Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks Given, Psyches Taken

I don't mean to be morbid, but the gastronomically sanctioned family gathering that is Thanksgiving for the U.S. is diverted and gashed upon by the terrorism and carnage in Mumbai. Strangely, this attack might bring estranged families closer together--the unbearable company you have had years of 20th century baggage with, is at least alive and cannot personally terrorize you as coordinatedly as extremist young 20-somethings with nothing to lose can on the largest, most important commercial city in India. It's a new world, greater boundaries have been crossed, old grudges may need to be dropped to conserve the psychic energy needed to withstand all the crisis at hand--micro, macro, mercurial.

If I didn't have to teach 8 class periods on this 4th Thursday, which really has no bearing here in Shanghai, I would have joined other Americans at a 4-star hotel like the Portman Ritz-Carlton for my dose of turkey and fixins. Could not muster the energy or the 50 U.S. bucks. It does hit home when low-tech terrorists don't annihilate everything at once and actually request the heads of British and U.S. nationals. That kind of personalized hatred surely resonates: your patriotism or your life? Which would you choose? Take out your passport, now!

I was gobbled up by the CNN coverage.

Despite all of the frustrations and inefficiencies and caps on freedom in my present, I've got lots to be thankful for. I'm in Shanghai, for american sakes, this strange, ancient, new, dilapidated, quickly-constructed lunar landscape.
I have a job that allows me to save most of my earnings and grants me a 4-day weekend every week.
I am thankful to have 8 classes of these fresh-faced students, all the single pride of their families, all constantly worried about the next test, some naturally gifted with an ear for language, some profoundly bored by the English language (to the impatient tune of uncovered yawns), and most willing to robustly repeat after me in a choral call and response that truly warms my cockles. The cold actually betters their attention than the lazy warmth of fall.
A few have that 'IBM nap' down where they can be sitting up straight but actually snoozing, though a few of the few can even text while seeming to be super-studious. My text-dar is getting really good, and I collect the phone 'til the end of class, which is slightly traumatic, but then they just resort to the 'IBM nap' or try to telepathically finish that last text.
And the serendipitous wonders of vocabulary visuals. I love how Martin Scorsese shows up here as the waving pharmacist.

I am thankful to be a simple gal. All I really need is a clean, well-lighted place to write and think. The more bare the better. This is my potato patch which I can so gloriously couch in.
I am thankful, as you know from blogs past, for the cafeteria, which I am given monthly credit to eat at. Here is tofu, greens and eggs, and seaweed. 
For Thanksgiving, I had this seaweed and also crisp, stir-fried broccoli, which I got 'to go,' so I could eat at my leisure as I watched live footage from Mumbai. Also, so I could make my favorite whole wheat noodles with sesame oil, soy and a superb chili combo of crushed red chilis and peppercorns, and toasted sesame seeds. No triptophane this year. I make the noodles here,
which I am, yes, thankful for. Along with a super cool bathroom, where the sink sits atop a huge drawer where all toiletries and clutter can easily be stored away. 
I really am so simple (or bourgeois?) that this sink combo makes me so happy. Along with my two-button flush toilet. It's a big round button on top, but split in half. Push the left half, it's a small flush, for the light tinkles. Push the right half, and it's a medium flush. Press both halves together, and it's a full flush that will keep flushing until all is cleared and gone. Why are not all toilets like this? I am thankful to be able to conserve water, but not shortchange efficiency and need.

These are the materials of my life that allow me to live as close to my core and natural mind as I ever have. The rest is time and space to wonder. I am thankful everyday to wake up to this:
To debrief last night's dream (and figure what that was all about). Or to read Rumi. Or to jot in the red book. Or figure the next blog topic. Or notice history repeat or transgress itself with Zinn's People's History of the United States. Or wonder the global toll on the modern psyche. Or think of how China's superpower personality differs from the U.S.'s superpower personality. How both places rely on either big-time money or self-resilience. How both places deny dignity in its societal care for the citizens. How if both continue to play hardball to maximize profits, and continue to strip dignity, the citizens will have nothing to lose. Or listen to the ducks. Or watch the clouds roll by. Or enjoy the silence. Or welcome unexpected visitors.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Scene 3. Shopgirl at Shanghai #1 Department Store

(Based on a true story).

JANE CHANG, an American, is browsing the toy section of the Shanghai #1 Department Store. A SHOPGIRL, in a navy blue skirt and blazer ensemble sees her from afar and slowly approaches.  Shopgirl, in a blunt red-guard bob, is humble and earnest, but slightly tentative, like a countryside girl in the big city.

Shopgirl (in Chinese): These cars are very popular.
Jane Chang (in American Chinese):  I'm just looking.
(Shopgirl flicks the switch on one of the cars.  It flashes like a disco with upbeat music.)
Shopgirl: So many people like this.
Jane Chang: Do you have something without music?
Shopgirl:  Over here. All of these don't have music. This one. The doors open.
Jane Chang: That one is nice.
Shopgirl: BMW. And look, it goes.
(Shopgirl kneels on the ground, revs the car backwards and then lets it rip.)
Jane Chang: O! That's pretty. I like how it is red and a 'convertible' (in English), ah, open. Can I see? How much is this?
Shopgirl: 147 yuan.
Jane Chang: And how about this one. The VW Beetle police car.
Shopgirl: 158 yuan.
Jane Chang: I mean, does it go too?
Shopgirl: Yah, yah. Look.
(She kneels again, revs the car backwards and lets it rip.)
Jane Chang: Can I try?
(Jane Chang tries. It goes. She tries again. It goes again.)
Shopgirl: The doors don't open on that one.
Jane Chang: That's OK. I want both of these.
Shopgirl: O. They don't have lights or music.
Jane Chang: I know.
Shopgirl: I have to make sure. Because there are people who buy this kind of car, and then when they get home, there is no light or music, and then they come back and yell at me for having no light or music. (She's a li'l teary)
Jane Chang: They couldn't exchange?
Shopgirl (immediately sober): We don't exchange.
Jane Chang: Even if they have a receipt.
Shopgirl: We don't exchange.
Jane Chang: What if they call the manager?
Shopgirl: He will tell them that all sales are final.
Jane Chang: All sales?
Shopgirl: That is our policy.
(Jane Chang looks at the red convertible BMW and the VW Beetle police car.)
Jane Chang: I want one more.
Shopgirl: How about the one with light and music.
Jane Chang: It's for my nephew. He is going to be three years old, so I want to get him three cars. Or how about this truck. He likes trucks.
Shopgirl: The back opens. Or how about this oil tanker. But the back doesn't open. This one has ice cream on it.
Jane Chang: My sister doesn't want her child to eat too many sweets.
Shopgirl: This one has fruit on it.
Jane Chang: How much?
Shopgirl: 78 yuan.
Jane Chang: Good.
Shopgirl: The truck doesn't move. You have to push it by yourself. The other two can move by themselves, but the truck you have to push. By yourself.
Jane Chang: Yes, I understand.
Shopgirl: There are customers that think the truck can move by itself, and when they get home, it doesn't move by itself, and then they come to the store and yell at me, that it doesn't move by itself.
Jane Chang: I want these three.
Shopgirl. These...three. (She takes the shelf tags of each of the three.) Your nephew is lucky.
Jane Chang: I can't be there for his birthday party, so I have to send a good gift. From Ah-yi.
Shopgirl: Ha, Ah-yi.
(They walk over to the shopgirl counter. Shopgirl starts filling out forms, many forms, very diligently. Jane looks at a Mini Cooper while waiting. She picks it up and examines it.)
Jane Chang: How much is this one?
Shopgirl: O that one doesn't have a tag.
Jane Chang: My nephew knows this car. It's one of his favorites. When we are driving on the freeway, he excitedly shouts 'Look Ah-yi! Mini Cooper!' and points to it. He knows it. I want to buy this one instead of the BMW.
Shopgirl (with a bit of nervous fear): I've already filled out the form for the red car.
Jane Chang: You can fill out another form.
Shopgirl: We can't sell that one. It doesn't have a tag.
Jane Chang: Where is the tag?
Shopgirl: There is no tag.
(Jane notices that Shopgirl is sort of shaking and uncomfortable. She puts the Mini Cooper back on the shelf.)
Jane Chang: Well the Mini Cooper in real life is smaller than the VW Beetle. And this Mini Cooper is bigger than that VW Beetle. It might confuse my nephew. I'll stay with the BMW. (Shopgirl continues to fill out forms, imperceptibly sighing with relief). Why do you display the car if you don't sell it?
Shopgirl: It's new stock.
Jane Chang: You Chinese have a funny way of doing business. Someone wants to buy your new stock, which is probably more expensive, yes?
Shopgirl: The tag isn't made yet.
Jane Chang: Just because there is no tag number to copy for your form, you don't want to make money. But you still display it to show.
Shopgirl: I can't do anything. It's our instruction.
(She continues to fill out forms.)
Jane Chang: Do you have a box or something to wrap it with?
Shopgirl: O. They come in a big box. I don't have a box for each car. Only the big box which they all came in. We don't have enough room to store them if each car had it's own box.
Jane Chang: That is so opposite of the U.S. There, it's all about packaging. The prettier the box, the more they can charge.
(Shopgirl goes to the storage cabinet.)
Shopgirl: See, it's just one big box.
Jane Chang: That's OK. You are saving paper.
Shopgirl: I can give you gift bags. These.
(They are 3 Burberry-patterned gift bags.)
Jane Chang: Well, these are nice. But I just need a box to send to the U.S.
Shopgirl: I have this big bag.
(It is a large Burberry-patterned gift bag).
Jane Chang: Yes, the big one is fine. How much?
Shopgirl: It's free.
Jane Chang: For the 3 cars.
Shopgirl: 283 yuan.
(Jane hands her three 100 yuan bills.)
Shopgirl: Please take this slip and pay at that station behind the stereo case.
Jane Chang: O, ah, over at...
Shopgirl: Straight ahead, behind the stereo case. Just go straight.
Jane goes. Shopgirl wipes each of the cars and then carefully puts each in the big Burberry-patterned bag. Jane comes back. Shopgirl takes two copies of the forms and then gives Jane hers.)
Jane Chang: Can I have these three small bags too? My nephew loves to play grocery store.
Shopgirl: Do you want me to put it in the big bag?
Jane Chang: Yes, thanks.
(Jane takes the big bag.)
Shopgirl: Bye-bye.
Jane Chang: Thank you for your help.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, November 22, 2008

International Play Bakeoff

It's midnight in Shanghai, November 23.  It's also 8am in Los Angeles, November 22. I've been invited to join a gaggle of LA playwrights in yet another Great American Play Bakeoff, as invented by ubermentor Paula Vogel. This time, though, it stretches across the time zones.

It's simple. For the next 48 hours, write a play.

The ingredients to be baked into this session's play:
a song
a fall
something that is impossible to stage.

I've synchronize the Shanghai-Los Angeles times, so that I can be writing during the same 48 hours as my playwright hosts: Ken Narasaki, Sujata Bhatt, Jason Fong, Soo-jin Lee, Andrea Apuy, Howard Ho and Sharon Omi. Ken has a friend in Ashland that may be writing along, and my friend Chen Gu in New Orleans might make a bake, too.

So midnight, November 25, I will have a 'play' or a dramatic fragment, or at least something written, where 2 days before, there was nothing. That is the beauty of the bakeoff: it can be as long or as short a piece of work as you like. And, it is both pressure and no pressure, because you feel the heat to write something within the 2 days, but how 'bad' could it be? It was done in such a short time. And that recipe is what allows flashes of ingenuity to emerge: the subconscious rising to the top, revealing itself in a kindly agitated state.

So join on in!

Anyone in this world can be a part of the Great International Play Bakeoff.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fables (not necessarily of Faubus)

Besides my Nursing English classes, I conduct a 1-hour conversation class known as English Corner. It takes three to make a corner, and I usually get at least that. Those students willing to squeeze extra time to practice spoken English into their busy schedules are a brave lot, as speaking aloud, in front of their peers, in a foreign language does require a kind of courage.

It started with talking about seasons, the physical reality of seasons, my asking the students about their favorite season and then asking why. Why can be precarious. It can lead to many similar answers. It can lead to my handing them a Chinese-English dictionary, because they can say it in Chinese but not in English. Ah, generating new vocabulary. Um, not a lot write new words down. Conversation seems to be more about entertainment than retention. I eventually have the students rehash what we've talked about in the form of a 'conversation,' two at a time, in front of the class. It's a prompted performance, but it sure looks like a conversation. (The next goal is to shorten dead air time and have them face away from the blackboard where all the generated words and phrases have been recorded.)

I freaked them out talking about breakfast. American breakfast. All that meat. All those ways to cook an egg. All those starches and sugars. The mashed, fried, baked and hashed of it all. I tell them this is why Americans are so fat. They cringe and are relieved to have their rice porridge, steamed bun, and tea egg.

Two weeks ago, I hit upon gold. The telling of a fable in English. I took some text of the Meanings and Metaphor book which I had used for Speaking and Listening class and had the English Corner students read each, and then tell the fable again in their own English words. The great thing about fables is that there is that moral, and the Chinese definitely respond to lessons of morality. The fables always use animals as characters, which is shorthand in the global storytelling universe. Snakes seem always to be wicked. Foxes are clever. Dogs are dense. Rabbits impatient and cowardly. Turtles wise. Lions and Tigers ferocious and arrogant.

There were 4 fables to choose from:  2 from good ole Aesop, 1 from India, 1 from Turkey.

The quickie: A bird sings in a cage at night. A bat notices and asks, "Why do you only sing at night?" The bird answers, "When I sang in the daytime, I was heard and caught and put into this cage. So now I sing only at night." The bat flaps, "It's no good being careful now. You should have been more careful before you were caught."

The other Aesop, and least popular to rendit:  Once, the hares had a huge meeting and complained about how insecure and frightening their lives were. They were hunted by men and dogs and eagles, all sorts of animals. They decided it was better to die at that moment than live their lives feeling frightened. They ran together to a pond and jumped in to drown themselves.

A bunch of frogs happened to be sitting pondside and the moment they heard the hare's running feet, they too quickly jumped into the pond with fright. When one of the calmer, more intelligent hares saw this he yelled "Stop! All of you. Don't do anything stupid. You can see now that there are creatures even more frightened than we are."

The favorite from India: A very wicked snake lived next to a road and would bite anyone passing by. One day, a holy man walked by, and as the snake rushed to bite him, he stopped, looked at the snake, and said "You want to bite me?  Go ahead." The snake was surprised and overwhelmed by the holy man's gentleness. The holy man said "Listen, my friend (was it McCain?). How about promising me you won't bite anyone from now on (it wasn't.) The snake bowed and agreed. The holy man went on his way and the snake started his new life of non-violence.

Soon all the village people (in full regalia) noticed that the snake would no longer bite, and so they started to tease it badly, throwing stones at it, dragging it by its tail. The snake, transcending its usual fable stereotype, kept its promise to the holy man and, despite all of the violence directed toward it, did not bite anyone.

One day, the holy man returned to see visit the snake and was upset to see that the snake was beaten and bruised. "What's happened?" asked the holy man. "O holy man, you said I should not bite anyone but humans, they are so cruel." The holy man answered, "I told you not to bite, but I didn't tell you not to hiss."

And the most popular one from India: A lion called all the animals that he ruled over to his den. He asked them: "How does my den smell?" The dog stepped forward, eager, honest, but not too wise and said, "Your Majesty, your den smells rather unpleasant. In all honesty, it stinks." The lion became furious and tore the dog to bits. (bite/bit/bits lesson). The lion asked again, and this time the monkey stepped forward. "Your Majesty, your den smells like the beautiful roses of the palace garden." The lion was doubly furious. "For lying and flattery, you deserve the same as the dog," and the lion ripped the monkey to bits as well. Then the lion asked the fox the same question, to which the fox said "Your Majesty, for some time now, I've had a bad cold, and I really can't smell a thing..."

The students did great, renditting the fables. The next week, I asked them to translate Chinese fables into English.

A kind man walked through the snow in a forest. He saw a snake laying there, frozen and half- dead. He decided to take the snake to where it was warm. He placed the snake in his bag and went home. After a while, when the snake thawed he crawled out of the bag and bit the man. Be careful who you help.

A fox went up to a tiger one day, and says, I am the king of the land. The tiger says, how is that possible, I am the kind of the land. The fox grins: I can show you how I am kind of the land. How, asks the tiger. Follow me, says the fox. And so the tiger followed the fox all around the land. As soon as they came upon any creature, the creature would see the tiger approaching and become frightened and scram. Each time the fox, followed by the tiger, would approach, all creatures would run and hide. The tiger saw this and said, wherever we go, the creatures all run. It must be true, fox. You must be the king of the land.

There used to be English Corner Monday through Thursday; due to lack of attendance, there's only the Tuesday session now. Today, after my final Nursing English class, one of Thursday's students walked with me and asked what we were doing in English Corner today; I told her it was only Tuesdays from now on. Please come Tuesday. I can't, I'm busy...and I prepared a Chinese fable for today. Tell me as we walk.

Once there was a poor old man who was so hungry, he went up to a restaurant, and sniffed the fragrant aroma of the food. The owner charged him money. But I am only taking a sniff. The owner insisted. I have no money. And so the restaurant owner took the poor old man to court. Unfortunately for the old man, the judge was a friend of the owner, and sentenced him to a fine. The old man, light-headed from hunger, was completely helpless. A clever young man saw the helpless old man, tied to a post in front of the restaurant. The old man told him of his situation and the young man promised to set him free. The young man went to the restaurant owner and said, I will pay the fine if you free the poor old man. The restaurant owner agreed. Upon releasing the poor old man, the clever young man took his bag of coins and jingled them next to the restaurant owner's ear. What's this? this restaurant owner asked. I pay you the money, like the old man ate your food.

Faubus himself was enfabled by Charles Mingus on Ah Um, a classic jazz piece with a jaunty circus feel that stood against desegregation. It was based on Orvel Faubus, an Arkansas governor in the 50's that caused the Little Rock crisis of 1957, disallowing 9 black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. In 1986, Faubus was defeated in the Arkansas gubernatorial race by Bill Clinton.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Monday, November 17, 2008

Meeting Dr. Ding

Ni hao!

(in Chinese) Is this Dr. Ding?
I am a friend of your wife's brother, Paul Chow. He is best friends with my parents in Los Angeles. I am called Alice. 
Yes, that's right. Are you in your laboratory now? Paul Chow said that you go to your laboratory every day.
(in English) I am blind! I cannot see anything. I am in my office. I come to my office everyday. In the morning. Every day.
I'm in Shanghai teaching English and would like to meet you and your wife. 

And I do. Meet Dr. Ding. But not his wife, Paul Chow's sister. Not this time. Paul Chow is my godfather. He is the one who sent me to China in my most disaffected state in the 80's, beefing up the asian side of my assigned chinese-american identity. He is my inspirator for a bubbly outgoing spirited life living in constant curiosity. Paul Chow was the first one to read 'Yeh Yeh,' on the radio (KPFK in LA) in a play based on my own nonagenerian grandfather that became Last of the Suns. 

And here now, Dr. Ding, all of 87 years, reminding me of Yeh Yeh, in his modest office at the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, a desk, a phone, two chairs, a huge bookshelf, a gold medal on the wall, a butterfly behind him, an electric teapot, an easy chair and a UC San Diego baseball cap hanging on the door that one of his numerous friends brought back for him. The air is crisp. The desk is next to the window. The light is friendly.

As soon as I arrive to his office, shake hands. We sit at his desk. He hands me the phone. You want to speak with Zhou Chuang Qing? He doesn't call her 'my wife,' he calls her by her full name. I do. He feels out the two buttons for speed dial, and within 3 rings, Paul Chow's sister is speaking, with a similar voice as Paul Chow, even more fiery and more spirited, if that is possible.

She gets all my info right off the bat. So does Dr. Ding, as he writes with pen and paper. My Chinese is feeling limited as I try to remember how to say Shanghai Lida Polytechnic Insititue in Chinese and try to explain that we are in Songjiang but not in Songjiang City where a whole slew of Universities reside in the new Campus district. She apologizes that she can't hangout today because she has to wait for the prepared food that is delivered to her house, a service for people over 70 years of age. She's a raconteur, just like Paul Chow, how tragic the subway collapse is, how there's nothing to really see in Shanghai (I came here to live not to sightsee), how she had to learn Cantonese in 3 weeks when they were evacuating from the Japanese and she had to move south. She herself is 84 and her mind is as sharp and constantly turning. I look up at Dr. Ding after 15 minutes on the phone:
At one point he gives me the time's up signal with his hands. After a while: enough. He's heard her speak for 57 years. I help to wrap up by making plans to visit this coming Friday, when I'll be in the city again. I get three more 'time's up' signals. (In Chinese) Yes, yes, yes, looking forward, looking forward.

Dr. Ding himself is pharamacologist and an anesthesiologist.  MD and PhD, trained at the University of Chicago in the late 1940's. He is as his picture suggests: serene, centered, completely present. He cannot see anything, though when I raise my arms and wave at him, he stops and says something just moved. It must be shadows. 'I cannot see anything, but I can hear very well.' And he can. He listens very attentively, though his countenance had changed during my phonecall with his wife.

He orders up dumplings and a shrimp dish and some sauteed spinach for lunch. I want to take a picture, he reaches for his glasses. 'Do they help you to see?' I ask. 'I look smarter,' he chuckles.
Walking with Dr. Ding next door to the Cafe/diner seals my memory of old Yeh Yeh (which means paternal grandfather). Very slow steps, his cane in his right hand, his left arm cuffed around mind. It is truly zen to slow down to a completely unhurried pace, even slower than a breeze. It also reminds me of when I walk with the playwright Lynn Manning, who is also unsighted, though he's a Judo champion, and although the paces are cautious, we can move at regular speed.
Yes China indeed reveres its elderly. All the non-existent customer service suddenly blooms into attentive respect. All ages that come into our path know Dr. Ding and greet him and help him. He is beloved as the usual Professor Emeritus, but there is a warmth and simple unfussiness that eminates. A true cheer. If I may be so audacious as to hope to be in such a position when I am 87. To go to a modest office with a phone and a desk and keep in contact with all of my cohorts, colleagues, friends, relative's friends, all with open arms and  curiosity and wondering, and continue to meet with students who will progress the continuum. If I may be so audacious.

After lunch, we return to his office for the pure enjoyment of conversation. He plugs in his electric pot and shows me coffee, and then opens the green tea tin. I pinch a few leaves and then pour for myself.
'American is a paradise for children, a battlefield for the middle-aged and a grave for the old.' My wife wanted me to move to the U.S. but I did not want to leave my motherland. My friends are here. My colleagues.
'Como esta usted? Bien gracias.' I had a colleague at the University of Chicago from Guadalajara. He taught me some Spanish.'

Some things are to blog. This conversation was a natural play scene. 

I'm lucky enough to be participating in a Great American Play Bakeoff this weekend, where a group of playwrights in Los Angeles like Sujata Bhatt, Ken Narasaki, Jason Fong and Soo Jin Lee all spend 48 hours writing a play with given ingredients. I will join in 16 hours after the given time so the synchronicity will be real. The ingredients for this bakeoff:  A song, mother, a fall, chalk, something impossible to stage. I'm not sure how Dr. Ding will fit into such a baking, but I treasure the chance to get goosed into playwriting again.

As I bid Dr. Ding farewell and promise to call on Thursday night to firm up Friday lunch, he asks if I know the way out. Sure, I'll just back track the way I came, take the No 1 subway to People's Square because I'm going to browse the Foreign Language Bookstore on Fuzhou Rd.
You can take the bus. Bus 49. 
I've not taken the bus in the city before.
Very simple, just go out the other gate, turn right and walk 100 neters.
Bus 49. Like the year New China was born.

He walks me to the door. I can't wait for Friday to meet, as he says, his 'better half.'

At the bus stop, which was indeed 100 meters from the gate, the gate that states that this campus was the former site of the French Consulate, there is a bookseller. He has Clinton, he has Buffet, he has Trump, he has Obama.
Yes, this is what I should look for at the bookstore. I had always wanted to get it on audio, with the voice of the one but I don't drive anymore, and so don't have that solitary listening sphere of my own private moving kingdom. And lately, I have been only craving non-fiction for some reason. Perhaps cleansing the palate of theatrical fiction so as to start afresh, here in Shanghailand. I am halfway through Zinn's People's History of the United States, which is such a trip to read, experiencing the epic historical progression we have recently made.

I'd initially wanted to go to the bookstore to pick up some magazine. Back in LA, I was into the tabloids cuz it was perfect reading on the treadmill, like frozen TV. And it got me to stay for an hour at a time, Elle, Vogue, InTouch, People. The tabloids are like our version of the Greek Gods, perfect, or imagistically so, but also back-stabbing, plastic, symbolic, betraying scandalous, massive. Somehow the slick and shine with Nicole Kidman, or Cameron Diaz, or Carrie Underwood is not interesting anymore. The hometown rag feels shallow, and that life is what is so idolized here, what is so expensive, its context feels foreign. And People has its big Obama issue, the new celebtrity-in-chief, and Time shows him in black and white, in a convertible, spinning 'The New Deal' anew.

The political biographies have piles and piles of Hillary, Bill, Powell, Gates, Buffet, Diana even. A noticeable blank spot, where it's just table, with no books there, the new hotcake spot. I walk away, tour the bookstore, come back, somehow hoping I missed a crevice a slot, really wanting to read Obama now. Should I get it in Chinese? Joan Didion, Arianna Huffington, John Grey, Jeffrey Eugenides, Salmon Rushdie...I try my hand at fiction (OK John Gray is like an extended Oprah article), but I can't commit 100 yuan to anything. I spend more time reading chapters of Ariana, about being fearless, passages of the Magical Thinking, do I want to read Midnight's Children, and return to the Hillary, Bill, Powell, Gates, Trump, Buffet.

There is a british book about the history of Chinese Philosophy. I turn to Zhuangzi, who is still in Wade-Giles and known as Chuang Tse. I read and read about Man and Nature, how ZZ appreciates the natural aspects of living. That a big bird and a small bird have their flights. The big bird can fly 1000 kilometers, the small bird to the next tree. The small bird need not wish to fly 1000 KM and so it is happy to fly just to the next tree. If you try to make the small bird into a crane and elongate its legs, this is unnatural and this will cause misery. If you try to make a crane into a small bird and cut off its legs, this is unnatural and will cause misery.

Who can decide what is right and what is wrong? If I think I am right and your think you are right, and we choose someone who agrees with me, or someone who agrees with you, we can never decide who is right and who is wrong. One who agrees with neither of us cannot help us either.

No mention of butterly. Cool.

I look up.  And there it is.
It turns out someone had paid for it and never picked it up. It was just sitting in the back room and they just put it out. As I was reading the Zhuangzi. The sales girl continues to tell me that so many people had been asking for it and that they had sold out very fast, that they would not be getting anymore any time soon, that foreign books are slow to arrive.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, November 13, 2008

There IS a Lake

It's been two months already. Since that first night I arrived in darkness to my apartment here at Lida. After a long harrowing journey from Los Angeles, I fell to bed, hearing crickets and cicadas and bullfrogs. My last thought was--'There must be a lake.'

And there is. Smack dab in the middle of campus. A scenic, though manmade, reflecting pool surrounded by willows. It is serene as it is calm, gently rippling with the breeze. It stretches all along the back side of the administration building, and curves around reaching both eastern and western enclaves of the campus. I remember first arriving to a teaching stint at the University of Texas, Austin, and being blown away by the huge 50,000-seat verticalia of its football stadium, right there in the middle of that campus. Big, tall, pure Longhorn swagger . I suppose it shows what the school values at heart. Or how budgets can budge.
I can safely say, the tourist enthusiasm of my stay here in China is officially over. Life here can be challenging, but I see it as an opportunity to go to a more philosophical place to get me through difficult moments. It allows me to appreciate the freedoms of the U.S. more handily. It gives me insight into how the Chinese culture's valuing of long-suffering molds political habits and societal trends. It focuses me back to my purpose of being here--to have a quiet place to write, a chance to earn some income, and to experience a society in fast (and slow) transition. 

As my honeymoon with being in Shanghai wanes, I accept this arrangement, this discipline, and feel lucky, in that outward bound way, to have this experience. It's tough, it's sobering. It strips me of indulgences and affords me clarity. Through it all, I must say, one of the simple pleasures I enjoy everyday is the landscape of this school. I, being a chronic window-gazer, am buoyed by my immediate environment. The serene beauty outside my windows, from every angle, tempers the frustrations.

The fascinating dilemma of being a writer is the contradiction of playing god from the inside, and then being humbled from the outside. When both these aspects are in balance, when one can also be humble from the inside and work the rules to at least have audience to play god to from the outside, there is movement for the writer. To try and make sense of how any of this transpires is to be reasonable, and reason, in my field of drama, may sell tickets for entrance to some 'erudite' or 'hip' experience, but will not necessarily impact or cathart past the theater exits.

The playwright David Mamet describes this phenomenon in his book about the nature and purpose of drama called 'Three Uses of the Knife':

'...the cleansing lesson of the drama is, at its highest, the worthlessness of reason.

In great drama we see this lesson learned by the hero. More important, we undergo the lesson ourselves, as we have our expectations raised only to be dashed, as we find that we have suggested to ourselves the wrong conclusion and that, stripped of our intellectual arrogance, we must acknowledge our sinful, weak, impotent state--and that, having acknowledged it, we may find peace.'
Gone are these clement, sunny days. The cold is setting in now. My apartment is gorgeously warm, though the classrooms are not, not heated even, a humbling chill as I see it. And so, I'm preparing for 4 months of teaching with hats and layers and coats and scarves and gloves. I just think: Kierkegaard probably had it worse in Denmark in the first half of the 19th century. Just as all that German Romanticism was really pissing him off.  In my mind's eye, he's always wearing a thick coat and refined gloves, wrapped in a bulk of scarves, carrying around his tome of writings, limping on his cane, decrying the Hegelian dialectic, while obsessively pursuing the idea of Regine Olsen. It's time to organically inhabit and deeply feel the comic ice of Either/Or.
The first week I was here, this cute young server man in the cafeteria, who has the wide-eye sparkle of Aladdin, asked me, 'Were you the one fishing for shrimp in the lake?' I thought he was joking, I said 'No, that wasn't me.' 'O,' he said. I don't think he was joking.

And the bullfrogs I heard that first night, well that was just some warped sonic mirage--there were no bullfrog sounds after that night. Sure, cock's crowing at 2 am, even some ducks in the morn, and yes, still crickets and cicadas chirping and spinning their symphonies. But the croaking was fully my mind's own. And I believe the songs around the lake will get scarcer, silent even, as the lake freezes for the winter. Though this again, may be the wrong conclusion, and acknowledging it, I may find peace, as I have, when I pass the lake.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, November 10, 2008

Federer Live

Let's see:  The U.S. elected a super cool president. China has stimulated itself with a big 4 trillion yuan package. Things are looking up. I know I made a big deal about going to the Shanghai Masters Cup to see Rafael Nadal play. But even #1s get exhausted and withdraw from year end tournaments. And gosh did I luck out tonight at the Qizhong Tennis Stadium.

I got to see Roger Federer play live.

Sure many of us have seen his magic on TV--the precision, the elegance, the surges, the legerdemain...the full wing-spanned back hand, the spin and pace, the second serve ace, the perfect overhead, the forehand grace--but to see it live reminds me of everything I love about theater.  

First, when you are in the room with unimpeachable, multifaceted talent, that in and of itself is breathtaking. Like when I saw John Doyle's Sweeney Todd, where the actors would emote with the instruments they played and sung with--to see human potential actualized is a primal force. Federer just has it, constantly stoked on his core of gravity. The beauty is when he is controlled, yes, the shots are executed as if in ether; but he is loose enough to enquicken a reach that renders him a ragdoll that contracts back into precision. You just can't quite see this on TV. He is an energy field unto himself, intense and seeming to conjur natural laws of his own. You really can't believe your live eyes.

Second, the one live viewership privilege you have over screen is that you get to look where you want. So much of the incidentals get seen. Like when a let serve is called out and Federer gives the exact precise angle and energy on the ball to hit and deliver it to the ball girl at the net, so that she needs not move one iota more than necessary. Or when Federer's opponent, the Frenchman Gilles Simon (who replaced Nadal) asks the ball that Federer hit out of bounds from the ball boy who has caught it, so that he can hit it to the other side of the court, to the other ball boy, who feeds Federer his serves, just to know that that out-of-bounds ball is in Federer's serve mix. Little player quirks and superstitions. You just don't get to see how they obsess about which ball they choose to serve up after examining 3, 6 at a time.

Finally, the audience. 
That organism. That oohs and ahhs and awws. (And in China, like everything, it's particularly loud.) That kinetic response. That reaction to shots, to form, to athletics, to superpowers. At one point, Federer and Simon were in a rally that lulled the audience into giddiness: it was as if each were daring the other to shatter the ballet of loft and softness. It continued for longer than comfortable, and the audience giggled in ripples, like drunken schoolgirls. It matched like good dialogue.

The Europeans are more publicly vocal: 'Allez, allez!' the French would shout to their countryman. "Piao lian, piao lian (pretty, pretty)" the Chinese man next to me would say quietly about an angle, a volley, a get.  "OOOOwahhhh" in singsong, the Japanese man beside me would marvel at the landing of a shot. And when Roger, the Switzerland Man, would finish off a game, you could here the cowbell, that distinct tinny drone like a slow old telephone, ringing from section Helvetica.

Even Sade has a line for Federer:  'He moves in space with minimum waste, and maximum buoy.'

Getting to the stadium is another deal. The usual stress of moving through Chinese society. Get on this bus, get off at Che Dun, look for a taxi, make sure you seem like a local, they'll know where it is, it should be x amount of yuan, if it isn't, well you brought extra right?
The Qizhong Tennis Stadium prides itself on having a roof that opens like a lotus flower. The Chinese love them some nature object architecture, yes? Bird Nest, Lotus Flower, Water Cube. And yes, here is the decor that, I guess, is patriotic, but somehow violates the usual tennis aesthetic.
Here is the roof. I don't know if it opens, but the Master's Cup graphic keeps showing the trophy emerging from the very smooth opening, blooming if you will, of the roof. For now, it is just an indoor stadium and treated as such--all the concert lighting, the rock and roll music, massive snacking--it feels more like a baseball game than a tennis match. (Or maybe this is how the U.S. Open is, but I just don't think of Wimbledon or the French Open this way). It's weird to see Federer and Simon treated like the LA Lakers with a championship entrance: dimmed house lights, searchlight, spotlight, purple neon, 'smoke', high-angle shot on the monitor of player awaiting entrance. (Could Nadal's knee not take all of this kitsch?)
The coin toss is still done in dramatic lighting.
Here is section Helvtica, but let me tell you there were other sections with such flag-waving from adoring Chinese fans. Absolutely in awe of the Tennis Master.
Who in the 6th game of the 2nd set, trailing 2-3, was down 3 break points, yup, love-40, and then won 5 points in a row to take the game (cue: cowbell). But this Rafa replacement, Gilles Simon, is no pushover. In fact his two-handed backhand is fierce although, as seen in the first set, tamed when inaccurate. (Strangely, it seems, playing with Federer, you actually are forced into a realm of precision.) Simon is no rookie--he's young but he is not intimidated by the Tennis Master. In fact he beat Federer the last time they met in Canada. 

So Federer saves three break points and ties up the second set (after taking the first), and freaks Simon out by taking away his three chances to take a huge lead. Simon himself goes down three break points himself (cowbell is very vocal). Allez, allez! (You (formal) go!) Lo and behold, Simon wins the next 5 points and keeps his advantage. He goes on to beat Federer and take the match.

By the 3rd set, Federer is making lots of mistakes. I'm feeling him, cuz one more 80's rock and roll hit at the break, one more look at your own Rolex commercial showing your crowning win (of last year) at Wimbledon, one more ring of that cowbell, one more damned flash while you are serving, one more cellphone ring--he just seems annoyed. He's not putting his championship fight in. Especially cuz it's round robin and he has to play again Wednesday and Friday. Only the top 8 men's players are invited to this tournament--no one is eliminated until the semi-finals (which I will see live this Saturday). Though he did get beat by #8, Rafa's replacement. Game, set, match. Roger's already got his rackets and bag and he's headed for the vom, cursorily waving.
Gilles Simon walks slowly to his seat. He has yet to be interviewed by a super-energetic bilingual host, waiting for him in the spotlight.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, November 8, 2008


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Hooray USA

The New Rule

It's the old rule that drunks have to argue
and get into fights.
The lover is just as bad. He falls into a hole.
But down in that hole he finds something shining,
worth more than any amount of money or power.

Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street.
I took it as a sign to start singing,
falling up into the bowl of sky.
The bowl breaks. Everywhere is falling everywhere.
Nothing else to do.

Here's the new rule: break the wineglass
and fall toward the glassblower's breath.

Labels: ,