Monday, October 31, 2011

What Do You Call These Kinds of Stories?

What about stories intentionally not published? If the writer is to enjoy writing, why not have stories stored out of public view? He can work just as hard on those, even if they're just for him. Not to show but just to enjoy the process and product of.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wonka et Al.

For Halloween this year, the Western staff is dressing up as the characters from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (I'm Mike Teavee). The Eastern staff had never seen the movie before, so some of us stayed after school today to watch it. Never before had I realized how completely crazy Wonka is. He has some really great lines, my favorite of which is a quote from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest: "The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Culture

Don't sweat it too much. It's overwhelming, and there's no way you're going to get it right all the time. Keep it in mind and try to make adjustments for it, but mostly, just be yourself.

Unless you're a prick, in which case be a better person.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Culture Training

Today was culture training, the time when we managers, after a month of letting the new Western staff wonder at the place they've agreed to live in for at least a year, talk about low and high context, individuality and collectivism, definitions of self, perspective of leadership, harmony, guanxi, face, and the new generation of Chinese people. Even after two years, which really is such a short time here, it's good to go over this information again. Even after studying and presenting on all this, it's easy to forget in practice. You can have a good explicit knowledge and still mess up horribly implicitely.

One thing that really troubled me was the new teachers' concern that they always felt like they were at work here. This is a feeling I've had myself for at least a year. Depressing. When you deal with language all day and your connections to back home are books and movies and you gotta actually pay attention to the words, well. So how can they get away?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

1Q84 in English

The English translation of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 comes out today. I first saw this book more than a year ago, when Kelly was reading the Korean translation of it. The audio version, which I'll be downloading as soon as my credit from Audible arrives, is forty-six hours and fifty minutes long. I've been in a Murakami mode lately, having read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and Norwegian Wood and listened to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and What I Talk about When I Talk about Running.

In honor of the new translation:
"The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami," an article by Sam Anderson (warning: contains spoilers)


the trailer for Stephen Earnhart's multimedia stage production of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles

Monday, October 24, 2011

Another Way Over

Ha, ha. I'm writing this on my Kindle, which, it turns out, can hop China's wall.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pinker on Colbert

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Steven Pinker
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

The Beginning of a Poetics

I find myself this week writing a new poetics. What I want to write about is the movement past irony in my own work. I got the idea for a poetics while listening to Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, which deals with the decrease in human violence. In the particular section I'm talking about, Pinker uses the term third nature. If first nature is our instincts and second nature is our learned behavior, then third nature is our reflection on what norms are still useful to us. We can be all ironic because civilization's so civil that we don't have to worry about anybody taking us so serious as to pose a threat. How great for poetry and other art. However, Wallace is onto something—that is, that irony is good as a way to tear things apart but is shit for building. Besides all that, I now find it really easy to gag on the whole idea of saying one thing while trying to mean another, all the while laughing at the cleverness while trying not to laugh because then you'd be seen as liking your own joke and thus at risk for taking yourself seriously. So there we go. Those are some of my thoughts—nothing too concrete so far, but it's a place to start. Course, being removed from an English-book-havin' library, it's going to be hard to do some of the research for this mother, but maybe I can find what I need anyway.

Since my thirtieth, I've been writing a poem and one other thing from some other genre every week. I miss grad school, when I could kick around all day and read and write, and while being over here allows me to wonder at how to comprehend the language, if for no other reason than to be able to explain it to somebody whose first language isn't English, it's hard to swim all day in words and then try to make them into something at night. Still, it's worth it, I feel, this ongoing

Saturday, October 22, 2011


It was hard to concentrate this afternoon. I didn't have any classes today, but I had to prepare for culture training, which two of us are presenting on Wednesday. However, my friend, who returned from the States yesterday, brought me the Kindle Keyboard 3G, which I'd asked him to pick up for me. Seeing one for the first time, Hanna thought there was a cover over the screen and went to pull off a plastic layer. "{It looks like a fake,}" she said in Chinese. I'm excited about having this device at last because it's so hard to get English books out here. There's one bookstore with English texts, but it's all the way downtown, and its selection is rather limited. I walk everywhere I go, so I'm pretty jazzed about the text-to-speech feature, which reads books to me. First up is Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, of course—nobody's surprised.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ectopistes migratorius

My father's a painter. When I was a little boy, he was commissioned to paint murals in a bowling alley. He took my brother and me to the empty alley during the several days it took him to finish the job. The empty space enthralled me. I felt like I didn't exist.

There have been several more instances in my life since in which I've been in a space that's supposed to be crowded but isn't, but these times have felt sinister, not like the happy time I spent in the bowling alley with my father and brother. In many ways, I feel like I've been trying to get back to that bowling alley, at least emotionally, since.

Passenger pigeons are perhaps the negative to the bowling alley's positive space (or are the pigeons the positive to the alley's negative?). Having once filled the skies of North American, with their breeding zones in Michigan, the last of them died in 1914. They don't exist.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


via Kass Fleisher



Hanna invited me to her hometown, Shuangyashan (双鸭山, literally "Twin Duck Mountain"). Knowing that I hadn't had a vacation since Spring Festival, back in February, and that all I wanted to do was read and write, she said I needed to get away from Kaifaqu. She just went ahead and bought the tickets even though she was worried I'd be uncomfortable on the long train ride there.

"Well, how long's the ride?" I asked.

"Around twenty hours," she said.

No problem, but my words did nothing to lessen her worry, especially after she couldn't get any tickets for the cars with beds. I said I'd be fine.

"One other thing," I told her. "I don't want to speak English at all during this trip."

"OK, no problem."

Travel Times

(times approximate)

light rail from Kaifaqu to downtown Dalian: half an hour
train from downtown to Jiamusi: twenty hours
bus from Jiamusi to Shuangyashan: two hours

bus from Shuangyashan to Harbin: six hours
train from Harbin to downtown Dalian: ten hours (it was supposed to be nine)
bus from downtown to Kaifaqu: forty minutes

The First Couple Days: Speaking Only Chinese and Sitting on the Train

On the first, Hanna—who I had to call by her Chinese name, 陈茜 (Chén Qiàn)—and I met early and had breakfast before stocking up for the long train ride. This first day without English was really bizarre. I'd never been so aware of words taking form in my mind as I was that day. Forcing myself to speak only Mandarin, my thoughts became extremely loud in English. I could hardly keep up with all the ideas for stories and poems coming at me. I had the thought I'm not in my mouth, at which I laughed aloud and couldn't explain to a questioning Hanna.

When we finally got on the train, the people seated nearby kept staring as we talked. They'd ask Hanna a question about me, and she'd tell them, "{Ask him.}" Everybody on the train thought I was Russian.

We talked for hours, slowly because of my busted Chinese, and the train filled. Some passengers had bought standing-only tickets, and they had to occupy the aisles. Their presence made it difficult but certainly not impossible for the hourly cart that would come through, pushed by an employee selling junk food and beer. No, difficult isn't the right word, because if the passengers didn't get out of the way, he just pushed his cart into them. Harder's probably a better word, yeah. And this sight became worse once night came and the non-seat-having passengers, tired, finally sat on the floor, their heads resting against the sides of others' seats. The man with the cart shouted, "{I'm coming! I'm coming!}" waking them harshly. Also, every so often a man with a broom came to sweep up all the crap people were throwing on the floor. A third man would push a trash can down the aisle every once in a while, but most of the trash went on the floor. As uncomfortable as we were having to sleep sitting up, we both agreed it was better than not having a seat.

When we finally arrived at Hanna's parents' house, we were greeted by many family members, among them her three-year-old daughter, Eileen, who, over the next week, would be the person I'd be talking to the most. We ate, and of course the baijiu was brought out, that most disgusting of alcoholic drinks (perhaps second only to Korean's makgeolli). Though this baijiu was in fact red, the first time I've seen it anything but clear, and was hailed by Hanna's brother-in-law, who claimed it had grapes in it, it was still disgusting.

Possible tangent but important: Invariably, whenever I drink baijiu, which is, believe me, as rare as I can get away with, an English-speaking Chinese person will translate it as "white wine." While the first character, 白 (bái), certainly means "white," the second character, 酒 (jiǔ), means "alcohol," not "wine"—little tip for you. Baijiu is not, and this bears repeating, is not made from grapes and doesn't taste anything like wine. If you have to drink it—and if you live in northeast China, you probably will have to—drink it slowly, not to stave off drunkenness (because you'll probably be getting drunk if you have to drink in this region) but to avoid the awful taste.

Worn out (and me now a little buzzed), Hanna and I were shown to her former grandparents' apartment, where she, her father, and her daughter crashed in one room and I crashed in another.

Speaking Another Language Is Better Than Whispering

Over the next week, we ate, drank, and played with Eileen. I barely spent any money because Hanna's family kept taking us out to eat or cooking us dinner. At many of the meals, the men drank alcohol. As I alluded to above, northeast China, Dongbei, has a big drinking culture. It's not that you have to drink, I hear, but if you don't drink, people don't think you're honest. Now, I don't know how reliable that information is. It's something a lot of people say. I don't know if you'll actually be thought of as dishonest. I do know, however, that you're pretty much expected to drink if others are and that if you can drink a lot, people will generally tell you how impressed they are with you. The meaning of a lot, though, is pretty low. In my experience, people have said I had drunk a lot after only three bottles. Granted, the bottles are bigger than the twenty-ouncers back in the States, but still, these ain't the biggest containers of alcohol in the world. It's hard to know, then, whether people actually think you've drunk a lot, or are just saying that. What's clear is that drinking's important, and you'll see folks drinking at 9 in the morning, say, which isn't weird, and they serve beer on the trains when the breakfast cart, which is the same as the dinner cart, is being pushed around.

One night Hanna's father, a quiet man, and I got drunk and talked over dinner. Hanna was in another room. She'd been kind of translating for us. It wasn't that I was speaking English, but they had a little bit of a hard time understanding my Chinese, and I had a hard time understanding their dialect. Their /sh/s came out a /s/, and there was a lot more retroflexion than I was used to. And, hell, let's be honest: as this trip proved, I simply don't know as many Chinese words as I'd like. But so Hanna was in another room, and her dad asked me a question. When I didn't understand, his wife jumped in, speaking a lot faster. "{Slow down,}" he told her. "{He'll understand if we speak slowly.}" She got closer and louder, as though I couldn't hear, but was still too fast. It took us ten minutes for me to understand that he was asking me whether America had coal mines. I knew all the words he was saying, but because there was no introduction to the topic, I didn't know the context. This problem occurred a lot.

Right before another dinner, Hanna said loudly, in front of her family, "If I want to say something and don't want them to understand, I can speak English." When we sat down, she was across the table from me, with four family members on each side separating us. I almost used the English-as-a-secret-language trick when her brother-in-law, out of nowhere, pointed to a drawing on the wall of our private room.

"{Do you know who that is?}" he asked me.

"{Yeah. It's Mao,}" I said, purposely leaving off the title though I knew it to be at least a little impolite. "{He's in our books.}"

"{Chairman Mao,}" he corrected me. He said something I didn't understand about George Washington.

I had seen the drawing when I first entered the room. My first thought was Sit down, Mao, and shut up, you dead fuck. I don't like dictators at the dinner table.


Because she had trouble remembering my name, she just called me her 干爸爸 (gānbàba, literally "dry father"). When we picked her up from kindergarten and a teacher wondered who the foreigner was, Eileen said, "{My dry father.}" Before we arrived in Shuangyashan, Hanna had told Eileen I'd take her to KFC, her favorite restaurant (yes, yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken—I know). All week she asked me when we'd go. She was the only person I understood just about completely, and we spent a lot of time playing together.

Mother Tongue

I was going to speak only Chinese for nine days, but Hanna wanted me to speak English on the eighth day, once we got on the bus to Harbin. "I like your mother tongue," she said.

On the way back, we had beds on the train and slept through the overnight ride much more comfortably.

Read on the Way to, in, and on the Way Back from Shuangyashan

the last hundredish pages of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
the first two hundredish pages of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood

Saturday, October 1, 2011


For the next nine days, no speaking English. Only Chinese.