Friday, September 26, 2008

china dispatch #22 - wad some pow'r

Ah, to see ourselves as others see us!

(excerpts from English language instruction CDs)

Hello, I'm Mike. I'm thirteen years old, and I have dark hair and white skin. I have a large nose and big round eyes. I live in England.


It is quite rare in Britain for grandparents, aunts, and uncles to share the house with the family. However, families often share the house with dogs or cats, which they keep not to eat but as companions.

The Mysterious West! Edward Said is rolling in his grave.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

china dispatch #21 - mrs billy

More great quotes from English instruction CDs:

The number of people killed in drink-drive crashed in Britain.

Man: Mrs. Billy was born in Paris.

Woman: So do I.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

china dispatch #20 - luck

Within a few days of arriving in Beijing, Catherine and I got phones. We knew we wouldn't be here for long, so we just got cheapies. Good decision. The cheapies have an engraving of Mickey Mouse on the back: bad decision. But hey, he's big here this year, because it's the Year of the Rat, which, judging by popular depictions, is actually a mouse.

We got to choose our telephone numbers from a handwritten list. The odd thing is that the price was different for different numbers, and we knew why. We chose the two cheapest, mine ending in 04 and hers ending in 14. Both numbers are avoided.

The Chinese word for "four" sounds like the word for "death." And "one four" sounds like "want death." So there you have it. Death is an important thing around here.

For instance. Foreigners accustomed to the Western knife-fork-spoon setup have trouble with chopsticks, but often have no idea that they're doing something taboo when they lay the chopsticks down. When you put your fork down on your plate, you probably place it with the tines roughly facing the center of the plate, and the shaft of the fork sticking out over the edge of the plate. Same with, say, a spoon in a bowl of soup. So it makes perfect sense to do something like that with chopsticks. You put them down to pour your tea, and you put them with the tips facing down into the rice bowl, with the ends sticking up in the air, along the side of the bowl.

Unfortunately, when you do that, you have placed them in a position that is used for incense for the dead. So, don't. Instead, lay them down flat across the rim, like you would a knife.

A club I play in is on Floor F of a five-floor building. The elevator buttons say: 1, 2, 3, F, and 5. Yep, there's no fourth floor. It's Floor F.

A friend of ours lives on floor 12B. The building is in the diplomatic district, where there are tons of Westerners. So it doesn't have a thirteenth floor either. In America it would just go from 12 to 14 (giving you the advantage of having a higher-seeming building). But here, you have 12, 12A, 12B, and 15.

Monday, September 1, 2008

china dispatch #19 - horses and people

We went horseback riding the other day. Catherine's been wanting to go since we got here, and finally the right day came. We met the people at a spot in town and they drove us a couple of hours south, out into the country, and onto the CCTV grounds, where we saw large lanes, quiet buildings spread among the trees, and warehouses with props and carpenters and paint.

We then got to the horses. Are these horses used in CCTV productions? We've noticed that our roommates watch tons of TV, ninety percent of which is historical drama, with ancient Chinese warriors and emperors and nobles falling in and out of love and striding and riding around gorgeous landscapes when not in lavish palaces.

The horses were lined up near a low brick house, one room deep and five or six rooms wide, done in traditional manner with a pitched roof. Very old, very humble according to modern American standards. The room we used for putting on our gear was obviously a bedroom/living room/office: no insulation, no air conditioning, just like what you find in the hutongs. And yet this doesn't seem like poverty at all to most people in the world. We put leg guards on over our jeans, and each wore a hat. Mine was an Aussie-style cowboy hat, Catherine's was an equestrian-style bicycle helmet.

We clopped out from the CCTV grounds, and set out into China. The sky was grey and rainy. Throughout our five-hour trek, it sprinkled gently; we were eventually pretty wet, but didn't mind at all. It was just perfect. The only thing that I hated about it was our wise decision to leave the camera behind. How I wish we'd had it! We saw landscape after landscape that was lush and gorgeous, and unlike the urban China we've been inhabiting for several months.

For hours we trotted and walked. My horse was incredibly, horribly bouncy, and my saddle was far too small — I'm only now getting over it — all making for a frustrating ride. We never galloped. Actually, my horse did gallop precisely once. Actually half a single stride. It wasn't even a gallop; it was just a gal.

Much of the time, we could have been in the year 208 rather than 2008. Yes, the shepherd was listening to radio news; yes, there were power lines cutting through the landscape now and then. But there were huge stretches of time and space in which there wasn't a single indication from our surroundings that we were in the present day rather than a hundred or two hundred or five hundred or a thousand or two thousand or five thousand years ago. Orchards with crops between the rows of trees, a wide marshy river feeding more crops, the occasional brick hamlet, a stream of smoke in the distance, the wet rich smell of grass and dirt and manure and leaf, freshly-shorn sheep picking at a hillside, workers far away in the fields, pulling up this and kneeling over that, with the signature cone-shaped hat of the Chinese peasant — it was transporting. It was life in balance, heavens and earth and man all living and bringing forth fruit.

I suppose that, looking around, had you been there, you might have seen Nature. But I saw Civilization. Every single thing the eye fell on was shaped by man. Pass by the forests on your horse, and you suddenly notice something: the way the trees zizz against each other forms the optical effect known as comb-filtering. You know it, the way that screen doors — or combs — create patterns when moving against each other. It's undeniably mechanistic, humanmade. Then you notice that the trees are all the same height and width, and that they are planted at regular intervals; occasionally if you look left-and-back a little, they resolve into perfect diagonals, acres and acres of rank and file forest. Sometimes, as I mentioned, there are crops planted between the ranks.

Spiders have certainly adapted to this gridded life. Several times, cutting through the matrix of trees, we would have to swerve into another row to avoid webs they'd strung across the precise distances. Once, we had to stop, baffled by the presence of a web between almost every possible tree in our path, each with a deadly yellow-and-black-legged guard. No doubt we would have spelled out several nonsense words if the thing had been a giant Boggle board. Come to think of it, Catherine did say "EAGUAGAAHO!", though in context it made perfect sense.

If the woods were Civilization, the hills were too. With thick, neat woods on my left, I looked right to the marshy river and its banks and brakes (our namesake!), as we bounced along a hilltop trail, and realized that the very dimensions of the river answered the needs of the various crops and properties along the way. And, of course, we were traveling not on a hill but on a levee: every inch of this land has been nurtured and harnessed, bent toward the needs of man for millennia.

I brain-gasped. I had come to see the place around me not as wilderness but as an accomplishment. An achievement, more nuanced and complex and vast than Rem Koolhaas's monstrous new CCTV building, that Darth Vadery Twisted Door that dominates downtown Beijing.

It rained and rained. We rode and rode. We stopped and (unwisely) accepted some fresh-picked peanuts from a farmer. We saw each other in unfamiliar context and exchanged loving looks. Finally, we dismounted, bone-tired, skin-sore, and napped through the drive back home.

Then we slept for twenty hours.