Chengdu blues: Nation without a past

January 1, 2019 § 10 Comments

I was at a party last night ringing in the New Year, which means I was struggling valiantly every minute past 9:00 PM then giving up and going home around ten, sound asleep by 10:30. I ran into my friend Scott at the party. “How come you quit blogging about China?” he asked.

“I didn’t really quit, but the remaining posts are so unbearably long that simply copying them from my notebook will take forever. And no one wants to read about China anyway.”

Scott, who has traveled there extensively, shook his head. “I do.”

That was the shot in the arm I needed. Most of the time, one reader is more than enough! So here we go, cycling in the South Bay be damned.

Tour shortage

By Day 7, Chengdu had finally run out of tours. The Sea of Bamboo Tour, a 2-day trip, was closed in winter, as were all the trips into the high mountains and up onto the Tibetan Plateau. The Panda Research Center tours were all booked and I was starting to think that meant “We have enough Chinese guests and don’t need the clumsy American one.”

So I asked for a private guide but apparently that’s not a thing, unlike in Taiwan. I figured I would go back to Chunxilu shopping district, find the fake Rolex huckster and ask him for a guide. Or maybe ask a cabby or a moto-cabby. I couldn’t imagine that someone wouldn’t be willing to take my money, even if it just meant driving me down an alley to knife me in the back.

“Why don’t you take a day off?” the hotel clerk wanted to know. She meant “Why don’t you quit giving me all these tour operators to call?”

“Because it’s my vacation. Who wants to rest on a vacation?”

So I began the AM with language study featuring Peppa the Pig in Chinese, bear cartoons, news shorts, then simul-read, in depth #propanews. As I readied for the day I realized that my shopping had gotten out of control. For souvenirs I’d already bought ass-hot Sichuan soup stock, ass-hot Sichuan sausages, and ass-hot Sichuan tofu sauce. I’d bought books, tea, bookmarks, knick-knacks, leather gloves, a jaunty cap, a 20-meter scarf … so much for light travel.

I asked the desk clerk to please find me anyone, a student, retiree, recluse, ex-military, IDGAF, just someone to tromp across the city who I could assault with my Chinese for seven or eight hours. She said they would ring me so I sat in my room impatiently, all scarfed and jauntied up with nowhere to go.

The call never came so I went out on my own again, and passed a giant building called Tour Bus Center, and stepped inside. Surely this was the answer to my tour dreams. It was jammed with people and had a huge electronic timetable for buses going everywhere from one hour to two days’ distance. I picked the nearest destination to a place I’d never heard of, Huanglongxi, an hour away.

All the seats were sold, and at $1.40 a pop I wondered how they were making money. It was a horrible bouncy trip stuck over the rear axle again, which seemed to be the preferred seating for Americans. We got there and I wisely bought my return ticket rather than waiting until it was time to return and then having to fight the bus scrum. Next, my camera died. I’d forgotten to bring a charger and didn’t really care. Cameras are simply one more burden and they don’t add anything to your trip, though they do add a lot for others who wonder if you actually went to China.

Huanglongxi was a massive, endless, riverside warren of souvenir shops masquerading as a historical site, and this is the problem with modern China: There are no ideas or beliefs here besides commerce and consumption. And it made me wonder, again, if any society has ever long survived without the constant under-fermentation of dissent, i.e. art? It struck me again that there was no art anywhere, only pretty things, or in many instances extraordinarily beautiful things, but nothing that criticized or that could act as a vehicle for new ideas, for anger, or for change. Thus no novels, no paintings, no sculptures, no murals, only officially approved pretty things, many of which were not pretty at all.

What happens to a nation starved of ideas and debate, where the only outlet for creativity and thought is commerce and consumption? Like North Korea, it must become even more repressive in order to stamp out and tightly regulate the inflow of thoughts created by the domestic vacuum of art, literature, and journalism. It’s no coincidence that the surliest people I’d run across worked at the government run Xinhua Bookstore, whose primary aim appears to be to discourage reading at all costs.

The lovely old #faketown

I walked quickly through the old #faketown. It was early in the day and the masses of tourists hadn’t hit full swing. Moreover, it was the off season and many of the shops were shuttered, so instead of getting to choose between a thousand varieties of souvenir combs, you could only choose between about nine hundred.

The nicest place was down on the river, polluted and ugly and lined with endless tents and upside-down chairs indicating the cafes were closed. There were few people, and it stank. I liked it.

I returned to the bus station, not sure that this was any worse than Disneyland, and ultimately convinced it was quite a bit better. The entry fee was zero, you didn’t have to buy anything, and it was at least based on a historically real place more than 1,700 years old, with a good many authentic buildings from the Qing Dynasty still standing. And, I hate Mickey.

For all the yammer about a nation whose only values are commerce and consumption, how does it differ from the U.S., where bare-fanged corporatist capitalism cloaked in the phrases of democracy hasn’t worked out well at all for African-Americans, most minorities, or the poor? At least here there are 1.4 billion people and zero homeless; no miles and miles of tent cities, no overpasses crowded with tarps, no Skid Row welcoming you to one of the biggest cities in the world. And perhaps it’s an illusion, but it sure looks like anyone who wants to work, can, and that food and education and healthcare are available to most.

The big “C”

I got back to Chengdu craving coffee. Chengdu has a paucity of coffee shops, by which I mean there isn’t one every ten feet. I didn’t want Xingbake, and I had had a killer coffee and donut the day before, but instead of returning there I decided to chase down a coffee shop with a sign that, but for the substitution of the letter “f” would have been the best-named coffee shop in the history of coffee shops.

Unfortunately, “Luckin’ Coffee” was a stand-up bar and I wanted to sit as the bus had dumped us all off on a random street and I had walked a solid hour to get back to Chunxilu and “Luckin’ Coffee.” Then I recalled a place named “Ms. Coffee” on the 11th floor of the Nine Dragons Clothing Emporium, and so I made for it. It is a fact that things taste better the harder you have to work for them, and this was no exception, AND the coffee came in a ceramic mug AND had a pretty foam design AND it was super smooth AND despite the millions of shoppers the coffee shop’s tables were all but empty, so I easily got a seat AND although there was no indoor heating, hot air rises and the 11th floor was toasty and cozy AND all I really needed to make it perfect was a pair of eyes to gaze into AND although you can’t have everything, sometimes your imagination, if properly fed, will do the trick.

Sipping coffee in the giant emporium it made sense that if China is ever convicted of a crime it will be for raising generations who have never seen the sky. It’s crazy how you forget about clouds, sun, sky, moon, stars, and you accept the gray lowering pollution as that with which we were born, like living on Neptune or at the bottom of the sea or in a mine shaft, our inheritance.

The beautiful English language, or, Panky Boy Hot Style

On January 15, 1987, or immediately thereafter, I came to be thunderwhacked by the legendary Japlish that adorned, well, everything in Japan from caps to underwear to magazines to companies. In my youth and my arrogance (redundant), I laughed a these misbegotten abortions of the English language, even doing what tourists before and after have done far better than I, which is cataloging the screechers.

Here in Chengdu, 31 years later, it’s deja vu all over again, made most magnificent by the teen clothing brand called Acne Studio, and punctuated by the knee-length yellow jacket with “Lazy Motha Fuckers” emblazoned on the back. An amazing catalog of Chinglish is right here for the asking, more various and amusing and thought-provoking than anything I ever saw in Japan, with the winner of all time being a runner charging the street, his t-shirt saying only this, profoundly and beautifully, co-opting everything Strava, Nike, or life ever imagined: “Beat Yesterday.”

I can say, gratefully and shamelessly, that the intervening decades have whittled me the fuck down, especially the iceberg of arrogance regarding English that I used to tow behind me everywhere I went. The whittling began when my wife’s cousin’s ex-husband laughingly interrupted my efforts to minimize and ridicule Japlish on a signboard in Utsunomiya, circa 1992. “But Seth,” he said, “It’s not being written for you.”

This opened my eyes to the beauty and malleability of English in other cultures, not as I would use it, but as someone would first think a thing in Japanese, find an English analogue that sounded cool or pretty or interesting, then translate it back to Japanese, all the while comparing it to other options, some better, some worse, all beyond my ken because I had never thought the Japanese to begin with.

China’s love affair with designer English is vivid and fresh and stimulating, a tool that experts are using to carefully craft a message that their targets will understand in the millions, or tens of millions, far better than I.

Acne Studio, indeed!

No more history

It occurred to me as I was walking home to stop and read the inscription next to a giant sculpture commemorating the February 16 uprising, an inscription piously and emptily advising me that this “great” sculpture had “great” implications for understanding modern Sichuanese history, presumably more so than Sichuanese spicy hot pots, Huawei, and Acne Studio.

Of course it begged the question, “What modern history?” and even more desperately, “And where would one find it?”

Because in all my wanderings and in all the informational plaques and guide discourses I had heard, I could determine that China only had three periods of history:

  1. Ancient civilization marked by emperors and archaeology.
  2. The war for independence.
  3. What Xi Jinping said or did today.

There was no history that I could see of Mao, Deng, or any other post-war anything, a fact easily explained by the fact that after 1949 there was no journalism, literature, history, or art to record it, and by record of course I mean criticize, as art without criticism is just a pretty picture, if you’re lucky, and literature without searing critique is simply a bedtime story, #propanews, or Hemingway.

It also explains the frenzy associated with extolling the narrative of ancient China, as it takes the eye off the sick absence of any modern history at all. In that sense America and Europe are incomparably richer, as their literature and art have faithfully assassinated the corporate creed that profit and wealth make right. China is left without a past, unable to point to a single meaningful modern work of art or body of literary thought, as all such endeavors must by definition crucify the official religion that relentlessly stamps out free speech and critical thought of any kind.

So the tourist is left with either an artistic vacuum or shopping, or worse, is sent home with a copy of Du Fu’s 1st Century poetry to spend the rest of his life trying to unpuzzle, that he may never ask the question, “Yes, but what about today?”



Chengdu blues: Don’t skip breakfast

December 31, 2018 § 8 Comments

The snow in Emeishan was part of a cold front that smashed Chengdu into the low 30’s. I forewent another tour and instead concentrated on one of the best things about China: The hotel breakfast. Let’s just say it wasn’t toast and a mini-box of corn flakes.

Fresh noodles, spicy vegetables, fried eggs, various delicious pickles, and made-to-order wonton soup were all on order, along with a rich buffet of western breakfast foods. Modesty and fear of getting fat on vacation kept me from having seconds of everything.

I decided to go to the Panda Preserve and maybe return to the tourist shopping alleys. After all, I hadn’t explored the shop whose sign read, in English, “The Smell of a Woman.” However, the cumulative effort of endless walking was starting to wear me out. It was also raining outside,and the warm hotel room, finally sort of almost partially somewhat rid of the stale cigarette smoke here on Day 6, was feeling pretty cozy.

On the other hand, when would I next get to see some pandas? And this led to the next question: If I were going to see pandas, shouldn’t I dress for the occasion? So my first stop was to the Shunxilu shopping district for a jaunty cap and a scarf. I’d had to confess that I had been miserably cold except when in the shower or in bed, and it was time to get warmer clothes.

However, I was hijacked by a donut and coffee shop. The latte was badass and I scarfed the donut bomb while the loudspeakers spoke, loudly, Debbie Harry’s “Call Me.”



Debbie Harry?

My Chinese love affair was almost complete, all I needed was a clean public toilet of which there were three or four every couple hundred yards. The only thing about the public toilets that took a bit of getting used to was the fact that you can’t put your toilet paper in them, and have to drop it into a waste can next to the toilet. Kind of weird sitting on the can with a trash receptacle topped off with white tissues that have seen better, whiter days.

My jaunty cap and thick wool scarf that would have doubled as a blanket for a king-size bed set me back $65. I never made it to Pandaland, either, detoured as I was by the Shunxilu shopping district. All I can tell you is that if you ever had any doubt, the business of China is business. You look sideways and they are closing.

I walked by a row of noodle shops and every single one hit on me. A guy selling Rolexes and Nike tennis shoes followed me to the official Swatch shop, where I was surrounded by five salespeople, but not before the Rolex sales guy followed me into the store and argued with me for five minutes about his watches.

“I don’t want a Rolex,” I said.

“Why? They are perfect.”

“I can’t afford one.”

“How much can you afford?”


“You’re in the Swatch shop, though. Everything here is at least $75.”

“But they are the kind of watch I want, not a Rolex.”

“Rolex is for successful, handsome Americans.”

“Then you should be in New York. Because I don’t see any of them here.”

He left and the sales team sold me a watch but my card wouldn’t run. They didn’t care. “We will make it run,” the lady said.

She called someone from the back and suddenly I had six people working a $75 sale. And you know what? Even though the card was declined seven times, on the eighth time it worked. They closed the sale.

I spent the day in the shopping district getting my mind blown about China’s consumer economy, then went back to the hotel and on the way stopped at a noodle shop for dinner. I ordered a bowl of noodles and then saw a picture of some wontons. “How many wontons?” I asked the lady, but I couldn’t understand. The small bowl was either four or ten, and the large bowl was either six or sixteen.

It was going to be way too much food either way. When the wontons came, they were also in a bowl of noodles, so I had two giant bowls of noodles and everyone looking at me like I was crazy, and they were loaded with asshole-incinerating Sichuan peppers, too fucking hot to even swallow, but I did.

It occurred to me on the way to the hotel that I was going to burn a hole in my stomach, just as it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a single newspaper, magazine, or newspaper stand of any kind. This made sense, because everything in China is digital so that the government can track what people read, and more importantly, can go back and delete things they wrote in the past that conflict with the present, just like in 1984.

Then I realized that I had seen no art, no books, or even a hint of literature anywhere. The only thing on display about China was its ancient civilization and its ancient literary tradition, for example the poet Du Fu. And I wondered how you can have a country without modern art or literature? More to the point, I realized that you can’t have art or literature in a totalitarian state because if it doesn’t criticize then it cannot, by definition, be art.

China’s narrative is that “We are the oldest civilization on earth. We invented everything. The last couple of hundred years we’ve been in a spot of bother, but don’t worry. We are back.”

They are.



Chengdu blues: May I clean your ears?

December 17, 2018 § 1 Comment

On Day 4 it made sense to take a break from the breakneck pace of touring, especially since my neck wasn’t broken and I hadn’t yet had a proper hotel breakfast, which is indisputably the best part of any trip to China. After that I figured I’d find a dry cleaner, as my short supply of underwear and t-shirts wasabout to go gamey, but like the fake Rolexes that were in such short supply, I was finding a similar dearth of Chinese laundries in, of all places, China.

Other items on my shopping list included dental floss, which didn’t appear to have been discovered yet, aside from those little bow-shaped flossers that you use once and toss. Though not averse to filth, I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I’m willing to retrieve discarded flossers. Yet. I don’t know if it’s related to dental floss, but public spitting is for sure still a thing despite all of the posters and public exhortations to QUIT SPITTING!

Why spitting?

Dr. Google, Ph.D., has several articles on spitting in China, and they all boil down to this: People spit because they like to spit.

What the good doctor doesn’t go into much detail about is the Chinese government’s side of things, which is that spitting is a major no-no and people should stop doing it RIGHT NOW. The genesis of it seems to be an awareness that you can’t be considered the leader of the unfree world if everyone is always hawking a loogie whenever they get the urge.

It’s also an attempt to counter the unrestrained racism directed against Chinese tour groups, whose money everyone welcomes, but whose physical presence everyone holds in the lowest regard. As with Japanese tour groups from the 70’s and 80’s, the same old prejudices have been dug up and trotted out:

  • They are obnoxious!
  • Always taking PIKCHERZZZZZ!
  • Can’t talk well English goodly!
  • Big groups!
  • No presheeyahshun of our KULCHURRRR!
  • And for the Chinese … YUKKY SPITTING!

Of my countless, most excellent spitting experiences, by far the best was observing a young buck and his spicy date at the hot pot restaurant. Every couple of minutes he’d look up from his cell phone as she looked up from hers, exchange a word or two, take a bite of food, and then hock a big, greasy loogie into a trash bucket next to the table. The loogie had to clear about three feet of open air, and even though the mouth of the bucket was capacious, I couldn’t help but watch with impressed horror as it somersaulted in the air into the bin.

Then of course they went right back to their phones.

Lovers’ spat

The amazing hotel breakfast buffet more than made up for the full-on lover’s screaming match that happened outside my door at 3:00 AM. They were both drunk and really hollered it up. It went on for a solid hour, and although I thought about calling the front desk to complain, after a few minutes I realized that it was an awesome free Chinese cursing and insult lesson, so I snuggled into my comforter and tried to parse the “you sorry bastard” and “you worthless bitch” that are common in every language.

But first a word about breakfast. My hotel was a cheap-o, yet it really put any other U.S. hotel breakfast to shame. There were about ten Chinese items to choose from, including fried eggs and fresh wonton soup made to order by the cook, and a similar number of Western items. So much variety, with vegetables, pickles, noodles, and tea, got you off to either a great start or a gut bomb that sent you back to bed for a couple of hours if you dared a second trip down the line.

Later, I headed out for People’s Park. It was around freezing and I was still in my hoodie. Although I’d brought a knee-length wool coat, I hadn’t bothered to start wearing it, and remained cold always. There is no heating in Sichuan because the temperature there is mostly warm and mild, and because people can’t afford it, and because rather than waste money on staying warm they nut up and stay ass-fucking-cold.

I know they were cold because, bundled up, they had their hands jammed between their thighs. I know it was cold because they looked cold. I know it was cold because it WAS cold. By the time I got to the park, a hot cup of tea was badly called for. People at the park were dancing, playing hacky-sack and badminton, but mostly they were hanging out smoking and drinking tea and being cold.

My eyes and throat had been punished by the air pollution for four days now. Finally frozen, I decided to have tea in the park. Chinese is hard but at least tea I could drink. First I watched how it was ordered. Then I ordered the top yellow shoot special tea #5, which came in a paper packet and wouldn’t settle to the bottom of the cup no matter how long I waited, which meant that every time I tried to take a sip I wound up with tea in my teeth.

I tried every manner of sucking the tea to strain out the leaves but since I don’t have a baleen the only thing that resulted was scalded lips.

Let’s get those ears checked

Amidst all this scalding and sucking, a handful of guys were working the area clacking what looked like giant barbecue tongs. Around their skulls they had belted doctor’s headlamps, and in the other, non-tong hand, they were holding a variety of long steel implements with feathery and other ends.

I observed a nearby table where people sat around cheerfully conversing as one of the party had an ear cleaner laboriously boring away into his head with the various long steel tools, any one of which could have easily “slipped” and gone straight out the other side. Apparently some folks liked to have a cup of tea, chat with friends, and get their skulls bored out.

After the guy finished, in a fit of hygiene, he wiped the implements on his pant leg and meandered over to me. “Clean your ears?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“I will make them very, very clean.”

“My ears are so dirty that you will be here all day. And break your tools.”

This excited him. “Can I have a look?”

“Sure,” I said.

He switched on his light and peered into my ear. “Those are the dirtiest ears I have ever seen.”

“I’m impressed considering your line of work.”

“We would need to use the irrigation tubes and the extra-extender with the double brush tips.”

“I’m going to pass today. I have a meeting to make at noon.”

He nodded. It was the best refusal I could have picked.

Moving on …

While I was sucking tea leaves into my teeth and scalding my face an old man came over and sat down. What am I saying? I’m an old man, too …

This fellow made a valiant stab at getting some free English lessons but each time he tried, my own Chinese parried, then thrust, then slashed with superior vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and interrogatories until he collapsed, bleeding, and spoke only in thickly Sichuan-flavored Mandarin that I could mostly misunderstand fairly well. We chatted for an hour, until the sixth cup was only the faintest suggestion of tea, then I left for the Sichuan Museum. Why there? It was free.

I was frozen from sitting outside drinking warm water, and most crucially, and for which I’d have paid up to $15, the museum was one of the only places in Chengdu that was heated. I thawed among the treasures of the porcelain gallery, which began with pieces made 5,000 years ago. It shamed every collection I’ve ever seen, containing pieces, pristine, from every period in Chinese history. Any pot they had would have been the centerpiece of the Smithsonian. Looking at so many pots, however beautiful, was completely draining, so I left for a lunch of fried and glazed chicken … nuggets.



Chengdu blues

December 14, 2018 § 11 Comments

I got back from China night before last, late, and my head is still spinning. The next ten days I’m going to attempt to transcribe the copious notes I took during my 10-day trip to Sichuan Province. Be forewarned. These posts are going to be long, short on eye candy, and completely unrelated to cycling in the South Bay.

If at some point I simply give up and return to my mode of writing about riding, it’s because this latest stage of my China disease was almost as painful to recount as it was to experience. But recount it I must not simply because China is our future, but because many of the most awful parts of that great nation are our present. Some things bear being regarded with the perspective of an ostrich. China is not one of them.

There’s no reason to stutter forward with additional preamble. Let’s get down to it.

Day 1: All in

Sichuan Province is cold in December, and vast all year round. It would have been good to know that first part before I left.

Sichuan Airlines earned a ranking of 10 Wanky Points not because of new planes or good food or super kind flight attendants but because I was dead asleep, 100% passed out in the lobby when my flight began boarding. The gate had been busy and filled with people waiting for the midnight flight to Chengdu, and, far past my 9:00 PM bedtime, I had fallen asleep.

“Sir! Sir! Sir!” the woman in the Sichuan Air uniform yelled directly into my ear. I awoke instantly and saw an empty gate area. “You are going to miss your flight!”

With that bit of professional rousing I sprang from my sleigh and raced through the doors, last one on. Then I found out yet another bonus to the midnight flight: It was next-level empty and I was going to get to sleep like a baby, if babies sleep sprawled across several ill-fitting cushions and awake with crooked backs, aching necks, throbbing joints.

A couple of hours before the airport I had been at King Harold’s Christmas Party, making a big deal out of the fact that I was going from an evening soiree to China, and going sans phone, sans computer, armed only with a pen, notebook (the paper kind), and tiny cheap camera. Leaving the party I had shucked off my jacket and white shirt and put on my t-shirt, thin wool sweater, and hoodie. It would have been more than a little humiliating to have missed the flight after all that.

In the security line they had lost my shoe and blamed it on me. Since I only had one pair for the trip, it caused a bit of anxiety, the thought of trying to find a size 11.5 shoe in China and before that, thumping around the city with only one shoe on. I sort of demanded that they find my shoe, and after a while they did, but not before lecturing me on the proper way to pack my security tray. Apology? Uh, no.

I had also experienced the check-in ritual of handing my passport to the ticket agent and getting that strangest of looks, “Is that your only baggage?” as she eyed my tiny knapsack. The boarding pass in hand made my tourist transformation complete. I was tethered to no phone, no personal tracking device, no portable work compulsion device, just a little bag, some cash, a credit card, a few changes of underwear, and fuckit I’m gone.

Of course when you travel you never really leave anything behind. Ever.

My patio furniture and valve fantasy

Unlike last year’s journey, I had almost no phone anxiety; mostly it was the excitement and anticipation of striking out unencumbered in order to play tourist and #fakechinahand for ten days. Compared to the delusion of #fakebikeracer, cast aside at the brokedick age of 54, this new delusion felt cheaper, more rewarding, more sustainable, and more fun in the way that brutalizing your mind is always fun. The yummy prospect of lots of greasy Sichuanese street food didn’t hurt.

In the airport I keenly felt like I’d missed my calling.

One of my buddies is a Texas valve salesman. He spends 200 days a year sourcing valves in China, crisscrossing the country, always with a guide, unable to so much as read a street sign or order a cup of coffee. As far as I know he’s never been into a museum, seen a historical sight, or bought weird fried animal parts from a filthy, steaming, delicious-smelling open-air kitchen.

Another friend owns a company that owns several companies that make all the patio furniture sold in America. She is often underway in China, inspecting factories and none too excited by it. To which I can only wonder in shades of the very prettiest envy, “Why was I not born a valve salesman?” and “Why didn’t my parents raise me to be a patio furniture factory inspector?”

Is any life more beautiful than peregrinating throughout China in search of valves and lawn chairs? Does it matter that I don’t even know what a valve is? The smog, the crowds, the surveillance, the indifferent lodging, could it ever really get old? How could it? Each city a new dialect, each day a shock to the psyche and body, crammed into a nation you weren’t born to ever fit into? Anyway, six hours into the flight the romance is strong, and I nodded off, my skull painfully pushed against a projecting aluminum arm rest, visions of patio tables and steam valves dancing in my head.

Quality in every cup

Familiarity may breed contempt, but travel familiarity brings knowledge of the good things in life. For me that begins in economy class. The Sichuan Air paper coffee cup with instant coffee, creamer, and sugar, I love thee! The rat cage seats and mini-video screens that cause shooting pains in squinting, myopic eyes, I love thee! The tiny toilets–how do plus-sized U.S. posteriors squeeze in and, more crucially, out?–I love thee! Red-garbed, painted, smiling stewardesses, I love thee, too!

Detethering meant memorizing the entire itinerary, flight numbers, times, using a map, forgetting about things that are #notreal and that #youcantchange. Detethering meant taking a point-and-shoot, which was lighter than a personal tracking device, took up less space, and was complemented by a neat little Moleskine notebook.

Detethering doesn’t have to, but in practice should, mean no luggage because nothing ruins life like things, and because the word “luggage” comes from the word “lug,” remember? When is the last time anything good happened conjoined with the word “lug”?

With a few essential things you know where everything is. You don’t have to keep track of where you put what. There’s no searching for places to plug in your work compulsion device or personal location tracker, and you realize how traveling tethered means being hooked up to your devices and being constantly on the prowl for places to charge them up.

How did the presence of electrical sockets become such a key feature of human movement and leisure travel? And of course it’s funny to watch people desperately fucking with their appliances when your worst malfunction can be fixed by “Hey, do you have a pen I can borrow?”

Detethering also meant bringing one book to read rather than a small library that would return as unread as it had left. In this case it was “A Man Could Stand Up” and “Last Post” in one volume by Ford Madox Ford. A man could also, I thought, if he were on Sichuan Air, sit down.

Maybe you should have studied harder

After fourteen hours or so we reached Jinan Airport, my layover where I had to pick up a domestic flight to Chengdu. As I filed into the waiting area I felt it. I was in China. I smelled it. And I heard it, the constant barrage of announcements, long and detailed in Chinese, and only partially translated into English, the best part being “Flight 28198 to Beijing delayed due to weather infection.” Ah, yes, the old weather infection! I had those often!

It dawned on me like an incoming shell that my Chinese, after another year of study, was still far from being up to snuff. Eavesdropping on conversations, desperately trying to understand all the announcements, trying, fumbling, to formulate sentences in my head, all of it pointed to the same thing: It was going to be a very difficult trip.

The domestic flight was full. People were excited and chatting. I was the only white person on the plane. It wasn’t the South Bay anymore.



How hard is Chinese?

November 23, 2018 § 16 Comments

No bicycles or leaky prostate doping revelations to follow … no pictures or graphs or entertaining cat videos … only many words on a personally global subject, so, forewarned.

Anyone who has taken even the first step to learn Mandarin as a foreign language, indeed anyone who has even considered attempting it, has asked this question of the language’s difficulty, to say nothing of those for whom, mired in the muddy trenches that stretch along for years with no end in sight, a seemingly simple interrogatory reveals everything about the interlocutor and little or nothing about the inscrutable subject. Indeed, the question can only first be answered with a question: “Difficult for whom?”

The happy fraudsters

We were promised that the Internet would change our lives and it has, changed it by turning us into mindless Maxi-Pads capable only of absorbing the emissions of marketers, salesbots, hucksters, and the iron purchasing logic of the algorithm. Nowhere has the pop-up box of overpriced and ultimately undeliverable lies mutated, then metastasized, with such impressive virulence as the world of online Chinese study.

The Internet and its toothy maw can answer your questions about the difficulty of Chinese with precision and irrefutable, overwhelming logic, logic that is fluffed, then primped with testimonials and “One-time only” discounts promising that any fool with $8.99 to spare will soon be reading cursive scrolls in the shops of antiquaries, and doing it with the off-hand nonchalance you’d see from a parent taking his 2-year-old on his 500th stroll through Dr. Seuss’s A-B-C.

Here, then, is the ease of this supposedly complex and hard-to-master lexicon, brought to you by Sir John Algorithm, Ph.D. in Linguistics Sales and Marketing:

Irish polyglot makes it E-Z for you!

Or, within six months, you can do FUGGIN ANYTHING IN CHINESE and even bunnyhop, piggypack, or tongue-surf onto “related” languages like Japanese, Korean, and heck, why not Martian?

Oxford Dictionaries fucks around even less. Which part of “Chinese is not that hard” don’t you understand?

And then this self-promoting hack breaks down the whole mystery of Chinese into four awesome mythbusters. Boom. You are now fluent. Ni fuckin’ hao.

If it’s that easy, why do I still suck?

Unhappily for people who have tackled Mandarin as a foreign language, and even more unhappily, those who have tackled it in mid-life after their brains have hardened, and most unhappily of all, those who have tackled it without being able to live in China, there are voices in the wilderness crying out that the attempt is futile–couched in delicate terms, but futile nonetheless.

For example, these fine folks have provided a reality check: 2,200 hours. What they don’t emphasize is yeah, 2,200 hours if that’s all you do. No cycling. No working. No fighting with your S/O. No tee-vee. No fantasy football or binge drinking. Just you, Mandarin, and hell. If you take your eye off the ball, rest assured that 2,200 won’t cut it, nay, it won’t even slice the peel.

To put it in context, a junior associate in a meatgrinder law firm will bill 2,200 hours a year, a workload that no normal person will endure absent extreme need and compulsion. And if you really put in 2,200 hours for an entire year, that’s six hours a day, which, unless you are a full-time student, ain’t gonna happen.

Another voice, typed out long ago in 1992, makes the point that “hard” is a poor description for learning Chinese; better would be damn hard. Rest assured that people and web sites seeking to fleece you of your ill-gotten gains won’t be citing to the article by Dr. Moser and instead will be battering you with what I call the Chinese Imperatives:

  1. China will soon own the world! (You’ll be left with table scraps!)
  2. Chinese is spoken by a billion+ people! (How hard can it be?)
  3. Chinese is exotically cool! (Order off the Chinese menu, yo.)
  4. Chinese can help you get a job! (Purpose of college is to make $$$, dummy!)
  5. Chinese isn’t difficult, it’s different! (Be diverse, whitey!)

None of these imperatives, like a faithless lover, will be there for you in your time of need, however, because all of China’s economic power, all of its coolness and ubiquitousness, and all of its dangling job potential won’t help you memorize a single stupid character, won’t help you get a single tone right, and won’t help you read any part of the cursive scroll hanging in the restaurant as your friends say, mercilessly and riddled with mirth, “I thought you said you spoke Chinese!” And it won’t help you that none of the waiters can read it, either.

But what if you don’t have 2,200 hours a year?

Yeah, what if? What if instead of having six hours a day to bore into the side of the granite mountain with a toothpick, you only have, say, an hour a day or, dog forbid, half an hour? And what if that’s only four or five days a week? And what if you take vacations? In other words, what if, despite your abnormal interest in Chinese, you have an otherwise normal life?

In that case, you are what is colloquially known as “fucked.” Why? Because language is not cumulative in the way that, say, loading a wheelbarrow with sand is cumulative. You dump a shovelful of sand into the barrow, then come back in a couple of days, dump in some more, and then you forget about it for a week and come back and dump in a couple of shovelsful. Eventually it’s full.

No, language is not like that at all, not even a little bit. Learning a language, and especially learning something that is as rote-memory intensive as Chinese, is more like loading sand into a wheelbarrow where the wheelbarrow dissolves at midnight if you don’t keep loading sand into it. Especially for “mature” learners, a flattering phrase that means “old and slow and stupid,” (triple redundancy) you can’t let it alone for any time at all or every one of your hard-earned new synapses will immediately be filled in with chocolate, and after a few weeks’ rest you will stare, mystified, at the thing you spent hours trying to learn, as unfamiliar and beyond your ken as what you had for dinner two weeks ago.

So the horrible estimate of six hours a day works only for the young and carefree, all others are consigned to 10,000 hours, or ten million, because the thing will be as hard to pin down as the meanings of words that so eluded Socrates.

Who’s learning all that Chinese, then?

This, of course, is the first question, and the best one: Not “Is Chinese difficult?” but “For whom is Chinese difficult?”

Because China currently has close to 500,000 foreign exchange students, and although “only” 40% go there to study the language, Chinese universities are required to include language instruction to all foreign students, and in practical terms if you are in China to get a degree you will be taking courses in Chinese, as it’s the default language of instruction. And since most exchange students don’t show up already versed in the language, they are looking at a 1-2 year preparatory commitment before they can enroll in degree programs. So much for the fraudsters who claim that you can download the app, pay the fee, and cruise on to fluency in a couple of months.

Half a million exchange students may not sound like much compared to the U.S., where foreign students number over 1M, but it ranks third globally, and if the past is any example, China won’t be slowing down any time soon. In the exact reverse of American cultural imperialism, where the government lets English language dominance spread through media, science, and higher education, China has to knuckle down and aggressively promote its language. Why might that be?

The first reason (and second, and third) is that Mandarin is real fucking hard to learn even if you start young. The fourth is that linguistic imperialism is the sine qua non for being the dominant world power, and China knows it because at the end of the day if you want a consumption-based economy it means you want your nation to be customers, and the seller has to speak the language of the buyer … not the other way around. The first part of the equation, being the world’s manufactory, China has mastered; this only required its sales force to speak English. Moving to the second, more complex, and by far more powerful position of being culturally dominant, requires people to adopt your culture, which means your language.

Let’s start with a mis-translation

In 2013, Premier Xi Jinping announced what is most often translated as the Belt and Road Initiative, which sounds vaguely like what my dad used to do when we were on long car trips and started fighting in the back seat, that is, he’d pull over on the side of the road and initiate disciplinary proceedings with his belt.

In fact, the Chinese name of the plan is “One Belt, One Road,” which although still a bit unclear carries the unmistakable suggestion of unity, of coordination, of grand design, and that’s exactly what it is: A land-and-sea network designed to bind China to more than half the world’s population through soft power. Some might not find the economic reality of having half their national debt owed to China especially soft, but it’s unquestionably softer than the armies, assassinations, embargoes, and arms sales that the U.S. has traditionally used to get its way in, say, South and Central America.

Be all that as it may, China’s soft power in the long term cannot and will not be effected by trade, finance, and dual-use infrastructure projects that allow any port to instantly serve as a naval base if the moment requires it. No, China’s soft power in the long term will come from linguistic ascension, from a global familiarity with the deepest roots of its culture, which is to say its language.

No matter that Mandarin is a relatively new interloper even for the linguistic buffet historically spoken by the Han peoples. No matter that even today, hundreds of millions of Chinese can’t speak proper Mandarin. And no matter that the difficulties experienced by foreigners learning to read and write Chinese are also experienced by the Chinese themselves. What matters is that the highest levels of a command economy and an authoritarian political system have realized that however hard Chinese is, the world is gonna have to learn it. At the tail end of that realization is that Chinese, at least for foreigners, has to be inculcated with the carrot rather than the stick.

Let’s talk decades, okay?

As absurd as it may sound, this notion that the rest of the world is going to willingly learn one of the world’s hardest languages, consider that China is not especially deterred by big jobs and long time frames. Consider also that the country has an active hand in promoting Mandarin in the public sphere through scholarships, cultural centers, laws requiring language instruction, and state-subsidized language schools abroad.

China’s least best-known cultural program, the Confucius Institute, embeds on university campuses and offers language instruction as well as the official government line on all politically sensitive topics. Whereas those interested in academic freedom eye this type of state-sponsored propaganda as inimical to a university’s mission, the real value in such cultural institutes is that they reach young people at a critical time of curiosity and, perhaps even more importantly, cognitive adaptability to quick language acquisition. Whether their receptiveness is a function of brain plasticity, youthful motivation, or the huge blocks of time that young people can devote to studies, these institutes are but one of countless efforts that China is making to groom the world in its cultural image.

If it takes a couple of generations, so what? Rome wasn’t built in a day, either.

So, uh, how hard is it, really?

Ostensibly, it’s so hard that the government has to dole out billions in order to get people to learn it. It’s so hard that learning Mandarin is a full-time job. It’s so hard that even if you study it assiduously for ten years, you will probably never skim through a newspaper or novel without developing at least one big knot in your forehead as you read.

Why is this? What explains the difficulty? I’m no linguistics expert, and certainly no cognitive scientist, but my own experience points out some general areas where the problem lies, and it seems to do with the language mapping of your adult brain. Once you speak a language or languages, your brain has a kind of map burned into it, and that map is the network of grammar, vocabulary, sounds, and symbols that make up whatever languages you speak.

Learning languages is always a function of overlaying the new language onto the existing map and forcing your brain to first find analogs to the language you already speak even as it builds new neural pathways to understand, reproduce, and “think” in the new language. Those mapped pathways, or structures, are either very similar or very dissimilar to the new language, and I have a great example of what happens when you take a related, or similar language and lay it onto the existing map (or maps), versus taking a wholly dissimilar language and trying to overlay it.

In January of 2018 I began studying Slovak, a completely new language family for me, and I began it quite half-heartedly as my time was consumed with work, life, and, you know, Chinese. Although I started off with two hours of live Internet lessons a week, it eventually tailed off to one a week. The lessons were not especially structured and they followed the curriculum of Krizom-Krazom, the standard Slovak for foreign learners textbook. At the time I began Slovak I already had 2.5 years of Chinese study, study which was backed by about 4 hours of live lessons per week, and which, in the distant past, i.e. college, was backed by two years of intensive Chinese study. Another key part of my Chinese self-study has been listening to the Taiwanese RFI radio broadcast for fifteen minutes every morning as soon as I awake. Suffice it to say that after all this time I can only vaguely make out the topic of each news item.

As a comparison, after only a few months I could listen to a comparable Slovak radio broadcast and absolutely make out the topic and even understand some of the details, a level of comprehension that was absolutely comparable with Chinese, in which I’d invested years and several thousand hours. To make it even more stark, I noticed that when learning Slovak an interesting thing would happen when I asked my teacher how to say a word or phrase.

Basically, regardless of what it was I was trying to say, when the teacher would give me the new phrase or word, it “dropped in” to a structure that was already in my mind, like plugging a light into a socket. There was no feeling of cognitive stretch or mental effort other than pronouncing and then then trying to remember the words. But in Chinese, when I’m told a new phrase or word, it drops into … nothing. There is no existing structure, other than the feeble Chinese one I’m building, into which the new material integrates. And although it very loosely connects with existing languages I know, for example Japanese, it doesn’t “click” like new things I learn in Slovak.

There is something about the existing map of language that dissimilar languages like Chinese simply don’t want to play well with, no matter how much you hammer them. And this issue isn’t limited to Chinese; there are countless languages equally remote and therefore as hard or even harder to learn if your basic linguistic map is Indo-European.

If you are an average schmo with limited time, bound to your home country for 50 weeks out of the year, Chinese is not that hard compared to speaking Tuyuca or !Xóõ. Yet among the world’s more commonly found languages, it is beastly beyond compare. It will defeat your best efforts,  suck away your time, your money, your self-confidence, and it will leave a residue of failure and dissatisfaction to smear, like greasy fingerprints, on every other aspect of your life.

Why do it, then? Why pursue something as hopeless as this?

The answer of course is because you are pigheaded. You don’t pursue things because they will help you, because you will excel at them, or because they somehow, vaguely, make you a better or even a more interesting person. What is interesting about mediocrity? What is interesting about unimpressive, pedestrian skills after years of study?

No, Chinese is a cul-de-sac for all but those who are lucky and young, and yes, I know that’s redundant. But you realize when you reach the dead end that you’re hardly lonely or alone, populated as it is with countless quirky, oddball, mindlessly persevering people who are apparently just as pigheaded as you.



The first overseas trip is downtown

December 30, 2017 Comments Off on The first overseas trip is downtown

If you want to understand the world, you have to go out in it.

I’m far from the most traveled person I know, and that’s partially because I have a travel impediment: Before I head off to a country, I like to study the language enough so that I can get hopelessly lost, desperately confused, and thoroughly muddled. This requires a pretty steady commitment of mediocre effort, usually over a period of years.

For over two years now I’ve been learning the Mandarin flavor of Chinese, and feel like I’m solid enough to ask for a Coke, to misunderstand most ordinary things, and to completely bungle anything remotely complex. In other words, time for a trip!

On this particular trip, in keeping with my decision to untether from the grid, I’m traveling without a computer or an iTrackingdevice, nothing but a notebook, a pen, a few changes of underwear, a couple of t-shirts, a hoodie, a ball cap, and a cheap Canon point-and-shoot. The reason I’m going to China is because I want to. This is the same puzzling reason I give to my online Chinese teachers when they ask, “Why are you studying Chinese?”

Aside from being flattered that they consider what issues forth from my mouth to be Chinese, I tell them the same thing: “Because I want to.”

“But surely there has to be a reason!” they insist.

“There is,” I say. “I just don’t know what it is.”

But no matter how much you want to go to China, before you do, you have to get a visa, which costs $140. This is a lot of money when you consider that I got my plane ticket for less than $600, and that my hotel in Kunming is $23 per night. In Los Angeles, the China consulate is located in Koreatown, go figure, and it’s easy to find because of all the Falun Gong protesters camped out in front. Visa turnaround time is four business days, and I got there on a very slow day.

I say it was a slow day because the room was less than half full, not because it wasn’t insane. If you have a country with more than a billion people, it is a fair bet that at least a thousand of them will be in Los Angeles on any given day wanting a visa or having some kind of immigration foul-up. There were more people and more racket, squalling babies, excited grannies, amped-up security guards, and frazzled consular officers than I have ever seen in one place before, and I’ve spent a whole lot of hours in immigration offices of one kind or another in a bunch of different countries. My ticket was No. 36 and they were only on No. 3, so I figured I was going to be there all day, but I figured wrong. Despite the pandemonium it was brutally and noisily efficient, like chainsaws.

I got called to my window after waiting less than fifteen minutes, sprinted actually, because there was a sign that said “If you do not come immediately when your number is called your number will be canceled and you will have to start over.” I was nervous when I got to the window and the clerk glanced at my paperwork, threw it all back at me under the bulletproof glass, and said “You need copy of passport. Down the hall!”

I grabbed my stuff and slunk down the hall to a room called “Visa Problems.”

“Great,” I thought. “I’m not even in China and I’ve already been labeled a problem.” Happily there was a copy machine in the middle of the teeming room so I made my copy and turned to walk out, but hadn’t taken three steps when a furious voice screamed “You! Twenty-five cents!”

The whole room, which was filled with stressed and angry visa applicants, and stressed and overworked consular employees, stopped and stared at the deadbeat who was too cheap to pay for a twenty-five cent copy. “I didn’t know it cost money,” I mumbled, noticing after I said it that there was a giant sign that said “TWENTY FIVE CENTS PER COPY.” The sign was literally three feet high. The clerk made a hateful face at my pathetic attempt to lie. I reached for my wallet and looked inside, shocked to see that the only bill I had was a $100.

The whole room stared in disgust as I handed the clerk the Ben Franklin. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to get change from a century note made for a quarter purchase. My face was the color of China’s national flag. Back in the main consular room the official took my paperwork, flung a receipt at me, and told me to come back in four days. “If you don’t come, no visa for you, ever,” he snapped.

I hurried to my car through the wall of raging Falun Gong protesters, sure that once I got to China it was going to be different. Quiet, peaceful, ordered, spiritual … yeah.




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