Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I am in Zhongli or Neili in Taiwan right now, staying with my parents in my mom's older brother's apartment, which he doesn't live in because he lives in Shanghai. It has been family time here. There are family members here I haven't seen since I was eight. Two nights ago I had dinner with my mom's older brother's ex-wife, their daughter, her husband, their son's wife, her daughter, my 96 year-old grandfather, my mom's older sister's husband, and my parents. All of these people have different terms of address, but sometimes it's more expedient to refer to people in my generation or lower by their name, which means during our ridiculous banquet of - well, I wrote it down - a plate decorated with a lobster shell with the lobster meat scooped out onto lettuce covered with Kewpie mayonaise next to a dozen shrimp in the shell, an enoki-filled clear soup with green globules of something and shredded pork floss, another clear soup heated with sterno cans and filled with seafood, a big white-fleshed fish on a sterno-heated platter, a dish of shiitake mushrooms mixed with cooked lettuce, eighteen raw oysters with lime and hot sauce, more mushrooms (mu er and something else) mixed with chopped up bamboo root, a tempura plate with shrimp, potato, yam, etc., beef steak, giant bright-pink peach-like mantou filled with sweet red bean paste, sour berry drink, and regular old oolong tea - during this ridiculous feast that we did not come close to finishing, I asked and forgot everybody's term of address half a dozen times.

I have these general thoughts about Taiwan versus China: it's easier to negotiate than what I have seen of China simply because there are 1.28 billion fewer people; food here is somehow more delicious than food in China even though it is actually just Chinese food; the crap sold on the street is somehow cuter even though it is all crap made in China; and Cyn, I disagree with your assessment of Taiwan's rate of development, because it sure seems like things are developing here. Ten years ago in Taipei, there was one subway line with about ten stops on it. Now there are six lines, and one of those lines can bring 3/4ths of a Chinese-American family from the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall to Dan Shui for a sunset and a street vendor binge in less than an hour. (What was binged upon: hats, sunglasses, those special Taiwanese face-covering Darth Vader visors, fried squid, ice cream cones, red thread for jade necklaces, oranges. We also sampled many fried things and artificially sweetened things, and some massage implements, without buying.)

On the train from Zhongli to Taipei today, these evenful things happened: a man stood in the aisle next to my mom's seat and released a ten-second fart next to her face; a man getting out at the Bang Qiao stop upended an entire crate of lotus fruit that he wasn't able to fully retrieve before rushing off the train, so after he left, other passengers went to pick up this most delicious of tropical fruit from the floor of the train, and my mom got a bag. Dear god, fruit in the tropics. This particular fruit happens to be red with white meat, bell-shaped, seedless, sort of lightweight and crisp like a starfruit, not too sweet, but very, very heady. They tasted like daydreams about kissing. We ate them while walking to my dad's family's old neighborhood on Tong Shan Street in Taipei, and then we walked to a men's dormitory at Taida University and ate buffet-style, fiber-rich dorm food in order to release the previous night's banquet's death grip on our intestines.

So pass the days, eating and noting family, and eating again. I decided against going to Wenzhou to see my cousin and her baby, because it would mean getting on my 19th and 20th flights in 65 days, and I have four more flights coming up in the next three weeks, and this growing pigmentless patch on my hand a Taiwanese doctor diagnosed yesterday as stress-related-immunodeficiency-caused vitiligo, which stressed me the f-bomb out, so I don't think I'd better cool it if I can.

Traveling with my parents is great, but there are also some vitiligo-catalyzed stormy clouds relating to my realization that I can never fully please them and will only be disappointed and very sad and maybe even a touch humiliated when my attempts to do so are read exactly the wrong way, and that their way of communicating their affection to me will be sweet and pushy until it becomes intolerable, and that's when the skies open. You can read about that on my secret blog, which is published in a dark locker in the sweaty basement of my heart. Now it is nearing midnight and I am in an Internet cafe among sour-smelling young men with video game fevers, and my parents just called to say that there are lots of wild dogs on the walk back to the apartment, so I'll be on my way. More later, from down home Beijing.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

where i live in beijing

For the past two weeks, I have been living teachers' dorms at the China University of Mining and Technology, in Beijing's Haidian district. I will be here for three more weeks, although next week I will be traveling to Taiwan to see my 95 year-old grandfather, and then to Wenzhou to see my cousin's newborn baby next weekend.

On the weekdays, I take four hours of language class at a private Chinese language school right near the Wudaokou subway station. It happens to be in the same complex of pink buildings where my dear someone lived four years ago, so sometimes I walk out to Chengfu Road at lunch and wonder which of these third-floor terraces, all decked with clothes hung out to dry, used to be hers. I have class until 3 p.m., and then I am free. Usually I spend the afternoon hanging out with my teacher, but I'll write more on that later.

I did nothing to find the place I am living in. Somebody from my language school went around nearby college campuses and responded to an apartment listing for me, and set me up with my roommate, Hejun. It is a half mile, fifteen minute crowded walk or ten minute crowded bike ride through the campus of Beijing Language and Culture University and down Chengfu Road to class. I have no idea how many universities are in this area of Beijing -- at least ten? Maybe twenty? In any event, everywhere one turns one finds a different campus. The streets are full of young, trendy people talking into cell phones or taking one another for little trips on the backs of their sturdy, junky old bicycles. There are only a handful of mopeds, which I find surprising and pleasant. BLCU is mostly for non-Chinese students studying Chinese, so it's not unusual to see lots of different types of people around.

My room is about 10' x 10' and has everything I need to be happy with a room - a desk, a bed, a reading light, and a place to do push-ups when my back can't take the endless inscribing of endless characters on endless flashcards - and many things I don't, like a television (which I haven't turned on), a guitar I bought in Thailand (which cannot be tuned and which I haven't had much time to play anyway), a melodion that I also bought in Thailand and haven't played, various bottles of sweet drinks that my roommate gave to me, and three huge, furry mouse hats that I bought mostly to entertain my dear someone during our webcam chats. Hejun has clipped a little bit of philodendron and left it in a Tom and Jerry cup on my windowsill. There is an alarm clock shaped like an egg that does not work, and another one shaped like a house that also does not work. There is an ironing board and an iron, a dozen of my language, culture, and history books, plus a black market copy of Pride and Prejudice, by "Jane Ausetn." I have a window but it opens onto the terrace, which is enclosed, but which in turn has a little window that can be opened. This means that even if Beijing had fresh air to give, which it doesn't, I could at best hope for a little bit of it to blow through the yangtai window and into mine, which never happens.

The pollution is fearsome on some days and not bad on others. To my California eyes, on the day I landed it looked like the heaviest San Francisco fog imaginable had the city hidden, but my Chinese had not yet gotten to the point where I could ask anyone whether it was fog or exhaust that prevented me from seeing any farther than a hundred feet ahead of me. Today, I biked through Beida en route to the Summer Palace, and the far side of the pretty campus lake was barely visible from the near side. The smog gave the world a romantic bronzing but it can't be good for my lungs to live here for long. Other days, though, the air looks clearer. It's been getting colder here, and to equip myself for this I bought a pair of mittens with pink strawberries crocheted on the back.

There are four rooms in the apartment. Mine, described above. The bathroom, which, in the Asian style, does not have a separate compartment for bathing. One flips a switch on the water heater, and then half an hour later, one stands in one's roommate's flip flops under the showerhead and drenches the entire room with water. Hejun has mastered the art of not spraying the toilet paper with the shower, but I have not, and when I am done the roll is as useless as the wet, bloated copy of the Analects next to it. The toilet handle needs to be jiggled just so. This is also the room in which one stands for ten minutes, naked except for flip fops, trying to understand which of the two identical bottles of L'Oreal shampoo that an insistent shopgirl bullied one into buying is shampoo and which one is conditioner. One figures it out, finally, based on the orientation of the caps and not the mysterious lettering on the bottles.

There is a small kitchen. When Cynthia and I traveled through Penang, we took a guided tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion led by a hilarious, dry, flamboyant, extremely intelligent Chinese-Malaysian man, who said things like, "This portrait of Cheong Fatt Tze has been consumed by termites. We've sprayed it with pesticide. We are all hoping for the best," "This house was called La Maison Bleu, parce que...c'etait bleu," and very slyly, at the end of the tour, "This tour, like all other well-planned commercial tours, ends...in the gift shop...where we try to squeeze just a few more ringgit out of you." During the tour, he also found reason to say, "If you look into any Chinese person's refrigerator, anywhere in the world, I guarantee you will find Tupperware, but not name-brand Tupperware, generic Tupperware, old take-out containers, washed out margarine tubs. Chinese people waste nothing, and I am rather proud of this." I, too, am rather proud of this. Indeed, in the fridge right now are many tubs of leftovers, including some with delicious braised fish and soybean pods that Hejun's boyfriend's mom prepared for us when we went over there on Monday. The appliances not in use are kept unplugged.

In the apartment is also Hejun's room, which is kind of a living room also, but which I seldom enter because I want to give her her space. I don't know whether I am importing western ideas of privacy, though, because she keeps telling me to enter and use her TV and the living space, and we have the kind of nice roommateship where she brings me cut up pieces of fruit as I study and leads me around campus by the arm to get a haircut or to register my residency. She and her boyfriend lived in this room together until the day that I arrived; the next day, he flew off to spend a semester studying business in Germany. We bought packaged ramen together for him to take to Germany. He's since Skyped to tell Hejun that everything except potatoes are ridiculously expensive in Germany, and that he is subsisting on a diet almost entirely of potatoes. In Hejun's room is another yangtai, where I hang my handful of wet laundry to dry once or twice per week. In order to
reach the rod for hanging clothes, one must step on a "Twist and Trim" stair stepper contraption that forces one to swing one's hips like a tart while hanging decade-old socks up to dry. Beijing is dry, S says, and you can wash your shirt one night and have it ready to wear the next.

The apartment is in teachers' housing, but it doesn't mean that it's fancy. I think I live in what people describe as Soviet-style architecture. I never knew what that meant. It is a run-down old building about twenty floors high. Some days there are lights in the hallways, other days it's completely dark. When things are lit they are lit badly, either with bald incandescents or with sickly overhead fluorescents. The elevator downstairs has a "2" instead of an up button. It constantly smells like turpentine all around the building. At around 7:30 each morning, somebody starts hitting something; it sounds like intermittent hammering, but it just continues stuttering on for an hour or two. This is when I turn on the fan for white noise and put my green bean pillow over my head. There are two crowded rows of junky bikes parked out front. In the elevators, I see vivacious old people going out in pairs with badminton rackets, or dragging large gooseneck squash from floor 12 to floor 5. They pay visits to each other and greet each other warmly in the curling argot of down home Beijing. In one of the elevators sits a bored, plump young woman with crimped hair who plays video games on her cell phone, reads grocery store advertisements, and occasionally presses the button for your floor. She was the second person after my cab driver that I met in Beijing; I asked her, "Is this West Second Lou or West Second Yuan, or is there no difference?" It was 7:45, and she was leaning her mass of crimped hair against the elevator, and she was asleep. I asked her again, and she said, dreamily, "That I don't know, that you're going to have to ask another person." A one minute bike ride through BLCU takes me to the running track where I rapidly inhale car exhaust for half an hour every other night; this is usually crowded with girls walking along at a crawl and large Westerners playing with their balls. At dusk a broadcast of the school radio station plays all over campus. Topics of talk radio conversation have included "How is your senior year different from other years?" and music played has included "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" and "Disco Stick."

I study until late at night in order to have some overlapping time on Gchat with those on EST, wake at 9:35 and leave the apartment at 9:45. The air was brisk last week but it has gotten warmer. For this I am grateful, because I tried to buy a jacket last week and met with these impediments: 1) I am afraid of shopgirls, 2) jackets are expensive even in China, 3) I can't bargain to save my life, and 4) I am a size XXL in China. I bike down a pocket road through BLCU and join the chaos of commuters on the main road. Both coming and going I see a homeless man who, unlike the others, does not kneel with his forehead touching the ground but lounges smiling on a blanket next to two little puppies. A few days back I saw a woman walk twenty feet past him, turn around, and walk back to drop a one yuan bill into his bowl. She had headphones on and didn't seem to look particularly empathetic or struck by the cuteness; it was just a matter of fact redistribution of her kuai.

On the north side of the road are the yam seller, the orange seller, and the jian bing seller whom I occasionally patronize. I also have to cross under the subway station, where the mess of bicycles, pedestrians, three-wheeled cargo bikes, electric bikes, mopeds, and yam-, book-, exhaust mask-, trinket-, corn-, glazed haw berry-, and chestnut-sellers forces things to a standstill. This happens also to be where high-speed trains come roaring by, once every few hours, and then the vendors scramble to get out of the way. The bookstore where I bought my dictionary and the grocery store that Wu Fei led me through (during our lesson on vegetable names) are in the complex across the street; the department store kept heated to a stagnant 80 degrees is a bit further down. There I buy individual servings of yogurt, corn-flavored Pocky, and yogurt drink three times a week.

Next to the school are a bunch of Chinese fast food places. It's now getting into my third week here, and I've started to eat a little better. But in the beginning, all the words on the menu were incomprehensible, and all the people pushing around made me feel nervous to ask anyone what anything was, so I ate by going into a place and pointing to a random, medium-priced dish and saying, "That one." This once resulted in a dish that was green peppers fried with about twenty slices of bacon; another time it was an odd bowl of cold Yunnan noodles. Today I found a rice porridge place with both English and pictures on the menu. This is very promising. The place downstairs from my school specializes in Taiwanese breakfast, so one morning when I was able to drag myself out of bed earlier, I got hot soymilk and fried dough sticks and thousand year-old egg and shredded pork porridge, and then I walked upstairs and had diarrhea.

During my lunch breaks, I usually just get to work putting down all the words I've learned into my notebook. Two days last week, I ventured out by bicycle, first to Qinghua University and then to Beida. Both are beautiful campuses with long, car-free boulevards lined with tall shade trees, and the best students in a country of 1.3 billion. Neither are very far away. I haven't escaped Haidian except a brief excursion to a frightening shopping mall at Xidan last weekend, where a PA played MIA's "Paper Planes" at an extremely loud volume and gunshot sound effects echoed all around me, and a trip with Wu Fei to the Olympic Park area last Saturday. Today I attempted to find the Summer Palace but only started at dusk, and I had no idea where I was going, and ended up tracing aimless circles in northwest Beijing with my bike for two hours. There must be something very wrong with my grammar or pronunciation because each of the four people I asked for directions met my request first with an, "Ehhhh??"'

Next week I hope to have more time to explore Beijing outside of Haidian, maybe even meet up with my Chinese lesbian friend and learn a little bit about being a comrade in China. I like that - the gay community here has appropriated the word "comrade," so that it now refers to a homosexual comrade. However, first I must fly to Taipei and then drive to Chungli and then fly to Beijing and take a train to Shanghai and a flight to Wenzhou and a flight back to Beijing. I cannot remember the name I'm supposed to call my uncle, who is my mom's older sister's husband, and it is a source of anxiety. Otherwise, this is my quiet, bewildered little life here. It is ting hao. It is ting nice to live for a bit in Beijing.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

a saturday in beijing

Today I woke up at 8:23 after going to bed at 3am because there was someone hammering nails next door for two hours, and the old people living in the apartment next door started slamming and reslamming the door, and also there was some sort of music being broadcast across the campus. I don't understand why there needs to be sound broadcast all over the campuses here, but there is. But it was okay. I used a variety of techniques, including earplugs and a fan for white noise, and eventually green pea pillow draped over my head, in order to sleep a while longer. Hejun says she can sleep through anything, and that going to a 酒吧 makes her even sleepier, because the loud noises make her dizzy. I wonder if this is a Chinese skill, because there are so many damned people here that it's hard to find space for yourself, so you have to learn to accommodate noise.

Feifei and I have talked a bit about ideas of privacy in America and in China. We say the stereotypical things: I say Americans aren't accustomed to the Chinese habit of asking questions about income and marriage status; she says that Chinese people ask because they are concerned about your wellbeing and want to take care of you. She grabs me by the arm and steers me around in the grocery store; I say that American people guard their personal space very carefully. I tell her that if you bump into somebody in America, you immediately say excuse me or sorry or something; I tell her this as people nudge and elbow and sidle past us in the store. I think I want to let her understand that I feel both Chinese and American, and that am Chinese enough to understand that when she protests against me paying for entry to Bird's Nest Stadium, she's being polite, and I should insist on buying the tickets, and that my reactions to things I experience in China isn't
going to be the same as the experience of other Americans that she meets. I wanted to tell her about not minding the plate of undead headless eels still slithering over one another at my hotpot dinner with Hejun yesterday...well I don't mean to sound like I'm bragging, I just don't think I'm very typically American. This is why when she asks these curious, profound, difficult-to-answer questions, such as, "What are the conditions for Asians in America like?" and "Do you love your country?", I don't really know how to answer her.

I really like that she asks these questions, though. I told her, "我认为我们的想法很像" (an attempt to say, "I think we think alike," don't know if the grammar was right) after she responded to my question about whether she loved her country by saying that before she left for her year of teaching Chinese in Thailand, she thought that China had too many problems to love, but after her year abroad, she decided that she must love her country in order to feel compelled to improve the things she found problematic about it. I think she's very smart and thoughtful and sweet, and I really like her. Conversation in both English and Chinese is slow with her, but she's very patient with me. There was a moment as we were walking into some car safety expo at the Olympic Park (where we watched a trivia challenge for a moment) that I was fumbling for a word to describe my roommate. I was telling Feifei that Hejun had called our waiter "帅哥" (shuaige,
handsome bro) and I asked her if this were normal. She said that she was too 害羞 (haixiu, shy) to do that, and it wasn't normal. I wanted to say that Hejun was flirtatious and extroverted, and both of those words required me to stand in the park and page through my dictionary. After we found these words, Feifei got an "Aha!" look on her face and we talked about shyness and introversion for a little bit. She said she was an introvert and sounded surprised when I described myself as an extrovert. I really like how engaged she is. She's very intelligent; I can tell from our topics of conversation. I feel very lucky to have her as my teacher.

As Feifei spoke to me in English, all the while I thought of how difficult it must have been for my parents to move to America. I am ashamed to admit that I have been socialized to find the Chinese accent in English unattractive, and the Chinese style of dress fobby, and Chinese habits rude or coarse. (I guess to answer Feifei's question about what the conditions are like in America for Asians, I would have to describe how recent immigrants are viewed as social inferiors in America.) But being in China among young Chinese people - for the first time among intelligent young people instead of among expats or Chinese-American kids or old tourists or my relatives - has helped me realize how shameful and culturally contextualized these beliefs are. I am seeing so much here. I find Hejun's way of being totally flirtatious, cute and fun. She did all manner of ridiculous things over dinner, not only calling the waiter "Hey, handsome! Handsome, come here!" but
pouting when the chopsticks wouldn't come and shouting for the soup to be refilled while gesticulating with both arms stretched extremely high above her head. I found these imperious manners totally appalling when performed by my unloved uncle, he of the rotting nose tip and the special dog-beating stick in the trunk of his car, but now that I see a cute young person doing it, I find it charming. Hejun was also a funny driver, saying things like "同志门,灯是绿的!" ("Comrades, the light is green!") in a singsong voice when tooting her horn at a crowd of pedestrians crossing the street against the light. In contrast, Feifei is a little shy, a little introverted, but not serious and quick to smile. She sometimes will speak very slowly and patiently to me, and sometimes when I do something stupid (like if I write "太好!好死了!" in the comments section of her evaluation form) she will either look over her glasses at me in bemused disbelief, or
sometimes she will bend a bit with laughter and move to cover her smile with her hand. She invited me over for lunch and cooked for me today, moving around the kitchen in a very practiced and relaxed manner even though I was hovering over her and observing her in a way that would have made me feel uncomfortable if so observed, shaking spices out of a little spice spoon, washing the wok with a brisk movement of the brush, bending over to peer at the flame. We ate the dishes she cooked (radish and ribs in broth, mushu eggs and pork, bell pepper and [white root] stir fry, and mala thousand year old eggs) sitting on opposite sides of a high table at seats that were inappropriate for both of us, she on a bed that was being used as a day bed in the living room, me on a sofa about 8" too low for the table. We ate and slurped and talked with our mouths full and spat out the bones from the soup onto a piece of newspaper she'd dragged over; I felt self-conscious
and clumsy, but after a while I realized there was no need to, and I just enjoyed the delicious meal she had prepared. After lunch we sat together on a single chair and looked at her photos on her laptop. I saw that she had written "vampire" on a post-it in English, with the International Phonetic Alphabet spelling next to it, and asked her about it; this got us to talking about how cute she thought Robert Pattinson was and had me looking in my dictionary for the words "overacting," "dramatic," and "histrionic," none of which were suitable for what I wanted to say. She hung up some underwear on the yangtai and I tried to wash the dishes.

Bringing this back to my immigrant parents. All to say that I find it really delightful to be going around with my two new Chinese friends and experiencing their vastly different but equally interesting and idiosyncratic personalities. It made me think of how much of their personalities my parents must have felt they had to suppress in moving to America, where they were perceived by Americans as two of an undistinguished mass of black-haired, small-eyed, funny-talking, funny-acting dog eaters. Mom told me when they first moved to America, she tried to buy some meat at the butcher section of Lucky's, and she was called an "animal" and a "beast" by the butcher when she requested some cut of meat he didn't have. Then there was that lonely, emphatic note I found in a notepad in the garage that must have dated to the mid-1980s, in which my dad had written, "American women are BITCH. They don't care. They are BITCH," or something like that. I found this in
1998 and kept it for a while, but it's lost now. I don't know what circumstance triggered my dad's anger. So now I imagine cute and earnest Feifei in my mom's place, Feifei as pretty and young and small as my mother must have been in 1978, just looking for ingredients to make familiar dishes, and getting snarled at by a total asshole. What did the butcher see in my mom thirty years ago that would make him treat her that way? And how much senseless cruelty, or even just disinterest, could a person withstand before feeling utterly defeated?

I don't know what these feelings add up to. Hejun says she's interested in moving to Canada, because she has some friends there, and she wouldn't think it very lonely (I asked her if she would), but I feel like warning her away from moving. Things are so rich here, I want to say. You can live like you've always lived. Of course there are problems, major problems, with China, but least in the day to day, if you are a Chinese person and you grew up with your Chinese habits, you can go on enjoying your chaotic bike rides through Beijing and your delicious food everywhere and your underwear on the yangtai and your casual conversations and flirtations with strangers, because that might not exist anymore for you once you leave. What are these, thoughts of sacrifice? Idealistic thoughts of affection for a motherland that is not really mine? Second language learner's syndrome?

Who the hell knows. Must study now.

Friday, October 16, 2009

and another

Even as OZ was posting his comment, my dad was sending this next gem to me, again all in the subject heading:

dear mandu, don't get the wrong massage! it could cause "SPINAL STROKE"!!! there are so many case come up now... sympton: nausea, headache, stomach ache, then totally paralyzed!!! warning.. you need to pickup right massage service, don't let them twist spine...

"Mandu" is his name for me.

yet another email from dad

[The subject heading:]

don't drink coke... very melt cockroaches in seconds...

[The text:]

don't drink coke... it melt cockroaches in second... you can clean toilet withit!it has 13 cubic cane sugar per can......

fast noodle ... is killing you.....

read this.....attached...



Monday, October 12, 2009

dialogue #1

This is an approximation of a conversation that occurred in China today, between a shop girl and a buffoon, translated into English: "Do you need me to help you find something?" "I look for the simplest soap for the washing of face." "Do you mean face soap?" "Yes." "This works [pushes expensive imported product toward buffoon]." "Mm [assent]. I too need a hair lavage tonic." "Shampoo?" "Yes." [More products pushed toward buffoon. Buffoon then patiently queues to pay.]

test from beijing

Blogger is blocked in China, so this is a test to see if the blog-by-email function I set up five years ago still works. Test, test.

Since I can't actually see my blog, could one of you be so kind as to email me at my gmail account if this posts successfully?

I am in Beijing and a little terrified!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

personality quiz

to determine whether you will like being a certain type of tourist in a certain type of bar in Thailand:

  1. Old people having a good time playing in a rock band together are:

  2. A. pathetic.
    B. cute.
    C. heartwarming, because all joy is heartwarming.

  3. Attractive young people having a good time flirting with one another in a bar are:

  4. A. sexy.
    B. appalling.
    C. aliens.

  5. When you are minding your own business, listening to old people playing in a rock band together, and the wispy, meter-long hair of a hippie woman walking by brushes across your arm, you feel:

  6. A. intrigued.
    B. unclean.

  7. Billowing Aladdin pants are appropriate for:

  8. A. any occasion, if you are a westerner in Thailand.
    B. Halloween.
    C. kindling a fire.

  9. Aussies* on holiday are fun. [* I mean Aussies, not immigrants to Australia.]

  10. False.

Thank you for your participation. [The answer to 1) is obviously A. Don't pretend otherwise.]

reena in chiang mai

On Wednesday, I asked Reena what she missed about the most about America. She took a minute to think about it, and then answered, "Black people."

She also said that the only time she missed America was when Michael Jackson died and she couldn't mourn properly with Thai people, who didn't get it. Obscure Jackson 5 and Michael solo songs have been the soundtrack to my week in Chiang Mai - this and Reena's distracted singsong commentary on her preoccupation of the moment, "Spiii-der . . . sol-it-aaaiiiiire . . ."

Now she has just declared, "It is impossible to have a favorite Michael Jackson song because they are all so good."

We sang the quarter of the chorus from "Man in the Mirror" that we knew while zipping (helmetless!! gack!) around residential Chiang Mai on her bright blue motorbike a few nights ago. And as I sloughed motorbike exhaust particulates off my body in the shower, I heard through the transom, "Standing here / baptized in all my tears / Baby through the years / You know I'm crying / Oo oo oo oo . . ."

In the daytime, I have been getting massages, reading, writing ardent messages to my dear someone, and eating by the pailful. After work hours, Reena finds me and takes me through her life.

For example, yesterday we went to an expat gym where everybody seemed to know her. I forgot my shorts and so did half an hour of Stairmaster in a floral print skirt and low hiking shoes until her friend Patrick offered me the shorts that he was wearing. The friendliness here is almost sickening.

We also went to a spinning class led by a hooting sadist who spoke only Thai except when exhorting, "Big turn! Big turn!" We sat in a sauna; Reena chastised me for bringing in a smoothie.

Sometimes I feel that I should be walking from reclining to Buddha to reclining Buddha in linen Aladdin pants and snapping discreet photos of monks doing the boring shit they do, but Reena says that the best part of Asia is motoring from entertaining place to entertaining place with friends and eating delicious cheap foods, being half inside and half outside, shopping for disposable things, and hanging out. It's why I came, anyway: to see Reena happy in her life here.

There are people all around her. One night, when we were getting desserts at a bakery late in the evening, two of her friends emerged from nowhere and joined us. Everywhere we go people stop to chat with her. We did a zipline in the mountains north of Chiang Mai a few days ago. My most vivid memory of this is not of dangling like a kitten carried by the scruff of the neck a hundred feet over the trees, but of Reena belting out the chorus to "Hotel California" with our Thai guides, who thought she was just about the funnest person on the planet. It's humbling, educational, and incredibly fun to be going around with someone whose warmth draws so many people close.

"Rock With You" just came on, which made Reena declare, "Oh, this is my favorite Michael Jackson song." I had to remind her of what she had said only twenty minutes ago. See above. She then said, "Oh, true, true," to her own wisdom, quoted back to her.

Then she squinted at her computer and declared, "I'm a Swiss Miss-aholic."

I like it here.

more emails from dad

This one begins in the subject heading:
use cell phone , and always call some body wherever you go or taking a taxi , leave the tracking for other .. f[Fwd: Re: also]save this message...
And continues on in the body of the message:
dear [bananarchist]... always call first, to report your new enviroment (taxi name, license plate, company, new person ), social encounter to your trusted one,
make it visible to people around, they might mistake you to be a relative of some big shot in (Bei ) jing ---- capital city
etc....watch out needle and watch your liver/kidney too.... they rip your organs.... be very careful...... unless your in downtown Jing or UpperSea ( shanghai )

love you... ...

Dad and Mom

nan-jing : south capital
to- kyo : east capital
[The line about the needle references my dad's concern that Uighurs will stick me in the buttocks with HIV-infected needles, which apparently they do to Han people. I was briefed extensively on this before I left home.]

Thursday, October 08, 2009

penang to bangkok in haiku

They tried to rob me,
Motorcyclists in Penang,
But I was too fat.

Over a weekend,
Thirty-six hours on slow trains,
Perhaps a bit much.

On a sleeper berth,
"Golem was once a hobbit!"
Cynthia exclaimed.

We were served two meals.
Coconut soup, saran-wrapped.
Then diarrhea.

Sometime before dawn,
on our tracks, a train derailed.
Where the hell were we?

Prachaup Khiri Khan.
Our train could not go forward.
So Bangkok, by bus.

Then we parted ways,
just as soon as we arrived,
vowing to email.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

how to avoid a robbery in penang

  1. Eat six meals a day.
  2. Gain 2.2 kg in three weeks.
  3. Outweigh your robber by thirty pounds.
  4. Watch out for traffic as it comes from behind you.
  5. Stand to the side when you see a motorcycle swerve toward you.
  6. When shopping for handbags, opt for the lesbian cargo sac instead of the purse.
  7. Spend no more than $6 on said lesbian cargo sac. This way, the seams are weak, and when a man on a motorcycle swings around to grab your sac off your arm, the strap, instead of your arm, rips off.
  8. Save 10 ringgit for a hurried cab ride back to the security of your locked hotel room.
It was startling and violent to have a man on a motorcycle attempt to snatch my bag, and a small triumph that he failed. Had the strap been any stronger, I might have been more badly injured, but God has blessed me with lesbian style (and fat and muscles too), and in the end it did no more than bruise my arm and leave me speechless and bewildered, holding what was left of my bag. By the wild swerve of the motorcycle as it puttered away from me, it was clear that my would-be robbers had misjudged the truck-ness of my body. So...hell yeah, everybody, let's eat!

Friday, October 02, 2009

singapore - kuala lumpur - butterworth

I am on a lower berth in a second class sleeper train heading up peninsular Malaysia from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. Cynthia and I are traveling together, and she seems to be asleep in her bunk, which is directly across the aisle from mine, although I don’t know because her curtains are drawn and she could be just as sleepless as I am.

We left Singapore at 7:40a this morning, after almost missing our train. It was somewhat stressful to run out of the apartment, take a cab the half mile to Tanjong Pagar train station, gulp down hot tea at the railway terminal, run (literally run) through immigration, and then run down the length of the platform to our first class seats way at the front of the train. The station is old and somewhat worn, unlike seemingly everything else in rich and clean Singapore, and I would have liked to linger in the white waiting room admiring the vaulted ceilings, but there was no time to do so, as we were immediately on our way.

Our seats were comfortable—wide, large, and with plenty of legroom—but not as cheap as I would have expected (about $45 USD, still a very good price for our morning’s eight-hour journey), and they carried a smell of septic solution and mildew. We ate our takeaway parathas and sambar in the restaurant car and I then wrapped my handkerchief (on which I had just wiped my sambar-covered hands) around my face to take away the septic smell. Cynthia and I chatted idly for a few hours, although I can’t remember much of what we talked about. I told her that there was something about my face that made strangers want to tell me their life stories, and she told me that what I said echoed something that Nick Carraway said in the opening pages of The Great Gatsby. She also told me a story about Ling visiting her during a hot spell in Geneva, where Cynthia was interning, and Cynthia not permitting Ling to crack the window (because Cynthia was deathly afraid of Geneva's aggressive spiders) and instead instructing Ling to “lie very still” in order to stay cool - ridiculous, funny, ineffective advice.

Although I tried to dehydrate myself in order to avoid having to use the train toilets, I used the toilets twice. (We are now rolling backward, although apparently nobody else on this train is awake to notice.) Cynthia had lent me a skirt in order to normalize my gender presentation and also to relieve the heat rash that my plastic travel pants had caused on my thighs, and I was afraid that in squatting to use the toilet, I would touch the hem of the skirt against the wet, fragrant surfaces of the washroom. This did happen, the second time around, and I made a noise. When did I get this squeamish? On the way back from the toilet, I noticed that the exit doors were flung open, so I held onto the handrails and leaned out the train into the wind, a totally exhilarating experience that reminded me of being thirteen and on the far rear end of the cruise ship from the Bahamas to Florida, looking out at the dark void of the sea and not so much seeing but feeling and hearing the rush of our progress, and thinking that if I made any slight error, I would be lost into the sea forever. Later I told Cynthia about this, and she said that she would’ve come looking for me had I been gone longer than half an hour. And anyway, dropping off a train in a crowded country is not the same as dropping into the Atlantic Ocean at night, two hundred miles from shore.

Our train arrived at 3:30, an hour past schedule, and after a brief stop so that Singapore immigration control could run its exit procedures. Cynthia pointed out that no other country she could think of controlled the people leaving as well as the people entering its territory. We found the left luggage storage at Sentral KL station and took a cab straightaway to the Petronas Towers. We were unable to ascend to the viewing platform on the connecting gangway on the 41st floor, but nonetheless I was very excited to be outside it and looking up at it. I expected it to be sheathed in some sort of sandstone—I don’t know why; I guess I never looked very closely at the pictures—but instead it is made of large rings of wide gauge steel tubes, stacked up to look like an outdated vision of the future. Each cross section of the towers is composed as such: two superimposed squares, one rotated 45 degrees to the other to create an eight-point star, with small circles centered on each of the four points where the two squares intersection. This creates a perimeter that alternates between sharply angled and rounded edges. The effect is that each cross section looks like a dimpled circle, and there is more surface area, glass, and light inside the building. Apparently this mimics patterns in Islamic art. Cynthia called it Art Deco, but it felt more futuristic noir to me than that appellation could capture. Cynthia sang “The Jetsons” as we walked past it, but she mistook the tune, and sang the Jetsons words to “The Simpsons” melody instead.

After our stop inside the Petronas Towers, we found a Malaysian restaurant in the adjoining high end mall and had curry laksa (me) and asam laksa (Cynthia). True to what I had claimed earlier, our waiter, a well-built and handsomely-featured young man from Kolkata, struck up a conversation with me after we ordered our meal and hung around our table for a few minutes asking about my place of origin, my job, my age, my plans. Cynthia and I whispered to each other about his body movements, because he had a special graceful swagger that immediately caught my attention. Cynthia said, “That never happens to me. Nobody talks to me like they talk to you,” which led us to speculate about the relative friendliness of our faces, Cynthia’s New Yorker distance, and my tendency to look at strangers and smile. But these were temporary distractions, and we forgot about all this and left after finishing our meal.

We had planned to walk around Kuala Lumpur, but we found it nearly impossible to negotiate. First we wanted to take a subway to the colonial center of the city, and we spent ten minutes buying subway tickets, but we were intimidated by the rush hour crowd. (People actually queue up to get on the subway, instead of massing in a free-for-all around each subway door like in the States.) So we left the station and tried to hail a cab, but none would take us for a reasonable price, because traffic was too intense. Then we set about trying to walk there, but traffic was so bad that it took us eight minutes just to cross one particular intersection, and pollution was worse than in Singapore on account of the moped distribution, and it was already near our departure time, so we decided just to hail a cab for the train station. Of course, our cab just stood still for half an hour in the traffic jam. I was nervous; our train was leaving in an hour, and we had made no progress. Finally, we asked the cabbie to drive us one block to the subway station, where we finally just took the subway one stop to the train station. This whole process was again somewhat stressful, though also an adventure, and everything turned out fine, as we got on our train without incident. Although I am perhaps undeservedly proud that I am very good at the mechanics of travel (I can decipher maps and train schedules, orient myself in a city based on the locations of the tall buildings, locate left luggage lockers, and solicit more help from strangers than they are initially willing to give), I hope that my hyperfocus on travel logistics did not intimidate Cynthia or make her feel stressed out.

This is my first time in a sleeper car since 2001, when Deepa and I took a sleeper just like this one from Kannyakumari to Kochi. There were no first class sleeper cars available—those would have put us in an individual cabin, Euro-style, with just two bunks and a washbasin—so instead we are in the second class sleeper train, which is just fine. There are about forty bunks on this car, two bunks per stack on either side of the train. I guess the lower berths can be folded up into seats and the upper berths can be stowed away during the day time, but we won’t find out, as we will be disembarking at Butterworth at 4:30 a.m., when everyone else is presumably still sleeping. The bunks are soft sleepers, and each comes with fresh sheets, a pillow, and curtains for privacy. I don’t trust leaving my luggage on the far side of curtain, so I have been lying in bed with my backpack, my shoulder bag, and my day bag lined up alongside me like a companion. When we boarded, we thought we would be staying in a car full of soldiers. There were a dozen men in camouflage uniforms hauling bags off the bunks. Several of them had assault rifles; one man had three slung over his shoulder. I told Cynthia that there would be nothing we could do to avoid being killed in a hail of rifle fire, should it come to that, but the soldiers appeared to be leaving. Anyway, they don’t seem to be on this ride to Butterworth.

For the first two hours of this ride, two children were running back and forth this car screaming with delight, so that the Doppler effect from the world outside my window was being echoed in the crescendo and decrescendo of these kids as they ran past. Now people appear to have settled in for the night. Almost all the curtains are drawn, and I can hear that someone else is playing Solitaire on a laptop, and someone else is watching a DVD at a low volume. I contemplated masturbation about two hours ago, but was deterred by the thin sheet separating me and forty of my best friends. Now it is 1:20 a.m., and I have eaten an entire box of orange-flavored Tic Tacs, the most delicious meal substitute available in southeast Asia. This train, after a fifty minute standstill (and five minutes of gently rolling backward), appears to be moving forward again, though not with much gusto. I will go attempt not to pee into my pants or let my pants touch someone else’s pee in the bathroom now, and then I guess it will be time to try to sleep.