Saturday, March 25, 2006

and then!

After a series of great tribulations and frequent usages of the word 'dipthong' I now have a plane ticket. I will be leaving Boston on the 11th and arriving in Chengdu on the 13th.

My goals once I arrive will be threefold:

1) find and eat BIG CHICKEN PLATE

2) whine a lot


Actually I haven't really thought beyond stages one and two.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

exciting update! rah rah rah!

I still don't have a plane ticket.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

trip to get my visa -- half-sleeping nonsense -- a sky held up by towers -- back home

All those who live in the Northeast, from Maine to Rhode Island and all the way to Ohio, and who desire to travel to China, must make the long or possibly-not-long trek to the Chinese Consulate at 520 12th Avenue on the shore of the Hudson, between 9am and 5pm Monday through Friday, allowing for an hour lunch break from 12pm-1pm. This is because you are not allowed to apply for a visa by mail. It is incredibly inconvenient.

Since I did not at all desire to spend the night in Manhattan, I decided to go to the consulate early and pay for expedited, one day verification; since I wanted this service and knew from previous experience how long the lines could become, I decided to arrive as early as possible, at 9am. The one problem with this method was that I live in Boston. I could take either a 2:30am Greyhound bus (the Chinatown bus being out of the question because of Chinatown’s distance from the consulate—the port authority bus terminal is just a few blocks away) that arrived at 9:03am (over six hours!) or a 12:30 bus that arrived at 4:50am. There is little in this world that is more awful than riding greyhound and so I decided to take the 12:30am bus despite the fact that it would drop me off in the middle of Manhattan with nothing to do for the four hours until the consulate opened.

Five hours. The bus arrive at 4:10 instead of 4:50. I can never sleep on buses and didn’t on this one. The bus terminal was surprisingly busy for this time of night, although I use “busy” only in the sense that there were many individuals in the station. Almost everyone was asleep—in chairs, against the walls, sprawled out on the floor, and so on. Every conceivable location in which a sleeping body could fit contained a sleeping body. I wanted to sleep but I didn’t want to on the floor and, anyway, there was no room. I left the station into bright quiet of 42nd street at night. A man asked me if I knew where 42nd street was and I said no, not realizing at first the obvious because I assumed that no matter what he asked I would not know the answer.

I started walking, past closed shops, homeless alone and asleep on the sidewalk, a Times Square still alight despite the hour, and all of the west side of Manhattan. On 8th Ave a shivering man approached me outside an adult video store and asked me if I wanted any entertainment, a sensual massage, and so on, I said no; then he asked if I wanted to see any shows, any sex shows, they had single girls, girl on girl, guy on girl, and anything else I wanted. I said no thanks and wondered why I inserted the thanks, then kept walking until I found a diner. I entered, nodded my head at the half-sleeping cashier, sat down, and then ordered coffee and three eggs over easy with hash browns and toast. Two men sitting to my left and behind me talked about their theater production and the awfulness of the Oscar nominated songs this year. A group of college students at the front discussed their top ten lists of women and men (they all had awful taste). I tried to study Chinese while I ate but couldn’t focus so I finished my meal quickly and left.

Again I wandered to the times square area, this time passing by all the morning television shows preparing their sets, and one woman who stood in front of a wall of television screens filled with nasdaq stock quotes. She shifted and fluttered her eyes. Then to the cavernous Avenue of the Americas with its modernist towers reaching artlessy upward, where I looked once again down 42nd street and for the first time noticed the New York sky (so different in this city from elsewhere) as it fell down from the meridian directly above and progressed in increasingly softer and lighter colors to the horizon, a swath of blue-light to black encased between the opposing, bleak, slate-colored faces of the tall-buildings at dawn.

I walked around aimlessly until 9am, when I dropped off my passport at the consulate. Afterwards I continued my wandering. My legs were tired. I was functioning on an hour of bustime half-sleep. I saw things. I ate. I drank coffee. In my half-consciousness I remarked vocally on the ugliness of that city, that part of the city. I searched continuosly for bathrooms because coffee passes through my system so quickly it's as if my digestive track were just a funnel.

At 2:20pm I picked up my passport and by 3:00 I was on a bus home.

I’m leaving for Chengdu next month.


Most of what I'm writing now is just practice. Hopefully by the time I arrive in China I will have found a style that suits me, and the quality will have improved. If not I feel pity for all of my friends who are, of course, obliged to read this, no matter the quality.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

experience of two years ago part 1: the stares! -- pointless loquaciousness -- stalinist propoganda

[Note--I am officially disowning this post and those that follow. I am blaming their creation entirely on Pablo, who actually did a very good job]

The sensation of being an animal in a zoo was not brought about as much by the staring as it was by the feeling of disinterested curiosity that lay beneath; yes, you were a source of interest and yes, no matter where you went the majority of eyes would be focused firmly on your non-chinese features, but generally when your gaze met theirs you could never pick up on any level of intellectual intrigue nor any sign that either of you shared a kind of common humanity. As a foreigner out on the street were there, you were different, and that was the extent of your significance. And yet . . . it was this very capability of the stares to make you feel insignificant which belied a somehow deeper and more menacing attitude. The failure to achieve a sense of common humanity attested not just to the great cultural gap between you and them, but also to a kind of xenophobia and ethnocentrism that underlied (and underlies) much of the relationship between China and the West.
It was rare, however, for these attitudes to leave the sub-conscious behind and significantly affect daily interactions. To be sure there was always something different about how you were treated: most conversations reflected that odd dichotomy in the Chinese attitude towards the West, regressing into either outright fawning or hostile, grudging communication. But there was rarely anything that itself could punctuate the general humdrum of your daily existence in that society, nothing that would stand out and cause you to think: here I am and I am alone and there is hostility everywhere.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

experience of two years ago part 2: issues with water -- use of the word "shit" -- denouement

Of course, I am writing this because just such an event happened to me. It was towards the end of my stay in Shanghai, I believe sometime in April, and it happened on one of those half-cloudy days, where there never seems to be any actual day but just dusk from morning til night. I was busy at the time preparing a lecture for the university--not a lesson for my students, but a major lecture open to the entire university community--and was trying to do a load of laundry while I worked. Although my landlady had warned me when I first moved in that my laundry machine had leakage problems, I had never noticed and never bothered to pay much attention. Yet when I went back into the room to take out my clothes, I saw that a great soapy puddle, about two inches deep, had formed over the entirety of the floor. Thinking quickly and, therefore, idiotically, I rushed into the kitchen, grabbed a coffee mug, and tried scopping all the excess water into the sink. In the meantime, water slowly seaped through the floor to my neighbors' apartment, dripping onto their bed and staining their ceiling and walls so that it looked as if an aggressive, shit-colored mold was invading their apartment.
Within minutes my neighbors were pounding on my door so loudly and violently that I thought that they were, in fact the secret police, come to arrest me for offending my class' sense of patriotism the day before by telling them that the school bathrooms were far more revolting than those in Japan (I had never been to Japan). Upon hearing this commotion out my door it was my natural and manly inclination to want to hide under my bed and then afterwards place the blame squarely on the shoulders of my Chinese roommate who was, at the time, not even home. Yet, sadly, some awful force compelled me to open the door and deal with my irate neighbors face to face, like a complete wuss. As usual, being honest and acting responsibly seemed to be useful only for making people yell at me even more.
I walked through my living room as one might towards a flogging (assuming, of course, that one did not desire to be flogged). After opening the door I was confronted with a visage of rage, mascara, and middle age and behind that visage was another, this one only slightly more masculine, and completely lacking any signs of mascara. The wife was standing there with her finger poised and at attention, ready to shove it in my direction and accuse me of the awfulness of which I knew I was guilty. Her expression seemed to be saying "The issue with the water is making me quite displeased. If I had a rigid enough spoon I would gouge out your eyes. Do you eat rice? I've heard that Americans don't eat any rice?"

But what she actually said was: unintelligible. My Chinese was awful back then. I understood something about things being wet downstairs. When I offered to giver her money to go home and shut up and pretend nothing ever happened, she said that she was very uncomfortable with the idea. As she was yelling at me her husband asked for my landlady's number and I gave it to him. Still pointing at me the wife forced her way into my apartment and looked around, then made a b-line for the room with the washing machine where, upon entering, she let out a gasp that indicated that she could hardly believe there was still so much ready to moisten their apartment. She grabeed a bucket (what genius!) and began scooping up water while I grabbed my mug, as there was only one bucket in the apartment. For a while we worked together in comraderie paling away the water and I even thought, for a brief moment, that perhaps I could call this motherly old Chinese woman 'mother,' and she could call me Lewis. But eventually she started yelling again.

At this point, when the yelling was renewed and I was ready to toss my neighbor out the window, my landlady arrived with her husband. Now, my landlady had expressed great trepidation at ever allowing a foreigner into one of her apartments. She made it very clear when I first moved in that she did not trust me, saying to my translator: "I do not trust him." The look on her face as she walked in was not as murderous as my nieghbor's, but it was much more disturbing and certainly showed that she was now certain of her initial estimation of me. All the contempt that she could hold within her seemed to be focused in her eyes and, when she glared at me, it seemed as if she was attempting to strip strip me down and flog me.

Yet she was not satisfied by simply shaming me with her eyes. She, too, began yelling at me and without stopping moved around my apartment and investigated it thoroughly (she had not yet even seen the flooded room), noting all aspects of my habitation that screamed of my personal filth and need to have a woman living me with me. She even yelled at me about my privacy curtain (note: you will never understand, and I can never adequately explain). Finally she made her way into the washing room, displaying a brave and determined countenance, as if she were a rescue worker about to investigate the scene of a great natural calamity.

It was obvious that she was mad. I was terrified. I heard someone mention the police. It was obvious that I needed someone who spoke far better Chinese than I, so I called my chinese friend, Wu, who showed up fifteen minutes later with his girlfriend. Now there were many couples in the room. Everyone was with someone except me. How sad and lonely I felt and for a while I thought about my first crush, Emily Perry, and then I thought about dinner because it was getting late. I quickly recovered and then asked my friend to please just allow me to give them money pay for the damages and make them go away and stop yelling. What followed was about an hour and a half more of debate and wrangling despite the fact that, I think, they were ready to accept my payment the minute I suggested it; however, to them no doubt the drama of the situation had not been adequately played out, I was trying to make a two act play out of one that really needed three, and they were determined to see it through to its deserved and necessary length. Finally, finally, finally, they accepted my donation and left, but not without first threatening that I might have to pay them the cost of a new air conditioner. It was an effective threat, because at this point all I wanted was this awful experience to be over. Eventually my landlady decided to leave too, but gave me a contemptuous look as she walked out the door, implying, I believe, that she was planning to soon return to tell me about how I needed a woman in my apartment because my dirty socks were scattered all about the floor.

I was thoroughly exhausted at this point. I thanked my friend and his girlfiriend and then after they left I lay down on my bed. It was now evening and the mosquitos that had snuck in during the day hovered all around me, their buzzing muffled by the whir of my air conditioner and the yelling of children just outside, a set of noises that, as I began to fall asleep, flowed together and became indistinguishable, a relentless, alien murmur following me and my thoughts into unconsciousness.

Friday, March 03, 2006

experience of two years ago part 3: and so -- blah blah blah

None of this was all-together very dramatic. I was yelled at a great deal and lost a lot of money mostly mostly because of my own foolishness, and I was certainly never in any danger. But the issue was not the seriousness of the events, it was what they put into relief. Back home an event like this would have never progressed to such a hysterical stat. There was a combined effort on the part of all involved (except my friend) to target me, blame me, and get something out of me. Indeed, what influenced every single one of the actions, words, and feelings of my neighbors and landlady had very little to do with the actual problem. Granted, the flooding provided the initiative, but what drove their emotions and thoughts more than anything else was the fact that I was a foreigner. As a white American, this was a humbling, eye-opening and, I would argue, absolutely necessary experience.