Filipino Rodeo Bars, Taxi Theater, and Ezra Pound

The Good

1. Purely Aesthetic pursuits (once in a while)

I threw that parenthetical caveat in there because although there’s something deeply fulfilling about investigating something abstract, if you make a habit of it you might wind up one of those people who insist that John Cage’s 4:43 (an orchestral piece which is nothing but silence for 4:43) is a high-water mark in musical development. Still, there is that fine line between absurdity and immediacy where something is extremely hard to appreciate but still has obvious value. Think T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. I’m currently working on a paper discussing the influence of American Imagist poetry on the Chinese Menglong School (1978-1985), and this has led me to a much deeper study of, among other things, Ezra Pound and his Cantos, a literary briar patch so thorny it makes James Joyce’s Ulysses look like an episode of Wheel of Fortune. And as a true literature nerd, I’ve been fascinated leafing through my stack of library books and investigating Pound’s waves of allusions and colloquial language experiments. Would I read the Cantos again and again? Nope. But it’s wonderful to really stretch my mind once in a while.

2. Roommates who don’t live with you (no, Daryll, this isn’t a comment on you)

I spent a sizable chunk of my the earnings from my part-time job getting little necessities for my dorm room like a refrigerator, a microwave, a water dispenser, etc., and set things up just the way I wanted. The cleaning staff and front-desk people saw me doing all of this, and just smiled benignly, like the guards in the Swamp Castle scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then one day I was chatting with one of the staff who had come in to empty my wastebasket, and she said, “You’ve really done a lot with this room!” I said, “Yes, I sure have.” Then she said, “But of course you’ll have a roommate next semester.” I assured her I wouldn’t because I was a scholarship student. She just nodded pleasantly and didn’t say much, which I’ve come to view with extreme suspicion because it’s the Chinese way of saying, “You have no idea what’s about to happen and I don’t want to be the Babylonian messenger who has to tell you.” The next day the people in the International Student Office informed me I would have to have a roommate because there were too many incoming students. Sigh. After having spent weeks moving things into my room, and getting it set up just right, now they tell me I’m going to have to dismantle that to make room for, I don’t know, some guy from a country that doesn’t believe in personal hygiene. My first impulse was to throw a stapler through the office window, but I decided against that. The heads of our International Office are very nice and of course had nothing to do with the decision. No one’s really ever sure who makes decisions in China. It’s just some faceless bureaucrat in an office. Or it’s a person spinning knobs and controlling a holographic face like in The Wizard of Oz. Anyway, Mrs. Liu could tell I was, well, peeved, and suggested I ask a friend to move in with me. I then remembered Scott. Ha! Scott has his own place on campus, too, but he doesn’t live there; he lives in a different part of town with his wife and three kids (a state of existence, I should note, that our classmates find frankly incredible, as though Scott commuted regularly from Jupiter and raised unicorns in his spare time). Scott agreed to become my “roommate,” finished the laborious moving process (he was keeping a bar of soap and a roll of toilet paper in his other room), and now we get to watch the fu wu yuan (service staff) try to figure out how the two of us share a room with one twin bed.

3. Waking up with good music stuck in your head

This doesn’t happen much. Generally the reverse is true, and you wake up with, say, Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last” stuck in your head. (And yes, I’ve had that in my head before, despite having not heard it in over a decade). A few mornings ago I woke up with The Smiths’ “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” stuck in my head. Nice. Although ironic given that I’d just spent 8 hours with all the lights out.

4. Charlie Chaplin

People here are probably tired of hearing me go on about Charlie Chaplin, but I’ve only just begun watching his movies and they’re some of the funniest I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t seen any, do yourself a favor and go rent a few. You’d think silent films would be arcane and inaccessible, but it’s a testimony to Chaplin’s genius that people almost 90 years later can still crack up watching his work. There’s a lot of implied social commentary in what he does, though it’s not upfront. Chaplin’s main character is basically a homeless man who cleverly negotiates an affluent society of which he isn’t a part. It’s so well done that you can watch every one of Chaplin’s movies and not even notice the poverty angle, but it’s there. I was eating lunch with my Chinese friend Wei Zhe (Charles) recently, and when I told him how funny I thought Charlie Chaplin was, Charles looked thoughtful and said, “I think his movies are very sad.” I asked him why, and he said, “Because the main character is always so poor and nothing goes his way.” That makes sense given the social state of most of modern China. But then that’s also what’s so brilliant about Chaplin, something that I think modern cinema has forgotten: the best points are those that are made subtly. A movie which gets in your face and demands to be taken seriously might have a profound immediate effect, but it’s not liable to last. But if you can present a sad situation and make people laugh, that’s something that will last forever.

5. Bizarre contrasts

Ha! The other night, even though I hate nightclubs, I went out to one with some friends. We had a table right next to the stage, where a Philipino cover band was singing the hits of the day at levels that could dislodge low-orbiting satellites. It was one of those affairs where every bass drum hit actually makes your clothes vibrate. Conversation, needless to say, was out of the question. As was a drink. I’m sorry, but I’m not paying 20 RMB for a very sub-par beer that typically costs 3-4 RMB. I’d rather just sit and look conspicuous. But here’s where it gets fun. At one point in the evening, I looked across the room at the large TV’s that were mounted on the opposite wall, and noticed that they were showing. . .rodeo. Seriously: live rodeo from Billings, Montana. (?!?!) Sitting drinkless and deaf in an overly-loud bar is not fun on a baby-seal-clubbing level. But sitting next to a stage on which a Philipino girl in a skirt the size of a postage stamp is singing Lady Gaga at soul-crushing volume while you watch grown men get smashed to hash by angry livestock on TV? People, that’s what I call entertainment.

The Bad

1. Pool etiquette

Or lack thereof. The Chinese people have many wonderful traits, but awareness of those about them is, paradoxically, not one of them. You’d think it would be, given the sheer volume of people in this country, but it isn’t. Nobody looks where they’re going. This is as true in the pool as it is in the streets or in the stores. If I get kicked out of China, it will undoubtedly be because I drowned a guy who dove into the water six inches in front of me while I was kicking off from the wall, or a lady who decided to swim to the ladder across four lanes, not looking to see where anyone was and forcing at least me to stop in mid-motion while she meandered (trust me: you can meander in the water) across my lane like a be-swimsuited manatee. I’m serious: someone’s going to die soon and I’m going to be the agent of their demise.

2. Theatrical taxi drivers

Oh, boy. Can I get a witness from those of my readers currently living in China? I had a guy the other day who knew one English word (“okay”, not surprisingly), and felt it his moral obligation to use it as often as possible. He also spoke in weird sentence fragments, as though he was a radio announcer who kept changing his mind. Our conversation (such as it was; I mostly tried to ignore him because he was so annoying that I seriously considered throwing myself into traffic to escape him) went something like this:

Driver: What country are you from?
Me: America.
Driver: America! Okay! Very good, very good place! Okay, okay!
Me: Yes. Can we make a U-turn up there?
Driver: U-turn! Okay! Right up there, up there by the store! Okay! Should we
turn into that street?
Me: Yes.
Driver: That street! No problem! Okay! We’ll turn there, okay!

I really don’t mind talking with cab drivers, but when they gesture crazily and fire sentence shrapnel at me, I really don’t enjoy it. Use your words, comrade, use your words. When you communicate in barely-intelligible spurts of sound, it’s like being driven to my destination by a porpoise. And can somebody please tell me why every cab driver I’ve had in the past month or so seems to really love American boxing? I think every one has mentioned Mike Tyson at some point. Why? I’ve even asked them, but I never can get a straight answer. I can’t say as I’m too thrilled with the idea of the people behind part of the city’s public transportation system developing a deep interest in televised face-beatings. Maybe that’s just me, though.

3. Official dinners and booze

If the East is ever going to be fit for heroes and saints, we’ve got to convince the Chinese (and, so I hear, the Koreans as well) that a good time is not determined by how many people have drunk themselves catatonic. Seriously, conversation really is all right. We can all talk and enjoy ourselves without re-enacting the battle of the Somme in our livers. The other evening I met up with a group of Chinese businessmen (long story), and we all went out for Japanese barbecue. I was ravenous, which is not a good state to be in when eating Japanese food because, although it’s absolutely delicious, it’s served a morsel at a time. To my mind it’s a little like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet, and then only being allowed to put a spoonful of mashed potatoes on your plate. Anyway, my companions all wanted to drink sake, which is a fairly pleasant kind of alcohol, nowhere near as strong as baijiu, which could be used as propellant in space missions. The thing is, even a mild form of liquor is treacherous on an empty stomach. I managed to escape without getting drunk, but others of my comrades were not so lucky. One guy left the table. . .and didn’t come back. He texted our host from the taxi saying he had to go home. Sigh. Can’t we all just have a beer and chat?

4. Nobody knows anything about anything

In China, the vast majority of personnel in any given office have no idea what’s going on. This is especially true with regards to class-related things. “When will our classes start?” “I don’t know.” “When is our paper due?” “I don’t know.” It’s not because people are stupid. It’s just that nobody communicates anything. I meant to tell this story a while ago, but I forgot, so I’ll tell it now. A few months ago I was chatting with some of my classmates on Saturday morning. Around noon one of them said, “Well, we should go. We have class this afternoon.” I shook my head and said, sympathetically, “Wow, that’s awful. Class on Saturday afternoon. Who has it?” My friend looked at me and said, “We all do.” “What do you mean ‘we’?” He looked uncomfortable. “I mean we all have class. We’re making up Dr. Li’s class today.”
Nobody told me, of course. But then nobody told my classmates, either. They found out second-hand through somebody who knew somebody somewhere. So, unhappy with the whole arrangement, we all filed into the classroom at 2:00 and waited for the professor to show up. At 2:25 Xuebin frowned and pulled out his cell phone. He leaned over to me and said, “Do you think they told Dr. Li?” I said I didn’t know, so Xuebin went into the hall to try to call Dr. Li. He returned several minutes later and told all of us, “There won’t be class today after all. Nobody told Dr. Li there was a makeup class, and he’s out of town.” That’s right: nobody told the teacher there would be class. I love this place sometimes.

5. Frankenstein soup

Or at least that’s what I call it. I recently made chicken soup, which has to be one of the simplest things in the history of the world, but decided just to chuck a bunch of random vegetables in. Green beans, it turns out, don’t really work. Neither does white wine vinegar, which I added right at the end on a whim and which made the soup just about inedible. Then, to counteract the vinegar, and because I had nothing more to lose anyway, I just chucked in some brown sugar. Wow. I’m only eating it now because I’m cheap and don’t want to throw an entire batch of soup out.

The Ugly

1. Summer hair

Wow. Just wow. I don’t know whether summer really brings out the worst haircuts, or whether I’ve just been particularly sensitive to hair recently, but I’ve seen some things that you just wouldn’t believe. First, the Chinese don’t fear the mullet. They really don’t. I was at the train station a few weeks ago and saw a guy who was absolutely ROCKING a mullet. It looked like Billy Ray Cyrus was standing in line for the 2:30 to Beijing. Second, the Chinese also don’t fear bad toupees. I noted on my Facebook page that there was a guy overseeing construction workers outside my window recently, and the man had a hairpiece with no discernible strands of hair. It really was like a hair helmet, or as we call it here: Lego hair. Third, the flat-top. On women. Yikes. I saw a lady biking past me on campus the other day with a flat-top that made her look like Gozer from the climactic rooftop scene in Ghostbusters (“Aim for the flat-top!”). Fashion-conscious I’m not, but even I know women who strive to look like one half of Kid ‘n’ Play aren’t going to make the best impression.

And that’s that, once again. Happy summer, comrades!

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