Saturday, April 4, 2009

Cheese; Vomit; Doodles; French Culture; Dead Boy, Dead Bird; Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

The Study of Chinese Breaks Good Minds, Part 2:
First, I should update you on last semester’s results. The good: I received the top score on the Oral Examination both for the midterm and final examination. Less good: I took the HSK test (standardized Chinese proficiency test) at the start of this semester. There are 11 levels. I got a 3, which is considered reasonable for the length of my formal study. Chances are that after this semester I’ll be able to get 4, maybe a 5. That’s considered good. One must get 7 or 8 to be considered excellent/advanced. That leaves 3 levels to make sure you know your Chinese is shit.

Have I dreamt in Chinese? Not really. Had one where somebody asked me the Chinese word for “cheese.” I couldn’t remember. Had another where somebody asked me the word for “vomit.” I told them the word for cheese.

Dictation Triumph: I’ve been struggling mightily to get a decent score on our weekly dictation tests. Basically, the teacher reads new vocabulary words and we’ve got to write them, fast. We’ll do 16 or 18 words in a minute, selected out of 50 or 60 new words. Well, I finally nailed it down, got myself a real fridge-hanger. Mama didn’t raise no fool!
*Note the smiley face. In Chinese it means, “Not bad.” (pictures are clickable)
The way one does this is by writing characters by the hundreds, every day. Below is a sample of what I do daily. This page represents 1/20 of the day’s repetitions.
Korean Meat-Water Update: Remember the Indonesian girl (speaker of 5 languages), the one who thought Chinese was easy? She told me she decided to (i.e. was forced to) repeat the course she just completed. She said, “I want to be sure I get it this time.”

On My Right:
Her name is Julia. Probably 19 or 20. She tells me she is from Sumatra…Sumatra…the trilled “r” sounds like “21” dealt from a rose-petal deck. Her mouth is always slightly open and curled into an expectant smile. A beauty mark above her lip serves as punctuation. Something is coming. Something good. Most probably delicious. Open up.

She has glorious silken-to-a-fault, deep-brown hair that falls just below her shoulders. It is shaped around her face television-style as if to emphasize that, at this point in her life, she is pure viewer—a spectator even to her own show. Today, she is wearing denim overalls and a black t-shirt that says simply, “Mango.”

She’s always late and gets drowsy easily. About 10 minutes into each class her lids fall to half-baked. The lashes approach and finally touch, but just. They never fully close. Through the still curtain of hair, her ears reach through like cupped baby hands, angled to catch quick-swimming things.

It’s almost decadent, this kind of sleeping: like Civil War spectators picnicking on the hills above D.C. to watch with opera glasses pitched battles on the open field. Here she is, having come from some remote island to the volcanic center of the world’s greatest experiment in human development to study Chinese, intensively. In the snarling teeth of 6 hours and 100 new words a day, she snoozes, undisturbed.

On My Left:
She’s from Belgium by way of China and England somehow. Her Chinese name is “An An,” which means “peace, peace.” Not. At all. She’s one of those privileged lost souls I think: her parents have given her what passes for “everything”—English boarding school, world travel, ample spending money and a kind of attention, but you sense she’s never felt truly loved. There’s a desperation to her persona—shrill, needy, domineering. The overall effect is like a succession of minor 7th’s played grandioso by some fever-stricken orchestra.

An An has a boyfriend several years her senior. This fact comes out early in her self-introduction. His name is Fred, or Freddy Baby, I’m not quite sure. Between classes, they shop: “Oh God Fred, the weather is just Awfullll! It’s making me all sticky. Oh look Freddy, chocolate, let’s buy some chocolate shall we Fred? Oh Freddy Baby, you do too love dark chocolate!”

But there are some wrinkles: “Freddy needs to move out for a few days. God! He’s such a pig, changes his underwear A-side B-side because he’s too lazy to do wash. Swine! You wouldn’t A-side B-side would you?”

For you Baby, it’d be all A-side, all the time.

She doodles a lot during class. Mostly she draws ponies, the formulaic side-profile kind that fade out at the shoulders—the kind girls make by the murder until they turn 11 or 12 and start texting naked pictures of themselves to classmates. Today she’s got three ponies going, all left-sided with identical bridles. Running between them in curvy block letters she has written, “Tra La La-Tra La La La!”

Doodle Dialectic:
An An’s doodles got me thinking about my own. In order to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the historical record, I decided to undertake a study of my doodles from last semester. Below is a composite picture of 600 hours in-class doodle time.

*Note: As doodling is known to be a semi-conscious dream-like activity, I cannot be held responsible for any nefarious content. This doodle archive is for research purposes only. Interpretive captions are read left to right, starting at the top left.

On the Effects of French Culture:
Many of my fellow schoolmates are ethnically Chinese girls whose parents or grandparents emigrated during the Cultural Revolution. So you can get a look at what becomes of a Chinese family stewing in foreign juices for a couple generations. Mainly you get meek, well-kept, classroom superstars. I would add also, sexually introverted, and however fashionably dressed, largely devoid of sensuality. They’re in their early 20’s and are still wondering what these fleshy fixtures are for. I remember on our train ride to Shanghai last semester, a group of them spent an hour poking each others breasts and trying to guess their cup sizes.

But there are some who immediately stand out, and alone. Amidst all the monochrome Asian goodness comes a pair a Parisian-Chinese girls gliding, nay, sashaying down the hall. The one on the left has close-cropped hair—dewy and matted like lambs wool and curling around her unpierced ears. She wears a simple necklace with a pearl resting comfortably in her cleavage. Her belly is bare, made so by a restless hand that tugs on the shirt hem, stretching it down and then up, then higher. When she gets it just so, she winds it into a cherry-sized spool and lets it go.

Her partner is wearing a crisp white blouse, loose and long. It’s unbuttoned far enough to let you know she knows. A tasseled red silk scarf spills over her shoulder and falls down between her legs. They seem to be more or less in love—with themselves, with each other, with life, with sashaying and soft bellies. Their skin glows; their eyes laugh and sparkle; all that. Something has gotten into them. A vapor. They drink it, eat it, smoke it, I don’t know, but it gets in. The sex gets into them. And France puts it in there.

Intriguingly, it also works for the French guys. But the sex only gets in so far, turns a corner and then sinks to the bottom, congealing between their toes. For a few it creeps up like hemlock tea—to the calf, maybe the thigh, but never does it reach the buttocks. So they gambol. Some manage to prance.

Dead Boy, Dead Bird:
I came out of the gym one day to find two boys sitting on the sidewalk spooning each other in the seated position. The boy in front has his arm curled languidly around the other’s neck. Odd for a sidewalk at midday…yet, this is China, wait, the boy in front is sleeping—no he’s unconscious. I realized the look on the other boy’s face was not pleasure, but panic. There was an older man standing to the side talking on the phone. He shook an open hand at the boys as if to scold them. Then he gestured toward the street and back to their position. I approached.

He was gray on the way to blue. I asked what was happening. The older man angrily waved me off. I turned to the conscious boy and asked him. He shook his head no and put his forehead on the other boy’s neck. I searched for the words…CPR, pulse, choking…I don’t know how to say those yet. But I do know how to do CPR and all kinds of first aid. I made some sort of pumping gesture and pointed at the blue boy. I said, “I know how to do that.” The conscious boy started to cry. I tried again with the man on the phone. He turned his back on me and waved me off. I caught the other boy’s eye and made my pumping gesture again. I told him I could help. I tried to loosen his grip and told him to let me check the boy’s heart. He gripped his friend tighter and hoisted him up a bit to keep his torso off the ground. He started to rock back and forth and nestled his forehead deep into the nape of his neck.

I stood up. I backed away a few steps. Then more. The older man cursed about me while talking on the phone. I turned and started to walk away. I had no power to fix this. Not here. Not now. “If only he stopped breathing 2 months from now,” I thought, “a few words, bit of grammar, could’ve saved him.”

As I walked away, I remembered a broken-winged bird I once tried to save. I was about 8 or 9. I found the bird squirming around on the ground under our pear tree. He was all sticky with hot, mashed-up pear-goo. I thought I’d wash his wings off. Maybe he flew into a really ripe pear and it just gakked him…nope, that’s a busted wing. I could see some hollow bones sticking out like straw. I just about cried right then. I don’t know, I guess I did cry—the kind I do, where no water comes out but it feels maximum sad.

Called my mother at work. She thought maybe I should take him down to the vet. I put some cotton socks in a shoebox and went out to the bird. He was huffing and puffing and beady-eyed with fear. I scooped him up gentle as possible and put him in the box. Then I ran, fast as I could down to Dr. Nichols’ veterinary hospital. It was a couple miles to the office and I got real tired, but I kept peeping inside to see if my bird was still alive. I felt like he knew, like he appreciated the effort—like maybe he was thinking if I pulled this off and got his wing all fixed up, maybe he’d be my bird, hang out in my room and eat peanuts or whatever they eat. I felt like we had an understanding. I ran faster.

By the time I got there, I was sure we had done it. I looked at him. He looked at me. He wasn’t even beady anymore. He was in good hands. He knew that. Get that wing rigged up, little rehab and we’ll get some kind of cage set up in my room, learn tricks. Yup.

I opened the box and showed Dr. Nichols. He peered in meaningfully. “Well that’s a beautiful little Robin you’ve got there Gary. Oh, now…now now, that’s a bad break isn’t it. Your Robin’s got a real bad break Gary.” He looked at me over his horn-rimmed glasses. “I afraid all I can do is make it so he’s not hurting anymore.”

That sounded pretty good to me. Some kind of medicine or doctor’s trick and at least the bird wouldn’t hurt anymore. “Well yeah,” I said, “that’s sounds ok. How much would that cost? When can I get him back?” Dr. Nichols pushed his glasses up and clasped his hands together.

Well, I couldn’t get him back. He had to go take the long birdie dirt nap, go meet Jesus in heaven, fly with the angels and whatnot. I cried all the way home, water included, carrying my box of socks.

Did more for the bird than the boy.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made:
Would you dedicate your life to a work of art that would be seen, but only if you remained anonymous and if you agreed not to know people’s reaction to the work? Some would say that whomever creates under these conditions is the real and true artist. Well, I found him. He goes to my school. I found his art in the toilet.

I had simply planned to render unto toilet what is rightfully toilet’s, but found it already serving a much higher purpose. Laid lengthwise back to front was an anatomically complete human phallus, rendered in fresh fecal matter.

Eschewing the modern practice of attaching some masturbatory “artist’s statement” to the work, our real and true artist left no clear word of his purpose. But I think I know what he wants to say: “Behold! I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Know now that my organism—intricate, sublime and made in God’s very own image recently contained a vast amount of feces. See now the fuel! Feel my strength—the razored points of my gearing, Halleluiah!—That by these holy rods, sprockets and wheels I have brought forth in one discreet motion the likeness of a phallus, in toto. I leave it here for your scrutiny and consideration.”

Everylovingly Yours,

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Paddy Cakes; Jews; Cripples; Toilets; Heels; Dogs; Korean Meat-Water

Paddy Cakes:

We went on a field trip to Shanghai. On the train ride there, my cherubic classmates—still bulging with the expansive joy that comes only from having no idea where money comes from and knowing for certain that candy is the ideal food and that pain is the sensation that comes mainly from excessive laughter—set about an intensive review of each and every form of Paddy Cakes.

After being subjected to various types of harassment and sugar-borne bribery, I relented and played their Paddy Cake games, with some vigor I think at first. But soon I realized the deep downside of good humor and innocence. These jolly Indonesians have a different playbook. It's something akin to New Math—all answers are praiseworthy, or at least fun for having tried. All punitive aspects have been removed from their games. The Agony of Defeat has been replaced with the joy of camaraderie. The Spoils of Victory have been replaced with the joys of togetherness. Even in knuckle-busting-hand-slap type games, they reduce the knuckle-smack to a 2-fingered caress. Failure in group-memory games results in the loser receiving a back massage. That, I can't abide.

Jews Are Good With Money:

On our trip to Shanghai, our tour guide sat at the front of the bus, broadcasting information and telling stories about the places we would be attending. She would say, "So we're going to Hangzhou now, yea, Hangzhou, where they make silk, yes silk. In Hangzhou they make the silk. Yes, in Hangzhou."

She used this sort of final-word-repetition construction almost exclusively throughout the 3-day trip. As we approached the city of Suzhou, she illuminated the local economic situation for us: "So now we're going to Suzhou, yeah Suzhou. Economy in Suzhou very developed. Lots of rich people in Suzhou. Yeah, in Suzhou, they've got the money. People say that Suzhou people are like the Jews, yes, the Jews, Chinese Jews, they are the best with the money. Yes, they money. Like the Jews."

Interestingly, Suzhou people are not the only ones laying claim to the title of "Chinese Jews." When I taught in Guangzhou, I was told constantly that people from Chaozhou are the real "Chinese Jews." Others say it's the people from Wenzhou. Will the real Chinese Jews please commence shukkeling?

Accidentally Meeting A Cripple:

Later she told us (unprompted) how she met her husband: online. "Yes, online I met him. Online. Some people maybe think this is strange. You are chatting online and maybe it is dangerous. Yes, dangerous. You could be chatting and you like this person, maybe in love, but actually in fact he could be a disabled or very ugly or fat. Yes, fat. You don't know. Maybe he is crippled or something."

But he could be a Jew. Yes a Jew. Good with the money.

When A Man Asks You What Time It Is:

In Shanghai, having finally liberated myself from the tyranny of consequence-free Paddy Cakes, I absconded and went to a ghetto dance club. After imbibing several adult beverages at post-apocalyptic prices, I needed to shake the dew off my tulip. Sidled up to the porcelain coffin, I let nature run its course. Suddenly, to my left, a small yet burly chrome-domed Asian man in a fine 3-piece suit posed the following question in heavily accented English, "You wouldn't happen to know what time it is, would you, friend?"

I responded, mid-flow, "I haven't worn a watch since I was a child. Since I stopped believing in time and talking to strangers."

What a High-Heeled Boot Does For a Woman:

Frankly speaking, Asian women take much more pride in their appearance than their Western counterparts. Take 10 women at random from any U.S. college campus and 10 more from Beijing Language and Culture University. Seven out of 10 from BLCU will be both more physically fit, and more fashionably dressed. A lot of them wear nice high-heeled boots. Nevertheless, the last 3 representatives from the U.S. contingent will simply have a higher octane rating. They're just hotter. They've got more to offer. Generally, they have stopped sucking their thumbs by the time they enter college. But I digress.

The high-heeled boot. What is it doing?

Mainly, it speaks of thrust. Of ascent. Defiance. It speaks of triumph. It creates a wholesome momentum, propelling the body forward as it lifts and gently trains the flesh to inhabit its proper location—righteously high and tight, as the Good Lord clearly intended.

Flip-flops, sublime in their adherence to lowest-common-denominator democratic fashion ideals, negate the high-heeled boot in every way. Wear at your own peril.

Chinese Dogs:

They are often swaddled in doggie coats. They don't bark much. They walk without leashes. The master or mistress gives few commands, yet the beast follows. Sometimes one master leads 3 or more dogs through obstacles such as outdoor Tai Chi classes, kiddie playgrounds, kaleidoscopic traffic, and other groups of unleashed dogs. They don't run away. They don't fight much with the other dogs. They don't really look at the master either. They just stay near. Dog-handling "with Chinese characteristics" perhaps.

Once, on vacation in a rural area, my Mother spotted a lone Water Buffalo unfenced and grazing peacefully in a rice paddy. She asked the local guide why the Buffalo doesn't run away. The guide, rather baffled by the question answered, "Well, the cow loves us."

The Study of Chinese Breaks Good Minds:

There is a French woman in my class. She just turned 60. She's been studying Chinese in France for more than 3 years. Her vocabulary is vast. Her understanding of grammar is deep and thorough. And yet, each and every word that comes out of her mouth is completely unintelligible. The French accent, as we know, is already comic and absurd. Her French accent rendered through the cataracted and milken eye of the Chinese language is incommensurable with human thought. I hear her speak and keep looking for the hidden camera. Our teachers strain to squash their grimace. In her, "a little knowledge can be dangerous" finds it's full expression.

Example: I'd like to teach you some new math. I learned a lot about numbers. Some are even and some are odd. In my math system, nothing adds up, ever. Nothing subtracts either. Multiplication is division and vice-versa. Sometimes numbers are colors. Interested? This is what it's like I think for a Chinese person to hear less than excellent Chinese.

There are many ways for the study of Chinese to break a good mind. One is simply being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. People get a taste for what it's like to write a few hundred characters from memory and they start saying things like, "I'm not really a classroom guy" or "I'm gonna study this stuff when I get back to Germany." Broken.

Another is the constant humiliation delivered by the apparently simple aspects of Chinese grammar. There is a particle, "le," whose fluent usage is critical to speaking well. Its main purpose is to indicate past tense, but "le" also indicates a change of state and also a strange kind of persistent past. This topic is introduced and well understood by everyone in the first few weeks. But then time passes and you realize you don't really understand it. What is it? When can I use it? Where must I use it?

Then the lesson comes again. A review. You welcome the return. Yes, I understand this…there are 3 kinds of "le" or is it 4? Then, later it comes again and still no one really understands it. Then, a sentence appears with 4 kinds of "le" in it. Broken.

I've spoken with students who have been studying for several years and they will quietly admit they don't know what to do with it and certainly couldn't give a fail-safe example of how to use/not use this thing. "I'll study this stuff when I get back to….." Broken.

I asked an Indonesian woman from another class how she was finding the study of Chinese. She, who already speaks several languages fluently, responded in Chinese: "I think it's not that hard. The grammar is pretty simple and the tones aren't all that difficult."

Problem is, strictly speaking, what she actually said was something like, "Usually I like Korean meat-water, but meat in my toes is ok too." Broken.

Faithfully Yours,

P.S. Pictured below is the author, broken by irrepressible Indonesian joy, the French accent, and Chinese grammar, riding a 3-headed dog car outside a grocery store in Hangzhou.

Bicycles are Fun; Asians are Obedient; Being Fat is Bad; Being Poor is Worse; Boys at Play; Domestic Dispute; I Love Indonesians!

Bicycles Are Fun:
I bought a bicycle. I ride it to school. On the way to school, I ride bikes with the people. We ignore all traffic laws and good sense. We go when we want. We always want to go. We ride straight into oncoming traffic and make cars go around us. Most of the riders are parents with their kindergarten cargo snoozing sweetly over the back wheel of the bike. No one wears a helmet. No one. Why? Is it that the Chinese are not afraid to die? I've asked and sometimes I get an answer that starts, "there are so many Chinese…"--the theory being something like: The Borg persists, The Borg reproduces, The Borg retrenches. I do believe there is for them a deep-rooted sense of belonging to something incomprehensibly large and indestructible. They take grim comfort in that somehow. We don't think that way. We feel that when we die, the entire universe goes, or ought to go, with us.

I'm reminded of a story a few years back in the U.S.. There was a large traffic accident involving a tractor-trailer. Power lines were down. A good Samaritan tried to rescue the driver of the truck and direct people around the live wires. Then another car crashed into the scene and the Samaritan was struck on the leg with the power line. He was not shocked to death however. He survived apparently unscathed but later developed a terrible infection on his leg where the line had struck him. It turned out to be flesh-eating bacteria that somehow lived in the bird shit caked on the power line. They had to amputate his leg, and then more, and then more, and then he died. I don't know what to make of that, but it makes me want to ride hard into the teeth of oncoming traffic without a helmet.

The Campaign For Class Monitor; Or, Asians Are Obedient:
Our teacher notified us that in the coming days we would need to elect a Class Monitor. The Class Monitor is a somewhat hallowed position in Chinese academic culture. The word really means something like "Class Principal," or "Cheesy Narc" in American English. When the appointed day came, our teacher gave a brief lecture about the qualities the Class Monitor should possess and laid out some of the key duties, most of which amount to herding the class around on field trips and unnecessarily collecting personal information.

So he took a straw poll and the people voiced a strong preference for "Tan Li" (that's me). He let the rumble subside and asked the question again, as if to say, "Perhaps you didn't hear me. Who would make a good Class Monitor?" My classmates were unaware they were being advised to change their votes and thought he wanted them to shout their allegiance. Several did and were seconded by others, confirming that I was the people's champion. I protested and told them I couldn't care less whether they got lost on our field trips. This only fanned the flames of their desire. Our teacher quieted the room and explained that although I was a viable choice, I wasn't quite old enough to wield the responsibility of the Class Monitor. Furthermore, I am a bit too soft spoken to herd people around and/or I don't care to herd them. Finally he explained that one time he had a Swedish student as the Class Monitor. He said (translated from the Chinese), "Every time I wanted him to do something, he'd question me, 'why do we have to do that, or why is it necessary to get this information or make people sign this document,' that was a lot of trouble--you see, he was European and so our minds really couldn't meet, but we have a Korean student here who is older and also Asian, so he won't question me, he will do what he is told and have no problem with that. That's how Asians are and that's the sort of Class Monitor we need."

So then it was clear to everyone (3/4 of whom are Asian) that they were meant to vote Asian. And so they did.

Being Fat is Bad; Being Poor is Worse:
Learning a language requires a lot of simple examples and scenarios to make clear grammatical structures, idioms and the like. Many of our examples go something like this: "There are 2 girls (teacher draws 2 figures). One of them is what…yes, fat, and one of them is what…yes, beautiful. So then there is a man over here (draws a figure). Which one does he want?" The class responds, "The beautiful one!"

When we tire of this type of example sometimes we use this one: "There are two men, one has a lot of money (draws a huge wallet) and one of them has none (draws a small wallet). Which one will the girl want? Yes, the rich one. Correct. But then he has a lot of money, so he will be looking for what…yes, another woman, this one over here…yes, the beautiful one, not the fat one!"

The remaining examples are usually about various kinds of beatings and murder for shallow or haphazard reasons. "I don't like this guy because he's rich, so I decide to hit him, hit him, hit him…and then, what, finally he dies. Right." Or, "This guy chooses the beautiful girl (i.e. the thin one) and then the ugly one (i.e. the fat one) gets jealous right, and so the fat one kills the beautiful one…"

Sometimes we need more specificity to make the point clear. In these cases, Americans always stand in as the fat ones and the rich ones. One time the teacher took a moment to explain to the class that I don't really look American because I'm not fat. "Usually they are fat," he noted.

Conversation Overheard:
A Caucasian man, late 40's, hopelessly disheveled, wizened and wan, sitting outside Starbucks on a stone ledge. Dozens of people are within easy earshot. He is speaking to someone on his cellphone:
"I just feel really weak today, ok? I'm hurting and I'm just feeling really weak. I need you to say you love me, can you do that?....Can you do that?...Why can't you do that for me? I need you to say that…(interrupted) yes, I know, when will you come here. I need you to come to Beijing now. No, I don't need any more time to decide. I don't need more time to think it over. It's been 2, what, 3 months. Can't you just say you love me…(interrupted)…that you'll come and…why do you need more time?"

Boys At Play:
Two young boys are chasing each other around at my apartment complex. One has a brand new toy AK-47. He's in hot pursuit of the younger, smaller one. The small one has a stick with a balloon on the end. From time to time the small one turns and brandishes his balloon-rod. The bigger one tells him, "Stop or I'll shoot your ass off!" The little one stops and waits for instruction. The big one screams, "Now you will go to jail," and promptly drops his drawers and starts to piss on the little one. The little one bravely holds his ground till the stream nearly hoses him and then shouts, "I'll shoot your balls off!" before speeding off into the distance.

Domestic Dispute
I saw one outside my apartment one day. It went like this: A man and a woman dancing on the walkway ahead of me. No, they're not dancing. He is trying to pry the woman off his body as she clings and slowly slithers down his side. They are both completely silent but wear the grimace of the earthly damned. She re-grips and shimmies up his arm a bit, her legs clamping tightly around his waist while still holding on to her giant fake Dolce and Gabbana bag. Finally, with a mighty effort and a Chinese harrumph, he peels her off and steps over her encircled limbs. She shrieks the shriek of the once-blissfully-happy…a long and quavering burst of bitterness. He tries to make a getaway but she chases him down, jumping onto his back. They resume their dance and again he pushes her down till she clings fiercely to his left foot. He steps ahead, alternately dragging her and trying to liberate his trapped limb.

Impressions of Fellow Students

Europeans: Europeans like sunglasses. Or rather sunglasses like Europeans. They also like cheesy little moto-scooters, or the scooters like them. It's a very loving relationship.

Japanese: Between classes, they gather in small groups and smoke like chimneys. Their affect tends to be rather serious and meditative, preoccupied even. But they are given to sudden bursts of cherubic laughter which just as suddenly vanishes.

Koreans: Well-dressed, urbane and very confident, to excess in the boys. Their conversational voice is quite loud. Even Chinese people complain about that, which is the air raid siren calling the fog horn loud. They also smoke like chimneys but you get no sense of a meditative inner world here. Everything in external.

Russians: They all look gravely ill. The general affect is grim, worried, suspicious, threadbare. The female affect is plaintive and belligerent. The male affect is goofy and disheveled. The women's dress is a sort of high-fashion clown-slut chic. It looks high-fashion from afar, but the closer you get, the more you think Serbian truck-stop brothel.

Indonesians: Profoundly cheerful and lighthearted. They laugh well and often. Little seems to bother them. They eat heaps of candy. Their language seems to be comprised entirely of words with hyper-clipped syllables. It sounds like this: "Ba-da-da-ba-di-dun-do-man-a-
na-na-bla-bli-di-dun-do-be-bun-bo-blasey!" Everything they say finishes with an exclamation point, laughter and the sharing of candy.

Americans: There are very few at my school. In my class of 15, I am the only son of Abraham. That's because Americans have shrewdly reckoned that it's really not important what's going on in China. "Let them learn American for godssake! Lord knows why all these Asians are so interested."

A Bad Omen; Atlantis; Ikea MindF***; Hump; Moto-Inflamata

A Bad Omen:
My journey began with a bad omen. On the way to the airport, I came upon a grotesque auto accident which had occurred just moments before. A car was overturned and spun perpendicular to oncoming traffic. A man lay on his side, crumpled and motionless in a spray of broken glass. He appeared to be dead. An off-duty fireman directed traffic around him.

I don't believe in omens. I didn't like this one.

I arrived in Beijing under a cloud. Perhaps in a cloud. A moist wool blanket piled up and threaded through the eyes maybe. For 3 days it was so. I looked at the sky and wondered. It's not just that that it was completely overcast, but that the whole idea of "sky" started to seem like a rumor. No landmarks could prove otherwise—no sun, clouds, birds nor motion. The humidity reached its zenith on the 3rd day and I was forced to abandon the concept of sky. Yes, this is an underwater city, I thought. You have gills. Breathe deeply and swim fast. This made sense and comforted me.

Then inexplicably, on the 4th day, the weather broke into perfection. Clear, blue, cloudless skies in all directions. It stayed this way for 3 days—each day more perfect than the last. My gills flapped a bit in protest.

Ikea Mindf***:

Ikea China was designed by a deranged psychopath—a Luddite or Anarchist perhaps, who believed that if one created a shopping experience so alienating, arduous, and humiliating, consumers might completely lose their will to participate in market capitalism.

1. You cannot order Ikea products by phone. Nor online. You must go to the "store," which is remote. Even when you find the "store," you can't seem to get into it. You can see it looming, but you can't figure out which path will take you to the door. Once inside, the joke's on you, and it gets funnier and funnier (for the Luddites) as you go along.

2. To begin, you must go to the second floor. Here are kiddie products and a café serving Swedish meatballs. What if I want to go directly to kitchenware, or go directly to buy a rug? Impossible. You must pass through ALL products to get anything. What if I decide to leave the store right now, before shopping? Impossible. You can't get out. The only way out is THROUGH. You must pass through ALL products, and you must ascend in psychotic Candy Land style up and up and up to the top floor, which may be 4 or 7, it's impossible to tell.

Once you find something you want, you're told to write down it's 20-digit SKU number and carry the paper around with you. But other products you're supposed to pick up and carry around. It's not clear which ones you can pick up and which one's you have to write down. You're supposed to put the picked up items in a satchel. At different stages, you are required to transfer the goods from the small satchel to a larger cart. Later you'll be prevented from taking the larger cart any further and you'll have to transfer the items to another larger vehicle. So as shoppers gradually fill the carts, the carts grow. But the travel lanes do not grow. In effect, they are shrinking. Traffic jams, confusion, and road rage now reign supreme.

Next you descend down through the Inferno to what seems like an exit, or a checkout. But it's not. You're not even close to the end. You just want to check out, but how? Where? Can I go directly to checkout? Isn't there an elevator that will take me there? No. The only way out is THROUGH. And so you shop. You see products you've seen several times before…why am I seeing them again? Should I pick them up or write them down? The staff don't seem to have any clue how the whole thing works either. They look terrified and confused.

When I finally did reach the checkout, I proudly presented my list of SKU numbers. The cashier informed me that this was not at all the way to buy things. You have to hand-carry all those items through checkout. Even rugs, dressers, bedroom sets. Somehow you're supposed to haul it all down and jam it through a checkout lane which is no more than 2 and ½ feet wide.

So I made a mistake, but can't I just have the items delivered or something? No. You must begin again. So you exit the store and reenter. Then up to the 2nd floor and the meatballs. And then up and up and up. There is no way out but THROUGH. The second time through, I got nearly to the bottom and then remembered I had forgotten one important item. There is, of course, no way to go directly to this department. You must retrace your steps through the circles of Luddite hell back to the source of the goods.

There are many, many more humiliations and tortures which I have omitted. It pains me to think of the time I squandered there. I will speak no more of this place.

I wandered a side street near my university. I came upon the "Hump Café." I went it. Had a beer. Sat between pictures of Charlie Parker and Cher. Two shop girls in pressed pink uniforms came in and bought some kind of Chinese Lotto tickets. They giggled scratched and lost. Another guy watched over their shoulder. He bought some too. He lost too. Nobody humped. Charlie and Cher looked on.

Near the embassy district, I walked around killing time before my Salon appointment. Suddenly a vintage WWII motorcycle with side-car ripped out from a side street and tore up the wrong lane of a one-way street. The engine roared—nay bellowed as the rider stood erect and defiant in the stirrups, leaning lustily over the front handlebars. Astride the grunty beast was a young woman, 20-something, dirty blond hair—real dirty and flapping angrily in the putrid Beijing air—wife-beater tank top, military style cropped pants and aviator shades. Finally, riveted to her lips, was a cigarette which she vengefully inhaled to the point that her cheeks reached inward and nearly met inside her mouth. I thought about that.

Suddenly, inexplicably, I remembered that "3-6 Mafia" won an Oscar in 2006 for "It's hard out here for a pimp"—one of the most depraved sentiments uttered in the last half-century. I thought about that and the Moto-Inflamata, and the rider, and her cigarette, and her sidecar.

Ever-Lovingly Yours,