Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nanjing, Day One

OK, I'm sure whoever is reading this (null set) thought this blog was dead. Like Lazarus, it has resurfaced.


My first day in Nanjing—Saturday—started early. I was just trying to figure things out; some I did quickly, some I did slowly, some I never did. Mostly, I ended up walking around a lot, in lots of different directions, and once I figured out the subway, I took it someplace every day.

This day was on foot, and, typically, I got lost. Really lost. Fortunately, I had a little Chinese to help me get found; unfortunately, I didn't realize that saying the whole name of Nanjing University in Chinese was an obstacle, not an advantage. I didn't really mind, and eventually I got re-situated. Eventually, I also learned that everyone in Nanjing calls the University "Nanda"
which is short for "Nanjing Daxue," or "Nanjing University" (literally "South Capital Big School): 南京大學 (simplified, 南京大学).Learning that was a big help.

Walking around never ceased to be fun. Everything was interesting to look at, and it was clear I was, more or less, a visitor to an alien world, without sufficient linguistic skills to engage folks, but dressed and acting in such a way that I didn't look like some sort of utter tourist. A compromise.

Among other things that happened, I met a very nice woman from Denver who loaned me a converter. This way I could recharge the laptop and discover I had no Internet connection. One of my "handlers" let me use his office computer to check e-mail, etc., and get the baseball scores. (Yes, the first World Series games I hadn't seen at least part of since 1974; the streak was dead.) I had already found out that Al Gore won the Nobel.

Another long walk, confirming Sophie's claim—which I heard several times during my stay—"Zhonguo you tai dou ren!"/"China has too many people!" (I hope I got the pinyin right; I'm not so good with it.) I sat down at one busy intersection, and thought, if only briefly, that the mass of people might achieve critical mass and just explode. The sights included an incredibly crowded KFC (I never made it into one, but it is very popular) and a Mexican restaurant (that I later tried, and found, unsurprisingly, disappointing).

When I returned, I found out from Sophie that I might get paid Monday, or at the end of my stay. I explained that I was living on that money, so I convinced her it would be good to do the former. It also turned out that I had a couple of free days, that my class ran into some issue that was unexplained. Salary, course start, everything was always just a bit unclear; things got done, but there was always an element of mystery. For instance, I now had a phone that worked, but I never figured out what my phone number was.

I thought for awhile that the problem was the course content. I was teaching American Political Theory, and there was some discussion of individual rights. As I wrote in my journal: "Maybe it's just too bourgeois. But I'm bourgeois, America is bourgeois, and the history of American political theory is bourgeois. Shouldn't the course reflect that?" (And it did.)

Did some characters, which seemed to come more easily, although I'm not sure if it was because I had very little else to do, or because I saw them all them time. I can't understand much of what is being said on TV, but ping pong was on a lot, and that's pretty easy to follow.

Off to bed at 9, still getting up at 4 or 5 a.m.. I get lots done, but I'm not sure what or why.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On to Nanjing

Today was a travel day. Since I was still waking up at some unGodly hour (4, 5 a.m.), I went out for another long walk, then came back and headed for the airport. I was wholly unprepared because I hadn't learned any important or useful vocabulary (such as "China Airlines"), so the arrival at the Beijing Airport resulted in a dialogue—more like two independent monologues—between one person speaking horrible Chinese (me) and one person speaking only Chinese (the cabdriver). He got a bit hostile, one of the few times I experienced that the entire time I was in China. Finally, he just let me off, and I walked to where I needed to go, to check in and get rid of my bag.

The Beijing airport is pretty boring. And expensive. I had gotten there so early I had 4 hours or so to kill, which I first tried to do by drinking coffee. Since it was about $8/cup, I decided to write some postcards, then just read a bit and watched a lot. Sitting around China, for me, was kind of like going to an endless movie: always something new (if only Hanzi to try and read), always fascinating.

The flight to Nanjing was uneventful, except when I squirted Thousand Island Dressing all over the leg of the gentleman who had the bad luck of sitting within my range. He seemed suprised, but not particularly upset, when I started rubbing his leg with a napkin.

I was picked up at the Nanjing Airport (which turned out to be the only time I saw it) by Cheng Xu, who spoke excellent English. We took the long drive to Nanjing DaShue, or Nanda as I learned (the hard way) it was called, where I would be teaching. My apartment was much bigger than I anticipated, with a large bedroom and three beds, a decent sized kitchen, a living room, and a lovely Western bathroom with a shower. I also had a porch (the view from which is pictured above).

I was, at that point, pretty much on my own. I looked around, tried to get the TV to work (in vain), and then there was a knock on the door, from Sophie. Another liaison between foreign teachers and Nanda, she asked me why I hadn't answered the phone, at which point we discovered I had no phone to answer. She also explained to me that I wouldn't be able to pronounce her real (Chinese) name, so I actually never heard it. I would have at least given it a shot.

She took me across the street to a restaurant, that I think was sort of the official restaurant for faculty and visitors, although I never got clear on it. I ended up eating there three times, and each time it was excellent; in terms of Zhong Guo Fan (Chinese Food), it turned out to be one of the best places I ate. Enormous amounts of food, over which Sophie and I talked. She was very cool, albeit reserved, and I liked her immediately. We didn't talk much about what I was going to do in class, or what I wanted to see in Nanjing; we talked a lot about politics. After I mentioned some historical events (what the Chinese tend to refer to as "mistakes"—30 million people dying in a famine is quite the "mistake"!), and offered what I thought was some rather tender criticism (much more tender than that which I offered about my own country's government), she paused, and insisted that she supported her government.

I told her that often in the West, we have a tradition of looking at the government—unless given a reason otherwise—as one's opponent. She did seem to like the comparison I made, when I said that just because she loved her husband, it didn't follow that he didn't make mistakes or do things that bothered her. (I had the feeling she had a mental list of precisely these things, relative to her husband.)

It was probably a big mistake not to ask more questions, such as:

where should I eat?
how do I use public transportation?
how do I find my class?
how well will my students speak English?
are there some faculty, Western or Chinese, I can meet?
when do I get paid?

Eventually, all these things got resolved, intentionally or otherwise, often by myself or by getting frustrated enough to try to use some Chinese. I learned in China that everything generally gets figured out, but there is always a moment where it looks like it won't, and it gets complicated, but patience is always rewarded. Maybe 3,000+ years of recorded history makes folks patient.

Sophie and I walked around a bit—my goal was not to get lost, a goal I frequently failed to meet over the next two weeks—then I went back home. I knew I had to—I wanted to—do characters every day, so I got to work on those. I had about 250 down (and learned about 300 more while I was in Nanjing.) I then started reading a book I had brought which I thought would be appropriate (The Travels of Marco Polo), and crashed about 8 p.m..

Fortunately, Sophie did show me how to work the TV.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Today was my big tourist day in Beijing, which had been arranged for me, at my hotel, by my friend Hong Cai. Out at 8, drove to a hotel to pick up a British couple, and wait for a late arrival, who turned out to be quite interesting: an Iranian who grew up in Sweden, working for a law firm in Shanghai, and visiting Beijing. I tried to write down his brother's name, who evidently is a big Iranian rock star (although I'm not sure whether he does this in Iran). I had tracked it down at one point, but no longer seem to be able to find it; in any case, this guy's brother opened up the Middle East MTV Awards, and this guy himself was pretty interesting to talk with. The British couple were quite nice, quite British, very much oriented toward shopping, which no doubt endeared them to our tour folks, given the thrust of this tour. They all seemed surprised when I dared to utter a couple of words in Chinese, which seemed somewhat miraculous to them. Fortunately, they didn't know if I said any of it correctly or not, and I wasn't pressing the issue.

The first stop was the Great Wall (and no one ever called it just "The Wall"). The usual thing one reads from the sophisticated types is to knock it: it's crumbling in many places, it's touristy, it's kitschy. All true, but I thought it was cool. Admittedly, the product of slave labor, and not all that effective at keeping out the alien hordes (like the Manchu, giving China its last dynasty). But it is really quite amazing, and I was surprised at how steep it was. I climbed up a ways, got the standard pictures taken, got a little card describing me as a "hero" for having gotten even that far. My Iranian colleague went much farther, but I just wanted to look around. There were also some temples there, that allowed one to enter and leave the tourist kitsch behind and get all tranquil. I liked that. Even though I was at one of the most touristy locations to see the Great Wall, I was overwhelmed by its scale. I imagine much farther out, it can be spectacular.

Then off to a place where they practiced traditional Chinese medicine, focusing on herbs. (No, not the Jamaican kind.) We were told about a bunch of things I immediately forgot, then got put into a room, where a guy in a white coat came and gave us some tea and then talked at us. I'm pretty sure it was English, but I had no idea what he was saying the entire time; to leave was impossible, and it wasn't clear that we might not be trapped there forever, hearing this very nice man lecturing at us in incomprehensible syllables forever. After about 20 minutes, another doctor came in, and examined our palms to check out if we were in balance. Somehow, I passed inspection, and was pronounced quite healthy. On checking with my fellow tourists, they too had no idea what was being said the entire time.

Then off to the Jade factory, where we got a nice little lecture (this time in comprehensible and good English) about Jade. Then a rather aggressive set of sales pitches. I dropped 300 kuai ($40?) on some earrings for Emma, the cheapest thing I could find. Jade is interesting stuff, and some of the things done with it were extraordinary. But I was hoarding my money, and I'm not much for bling on any continent. We also had an unremarkable meal, with much discussion about using kuaizi (chopsticks). (I'm writing this with a bit of pinyin, much of which is probably wrong, but I don't know how to do characters here.) The Brits bought stuff; the Iranian didn't. After awhile, when whatever money that could be pried from us had been, we were off.

Then to the tomb of the Ming Emperors. The Chinese Emperors took their tombs pretty seriously, and this place was vast. It didn't take much of a Marxist to see the contrast between how the big shots lived, and how those who did all the work lived, and the enormous gap between the two. But lots of nice woodwork, enamel, jade, and clothing, set in an archictural setting that was stunning. This was a place to which I would return, with more time and a bit more background knowledge. Our tour guide seemed pretty much insistent on us knowing two things: that somehow the "God in Heaven" was involved in all of this (he said it as if there were a number of alternate locales for God), and that everyone in China was Han Chinese. Both of these points were made by him about 1,000 times, with unclear relevance.

Our final stop was the silk factory—again, a place to extricate hard currency from the foreign devils. I didn't buy anything except some cream made out of silkworms for Robyn. It was simply too expensive, although I thought long and hard about some silk pajamas for Henry. (The Brits came through, buying a quilt, a cover, pillows: I figured they were help making up for past British behavior in the Middle Kingdom.) We did get to see how silk was made, beginning with the little guys chewing on mulberry leaves and being harvested (I've been told that the empty silk carcasses are a treat for Chinese children, but I didn't try any). Then how it is, eventually, turned into a lovely product, just ready for your Western dollars to facilitate taking some home. Our guide there was cool; she spoke outstanding English, and while she certainly thought we would be better human beings if we bought some stuff, she had more of an ironic and sarcastic approach than I usually encounted among such folks. There was also a fashion show—I couldn't find my pictures of it—for the four of us, with a walkway, different models, etc.. That was a bit weird, since there were more models than viewers.

This was a long day, and a long drive back. I had a quick fresh down; since this was my last day in Beijing, and I had only seen a tiny portion of it, I at least wanted to see some things close by the hotel. Fortunately, that meant WangFuJing DaJie, the huge shopping street in Beijing, along with its famous blocks of food stalls. (Pictured above; I have no idea who that guy is, but I quickly gave up the fool's errand of trying to take pictures in China without some person walking into or through the frame.) I checked them out, was able to identify some things, guess at others, and remained wholly clueless about many of the items on offer. I didn't even know one could eat starfish.

This is also where I first ran into locals who wished, evidently, to have conversations with me. I'd heard about this, and wasn't really up for talking. Nor was I sure conversations were actually what the goal was; cynically enough, I had a feeling that such phenomena would end up with me spending money on something. After nicely saying "No thank you" in English to the first few—all women—I then switched to Chinese, "Bu yao, shieh shieh" (which more or less means "Don't want any, thanks"). Finally, as the evening got later and the approaches got more insistent, I switched to German. I was the only person anywhere within 100 miles wearing shorts, along with socks, so I had the German tourist look down. So I started just saying "Bitte, ich habe kein Chineschen. Ich kann nur Deutsch sprechen," and that worked like a charm.

A long day, full of many sites, some famous for their historical value, some famous for their contemporary value, all part of the amazing feast for the senses that is China. I would definitely go back to Beijing, and spend a lot more time there. My one big regret was not seeing the Olympic sites, especially the "Bird's Nest" stadium. But the city is enormous, and I was completely on my own this day, so I saw what I could, and finally headed back to the hotel and got ready to fly to Nanjing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I don't know much about jet-lag; I haven't taken a flight this long for years. Today was my first full day in Beijing, and I definitely wanted to check it out. I just decided to start walking, around 6 a.m..

I was hoping to head for Tiananmen Square, but eschewing maps, or asking for directions, I naturally ended up going in exactly the opposite direction. I walked maybe five or six or seven miles, through a Russian section and past other countries' embassies, including North Korea's (it looked stern); one section with many signs in Cyrillic was close to Ri Tan park, full of older people doing T'ai Chi. I believe this is an area Peter Kessler writes about in his recent Oracle Bones; as that book made clear, there was a lot going on in this neighborhood about which I hadn't a clue. At this point, I couldn't have distinguished a Uiguhr from a Han. Can you?

I walked through Ri Tan park, which was very nice and peaceful--something pretty rare in Beijing, I was to discover--and then just kept walking around, observing. I probably did this single activity more in China than anything else, walking and observing. I saw a lot. It was warm, the air wasn't bad, and it was clear that I was the only person out of the 3 billion Beijing Ren who had on shorts.

After awhile, it was pretty clear I had even less of an idea of where I was than I had hoped; for some reason, I was convinced I would just run across Tiananmen. Didn't happen, and only later did I come to realize that Beijing goes on. And on. And on. Forever. (Just not as much as Shanghai.)

So I caught a cab, and even in my fractured Chinese, the driver knew where I wanted to go. I was approached by a number of people, folks just trying to make a buck, offering to have conversations, guide me, etc.. I decided I might actually like to hire somebody to guide me, but after I had made that decision, no one ever asked; perhaps my steely glare, or shabby dress, dissuaded any further offers.

I checked things out; no blood soaked pavement stones, no markers, no nothing. (I didn't exactly expect to see a tribute to a single guy standing in front of a tank, or anything.) Only later did I discover that the "events" of Tiananmen Square were virtually unmentioned, or unmentionable, among those with whom I talked, and even my very well-informed students admitted--at least to me--that their understanding of what had occurred there was quite modest. Some kind of disturbance, perhaps. (I also didn't run across any Falun Gong demonstrations, or members, as far as I know.)

I stood in line for about 30 minutes to see Mao's corpse. When I got to the front, the guard told me--rather brusquely--that I had to get rid of my camera and go back to the end of the line. I decided Mao would still be dead when I came back someday in the future, and walked around some more. By now, my new shoes were wearing some truly monumental blisters on my feet, and I'd had about enough of tourism, not realizing, of course, that I didn't see the Summer Palace or all the other things around that neighborhood. I looked at what it seemed I should look at, including the inspirational statuary, the Great Hall of the People, etc., but decided to go back to the hotel with sore feet, committed to coming back when I knew more about how to attack this famous tourist site.

After some struggles with getting a cab to take me back to my hotel--several drivers didn't recognize the name, and I should have mentioned how close it was to WangFuJing DaJie, the incredibly famous shopping district of Beijing--I made it. There, waiting for me in the lobby, was Hong Cai, also known as Sapphire and as Howard, a student with whom I shared some mutual friends. We decided to go for lunch, and I heard, for the first time, a question I heard with some frequency, and by which I was at first surprised: "Do you like Chinese food?"

I said yes, and he took me to a local food court. I was glad to see I was the only Da Bizi there, and it was packed with regular folks eating on their lunch hour, choosing from something like 7 trillion different regional food options. I chose something that looked vaguely recognizable and had been identified as "chicken"; perhaps it was, but it was chewy. Very tasty, but very very chewy. Then Hong Cai and I walked around--he showed me various things, including the local Catholic Church, in case I needed a Jesus fix--and then we went to a very good, very large, and very Chinese bookstore. Then a couple of more bookstores, in one of which I bought a nice picture book for Lucy Brill. I was in a number of bookstores, in Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai: many of them were enormous, but offered very little in English. I may have not found the right places, for English books--of the kind I would like to read, which means something other than grammar books, business books, or the most popular and vapid American fiction. (In Nanjing, I did find a Chinese copy of the Critique of Pure Reason. I now have it in four English translations, in French, in German, and in Chinese. Wish I knew what it said.)

Talking with Hong Cai was very much fun. His English is excellent (and this time "excellent" actually means excellent), and we had much to talk about in terms of China, careers, American and Chinese politics, and the Chinese language. I wish I'd gotten to spend more time with him, but my feet really hurt, and I'd been going hard all day. It was time to get back, so we went back to the hotel, he reserved a serious touristy deal for me to see the Great Wall the following day, we made our farewells, and I crashed. Hard.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Arrival in Beijing

I have very little expectation that anyone—with the possible exception of myself—will read this, so writing this is both solipsitic and onanistic. The advantage, for some, however, is that you may learn cool new vocabulary words.

The stupidest thing I did in China, I did within about an hour of arriving there. Feeling smug from the hours and hours I'd spent with my friends at Pimsleur, practicing valuable phrases in Chinese ("young lady, would you like to come to my place for a drink?"; "I'd would like to take a walk, and then go buy ice at the drug store"; "I like bowling more than tennis": needless to say, none of these sentences was ever uttered by me while doing anything but practicing Chinese), I decided I would save some dough and rather than take a cab, I would take a city bus to my hotel. This was before I realized how cheap cabs generally were (and just to maintain the cosmic yin-yang balance, I screwed up in precisely the opposite way in going to the airport in Shanghai).

I went up to a woman and told her where I was staying (the Taiwan Hotel in Beijing, pictured above), and asked what bus to take and how much it cost. (This is all in Chinese, mind you, which brings with it all sorts of cultural baggage from many directions.) She told me, so I got on, and took the long ride, trying to read whatever signs I could, at least in PinYin (at this point, I knew very few characters). Naturally, I could have been headed for Kazakhstan; I was the only Big Nose on the bus, and assumed (probably correctly) the only English speaker.

Fortunately, I knew that the bus's last stop was supposed to be the one close to my hotel, so I waited for that one, and got out. At this point, I was in Beijing, knew absolutely no one, and wouldn't have known how to contact them if I did. I had a vague idea of where my hotel was from where I got off the bus, and a less vague idea that I was still a couple of miles away. I only had one suitcase and a carry-on computer bag, but that was going to be a drag, carrying it while hoping I was headed in the correct direction.

While mulling this all over, a local came up, asked me where I was going, I told him, we haggled over the price (it went from 30 yuan to 10), he grabbed my suitcase, put them in the back of what was, more or less, a motorized tricycle, and we headed out, with me sitting in a caged-in back seat, taking in the sights and wondering just what the hell I was doing.

We then drove up a main street, and then he headed down some alleys. Folks out doing their wash, playing cards, fixing food: this was about 10 pm local time. As far as I could tell, I was in a standard, but anonymous neighborhood of Beijing. As far as I could tell, he could have stopped, and alone or with a partner, taken my stuff, killed me, and turned me into DaBiZi Fried Rice, and no one would have known about it for some time. (This may have just been the paranoia of an American traveller.) In any case, a few alleys and main roads and then a few more alleys later, he dropped me off at my hotel. I gave him the 10 yuan, which along with the bus ride, had saved me about 10 yuan off of a cabride. One way of looking at it was that I saved a little more than a buck to risk my life with a stranger, one with whom I couldn't really communicate. Another was that I had seen some local color I would otherwise not have seen, and successfully negotiated my way from the airport to my hotel. As I was mulling this over—China involves a good bit of mulling, I discovered—I was greeted by a young man in front of my hotel.
Hey! You hot! We have massage! We meet up; I give you room number!

For the first of many, many times in the next six weeks, I said "Shieh shieh, bu yao"—roughly thanks, but no thanks. Little did I know that this guy just hung out in front of my hotel, seeking to make new friends. Eventually (probably the next day, since I only stayed there three nights) he became a little more direct, and one night as I left the hotel he greeted me succinctly:


I never figured out if he said with a question mark or an exclamation mark.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Here are some 50 or so pictures of the 550 or so I took while in China. I have provided some obnoxious comments.

I'd be thrilled to hear any comments, coherent or otherwise.

China pictures with stupid captions

I'll be back here on about a weekly basis, offering meaningless stories for those who aren't reading this as they look for emptiness.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Yi Ge

I already have one stupid blog, which no one reads. This seems to be an excellent reason to have a second.

This one is devoted to the Middle Kingdom, Zhong Guo, or China (including, but not coextensive with, the PRC).

China is a beautiful but very old dowager with whom I am smitten; big, smelly, annoying, but eternally fascinating.

Look here for the irregular posts about various things Chinese. Generally in English.

Hao ba!