Taiwan Journal: Youth in the Rain

August 23, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

An interesting set of people at the bus stop shared the thirty minute wait for the 0-East. One, of course, was a very poised woman. She smoked a cigarette, and once, when our eyes met, she smiled naturally and pleasantly. There was also this guy who I’d seen before. He had thick glasses and was kind of fish-eyed and muckle-mouthed, probably not very popular at school. I found myself trying to avoid looking in his direction, for some reason, until I noticed something unusual about his t-shirt. It was a political shirt, bearing the slogan, “You have the right to reject this Taipei.” Suddenly, I seemed to understand him, as though I recognized the same pattern in his life that I’ve seen in the States: Cast out of the crowd by forces not in anyone’s control, the outcast studies alienation itself, turning inward and moving out, trying to return to the scene armed with the ideas of exile. I lent him my umbrella.

The ensuing rain blossomed into a true thunderstorm while I sat in the front of the bus watching. It was a heaven-sent washing. Raindrops on the puddles in the street seemed to suggest a soft meadow. There was a mellowing of light and sound, under the auspices of a friendly patter of droplets, the splashing of tires, and the creaking of wipers. The rain tames us.

 

August 28, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

I had an interesting experience today worthy of a French movie. As I hopped off the 0-East at the Nanchang Street stop, I noticed a high school girl in the green blouse of the elite First Northern Girls School, braving the first drops of a downpour. After the usual hesitation, I offered her my umbrella, and I found her to be both easygoing and serious. She said right away that she too had not eaten, and we soon found ourselves in a noodle shop, under the leering gazes of the cheap girlie posters that papered the walls, discussing history, Taipei, the USA, the mainland. There wasn’t any tension at all. I didn’t get her name.

Tales of Old Beijing: The Modern Plaza Incident of 1999

The Modern Plaza sits across the street from People’s University and is accessible from it by footbridge. Its most significant architectural feature (for our purposes) is the fact that its second floor is bigger than its ground floor, creating a covered area in which temporary sales or exhibition tables may be placed.

One day (August 9, 1999) I left campus, crossed the footbridge, and made for the Modern Plaza, to pick up a few sundries. As I neared the entrance, I noticed that a special sale was indeed in progress under the overhang. About twenty high school girls had been engaged in the campaign. They wore identical corporate t-shirts and were hawking what appeared to be cosmetics. The energetic young ladies beckoned me over, but I held up my index finger, signifying that I wished to complete my indoor shopping first but would be right back.

When I reemerged with my newly-purchased sundries in hand, I dutifully returned to the little bazaar, to see what the ladies were selling. It turned out to be a sort of eye-relaxing gel in little blue tubes. The merchandise had obviously been acquired in bulk and was now being unloaded at a bargain discount. Moreover, an enticing promotion was in effect: If you bought even one tube of gel, you would be given a free “eye massage machine,” while supplies lasted. Apparently, the gel worked best in combination with the machine. Although I had never heard of either product, I found myself that afternoon with not much else to do, and come to think of it, a little something for tired eyes just might be the ticket. I volunteered for a demonstration.

I sat down on a little stool, and a slightly more mature  young lady (college age?), who, I hoped, had taken the five-minute course on how to apply the stuff, sat likewise on a stool, directly in front of me and actually between my legs. She directed me to close my eyes, and after my lids were shut, she began to apply the gel with her fingers to the outsides. The substance did seem to have a cooling effect, and the overall experience was quite relaxing and a little hypnotic. Then the young optomasseuse announced that it was time for the machine. Her fingers withdrew from my eye sockets, and I heard her flip a switch. A little motor began buzzing, and presently I felt a pulsating plastic globe gently kneading in a circular motion upon my closed eyes. I wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed it or not; I liked her fingers better. At any rate, she kept it up for only a few minutes, and then the buzzing stopped, signaling the end of the demonstration. She wiped the residual gel off my eyelashes with a Kleenex. Of course, I bought a tube of the gel and took possession also of the “eye massage machine,” which the optomasseuse showed me before putting into its box. It was a five-inch wand, battery powered, with about four or five interchangeable heads, such as smooth, rough, and ribbed. For some reason, it had a Playboy bunny symbol etched on its surface.

I thanked the optomasseuse for everything and rose to leave, but at that moment the sky opened up and it began pouring, very heavily for Beijing. There was nothing to do but to wait under the overhang, and the little sale area became an even friendlier island of refuge in the storm, as nothing brings strangers together better than a little shower. The gaggle of high school girls became especially peppy, and one of them sidled over to me. We exchanged light pleasantries, but almost immediately, she began telling me about her boyfriend. I was not unprepared for this sudden revelation, for one of the graver responsibilities of an American man in China is to serve as impromptu confidante, counselor, and confessor for Chinese womanhood.

“Do you love him?” I asked, cutting to the heart of the matter. It seems I was always asking women “Do you love him?” back then.

Naturally, the girl didn’t know. I studied her carefully. She was no dope, bright and venturesome (she had, after all, come right over to me), just inexperienced.

Suddenly, I wanted to be in a French New Wave movie. “You see that white van in the parking lot?” I asked her. “Let’s run out, touch it, and run back.”

I’m sure she had never received such a proposal before. She beamed at the novelty but wanted to make certain what I was asking. “You mean that white van?” she pointed. “You want to race me through the rain, touch the van, and run back here?” She used a different word for “touch” from what I had. I’d said peng (碰); she said mo (摸), which sounded to me more like “stroke.”

“Yes,” I said. “Let’s run out and stroke the van and run back.”

Without another word, she screamed and took off into the deluge, and I followed. It was like a whirlwind, as we sprinted with the rain flying off our faces and pelting my freshly-massaged eyes, nearly slamming into the van, stroking its slippery surface, then stomping through lake-like puddles and back up the steps to the Modern Plaza, where everyone was cheering (if this happened today, all phones would have been on us) and marveling at the American graduate student and his dashing ideas. The girl and I were both soaked, her corporate t-shirt most of all, and people gave us towels.

We dried off, still panting; but there was a certain let-down of excitement, after the exploit. The other stranded shoppers turned away, and the distance reestablished itself between me and my running mate. The downpour soon passed, and I bade her safe travels, took up my shopping bags, and returned to normal life.

For the next week or so, I continued to use the relaxing gel and the “eye massage machine,” before I realized that it was a vibrator (duh) and felt silly prodding my eyes every evening with a vibrator. I don’t think any of the high school girls at Modern Plaza that day knew what they were pushing, and their ignorance contributed to my obtuseness, for, since no one was behaving as though they were trafficking vibrators, I never saw that they were. If I were to chance upon a group of people talking into bananas, I would assume that they were telephones.

I donated the “eye massage machine” to a female friend who could make better use of it. I kept the gel… and the memories.

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Passages: From Love in a Bottle, by Antal Szerb

“Do you love me?” I asked doubtfully, and stupidly.

She burst out laughing — with the same unfathomable drunken laughter that had so charmed me earlier. It did not charm me now. Back on the veranda, that earlier laugh had somehow soared into the summer sky, an endearing cry for help addressed to some far-off Dionysus. But now she was laughing at me, and into me, the way any woman might laugh at any man held in an embrace of perhaps half an hour. It was a common, rather vulgar, laugh, an utterly godless laugh, one that could have been heard a thousand times at that moment in any of the parks of Paris and the banlieue — and how was I any different from the thousand other poor wretches who at that precise moment were preparing for the stereotypical games of love?

— from the short story “A Garden Party in St. Cloud”

I’m the Anti Target Market

In general, I hold no loyalty toward any particular brand of consumer product. Anything in the store that answers my need will do.

Exceptions to this rule have proven to be unhappy ones, for whenever I discover that I am partial to a specific product, it is immediately discontinued. Some years ago, I realized I could not do without Suave dandruff control shampoo, for its low price and effectiveness in stemming not only dandruff but hair loss. I would accept no substitute; until, that is, it abruptly vanished from the supermarket shelves and never reappeared (though later there was an improved version that wasn’t as good). Saddened, I sought refuge with Suave humectant, but that’s gone now, as well.

As a sufferer of chronic allergies, I would be awakened almost nightly by an itchy nose. I tried various cold and allergy medicines, to no avail, but soon found that Contac 12-hour cold medicine did the trick. In fact, it radically improved the quality of my life, granting me a full night’s sleep and leaving me feeling magically refreshed in the morning. However, as soon as I became aware of its miraculous effect, Contact 12-hour cold medicine became extinct. I looked everywhere for it and even investigated online to learn what had happened. Apparently it was banned by the FDA for one of its ingredients.

My breakfast toast was a subject of indifference to me, although for fun I would buy whichever artisanal bread had the most artisanal-sounding name. At one point, though, the loaf of the week chanced to be Ezekiel bread, and I’d never tasted anything better. With a little butter, it was like the manna served to weary travelers in some elven sanctuary in The Lord of the Rings. I savored every slice of that loaf and enjoyed another one the following week, but on the third week, it was absent from the bread table at the _______ Market. I assumed it was sold out and went back a few days later, but again, no dice. Was Ezekiel bread a seasonal thing? I asked the staff.

“Excuse, me. You used to carry a craft bread called Ezekiel. What happened to it?”

“We still carry it. It’s in the freezer section.”

“No, I’ve seen that. That’s a national brand. It’s not the same thing, and it’s frozen. You used to bake it right here in the store. It was my favorite, and…”

“Right this way to the freezer section, sir. I’ll show you.”

“But what happened to the kind you used to bake here in the store? It was right on this table.”

“Freezer section.”

I asked the bakery manager. “Didn’t you used to carry homemade Ezekiel –”

“Freezer section.”

They deny all knowledge of Ezekiel bread, as does the staff of every other grocery store in town.

Now, the Sensor 2 razor I’ve been using for twenty years is broken, and I can’t find a suitable replacement. I’ve bought five razors in as many weeks, and their cartridges are all too broad to shave my upper lip.

Sometimes I feel that I’m the Anti Target Market. There’s a marketing manager following me around, and whenever I buy something, he determines that there can’t be much of a market for it and recommends that it be withdrawn.

It is not only in the field of consumer goods that my kiss means death. Since childhood, I have loved a certain kind of common tree that bursts forth in white blossoms in the early spring. After the invention of the internet, I thought enough about what was, I decided, my favorite tree to conduct a little research; and accordingly, I finally learned its name: the Bradford Pear. I was so pleased to know the name of something I loved that I told my friend Mark about it, as we were driving around downtown Baltimore in early spring, Bradfords blooming on either side. “You see this tree blooming all over the place, the kind I keep talking about? I finally found out what it’s called: the Bradford Pear.”

My friend Mark, to whom I’d confided my paranoid fantasy about being the Anti Target Market, turned to me with an ironic smile. “Yes,” he said. “I just read something about the Bradford Pear; and I hate to tell you this, buddy: They’re not making them anymore.”

“What! They discontinued my favorite tree?”

“I’m afraid so. The Bradford Pear is an artificial hybrid, introduced in the sixties as an urban shade tree. The problem is, it’s top-heavy. It collapses under its own weight in twenty years. So no one’s planting them anymore.”

What’s next? Calico cats?

What a lonely feeling.

 

My Views on Education

The value or benefit of an education depends upon its content. If, for example, a certain kind of education conditioned its subjects to servitude, then I would call the uneducated better off than the educated. In general, I would never deem educated people to be necessarily smarter or better than uneducated ones.

At American liberal arts colleges, students are trained in abstract or associative reasoning. Therefore, graduates of American liberal arts colleges are capable of abstract thought, and non-graduates are not. The reality was made clear to me on the day that I, a liberally-educated history professor, began lecturing my class of first-generation college students about Genghis Khan. As I explained how Genghis broke up Mongol tribes and redistributed its members among military units called hundreds, I associated his policy with that of Cleisthenes, the Athenian reformer who broke up Athenian tribes and redistributed its members among political units called demes. I was pleased with myself for having established the linkage, yet when I turned to face my class, I saw only puzzlement. They could not fathom why my lecture on the Mongols had suddenly detoured to ancient Athens. It occurred to me that they could not follow the abstraction, that to them, x would always equal x and could never equal y.  Their approach to history is “Genghis Khan was born in 1162 and died in 1227 and was a Mongolian conqueror; Cleisthenes lived from 565 to 492 BC and was an Athenian statesman” and never the twain shall meet. I tried to sever Genghis and Cleisthenes from their particular contexts and to locate their policies on higher planes of abstraction, to persuade my students that although Genghis reorganized Mongol tribes into hundreds and Cleisthenes reorganized Athenian tribes into demes, both reoriented loyalty to higher social units, both sought to replace tribal association with political. My students were polite, but it was as though the football game they were watching had been interrupted by a commercial for a product they didn’t want.

Indeed, they don’t want it. No matter how many times I’ve returned to Genghis and Cleisthenes over the years (I never give up), my attempts to place them in the same abstract category always fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, I have never been able to explain to my students the superiority or even the advantage of my abstract way of looking at history. It is not in me, however, to bewail my inability to enlighten the benighted history students of Mobile, Alabama. On the contrary, the more I’ve thought about my failure, the more I’ve come to accept the possibility that my abstract way of looking at history really isn’t superior to my students’ way and really doesn’t confer on them any advantage.

Is the abstract view necessarily the correct view? Is it possible that someone might become over-educated, so thoroughly skilled in making associations that he loses his ability to draw distinctions? Sometimes x is only equal to x. Sometimes concrete thinking is better than abstract.

Consider the intellectual Susan Sontag and her disapproval of the display of the American flag after 9/11. It seemed to me at the time that she was incapable of seeing the flag-flying as an expression of solidarity at a moment of national hurt and that she could only view it as symptomatic of a dangerous ultra-nationalism. Her perception, in other words, was determined, perhaps even limited, by her education, her ability to associate one reality with another and, perhaps, her inability to perceive the reality at hand more concretely. Many of the categorizations encouraged at our finer schools are somewhat predictable, as almost everything is associated with Nazism, sooner rather than later. If you were to show someone like Susan Sontag a Boy Scout picnic, she’d probably think she was looking at the Nuremberg rally.

My students, however, would know that it was a Boy Scout picnic, and they would be right, or at least more right than Susan Sontag. I find myself in a strange position, having more in common culturally with the Susan Sontags of the world but feeling far more trusting of my students’ common sense.

And so, for choosing a movie, a restaurant, or an Aram Khachaturian CD, I will consult someone like Susan Sontag. But for understanding what’s what, I’m going to ask my students. The intellectual doesn’t understand what’s what: He understands what something is like, because that is what he’s been trained to do. The liberally educated serve the function of alerting their fellow citizens to the unseen, but sometimes they distract their fellow citizens with visions of the unreal. There is no good reason to desire that more of our population become educated along these lines.

 

Book Review: Tap Roots, by James Street

I read Tap Roots hoping for an American story about the struggle for freedom and also for an always-timely memorial to Southern Unionism. I was partly rewarded by passages like this one:

Never was a stranger assembly gathered…. Scots and Irish, English and Germans, Cajuns and two Negroes — a tiny melting pot that must be tried by fire to prove to mankind that fire and blood can melt all races and blend them into a new being…. The scum of the South was represented. Fire can purify scum. The illiterate, the suspicious — they were there, too. Deserters and draft dodgers, abolitionists and Unionists — five hundred men with nothing in common except a burning fervor for freedom as they understood freedom.

(That last phrase, “as they understood freedom,” is pretty ominous, especially in a story about the Civil War South.)

For the most part, however, author James Street, despite his eagerness to tell the story of Southern Unionists and abolitionists, does so as a Southern and not as an American patriot, and no love of freedom can supersede his hatred for the Yankee. His unwillingness to concede the moral high ground to the Union spoils his narrative of Southern Unionists, whom he might otherwise have portrayed as standing on that same moral high ground. His “Unionists” are really only succeeding from the Confederacy, not remaining loyal to the Union, because, although the South was wrong, the North could not have been right. Therefore, Street’s novel ends up being not all that different from the usual Confederate apologia, brimming with assertions that Lincoln was a mere schemer, that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves, and even that Southern abolitionists were better than Northern ones. The latter group garners the vast majority of Street’s ire. Through his characters, he mocks the idea that his protagonists, Southern abolitionists, would have found common cause with their Northern counterparts, over something as obvious as a revulsion toward slavery:

Hoab said, ‘Some of our Tennessee members think we should join forces with the Yankee abolitionists. They say there is strength in union.’ ‘They are loonies,’ Keith said. ‘The Northern abolitionists are fools and we know it. Somebody ought to shoot Sumner. He’s doing our cause more harm than John Brown.’

In fact, nobody comes in for nastier abuse in this book than Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Henry Ward Beecher.

Of course, the ironic thing is that Street could have better vindicated the South by hating the Yankees less and developing his own Southern characters more as Americans with a universal conception of freedom. Alas, the defensive tone prevails. Street’s bitterness is that of the proud man (or child), directed against those who would expose his faults, faults of which he is well aware, which he insists he will address in his own sweet time, but which no outsiders can raise a peep about — especially since they’re just as bad, nyah nyah n’nyah nyah. I am reminded that Indian nationalism only took shape after the British banned the burning of widows in India. For fueling aggrievement, nothing beats being wrong.

Oddly, Street’s peevishness occasionally attains Marxist dimensions, as in:

‘I know and you know that slavery is not the root of this situation. We are going through another phase of our Revolution. Of course, slavery is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s as wrong to own a man as it is to work a child fourteen hours a day as they do in Massachusetts. But that’s not the point. the real clash is between artisans and farmers, the age-old clash of manufacturers and people who build up an agrarian culture, such as the South’s.’

and:

‘Queen Victoria’s antagonism for slavery has nothing to do with it. The English merchants who really rule that land will brush her aside if necessary.’

On reflection, it appears to me that Street’s coincidental Marxism makes sense. The theory of historical materialism is fully in keeping with the spiteful Southerner’s project of removing all morality and idealism from history, a project he takes on because he can claim neither for himself. If he can’t have the moral high ground, then no one else will, dammit. The idea that money makes the world go around is the common coin of all cynical minds.