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.