Friday, October 29, 2010

Temple of the Month (slightly surreal edition)

Guangfu Temple, Xichang

The temple this time is the Guangfu Temple compound, an hour's hike up the mountain from a serene lake outside of Xichang, where I went on my own for a bit of language practice last August.

Guangfu Temple, Xichang

The surreal bit is that my Lonely Planet guidebook (2008 edition) describes the temple as a series of slightly interesting ruins, as the entire complex was largely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Which means that the most of these "ancient temples" are, given delays in updating my guidebook, four or five years old at most. Of course, the few tourist signs in English that describe the history of the temple make no mention of this fact, and I think I'm safe in assuming that the signs in Chinese likewise omit that particular phase of Chinese history.

Walking around, the newness of everything is apparent. The walls are the typical washed and weathered shade of Chinese temple red-brown, but the foundations in many cases are fitted cinder blocks instead of the usual weathered cut stone. At the foot of a massively huge ancient cypress (800+ years old , if I remember right), there is a series of before and after photos showing how experts shored up the base of the tree to keep it alive for another couple hundred years or so.

Ancient Cypress, Guangfu Temple, Xichang Guangfu Temple, Xichang

Wandering around the compound in the rain, appreciating the peace and tranquility while simultaneously imagining Red Guard soldiers herding monks out of the compound and destroying the buildings just fifty years ago, made for a very uncanny experience. A bit like being in a small serene Disneyland with an invisible elephant following you everywhere.

On the other hand, the temple was still a temple. Incense still burned, bells still chimed, and people went about their daily business. While drawing a thirty-foot high statue (no photos allowed inside), I chatted with a monk in his late twenties, answering the usual questions about where I was from and what I was doing in China. Using my kindergarten-level Chinese, I was able to find out a few things about him as well (he grew up near Chengdu, but his parents are from nearby), but there was so much more that I wanted to find out.

Guangfu Temple, Xichang

Thursday, October 28, 2010

We all gots to make sense of the world somehow...

Hong Hao - My Things, #5. Digital photograph. Via Things Organized Neatly

It is what it is

Many Chinese restaurants have large glass jars of flavored baijiu (a very strong hard rice liquor) sitting on a counter somewhere up by the cash register. They are usually flavored with fruit or Chinese herbs marinating in the bottom of the jar, in much the same way that some brandies or fancy vinegars are flavored in Western countries. I was a bit surprised last summer, when a Chinese friend of ours translated this label as...

Many Penis Liquor

...many penis liquor. (Ingredients: grain alcohol, bull penises, ram penises, dog penises.) And yep, sure enough, floating on the bottom of that particular jar was a layer of shrively brown mushroom-looking things that, upon further examination, appeared to be the real deal, so to say. (And no, I haven't sampled any, thankyouverymuch...)

Aside from my personal aversion to penis-infused alcoholic products, I've been a bit reluctant to post this picture for other reasons as well - chief among them being the "Hey, wow, look at the funny things these foreign people eat" phenomenon. After all, Western culture is filled with all sorts of delicacies (bleu cheese, raw eggs, escargot, to name a few) that other cultures find disgusting. And I'm sure that there are plenty of animals' privates floating around in the American foodstream as well, though not as immediately recognizable as such.

But still, a lingering question. When can we try to understand a practice that may be strange to us, and when is it Just Plain Wrong? Relativism versus absolutism, to put it into academic terms.

Turtles and crocodiles for sale, Chengdu fish market

So are dog penises okay to eat? Farm-raised Chinese alligators? (wild population, ca. 300) Scorpions? Tube worms? Seahorses? (My answers: No; Ummm, no; None for me, thanks; Go ahead, if it floats your boat, but I'll take a pass on that one; and Most Certainly Not.)

I know the whole "culturally relative" vs. "moral absolute" debate is nothing new, but it takes on a whole new tone when you are invited to an expensive seafood restaurant and see a couple of moray eels swimming in the tank next to the lobsters...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Just in case I haven't introduced myself yet...

I'm David

Think that says it. Photo of a storefront on Chunxi Lu, Chengdu.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ordinary Stuff - Families in Transit

North Train Station, Chengdu

On any given day, the plaza in front of Chengdu's North Train Station is crowded with families like this one, all taking extended rest breaks while waiting for their connecting trains.

Chengdu's Markets

A good article by the folks at Eating Asia about a typical indoor covered market in Chengdu.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Watching the world go by

North Train Station, Chengdu

Photo taken near the North Train Station, Chengdu

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Colony

Recently, I ran across this short documentary about Chinese immigrants living in the West African nation of Senegal.

All across Africa, Chinese entrepreneurs are setting up businesses, attracted by the availability of resources and the (relative to China) low level of competition. The film follows a few of these Chinese businessmen, and also gives equal weight to the Senegalese reaction to the Chinese newcomers.

The story is a typical immigrant story in that each side views the other group of people as extremely strange. The immigrant community, often distrustful of the local population, bands together and avoids interaction with the locals. The locals, meanwhile, starts to resent the immigrants because they are seen to be competing with the locals for jobs. It's made more complicated by the fact that China, with a growing population and finite resources, is looking to Africa as a source of raw materials for its expanding industry.

All in all, a very good film to show my students this week as we start talking about ethnocentrism, prejudice, and stereotypes. It was interesting to see my students' reaction to the film - lots of smiles of recognition as they saw the life that the Chinese immigrants had set up for themselves in Africa, and some gasps of astonishment when they heard the Africans' resentful remarks about the Chinese. (After all, these are kids who haven't been exposed to very much, if any, media criticism about their country or culture before.)

So, is China colonizing Africa? That was the question that I posed to my students after I made sure that they understood both sides' point of view: we'll see what answers they come up with next week.

Compare and Contrast

A few more real estate advertisements from close by, (this time in a more futuristic vein), along with a shot of the surrounding area.

Real estate advertisement, Xipu

under the high speed train tracks, Xipu

Real estate advertisement, Xipu

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Key to Living a Life of Love, Peace, and Prosperity is to Live From Your Heart

To review and build a bit on the Chinglish theme that I've been posting about lately, there are many instances of pop culture here in China that I'm posting about because they are at turns unexpectedly poetic, delightful, weird, or even eerily haunting.

And then there's the stuff that's Just Plain Wrong:

The Key to Living a Life of Love, Peace, and Prosperity is to Live From Your Heart

(Yes, that's me, Mister "everything is culturally relevant" Dave, saying that...)

Western City Center, near Hongguang Western City Center, near Hongguang

These bucolic scenes are from advertisements plastered onto the walls that surround one of the countless gated housing complexes that are springing up everywhere in the former farmland that surrounds our university.

Western City Center, near Hongguang

The countryside nearby is equally surreal - vacant fields gone to seed, piles of rubble that I imagine were once farmhouses, and brand new roads that now lead nowhere. Below, some construction workers' laundry hung out to dry on improvised bamboo racks under a new power line.

Western City Center, near Hongguang

Who gets to move into these new gated communities? Who gets left out?

When we search for the "Key to Living a Life of Love, Peace, and Prosperity," why do we so often come up with such misguided solutions?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Some phrases make me inexplicably happy

Clio Coddle this storefront, seen in downtown Chengdu. Maybe I've got slight autistic tendencies, but I've been repeating the phrase "Clio Coddle!" to myself at odd moments during the day.
"What are you laughing about, Daddy?"
"Oh, an inexplicably surreal and wonderful instance of attempted copyright infringement, son. Why do you ask?"

Wishing you a happy pomelo season

We continue our month-long Surrealism Appreciation Week series with a sincere appreciation of the pomelo.

Happy Pomelo season!

The pomelo, or youzi, as it is known here, looks like a grapefruit on steriods. Tastes a bit like one too, but the fruit inside is a bit sweeter and drier than American grapefruit. To eat one, you remove the thick rind, force apart the segments inside, and then peel away at the skin surrounding each segment to eat the fruit. Takes a lot of work, but worth it.

A couple of weeks ago, Jiang Ayi, our fearless and amazing housekeeper, showed us the trick to opening them with a single cut, leaving two bowls of rind that - what else? - make perfect hats for kids.

X with pomelo hat

Xander, in particular, took to his pomelo hat like a fish takes to, um, a helmet-shaped piece of pomelo rind lying around the house. For about a week, we'd glance over at him doing his homework and do a double-take because his head was inexplicably bald and bright yellow.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Everybody must get... oh, nevermind

Stone Market, Quanxing Road, Chengdu

At the Stone Market that we pass when we take the mighty 221 but along the main road between our campus and downtown Chengdu.

Stone Market, Quanxing Road, Chengdu

Stone Market, Quanxing Road, Chengdu

Stone Market, Quanxing Road, Chengdu

Sorry about the horrific pun in the title, but this place rocks...

Stone Market, Quanxing Road, Chengdu

Monday, October 18, 2010

Amusement and Control

Another wellspring of surrealism that I'll be exploring further during my extended surrealism appreciation week: the disparity between the "haves" and the "have nots" in a society.

Coming from a country that "Holds to be self-evident that all men are created equal," and having witnessed countless examples of the absence of this equality, I've always been interested in this problem. Who has power, and who doesn't? How do the people who have power keep it? How do people with little to no power respond to the situation? What tradeoffs do we make between power and security?

I'm writing this a week or two after the Nobel Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned dissident who by now is probably the most famous Chinese citizen that most Chinese have never heard about. Much has already been written about the award and its repercussions, both within China and globally. What's surreal, of course, is being here in China and not feeling able to talk about it much. "Hey, everyone - did you see that big elephant walk by? It was on the news just now!" Oh, yeah, right, it's an invisible elephant. Sorry to bring it up...

I was reminded during all this of this cartoon by Stuart McMillan, talking about the differences between Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, two novels that, lest we become too smug, apply equally well to the dangers of power disparities in China or the United States. (Or anywhere else in the world where people use force and coercion to maintain power, come to think of it.) He's illustrating this quote from Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death:
"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."
Check out the full version of "Orwell vs. Huxley" here.



Speaking of time, the local cycle of construction / accelerated aging / demolition / new construction that I've blogged about previously does leave some interesting, almost painterly, remnants from time to time. I thought this wall, with its waterstreaked partial trademark and mysterious hovering "®" was particularly lovely, in a Mad Max kind of way.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Revolution, Justice, and Expensive Ice Cream

Sun Yat Sen and Haagen Dazs, Chengdu

The passage of time has a way of making things much more surreal than they were initially. This is especially true in China, where change is especially rapid. Above, a statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Chinese republic, regarded by most Chinese as the father of modern China. Oh, and Haagen Dazs, of course.

I think it was Zhou En-Lai who wrote, "One day, the Masses will rise to claim their right to consume overpriced high-fat frozen dairy desert products." And wasn't it Mao himself who said, "Justice is best served in a chocolate-dipped waffle cone. With Sprinkles."

Not that this, um - revolutionary fizzling, can we call it? - is exclusive to China. After all, we Americans wouldn't think twice about seeing one of our country's radical forefathers enshrined in a shopping complex somewhere. How many Jefferson Malls are out there, anyway?

The global spread of all things branded may have Marx and company spinning in their graves, but I suspect they're not the only ones. I can hear Abe Lincoln now: "Hey guys? Guys? Um, thanks for naming this line of luxury cars after me, but when I signed the Emancipation Proclamation, that wasn't exactly what I had in mind..."

What makes the experience in China more surreal (in addition to my perspective as an outsider) is again the speed and scale at which all this has taken place. Sun Yat-Sen died in 1925, which means there must be at least a few retirees in my neighborhood who were born while he was still alive - a time when the Chinese Empire was still busy collapsing. From then until now, China went from food binding through the Japanese occupation, to Mao and the Cultural Revolution and all of the reforms and counter reforms of the Communist party to ... Haagen Dasz ice cream. Which, by the way, costs 40 RMB per serving here - what a typical pensioner may receive for a week.

On the way to classes, or dropping the kids off to kindergarten, I often walk by a group of retirees on their way to buy vegetables at the market. "Dang, the changes they must have gone through," I think. And, "Man, my life has been easy." And, "Wow, I reeeaally wish my Chinese was a whole lot better."

I wonder what Sun Yat-Sen would think of how it's all turned out so far? Or Lincoln or Gandhi or any of the other tireless reformers that have brought us rights and freedoms that we now take for granted? The desire for justice and equality is universal. Unfortunately, it's also quite common for us as a society to forget (or at least conveniently ignore) the notion of universal justice once the basic needs of the majority have been met.

Especially when there's ice cream involved.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ordinary Stuff - Cute pens


Continuing with the strange childhood vibe for a bit, a selection of pens from our local stationary store.


I can't pretend to be able to explain the phenomenon of "Asian Cute", but I'm here to say that it's alive and well, at least in certain sectors of the retail market, anyway. Sometimes it veers into, well, not surreal territory, but uncanny, at least.


Not enough cute for the day? You can check out a few more here on Flickr. (giggle! ^_^)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ordinary Stuff - Scary Lookin' Kids' Rides

Scary looking kids' ride, Chengdu

One universal wellspring of surrealism is childhood, or more specifically, our often ambiguous adult views of childhood. There's a strange disconnect between our sentimental view of childhood as a time of safety and innocence, and the half-remembered feeling that we were ourselves once quite tiny beings with very little control over the strange world around us.

Scary looking kids' rides, Hongguang Two coin-op kids rides featuring sheep, Chengdu

So it's nice to know that even here in China, on the other side of the world from my home, you can still find coin-op kiddie rides that are a) not only slightly creepy looking, but also b) play incredibly tinny annoying sing-song music!

Up and down, Xipu, Sichuan

"Mommy? Why's that duck looking at me like that? Mom...? Mommy...?"

Coin-operated kiddie rides, featuring Pikachu and a two-headed dog, Chengdu

"Hey, son, I've got to go into the liquor store for a sec. Would you like me to sit you down on the smiling pointy-eared demon, or the two-headed dog?"

(Don't worry - China also has a large supply of cute fluffy kittens and baby ducklings to make you feel good again.)

HeJiong Famous Scissors

HeJiong Famous Scissors

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Guess who said this one...

National Day Parade, Beijing

“I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong…. I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we, more importantly, must create conditions to let them criticize the work of the government.”

- Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, in an interview with CNN, 10/3/2010

Interesting... Read more here.

Front to Back

Sub Loohcs
Chinese is similar to English in that it is read from left to right. Except when it's not. Because each individual character contains its own meaning, and words are usually made up of only one or two characters each, it's also very easy to read top to bottom, or even, in some cases, right to left.

One place you see right to left characters is on the right-hand side of vehicles. I guess it's logical that you'd want to start reading at the "beginning" of a moving vehicle (the front), and keep reading until you get to the "end" (the back). Every once in a while, you'll see somebody apply this principle to any English written on the vehicle as well. For example, this "Sub Loohcs" that I saw a week or two ago...

Love medicine company of LiangShan retail China limited company

Love medicine company of LiangShan retail China limited company

That's what it says on the sign, anyway...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Confessing to Chinglish

It's time for me to come out and say it in public. Hi, my name is Dave, and I, I... I love Chinglish. Heck, more than that - I'm addicted to it. There. I said it. I.. I...

I am a Chinglishaholic!
(...muffled sobs and gasps as the weight finally lifts from my shoulders...)

Resent Place
Did you spot the hidden poetry latent in this sign?

China, as you may know, is loaded with Chinglish - bad, often funny or strange translations of Chinese into English. For a long time, I've had an anti-Chinglish policy on this blog. After all, after a year of being in this country, my Chinese is still at what I've taken to calling the Teletubby level*. Who am I to criticize another person's flawed, but better knowledge of English?

All too often, most mentions of Chinglish on the internet (mine included) come across as snarky and rude. It seems as if the speaker is so overwhelmed by the new culture that they need to find something, anything to say to make them feel superior again. So they take a picture of a strange T-shirt or a bizarrely misspelled sign, post it online, and call it a day.

As a result, it seems to be an unspoken rule in the long-term expat community (both in person and online) to not comment on Chinglish too often, if at all. Admitting that you love Chinglish is like - hmm, I don't know - admitting that you have a secret stash of Archie comic books that you still read daily, maybe.

So what, you may ask, sparked my Chinglish conversion? In a word, Surrealism. Specifically, thinking a lot about surrealism in art, and why I love it so much. Surrealism usually gets a bad rap in the art world. It brings to mind geeky teenage boys poring over a set of Salvador Dali prints. "Whoa, dude, that giraffe is on fire, man. Trippy!" It seems very adolescent and self-absorbed.

Surrealism at its best however, does something entirely different. It allows us to consider that the mundane world is, in fact, much more extraordinary than we think. It takes ordinary objects and re-images them as fantastic creations. It reminds us that what we see is often more strange and wonderful than anything we can imagine. It suggests the possibility that the dream has the potential to become real.

So, I invite you to enter the world of Chinglish - a world which contains Famous Scissors and an actual Love Medicine Company. A world where golf is an acronym, and you can always go hang out in the "Resent Place" if you're feeling particularly surly. Instead of "Lost in Translation", it's more like "Spontaneously Generated in Translation." Enjoy! And remember - Civilization and Tourism are Together. You too can have a Peace and Harmonious Win-Win.

(*Yes, I mostly understood one entire episode of the Chinese equivalent of the Teletubbies, which, being even more surreal than the Western version, is worthy of an entire post in an of itself. You all may send me adoring notes of congratulations now.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Happy Meal that wouldn't die

Presenting a 171 day old Happy Meal, purchased by artist Sally Davies. Details here.

water epiphany

My students' lesson was about trash.  Their homework had been to write down all the trash they made over the 3 days before class.  What surprised me was that some of them included what water they wasted!  When calculating the weight of their trash, obviously, their trash's weight was much higher, like between 12 and 50 kilograms over the past 3 days, vs. 0.3 - 3 kilograms for the other students.
Near the end of class, I went there and asked about my embarrassed students how exactly the system is set up for students to wash themselves.  They don't have showers in their dorms at all, that much I knew from last year.  The students explained that they haul their big hot water thermoses (see Dave’s picture on our blog of them) to a building next to their dorms where they must pay for the hot water.  I’ve seen these buildings.  There is a long row of spigots and students’ tank up there, schlepping hot, heavy water back up to their dorm rooms.  They really do know exactly how much water they use, down to the last dime (ok, the Chinese ren min bi) and probably down to the last kilogram, too.  But their ingenuity at saving water doesn’t stop there:  My one student explained that she soaks a washcloth in the hot water and uses that to get herself wet.  That uses even less water than pouring it over yourself!  So much I didn’t know.

What my students didn't know is that I had just that day, for the first time ever in my adult life, washed myself in the same way they do.  Our hot water heater unit had been slowly dying over the last year and finally broke for good 1 week prior.  I washed my hair once with cold water, but it's too cold now to do that.  And my hair really needed to be washed.  So I heated up water on the stove, dumped it in a bucket, walked it to the shower, mixed it with cold water, dunked my head in it (to save even more water, how cool, right?), and proceeded to be able to clean my whole self – on just one half-filled bucket of water!  And you know what?  That fresh-clean shower feeling lasted with me longer, I swear, than a regular old shower I am used to taking.
I woke up the next morning still thinking about my wonderfully conscientious students, how they calculated their waste water along with their other pieces of trash. 

How my viewpoint has changed since last year!  Last year, I turned up my nose at this university for “depriving” its students of such basic amenities.  I felt that American students might reconsider spending a semester here if they were housed in the same types of dorms as all the other students here.

This semester I have been telling my students that “To be clear, Americans are the problem.  Our levels of consumption, our use of the world’s resources, are way beyond the global average.  Yet we’re exporting our ideas and lifestyle all over the world.”  But now I have feel my message on a whole new level.  Why do we Americans (I speak for my country) feel the need for showers?  We love the instant gratification, we are used to it, it takes less time, we feel we can do more things, we can be happier?  All because of “convenience”?

The Story of Stuff video, which I’ve also shown my students last year and this, talks about how  studies have shown that rates of happiness do, indeed, rise when people are lifted from acute poverty and have enough food to eat and decent shelter.  But then happiness actually decreases, even as the level of income continues to rise.  The level of happiness people feel plateaus.  No increasing amount of money or convenience, after a certain level, can commensurately increase happiness. 

Hm, maybe it all starts with a shower.  I have heard Americans compare their water usage between taking a shower and taking a bath, in which case taking a shower uses less water.  Even better, some people throw away their “old” showerhead (thereby creating more trash) to replace it with a “water-saver” showerhead.  Then they pat themselves on the back.  Well, I bet that taking a shower with a water-saver showerhead still uses more water than my half-bucket of water.  And it still creates the need for a polluting factory out there that creates these showerheads.  And the need for transporting them, and takes time and money for people to shop for them.

When I took a shower, I felt really good about it.  In its simplicity, in its relative rarity, I didn’t take it for granted.  I really understood the meaning of “simple pleasures.”  All just about a shower!  Imagine that multiplied by the various other “conveniences” of “modern” life.  I look forward to learning from just as much as I’m teaching to my Chinese students.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What Golf really stands for

What Golf really stands for
  • Green
  • Oxygen
  • Light
  • Foot
What, you mean you didn't know this already?

Announcing Surrealism Appreciation Week!

Are You Listening?

Yes, it's Surrealism Appreciation Week here at Slow Boat! I would've started it yesterday, but the date (10/10/10) seemed a bit too rational. What is Surrealism Appreciation week? Simply a chance for me to clear out a big batch of strangely random (or randomly strange) thoughts and observations that have been floating around the Slow Boat ocean like so many millions of pieces of discarded plastic. A veritable North Pacific Garbage Patch of ideas, in other words, though nowhere near the size of Texas, and far less toxic to wildlife.

What can you expect from La Semana del'Amico du Surrealisme?
  • Unashamed appreciation of Chinglish!
  • Random pictures posted with no explanation whatsoever!
  • Links to websites of little to no apparent consequence.
  • A seeming disregard for logic and chronology!
  • Thoughtful meditations on the nature of the Surreal, the Strange, and the Ugly, and the difference between them both. If I get around to it.
In other words, nothing too different from what you usually see on this site, but with a fancier pretentious label attached. Fnord. Let the games begin!

(disclaimer: "Surrealism Appreciation Week" is not limited to, or constrained by, the commonly understood term of "week" meaning a period of seven consecutive days of twenty four hours each. Early termination or undue extension of this arbitrary period of time is constrained only by the questionable discretion of the author of this blog.)