2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Dragons and tigers

(Written June 23)

Our final blowout trip has been the micro version of the stages of the year:

1.  Plans adjusted at the last minute, aka “In China, all expectations explode.”  We intended Tibet, but in honor of the 60th Anniversary celebration of the “liberation” of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army, foreign travel permits were shut off, just about the time we asked.  Of course, our Tibet plans were never yes or no, but rather a “no problem” fading to maybe to maybe not.  So on last Thursday we put together a Plan B to begin on Saturday, with a flight to Chengdu and on to the southwest town of Lijiang.

2.  Excited arrival followed immediately by dense confusion.  From the sleek airport the ride to town is more a path for dirt bikes than a road — apparently in this part of the country to make a new highway you simply rip out the old and start building, leaving the workspace open for hapless drivers who need to get from A to B with or without road.  But the jarring ride ends in Lijiang, a charming maze of narrow streets among red lanterns and beautiful carved shutters and eaves.  Leading to…

3.  Advanced planning is usually insufficient.  I had the hotel address in English and Chinese.  The town is all pedestrian, which is great, but from the south gate on we were on our own.  And, as usual, the old town turns out to be much much larger than expected.  Everyone was wonderfully helpful of course, and the first four informants were consistent.  But after that folks were all stumped.  We had a street name and we thought we were on it, but the numbers restarted almost every block.  After an hour of wandering, we found # 83 in an alley between 79 and 86.  As it happens, this wasn’t even the actual hotel, but at that point someone could lead us the rest of the way.

4.  _______ is so beautiful!  In this case, Lijiang.  That town was the essential image of old China, with cobbled streets, bubbling clear canals, and a sky with real clouds.  Tourists, mainly Chinese, have noticed, making it very crowded — but we didn’t care.

5.  …and the landscape too!  One day we hired a car to take us to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, where…

5a.  If you love it, put a cable car on it.  This one ascends to over 14,000 feet.  From there everyone climbs slowly to a platform among the glaciers and not too far from the glorious summit.  We ascended into dense cloud but over the next hour holes opened toward beautiful peaks and ice fields.

6.  Someone gets sick.  This time, Cheryl, but fortunately she recovered in time for …

7.  More, more!  The phase of great enthusiasm.  The other landmark in these parts is Tiger Leaping Gorge, so named because a fleeing tiger leapt its narrowest part. (7a. It takes a vivid imagination to get the names of things.  Neither tigers nor jade dragons appeared to us this time.)  The summit-to-gorge drop exceeds that of the Grand Canyon, but we found this out 14 miles later, after a 2 day trek.  If you hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, you need no other trek — just ask your feet.  On day 1 we climbed the 28 bends to the summit of the range on the NW side of the gorge, about seven hours of walking.  Happily there’s a guest house at the end of that chunk.  (5a1.  If you love it, build a hotel on it.)  The next morning we continued along the gorge edge on a spectacular trail, eventually snaking down to the edge of the lower gorge, a sheer cliff down to the churning Yangtze.  The trail down was a toe-jamming knee-destroying mix of chutes and giant stairs, at the end of which Cheryl declared that she would not climb out, ever.  At this point, the river surges like a muddy Niagara Falls.  After the trail down, we concluded that there had to be some other way up.  Unfortunately, they haven’t added a cable car yet, so without any foreknowledge we took the “skyladder” which needs no imagination to believe in its name.  Leading us to stage …

8.  _____ is exhausting.  But what a great time.  The retrospective view is splendid — we survived, endured, witnessed something astounding, and brought back pictures and stories.

Now we are in the 11th hour of sitting at the Chengdu airport, waiting for thunderstorms to clear up north.  Since the remaining task is to wait, we enter stage…

9.  _____ isn’t so hard after all!  We ran into a Tianjin neighbor, another Meiguoren (American) who pointed out that the walkway was pulled back from our idle airplane (a bad sign) but that its reconnection will be a very good clue that boarding is imminent.  I realized that we foreigners have to become adept at reading clues in every situation.  And that we may have actually gotten pretty good at it.

So, on this trip and throughout the year mistakes were made.  My assumptions have always been wrong.  But eventually it gets straightened out somehow.  China has been absolutely reliably unexpected from start to finish.

P.S.  After this was written, the crowd at the gate grew restive and finally we were all herded to buses and drove for about half an hour to a hotel in Chengdu. For the night, I assumed.  But about an hour after checking in, the phone rang and we were all herded back to the bus.  The flight left at around 3 AM and we collapsed into our apartment just after dawn.  Ready for the next adventure.

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My brain on China

Lightning, looking south from our apartment

In another life, I take brain scans and convert them to sound-and-light shows. It’s a hobby, and a research interest too ( http://www.frontiersin.org/theoretical_and_philosophical_psychology/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00063/abstract ). It’s also a metaphor … for many things. The world may be a lumpy sluggish thing, but the experience of the world is the dance of a water drop on a hot skillet. I regard the stream of consciousness to be flowing like music. You could put that hypothesis in two bins: science, or art. As art, I make the case by converting the cavorts of the brain into music.

The basic method is to treat the brain like a pipe organ, with parts of the brain as keys. So, for example, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is middle C. When that part is very active (lots of neurons spiking, which is indirectly read by fMRI), middle C is very loud. Meanwhile, another region is another note, also getting louder and softer according to the activity of that region of the brain. And so on.

But Middle C is simple compared to the incredible complexity of activity in any region of the brain. Middle C is also simplistic in comparison to the cacophonous symphony of consciousness. Instead of Middle C, maybe for each region of the brain I could put in a more complex sound, a loop that gets louder and softer when its brain area gets more or less active.

Now, where can I find sounds that capture that raucous tumble of conscious experience? I know… CHINA. Over the last year I’ve been recording sounds all over, and in this video they are the imagined pulse of the brain. Listening to the mix, I hear again the extraordinary cauldron of this country, where I have been so lucky to live.

Here’s the video:

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Party schools

Tomorrow is graduation day at Nankai University and for days now students have been everywhere in their gowns, which apparently they rent for a full week. That’s a full week of photos in every possible setting and with every possible group. I was out by the blooming lotus pond with two students to take my minor place in the digital scrapbooks of the class of 2011. As I walked around on this hot summer day, I thought about the idea of a party school. Nankai is certainly not a party school, but there are party schools here. Thinking about them led me to speculate about…
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are the three well-known terms of the equation assumed in a Western-style democracy. They are traditionally assumed to work together: as you get more of one you get more of the others. And it’s assumed that you want them together: if you are lacking in one, the others will also diminish. Under the L, L, and P of H model, history is a long march toward democracy (and, maybe, capitalism). The ideas make sense together, but has the political equation been subject to empirical testing? What if Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness just happen to occur together in the US, or happened to work for a certain era (like, before the rise of mass media, or before trans-national corporations, or before…). It seems to me that there are a few big experiments under way, checking the hypothesis that liberty is necessary for welfare and happiness.

One of these experiments is probably India — not a country I know enough to comment on. Another is certainly China. In China we see all the ingredients of a Western style nation frying in the wok together, including capitalism. But not liberty. So the Chinese question is, if a government can build a system that provides for the material welfare of most people, will happiness follow even in the absence of the freedoms we know well: speech, press, assembly? When we first arrived, we were impressed by the apparent freedom people enjoyed. In conversations, many people spoke completely freely about the political system. China Daily, the free (that is, no cost) paper in English, was surprisingly open about the problems facing the country. And we noticed right away that China mobilizes instantly around big projects, like high speed rail or green energy. Indeed, the country seems to be perpetually mobilized under the mantra “Build, baby, build.” Deng Xiaoping ought to be the guy in Mao’s tomb. He said “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black, as long as it catches the rat.” So practicality (and capitalism) replaced ideology, and the leaders of China are technocrats. Possibly ruthless, corrupt technocrats but plausibly wonky, calculating, circumspect technocrats, or maybe some mix of both. President Hu and Premier Wen (or is it Premier Wen and President Hu?) are the picture of wonky corporate directors, with slicked back hair, nerdy glasses, and black suits. And everyone in power dresses and acts pretty much the same, and (as far as I can tell) talks the same talk, a careful bureaucratic style that must be very boring past ten seconds. How do they get that way? By going to a party school. That’s right, a Communist Party School, where proper governmental etiquette is overlearned along with powerpoint skills — there’s a system of these schools separate from the universities and professional schools, and rising Party members attend for various periods to get Politically Correct. The technocrats seem to be working scientifically on all the big problems, which they will talk about in the press: inflation, income inequality, pollution, corruption. They certainly seem to have the interests of the people in mind, and in fact hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from dire poverty to modest but sustainable standards of living. In 20 or 50 years China might have a large middle class, clean air and drinkable water, a little more living space, options for more than one child in each family, and so forth. And what then? Will the absence of liberty be a shrug, or a burning need?

By the way, as the year progressed we became increasingly aware that the street-level freedom everyone expressed was absolutely as far as it went. The technocrats rule with an iron keyboard. Move outside of face-to-face conversation, and you enter a zone of surveillance and police control. In general, China spends more for internal security than it does for national defense. In particular, there are many anecdotes of mysterious phone and internet outages following hot button words. “Protest” seems to be one; say it twice and your phone call will be cut off.  Presently this blog is freely accessed in China, but should I even mention a certain large square in central Beijing I would be converted into “Internet Explorer has stopped working.” Yesterday I googled “Vermont State Police contact” or something like that, and lost google altogether for 20 minutes or so, a slap on the wrist. Following the Jasmine revolution, the crackdown was palpable, and even the slightest whiff of protest got hammered. There was a call for a “walking by” demonstration for democracy, which you could participate in by strolling through certain areas. The walking part was probably to give participants plausible deniability. (“Protest? What protest?”) The effect was that people who did walk by, for whatever purpose, were hauled in for questioning or perhaps jail time. Western media folks who were trying to cover the event where challenged and intimidated by the police as well. Now, everyone knows how to get through the Great Firewall, but this too is at the discretion of the government — they shut my portal during this time as well. So as I write this paragraph I’m disturbingly aware of a reader over my shoulder, and weigh the risk of being shut off in China against telling the story. And that leads to hedging my words, pulling back from the strong conclusions. The Orwellian message is, if you are thinking about protest, think again.
Will this fact of life bother the Chinese citizen in the year 2020 as she walks to her BMW? That’s the question.

There’s one more variable in play in the Chinese experiment. The corollary to the L,L, and P B equation is “power corrupts.” A single party state is, in theory, inevitably corrupt, and thus undermines the welfare and happiness of its citizens. A part of the Chinese experiment, then, is a test of this equation as well. Every day the paper reports on corrupt officials being brought to trial and punished (sometimes with death), and on the deep concerns the government has with the corruption issue. (Every day there’s at least one story of tainted, illegal food.) One practical proposal is to require all government officials to publish an account of their personal assets and property, and a listing of the jobs held by all their family members. Nice idea, but then yesterday’s paper also reported that the plan would be slowly implemented without a definite time table. “Any good system has to have accompanying measures and a proper environment to become feasible,” explained Wu Yuliang, deputy secretary of the Central Commission of Discipline Inspection of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, a wonky guy with glasses and slicked back hair. Should the full-disclosure proposal bother the midlevel bureaucrat, with an official annual salary of $10,000, as he walks to his BMW? Apparently, not at the moment.

The other ongoing experiment with the democratic equation is the good old U S of A, to which we return in about a week. At home I follow politics pretty closely, but here I’ve taken a break. But occasionally I pick up the thread. Every time I look at how the game is played in American national politics, the word that comes to mind is Silly. I’m reminded of that other kind of “party school,” the American college version. I feel like our leaders are only pretending to act in the interests of the citizens who elected them. I hope no reader is offended to hear that I blame the right wing for polluting the rhetorical waters, but really no one in congress seems to live in the real world. I suspect we are also subject to one-party rule, and that is the party of the Rich. Corruption comes with it as well, not only in the buying and selling of influence but in the manipulations of the press and onslaught of other media designed to undermine rational choice (ads, for example). Democracies are inefficient, but for us the question of the next decades is whether the government can improve the welfare of all, and face the issues that China also faces: income inequality, pollution, corruption. Often, lately, our government has been incapable of acting at all.

So we have two systems with serious needs for reform. Who can foresee the decades ahead? It is possible, on the one hand, that China will behave like a good Enlightenment state and move from permanent emergency to democracy. But it is also possible that the experiment of freedom will wind down toward various forms of state or corporate control. Future leaders will still go to party schools, but what will they learn?

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Now that spring has irrevocably sprung, the mystery of the disappearing season — winter — has emerged like a mountain from the mist, along with its solution. First, summer: hot, humid, cicadas to shout over. Then, precipitous chill, and season 2. Psychologically, initial incompetence transformed into habitual incompetence, and bedazzlement subsided to routine wonder (“I’m in freakin’ China!” lost its exclamation point.) The log of staggering events still grew, but then one day it was … March. And then April. What happened to the inbetween? What terrifying force could suck up the passage of time into a blink?

One clue: We came to China but winter stayed at home. Connecticut was buried, repeatedly. We read daily of school closures, storms so backed up they had to take a number, snow so deep you needed a core sample to find your car. The kids were envious; I felt both guilt and relief. Meanwhile Tianjin hovered in the 20s beneath a gritty sun, save for a pathetic centimeter of white some weeks ago — at which the entire Chinese civil service bureaucracy was summoned, wielding brooms.

In other words, Tianjin does not have weather. Seasonal change is beneath notice, and each day is almost the same as the day before. With subliminal seasons, time does not pass; its landmark events pile into an undifferentiated bin marked “over,” and one does not change.

The missing weather is compounded by the other absence in this urban vast: nature. The trees have been brown for four months now. There never have been any birds… or squirrels … or clouds… or stars … or sky. Or even sun, since (as reported earlier) here you can stare at the sun without hurting your eyes. The sole herald of spring has been the return of the diabolical mosquitoes, who enter our apartments by secret tunnels.

The Chinese world view blurs nature and human worlds under the heading of the beautiful. Several of the great nature sites here are half artifact. Mount Tai (September) is a big calligraphy scroll; even the county park, “Lion’s peak,” in Nanchang (February) is a crawl of aphorisms and self-referential description (“This is such a high mountain”…”Yes it’s high all right”….) Gardens, of course, are thoroughly designed. And everywhere we observe the maxim, “if it is beautiful, it is even more beautiful with loud elevator music.” These are the classical examples. Nowadays when nature threatens a drought, the government responds by seeding clouds, not just once but in more than 10,000 locations over several weeks. We owe our dusting of snow to this effort. So when it snows, the kids ask, is it fake?

So I expected Huangshan, Yellow Mountain, to resemble Taishan (Mt. Tai), a carved relic of several dynasties, a formal staircase (3,000 steps) among souvenir shops and hotels, perhaps with a soundtrack. A few slogans set me up: “When you have seen Huangshan, you do not need to see any other mountain” and Deng Xiaopeng’s comment that to see Huangshan is to discover the beauty of the motherland. Both of these would look nice carved in gigantic red characters on a cliff. But Huangshan is too big and too rugged and so perhaps humbled the chislers. Before cable cars, it’s hard to imagine climbing it at all, though various monks, hermits, rebels, and philosophers have intruded over the years. Officially it’s a massive tilted igneous uplift carved by ancient glaciers to leave a bouquet of sharp peaks, but you’ve probably already seen it. Most classical Chinese landscape painting depicts mountains like this, many of them depicting Huangshan itself. I thought the look of these paintings was just a style, a form of exaggeration, but Huangshan really does look like that. We arrived by cable car on a warm, sunny day to make our lofty way up hill and down dale to our hotel, one of three up there. Every few hundren feet we gawked at viewpoints, each labelled “Best view of Huangshan,” which was always right. We finally arrived at “Cloud dispelling hotel,” named after a viewpoint on up the trail. We unloaded and snacked for a bit, excited to be looking out across the high ridges.

Near sunset we walked further toward “Cloud dispelling platform.” And like all the other tourists, we were astounded by the “sea of clouds,” a cottony plane out to infinity from which the forlorn spires rise. It looks like a magic ocean, and it moves. While Rianna and I watched the sunset, the sea of clouds tsunamied a thousand feet, almost to our perch, swallowing mountains as it surged, and then it sank again in minutes. That night the sea rose into rain, but the next morning cloud dispelling platform continued dispelling, but now the sea gathered in cloud icebergs rising and falling across precipitous canyons and crags, while cloud waterfalls poured out of hanging valleys. That’s weather! That’s nature! We were traveling with my guh-guh (big brother) and soutze (sister-in-law), and the kids were on spring break, and by majority vote this was the Mountain Tour. I was thoroughly convinced that indeed after Huangshan, you need see no other mountain, but nonetheless we set out for hard-to-pronounce Zhangjiajie, China’s first national park (1980s). And … it’s different. You’ve seen this one too: Pandora! They played clips from Avatar on the giant digital screens (very Chinese) at the park entrance, and the Pandora landscape is exactly Zhangjiajie, even “Hallelujah Mountain,” which maybe floats — it was fully lost in fog (real weather!) when we were there. Unlike the other nature spots, this really had been a wilderness. Now it’s had the China treatment, and is crisscrossed with paved paths, stone stairs, and concrete railings that plausibly simulate wood. Our last day in this wonderland was spent one park over on Tianmenshan, Mt. Tianmen, a mile high platform that observes another Chinese maxim, “If you like it, put a cable car on it.” In this case, the cable car begins downtown, lifts off over the avenues, cruises just above the tenements, the suburbs, orchards, villages, and fields, and only then ascends stright up along peaks and canyons like Zion with trees. The trip takes 35 minutes, the longest cable car in the world. At the top, there’s a sprawl of restaurants and a temple complex. For me the most amazing part was a “plank walk,” a concrete ribbon stuck into the side of a 1,000 foot cliff, with those nice concrete railings (make this out of wood and I stay home). It’s not Tianshan or Huangshan but still very Chinese: The infrastructure built on this incredible chunk is astounding, far beyond any national park I’ve seen in any other country. As a result, people visit, lots of them, many in groups with guides with loud PAs. In China, you have to walk many miles to get away from it all, vs. the 100 yards to solitude in an American park.) The Chinese seem to have little taste for roughing it (perhaps life is already rough enough), so a good park has to handle grandmothers in street shoes. Camping and RVs — nonexistent. Westerners, also nonexistent, at least in Zhangjiajie, where we saw no Westerners for two days.

Will time start again after this shock of nature? Have to wait and see.

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The Year of the Bunny

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

One of my Oberlin teachers once told a story about taking his 4-year-old daughter to Times Square.  As they gazed at the flow of light, suddenly David noticed that his daughter was crying.  “Honey, what’s wrong?”  he asked.  “Daddy, it’s so beautiful!”

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen;  but it comes at the end of this, the story of the new year, the Year of the Rabbit, the spring festival.  In fact the episode really begins with the train to the Ice World, and the Tianjin train station waiting hall, a typically Chinese cavern, too big for the light to effectively reach the floor, so big that the birds migrate from the north end to the south every winter, big enough for a boulevard of palm trees down the middle, from tracks 1 to 24.  (Beijing South is similar — the banner image at the head of Tianjin Diaries.)  Emerging from the escalator on January 6, we were startled to find the place so crowded that you had to edge and weave your way, even down the middle.  “Carry-on” was redefined.  Our modest wheelies were dwarfed by colorful tarp sacks the size of bean bag chairs, amoebing the floor.  This was no longer travel — we were witnessing human migration on a Chinese scale.  Imagine if almost everyone in the US decided one day to hit the road — here, 300 million people were going home to their families in cities and villages, home to celebrate the new year.  “The largest internal migration in history,” said the China Daily.  As usual, we had stumbled into tumult — but still, the new year was nearly a month away.

This was our first clue that among Chinese holidays, New Years is big.  In the first two weeks of the  January exodus, Tianjin lightened up in the way New York does in August, a dip from the usual street jam.  Our campus emptied completely by mid-January, going dark and quiet.  And everything turned red.  Paper cutout banners flanked every door, with intricate patterns of fishes (= prosperity, by some pun) and rabbits (zodiac animal for the new year), and most commonly the character for “fortune” (as both luck and money), but upside down.  Why?  Because the word for upsidedown sounds like the word for “enter” — hence, “enter fortune.”  Red also became the color of clothes;  if you are born in a rabbit year, you are obliged to wear red (for luck, of course), so all the stores filled with red items.  Since not everyone chooses bright red for daily wear, the red items were either traditionally ceremonial, the high collared jackets or dresses, or discrete — undies or shoe inserts.  Of course all of these were inscribed with incantations and characters of luck.  And red gifts.  Everything in every story and at every street stand appeared in giftable cardboard suitcases:  fruit, eggs, meats, teas, booze, nuts, food supplements, energy drinks, coca cola and other sodas, bottled water, juice, instant coffee, vitamins, chocolate, honey, ginseng, just to name some of the recognizable items.  At the moment I’m breakfasting with a can of “Alpha amygdaline drink,”  from the case given by Ms. Shen, the kids’ daily cab driver.  Alpha amygdaline drink is derived from apricot pits, according to googlemind.  It’s good for your health, of course.  To me, it tastes like a vanilla milkshake, while those with senses of smell think first of paint thinner.  But probably the biggest intimation of the holiday to come were the fireworks stalls that sprang up on every other corner everywhere — the big intersections usually had two.  Typical stands were about thirty feet long, selling explosives from a spectrum of fire.  At one end, the little stuff, suitable for toddlers:  three foot long sparklers (here, made with gunpowder, more like handheld fountains) and spinny whistling fliers that shoot to the second storey.  Then, along the middle table, a boy’s dream of firecrackers.  When I was a kid, we smuggled strings from Canada, and a big one might be a weave of skinny two-inchers about the size of a potholder.  Here, the small size was a folded mat of red fingers, as big as your arm.  The largest firecracker unit was a wheel like a fat manhole cover.  Either was good for a wall of noise lasting about a minute.  Then you got to the big stuff, the aerials and fountains, ranging from basket barrages about the size of a cookie jar to colorful cubes equal to a shipping trunk, easily three feet on a side, a bundle of cannons with a single ominously short fuse.

Of course we wanted to be a part of this.  But apart from our growing awareness that this was the Big One, it wasn’t clear how an expat quartet of ignorant illiterate aphasics could fit in.  The kids had a week off from school, a pitiful nod of a break compared to the month or so of real holiday.  We seized our chance to visit Hong Kong, and then Nanchang, also in the mid-south.  Both visits hinged on the enormous generosity of our students, a student of mine in HK, and one of Cheryl’s in Nanchang.  First, Hong Kong.  Hong Kong is to China as Manhattan is to the US — compact, cosmopolitan, comfortably international.  For us, then, far easier than life on the mainland.  The British colonial remnants include driving on the left, “mind the gap,” and English, spoken even by cab drivers.  Fireworks are illegal there, and in general we got the impression that New Years was not such a big deal, kind of like the holiday in the US:  A party, a cheer, and a brunch.  Our sense of ease in Hong Kong made it seem familiar, but looking back on it, the feeling was merely relative — in fact HK is as much phantasmagoria as any of the amazes we’ve seen.  We had Leo and his girlfriend Carrie to take us to their favorite neighborhoods and the big, wonderful skylines, and guide us into food territories we could not have visited otherwise.  The Liyeungs embraced us as family, with mind-boggling generosity, and we began to get New Years.  It’s about gifting, not just on arrival and first meeting, which we successfully anticipated (cherries to us, nuts to Mrs. Liyeung, a tie to Mr. Liyeung (useless in China, but graciously received nonetheless)).  Gifts passed with every meeting, including the big family dinner, when Leo’s aunts all had something for the girls.  A special custom is the “red envelope,” for cash for the youngest family members.  Rianna and Morgan were raking it in, while their parents felt guilty, having underestimated the volume of this custom.  New Years is obviously all about family, as is most of Chinese life and culture.  And that means Food.  It’s always family style here, generally grabbed from the turntable of platters directly, so any meal consists of some of every dish served, and the correct amount of food is enough to cover the table in platters stacked two deep.  This is not an exaggeration.  Chinese restaurant dishes are served when they’re ready, in any order that the kitchen makes them.  So it is not unusual to get a sweet baked dessert within five minutes and some huge fish or meat platter 45 minutes later, when one is stuffed beyond imagining.  Usually the table quickly fills with big bowls and platters, but then more comes.  The present plates are consolidated into smaller dishes, and soon new plates are stacked on the intersecting corners of old.  We foreigners strive for the clean plate club, but in our experience real Chinese diners are content to leave half behind.  (Incredibly, I’ve actually lost a few pounds here.)  Chinese food combines tastes and ingredients infinitely, the Cafeteria of Babel, but the Liyeungs took us to new summits.  This included the seafood restaurant where dinner swam in terraces of bubbling tanks.  You point to what you want, and waiters snatch it from the water and head for the kitchen.  Dozens of species swim (their last) in this Galapagos.  King and horseshoe crabs, oysters, clams, weird skinny crustaceans like giant waterbugs, and every species of fish including bass (or like it) the size of dufflebags (reserved for special feasts).  I pointed to a bivalve that looked like a giant clam with an enormous tongue, I said, “What is that?” and Leo said, “You want some?”  The next night, then, at the Liyeung extended family dinner, the big item was roast suckling pig.  It’s the Chinese style to serve animals with their heads attached, as some eaters think these are the most delicious parts.  So also with the pig, who lost his as the server cleavered rounds for each of us.  The head stayed on the table, but at our table at least there were no takers.  Morgan, by the way, was alerted to the pig in advance, and was out windowshopping for this part of the meal.

Now the New Year was two days away, and we flew to Nanchang, in the inland province of Jianxi, “Cradle of the Revolution,” full of Mao-slept-here sites.  Nanchang is a city of about four million, not on the tourist list — our count of Westerners per day was around two. 

Nanchang riverfront -- spectacular fountains.

Now we were part of the Li family, and again with every hello gifts were exchanged.  Li Ying, Cheryl’s student, was our host and guide, but the center of the family was Ying’s grandmother, an 80-year old bundle of hugs and laughter, adored by our children and us too.  She was a Hero of the Revolution, the highest honor, for those who fought with Mao before the establishment of the PRC in 1949.  She was an entertainer, the MC at the shows for the troops at the front lines.  The Party arranged for her marriage to a captain in the People’s Liberation Army.  The ceremony consisted of bride and groom bringing their pillow and blanket together in public, and a toast to the Communist Party.  Boom, married.  In this case, happily and for more than 50 years, until the death of her husband, two years ago.

Again, food.  Big restaurant feasts on the night we arrived, new year’s eve,  new year’s day, and so forth, with snacks at Ying’s grandmother’s apartment in between.  But now the backdrop was not Hong Kong skyscrapers but a mounting cacaphony of fireworks.  Back in August, when we heard a string of firecrackers going off (to mark any auspicious new beginning), we raced with our cameras toward the sound.  I really believed I might not get to see real Chinese fireworks if I didn’t catch one of these quick displays.  The New Year is a beginning for everyone, and fireworks are mandatory.  Any sidewalk affords the space required for the red carpets and for the aerials too.  I have a video of a barrage of firecrackers in a stairwell.  With Li Ying we bought some of our own, and took these to a large square in Nanchang, and fit right in with the general uproar.  (The photo at the top of this entry is the morning after.)

Our week on the road was great, but I felt a little sad to have missed the event in Tianjin, which is now our home.  I thought that by the third day of the new year people would get over their fireworks, but not so.  The fifth day was marked with a continuous rumble and sometimes a few minutes of immediate din.  And so the year began very auspiciously indeed.

The holiday ended yesterday with the Lantern Festival, set on the first full moon of the new year.  I googled what I could find about it (the Google doodle commemorated it), and asked around about the customs and activities of the day.  During the day, I went to a Temple Fair and luckily caught the midday performances at “Prince Zhuang’s mansion,” a mini version of the Forbidden City owned by a Qinq dynasty prince.  It included a Festival custom of riddles, fluttering on banners under a trellis of lanterns, a clear pleasure for young and old.  (I wondered how Watson would do with them.)  Also, I finally saw a Lion Dance.  The two lions were each two guys, a head man and the lion’s ass, in charge of the wiggles and shudders that make a standing animal look alive.  They danced, fought, and jumped over each other to loud recorded music.  Then the concubines (I guess) presented a stately dance, as did the eunuchs (really guessing now), and then all joined with the gong bearers and heralds for a procession.  Like a lot of things Chinese, it was simultaneously profound and cheesy, deep myth and loud muzak. Cheryl is down south at a conference, so this was on my own, but after the kids came home we pushed through homework and set out for dinner and a walk.  At dusk the people’s fireworks got started.  Following our quick dinner, we walked in the Water Park, a beautiful park a few minutes south, which we had not visited since our second day here, back in August.  We were suddenly struck, hey, we’ve lived here for six months!  And from the oppressive heat and humidity we’ve swung to the opposite, a frigid park of stiff winds and frozen lakes.  The Tianjiners didn’t seem to mind, and neither did we, because from lakeside you could see the skyline, which was alive.  At the maximum, we counted eleven simultaneous displays of fireworks.  Many of these shoot straight up in the canyons of highrises — we see blooming edges, sudden flashes illuminating facades, resonating booms in all directions.

We were getting cold, so we hopped a cab back to campus, weaving under half a dozen aerial displays.  We felt like we had finally gotten the full new year’s ride, as only a city of ten million and ten megatons could provide.  But I had also heard that a downtown tourist site, the “Ancient Culture Street,”  down by the Haihe river, was a good place to go for lanterns, so the kids got out at home and I continued.  As we got close, the traffic jammed, so I paid the cab and started to walk.  I had imagined a street festooned with lanterns, an urban “lantern wall,” something pretty and colorful to walk through, especially with the crescendo of din.  But as I rounded the last building between me and the river, I gasped as I realized how completely wrong I was.

In earlier postings I’ve commented on the Chinese view of nature, which is not distinguished from human works.  As a sign near the path to “Lion’s Peak,” a beautiful rocky hill near Nanchang, says:  “More civilized, more beautiful.”  And so Lion’s Peak is climbed on stone stairs among big hand carved inscriptions (“The past and the present are one,”  “Eagles do not fly as high as this,”  “The heavens and the earth are one,” and “Take a break,” among others.)  The scale of the Chinese rewriting of the landscape has been consistently breathtaking — the Great Wall, for example.  But over the city last night, the people of Tianjin rewrote the sky.  What I didn’t get about the lanterns is that every person had one, and that they fly.  Each is a hot air balloon of tissue with a blazing lump of something at the base, about three feet tall and almost as wide.  The night sky last night was a new galaxy altogether.  Bright planets, new Mars and new Jupiters, scudded low overhead.  Other beacons passed in front of darkened skyscrapers, and above that and out to the horizon myriad red stars, down to the tiniest pinpoint, twinkled in ever shifting constellations and nebulae, a strong breeze making a parade out to infinity.  Tens of thousands were there, providing the second spectacle:  the city of Tianjin walking on the river.  I had been wondering if the ice was thick enough, and here was the answer.  As far as I could see, people were launching lanterns (quite a delicate process), careening on little sit-up sleds pushed by sticks or friends (without brakes), dancing with sparklers, and setting off the aforementioned cubes of boom.  I crossed a pedestrian bridge over the center of the river, so I could see miles in both directions, lantern launches in progress to my right and left,  lanterns racing overhead and processing along and ever higher, eclipsing the full, distant moon, bombs and starbursts above, ahead and behind, over the river and along the built canyons in every direction, the sprawl of thousands celebrating on a wide river between the sleek modern facades.  Just then I said to myself, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and like David’s daughter I admit I blinked back tears.  It was so China, but before and above that it was simply overwhelming.

I didn’t think much over the hours following.  I went down on the ice, ran out the memory and battery of my camera, crossed under and over bridges, got dragged into group photos, greeted children in puffball snowsuits (“Hello Ni hao!” — parents seem to really like the little English lesson), dodged bobsleds and tumbling hindenbergs, cheered to myself as each group of family, romance, and friendship got their lantern to fly (impossible to launch solo). 

Finally at around 11 things slowed down and I began walking home, very cold.  I hailed a scooter/rickshaw to get a little whitewater headlight terror to round out the evening.  This is a little hard to describe:  I felt turned inside out.  The buildings, so darkly imposing over vast Tianjin, seemed to lose substance, to fade.  Instead, the people thronged the river without things and stuff — just themselves and … fire.  Traditionally the lanterns are inscribed with wishes for the year ahead.  Once you get your lantern flying, your wish is dispatched to the universe, but it recedes only very slowly from your sight, in the presence of thousands of other wishes.  Meanwhile, the fireworks strobe the world with dazzle and sudden shadows, and wonderful echoes.  They provide lightning glances, quick takes of the mainly invisible world of matter.  Being me, I thought of the mind.  Through quick flashes, insights, glimpses, our thoughts make things, a staccato of fireworks like Chinese characters, creating — not discovering — the world.  But among the instants linger wishes, desires, and memories, steady embers in the shifting constellations that orient the chaotic flashes toward something a little steady.  So ultimately the people weren’t really there either, not for me and perhaps not for themselves either. It was a night of stunned awareness and abiding aspiration, all the particulars of one’s worried life burnt off and blown away.  Instead, in fire symbols, Tianjin, and I, write our minds across the sky.

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Ice Worlds

Since we have just (on January 8th) embarked on a sixteen hour sleeper train from a city where the midday temperature does not exceed zero (fahrenheit), perhaps this is a good time to compare our experience in China so far with Finland.  The moments are parallel:  In 2008 we had heard of an “Ice Castle” in Kemi, Finland, at the north end of the gulf that separates Finland and Sweden, near the arctic circle.  One weekend in February, we hopped a train north.  The Ice Castle was very cool, including a restaurant, bar, chapel (complete on that day with a wedding, and an exit for bride and groom in a reindeer sleigh), and a hotel where guests slept on slabs of ice covered with many many reindeer hides.

Ice Castle, Finland, 2008

  Person-sized ice sculptures stood in many rooms, and ice murals too, and outside there was a long ice slide for the kids, and a small stage for performances.  The place is cool in the other sense as well, with indoor temperatures in the low 20s everywhere, even in the honeymoon suite.  You had to keep moving to avoid freezing to death, which must have been a problem for the overnight guests (not that we saw any). 

We took overnight trains in both directions, so we had a full day in Kemi in between.  On our way to the castle, we enjoyed the outdoor market, including the stand selling Hawaiian shirts (covered with snow).

Tropical Kemi, 2008

  The Ice Castle and the icy gulf took a few hours, and then a long lunch a few hours more.  But then the lunch place closed along with the rest of the town (pop.:20,000).  We were fortunate to find the “Museum of Hairdressing,” possibly the only museum of its kind.  Highlights included the Versailles beehive of Marie Antoinette, a little creepy on a (detached) mannequin head.  Then it was 4 PM and getting dark, with the temperature in the ‘teens and the wind rising.  We kept moving until the first restaurant opened and eventually our train left for home.

The city of Harbin, China, is noted for its annual ice festival, so with Kemi in mind we set out for another arctic adventure.  But this is China.  The outdoor temperature in Harbin, 600 miles north of Tianjin,  hovered in the single digits and teens — below zero, as extreme as our coldest minutes in Finland (Rovaniemi, December 2002).  Harbin  is a quaint provincial town of ten million, as bustling and in-your-face as any Chinese city.  Our destination was “Ice World,” which on the map was clearly just across the river from us.  The river turned out to be at least a mile wide, frozen, desolate, wind-scoured, so we booked a horse drawn carriage, which meandered to the opposite shore.  Ice World was nowhere to be seen, but fortunately a student of mine was with us and realized that the remaining distance would be fatal.   We took a cab for the final four miles to the gate of Ice World, a gate  like the main gate to an ancient city, cut through a massive city wall of huge blocks of solid ice.  Behind it Ice World covers several hundred acres with free-standing structures, huge imposing castles and pagodas and coliseums and cathedrals.  At sunset, the ice metropolis lights up from within, from colored fluorescents and LEDs embedded in every block.  At a beautiful extreme, a gathering of four-storey pagodas, perfectly symmetrical, glowing blue.  In the very center, a Disney castle flashing through the rainbow.  Loud classical music played everywhere.  There were no ice cafes, but instead frequent temporary box huts with lots of heat, and a KFC and cheesy restaurants.  Thousands milled about, the -30 windchill notwithstanding.

So, discuss:  The Finnish place was functional and interior;  the ice was illuminated with white light or light Finnish blue, and the whole flowed with the clean lines and elegant unity of Nordic design.  The Chinese counterpart was colossal, psychedelic, and spectacular. Each monumental structure had its own design, often a scaled copy of some other (famous) structure.  These islands of light and cold were scattered across an immense public space.  They had no insides; their only function was to dazzle.  The regular logistics of life were exiled to ugly temporary structures … but with heat and (bad) coffee.  Overall, then, neither place served any function at all:  The Ice Castle was dysfunctional because it was so cold inside, and Ice World was dysfunctional because it never had any function to begin with.  Both melt every spring, and are rebuilt every winter (and charge admission, very steep in the Chinese case).  So both are transient art objects, the sand Mandelas of their cultures. 

Now for the shaky overgeneralizations:  Finnish culture, like the Ice Castle, is built around the individual lives of people.  Society and its constructs intend to make it possible for you to do what you choose to do, but with an absolute minimum of intrusion on “personal space.”  Finns famously live interior lives with lots of self-reflection, mostly ironic.  Chinese culture aims to sustain society and culture at any cost, and to promote a triumphant image of five thousand years of “China!”  Individual needs are met only as needed to keep the whole project moving.  There is no personal space at all, and accordingly the interior life is not reflective.  People act directly from their personal initiative, and presently there seems to be a kind of national multiple personality:  One either conforms one’s self to the grand social project of eternal China, which is realized mainly within families and tight social networks.  Or one cuts loose into a radical individualism, a Darwinian struggle for the very limited supply of brass rings.  Everyone acknowledges that life is not easy no matter what;  in particular, the trappings of wealth are achieved, if ever, only with immense ongoing stress. 

In the middle, us.  I went back to the family Finland blog, to find a passage I had written three years ago:

Sight and sound harmonize in Helsinki.  Whenever I sit down to write about the place, I come back to that indescribable balance, or space, or equipoise.  It defines the fundamental contrast with life in the old country, which is so relentlessly in your face:  garish, jolting, clanging.  In America, people and things clamor for your attention, they grab at you.  In Finland, people and things jostle to get out of your way, to be unobtrusive.  For an American who wants to fit in here, that poses the challenge to be a bit quieter, a bit less impulsive, and a lot more receptive to space and silence.  ( http://clgreenberg.wordpress.com )

So different in China!  In China we are the quiet, reserved ones .  (Our family, that is.  The kids report that the Americans they encounter are loud and obnoxious.)  But quiet or loud, “society” and the folks around here really don’t care.  Not that they’re indifferent to us, being hugely friendly and always helpful when help is needed.  But in the social space of ordinary street life, typically other people flow by without regard to anyone else’s intentions.  To polite Americans it can read as rudeness, but of course it isn’t.  It’s just difference.  Nothing harmonizes;  instead you are buffeted with the cacaphony and wild disjunctions of modern/ancient sleek/dilapidated perfect/corrupt canny/clumsy….

In both cultures, but for opposite reasons, it’s easy to be foreign.  Finns make space for everyone and the Chinese make no space for anyone.  In either world the incompetent, illiterate, and aphasic foreigner can weave in and out with little obstacle, oblivious to disapproval.  Mostly you can wander in a state of curiosity, taking the train to the next perplexing mystery, wondering.



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Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh

Some years ago I undertook a two week hunger strike to protest American involvement in Vietnam.   More accurately, my fast was to protest my own involvement in Vietnam — if I could weigh less than 125 pounds at my draft physical, I might get a medical deferment. In the end, I didn’t get the deferment, despite dropping 25 pounds, but I didn’t go to Nam either, since our birth year turned out to be lucky.  Our vacation to Southeast Asia, with Cheryl’s sister Madelyn and her two sons Tom and Jack, thus had historical resonance.  The map of south Vietnam is inscribed in memory along with the face of Walter Cronkheit, and we were in Saigon.  Officially Ho Chi Minh City, but the locals generally go with Saigon, easier and better sounding.  Our American involvement in Vietnam began on Xmas eve, and it seemed that the six million residents all hopped on their motorcycles and swarmed the streets. 

Saigon, 24 December 2010

Crossing the street in Saigon is fording a stream, step by step as the flow parts around you.  You cross in two stages, since gaps in both directions at once are a cosmic impossibility, and more than once I had to turn sideways and inhale to let a bus by.  The streets are about as loud as in China, but many horns have built in echoes, BEEPBeepbeep, fading away as if in a forlorn canyon.  Or perhaps a thousand forlorn canyons.

Our first day took us into the heart of the American war, as it is known in Vietnam.  We began with a tour of the Cu Chi tunnel system, 250 km of crawl space connecting subterranean kitchens, dormitories, hospitals, weapons workshops, and more, covering territory as close as 5 km from the main American base.  From these dark, hot crawls freedom fighters could pop up like gophers, fire a weapon, and disappear beneath a lid of leaves impossible to see.  In that way, vast territory belonged to the freedom fighters at night, and to the American aggressors by day.  Not that you’d want it.  The jungle (a temperate forest, really) is riddled with B-52 bomb craters, every few hundred feet, each about twenty feet wide and ten feet deep, and equally riddled with truly diabolical booby traps, like the swinging platform that drops you onto a bed of bamboo spikes, or the clamping jaws, or the swinging door trap, all armed with iron spikes.  Each of them sprang with the weight of the unfortunate soldier who stepped upon it, and all swung back to invisible readiness after each spiking. 

The Cu Chi outdoor park/museum included numerous mannequin tableaux, displays of captured American tanks and unexploded bombs, and the opportunity to crawl through the tunnels themselves, hot, tight, and dark.  Then we moved on to the firing range, where tourists could buy rounds of live ammunition and fire them off, from the relatively cheap AK-47 to the M-16 and on up to some very angry and deafening machine guns, favored by the Australian tourists (men of a certain age).  We each fired off a round of AK-47, which was deafening enough.  This was maybe the most surreal moment of the day, American and other foreigners clamoring around the (North) Vietnamese troops to buy ammo for the weapons that fought this war, now transfigured into a tourist theme park.

Our visit ended with a documentary film, made back then with the grainy B/W jitters of a classic newsreel, celebrating the brave fighters of Cu Chi village, who fought on after their village was razed, farm girls who earned the glorious “medal for killing Americans” and boys with the ribbon for destroying American tanks.

Then after an outdoor lunch we visited the War History Museum, which documented just one war.  American warplanes in perfect condition filled the yard and the exhibits began with a large illustration devoted to the My Lai massacre, and carried on through a stomach churning parade of American atrocities, of which the Agent Orange birth mutations are the most horrific.  The Vietnamese, as far as we could tell, take great pride in their victory.  Our guide said that if they hadn’t won, South Vietnam would be an American state and he’d be speaking English only.  We heard many times that the Vietnamese are a very forgiving people, that they like Americans and that anyway most are too young to remember the war.  After the tenth repetition of this mantra, you begin to wonder.  Nonetheless, the people we met (in this tourist economy) were certainly friendly, even when dollars were not involved.

I felt shame and sadness.  Of course, the history from this side of the street omits mention of the South Vietnamese soldiers who fought with the Americans, and the official alliance between the two countries.  Nonetheless, at this distance the rationale for the carnage seems faintly ridiculous.  And (although this is obvious) the actual carnage goes far beyond the most graphic Hollywood version, as I can testify after wincing my dutiful way through all the Vietnam movies of the last thirty years.  Leaders and peoples should not be insulated from the knowledge of the reality of warfare. 

Following this first day, we began a meander up the Mekong river, still the agrarian heart of Vietnam.  Sometimes we bounced along in a van, but often we went by boats of various sizes, always pleasant.  On land Vietnam is hot and humid, but on the water balmy and Hawaiian.  Only on water can you see the economic system.  Big farms ship their produce downstream, parking boats in flotillas to form huge floating markets.  Each seller hangs an example of the family produce from a bamboo pole on their boat.  The retailers snake their smaller motorboats among the sellers, stocking up on the fresh fruit and produce sold in every town.  We had many happy helpings of pineapple, papaya, dragonfruit, jackfruit, and watermelon.  Presumably the other produce is as good.

The Mekong voyage continued with a five hour speed boat run from Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Once again, the first stop was political.  Just as Vietnam won the American war, Cambodian civil war ended with the ascent of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  His fighters were greeted with joy, but within three hours he ordered the total evacuation of all the cities, beginning the horror that was the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.  Most genocides involve a pretext of group differences, but not this one, a self-devouring of a totalitarian, paranoid state.  Two to three million were murdered, 30% of the population at the time, in the killing fields that dot the landscape.  We went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a school that had been converted into a prison, “security office 21.” 

The rules of the place are printed on a large sign in Khmer, French, and English:

The average stay in the prison was a few months, but after that the killing fields always followed.  Only seven people survived S-21.  Both of our guides had lost most of their families in the killing.  The Tuol Sleng pamphlet concludes with these words:

Keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodian soil alive is the key to build a new strong and just state.

Furthermore, making the crimes of the inhuman regime of the Khmer Rouge public plays a crucial role in preventing a new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on Earth.

Finally in 1979 Vietnam occupied Cambodia, ending the Khmer Rouge.  After considerable diplomacy, in 1993 a parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial monarch was established.  Now the population has exploded, mostly on the farms, and the main industry is tourism.

We continued up river and into the past, the heart of the Khmer empire, which from the 9th to the 15th Centuries was second only to China in size, including virtually all of the current countries of SE Asia.  The Khmer rulers built stunning religious cities in the jungles of Angkor.  Angkor Wat is the best known, one of the “seven wonders of the world.”  Five beehive towers arise from successive platforms reached by colossal steep staircases.  The main structure is enclosed in a wall several thousand feet long, inside a moat flanked by statues of gods and demons.

Angkor Wat was one of six temple complexes that we visited over two days.  Each was different, and falls on my short list of infinite buildings — structures that show more and endless detail no matter how you peer at them.  Bayan was magnificently and intricately carved at every scale, including a thousand yard frieze depicting every warrior, monkeys and crocodiles included, in an epic victory over the kingdom of Sri Lanka.  Another temple has been left with the encroaching jungle in place, jumbled columns and chambers locked in giant banyan roots — nature and human works mixed up by undiscovered centuries.  Another temple sat high on a hill overlooking the unbroken green (and Angkor Wat).  We went up to watch the sunset, commuting up and down by elephant.  The elephants seemed to us to be healthy and contented.  Their drivers sat bareback on their animal’s head, with their feet propped on the elephant’s ears.  We rode in a swaying wooden copula.

Then we retraced our steps (by plane) and are currently approaching Guanzhou on the way to Beijing and Tianjin.  It was a great trip, obviously.  It casts a reflection on life in China.  China is poor, but SE Asia is poorer — the dilemmas of the relatively rich tourist are apparent on every street.  China is also somehow more uniform than the haphazard charm of megavillages like Saigon and Phnom Penh.  It was certainly nice to be on a tour with local guides, and we found everyone we encountered, even the tuc-tuc (motorized rickshaw) drivers, to have good English skills.  But tourism and living are as different as dragonfruit and papaya.  The tourist looks for spectacle, material pleasure, and exotic charm.  The resident temporary expat wants to identify with the local culture, which requires a depth of knowledge far beyond my five month short course (so far).  It’s work, but work of a different kind, the warm effort of building a world in common with the taxi drivers in their turquoise cabs, the students on their bicycles, the fruit sellers, the migrant workers, the eager boyfriends and girlfriends, the harried professors and the proud parents.  I wonder if there’s a word in Chinese to express this kind of work — I’ll have to ask around.

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Tianjin: inspiring the dream?

In my dream I was with my in-laws and we had decided to visit a house that had been mentioned briefly in some guide book. I thought the place was at the edge of our district, but the cab was driving forever, and instead of city we were going through endless industrial suburbs, sprawling factories and monumental apartment construction, just like we see everywhere in Tianjin. But suddenly we were in a whole town that was nothing but classical Chinese buildings. We got out of the cab, but instead of going to the house we decided to have lunch first. Along the facade there were many shops, but the signs were indecipherable no matter how hard I tried to read them. Each door was covered with thick plastic flaps hanging in strips, all discolored, so you had to push your way through to see what was inside. Everything was a surprise: one was a little restaurant, but there were power tools spread all over the floor; another was a big hotel lobby. We tried to ask someone, and she pointed us toward a narrow slot with a sparse little bar inside, and a thin staircase in the back. We climbed the stairs and the whole second floor was a seemingly endless chain of large restaurant rooms with heavy red chairs. We were the only ones there, except for some fish in giant blue aquariums. Eventually someone found us and brought a menu that had a few pictures in front but was only in Chinese. We picked at random and something like brisket arrived. Our place settings were shrinkwrapped in thick plastic and made a sound like a firecracker when we punctured them. While we were eating, different people came to our table but we didn’t understand them. One of them looked a lot like my sister-in-law Pam. Each spoke to us for a minute, laughed, and went away. Then an insect the size of a hummingbird began to hover around us, so we paid and left. Outside we discovered a large canal like the one that flows around the university, with an arch bridge like the ones in town, only bigger. The day had the character of the end of time: A midday sun shone orange and feeble against a whitebrown sky. Buildings faded into haze. A gritty cold wind rustled through the empty trees and scaffolds. (Last Saturday was that kind of day.) There was almost no one there, but I felt like the few people we saw were watching us. The house we were trying to see looked like a doorway in a flat gray wall with a ticket stand. I remember the price, 27 RMB for each. Inside the door was another brick wall and an alley, but in the middle of it was a large jade sculpture with a disturbing shape, like a growth, but it turned out to be a giant bok choi. We found ourselves in brick alleys, flat and gray, but with small stone carvings of leering animals and cherubs. Every portal was different, and through every door something strange: a bedroom, or a garden, or a Buddhist shrine like the Dabei temple we visited last Saturday, or a display of silent movie stills, or a tape loop of Mao announcing the creation of the People’s Republic, or a Chinese merchant chatting with a British sailor — in wax –, or even a theater. But nothing was playing except for the sound of incessant hammering in the wings. No one was there, except for one tour group. The guide was pointing to a brick in the wall, and people were taking pictures with telephoto lenses. We couldn’t find the way out but then we were on the streets of the town, weirdly deserted but with souvenir and junk tables in front of some of the shops, and a loud tape loop advertising a snack cart. We ended up in a gigantic square, still beneath a cold and lonesome sun. And that was the dream, except that it was no dream. Everything in it really happened.

But suddenly we were in a whole town that was nothing but classical Chinese buildings.


in the middle of it was a large jade sculpture with a disturbing shape

flat and gray, but with small stone carvings of leering animals and cherubs

through every door something strange


a Chinese merchant chatting with a British sailor

the streets of the town, weirdly deserted

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