Superfluity, New Roommates, and the Liquid Nitrogen Man

1. Watching people from my window

My dorm room window looks out onto a sort of large courtyard that has a hotel on one side and the visiting scholar/foreign teacher dorm on another, with my dorm on the third side. Summer’s the season for conferences and camps, apparently, because every week this summer there was a new group filing across the open space into the nearby hotel, or to the road and a waiting bus. We had an undergrad history club, a nationwide Chinese humanities association, and a number of others whose names I can’t remember. My work desk is right next to the window, so whenever I’m studying or writing I can look out and see the goings-on. There’s something vaguely surreal about looking up from a book of poetry or literary theory and seeing a crowd of people outside your window, all with badges from whatever conference they’re attending, chattering and smiling and milling about. My own style of life is at such a remove from anything I see out my window that it feels like I’m watching everyone from a different planet. The highlight was a few weeks when I looked out and saw a group of westerners filing out of the hotel with luggage and souvenirs in tow, all headed to a waiting bus. It reminded me of the first time I ever came to China, in 2001, when it was me with the suitcase and the souvenirs. And now I’m watching the same kind of people from a desk where I’m reading and writing about Chinese poetry. There’s nothing like seeing an early incarnation of yourself to remind you of just how far you’ve come.

2. Thinking you’re smart and then realizing you’re not, or not really

A few weeks ago, on a Wednesday morning, I had one of those fantastic mornings where I read, studied, and wrote for a solid 4 hours with no interruptions. I went to a coffee shop for the morning, where I read part of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, then read and re-read sections of Hart Crane’s epic poem The Bridge, and then worked on my novel. I felt like a genius when I left the coffee shop. When you give your brain a good workout, that happens. I walked outside feeling like I could probably discover the formula for cold fusion if I had a piece of paper and a pen. I felt like I could read Farsi. I felt like I could learn and do anything. I smiled at the sun. I unlocked my bike. Whistling, I mounted up, pushed off from the curb, and just about went over the handlebars because I’d forgotten to take off the second lock I’d put on my back tire. I shot off the seat, just about ending the Moore family line in the process, and only a fortunately-placed foot prevented me from going face-first into the pavement. All in full view of the clientele of the Muslim noodle place across the street. Genius? Nay.

3. Concrete

Weird, right? It isn’t concrete I love so much as how they spread it here. Come to think of it, I’ve never actually seen concrete being spread in the States, or if I have I don’t remember. Here, though, it’s fantastic. The area under construction was in the cul-de-sac formed by my dorm, a campus hotel, and the visiting scholars building. Now because this dead-end is only accessible by two very narrow roads, there’s no way to reach it with a massive truck. Or maybe there is, and I just don’t know it. (You’d be amazed at the things the Chinese can squeeze into a small space. I’m waiting for the day I step onto an elevator and see a man with a giraffe.) Anyway, the machine they were using for their day’s work looked like the offspring of a cement truck and a crane. It was anchored down on four sides by stanchions, and was able to dispense liquid concrete through an almighty-long hose affixed to an equally long crane arm. Imagine the Jolly Green Giant’s garden hose and you’ll have a pretty good idea. The workers all put on thick rubber galoshes, took up industrial-strength trowels stuck on the end of wooden poles, then stood at the ready while the crane arm and giant hose hovered. Then, well, the thing just started spraying. At the risk of causing a wave of nausea, I can only think of comparing it to a giant sphincter. Two workers maneuvered the sphincter all over the open area until there was a lake of liquid concrete, then everyone else set to work with trowels, smoothing and spreading the glop until it covered everything it was supposed to cover. Fabulous. There’s nothing quite like looking out your window in the early morning and seeing twenty some-odd Chinese workers, complete with those squashed conical rice-farmer hats, wading knee-deep in liquid concrete.
(P.S. If you don’t think Concrete Sphincter Hose is the greatest name for a punk band ever, you’re wrong. Sometimes you’re right, but here you’re wrong.)

4. The Liquid Nitrogen Man

In America, and probably in Canada, too, (though I don’t really know for sure; the daily lives of our neighbors to the North are still a closed book to me) we have ice cream trucks: wonderful, merry little contraptions that sell cheap ice cream while playing hellishly annoying music. (And sometimes they sell other things. We had an ice-cream truck that used to cruise around the ghetto Lubbock neighborhood where Jon Ford and I used to live that had spinners and a dropped suspension. The guy driving it was called “Gold D” and was suspiciously disappointed when two of our friends once asked for just ice cream.) Here they have liquid nitrogen vans. Probably not for kids, though again I can’t be sure. I know Chinese kids enjoy things American kids wouldn’t eat if stranded alone in the Gobi. (Roast octopus tentacles on a stick, anyone? No?) So whatever. In college I worked in the Chemistry Department’s stockroom for a semester, and part of my job was to pour liquid nitrogen out of a large tank into smaller receptacles for experiments. That was done in a back room. Here, a guy drives around in a small white van, parks outside the gate between Nankai and Tianda (Tianjin University), and chemistry students (or just liquid nitrogen enthusiasts) show up with little receptacles and the Liquid Nitrogen Man tops them off. The only thing needed to complete the scenario is appropriate liquid nitrogen music. (And what would that be? Put on your thinking caps, people, and give me your best idea of what the Liquid Nitrogen Man’s van should be playing.)

5. Being superfluous and getting a tee-shirt

A few days ago Ms. Luan from the International Student Office asked if I would help with their new-student registration on Monday morning. She said it would be nice to have an American there for the students who need something explained or would just like to talk to someone from the West. I didn’t have anything scheduled, so I said sure. I showed up, and they gave me a Nankai University tee-shirt so I could be one of the worker bees for the morning. Then I sat down behind a long table to the left of Ms. Luan and did. . .nothing. Students from every conceivable country (Vietnam, Mongolia, Morocco, Germany, you name it) filed past me and gave all their paperwork to Ms. Luan, who really knows her stuff and directed them deftly to whatever part of the room they needed to go, leaving me and a Chinese worker bee to my left sitting there watching. For an hour. After a while I told Ms. Luan I needed to go talk to somebody in my department about something. (Which was true, by the way) And that’s the way things work in China. “We need your help!” “Okay, with what?” Silence. “We need your help!” “Fine.”

The Bad

1. Circular Saws and Long Hours

For the past two months Nankai University has been pursuing a course of renovation and construction that can really only be described as epic. Whole buildings and streets are being torn down, and buildings which aren’t being torn down are getting a face-lift, or perhaps a face transplant would be more appropriate. What this boils down to is that I’ve basically been living in a construction site. A construction site with no unions and therefore no humane working hours. And so every morning at 7:00, or sometimes 7:15, as though they were slaved to a master-timer, a half-dozen circular saws and belt sanders crank up. Have you ever been awakened by the sound of a rotary blade grinding down a marble (or sandstone, or brick, the materials have varied) plate? Yes? All right, have you ever gone to bed at night, and heard the same belt sanders and circular saws shrieking at 11:30? You would if you lived in China.

2. Floodlights

One of the ways the workers are “allowed” to continue their honorable service to the people of China in the dark is by the light of a large array of floodlights placed on the low roof of the restaurant facing my dorm. And people, these are industrial-strength, hide-the-baby-and-pray-to-your-maker, early-dawn-in-Hiroshima floodlights. Shining right in my window. It’s possible that if my bedroom were relocated to the surface of Mercury it might be brighter, but I’d be inclined to doubt even that. I’ve had to start placing a pillow in front of my microwave because the glass faces my bed, and the resulting glare is about the closest thing to the Soviet gulag light-torture technique I’m liable to experience. When you have to squint (and I do) when you’re not even looking at the window, well that’s pretty bright.

3. Brand-New Uselessness

We used to have a large rectangular area covered with grass and bushes in the cul-de-sac. They tore that down and replaced it. . .with a slightly smaller area covered with new grass and bushes AND. . .two meandering paths paved with therapeutic massage rocks. (That’s what they’re supposed to be, anyway. They’re essentially smooth white stones, and if you walk on them without your shoes on they’re supposed to massage your feet. Great idea in theory. I tried out the process once when I was working at Tianjin University and it felt less like a foot massage and more like, well, walking on a bunch of rocks in your bare feet.) So now what we have is a wonderful, meandering path, ideal for meditation, in full view of approximately 2,000 people, who have nothing better to do in the evening than look out their windows at whatever’s happening in the square (rectangle). They’ve basically given us a prison-yard promenade. Hooray.
As a side-note, and by way of further illustrating the inscrutability of Chinese culture, I looked out my window yesterday morning and a worker was going over the newly-planted grass with a miniature steam roller. It was basically a smaller version of the roller portion, attached to a twin-handled assembly, and the worker was rolling the grass with it, squashing it down flat. Why? Why did they choose to re-pave the cul-de-sac in brick, with nothing but a sand base beneath it, thereby guaranteeing that the first big rain will render the entire area a primeval goop? The answer to these and other questions is: I don’t know. Neither do you, and neither do they.

4. Unexpected Roommates

I lucked out here by having Scott as my “roommate.” He doesn’t live with me, so it’s ideal. But the rest of the residents of our little magic kingdom? I ran into Park Jiseon, one of our Korean classmates, last week when I was biking through campus. She’d just gotten back from Korea a few hours before, and after exchanging a few pleasantries she asked, in the wide-eyed, breathlessly surprised way she asks everything, “Did you know we have roommates now?” I said yes, that I’d been here when they decided to make that change. “I just found out,” she said. “I had to get out and take a walk.” No one had notified her or anyone else, of course, so she returned from a month in Korea, unlocked her door, and there was another person with her stuff already there. How’s THAT for a nice surprise? What’s it like being a student in China? That’s what it’s like. China’s one of the only places on Earth where Murphy’s Law is actually a law. If it can go wrong, it absolutely will. The only way to defeat it is to be both overprepared and cynical. I had to go renew my residence permit at the downtown immigration bureau on Monday, and I brought EVERYTHING. I always do. I packed medical records from three years ago, identity cards that aren’t even of any use any more, the record of my visits to the hospital, I mean absolutely everything in my important documents drawer. If you do that, nothing goes wrong. If you only bring the forms the office tells you to bring, inevitably you’ll wait in line for hours and the immigration person will ask you, “Where’s your third-grade report card?” “What? Why do I need that?” “Oh, it’s a new regulation.” And it always is.

5. Chinese oatmeal

The Chinese don’t believe in large oats. Every bag of oatmeal here is essentially a bag of shards, as though someone dropped a grenade into a kilo bag of Quaker and just harvested the fragments. I don’t know why. When you add water the whole thing solidifies into paste. It’s like eating spackle with brown sugar. I had to break down and buy imported Quaker oats.

The Ugly

1. Let’s agree to draw the line on casual dress

I’m all for China’s freewheeling approach to fashion. An elderly person in China could go outside wearing a toga, rain galoshes, and a cowboy hat, and nobody would bat an eye. You don’t even really need to figure out what matches here. You just go. And I like that. But there really needs to be an official limit. Last week I was biking past the construction workers’ prefab quarters and there was a guy walking around in nothing but his briefs, talking on his cell phone. Not furtively, darting from shadow to shadow in an attempt to maintain his dignity. Nope. He was just cruising around in his underoos. I almost swerved into a tree, and in retrospect I’m not sure the blunt trauma to the head might not have been preferable.

2. Corinthian Columns

Just because they worked for the Greeks doesn’t mean they’ll work for a karaoke bar, comrades. Or an electronics superstore. The Chinese really do have their own approach to aesthetics. It’s sort of the atonal free jazz of social and cultural aesthetics. The thing is, even someone like me, who couldn’t outdress a bonobo chimp, knows you can’t combine high heels and sweatpants. And as I just noted, that’s mildly refreshing, if not liberating. But bootleg computer supplies and Greek architecture? I vote no.

That’s all for this installment. Keep on, um, doing what it is you’re doing. And do it well!

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