Monday, November 30, 2009


Apparently I put this into my Google Calendar a few months ago:

November 30: Start job.
December 1: Quit job.
December 2: Apologize and restart job.

S likes to remind me that my blog is public, so JUST KIDDING, job, your new employee is a kidder!

Somebody please shoot me.


(JK about the JK.)

my friends, my habits, my family

Time has been passing here quite nicely. I have started to build the routine that I have been craving; the days have started to feel the same. I wake earlier than my parents and my brother and his girlfriend. I have minute oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit; I fill a ceramic mug painted with a tree pattern with Milo and hot water and evaporated milk and add a dusting of Iguazcu instant coffee, only to fool my senses; the smell alone should convince my brain that its hunger for caffeine has been met. I put on my vitiligo sun hat and my vitiligo cream and vitiligo sunglasses and my vitiligo suit and my lesbian low hiking boots and I bring my dog boyfriend to the field at my former middle school, where we play versions of our favorite games, Dog Soccer and Let Mommy Pick Up Poo. (Good grief, so much. What is he eating?!) We come back, I trot a loop around the Baylands, I feel unfit. I nibble things around the house. Mom sometimes leaves Tupperwares full of Chinese food in the fridge - tea eggs, greens sauteed with garlic and her special Japanese flavoring powder, green beans with ground pork, soy saucey tofu skins. I fix a bowl, nuke it, and eat it lying on the floor holding The Year of Magical Thinking over my head. In the afternoons, I find friends for California casual dining (so far, pupusas in Redwood City, fish tacos in Palo Alto, noodle soups and ice cream in San Francisco) or watch clips of movies and TV shows (Up, Inglorious Basterds, a New Zealand nature show in which a volleyball-sized parrot attempts to mate with the photographer's head) with Richard and Aimee on their computer. Sometimes there is a little adventure in the city (zoo, apartment hunting); more often there is nothing but poor posture and an Internet connection. S and I chat; while we do so, family members come into my room to offer fruit, talk about Black Friday electronics purchases, and proclaim that prolonged telephone talking leads to brain cancer. After this, I approximate brushing my teeth and climb in bed and whine for Richard to come and turn my light off. Boo army crawls under my bed, and then we sleep.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

vocabulary practice

Melisma - vocal technique of changing pitches on the same syllable
Cloaca - a single body cavity serving reproductive, digestive, and urinary functions

Melisma Cloaca traveled across the mouth of the cave.

Monday, November 23, 2009


By a miracle of modern technology, I am writing from outer space. I am in the sky on my way from New York to San Francisco. Earlier today I fell asleep, leaning against this oval window next to me, cataloging the methods of transport I have experienced since August 25: twenty-two flights, ranging from one to fourteen hours per flight, nine to 72 rows per plane; a bumpy ride through southwestern Colorado in the storage space behind the driver's seat in the cab of a fifteen year-old Toyota pickup; a 45-mile slog by blue bicycle on a 90 degree day; a chairlift, a gondola, and a monorail; a commuter rail heading east to the Sydney suburbs; many nauseating bus rides; swift yachts, diesel motorboats, ferries; tuk-tuk, songtai; long-haul trains, Singapore-Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur-Penang; Penang-Prachaup Kiri Khan; Beijing-Shanghai (averaging 110 mph for 900 miles in a brand new exemplar of China's rise to economic significance); blister-inducing lesbian sandals; Reena's baby blue Yamaha motorbike (apparently somehow different from a moped); a single-speed Mantix commuter bike with snow on the fenders, books in the basket, and Wu Fei balanced on the rack; an uncle's, an aunt's, and a cousin's sedans; a train from the station in Zhongli where my mom was fined for fare-dodging thirty-five years ago, to a station in Taipei that didn't exist until five years ago; a filthy, lurching car with an uncooperative manual transmission; rush-hour subway rides pressing Beijing commuters into enoki mushrooms; four cab rides past the roadside stand of Platonic trees that reminded me each time of a beloved forest bear; more subways, more buses, more places to hold one's breath to avoid the mist of swine flu molecules sneezed out by fellow travelers. Now I am on my last flight, and in two hours, after my loving father takes time out of his work day to shuttle me from the airport to home, my three months of travel will be over.

On one of my days in Chiang Mai, I wandered into a Buddhist temple complex and took photographs of the aphorisms nailed to the trees: "Selfishness is the real enemy of peace"; "It's easy to know a man's face, but difficult to know his thought"; "If there is nothing that you like, you must like the things that you have"; "Anxiety shortens life"; "Today is better than two tomorrows"; "Clean, clear, calm: these are the characteristics of a noble person." I share these here in lieu of my own travel-gleaned wisdom, for I have none, reader, I have no takeaways, I end three months of travel empty-headed, linguistically garbled, bewildered by references to balloon boys and Fourth Circuit judges and the severe angle of sunlight in November, unable to remember the habits that used to structure my days. I have eaten take-out for 89 days; I can't remember what dishes I used to cook, or whether I knew how to cook at all. I saw lots of things but if not for the photos and the journals, I would remember nothing. For weeks I talked only to myself, to a new friend in a tortuous parody of a second language, or to the thumb-sized screen image of my beautiful constant in front of a camera seven thousand miles away; now I am unsure of what to say in the company of even my closest friends.

None of this is bad, of course. One travels to induce homesickness; the cost of this is giving up one's home, at least for a while. I come back now to a home that is in my parents' garage, in twenty-two boxes packed by moving men three months ago. It's not even a metaphor to say I am eager to unpack and organize my life. I am thirty, in spirit if not in body, five pounds fatter, and in clean, clear, calm love. One must start from somewhere. California here I come.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Can't believe it took me so long to discover the television in my room. Tonight I have watched:

1. A New Agey Taiwanese artist explaining how he locates and repurposes Taiwanese driftwood into large abstract sculptures. He had long salt and pepper hair and a long salt and pepper goatee. He spoke with an atrocious Taiwanese accent (Hs for Fs, Ls for Rs, "uh"s for "er"s) and dramatic pauses. He told a story about how his childhood was filled with love and how he can't sleep at night if he comes across a nice piece of wood and doesn't buy it.

2. A lottery drawing. The final number was 18.

3. Some domestic drama where a woman was arguing with another woman in front of the second woman's parents and brother. Woman 1 slapped Woman 2, causing Woman 2's mother to yell at Woman 1 for hitting her daughter. Then Woman 2's brother confronted another woman at a beauty salon and held a pair of blunt scissors toward her, demanding to know who was spreading rumors about Woman 2. This woman, in curlers, swatted away the scissors and explained that Woman 2 had been having an affair with a married man for four years, waiting for his divorce, which he never intended to seek.

4. A fantasy television series from Yunnan taking place at some floridly-garmented period in Chinese history. The main characters were a coquettish girl and her companion, a man in an iron mask that she called 铁丑 (Ugly Ironman) whom she ordered around like a servant. Ugly Ironman appeared to die, and his body was dragged into the woods by some lazy soldiers to be buried, but they were too lazy to dig a grave and just left Ugly Ironman out saying that the wolves would take care of the body that night. But Ugly Ironman woke up, discovered a kung fu book near him, trained himself in a day, and then returned to the coquettish woman. She was delighted, and then she ordered him to reach his hand into a jar containing a poisonous spider. He writhed around in agony after the bite, but otherwise appeared eager to please. Then she ordered him to capture a magic, forearm-sized silkworm that had the capability of freezing large snakes.

5. Six people wearing glasses sitting around a table discussing, in great detail, something called 奥普拉. The set design suggested entertainment news (zany patterns, big text sculptures in the background, starry animation in the scrolling text at the bottom), but the people were speaking in earnest, without interruption by sound effects, without uproars of laughter, with only the most unobtrusive use of the studio's cameras to capture each person as he or she made a point. It wasn't until they flashed to images of Oprah Winfrey from age 7 until 50 that I understood that this was some sort of popular culture salon. So far they have been talking for twenty minutes, marveling at Oprah's ability to influence American tastes and her ability to express empathy, and then they started about Chinese culture and I lost track of the conversation.

Now it is a commercial for a television series. There are alternating images of people walking slowly, with purpose, toward the camera, and people with tears slowly trickling down their faces.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

on chinese language learning

Modern English's "Melt With You" came through the headphones two weeks ago while I was nodding off on a subway ride from Taipei to Danshui, and I noticed for the first time how my method for learning melodies was similar to my method for acquiring language. Let me share this with you.

"Melt With You" has a simple, ringing guitar solo that plays under the vocals during the verses, and I was attempting to commit this to memory. This is how I did it: first, because used to have perfect pitch but three years of playing a Bb instrument ruined it, I designated the tonic note of the melody's key as C. I did this because I can identify relative pitches best if I take C as a starting point. Second, I listened to the sequence of relative pitches. Third, I sought a visual cue; I closed my eyes and imagined not a musical staff but black and white keys in front of me, and saw what the melody looked like mapped out on a piano keyboard. Fourth, I needed motor memory to supplement the visual and aural memory, so I imagined the movement of my fingers playing the melody, i.e., the first three notes of the melody I think of as E5-C5-G4, which would require me to cross my index finger over the thumb to hit the G. Even though the melody clearly sounds in the timbre of plucked string instruments, and my primary instrument now is guitar, I must recall the 88 black and white soldiers of my childhood instrument, not the indistinguishable notches on my fretboard.

What struck me as strange was that I had to refer to my other senses - primarily visual and tactile; I wonder if there is a way to assign tastes and smells to Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in G minor" - in order to recall the sound. I don't consider the sound analogue, for example, that the E5-C5-G4 series of relative pitches occurs several times in "Reveille." If I try to remember melodies by conjuring sound analogues, I just get tripped up; this explains why I have such difficulty remembering the Indiana Jones theme and the Star Wars themes in sequence, because they are both rousing, loud, uptempo melodies composed by John Williams emphasizing the tonic and dominant tones of their keys (which is strong, simple C, I think), and too difficult to differentiate by sound alone. I was so taken with this sudden understanding of my process for memorizing music that it was not until right now, in writing this entry, that I could delight at the small coincidence of the band's weird name and my thoughts on language acquisition.

Although I grew up with Mandarin in my household, it was only until I came here to study in earnest (for two weeks, at least; the last three weeks of my time here has been devoted to obsessing about my vitiligo, exposing my vitiligous skin in other parts of Beijing, and feeling nervous flutters of joy about flying off to New York) that I realized how limited my ability was. I could get by when making simple requests or broadcasting simple opinions, particularly frustration with one's parents' meddling, and although I had random vocabulary words for things that occurred in the course of a childhood in Palo Alto, like "screwdriver," "forty-four dead stone lions" and "pinky finger," I didn't know many basic words, like "recommend," "intend," "politics," "study," "about," "traditional," "weekend," "engineer," "government," etc. The latter are things one acquires in order not to sound totally inane all the time, to be able to say "This weekend, I intend to study Chinese politics" rather than circumlocute using only future tense to say, "On Saturday and on Sunday, I will read books about important things" (though apparently I still sound inane, as Wu Fei pointed out today that for half of the things she says I respond with either "Is that for real?!" or "Very interesting!" because I am too lazy to take the time to retrieve higher order reactions). I also could understand some words spoken to me, particularly conjunctions like "although," "however," "furthermore," "especially," "as expected," and different versions of "but," but had gotten into the habit over the years of just using familiar, simple conjunctions, so even my aural recognition did not translate immediately into vocabulary that I could make mine; my mouth was not accustomed to the rhotic torture of "而且."

I started off five weeks ago by putting the pot lid on my stew of Chinglish expressions. It had gotten very easy over the years to say things like, "我今天要去很fashionable的eighties party跟我的law school朋友," not that I ever announced to my parents that I was going to a very fashionable eighties party with my law school friends, but the point is that I would swap in English words for the challenging phrases, leaving me with the skeleton of an ungrammatical Chinese sentence fleshed out by English words. (I see also that learning another language cannot correct problems of the imagination; apologies for the cannibalistic mixture of metaphors in the above sentences.) There were other impediments, too; I could understand certain phrases but not the words out of that context, e.g., I understood the words for "pass" (过) and "time" (时) but I didn't immediately understand that those two words together meant "out-of-date"; or I knew individual words but couldn't manage to figure out why they fit in a sentence in any particular order, e.g., "到时我介绍你们认识一下" ("When it comes time, I'll introduce you all"); or, I knew the words but would say the tones all wrong when I opened my mouth. My brain held a bin of plush, glassy-eyed made in China words but the retrieval claw would tenderly fail to take hold of anything, over and over again.

I write about these problems as if they're past, but I think this simply may be a result of my sudden inability to conjugate English verbs - my five weeks of Chinese study seems not to have made me any better at Chinese, only worse at English - I actually mean to say that these problems are ongoing. Not to say that the barriers to my progress are disheartening. I actually find it very fun to try to get by with a combination of intermediate beginner Chinese, histrionics, paging through the dictionary, and my special version of Taboo. The last often entails me circumlocuting, sometimes in a totally off-the-wall manner, in order to make my point. When trying to explain the Western tradition of streaking college campuses to Wu Fei, for example, I couldn't think of the word for "costume mask," but knew the words for "Halloween," "face," and "zombie," so I said, "You run around naked and then put on your face the things people wear on Halloween to make themselves look like zombies." I think this also sometimes has the effect of making me seem incredibly profound, because I speak in tortuous Confucian metaphor rather than directly to the point. When trying to explain to Wu Fei how I wanted a relationship of equals, but couldn't find the words for "evenly-matched," I said, "A relationship should be like a tennis match; if one person is much better than the other, it's not fair; but if they can hit the ball back and forth, that's what people like to watch." I know the word for "euphemism" but not the actual euphemisms, e.g., for sexual activity, so I say, "They lay in bed, doing euphemisms." Wu Fei thinks its fun to listen to and guess my meaning, and I think it's fun and challenging to invent metaphors, so it's so far been win-win.

Chinese is a difficult second language to learn, for the reasons amusingly and accurately described here: The biggest difficulty is that because the words are pictographic rather than alphabetic, there's no real way to know what a word will sound like. If I wrote, "lacanophobia," you could sound out the word even if you didn't know the meaning. (Fear of vegetables.) You don't have to memorize the way the word looks in order to be reminded of its sound. However, you could look all day at "鼻孔" and not even come close to its sound. (Bikong, nostril.) Chinese is a language requiring lots and lots of memorization.

Different kinds of memorization, at that. First, there are words I know how to read, write, say, and comprehend (aurally). No work to be done here except the task of figuring out its position in the grammarless, punctuationless Chinese sentence.

Second, there are words I understand aurally, but cannot write. The task is then to remember what the written words look like. Examples: 钥匙 (yaoshi, keys), 护照 (huzhao, passport), 麻烦 (mafan, trouble). For this, I generally compose a mnemonic that references the way the word looks. To remember the way the word 棒 (bang, good) looks, I wrote, "很棒的冰" ("very good ice") because "冰棒" ("ice good") means popsicle, and the word 棒 kind of has a verticality reminiscent of a popsicle.

Third, there are vocabulary words that I don't already know, like 修辞 (xiuci, literal) and 鼓励 (guli, encourage). These I cannot write nor say nor understand, so I must remember what the word looks like, what it sounds like and what it means. Most often these come up with conversation, not in reading. These are by far the most difficult.

I kept learning and forgetting the word for "weekend." All I wanted to do was learn the sound of the word; I didn't care about learning to write it; but even memorizing only the sound was proving very difficult. This is where the analogy between melody and language learning comes in. I realized suddenly that my previous method, saying the word over and over again to impress the motions into the muscles of my mouth, provided no mnemonic for future recall. I was relying on motor memory alone, but just as when learning a melody, here I needed visual and audio cues as well.

So this is the process I ended up with for learning vocabulary aurally. First, I listen to the word and repeat its sound, so that my mouth can remember the way the word forms. Second, I imagine the Romanization of the word, and the general shape of that word: weekend, zhoumuo, I remember to have a "z" and an ascender, and then two low sequences in the "ou" and "uo." Third, I search for the sound analogy. "Zhou" happens to be the same sound as "rice porridge," which I have no problem remembering. So I must make some stupid mnemonic, like "This weekend I'm eating rice porridge." Only with the combination of the visual, aural, and motor cues can I recall a word.

I applaud your patience, reader, for I am losing even my own attention. Let me turn now from one baffled monkey's idiotic comprehension of simple memorization to another aspect of language learning that I find interesting: how one's personality changes when presented in different languages. From Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, Gass and Selinker:

"There are social psychological reasons for why adults learn languages less readily than children do. There are many different versions of this hypothesis. Some suggest that adults do not want to give up the sense of identity that their accent provides. Some suggest that adults are not willing to surrender their ego to the extent required to adopt a new language, which entails a new life-world."

(I would post the link but the online proxy server I use to access Blogger from China doesn't permit links; just Google the title if you're interested.)

In some respects, I agree that learning a new language entails accepting a new life-world. Chinese changes my personality. I think I am more obedient and traditional when speaking Chinese; Ana says my Chinese voice sounds less coarse than my English voice. This could be simply because I find it very difficult to think while translating, which in turn takes the bite out of anything I would want to say; Wu Fei asked me my opinions on abortion yesterday, and while fumbling for the words, I completely forgot my ideas and spewed forth some room temperature platitudes about morality, choice, and caution. I can say I want a memo book, or note pad, or sketchbook, or scratch paper, or a pad of virgin growth birch barks, any number of variations to tailor my request in English, but in Chinese I can only say, "I want a book" or "I want paper"; I can say "I'm conserving real estate in my stomach for dessert" when refusing to eat more at meal with English-speakers but with Chinese-speakers I can only say, "I'm full." The blunt instrument of my Chinese hammers out only the blobbiest fertility-sculpture likeness of my finely-chiseled personality, or something.

But the change in my personality also reflects the values in the culture, as expressed through language. I have this great book called "什么时候说什么话" ("When To Say What") which describes itself, in the preface, as teaching students about Chinese speech-acts (言语行为). Just as how in English the "Thank you"-"You're welcome" call-and-response is politesse expressing a cultural value (gratitude should be expressed, and also should be received), there are essentially scripted dialogues in Chinese that one is expected to follow to express your conformity to Chinese values. Take, for example, compliments. In English, the polite sequence is compliment ("You're great at playing piano!") and reception ("Thank you for the compliment."). In Chinese, the polite sequence is compliment and then refutation. Lesson 11, Compliment and Praise.

A: 这孩子真讨人喜欢。("Your child is really adorable.")
B: 哪里,你不知道,可淘气了。("Not at all, you don't know how naughty he is.")

A: 这顿饭好吃极了。("This meal is so tasty.")
B: 哪里哪里,过奖了。("Not at all, you're exaggerating.")

These are normal responses in Chinese, though in English they would be considered puzzling deflections, perhaps even rude. On the other hand, the English habit of simply accepting compliments with "Thank you" seems immodest in Chinese. What is graceful reception of a compliment in one language is not so in the other.

One of my goals in studying Mandarin in China was to learn enough vocabulary to become not inane, by which I mean I wanted to learn to say what was actually on my mind, not just be the polite, silent, possibly retarded, phenotypically-similar alien dropping chopsticks at gatherings of extended family. So on the one hand Chinese language expresses cultural values that are not exactly mine, and thus changes my identity; on the other hand, the expression of my non-traditional Chinese personality becomes stronger the more language I learn. Who knows how this equilibrium will actually tip.

K, who is much better and funnier with words than I am, just wrote an email to say, "I'm sure your Chinese is much less bad than it was when you arrived and your English is still beautiful." Thanks you, glorious hero K, warmings of the heart forever gladness towards long yearning! I apologize to all of you who have suffered to the end of this long, tiresome exposition on patently obvious things. I had hoped to reward you with some satisfying examples of Chinese wordplay, but now it is nearly dawn and I want to flush my language-stuffed head in the leaky toilet a few times and then go to sleep. I'll only offer this pleasing and utterly fatuous coincidence between English and Chinese: the word for cat in Chinese is "mao1," so you can swap out a word in Mao Zedong and make it have the same meaning as "Chairman Meow."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

a lesbian bar in beijing

There are a few terms in Chinese to describe lesbians: 女同性恋 (nu tongxinglian), which is clinical and outmoded, in the same way that "female homosexual" might be in English; 女同志 (nu tongzhi) which literally means "female comrade," "comrade" having been appropriated in the last twenty or so years by the Chinese gay community to have roughly the same connotation as the English word "gay"; 蕾丝边 (leisibian), which is an English sound-cognate that literally means "flowery-edged," like lace; and 拉拉 (lala), which is the most modern of these terms.

The literal meaning of lala ("pull pull") is less apropos than the phonetic effect. The words start with an L sound and thus allude to the word "lesbian," and the repetitive phoneme is cute in the way that Chinese girls like to be. (For example, last week my roommate texted to say that the snowstorm that blanketed Beijing last week was too severe for her to "开车车回家家," sort of like "drive the car-car back homey-womey," except much cuter than and not disgusting like baby talk in English.) Lala is mostly a noun, and sometimes an adjective.

I Googled "lesbianism in China" and came across this article (, which is pretty good if you can plow through all the polysyllabic pork floss that academics apparently must heap on their ideas in order to tickle the tenure-granting organs of the academy (e.g., while searching for the author's other articles, I came across a description of a symposium entitled "Pedagogies in Praxis," which, if you think about it, could also be called "Teaching"). But the article takes as its premise the "basic fact that there are no neologisms for the term 'lesbian' in Chinese lexicon"; the author only discusses the first two of the terms for female homosexuality I described above; then he argues that the definitional indeterminacy of these terms suggests that a clam-loving clam in China is the queerest kind of queer you can be.

But term "lala" seems to be the kind of homegrown neologism that the author of this article claims not to exist. Maybe this is just an oversight? I can't claim to know much about Chinese culture but this: the girls I met at the lesbian bar I went to in a trendy part of east Beijing on Friday night called themselves lala. They asked me if I was lala ("你是拉拉吗?"), to which I replied, "我当然是拉拉啊!" ("Of course I'm lala!"). On my second day of class, my 26 year-old Hui Muslim morning teacher found reason to explain to me the difference between "tongzhi" and "lala," with a plain facial expression that betrayed no judgment, only the smug beam of pedagogy in successful praxis. Sitting across from me for six of the thirteen hours I waited last last weekend at Hongqiao Airport was a seemingly-heterosexual woman (she was leaning her head on someone I presumed to be her husband, and minding a naughty boy I presumed to be her son) reading a book whose English subtitle was "A Report on China's Lala Population." I came out to Wu Fei last week using lines I had rehearsed beforehand many, many times ("采篱是我的女朋友,我是拉拉"/"Hedge Plucking is my girlfriend; I'm lala") and dear, sweet, sheltered Wu Fei, who knew no homos before me and may never know another, who didn't know the vocabulary word to describe heterosexuality, who reluctantly calls the ladyboys she met in her year in Thailand "人妖" (literally, "human goblins") because she does not know the politically-correct phrase for transgender people, even open-minded but still traditional Wu Fei knew what "lala" meant.

The neologisms don't end with lala. Butch and femme identities exist here as they do in western LGBT communities, though in China it is T and P. Butch is T, for the English word "tomboy." Femme is P. P is for 婆 (po), which kind of means "wifey." Calling someone your 老婆 (laopo) is about the same as calling somebody your "old lady." If you're neither T nor P, you can say you're 不分 (bufen), which means you have no preference. 铁T (tie T) means literally "iron T," or stone butch.

(Also, apparently the phrase 断背 (duanbei) has also come into vogue recently as a way of referencing gay people. It literally means "broke back"; guess which Ang Lee movie this term comes from. Thanks to C for the tip.)

All of this I learned from my friend Ana, a first generation Chinese-American whom I first met in August, at a conference where she delivered this presentation of vocabulary words to a room full of enthralled Asian-American queer folks. Imagine how delightful it would be if archeologists discovered Sumerian tablets bearing the cuneiform equivalent of "ROFLMAO" or a set of texts from the Library of Alexandria describing a mopey teen named Bella who falls in love with a handsome, century-old blood sucker named Edward; Ana's presentation in Seattle was greeted with the same pleasures of recognition and cultural validation by her American audience. Not only were we Asian-American curtain parters among our own for the first time at this conference, we were also learning about the tofu-eating habits, so similar to our own, of the allogrooming pandas of the Orient, from whom we were ourselves so recently descended, but whose popular culture was derived from our own. Majesties of coincidence!

Ana and I became friends at the conference. We were pleased to discover that we had lived in the same hippie co-op in college, but six years apart, though the whiteness of the food and the society in the co-op drove her to leave it, whereas I, being a bananarchist, just never noticed. She referred to me once as her "ancestor." My vanity believes this word was an ESL idiosyncrasy rather than a report on the slack skin on my wrinkled face. She lived in Fujian until she was ten, then moved to the social and linguistic Siberia of Houston, and adapted quickly enough to get herself into a good college and to become essentially an artsy lefty. She has since spent some time in China, and made a short documentary about a few of her friends in the lala community here that she screened for us in Seattle. Her Internet handle is euphemistic and slightly obscene. She is short, short-haired, and totally adorable; she dresses like a boy; she has a labret and a sweet, polite voice which pronounces the Fujian accent, Ls for Rs, "len" for ren. Now she's in Beijing for the year, killing time.

I found Ana last week. It took a little finagling to find her email address because I had only contacted her through Facebook, which is still blocked in China. We had a meal of pig's feet hotpot last week - no wonder she didn't want to live in our vegetarian co-op, where tarragon-flavored stew reigns supreme - and made plans to go to a lala bar the following Friday. I invited Wu Fei to come along, but even her voracious curiosity could not overcome her obedience, and she declined by text, advising me, for S's sake, not to be taken in by the slutty temptresses of the lesbian bar. (Wu Fei has never been to a bar.)

At 8:30, I left my apartment for the hour-long subway ride to Hujialou station, where I had arranged to meet Ana. There we also waited for her friend whom she only knew as Tongyidao, which can loosely be translated as "Same Stab"; but when her friend showed up, direct, tall, and intelligent, she introduced herself as Fan Fan. Fan Fan is in graduate school for cultural anthropology, and her specialty is China's lala population. She looked at me straightaway and said that my speech inflection had a "Taiwanese flavor." I admired how fearlessly she spoke to people: at the bar, she looked bored for a minute, and announced that she was going to plumb a waiter for information about the bar's clientele; on returning, she spied a new person dressed in a scarf, glasses, and short-brimmed hat, in the style of, walked over, extended a hand, and said, "I'm Fan Fan, and I would like to know you." I wondered again about career cause and effect: do people become outgoing as a result of the methods of anthropology research, or does the field attract people who are naturally extroverted?

In a San Francisco morning fog, we took a cab from the subway station to the bar. The bar was called Paw Paw. It was on the first floor of the 城市宾馆 in 呼家楼区, in the flashy, expensive eastern part of town where the concentration of expats is high. It is only a lala bar on Fridays and Saturdays. Special waitstaff are called in on these nights. The rest of the time it's just a regular bar.

We paid 21 RMB ($3) at the door for a fluorescent stamp on the wrist and free drinks all night. The bar was large, with long couches along the wall for group seating, and a DJ station and out-of-sync projections of recent American music videos dominating the visual space, but there were only a few dozen people inside, at least when we first got there. A waiter seated us on a couch, and then brought over a plate of watermelon cubes and a mixed plate of salty nuts and sugary peanut balls. I drank gin and tonics, because I could read and pronounce the words for "gin and tonic."

Ana's third friend was already there when we arrived. She introduced herself as "Rebecca." I learned later that her real name was a near homonym for the Chinese word for "waiter." We then quickly made plans for her to lead me through the 798 gallery district over the weekend. She withdrew this offer, in a "sorry"-filled text message, on Saturday night.

Right away Rebecca broadcast herself to me as a young Chinese person much more interested in Western popular culture (and much wealthier) than any other young Chinese person I'd met so far. There was the English name, first of all. Then she told of flying to Amsterdam to smoke weed (whereas the other people I've spoken to seem horrified at the idea of any drugs), and said that tickets were a mere 4000 RMB (about $590, not terribly much for a Beijing-Amsterdam flight, though still shockingly high for my understanding of China, where a smart, experienced graduate from the third best university in the country like Wu Fei makes 3000 RMB a month teaching English). She described her expensive trips she'd taken around North (alone, by plane) and South (with her mother, by slow boat from Peru to Antarctica to Brazil) Americas. She said she was applying to graduate programs in art history in American, and NYU was her top choice. She was dating a nice T, but she wanted to have fun and didn't want to commit to anything; this too struck me as a very non-traditional point of view.

The four of us sat around the sofa and my experience of it was very much like my experience of bars elsewhere in the world. The music was a terrible racket, and I was unable to hear or comprehend much of the conversation, so I sat still, looked alert and smiled, and alternated between reluctantly sipping my cheap beverage and shouting "What?" (although in Taiwanese-flavored Chinese) at people's faces. Several Lady Gaga songs played, followed by "4 Minutes." At this, Rebecca proclaimed three syllables very loudly in my direction. I said, "What?" She said these three syllables again. I said, "What? McDonald's?" She said, "No! MA! DON! NA!" And then she fell back on the couch, exhausted.

There were moments when we all ran out of things to say, and sat murmuring things along the lines of "Where are all the people today?" and "These nuts are the tastiest." We spent some time nervously eyeing, though not approaching, the other group of girls sitting nearby. Eventually there was some interchange. This is how I learned that they were 16 and 17 year-olds in Beijing for a high school filmmaking program.

There were moments when I participated as a non-scintillating conversational assistant, doing the unsexy work of asking where people were from, what they did, how long they had been doing it, what they planned to do, what their girlfriends were like. There were a few self-satisfied moments, too, when I felt that my language learning had progressed to the point where I could actually represent my sloppy enthusiastic personality in Chinese as well as in English. One such moment occurred when I asked about pick-up lines in Chinese. Apparently "Do you come here often?" translates, but in China one does better talking nonsense about delicious food than talking nonsense about the weather.

Around midnight, a plume of smoke from the fog machine was released to signal the start of the night's performances. There were two performers. The first was an extremely skinny campy male singer who performed his first song, a slow traditional ballad, wearing a black dress and a wig; these he cast off for his other three songs, which were upbeat, dancey songs that moved him to bounce around the DJ platform. His stage presence was fun to watch. He flirted with girls in the audience who screamed "Tuo!" ("Take it off!"). When he coyly lowered a zipper, they taunted him by screaming "你能不能脱?" ("Are you even *able* to take it off?"). It says something about how uptight I am that during this sexualized performance, my thoughts were predominated by the fight Stephanie and I had last year about the sexlessness of Chinese culture; thoughts on performance theory; and the puzzled recognition that a first tone word like 脱 could be screamed imperiously. One ends "Take it off!" with a downward inflection. Imagine shouting "Take it off!" in a high monotone!

The second performer had a strongman act that was difficult to watch, and not many people did. He seemed to have no bearing on queerness, except in the loose sense that queerness accepts what adults choose to do with their bodies. He first shattered two beer bottles with a hammer, and then lay down on the shards of glass, and invited two people to stand on his chest, compressing him further in to the glass. The audience responded with appalled, weak applause, when beckoned to do so. Then he invited a person to come up and twist a nail through his elbow skin with a pair of pliers. I left at the point when he shoved two corks attached to strings deep up his nose and attempted to haul a person sitting on a sled through just the strength of the skin on his nostrils. I shivered outside and watched Rebecca smoke a cigarette, because the performance had become unbearable.

After this, we returned to our depressions on the couch and continued our desultory discussion about things here, and things there. Rebecca noticed that Dan Dan (another member of the party, not Fan Fan) noticed a lone white girl sitting at the bar; they descended upon her and appeared to be very interested in her slow, simple, Russian-flavored Chinese. Ana and I sunk in further and talked in English amongst ourselves, and I fear I did that obnoxious thing when I talk to people slightly younger than myself with a tone of undeserved authority, on manners relating to important life choices. She seemed to take it diplomatically, and at 2:15 all of us rose to hail taxis for home.

As mine traced the northeastern bend in the fourth ring road, I called S, who was sick in New York with swine flu. She was happy to receive my call, though she didn't recognize my voice and it was hard to hear each other across seven thousand miles. The taxi took me to Wudaokou station, where I had left my bike. I biked the five minutes home blowing on alternate hands to stay warm. It was so late in the evening, and the only people on the pedestrian paths were plastered girls and boys leaning into each other, looking at their phones. The gates of my university were closed, so I parked my bike outside them and walked down two dark paths, past the tennis courts, past the posters advertising rooms to let, on my way back to my warm little room here in the frigid foreign north of China.

Monday, November 09, 2009

two more memories from thailand

Waking up from a mid-afternoon drowse, I suddenly remembered this from my time in Thailand:

Reena had a very special alarm clock. It was a four-inch cube made of translucent white plastic that transitioned between several beautiful glowing colors when you pressed a button on its underside. It ran on batteries, so there were no intrusive wires. The light was bright enough that you could use it to find your way to the water bottle or your ointments on the dresser, although because Reena guarded this cube carefully (I think even referring to it as "my precious" or "my baby"), I didn't have access to it for this purpose and often woke her up with my fumbling around in the dark on the dresser, knocking over bottles of things trying to find the chapstick. On my bike ride yesterday I came across such a clock, but its faces were plastered with ugly screens of Betty Boop, so I declined to buy.

Reena punched me in the mouth one day. It was an accident. We were play-fighting during a break in a Body Combat class led by an instructor with whom Reena was infatuated. We were attempting to attract this instructor's attention. It was all fun and games, and then Reena punched me in the mouth.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

just a sunday

Today I biked 21 miles, to 798 gallery district and back. (It's called 798艺术区.) The bike ride was unremarkable, although even unremarkable bike rides are enjoyable for me. I was on my bike for about three hours altogether, cutting a more or less straight line west to east just north of the fourth ring road in north Beijing. This took me past Bird's Nest Stadium on three sides, so that I had a 270 degree view of it. Each time I see it, I like it even more.

The scenery by bike in Beijing no longer impresses me as a novelty, although today was the first time I took such a long trip around the city. I have written elsewhere about why I love my bike, and why I find biking in Beijing so enjoyable, so I will just say now that the chaos of traffic is humane and therefore manageable; Ana says she's never seen an accident, and I believe it, because people obey no rules but pay very close attention to each other's movements; and that I find the cheap, sturdy urban single-speed style of Chinese bikes to be exactly suited for my needs here.

The art district is a few square blocks in northeast Beijing devoted to gallery spaces. I don't know how many there are, but maybe something in the dozens. Somewhat reminiscent of the Chelsea galleries in Manhattan, because it consists of abandoned warehouse-like spaces claimed by art, although the concentration of galleries in 798 is much higher than in Chelsea, and there aren't other businesses, parking garages, storage units, or jails like there are on the west side of Manhattan.

It was interesting as a way to peep on China's population of artsy hipsters, which I haven't seen before. There were many foreigners, too. Maybe those people with the fashionable mohawks were Japanese, but I heard at least some of them shouting in Mandarin. Hearing them made me think that know so little about modern Chinese popular culture.

What I want to know: are young people anxious? What makes them anxious? How many of them are anxious? How do they express their anxiety?

To find the emotional life of a Chinese person, as if such a thing can be essentialized and known, I look for the American analogy, which is easy for me to understand, e.g., I know how the twitchy energy of young, creative, vain people might end up in a place like Williamsburg, but I don't think that the art I saw today was a product of that kind of culture, although I couldn't tell you why it felt that way.

So many things I see around me provoke this feeling; China can look so modern, and if you looked around at the shining hotels and expensive bars and sexy fashions and kids sending texts and graphic design and new buildings and flashing colored lights, it's tempting to think that the values of youth culture, and their expression, are exactly the same here as in America. But I don't believe that the analogy is so easily drawn.

I remember that Stephanie and I got into a fight last year after we'd read an article about how many Chinese gyms were starting to offer pole-dancing classes as a form of aerobics. She scoffed at this, and thought it was a phony and neutered presentation of what ought to be raunchy and sensational. That bothered me, because I felt like she was saying that Chinese people were sexless. It's very important to my world view to believe that people everywhere experience the same range and depth of emotion, e.g. that people say filthy things to one another while screwing in Jordan or laugh at jokes about their neighbors eating beans in Mali; it was also important to me that the Western stereotype about Chinese people being *not fun*, which I saw so often repeated in the press during the 2008 Olympics, not be seconded by my Chinese girlfriend. In reality, that's not what Stephanie was saying, but I was eager to believe that I had been insulted, and we fought somewhat senselessly about it.

That is neither here nor there. All I am saying is I am outside this culture, and I would like to be inside, but it is not easy. I take for granted my familiarity with American tropes. Let me never forget henceforth that a blowsy, underwearless, hoarse-voiced girl with glittery eyeshadow who tilts into a cab on E. 72nd Street on a Saturday night and the orange-colored Chad with the popped collar who pays her fare may not be types cognizable to, say, a Chinese person learning the contours of American demography.

At 798, there was much to see. I liked one oil painting of a rainbow over Tiananmen Square. The people in the plaza were blurred and the image was painted in mustard brown tones, so that the scene looked sinister, like a surveillance image, instead of pleasant. Other than this, no other pieces of art made an impression upon me, but then again, one memorable artwork per gallery/museum experience is all I ask anyway. I was interested enough anyway in the district itself and the people strolling around in it.

I had a meal of duck fat over fat-fried vegetables and fat rice, and because I hadn't eaten for five hours, and even then only had a half cup of yogurt and coffee, I poured my meal down my throat in five minutes and then sat reading Murder on the Orient Express until the feeling of acute nausea passed. I biked home, ninety minutes, getting lost only once, and stopping to buy a pomelo from a street vendor.

Yesterday I had intended to bike down to the Forbidden City, but I quarreled with S, and then had only two hours of daylight to bike into a traffic snarl just south of the second ring road, shouting curses in English. I felt foul. I came home and found a variety of ways to distract myself from the foulness, in descending order of effectiveness: composing two melodies for voice and guitar, entitled "Why Do Girls Make Me Cry?" and "I'm So Happy I Could Die"; taking my roommate on the back of my bike to eat Guangzhou rice porridge near Wudaokou; jogging five miles on the BLCU track; reading the news. But S's patience and good temperament steered us out of the turbulence, and the day ended with six hours of expressions of love, delivered by webcam until dawn.

The day before was Friday. I didn't hang out with Wu Fei as is customary, because she was dogsitting for the weekend and had to go pick up keys. Instead, I came home, fa dai'd for several hours, then went to a lesbian bar at night. I will write about that presently.

Monday, November 02, 2009

wu fei

A funny thing happened tonight when I went to go write an entry on my blog describing the personality of my new friend Wu Fei. I remembered that she had a blog, and I went to go check it.

The second entry down on her blog was one describing my personality. Maybe the coincidence explains in part why in only three weeks we've become such friends as we have become. We both like to observe things, particularly marvelous ridiculous things, and write things; now I have learned that we spend four to five hours a day together observing things, and then retreat to our separate computers and our separate languages to write about them.

Wu Fei is one of my two teachers at the language school. I vastly prefer her over my morning teacher, not at all because my morning teacher is subpar, but because Wu Fei is such an excellent teacher. I call my morning teacher my listening comprehension teacher, because we rush through the textbook, neither of us with any interest, because the dialogues are easy and inane, and then I probe her about her feelings on Mao Zedong, the Tiananmen Square protests, North Korea, Hui Muslims, the twenty-four seasons of the Chinese agricultural calendar, the linguistic games that Chinese people play with each other, the facial features of Westerners, and so on, and because she is a well-educated, opinionated, powerful, and straightforward person, she then delivers a 15-20 minute soliloquy and I focus on keeping up with the language. This is fine for me, since part of why I was interested in coming to China was to hear young Chinese people talk about their understandings of the world.

But Wu Fei I find a better teacher as well as a better companion. To the first, she is patient, clear, and diligent, so that her classes are just better planned and executed. She also pays much closer attention to the way I learn than my other teacher; e.g. she will cajole me into dialogue by asking hopelessly open-ended questions such as "How you do think children should be raised?" and "What is your opinion on money?" because she knows it is more challenging and useful to me to voice my opinions in Chinese than to listen to a Chinese person's soliloquy. She also expresses her delight in funny things much more passionately, so that when I relate my linguistic and cultural mistakes (like going into a shoe store and asking, very politely, for lack of better entree, "Do you sell shoes here?"), she giggles at me but in a way that makes me feel like I'm entertaining China with my physical comedy, not simply making an ass of myself. This I find very encouraging.

What makes her a good teacher also makes her a good companion. She is curious, open-minded, fair, and eager to listen to people who may know about things she hasn't experienced. She has had experiences that make her more mature than her twenty-five years, including a year spent living alone in a rural farm preparing to retake university entrance exams, and a year spent living outside of Bangkok teaching Chinese to Thai kids. These may be the pseudo-adventurous, predictable psychosocial moratoria of rich Westerners, but I think they are genuine novelties, hardships, and curiosities in a culture that doesn't prize going off on larks as mine does, and they speak to Wu Fei's character. Wu Fei has stories about living with wild pythons hiding in her bedroom, and stories about studying from 6am until midnight almost every night for a year.

She is quick and she remembers and connects things: three weeks ago I mentioned something about how I assumed that the other Americans she was teaching were evangelical Christians because they told her they reviled Obama and home-schooled their children. Later she confirmed this, and today she noted the irony of the Chinese government's desire to have foreigners learn Chinese (as a way of spreading Chinese culture) and foreigners' desire to learn Chinese (as a way of penetrating Chinese culture with Christian evangelism). Today we slowly walked around the campus of Qinghua University talking about how to stand up for yourself against catty, strong-willed people (i.e., a certain well-educated, opinionated, powerful, and straightforward teacher), which led to a long discussion on how to find the proper balance between being kind enough not to hurt other people but demanding enough to get what you want out of life. Later topics of discussion were: bananas (the term is the same in Chinese as in English for people who are yellow on the outside, white on the inside), how what was wrong with traditional Chinese ways of thinking was the same thing that was wrong with conservative American ways of thinking, Han dynasty clothing, how loudly Chinese people talk in public and how fastidiously polite Thai people are, and East Asia's highly-developed culture of cuteness. She asked me if it was true that Harvard students took all of their clothes off and ran around during stressful periods in the semester; I affirmed my own participation in this and explained to her the Western ritual of streaking.

It was 20 degrees today - a sudden snow dump in Beijing left me stranded at an airport in Shanghai yesterday for 13 hours, enough time for me to finish both Pride and Prejudice and 4/5ths of a Michael Connelly thriller - and we walked around for the two hours before twilight, occasionally pelting each other with crummy snowballs, but mostly just chatting, chatting, chatting. As much as we are both loath to speak in generalities about our respective cultures, I think we've found cultural guides in each other. I play up my American openness, and she receives it with some degree of admiration. As we passed by piles of fallen leaves on the quad, she said, "Oh, it would be so fun to roll in these leaves, but I'm so embarrassed. So many people are watching, they'll think I'm an idiot," and it was then my turn to say, "Who cares what they think? It'll be fun!" and then it was up to me to take the lead in rolling around like an idiot on the leaves. She tells me that her boyfriend doesn't let her dance, swim, or ride elephants because those activities are too sexy/dangerous, and then laments how Chinese guys are controlling of their girlfriends, and then it is my turn to bite my tongue and accept that Chinese culture puts a stronger emphasis on coupling younger and for life and with possibly not 100% perfect partners, instead of saying DTMFA as I would to an American friend.

Anyway, this is not a very good explanation of who this new dear friend is or what it is like to spend time with her. I have notes on a bunch of anecdotes that I was meaning to type up into an English language biography of her before I chanced upon her Chinese language biography of me. I will get to those some day. But for now, let me delight in this coincidence, that her teaching ability has brought my reading ability to the point where I can translate her biography about me at the end of my biography of her:


[Bananarchist] has a J.D. from Harvard*, and I'm really a bit proud of this. Even though I have nothing to do with this, I am still proud, haha.

The first time she opened her mouth, I nearly jumped back in surprise. Her voice was so coarse, more like the voice of a man. Big feet, big hands, broad shoulders, flat butt: she didn't make an objectively very pretty girl. She said it herself: "I'm a big-footed crone, and it's hard for me to find shoes that fit in China," and "I'm a tomboy, and men aren't going to be attracted by that." Each time she uses these idiomatic Chinese phrases, I'm always left rocking back and forth with laughter.

She really cares about the environment. On the first day that I met her, she told me that she was vegetarian for ten years because she was concerned about protecting the planet, but because she loved roasted pork buns too much, she eventually gave up this noble pursuit.

After she bought a bike, she pushed it to a bike shop and said: "Please attach an animal cage!"**

When we got to the part of the textbook on buying and selling things, the homework I assigned her was to go to one of the street vendors downstairs and practice buying something. Then when we went down there, she said to one hat sellers, "Can I try dressing my head with this?"***

Another class, I asked her to give her opinions about money. She said that before she turned 27, she was very good at saving money. I said, "Can you give me an example?" She said that when she got to college, she discovered that her bed did not come with sheets, blankets, or pillows, but because she wanted to save money, she didn't go buy these things. She just put her sleeping bag on her bed and used that both as sheets and as a blanket. For a pillow, she used a plush doll stuffed into a t-shirt. This way she lived for four years.* My god, I just found that incredible. I said, "You must be the most thrifty person I know. There must not be anybody who can save money like you can." She said, "There is! My friend is even more thrifty! He didn't even have a bed,* he just used a yoga mat!" When I heard this, I was speechless.

She is such a real, admirable, and vivid person that I can't use words to describe her. On cold, still nights like these, thinking about her makes me feel wonder and warmth. Thank you, life, for giving me such feelings that I haven't felt before.****

*It only speaks to my poor Chinese speaking ability that her entry has factual errors such as this. It is not a J.D. from Harvard. It was not four years; it was hardly four weeks. Roona bought me a pillow and I found a sheet in the free pile, though I did continue to use that sleeping bag until graduation. And Albert didn't go without a bed because he was cheap, but because his room was small.
**It only speaks to my poor Chinese speaking ability that I was unable to remember the words for "bike basket."
***I am struggling to find the suitable English translation for the cultural and linguistic error I committed on this particular occasion. I used the verb for wearing clothing (chuan1) instead of the verb for wearing accessories (dai4), which was apparently very funny, because the four people buying hats from this vendor all laughed uproariously when I opened my mouth.
****Yikes, now that I've read to the end, I am thinking I might revisit my resolve to come out to her this week. Perhaps too weird. Or maybe the effusive language at the end is just idiomatic, and I only get its literal meaning? Wo bu zhi dao!!