From the Black Creek River to the Grand Canal

The episode with the Mississippi egrets described in my last posting was incorporated into my novel, Southern Rain, now available via Kindle and at selected bookshops in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it is also available for pre-order, in advance of the general release of the print version in January.

The appearance of the Mississippi egrets, transposed into Chinese cranes, foreshadows the meeting of the hero, Ouyang Nanyu, and the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng.

Just beyond a tributary called Witch Mountain Spring, Nanyu noticed two white cranes flying upstream and then perching on the embankment. When the boat drew close to them, they took off again, swooping on ahead, before coming to a new resting place at the side of the Canal. Nanyu reckoned that the cranes moved ten times this way over the course of an hour—leading and waiting, leading and waiting—as though luring him ever onward. They didn’t seem to be feeding, and if they were migrating north, Nanyu wondered why they didn’t just get on with it, without waiting for him to catch up. If they wanted to stay on the Canal but were afraid of the boat, then why didn’t they fly to the side, to allow it to pass? For the rest of the day, Nanyu was sometimes invited to share food, sometimes asked for help maneuvering through a lock, and then, he would forget about the cranes; but whenever his activities were finished, he’d look up and there they would be, still scouting out the route.

Nanyu continued to see them after he closed his eyes that night, but in the morning, they were gone.

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Hammered by Kindness

Sharing my diary entries detailing my “long way home” return from Taiwan via Europe in 1992, and reliving my decision to switch from flophouses to luxury hotels, I’m reminded also of how my sudden reintroduction to attentive restaurant service, after weeks of Chinese and Russian shabbiness, produced literally intoxicating results.

It was in the Xx Restaurant in Budapest (or was it Munich?) that the waiter, on bringing me my menu, asked if I would like to have an aperitif, while I looked it over. What a considerate question! This was more like it, I enthused, someone who knows how to treat a guest. Not wishing to profane the moment with a “No, thank you,” I asked the nice man to bring me a gin and tonic, which I remembered was customary for summer, even though I wasn’t really thirsty.

I sipped at the fizzy drink while perusing the bill of fare, and when the tuxedoed veteran returned to take my order for dinner, he asked me what sort of wine I would like with it. Of course! I remembered. One drinks wine with dinner at civilized establishments such as this one. I told my man that I would rely on him to provide the most appropriate ambrosia to match the veal I’d selected; and he brought the excellent white Burgundy for me to begin enjoying well in advance of my entrée. Naturally, I was careful also to finish off the gin and tonic, to avoid being rude.

The veal, balanced perfectly with the wine, melted in my mouth, and I leaned back in bliss, recalling how one week prior, I had considered myself lucky to be given a cold bowl of borscht, assuming I found the dining car of the Trans-Siberian open. When my hovering host cleared away my plate and asked me what I wanted for dessert, I started to cry, it had been so long since I’d been so well taken care of. I requested the chocolate mousse, and when he inquired, off-handedly, as to what sort of cordial I should like to go with it, accepted his recommendation of cherry liqueur.

A good half hour later, at the close of my repast, I wiped my mouth with the cloth napkin, paid the bill, took a deep breath of the fullest contentment and gratitude, rose to leave, and found that I could not walk.

Travel Journal: No More Roughing It; Arrival in Budapest (1992)

After the two [Ukrainian oil field workers] had both detrained, I had a very sublime conversation with my remaining compartment-mate. He was a Hungarian physicist who was “hanging up” whatever job he had in Moscow and returning home with his cat. For most of the conversation, it was this reserved gentleman who was asking me questions about Taiwan and other aspects of my life. Much as it happened during the Trans-Siberian conversation with the Australian woman, the relating of my exploits was quite therapeutic, but on this second train, this gentleman was the older-generation figure whose occasional encouragement and understanding I greatly appreciate, nay, crave. His questions also were aimed right at the point, the main idea, of each aspect we were talking about; he was [always] asking, “What was your purpose” for doing such-and-such? I was happy to have a purpose that guided me [and] that I could tell him. I think I meant that he was one of the few people who could understand my lofty life goals, as I expressed them; most folks simply smirked at how impractically I’d lived, “wasting” all that time in Taiwan, with little to show for it but weird experiences.

He also confirmed my observations re the Trans-Siberian, i.e., that trains in this part of the world were dangerous. Furthermore, it might have been a self-aggrandizing remark I’d made in Taiwan, that now was the last opportunity I had to adventure in Eurasia (before disunity and war, etc.) ; but my Hungarian companion seconded the emotion, explaining that the trains were daily witness to robbery and murder, and that he was leaving Moscow, in fact, on the strength of the sense of growing instability there.

True enough, our conversation had been initiated by the abrupt, uninvited entrance of two Ukrainian youths who had barged in for shock value (it sure shocked me as I looked and saw one of them sitting next to me and the other one blocking the door) but who finally didn’t seem to want anything other than to whine at the Hungarian before they got off. My companion later said that they were generally confused and specifically a bit drunk but at heart nice boys.

The effect of this gentleman’s descriptions of train-borne chaos was to put me on my guard during the crossing of the Hungarian border, in the early morning after my friend left, during a sunrise trip to the w.c., and upon arrival in Budapest, but after reaching that place, I saw that I’d definitely arrived in affluent, touristy, Europe and soon turned my thoughts from flight to food and other indulgences.

The first need-turned-indulgence, that of lodging, achieved its more luxurious state by the following means: The [homestay] hostess recommended by the [Moscow travel agency] turned out (after begging for change to use the pay phone) to be in Italy on holiday. I next was compelled by residual greenhorn desperation to book a guest room at a hostel through the services of a travel agency. Said travel agency gave me an address and a trolley number, but after riding the trolley all the way out to the burbs to where the room chanced to be, I found the host not at home. His absence was actually a blessing in disguise, for I opted on the spot to return to the center of town (before the host came back) and try my luck with a hotel.

I was not the only backpacker wandering the streets that morning, and after a while, I found the experience degrading. The prospect of carrying my belongings through city streets, looking for a room, I mean looking for a cheap room, was not inspiring. I therefore resolved to inquire for rooms at the first hotel I came across, which chanced to be the Astoria Hotel.

Rooms were US$100 a night, and I humiliated myself one last time by asking after cheaper flops in the area before I decided to reward myself for surviving a month on trains in the PRC and Russia. “You know what? Just put me up,” I said. My backpack and I were very happy for the pampering.

Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.

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 were 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 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 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 then 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 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, sprinting 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 our little race in the rain. 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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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