Thursday, February 26, 2009


I'm trying to plan a summer research trip to China, and thinking about transportation. Coincidentally, we saw an episode of "Modern Marvels" the other night which was about highways and the technology used to build them. It had the obligatory section on China's nascent highway system and the number of years until it outstrips the US interstate system in length.

Shanghai is ringed by two beltways built on extraordinarily high elevated piers, the older of which was under preliminary construction when I lived there in 1992. It was nowhere near finished by the time I left, so I never rode on it. This was true of many things that year in Shanghai, after former mayor Zhu Rongji became minister of finance (or something like that) and finally began redirecting funds back toward Shanghai for public works, rather than simply siphoning off the city's extraordinary economic power for the impoverished interior. In 1992 most people living in Shanghai's Old City (the fifteenth-century walled fishing town that predated the foreign concessions in Shanghai and its status as a treaty port) had no plumbing in their houses, and nightsoil buckets (马桶 or "horse buckets") were collected every morning at curbside. The subway system was also under construction (although I didn't know at the time that that was why such a big swath of Renmin Park was roped off), and Pudong was just a big hole full of dirt, with the bizarre Oriental Pearl Tower just beginning to rise out of the ground. Pile drivers on the Bund (waterfront) could be heard as far away as the campus of Fudan University (several miles away), but we thought they were simply reinforcing the silty riverbank and the sinking delta city.

It wasn't until I returned to China around 1995 that I first heard the word gaosu gong lu (高速公路) -- Highway. It literally means "high-speed public road" but the meaning was immediately obvious when I heard it used. But it was the first time I'd heard the word, after ten years of speaking Chinese, because before that time there were no highways in China. All long-distance travel and shipping was done by rail, and the reasons were obvious when it took us six hours to drive the 180 km between Chengdu and Leshan in 1988, not counting the flat tire. Meanwhile, I returned to Shanghai in 2001 and found it utterly unrecognizable (but very easy to get around).

And this made me wonder whether it wouldn't be possible, in theory, to track my Chinese vocabulary from 1985 (when I started learning it) to the present, and how it would reflect the changes in China over that time through changes in knowledge and usage. When did I first learn the word for "Internet" (互联网)? For "ethernet card" (网卡)? For "shopping mall" (商城)? "Beeper" (delightfully, BB 机) entered my vocabulary around 1990 and fell out of usage seven or eight years later. By contrast, I haven't used the word "ration coupon" (油票 or 粮票 or analogous terms, depending on the commodity being rationed) since my first trip to China in 1988, but I was still asking around for the "grain distribution office" (粮站) in Shanghai in 1993, as, despite the proliferation of "supermarkets" (超级市场) in the neighborhood, it was still the only place I could buy flour to make tortillas.

There would, of course, be some weird outliers created by my degrees in archaeology and art history and my ability to read classical Chinese, which explains why, for example, I know that it was Duke She and not Duke Ye who loved dragons (from the proverb 叶公好龙, which uses an archaic pronunciation of the family name Ye), and can parse the common proverb 莫名其妙 (used to mean "incomprehensible" but actually a classical phrase meaning literally, "There's no naming its miraculousness") which makes no actual sense in modern Chinese. Some bits of my Chinese vocabulary have nothing to do with the twentieth century.

But I'd love to be able to compare the vocabulary I've accumulated over the years (some of which reflects various people's educational impressions of what I might need to know) with the vocabulary I've actually had cause to use. I did once read an archaeology journal article, published in 1954, which began 宗教是群众的鸦片 ("Religion is the opiate of the masses"), which was not up till then a piece of knowledge I thought would ever pay off. On the other hand, and contrary to the position apparently taken by my favorite Chinese-English dictionary, I have never had any use for my ability to talk intelligibly about the dictatorship of the proletariat (无产阶级专政).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I take it back about "Rome"

The gratuitous violence is just too gratuitous, and the Romans too corrupt, in a Three Kingdoms kind of way (what does it say about me that I understand the political machinations of the Julii through a lens of Zhuge Liang and Cao Cao?). I don't recommend it, even with the sex and the wigs and the eunuchs.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Things that have happened to me recently, bullet point edition

  • Last Monday, I drove to the airport to pick up Rex from a flight, then called him on his cell phone, which he answered from a taxi heading home. Spousal coordination FTL.
  • While he was in California at his conference, Rex stayed with his brother, who turned him on to the HBO/BBC series "Rome," so we rented it. It's utterly gratuitous and totally over-the-top, but these qualities are peculiarly combined with some historical accuracy. The upshot is totally enthralling, even when you can't believe that they actually showed that on TV. Last night we watched an episode in which the decadence of the late-period Ptolemies in Egypt was visually realized as some kind of drag festival with weird face makeup and lots of architectural wigs. And eunuchs.
  • I applied for a fellowship to spend twelve weeks in 2010 as a visiting research fellow at a university in Australia where Rex also has contacts. If we go, we are going to be real Pacific Rim scholars.
  • I also applied for travel money to spend this coming summer (seven weeks, anyhow) in China. I need to get some on-site research done. If I'm lucky, my friend T and I will meet there (she's from Japan) and do some research together at various cave-temple sites. There are a bunch of newly remodeled regional museums I am looking forward to seeing (Taiyuan especially) and I also thought I would go to Tianjin for the hell of it, since it's sort of ridiculous that I've never been there. Of course I'm secretly also looking forward to the food, and dreading the summer weather.
  • I might meet my parents in Rhode Island for a week of catching up with the relatives in July, if everything works out. Makes me really sad I gave up eating shellfish. Sadly, himself can't come as he'll be in Papua New Guinea.
  • As fans of Joss Whedon's oeuvre, we've been watching "Dollhouse" with mixed feelings. I am looking forward to it moving past the "young woman in danger" schtick and getting into more of the complicated ethical and psychological questions raised by the show's basic premise.

P.S. Has anybody watched "True Blood" yet? I love the books but never remember to watch the show.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Guava Juice Song

It was about 1990, if memory serves, and my aunt and uncle had rented a place on Cape Cod for part of the summer. I went out there to hang with my cousins for a while, and we were on our own for a while, scrounging around for cheap eats and going to the beach every chance we got. What I remembered about that trip, for a long time thereafter, was that somebody had gotten a really great deal on some two-gallon jugs of guava juice, then a new and exotic introduction, and that we were all drinking it until we were sick of it, because, you know, there it still was. And in my memory, my cousin M had made up a song about his love of guava juice, long after none of us could bear the thought of the stuff any more. M, now an actor, was always writing songs and sketches and whatnot, so this wouldn't have been out of character; but looking back for many years, I could only imagine that I had invented the guava juice song. I asked his sister, who was there, one time, and she couldn't remember the guava juice song. So I was sure it was a figment of my imagination. Until my cousin posted this:

The Guava Juice Song lives. (For an encore, I recommend The Potato Song, by the same artists.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

25 things Facebook meme

I like Facebook but hate all the tagging and super-poking and whatnot. So I'm posting this here instead.

25 random facts about me:

1. When I first saw “Star Wars” in the summer of 1977, I spent the rest of the summer pretending I was Luke Skywalker, despite the fact that I was the only person I knew who actually had the hair (dark brown, extremely long) to pull off the Princess Leia style. I would like to be able to congratulate myself for not wanting to be the princess, but in retrospect I am more irritated that I didn’t have the good sense to want to be Han Solo.

2. I knew the founder of Burt’s Bees products before she got started - our families were members of the same semi-hippie food co-op in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine.

3. Despite the fact that I love to cook, and can make tricky things like hollandaise and aioli, I am completely hopeless at making Chinese food, except for jiaozi (dumplings) and congyoubing (scallion cakes).

4. I cannot bear to keep a journal, since the thought of voluntarily increasing my quotient of navel-gazing appalls me. This blog is my attempt at journaling in an outward-focused way.

5. I have an underdeveloped dress sense. One of my fantasies is to somehow win enough money to buy a lot of different clothes so I can finally figure out what the hell I really like to wear.

6. In 1985, I came in second in the National Spelling Bee. As a result, I was grand master of the Fourth of July parades in both my town and the next town over. I think that was my 15 minutes of fame.

7. I do not care for classical music. Medieval, Renaissance, even Baroque, yes, but not classical.

8. In college, I was an NCAA division 1 athlete (downhill skiing). I lettered, and still have my actual official Harvard letter sweater. This makes me absurdly happy despite the fact that we were the comic relief of the division, and the pinnacle of my career was coming in 35th in a race.

9. I think the human voice in harmony is the most beautiful sound on earth.

10. When I was about eight, a friend’s mother took a bunch of us for a picnic in the woods on their land, and we got lost in a bog for three hours. As a result, I have an overdeveloped sense of direction because I pay compulsive attention to where I’ve been and how to get back there. I have never been really lost since.

11. I love being Jewish. Discovering Judaism was like finding a missing piece of myself.

12. I believe we must teach the students we have, not the students we wish we had.

13. Of the many things I have learned (in the academic sense) over the years, I am proudest of my ability to write, and the fact that I am fully bilingual.

14. My Chinese handwriting looks strikingly masculine to most Chinese people. By contrast, my Japanese handwriting looks gender-neutral to most Japanese people. I can’t quite figure this out.

15. On my 21st birthday, my friend Mindy bought me my first miniskirt and my first margarita, thus cementing our friendship forever.

16. I am unimpressed by realism in the arts, whether it be in literature, visual arts, or performing arts. Representing things as they are is not art, and anyway, I get enough reality as it is.

17. I love harsh or desolate landscapes, like deserts and snowcovered fields, and I think winter light is the purest and most beautiful there is. Naturally, therefore, I live in the tropics.

18. I like making things and enjoy most domestic work. As a result I have an uncomfortable suspicion that if I’d been born three hundred years earlier I might not have minded being a woman.

19. I am struck by the fact that my version of this list is mostly about my preferences and experiences, while my husband’s version is mostly about his beliefs.

20. I am a poor on-the-spot judge of social situations, and often only figure out the dynamic long after the fact.

21. The ability to speak assertively as a woman is something I learned first in Chinese, then transferred to English.

22. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m going to end up doing a certain amount of academic administration during my career. I seem to have a distressing knack for it.

23. I love the English language for its delightfully, pointlessly large vocabulary.

24. I prefer beer to wine.

25. I believe that if I can teach my students to say what they really mean, I will have done them (and the world) a great service.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


It's 7 am, too early for the sun to be up, but the sky is lightening. Outside is a driving rain and wind, lashing the trees from side to side. The rain fills the spaces of our valley, obscuring the valley wall opposite. All I can see through the window is a few nearby trees against a blank sheet of deep periwinkle blue, lightening gradually even as I type.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

3/365: Never mind

I believe in grace in small things. But listing five every day just means you're going to hear what I ate every day for an entire year, because food is a great pleasure to me. So instead of blogging a daily List of Things that are Awesome, I'm going to continue to make it the general theme of the blog - as it always was, really.

However, I do need to point out here that Zhenjiang red vinegar is THE BEST.