Thursday, August 27, 2009

The people that you meet each day (a cast of characters)

Everybody has people in their life that they know by sight but not in any meaningful personal way, or with whom their interactions are relatively restricted. These are the people in your neighborhood, in the sense of the old children's song. After a while you acknowledge them, because not doing so, when you clearly know each other to say hello, seems inhuman (of course there are exceptions, people who make it clear they don't want to be greeted). And yet you know little or nothing about them, and there isn't any particular impulse on either side to move beyond hail-and-farewell. To a certain kind of mindset (mine), these people invite idle fictionalization. So here they are, in no particular order, names changed to protect the innocent, or because I have no idea what their names are anyway.

Grim UPS guy

Delivering for UPS is probably a pretty thankless job in my neighborhood, which is mountainous with lots of narrow and absurdly winding streets. It also rains practically every day. The UPS guy is a serious, weathered, lean, and quiet character, of indeterminate European ancestry, with hair of a subdued color, streaked with gray, and a small, neat mustache. He keeps his head down and gives off an air of trying to get through a minor but distasteful task with dignity. I'm sure there's a perfectly innocent explanation, like the job is boring, or he has other things on his mind, or that's just his natural neutral expression; but the fiction writer in me jumps straight to the thought that his mind is on his oppressed brethren in Ruritania, and that he just has to get through another year or two of this work in exile before he can return to claim the throne and restore the monarchy.

Ti leaf-bicycle guy

Cheery, skinny, spiky-haired, Asian, age unclear; dressed in T-shirt, running shorts, and slippers, with his face nearly hidden behind oversized '80s-style round plastic-rimmed glasses. He pushes a bicycle (I've never seen him ride it and the tires look dubious) with a hand-lettered sign on cardboard, reading "GOD BLESS." In one or both hands, or affixed to the bicycle somewhere, he always has a couple of bunches of ti leaves. Might be homeless, but reasonably well-groomed in a Richard Simmons 1970s kind of way, so my money is on "extremely eccentric" instead. I can't decide, for narrative purposes, whether he is a slightly wacky evangelical Christian or just a guy who wants to wish everyone well in a slightly religious way. Either way, he is always moving, always going somewhere. He seems like one of those people who have a deeply seated purpose in life, but one that maybe not everybody else can understand, like he's carrying out some duty known only to himself.

Tuxedo man

Frequenter of the university libraries, possibly homeless; a tall, thoughtful-looking man in middle age, with a scruffy, but trimmed, beard, always seen wearing cowboy boots and a tuxedo with pleated-front tuxedo shirt. No bow tie. Possessions in a collection of plastic bags; inevitably absorbed in a book. One occasionally sees him in the grocery store as well, buying food. Not knowing his story, I imagine him as a down-on-his-luck concert pianist or accompanist, always ready for the next concert.

Cheery checkout lady

Likes to speak Chinese with me when I come through the grocery store checkout line, after that one time I came through wearing the Threadless "Communist Party" T-shirt (Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, and Mao, yukking it up with plastic cups of beer, took a certain amount of explanation). Unshakably positive attitude, possibly a single mother. I could probably get her whole life story if she weren't on the clock every time I see her. If I ever see her outside of the Safeway, maybe I will ask her.

Okinawan Roy

85-year-old Army veteran, served in occupied Japan (but don't call him AJA), lives somewhere around the neighborhood and hangs out near the sidewalk tables of the sandwich shop. Full of stories about the neighborhood fifty years ago. Finally explained why there's a graveyard in the front yard of the neighborhood theatre. Another one I'd like to get to know better, and another story I might actually learn one day.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rex's one-line review of the Council of Nicaea:

"Like 'I, Claudius,' but with bishops."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

T-shirt review, second day of school edition

Seen from the looooong checkout line at the bookstore, where I foolishly went today.

The usual:
  • Beer T-shirts (Hinano, Primo, Hinano again)
  • Band T-shirts (lots of names I didn't recognize)
  • Surfing T-shirts (ad nauseam)
  • Trendy logos (Ezekiel, Hollywood, Juicy Couture, even Abercrombie and Fitch)

The unusual:
  • "Giraffes United Against Ceilings"
  • "Haiku are easy/But sometimes they don't make sense/Refrigerator"
  • "Mac Daddy" (as text in the screen of a Mac Classic)

Monday, August 24, 2009

First day of school outfits (an incomplete list)

A few outfits I've seen strolling by on students in the last half hour, and what they seem to be saying:

On a tiny Asian woman: Turquoise tunic top, wide leather belt, several long chain necklaces, enormous hoop earrings, skintight black bike shorts, five-inch black platform heels with studded straps. "I'm going to dominate my coursework this semester."

On a skinny blond-haired man: Blue and white seersucker pajama bottoms, band T-shirt, slippers, emo hair. "I'm planning on sleeping through my classes, just so you know."

On a very large Pacific Islander man: Football jersey, lavalava [sarong], flipflops, ponytail, tattoos. "Don't call it a skirt, man."

Monday, August 17, 2009

David Hockney blues (with apologies to Patricia Barber)

(ETA, giving credit where due: It was Tommy Francisco who suggested, brilliantly, that they sing a different shade of blues in the California Delta. As for Patricia Barber, she sings a song "If I were blue" that evokes some of the same imagery.)

We spent the weekend at a friend's wedding in the California Delta, the floodplain formed by the convergence of several large rivers on their way to San Francisco Bay. I didn't really know before this that California had a delta, and it took me a little while to figure out the general geography; but by the time I had it down, we were driving with another couple out along the winding roads beside the levees. We passed dusty, sunburnt hayfields, recently mown, and orchards heavy with yellow pears. Tall, square California Victorian houses stood close by the roadside, their proximity as much an indicator of their vintage as anything else; in the age of fast-moving motor vehicles, you build farther from the road. Their size is a relic of a previous age, too, when space was in greater supply, and their height a sign of a building tradition that hadn't yet caught on to the cooling properties of single-story houses. They stand shaded in their copses of still taller pine and cypress and sycamore trees, which stand head and shoulders above the fields and orchards. The broad, lazy, slow-moving river, the levees, the dusty fields, and the withering sun made for a very Huck Finn sort of scene, transplanted from another delta entirely, where they sing a different shade of blues.

To complete the picture, the wedding was held at a sort of robber baron mansion, built circa 1917 in a late Belle Epoque Italianate style. It wasn't as bad as it could have been: many things that strictly speaking ought to have been gilded were not, for example. The wedding itself took place outdoors, under a wrought-iron gazebo that stood for a chuppah, and was utterly adorable, from the hat and white rose left across one seat for the bride's deceased father, to the top-hatted three-year-old nephew as attendant, to the participation of the couple's Old English Sheepdog, Bilbo (as ringbearer, naturally). A pair of butterflies danced together over the gazebo as the couple pronounced their vows.

The interior of the house had been optimistically redecorated with a Victorian profusion of reproduction paintings, chosen according to a slightly cockeyed logic that was fascinating to an art historian. The airy dining room where the dinner was held, with its faux frescoes, was densely hung with reproductions of Canaletto paintings (views of Venice) and plaster Roman reliefs. The "Hemingway bar" contained engravings of the great houses of Europe, alongside a rather tatty zebra skin and several antelope heads. I didn't see the interior of any of the suites on the third floor, where the wedding party stayed, but a number of the closer friends of the couple, ourselves included, spent the night in rooms on the fourth floor, which let onto a central attic full of sofas and low tables. The rooms themselves were named after misspelled painters, a strange collection, but one that seemed logical enough when we saw that the "Van Gough room" was decorated with oil reproductions of Van Gogh's paintings (sometimes more than one reproduction of the same work, actually), along with a copy of Leonardo's "Lady with an Ermine." By contrast, we stayed in the "Michael Angelo room" which was decorated with reproductions of paintings by Joshua Reynolds and William Holman Hunt. I know, I don't get it either. There was a plaster bust which may have been a reproduction of one of Michelangelo's works. The other two rooms were the "Leonardo Devinci room" and the "Pablo Picasso room" but we didn't see the decor of these.

Our friend A. immediately opined that the decoration of the central chamber put her in mind of a bordello. I wasn't quite sure myself, although it did have a certain amount of dark red velvet drapery and gold-colored fringe. The art was an odd collection of several rather nice reproductions of Classical Greek bronzes (heads and torsos) and a jumbled mass of reproduction paintings of nudes in the coy nineteenth-century French Academy style, including Ingres' Grande Odalisque and The Source, Bouguereau's Le Printemps and Nymphs and Satyr, and others in the same vein. I think the count of exposed breasts alone could explain A.'s reaction. That said, the intent of the place was brilliant: to allow some of the guests to stay on late into the night (and indeed overnight) and avoid the danger of driving home along narrow, winding, levee-edge roads after a protracted party. We didn't get to bed until three, which made it hard to get up the next morning; but get up we did, and wind our way back along the river's edge, out of the slow-moving, sun-baked delta and back to urban reality.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Movies I love: a (possibly self-revealing) list

There are plenty of movies I like; but this is a list of movies I love. I think the difference is a measure of emotional engagement. I think there are critical reasons to like all these movies, of course. But in fact, the way I like them implies a kind of abandonment of critical detachment, a kind of total immersion that, from a certain point of view, is the goal of the moviemaker’s art. I’ve included a few miniseries but not television shows (although there are some of those that I love too, like certain seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files). “Xiao ao jiang hu” counts as a miniseries for its bounded narrative arc, despite being told in 40 episodes (it is the film version of a novel that was first published in serial form in Hong Kong newspapers, which is an interesting parallel in print to this kind of Chinese long-form miniseries).

I’m sure there are others, or have been others; other selves (at other times) would have come up with a different list, and this is partly informed by the movies I’ve seen recently, and with my husband. At any rate, here are the ones I could think of, in no particular order (except that I think the first might actually be my favorite movie). The question I have now is, what can I learn from this list?

  • Cold Comfort Farm
  • Stage Beauty
  • Angels in America (HBO miniseries)
  • The Fifth Element
  • Galaxy Quest
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  • The Mummy Returns
  • Keeping the Faith
  • Horatio Hornblower (the miniseries)
  • Onmyoji (1 and 2)
  • Shaolin Soccer
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Pride and Prejudice (Ehle/Firth version, natch)
  • Strictly Ballroom
  • The Brothers Grimm
  • Secondhand Lions
  • The Cider House Rules
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Xiao ao jiang hu (miniseries)
  • Sabrina (both versions, for different reasons)
  • Mary Poppins

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The art (history) of pastry

This is a pear-and-chocolate Danish I bought yesterday at the bakery:


but I think it looks like a medieval carved ornament, with its twisted ogival frame and the slices of pear in the center making a rosette. (Underneath: a layer of dark chocolate and a layer of mascarpone cheese. It was delicious.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Conversion disorder

One last China anecdote. I had a really funny high-altitude conversation with my driver at Binglingsi, when I was explaining the difficulty of mentally converting from English to metric or Celsius to Fahrenheit when you're used to thinking in one or the other. I said "You know, today's temperature is about 30 degrees C, you'd have a hard time thinking of it as 85 degrees F. And the temperature of boiling water..." He broke in "Yeah! 92 degrees."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The homeland of Qin; and leaving China

Tianshui is four hours by bus from Lanzhou, an easy trip especially if you are well set up with bottled drinks, biscuits, raisins, and yak jerky. I went to the wrong bus station at first, Lanzhou (by virtue of its geography) having several bus stations to save the buses contributing to the midtown traffic jams; but the right one was right around the corner and indeed I didn’t even have to walk the whole way, finding as I did a large purple bus rounding up passengers for Tianshui on the way. Unfortunately I’d forgotten that these kinds of semiofficial buses are less likely to leave on schedule, but the result of the delay was a much-needed toilet break an hour later, before we got on the highway, so it all worked out. Of Chinese bus station toilets themselves, the less said the better, though there is a kind of strange locker room camaraderie to them if you can get past the flies.

Tianshui is a small city of about 3.5 million people in southeastern Gansu. I thought of it as a bit of a backwater, since it is not usually a tourist destination and is not especially developed or cosmopolitan. It gives the feeling of a small and sleepy place, but it is apparently the second largest city in Gansu after Lanzhou. I had just described it as “a small city of a couple hundred thousand” but remembered my American tendency to underestimate the population of Chinese towns and looked it up. 3.5 million surprises me, but the figure does include the surrounding county. Some statistics note that around 75% of that population is “agricultural population,” suggesting they live outside of town, so maybe my sense of the city’s population wasn’t so radically wrong after all (one-quarter of 3.5 million is 875,000). That’s the lesson of China’s population problems, though, where a county of three million can be an underpopulated backwater. It’s technically about halfway between Lanzhou and Xi’an (about 330 km in either direction), though as I found out later this doesn’t make the trips equivalent in duration.

I chose my hotel poorly, as it turned out, but at least it was cheap, centrally located, and the sheets and towels were spotless, by contrast with the floors and walls. Just fine for one night. It was also across the street from a mosque with two halal restaurants in the entry courtyard, so I was well set up for food. I immediately found a driver to take me out to the cave temples of Maijishan, rather than waiting for the bus, since it was later than I had planned. Maijishan (“Haystack Mountain”) is a rocky promontory in the hilly country south of Tianshui, carved with some of the least accessible cave temples in China:


It was worth seeing, but I went as a tourist and most of the caves are not directly accessible in that case (they’re closed and locked and you can just peek through the grating). So I didn’t get much other than a good sense of the site and its geographical location, a sense of place, as it were: which is important for cave temple sites nonetheless. And after five hours on a bus, the up and down stairs was good for me.

I left Tianshui early the next morning on a bus for Xi’an. Tianshui is the ancient populated center of the homeland of the Qin people, who moved out of southeastern Gansu to conquer the Warring States in the third century BCE. The First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, he of the terra-cotta warriors, was first prince and then king of Qin before he invented the role of emperor and gave himself the title (“huangdi,” which he coined). The tombs of the predynastic Qin are scattered around eastern Gansu. Other traditions that became fundamentally Chinese seem to have been born here too: Tianshui is the site of a temple dedicated to Fu Xi, one of the snake-tailed creator deities (Nu Wa is his consort and, in many stories, the prime mover: Han art shows them twined together, holding architect’s tools), who was evidently a local boy. But being in Tianshui, and the country around Tianshui, reminds you that the Qin were really strangers to the fertile plains of the loess plateau. The land around the settled areas is mountainous and thickly forested, not so dry as central or western Gansu, but still less well watered than the Central Plains. The road east from Tianshui leads through a series of harrowing river gorges, over (and sometimes under) mountain ridges and rocky valleys, with little villages clinging to the hillsides here and there. It’s good orchard country, with apples and pears widely grown, and at one point an otherwise tedious traffic jam was enlivened by the purchase of crisp, juicy peaches from the side of the road, a local pale-green variety that always look underripe to me, but which tasted delicious. The land was a little European-looking, actually, with the dry-cultivated fields and agricultural valleys, with little temple-crowned walled settlements clustered on the defensible upland ridgetops. Few fortified towns survive in the Central Plains area, and none whose fortifications are so easily understandable (by the lay of the land). It had a post-medieval feeling, like the setting to a historical novel.

The bus ride from Tianshui to Xi’an, ancient capital of so many dynasties, replicates more or less the journey taken by the Qin from their homeland to imperial conquest in the upper Yellow River basin. At 330 km, it should have taken about four hours on the highway, except that the highway wasn’t finished yet - we saw the elevated double roadway under construction from many different vantage points on our winding, rocky journey. Instead, we took the regular road, potholed, dusty, goat- and donkey-ridden, and twisting torturously through the dry valleys. It was a wonderful leisurely trip for anyone who loves landscape and scenery, as I do, and I had enough juice in the iPod for the whole trip; but it did take ten hours, going downhill almost all the way, including two hourlong traffic jams, one in the mountains and one in downtown Baoji. I knew we were in Shaanxi when we descended out of the mountains onto a plain marked by little agricultural villages scattered along the flat land. I’d forgotten how heavily Christian southern Shaanxi is; many of the villages along the roadside had their own Christian churches, in either sort-of-Gothic or pseudo-Baroque styles, rising above the low farmhouses. When I began to see the gigantic tumuli of the Han imperial tombs clustered to the north of the road, I knew we were almost there.

The Han imperial tombs are built to the north of the imperial city, in what is now the town of Xianyang (incidentally also the site of the Xi’an airport). This is standard fengshui for tomb-building: the important tombs are always sited on high ground “behind” (to the north of) the city. But in the case of Xi’an it means that the Wei river runs between the city and the necropolis. To travel to the tombs meant crossing the Wei river, and so crossing the Wei river itself became a kind of metaphor for death or at least for the journey to the afterlife. This can sometimes make a trip to the Xi'an airport unnecessarily metaphysical. We crossed the Wei river in reverse, so to speak, from the city of the dead to the city of the living, and pulled into the long-distance bus station, under the city walls of Xi’an.

Arriving in Xi’an meant I was almost done with my travels. Arriving in Xi’an meant I was back in China proper, back to a series of relatively urban destinations, back to a last few stops where all I had to do was spend some time in some new museums. I was more worn down by travel and seven weeks of stomach upset than I realized: after being thwarted by some garden-variety bureaucracy one time too many at the Xi’an Municipal Museum, I nearly lost it entirely and had to go have an ice cream and get a grip, thankfully anonymously. Fortunately, it was in Xi’an that I discovered the Jinjiang Hotel chain, which I would absolutely recommend to anyone traveling in China these days. I stayed in another one, subsequently, in Taiyuan, and had no regrets.

It used to take twelve to fourteen hours to get to Beijing from Taiyuan by train, because you had to travel either south via Luoyang and Zhengzhou, or north via Datong and the Inner Mongolian border. Now that they’ve finished building an impressive set of tunnels *through* the Taihang range, a fundamental rule of transport in north China has been altered once and for all, and you can get to Beijing from Taiyuan in three hours on a modern electric high-speed train. Taiyuan to Shijiazhuang is even faster. I arrived back in Beijing exhausted and half-sick, and my plans for last-minute tourist shopping were in disarray; but I was determined at least to keep my dinner date with an old friend from college, W, now teaching in a university in Beijing, so I took a nap and a shower and set out.

He had suggested a restaurant called The Vineyard, which turned out to be a European restaurant, slanting Italian, in the Yonghegong neighborhood. It was only a few subway stops away from where I was staying in Dengshikou, and I emerged from the new subway station into the oblique golden light of a northern summer evening. The swallows of Beijing were looping crazily around the red-and-gold eaves of the Yonghegong temple. The restaurant was in a hutong (alley) where residents were puttering around, old grannies bringing out old wooden stools to sit in doorways and potbellied uncles hanging their pet birds in the trees to sing. A little boy, his head shaved except for a patch above his forehead, scooted his blue plastic horse-on-wheels over the uneven asphalt, absently munching on a popsicle. It was an evening designed by the world to remind me of why I’ve loved living in China, and especially in Beijing, over the years.

The dinner was an odd meal with which to end a Beijing sojourn: an olive platter, arugula pizza, and pinot gris. It was delicious, however, and so very sweet to catch up with an old friend. It confirmed my sense of what getting older is like: we grow, if anything, more like ourselves, as old insecurities peel away and we settle into our own skins. I hadn’t seen W in seventeen years, but he was still himself; just at a different place along the road (and married to a delightful wife, herself a legal scholar of note). I once asked my friend Carter-san, who’s known me since about 1990, what I was like as a college student. “You were just as geeky as you are now,” she said judiciously, “but you didn’t realize you were allowed to enjoy it.” The things I come to realize about myself now are often things that have been true all along, if only I’d allowed myself to admit it. One of the things I’ve learned from Rex, who is one of the few people to challenge me to ask myself what I really want and what I really like, is how rarely I’ve asked that question of myself, preferring in general the much safer (from a moral point of view) question of what I *should* want. It’s still a hard one to answer, but I think that the answers to the question are going to be important, and it may be my oldest friends who help me to recognize what has been essential in me all along.

My real culinary farewell to Beijing took place in the cool of the following morning, when I found a place near the hotel to have youtiao (fried dough, or as Rex put it, “morning bread”) and soy milk for breakfast: the quintessential Beijing breakfast, and then off to the airport to take off for home.