The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

1. Poetry – My friend Xuebin, who also writes poetry, and I were joking around last year at roughly this time about how difficult it is to write poetry when things are going well. He would ask me, “Have you written any good poetry lately?” I would say no, that things were going too well. We lamented the worsening of our craft, and promised we would find a way to make each other miserable so we could start writing again. Well, since then we’ve both (independently of each other, thankfully) gone through some pretty intense stuff, and our poetry is right back on track. It’s beyond me to explain how the composition of a good poem is able to justify all the pain that went into its creation, but believe me, it does. Or can, anyway. I suppose if you wrote a killer poem about an orphanage burning to the ground it wouldn’t, but in most other situations it would.

2. Yang rou chuan’r season – It’s that time of year again, kids. For those of you not in the know, yang rou chuan’r is Chinese for lamb kebabs. Every year in spring and summer, outdoor stands open up everyplace where you can order skewered meat and vegetables, then sit outside and toss back some beers and watch the world go by. This will be somewhat redundant for those of you currently in China, but for those who aren’t, I feel compelled to share a few essentials for the yang rou chuan’r experience.

A. Nondescript meat – There’s a subtle but wonderful difference between “Mmm, this is lamb!” and “Mmmm, is this lamb?” Because, you see, in most cases you really don’t know. It might be lamb. In some cases I’d go so far as to say it’s probably lamb. But in other cases no one knows what it is. I suspect the animal whose meat has furnished the kebabs probably isn’t sure itself. There’s a certain “Damn the torpedoes!” spirit with street food in China. And for those of you in the U.S. who are silently gagging at your computer screen, bear in mind that you can drive one hour any direction on I-10, stop at a convenience store, and see something which has been rotating under a heat lamp since presumably the creation of the heat lamp, something which may not be organic at all, but actually a rod of treated plutonium that is being fed to undiscerning visitors in an effort to create a sort of hillbilly ubermensch. The point is: keep the yang rou chuan’r cheap.

B. A face full of smoke –The kebabs are all roasted over a long, slim brazier filled with hot coals, and the combined total of hundreds of kebabs dripping fat onto the fire produces enough smoke to divert low-flying aircraft. Key to the chuan’r experience is your spending most of your meal in path of the smoke. If you don’t get home smelling like you’ve spent the last three days sleeping in a campfire, you haven’t had the real experience.

C. Cheap beer – If you drink Snow beer at subzero temperatures it’s palatable. If you don’t, it tastes like run-off from a junior-high locker room. By all rights they should just add a lot more alcohol so that at least it has a bite. There’s so little alcohol in it now that it generally tastes like wheat soda. Or sweat soda, depending on the temperature at which it’s stored. The thing is, if you’re already eating cat meat, good beer is incongruous. It would be like wearing a tuxedo to a wrestling match. Now, within the larger category of lousy beer there is still a continuum. Snow is somewhere in the middle, while Xinjiang and Yanjing are near the top. In previous years we had other beers, which are sadly no longer available, that sat firmly and proudly at the bottom end of the continuum, beers with names like Share, Okay, and most wonderfully all, Wiz. Wiz beer. A table full of guys can spend literally an entire evening making puerile jokes with that and be perfectly happy. You don’t drink cheap beer for the taste; you drink it for the experience.

D. Lax dress code – During the summer, when the weather gets hot enough to make fire itself redundant, Chinese men do whatever it takes to get comfortable. At yang rou chuan’r places this generally means rolling up the pant legs over the knee, and unbuttoning, or in some cases removing entirely, their shirt. Most of these men, it should be noted, are overweight and sweating profusely. But in China that doesn’t matter. Very little does, in the summer. It just wouldn’t be a yang rou chuan’r experience without a street full of overweight, shirtless men.

3. Fastest trip ever to the immigration bureau – Yesterday when I took my visa to get renewed, I was in and out in about ten minutes. That’s absurd. In China you usually just write off an entire afternoon when anything official is on the table. They change regulations so often, and notify people about those changes so rarely, that it’s remarkable if you ever have exactly the right paperwork. Yesterday I got there right as it opened after lunch, and the guy beyond the table just took my passport and my application, and five minutes later I was on my way out the door. Wow.

4. Going to official places with unofficial stuff – I just got a new passport, and this has necessitated several trips to the embassy in Beijing (see my Bad section for more about the embassy). I have needed to carry various official documents with me, but did not have, and still don’t, any kind of valise or folder to keep them in. My solution was to stick them all in a hard-back French-language Asterix comic my friend Paul gave me. There’s something wonderful about going to the service window in a place as crushingly OFFICIAL as the American embassy and pulling out your renewal application from the section in Asterix aux Jeux Olympiques where Obelix hits a Roman soldier with a tree. It’s even better when you have to flip through the book. “My photos? Ah, yes. I believe those are between pages ten and eleven.” I’m going to do this in the States, too. Let’s see how the DMV responds to a French comic book.

5. Interesting thesis – Remember how I mentioned I had no classes? And remember how great I said that was? Well, on at least one level it isn’t so great. The thing about the humanities is that it’s manifestly impossible to gauge progress when you’re rooted in them. You’re dealing with abstract questions like “What is a religion?” or “How is truth defined in Chinese poetry?” or “Why would otherwise rational people watch America’s Top Model?” Abstract and complex. How do you know you’re making progress on something like poetic analysis? The short answer is you don’t. You have to gauge progress in other ways. Now when you don’t have any classes, and your classmates are scattered about the country, as mine are, you spend most of your days either alone in your dorm room reading random philosophical ephemera or taking long walks during which you contemplate the dark nature of reality. After a while you start sympathizing with Derrida’s theory of the manifest opacity of language and wishing, for no reason at all, that you knew how to sew. BUT. . .lately I’ve narrowed down my thesis topic to something extremely interesting, and that’s transformed my days. I like a lot of breadth, and the topic I’m working will involved everything from avant-garde Chinese epic poetry to the Old Testament to French sociology. Mmmm. A nerd feast. And direction, too! Hooray! And I won’t have to learn how to sew.


1. The American embassy – Every time I go to the American embassy in Beijing I expect to see the Eye of Sauron rotating above it. Seriously, the place is a dark, brooding fortress surrounded by concertina wire and (more disturbingly) very sub-par noodle shops (Seriously sub-par. I ate a plate of fried noodles with pork a few weeks ago and it smelled and tasted like they’d put a dead bat through the noodle grinder and just served it to me). It takes up about three city blocks, and when I first went there I had to walk the entire perimeter just to figure out where to go in. The Chinese guards are typically surly and don’t want anything to do with you. I walked up to one guard post, just to ask where the entrance was, and before I could say anything he said to me, with a dismissive wave, “I don’t speak English.” Even when you do get in it feels like a fortress. The doors, for example, all weigh approximately the same as a Volkswagen. If you’re not in a hurry, stand around for a while and watch people try to open them. It’s great fun. Occasionally you’ll see someone dashing up the walk, obviously late for an appointment, try to jerk the door open, and nearly rip their shoulder out of its socket as they do so. I assume the weighted doors are a security thing, although one would have to wonder at the ability of the terrorist who was stymied by a heavy door. Yes, the doors are constructed in such a way that by applying regular force they will swing open on their own, but the point is no one knows that at first, so entering the embassy for the first time feels more like entering a submarine in the 1940’s. You’re also not allowed to take in anything electronic, and you have to leave your bags at the front. Although I suppose none of that is surprising. Air travel in the domestic United States has already taken on all of the fun and relaxation of the evacuation of Saigon. Why should the U.S. embassy be any different?

2. Here come the fatties – Every Chinese student I’ve ever had has assured me that Chinese people are healthy and Americans are all fat and lazy. And when I first came to China there was some truth to that. I never saw REALLY fat Chinese people. But oh, how the times are changing. A few weeks ago, for example, I was sitting outside in the Water Park reading, and every time I looked up I saw some Chinese people going by who were just FAT. State fair fat. They waddled, they wore clothes no fat people should wear, and were glistening in the heat. All that was missing from the tableau was a huge turkey leg. That kind of thing used to be astonishing. It’s not really any more. On Monday when I was coming back from Beijing, I swapped tickets with a guy so he and his girlfriend could sit together, but the seat I swapped for was right next to a woman who was so fat she was spilling over into the other seats (she was sitting in the middle seat). She also had her face buried in something from MacDonald’s. Sigh. The Chinese can say all they want that they’re a different kind of world power, but from my vantage point they’re headed right for the same territory the U.S. is currently occupying.

3. Bugs – I’ve written about Chinese mosquitoes before. They’re small, incredibly fast, and almost impossible to smack on a wall. Their bites also itch worse than any mosquito bites in the States. For some reason my dorm room has quite a few of them hanging around. They wait on the wall with the same cool insouciance of a bunch of mafia hoods. Sometimes I could swear they weree taunting me. Before I got my Raid mosquito repellent thing (I say “thing” because I don’t know what else to call it), I would have to spend a good twenty minutes chasing down the one mosquito that woke me up. But the mosquitoes are only part of the problem. There are also these tiny black gnat-like bugs (maybe they are gnats, at that) that infest various parts of the campus. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been walking through campus recently and looked down to see about twenty of the stupid things on my shirt and pants. One time I made the mistake of biking through a small wooded area next to the canal, and it felt like I was biking through Exodus 8:16. If Moses had jumped out from behind a tree and parted the canal I wouldn’t have flinched.

4. Xuanwumen station at rush hour – Wow. Because I’ve had to go to the embassy three or four times now, and because my business has always taken place in the morning, I’ve had the great good fortune to be a part of Beijing subway rush hour. I can guarantee you’ve never experienced anything like it. Ever. Nor will you unless you move to Beijing or create a time travel device that allows you to jump back to 1831 America and participate in the Trail of Tears. Most stations are bad enough, but Xuanwumen is the transfer point for line 2, which runs in a ring around the middle of the city and is appallingly overcrowded. What makes it particularly awful is that whoever designed the station clearly wasn’t thinking, and the routes from line four to line two both taper down to a small corridor no more than ten feet high and probably fifteen wide, that takes you up and down several flights of stairs before emptying out onto the comparatively larger space of the subway tunnel. I’m not at all claustrophobic, but every time I enter that corridor I start getting nervous. You’re literally packed back-to-front, and elbow-to-elbow with thousands of other people, all of whom are waddling slowly forward like an army of urban penguins. The Chinese are better than any other people in the world at just taking things as they are, so most of the commuters are reading newspapers or checking E-mail on their iPhones as they waddle. I’ve even seen a few people resting newspapers on the backs of the people in front of them. I, however, am generally just doing my best not to imagine what would happen if someone yelled “fire!” (Something along the lines of a cattle stampede in a Pizza Hut. Instant meatloaf)

5. Weddings – Ha! I’ll bet you’re wondering what angle I’m going to take on this. Is the single guy going to bemoan his singleness? Is he going to proclaim the glories of free time and aloneness? No, he’s going to write a short tirade on the wedding-fest here in Tianjin. Sunday was May 8, and in Chinese tradition the number 8 symbolizes fortune, specifically financial fortune. Not surprisingly, many people in China want to get married on the 8th because it’s a good omen. On Sunday there was a wedding on practically every city block. I was supposed to go to one, but I really didn’t want to because it was a LONG trip out there and also because I haven’t had a conversation with the groom in roughly four years, and even before that only saw him once in a while. Oh, and also because Chinese weddings are the shrillest, gaudiest, most random experiences outside of the lounge of a cheap Las Vegas hotel. Now let me qualify that. I have never been to a really traditional Chinese wedding, which I’m sure would be beautiful. The modern ones all have MC’s who feel it necessary to conduct the ceremony with a microphone cranked up to at least 90 decibels, and also feature bubble machines, dry ice, lasers, dancing bears, sumo wrestlers, Tesla coils, moon rocks, and a reunited Styx playing “Mr. Roboto” next to a table full of hard liquor and that sliced preserved beef that looks like a plate full of melanoma samples. Or that’s how it seems anyway. Sufficed to say, I didn’t go to the wedding. But fate still managed to get me, because in the hotel no more than fifty feet from my window there was a massive wedding, so I got to listen to the overamplified music and over-rehearsed MC’ing from my dorm room. Then I biked across town and dodged fireworks shrapnel the entire way. People of China: can we at least agree not to make weddings physically dangerous for passers-by? The throwing of rice is an odd tradition, but there aren’t too many recorded cases of thrown rice detonating a nearby car.

The Ugly

1. Still learning from the Soviets – I was walking recently with a friend of a friend who had spent a few years in Azerbaijan. She said her first impression after arriving in Beijing was that it looked like an old Soviet city. Tianjin certainly does. The name of the game is still to create apartment blocks that are BLOCKS. The only real difference is that now there are colors involved, so instead of a drab gray concrete block where all the cadres can return from a hard day cutting wood or piling rocks, there’s a salmon-colored concrete block with a blue top where all the people can return from work and spend the night watching Friends reruns and eating MacDonald’s.

2. Rubber bear head – I was walking down a small side-street recently and saw a black off-road vehicle with the profusion of all-terrain extras the people here are so fond of adding, as well as, on the hood, what at first glance looked like a mounted bear’s head. A real one. Naturally I had to stop. It turned out to be rubber, but that only raises more questions. Is it more or less tacky to have a rubber bear’s head rather than a real one? (The correct answer, of course, is “yes.”) Did the head belong to a live rubber bear that the driver of the vehicle tracked across some distant mountain terrain and killed after days of arduous chase? If so, how did he kill it? Is there a forest of rubber trees and animals hidden away in the remote corners of Sichuan province? See, this is why you don’t turn a poet loose on the streets of a foreign city.

3. Flat-top mullet – I saw a girl recently in a Beijing subway station who had a haircut that started off like a Kid ‘n’ Play-style flat-top and tapered off into a mullet. Wow. There’s just so much pain in the world.


4 Responses to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Jiong says:

    ??????Is surely what you had running through your head during your visits to the capital. I have been meaning to write for a while, as your studies in modern Chinese Lit at Nankai are really interesting. I am also western and currently halfway through my PhD at a university in Beijing in Ming/Qing history. Whereas I have plenty of Chinese classmates, plus a few Koreans, you are the first other westerner I know of who is also pursuing serious academic study in China. I just want to encourage you to carry on with the blog and don’t be afraid to make it too academic, it makes for great reading and reminds me that I’m not alone!

  2. Jiong says:

    As another westerner pursing serious academic study in China, I’d like to say I find this blog really interesting and it is great to know there is someone else out there. Naturally I have Chinese classmates and am friends with some Korean students, but in my university in Beijing I seem to be the only westerner studying something other than Chinese language. Keep up the blogging, and never be afraid to make it too academic. What is the direction you found for your dissertation?

  3. Jiong says:

    Oh, sorry! I thought the first comment didn’t post, hence the second draft minus the Chinese at the beginning!

  4. Joel says:

    Speaking of the BJ subway, you maybe already heard about what happened there today on the escalators at the Line 4 Beijing Zoo Station — one dead and 20 injured.

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