about "cyberspace," as though it were some physical location for years, but what's happened with the blogging phenomenae is that cyberspace has been colonized by all of us settlers seeking our own little piece of land, our place in this open territory, where we can express ourselves, create an environment and make welcome friends and strangers who might stop by for a visit. Have a hang-out for the regulars. No wonder the infamous Billmon called his site the Whiskey Bar...

Another attitude

underground party
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

I've had this cold the last week and a half, but I was determined to keep my birthday dinner date. Several of my best friends had arranged it, and with everyone's busy schedules, I wasn't going to be the one to cancel, and besides, I wanted to have some fun, dammit. As I was getting ready to leave, the phone rang.

"Hey, Happy Birthday to that former Pickup."

This only sounds weird if you don't know me. I had a band called the Pickups for over ten years, and the caller was Tony, guitarist extraordinaire, fellow Pickup and good friend.

It felt weird, hearing myself called a "former Pickup." It was my band, I guess you'd have to say. I wrote the songs, sang them and played the bass. But there had always been a lot of collaboration, give and take. Tony, Todd and I, we'd become friends, gotten involved in each other's lives. I'd seen Tony's kids from, well, Nancy's pregnancies into high school. The fourth member of the band was my sister, and though we obviously had our own connection, she also became absorbed in some of the traditions that were celebrated in these new circles of friends. Particularly around the holidays. On the Monday before Christmas, there is Todd's holiday party, on a Monday so working musicians would more likely be free for the evening. On Christmas Eve, the party at Tony and Nancy's house. Tony and his mom, Luisa, a native Sicilian, would make cioppino, for good luck. I would bring the Italian dessert wine. At some point in the evening, Nancy would insist that I sing "Rocky Raccoon," (this song seems to follow me through life) because of the line, "everyone knew her as Nancy." Tony's mom died a year and a half ago, but the cioppino continues. These parties, these rituals, mean a lot to me. I have my family, but my friends are my family too.

We never broke up or anything dramatic like that. I'd just gotten too busy, or more accurately, too tired. Tony and Todd are professional musicians. I on the other hand am a professional bureaucrat with lingering creative ambitions. The band was a serious endeavor, for a long time. We got some good reviews. We worked at it. But somewhere in the back of my mind was the notion that I'd never make it as a professional musician. I just wasn't the right type. I had some talent, some ability, but maybe not quite enough. Certainly other people with less talent than I had made it. They make it every day. But that's like counting on the Fame Fairy to tap you on the shoulder and say, "Hey! You win the lottery!" I'd always had other stuff going on. Writing - I wrote every night. Scripts, novels, page after page after page. And I thought, figure the odds. Forty-ish, I'm not going to be a rock star at this point. A writer, that I can do. And that was always what the little voice in my head was telling me. You're a writer. Time to take it seriously.

But the thing that sealed it was studying Chinese. I managed through the first two years, working, writing, playing music, taking Chinese. The band made it into the new milennium. But by my third year of Chinese study, I just couldn't do it all any more. Doing a band - it's not just showing up for a gig. It's practicing. It's keeping your chops up. It's writing new material. People used to say, just play the old stuff, but you can't do that forever. You have to keep growing. You have to keep it alive.

The last time I sang in public was in March 2003. It was a fundraiser for Code Pink, the women's peace organization. I sang a song I'd written a number of years ago, about war and television and the absurdity of it all. Tony played guitar. That was the day the U.S. bombed Baghdad. And I thought, how is it that this song is still relevant? I wrote it ten years ago.

Lately, it seems like people keep asking me: when are you going to play again? You are going to play, aren't you? And I sort of shake my head and say, I haven't picked up my bass in more than a year. Not once. It isn't so simple.

But things keep changing. My sister is moving to San Francisco. "We have to do a gig before I go," she tells me. And I say, well, maybe I'll drag my bass out of the closet. But I don't.

Then I get this call on my birthday from Tony. Calling me the "former Pickup." And I remember a conversation we had a couple of years ago, over a few Sierra Nevada Celebration Ales. I'd always felt a little guilt, because Tony and Todd are working musicians who generally get paid for what they do. And we never made money. We just spent money. So I never wanted to ask too much of them, because they were already making a sacrifice.

And at some point in the conversation, Tony says something like, this is my outlet. This is where I get to play for fun and for the sake of playing. And I get all beery/teary-eyed, because it's never enough for me that it's just about me and my shit and trotting it out for all the world to see (or not, given that there's something like 20,000 bands in the greater Los Angeles area at any given time). It has to mean something to somebody else too.

Last night I got my bass out of the closet. I was thinking about change and death and stuff like that. I'm very attached to my bass. It's a 1976 Fender Jazz Sunburst, with a Badass bridge I put on years ago, and ground round strings (I have this thing about my strings). The pick-guard is decorated with puffy stickers from my proto-punk days - little soldiers manning machine guns, exploding ordinance, screaming jets - and on the body is a car sticker from Texas that shows a gunfighter through the bowed legs of another gunfighter. I love this bass. It's insanely heavy and the action is a little high, but it's wonderful fun to play and sounds great in the studio.

The strap had mold on it. How the hell did that happen? And the jack was messed up, so I had to unscrew it and clean it and bend it a little. But finally, I was able to plug it in and play.

It's scary how much you can forget, but I expected that. I expected that I'd have lost the special muscles and calluses in my hands and fingers that helped me play. I have small hands, too small to be a top-notch player, and I needed those muscles and calluses. It was scary to think of playing without them.

What I hadn't expected, what I'd forgotten, actually, is how it felt, the fingers on the strings, the sensual pleasure of it, making the sounds, dampening the notes or letting them ring. Yeah, I could barely stumble my way through one of my own tunes. But still...I'd played the bass for more than twenty years. It had been a part of my life, a constant, something that defined me. And then I'd put it away in the closet. No time for that any more. Time to get serious. Time to grow up.

Now I'm thinking, a half an hour a night. Surely I can make time for that.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Letting The Days Go By

Saturday night I drove to a memorial in the Hollywood Hills for a former boss of mine. I’d worked for Joan for nearly six years. It was my second job in Los Angeles and my first job in the entertainment industry. Joan wasn’t my official boss; that was Kellam, but Kellam was not someone one could take seriously as a boss. We used to describe Kellam as “Mr. Peepers on Acid.” He was tall and sort of crane-like; he had a tendency to stutter and to flap his hands when he got agitated, which was frequently. The time I got the truest glimpse of Kellam’s soul was when he was making his annual Christmas punch. This stuff tasted like apple juice and caused hallucinations by the second cup. He stood there, wearing his thick, smudged glasses and a red tartan plaid vest, pouring bottles of liquor into the punch bowl with an intensely focused expression and a maniacal grin.

Though Kellam had originated the business (an esoteric form of entertainment research) and owned the company, Joan was the person who really knew the job, who you went to with questions and for judgments, whose word on all such matters was gospel and final. She held in her head the most amazing array of knowledge, of facts and statistics – well, everybody did at that place, actually. Jokes were often made about the quality of Jeopardy contestant or Trivial Pursuit team that could be assembled from that staff. But Joan was the Queen of Research – a benign monarch who at heart did not want the authority or the responsibility of running a business. And she was loyal, I think, to Kellam, who after all had started the whole thing. But when we moved to fancier digs in a Hollywood office building, it was Joan who got the biggest office at the end of the hall. Kellam, for whom the job was more of a hobby than a profession, squatted in one of the smaller offices on the days that he came into the office.

Joan loved that job. She prided herself on doing more work than anyone else, on never missing a day, except when she went on her annual three-week vacation to England. Joan wasn’t English, but she’d married an Englishman, Jerry, and there was something a little British in her pronunciations, in her regal, erect posture, in her slight formality. She’d grown up poor in Washington State at the tail end of the Depression; she never liked appearing weak or needy. She never got sick. Or wouldn’t admit to it at least.

Joan and Jerry lived idiosyncratic lives. Jerry was a writer, mostly of science fiction, a wiry Brit with a goatee who always carried a bowie knife of some sort tucked into his hand-tooled leather belt. They had a son, Scott, whom they adored, a pride of half-Abyssinian cats and a houseful of books, watercolors by their favorite artist and a collection of pottery. They were among the founders of the original Agoura Hills Renaissance Faire. They were the sort of sturdy, interesting people whom if I did picture getting old I assumed would do so slowly and in rude good health.

Of course things often don’t work out the way it seems they logically should. Jerry passed away almost two years ago. Joan fell ill late this fall and died in mid-January.

It has been more than ten years since I worked for Joan, something like fourteen. The business had problems; there was a bankruptcy, layoffs. I was in the first wave of departures. I’d never held the layoff against Joan; in fact I don’t think she had much if anything to do with the decision. She hated anything having to do with finances and that kind of responsibility, which given Kellam’s peculiar management style was more than understandable. Eventually Joan and the “senior researchers,” the core group that had been with Kellam the longest, had to split off and form their own company, a decision Joan made with great reluctance. But they'd had no better choice at the end.

Through all of this I stayed in touch. The people I met at that job were some of the first real friends I made in Los Angeles, and they are people I enjoy being around today.

So contemplating this memorial, I was looking forward to it on one level. Some of the research gang I see fairly often; others not so much, and I wanted to see them all. But the occasion was hard to fathom.

Scott, Joan and Jerry’s son, hosted the gathering at their old house off Beachwood in Hollywood. The house, he had noted in the invitation, is sort of a wreck. It’s one of the old Spanish-style houses built in the twenties, some of the area’s original architecture: two levels, wonderful massive beamed ceiling. I’d recalled it as showing its age a bit but not particularly wrecked. The last few years, apparently, had been rough. The paint is peeling off in sheets and smaller flakes. There’s water damage and chunks of plaster missing, wood grid visible in the ceiling in places. Most of it could have happened pretty recently, I guess, given the rains we’ve had this year. Still it’s a lovely house, with unexpected, graceful details: an original.

“It’ll be a lot cheaper to tear it down and start over,” commented one man, a family friend I did not know.

I wandered around the old house. Books are everywhere, on every wall, stored on bookcases ranging from solid wood to rickety shelves on metal brackets. Oh, the books. Old reference books on every subject. Histories of Costume. Treatises on the Marsh Arabs. Almanacs. The Watergate Hearings. Old dust thick on the tops of the pages. No wonder Joan was able to work from home in the late afternoons, in the days before the internet. She'd had everything she needed, right here.

But where were the cats? There were always cats. Every year I would receive a Christmas card from Joan and Jerry with a different photo of different cats. The last year, there was only one cat, a black one named Midnight, and the card was from Joan alone.

Only two cats were left at the end, I was told. I guess I'd known that the tribe had diminished over the years. One, Scott told me, was adopted by one of his new in-laws (he had just married in November). The other, Midnight, he'd taken to his new home with his new family in San Diego. But this cat was semi-feral and had run away twice. “He’ll come back, I think,” Scott told me, though it had been nearly a month since it disappeared the second time. I wasn’t so sure. Who knows what goes on in their little kitty minds, but I wonder if that cat went off in search of what had been familiar to it, its old people and its old place?

I spent a lot of time talking with Callista, one of the partners. It seems to me that she looks just the same as when I worked with her. But all of the old crew seems that way to me. A few lines and wrinkles and gray, but essentially the same. There were surprises (Michelle – engaged? To a guy she met over the phone who lives in Mississippi? Michelle?! Who as she put it wouldn’t go out for a cup of coffee with a guy she didn’t know? And the two of them have been a couple for the last six years!). But mostly there was the comfort in seeing a group of people whose company I always had enjoyed. Except now there was the huge missing piece. The inexplicable absence.

“We feel the same way,” Callista told me. “We haven’t come to grips with it at all. It just doesn’t seem real. She wasn’t feeling well and one day she went home. And we never saw her again.”

Joan hadn’t wanted company. Hadn’t wanted people to see her weak. “Two weeks before she died, she talked about coming back to work,” Callista said. “She told Scott, I’m feeling a little better. I could read some scripts. Work from home.”

“I thought she’d live into her hundreds,” Callista said.

At one point in the evening, Callista introduced me to Maria, an old family friend. I vaguely recalled her from parties past. Callista told Maria: “Joan was always so impressed by Lee," - my nickname at work, because there was another Lisa, and it would confuse Kellam to have two - “she always went on about how talented you were, how pretty, how smart. You know she even went out to see Lee play,” Callista continued, to Maria and me, “and you know how Joan was, she never liked to go out.”

Listening to this, I felt an odd combination of things: embarrassment, pride, an obscure sort of shame. Mostly melancholy. I hadn’t really considered that Joan felt that way about me, or hadn’t really thought of it in a long time. What the hell happened? What had happened to all that? What had I done with this supposed talent, these smarts? Where did all that time go? How is it that so much time can pass, without seeing people we care about? And how the hell can they disappear, just like that?

Later, I went downstairs, where Scott gave a couple of us a brief guided tour. “My old bedroom,” he explained. “Then it was Joan’s office. I fixed it up for her, and I’ve been working down here since she got sick.” Scott and his wife had taken care of Joan the last few months, with the help of Cedars’ hospice program.

Downstairs had suffered more than upstairs from the water damage. The office has a gaping hole in the ceiling and a strong smell of mildew.

“This part of the house was added on in the sixties,” Scott explained, leading us down the hall. At the end of the hall was his father’s office. Down a short hall, naturally lined with dusty books, was the bedroom where Joan had slept for almost forty years, and where she had died. You could tell the room had been built in the sixties, or at least decorated then. It has that ubiquitous plywood, wood-grained paneling found in rec-rooms across America. Something about the color of the carpet, the quality of the light, gave the room a slightly greenish tinge, as though it were under water.

Scott pointed to an empty space under the window. “Here’s where her bed was,” he told us. “That’s where she died. Per her wishes.” Next to where the bed had once been, Scott’s dog, Scooby, sat curled up on her doggie cushion, beneath a little electric heater, thumping her skinny tail.

“What are you going to do with the place?” I asked Scott.

“Fix it up,” he said. “It doesn’t look like the damage is structural. And everyone tells me, these old Spanish houses, the original houses that were built in this area, they have historical merit. So I’m going to repair, rent it out. Keep Dad’s old office for an apartment – it has a second entrance and its own bathroom.” Scott teaches three nights a week in Los Angeles, so that seemed like a sensible plan. “And that way you’ll be able to keep an eye on things, when you’re renting it,” I added.

“Well, I’ll be here in case anything goes wrong and needs attention,” he said, not seeming to see the issue in terms of having to watch what the tenants might do. Rather, he would be the caretaker of this old house, and he wanted to do right by it.

When I think about Joan, one memory comes strongly to mind. It was the year that I and a co-worker, the first Lisa, both turned thirty. To celebrate, we decided we would get Amtrak passes, skateboard across America and visit old boyfriends. We’d be gone for three weeks. It was the longest vacation either of us had taken since entering the working world.

Quite unexpectedly, Joan showed up to see us off at the downtown train station. “Here are some plastic bags,” she said, thrusting a handful of plastic grocery bags at us. “You always need bags while traveling.” She was, of course, absolutely right.

I remember her standing there as we boarded, a little shyness behind her benevolent smile, giving us her blessings as we embarked on our adventure.

Quick Announcement

My posting has been brief and spotty due to this nasty cold I've had ("brain? What is 'brain'? I know nothing about brain!") and an intermittent internet connection thanks to these biblical level rains we're experiencing in LA. Fresh content later today, internet willing!

Friday, February 18, 2005

Internet With Chinese Characteristics

Fascinating series on NPR about how the internet is transforming China. You can listen here, and it's well-worth your time.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging

Wolfgang & Murphy
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

Okay, so it's still Thursday. But I'm still sick and don't have the energy to stay up to my usual past midnight. Here's Wolfgang and Murphy. They were supposed to help me with my Chinese homework but decided they'd rather nap...

"Hallowed ground turned into haunt of hookers"

"The administrator of Luzhou Martyrs Cemetery and a local police officer have been dismissed for ignoring strip shows and other debauched activities taking place there, reports the West China Metropolis News.

An undercover film crew from China Central Television secured the damning evidence of the goings at the cemetery in Luzhou, Sichuan. The screening of their report late last month prompted relevant local government departments to strip Peng Zhu, the cemetery's administrator, of his post, and to fire Liu Gangjiang, chief of a local police sub-bureau.

Luzhou Martyrs Cemetery is the burial place of many of China's revolutionary heroes. In recent months it has been desecrated by the activities of prostitutes, striptease artists and their punters."

This and other anecdotes about life in today's China can be found on the web at the English-language China Daily. Scroll about half-way down the page to the "Home Scene" heading in the left column. "Home Scene" is divided by region, East, South, West, North. Stories range from the aforementioned hookers in Sichuan to pet cemeteries in Shanghai to remorseful pick-pockets in Beijing. And that's just today's batch...

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

White Elephants

At home sick, catching up on my newspapers, I came across this week's Parade Magazine, with its cover story of "The World's Worst Dictators." Hu Jintao of China comes it at Number Three.

I don't wish to serve as an apologist for the CCP, whose abuses are well-documented. Tibetans, Uighurs, democratic activists - I could put out a laundry list of the persecuted in today's China. However, labeling Hu Jintao as the World's Third Worst Dictator strikes me as a gross oversimplification, whether through ignorance or more likely, the desire to present easily digestible info-bits to Parade's presumably less than sophisticated audience.

Let's start with the nature of the Chinese Communist Party's leadership. Throughout its history, the CCP has rarely been a unified monolith. Even at the height of Mao Zedong's cult of personality, different factions struggled and competed for dominance and control. It's hard to know with any certainty what goes on behind closed doors in CCP leadership circles, but clearly there are winners and losers within the Party at any given time. Many speculate, for example, that Jiang Zemin and his "Shanghai Mafia" hold onto power even though Jiang recently resigned the last of his official posts (the premature revealing of which is said to have led to the jailing of a Chinese researcher working for the New York Times - go here for a fascinating series of articles by Chinese journalism students discussing the case). Any leader rising to positions of power in today's China does so through consensus and coalition-building as well as competition. Hu Jintao might wish that he had supreme, absolute power - the definition of a dictator - but he doesn't, and it's really too soon to say what his intentions are and what kind of leader he'll be.

It's true that early signs are not terribly encouraging, especially disappointing to those who considered Hu a potential reformer, even China's Gorbachev. Many who wish to see a more democratic China point instead to Premier Wen Jiabao, who was, afer all, Zhao Ziyang's former assistant. But effective leaders in China tend to be those who are willing to take their time to get what they want. When asked for his opinion of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai was famously said to have replied: "It's too soon to tell." Zhou was known for his wit, but he was also a man who took the long view of things.

Right now the CCP is struggling to reinvent itself, to maintain its relevence in 21st century China. I personally can't believe that every Party member is corrupt, brutal and dictatorial. There are those who would push for reform, for openess, who perhaps even recognize the virtues of competition. The optimist in me sees these people helping to move China forward, in spite of the corruption, the abuses of power and the sheer monumental difficulties of governing a country as huge and complex as China.

Part of my optimism comes from my personal experiences, from the vast changes I've witnessed in China in my own small lifetime. The China of 1979 was truly a police state. The State controlled nearly every aspect of the individual's life: where you lived, worked, whom you married, what you wore, what you said and who you said it to. You saw the beginnings of dissent - Democracy Wall, for example. I remember a particular discussion with one of my classes. "What will you do after graduation?" The answers from my students were almost universally, "I will be assigned to a position. I have no choice." One student said, "I would like to teach economics. But that is only a dream." Only one student said anything different. He was a handsome, confident guy - actually, I had him pegged for one of that classes' likely two Party members - but what he said was, "I'm going to become an entrepreneur. I think I will succeed at this."

Around Christmas that year, in 1979, Emma threw a party for her graduate students and teachers. It was a "White Elephant" party. Everyone was supposed to bring something they no longer wanted or needed and would exchange it for something brought by someone else. One of the teachers brought a handful of Mao buttons. "White elephants," he'd said with a sly grin. Everyone got a good chuckle out of that...the sort that comes with a nervous, backwards glance...

CORRECTION: Oops. Actually, Hu Jintao was #3 on Parade's Dictator list last year. This year he's dropped down to #4. My mistake.

I Love A Man In A Uniform

I'm not going to write about the "Gannon/Gluckert/phony reporter/gay hooker with a military fixation/possible actor in the criminal exposure of Valerie Plame/Scott McClellan in Austin gay bars/maybe this explains why Bush likes dressing up in uniforms so much" affair...some fine investigators in the Blog-o-sphere broke the story, and you can go here, for example, to get the details. Salon also published an excellent summary. I'm also providing a link to the original story on Americablog because apparently, the more links that are out there, the more likely the story will be highly ranked on Google. So here it is.....

I will add, however, that this may perhaps explain in part why "Gannon" got White House access in the first place...

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Just What We Needed

"New Bad Boy Truck Dwarfs the Hummer" reports a wire service account today.
"It's the rugged Bubba," said Daniel Ayres, president and CEO of Homeland Defense Vehicles LLC and its division Bad Boy Trucks.

...For a base price of $225,000 -- nearly twice the Hummer H1 wagon's base price of $117,508 -- consumers can get a basic version of the 10-foot-tall Bad Boy that can drive through five feet of water, climb a 60-degree grade, tow six tons and keep rolling even with a quarter-sized hole in the tire's sidewall.

The price goes up from there, depending on options. Drivers can get infrared cameras that peer through darkness. The flat-nosed cab can be bulletproof, and house a mini-safe behind three leather seats. The dash can include a satellite phone, a two-way radio and a global-positioning system -- all alongside DVD, MP3 and CD players and a flip-out LCD screen.

For $750,000, buyers can get the fully loaded "NBC" version that can, Ayres said, detect and block out fallout from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons by over-pressurizing the cab with filtered, clean air much like an aircraft.

Ayres said he isn't playing on post-Sept. 11 fears by offering the NBC option.

"There's a certain group of people who color outside the box," Ayres said, and if they want to escape a city targeted by terrorists with dirty bombs or biological agents, "this is the truck for them."

Nope, no playing on fears here, and I doubt that Ayers finds it distasteful to offer such a vehicle at a time when American men and women and untold numbers of Iraqis are being killed and maimed in a war fought to secure supplies of foreign oil either. Perhaps he even sees the Bad Boy as a way to honor their sacrifice, protecting America's right to drive huge swollen symbols of outsized manhood over hill and dale and whatever else we we feel like trampling on.

You can see the truck here.

And it will probably come as no surprise that Homeland Defense Vehicles is based in Texas.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

When a Shirt is not a Shirt...

Via Peking Duck I was directed to a hilarious, scabrous rant and string of responses over at the Laowai Monologues, the blogged adventures of an American teaching English in an isolated provincial city, which, if Hank's posts are any indication, is the definition of "Chinese backwater." Moreover, after years of living and teaching in China, Hank has reached the point of near meltdown, absolutely frustrated, fed-up, over and done with it all...

I can relate. It only took me about 6 months in 1979/80 Beijing to reach a similar point. In my defense, I was really young, and it was extremely difficult to make a home for oneself as a foreigner in China back then, even in the capital. You could not have easy friendships with Chinese, not really. A close association with a foreigner was risky for them. Oh, on some days it was more okay than others; at the time the Chinese leadership was engaged in debate about just how open they wanted China to be, a debate which swung between two extremes at a dizzyingly rapid pace. But one thing I had known at my young age was that once the door was opened, the outside world was coming in, and you couldn't pick and choose which parts of it could cross the threshold. My little delegation from the United Federation of Planets violated the Non-interference Directive just by being there; we'd brought the contamination of our culture along, and it would spread just as surely as would any hearty virus.

My own meltdown came towards the end of my teaching term in Beijing. Money had been a constant concern, due to our ambiguous status as "Junior Foreign Experts." We weren't exactly official, hadn't signed a contract; we were too young to be full-fledged "Foreign Experts" (i.e., foreign teachers), which meant we received about a quarter of the pay as a typical foreign teacher in Beijing and that nobody was sure how to treat us. Foreigners at the time were routinely charged at an inflated rate many times higher than Chinese, and in fact, there were two systems of currency that made this difference even more explicit. Foreign Experts and foreign students generally received lower rates than plain old, presumably rich, foreign tourists.

As unofficial "junior foreign experts," we had our little school badges identifying us as teachers, and a letter written by one of our school's cadres identifying us as such, but at times I recall my China stay as one long haggle, trying to avoid those tourist prices. I had to make that money last through a month of travel, a stay in Hong Kong and an airplane ticket home.

Anyway, I finally decided to part with some Renmin Bi from my teaching earnings and have a few shirts made at the Friendship Store. I'd found a beautiful bolt of blue silk fabric that I thought would make a lovely dress shirt. As an afterthought, I'd purchased some rough, raw silk fabric for a second shirt, something more casual. I'd done a little drawing that showed what I wanted, had gone over it very carefully with the store clerk, and I'd thought I'd communicated clearly.

Regardless, a few weeks later, what I got was exactly what I hadn't wanted - the same old typical Chinese style that I'd been trying to avoid.

The dressing room of the Friendship Store was the scene of my meltdown. This wasn't what I wanted! I'd TOLD them what I wanted! I wasn't going to pay for this! I wanted my money back! I'M SO SICK OF THIS PLACE AND THIS SHIT!

Afterwards I felt foolish and embarrassed for having made a scene, even as I told myself that well, it was what they deserved for not doing what I'd asked for, what I'd wanted.

Stuff like this is never about what it's about. It's about all the other frustrations , the loneliness, the isolation. About being in a place where you could never just be, where you were always seen as a foreigner, as an outsider, as representative of something far bigger than your own small self and your petty concerns.

As for the shirts, the fancy one in the beautiful blue silk that was going to be my present to myself, the one that wasn't what I'd wanted, that one I gave to Paul's mom because I couldn't stand to look at it. The other, a typical Chinese style in rough, natural fabric, I happily wore for years.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging

cats in art
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

Mags takes art very seriously, as you can see...her other interests include recent Chinese history and fine cuisine. She has formed her own theory about the mysterious death of Lin Biao, but I have not been able to get to tell me what it is...

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Home On The Range

The other day I was clicking around in a cool website, Sinosplice, and discovered a compendium of Chinese blogs. I've only begun to check these out. It's a long list. Some are published outside of China, some are by Chinese writing in English, but the majority are personal accounts by foreign expats living in the PRC. I came across one, "Cat In China," written by a young woman about her year teaching in a small Hunan city. I was struck by several things. Out in the provinces, life for a foreign teacher was something I could understand, more than twenty years distant from my own experiences in Beijing. The stares, the isolation, the poor facilities and unfathomable bureaucracy...the lack of decent coffee! The lack of much of anything familiar. You go to Beijing these days, and it's a big city, with fancy Hong Kong shopping malls, just about any Western product you'd care to lay your hands on, good wine, and Starbucks. Foreigners don't attract much attention at all (well, even in '79, Beijingers affected a more blasé attitude than you'd see elsewhere in China), and a huge chunk of northwestern Beijing has become a "Korea Town," with Korean restaurants, shops and signage. Beijing is becoming an international city. In the last four trips I've taken there, I think I was only called a "laowai" once, which has to be some kind of record.

But still. Here was Cat in China, out in the provinces, with only a small group of foreign teachers like herself in town. And from that isolated place, she's able to publish a blog, to communicate to the outside world, to link up with other expats like herself in China, to talk to friends and family about her life. It was so different twenty years ago. For one thing, there were hardly any foreigners in China at all - Westerners, I mean. We only met each other face to face. We had no way of talking to each other, or to our family and friends back home. There wasn't any email. Phone calls were expensive. Letters took a couple of weeks to arrive. Yeah, I know. "When I was in China, we had to send our letters by clipper ship!"

But we were truly isolated. And for the only time in my life, I was in a place where I saw nothing in the environment that reflected my culture. No advertisements. No American products. No newspapers, books or television shows. This was, I will admit, somewhat liberating. Lacking external reinforcement, my mind was free to spin bizarre and Byzantine interpretations of the culture I'd come from, which I think were nonetheless fairly accurate.

Another thing that even folks like Cat In China in the provinces have, that we didn't have back when, is access to American media. Pirated DVDs are ubiquitous in China; you can watch just about anything, even things that are officially censored. Boxed sets of "Friends," for example. A Chinese film called "Devils at my Door-Step," a prize-winner in the Berlin Film Festival that was banned in China, was nonetheless openly displayed in Beijing DVD stores.

When I was in China, any kind of Western media was pretty much unavailable. Except for the film, "Sound of Music." Everybody had or had seen a VHS of "Sound of Music." Chinese versions of "Do-Re-Mi" were played on trains' loudspeakers. As was "Home On The Range," for some reason. The popularity of "Sound of Music" in China was a little ironic on a personal level. I had that film committed to memory, mainly because I thought Christopher Plummer was hot, in a dark, twisted, perverse kind of way. I could quote passages of dialog verbatim, and I knew all of the songs. You want "Do-Re-Mi"? I'll give ya "Do-Re-Mi," and a chorus of "Edelweiss" if you're not careful...

In China, you are, after all, expected to sing. To entertain. First because you are the token foreigner, and second because this is what everyone used to do in a culture that didn't have a lot of mass media entertainment. This is what people did when they had to entertain themselves, and in China, the tradition remains today. People still sing when they are gathered together to celebrate.

As a Model Representative of the United Federation of Planets, er, I mean, the United States of America, Paul and I were frequently called upon to sing "typical American music." The only song the two of us could come up with that we both knew was the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon," and we sang that song all across China. Years later, in Shanghai in 1993, I made several good friends because I was the only Westerner willing to stand up and sing in a karaoke bar at a party during the first Shanghai International Film Festival. By then I'd been playing in rock bands for a number of years, and it wasn't much of a stretch. But those endless choruses of "Rocky Raccoon" were what got me started...

While in Beijing in 1979, I witnessed the premiere of the first American television show broadcast in the PRC - "The Man From Atlantis." In case you missed it, "The Man From Atlantis" featured a pre-Dallas Patrick Duffy as an amnesiac in a Speedo who can breath underwater and swims kind of like Flipper, and he washes up on a San Diego beach and is immediately exploited by Secret Government types. Being from San Diego myself, I found it decidedly odd, seeing Patrick Duffy wandering around San Diego on a TV in a hotel lobby in Beijing, watching several dozen hotel workers watching the television as a Jack in the box Drive-through clown asks Patrick Duffy what he wants, in Chinese. The next day my students asked me if we had many such robots in America.

China had been so isolated from any kind of Western media, and now, post-Cultural Revolution, as China began to "open" to the West, some people were anxious to sample what they'd been missing. While on a tour of the Beijing Film Studio and its associated college, I struck up a conversation with some older students, who asked me if I could get them an American movie to view. I'll try, I said. I somehow found out that the New Zealand Embassy got a supply of films, which they showed in their Expat Club in the Embassy district. The film they had at that moment was "Network" - you know, Peter Finch playing Howard Beale, "the mad prophet of the airwaves"? As I recall, it was a real hassle to get ahold of that film, lots of phone calls and conditions. And then, once I did, the Film School began having second thoughts. It might not be "convenient" to screen the film, I was told. I was kind of pissed. I'd gone to a lot of trouble to get my hands on that film. Finally, a compromise was reached. The school officials decided to limit the themselves. Cadres only.

Well, I wasn't crazy about it, but what could I do? I and the film arrived, and we screened it in a campus auditorium.

The auditorium was almost completely full, with mostly middle-aged men in Mao suits and leather shoes. Could there be that many officials working here, I wondered, or had they spread the word to their comrades in other locations?

Thing is, I'd forgotten a lot of details about "Network." Like, the sex scene with Faye Dunaway and William Holden. China at the time took a very dim view of any kind of depictions of sexuality, and here was Faye Dunaway on top of Bill Holden, screaming in ecstasy about ratings. Sitting in the back of the auditorium, I started getting really nervous. The officials just sat there silently, watching the screen, mute and still. Then the part with the Black revolutionary came on, you know, the one who sells her soul to the network to get the "Mao Zedong Hour" on the air, the reality show that features terrorist action of the week?

Oh god. I am so in trouble, I thought. I'm gonna get arrested. Thrown out of the country. Struggled against, at the very least.

I was so embarrassed.

But nothing happened. Nobody said a word. And nowadays, if you walk through Beijing, you'll hear cellphones playing "The Simpsons."

Meta and Meta...

The Guardian reported yesterday that a new reality show called "The Guantanamo Guidebook" will be broadcast later this month in Great Britain. The program "will examine the effects of mild torture on seven male volunteers."
The programme exposed the volunteers, three of whom are Muslim, to 48 hours of "torture lite" including sleep deprivation, the use of extreme temperatures and "mild" physical contact.

As at Guantánamo and more vividly in Abu Ghraib, the volunteers were also subject to periods of enforced nudity and religious and sexual humiliation.

The seven male volunteers, one of whom withdrew after just seven hours suffering from hypothermia, were recruited initially by adverts asking how "hard" they were.
Pausing for a moment. Taking a few deep breaths...


The article goes on to explain that this is one of a four-part series "examining the use of torture in the 'war against terror'".
"This season of programmes challenges the viewers to watch torture techniques we know are used in Guantánamo [and asks whether] can such torture ever be justified," says the Channel 4 head of news and current affairs. "Does it work? And how the values of western society are undermined by the use of such torture."
Right. Anyone want to bet on whether female interrogators in mini-skirts and thong underwear make an appearance?

Or worse...perhaps...the Comfy Chair...

Monday, February 07, 2005

Fixing A Hole...

Modern Buddha
Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

The Washington Post reports today that an Afghan archeologist is searching for a giant sleeping Buddha in Afghanistan's Bamian Valley, the site where Taliban fundamentalists destroyed the two enormous standing statues carved into the mountains. The lost sleeping Buddha, if it exists, is approximately the size of the Eiffel Tower, according to Zemaryalai Tarzi, Afghanistan's leading archeologist, making it the largest reclining Buddha ever made. Which raises the question: how did such a thing go missing in the first place? Tarzi believes that the statue was either accidentally buried by an earthquake or landslide, or deliberately covered up by monks in an attempt to protect it against invading Muslim armies. Why does Tarzi believe the statue exists? Because of the account of the Chinese traveler Xuanzang, who visited the area around 630 A.D. His descriptions of the standing Buddhas are "remarkably accurate," according to Tarzi, lending credence to his account of a major monastary in view of the cliffs and the monumental reclining statue located on its grounds.

Well, what would Buddha have to say about all this? Attachment creates desire, which leads to unhappiness, all is impermanent, etc. I pretty much believe all that to be true. But what about the other side? How persistant were those standing Buddhas, which could only be destroyed by a barrage of mortars and dynamite? And how ironic would it be if the words of a pilgrim who died 1500 years ago were the clues that led to the discovery of a long-lost archeological treasure the length of a toppled Eiffel Tower?

I had my own meditation on the impermanence of objects and the persistance of memory last week, when I finally checked on the shed in my back yard. We've had biblical-level rains in Southern California recently, really out of the ordinary. My little house, built in 1911, weathered the storms remarkably well. The shed in my back yard, not so much so. I sort of forgot about it, and then didn't particularly want to think about it, and when the day of reckoning finally came (my house is small, and I needed to put something out there) I discovered that yes, it was not so water-proof. Boxes ranged from perfectly dry, wet but protected because they are plastic, damp, and soaked. Tendrils of ivy had somehow found their way through minute holes in the siding, winding through the window grid of my cat carrier. An interesting variety of mold coated much of the cardboard surfaces.

I spent the day dragging boxes out of the shed, unpacking them, throwing things out, spreading some things out to dry on the deck and repacking just about everything that wasn't in plastic already into new plastic storage bins. Overall the damage wasn't as bad as it could have been. A couple of two-inch master tapes sat in several inches of water; the mylar comic book bag in which I'd placed a treasured Phantom Stranger comic had enough water in it to support a couple of goldfish. But it wasn't so bad. I threw out a couple of garbage bags full of old work papers, a few comics, some financial records. It was soaked and moldy, no use keeping this stuff. So why had I kept it in the first place?

Although I have a great memory for really useful things, like, you know, song lyrics, obscure factoids, things like that, I am not so great at remembering the events of my life. My childhood is a blur. Well, so are high school, college, and what I had for breakfast. Don't even ask me about where I left my keys. When I came back from China, for example, having just barely turned 21, I had a really hard time remembering what had happened to me. Oh, I could answer questions, tell stories, recall where I'd been and roughly what I'd done, but huge chunks of the experience seemed inaccessible. Nothing quite made sense, and at the same time, it was as though the experience was still happening in my head, not remaining in the past where it belonged. I'd returned to San Diego, where everything seemed exactly the same as I'd left it, and it just didn't make sense that this other world existed at the same time, was still going on without me. I could not place things in their proper sequence: this happened, then that happened.

And odd things occurred. One day, while driving in Linda Vista, which is a typical older, "urban" suburb of San Diego, I glanced at a gas station on the corner. And I saw a Hmong woman, dressed in traditional clothes, wearing a blue turban and carrying a baby on her back, wandering through the pumps, looking lost. Where had she come from? What the hell was she doing in San Diego? I had the strangest sense that I'd brought her back with me, somehow, through some Star Trek transporter by mistake. Of course I knew this wasn't literally true. Some consequence of my country's foreign policy had undoubtedly brought her here. It had nothing to do with me.

After a time, I managed to come up with a chronology for my life that made sense. This happened, then that happened. China was no longer some weird combination of black memory hole and vivid flashbacks. With experiences that are so out of the norm of one's life, I think it takes a while to process all the unfamiliar images into a narrative. It's overwhelming. Most importantly, I started going back to China. And I found that, in spite of the vast changes, it was all so familiar to me. Driving in from the Beijing Capitol Airport, in winter, seeing the stripped trees through a haze of gray, smelling the coal that's still burnt. Oh yeah, I know this place.

So that's why I like to save certain things. They help me order my memory. Remind me of what I did, and what I cared about, even if they now seem like archeological artifacts from a vanished world.


Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

I realize this is a little out of season, but I've just learned to publish photos and had this one handy. This is from Dec. 2000, at a place a few hours outside of Beijing called Longqingxia, where they hold an Ice Festival similar though smaller to the famous one in Harbin. Longqingxia is kind of a neat place, though it features some of the most fractured English signage I've ever seen in China. Here's an example:


Double slideways seem like a dragon flying in the sky. The graceful Longxingxia tourism area has another novelty sight. Two slideways go across the Baihua cavity mountainside of Hailuo, dragon ladder and the great gorges, with the grandiose momentum just like the great dragon paddling in the water, and also like the colorful silk-belt surrounding the mountain. You can enjoy the new feeling of flying in the sky better than the fairy when taking the slideway.

Beijing Longqingxia double stainless slideways integrate the body exercise, fallow, entertainment and taking instead of walk together, which is the first double stainless slideways with the type of viaduct designed by the computer in domestic, designed and manufactured by Qingdao slideway company. The slideways started from the exit of the Baihua cavity, going down to the Green Island in the center of the lake, with the total length of 450 meters, in parallel, the comparative fall of 38 meters, and 600 passengers per hour. The double arch bridges with the span of 60 meters connect the South and the North like two rain bows, and the tilted pulling bridge is guarding at the scenic spot like the oriental Titan. The serpentine structure of the steel bridge is like the dragon swimming in the sky and also like the belt waving in the mountain.

The slideway will assist you to reach the goal of traveling entertainment and relaxation with its characteristics of not only adventurous and exciting but also safe and comfortable; therefore, it will bring forth the unprecedented feeling for you.

Longqingxia Management Department, July 18, 1998

More grand posting plans tonight were disrupted by the need to master this new technology, among other things...

Saturday, February 05, 2005

FutureWorld for Dummies

Surfing blearily the other night, I came across a link to an article that will probably be unavailable soon and really should be read, from Daniel Snyder of the Mercury News:

Last week the National Intelligence Council, the CIA's think tank, released a 119-page report pondering the world the United States might face in 2020. In a reflection of the myopia of our times, the Washington Post's front page story focused almost entirely on the CIA's prediction that Islamic terrorism would still be with us 15 years from now.

Left for bare mention was the far more stunning vision that was the main focus of the intelligence report. By 2020, the document forecasts, the United States will have to share global domination with the rising Asian powers of China and India.

Now, since I've been studying Chinese partly on the grounds that should my present so-called career in Los Angeles crash and burn, I'd best have a back-up, this notion definitely caught my attention. After a quick Google, I went on over to the CIA's website and downloaded the report (available as a pdf file here).

Y'know, I always figured intelligence work was serious stuff. Existential, "Spy Who Came in From the Cold" kind of stuff, full of angst and betrayal and conflicts between loyalty and personal integrity. Okay, maybe I should have taken the hint from operations like Castro's exploding cigar that the CIA did not consist entirely of gray, dedicated men. Because now that I've skimmed through "Mapping the Global Future," I'm here to tell you that some significant portion of the CIA's analysts would really like to be in Hollywood. I mean, this report is slick. And purposefully entertaining, like one of those TV show tie-in books that features photo spreads of what's in some beloved character's closet. "Mapping the Global Future" has a mocked-up letter from the head of the Global Economic Forum to a former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman written from the perspective of the year 2020. It has selections from a "private diary" of a former U.N. Secretary General. There's also a missive from Osama Bin Laden's grandson, who complains to his followers that the establishment of the Caliphate did not deliver the Muslim world from the Crusaders as hoped. All this is done with snappy graphics, pretend stationary, diary pages, even "paper-clipped" post-it notes with "lessons learned" and "take-away points" scrawled across the top in sharpie font.

In the most seriously whacked-out section, two arms dealers conduct a conversation solely through text messages - meaning we get three pages with graphics of different colored phones talking to each other, messages on their screens, with occasional helpful explanatory notes from our CIA analysts done in blue blocks between the talking phones. To wit:

Green Phone: well better not, but I don't believe what those guys claim about protecting privacy. Too much has happened, martial law. Talk of preemption, special measures. Those operations last year wrapped up a big chain.

Gold Phone: You can't trust the Americans, and they have friends in the world to help them.

Green Phone: But maybe not as many as they think, if you know what I mean.

Helpful CIA analyst: Dealer A (in green) looks on the bright side. With the world slipping into a recession because of the terrorist attacks and the severe clampdown, he thinks he can get legitimate businesses to look the other way.

I appreciate the Helpful Analyst's explanations, because I don't think I necessarily would have picked all that up from the quoted conversation. Guys, I like what you're trying to do. Really. I think it has a lot of heart and smarts, some great characters, strong, built-in conflicts. But the dialog could use some work...

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

On The Death of Zhao Ziyang

His aide, Bao Tong, remembers him here (thanks to
Peking Duck for the link).

China seemed a grim place when I arrived there in the fall of 1979. Actually, it pretty much remained grim through the winter and into the spring, until I left in March 1980. And I have to say, my friend Paul and I were more than ready to leave by then. After a while, nearly everything in China felt like a battle. Doing your job, taking a taxi, buying a shirt, riding the train, booking a hotel, ordering a meal...everything was a complicated fight, and hardly anything turned out the way you thought it would or wanted it to.

1979 was the era of Democracy Wall and the trial of the Gang of Four, a period when China had begun to "open up" and yet was not at all prepared for what came in through their door. I was 20 years old and acutely conscious of my status as cultural irritant. I tried to tread lightly. I felt like Captain Kirk, beaming down from the United Federation of Planets, just knowing that I was violating the Non-Interference Directive at every step. There were hardly any Americans in China at the time. Because of this scarcity, I and my friend Paul both ended up teaching a semester of Conversational English to Beijing college students, at the Branch school of the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade. The Branch school was the poor cousin of the Foreign Trade Institute proper, and as such, had to settle for two San Diego college kids for English teachers. They hired us, but they were scared of us too. We were the Young Americans, and we were unpredictable. In fact, I took my teaching duties very seriously. I was the first American most of these kids had ever met, and I didn't want to screw it up.I say "kids" but they were all a few years older than I, most having spent the last few years in the countryside shoveling pig manure or what have you. One time for some reason the subject of the American Constitution came up. I winged it, dredging up whatever shreds of high school civics I could recall, and I came up with a rather nice spontaneous lecture on the subject, emphasizing the importance of the rule of law in the safeguarding of human rights. I liked this lecture so much that I repeated it to my next two classes. Afterwards, I got really worried. Maybe talking about the Bill of Rights hadn't been such a grand idea. I consoled myself by with the fact that the majority of my students didn't speak English all that well, so they probably hadn't understood much of what I was saying anyway.

But what the school authorities really feared most was that we might teach our students "the disco dance." Luckily for them, there were few things I hated more than disco dancing (I later became a rock musician so I'd always have an excuse not to dance), but with my friend Paul, the Peoples' Republic was on shakier ground. Paul was gay, and he was known to disco dance. In fact, he had what must have been one of the first boom boxes ever manufactured, some gigantic thing that even a prison-biceped gangster would have a tough time toting around. We had friends who'd send us tapes of the latest stuff from home, and we'd fire up a joint made from the weak pot that grew wild at the Temple of Heaven and listen to Talking Heads and the Clash and David Bowie. This boom box had two tape drives for copying tapes. Chinese friends would ask us to make them copies of some Carpenters tape they'd gotten ahold of, and Paul would do so, except he'd stick a cut from the Residents at the end. If you've never heard of the Residents, they are that avant-guard Bay Area band that used to wear tuxedos and put giant eyeballs over their heads, and their songs were weird-ass shit like "Bach is Dead," and "Eskimo." It went well with the Carpenters. We copied a lot of our music for people too, and I often wondered what happened to those tapes. Were they listened to, all that Talking Heads and Pretenders and Bowie, the Beatles and the Clash? Fripp & Eno? Siouxie and the Banshees?

Around Christmas, we threw parties for some students, not our classes, as we'd just started teaching, but Paul's parents' students. We'd gotten to know some of them when we'd first come to China. Three guys, William, Rocky and Simon, took us around Beijing one time. They showed us Democracy Wall and a bar where the Beijing delinquents hung out, and we were followed by the not-so-secret police. Rocky, a slight, intense guy with black framed glasses, quoted Thomas Jefferson at me. Simon was very handsome. He had a perfectly symmetrical face, like one of those terracotta statues from the Qin Emperor's tomb. His parents were cadres, officials of some sort - I knew that because they had a phone in their apartment, and at that time, only high-ranking officials had phones. But Simon was not content. That day we toured Beijing, we ended up renting rowboats at Beihai Park and rowing out into the lake so we could talk and have some privacy. And I remember Simon, staring not at me but over the water. "I hate this country," he said. No one can hear us, I told myself. But still, those words seemed to have some dreadful significance.

We threw the parties in the living room of Paul's parents apartment in the Friendship Hotel. Paul and I provided the music - all the latest punk and New Wave stuff from home. We turned the lights down low and cranked up the boom box as loud as it would go. We'd gotten the new Talking Heads album, and we were playing "Yi Zimbra." And I remember William - the third member of the trio. William was a big guy, a Northerner, sort of shambling and shaggy. And he let this music into his head and he was jumping up and down, he was pogoing, bouncing off the walls, off other people, abandoning himself to the beat, and I thought, he's never danced like that before in his life. None of them have.

That day we left China, crossed the border into Hong Kong, I said to Paul, "thank god we're finally out of here!" Out of all the repression and the arguments and the being stared at all the time and the pain in the ass bureaucracy. And after we crossed the border, I looked back towards China, at the pain in the ass border guard who'd demanded we pay him some bullshit tax before we could leave, and I thought, I'll be back here some day. I'm leaving something behind, and I'm going to have to go back and get it.

I didn't even think about returning to China until 1989. It was the Tiananmen protests that put the idea in my head. Coincidentally, I had gotten in touch with an old acquaintance, the Dean of English Language study at the Foreign Trade Institute, Lao Zou. Lao Zou was a trim, middle-aged man when I'd known him in Beijing. He had a calm, soothing presence; he seemed like a very nice person. Earlier in life, he'd been in the Chinese diplomatic corps and had travelled abroad. Because of this, he'd been terribly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. His wife had committed suicide. His daughter had died of cancer. For some reason, he felt comfortable telling me about these things. Maybe because I was 20 years old and a foreigner, about as harmless as they came. How do you cope, I asked him once? He had smiled. "I go running," he told me. "I run every day."

When Paul and I left Beijing, Lao Zou was there to see us off. And uncharacteristically, for such displays of emotion were uncommon in the China of that time, he suddenly gave me a huge hug. Tears in his eyes. I think I cried too. I don't know why we'd made the connection we made or what I represented to him, and now I suppose that it's too late to ask.

Anyway, I'd written to him that I was thinking of coming to China, and that I was hoping to see some of my old students. I was writing in code. When he wrote back, so was he. "Oh, I think you will certainly see some of your old students!" he'd written.

Damn, I was excited. Who would have thought? Tiananmen was the dream I never would have dared to dream for the people I'd known in China. Finally, I thought, it was time for me to return. I hadn't been ready to go back there before now. The place was too full of pain and trouble, too full of trauma, too full of gray hopelessness. But out of nowhere, everything seemed to have changed. I could feel it all the way over in California. There was finally hope.

As it turned out, I didn't end up going back to China until 1993.