Thursday, September 29, 2011

London Part I: Roads and Eliot


My first impression of London came from reading T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Preludes”, with an image of old 
newspapers tossed around by the wind, train stations with its faceless people, large clocks, deep grey skies, and damp, cold air.  
Here’s an example:
 
Preludes (Part IV): T.S. Eliot
 
IV
 
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
 
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
 
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

(Part IV added in 1911)

Here’s a few sections from The Four Quartets, written over two decades later, that I think link to Preludes very well:

Burnt Norton, Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
III
Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

(published sometime around 1936)

(note: Burnt Norton begins with two epigraphs from Heraclitus, the second being, “The way upward and the way downward is one and the same.”)

And of course, some of my favorite lines in the poem from Part V, Little Gidding, The Four Quartets (written in 1942)

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and
England.

I always thought the whole philosophical idea of The Four Quartets is finding the eternal – the stillness – in a moving frame – time.   Or, literally, to look at the present as the only redeemable moment, to believe its weight in eternity is just as strong as the past’s or the future’s; present-time redemption gives us all as much of a chance for salvation as any other moment. 

I’m not so sure about the rest of the poem, but I like the idea of partitioning time to equal-valued moments through the importance of the present. 

I understand now those places Eliot uses to evoke this.
* * * * *
I have written before that my favorite part of London, the parts I will miss the most and think of the most and use as my memory metaphor for “time-spent-in-London”, are the roads.  Then, I meant the roads escaping into and out of London, the roads to Windsor and Kent and Surrey through Bromley and Richmond.  To me, these roads were conduits from an A to B, a journey for me to go somewhere on a weekend morning to listen to bright colored leaves in the grey rain and to see the horses breathe on a cold Sunday. 

I liked the hedgerow in Kent.  When you move fast through it – for me, on a bike – you move without knowing who will meet you around the corner.  You go, quickly, through the green, and there’s a deep sense of faith in the gravel, in your intuition, in your reflexes that what you meet around the hedgerow is slower than you.

And my favorite road going out and into London is a road in Bromley.  A very straight and flat road.  In the summers, autumn and winters, the road is easily missed, with its small homes lining the street and cars parked along both sides.  But in April, in April after a game through the hedgerow and hours spent along the hills in the woods and farms, the road is lined with cherry blossoms and greets you after a five hour ride like you are the winner of a great race, the maestro of some wonderful orchestra.

For me, that road in Bromley meant an espresso and pastry at Crystal Palace after a hard morning with good friends and better stories before going back through the busy streets into Elephant and Castle and past Waterloo Bridge closer to Southwark High Street to a busier afternoon and evening.
* * * * *
“nothing is easier…than to revoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames” – Heart of Darkness, Conrad

(note: Juli told me a story of a seagull she once saw devouring a snake found in the Thames.  I’m not sure I believe anything can live in those waters, but I believe her story.  Tyler once stopped me from jumping off Millennium Bridge into the Thames late one night as part of a dare; I believe it’s the best thing he’s ever done for me.)

Nothing about the Thames is poetic.  It’s grey and brown, and it reminds me of the streets of London during the early evenings in February.  But for some reason, I remember it distinctly.  I can picture it rolling downwards from Tower Bridge, past London Bridge and through Putney and onwards, rolling to some tidal beat I can’t discern. 

It’s with this same distinction that I remember the grey walkways and walls of buildings, the dampness of the winter mornings during my commute to campus.  It’s the dampness that wakes you up, when the sun is still too tired to come out, and you feel your face is cold and the rest of you is warm, and the comforter is some mysterious, big heater with your curled body as the coals inside the furnace.  

And on rainy mornings, when you can get yourself up and out of your furnace-comforter, to get your shoes on and out the door, and if you can get yourself to breathe the city air, and to run alongside the Thames when it’s raining, wet (and your hair is wet, and your clothes, and your shoes since you’ve been running through all the puddles), you can come back to hot espresso and poetry.  And I promise you, it’s really something.
* * * * *
I forget the names of roads which turn into other roads – high streets and circuses – the little roads that diverge, change names, and re-emerge again.  I was lost quite often when I first came to London.  I followed names.  That was the mistake.  Now, I know better and follow a general direction (a post code or the river), and I let the little off-streets, alleyways, mews take me to the roads and the streets with changing names, and I know the little roads will always lead to the bigger ones, like the streams leading to the rivers.

I think if we were to map the off-shoots of roads in London, it would look like the zooming in of a coastal line.  I think it would look like a fractal.  And I think London, unlike New York, became complex not vertically but spatially, and it’s this complexity through its roads that has made me attached to London.
* * * * *
Attachment is born from distinction.  It’s impossible to become attached to something vague – to something nameless, formless, unknown, trite. 

The evocation of a place is made through distinct objects: vinegar crisps and bacon baps and pork pies; grey and wet mornings that covers an otherwise white city; the rolling, brown Thames; red double-decker buses; and the roads – the roads that lead to and from the city with memories of sunny or not-sunny mornings or sunny-mornings-that-will-rain or not-sunny-mornings-that-will-tease-the-sun with laugher and stories and things that are harder to say; those roads through the city where we had coffee or breakfast, where I shared this and you told me that, where we went for a drink at a pub with a funny name on the corner; the roads that hide little, curious places that we found or didn’t find or may find or may never find.

The love of a place is made through its people.
* * * * *
The next few lines in Little Gidding:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
     Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And the way up is the same as the way down, and sometimes I think everything is just a little concentric circle after another, one moving thing after another around something not moving, which is the center.  It’s like those complicated roads, bending and emerging one off another but leading to the same big road, which is all here, and there, in London.
* * * * *
I left London in the sun to come to Connecticut in the rain.  I’m back where I started a year ago to go back in a little bit longer, but for now, to finish what I’ve begun with modified excerpts from Little Gidding since it fits so much this year:

The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
     I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
     Both one and many; in the brown baked features
     The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
     So I assumed a double part, and cried
     And heard another's voice cry: 'What! are you here?'
Although we were not. I was still the same,
     Knowing myself yet being someone other—
     And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
     And so, compliant to the common wind,
     Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
     Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
     We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
I said: 'The wonder that I feel is easy,
     Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
     I may not comprehend, may not remember.'
And he: 'I am not eager to rehearse
     My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
     These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
     By others, as I pray you to forgive
     Both bad and good…
'
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
     He left me, with a kind of valediction,
     And faded on the blowing of the horn.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

China 2011 Chapter 4

Home and Mu Xi Di

“I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant—
Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.”
TS Eliot, Dry Salvages, The Four Quartets
* * * * *
It was the guard standing at the entrance. That was who brought me back to a painful feeling of recognition, or perhaps something tugging at something that should have been recognition. I remembered early evenings, that fuzzy twilight time, when we’d walk over to the stream and I’d play in the water with the tadpoles. 
What’s left of the stream? It’s green, and the willows are still there, but two large roads run on either side of it. It looks like an old, industrialized canal, something I cannot find tucked away in any memory.
To this day, I think years later, when I used to squint in the car in the evenings at the headlights of other cars, the lights outside homes, and the red/yellow/green traffic signs, it was always to recreate the fuzzy image of twilight. 
We must be some constant remaking of story after story.
* * * * *
Traffic in Beijing has got a shape like jazz.
Things I miss about China:
Baozi for breakfast.
Xiao ho guo
Jiao zi
La mian tiao
A warm, fuzzy, lit Beijing evening that smells thick of street food
Small kids running on the streets
Being able to shout loudly in formal places
Being able to joke with, bargain and hassle merchants…and have it be acceptable
Things I do not miss about China:
August humidity
Squat toilets (don’t ask)
People who – from the depth of their abdomen – hawk and spit so loudly, you can hear them across a 7 lane road
People who spit on the ground of a restaurant
People who spit right in front of you while you walk down the sidewalk
People who you hear spitting in the mornings over breakfast
Spitting in general
Guttural noises that indicate spitting is about to happen
* * * * *
What makes me – any of us – crave seeing where we were born? It’s as if the slab of concrete wall or building will tell us some secret about ourselves that we’ve always felt missing and desperately longed for. That suddenly, we’d know what we were doing here and why we came. But I find the reality is that a place is just that: a place – mutable, subject to time and weathering, and certainly, indifferent to the subjects that come and go.
I found myself desperately trying to take pictures of Mu Xi Di that afternoon, even when the building guard told me I couldn’t. When he wasn’t looking, I’d snap up my camera and take a few pictures quickly, hoping my hand wasn’t so shakey that all I caught was a blur of green and grey, and I would feel so elated and nostalgic over my little green and grey, I wanted to shout, “Hey! This is where I spent my first four years of life! Isn’t it exciting?! This is my first view of the entire WORLD!”
That’s exactly how I felt when I went back to Mu Xi Di for the first time, searching for memories I’d forgotten years ago.
* * * * *
I’d like to say coming back to London was easy, but as anyone who travels constantly between very different places, coming back is never easy. Leaving isn’t easy either. Soon, you find yourself constantly in transition from one deeply rooted place to another, until you (1) attach (2) travel (3) detach so much you begin to feel like nowhere is your home and everywhere is your home. All at once. You feel stagnant when you stay and nostalgic when you leave. You belong, but you don’t quite fit, and all at once, you wonder whether you should go back.
I was doing just fine with my transition back until I began to walk on Shoreditch High Street today toward my osteopath appointment with the world’s best physical therapist/osteopath. I crossed by big red buses that shook and vibrated along the old roads, and I saw the narrow little alleyways with pubs and art shops and little sandwich places I would never stop in. I began to miss it all at once. Then I began to miss Mu Xi Di, and my uncle’s apartment in Beijing with dust and drawings all over the walls, and I even began to miss the stupid coop of chickens on the street outside their 17 story apartment in Beijing, next to the parking lot full of Mercedes, BMWs and Audi’s (apparently the only types of cars driving in China now). I miss most the fuzzy twilight once the temperature dropped, and I could see all the lights again, and it was alive. It was all very much alive.
If someone asked me whether China is fun for me, I’d say very definitively: no. But it’s fulfilling, which has nothing to do with fun. I don’t feel like a tourist in China, just as I don’t feel like a tourist in London, which is a good thing for me because I really hate tourism. 
I was asked today whether I felt like I was back at home in London. My initial reaction was, “No, I don’t.” But then I thought about it again, and I recognized that stupid drizzle rain, and the 30 seconds of clear sky that fools you into believing the afternoon will be nice. And I looked to my right, and saw those little, crooked roads that I had never noticed before, very polite people walking down Bishopsgate with their suits on, and I suddenly noticed that odd English name for the café or the subtle way streets suddenly morphed into other streets. I felt, “strange, I recognize all this so well.” With that recognition, my answer became, “Well, maybe. I feel I’ve been here before.”
My favorite London memories are those when the autumn morning is too cold and wet to go for a bike ride, so I go for a run along the south bank of the Thames instead. And it’s windy, and it’s dark. I like coming back into my flat after an hour with my sneakers soaked. Then I like to make expresso and sit in my kitchen with breakfast, watching the rain.
* * * * *
Don’t say places don’t define us. Objects can be drawn by looking at the empty space around them, the negative object. 
Mu Xi Di, you still hold something in me, and when I was there, I tried so hard to find some memories: the smell of lotion in winter, a television screen with green sofas, tadpoles in twilight, laughing, green and yellow balloons, green and yellow popped balloons, orange soda, laughing laughing and laughing.
I walked there with my cousin and my cousin’s husband, and the old buildings were torn down. The old playground was gone, and when I tried to ask the guard if I could go in to see it all, he denied my request. So I stood outside near the willow trees along the river, and I tried to take pictures of the grey and green, hoping my hand wouldn’t shake the camera.
Goodbye Mu Xi Di, until I see you again.
* * * * *
“Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning” – T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, The Four Quartets

Friday, September 2, 2011

China 2011 Chapter 3


China: Part 3, “No, Bo Bo, these flowers aren’t for everybody to look at. They’re just for PAN PAN to look at!”


Part 3a: “You are a kindergarten teacher.”

For my students: You guys/girls are bomb-diggity-awesome, and you’re going to be so good at economics or whatever you want to do, and I’ll be so proud that we spent 2 weeks in sweat-heaven Beijing through 200% humidity listening to our bomb-diggity-awesome Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) and trying to get to know one another through cultural barriers and weird accents (I’m sorry I can’t be less American, and that I sometimes, or lots of times, said words like “bullshit” and “crap” and “god damnit” in class. I’m not sorry for making you all speak in front of the class to practice your English public-speaking skills even though I know that was torture for some of you and that some of you probably lost sleep over it and practiced for hours the night before because you were ashamed or embarrassed of your accent and had never spoken to a native English speaker before let alone speak publicly in English about economics or about anything at all, ever. I promise it’s good for you, and I know how proud of yourselves you must be now that you know you did a good job, and that the next time you do it, it won’t be as scary and that you deserve to have just as much of an opportunity as everyone else in the English speaking world. I am not sorry for making you debate one another about monopolies and IPR and tariffs and who-killed-the-eonomy-in-2008, but I am sorry for openly laughing when some of you made up numbers on the fly about certain dead-weight losses to prove your point or got the axis wrong for your monopoly demand graphs while doing this. I’m sorry I made you get into groups with people who weren’t your friends nor spoke your native language, but I’m not sorry you ended up going out to lunch or dinner or drinks with them later and made friendships you’ll have for years. I’m not sorry for being anal and strict about plagiarism and citation. That is serious, and you WILL get in big trouble for it, but if you accidentally did it in this class because it was the first time someone really required this, you know I’ll let it go and sit down with you to go over what to properly cite and how to do it. I’m sorry I couldn’t answer all of your questions – like, what year will the United States lose its economic superpower over the world or like whether Warren Buffet is psychic or like how to derive the existence of real numbers –, and had to defer you to “the Boss”, but I’m not sorry for being honest about it. I’m sorry that it wasn’t up to me to give you your grades – it was partially up to you and really, the Establishment (aka “the LSE(&PS)”), but I’m not sorry that I made sure to let you understand that, despite what I falsely believed for 25 years of my life, grades aren’t all that important, and if you never tried something new or something you weren’t naturally good at, you’d just be following yet another group of rule-followers who really are just good at copying and regurgitating and not very good at innovation because innovation begins at the boundary and happens outside it. So the only way to make yourself better is to step outside your boundary. And like I said the last day of class, you don’t run a marathon by just running 5 miles every day because 5 miles is comfortable and you’re good at it. It doesn’t mean anything to be able to run 5 miles if somewhere inside you, you were meant to run a marathon. I really believe that. I’m learning that every day. Keep in touch. Keep training and be honest. Keep me posted.).
* * * * *
I’ve gotten a few questions about why I’m in China other than going on some cool trip to visit family, eat really good and cheap food, and buy pirated shit to take back to the UK/US. Here’s the short-end of the answer: I’m here to help TA an undergraduate economics summer school course at PKU, which is really more like “econ-camp” if you consider the 4 hours of lecture in the morning (starting at 9am, a time so early it’s late for most undergraduates) and then the 1-1.5 hour class/seminar facilitated by yours truly, where my main job was split into 3 parts: (1) manage “the Talent” by reiterating main points – in English – that the Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) wanted (2) listen to worries and reiterate that everything will be ok, and that, no, the world won’t implode if they don’t get an A (3) think of games to play that made things like comparative advantage and trade surplus more interesting. We spit our class into 2 sections in the afternoon since there were 50 students, which meant I was teaching 2-3 hours a day. It was the best 9-5 job I’ve ever had (minus the 4-5 hours at night correcting papers and preparing for the next day’s class): I had people bringing me my lunch, coffee, and snacks throughout the day and basically got lots of compliments on my teacher outfits. I slept 5 hours a night, skipped lunch, and basically never worked so hard for a job and had so much fun doing it since coaching NYU cycling (which, believe me, was a full-time job managing “talents”).

I’d like to tell you all the funny stories that happened in the classroom, but I realize that so many of those things are inside jokes (which, to clarify, I still find myself in hysterics over to this day), but that if I actually told someone who wasn’t there, they’d probably think I was the nerdiest person alive or had a really bad sense of humor or some combination of the two. There is, however, one incident that I think everyone can relate to. Here it goes:

The Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) and I were concerned over the review session and the time of the final exam since some students had expressed worries that they couldn’t get their party outfits on in time for the Friday night end-of-the-program banquet (I’m not kidding, this was a concern. Beijing is a big place!). The Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) was spending a long time giving detailed, democratic options for the students and wondering what their thoughts were. I interrupted by basically shouting, “Guys. Beggers can’t be choosers, so if you don’t pipe up now, don’t complain to me later.” To this, the Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) replied, “But also keep in mind, I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to answer one way or the other, but just let us know what you would prefer in seminar.” Given his wishes, I realized his concern was that some people would feel pressured by their peers to choose one option, most likely the one that involved skipping a review session and making the exam earlier so they can get dressed earlier and start drinking earlier and so on (which meant that the poor kid who was really shy but really wanted not only a review session but also that Q&A session with the Professor – aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent” – and didn’t mind if the exam was at 4pm b/c she/he could just run to the 6pm banquet right after the exam in blue jeans and sneakers and with books so that he/she can ask the Professor more questions later, was stifled into doing what the majority wanted for fear of being socially ostracized. Which, let’s be real: if you’re in summer econ-camp, you have no right socially ostracizing anyone for nerding it out.)

Now, this is something I also took very seriously. So very seriously that afternoon, I very seriously wrote up the 3 different options on the blackboard (YES, with colored chalk). Then I very seriously asked them each to put their heads down on the table and close their eyes (yes, you read right – and yes, some of these students were far older than me, and many of them already had master’s degrees or jobs or kids and family) and asked them to raise their hands when they heard the option they liked. Blind voting without all the hassle of ballots.

So far during the program, I never got a room full of stares (and proudly, I never got a “I’m so bored of you I am going to put my head down blatantly and sleep because you are asking for it, look how boring you are.”), which I can tell you right now must be the fear of every type of teacher regardless of how experienced or inexperienced he/she is. It’s awful: you stand up there in front of 20-30 people, insecure about whether you’re being clear at all or not and absolutely terrified of one of those curve ball questions from a student who you knew from day one is way smarter than you, and you know that question will knock you right on your ass and make you wonder whether you know a single thing about the subject, let alone try to explain it to 50 other people. You ask them a question, which is carefully planted and placed and scheduled because that question leads you to your next planned 10-minutes, which in turn, leads to the next 50. And nothing. Stares. You’re stuck. You answer your own question, and before you know it, you’re up there giving some horrendously boring monologue, which is basically a reiteration of what was said earlier, or what they read, and you feel like one, big, huge fraudulent tape recorder.

Luckily, the above Horror had never happened to me during this program yet. Even when they were exhausted or hung over or tired of 5 hours of class and getting up at 8am, I always had a faithful few who would answer questions and push through out of sheer loyalty or a collectively and secretly planned “I feel bad for her” attitude (and as an aside, to this day, I pretty much think that my students were the best bunch in the program. Ever.). This time, I found myself standing in front of a room of stares. They asked if I was joking. I replied I was not. Then I told them to put their heads down and close their eyes. They did not. Then I threatened them. Blank stares. Then I begged them. It worked marvelously. The Professor (aka “the Boss” aka “the Talent”) was pleased with the idea and results and named it the, “ostrich-head-in-the-sand-method”.

During the banquet, one of my older students said to me regarding my age (I had kept it secret for a long time, being ambiguous about when I graduated and when I worked so that I could leverage my authority): “I thought you were 35. You are like a kindergarten teacher.”
* * * * *
Thank you.
Part 3b: In the spirit of oral tradition and some good-old, home-grown family reunion awkwardness.
After the program, I basically spent an entire day lying in bed with empty nest syndrome, looking for papers to correct or emails to respond to and feeling disappointed when there was neither. This rest was, of course, short-lived as my extended family – fulfilling family obligations– found out my program ended and began calling to have dinner reunions. If you can imagine, this basically involved meeting a group of 6-10 people you’ve never met before (or who met you while you were a toddler and probably running around naked and probably eating things you weren’t supposed to eat and probably spitting and drooling on everything; they probably saw you have your diaper changed and saw you trying to eat that remote control or put that knife into the electric socket) and their friends you’ve never met before, and their friends’ friends you’ve never met before and so on.

I always enter into these engagements knowing that there will be stories told, and that chances are, the joke’s on me in front of a dinner table of strangers and family you don’t know but still love. It takes a lot of mental and social prep to get ready for this, and unfortunately, it’s totally culturally inappropriate to be the only drunkard in front of people who are family but who you haven’t seen in 22 years, which more or less destroys my Ace-in-the-pocket-method of getting myself comfortable in intrinsically awkward situations. Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I mean [footnote: come on, 30% of the reason why people drink at parties is to comfortably converse with that person they made certain unfortunate decisions with 2 weeks ago and secretly want to make other unfortunate decisions again, and instead of just saying, “Hi. I like you (or if you don’t really like the person, which is totally cool, “I am feeling ---- ”). Let’s ----- ” (which, in today’s young society, is considered to be far too straight-forward and therefore really confusing), one must engage in the ritual and pattern of (a) nonchalance and feigned disinterest (b) fake friendliness with some witty small talk (aside: this part really stresses me out) (c) and then when the party is sufficiently drunk (i.e. what my not-so-PC friends say, ‘when the straight, white boys dance’), messily begin flirting, etc etc . Obviously, none of this is pareto optimal, as it’s probably by far the least efficient way for people to get down, but right now, this is what’s culturally acceptable for better or worse.) 60% is to have an excuse for publicly totally acting a fool dancing. The final 10% is because no one wants to be more sober than the party and then subsequently have to be the responsible one out of moral obligation.].

This is what I’ve gathered from these stories: I was a difficult, stubborn, greedy kid who pretty much always got in trouble, ate everything, screamed a lot, and said really inappropriate things or asked questions that made people uncomfortable like, “Why is my great Aunt so fat?”
Story 1: (italics are voice of yours truly)
When Pan Pan was 2, she used to really like to pick flowers that were planted by other people. She wouldn’t pick wild flowers, but she’d find the ones that were clearly in national parks or in people’s yards, and she’d pick them all.
So once, my dad was trying to explain to her about how this is wrong and he said, “Pan Pan, don’t pick these flowers. They’re planted so that everyone can look at them and see how beautiful they are.” [PRC propaganda, I call that.]
And she replied, “No, Bo Bo, you’re wrong [uncle: or, in Chinese, older brother of my father’s]. These flowers aren’t for everybody to look at! They’re just for PAN PAN to look at!” [USA! USA! USA!]
Story 2:
When Pan Pan was 2, there was this one time when she got really mad at her day-care teacher, and even when her usual method of pooping in her pants didn’t work as defiance, she bit the woman’s elbow so hard, the lady had to go to the hospital! [I have no memory of any of this.]
Story 3:
When Pan Pan was 3, she ate an entire lipstick! [OK, I actually don’t think this one is true.]
Story 4: (told by my cousin on mother’s side while Story 1 is told by a cousin on my dad’s side)
Oh, that’s definitely true! When I was 7, and you were 1, my entire job when we visited was just to keep you from destroying people’s gardens. [Ugh, damnit. Confirmed and cross-checked.]
Story 5:
Pan Pan used to hoard food ever since she was a baby. She’d hide bananas and candy in her own room and eat it secretly so no one could take it from her. [Ah, well, this one still happens sometimes today.]
* * * * *
I’m glad to know that, intrinsically and without nurture or acceptable social guidelines, my true character could generally be described by misbehavior, a tendency to hoard, and strategically pooping in my pants to get what I wanted (the last of which, in my own defense, don’t even try to pretend you never did at least once before the age of 2 just because no one’s called you out on it yet).
Part 3c: When my uncle told me about the Great American Dream, i.e. When shit-got-real. (Warning: it gets heavy).
Note to reader and friend: I’d like to make clear that this isn’t a story about poverty or about being condescending and judgmental or about guilt (and I certainly don’t mean to sound like I’m giving a lecture). I hope what I write is a story about luck and belief (and a very real belief).

I only wish someone more talented or clearer than me can write this. All factual, tone, connotation, usage errors are made by the author. Stay with me, now.
* * * * *

I’m pretty convinced I have the coolest set of uncles in the entire world. I was able to spend a few days with three of them during my trip. I spent 4 days post-program in Beijing, and then took a train to Tianjin, where we went on a short family vacation to Beidahe (an ocean vacation spot). This is where I basically went on hikes with my Da Jiu (oldest uncle, but still younger than my Da Yi, who is the oldest sibling on my mom’s side) and Er Jiu (second uncle). This is also where we went on hikes, and where I realized that for all my cycling and running and triathlons, my uncles (who are well over fifty) could still hand it to me.
* * * * *

I don’t think my mom was trying to keep anything from me by not telling me. I’m sure she’s said things because I’ve known, but I think she’s kept some of the details because she either felt like they were irrelevant, she didn’t want to lecture me, or, she was protecting me as any mother would. Now, my oldest uncle is 3 years older than my mother, and I think his childhood and the decisions he made after the famine are part of his life to this day. I’m not sure he can separate it anymore.

This whole story isn’t possible without some history: Anyway, after the Communist party led by Mao took over China post-second World War, China experienced a number of “growing pains” and challenges, which for my rural-countryside family in Henan province, involved one of the worst famines in China’s history from 1959 (or so) until 1962 (or so). I can tell you for certain that no one in my family was ever famous, noble, rich, etc. I come from a very normal and impoverished genealogy of farmers from the rural countryside whose births and deaths are unrecorded and unknown. We were the missing statistics. We have no recorded history (But, I do think that it’s the story of the ordinary, unknown person and his place in history that reveals a truer story than what’s written by the rich, the known, the respected, the political, the feared – those people who cannot reveal the truth because they have a reason for rewriting it. What does it mean to write about truth if you have a purpose, an agenda?). These are the ordinary people who remember what it was like to starve, but then to be told that they’ll be given justice through 1966-1976’s Cultural Revolution even though they were still poor (and remained poor), and then told once again they had a chance to leave their poverty in 1977 with the opportunity to go to college once those doors were reopened, and then realized that they still couldn’t support their families easily in the 1980’s because the cities were so much more expensive than the countryside (they were making 9RMB a month – which is 1 pound sterling, which is 1.5 dollars, and if we roughly adjust for inflation might make it like 1.5 pounds sterling, and like, 3 dollars, and if we roughly adjust for purchasing power parity, is still not enough to ever buy meat to eat.). Then 30 years later, they are now tenured professors, managers of national highway structuring, phD’s, and so on, money being a problem of 30 years ago and a good story to tell at reunions and a nightmare that still lingers for a few of the older ones (because how can you really shed those memories of watching people starve to death and worry about starving to death yourself? You can’t.).

At some point in the 80’s, my mother married my father and had me. Then Tiananmen happened in 1989, which I still remember through my own retelling and my parent’s retelling (The fire on that huge road outside our window – “the students set the road and the tanks on fire” – and my boarded up windows and not being able to play outside and people who were so nervous). Here, I want to make clear, also, that this is not about politics: it’s not my M-O, and certainly, I know shit about politics. Nor do I really care to discuss politics or ever get into it. But you can’t separate these stories from history and subsequently from decisions politicians made. I’m just here to retell a story I’ve been told and partially remember. To continue: I remember being prepared to go apply for my visa to visit my mother in the US (she had left in 1990, alone, for an American University on scholarship to do her ph.D in physical chemistry because America, like Don Quixote’s Fountain of Youth, is all about that mythical American Dream) and practicing my line, “I’m only going to visit my mother”. Then I remember my mother raising me, while she is doing her phD, alone, without family or anyone she knew in the US. Now, if you can firstly just imagine doing a phD in physical chemistry in a language you barely spoke before leaving your country when you’re 31-years-old, you can probably imagine it’s pretty hard. You’d probably say my mother was more or less a rockstar. Now, imagine you have a 4-year-old kid on top of that (who also doesn’t know the language when she first gets to the US) and no one to help you take care of the kid, and the kid is stubborn and difficult but also completely helpless and quite funny at times and your only source of comfort because the kid tells you jokes and stories (and likes to crawl into bed with you, and you don’t realize it’s because the kid is lonely and scared too, even if she’s only 4) and the kid unknowingly makes you realize that no matter how hard your life is (think about how much a phD stipend is to support 2 people), you have no choice but to keep living (even if it wasn’t for yourself anymore, and you can’t run away because you have a 4-year-old kid, goddamnit.). Can you imagine how hard that must have been? I can’t. And I was there.

Now you have the historical setting.
* * * * *
So let me get into the heart of it without wasting any more time. I don’t like to watch scary movies, especially movies about war. I can’t stomach anything that involves: stabbing, bombs, guns, blood, loss of limbs, screaming, crying. It gives me the shivers to even write about it because I know it really happened, and it’s still happening. I can’t help but grab onto my arm if I watch a movie where someone loses an arm, or automatically put my hand on my chest if I see someone get shot there…it’s instinctual, you can’t help but think about just how painful that must be, and before I know it, I feel sick and awful, and that’s why I never watch scary movies. But what about hunger? I never really quite got the same sickening feeling. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I can watch and rewatch footage from Save the Children or Oxfam or whatever other program that raises money for some village in some country, over and over again without flinching. It’s just that, I don’t quite get as visceral of a physical reaction compared to other physical pain (I mean, when I watched “Saving Private Ryan” from behind a couch pillow with both hands covering my face, I still vomited from the sounds coming from the movie). I realized recently it was because I felt so removed from ever feeling suffering from hunger. My first world, developed world, middle-class, however you’d like to name living in small town Cheshire Connecticut, United States of America life is filled with other types of anxieties and worries that are so far removed from the pain of hunger, that I can’t even naturally relate to it when I see it [insert footnote: Examples include –“What am I going to do with my life?”, “Is my dad going to call my mom again to ask her if I’m a lesbian?”, “Will I get married?”, “Am I a bad person?”,“I gained 2 pounds. I’m FAT.” – god, go kill yourself, Pan.] [insert footnote: Now, obviously, I promised I wasn’t supposed to be condescending or preachy, and I know the above footnote is just that. I’m not saying that not knowing what makes you happy, or the fear of being alone, or having no self-control over what you consume and realizing too late you just ate your day’s worth of calories in one depressive sitting in the form of cake isn’t warrant for unhappiness and distress. It absolutely is. Everyone has a right to be unhappy or distressed, and no one should feel guilty for it. I’m just sharing my personal, and rather neurotic, thought-process.]
* * * * *
When Da Jiu was 5, and my mother was 2, he has memories of helping my Da Yi find whatever leaves, tree bark, or roots they could eat. My mother spent a year eating corn husks (or whatever that stuff that’s inside the corn husk is called, the part of corn even animals don’t eat), which were so rough on her digestive system as a 2-year-old [insert story that is really kind of graphic and something I’d rather not have to try to describe/I couldn’t really understand all the Chinese he spoke, but I know it was bad. You get the point]. OK, now I have to do this to help my own understanding and hopefully convey just how bad this was. Now, can you imagine being 5-years-old, or 10-years-old, like my Da Yi was at the time, and observing what other people were eating safely – and I’m talking about weird shit like leaves and tree bark – so that you could bring back the same thing to cook? Can you imagine feeling so hungry you’re happy to eat a leaf or tree bark? Can you imagine watching your 2-year-old sister struggle and cry with the garbage she’s been fed and having to watch your mother take care of her and try to make her feel better even though she couldn’t?

Da Jiu has memories of standing outside a garbage can in the evenings when some people (who were slightly better off) threw out their trash. The tail-ends of turnips, right near the leafy part, is really hard and quite bitter and was tossed out after making stew or whatever could be made from the pathetically small turnips that could be harvested during the droughts. My Da Jiu remembers standing near the garbage can and taking those turnip ends and bringing them back to eat. After eating so much of them and feeling slightly fuller, he stopped tasting how bitter it was. There is one occasion when I remember being really hungry, and it was during a 5-hour bike ride in the rain when I forgot to pack enough food and pretty much ran out of sugar in my system around hour 3. Then the next 2 hours, I could barely focus and didn’t want to talk. I was also really moody and sleepy. By hour 4.75, I was incapable of moving more than 12 mph. My teammate had to push me up Arnely Hill to Crystal Palace, where I stopped at Café St. Germaines and ate 2 pastries, 1 bacon sandwich, and 2 cokes and got a really bad stomach ache for doing this all in about 3 minutes.

My grandmother, from whom my mother’s rockstarness is inherited, made stews from whatever they could find for her four young kids. She’d make theirs a lot thicker with more food, and she’d just drink what was left over. My Da Jiu remembers this. He remembers when she got really sick towards the end of 1962/1963, when her digestive system became so empty that parts of it began to stick onto itself, and she had to be rescued by local doctors. My great-grandmother, his grandmother, died that way. She died of hunger. What is it like to die of hunger? It’s not something that happens in a few seconds, or a few hours, or a few days (what I had previously imagined to be the most painful types of death, and I’m too queasy to really list out the ways someone can suffer like that before finally dying, but I’m sure you can imagine it). But what is it like to die a death that takes a year? Or two years? For your body to literally implode and self-destruct because your cells have nothing else to burn except your own proteins. Your body literally consumes itself. I imagine at first, the person probably feels a lot of stomach pains, and then, the person gets really moody (this is the extent of my worst hungers). Then, you probably can’t sleep at night, since we all know that you can’t sleep on an empty stomach. But, what if this lasts more than one night? And it lasts a week? A month? Many months? I imagine you probably begin to feel really tired and fatigued, but then, you don’t even notice the fatigue, and all you feel is that your body is really tired and sore and your stomach feels like it’s the biggest organ on you. You can’t ignore it it’s so noisy and in pain. At the same time, you can’t do anything to make the pain go away, even if you try tricks like drinking a lot of water, because no matter what, the worst time is still at night when you have to stop drinking water to try to sleep, which we all know is impossible at this point.

To this day, my uncle doesn’t eat turnips.

And my Da Yi, the one who was responsible for taking care of all the others, I now understand why she sent her daughter, Dan Mei, from Louyang to Beijing on a 13 hour train ride to basically babysit me in the hotel room in Beijing. I’m pretty sure she gave Dan Mei instructions to never let me eat alone, walk on the street alone, cross the street without holding someone’s hand, or talk to strangers. Even when she’s doing her routine check-ups, she asks to speak to both my uncles separately, and I can see the 50-year-old men who like to break every known rule ever (because they are so badass), sit and nod and say, “yes”, “of course”, “no problem”, and “I understand” even though I can tell from their expressions and body language they’re agitated. As my Da Jiu said, “we grew up listening to her, and mow we’re still listening to her.” And who blames them? This woman, my aunt, at the age of 10, more or less helped raise 2 kids during a famine and can’t help but worry about every single detail of every single possibility of every single thing that could ever go wrong. Ever.
* * * * *

Now, I promised a happy story. I’ll describe the turning point with an anecdote (retold from what my Da Jiu said, so there may be a few mistakes because you all know from my previous update how my Chinese is). One day, when my Da Jiu (12) and my Er Jiu (5) were both hauling a huge cart of rocks back for some project or other, my Er Jiu decided that he had had it. He was really tired. He threw a tantrum. He said that he would never haul rocks again. My Da Jiu, who was used to telling him what to do and being listened to (and who also ended up as the disciplinarian of the family – you can still see each of his younger brothers, even at 40 or 50, still listening to him), genuinely felt badly for Er Jiu. He let him go and carried the rest of the rocks himself.

The next day, my Er Jiu immediately started studying as hard as he could. He didn’t study because he enjoyed it or because he could show off to other people about how smart he was; he studied because it was the only way he knew how to leave his life. Today, as a professor at a University that focuses on technology and engineering, he’s the most academic of any of my mom’s family. He is also by far the worst dressed.
* * * * *

What does it mean to have hope? I’d imagine it must be something similar to an unproven belief in a religion. It must be some idea that your life will change even though, at the time, every single thing around you tells you otherwise – that you are suffering and that those around you are suffering and the suffering is just so bad that you can’t imagine life without it. I tried to think of what my grandmother must have felt during those years. She was a young mother, my Da Yi born when she was only 17. I can imagine the greatest pain she could have felt was seeing her children suffer. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a mother, let alone to be a mother who was trying to take care of four children during those years. I mean, can you imagine what it must have been like to listen to your kids cry, or tell you that they’re hungry, and for you to not be able to give them anything and not know if you’ll ever be able to give them anything anytime soon? When your son asks you if it’ll ever end, can you imagine what you’d say? Can you imagine how you would feel knowing that you brought them into this world, and now you have nothing to give them? Can you imagine not knowing how to read and not knowing what your government is doing, and quite frankly, not really having a reason to care, because whether it’s the new party or the old party, you were always poor and you’re still poor? Can you picture it? Can you picture those nights when you’re trying to get your kids to sleep, and you hear them crying or tossing in the night? I can’t. I’ll tell you right now, I can’t.

My guess is that if you’re reading this (from your Macbook or your PC or whatever on facebook or through email in your air-conditioned room because, god, it’s hot in August), you can’t. And there’s nothing wrong with it. Our parents, our grandparents – they did what they did so that we would never have to imagine that.

Anyway, this isn’t a story about guilt even though I can write plenty about it. This is a story about hope. If my grandmother can successfully raise 7 children, with 6 (not 1, not 2, but 6) getting college level education or higher and taking each of their families out of poverty and into lives of the first world, when she herself is illiterate, then I’m pretty sure you can do quite a few things you thought you couldn’t do. I won’t even try to be poetic about it. See, if you’ve read what I’ve written carefully you’d know that at the time, there was nothing telling her that she would be ok. There were absolutely no signs from anyone – the government (I mean, I say this because my grandmother couldn’t read, and forget about television), her friends, her family, Jesus Christ, Jaweh, God, Allah, Buddha, Krishna – that in a year, the famine would end. It’s not science, either. It’s not predicable. It can’t pretend to be predicable (oh, right, we’re in a recession, but give it three more years, and consumption will increase and people will work again, and we’ll be productive, and there’ll be another bubble and another recession and so on). The only thing in those moments is some kind of belief that you just have to make it through another day. Or, if it’s really bad, just the day you’re in. That’s hope, whether it’s third world, developing world, first world, or uber first world (like the kind of world Steve Jobs or Bill Gates must live in).
* * * * *

Why do I love America? I love America for the propaganda of the mythical American dream: that you can, given whatever your starting circumstance is, achieve great things against huge odds if you just believe and try really super hard. Now, I say that this is an “American dream” because America is one of the only countries that has taken a basic, human condition (one of my personal favorite human conditions) – hope – and decided that it would be something that would be some characteristic description of its own culture (and now, we can make lots of references and jokes about the American cultural imperialism, like how stupid of a holiday Halloween is, about loudness, or how America basically is a huge economic and political bully that wants to always be the center of attention and the life of the party. But I’m not going to do that because I find that offensive. And let’s keep in mind the 200-year history of the country was created from this idea. Like, if you really wanted to, you could have made it the Great French Dream or the Great British Dream or the Great German – or Prussian – Dream, the Great Russian Dream, the Great Japanese Dream, etc etc, but you didn’t. So stop hating.).

The genius in the “American Dream” is exactly the form it’s taken: propaganda. My economics analogy is that it’s like managing forward looking expectations. My movie reference to that is from Kung Fu Panda when the egret dad says to Po, “To make something special, you only have to believe its special”. Or, let’s for a moment put aside (and I’m not saying forget, just put aside for a moment) how the Man keeps people down, or how some people suffer from inequality, and there are structures in place that keep some people from ever fulfilling their potential or even a small part of their potential, and how even today, there’s lots of barriers against certain groups of people, etc etc (plus, I promised I wouldn’t get political, and truthfully, I know nothing about politics). I’m not saying those things don’t exist or that we can’t fight against them or at least be sensitive to them and aware of them – knowing better, we absolutely should. I’m just saying, while you’re also doing all this fighting, and being sensitive and being aware and a really good person, don’t forget about my grandmother in 1960, bitter turnips, eating leaves, hauling rocks, and most importantly, being able to rise above that. [insert footnote: I know you can say that there were structural, political events that happened that allowed her and my family to get to where they are, and I don’t deny that. I do deny, though, that she knew this was to happen because of political event X, Y, Z and for that to have caused her to believe in something. My story, my argument, here is about what hope is when there is no reason for it.]

So what do I believe? What has the past few weeks of trying to muddle through my slowly re-emerging Chinese comprehension skills given me? Right now, the more detailed story of my family, a story that began in the People’s Republic of China in some rural town in Henan, has taught me – ironically – what it really means to have the Great American Dream, and subsequently, to entertain the belief in Free Will, Causality, Rationality, and the Mysteries of What We Don’t Know and Can’t Know. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll learn something new from it. I’ll stay tuned. Stay laughing.
* * * * *
Thanks for reading. I’ll send something light-hearted soon.

Big love,
Pan Pan, August 30, 2011, Tianjin, PRC.

China 2011 Chapter 2

[I write this having just misordered my lunch – to be described below. 12.44 pm in the hotel room in Haidan in Beijing in the PRC. Writing motivation: 2 bottles of diet coke and a bag of fruit jellies.]

As some of you may have noticed, a week has gone by since my biorhythmically disastrous arrival in the PRC. Beginning to describe this past week will – inevitably – be difficult, but here goes my typing word-vomit (in the order it comes to my brain).
* * * * *

I’ve never really considered the challenges of illiteracy. I think as college-educated folk, we tend to forget just how fucking-goddamn-hard it is to live somewhere when you are – in effect – illiterate. Having left China at the age of four, I have the vocabulary of a four-year-old + 3 years of Chinese school during middle school + whatever my parent’s colloquial home speech has been (“Ta ma de!”, “Wo zou ni!”, “Wan dan le”) [roughly translated as: “Motherfucker!” or more kindly, “his/her mama!”; “I’m going to beat the crap out of you”, the tone is usually stated as more of a threat; and “You’re doomed”.] + what gets shown on CCTV at night in my parent’s kitchen. In effect, I’m useless when it comes to anything more sophisticated than some street-talk or sucking up to family members.

As far as writing and reading goes, my predicament is even worse: I barely paid attention in Chinese school, did my homework on the car-ride over, and probably cheated on every exam with my cousin, Ro, during our 3 years of school attendance in White Plains. Having just misordered my lunch, I am now paying for it.

Here are a few examples of how illiteracy and poor grammar can hurt:

(1) At the airport Border Control, Chinese side [spoken in Mandarin. The security guard, unknown Mandarin dialect. Myself, heavy Beijing accent].
“Can you write your name in Chinese?”
“Yes, one minute please. Let me just find my visa application. It’s on there.”
“You mean, you don’t know how to write your name?”
“Well, I know how to write my nickname, but I never use my formal name.”
“Is it your real name?” [oh, shit]
“Yes, I’m sorry, I’m not used to writing it out in Chinese.”
“Why don’t I help you? Which Xie is it?” [fumbles around and writes several Xie’s, which I can recognize and know aren’t correct] [insert footnote: I know it’s not correct since my father specifically selected, from ancient Chinese poetry, the Xie, which I am convinced now he did in foresight that I would lose all abilities to write Chinese and wanted to punish me for it 25 years later. FYI, though, Xie Yue means (a) in rough translation, “taking the moon” (b) in inefficient translation, “stepping on a ladder to climb to and reap the moon” (c) in totally imprecise but concise translation, “ambitious” and (d) in a masculine translation, “unfearing of unearthly challenges”.]
“No, those aren’t it. I know, I can’t spell it myself, but I know those aren’t it.”
“Don’t worry about it.” [I see my father’s eyes in his disapproving nod.]

(2) Telephone conversation in Hotel to have my room cleaned [in Mandarin].
“Hi, hotel services.”
“Can you send clean room?”
“I’m sorry?”
“I [fumble with words for ‘want’] clean room.”
“Do you want us to send someone to clean your room?”
“Yes, please.”

(3) Ordering food.
[While I point to a specific noodle dish, where I recognize a few words like “noodle”, “vegetable”, and “tofu”]
“So do these noodles have meat in them?”
“Yes, they do. Where it says, ‘meat’”.
“Ok, what about vegetables. What kind of vegetables?”
“It says here, mushrooms, cabbage and tomato.”
“Right ok. This one, then.”
I think part of what confuses waitresses, waiters, hotel service, police officers, etc is that my pronunciation is perfect. So upon first impression, I fool them for a good minute or two until I reveal that I have the literacy of a toddler.
* * * * *
Of course, I should give due credit to one of my best friends who trekked a visit to Beijing to spend some time with me, Mr. DCS. Mr. DCS’s language abilities for Mandarin include, and is limited to, a mispronunciation of “xie xie” [“thank you”].

I should also explain before-hand that Mr. DCS had been traveling through South Asia, and after having been defeated by the developing world through a number of mishaps relating to his work harvesting corneas in Nepal, decided to cut his plans short to come directly to Beijing. We agreed that his primary purpose was to walk me to class and carry my books. Mr. DCS also decided one day prior to his visit that he would become vegetarian during his stay in China. Our conversation, roughly, went as follows:

“So, uh, I’m going to be vegetarian in China.”
“Do you know how hard that’s going to be?”
“Ya. I also haven’t showered and have no clean clothes.” [amongst many other talents, Mr. DCS is extremely good at juxtaposing two completely random and different thought processes, which results in my playing mind-juggle for a few moments before I can figure out what is causally following what.]

Mr. DCS also does not eat anything that resembles a hot pepper [insert footnote: now, those of you who know me, this is a serious matter. There’s a saying that one can tell a lot about a woman by what she carries in her purse. This is what I currently carry in mine: a bottle of ibuprofen, a box of paperclips, Nabokov’s “Lolita” (and no, smartass, I'm not into that, but it happens to be the book of the month), some paper and pens, candy, wallet, cell phone, and a bottle of hot sauce.]

Ordering for one when you’re as illiterate as me is hard enough. Ordering for two under the above circumstances, you begin to feel the responsibility really weigh in. On top of that, it was imperative that Mr. DCS not open his mouth and say anything because I was convinced we’d get ripped off. Luckily, while I was teaching during the daytime, my cousin’s husband, S— Ge took care of Mr. DCS and the two went on tours together. Of course, as expected, some pretty funny things resulted from this.

Amongst the usual photos that kids asked to take of Mr. DCS, there involved one incident when S—Ge lost Mr. DCS at the Great Wall. Some background to set the tone of how serious this was: my extended family is currently run under the watchful eye of my oldest Aunt, Da Yi. Her powers are enormous. Having found out that Mr. DCS and I would arrive in Beijing around August 6, she had sent S—Ge on a 13 hour night train from Louyang, without beds, to come take care of us. She had prepared months worth of cash, a cell phone, tea, food, clothing, and so on for me as well. Given that it was also Mr. DCS’s first visit to China, the family was on extra-alert (i.e., they would call the US to speak to my mom to get information on how I was doing, and then they would send S—Ge to deal with it).

Anyway one day while I was teaching, S—Ge took Mr. DCS to the Great Wall. Mr. DCS, having gotten a taste for the 1 billion population in China, decided that he would no longer continue his hike on the Great Wall and told S—Ge he would head toward the train station and wait for him there. A few communication fumbles later, Mr. DCS found himself running to try to catch the train. However, S—Ge had decided that they would catch a later train, and when he came to find Mr. DCS at the agreed upon meeting spot, Mr. DCS had disappeared. I’m not one who claims to know too much about Chinese culture, but even I can say that if you lose your foreign guest at the Great Wall of China, you’re in pretty deep shit with your mother-in-law, who also happens to be the anthropological head of the entire household. This was why, when Mr. DCS returned to the meeting spot, random Chinese families kept motioning to him to stay put and frantically tried to tell him, in Chinese, that he was being searched for.

I found out later that apparently Mr. DCS’s whereabouts were being broadcasted over the CCTV intercom, “Will the white, foreign man please come to the ticket office? If you find a white, foreign man walking around, please alert the ticket office!”

[Note: Mr. DCS, thank you so much for your visit. My Da Yi is very relieved to know that you have arrived in San Francisco safely.]
* * * * *
Finally, of course – and as some of you may know well about my update emails/journal entries – I’m at my best pissed off. I’ll end my discourse with a rant.

Last night, I went to dinner with two other teachers, my friend R and this other teacher, who I will name X and who I will openly admit would have been objectively handsome had he not opened his mouth. I consider myself to be fairly patient when it comes to people, since I live by this belief that if you understand someone, you can like them regardless of the number of dip-shitted things they do. I am convinced, however, that X may be from another planet and is therefore immune to all basic social standards that most people on Earth abide by.

I’ve never been exposed to academia-ladder-climbing-wannabes until this year. My experience with graduates and post-graduate students had only been immensely positive in the past, and I can’t tell if it’s an LSE phenomenon, a social science phenomenon, or that in the past three or so years since I’ve been in school, an odd viral disease has been spreading through the academic world to turn normal people into qualified assholes (or, in my words into “aggressive nerds”).

I can only explain this through conversation:
“So what did you study before LSE?” - X
“Physics…” [insert interruption]
“Oh, yes, I was quite advanced in physics. I just loved doing problems in my room, but I realized it just wasn’t enough for me as an undergraduate and moved to political philosophy because I cared about the world… [insert long monologue – approximately 5-7 min – about self-importance, wrong facts about physics, how awesome self is, how fucking smart self is, how much self will accomplish things. Gets hungry and stops talking for a bit to eat bite of dinner.] ”.
“Oh, I studied some philosophy, too…” [insert interruption]
“Yes, philosophy is just one of my 4 degrees. I have a master’s in…[insert names of masters degrees that yours truly cannot remember for the life of her because she began to tune out and listen to the conversation in the booth next door since it was far more interesting.]
…and so on…here’s another example:
“Yes, so my family didn’t want me to go to Sudan since my father wanted me to take over the family business” – R [badass, motherfucker, in my opinion]
“AH, yes I had a similar problem. My family is split between engineers and doctors…[insert long monologue about how self was alienated from family due to self’s unique and difficult trek through finding philosophy, political science, international relations, deep studies about conflict and war, anthropology, sociology, psychology but how X found his way to studying a phD with eminent Professor—at the LSE.]
…oh, and my personal favorite of the night:
“My female students keep hitting on me. It’s just quite uncomfortable. I’m not good at dealing with it. I’m attracted to intelligence.” – X
“Well, why did you go drinking with them then?” – R
[R’s question is ignored and a long monologue from X followed, leading to the next gem of a quotation.]
“So after my time researching in Afghanistan, I just found anything unrelated to war-zones so boring. For example, I was on a date with this girl, and she kept explaining her career to me and what she was studying. I just found her so hard to focus on. She was so boring. Life is so boring without aerials flying overhead.” – X
“You’re fucked up.” – yours truly. [to which X smiled, R smirked, and X probably thought to himself: I see she has fallen in love with me. She sees that I am a tortured soul and therefore must want me. My intellect is so powerful that she couldn’t help but be sucked into the gravitational pull of the huge brainy body that is me. I am like a God. I am like a blackhole God.]

Here’s my ending advice to men like this:
(1) Most academically geared women are surrounded by intelligent people. They don’t give a fuck how many master’s or PhD degrees you have because chances are, they have their own. Please don’t try to impress women with the number of degrees you have. Personally, listening your degrees and qualifications is like listing the number of video games you have for your Xbox 360. I don’t give a fuck.
(2) Please don’t sit at dinner with two women and tell them how boring you find it to have dinner with women who aren’t involved in war catastrophes.
(3) There are certain social standards of behavior for people who live on earth. Before the age of adulthood, please try to learn what they are. Then please use your manners.
(4) You are thirty-years-old. No one cares how you did in freshman physics.
* * * * *
I hope you’ve enjoyed these highlights. China is wonderful. I have great students, a great professor, and an infinite supply of support from family and friends.
Big love,
Pan Pan August 14, 2011