China Journal: The Hunan Condition

Tuesday, August 24, 1999 – Beijing

Recently, I found myself in Hunan Province for a Ming dynasty history conference. I believe the conference took place in the otherwise insignificant Shimen County because of its proximity to the reputed final resting place of Li Zicheng [the rebel who destroyed the Ming dynasty].

In any case, the event was hovered over by a cohort of culture cadres anxious to soak up some gravitas from the luminous personages now gracing their satrapy. It was also swarming with reporters trying to do the same thing, although the latter group had special plans for me, the sole gringo, namely: making me appear to be some kind of benighted barbarian seeking Chinese wisdom. I did not comply with their request for an interview, nor did I confirm the rumor that I’d been seen carrying a loaf of bread to my hotel room because I couldn’t eat Chinese food. It intrigues me how opposite assumptions operate on the same plane: Foreigners are expected to be attracted to Chinese culture, but they are not expected to be able to absorb it (not in the form of Chinese food, anyway), due to congenital differences.

The conference proper was inspiring if a little overly formal. All the intellectuals participating identified with their Ming dynasty antecedents. They railed against arbitrary rule and implied that, if only government would recognize true talent, then all under heaven would be pacified. Their class allegiance prompted me to spout off a little about historical objectivity (I remarked that righteous scholars failed to save the Ming dynasty and even had the effrontery to suggest that they might have killed it). I also ventured to observe that their brand of opposition to the government was based on elitism, not democracy. As I pontificated to someone later (boy, was I getting full of myself), democracy, by giving everyone the ballot, neutralizes the power of the Ph.D.

The academic portion of the retreat completed, touring commenced. We visited what was said to be the Peach Blossom Spring immortalized by Tao Yuanming, and I soon found myself having a perfect experience. It was a relatively unspoiled place, and the weather was cool and misty, calling up various Daoist feelings of being one with nature and making me seek to emulate Tao’s fisherman by doing a little enthusiastic exploring. At what was represented to be the actual spring, a pool under a waterfall, I quickly disrobed and took a little dip with the stone turtle they have there. I felt greatly refreshed, and I admit I also enjoyed the notoriety I earned as the crazy young American. It started to rain, which made me even happier, and I got my fortune told at a nearby Daoist temple, which seemed to provide a certain religious meaning to the whole thing.

The next day, our group of scholars moved to Zhangjiajie. We toured the Chinese version of Luray Caverns. This time, I was not quite as alone as I’d been: In standard eunuch fashion, I fell in with a group of four young ladies from Taiwan, hovering on the periphery of their approach-avoidance gravitational pull; and I actually had a pretty good time with the impressive cave and the lovely company. When the ladies slowed down in the shopping area outside the cave, though, I became aware that I was reverting to the role of hungry dog, hanging around, waiting for whatever table scraps of attention they might throw down to me; and so I took my leave of them, bought a dress for Yuka [then my fiancée, now my wife], and escorted [senior scholar] Wei Qingyuan back to the waiting bus.

That night at the hotel, after dinner, I developed a headache and began asking females for aspirin. One of the Taiwanese ladies said she had some in her room. On the way thither, we passed the hotel’s massage parlor, where the pubescent hostesses were scantily clad and the light chaser framing the doorway had already been turned on. Upon reaching the Taiwanese ladies’ room (where the other three waited; it seemed they always stuck together for protection), I received the promised pills, and an awkward moment ensued, as my canine tendency began to reassert itself; but they sent me on my way rather decisively, with a final “Goodnight,” while closing and locking the door behind me.

In spite of the less than voluntary mode of my departure, I was still glad on the whole to be away from their debilitating presence. The problem now, as I returned to my room, was how to spend the rest of the evening in the very uncomfortable hotel. I decided to write a letter to Yuka.

The phone rang. It was one of the young hostesses from the massage parlor, asking if I required any servicing. I demurred. I said I had a girlfriend. She said it didn’t matter. I twisted in the wind for another minute or so, the tenacious young lady refusing to let me off the hook. Finally, I blurted one last “Sorry” and hung up the phone over her protests. Then, I sat down on the bed and repeated, as a mantra, the phrase “Nerves of steel.”

The phone rang every fifteen minutes or so, until around eleven. I didn’t answer.

The following day, we took a nature walk, along a path following a river in the woods. I was very impressed with the park, though the lack of any literary or religious significance kept my happiness from overflowing into euphoria. Also, I made it a point to escape from the group, especially the four Formosan ladies, and to enjoy the place with the peace of mind enabled by solitude. I did bump into the Formosan Four upon emerging from the woods at the end of the trail, and they said they missed my company. Whether they were trying to be polite or cruel, I really can’t say.

China Journal: A Barren Source of Amusement

This diary entry is from my second excursion to Asia, in 1998-1999, for the purpose of conducting research for my dissertation. Unlike my first visit, this time, the internet was available, and I sometimes used it to combat loneliness, with mixed results.

Sunday, August 29, 1999 – Beijing

The computer has been a barren source of amusement lately. I’d been frequenting the chat rooms and had actually managed to have a friendly chat once in a while. Very recently, though, the chat rooms were transformed by avatars, little pictures designed to represent each chatter in a glitzy environment; and now all anyone ever talks about are the stupid I.D. pictures. I began to fear that nobody would notice me at all without an avatar; so I dutifully downloaded the new software. I find the chat room’s revised look to be as conformist as it is distracting, the women having all chosen similar “naughty” representations of themselves, and the men, likewise, having selected boilerplate, shirtless hunks.

I spent the entire morning in an unsuccessful attempt to download a photo of Richard Nixon (the Norman Rockwell painting from the Portrait Gallery) to use as my avatar, before I decided that I’d passed an invisible line separating passing the time and wasting time. I went out on my bike all day.

1968 - Pres. Nixon - by Norman Rockwell by x-ray delta one, via Flickr

Mississippi Egrets (with Haiku)

On September 20, [2008,] I went canoeing down the Blackcreek River in Mississippi. The weather was perfect, and the river was calm and quiet.

All day long, there were these two egrets that were constantly in front of us. They rested in trees along the bank, until we almost caught up to them, and then they would fly a few yards downstream, to wait for us to come up again. No matter how swiftly or slowly we paddled, they were always there, leading us. We stopped for an hour to eat and swim, and when we got started again, they got back to guiding us again. It was so quiet, you could hear their wings. It seemed poignantly unreal, like a Chinese or Japanese poem, painting, or film.

Back home, I composed a mediocre English and (with Yuka’s help) a pretty good Japanese haiku.

Autumn, the river,
Egrets constantly guiding,
Leading us downstream

夏過ぎて
白鷺共に
川下リ

(Natsu sugite
Shirasagi tomo ni
Kawa kudari)

Japan Journal: My Home Away from Home is Hard to Write Home About

I am once again summering in Hakodate, Japan, and you’d think I’d have plenty to blog about, but the place is so familiar to me that nothing stands out enough to qualify as blog-worthy, and I’m not sure I’d want (or am able) to write a travelogue about places I frequent. I could write about the Kantaro sushi restaurant, right on the water, with floor to ceiling plate glass windows, where the fish comes by on a conveyor belt but where we order directly with the chefs anyway, to request less rice or more wasabi or just fresher fish that hasn’t been going around on a conveyor belt. I’m still partial to engawa (fluke, or flounder, fin), especially the braised variety, although they’ve got a miso-encrusted version out now too. They also have real deal eel this year, not just anago, although I really ain’t particular. Of course, we’ve also eaten ramen and soba. The soba place we went to was a bit out of town, where the potato fields and mountains are and where the air is very fresh. My wife was wearing a white hempen gown from Taiwan, and I was wearing a Japanese samue robe, and we looked like cultists. While we waited on the porch for our table, folks coming to eat didn’t know what to make of us and asked my (Japanese) wife nervous questions in English. After we were shown to our table, I ordered wasabi soba and was given a wasabi root to grate, before the noodles arrived. I ground down almost all of it, but most of it adhered to the grater. The hostess advised me to apply the hot stuff directly to my noodles, but I could not scrape off enough of it to amount to more than a little schmeer, which seemed absurd, considering the amount of labor I had expended and the mountain of the stuff I had produced, and I began to giggle and chortle. It was like a waiter at an Italian restaurant asking if you wanted parmesan cheese on your pasta and then, instead of sprinkling it on your food, putting it on his beard, standing over your table, and shaking his head. I laughed all the way home, and we had a story (and something to blog about, but I guess you had to be there). Driving around to all these places to eat, it helps to have a little music, but the local radio DJs can’t stop talking, at least twenty minutes for every two minute fifty second song they play. I resort to the collection of CDs I’ve kept here, but most of them are good only at night (Miles Davis, Radiohead, A.A. Bondy). On a visit to the immense Tsutaya bookstore (another frequent destination for our money), I enquired about the background music playing there and ended up the proud owner of ‘B Side,’ a CD by the French jazz-soul singer Hyleen; so now everything we see sounds like the French background jazz typical of Japan. We paid early visits to breathtaking Cape Tachimachi and Motomachi (the old part of town) and the warehouse district (which sounds not like French background jazz but like music boxes). As for the establishments we have tried, there is a certain sameness about them, as they all tend to be teahouses or French patisseries; but they all have their own unique vibe, in many cases conforming to the old buildings in which they’re located. (We even enjoyed some hōjicha in a rustic teahouse set up in the old wooden quarantine building, overlooking the harbor.) Now that I think about it, Hakodate has a lot of character for this reason. It makes do with what’s already here and avoids conformity to the Starbuck’s style. While engaged in all this consumption and self-pampering, I can’t help but to reflect on how unsustainable it all seems. Maybe it’s just me – I sure don’t know how I’m going to pay for all these croissants and flounder fins – but I think it’s also Japan and maybe Western civilization in general: a 24/7 food channel and Ariana Grande concert, demographically stagnated, over-indulged, effete, and bankrupt. I might as well enjoy it while I can.

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