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.  ( )

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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Cities of the Dead

In the beginning, the women ruled. Six thousand years ago is not quite the beginning, but it is the time of the village called Banpo, not far from Xi’an, the ancient capital of China, about two hours west of here by air. Banpo was a developed neolithic village with a moat, decorated pottery, and thatched huts familiar to the Pequot and many other cultures. It may also have been a matriarchy. North of the village lay a cemetery, where the best graves were for the women. They had the most grave trinkets and crocks of food set very carefully at their feet. They might lie with their daughters, even if it meant adding a body later to the grave. The men were separate, in not such spiffy holes. Everyone was buried facing west, and many were found with nearby separated phalanges — fingers — at their side. In some cultures, you cut off your hair in grief. But for extreme sorrow… . Also in the village, archeologists found large pots embedded in the walls of huts, and in the pots, the bones of infants. They kept their lost ones close, in this village of love.

About four thousand years later, in 246 BC, a thirteen-year-old boy named Zhao Zheng became the king of the land of Qin (pronounced “Cheen”). The Qin lords were determined warriors, and in 221 the last of the other warring states was defeated. Zhao Zheng declared himself Qin Shi Huang Di, “First Emperor of Qin.” Having conquered the lands of the living, he set out to conquer the dead. A history written a century later reported that seven hundred thousand workers built his other kingdom, a vast tomb to the east of Xi’an. (Recent estimates scale this back to less than 100,000.) The mausoleum, they say, was a vaulted microcosm with one hundred rivers of mercury beneath a sky of jade and constellations of pearls. Zhao Zheng built his death-universe beneath a pyramid of rammed earth one hundred meters tall, covering a square mile. It remains unopened, protected by legendary booby-traps, and more recently by a respect for fragile antiquity and the deadly mercury content of every core sample. According to our guide, the Chinese plan to excavate the site in 100 years, when the technology is ready.

Qin Shi Huang did not go alone. All the concubines who had not yet had a child were buried alive with him. So also the workers who built the place, maybe to toil on, or maybe to keep their mouths shut about the service entrance. These graves have not been excavated either, but in 1974 a farmer digging a well about mile from the tomb unearthed some shards of terracotta. Archeologists followed, finding the fragments of a life-size terracotta soldier, and then another, and another…. So far three pits have been opened and a fourth begun, covering several acres. About ten thousand warriors have been uncovered; exactly one of them was found intact (a kneeling archer). A modern archeological army has rebuilt the ancient one. Each warrior is close to six feet tall, varying in height by rank. Each carried a real weapon, a spear, bow, or cross-bow. Each has an accurate uniform, armor, and hair and trimmings appropriate to his rank. Each face is unique. The commanders look forward with shrewdly distant gaze, but the ranks of warriors have the downcast eyes of the subservient, reconciled to their eternal duty, ready for battle forever. They are waiting now, most still under several meters of earth — the terracotta army we can see now occupies a tiny percentage of the necropolis of twenty square miles.

In his galactic ego and unquenchable paranoia, Qin Shi Huang is not only very un-Chinese but inhuman. For example, many of his two hundred palaces were linked by underground tunnels, so that he could slip beneath the notice of the evil spirits (and assassins) who stalked him. He despised the history before the Qin, despised any philosophy other than “legalism” — obedience to the law and the ruler –, despised intellectual life in general. The histories alleged that he burned books and scholars alike, by the thousands and hundreds. He’s the one who conceived and began the Great Wall. But arguably he is one of the most important figures in history, possibly even the single most important. He standardized the system of weights and measures, the currency, and even the wheels and axles of carts across the realm. More important, he standardized written Chinese into the form that Chinese speakers can still read and understand. In short, by war and tyranny he made a single vast nation whose unity has endured despite every conceivable whiplash of power. While the Roman Empire fragmented into the languages, cultures, and countries of Europe, this one country held together, and will continue as one into this century, a time that will likely belong to China. The Chinese call their nation the Middle Kingdom (or Middle Land. America, by the way, is “Beautiful Kingdom.”) But most of the rest of the world calls it China — the land of Qin.

Qin Shi Huang bent all his energies toward immortality, and his undead city of fear is one of the most awesome creations of humankind. His powers were as limitless as his imagination, and his campaign to defeat the empire of death occupied his whole reign. (He began the tomb while still a teenage Qin warlord.) Nevertheless, in 210 BCE, he died.

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Ting bu dong.

My personal phrasebook, which is not large, begins and ends with “Ting bu dong,” “Don’t understand.” Literally it means, “hear, not understand,” which is my state of being in this polyphonic, cacophonous, single-languaged land. Ting bu dong can also be part of a sentence, “Wo ting bu dong,” “I don’t understand,” although it is usually obvious who is ting, bu dong. In conversation, ting bu dong clarifies my blank confusion, but for some reason greatly amuses Chinese speakers. Whenever I say it, everyone within hearing laughs and nudges their neighbors, pointing at me and repeating “Ting bu dong, ting bu dong.” So I was pleased to find a T-shirt with ting bu dong on it in bold Chinese characters, 聽不懂. I wore it for our one manic day at the Shanghai expo. All day I got smiles and possibly approached the photo record set by Rianna and Morgan, who must appear in hundreds of Chinese photo albums and Facebook pages. (The Chinese FB is called QQ. Western FB is, um, not available. QQ (I read) has one billion users.) Among the Expo crowds “Ting bu dong” echoed everywhere around me. I thought, Wow, can all these people really not understand?

At lunch with a bunch of philosophers the other day I finally got to ask why ting bu dong was funny. I thought maybe I was mispronouncing it, saying “Beer, not underwear” or something — this is easy to do in Chinese. (For example, “thank you” and “diarrhea” are identical syllables but different in just one tone.) But no, my colleagues decided it was funny because it is correct Chinese: a foreigner communicates effectively in the local language that he is clueless. As Socrates says, there’s a kind of wisdom in knowing you don’t know, compared to simple blank ignorance.

The wisdom of Ting bu dong is of little use in shops, restaurants, taxis — anywhere at all. I can often state my main goal, “Can I see a menu?”, etc., but my minimal vocabulary is never enough to cope with the dreaded follow-up question. And life is all about follow-up questions. China especially is the land of questions because every conceivable job niche in the service sector is simultaneously occupied by two to seven people. I think our record is a gauntlet of twelve greeters welcoming us to the restaurant in our building. I went to Home Depot (with its global motto in English, “You can do it. We can help.”) for an uncanny hour in the Tianjin manifestation of the universal archetype of homedeponess. The Chinese characters along the aisles were in Depot-font on an orange background. It was just like West Hartford — except that the folks in orange aprons were everywhere, in every aisle in groups of twos and threes, chatting away. Boy, can we help! I didn’t need my ting bu dong there as I am Home-po literate. I felt a comforting surge of that rare feeling of competence (“You can do it”) as I gathered picture-hangers, double-sided tape, and a Halloween costume for Rianna (a hard hat and reflective vest).

Global clones like Home Depot are the exception. Every other logistic needs language. Getting around town is not so hard for aphasics. You just have to locate your destination, find the address in Chinese, and print or write it to show the cab driver. In the early days we had to be sure to have the same prop for getting home, but now we can say “Nankai DaShue, Weijin Lu,” with the confidence of a native. Planning a tourist trip requires strategic thinking at the computer before we set out.

Restaurants are another story. In a Chinese restaurant, as soon as you sit a server presents you with a two pound menu — just one for the whole table — and waits to take your immediate full order. I don’t think there’s any intent to pressure the client, since there are ranks of servers standing around, often several right at the table, and standing around is evidently part of most job descriptions, except in the factories. The menu is usually about thirty laminated slabs with pictures of each dish, sometimes near the item’s name. This is less helpful than you might think, as the universal reach of Chinese cuisine leads to many ambiguities. Is it calamari? Or duck webs or chicken feet? Mushrooms? Or jellyfish or pig esophagus? The size of the dish is also unknown. We’ve had a beef roast consisting of five wafers the size of a quarter, up to heaps as big as your head, one of which would feed us for a week — and we’ve ordered four. The system leads to discoveries: for example, pig fat in gravy is delicious and demonstrably good for you, since Chairman Mao had it every night for decades and he reached a ripe old age. We have also acquired another very useful term, Dabao, “Take out.”

I think the complexity of daily interactions may be a side effect of job duplication. Essentially, every task in Chinese society is handled by a committee. Think about it. You and five others assigned to the mission of delivering the menu to the customer. There are probably many ways to improve this process, to which you and your colleagues can contribute for the greater good of all. Most of these elaborations require follow-up questions.

We are pursuing the obvious remedy. The kids study Chinese in school and make quick progress. for Cheryl and me, the learning process requires responsible self-reliant disciplined diligence. Um… ah… ting bu dong. For complicated arrangements, like cell phones (very intricate, passports and more needed at every turn), we rely on the kindness of interpreters, particularly a student of Cheryl’s who has cheerfully herded us through every gate of the electronic age. Our student friend has also offered something which I’ve found at least as comforting as a trip to Home Depot: my Chinese name. Not the translation of my name into Chinese (though it is also that), but the name which henceforth = me, in the Middle Kingdom. This is not only satisfying but only fair, as many younger Chinese people have English names. Student interactions begin, “Hello, my name is Li LuQu, but you can call me Jennifer.” To my embarassment, I do have trouble pronouncing and remembering Chinese names, so I go with Jennifer, Sophia, Andy, Alice, etc. Now I can reply, “Hello, my name is Dan, but you can call me 罗毅丹.” That is, Luo Yi Dan (say it fast). Luo is apparantly a common family name, and YiDan, my first name, means “Steadfast red,” where red has connotations of good luck (in addition to patriotism). Chinese acquaintances seem pleased for me. In a poster for an upcoming talk, only 罗毅丹 will appear. Thus, I make linguistic strides, from Ting bu dong to Luo YiDan ting bu dong.

 As you can gather, aphasia and illiteracy are stressing. A bit of alternative relief popped up at dinner a few night ago, over sushi (a treat here same as home). Cheryl, Rianna, and Morgan were chatting away and suddenly I realized that I didn’t understand a single word, although it was definitely not Chinese. It was alarming — had my language-cramped brain failed all the way? After a few minutes, I tentatively said, “Krefalunk brugitt,” to which Rianna replied, matter of fact, “Kre. Borador sif.” We were speaking Gibberish. In fact, we were totally fluent! We argued, reminisced, joked, and deliberated in Gibberish for an hour, all the way home, eventually falling into laughing fits in the cab and back on campus. I assume that Tianjin rarely sees visitors for Gibberland. We hope that we may be ambassadors of understanding and good will between the Middle Kingdom and the citizens of Gib. Zàijiàn and bludord che che zsk from 罗毅丹!

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Step by step

Italo Calvino has described the “invisible cities” that Marco Polo encountered on his journey to China, including this one:

If you choose to believe me, good.   Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made.   There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks.   You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands.   Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support.   All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities.   They know the net will last only so long.

I thought of Octavia as we snaked up the switchback alleys and edgy paths that define Longsheng village, a daytrip from the Li River vacation of early October.  Because it clings to a steep mountain, even a narrow foothold is a builder’s achievement.  The town is a jumble of baskets, benches, planks, platforms, pillars, porches, slabs, and stairs, with a web of clotheslines, corn drying lines, power lines, and racks and lines of colorful textiles for sale.

But to live requires flat land for crops, and rice especially, which must be flooded at the beginning of each growing season.  They’ve solved this problem too.  After the people of Longsheng have have finished their work, their land is the flattest in China.

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The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once imagined an emperor who ordered his mapmakers to devise a perfect map of his empire. To capture every detail, the makers required ever larger maps until ultimately their map was just the size of the empire itself — perfect at last, but completely useless. China is not only the right setting for a fantasy project on a continental scale, but in fact over the last few thousand years the Chinese have undertaken Borges’ project: China is the elaborate, embellished, unfinished map of itself. In other places, things have labels; here, things are labels, and as a result the landscape is its own user’s guide. Because Chinese can be written horizontally or vertically, buildings can beam a logo from the top and slogans down the sides, and they do, along with flashing digital displays worthy of Times Square. Even dense alleys of window vendors are hung with dancing LED characters.

This is not a new thing nor is it confined to walls. For thousands of years, in China nature and human works have been revised for beauty. Nature is not a pristine wilderness to be viewed from outside, but rather an inspiring canvas for the human hand to rearrange — and inscribe. In front of our apartment, the dirt field of August is now the Chinese garden of September, with inlaid meandering stone paths and two artful boulders (and fifty trees and shrubs, by the way, very nice!). The stones in the path outline Chinese characters, and the boulders each have carved inscriptions. Each boulder took two workers about two days to carve (around ten characters), using (very loud) grinders.

Writing, especially calligraphy, is not easy in solid rock. So the many inscriptions that define Mount Tai (Taishan), written up the cliffs, over the boulders, down the waterfalls, present in every view, are especially impressive and beautiful. Taishan is one of the “five sacred peaks,” which we climbed with Morgan’s 8th grade class as part of their “week without walls” ultimate field trip experience. (Rianna’s week without walls took her to Mongolia.) Taishan towers across the poetic landscape in many proverbs. Things can be “as heavy as Taishan,” as in “Though death befalls all men alike, it may be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a feather.” If you fail to acknowledge greatness in another person, you “have eyes but cannot recognize Taishan.” Accordingly, a very important person is “Mount Tai and the Big Dipper” — in English, Mr. Big. Emperors traditionally begin their reigns with long marches to the summit, and auspicious sacrifice to the god(s) of Taishan. Their treks and poetic musings are then carved into the rock. Writing is everywhere, more than a thousand separate inscriptions, some thousands of years old and at least one poem inscribed in 1990. I tried not to pester others too much for translations, but it seems that many of the inscriptions are celebrations of Taishan itself, the “peaceful place at which all the oceans meet.” The mountain is its own travelogue, history, and tour guide.

Confucius said, “after climbing Taishan, the world becomes small.” On our hike, the world quickly sank into haze and our remaining energy became small. The way up is a broad stone staircase between low walls, very steep, quite like the Great Wall. Perhaps an hour into the climb we looked up into the greenery to see a ribbon of stairs impossibly high above us, and then above another rocky shoulder, still more stairs, and finally the tiny red dot of the East Gate to the summit. One mile above sea level seems like a modest climb, but when that mile is 7200 stone steps, well, you might just groan at the awesome beauty of it all. At the top is an extensive village with shops, a dozen temples, and a big hotel where we spent the night, an island above the clouds. It was sunny as we arrived, but soon clouds blew up from below, streaming up the mountainside. By night and the following morning, Taishan was enveloped in a dense fog. We took the cable car down, an option not available to the emperors. The car bounced out of the landing pad into an empty whiteness. Even the 8th graders fell silent as we made our descent to the bottom of the world.

After I posted a picture of Taishan on Facebook, my teacher David Young connected me to his translation of a poem by Du Fu, written in the 8th Century:

How to describe a peak

that has produced such reverence?

…there’s the greenness that surrounds it–

two provinces, Qi and Lu

all creation is contained

on those dark slopes, that sunny side

layers of clouds refresh

climber and climbed alike

the birds fly up and up

beyond our straining eyes

someday I want to stand

right there on the summit

the other mountains dwarfed

spreading in all directions!

Du Fu’s poem has had a good run, being in print since about 760. But if he is fortunate enough to be inscribed on a mountain, he will be “Gazing at Mt. Tai” for millions of years. Zàijiàn!

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