Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 New Year's List

Believe it or not, this used to be a blog about music. Some of you may remember when I used to write reviews of new albums, along with the occasional essay. Simpler times. Times with more free time, really. I've spent the last four months being as busy as I've ever been, and the music listening has suffered as a result. I wish I could say I'm as well versed in this year's releases as I was in years prior, but I'm not. I'm really not.

It would be disingenuous of me to provide you with a Top 10 list. Getting past my lingering doubts about numbered lists, I don't think I've listened to most of this year's releases enough times to really get a sense of them. Having said that, I can still make some recommendations. Here are the things that did manage to bend my ear in the last 365 or so days.

Albums:
There weren't that many complete albums that held my interest, to be honest. Which could be due to my not paying attention, or maybe there just wasn't anything that really hit me right. There are albums I still want to talk about, though. A few I loved. A few were great. And a few I'm still not sure about, but I feel compelled to discuss.

Lykke Li's Wounded Rhymes was one of the two albums I really fell in love with this year. I still haven't listened to Youth Novels, her previous album, nearly enough, but that's largely because it always sounded a bit empty to me. Musically, it created the skeleton, and didn't put on the flesh. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but on her second album, Li elected to go big or go home. The album opens with "Youth Knows No Pain," as massive as opening tracks get. It's more than that; for this album, it's a statement of intent. In her writing, she creates the same corners as her last album, but here she fills them in. Some will walk away feeling like she stuffed them to the point of bursting. It helps, I think, that her singing is so restrained. Like her Nordic sister Annie, she turns her lack of emoting (to be fair, she does a great sad) into a strength. These tracks with a voice eager to share would be overwrought and too much. But Li's lyrics need something to drive them home, and, for her, it's the marvelously detailed music going on all around her. If you get the chance, pick up the actual single for "Get Some". The non-album b-side, "Paris Blue," is intoxicating in the right mood.


Alison Krauss & Union Station were not a band I had put high up on my list of expectations for the year, but I loved Paper Airplane as much, if not more, than anything else that came out in 2011. I listened to it almost every night in June, and it's easy to see why. The title track is my favorite piece of songwriting from the last year. The cover of "Dimming of the Day" is elegant, understated, and the perfect vehicle for Krauss' crystalline voice. "On the Outside Looking In" gives Dan "Foggy Bottom Boys" Tyminski a powerhouse of a bluegrass number. And throughout the album, you are reminded of what it's like to listen to people who can really play their instruments. There aren't many bands so fine-tuned at playing together as this lot. "Paper Airplane" along is a masterclass in handling dynamics and feel. And what's truly terrifying is that they make the whole thing sound effortless.

I'm happy to admit that I jumped on the Elbow bandwagon when most people did, around the release of 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid. In that time, I've really only listened to their first album, Asleep in the Back, and their latest, Build a Rocket Boys!. They are a band that requires time, under the best of circumstances, but they reward it fully; every time I listen to one of these three albums, I like it just a little bit more. Guy Garvey writes lyrics perfectly pitched between the every-day and the grand; He's Springsteen if Springsteen didn't sometimes leave me with the uneasy aftertaste of pandering. On the music front, as with all of their releases, this is a beautiful, patient album, full moments of intense quiet and cathartic release. It makes you wonder why more bands don't take advantage of both the "loud" and "quiet" opportunities music can afford. Probably because it's so damn difficult. Elbow used to be pegged as Radiohead/Coldplay also-rans. That has always been unfair. Radiohead are far afield in their own world. Coldplay are one of the biggest bands in the world. Elbow, meanwhile, have once again quietly made the argument that they are the best.

It's an aphorism at this point that there's nothing original left to do in music. In the broadest sense, that is likely true. But I firmly believe that, working in specifics, there will always be something new to do. And lo tUnE-yArDs' w h o k i l l, an engrossing take on what popular music can be. The rhythms are always somehow jilted, but the music moves seamlessly between melodic and dissonant, between the angularly beautific ("Wolly Wolly Gong") to the riotous ("Gangsta") to the frustrated ("My Country"). As far as replay value is concerned, I am drawn to words more than music, which is why I will always rate The National above this, and Randy Newman above everything else, but the music gets you in the door in the first place. And this is some of the best music you will hear. If you like it a little weird.

It's likely this will become known as the Difficult Radiohead album, a title that seems to get perpetually back-shifted with each new release since it was first claimed by either Kid A or Amnesiac, depending on whom you ask. For my money, the difficult one is still Pablo Honey, but that's a cheap shot. The King of Limbs is definitely the low-key Radiohead album, which is both to its credit and detriment. The upshot is that it makes the outward statement of appearing calm while feeling anything but, and that's not easy to pull off. The downside? You have to pay it much more mind than previous releases, and I'm still not positive it rewards the effort. But I keep coming back to it, and I've not been the sort who would blindly follow a band anywhere for at least the last year and a half. The first half is where my uncertainty lies. But that half is texture. The second half, the songs, is hauntingly beautiful. And if none of it is knew, well, neither was anything on Hail to the Thief. I'll still get excited about the next one.

I want to spend more time with Bad as Me, but I want to spend more time with Tom Waits albums in general, so that's hardly surprising. It's harder and has more drive than what he's done before. There's no "Misery's the River of the World", in sense of arrangements moreso than tone. He takes a (modest) step away from the mad carnival director angle, and while I've yet to tire of that take, it's probably the right time. "Bad as Me" is the most immediately engaging song he's written. Everything before that and after doesn't quite stick in the mind, at least not yet; but, as I said, I'd like a
while longer with it.

St. Vincent's Strange Mercy is well worth listening to just for the second track, "Cruel," which a coworker described as the best song he'd heard in years. He might be right. St. Vincent specializes in putting together all these lovely, completely singable bits and pieces, and then slathering them with baroque arrangements and fuzzed-out guitar. It can have mixed results; her first album, Marry Me, isn't as good when you're not listening to it as it is when you are, while her second album, Actor, is flat-out awesome. I'm not sure what I make of Strange Mercy. The perfect "Cruel" aside, the songs don't come together for me. The verses are great, and then the choruses annoy me. And so it goes.

At long last, it is here. 40-odd years of waiting have seen the original tapes for the infamous Smile Sessions come out in an official release. Brian Wilson's final days as an uncontested genius on display for all the world to see. What separates it from the 2004 release of SMiLE, recorded by Brian Wilson and a few magic fairies? Well, for one, this one's actually sung by the Beach Boys. The first second of the album makes it abundantly clear as to why that matters. While the "Our Prayer" on 2004's album was beautiful, this one is transcendent. "Heroes and Villains" contains more twists and turns than most albums do. "Surfs Up" is haunting. Outside of that, I'm not so sure what I think. The music is often top-flight, but the lyrics, written by Van Dyke Parks, refuse to mean anything to me. Worse than that, they feel like they're striving for meaning. I don't mind meaningless prattle when it knows that's what it is. As for the extensive bonus material, Brian's solo demo of "Surfs Up" is my favorite thing here, including everything from the album proper.

I seem to be in the minority on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. I don't like it for reasons entirely unrelated to the embracing of soft rock. I've listened to it seven or eight times, in a multitude of settings and mindsets, and I just don't like it. I don't like how it sounds, I don't like how it's mixed. Some of it is beautiful, and Justin Vernon's voice remains an incredible instrument, but I just don't like it. It's too busy, I guess. I'm coming to piece with it. Everyone else can enjoy it, though. Don't stop on my account.

Another disappointment, ultimately, was Brad Paisley's new album, This Is Country Music. Unlike his still-masterful American Saturday Night, after a few spins, the new one smelled suspiciously like pandering. Which, too be fair, may have been an attempt to apologize for recommending on his last album that country music embrace multiculturalism. A final album note, I wish I had spent more time with Laura Marling's A Creature I Don't Know. She remains truly impressive.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The China Diaries: The Market

Here are a few pictures I took today from the food market next to my apartment. If you press "shift" and click on them, it should take you to a blown up version.

I buy breakfast from this man five or six days a week. I don't know the Chinese name for what he makes, but we refer to it as a pancake. It's a batter cooked on a griddle into the thin circle you see in the picture, though what you're looking at there is close to the finished product. After he spreads the batter on the griddle, he spreads an egg over that, then he spreads two spicy sauces on top of that (they are the red smears you can see), then he puts chives and potato bits in. To top it off, he throws on two bits of lettuce and two pieces of Crunchy Thing, a flavorless crispy "food" that adds nothing but texture to the party. It's delicious stuff. The market has it fair share of dogs. I don't know if they belong to anyone or if they are fending for themselves, but they're friendly enough either way. In the sense that they don't bark. I'm not about to pet one, as that's where germs come from.Most of my Chinese is very practical. I don't know any strange, inapplicable words or phrases, which is something of a disappointment. The least practical word I know is probably 萝卜, a bag of which can be seen above. They're a sort of radish, I think.Chinese chestnuts are delicious when they're warm, and as a way to keep them warm in the freezing Xi'an winter, the street vendors put them in heavy velvet blankets. On more than one occasion, I've walked by the chestnuts and felt a pang of envy, as I've no doubt they are warmer than me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The China Diaries: What's in a Name?

Your name is an important social construct throughout the world. For Westerners and Easterners alike, it can symbolize important relations, monetary status, reputation... Entire careers have been built on names (Nick Carter begat Aaron, Jonathan Swift begat Taylor), favors have been traded, etc. But, outside of a social context, Western names don't really mean anything. Yes, the etymology of Andrew means something along the lines of "Strong," but the name as it stands in modern times is really meaningless. I don't meet people named Rex and think, "Yes, for he truly bears the noble stature and hard nose of a great king." That I don't meet people named Rex at all is beside the point.

In the East, names still mean something. It is unavoidable in Chinese, as the characters are identical, and so a link of meaning occurs. Parents will often name their children for an aspiration or a hope. I have a friend at my school named 豆豆, which means "Bean sprout." I've yet to crack what the aspiration there was.

Many Chinese people fail to grasp that this does not work both ways. When starting a class of new learners, many of them will not have 英语名字 (English names), and so we bequeath these upon them. The parents will often ask after the class for the meaning of the moniker.

"His name is Rick?"

"Yes."

"What does it mean?"

"Uh... Rick?"

"Right."

"Er... Rick."

"Pardon?"

"It means Rick."

"Okay.

"But what does it mean?"

This can go on for ages. As teachers, we strive to create a controlled, respectful learning environment for all of our students, but I think the cracks show through when we name our students. In my first few weeks of teaching, I attempted to name a student "Ishmael" and another "Cain." Both ultimately rejected these names for "Stephen" and "John," respectively. I understand why Ishmael jumped ship, but, for God's sake, I would love to be named "Cain". I briefly flirted with naming another kid in the same class "Abel," but I didn't want to be asking for trouble. You can only do so much. One teacher recently gave two students the names "Sonny" and "Cher." They will, I assume, be partnered up in all pairs activities for the foreseeable future. There was a student recently who named himself "Airplane". The TA for the class tried to tell him that that's not a name, but the teacher said, "No, if he wants to be called 'Airplane,' let him. This is how we learn."

Funny in a less troubling way are the names students come in with. As all nouns are considered fair game in Chinese, you do end up with some classics: I have no fewer than three "Apples" in my two youngest classes. There's a "Linvida," which I still insist is not a real name. There are quite a few "Potato"s, a "Power," my roommate is teaching a "Dinosaur," and there's even a kid named "Michael Jackson," which really makes you wonder. There's a "Star" who consistently introduces herself as "Superstar." I refuse to call her this.

My own experience with picking a Chinese name hasn't been what I would call "Quite a process," but it's been a source of bemusement on the occasions when it's come up. My Chinese tutor suggested 安林杰, which is derived from my first and last names to give us "An Linjie," but that has met with general scorn from every other person in China. Taken literally, it means "Peaceful, talented grotto". But more recently, another option has presented itself in the form of 安猪, "An Ju". This is simply another phonetic transposition of my name. There are many, many possible ways of rendering my name in Chinese similar to this. But 安猪 is special. It's Chinese for "Peaceful Pig." Winner.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The China Diaries: Hospital!

I went to hospital yesterday because of a problem I've had the last two days with my right ear. For the most part, it hasn't been much more than a muffling of sound, but twice now it's gotten very, very painful. At any rate, to the hospital!

I went to a local hospital, not a hospital for foreigners, as I wanted the full experience, and I knew I wasn't going to come out of this needing surgery. On the surface, it's not all that different from a Western hospital. In need of a bit of a deep clean, perhaps (ammonia and bleach, China, have never hurt anyone (er... yeah)), but the idea was definitely the same.

I checked in at a window and told them my ear was bothering me. I had to pay 6元, a bit less than a dollar, to check in, and then I went, with my translating friend, to the fourth floor. I checked in and waited. Perhaps now the greatest difference is the lack of reading material. There are no years-old National Geographic, nor any 国家地理学会 for that matter. I'd expected as much and brought my own, so that wasn't such a big deal.

I went in to see the 耳科医生 (Audiologist) after only a few minutes. She looked in my ear and told me I'd damaged it cleaning it. When I told her this was impossible, as I don't use q-tips, it hardly seemed to phase her, though it was difficult to read her expression through the face mask. She printed up an order for an audiogram and sent me on my way.

We went over to a window, where I paid another 31元 ($5-ish) for the audiogram. We went back to the same waiting room, and waited. When I was called in, I had an experience that was esoterically very funny, but may not mean much to you. I will do my best to relate it:

I have had three audiograms in my life. The first was at an independent ear-plug manufacturer in Chicago. The second was at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In both places, I was brought into a room and put in a soundproof booth. I was then given sound-isolating earbuds with foam around the outside, so they would fill your ear canal and block out all outside noises. You are completely and utterly cut off from the outside world. Were a fire alarm to go off and your doctor particularly prone to panic, you'd have no idea. Then, the doctor plays a series of tones at different frequencies and volumes while you sit and press a button each time you hear something. It's a surprisingly tense and unnerving experience, I find, as you really don't want to miss the tones. You get trigger-happy. Moving on.

The third audiogram was here in China. I walked in the testing office to find not a soundproof booth, but that they'd divided the room in half using drywall. The light fixture in the ceiling was half in the "room" and half in the "booth". The door to the "booth" was made out of drywall. The headphones "inside" were old can headphones that sit on the ears, rather than over them. A test done with iPod standard-issue earbuds would probably be better. The whole thing felt a bit like they'd seen a picture of a western audiogram setup without ever having asked questions.

From there, we went back to the q-tip doctor, who looked at the results quickly, told me to stop cleaning my ears ("Stopping before you start is the best way to quit," I said quickly), and then gave me an antibiotic, seemingly to keep me from bothering her again. Which is fine with me. That prescription cost 16元 to fill. The big lesson for the day, I think, is that there are benefits to not being able to sue your health-care provider.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The China Diaries: Miscellanea

At last, the holiday season is upon us. I, for one, could not be happier. Sure, China itself is almost entirely bereft of actual decorations, per sé, and the only Christmas lights one is likely to encounter are lights that are up all year for practical lighting purposes, but still, come on, it's Christmas time! Yes, yes, it's true, the only advent calendar I've got to keep me company in my countdown (only 22 days, two hours, and eight minutes!!!) is the latest update to Angry Birds Seasons, but that'll do. Besides, each time I click on the one that unlocks Christmas day, it tells me exactly how much time is left (only 22 days, two hours, and seven minutes!!!). Who needs four advent calendars anyway? There's a point where it just becomes obsessive. (six minutes!!!)

* * * * *

(five minutes!!!)

* * * * *

At some point, I will get a picture of this for you (I feel awkward about it, really), but Chinese children have exposed bums. All the time. Until they reach the age where they are potty trained, instead of using diapers (be these renewable or disposable), their pants simply lack a crotch or seat. In some ways, I admire it. Cuts down on waste, certainly. But that does mean you will often see babies peeing in the street.

Of course, the Chinese don't want babies peeing willy-nilly (tee-hee), so there is a sort of system in place. When a caregiver seeks for their child to relieve itself, they will hold the child in a squatting position, and start to whistle. The whistle is meant to be a cue for the baby to release. If the child is so unfortunate as to be a boy, there's a decent chance their will get their willy flicked as well. It's not dignified, but when the alternative is to sit around in your own filth until it's convenient for the adults around you to give you a change, I suppose you'll take what you can get.

The funny thing for me is when the parent decides the baby should pee, but the baby doesn't agree. The baby doesn't struggle; it knows that would be futile. Instead, as the parent holds the baby in the squat, whistles, and, gender permitting, gives a few well-placed flicks, the baby's eyes will glaze over. He or she (I have witnessed this twice in the last few days, with each gender) will stare off into the middle distance with a look that says more than words ever could. It's a look mostly of annoyed resignation; "I know this isn't going to go anywhere, but we both know you're going to keep trying for a bit, so maybe if I space out it won't seem like it's taking as long."

* * * * *

(22 days, one hour, and 51 minutes!!!)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The China Diaries: Happy Thanksgiving

I spent Thanksgiving at a friend's apartment, with 10 other expat teachers from Xi'an. We sat and talked, we drank a bit, and we ate a surprisingly delicious turkey, with mashed potatoes, green beans, and a home-made apple pie. It was one of the nicest Thanksgivings I've experienced. That feeling of being able to do something nice on a holiday when you might reasonably expect to be left with a normal day made it all the better. Watching the Brits try and carve a turkey for the first time made it great. I never new "Thanksgiving" could sound like a foreign word until now.

A Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The China Diaries: Disney English

Products for children are some of the best ways to learn a language. Be they childrens' books, childrens' tv programs, or childrens' movies, they provide fairly simple language in a natural context. I have a sizable collection of childrens' books in Japanese, a few in Portuguese (though I was able to spring for a slightly higher age-level with those), and now I've begun to amass a collection of Chinese books.

The Chinese members of staff at school are very encouraging with this. They help me read the characters, providing me with the pronunciation and the meaning when I need it. This week's project was 纽扣,掉地上了!, "The Button That Fell on the Ground!". I learned how to say 星星, which is Chinese for "star". Huge. I also learned the title, which is a bit more beneficial to everyday life. I drop a lot of things.

I've taken to watching Disney movies (surprise, surprise) in Chinese with the subtitles (also in Chinese). It's a pretty serious endeavor, really. Here you can see the notes I took while watching Beauty and the Beast. The left page is random sentences and bits of dialogue. I learned how to say "Bride" (新娘-it translates literally as "new mother," which would drive my Psychology of Women professor straight up a tree), "Change" (变), "Don't abandon me" (不要丢下我-I expect this to come in quite useful at some indeterminate and very unfortunate point in the future), and, as you may even be able to make out in the photo, "Stupid" (蠢-the Chinese staff are not happy I learned this). The right side is all the lyrics to "Beauty and the Beast." Why not, I say.

Tonight, I watched Cinderella. I learned some very useful things from the simple commands Cinderella would yell at Lucifer, the cat, such as "Come here!" (过来) and "Look what you did!" (你看你搞了). A few nights ago, I watched WALL-E. This was not so productive. There are about five lines of dialogue, and none of them were particularly pertinent to life. I did pick up how to say "Foreign contaminants detected" (外来污染源) and a fancy way of saying "Clean," (清楚完成). So that's good.

As a somewhat related aside, this weekend I told my most advanced students that I'd watched WALL-E. They looked at me uncomprehending, which was fair enough, so I said it in Chinese, 瓦力. They knew it instantly. I know this won't come across well via text, but the Chinese title is "Wa li." If you say "WALL-E" straight, they have no idea. If you say it with a bit of a hesitating quiver during the "wa" and a downward shot during the "li," they gotcha. Strange, strange language, Chinese.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The China Diaries: Baby's First Joke

I got in a taxi to go home last night.

"您好," I said. "高新四路。" All you've missed there is my saying my address.

He started to drive, and then asked, "英国人吗?" ("Are you an Englishman, good sir?")

"不是," I replied. "我是美国人。" Your imagination will guide you through this one just fine, I think.

This interaction is fairly routine. For reasons I've discussed before, it's a natural way to start a conversation with me in China. But then, I continued:

"您是中国人吗?" I asked him, with a completely straight face, "Are you Chinese?"

The telling of your first joke in a foreign language is always an occasion to be celebrated. It is a sign that certain levels of comfort and familiarity have been reached. When you are still at the earliest stages of learning a language, you are too busy trying to understand what's being said, and working too hard to say what you need to say, to make jokes. It's even better when they laugh boisterously, as this man did. My joke had clearly tickled him. It may have been somewhat insipid, but it hit its mark.

Taxi drivers in China come in a few flavors, much as they do in the U.S. Most are either silent or overly-chatty. The former are those who decide that a 外国人 cannot possibly speak Chinese. The latter are those who decide everyone in China can speak Chinese, and they are eager to talk to you, even when you clearly don't understand. Occasionally, though, you strike a wonderful middle-ground, where the driver is willing to talk, has clear pronunciation, and is willing to concede that, while you will understand some of what he says, you will not understand everything. I was also fortunate last night in this.

We talked a bit here and there. His speaking was very clear, and he slowed it down a little bit so I could keep up. He asked me if I have a girlfriend (they never believe me when I say no, presumably because I'm a westerner), and I asked him if he had a wife (Naturally, he does.) He showed me a picture of his daughter, whose English name is Mickey. It was not only the most pleasant and enjoyable interaction I've had with a stranger since I came to China, but since even before then. The last interaction I had like that was talking to an older married couple in EPCOT back in March. It was nice.

And, most important, I made a joke.

The China Diaries: Happy Holidays

I can still remember the feeling very clearly.

Sometime in the middle of October 2010, safely before Hallowe'en, I walked into the Home Depot where I worked to find the Christmas section had been set up. There were lights, stockings, bedeckment, and fake trees. Before Hallowe'en. It was, as far as I was concerned, the breaking of a sacred, unspoken agreement; "Alright, yes, retailers can start plugging Christmas before Thanksgiving, but I don't have to like it, and they have to wait until a few days after the Hallowe'en diabetic coma to wear off. All those lights give me a headache otherwise." Sacred agreements have rarely been so casually phrased.

Christmas has always started before Thanksgiving in my lifetime, but it seemed as though it had finally settled down. Last year was the first time I was aware that the holidays are still riding up on one another. I don't like it. I don't want to spend a quarter of my year getting to Christmas; the excitement surrounding a box you can't unwrap only builds for so long. Then it implodes.

One of the nice things about living in China the last few weeks has been my complete ignorance of Christmas encroaching. No ads on the TV, no promotional sales at the markets, no ceaselessly looping Christmas music. I can enjoy Christmas on my own schedule. As is my custom, the night of Thanksgiving, after dinner is over (we will be having a party for the teachers), I will go home and put on A Charlie Brown Christmas. The Christmas season will truly and honestly begin in that moment, for the first time in as long as I can remember.

For now, I count this as a blessing. Come December, I will miss having put up a Christmas tree, and, more than anything, I will miss walking up and down State Street and Michigan Avenue, taking in the cold and the decorations, listening to A Charlie Brown Christmas. I don't know that I've ever found a more peaceful place.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The China Diaries: Miscellania

I moved to a different district of Xi'an yesterday, to an apartment closer to the school. Here we have some pictures, which I've been told I don't post enough of. (I don't.)
This is the courtyard right outside my room. My previous residence had a courtyard full of grandparents playing with their children, which always made me happy. This one has a little pond, which is quite lovely, though I don't see it quite making up for the lack of family love.

Right around the corner from my building is a massive, maze-like (if you consider a straight-forward if dense grid to be maze-like) market, full of foods and clothes. This is the part I'm most excited about, and there will be plenty of pictures of it in the future. Here are a few pictures I took today while picking up some lunch.

When they aren't frying tofu, I don't mind it.

There is a lot of wonderful fresh fruit. Naturally, I always opt for the unhealthy foods available in the next stall. But one day I'll make a point of improving my diet. Seems easier to do here, as the healthy foods aren't substantially more expensive than the unhealthy ones like they are in the United States.
These are my favourite parts of China. The modern parts are boring.

* * * * *

In China, the washer and the dryer are the same machine. When the washing is done, the water drains, and instead of the machine heating up, it operates like a centrifuge, spinning so rapidly that most of the water in the clothes drains out. It works remarkably well, and I bet it doesn't take anywhere near as much energy. If at first it seems a bit on the strange side, I've come to feel that it makes considerably more sense than heat-producing driers. You may need to hang up the clothes for a bit afterward, but I imagine the drastic reduction in energy use more than makes up for it.

What's interesting to me is how the differences like these happen. In the US, a full-sized drier requires a special plug with a higher electrical output. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that Chinese appliance manufacturers came up with the centrifugal approach as a way to get almost the same effect without needing the larger electrical supply they knew most people would be unable to provide. It's clever. Very clever.

* * * * *

I bought a DVD of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse yesterday, figuring I could watch it to improve my listening skills. I now know how non-native English speakers must feel when they first hear Donald Duck speak. It's not a welcoming feeling.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The China Diaries: Post

About a month ago, as some of you will remember, I finally figured out the Chinese postal service. It has come to my attention in the intervening month that none of my friends have received their letters. Even those to whom I sent letters five weeks ago still have not received them. The Chinese Government makes a regular habit of checking incoming parcels. Packages are typically opened and inspected before being moved on. They often confiscate things from said packages. It feels safe to assume that letters are occasionally subject to such things as well.

I have sent mail to foreign countries before, and I am aware that not all systems are as reliable as the Candian, U.S., British, and French postal systems. *cough* *cough* Brasil *cough* Having said that, aware of the likelihood that my letters are just slowly making their way, I still like to imagine one of two things: 1) There's a somewhat sweaty, slightly obese Chinese man sitting at a desk with a Charleston Chew he confiscated from a parcel intended for an English teacher somewhere in the country, slowly working his way through my dense, indecipherable prose with a Chinese-English dictionary, looking for key phrases like "once these people get a taste of Democracy," or "the gift of information which we work to bestow upon the working classes will help them to one day overthrow their repressive shackles," or "I hear Mao smelled like fart", OR, 2) The letters are in a crate marked with my name, in a warehouse not a little like the one where the Ark of the Covenant gets stored at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

* * * * *

In an update, the letters I posted on 23 September arrived in America on 7 November. It's still fun to imagine, though.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

After Hours

I have never been a big fan of The Velvet Underground. It's a point of fact, and I know that the Music Literati in me should be horrified, but there you go. No shame. Just acceptance. I do, however, love the song that closes their third album, "After Hours". It's simple, catchy, melodic, endearing, even charming. It is in all likelihood the only charming thing Lou Reed has ever done, in music or otherwise.

This morning, as I was walking around the city center, I started humming "After Hours" to myself, which is something I do with a fair amount of frequency. It used to be that when my mind wasn't doing anything, it would play "For No One" by The Beatles, as though the song were always looping in there somewhere, but it does so too quietly to be heard over conscious thought. Nowadays, the songs change, but "After Hours" comes up regularly.

This time was different, though. It wasn't being sung in a woman's voice; it was being sung by Johnny Cash. And it fit so thoroughly, so perfectly, that I decided I must have heard it somewhere before. I can imagine singers singing material they've never, to my knowledge, sung, but it always sounds a bit wonky. I can imagine Brett Anderson out of Suede singing "After Hours", but it sounds like someone imitating Brett Anderson singing "After Hours". This really, truly sounded like Johnny Cash giving it a go. I could hear the cracks in his voice brought on by old age, that patriarchal aura he could bring to any song he wanted. It fit.

When I got home, I checked iTunes. "Maybe," I thought, "he recorded it for one of the American Recordings, and I've just forgotten which one." No luck. I searched Youtube. I checked Wikipedia. Nothing. And yet I can still hear it, perfectly, as though it were real. Knowing now that it is not, I hope it never fades. I get to hear the Johnny Cash song nobody else did, as though he made it just for me.

The China Diaries: Foreigner? Me?

During the day, when all the working-age members of the population are at work, the grandparents tend to their grandchildren. It is one of the aspects of Chinese culture I can unreservedly say I love. It would be one of the things I would list in the "Reasons to settle in China" column. I do realize it's not isolated to China, or even to Asia, but it's the first place where I've been provided with such rampant evidence.

In my apartment block, the grandparents play with their grandchildren in the courtyard. Yesterday, walking to get some breakfast, I passed by a trio of these pairings. One of the children pointed at me and said, as they do, "外国人!" ("Foreigner!") I turned around and walked over.

"我不是外国人。我是中国人。" ("I am not a foreigner. I am Chinese."), I said. The grandmothers thought it was pretty funny, and began laughing. One of them held up their charge, asking him, "Is this man Chinese?" The child I'd spoken to, on the other hand, was confused. You could see on his face that his mind was struggling with this. "He can't be Chinese," it was debating. "But he said he is... and he said it in Chinese."

It's the little joys.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The China Diaries: The Language Barrier

I've been without internet at home for the last week or so. As a result, I've not spoken with my mom in about two weeks, which may well be the longest we've ever gone without speaking to one another. She called me this evening to see how I was doing and to check on flight information for my brief return to the U.S. in January. It was, of course, nice to hear her voice.

A funny thing happened, though; while I was talking to her, a Chinese member of the staff came over to ask me a question. I wrote 我妈妈 ("My mother") in Chinese on a notepad while still listening, and responding to, my mother in English. This was, apparently, close to too much; my mind felt as though two people had grabbed each of the hemispheres and pulled in opposite directions. It was a weird, weird feeling. Translating is one thing; I've done that. But literally, simultaneously communicating in two languages, one through speaking and one through writing, is a strange thing.

I look forward to trying it again in the future. Strange, yes, but oddly intriguing.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The China Diaries: 王

There are 10 students in one of my classes. Four of them have the last name 王. Four of the ten of them have the last name "Wang."

Sometimes, stereotypes exist for a reason.

The China Diaries: Breath

Hallowe'en is, well, it's today, come to think of it. But here at English First, we celebrated Hallowe'en last Thursday with a party for our HF students, between the ages of 6 and 10. It was a fun night, but I'm not here to recount that. As a result of the party, all the teachers ended up with only two days for lesson planning, which is not a lot. I got through my classes with all my supplies and lesson plans intact (literally finished the last supply for my last lesson about five minutes before the lesson), which is great, but now I am horrendously behind with correspondence. This is my moment to breath, and relax. I was stressed for five days.

A few things I've learned in that time;

1. You think a Hallowe'en party is going to be a great opportunity to scare all the kids you don't like. Turns out the only ones who cry are the sweet young children who were your favourites in the first place. You feel bad.

2. I can't do impromptu face-painting. I have to have a picture or something very specific in mind. One of my coworkers wanted to look like a monster. By the time I was done, it looked like I'd tried to paint the continent of Africa and the Atlantic on his face.

3. If you ever decide you want your face painted for Earth Day, I'm really, really good at that.

4. You can listen to "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me Today" by Tom Waits 47 times in the course of a 60-or-so-minute Hallowe'en party when you have it looped as the background music for your room.

5. When you have a lot to get done at work, you will get all of it done in an impossible blur of effort and dedication, only to wake up and realize you dreamed your entire work day.

6. Three days of being at work for 12 hours is just about as bad as it sounds. Particularly when you don't drink coffee.

7. The "Very Slowly" movement of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring is the kindest music that's ever been written. That, "Air" from Bach's Suite No. 3, and Annie's "Heartbeat" can seemingly get you through anything.

This is not, I'm aware, a funny list, as my 10 Things I've Learned in China list was. That's okay. I had an adventure to the Muslim Quarter on Tuesday, which I'll write about here during a day off. in the middle of this week. Not much to tell, but a fair amount, I think, to show.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The China Diaries: On Belonging, and Other Lyte Entertainments

Living in a foreign country gives you all sorts of new insights, into the place your living, yourself, and even the place you've left. That's why all the books recommend it if you get the chance. The same thing happens when you move from one part of a country to another, but it is obviously going to be exacerbated when the move is on a larger scale.

One of the more profound realizations I've come to here in Xi'an has not been about China, but about the U.S., and it was spurred by what reads at first like an obvious statement; not one single person in Xi'an has ever, nor will anyone ever assume that I am from Xi'an. You can giggle if you want, but speaking as a born-and-raised resident of the United States, that's kind of a new thought. Not completely so, but it was never quite so crystalized as it is now.

In the United States, short of some piece of evidence compelling us to assume otherwise, there is no ethnicity we automatically reject as native. It's not something I was conscious of until I came here. The population of China is so homogenous that it's glaringly obvious I'm not from around here. I wasn't, to clarify, under the misunderstanding that I would be able to blend right in; I just never considered why it is that doesn't happen in the U.S., and why it is that when I look at most people from China, I don't think to myself "Different".

On Tuesday night, walking back from school, a young girl of about four or five saw me walking by with a coworker and yelled "外国人!", Chinese for "Foreigners!" She started jumping up and down with excitement, and even followed us for a few paces. That simply does not happen in the U.S. As a general rule, our children don't assume ethnically different people to be outsiders, because experience teaches them that they probably aren't.

I'm not using this to make any sort of point. I don't think it's a bad thing, or a good thing. But it is something I find quite fascinating. It's a small difference with large implications. One of the teachers who's been in Xi'an for three years still regularly has people end conversations with "Welcome to Xi'an!" As he said, "Yes, it's very nice that they welcome me, but I've been here for three fucking years. Stop welcoming me." It serves to remind you, in no uncertain terms, that you can never really belong here, no matter how you try.

To be fair, that's part of what I like. I'm a sucker for attention.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The China Diaries: That's Better, Isn't It?

Weekends are the busy period for teachers at my school. Since we teach lessons at a private institution separate from any public schooling, we don't have many classes during the week. Most are from Friday evening through Sunday night. We spend Monday through Friday planning for those weekend lessons. The planning portion is the stretch I struggle with. That's where the stress comes from.

This weekend was my first with a complete work load. EF builds up your Academic Credit Hours (ACH) over a month, to give you a chance to adapt and get settled. The last two days have been spent mostly in the classroom, and they've flown by at an incredible clip. Over the last month, I've spent most days feeling some degree of sick to my stomach. This weekend marked the first time since mid-September that I had the opportunity to teach without feeling ill at all. Turns out I still really do love teaching. I had almost forgotten.

Today was particularly good; I taught upper-intermediate 14-year-olds in the morning, a beginner one-to-one, intermediates after that, and then finally a class of seven-year-old beginners. It was a great day. It didn't solve most of the challenges of living in China, of course, but it certainly helped me to remember why I wanted to try and deal with them in the first place. As they say, what goes up must come down, but that doesn't mean it can't bounce back again.

No, I don't know who says that either.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The China Diaries: What Goes Up...

I have written mostly of the positive aspects that come with moving to China; whether they are inherently positive or just amusing is a separate issue, but, either way, The China Diaries portions of Thought's Dowinion have mostly shied away from anything serious. Moving to another country, I knew there would be struggles. That's part of the deal. That's even part of the appeal.

I do seem to be having a rather rough time of it this week. If you were to ask me right now if I'm glad I came to China, the answer would be "Yes." If you were to ask me right now if I'm happy here, the answer would be somewhat less certain. There are many reasons for this, some that will change and others that are less likely to do so. It is, I'm sure, cyclical.

I realized today that I have not hugged anyone in 40 days. Outside of a handshake, I haven't had any sort of physical contact with another human being since 4 September. And, lest there be misunderstanding, I mean that in a completely platonic way. I miss hugging friends goodbye. I miss laying my head in a friend's lap while watching a movie. I miss the feeling that there's someone there. That's the hardest part. You're alone in ways you didn't expect, because, if you're lucky, you've never experienced them before.

The China Diaries: The Small Successes

I made mention in a previous post of my difficulties in expressing that simplest of statements, "I can't speak Chinese." I have exciting news, beloved readers.

I climbed into a taxi tonight, to go home from my weekly Chinese lesson. I told the man where to take me, and he asked me a follow up question which I didn't understand.

“对不起”, I said. Pronounced 'dui bu qi,' it's "I'm sorry." This part has always worked. Never once had a problem with the ole 对不起. (Well, besides the fact that I constantly mix it up with 'bu ke qi,' which is "You're welcome."). The part that comes next is the trouble spot, but I need to learn somehow, so I gathered up my courage and said what has failed so many times before: "我不会说中文". ('Wo bu hui shuo zhong wen,' literally "I am unable to speak Chinese.") I braced myself for the look of incomprehension and the further attempts to communicate with me. Sometimes they pat you on the knee, as though you will understand what they are saying through absorption.

A miracle happened; the cab driver smiled, and nodded, clearly having understood. I ventured further. "我只会说 ('wo zhi hui shuo', "I can only speak")," and then I held up my hand with my fingers close together. That he held up his hand with his fingers in the same position as I did told me that he understood everything. It was a good, if very quiet, cab ride home after that.

* * * * *

Except for the part where he called another driver the Chinese equivalent of a "cunt." That part was loud.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The China Diaries: Post

It only took a month, but I've finally mailed some letters. As it turns out, there's a China Post office just down the street. I had been repeatedly told that it was "across the street" from my apartment, which was not exactly helpful; when you're in an apartment block, there are four across the streets, and they are each, you know, a full block. (A Chinese block is much longer than an American block)

It was a surprisingly painless process, really, though I felt a lot of anxiety walking up to the door. It must have been all the waiting, because this is something I haven't so much put off as simply not gotten to; it's the band-aid I've elected to remove slowly.

I walked up to the counter with the sign "Stamp Ccunter". Seemed a safe bet. While I waited for the person in front of me to finish their transaction, I pulled out my dictionary and looked up "Stamp". (邮票)

The moment I found it, the woman at the counter looked over and asked me, "邮票?"

"Uh, 是,邮票." (If I barely knew what was going on, I'm not giving you an advantage)

She pointed to the "Letters&Pa rcels" counter, spoke quickly to the men behind it, and went back to whatever she was doing.

There was a gentleman in front of me here as well, being helped by the two men. One of them was busy dealing with the customer while the other looked on. After a few minutes, the less busy of the two looked over at me.

I smiled, which seems to be a permanent condition when you're in a country where you don't speak the language. "Smile at them," your instincts tell you, "lest they decide you are to be feared."

"您好。Uh... 邮票?"

He responded in quite a bit of Chinese. I smiled and replied "I'm sorry, I don't speak that much Chinese." (Pinning down how to say this in Chinese has proven remarkably tricky. I have asked several people, and they all give me different answers. The first thing they teach you in Spanish class is "Yo hablo español," which is really just propagating a lie at that point, but at least it's not a large leap to "Yo no hablo español." I know how to say neither in Chinese, which is really getting embarrassing.)

He considered me a moment, and gently offered "Please wait a moment." He didn't speak English, but his pronunciation in that sentence was better than mine. Someone's been practicing.

I had three letters; One to go to England, one to go to the United States, and one to go to France. When it was my turn, I handed them to the man at the computer, offering "英国,美国,法国" as my best explanation. When I receive letters from other people here, the envelope has my address scribbled in Chinese on it, so Mr. Postman (Hey!) knows where to drop the letter. I figure outgoing mail doesn't need more than a knowledge of the country of destination. Leave it to their respective postal companies to sort the rest out. Just get it on the plane. I paid the man ¥18, and went on my way.

A simple outing, but it was affirming. The big stuff is easy because the school has people to help us; phones, medical issues, etc. The little things are left to us, as well they should be. It's a great feeling when you figure something out. I have a stack of 10 letters sitting on my desk at work, waiting. They will have to wait but one day more, and they will be on their way.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The China Diaries: Neat Little Rows

I spent a decent portion of the National Holiday week in my apartment, reading and watching Game of Thrones (really just great, by the way). On the last day, I went East to see the Terracotta Army.

You are, I'm sure, at least familiar with the concept of the Terracotta Army. In 1974, farmers in Shaanxi province were attempting to dig a well when they stumbled upon a terracotta soldier buried in the ground. Curious about the find, but still in need of a well, they moved a few feet to the left, and dug again, only to strike another soldier. This process continued for several more hours until, finally frustrated by the utter lack of success, the farmers reported the discovery to the authorities. The incident report read, "Can you get these things out of here? We're trying to dig a well."

I went with another teacher who'd been here a year without ever managing to visit the warriors. This is not, it turns out, so unusual; the Assistant Director of Studies at my school has been here for four years, and he hasn't visited them. He tells me he will go to see them on his last day, before going to the airport. At this point it's a matter of principle.

Damian and I met around 10:30, traveling into the city center to catch a bus. Adjacent you'll see a picture of part of Xi'an's wall. Like most places in this part of China, Xi'an is famous for its wall. I await the day when I learn of a place in China which is famous for not being famous for its wall. This wall surrounds the center of Xi'an in its entirety, though of course it has had a number of large holes cut into it over the years to allow for vehicular transportation.

The bus ride took roughly forty minutes, and cost ¥10 per head, which is a bit less than $1.50 per person. How they pay for the fuel alone, I'll never know. During the ride, we passed by what would have been a large amount of gorgeous scenery, but for industrialized China's legendary smog. Behold, for example, what would have been a lovely photograph of a mountain-top pagoda, but is now instead a photo of a pagoda in silhouette.Part of me wonders if people born and raised in China go to other countries and feel a jolt of excitement and fear when they realize they can make out details in buildings more than three blocks away. Do they know it's an environment thing? Or do they think the human eye just works that way? It's a bit like Plato's Cave, but we could test it.

When we arrived, Damian made the mistake of buying a pomegranate off an old woman. This was not in and of itself a mistake, but it signaled to the hundreds of other sellers crowding the tourist trap that we did in fact have money, and that we were in fact capable of some level of interaction with non-English speakers. (You should click on the picture of the pomegranate, if for no other reason than to share in my gleeful relationship with my new camera lens.)

Admission in to see the warriors is normally ¥110, but for reasons I'm still a little fuzzy on, anyone with a student ID could see them for ¥55 when we went. I would wager it had something to do with the holiday, much as I wagered they wouldn't be able to tell my driver's license wasn't from the University of Tennessee.

There are three major Pits which are open to the public. Pit 1 is the big one (in the picture at the start of this post, which, in full disclosure, is from Wikipedia.), while Pits 2 and 3 are both fairly unimpressive. Neither is lit well, and neither contains much. They are, forgive me, the pits.

The entrances and exits are labeled with "Way In" and "Way Out," which technically makes sense, but I got a strange sense of foreboding from them. It's funny how it's the little idiomatic mistakes that really get you. Walking in, I was stunned by how big the excavation is. "Imagine the size of the kiln," I thought. I took a lot of pictures in Pit 1. Looking at them after the fact, the weird combination of earth tones with speckled hints of blue and red makes it seem like the camera is broken. The one to the left here is of particular interest to me because of the way the soldier in the center of the picture seems to be mugging for the camera. I'd bore you with more pictures, but you really have to be a member of my family for me to feel I can subject you to that.

I will say that one who visits the soldiers on a busy day should be as proud of every picture one manages as a war veteran is of every wound sustained in battle. The Chinese do not believe in the concept of "First come, first serve," and I had to fight to get every pole position.

In addition to the three pits, there is also a museum portion, though the largest section of the museum seems to be about the museum itself. What they housed in the museum before it had any history... I try to ignore the thought. Because it is a major attraction for China, the English signs throughout are well-translated, though it would likely have behooved the government to have a native speaker give them the once-over. Again, it's not wrong, but it's not quite right. As an aside to those who read the sign, China's self-centrist view, exemplified in the conception of "two civilizations" as China and Everyone Else, remains to me a fascinating thing.

After a walk through the heinously overpriced gift shop- keeping in mind that it was overpriced after the Westerners-only 50% off- Damian and I hopped on the bus back home.

* * * * *

I like to think, 37 years later, that the two farmers, having been relocated in the aftermath of the discovery, still don't understand why they had to move because a bunch of pottery was in their well.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I woke up this morning to the announcement that Steve Jobs succumbed to the pancreatic cancer he'd been fighting since 2005. Just last week, I was listening to an old episode of Desert Island Discs from 2003. Nick Hornsby was the guest. When he was asked what his luxury item would be, he said, "An iPod," and had to then explain to the host what an iPod is. In 2011, that seems ridiculous. In 8 years, the little mp3 player that could has gone from being barely known to being the standard bearer, even in many instances the generic term for all mp3 players.

The measure of a man is supposed to be his impact, and what he leaves behind. There is a sadness in this. But, more importantly, there is gratitude. Thank you, Mr. Jobs.

The China Diaries: Happy Anniversary!

I've been in Xi'an for a month now. I arrived on the evening of 5 September, about an hour from now. It has, overall, been a wonderful month, with as many challenges as rewards, etc., etc.

In all seriousness, it has been a good month. I've been surprised in ways both good- The Chinese are just lovely people to foreigners- and bad- honestly, do you have to spit everywhere?. I have not had to work all that much, I'll come right out and say. I arrived just before a holiday that happened to fall on a day I wouldn't have had off from work, and I'm now at the end of a week off for National Day. The current Chinese Dynasty is 62 years old, if all the signs are to be believed (and, as this is China, they are, even if you don't, which you do).

I realize I have only been here a month, and I will not pretend to be any sort of expert, but I do have a few distilled nuggets of knowledge which are worth keeping in mind for the end of your first month:

1. It is always a good idea to have your dictionary and a note pad with you. The Chinese are not, by and large, good at the Point to a Few Words in the Dictionary Game, but if you write out a remedial sentence, they will happily oblige.

2. You will go through a period where all the food is wonderful, you eat everything, and both you and your digestive system are having a wonderful time. And then your digestive system will realize this is not a holiday, and it will take back all the nice things it said about the chow bing from the corner restaurant.

3. On a somewhat related note, tofu may taste lovely, but when it is frying... well, there are no words. Imagine that you've worn your shoes through a marathon, and then locked them in a humid box for a month. The smell you'd get when you opened that box isn't even close.

4. There are no lines. Lines were an abstract concept your parents made up so you wouldn't knock over the other children. You're an adult now. So are the other children. Have at it.

5. You will never need to learn how to say "please" in Chinese. "Thank you," "excuse me," and "you're welcome," yes, but never "please".

6. You will wonder how so advanced a civilization could have formed with so ridiculous a language. Honestly, with all the sounds the human mouth can make, why would you limit yourself to so few. Even a few clicks would help.

7. On the other hand, you will start to wonder why other civilizations didn't develop a logographic system of writing. It starts to make a remarkable amount of sense.

8. You will not get tired of funny translations: "Show the grass your mercy" on a "Keep off the grass" sign, for example. Or, for the more subtle among us, "Please keep the enterance clear" on an elevator sign. Makes a bit more sense than "entrance," really.

9. Your sense of what is or isn't a fair price for something will become wildly skewed. If I pay more than ¥10 ($1.50) for a meal, I ask questions.

10. People will say hello to you on the street. People will want to get their picture taken with you. You will think it is because you are a stunningly attractive human being, a perfect distillation of human evolution, and not bad to talk to either. You will be wrong. It is because you are white.

Keep all of these things in mind. It'll work to your advantage, I promise.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The China Diaries: Deal

On an adventure in the middle of Xi'an the other day, my companion wanted coffee. McDonalds and Starbucks are both options, even in Xi'an, but she wanted somewhere local. The Chinese are not known for drinking coffee, which made it a challenge, but I spotted a sign that said "coffee" as we were descending the steps to Starbucks.

I expected a coffee stand, or a small shop. When we walked in the door, I was stunned to find myself standing in a massive, mostly-marble lobby, leading to a grand staircase. "Well," I thought, "alright. I mean... why not, really."

At the top of the stairs was a very posh re
staurant. They gave us a menu for food and a menu for drinks (the menus literally said "Beautiful food" and "Beautiful drinks" on the spine). It was my least favorite sort of coffee shop, the sort where you can't order "a coffee." You have to order a specific type of coffee, be it the Blackwood Canyon Bean or the Beckett's Bitter Brew Bean, etc. I don't drink coffee, but I find the concept pretty obnoxious.

With the coffee taken care of, I called over the waiter and asked for the bill. Since I don't know how to say "bill" in Chinese just yet, I mimed opening and closing the sleeve a bill comes in by putting my palms together opening my hands.
This, as it turns out, is a fairly useful international mime for "bill," as those sleeves are in use everywhere. The waiter nodded in a comprehending manner, and went about his business. About two minutes later, a waitress came over with a serving tray and a deck of cards.

Now, there is surely some humor in the misunderstanding of the hand signal, but to me the real humor was that he understood my mime to mean playing cards, and that it was a logical conclusion in the context. We don't sell playing cards in American restaurants, even most of the nice ones.

Admittedly, the Chinese do seem to like their gambling much more than we do. But that's not all that surprising. It's illegal here.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The China Diaries: The Cheese Sandwich

I went to Metro today, a market in Xi'an with a lot of imported western food. By American standards, it is not terribly expensive. By Chinese standards, it's horrifyingly so. I spent about ¥250, which is around $40, on western food. I bought things that you, dear reader, take for granted every day, including cereal, skim milk, and bacon. But most precious of all, perhaps, was the cheese.

After flirting with the 10 kg block of mozzarella and the two-gallon jar of grated parmesan, I decided to go with a more practical choice of two different cheddars. One of them is an extra sharp Land O' Lakes. Tonight, grabbing dinner on the go, I made myself a simple cheese sandwich. Five width-wise cuts of cheese. Two slices of bread. Nothing more, and nothing less. It may have been the best thing I've ever eaten. They don't "do" cheese in China, and so it is a rare treat. I found myself savoring the flavor, enjoying the texture. I treated this cheese sandwich like restaurant reviewers are meant to sample the new big dish at a hot restaurant.

I've never been a big foodie, but I think the only thing I want more right now than another cheese sandwich (I have to eat them sparingly, lest I burn through my supply too quickly) is a bowl of Stonyfield Farms vanilla yoghurt mixed with granola. My God, that sounds good.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Nessun Dorma

I have become obsessed in the last few days with "Nessun Dorma," an aria written by Puccini. It's led to a few things I feel worth noting:

1. Here's a clip of the unfortunately named Paul Potts performing the song on Britain's Got Talent. Paul does a lovely job, no question, but I show this to you to highlight the moment when Simon asks Paul what he's going to do for us this evening. "I'm going to sing opera," he says. Piers Morgan shoots the other panelists a look that says, "Opera?!? This silly little man thinks he can do opera! How amusingly droll." Ass.

2. I've been listening to different performances of it on Youtube, listening to as many different tenors as I could find. I've read all the comments, as people debate over who owns the best rendition. I've listened to Domingo, and Carreras, and Andrea Boccelli, and Mario Lanza. But none of them, for me, compared to Pavarotti. Watch him in this performance filmed in 1980. It is the way he hits those high notes, without a hint of struggle, soaring above the orchestration and into the heavens the song aims for. Watch his face, though, when the song is over; what I like most about this video is that, after that staggering performance, you can see in Pavarotti's smile that he's just as amazed by the whole thing as the rest of us.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The China Diaries: The "Crane" Index

Over the years, many a quick'n'easy method has been developed for determining the economic vitality of a city, methods that don't rely so much on crunching numbers as they do on quick observations. They are not meant for precision, merely a broader accuracy. The Economist, for example, created the Big Mac index back in the 80's, using the theory that you could tell how inflated an economy is by the relative price of a Big Mac.

Another popular one, more popular than most due to its ease of use, is The "Crane" Index, which operates on the theory that the number of visible cranes in the sky line is directly related to the economic activity and consumer confidence of a given city. I took this picture of a part of Xi'an's skyline yesterday afternoon.


Xi'an's doing alright by that system of measure, I'd say.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The China Diaries: Happy Birthday

Today, I turned 23.

The celebrations started last night, when I went out to a club with most of my fellow teachers. On my part, there was very little drinking, and quite a lot of dancing. Anyone who's seen me at a wedding reception has a fairly accurate idea of what happened.

The morning was fairly mundane; I woke up around 9:30, listened to Radiolab, and did some laundry. I knew most of my peers wouldn't be awake until after 12, so I waited until about 12:30 to start sending out texts seeing if anyone wanted to go to the market. I received one reply saying, "I'm sorry, but I am not leaving my flat today," which made me laugh.

Being alone is not something I was in the mood for today, and it started to annoy me. For one thing, as I walked off in the vague direction of my destination, it occurred to me that I am still rather helpless when it comes to getting the food I want; unless I know from experience that a given restaurant has the dish I want, I don't know what they prepare, and I am frightened to ask. This evening, I stopped in a restaurant to see if they had Chow Bing; the man looked at me blankly and handed me a menu. The look I returned wasn't so blank; "If I could read your menu, would we even be having this interaction?"

I'd decided my birthday present to myself would be a guitar; I found a lovely Roxe (*shrug*) acoustic for 740 RMB. I was feeling pretty good today, apparently; I never barter, as my Chinese isn't strong enough for me to be comfortable with the idea, but I got the guitar down to 650 RMB (about $110) with a bag and a capo thrown in for good measure. I also ended up buying all five seasons of Six Feet Under (At $2.75 a season, you say no), A Dog Day Afternoon, and Beauty and the Beast. It's going to be the best marathon ever.

When I got the guitar back to my apartment, I realized how much I've missed having one around. I sat on the couch for almost two hours, playing through bits of everything. I felt a bit like Sweeney Todd, really; At last, my arm is complete again.

The early evening was spent finishing The Amber Spyglass (amazing; I'm not ashamed to say there were a few tears), and then I headed off to my first Chinese lesson. It's a funny thing about logographic languages; I know how to say the name of the bus stop I wanted to get to this evening (tai bai xiao qu), but I didn't know how it was written (太白小区). This made finding the bus and direction on the signs for the routes a very tricky thing. Fortunately, the bus driver understood my predicament, and signaled when it was my stop. There was a moment of misunderstanding; apparently, in China, waving your hand means "No, stop, don't," not the more personally familiar "bye bye." I'll leave how that came about to your capable imaginations.

The lesson itself was a lot of fun. The teacher and I ended up in a conversation about Japanese grammar, followed by my admitting to having spent a break at work the other day reading the Wiki on copulas, and she pronounced me to be "cool." That is the only time that has ever happened, and likely the only time it ever will. The electricity in her building went out about 2/3 through the lesson, which made the reading portions a bit trickier, but then I got to learn Chinese by candlelight. It added a certain something to the proceedings. Certainly made it memorable. I took a cab home, and had an hour-long Skype chat with my mom. It was, over all, and despite not having quite been to plan, a very nice birthday.

The guitar is wonderful, and I'm genuinely excited about Six Feet Under, but I think the best thing I did on my birthday was catching a scooter taxi home from the market. With a guitar slung on my back, I hopped on the back of a scooter/bike and rode home. I've taken them twice since I've been in Xi'an (they are a bit more expensive than cabs); There is a feeling that you will die if you are hit by something, and there's an equally large feeling that you will be hit by something, but the whole thing is relaxing: You sit on the back of a bike, with a gorgeous breeze coming by, taking in the sounds of the city, and the gentle undulations of the shocks. Totally worth 14 RMB (haggled down from 15, as I was feeling invincible.) ((Okay, fine, it was because I meant to say 12 RMB, but misspoke.)) (((And I'm still really hungry, because the place that sells dumplings down the corner was closed by the time I got home)))

Monday, September 19, 2011

The China Diaries: Untitled No. 1

One of my fellow teachers at EF is leaving in about a week. He's been here for a year, and has by all accounts enjoyed himself tremendously. He will be returning to his native UK for a few months before getting a job in Istanbul (not Constantinople). He loves Xi'an, and he loves China. Talking to him about his choice to leave has been quite interesting.

* * * * *

I sat down this evening to write one of the Funny Ones for the blog, about my first laundry experience last week. I was uploading some pictures of my laundry room when I ended up looking at all my photographs.

I have been a very fortunate man. To say any less would be impossible. I have been materially fortunate, certainly, but I refer to the friends I've made and kept over the years. "Clayton Moore," sir, I came across the pictures I took when you and Mrs. "Moore" stayed over in my apartment, and when we celebrated the twilight of your bachelorhood. Miss Knap, I looked at the pictures from our Ikea and Mitsuwa adventure. Mr. Varney and Miss Day; three separate sets of sterling memories which all brought smiles to my face. And I miss Disney World, and I miss everyone I met and grew to love there. I've never missed anything in quite the same way, really. It is the closest I think I've ever come to an addiction; I can feel the desire to do it again pulling at me constantly. That it was the closest I've ever come to a perfect experience is no coincidence.

That is, of course, why I can't go back; it was a perfect four month experience. To go back could do nothing but ruin it in the end. So I have moved on to other adventures. You can't go back to the ideal memories. No good can come of it. As individuals, the only way to survive is to move forward and find the next great adventure. The only other choice seems to be stagnation.

I say all this to convince myself as much as anything, I'm sure.

* * * * *

Realizing this is quite a ways off, talking to my peer has made me more conscious of my concern that I will decide to stay in Xi'an for the long run; there's nothing wrong if that ends up happening for a good reason, but it borders on the tragic if it is simply out of comfort. It is not the duty of the young to settle. I'm not done exploring yet. There's a lot more I want to do before I pick a place. Disney was the first step. China is the next. After that? We'll see in a year or two.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The China Diaries: Make An Appointment

I find the changes in the mundanities to be the most interesting. In the US, I don't have to translate the buttons on the microwave before I can use it. Nothing makes you feel quite so ineffectual as standing in front of a simple appliance for fifteen minutes, trying to work out what it's telling you.

It's better still when the translation gives you a small giggle. The cleaning powder in the kitchen that translates literally to "Go dirt powder." Computers are called, sensibly enough, "electric brains." The timer portion of the washing machine control panel translates to "make an appointment," which makes me laugh simply for its formality.
The school I work for, English First, has been superb about making me feel welcome in Xi'an. One of the teachers came over my first day to take me around the area. Wednesday night, I met up with all the teachers for a welcome dinner. As it stands now, I am the only member of staff not from the U.K., though another American is inclement, and should be here any day now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The China Diaries: 你好。您有... er... sponge吗?

*Hello. Do you have... er... sponge?*
*Ni hao. Nin you... er... sponge ma?*

When I was inspecting my apartment on the night of my arrival, I noticed that the toilet and the fridge were in dire need of some cleaning. This was just fine with me, really; gave me a reason to go out and about my first morning in China.

My apartment building is in an apartment block, which is pretty much how the entire city is set up. Apartments aren't right on the street; they're in vaguely gated communities, where all the buildings are apartments. Don't let the "gated" part trick you, as the gates only stop vehicles. This place isn't exclusive by any means. People can come and go as they like. Back to the point, that block is surrounded by shops and restaurants. It's quite nice, actually. There's a, well, I suppose it's really a stall that happens to have walls, where you can buy the best bread for about 2 RMB (6.4-ish RMB = $1), and a few blocks away there's an amazing stall with dumplings... I digress.

My first morning in China, I woke up around 7, puttered about the apartment until 8:30, and then headed down to the streets. I found cleaning powder (去污粉, literally "Go dirt powder") in my apartment, so I only needed sponges and gloves. Simple enough. I went left out of my apartment block and rather quickly came across a shop selling cleaning supplies. I say "shop"; it looked a bit like I was walking into a professional cleaning company's storage room, which I may very well have been. I went in, asked, "您有。。。" (Do you have...), and fumbled with my dictionary until I found "gloves." I pointed. The woman nodded briskly, ran over to a shelf, and came back with some rubber cleaning gloves. Score. Next, then. "你有。。。" "sponge"? They didn't, oddly enough, but that was alright. I had gotten gloves. I felt invincible.

There was a book store next to that, selling exercise books for children. As I want to learn characters, it seemed like a good place to pick up a first-year's My First Characters book. I looked around the shop a bit, and couldn't find what I wanted, so I pulled out my dictionary and my journal and sat in the corner, scribbling what roughly translated to "I want to learn Chinese characters. I don't know much. Do you have a good book?" After a few minutes of the store keeper shuffling around with a Chinese dictionary (If you haven't ever glanced at one, by the way, I think trying to navigate a Chinese dictionary is one of the key arguments against a logographic language), it became apparent that my message was failing. At least she was nice about it. I retreated back to my corner and had a think. I grabbed a My First Maths book, and wrote (again, roughly) "This book teaches me math. Do you have one that teaches me characters?" I showed her, she nodded, and came back with that which I sought. She spoke to me for a bit in Chinese, from which I picked out almost nothing. I know I told her I was English, which was not actually on purpose, and that I was a teacher (I had to write that down, as my pronunciation is still dismal). She gave me a thumbs up as I was leaving, which I took to be general, across-the-board encouragement. "You got your book," that thumbs up said. "You're gonna do great."

I ran my hard-won wares back to my apartment, as I didn't know how far I would have to travel for a sponge. I came back down and took the right out of my block, eventually coming to a CVS-style market. As close as one can get to that in China, anyway. I found an employee, and repeated the motions; "您有。。。" *fumble* "sponge?". Her reaction led me to believe that I may have been pointing to the word for Sea Sponge, or that perhaps it was a regional thing. She didn't know either. After some quick communication with her and a coworker, miming "for your face?" "No, to wash counters", they took me to the sponges. Having accomplished my goals for the morning, I decided to walk around the store for a bit (It's not a very big store, really, but baby steps).

What happened next felt like being carried away in a stream, so out of my control was everything that occurred. The woman who had helped me decided I still needed help, and that she was going to give it to me. I flipped through the pages of my dictionary to look for the word "nothing," pointed, and it did not have the desired effect. Two more employees came seemingly out of nowhere, and they all talked. The more I insisted I didn't need anything (all in English with big, emotive gestures), the less they seemed to believe me. I was surrounded by five Chinese women, all in their fifties or sixties, determined to help me, whether I liked it or not. One of them led me to the underwear; they had decided as a group that I was embarrassed to ask for what I needed. When that didn't prove to be what I was after (as, clearly, I was after something), the council continued. More employees gathered. Some decided they needed time to rest on the bench, and were substituted for fresh players. I flipped desperately through my dictionary, trying to find some way to get across that I needed nothing. Oddly, my dictionary didn't have "I'm really sorry, I've been trying to tell you I don't need anything, but all of you are so keen on being helpful, and my faculty with the language is so low, that I've not managed to get that across, despite my myriad attempts" in the phrases section. And I thought I'd bought a nice one.

I tried "Nothing." Didn't work. I tried "No" "Need" "Help". Didn't work. I don't think the Chinese retain words well in these types of circumstances. If you pointed to "No," "Need," and "Help" in an English dictionary in America, I like to think the individual attempting to help you would get it. I even found "Can I just look around?" and pointed to that. Nothing. At this point, the store had called in employees from their other stores to try and help, so I was surrounded by roughly 237 Chinese corner-market employees, all certain I needed help with something. "But what is it?," they asked one another. They'd turned me into a Zen koan, as though the first to figure out what I needed would attain enlightenment.

Finally, they found someone who spoke English. A fellow customer, he came up and asked, "What. Do you. Need?" I said, "I don't need anything, actually. These women have been incredibly friendly and helpful, but I've been trying to tell them for the last five or ten minutes that I don't need help with an... you don't understand what I'm saying, do you."

"Uh..."

"Nothing."

"You. Need. Nothing?"

"Yes."

He translated the message. They all smiled and returned to their stations. I paid for my sponges and left, looking forward to spending an hour or so listening to some Carol King and cleaning the bathroom. "Big day," I thought to myself. "Big day."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The China Diaries: The One About Getting to China

Interspersed throughout this entry will be ill-organized notes from my journal.

* * * * *

For the three or four hours I managed to sleep, I slept pretty well the night before I left. I got up at around four-thirty, and was ready to go by five. There's nothing quite like an early morning slog to the airport; there's no one else on the roads, which is great, but I always end up wondering how I got to the terminal in the first place, like highway hypnosis extends from the car to checking in and security.

The connector from Nashville to Chicago took off as scheduled, around 7. The plane was so small that I could not stand upright in the cabin, which was a new experience. I usually make regional flights with Southwest, so I haven't been in a puddle-jumper, as my family calls them, in a very long time.

* Cities look beautiful from the air. Their sprawl can be a bit terrifying, but they look gorgeous and impressive. Small town centers, where all the development is low-lying and gathered in a small spot surrounded by farm fields or what-have-you, look like a scar on the Earth, as thought everything has died and gone black.*

The nerves started to settle in when my plane pulled up. Even then, though, I was surprised by how calm I felt. My last text was to my mom, saying "I'm about to board the plane. I guess I was serious about this whole China thing."

* * * * *

I set a goal of listening to all ten of Gustav Mahler's symphonies during my travel. The total running time for them is about twelve and a half hours, so it's a pretty serious goal, but I thought with 24 hours of travel time, it would be easily accomplished. I was wrong. So wrong. I made it through five. It was an odd experience, because his music is full of a lot of portent and doom; I don't think it helped make me feel at ease. Have you ever played Soundtrack, where you put on some instrumental music and go about your day, seeing how it effects your mood and your perceptions? Behold the picture to the right, taken not too long after take-off. The sky is perfect. No turbulence, a lovely blue tint, gorgeous fluffy clouds. Yet, with Mahler's Symphony No. 3 playing, I found myself checking for gremlins on the wings. Strangely enough, I spent most of the trip alternating between Mahler and Suede.
*The sky looks beautiful, yet the pilot and the plane insist it's turbulent. Jerks.*

Here are some of the pictures I took flying over Eastern Russia and Northern China. If you click on them, they get much bigger, and they look quite nice.

The flight lasted a surprisingly quick 14 or 15 hours; I did not think it was that long. I also forgot how the flight TO China is quite gentle on jet lag. Because of the flight path, the sun never sets. I arrived in Beijing in the afternoon, and was in my apartment around 10 Tuesday night.

*Greeted in Beijing by a massive billboard of Nicolas Cage trying to sell me a watch, and a book store playing "The Way You Lie." Cultural hegemony: It's everywhere.*
**To be fair, that is the point**

Beijing airport was an impressive, impressive place. The metal bars you see in the photo to the left were all across the ceilings. It doesn't seem like much in this photo, because the room is flat and straight, but in the bigger parts of the airport, where the ceilings domed and turned and had unexpected angles, the effect was stunning. I tried to study a bit of Chinese before I left, but just about everyone who worked there knew just the right English words for their role. "You have laptop? Take out," said the nice woman at security.

The final connection flight to Xi'an was quite pleasant. I was unconscious for most of it (otherwise, I would have gotten in that sixth symphony), though the woman who sat next to me lives in Naperville, one of the Chicago suburbs. She's a native of China, but moved there a long time ago. I tried out what little Chinese I knew, in the context of "If you could help me, that'd be great."; "No," she said, "It's not understandable. My son is much better than you." I'm sure he is.

* * * * *

My transportation from the school was waiting for me at the airport. They took me straight to my apartment, where I spent about an hour unpacking, and then passed out.

After all the travel, after 30 hours spent mostly awake, after landing successfully in China, a country with which I am almost completely unfamiliar and where I will be spending the next year of my life, laying on an almost impossibly hard mattress, my last thought before falling asleep was, "Did I fucking ask you if I was better than your son?"