Saturday, October 31, 2009

Has anybody seen my tambourine?

It's already Halloween in China and this Halloween I'm dressing up as "foreign teacher who has a week off from school and so is taking a trip to Nanjing." It's a costume that will last from today until next Friday. Don't go crazy in my absence.

We have a week off because our students are going to the countryside to study agriculture and harvest rice. This is despite the fact that most of them are bound for prestigious colleges and government positions. Princeton's Fall Break was created so that students could work on political campaigns; the fall break at this school was created so that students can appreciate the fruit of the communist revolution. Welcome to my life.

I will be out of internet contact until we return on Friday, and so I won't be checking email or text messages. I am still available by phone if you need to reach me, though (and I should have clarified this last time) I can neither check my voicemail nor make outgoing calls, so you should make sure you actually speak to me if you have important information to relay.

I don't want to blow my wad right now, but I do want you to know that we are going to both the Nanking Massacre Memorial Museum and the Chinese Sex Culture Museum, which sort of runs the gamut as far as "museum funness" goes. I would call it an Emotional Roller Coaster, if this black heart of mine could feel.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ok, maybe China isn't the only country crazy about snakes

From BBC News Europe: Customs find snakes taped to man.

Gather 'round, for I have news!

I know I keep posting about Chinese news organizations, but they're just so damn entertaining, it's impossible to resist.

Before I begin, a quick update on the battle for "China Daily Headline Which Most Resembles A Daily Princetonian Headline". Winner: Campus club gets failing grade from critics. Runners up: Thousands applying for gov't jobs, Google chief Schmidt maps out future of internet, Cats and dogs use more energy than cars. At least the China Daily doesn't have film reviews, which I promise is an improvement over the Daily Princetonian situation.

So, the China Daily. I've talked about how entertaining it is in the past, but it really isn't quite as funny as Chinese-language news, which, as you may remember from my post about the Black Man article, is just crazy talk. (I had "jive talk" written for a second, but I think that's somehow racist in this context.)

But earlier this week, I realized that my love for Chinese language news could be communicated to you without my having to translate a lot of articles, because the China Daily runs translated blurbs from news agencies all around China in a section called ChinaScene (the fact that it's all one word means that it's hip). So today I'm just going to list all of the headlines from one day of the ChinaScene section. I'm not going to add jokes of any kind. (Hecklers in the audience are now free to shout, "so it'll be just like normal!!" or something to that effect.) I just want you to see what life in China is like.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Judgment Day

Today is literally judgment day for me and Gus: a PiA representative is here in Guangzhou to observe one of our classes and comment on our general living situation in Guangzhou. He is literally our boss and he is literally the first real guest we've had in Guangzhou, and if we do poorly we are literally going to be on a roller coaster to hell.

It's true: Kai from PiA is here, and he's sitting in on one of our classes, which, this week, happens to be about the difference between literal and figurative language. During class, we're having our students write skits which highlight the differences between literal and figurative language. (The similarities between those last two sentences speak to the clarity and specificity of our pedagogical goals!) Highlights include a group of Chinese high-school students shouting "my brain is literally going to explode", which marked the point where a skit about math homework turned into a gripping counterterrorism saga complete with a ticking time bomb scenario. It was like 24, if everyone on 24 could not really speak English, and also could not stop giggling.

Since Kai is here, we gave him the full Guangzhou treatment, which involved going to dim sum in the morning and then coming home and taking a nap until class. His excuse is that he had jet lag after a 16 hour flight; our excuse is that we take a siesta (or 睡午觉, in Chinese) basically every single day. So, if I ever tell you that my life in Guangzhou is "busy", I mean it's busy after you factor in a good 2 hours of totally committed napping.

The rest of the day was pretty good. Our students are really stressed about the Sports Competition happening this weekend, which begins on Friday morning with an opening ceremony at which every class will perform a choreographed routine. All the students are performing in the ceremony and some of the teachers seem to be involved too, so I have no idea who the audience is going to be for this thing. Our students have asked us several times to come, so we're definitely going, but we may be literally the only people in the stands.

We had English corner again this afternoon, like we do every Wednesday, and this week it ended with Dark (of Chinese Democracy fame) singing the Daniel Powter song "Bad Day" in falsetto. He then let loose with a few Michael Jackson numbers. Then he made a blowjob joke.

So yeah, I Had a Good Day.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More Cantonese Bragging

Gristle said today that we pronounce Cantonese words approximately as well as Northerners! So we still sound ridiculous while speaking, but only as ridiculous as non-Cantonese speaking Chinese people. The trend is up.

I will now attempt the impossible task of communicating something which was incredibly unable-to-breathe-you're-laughing-so-hard funny at the time but now just seems bizarre. Gristle was over for our joint Cantonese/ukulele lesson (he teaches us Cantonese and in return we teach him English and Gus teaches him to play the ukulele) and he decided to tell us a story about his nearly getting robbed on the street. The story was fairly long (approximately 10 minutes in the telling) and convoluted. We listened to it politely once and then at the very end he said, "it was weird how it happened right outside the subway station. I mean, I was walking along and this guy came up to me..." and then he started telling THE EXACT SAME STORY AGAIN. So I notice this and start laughing, and then I notice Gus is also laughing and I start laughing more, and so I spend all 10 minutes of the second telling wiping my eyes because I'm crying because I'm laughing because Gristle is totally, totally oblivious.

I promise it was really funny.

Also, Gus and I wrote an article for the a student-edited English publication called "Dream Catchers" (catch those dreams!) about "Our Lives at Princeton", and now the editor wants us to supply pictures of ourselves and our friends at Princeton. I tried looking through my facebook photos, but so many of them contain inappropriate elements (outrageous faces, alcohol, partial nudity) that it might be a lost cause.

But, my friends from Princeton: your image may be appearing in Dream Catchers sometime soon! I will make up elaborate, implausible backstories to tell my students about you and your many accomplishments. I've already decided to tell them that Callie used to be a champion figure skater before injuring her knee while water-wrestling an otter.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Crazy Chinese!

Last year there was an article in the New Yorker about Crazy English, the English-learning craze that's sweeping the nation (of China). In brief, it's English, but Crazy! Read the article if you want more info. There's a lot of shouting involved. It's pretty fascinating, if you're looking for info about how young Chinese people are being exposed to English these days.

Anyway, I had several good Chinese experience this weekend that I wanted to share with you.

The first: I successfully spoke a Cantonese sentence to someone other than Gus, Gristle, or our cantonese tutor SJ. Usually whenever we're on the street I'm too nervous to speak to anyone in Cantonese so I just chicken out and use Mandarin.* But we were walking around with SJ and a woman heard us speaking Cantonese with her and seemed shocked and asked SJ what was going on, and then I said: 佢系我哋嘅粤语老师。(Keoy hai ngodei ge jytju lousi.)

Mandarin translation: 她是我们的粤语老师。 (Ta shi women de yueyu laoshi.)
English translation: She's our Cantonese teacher.

Look, some of the words are the same as the words in Mandarin, but some of them are different. Plus they're all pronounced differently. So I had to do some work to produce this sentence. Someone give me an effing medal.

(*I never mentioned this on the blog, but when we were first looking for a Cantonese tutor we put out an ad and got 5 respondents, so we held interviews so we could find our favorite. Anyway during one interview, we said that we wanted to learn enough Cantonese to complete simple daily tasks like buying food and asking for directions. The lady cut in, "Why would you need to ask for directions? Just use Google Maps." I think this is when we decided that she was not the right tutor for us.)

The second: A friend of mine was in town yesterday shooting interviews with local Chinese people about their feelings on brand-name clothing. And since his Chinese is not good, I got to conduct the interviews. Which was really fun and very gratifying since it made me feel like my Chinese was actually useful for something. One of the interview subjects worked in government and he said my Chinese was very good, so, Wu Laoshi, you can take that B+ you gave me in Chinese 403 and shove it.

Also, we were filming in front of a store in the mall and one of the employees came and said we couldn't film there. But then she giggled and asked me for my phone number. When God closes a door, he opens a window. Or, she may have just wanted my phone number to submit to the police so that I could be hauled in for questioning.

So yeah, we hung out with her for a while. Not a lot of complaints, if you know what I mean. At least not from the girl. And he had to drive her home afterwards so I think I did pretty good. Pretty damn good. (Note: this is not true; it's a quote from Arrested Development. Obviously neither of us had to "drive her home afterwards," because everyone here takes the subway.)

One more thing: I learned that GeoCities is being shut down and all GeoCities sites will disappear today. This is sad news: the internet will be a little bit less useful without the StarCraft:Brood War-themed GeoCities page I made in 1998.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Long Awaited Newspaper Post!

I promised to deliver an edition of this blog all about the news (neither of those were actually puns) in my muumuu-inspired monkey rant from earlier this week, and here it is!

The first bit of business is a brief article from a recent China Daily, which, since I'm tired, I will present essentially without comment. Write your own jokes. The first paragraph:
A migrant worker drinking alone at a restaurant in Dalian, Laioning province, started lying to a couple of strangers near his table about how rich he really was. The strangers later killed him.
For the record, this is what is called burying the lede.

The second piece of business is much, much more important. A black man saved someone's life in Guangzhou. Let me say that again:


A black man was walking along the street in Guangzhou earlier this week when he, a black man, along with several other people (non-black) saved the lives of several laborers trapped in a traffic accident. Then the rescuers, among whom was a man who was black, left without leaving their non-black names, and the black man also not leaving his name, also black.

That's the gist of this article from the Guangzhou Daily, translated for your enjoyment by none other than our translation company, Jon and Tate Plus 8 (Collective Years of Chinese Epxerience).

Gus has a more complete account at his blog, but, in case you don't click through, I want to describe the situation briefly: there was a fairly serious traffic accident in Guangzhou earlier this week, and after it happened several people rushed to help, among whom was a black foreigner in town for the Guangzhou Trade Fair. But the front page coverage of the accident ran with the headline "Cement bags trap six people alive, Black brother courageously comes to the rescue," where the part about the Black Brother is not the subhed but is equally as large as the first part of the sentence.

The article refers to the man as "黑人兄弟" throughout, which literally means "black brother" but which one online dictionary translates as "soul brother."

Also, the first sentence is "Lovable black brother, where are you?" Also, they illustrated the story with this picture:

I wish I were in a funnier mood because virtually every paragraph of this story is jokeworthy but I'm tired and have to get up early tomorrow to teach Citizen Kane in my American Cinema class.

But, in summary: this. shit. is. gold.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

You May Be Living In China If... give a beggar money on the street and in return he gives you what he's holding in his hands, which, in this case, turned out to be...


Some of you may be saying, isn't it possible that the man wasn't begging but was instead selling his scallions, and that instead of giving money to a beggar you were actually just buying scallions?

And I would say to you, yes, I thought of that, but if he was selling scallions then he should stop kneeling and banging his head against the ground with a bowl in front of him and buy a cart or something. Plus, if he was selling scallions then I was just being a sensible shopper rather than just being a good guy, and I am a pretty great guy, so you tell me what's more likely.

The scallions are currently in our fridge because the only food we have in our house is peanut butter, bread, cookies from my mom, candy from Gus's grandma, and mooncakes. And none of those things go well with scallions, except possibly the mooncakes, because nothing could be worse than plain mooncakes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nipple play

One of the best things about learning a new language is discovering new words that you wish existed in English. Chinese has got a bunch of such words (remind me to tell you sometime about my love for the word 了, which you add to the end of sentences to indicate that the proposition represents a new situation), and today we're going to talk about one of my favorites: 以为. 以为 (yǐwéi) means "to think (mistakenly)", and is used when the speaker wants to describe a belief which he or she knows to be erroneous. It's a word that I sometimes reach for in English, but, alas, we don't have it.

Anyway, a few days ago I posted about our artist friend making us t-shirts in exchange for our translation services. I said:
She also asked us whether we would mind if the t-shirts were v-necks, and also whether we would mind if there were holes cut out around our nipples. I told her that would be fine.
Now, you may have thought I was joking, indeed, you may have 以为'ed that the shirt was going to be normal and not nipple-related. I got my shirt today, and I can tell you that you certainly did think (mistakenly).

It's a flesh-colored t-shirt with 6 (six) supernumerary nipples. I don't think my students are ready for this one, but I'm definitely going to wear it when I go out to the clubz.

Also, here's a picture of me and the artist tweaking my nipples.

So yeah, next time I tell you something is going to involve nipples, I'd believe me if I were you. There's nothing I take serious-er than nipples.

Brief Interlude

Sorry this post is still not about newspapers (or houses, or haikus), because that post is a joint Gus/Jon production and we need to finish it before we can put it up. Get excited!

Anyway, this happened after class today:

Student: Can you tell me some songs?
Me: What type of songs?
Student: Good sad songs for singing.

[I've said before that I don't understand my students' taste in music. What am I supposed to recommend for "sad songs for singing" from my iTunes? "Needle in the Hay"? "I See a Darkness"? "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"?]

Me: Can you give me some examples?
Student: Like "Nothing's Going to Change My Love For You."
Me: Pardon?
Student: "Nothing's Going to Change My Love For You." By Westlife?

[aficionados will recall that this is the second mention of Westlife on this blog. I have never heard a song by Westlife, but I feel comfortable assuming that they are awful.]

Me: I don't know that song.
Student: How about [unintelligible].
Me: Uh, no, I don't know that one either.
Student (pityingly): I guess you don't like music.
Me: No, I just don't usually listen to...sad songs for singing. I guess I like happy music.
Student: Like "Complicated"? Avril Lavigne?
Me: Ha! Yeah, exactly.
Student: Oh.
Me: Oh, no, I was joking. I don't listen to that either.
Student smiles and backs away.

Talking about music with students is always a losing proposition. One of Gus's students gave him a CD for teachers' day and said that it was a collection of essential Chinese songs that we should listen to if we want to understand Chinese culture, "just like how when we first learn English we need to listen to 'Lemon Tree'." "Lemon Tree"?? The single by the German pop band Fool's Garden that came out when I was seven which I just looked up now and have never heard in my entire life? Have I been missing the key to American culture, all this time?

Play us off, keyboard cat Avril:

Today: Brought to you by the letter "U"

Disclaimer: I just wrote this, so I'm posting it, but be warned it's a whole barrel of crazy. Read more if you dare.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hello thank you for calling this is Saaaaaaaam

I'm siting in my living room with Gus and Gristle, and Gus said something funny, and I laughed my middle-of-my-vocal-range short staccato laugh. And then Gristle said that when I laughed like that it made me sound 弱智, and for a moment I forgot what 弱智 means, and then I remembered that it means "retarded".

Monday, October 19, 2009

Lessons I Learned This Week

I learned some things this week.
  • I learned how to see a ghost. As I have mentioned before, Gristle enjoys telling ghost stories, though sometimes he does so with an air of trepidation because he believes that ghosts are really, really dangerous. Anyway, he told us yesterday that the best way to check whether or not we have ghosts in our apartment is to light some candles, put a mirror on the ground, turn off all the lights, and then look through our legs at the mirror and see if we see any ghosts. (And then I said, The last time I had a party like that I was naked! And my wife's name was Nicole Kidman, and my life was criticized for being "plodding" and "overwrought.") But Gristle also said, apparently without any self-awareness, that that there were two conditions that needed to be met before you could see a ghost: 1) it must be nighttime and/or raining, and 2) you have to be drunk. I suppose this explains the ghosts, but, then again, I feel like I've tried this exact procedure before (at Tower, at various room parties, alone in my room, crying) without success.
  • I learned about the rule of three. Blah blah blah.
  • I learned that you should not require your students to read aloud a passage which includes the word Niger, as they will invariably pronounce it incorrectly.

Yeah, so that's what I learned. I promise I'll start writing engaging blog posts again as soon as I stop being so tired all the time. Maybe I have mono. Or, paging Dr. House!, African sleeping sickness.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Look at me, creating buzz

I now have a couple of Google Voice invites that I'm willing to give away to interested parties. Email me if you want to jump on the bandwagon to the future.


Some things that have happened while I was busy writing about Hubei:

Remember when I said that I thought my math class was going to have about zero students in it? So it turns out that the actual number of students is 51. I was pretty worried about this number before class yesterday, because there was no way that 51 people understood the course description.

We had the first class yesterday, and it turned out my fears were only partially justified. I asked everyone to tell me why they wanted to take the class, and six of the girls said that they didn't really know what the class was about, but that they wanted to be in my class because I was really handsome. After the first girl said this, the entire class broke out into applause. True story.

There was also one guy who said that he didn't know that the class was going to be about math, but he didn't say that he thought I was handsome, so I don't really know what he's thinking. Also, one girl also said that doing math "made her want to kill herself." It's gonna be a great semester!

Also, hey, guess what? Turns out our students have been conducting a long-term investigative report into the question of ranking Gus and me in order of attractiveness! And the results are in! The verdict is that I'm hotter than Gus when he's got his glasses on, but he's hotter than me when he takes his glasses off. I have several comments:

a) This is better news for Gus than for me, because he can take off his glasses but I can't take off my face. But I'm happy to concede defeat to him in the contest of Who's More Attractive To 15-Year Old Chinese Girls. They aren't really my target demographic. Nevertheless,

b) Gus may or may not wake up one of these days with his glasses stapled to his face. Just kidding, Gus!! But let's keep those glasses on, ok, bud?

Finally, remember when Gus and I translated part of a performance art piece? I neglected to mention then that our payment for this service wasn't going to be "money" "per se", but instead was going to be in the form of custom made t-shirts for Gus and me. Last night Fang Fang (the artist(-ess. A lady artist! Women making art? Soon they'll be playing golf and wearing pantsuits!)) came over and we hung out for a couple of hours and she took our measurements & some sample t-shirts that she could use as patterns. She also asked us whether we would mind if the t-shirts were v-necks, and also whether we would mind if there were holes cut out around our nipples. I told her that would be fine.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Day whatever recap: Rear Window, "why won't this series die" edition

I just want to be over done with Hubei posts so that I can return to my regular life. (Which is basically how I felt by the end of the Hubei vacation, too.) So let's just zoom through the rest of my time in that lovely province so that I can get back to my roots. I'm not quite sure what those "roots" are, but suffice it to say that I think we could all use a little less vacation talk, a little more quotidian whimsey, and a lot more Lady Gaga references. We live in China but we still! have! fun!

So, Hubei. For the last time.

We climbed a mountain. Wudang Shan is profoundly, primordially beautiful -- maybe it's just my Guangzhou nature withdrawal, but the wooded mountain jutting into the non-urban sky (foggy one day, sharp and clear the next) was as magnificent a thing as I have seen in a long time. Gus has an account with pictures.

But then we needed to run down the mountain (in some places, literally) in order to catch a bus down to the main town so we could catch our train. When we arrived at the base of the mountain, we had an hour before we were set to depart for Wuhan -- not very much time at all, given that we had to head to a different train station much farther away from the mountain than the one we'd arrived at. A bus driver offered us a ride there, and, this time, we decided that we should probably take it. Our problem was that a bus ride to our train station would normally take at least an hour, so we asked the driver it would be possible to get there faster than that. He thought for a moment and responded that if we were willing to pay him 100 RMB (approximately 5 times the normal fare), he'd go straight to the train station, with no stops, and we'd get there in 45 - 50 minutes. Not seeing any other options, we decided to go for it.

So, at first, I'm thinking, "this is some Amazing Race shit right here." We pay cash money, we get results!

Jon (l.) and Gus, at the bottom of Wudang Shan

(Note: for anyone not named Rachel Weed or Willie Myers, this is the famous big person/little person Amazing Race duo, Charla and Mirna. Though I prefer to think that Charla doesn't have a little body, but instead just has a proportionally larger heart. And a host of other congenital defects.)

So, how did the bus driver manage to get us there without making any other stops? Well, as soon as we made the deal, he headed over to the bus, poked his head inside, and told everyone to get out immediately unless they were going to the train station, because there were two foreigners who needed to use the bus. So Gus and I stood at the exit, saying "I'm so sorry"* over and over again to the people as they grumbled and packed up their things and got down off the bus. That wasn't our best moment of Cultural Ambassadorship.

*Actually, we didn't say that. We said "不好意思", which means, "I am embarrassed!" and which Chinese people say much more often than we do in English. It's my standard excuse me/sorry/whoops go-to phrase. FYI: even though I don't say "I am mortified!" that often in English, I'm usually thinking it. So now you know what my life is like.

We got back to the train. Train took 8.5 hours instead of expected 5.5 hours. No one else on train seemed bothered or confused by this fact.

Next day in Wuhan is mostly a blur. We went to see the Yangtze (yep, it's big!), and then we went to a museum, and then we got ready to go back home. Remember how I said that we booked bus tickets back, and that we thought it wouldn't be so bad? Turns out it actually was so bad. Gus and I were sitting in the very last row, with literally zero leg room (insofar as our knees were permanently pressed into the back of the row in front of us), for 14 hours. I spent most of it trying to sleep on a wad of dirty clothes from my bag, and when I wasn't sleeping, I was quietly sobbing. (Just kidding! You all know that I'm incapable of crying.)

And that was our trip to Hubei. Fun times, but I've been exhausted ever since we came back, so not, technically speaking, a vacation.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Day 3 recap on the mountain: The 39 Steps (part 1)

Tired of Hubei? Then this is just the post not for you!

I promised in my last post about Hubei that There Would Be Blood, and I am happy to say that I was not lying: I got a blister on my heel while climbing 武当山, and There Was Some Blood. But that was the only Blood That There Was on the trip, so the rest of this post will be totally bloodless. It's a Glorious Blog indeed!

This is going to be a long one, so I say it's high time I try one of those "Read More" links that everyone (i.e. Jason) is so crazy about.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Yeah, 'cause it would be *really* popular in America

From today's China Daily:

Milky Drink from Coke

Coca-Cola has launched its first milky drink product in China, marking its maiden entry into the country's dairy beverage market. The domestically made product, Minute Maid Pulpy Super Milky drink, combining fruit juice, milk powder and coconut bits, would be sold only in China.
It is a testament to my time so far in China that my first reaction was not "gross!" but "I hope they have papaya flavor!"

Sorry, sorry

Sorry for the lack of updates over the past few days -- I was in Hong Kong all day Monday, and it was past midnight by the time I got back, and then the next day I was so tired from the previous day that I decided to just go to bed after tutoring. To everyone still in college: it turns out that after you graduate, you're allowed to go to sleep whenever you want. To Jason Gilbert: yes, I am aware that this is how you've been living for the past 35 years, or however old you are.

More stuff from my Hubei trip later tonight (promise!), but I just wanted to let you know that while I was in Hong Kong I saw a public basketball court which had a sign next to it that said (in English), "Dunk Shot Not Encouraged." I wish that all signs in public places were written by the same passive-aggressive mother who wrote this one, e.g. "A Good Son Wouldn't Walk on the Grass", "It's Fine With Me if You Kill Baby Birds by Littering", "All I'm Saying is if You Dive Into the Shallow End of the Pool, You're Driving Yourself to the Hospital." I looked at the Chinese to see if the tone was different, but since I was in Hong Kong it was written in Traditional (i.e. what the eff) Characters. Like, the way to write "Strictly Prohibited" in simplified characters is 严禁. In traditional characters, it's 嚴禁. Zoom in and look at that first symbol. What the eff is that? (I recognize that many of you may think that the first version is also needlessly complicated. This is my attempt to Look On The Bright Side.)

Updates soon. xoxo

Monday, October 12, 2009

Days 3 recap: Vertigo

Before I begin, a blanket apology to anyone who interacted with me today: I forgot to bring chapstick to China and my lips were super chapped, so, rather than walk to the nearest convenience store, I rooted around in one of the bags that I brought and finally found a very old stick of Lip Smacker-brand passionfruit chapstick. So, sorry if my lips smelled like passionfruit today. Also, I think it's slightly tinted, because my lips look unusually supple and plump this evening.

Anyway, while I'm smacking away over here, let's get on back to Hubei. When we last left, Gus and I were hanging out in Wuhan, the capital city, which, in the early morning of Day Three was covered by fog (slash pollution) and the faint odor of burning trash. But we were ready to go after a delicious bowl of 粥 (rice gruel), and by 8:30 we were on a train to our next destination, 武当山: Mount Wudang.

By which I mean, Mount Wu-Tang, namesake of the Wu-Tang Clan (seriously, wiki it up). YEAH BOY. Gus and Jon: Bringin da ruckus to China since 2009. Having grown up on the crimes side (Willow Glen, San Jose, California) where stayin alive was no jive (in fact, my childhood was positively jive-free!), I was pretty excited by the idea of going to the actual Wu-Tang mountain. I will now admit that this is the main reason I wanted to go to Hubei. I wish I were joking.

Anyway, it takes 5.5 hours by train to reach Wudang Shan from Wuhan, so we were there by 2 pm. It then took us 3 hours to find the mountain, which seems like it should be much easier than it actually was. It turns out that Mount Wudang train station is fairly far away from the actual Mount Wudang. There were a lot of minibusses at the train station which said that they were going to the mountain, but we are conditioned to believe that anyone who offers us a ride anywhere is attempting to cheat us, so we refused. Hey bus lady, you're going to have to do more than offer me a bus to exactly where I want to go if you want to take my hard-earned 3 RMB (44 cents)! Not on my watch, missy.

Later, after walking for a half hour, we gave up and took one of the busses. But it turned out that it dropped us off a fair way away from the base of the mountain, so I felt partially vindicated in my initial refusal.

Once we arrived at the base of the mountain, we paid our entrance fee and boarded a second bus, which took us to our hotel near the middle of the mountain. This bus ride took about an hour, all told, and one person on the train vomited and had to put his head between his legs for the rest of the trip. Good News! That person was not me. This is surprising because I am what doctors call an "easy puker." Seriously, I vomit all the time. I'm vomiting right now. No big deal.

By the time we got all the way up the mountain, it was too late to make the final climb to the summit, so we just did a little hiking around our hotel. I'm tired now (what with all the lip smacking and puking), so I'll cover the beautiful temples we saw on those hikes plus our big climb to the top of the mountain tomorrow. There will be pictures, there will be stories, THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

I'm finished!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Days 1/2 again, why the hell not: The Man Who Knew Too Much

It's your lucky day: I pulled out my diary* and realized that there are a few things from the first day that I forgot to talk about, so here're a few more exciting tales about our arrival in Wuhan.

*Yes, I keep a diary, and, yes, as you may expect, it's mostly just doodles punctuated by occasional whining. E.g. excerpt from an entry written on the (very heavily air-conditioned) train: "Jesus Christ it's cold in here. [Doodle of a hexagon.] I should go wash my face. [Doodle of train, doodle of Chinese characters for train, doodle of my Chinese name.] Dear God, what is this, the fucking polar express?"

As I have mentioned several times before on this blog, Chinese people are still not totally on board with the idea of foreigners living and working in China. There are many more people than you'd expect here who have never met an American, much less talked to one, and most of those who have met Americans have never met Americans who speak Chinese. So lots of people (on trains, on subways, around the city) talk about us right in front of us. Which is fantastic. One thing that neither Gus nor I mentioned about the lady on the train trying to get her baby to defecate was that, in between her whistling and whispered exhortations to "go, go, go", she said, "You better go soon, or those foreigners will take you to the bathroom." I can only speculate what horrors this was intended to convey to the tiny Chinese baby. Perhaps it was just the idea of having to go to the bathroom, which I totally buy, because a squat toilet on a train is pretty horrific in and of itself.

A guy on the train got up the courage to ask us if we spoke Chinese, which started us on the "quiz the foreigner" game. An only slightly edited version of one portion of that conversation follows.

A: What do you think about Taiwan?
Gus: It's complicated. [Brief attempt to explain American views on the Taiwan question.]
A: What do you think about Tibet?
Me: It's complicated. [No real attempt to explain American views, because that's more dangerous than Taiwan.]
B: So, 9-11, huh?
Gus and Me: Wait, what?
B: 9-11. Pretty bad, huh?
Me: Yeah, pretty bad.

Unfortunately for me, this sort of language blindness also works in reverse, i.e., I am now conditioned to believe that no one around me speaks English (this is more or less true in Guangzhou, not so much true in Beijing or Shanghai, definitely not true in Hong Kong), and so we feel comfortable talking in English about sensitive topics, like the people we see around us. Like that time when we were at Yellow Crane tower in Wuhan, and I said, "Man, look at that woman's outfit," and then that woman turned around and stared at me, and then walked away. Making friends!

Also, at lunch that day, I put my bag down on a chair next to me, and then I heard a terrible noise of something screaming or crying, which I thought was a little weird. Turns out I that there was a puppy underneath the chair and I had somehow crushed a part of its body when I put my bag down. The waitress ran over and took the puppy away and said, "your bag is too heavy." Making friends!

Yeah but I felt really bad about both of those things. Sort of still do. But my karmic payback came in the form of the 11 strange bug bites that I got while I was on the train. Still unclear what those were from. Oh, and now there are two small flying insects in my room which seem to be copulating against my mirror. I am beset by biblical plagues.

As Gus mentioned on his blog, we also saw a wonderfully named restaurant:

(Photo by Gus.)

Jane Eyre Time: Lock your hunger in an attic!
Jane Eyre Time: Would you like some autobiographical social criticism with that?
Jane Eyre Time: So delicious, you'll set your house on fire!

Eh, pick your favorite. No time to edit. I'm tired.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Day 1/2 recap: Strangers on a Train & Foreign Correspondent

Let's you and me take a trip down memory lane and discuss my trip to Hubei, because I control this blog and what I say goes.

So, "how was Hubei?" you ask. Hubei is a land of exotic oriental treasures (obviously, because I live in China). Journeying to Hubei is like taking a trip into the jungle to confront the demons within (the horror! the horror!), or like opening a fortune cookie and finding that your fortune is, "An inch of time is an inch of gold but you can't buy that inch of time with an inch of gold," which is surely the least epigrammatic proverb that I have ever had the pleasure of finding wrapped in pastry.

Or, to use a metaphor we're all more familiar with, journeying to Hubei is like that time I trekked across Iceland for 6 days and had to keep resetting my compass to true North, which was also incidentally just like that time I attended Princeton. (Is it too late to make fun of our hilariously ill-conceived valedictory? I say no.)

Not sure where I was going with all this.

Anyway, I'm going to talk about some things that happened during our trip, just so you all can see how much fun we had.

Wuhan (capital and party city of Hubei) is a 13-hour train ride away from Guangzhou, which in China is not that far at all. I had been on an overnight hard sleeper before and found it to be very comfortable and convenient, so we set off in high spirits, ready for adventure, armed with no reading material except "Dubliners" and Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" ("One is a collection of loosely-related short fictions, and the other one is by James Joyce," he quipped). I was going to talk about how we saw a woman coaxing her child into defecating on the train, but Gus has already covered this fascinating aspect of our journey, so I will leave the story in his capable hands.

Once we arrived in Wuhan, we found ourselves in a bit of a pickle, insofar as we hadn't purchased return tickets to Guangzhou and the ticket office claimed that there were no tickets left to Guangzhou the entire week. As it turned out...they were absolutely right. There were zero train tickets left except for standing-room only tickets (for a 13-hour train ride), and I would. rather. die.

But then we went to the bus terminal and found tickets back to Guangzhou which was great news, since surely a bus ride couldn't be as bad as standing for 13 hours. Surely not. (Dramatic irony alert: get ready for Day 4 recap!)

We also went to Wuhan University, supposedly China's most beautiful university, and walked around for a while. We saw dormitories which (actually; not a joke) looked like this:

So, to everyone complaining that building Whitman in the collegiate gothic style made it too old fashioned: shut up.

We also went to the Yellow Crane Tower, which looks like essentially every Chinese-y tower you've ever seen:

The balls in the foreground are the same size as the balls way up on top and have been included for comparison. Incidentally, that's a sentence I wish I got to write more often.

That night went to a restaurant with fellow PiA fellows Larry and Chris, who generously treated us to dinner at a palatial Wuhan restaurant, where the four of us got a private banquet room with a dedicated waitress and a TV (!) and a bathroom (!!). This is a big change from our lives in Guangzhou, where the food is delicious but the sanitation situation of restaurants is questionable, and diners are accustomed to engaging in a symbolic cleaning ritual with tea and chopsticks to ensure that their place setting is sanitary. (Seriously, Gus and I do this at the beginning of basically every meal, and I have become unreasonably suspicious of bowls that have not be rinsed with lukewarm tea, and unreasonably accepting of those that have.)

I have no pictures of that place, so you will just have to imagine it. Basically, you should just go to Gus for photos, because I took approximately 40 photos on the whole trip, a non-zero number of which are video clips of me attempting to take pictures before realizing that the camera was on the wrong setting (available upon request).

That was days 1 and 2 of our trip to Wuhan. Stay tuned. The fun is just beginning.

And yes I will continue to give my Hubei posts the titles of Hitchcock movies because I. Am. A. Dork.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

And we're back

Good news: I wasn't crushed to death! (There was a risk of that.)

We're back in Guangdong province after a whirlwind tour of Hubei. We saw some great sights and had some fun times, but the most remarkable thing for me was that by the end I was missing home, and the home I was missing was not California or Princeton but Guangzhou. Stories and pictures TK; for now you will have to subsist on the bullet points: overnight bus rides of death, a mountain which shares a name with an important New York hip-hop group not named Public Enemy, babies pooping on trains, me crushing a dog with my suitcase.

Something brief, non-trip related:

This weekend was also the Mid-Autumn festival in China, which is a fun holiday where families spend time together and consume "treats" called mooncakes, seen here in a traditional plastic wrapping:

These "treats" are so "delicious" that many of my students claim not to like them. But I know they're just joshing!! Trying to steal all the mooncakes for themselves!! How can you not love a dense patty of lotus/white kidney bean paste with two full salted duck egg yolks inside?

Want to know how many mooncakes we have in our apartment? 13. Which may last us the entire year. I bet my students who pretend not to like these delicacies are salivating right now over the thought of some mooncakes and their delicious taste (approx. mealy sugar) and appealing consistency (approx. paraffin wax). Suck it, kids! We've got the goods.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

So then we moved to Shaolin land

We've got time off from work and we're heading to Hubei for a few days. Several of my students reacted with amusement when I told them that that's where I was going, so it's possible that Hubei doesn't actually exist and this is all a just a fun way to get foreigners to take 13 hour train rides for no reason.

The title of this post will make sense after I tell you where we're going in Hubei, but I don't want to ruin the surprise. So you'll have to wait until I return for the punchline.

I'll be gone until Thursday, and the blog will be dark until then. I won't be available by email or text message, but you can still reach me by phone if you need me. Dolla dolla bills y'all.

Friday, October 2, 2009

No, I got them all cut, and I don't understand English collective nouns

Also, I got a haircut today. It is definitely not the best haircut I've ever gotten, but it's not the worst my hair has ever looked, either. Actually, that should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me, because if you're a hair stylist it would be pretty hard to beat some of the awful hair moments (read: months) that I've had in my life, unless you are deeply sadistic and also blind.

And it cost approximately 30 times less than my haircuts in the United States. I asked one of the women if she was going to be taking a National Day holiday, and she replied that only rich people can take holidays. Maybe she should charge more than 10 kuai for haircuts.

My Name is Sydney Bristow

For this post, I'm going to take a page out of the playbook of Our Nation's Great Modern Storyteller, JT LeRoy.

Whoops, scratch that, I mean J.J. Abrams. Easy mistake to make.

Anyway, like my man J.J., I'm going to start todays story in medias res (Latin for "without a clue") and then flash back to the beginning in a sloppy attempt to build tension and give the vague impression that I am slick and innovative. Note that this also happened on last week's episode of Mad Men, but that's allowed because Mad Men is cool. (I mean, have you seen those suits? Classic!)


There's a strange Chinese man in our apartment, wearing the same clothes as he was wearing last night, squatting on our toilet, using my pocket kleenex for toilet paper.


Opening titles. (Theme song from "Three's Company", shots of Gus, Jon, and some Chinese man we barely know.)


So yesterday was National Day, and Gristle said that he wanted to go out to "celebrate." (This was actually almost certainly not why he wanted to go out, because the interesting thing about Gristle is that he is fairly openly and vocally anti-government. But that's a post for another day.) We decided to go to this little bar near our house that Gristle had taken Gus to before. The bar is called 水边吧, which means "Waterside Bar" but which is a pun on "随便吧", which means "Anything Goes" bar. And seriously, in that bar, anything goes. It was WILD. Just kidding, it was completely low key, and totally empty. Anything Goes, more like Nobody Goes, am I right??? Not even Kate Capshaw. (Man, that was a lame reference.) But despite being totally empty, it was pretty great. The soundtrack was Roy Orbison with a generous helping of Chinese folk music, so it was basically a David Lynch set piece. I loved it. And I am glad that we have finally found places to hang out which are not shitty discotheques.

Also they had a really expensive beer on the menu called 蓝带, which literally means Blue Strip and which Gus finally realized was Pabst Blue Ribbon. Let me say that again: 水边吧 sells PBR. For RMB 12 a can, which I guess is actually not that much. So I'll know where to go if any hipsters ever come to visit.

Anyway, Gus and Gristle and I hung out there for a few hours, and a few of Gristle's friends joined us after a while. They were super drunk because they had spent all night toasting each other with 白酒 (the most disgusting alcohol in the world). They came and we sat around for a while discussing two topics which I care deeply about: which parts of China have the prettiest women (Answer: Chengdu!) and whether or not American men care whether their wives are virgins (Answer: No!).

And then the drunkest of the bunch, who was more or less passing out on the couch in the bar, said that it was too late and he wouldn't be able to get back into his apartment, and then Gristle asked us if he (the guy) could stay in our guest room, and we said yes, so that's how we ended up with a strange Chinese man in our bathroom on a Friday morning.


See, not that exciting, right? But I bet you thought it was going to be a great post after that opener, huh? On an unrelated note, Mission: Impossible III somehow made $398 million.

(Bad Robot!)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Glancingly, swaying and spinning, as in an elegant waltz

It may be difficult to tell from this riotously entertaining "web" "log", but my life isn't actually all that exciting these days. HOWEVER, in the last twenty four hours, we've taken a right turn towards Cool:

Gus and I have been trying to start a small freelance translation business, and yesterday we got the first chance to try our skills. A friend of ours is an artist in Guangzhou and wanted us to translate some explanatory text for a performance art piece that she had created. So already I'm feeling Pretty Damn Hip because this was young, edgy, anti-One Child Policy performance art. And our translation was also Pretty Damn Great.

Then last night we went to go see the performance, which was also edgy and hip. Like all good performance art, it included a live dog, 21 fake breasts made of inflated condoms wrapped in pantyhose, and a fair amount of what I can only hope was menstrual blood. (Actually, it was ketchup, but tomato, tomato. Literally!)

After the performance we stayed at the bar and hung out with the artist and her sister and a couple other new friends. One of those new friends told me that some of her favorite bands were Radiohead, Sigur Rós, and The Beatles. To give you a sense of how rare this is, one of my students told me the other day that she liked to listen to "classic American singers" like Mariah Carey.

So, after a month, I've finally found somewhere in Guangzhou where cool young Chinese people go. This is good news because one can only hang out with Gristle for so long.

Right now I'm watching the Chinese National Day parade on TV. The parade is a two parter: the second part is a standard dancing/singing/balloon-based parade, but the first part was a military parade where China showed off its advanced weapons systems. Missile launchers! Jet planes! And tanks -- tanks riding right through Tian'anmen square. I never thought I'd see the day. It's hard to take it too seriously, though, because whenever the English announcer says Tian'anmen Gate Towers it sounds a lot like Tian'anmen Gay Towers. Just me?