Thursday, August 31, 2006

I just returned from another new experience in my life in China. Huo guan. That's the Chinese name for hot bottle treatment from a trained Chinese medical physician.

This afternoon I consulted my girlfriend about the treatment. Fortunately, her mother is a qualified professional. However, that did not relieve my nervous behavior that comes with attempting new medical treatments (or any other new activity, such as eating, in China).

Huo guan is supposed to help with general health in some ways (I'm not certain of the translations at this time) and, in particular, it is good for muscular health. A trained professional is supposed to be able to recognize problem areas of the back by the color of the skin after a short time of treatment. The deeper the color change of the skin, the more unhealthy it is. The hot bottle can alleviate such problems through continuous treatment. I'm not sure if I believe all this, but I'll go along with it for now.

So, it appears that my upper back is more unhealthy than my lower back--probably due to the continued use of my computer. This is pointed out by the purplish color my skin acquired around my shoulders and the gradually lighter shades of red lower down.

As the spheric bottles are heated and placed on my back, it's an interesting sensation. It's certainly nothing I've ever felt before. The first few are place along my spine. The next are around the sides of my back and shoulders. They are left on my back for about 10-15 minutes. During this time it feels like the skin on my back is being stretched in every direction at once. It doesn't hurt, but it's certainly not comfortable.

The hot bottles are slowly taken off my back and I am given a medical massage. Chinese medical massages, if done correctly, feel a little like a beating. So, my girlfriend's mom beat me up for a good 20 mintues. But this is nothing new.

The beating... I mean massage, is followed by another series of hot bottles places around my shoulders. These hurt significantly more than the ones on my back. I guess it has something to do with the back fat and lack of such fat in my shoulders.

When it's all over, there is a burning sensation and bit of an itch in my upper back. I don't know what this means, but I'm sure the answer I'll get from my girlfriend and her mom is, "Huo guan."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Lost in Translation

Last night I watched Lost in Translation with my girlfriend. I have to say, it's a great movie. Really entertaining.
Too much of that movie rings true for me. I was laughing uncontrolably at many moments throughout the film. I kept thinking, "Yeah, that's how I feel sometimes." I especially liked the scene in the hospital with the doctor babbling on in Japanese even though the characters don't understand a word--I've had that happen to me. Even Bill Murray's character, Bob Harris, trying to communicate with people without the use of much language is brilliant. Most foreigners go through these situations.
I had to turn to my girlfriend and say, "See, this is how I feel most of the time. Now you understand." She just laughed. But I know she also feels this way around me sometimes, which is why I always have my Chinese-English dictionary handy for those times when she doesn't know how to express herself in English and I can't figure out the word she's searching for.

Farewell Naguib

Naguib Mahfouz passed away at the age of 94. He was the first Arab writer awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988.
A few years ago, when I was fresh out of college and working for the New Jersey Law Journal as assistant editor, a co-worker passed along a copy of Palace Walk--part of the series of novels that afforded Mahfouz his Nobel. I struggled to read through it while still working, but put it down in favor of other works even though I was enjoying his work. I just didn't have the patience or desire to read anything of any importance at the time.
I came across his obit today online. And I thought about the books I brought with me to China. One among the few I carried aboard the cross-hemisphere flight was the very same copy of Palace Walk. I suppose as I finish reading a passed along copy of Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje I should pick up Mahfouz.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Wrong numbers

I've had a cell phone in China for the last five months. I tried to not get one, but it is an evil necessity sometimes.
The problem with cell phones in China is that they recycle numbers rather quickly if a consumer doesn't pay the fees to keep said number. It seems all phones are just pay as you go. This leads to far too many wrong numbers (or maybe sales calls, I'm not sure).
I speak a little Chinese, but I'm not very good. I never quite know what to say when people call constantly. I used to just not answer, but that led to continued dialing from the other party. Then I tried just hanging up. It usually got the point across. But I get tired of it all.
I answer my phone in English with a "Hello" or "Yes." This is followed by the other party babbling beyond my comprehension in Chinese. It is at this time that I usually say politely, "I don't speak Chinese." And the other party continues to talk. I repeat, they talk. Finally, I get fed up and shout into the tiny electronic phone that never seems to work properly, "I DON'T SPEAK CHINESE!" And the other party hangs up immediately.
Now, I just wish it were that easy to get rid of the persistent shopkeepers who harass everyone with the same knock-off product as every other shop in the market.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Things are looking better today. After going off about not being provided with necessities in my apartment, the problem has been rectified. It took the efforts of not just my complaint, but that of another returning teacher. At least everything is improved. Although I still don't believe anything told to me unless I am given the same answer five times (and I have a few instances of this if you need to hear them). Even last night at 11pm, I was told to be at the office at 8:30 am for a meeting. That was the first I had heard of a meeting. There is no belief in giving 24 hours notice.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Traveling Photographer

I returned last week from my three-week vacation around China with my parents. We visited Beijing, Urumqi, Chengdu, Leshan, and Xi'an. It was far too hot--I'm still sweating. I took about 650 photos along the way. I will write some reviews and other articles about the journey. Check back for updates. I'll try to include some photos with the articles here. As an aside: If I know and like you, I will give you the address of the photos online as I sort through the massive pile and resize them all for human consumption.

Wrong Foot

This was not how I imagined the beginning of the new year of teaching at Tsinghua Experimental School in Shenzhen in China.
At the beginning of summer vacation, I was told that there would only be one apartment available for continuing staff. Fortunately, I was the only one staying for the summer. I took over a friend's apartment because he had Internet access that I could use. At the end of the summer I was supposed to move to room 617. As it turns out, there's a problem: the room smells like a sewage dump. So, I get 615. More problems there. Now I'm told I will not get a larger fridge to store all my food for cooking. Not only that, I don't get bed sheets or a quilt. Why? Well, they neglected to tell me to keep the sheets and quilt that I was provided last year. That was all I'm supposed to get. Thanks for telling me--I could've used that memo two months ago! Now I'm in the battle to get the school to pay for my new sheets because, as I see it, it was due to their own negligence that I don't have any. Until they pay for this necessity, I will call as often as possible with any little problem I have that I may be able to fix myself.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

China's Poetic Holy Site: Du Fu's Thatched Cottage

When journeying into China's Sichuan Province, the common stop for tourists in Chengdu, the provincial capital. Chengdu is primarily a stopover on the way to Tibet or Tibetan regions in the Northwest of the province. There are quite a few tourist sites in the city as well as throughout the province. With a history dating back approximately 3600 years, there is plenty to do in Chengdu. Primarily, there are some beautiful Buddhist and Taoist temples scattered among the expanse of the city.

One of the main attractions of Chengdu is Du Fu's Thatched Cottage Museum--a relatively short, 10RMB bicycle taxi ride from Qing Yang Gong Taoist temple. It is possible to walk and stop along in the stores and markets, but it is a long trek on a hot day. In between the temple and museum is a large antiquities market--a traveler should go early if the market is a desired stop.

It is well worth the time and 60RMB to walk through Du Fu's Thatched Cottage Museum. Even for someone who does not know the work of the Henan Province poet Du Fu or isn't interested in poetry, this is a wonderful walk around the park. There are many tree-lined, winding trails through the immense park that lead to bridges, sculptures, rivers, lakes, pagodas, and other sites. Of particular note are the many sculptures of the poet himself in different styles throughout the grounds.

The main attraction is supposed to be the believed remains of the original thatched cottage, which was unearthed in 1991. It was there that Du Fu and his family dwelled during their exile of four years to flee the rebellion of An-Shi. This is also the area where Du Fu wrote 240 of his famous poems--quite a few of which are about the dwelling he built. There is a replica of the thatched cottage according to Du Fu's poetic descriptions that was erected in 1997. It is a very simple hut with a few rooms and replicated furnishings. It was during the Northern Song Dynasty that a temple was established to commemorate the great poet.

If a visitor has knowledge of Chinese, there are many explanations of the grounds and other renowned poets who have lived in the area. It's also a good idea to use the map that is included with the ticket as the grounds can be confusing to navigate. It takes a few hours to walk through the park and museum and will take longer if you have difficulty finding the exits. During hotter weather, the grounds are well shaded from the sun, but there is still significant humidity. It is advisable to bring mosquito repellent as the ponds and creeks are breeding grounds for the pests.


Still Forbidden

Beijing's Forbidden City is still forbidden. Thanks in large part to the upcoming Summer Olympics in 2008, the major attractions are closed to the public. Everything that a tourist would possibly want to see there is shrouded by scaffolding--this includes the Palace Museum, which is quite possibly the most recognizable structure in all of Beijing.
It's not all bad news though. With the closing of the great spaces of tourism, the public is able to view other buildings within the walls of the Forbidden City that they would not otherwise wander upon. Of course, these buildings hold nothing of importance and have locked doors. They are also the structures that are in dire need of repair.
With the immense crowd of tourists wandering the grounds and the excessive heat of the Chinese summer, the Forbidden City became a waste of time and energy. Seeing as I don't plan to travel back to Beijing, as I feel it is the city with the rudest population in all of China, I was quite disappointed with the opening of my summer travel experience. As would later discover, the Forbidden City is not the only major tourist attraction that is being renovated--the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Beihai, hutong neighborhoods, and other sites were inaccessible.
My advice: don't visit Beijing until after the 2008 Summer Games. Maybe by then China can take down the welcome sign that reads, "Under construction since the Ming Dynasty."

Chinese Toilet Adventures

I have had many adventures, if that could possibly be the correct term, involving toilets in China. I know most people have similar tales, mostly involving the squatters.

One of my first experiences with public toilets was on my trip last May to the north of Sichuan Province. It was an excruciatingly long bus ride that included a few stops to use the roadside toilets. At all such stops, patrons were required to pay five jiao for the privilege of using these necessary facilities. I thought I was prepared for all of them, with their foul odors and lack of hygiene. I paid my money and entered the wooden shack. To my amazement there was a view in the toilet--and it wasn't a window. I peered into the missing slat in wood floor to realize that I had to urinate directly onto the steep cliff below. I looked around and wondered if the floor would hold my weight during the time required to relieve myself. Fortunately, it did.

On my recent journey through Beijing, I was out on the town with my new friend Ren Ke and his girlfriend. They wanted me to experience the drinking life of China's youth. This includes late night snacks and the less appealing establishments. I was told that the hot pot at this particular hole in the wall was the best, and I must admit that it was quite good. However, it required a stop in the restroom outside. I have never smelled anything so rancid in my life. I think the last time this restroom was cleaned Mao Zedong was still alive. I tried my best to hold my breath and not vomit on myself or others--although, vomit might be an improvement in odor. As we sat back at the table, Ren Ke tried to find the word to describe the horrific smell of the toilet. I had to teach him the English phrase, "That place reeked."

Quite possibly the worst experience I have had was a few months back when I was afflicted with the horrible intestinal illness that most foreigners succumb to during their prolonged stay in the Middle Kingdom. I grudgingly asked to be taken to the hospital as I felt like dying in my own comfortable bathroom. I was given the usual IVs of water, saline, baijiu, berries, roots, scorpions, and seaweed. To make my unsanitary hospital stay more uncomfortable, I had to run to the toilet. It was not pleasant. Squatting over a hole with an IV in my arm and little energy in my body ranks as my worst experience in nine months of living in China. It will take a real tragedy to outrank that one.

When I Was Cool by Sam Kashner

pp. 318; published by Perennial; copyright 2004

One would think that Sam Kashner's memoir as the first student of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University (then Naropa Institute) would be an entertaining and inspiring view of the Beat writers and their teachings. One would also expect Kashner to be a master of the written word--to write poetic prose as he was taught by writers like Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso. Well, one would be wrong.

Kashner has little command of the language in his retelling of experiences in Boulder, CO, in the early 1970s. Everything he writes is drawn out. One could attribute this to his focus in poetry during his time at the school. But he is a nonfiction writer. And his copies of poetry written during his studies are nothing to speak of.

In his acknowledgements he writes, "How good of Diane Reverand to let me grow up and write this book…and of Jeff Kellogg to adopt it after Diane's departure….Jeff gave shape to this book and saved it from drowning, more than once." I say, Jeff should have let it drown. Or the least he could've done was cut about 100 pages to save a tree. Kashner is beyond wordy. Most readers of this book would have some knowledge of the Beats and their work, but Kashner insists on explaining every detail, leaving nothing for the reader to do when finished. Most writers would tell you that you should write as if your words cost money; if that's the case, then this book was expensive. On the bright side, it is quick to read--but it's still painful.

His shining moments in literary achievements only come when he is directly quoting the men and women he admired so much in his youth. Most of the brilliance of the work comes straight from the mouth of Gregory Corso. Occasionally, there are insights into the mind and work of Allen Ginsburg, but you'd expect a bit more coming from his assistant.

Obviously, Kashner missed the target on his title. From the sound of him, he was never cool in Colorado. He was more like a whiner who only wanted to bask in the decaying glow of his mentors as they neared the end of their lives.

Review: Tsotsi

Tsotsi is a grim reminder of what life is still like in the slums of South Africa from writer/director Gavin Hood. This inspiring film shows the beauty and horror of the townships in what the viewer can only assume is Johannesburg. It is based on a novel by Athol Fugard.

It's a film filled with contradiction. It opens with the young gangster Tsotsi (played by Presley Chweneyagae) leading his gang of four into the train station to rob a wealthy man. They end up killing the man and letting him fall as the train car empties. This leads to Boston (Mothusi Magano) questioning why they kill the people they rob--he is obviously shaken by this when he begins vomiting. Boston is the only educated one of the group and asks Tsotsi many questions about his family. Tsotsi doesn't answer anything and only stares harshly at his cohort before beating him senseless in front of the crowd of the local bar.

Attitudes change quickly in this relatively short film as Tsotsi goes out on his own to carjack a wealthy woman's car. He shoots her in the stomach in front of her house gate and drives off in her car only to find it occupied by a baby. He becomes scared and grabs everything from the car, including the baby, puts it in a shopping bag and runs off through the fields toward his home in the township.

For reasons that the viewer doesn't quite see, Tsotsi tries to care for the baby even though he has no clue as to how. He seeks out help and even tries to leave his life of crime. He even attempts to sever ties with his gang while still taking care of them as friends and surrogate family. As much as he tries to change, his past deeds follow him through to the end.

This is not a film for anyone seeking a summer Hollywood blockbuster. This is social commentary more than entertainment. It is occasionally disturbing to see the injustices that occur at the hands of gangs and police. The moral lines are blurred and every action by a character is a reaction to the immediate situation and, sometimes, past situations.

Tsotsi was the winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It is in urban slang of South Africa with English subtitles. The running time of the film is slightly under an hour and a half. It is rated R for language and violence.

I'm back... I think

I just checked another blog on blogspot today and realized I could view it. So, I decided to check my own and found that I could view it as well. I was shocked. So, now I suppose I will begin posting here every now and again. I hope I have a few readers who will take notice of this. I also hope that Chinese Internet will allow me to continue viewing my own blog.
Look forward to more posts.