Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ten Down, Forty to Go

I've set out on this goal of reading 50 books and somehow, 20% of the way through, I think I can see this thing through. My biggest accomplishment thus far is having finished The Lord the Rings (minus the 200 page appendices). While I loved the bits with Sam and Frodo, I struggled to enjoy the journeys and fighting taken on by the book's other main characters. To be quite honest, I would probably throw this in the "Like the movie(s) better than the book" category.

My favorite book of the first ten is probably Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. This novel is a favorite among Britons, though I don't think it is widely read by Americans. In the book's foreword, it is compared to Jane Eyre. I'm not sure if I find this entirely accurate, although it's been awhile since I've read Jane. Rebecca, which is told in first-person narrative (which I love and haven't encountered for awhile), is the story of Mrs. de Winter and her strange and rather pathetic obsession with her husband's dead ex-wife, Rebecca. Following her thought process conjured up memories of my own ridiculous thoughts and ideas of love and loss (circa my dramatic and tortured middle school years). The brilliance of this novel is not only in how the author so deftly wraps the reader up in Mrs. de Winter's strange and secluded world, but also in the suspense and surprises found in the later chapters of the novel. Well done, du Maurier.

After reading Rebecca, I thought a bit about my favorite novels and why I like them. I'm curious what yours are. Please feel free to comment.  Here are mine, in no particular order:

1.) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I've read three books by Ishiguro who won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day. I found all three novels different in style and content and remember feeling surprised that they were written by the same person. Of the three, I only liked one (I was bored stiff through The Remains of the Day, perhaps because I can't appreciate the intricacies of a British butler's life). As mentioned in a previous blog, Never Let Me Go haunted me. The novel slowly lets you in on the truth of its story and once you realize what is happening you find yourself heart-broken and appalled. This novel, which I found myself comparing to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, made me think a lot about the intricate relationship between creation and science and where a line should be drawn between the two.

2.) Atonement by Ian McEwan. I've also read several books by Ian McEwan; in addition to Atonement, I  enjoyed his lesser known novel (in the States anyways) Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I read it so long ago I know longer remember why it moved me. Atonement, however, continues to stick with me. If you haven't read the book, I do think the movie provided a fairly accurate portrayal of the story. Those who have either seen the film or read the book know it portrays the devastation caused by a child's over-active imagination. I think it also teaches us a lot about reconciling the thoughts and beliefs of our childhood with the reality of the adult world.

3.) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I have a thing for all things Indian, particularly fiction novels that include India or Indians. I found this book sitting on a guesthouse bookshelf and picked it up.  "Man Booker Prize Winner" and it was set in India--I figured it was worth a shot. I struggled through the first few pages as the prose style is rather strange since it is mostly written from the viewpoint of a 7-year-old girl. Once I grew accustomed to it, this was one aspect of the book I truly enjoyed. Put simply, the book ends with tragedy, but in the process teaches the reader a lot about love, as well as class relations and tensions in India.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Fighting to Stay Where I Don't Belong

August 20, 2010

Today's Chinese Lesson:
麻烦 mafan: trouble; troublesome
tai: too (much); very; extremely
一点 yidian: a bit; a little

I fear today I'll be writing the kind of entry that is the cause for many (uncensored) internet blogging sites to get blocked in China. No matter how small the reading audience or how innocuous the entry, most criticism or dissent is silenced. My American friends may be surprised that I don't find this infuriating. I'm not angered because my Chinese friends seem mostly unconcerned. These days, Chinese people appear content to bask in their new found wealth and development rather than kick up a fuss about civil liberties. How long this will last, one can only guess. I see a lot changing here and quickly, but some attitudes and system are inevitably hard to break.

Two particular issues in which I'd love to see reform are the educational system and (government) corruption. I was born in a country where "Anything is Possible" yet I now find myself in a place where anything is possible with money and the right acquaintances. No time do I feel this more than applying for a visa. I'm not sure what the problem is exactly; applying for a visa in a developing country should not be this difficult. As the Chinese say, "Tai mafan." The only two reasonable explanations I've come up with are this:
1.) Visas are seen as a means to make money off of supposedly "rich" westerners.
2.) China really isn't all that interested in having us here.

Last year I failed to write about the verbal raping I received in my attempt to secure a visa at Chengde's Public Security Bureau (PSB, the brach of police that take care of foreigners' visas and residency permits). I had just been released from the hospital after my appendectomy. To my surprise, I received no sympathy from the newly appointed female officer who was to take care of foreigners' matters. Instead of the usual smile and politeness, she promptly interrogated me on my travels, my marriage, and my work. She even questioned me for not having children. In the end, she agreed to grant me a 3 month visa for the astronomical price of 1000 rmb ($150). The previous year I had received a one year visa, no questions asked, for the same price.

I was both enraged and baffled. Why just three months when the last woman in her position gave me a year? I so stupidly asked. Clearly questioning her authority would be no way to win over her favor and reason. A nice carton of cigarettes and some flattery would have been a better strategy. Naturally, my question was met with malice.

"Why should I give you so long? I can give you three weeks if I wish. If you have a problem, take it to Beijing!"

Me, never cool under pressure, replied with a curt "Fine, I will," and walked out the doors. Very badass. . . that is until I proceeded to have a complete meltdown on the sidewalk outside the PSB. My mind was spinning down the spiral. My visa will soon expire. I'll have to leave the country. Maybe I won't come back. I won't come back. . . EVER. I'm so sick of dealing with this. DAMN. THESE. PEOPLE. 

But, no fear, Ming's Kiwi boss recommended me to a visa agency in Beijing.  I sent my passport to them and they arranged a one year visa for me for 3500rmb ($500!!). Yidian mafan.

This year, I thought it would be just as simple, but of course nothing in China ever remains the same. It was plain foolish to assume it would. While the price for securing the visa had since decreased, the process had complicated itself significantly. I won't get into the details of the ordeal, as I haven't had enough distance from it yet to fully step back and laugh at the situation (maybe when my next visa crisis passes I will finally be able to come to terms with this one). Put simply, a day in Beijing turned into three which included multiple trips to both the visa agency and various PSBs and one stop at the American Embassy. Another journey down the spiral, angry internal voices and all. But I am now nearly recovered from the incident and my passport with newly attached visa will soon be in hand. The things I do for you China. Tai mafan.

P.S. I'm not sure you are worth it.

On the Road Again

August 9, 2010
This week I had the chance to revisit Mexico. Once again, I took the trip in literary form, although I do hope to venture there in body one day. Last time I went it was with Sal and his dead beat, no-good buddy Dean in Jack Kerouac's On the Road. This time I ventured with cowboys, and let me tell you, it was much more exciting.

For this week's selection I decided to take a break from The Lord of the Rings, which has suddenly morphed from pleasurable reading experience to a slightly arduous and dreaded task. I am determined not to fall behind in my reading, so after three days passed and I was only 30 pages into LOTR Book Two: The Two Towers, I picked up Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses which I cruised through in about 48 hours.

All the Pretty Horses is the second book I've read by Cormac McCarthy and I look forward to reading more. I'm particularly hoping to get my paws on a copy of his Blood Meridian. Earlier this year I read his post-apocalyptic novel The Road and was shaken to my core. I learned what the word "catamite" means (sometimes it's better not to look up words you don't know, no matter what your mother may have told you). I am still having nightmares. Next to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, no book has had more psychological effect on me than The Road.

McCarthy is different from most authors. He writes simply yet somehow manages rich and even chilling descriptions. Both novels contained plenty of dialogue but you won't find a single set of quotation marks within their stories. Compound-complex sentences are written in such a way that would surely dumbfound most high school English teachers. The Road doesn't even contain chapters, a format that undoubtedly breaks unspoken novel-writing etiquette. Despite (because of?) his strange style, I find myself swept up into his novels.

All the Pretty Horses may best be described as a Western, another genre of literature I rarely dabble in. I went to high school with enough Confederate flag-touting, Wrangler jeans-wearing, cowboy boot-sporting boys to know I'm not much interested in "cowboys" (with or without cow). I've never been much of a horse lover either. I would probably even describe myself as a city girl, but my sense of adventure and love for travel helps me appreciate a trip from Texas to Mexico on horseback. Throw in a cross-culturally love affair and I'm doubly sold.

The love (sub-) plot allows me to tie what I'm reading into my own life. Fancy that. Our American protagonist, John Grady, falls head over heals for a sexy foreigner, Alejandra. Grady is not as lucky in love as I have been since a disapproving father stands in his way. Ah, the dreaded in-la, challenging no matter where one is in the world. I am often asked questions about my relationship with my own mother-in-law, which I can shed a little light on here.

Most Americans have it easy, as one's significant other's family rarely makes a daily appearance in her life. For most it is just monthly and for those (lucky?) few, it is reserved for holidays and Christenings. In most parts of the world, this is hardly the case. Perhaps nowhere is it more true than in China where family reigns supreme over friendship, personal identity, and (dare I say) work. While the role of family is evolving, I don't think it uncommon here to deal with in-laws on a daily basis. Traditionally, after Chinese women wed, they would live with their husband's family. I'm glad some traditions are changing.

When I returned to China in 2008, I found myself back in Ming's hometown. I didn't realize how different life would be for me being married as opposed to simply dating. Ming's mom came to our home for most dinners and many lunches. Hardly a day would pass without seeing her. Despite her kindness and good-spirit, my sanity suffered and it showed. Eventually she backed off, for which I consider myself extremely fortunate and thoroughly grateful. In-laws, after all, can wield a frightening amount of power and influence.  This is made painfully clear in All the Pretty Horses.

Dating cross-culturally or cross-racially can lead to particularly hazardous family matters. Those of us that do dabble in such affairs rarely realize what we are getting ourselves into. I have a wonderful mother-in-law who has accepted me into her life from the start. Many foreigners in China have found their relationships doomed by their S.O.'s disapproving family members. I think most Americans cannot comprehend the gravity of such a situation. Most of us, no matter how overbearing and frustrating our S.O.'s parents, have it better than we realize. If you have any doubts, read All the Pretty Horses. I think you'll feel better about your situation. However, if you rather read about a father and son duo scavenging for food while avoiding cannibals, The Road might be a better pick for you.

My Favorite Things. . .

. . . are books, probably. Pirated ones, especially. You'd think after all those warnings about not reproducing books without the publisher's consent and reporting books missing a cover, I'd have a guilty conscience about purchasing clearly copied versions. Well, I don't.

Despite being in China, I have managed to acquire upwards of 100 novels in English--not all of them brilliant and some I may possibly never read. Finding books in languages other than Chinese is a challenge, especially if you are seeking anything recent. I am a fan of trading with other foreigners or snapping up any book, no matter how crappy, they leave behind (romance novels aside). I scavenge bookshelves at hostels and hotels. Naturally, I like to check out bookstores, though those usually only turn up reasonably priced classics or ridiculously priced contemporary favorites (20 bucks for Twilight, I'll gladly pass) if anything at all.

The one source I keep going back to is the book cart man in Beijing's Wudaokou neighborhood. I remember when I first found him, back in late 2006. He was hanging out at the corner near the light rail station with his cart, which was piled high with pirated English and Chinese novels. I nearly walked right past him, yet something beckoned me. I decided to take a look at his offerings, though I had assumed they must all be in Chinese. I immediately found an English copy of The Kite Runner and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, paying just a couple dollars for each. I almost died of happiness. For awhile there, he was MIA, thanks to pre- and post-Olympic crackdowns on street merchants. These days, however, he is back in action, him and five other booksellers, all with their carts piled high with novels.

While my time recently spent in Beijing was shit, the one ray of light that shined on those three days in hell was probably my book cart finds. I also had my trusty negotiator (Ming) with me. With his help, I managed to purchase 7 novels for around 80 rmb ($12). Not all of them are on my reading list, but I decided to pick them up anyways because I've noticed that some books seem to always be available (The Lord of the Rings and The Alchemist, for example), while others don't. My purchase includes:
1.) Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (I was quite moved by the film)
2.) Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (On my reading list. Just finished reading it and it was fab.)
3.) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (reading list)
4.) The Shack by W.M. Paul Young (seems to be hot right now)
5.) Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (reading list)
6.) World without End by Ken Follett (I've wanted this since I read his novel The Pillars of the Earth)
7.) The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (on the list and evidently the Australian answer to Gone with the Wind, which, by the way, is a great novel)


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Courage to Say No

Lord of the Rings--if you haven't read the books, you've probably seen the movies. In case you have missed them both, I'll let you in on some of the basics. Our story is set in Middle Earth, a world in many ways resembling our own planet. The creatures found there are also familiar, though not entirely similar to the animals, plants, and humans found on the Earth we know. In Middle-earth, trees have the ability to assault passersby and birds engage in espionage. The story's protagonist, Frodo, is a hobbit, a race relating to man but shorter and of slightly different appearance and manner. Frodo, his hobbit buddies (Sam, Merry, and Pippin), a sexy elf who knows how to work a bow and arrow (Legolas), a grey wizard (Gandalf), a man who knows his way around Middle-earth (Aragorn), and a few others come together to form a coalition, a fellowship, if you will. Their goal: To destroy a ring. This, however, is no ordinary ring. This ring and whoever possesses it holds an unmatched amount of power. With this power, often comes evil. Ridding oneself of a ring sounds simple enough, but for Frodo it means journeying hundreds of dangerous miles to Mordor and throwing the ring into (the aptly named) Mount Doom. How Frodo began saddled with this responsibility doesn't really sit right with me. He is stuck with the ring and the task of destroying it simple because his uncle gave it to him and told him to do so.

I often get frustrated with stories of this nature. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would commit themselves to a seemingly impossible task that will probably kill them, a task that they are ill-equipped to handle and which someone else could surely do for them. In these types of stories the protagonist usually faces his challenge head on, overcomes adversity, and proves a hero. In real life, one is rarely so lucky. Whenever I do things I don't want to do, it inevitably leads to resentment or humiliation. I have learned this the hard way living in China.

While no one in China has ever asked me to travel to distant and remote lands to get rid of a piece of jewelry, I have been asked to partake in some rather ridiculous tasks. Why do I do these things? It's really not in my nature to commit to anything I'm uncomfortable with doing. But as any foreigner who lives in China will eventually find, the country and its people have a strange way of manipulating us into doing things against our nature. As Rachel DeWolfskin explains in Foreign Babes in Beijing, her spot-on memoir chronicling female ex-pat life in Beijing, sometimes its just easier to comply with people than deal with the awkwardness and confusion that arises from refusing them. I whole-heartedly agree.

I will now reveal to you one incident in which I was coerced into doing something utterly regrettable. This dates back to September 2005; I remember it well as the embarrassment of the ordeal has been seared into my brain. It was a Friday and I was on my computer working in the English office of Chengde's No. 1 High School. My boss, Celine, sweet and sly as she was, explained to me that the following day was Teacher's Day and that there was to be an assembly for the entire staff. I was required to perform at the assembly. My mouth dropped and my knees shook knowing that my worst fear was to be faced in less than 24 hours. The words whirled around in my head, “No, I can't,” “I don't want to,” “I don't have enough time to prepare,” yet nothing came out. With simple nod my fate was sealed.

At the assembly I watched in horror at the acts that proceeded mine. Most of the teachers participating performed in a group. Most of them wore costumes and had choreographed dance moves or played exotic Chinese instruments. I learned that they had over a week to prepare their performances. I got up on stage, in front all my colleagues, and sang Micheal Learns to Rock's “Take Me to Your Heart,” a horribly cheesy English song that was massively popular in Asia 5 years ago. For those of you who don't know me well, I am not a singer. Perhaps tone deaf would be an appropriate use of terms here. Despite my lack of talent, I was forced to sing a cappella since I had no time to find the accompanying background music. My singing didn't last long. Fifteen seconds into the song I forgot the words and ran off stage. The teachers gave me a round of pity applause as I sunk back into my seat among the English department staff. I was mortified, I still am mortified, and it all could have been avoided with a simple “No, sorry, I can't.”

Maybe living in China has helped me to understand characters (and real-life people) like Frodo--sometimes saying “yes” seems much easier than saying “no,” even if it means enduring unpleasantries such as public humiliation or, in Frodo's case, encountering Orcs. I personally believe it takes a lot of courage to say "no," but maybe not as much courage as it takes to cross Middle-earth to Mount Doom.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rings and Things

It's that time of year when it's so hot and muggy that I desperately wish to be plunged into the depths of winter, no matter how cold or dark. Each summer I've lived in China, amid the smog and suffocating humidity, I have longed for winter. I have a feeling though, that in six months I will be wanting to bask in this 100 degree stuffiness. I now have little sympathy for those back home who complain about Milwaukee's weather. I would do anything for a little lake effect breeze right now.

With this daily discomfort comes a complete lack of motivation to do anything, I don't want to cook or write or eat or watch TV (unless it's a new episode of AMC's "Mad Men"). I definitely don't want to go outside. I would just like to lay still in front of my air-conditioner, which has been getting quite the workout the past few days. I'm sorry environment.

I am still managing to forge ahead with my reading, but at a snail's pace. I have finally, FINALLY began to read Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (which, according to the foreword, isn't actually a trilogy. It is a single novel published in three volumes. But I still think it's a trilogy). I had a copy of "The Fellowship of the Ring" sitting on my bookshelf all through college, but just never managed to get into it. I think I purchased the book due to my freshman year crush on Orlando Bloom, (aka Legolas) rather than any real desire to begin the series.

I never have been much for fantasy or sci-fi, but maybe that's more because I tell myself that and therefore avoid both genres. I have a good feeling about LOTR though, which is leaving me with that happy and curious feeling I first experienced when reading the Harry Potter series. No doubt J.K. Rowling was influenced by Tolkien in her writing.

It's comes as a relief that I will be able to sink into a book (or three, in this case) and fully enjoy. I feel like I've been doing a lot of reading for reading's sake rather than for entertainment's sake. I need a break. I need something to remind me that reading can be fun and help me forget how miserable the summer is in China.

"The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read them."
~The Sunday Times

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crime and Punishment

This morning I put in my earbuds and listened to my favorite podcast from The different levels and topics of discussion are quite varied, and at times the day's lesson can border on strange. It is, however, a really great tool for anyone learning Chinese and the hosts of the show always keep things interesting. Today I picked an upper intermediate level lesson which featured a dialogue between two Chinese people debating their opinions on capital punishment. The lesson was a bit above my level and rather difficult for me to follow, but it did seem appropriate after having finished "Crime and Punishment" last night.

I won't get into my position on the issue of capital punishment because it can be such an emotional issue (it was enough of a revelation to admit my feeling on "Twilight"). Furthermore, I don't fully know where I stand on the issue. Since living in China, my world has been turned upside when it comes to social and political issues. Here, capital punishment is handed out quite liberally and for a myriad of offenses (destroying cultural relics, corruption, drug trafficking, and, before 1997, panda killing, just to name a few). Individuals sentenced to death sometimes see their sentence reduced to life imprisonment, which I find can't help but find bizarre. News of death sentences is reported matter-of-factly on the news. I don't think you can hear anyone lobby for the rights or innocence of those convicted, but this should come as little surprise since the media here is state run. The public gets one side of the story, the government's side.

One case involving corruption, death, and the ultimate demise of two convicts has left a lingering impression on me. In 2008, several infants died due to the contamination of infant formula with the chemical melamine. Hundreds of thousands of babies and small children were sick due to adulterated milk or formula. We wouldn't allow Ping to drink milk for months, in fear of her getting sick. Seventeen people went to trial for their involvement in the scandal and two of them were executed in November 2009. Today, I couldn't help but wonder, are cases like this any more or less likely to happen in places that impose a death penalty? Do people who get caught up in greed and corruption, murder or assault, drugs and theft, feel any less likely to commit a crime if they know they could ultimately condemned to death for their transgressions?

Let's take things down a notch and put the death penalty aside. I've been thinking a lot about what prevents us from doing what society deems "wrong." Is it because of laws or our own morality? Is it due to our conscience or a fear of imprisonment (and, in some cases, death)? In "Crime and Punishment," RR believes his act isn't immoral and therefore he is above the law; he argues that the end justifies the means. He also believes it is the perfect crime, in the sense that it is justifiable, hence he will never be caught. As you can surmise, he was a tad off base with those assumptions, but how many other criminals think along these same lines?

Despite his crime, I was still able to sympathize with him. While I've never done anything horrendously illegal, I have certainly done things wrong in my life. We all have. I usually take the time to weigh the consequences of my actions. There were times, especially when I was a child, that my greatest fear was the punishment I faced if caught. As I get older, however, I find I am more influenced by my conscience and personal sense of morality. I think others are heavily influenced by religion; God is watching. Some people worry about their reputation, what people will say if their crime is revealed. In short, I think our sense of right and wrong is influenced by many factors, least of all the law. I also can't help but think, at least for myself, that a guilty conscience can be most brutal punishment of all.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The (Ex) Patriate

I didn't know what the word expatriate (expat) meant until I become one. In fact, I may have mistakenly pronounced the word ex-patriot the first dozen or so times I said it. An ex-patriot I am not, but I an expat I am, maybe for life. I'm finding that many of my old friends are becoming expats themselves and most of my new friends, the majority of which are foreigners living in China, are as well. I've decided to write the blog as a tribute to those people and people who like them have moved away from their hometown, if not their home country. I've done a bit of reflection on this during the past couples weeks as several of my friends struggle with their lives away from home or with their transition back to being back home. I sometimes face these struggles myself, especially now that I don't know what “home” really means.

I often wonder what attracts people to living overseas. Some people make an entire life out of it, jumping from country to country with their significant other and small children in tow. That type of lifestyle probably isn't in the cards for me, due more to familial circumstances than a lack of desire to reside in other countries. While I currently hold a deep curiosity for foreign lands and cultures, I wasn't always this way. I could have easily and happily stayed in Wisconsin without much thought of visiting Tibetan monasteries, Bagan, or Angkor Wat. But after going abroad for the first time (a special shout out to Amy Greil and Ireland for this opportunity), I decided I wanted to see more. I also realized traveling isn't as scary as I thought it was. The overachiever in me was reawakened and I felt the need to do something, see something. I think there's a lot of overachievers in China--recent college grads who want to challenge themselves. People who just can't sit still. People who probably don't watch much TV. People who have, at one time or another, labeled themselves as “perfectionists.” But for every Summa Cum Laude who comes to China only to return to America to pursue a degree in Law/Medicine/something-ridiculously-difficult-and-world-changing, there is a social misfit or alcoholic womanizer among their ranks. Foreign countries attract a strange and varied breed of human and I think it's safe to say few of us are anywhere close to being “normal.”

In addition to the types of people that move abroad, I've given some thought to the places to which they go. I believe that certain places are better suited to certain types of people. This is true of both vacationing spots and locations to live. While some people have that special gift of making the best out of whatever circumstances they find themselves in, most of us are creatures of our environment. If we don't feel comfortable or (at the very least) interested in our surroundings, our happiness and attitude suffer. I can't pinpoint specific types of people who enjoy living and traveling in Asia, but I do find that most of the people here are among the more intrepid of travelers. I think a fairly high tolerance for noise, dirt, crowdedness, discomfort, and linguistic misunderstandings will prove helpful. If this sounds unappealing to you, maybe you should try for Europe before booking a flight to Bangkok, Beijing, or Delhi. I do, however, think we can surprise ourselves. I, for one, never would have imagined enjoying Asia as much as I do. For all it's difficulties, I find it a very captivating and rewarding place to live in and explore. My point is basically this: It may be hard to know for certain if we'll like traveling or living somewhere, but I think it's fair to assume we probably won't like everywhere and there's nothing wrong with that.

But now the real meat and potatoes of this, which is me pondering why living abroad can be so damn difficult. Some reasons are quite obvious, others less so. Culture shock has a lot to do with it. This can be felt even within one's own country or state. Moving from the North to the South or from a town to the city can be a drastic change. People may do things differently, talk differently, and think differently. They may have different political and religious leanings or be of different ethnicities or socio-economic standings. If this is true within our own country, it is exponentially true when moving to overseas. Even in countries seemingly similar to our own, you will find many things different. When moving from a place like America to China, you may (on certain days) feel like everything is different. For me, this is the beauty of being in China. I'm not suppose to fit in and it shows, my stocky legs and large green eyes give it away every time. Being a foreigner in China equates to locals having extremely low expectations yet high levels of understanding for me. This phenomenon is not characteristic of most places where fitting in and being accepted are somewhat essential to survival.

Besides the culture shock, I think moving away from home can be very lonely. I am not terribly good at making new friends, but China somehow makes up for what I lack. I easily fall into friendships with other foreigners here. This has nothing to do with my stellar personality, but is a result of us all being in similar situations--we are all looking for friends. We are all looking for people with which we can speak English at a normal pace and even throw in some slang for good measure. Chinese people, no matter how good their English, do not understand what “cankles,” “chillax,” or “fugly” mean. We want someone to get our jokes (and appreciate sarcasm), our fashion (hoodies sporting our homestate or college name paired with jeans), our preference for food (Mexican or anything cheesy) and TV shows (“The Office,” anyone?). And whenever that gets boring, a potential Chinese friend is lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce and practice their English. This isn't the case most places, where local people don't care who you are or where you're from, nor do they need your friendship. Making new friends may mean a lot of effort and when all is said and done, you may just move away. After months of trying to get to know a person, all you may be left with is another casual facebook friend.

Which leads me to the end of the cycle, one which I may never reach. . . re-entry shock. This can be even worse than the initial culture shock. A lot of people have a surprisingly difficult time readjusting when returning home. Life went on and goes on. No one cares that you went to Bali or visited the Great Wall. They may not care to see your scrapbook or hear about your new friends. They don't understand where you've been or what you've done. Things are just suppose to continue on as normal, as if you were never really gone. It's can be hard to get a footing, to fit in again, or to even want to fit in. I honestly don't know how people do it. I tried myself in 2007 and I ended up returning to China.

This entry may have bordered on pessimistic, though I was going for realistic. I think it's important for anyone who moves away from their hometown to realize that it's not always easy. Moving back home can be tough too. Sometimes it is difficult and lonely and maybe even a bit depressing. Don't feel bad if it's not all rainbows, butterflies, and exciting nights filled with friendship and adventure. I've had low points; in fact, I continue to have them. But they get less frequent and easier to manage. Living in China has become less “Living in China” and more just living life. Maybe one day I will even call it home.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Murder, He Wrote

While in Beijing, I hit a goldmine of books. As far as my list is concerned, I'll be nearly set thanks to the Wangfujing Bookstore. On the third flour I perused row upon row of English import paperbacks. The classic lit novels, which is mostly what I'm in the market for, were 20RMB ($3) or less a pop. “Treasure Island,” “Little Women,” “Emma”--they were all there. Normally these types of books don't interest me enough to inspire a purchase, but since beginning my 50 book task I am thinking about things different. I actually felt excited buying Fyodor Dostoyevsky's “Crime and Punishment” (although I did balance the purchase with a little light reading by picking up a bilingual copy of Suess's “Fox in Socks”).

“Crime and Punishment” is one of those books people think about reading but almost never do. I was wondering if anyone I know has read it. Have you? It make Newsweek's list of books people want to read (right up there with Tolstoy's “War and Peace”). After finishing up Emily Bronte's “Wuthering Heights,” I decided to take the plunge instead of delaying the inevitable. I don't want to leave the longest and seemingly most difficult books for last. I'm also trying to work myself up to “War and Peace,” which will end up being the longest book I've ever read (at nearly 1500 pages. Gulp.). I thought 500 page “C&P” would be a good warmer upper. I have to admit, that half in, I'm pleasantly surprised. “Crime and Punishment” ranks up there among best novels ever written for a reason. It is not the verbose snoozer I anticipated it to be, probably because it successfully puts the reader into the mind of a murderer, the story's protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov. I have found that being in the mind of the murderer is more interesting and not quite as unsettling as being in the mind of a child molester (I must also thank “Lolita” for this revelation). The frightening thing is, I can easily follow and even anticipate much of RR's thought process. But I would like to cite the Hollywood film industry for this ability and not credit it to any personal deep-seated homicidal tendencies. Just to clear that up. . . .

While I am enjoying this novel, it is one of those I wish I had read for a course in college. It is heavy with symbolism and allegory, much of which I'm sure I'm missing. I know very little about Russia, particularly 19th century Russia where this story is set. I am fairly clueless about Russian writers and their writing, though I'm learning. It's hard to put a book like this into context and fully appreciate it without knowing more about it's background and being able to discuss and analyze its contents. Being where I am, in smallish and (currently) foreigner devoid Chengde, I have no choice but to go it alone and share my findings with you, bookish blog reader.

Signing off here with a final question: What tops your list of “Should Read but Haven't Yet” books?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I want your love and I want your revenge

I've never given much thought to revenge, perhaps because I've rarely been betrayed or wronged by someone I trust. If you are like me, a simple google search with provide you with all you need to know about the topic. For a thorough understanding, complete with flow chart, you can consult Emotional Competency. If, on the other hand, you'd rather get some pointers on executing your vengeance, might I suggest consulting revenge guy or revenge lady. You could also look here for specific advice on how to get revenge on an ex.

But why all this talk of revenge, you may ask? As I read Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" I have come head to head with it. Our story's protagonist, Heathcliff, takes it to such an extreme it borders on ludicrous and leaves me feeling rather depressed. Here's a guy who, as a homeless orphan, was taken into a decent home by a nice man. Sure, he was picked on by his foster brother. Sure, he was romantically rejected by his foster sister. But is that enough to turn someone into a miserable person who torments everyone on the moor? It's no wonder "Wuthering Heights" is classified as a gothic novel, for it is dark and a bit disturbing. But I like it. Despite the story's mood, I am happy cuddling up with it.

But Today, I will keep things brief. What I would like to know is this: Have you ever sought (or plotted) revenge on someone? Or is that just something that happens in books or movies? I couldn't so much as stick my enemy's (I do have ONE) toothbrush in the toilet or allow my dog to poop on some horrible neighbor's lawn. Maybe I'm too soft. . . .

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ten Things I Love about You (Beijing Edition) Part 2 of 2

6. The contrast. With all its economic development as well as the pressure added by hosting the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has done a lot to develop itself. The city boasts a lot of awesome buildings and skyscrapers that many visitors might not expect in this so-called communist country. While the city has done a lot to modernize itself, I am always happy to find that there are aspects of old Beijing life that still haven't faded away. You may walk out of a swish mall only to stumble upon a woman selling shoe inserts and socks on a blanket. In this city you can drop hundreds of dollars on a 5 star meal or spend 15 cents a skewer on barbeque lamb meat from a Uyghur street vendor. You can pull up to a traffic light in an Audi only to look next to you and find a trishaw or better yet, a donkey.
I was reminded of this contrast the other day while taking a walk from my hostel to the fairly upscale Wangfunjing shopping street. I crossed two lanes of honking traffic where in the middle of boulevard was an open area below street level. Steps led down to the space, in which lie ruins of a wall dating back to the Ming dynasty. An old man in a kung fu outfit stood amongst the stones, talking to a young man dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. After some discussion, the elderly gentlemen casually wiped out. . . a sword! He displayed it for the young man to admire. A security guard looked on, completely unfazed. I snapped a photo as evidence that things like this still can and do exist in the heart of Beijing.

7. The late nights. If you have the cash, Beijing can be a great place to drink, and best of all many places don't shut down until the last patron leaves (take that Wisconsin and your ridiculous 1:30am last calls). There's something for everyone in the city--clubs, lounges, live rock bands, sports bars, karaoke. Becky and I spent our first night enjoying some imported Belgiuan beer at Sanlitun south's Beer Mania where we got to overhear a very heated (and quite lengthy) debate over which city is better: Chicago or San Francisco. I think San Fran may have won, but we were silently routing for our beloved Windy City. Eavesdropping aside, this is a nice little place with a huge selection of beer. The following night I made Becky visit my favorite bar Bed, which has won numerous awards due to it's drinks, which actually taste like they are suppose to, and amazing atmosphere. If you are looking to impress a date, this is probably a safe bet.

8. The early mornings. If you stay up late enough or get up early enough, you'll get to see a side of Beijing many people don't often witness. In the wee hours of the morning, you'll find old people out exercising, buying vegetables, and practicing taiqi. You can also see the daily flag raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square. I have to admit, I've yet to make it there myself as I'm not much for waking up at 4:30am. It is on my Beijing "To Do" list. Hopefully I'll make it out of bed one of these times, but in any case, I like that the city comes alive hours before I'm awake.

9. The art. As some of you may know, I once dabbled in art a bit. Now I'm more of an onlooker than a participant. Luckily for me there is quite a bit happening in Beijing's up and coming art scene. While galleries can be found throughout the city, there is a whole district dedicated to them at 798. If you make it to Beijing, I do think it's worth the trouble of making it out past the fourth ring road to this very cool area and not only for the art. This is where you can get away from the hustle and bustle of Beijing's traffic, people, and high rises. You'll feel transported to another place while in the midst of this old warehouse district which has now been transformed into galleries, boutiques, and cafes.

10. Wudaokou. Wudaokou is an area of mainly students, many of them foreign. Back in '06 and '07 I lived just a stone's throw away from WDK and though I don't necessarily miss living there, I do always enjoy a return visit. The place is alive with people and places. Everything you could ever desire is sold by a street vendor. The latest novels (pirated and in English) can be purchased from a man with a cart for 12rmb ($2). If you don't like what he has to offer, there are four other men with carts down the way. You need a poster of Audrey Hepburn? Look no further! A sequined baseball cap? It's done! A new pet? They've got rabbits, puppies, and chipmunks! If the street side shopping weren't enough, there are also great student hangouts like yummy Lush or one of my favorite cafes, Sculpting in Time. Becky and I went there for La Bamba, a (American) Mexican restaurant serving super cheap and pretty delicious drinks and food. For a mere US$6 I made myself sick on nachos, quesadillas, and a pina colada. Life just doesn't get any better than that. I heart BJ.

Ten Things I Love about You (Beijing Edition) Part 1 of 2

Beijing and I haven't always had the most stable and loving relationship. He can be loud, rude, crowded, and unaccommodating. I can be intolerant, impatient, and demanding. It does not make for a good combination. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, hence I've always been in love with Beijing so long as I wasn't living in him. The past few days have reaffirmed my affection for the city. I realize most people who read this will never come to Beijing or even desire to visit, however, I think it deserves a top spot on anyone's itinerary who is coming to China or even to Asia. Here are some reasons why I adore this place:

1. The food. While I like to eat Chinese food and love to cook western food, sometimes it's nice to mix things up. Variety is hard to find in Chengde, where I can break down the cuisine into six different categories: local Chinese food, Koreanish food, horrible western wannabe food, food on sticks, hot pot, and KFC. Beijing has much more to offer, literally from A to Z (African to Zhejiang). My first night on the town, my friend Becky and I set off to find Noodle Bar, a much raved about establishment serving, you guessed it, noodles. After some wandering in Beijing's Sanlitun area, we ditched our original plan and settled on Rumi, an award-winning Persian Restaurant that served delectable hummus, kebabs, and bakalava. By Chinese standards, it was not cheap (US$30 for four dishes and two drinks), but it was worth every RMB. The following night we explored the restored hutongs (alleyways) near Beijing's drum and bell towers where we settled on some Yunnan (a province in SW China) food at No Name Restaurant. Tofu wrapped in banana leaves, purple pineapple rice, and spring rolls--the food more closely resembled SE Asian than Chinese. Yesterday we made it to Three Guizhou Men, a restaurant specializing in Guizhou (a small province in southern China) food. Today I am going on a diet, which should be easy considering the few temptations that surround me here in Chengde.

2. The parks. Beijing has numerous parks, many of which can be visited for free. Last week Becky and I stayed at Tiananmen Sunrise Hostel which is conveniently located near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, as well walking distance to Wangfujing Shopping Street. I love this area not because of its proximity to tourist sites, but due to its random areas of green space. The boulevard by the hostel includes a mile long stretch of grass and shrubbery, along both sides runs traffic. Heading towards Tiananmen East subway station, I enjoy wandering through a small park that features a gazebo, stream, bridges, and statues. Parks in China are also great places to people watch; depending on the time of day, you will witness women dancing, men playing musical instruments, and people practicing taiqi. They are among the best places in China to go for free entertainment.

3. Freedom to roam. Another wonderful thing about Beijing is that despite its size, I feel comfortable and safe walking through any area of the city at pretty much any time of day. This is not a luxury I have in my hometown of Milwaukee where there are neighborhoods I am uncomfortable to driving through during the day. Maybe I am being naive, but Beijing seems surprisingly unthreatening for a city of 14 million people.

4. Hutongs. Love them or fear them, hutongs (or "alleyways") are historically significant and found throughout the heart of Beijing, although this is quickly changing as they are being bulldozed away for malls and apartments. A recent article by Time Out Beijing gives some insight into the issue of their demolition. I personally love hutongs and siheyuans (single story courtyard houses found within the hutongs) despite them being somewhat dilapidated--most residences are one hundred years old and oft in need of restoration and indoor plumbing. I find Beijing's hutongs charming, plus they provide a much needed break from the endless clumps of high rises that line Beijing's four lane avenues. I particularly enjoy visiting Nanluoguxiang (click to view a short video of it) an old hutong turned into a hip, though not overly touristy, area of shops, restaurants, cafes, and locals.

5. The shopping. I'm not the girl I once was, the girl who hopped into her Ford Tempo as soon as the 2:40 sounded and sped over to Southridge Mall. Shopping just isn't as fun as it used to be, though in Beijing I somehow find myself reliving my frivolous youth. Beijing has something for everybody. There are countless small, independent shops to scavenge, however their clothes don't always suit my tastes and rarely fit me. I admit I often hit the big name brands which cater more to western needs, tastes, and sizes. Some of my recent favorites include H&M, Zara, and Decathlon. For those interested in cosmetics and smelling good, there are several branches of Sephora throughout the city. I also take my annual trip to Beijing's massive IKEA for house furnishings. Nanluoguxiang is home to some fun and hipsteresque knickknack, souvenir, and clothing shops. A popular among expats is Plastered 8, which offers an array of clever Beijing-themed t-shirts. And of course, I never leave Beijing without stopping at Jenny Lou's, the western grocery store. I need my cream cheese. 'Nough said.

Monday, July 12, 2010

On the Road

It's not easy disliking something everyone else supposedly adores. Perhaps I'm not smart or cool enough to understand, but I'm not going be a coward and deny what I feel. I'm not a huge fan of the "Twilight" series. I hate skinny jeans (admittedly, this is probably because they look horrible on me. Have they gone out of fashion yet?). And perhaps my darkest confession of all, I don't much care for music. That's right, music. I can pretty much take it or leave it.

If I can own up to all that, I certainly can admit to what I think about Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." So here it is: I though it was generally a boring, go-nowhere-while-going-everywhere kinda book. Please understand, I am someone who can appreciate something about nothing--I love both "Seinfeld" and "The Office." Furthermore, I can usually hang with a character driven novel, however this did nothing for me. Here is a mostly true story about a bunch of drug using, alcoholic philanderers road tripping across America, which, on second thought, sounds like the basis of a fun and interesting novel. Despite the promise of something great, I couldn't help feeling some important component was missing. In fact, I fell asleep five times while reading it (which is three times more than the average book I read).
Side note: I learned in physio psych class that you should not read in bed unless you want to fall asleep since your body automatically associates laying in bed with sleeping.

I should note, I don't think that "On the Road" is crap by any means. There's a lot I can't appreciate about it given that I wasn't born during the time period in which it was published. Kerouac's writing style and content was undoubtedly ground-breaking and controversial for 1950's America, but 60 years later his slang seems a little off (every time he mentioned "making it" with a girl, I couldn't help but roll my eyes) and his description of smoking a big, fat doobie (or as he says, a "bomber") in Mexico was only mildly amusing and hardly shocking. But according to most, Kerouac was able to brilliantly capture a new, post-war generation. The Beat Generation, as they call it, which I had never even heard of until I read "On the Road." But hey, at least I learned something new.

I also got some insight into hitchhiking, which was the one part of the novel I truly enjoyed. During Kerouac's first trip across the States he relied heavily on thumbing it. He met and saw a lot of interesting characters along the way. I couldn't help but feel that mid-century 20th century America was a wilder, yet more innocent time. Everyone smoked. Men drank beer while driving. Hobos rode on box cars. People hitchhiked. Who does that these days? I wouldn't dare. Books like this and TV shows like "Mad Men" conjure up feelings of nostalgia in me, nostalgia for a time I didn't even belong to and probably wouldn't even want to be a part of (unless, perhaps, I were a man).

Feelings of nostalgia and hitchhiking intrigue aside, I am glad to be finished with the one. Here's hoping that, for me, the movie will prove better than the book. It's in pre-production now and has, ironically enough, cast Bella Swan (i.e. Kristen Stewart) as one of the female supporting roles (Mary Lou). Perhaps I shouldn't get my hopes up too high.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Your Two Cents

I'm taking a break from writing about reading, though I haven't stopped the reading (began Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" this morning). This is more of a 'Dear Abby' type of post. I need advice on how to deal with unsolicited advice.

A little background into this cultural dynamics of my gripe is probably necessary. Put simply, the Chinese love nothing more than to throw in their two cents. This is particularly true of Chinese women whose know-it-all seems to grow exponentially with age. I constantly hear ladies giving strangers advice on how to dress and feed their babies, even where to send their child to school. I've been away from the U.S. for awhile, but am I wrong in thinking that most American mothers would find this intrusive and annoying, maybe even downright upsetting?

I try to take these things in stride, though lately they've been eating away at me. My issue is not with bossy octogenarians, but with the 30-something-year-old mothers of my students. They barely have a foot through my door before they are questioning, scolding, or harassing me. I've been fighting a battle for months now with 6-year-old Luna's mother, Mrs. Zhang. Mrs. Zhang can speak English, which makes our exchanges easier and less prone to language/cultural misunderstandings compared to some. Her main concern is that I run around my apartment without slippers on. I, horror of all horrors, walk around in socks and (dare I say it) sometimes even barefoot. This regularly leads to a verbal tug-of-war with the thoroughly perplexed and horrified Mrs. Zhang.
"Rosie, you are not wearing slippers!"
"Yes, I know. We don't usually wear slippers during the summer in America."
"Your feet must be cold!"
"No, my feet are fine. It's 90 degrees today. I'm not cold."
"But your feet must be cold."
"Please put on your slippers."
"I'm fine. Really. Everyone does this in America."
(Look of terror. Ten seconds pass.)
"Please, Rosie. Put on your slippers. You will catch cold."

I concede to defeat, but yet I still manage to answer the door slipperless for Luna's next lesson. I'm not sure why I do this, perhaps I enjoy the look on Mrs. Zhang's face when she looks down at my helpless little feet. The look you'd give someone about to parachute off the Empire State Building. A look that says, "You are crazy and completely without reason, but I somehow admire you anyways."

With Luna's mom I can grin and (not) bare(foot) it, but with other mothers it's not so comical. For example, Carrie's mother, a Phy. Ed. instructor at Chengde's Medical College. Last autumn, she marched into my place to pick up her daughter. I hadn't seen her for months, but that did not deter her promptly advising me. "Why is your heater on? That's really not good. You should not use that, but you should really get a humidifier. The air is too dry here. What are you doing for exercise these days? Oh, walking your dog? It's not enough. You need more exercise. You really ought to take up some sort of sport--might I suggest ping pong or badminton?" My jaw dropped as I stood wide-eyed trying to follow her Chinese. As I deciphered her words I found myself trying to hold back tears.
"Please leave," I stuttered in Mandarin.

I saw the look of pain on her face. Her daughter laughed heartily. "Teacher is angry!" she exclaimed in English. The mother tried to explain herself, claiming I just didn't understand. But the truth is, I did understand. I understood her words perfectly, but what I failed to understand was how her actions could be deemed socially acceptable. To this day, I continue to fail in my dealing with this type of scenario.

Fast forward to the present. As the heat here rises, along with it my discomfort--by 2pm the temperature in our apartment nears 85 degrees and I seek relief by cranking up the air-conditioner. Though the living room where the air-con is located becomes crispy cold, the bedroom becomes a tolerable 78 degrees. My problem arises when a student arrives. During her lesson, she will sit in the comfort of my room while her guardian sits, teeth chattering, in the living room. As I begin my lesson I am bombarded with comments shouted from the neighboring room. "It's cold in here." "You shouldn't have this set so low!" "How do you turn this thing off?" As they futz with the air-con's remote, my patience dissipates. I know they mean well, but I am at a breaking point. As long as their child is comfortable and they are satisfied with my lessons, I want the parents to keep their paws off my stuff (especially my air-conditioner) and their mouths shut. I am tired of these people constantly intruding on my life. Dear Blog Reader, what should I do?!

Friday, July 02, 2010

Love at First Sight

I went to the local bookstore today to see if I could find some classic lit in English. I found nothing but seriously abridged bilingual books (pamphlets, really). I did manage to score one book on my list in Chinese and for the bargain price of 9rmb ($1.35). I have included a photo. . . can you guess what it is?

I've been keeping quite busy reading the latest, which is beautifully written but easy to get lost in with all its description. I also blame the small type set. The main theme here is love, which shouldn't be surprising as it is mentioned right in the title, "Love in the Time of Cholera." Cholera is also running (pun intended) through the novel as well. I didn't really know much about cholera before reading this book, as I'm not well read on bacterial infections, even ones that caused devastating pandemics during the 19th century. Cholera, in case you are interested, causes severe diarrhea and vomiting which can lead to death without proper treatment. In the novel, it is also compared to love. I have never had such a reaction to love, however I have, on more than one occasion, have had such a reaction to Chinese food.

Now that you know more than you ever wanted to know about my gastrointestinal weaknesses, we can discuss the more pressing matter of love. Our novel's leading man, Florentino Ariza, suffers from it (love, that is) badly. At the end of the first chapter we find him attending the funeral of Fermina Daza's husband where he claims his undying devotion to her. Fermina promptly tells him to scram, saying, "Don't show your face again for the years of life that are left to you. . . and I hope there are very few of them." Talk about hostility. What could have happened between these two lovers to spark such a brutal rebuff? I don't know for sure, but I have a feeling that Florentino racking up more lovers then there are days in a year may have something to do with it.

Florentino's love began innocently enough while he was a virginal teenager delivering telegrams. One could say it was love at first sight, if you believe in that kind of thing. I'm not sure that I do. Fermina didn't seem too convinced of it either. After years of the two teens stealing glances of each other at Mass and in parks, after hundreds of letters secretly exchanged between the pair, after nearly two years engaged yet separated, the two lovers finally meet. Upon seeing Florentino, Fermina waves him away. "No, please. . . . Forget it," she tells him. "Today, when I saw you, I realized what is between us is nothing more than an illusion." An illusion, okay--I had it pegged as an obsession. I certainly wasn't convinced it was love. Although I'm not sure I'm ready to revisit that age-old question: What is love, anyway? I would like to know is this: Do you believe in love at first sight?

I believe people generally fall into two camps--Believers and Non-Believers. Generally, Believers claim to have experienced it. Ming falls into that category. He says he loved me since the first moment he laid eyes on my sweaty "monkey-butt-red-face" (his words) huffing it out on a grimy treadmill. I wasn't convinced of him so easily, but I'm not convinced of anyone too easily. I don't belly flop in when it comes to relationships, any relationships. I like to dip my big toe in when getting to know someone. Perhaps people like me can never experience Love at First Sight because we don't let ourselves. We need time to be convinced. I'm lucky Ming was persistent, not fifty-one years persistent like Florentino, but he did endure a couple weeks worth of near daily rejections before winning me over. Now that's Love.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Book or The Movie?

Unless you loathe reading (and therefore don't read), I'm sure most of you would agree that the book is almost always better. I finished reading "Lolita" yesterday and spent most of this morning watching Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita." I was actually quite pleased with the movie, particularly the casting--Sue Lyon who played an entirely believable young yet sexy Lolita. The film also stayed quite true to the book which surely satisfies fans of the novel (I'm still not sure if I fall into that category) but what the film does lack is a glimpse into the mind of our perverted protagonist. Since the film is not narrated by HH (as, I believe, the 1997 version is), the audience never knows the intimate thoughts of our thoughtful pedophile, hence they never fully realize how wicked he truly is. This was probably an intentional move made by Kubrick, as it takes out some of the shock-value of the story. A tale of sex between a young girl and a man thrice her age was surely shocking enough for the 1962 America that this film was released to. It proved to be shocking enough for me, who, 50 years later, is living in an era of reality TV, internet porn, and HBO.

And now I am quite ready to put Lolita behind me. I have begun another novel, this one also dealing with tortured love, Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera." From the book jacket, I can tell you that this is a story of lovers separated and (fifty-one years, nine months, and four days) later reunited. I am sold.

But back to the topic at hand. I am curious if there are any movies out there that you thought were actually BETTER than the book. I can think of two offhand. The first I haven't either read or seen in years--but still my vote would be for Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir, "The Pianist." I remember the book being good, but lacking the imagery and horror portrayed in the film. The scene in which the Nazi throws the paraplegic grandfather out the window for not standing up on command still haunts me.

In second place, I would like to nominate the Oscar winning film "Slumdog Millionaire" that outshines the (quite good) book it is based off of, Vikas Swarup's "Q&A." Perhaps I am biased since I saw the movie first and it is currently one of my favorite films, but I find the cinematography breathtaking. One of my friend's commented that you could freeze any frame of that film and have a beautiful [and intimate] photo of India. It's true. The story told in both the novel and the movie is beautiful and original, but the book reads more like a series of short stories and lacks the string that ties everything together--long lost love. Finally, I am sucker for the film's music, particularly the song and dancing scene during the closing credits. That's just something a book, no matter how good, can do.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Reading Lolita in Chengde

I'm surprised to find that several people commented on my last post, which leads me to believe I'm not the only nerd in my circle of facebook friends who is in love with books. And now the heat is on to actually follow through with this task. I haven't felt this kind of pressure in awhile, the kind of pressure I often felt in college. It's been awhile since I've had "homework." I've already noticed it's doing me some good. I've been paying more attention as I read, as I'm often guilty of dazing off during difficult or boring books. Sometimes I'll read an entire page without having processed a word of it. When I read for pleasure I don't do much analysis, which is actually part of the fun of reading (although it's a lot of work and it definitely helps to have other people in the discussion). I'm finding that in "Lolita," there is a lot to analyze.

I started the novel knowing a little bit about Nabokov's "Lolita." I had read Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran," which, as you can guess from the title, discusses the book (among others). To be honest, I find it shocking that young Iranian girls could get through it. "Lolita" couldn't even get a U.S. publisher when it was finished in 1953, forcing Nabokov to publish it in Paris. Nearly 60 years later, this novel still manages to cover some rather unorthodox territory. My friend Whitney once commented that novels tend to win awards and praise based on their shock value. I find this is one such book that could fit into such a category. Not that it's poorly written, the author has a clever style filled with puns, innuendos, and word coinages (such as referring to young girls as "nymphets"). My issue with this book is more with the protagonist and narrator, Humbert Humbert (HH), who is an outright pedophile. He adores prepubescent girls and isn't afraid to talk about it. I try to be open-minded, I do. I realize that pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder, but no mater how you slice it nobody much cares for a pedophile.

I feel like I should be enraged at the author for his assumption that it's okay to give his an audience a peek into this strange and demented world where a man fantasizes about 11-year-olds and visits 14-year-old prostitutes. I should be angry that he would even write about such a topic and horrified that he is able to write about it so deftly. Yet, after 90 pages, I can't helped but get sucked in. While I don't trust much of what HH says, he is funny. He is also pathetic. Though he is struggling to keep his perverseness under wraps, I find myself with little sympathy for him, probably because I know where this is all going. HH has yet to defile his beloved step-daughter Lolita, but his innocence won't last long.

In all fairness, there is much more to this book than what's on the surface--this is not merely about a step-father sleeping with his tween step-daughter. First, Lolita is proving to be a tiny vixen herself, but since she is only 12, can we really assign her any of the blame? When is someone truly a victim and when are they partly responsible for their own victimization? Where is the line between decency and indecency? Do thoughts make you guilty of a crime or only actions? One author, Martin Amis, asserts that "Lolita" is actually a story about tyranny and totalitarianism. Clearly, there is a lot to think about here. I'll let you know if I come to any conclusions once I've finished.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Big Read

I've decided to give this reading thing a go--perhaps it's not the most intriguing topic to blog about, but I will try to keep things interesting. With that in mind, I've decided to start with Nabokov's "Lolita." I'm only 70 pages in but I have much to say on the selection, but that will have to wait for tomorrow. I also would like to note that I've altered my reading list, which can be found below. I've taken mostly from the BBC's Big Read that, though somewhat revised, circled on facebook last year. As an American, choosing a Brit-centric batch of books is, perhaps, a seemingly odd choice. I've decided to focus primarily on this list, rather than others, to overcome my fear of British Literature, particularly the dreaded Jane Austen and Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Furthermore, I think it will be much easier to get my hands on most of these books here in China. I have set a rather modest goal of reading one book a week since I will also be reading Chinese stories and novels on the side (I've already read "The House on Mango Street" and "The Little Prince" in Chinese. Next up is "Charlotte's Web."). I have included 50 novels on my list and noted the ones that are not on the BBC's Big Read.

Numbers 1-13 are currently collecting dust on my bookshelf while 14-35 should be fairly easy for me to find in Beijing. I may have some trouble getting 36-50, but I'll keep you posted. Here's the revised list:

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov*This novel has made the top ten of many reading lists.
2. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
3. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
5. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
6. Franny and Zoey by JD Salinger *I've already read "Catcher in the Rye" so I thought I'd mix it up and try this book which I picked up for 75 cents at Half Price Books about 10 years ago.
7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
8. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry *This novel has made other top 100 lists and was nominated for the Booker Prize.
9. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy *McCarthy is mentioned on most lists and this novel won the 1992 National Book Award.
10. Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian *Gao won the 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature.
11. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai *This novel made another top 100 list and it won the 2006 Booker Prize.
12. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen *This didn't make the list, but I own it, so I might as well torture myself by reading it.
13. The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike *Though it won no notable accolades, I've never read Updike and I think it's time I ought to.
14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
15. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien
16. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien
17. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien
18. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
19. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
20. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
21. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
22. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
23. Tess of D'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
24. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
25. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
26. Persuasion by Jane Austen
27. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
28. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
29. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
30. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
31. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
32. Emma by Jane Austen
33. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
34. Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoyevsky
35. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison *Replacing Ulysses, which was originally on my list, with this easier and easier to find novel.
36. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
37. Bird Song by Sebastian Faulks *May read Charlotte Gray, another part of the trilogy, which I have sitting on my bookshelf.
38. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
39. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
40. The BFG by Roald Dahl
41. Middlemarch by George Elliot
42. The Stand by Stephen King
43. Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
44. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
45. Goodnight Mister Tom Michelle by Michelle Magorian
46. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Avel
47. The Thornbirds by Colleen McCollough
48. The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
49. Far from Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
50. anything by Terry Pratchett, who made the list several times

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

An Early Retirement

Some people ask why I've stayed in China as long as I have. While being married to a Chinese man is the obvious answer, there is certainly more to it than that. After all, Ming, Ping, and I could pick up and move to America. So why don't we?

First and probably most importantly, the life of a foreigner in China is generally much easier and more glamorous than that of a foreigner in America. In the States, Ming would most likely face unemployment and years in school trying to get a firm handle on English. He'd also have to learn how to deal with driving, credit cards, income tax returns, junk mail, health insurance, cell phone bills, and dentist appointments--all things, for better or worse, we don't really have to think about here in China.

My second reason, which closely relates to my first, is simply and selfishly this: my free time. Life in China often proves to be a life of leisure for foreigners. For some, this can lead to late night bar fights, womanizing, and a downward spiral into alcoholism and chain smoking. I, however, have taken up the innocuous activities of cooking and baking. While experimenting in the kitchen has proved satisfying and often quite time consuming (you try making tortillas and bagels from scratch), I feel it is time to take up a new hobby or project. Furthermore, I am hoping for a project that can be blogged about. Since Julie Powell has already done cooking, that is clearly out.

Of the many things I've considered, one at the top of my list is training for a half marathon. The Great Wall Marathon sounds like an idyllic and worthy goal, but it's a little out of my price range at $1100. Furthermore, I'm a bit put-off by the idea of running outside in China. Normally I enjoy exercising outdoors, but unless I wake up at dawn (in these parts, 4am) I will have to cope with crowded sidewalks and countless gawking locals. Besides, the thought of writing about running makes me want to take a snooze.

My next idea is to go through AFI's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies. Though I think this may be enjoyable for me, it may bore my ten or so blog readers. There is also that little issue of me knowing next to nothing about film or film critique. Which leads me to a more literary endeavor--reading Time's list of top modern novels. While I am rather clueless about film, I do have some knowledge of literature. But since I've only read 14% of the list in my life thus far, I still have a lot to learn. The question is, how do I get my hands on all these books in China? I currently only have six of them in my possession. Would this pursuit even be interesting? I am pretty bookish but can I really make it through The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises??

I'm not sure what hobby might be both fun to do and write about--I am open to any and almost all suggestions. Although many people may covet my (lack of) schedule, I am desperately in need of filling the hours with something other than youtube and facebook, thanks.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

From The Darkness to light

I recently read Aravind Adiga's novel, The White Tiger, a fascinating story that exposes the corruption, violence, and struggle in 'The World's Largest Democracy" (India). Throughout the book, the protagonist refers to a place called "The Darkness," often contrasting it to his life in Delhi. But what is The Darkness? Is it a specific place? A place full of poverty? I interpreted it as a reference to the main character's home state of Bihar, one of India's poorest regions that is severely impeded by corruption.

I had the chance to visit Bihar though notably to one of its cheerier, more peaceful parts, a town called Bodhgaya. While this name may have little meaning to you, to Buddhists it's a sort of Mecca. Bodhgaya is the place, nearly 2500 years ago, where Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha) reached his enlightenment under a bodhi tree next to a temple. A descendent of that tree still exists today and though rebuilt a few times over, so does the temple. Although not a Buddhist myself, living and having traveled through many predominately Buddhist countries, I felt intrigued by Bodhgaya and was determined to make a stop there on my way from Varanasi to Kolkata. My new traveling companion, Katalin, was interested in it too.

After two days of suffering from a variety of ailments that could not be categorized into one or really even two specific illnesses, the time had come to move on from Varanasi. Securing tickets from Varanasi to Gaya, the nearest station to Bodhgaya, had proved tricky. Katalin and I were left with two Sleeper Class tickets, bottom of the barrel as far as Indian railway tickets are concerned. Furthermore, we no longer had Amy and her height along as an intimidation factor, but I was confident we'd be fine. I had, afterall, requested for us to be seating in the 'Ladies Carriage.'

As we boarded the train, we realized our seats were nowhere in the vacinity of the Ladies Carriage, if, in fact, there even was one. The passengers in our carriage were overwhelmingly male, most of them with that familiar gleam of curiosity and horniness in their eyes. I had bigger issues than our fellow passengers to worry about, however, as a sensation of nausea rolled over me. I wiped off a dirty, dusty upper bunk and settled in for a nap while Katalin sat on a lower bunk, chatting away to an elderly Austrian woman who had somehow been seated by us.

I had just overcome my urge to vomit and, in turn, drift off into a much needed sleep, when I awoke to a burst of angry shouting. I begrudgingly turned my body towards the source of this noise and looked down to see a large, middle-aged man screaming in Katalin's face. Simultaneously, I felt the need to puke. I crawled down from my bunk and rushed to the toilet. When I returned a pair of brown uniformed, beret wearing, rifle toting policemen had come to interrogate the irrationally irate man. He was clearly not cooperating with them and appeared to be intoxicated. The police led him towards the end of our carriage, which happened to be the last car of the train. He was not seen by us again; he very well could have gotten chucked off.

Night had fallen and the policemen returned to sit by us. They, in addition to the surrounding men, looked at us in an overtly sexual manner. I was yet to be unnerved by the situation; Katalin was another matter. She had her theories, which I won't delve into here, regarding what these men had in store for us. This drunken incident, the impish looks, the police--it had her shoken up. I refused to be shaken; that was until the train came to a stop at the next station.

It was a small, single platform station that was nearly pitch dark. People were strewn around, gathered by fires of burning garbage. Stray dogs paced among the people. There was hardly a building or man made structure in sight. The Darkness, this was it. I was scared. What was Gaya going to be like? How small, dark, and unwelcoming could it be? And who might follow us there?

I tried to calm myself--my head was spinning in more ways than one. I was sick and frightened; this had turned into the longest train ride of my life and it was merely five hours. Every minute became a bit of a struggle as I tried to avert my eyes from the stares baring down on us while also trying to ignore the churning in my stomach. The policemen left, which alleviated some of the paranoia. Katalin and I tried to distracted ourselves by watching a movie on my iPod. The train was running late. . . by half an hour. . . by an hour. . . finally, at 10:40pm, nearly an hour and a half after our scheduled arrival time, we stopped in Gaya.

To my immense relief, it was a bona fide city. The station consisted of several platforms and was a flurry of activity. When we made it outside of the station, we were happy to see lit streets full of the usual throngs of people, animals, and vehicles--just like any other place we had visited in India. We made our way, neither harassed or followed, to a nearby hotel to check-in. Sometimes the imagination can be a dangerous thing.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


This morning we woke up on the train, already several hours into our journey from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Though I won't go into great detail about it, as words and even images cannot do it justice, the Taj Mahal was awe-inspiring. Other than the birth of a child, I don't imagine I will ever again witness something that beautiful. It is every cliche in the book--brought a tear to my eye; felt like I was in heaven. If you are willing to brave India, don't miss it.

But this post is to describe our next destination, Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on Earth, believed to date back more than 3000 years. But what gives the city it's significance is not its age, but its spot on the holy Ganges River. Hindus rom all over India come here to bathe themselves or cremate their family members. All of this is in clear view to the public, which is what makes Varanasi such a unique and surprising place.

When we disembarked our train, we were greeted by the usual harassment from taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers. We made a B-line to the prepaid auto-rickshaw stand, which provides a set and fair price to any destination in the city. We were taken to a location where we were to met the owner, Monu, of our guesthouse. Monu had informed me that our accommodation was located down a narrow alleyway, which auto-rickshaws cannot enter.

We were dropped off at the designated spot and Monu soon approached. He seemed like a kind, but no nonsense Indian man who spoke clear and quite natural English. We followed him across a busy road, where I was nearly run down by a cycle rickshaw. We then wove through alleys filled with the usual cows (and the stinking piles of manure that come with them) and stray dogs, as well as plenty of human traffic--barefoot women dressed in brillian saris, brown uniformed police, men on bicycles, children chasing each other, and leering young men. Small shops nearly overflowed onto the tiny streets, selling snacks and drinks, saris, bangles, sweets, and scarves. The heat was suffocating, so it was with great relief I entered the guest house.

I passed out in the room while Katalin and Amy took to the streets. When they returned, I heard all about their excursion, walking along the river's ghats (steps or landing on a river). They wandered upon Manikarnika Ghat, one of the main cremation ghats in Varanasi. Here they saw bodies wrapped in golden fabric being carried out from the alleyways. The body is taken down to the water, where it is briefly submerged, and then brought back up on the ghat, where it is placed on a pile of wood.

Wood is seen in 10-ffot piles all around the cremation ghat. There are several kinds of wood to choose from, the most expensive being sandlewood. Once the body is situated properly a top of the wood, the fire is lit. It can take up to five days for the body to be fully cremated, at which point the ashes are put into the Ganges. The bodies burn and the work goes on day and night, every day .

After hearing about Katalin and Amy's experience, I was eager to see the river and its ghats myself. I overcame my heat-induced lethargy and made it out of the guest house. Once at the river we were met by numerous children selling small paper bowls filled with merigolds and a simple wax candle. Katalin purchased one for each of us. We lit them and followed the example of others who had set them adrift in the Ganges. The significance of this nightly affair, I do not know.

We continued on to Dasaswamedh Ghat in time to catch the beginning of a performance. The sun had just set, but the atmosphere was lively as ever. Hunger had set in though, so we drifted away from the river and sat down to a lovely Indian meal. I ordered a thali, a personal buffet of sorts. For 120 rupees ($2.50), I was given cheese curry, spinach curry, rice, flat bread, yogurt, lentils, chutney, and a dessert.

After finishing our dinner, we left the restaurant and stumbled upon a parade. Women carried chandeliers on their heads, men played instruments and danced around, flaring their arms while spinning in circles. Next came a series of decorated trucks, their displays powered by the disel fume spewing generators that followed them. The procession was slow, too slow to captivate the attention of any ordianary American audience. But the three of us were enthralled, swept up by the energy and excitement of it all. The celebration was linked to one of Indian's many castes, but the full meaning of it all I don't understand. Regardless, we felt lucky to witness whatever it was we were witnessing.