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August 2009

theory kills

WorldWearyMoi I've been having an interesting but frustrating discussion over on Facebook with a 26-year-old that's really making me feel my age in some ways. He's a proponent of free-market capitalism at its most extreme, a Libertarian wedded to the theory of complete government non-interference. Economists, I've concluded, are a strange bunch. The field is a combination of complexity studies, human psychology, and faith, as far as I can tell, though it leans very heavily on the latter, more than the former. Market behavior seems to be like gravity: everybody experiences it, but nobody knows what it is or how it works.

One thing that really sets us apart in this discussion is my lack of faith in theories. I'm not talking about things like scientific theories that explain natural laws, but theories of human behavior, whether they're theories of altruism, politics, criminal behavior, or economics. Humans are such complicated, complex systems individually that ascribing behavior to any single factor, no matter how complex it is itself, will always lead to exceptions. Our societies are such complex organisms that I'm not sure we'll every understand how even a large crowd works, let alone cities, states, or nations. The more I travel, the more true that seems to me. I've always been interested in what, exactly, goes into making of national character, and China really challenged me to define that as much as I could, which wasn't much. Simplified, US character vs. Chinese character is rugged individualism vs group harmony, but that's so simplified that it's actually worthless. What kind of groups do you have when everyone's an only child? When more and more Chinese are alone in cities rather than together on family farms? Theories like this are like statistics: you can make assumptions and predictions on a group level, but those predictions break down on an individual level.

Anyway, we've been arguing about universal healthcare. He thinks it's not a right, and I say it is and there's really no possibility of reconciliation of those two views. It seems to me that it is an excellent investment for any nation to ensure the health and education of its citizens, to increase their productivity. In his mind, the interference of government in our personal lives (i.e., demanding we help fund healthcare for those less fortunate than us) is more abhorrent than others going sick and possibly dying prematurely. He believes this should be funded voluntarily, which is a lovely thought. But I've learned over the years that people are not that generous, and not that kind. Sure, when asked to give in individual cases we very often come to the rescue and are happy to do so. But to ask us to fund a system for the faceless and unknown, for people we may not think deserve it, is ludicrous. I wish it weren't so, but it is. And this is where the role of government comes in: to push us, as Ted Kennedy so often did, beyond our base and selfish impulses to have compassion for people we do not even know. Unregulated systems are dangerous because they treat human beings and their lives as abstractions and numbers. Any theory about human behavior does this, even the theories that lead to helping people. Regulation provides, to some extent, a correction of that impulse. But what each system really needs is compassionate administrators to correct the rigidity of any system. This is not to say that we should all get what we want. Sometimes, what we want isn't necessary, but when you're gambling with people's lives, I think it's better to err on the side of generosity than strict adherence to law.

That's because a life of compassion is far more fulfilling, far better for everyone, than a life dedicated to theory. I don't think I've learned this just as a humanities teacher or student, but in the life experiences I've had too. I've been so down it looked like up to me, emotionally, physically, and financially. Yes, my friends pitched in, but I really could have used some help paying for that $35,000 worth of therapy that made me a productive citizen again. I still would have had to do the work involved, but the difficulty would have been halved. I don't regret the investment, but neither would my government. It's never a bad idea to invest in people, not to make them dependent, but to help them get where they want to go. The people who don't want to go anywhere? That's a different matter. But the people who can't and want to? Why would we not want to help? And in the case of healthcare, not helping them is tantamount to passive euthanasia: standing by while nature takes its course. Sometimes that's appropriate, but often it's not. Good healthcare decreases the burden on the state and the burden on its citizens.

And a little compassion never hurt anybody.


RIP Ted Kennedy

RadicalMoi Like FDR, a "traitor to his class" in the best ways, a crusader for the poor during his 47 years in the senate, a statesman, an unabashed Liberal even when it was a slur, a voice of reason and a flawed person, as all of us are. I'm afraid he's the last of his kind, and his passing robs the world of American politics of one of the last voices of reason, someone who considered politics not a way to amass power and prestige, but a duty, a service, a way to speak for the powerless. I'm not usually very sentimental about politicians, but I think Kennedy was a true humanitarian and there are too few of them in American politics now. I rarely think politics should be a career, but Kennedy's record of service proves the exception to the rule. I'm sad at his passing. I don't think there's anyone to fill his shoes. And that's both a crime and a source of shame.


one last story

ChinaMoiLotus I've been saving the best for last, not only because that's when it happened, but because it's a good place to sum up. I meant to get to it earlier, but my back has been out and I've been more or less flat on it when I'm not going to the chiropractor or getting a massage. It's also been unspeakably hot here in NYC (I miss my Harbin AC!), which never makes me happy. And the jet lag has been, in a word, awful: in bed at 9:30, up at 5:30. Ugh.

But all that inactivity has given me time to digest and distill the trip, and other people's questions have made me think about the highlights. To be honest, I have to say that China is still not my number one choice of places to go, but in all fairness, I saw a very small and untouristy part of the country. In many ways that's good: I got to meet people one normally wouldn't on a vacation and see more of the "real" China than tourists usually do. In another way, I feel a bit cheated; the area we were in was heavily Russian/Western influenced and not, I think, "typical" if there can be such a thing in a country as big as China. It's like coming to, say, Indianapolis and judging all of the US by it. Except that China has this very old culture, and much of Harbin felt, in comparison, quite new, even the parts that date back to the 19th Century. Because in 3,000 years of history, that's pretty darn new.

One of the things I'm coming to realize now, looking back, is how entrenched that culture is. The sense of continuity is like oil on water. Sure there have been wars, but they seem to have the air (and this just may be my ignorance) of wars of succession, rather than wars of revolution. Even Mao, whose ideas truly were revolutionary, didn't completely succeed in upending thousands of years of culture. The Imperial bureaucracy is still there; only the name has really changed. If there's any one reason for that (and there never is), I think it boils down to the contrast between the western desire for progress and change and the Chinese respect for the past and tradition. I think that reverence for the past made China lose some of the momentum it once had in science and technology. Turning inward will do that. But what I didn't see in physical culture was more than made up for by the wonderful people I met, something I would not have been able to do on a regular tourist jaunt. China's people, if the ones I met are any indication, are its real treasure.

And that reverence for the past still produces some astonishing contemporary art, which I found out when Li Liqing took me to the Art and Culture center not far from campus. This was a kind of mini-mall for artists, two stories tall, with small studios/galleries for individual artists. The first floor was mostly jade, furniture, and ceramics (with a pet store and flower shop thrown in for good measure, probably to feed all the koi in the various displays), and the top floor was mostly painters and calligraphers. Not all the art was Chinese style; there were a number of oil painters doing landscapes in the western style as well.

CalligraphyTools I'd been asking around at dinner to see if anyone knew where to buy calligraphy supplies, like ink sticks and ink grinding stones. It turned out that Li Liqing's niece was taking calligraphy lessons from a woman named Teacher Tang. She very kindly sold me some beautiful, handmade paper (100 large sheets for about $30!). Teacher Tang doesn't speak English but understood it well enough to realize that I recognized good paper and knew a little bit about calligraphy and the tools. Enthusiasm translates easily and she could tell I loved the paper. Teacher Tang then walked me over to another store where they sold me a quite nice ink stone with cranes carved on the lid and three ink sticks, all for about $45.

The ink sticks are works of art in themselves, and the largest one, which cost me about $10 (the smaller ones were about $1.50), has the most beautiful pine fragrance. Teacher Tang walked me through the grinding process and showed me how to hold the brush and very kindly offered to tutor me via the Chinese IM qq.com. I may take her up on it; or if I go back next year, just sign up for lessons while I'm there.

Li Liqing and I walked around the rest of the mall a little bit before we had to rush back to classes. The standout for me was a man doing ink paintings of wild horses. The brush strokes were extremely economical in the way Chinese ink paintings are, but I've never seen anything look as lively as his work did. I have a weakness for Chinese and Japanese horses anyway, and these left me gasping. I never got a chance to price them, but I suspect they were waaaaaay out of my league. Maybe next year.

Just before we came home, I asked Li Liqing to take me back to the calligraphy shop because I wasn't sure I could find it again, and because I needed an interpreter. Jan came along for the ride too, and we wandered around the showroom a bit more and bought some jade. We went back to Teacher Tang, and discovered Li Liqing's niece having a lesson. She's eight and was shy and stubbornly refused to "perform" (not that I blame her a bit. She did say hello in English though and went right back to her work.

NiHao I'd decided to buy a piece of calligraphy and watched a demo by one man whose style is that interesting messy freehand but his attitude turned me off. Most of the other stores were closed for the day (it was late on Friday) so we ended up back at Teacher Tang's where Li Liqing's niece had made a little piece of calligraphy for both Jan and I that said "Ni Hao" (hello), which Teacher Tang stamped with her own chop.(It's still wrinkly because I didn't have it dry mounted.)

It turns out Teacher Tang's father, who is now 80, is one of the top three calligraphers in Harbin and has collectors all over the world. She was happy to bring some of it out and show me. The first piece, translated roughly, said "books are treasure mountains" which could not have been more perfect for me. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement and made it clear that that was the one I wanted. It's beautiful calligraphy, crisp without being stiff, done on gold-speckled paper. (It's off for framing, or I'd post a picture.) I was so excited and pleased that Teacher Tang started to tear up and knocked 200 yuan off the price. Li Liqing kept saying that Teacher Tang was so touched by how much I appreciated Chinese culture, which is something I've heard again and again, whenever I expressed any interest in any aspect of Chinese art or history. Teacher Tang and I hugged each other and professed our respect and admiration for each other and I went off to dinner with Li Liqing.

Scroll-Marcy's That's where things got really amazing. I had my loot with me in a lovely green box and Jan and I were talking to the rest of Class D about our art purchases when Lin Tao (thanks to Jan for reminding me of his name) asked to see it. I pulled it out and he looked a little critical, asked what I paid for it (not considered rude in China) and then said he thought I paid too much (which is a pretty common conclusion, I suspect, when Westerners buy stuff in China). My response was that it didn't matter what it was actually worth because I loved it. That led to a longish discussion about the value of art and beautiful things and then art in general. At some point in that discussion, Lin Tao says, "I had no idea you had such respect for Chinese culture. I have something you should have." And he leaves the restaurant, goes home, and comes back about 20 minutes later with a six-foot long scroll of yellow silk, with a beautiful painting of chrysanthemums and bamboo and rock mounted on it. Lin Tao's uncle had done it and insisted that I should have it. Here's Marcy's pic of me all choked up, accepting my marvelous gift from Lin Tao, who's opposite me (that's Chang Juntao holding the top).

That's one of the top ten presents I've ever been given, from someone who was nearly a stranger. And that's pretty representative of the graciousness and kindness of the people I met, from new freshmen, to professors, administrators and people on the streets of Harbin. Damn, I'm choking up now, just thinking about it.

About a dozen people turned out on Thursday to see us off at 6 AM and Shuai Yong shepherded Elliott and I to the gate with several other HIT faculty members. We were asked to autograph four shirts for them, which I thought was hilarious, and given a CD with copies of the pics all the HIT faculty took when we were together. This was the note Shuai Yong attached to it:

Time flies.
I hope it gave the beautiful recollection to you in Harbin city.
I wish the past 3 weeks is just the beginning of our friendship. I miss those days very much. If God can give me another chance, I will say 3 words to everyone-I love you. If you have to give a time limit to this love, I hope it is 10 thousand years.
Let's keep in touch.

I would like to go back again, just to see the friends I made there, if I can't see more of the country. I would like to go back again in 10 years, in 20 years, and see what China has become. We can learn so much from each other about living and how to do things. I hope the Chinese government gets the hell out of the way of its own people. China will be a truly great nation then.

Continue reading "one last story" »


trainspotting in China

ChinaMoiBridge Hey, sorry for the radio silence over the last week. Once classes were out, it was, if anything, far crazier than it was while classes were on. Most of this post got written while sitting either in the airport or on the plane on the way home, and there's still more to come, when I have a brain again.

I should mention that the cooking classes went great and seemed to be a big hit. Marcy took in various take-out menus beforehand to see what looked unfamiliar, and we cooked some of it for them: quiche, risotto, potato salad, coleslaw, French toast (the pancakes didn't quite work because we had a hellaciously hot hotplate and no flat pans), salsa and chips. Her classes practiced ordering and tipping and making change with our American and Canadian money. You never think that's something you need to worry about until you've got a pocket full of Mao and other mysterious currency that looks like play money. And the Chinese do not expect tips for service. Of any kind.

On Friday of last week, we had the speech contest and the graduation/closing ceremony and went out to dinner (as usual) with a bunch of the faculty. I know I've said this before but it bears repeating: I have never been treated so well in a foreign country as I have been in China. We've had a certain advantage in that we're able to meet people easily through the program, but even people on the street, the trains, everywhere, are extraordinarily kind and hospitable. We haven't paid for anything when we've been taken out, and even when we've asked people to take us places they won't let us pay for taxis. They go out of their way to be helpful and kind. Hospitality is deeply important in this country.

OrangeThingies The only exception to this rule was the trip we took to Wudalianchi on Saturday and Sunday. We asked Fanlin and Chen Hui to come with us and paid for their train fare and accommodations, though they made all the arrangements for us, so it seemed only fair. Boy, was that an Adventure™! Up at 6 am to catch the 8:40 am train for a six hour journey. We took cabs to the station and then rendezvoused on the steps. While we were head-counting, a group of women came up and stood right behind us, just watching us curiously. And when I say right behind us, I mean practically kissing distance, which was my first real experience of the much smaller Chinese sense of personal space. In America it would be an intimidation tactic. Here, it was just curiosity. We said hello, they smiled and asked where we were from and had a good laugh when Jan insisted that everyone was American but her (Jan's from Winnipeg). Their little boy very shyly said hello in English. And then they asked if we could take their picture with us. They don't care if they don't have copies; they seem to just want a record somewhere that they've met foreigners. This sort of surprised me as there seem to be a lot of Russians around Harbin. I would have thought they'd be more used to them, but apparently not. I suspect the Russians don't show up at the train station much, but fly in and out. And on the street outside the station a woman was selling these orange thingies that look like squash. Inside are large bright red seeds that you eat. Marcy bought one to share on the train.

So the dash for the train was a National Geographic Moment in a vast sea of humanity in a train station somewhat smaller than Penn station, but not much. Even on Thanksgiving, Penn Station isn't, somehow, crowded like this was. Again, I think it's the sense of personal space and the idea that jostling for your place in line isn't impolite, it's just what one does. But we made it on okay, and stashed our stuff and squashed into the seats, all ten of us, six on one side of the aisle, four on the other at the end of the car.

TrainPlatform There are apparently three types of trains in China and they're color coded. The red are the newest, some of them double deckers and sleepers, which come in hard and soft varieties (which apparently really means you have a choice of having 3 roommates or 5); the blue are next youngest and a little faster; and the green are the oldest and slowest, the milk trains, basically. Guess which one we rode on? They remind me of the older trains I rode in England in the 80s, but with far harder and more uncomfortable seats. Food service comes around in little carts somewhat smaller than the ones on the airlines, full of packaged food, hot soup (which seems slightly insane on a rocking train) and various drinks. At each station, similar but larger carts roam the platforms and you call them over from the train window. There's no AC, but there are oscillating fans on the roof of the car and all the windows open. Hey, what more do you want?

Wudalianchi is north of Harbin, up toward the Russian border, and the countryside between there and Harbin is just about pancake flat with large fields of corn, soybeans and occasionally rice. Peter Heller describes the scenery in China as "a peasant, a field, a road, a village; a peasant, a field, a road, a village" ad infinitum, and that's not far from true. In our case it was more like a field, a goat, a peasant, a village, a station, with the occasional river and fishermen thrown in. the farmhouses here are low and long, like shotgun houses, holding multi-generational families (one of the faculty here at HIT is from a farming family; they decided to educate her because she was small and not much use on the farm; she's really brilliant, but apparently her sister is even smarter, and still farming). And farm work, no matter where you're doing it, is farm work, so you see the usual things like tractors, combines (though these are smaller than what you see in the US), goats, ducks, donkeys and cows. The latitude means the forest, such as it is, is partially birch trees, partially pine, but it's not in any way wild like our forests. The trees are trimmed and the ground beneath free of brush and scrub. There is no waste land in China. Every inch is cultivated with something, whether tree farm or kitchen garden. Even the long acres beside the tracks are munched on by cows or goats or planted with kitchen gardens that include lots of sunflowers. Occasionally under the trees are what looked like gravestones.

TrackFlowers The villages have smaller houses and the medium-sized towns also have somewhat shabby looking apartment blocks. But everyone still has a kitchen garden, including the apartment blocks. Sunflowers, pole beans, clematis, cabbages were all easily identifiable. Oddly enough, I didn't see tomato plants, but I may just not have looked closely enough. The tomatoes here really are a fruit and they're treated like one. There's a lot of sugar in the varieties grown here and they appear at breakfast regularly, as they do in England, but not as a savory dish. The juice mixes with tomato in them are sweet, not savory too. And there are flowers planted everywhere along the tracks, flowers along fences, flowers along the roads, mostly cosmas and black-eyed susans.

All the stations are neat and tidy, painted white with red roofs and trim, and each one had a different animal sculpture in the courtyard.  At one station, we were leafleted not once but twice by Jehovah's Witnesses: once from the platfrom by a young woman, once from the train itself by a bent-backed old woman. They were immediately recognizable to me from the graphics and totally cracked me up. And inside the train, well, let's just say it's crowded. People both stand and sit, and if you haven't reserved a seat, good luck to you. Even if you have reserved a seat, don't leave it or it'll be occupied when you get back, unless you leave a bag in it, and maybe even then. Since we were mostly sitting together (one seat was two rows up, but we lost that one pretty early), this wasn't much of a problem. Fanlin and Maurice took turns standing near us and we shifted around a bit to give everyone a shot at the window, out which Jan and I were taking copious pictures--so much so that I killed my battery before we arrived at our destination.

Once we arrived at Beian, Fanlin found our tour bus and off we went for another hour to Wudalianchi. The big attraction in this area is a still-active volcano and a number of springs and lakes. The landscape is still flat and then out of it rise these volcanic cones, the youngest of which La's erupted about 300 years ago. It was arbitrarily decided that we were going to climb it instead of going to our hotel first, which actually turned out to be a good thing, even though we were all tired and hot. Did I mention the trains aren't air-conditioned? No? They're not. Early on, I settled into the "adventure not vacation" mindset and resigned myself to being hot and sweaty and whatever else came along. I can do all that outdoorsy stuff thanks to 18 years of Northern Michigan life that included playing in the woods, fishing, digging worms, swimming in cold lakes, sleeping outdoors, and snowmobile safaris in the dead of winter, but it takes an act of will to get into that mindset. But hey. it was China! It's all good. More or less.

It was at this point, when I had gone into Adventure!™ mode, that I finally had my first intro to the dreaded squatty potty, in which I was sure I'd end up on my ass, squats having never been my strong suit. In a bus station, no less. Remember that bathroom in the early scenes of Trainspotting? "The Worst Toilet in Edinburgh?" The one Ewan McGregor goes surrealistically diving into to retrieve his lost suppository? Okay, not quite that bad, but definitely the culmination of many of my own personal bathroom neuroses, which is probably TMI: a shared M/F entrance with shared sinks but separate facilities; no stall doors; and of course, the whole squatting while keeping one's clothing out of the somewhat awash floor or landing on one's arse. Suffice to say there was a lack of disasters and much relief when it was over. And heroic efforts to hold it for the rest of the weekend. LOL

Lava2 The volcano was fantastic. The landscape around it is covered with what I think is called pillow lava, which looks like it's just blooped up where it is or rolled slowly downhill in a molten stream and set hard like big marshmallows, cracking as it cooled. Closer to the cone, it's sharper and rockier and there are acres and acres of stony lunar landscape. Lichen is just beginning to get a foothold and there is the occasional sapling growing up in the gaps, and here and there stands of wild thyme and sprigs of grass. Though the pumice is relatively soft as rocks go, it's still going to take thousands of years to break this down into soil. And yet it's started to do just that on one side of the cone, which is heavily forested. The side facing the prevailing winds though is almost bare in comparison. We walked up the forest side, on a well-defined stone trail or boardwalk and a bazillion flights of stairs, in the late afternoon sun. Who knew that the trek up 15 flights to my room in Harbin was going to be training for climbing 1,800 feet of mountain? Well, more like 1,500 in my case. I hit the lower rim of the cone and decided I'd been macho enough for the day and let the rest of my cohort trek up the extra 300 feet to the upper rim.

I stopped to rest a couple of places along the way and got amazing amounts of encouragement from complete strangers. It felt like running the marathon, with people cheering on the sidelines. I chatted with a few people who spoke English and cracked jokes with Peter about the march up Mt. Doom. "Are we there yet, Mr. Frodo?" "No, Sam, not yet. We must keep on." Unfortunately,it turned out we were holding everyone else up and the way down was hell's own staircase, very uneven and without handrails, especially in bifocals and in a hurry. My legs were trembling with fatigue by the time I hit the bottom. I had visions of a nice cool hotel room, a shower, and dinner, but that was not to be.

Our next stop was the volcanic lake. We arrived just around sunset and it was indeed very beautiful. My camera was already dead by then, so you'll have to check my Flickr account for photos from Elliott that I asked him to take for me. Lining the road were a number of food and tchotchke shops with more things than you want to imagine, including tiny shrimp and fishies, freshly grilled on sticks. The waterbabies, Marcy and Jan, waded in after Fanlin to let the fish nibble their toes and wound up splashing each other until both were soaking wet. Kids.

Our next stop was, finally, dinner, at a little hole in the wall on a back street, with some less than fantastic food. When you've eaten really incredible Chinese food, it's hard to be forgiving of the less than stellar, which this was. No air conditioning, either. The hotel and the shower was looking better and better.

Wudalianchi has the look and feel of a frontier town and/or a newly sprung up tourist town. The streets are wide and clean and new, planted with flowers and grass along the broad sidewalks and boardwalks that cover the rocky bits. The streelights are fancy and there is neon everywhere. Many of the stores have signs in Russian and many seem to sell tourist tchotchkes. But things still look a bit unfinished and the town is not very densely built up yet. Several new and very nice hotels are under construction. As we were waiting to pull into our hotel parking lot, or one of the hotel's parking lots, fireworks went off, just like at Disneyland.

FleabagRoom But our hotel was not one of the new ones. It was, however, "foreigner approved" by the Heihe Police Station. If Leslie or Rob or Brian are reading this, it reminded me distinctly of the Hotel Iroquois we stayed at on our trip to New York in grad school over Christmas that one year. Fleabag, without the fleas, thankfully. Susan and I shared a room with two rock-hard single beds bearing only a mattress cover and a spread, in a room with no air conditioning. I don't mind fleabag all that much, especially not on an Adventure!™, but there was no way the fuyuan (a word that covers maid, waitress, service person) was gettin' a tip in this one. On the other hand, it was one of the best showers I've had since I hit China and aside from the western commode, more like a Chinese bathroom than we had in the dorm. In the standard Chinese bathroom, pretty much the whole room is the shower stall, with the drain in the floor and no delineation of where you should stand aside from where the shower head is pointed. In this one, the water pressure and temperature were both great, so we got a good shower. The glasses were dirty, but they left us toiletries, including a very generous sliver of soap. And to be fair, we got the cheapo package deal. Even in China, ya get what ya pay for.

Though there wasn't any AC, the room cooled off nicely in the night and Susan and I both had a good sleep thanks to our climb up the mountain, which was a good thing, since reveille was at 6 AM and breakfast, at a different hotel, shortly thereafter. By this time, I was starting to feel a bit queasy for the first time in China, whether from our less than fabulous dinner or from the heat, I'm still not sure, so I picked at breakfast and had some congee (rice porridge) and bread and bought a bottle of water. I think I drank about 4 gallons of water during those two days and sweated 98% of it out.

Spring9 Our first stop on Sunday was the Most Famous Spring, complete with dragon gates. It was hard to tell how new this was as an attraction because the structures were a weird mix of new and old, including a guy with a trained monkey for you to pose with. The gates and walkway were clearly new as was, I think, the pagoda at the end of the walkway. But the springhouse and its complex were clearly older and not well-cared for, with grass growing out of the roof tiles. The spring water contains a lot of CO2 and magnesium so I decided to pass on it, but Peter and Mary and Mike filled their bottles at the taps. Other folks were going away with 3 liter jerry cans, although Maurice told us later that once the water turns cloudy it's not fit to drink.

Spring16 A brook runs out of the spring and stepping stones across it take you to a little falls and the lake it empties into, which is also quite pretty. I was taking a picture across it when a voice behind me said "Can I help you?" in quite good English, and turned around to discover a nice young college student named Tianyao Sun (I'm reversing the Chinese order of names here) there with her family, offering to take my picture. We chatted for a bit and she told me she was from Henan Province and a little about the Shaolin temple that's there, which she said I should see (and I'd like to). She was interested in coming to the US and studying forensics "like on 'CSI'" she said and it was all I could do not to laugh, having just spent a couple of weeks showing episodes of CSI and talking about it. We exchanged emails and I'm going to write her when I get back. Her parents didn't speak any English, but were just, well, sweet, the way the Chinese all seem to be, or at least the ones I've met.

The next stop was a tromp through a nice wetland area that abutted another huge lava field. Marcy and I were both surprised at how familiar the foliage looked, having spent time tramping through the North Woods at various times. Aside from the lava, it was almost disturbingly familiar, but we had a nice walk on another well-maintained boardwalk over interesting landscape and spent some time chatting with each other too. We've got a lot to catch up on and it's really been great to reconnect again. There was a also a little underwater lake along the way too, which Fanlin immediately waded into and splashed himself with.

The final stop was the ice cave, which was refreshing after the heat of tramping around half the day. The descent was a bit scary though: more stone steps, these a little slippery, and no handrails. The cave didn't have any spectacular stalactites or -mites, but had a lot of hoarfrost on the roof and there was still geological research going on in it in a roped-off area.

Back to the hotel for a quick lunch, most of which I skipped this time because I was really starting to feel queasy and then back to the train station for the trip home.

We weren't all seated together this time, which actually made the trip home more interesting in many ways. Somehow Chen Hui and I ended up with the two tickets in the other car and I forged ahead looking for my seat. On Chinese trains, your seat is taken until you get there and prove you've got a ticket for it, so mine was occupied when I arrived. It's moments like this where it really sucks to be both illiterate and unable to speak the language. But once again, depending on the kindness of strangers turned out to not be a stupid strategy. I looked a little lost, showed my ticket to the woman in one of the seats who held out her hand for it and she shooed out the person who was occupying my seat, and put my bag in the rack, too. And no one seemed the least bit resentful. On the contrary, everyone seemed friendly and curious and I wanted really badly to be able to talk to them, Dammit. I'm going to have to learn at some rudimentary Chinese. I'd settled in with a book when Chen Hui appeared and said he was trading for some tickets in the other car. He eventually came back with them and we settled back with the gang a couple of rows away on opposites sides of the aisle. Chen Hui and I had a great conversation for most of the ride back, talking about science fiction movies, vampires, myth, and computer graphics. I told him about TED talks and promised to send him a copy of "Blade Runner," which he hasn't seen, and which I don't think he can download anywhere.

And our talk was punctuated with questions about both of us from our fellow riders. One woman who looked like she was probably a farm woman, asked how old I was; she turned out to be two years old than me, but looked more like five. She had a very sunny and curious disposition though and laughed a lot. I liked her immediately. She and her husband got off about halfway through our trip. Across the aisle with Maurice was a younger couple who watched our conversation like it was a spectator sport. He had the darkest, most intense eyes I've ever seen and it was a little uncomfortable to be watched by him, but there was nothing malicious about it. His wife was very beautiful too, and carefully made up, unlike the rest of us on the train.

About three quarters of the way through the trip, some poor woman sat herself on the floor in obvious distress and ended up being moved into a seat. It looked to me like she was in a lot of pain, maybe having a heart attack. Half a dozen people offered her phials of some kind of Chinese medicine or other, each of them different, and a younger man who I don't think was related to her, lifted her off the floor and got her a seat by the window, then went to call the conductor. I think a number of other people felt faint on the train, though it didn't seem that hot. The roof of each car has a number of oscillating fans like the old subway cars from the 40s did, and they move the air pretty well. The one near the woman's row wasn't working though. When the conductor arrived, he reached up and smacked it hard and it started working again, which cracked both Chen Hui and I up.

And the final lap of the Adventure!™ was taking the city bus from the station to the campus. It was pretty much impossible to get a taxi, so we waited for the number 11, which goes right by the front gate. Harbin buses don't run all night and no one was sure whether this was the last one or not, so when it arrived, the crowd rushed it like it was the last chopper out of Saigon. Jan got caught in the crush and was ready to push her way on, but there was no way in hell I was getting into that. So we waited a bit and pushed our way to the back then did the sardine act for about 10 minutes before getting off. You don't ring for a stop on a Harbin bus. They make every stop along the way and you get off wherever you like. And the cost? One yuan; about 16 cents. This one even had announcements in English.

All in all, it was a fun if somewhat grueling weekend. I'm really glad we went because I've always wanted to see a volcano and it was a truly great trip with Fanlin and Chen Hui. But never had a dorm room looked so good. . .


mahjong, mahjong and other food-related news

ChinaMoiLotus (Just realized I hadn't posted this yet).

So yesterday, Mike, Mary, Peter and I were taken across campus to learn how to play mahjong, something I've been wanting to learn for years. It's a complex game and a fast moving one, a little like poker, a little like dominoes and absolutely killer in terms of competitiveness and addiction. We got a quick summary of the rules and played several rounds with our teachers looking over our shoulders and coaching us. By the third round, I was getting the patterns but was still hampered by the fact that I don't know know the Chinese numerals—which is my own damn fault since I have a watch that counts the seconds digitally in Chinese. I happened to have a truly excellent teacher who was quick as lightning at snapping up the tiles we needed to complete our series (two of a kind, three of a kind, or ascending sets of three, one set or pair including either a one or nine), though I'm happy to say by the last round I was only a little behind him in recognizing them—except for the numeral suit. Since Elliott went out today to buy both Marcy and me Mahjong sets, I've made an investment in this (to the tune of less than $20, granted, but still an investment; I still have to haul it home and the things are heavy!), so I need to get cracking.

The best part was not only did we have a great time, but we had a lot of cultural exchange, which is the whole point of this exercise. Our teachers learned some new phrases ("keep the change," "drinks are on me" "winning streak"), and we learned a new game. As usually happens when you're having fun, people opened up, too, and I think we got to know one another a little better. It was a genuinely fun afternoon, with some genuine camaraderie.

Afterwards, we were taken for Korean hot pot to what was supposedly a "cheap student restaurant." Their cheap student restaurants look a heck of a lot different from the ones I've eaten in in the States. My grad school pals will remember (fondly, I'm sure) El Azteco in East Lansing, whose ceiling was regularly falling in, or "Eat and Puke" in Pittsburgh (also known as Eat and Park, a local 24-hour chain). Almost every restaurant we've been in here seems to have a number of private rooms for families or groups, and this was no exception.  The hotpot was interesting, though not my favorite meal by a long shot. We had beef, mutton, fish and shrimp to go in it, all cooked at the table, along with kelp (which is not my favorite seaweed), and a variety of mushrooms and vegetables. It's odd to see lettuce cooked. Probably as odd as it is for the Chinese to see us eat raw cabbage in coleslaw. But more on that later. The dipping sauce, coincidentally, was also called mahjong, pronounced exactly the same way as the game, with the same tones and everything. It's a sesame paste not at all like tahini, into which you mix a variety of condiments. I'm not fond of Chinese sesame paste either, so this wasn't my favorite meal, but it was fun and interesting too.

Afterwards, we headed back down the middle of the completely dug-up street where the restaurant was, something you'd never be allowed to do in the US. It was cool, in a weird way that I can't really explain. We were hurrying to beat a spectacular storm that was coming, with some serious lightning and thunder. We just made it, though I think our poor guide got soaked on the way home, especially since he wouldn't take an umbrella from one of us.

We were also rushing to get to our weekly staff meeting (such as it is) so Marcy and I could start cooking for her class. She's doing a class on ordering in restaurants and wanted food (the reason for our trip to the Metro Store on Saturday). We commandeered two hotplates and used her toaster oven, and ended up making tomato risotto, salsa (with packaged tortilla chips), mac and cheese, brownies, coleslaw, and potato salad. In the morning, I went up to fry up bacon (giving myself a couple of second degree spatter burns in the process since the bacon was packed in water--thanks, Hormel), and failed miserably at making pancakes because the pans weren't really flat, the heat was too high, and they stuck to the pan. I tried out my new cleaver, which is not a fantastic one, since it's stainless steel, but which did the job. We both felt a little like we were on Iron Chef after a while, but the two classes today went great and were very popular. Next year, it would be fun to plan the menu a little farther ahead of time and bring some ingredients and implements. It reminded me just a little too much of trying to cook in my Brooklyn apartment with no counter space: we wound up cooking in the living room, the bedroom, and the kitchen all at once with various hotplates and such. My hands still smell like onion.

Around noon, my previous night's dinner decided it had spent enough time brewing in my digestion and wanted out. NOW. I think this is a little bug going around, rather than the food though. Jan has been stricken since Saturday, and I've been absolutely fine up until now. I don't see how anything really dangerous could have survived boiling in that hotpot, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't the food. So I actually had to abandon Peter with the undergraduate Scrabble game today and come home. I've had a coke and the equivalent of some ramen, but Jan left me some of her Chinese herbal medicine tea and capsules and those are on the menu tonight too.

I also have a mosquito in my room who's decided I'm rather tasty, the little bastard. He's taken a nip at my ear, my knee, and between my pinkie and ring finger (!). Add this to the gigantic zits I've suddenly acquired (which my Chinese zit medicine is doing a great job of taking caring of, and I'm kind of a sorry mess right now.

But hey, I'm in CHINA! And I know how to play mahjong now!


detours

ChinaMoiLotus  As I've said earlier, Harbin is filled with construction in China's new, booming economy, which seems not much slowed by the rest of the world's economic woes. HIT is gearing up for it's 90th anniversary next year and many of the buildings are getting new facades and staircases, or being gutted and remodeled. Several new ones are going up as well. Yesterday, the main gate to the campus was closed off and the sign facing the road has been demolished. The square looks like it's going to get new paving. I think by this time next year it will be a sparkling new campus.
Trafficjam
The rest of the city is keeping up too. New structures covered in scaffolding and green tarps are everywhere. The city is also building a new subway that will have about a dozen stations. As a result, roads are closed everywhere, making traffic even more nightmarish than it might be in a quickly growing city like this. Case in point: A couple of our students took Marcy and I to a store called Metro across town. It's not that far away, but it took us quite a long time to get there because we got stuck in what I'll politely call a traffic jam but what was more like a small clusterfuck. These seem to happen fairly often here, especially on the smaller side roads. Part of it is the narrowness of side roads and part of it is the driving habits of the citizens. That double line down the middle of the road that means traffic on the other side goes in the opposite direction and you shouldn't cross it except to turn left? Just a suggestion. Somebody in front of you turning left while you want to turn right? Pass them on the left, if necessary, even if it's several cars. Street blocked? Try the sidewalk and let the pedestrians look out for themselves. Stoplights? Only at truly major intersections. Right of way? Who's got the fastest car? And yet, there are precious few accidents because while Harbin drivers are aggressive and unruly, they are, in a strange way, polite and cautious. When driving anywhere is a constant game of chicken, a little eye contact goes a long way. That bus will barrel down the road at you, but if it comes right down to inches and feet, it'll slow to let you in, or stop to keep from running you over, if you're on foot. And most people don't drive that fast, except on the straightaways. Even bicycles ride the expressway. People sit under the overpass on the side of the road and play board games.

TaxiDriver As we were looking for a taxi this morning, a woman on a scooter with her young son on the back was nearly sideswiped by a minivan, mostly because she wasn't really paying attention and had decided to do a U-turn in the middle of the street. The van barely brushed her, then stopped, saw she was all right, and went on. It could have been so much worse because neither of the scooter riders were wearing helmets. No one seems to here. That was just an omen of things to come. Before the clusterfuck traffic jam, our taxi driver took us through more muddy back streets than I guessed existed in Harbin, which was great because you get to see bits of peoples lives that you wouldn't, otherwise. As we were waiting to see how we'd get out of our jam, our driver got out of the car to take a look and we found ourselves opposite a little courtyard workshop and a stepped sidewalk. After a few moments, a minivan wheeled around us, up the steps and down the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians, into the main road. A couple of minutes later, a motorcycle came by going the opposite way, right beside a pedestrian. Behind us, our driver pointed out, was a long, black wedding limo, with a cascade of flowers on the hood.Wedding-Limo
It cleared up after about ten minutes, just after Marcy described how this situation would be resolved in America, with the cops coming to direct traffic. Sure enough, someone was directing traffic, but it was someone who'd gotten sick of waiting and gotten out of his car to do it. And unlike New York, there was little horn-honking and lots of patience. I think the drivers here are not so much aggressive as self-assured and cooperative. It's a chaotic system in the sense that it has an unseen order. And we didn't even pay for the time we'd lost sitting in traffic, just the distance we'd traveled.

Sea-cucumber So, we arrived at the Metro store, which is like Costco or Sam's Club in size: acres of warehouse holding imported western food (what we were there for, so Marcy could show her class what some of the things on the menus were), clothing, kitchen implements and appliances, produce and meat, cleaning supplies, toiletries, you name it. We managed somehow to blow 870rmb between us, and hauled it home in a couple of huge reusable grocery bags, one of which I'm bringing home with me. We'll start cooking tomorrow night: coleslaw, potato salad, grilled cheese, risotto, BLTs, brownies, maybe a quiche, and pancakes. Rob, you and Marcy need to have a pie crust bake off some time, if you haven't already. I'm leaving that to her. During our wander through the wonderland of the Metro Store, I ran across packages of spiced donkey meat that I had to take pictures of. Then at lunch, we ended up eating some in dumplings, at a very nice dumpling place next door to the KFC just outside campus. Yes, the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Sheesh. The donkey meat was so finely ground I couldn't really tell the flavor, but it was a little . . . gritty. And no wonder, if they're grinding up those sorry beasts I see pulling carts here. The silk worms still win top place in Weird Things I Have Eaten, I think, though I did see dried sea cucumbers, in a presentation box no less. Don't think I'll be trying those.

Mahjong lessons tomorrow. I've been asking around for where to buy ink sticks and ink stones and paper, but no luck so far. One of the faculty has a niece who is learning calligraphy, so she might know. I've decided I'd like to come home with one calligraphy scroll and a nice piece of pottery or china. No idea what to get for friends. This isn't a tourist kind of town much, but I think I'll have to go down to Central Street and shop a bit.

Oh, and the apartment blocks I've been saying look so shabby on the outside? Marcy was in one recently and they're apparently quite nice, all modernized and immaculate. Tenement-like on the outside, high tech on the inside. So much for appearances.