China Journal

Saturday, July 8, 2006

I am in the stuffy dining car of the train heading toward Wuhan, China as the dawn presents the passing countryside: farmland, stone houses, electric poles and wires, and a distant mountain range. There’s a tall granary, a beautiful stone wall. I don’t know what time it is. The Chairman Mao wristwatch that I bought at the Summer Palace seems to have stopped at eleven o’clock last night, about the time I fell asleep in the sleeper I’m sharing with Jim from the Bronx, Rick from Columbus, Ohio and Gary from Champain, Illinois.

I suspect it’s almost six. The dining car smells of yesterday’s cigarette smoke. At some of the tables people sleep. One tired man is sitting up and doesn’t acknowledge me. The mountains are green and almost bare of trees. Every citizen is supposed to plant five trees a year, which is an optimistic idea that hasn’t quite materialized—No! Just as I write this, a grove of saplings passes by. I’m traveling with thirty Americans on our way to teach American cultural studies at Wuhan University. My topic’s American music. We’re traveling from Beijing where we spent three days on a whirlwind tour of the ancient wonders like the Great Wall. As a group, we are great too, a mass of individuals with flaws and humors. Everyone is likable.

Another teacher just sat down at the table, the young, vivacious—I don’t know her name—an early riser like me, the one on the crew who was the fullest of energy on our tours, flirting with the soldiers at Tiananmen Square and taking pictures of everything. She points to my glass of green tea, and negotiates with the sleepy serving girl to bring her one. There is a farmer, an ox, and a black dog trailing through a wet field. Another man in the field with a white wide straw hat is bent over a row of beans. An old woman, who’d been sleeping near me, talked to someone briefly on the phone—purple blouse, white slacks, string of choke pearls—and already seems ready to go.

I’ve noticed by the clock on the wall that it’s five-thirty. I rewind Chairman Mao, who still isn’t working, so I bang him on the table and there he goes waving his hand as the second hand moves. A river, a cow, a field—the world also moves. There are a lot of abandoned farmhouses here. I wonder if the farmers are leaving for cities like Wuhan, an hour and a half away as Chairman Mao ticks on to quarter of.

…..
Sunday, July 9

So far this trip has been Ding Ding How! Every Ding means really great. I should say Ding Ding Ding How! I woke at three-thirty this morning, laid in the dark awhile, then got up, turned on a light and put my room in order, getting out the lessons, putting away clothes and suitcases, arranging furniture, making it mine for the next month. We’re staying on campus at a hotel where even the accommodating staff is learning English. It’s been a blur of activity. Last evening we had a banquet with the Wuhan faculty. Susy, one of the directors from Ohio State, gave a speech about how our feelings were as warm as the weather in Wuhan and how grateful and pleased we are with the hospitality shown to us. Wuhan will pay our salaries and paid for our airplane tickets and the Beijing tour, which was interspersed with eating abundant courses of food that kept spinning around on Lazy Susans, so much food we could not eat it all. I hope somebody has been getting the leftovers.

It rained and thundered most of the night. I’ve opened the window. Outside is like a steam room; inside the air-conditioning is chilly and damp. The ends of my books and papers have curled up. I washed some dirty clothes only to find there are no dryers at the hotel. Are my clothes ever going to dry? A magpie is squawking at the window. The dawn is coming up. Some mean sounding cicadas are chirring off in the distance. The reader can tell by my rambling that I am more unsettled than settled. Today after breakfast we will tour the campus and then go set up our classrooms. I’ve brought a world map, a US map, a NYC subway map, a poster of Picasso’s Three Musicians and various photos scanned or downloaded from the Internet: slaves picking cotton, people square dancing, Irving Berlin, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, and Big Mama Thornton among others. The big question will be, “Where is the ON button?” I am using CDs, DVDs, and photos for the overhead in my presentations, and I can’t even read ON or OFF in Chinese. This is going to be interesting.

…..
Sunday, July 15

Today I took the ferry across the Yangzte River (close to where Chairman Mao did his swim in the late 60s: he swam all the way across) which is not only yellow but polluted I was told by the marine biologist student who happened to be standing by my side at the railing. I got off the ferry in Hankou, the commercial district, and walked around. It was like being in a huge shopping mall and Times Square at the same time: big motion picture screens, billboards and thousands of people shopping. One store seemed pretty much like another. It rains and drizzles here a lot and then the sun comes out and I mean comes out. I had some spicy shrimp and a cold beer at a restaurant where the waitress ran after me and insisted on giving back my tip. To be tipped is an insult, implying that you don’t make enough. Obviously in China money isn’t everything.

China may resemble Spain after the death of Franco: the oppression was over and people just broke loose. Not that China is breaking loose with liberalism really, but there is a sense of freedom here and consumerism. China has become more capitalistic than the States and the gap between rich and poor is even wider. I realize many think China is communist where everybody bows down to Chairman Mao, but it isn’t. Deng Xiaoping, who began the switch to capitalism said, “I don’t care if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse.” Well, in China the cat is out of the bag. A student in a speech the other day compared China’s booming economy to a car that is going too fast; if it doesn’t slow down, it is going to need a very good driver not to crash.

I’m regulated to the time here. I like to get up around four and go to sleep around eight. After dinner I have a glass of wine, which I usually don’t finish, holding it nodding off to sleep while watching Beijing opera on television. I never seem to spill it when I wake up and then go to bed. I was working a lot on lesson plans because I have to accommodate what I’d planned in the States. I prepared too much and had to edit. I have good students, great students, sweet students. I want to pinch their cheeks. So far they’ve been majoring in law, business, physics, medicine, and, well, in everything. They remind me of Amish kids untouched by decadence. They are a little naïve, capable of wonder, respectful and a pleasure to teach. Some of my colleagues disagree, saying that they are just like American kids, sleepy, late for class or skipping it all together.

…..
Most of my students give themselves English names. Sometimes they are strange to my ear. I have a girl, Cactus. “Oh,” I said, “Pretty to look at, but painful to hug.” The class laughed. I’ve got Peter Pan, Pippo, Stone, Jackson Tom, Wing, two Portias (they’ve read the Merchant of Venice), Berry, Feeling, Fish Shell, River, Athena, Sirius, Wilmer, Esha, Apple, Rainey, Shower and Hill along with common names like James, Angela or Anna, though some students don’t quite like the sound of common names and change them to their ears’ liking: Blinda instead of Linda or Vicent instead of Vincent. In China English is commonly seen in public places, although it’s sometimes misspelled and out of context. A restaurant advertises “Classcal Homely Food.” “Slippery when wet” is translated “Slippery Carefully” and “Watch out for falling objects,” becomes “Beware the dropping thing.” The greeting at the hotel when we arrived told us, “Welcome, extingwished guests,” which was exactly how we felt, but I don’t think that is what they meant.

…..
The Wuhan campus is considered the most beautiful in China. It is surrounded by a city of eight million people. There are rolling parks with lush tropical plants, thick with chirring cicadas and long-tailed magpies with white throats and black heads. There’s litter, of course, but when you have a population of 1.3 billion you can employ a lot of people to sweep it up, and Wuhan does. Every morning when I go to exercise I see men and women wearing wide round straw hats sweeping the streets with long brooms of tied spindly branches. Often trees and shrubbery are sculpted, but not in any way that gets in the way of the natural landscape: it all fits. Thousands of dragonflies hover at midday across the athletic fields and lawns and at night, from the balcony of the hotel, I watch swarms of bats come out and fly over Wuhan. Even the steel foundries across the East Lake are lovely, spewing sulfur smoke into the air accompanied by jets of shooting gyrating vertical flames. The first time I saw them, I thought the eastern part of the city was on fire, but it was only Pittsburgh fifty years ago.

I jog in the morning on the Olympic track near the hotel, which is encircled by a stone wall and roofs with rolling tiles and pagoda-like turrets off in the distance. Wuhan’s the hottest place I’ve ever been. This morning when I stopped to stretch and do some pushups, my hands, chest and legs were left on the track imprinted with my sweat like some disappearing man. Well, I’m going to disappear now and get to class. We are doing songwriters: Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. The class will watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance and sing Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off. And then they will discuss snobs. Last week, I had my classes give little speeches about snobs, a word they’d never heard of. There are snobs in China: city folks looking down on country ones, the rich the poor, good grades bad grades, Shanghai Wuhan. Looking at the whole world, many of my students think the Japanese and the Germans are snobs. I think this has partly to do with World War II. Judging by some speeches, the Chinese haven’t gotten over the fact that in 1937 the Japanese made three hundred thousand of them dig holes in Nanjing, then pushed them in and buried them. There was a wager to see who could get the most Chinese to dig the most holes. Being the bet, this suffocating insult stays fresh in my students’ minds as if it happened yesterday and in their own lifetimes. “Hate is a poison that poisons the hater not the hated,” I tell them and they have to agree.

…..
Wednesday, July 19

Last night as I was listening to Jay Chou, China’s number one pop star, my iPod fell in the toilet, and though my rescue efforts were rapid and even involved mouth to mouth resuscitation—I will spare you the details—my iPod was dead, dead as a door nail, dead as my grandmothers, dead as an honest US Congress. What was I going to do in the morning at the track? I need music to exercise. Music gives me energy. I understand why African-American slaves sang Pick A Bale of Cotton while they worked under the master’s lash. During the night I dreamed Wuhan was next to Manhattan and I could jump on the train and get a new iPod in the morning, but on waking there I was iPodless in China.

Last Spring I had pollen allergies and couldn’t breathe, much less exercise for a month; then I overdid it and wrecked my shoulder so badly that I was in daily pain and sometimes at night couldn’t sleep or sit upright during the day when I tried to type or read. Now here I am better in China with a regular routine, but lacking the rhythms to help me jog and sit-up.

The Wuhan track is surrounded partly by a stone amphitheater, pine trees and sculpted shrubbery, a literal forest with stone paths that have been inlaid with pebbles in varied designs, some geometric and some in the shapes of birds, fish and butterflies. Beyond the trees are the facades of buildings with rolling tile roofs and pagoda fixtures. One building has a huge clock so I always know what time it is. This morning at five without my iPod I began to jog. The bats were still flitting above my head, zooming in and out, a beautiful hopeful sight for someone like me who has half a dozen mosquito bites. I started my first trek around the track by walking, the second by walking backward, then I began to jog and it was all right: my will was fixed. I listened to the chorus of cicadas chirring loudly in the dark trees surrounding me. I listened to the man sing with his wife in hand: La Dee Dah La Dee Dah. He had a huge round fan and fanned himself because it is hot and muggy even in the early morning. Suddenly I saw a magpie come swooping down across the track and fly into the trees. The bats were gone. It was dawn. More joggers appeared. I was running without my iPod. I quacked at the duck that lives by the track and for a little while the duck ran by my side quacking back. I would have missed all this if I had stayed in bed.

We can’t always get what we want. Life is constant improvisation. Yesterday during my lecture on the protest song, I’d planned to play a version of We Shall Overcome sung by Bruce Springsteen on a CD/DVD that I‘d brought. Wuhan doesn’t have the equipment yet to play this new disk with CD on one side and DVD on the other. There was my class, lyrics in hand, waiting. I began to sing, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday.” The class joined in and we sang all the way through. It was very moving: they were earnest and full hope as only young people can be. The lecture is moving anyway. I begin with Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home, a song that changed the nation’s mind about slavery, when people realized halfway through the lyrics and melody that a black man has been sold and will be separated from his wife and children forever, a song that for the first time in American history called a black woman “lady,” a song that along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin strengthened people’s resolve and made the path clear between right and wrong. It doesn’t matter that Foster was a drunk and most likely a closeted gay man whose wife and daughter abandoned him to end alone on the Bowery writing lyrics for pennies while others made fortunes off his songs. I tell the class: “The artist is one thing and the art is another.” Next the class listens to Strange Fruit sung by Billie Holliday, examining the lyrics with its juxtaposition of beautiful and horrible words: scent of magnolias/burning flesh. I project on the overhead the photograph of the lynching of two black men in Indiana in 1930 with the crowd below, white men and women laughing, grinning and pointing. It is difficult to look at a lynching; it’s a complete loss of dignity like pornography with children or animals in it: there is nothing more awful than when humans take advantage of others. Billie Holliday, unable to cope with the prejudices she faced and the tragedies of her youth, became a drug addict and died alone in a hotel room with seven hundred dollars stuffed into her nylon long before her rightful time, a victim of her times. The artist is one thing and the art another.

As the class sang We Shall Overcome, at one point I had to look away because my eyes were full of tears. I’d told them, “Remember the people who sang this faced barking biting dogs and policemen with Billy clubs. They sang as they were beaten, they sang as they were hit.” I was supposed to sing and the class was supposed to sing with me. It was what was supposed to have happened. Will I ever learn the lesson to just let go and go with the flow? How wonderful it is to sing We Shall Overcome with a bunch of Chinese kids in the middle of hot Wuhan.

…..
Thursday, July 20

I love language acquisition and China with its respectful interested students is a wonderful place to teach it. My focus is on the lyrics of certain songs against the backdrop of some history, the African-American experience (Jazz and Blues) and the Jewish-American experience (Berlin, the Gershwins, Sondheim, Bernstein—even Fred Astaire was a Jew). Both of these groups, as far as I can tell, have contributed the most to American music, as well as the Europeans, of course, who came first to cultivate farmland along the Appalachians with their wonderful Protestant hymns and the jig, that dance accompanied by fiddles, guitars, and harmonicas, instruments African slaves would learn to play to create some of the greatest music the world, in my humble opinion, has ever known.

The students are writing lyrics after listening to Big Mama Thornton sing Hound Dog and Billie Holliday sing Fine And Mellow. Big Mama sings, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, been snoopin’ round my door. You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, been snoopin’ round my door. You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more.” They examine the rhyme scheme and discuss metaphor: Big Mama’s not singing about a dog, but her lover whom she’s ready to kick out the door. They listen to Billie Holliday sing, “Love is just like a faucet, you can turn it off and on. Love is just like a faucet, you can turn it off and on. Sometimes when you think it’s on, it’s turned off and gone.” They discuss simile: love is compared to a faucet, two dissimilar things made similar. Is love something you can turn off and on? Some students say yes and some say no. Here are some of the stanzas that the class, working in pairs, came up with today:
…..
…..My girl is like a stream
…..She flows so softly
…..My girl is like a stream
…..She flows so softly
…..Every time I sleep
…..She comes into my dream

…..My boy, you’re like the sea
…..I don’t know what you think
…..My boy, you’re like the sea
…..I don’t know what you think
…..Oh, dear, please tell me
…..Cause I gonna sink

…..My girlfriend is like candy
…..She tastes so sweet
…..My girlfriend is like candy
…..Lord, she tastes so sweet
…..She pours into my heart
…..She is my honey

…..My baby is like water
…..Always keeps me in his heart
…..My baby is like water
…..Always keeps me in his heart
…..I’m always a tender fish
…..Nothing can keep us apart

…..Baby, you’re like a bear
…..Not terrifying but strong and smart
…..Baby, you’re like a bear
…..Not terrifying but strong and smart
…..One day if you leave me
…..It will break my heart

There are more but I haven’t copied them out. The one with the fish is translated from a Chinese poem.

…..
Sunday, July 23

This morning, two of my students, Sky and Kevin, took me to Breakfast Street, a long winding alley congested with steam baskets, hissing woks, pots of boiling oil, strange and fragrant smells, and lines of customers waiting in front of their favorite shops. We sat down at one establishment on little benches about six inches off the ground, squatting more than sitting. As Sky went to get our noodles, I smelled what seemed to be a nearby latrine. Darn it, I thought, I’m going to have to eat while smelling a toilet, but I didn’t want to say anything to spoil my students’ time with me. Sky set two bowls of noodles down for us to eat. One bowl had a dark cold sauce and its noodles were slender, long and transparent as glass. They came out of the bowl not unlike resisting earthworms, clenched between my chopsticks. They were so long, one end of Kevin’s noodles rested on the table before he sucked them all up, spattering his shirt. In China everybody eats out of the same bowl, sticking the chopsticks in. Americans would think the Chinese were sloppy because they make a lot of noise and eat voraciously. I wasn’t crazy about the long cold noodles, or the other ones, which were flatter and shorter in a hot sauce, but Sky and Kevin were enjoying them so I pretended to enjoy them too.

Seeing how much I liked the noodles, Sky went to get something else, and came back, triumphantly plopping a little bowl down on the table to announce, “Smell Bad Tofu. Smells bad, tastes good.” He waited for me to stick my chopsticks in. The tofu was hot in a red chili sauce and I really liked it. “This is good,” I earnestly said, relieved and happy to nibble on the Smell Bad Tofu while Sky and Kevin sucked up the noodles. I also enjoyed a delicious rice cake and some crayfish, chopped up before our eyes, steamed, and then brought to our small table in back of the shop populated by two scrawny cats, a dog and rolled out dough on tables. The crayfish were delicious, cooked with black peppercorns. Sky and Kevin spit the shells out on the table, but I ate the shells and all.

As we ate, the boys talked about the problems of dating. Good grades are the goal and parents don’t want their children to date until after graduation. Of course, telling young people not to meet and cuddle and kiss is like telling the ocean to stop coming in. Some students do date secretly and if a girl gets pregnant, she gets an abortion. In China boys are prized over girls. In the country, baby girls are sometimes killed at birth. Though it’s illegal, many parents-to-be have sonograms, and if it’s a girl, she’s aborted. What’s happened is there are fewer women than men and they are beginning to be able to pick and choose husbands. Brides don’t have to supply dowries anymore. Sky’s worried about his future prospects, telling me that in a decade it’s going to be six boys to one girl. In China men can’t get married until the age of twenty-two and girls twenty-one. This marriage law is a form of birth control the boys tell me, and married couples can only have one child. I didn’t ask about contraceptives, I realize as I write this. The Chinese are reluctant to discuss sex and politics. When I asked Sky if the Russians and Chinese are friends, he replied, “That is a sophisticated question.” Sophisticated was a word I’d taught him in the context of a George and Ira Gershwin song, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, but it worked in the political context as well. As we got up to leave, I noticed I’d been sitting with my back to a crate of Smell Bad Tofu, black moldy little cakes crawling with black flies settling and unsettling on them. That’s what I’d smelled. What can I tell you? Smell Bad Tofu does smell bad, but it tastes good.

…..
Monday, July 24

A red round sun greeted me over the treetops as I left the track this morning. People are becoming friendly. It’s a real community. All I can say is, “Zow Shang How,” which means, “Good morning.” In a cab the other night with a colleague, Audrey, we realized we don’t even know how to say, “Right. Left. Yes. No. Straight ahead,” or “Slow down.” The cab drivers in Wuhan do drive crazily. Drivers are responsible for everything that happens ahead, but not behind, which allows them to make U-turns in front of oncoming traffic. There are no words in Chinese for, “Excuse me.” How do you say, “Stop?” Audrey and I don’t know. We have been so busy teaching English that there has been no time to study Chinese. I did find time to get a new iPod and have added to my mix of Latin rhythms and Muslim rock some Chinese Pop. This morning I walked backward around the track once and then jogged three times. Ah energy!

…..
Tuesday, July 25

I had a class of physics majors today and they came up with exceptional lyrics. I asked a student, “Why do physicists write such good lyrics?”

“Because we work harder than anybody else,” he told me.

…..My darling’s like the sun
…..Shining around me
…..My darling’s like the sun
…..Shining around me
…..Even when clouds and rains come
…..I never feel lonely.

…..My baby is like an angel
…..Sweet, pretty and tender
…..My baby is like an angel
…..Sweet, pretty and tender
…..Close to my girl
…..I’ll feel happy forever

…..Happiness is like a bird
…..But it may easily fly away
…..Happiness is like a bird
…..But it may easily fly away
…..If you want it to be with you always
…..Please pursue it without delay

…..Love is like lightning
…..Makes my life bright
…..Love is like lightning
…..Makes my life bright
…..But when the storm stops
…..What should I do without you, guy?

…..Love is a sweet apple
…..You always want to try
…..Love is a sweet apple
…..You always want to try
…..It just occupies your mind
…..You don’t know why

…..My boy is like floating clouds
…..Feeling so soft and beautiful
…..My boy is like floating clouds
…..Feeling so soft and beautiful
…..But sometimes he flies with the wind
…..So changeable, leaving me a fool

…..My baby is like a cloud
…..He keeps me from sunshine burning
…..My baby is like a cloud
…..He keeps me from sunshine burning
…..But he won’t stay around
…..Cause winds are always pushing

…..My baby is like a kite
…..Connected to me by a string
…..My baby is like a kite
…..Connected to me by a string
…..Sometimes the thread is broken
…..And she goes with the wind

It’s been emotional teaching American music, cathartic. My first lesson deals with the English migration to the Appalachians with the hymn and the jig and the importation of African slaves with their oral tradition: Pick A Bale Of Cotton and O Mary Don’t You Weep. Hearing Aretha Franklin sing that gospel number had me in tears. I had to play it over and over again to get used to it. “Pharaoh’s army, they got drowned in the Red Sea,” meant a lot to American slaves singing it. Freedom! But when Chinese students listen to Aretha, some of them begin to laugh. They can’t control themselves. Gospel is something they have never heard, and that much jubilation seems to make some of them uncomfortable. The Chinese don’t like to show emotion, which perhaps is for protection. In a totalitarian society, which China had been for half a century, you don’t want people to know what you are really feeling and thinking. There’s no mistaking what Aretha’s feeling. When she shouts, “My my my my my sweet Lord!” I am puzzled to see some students put their heads on the desk in vain attempts to stifle their laughs.

These kids haven’t breathed the American air inundated with Rock and Roll, nor have they been aware of the racism, the love and the hate combined in the centuries’ old struggles of white and black cultures influencing each other. Billie Holliday was partly white, the great granddaughter of an Irish master and an African slave, and yet she is considered a black artist only and not a white one. These kids haven’t heard the segregationists debate and don’t know what it means when Aretha sings, “Pharaoh’s army, they got drowned in the Red Sea.”

“Have there been slaves in China?” I ask.

“Oh yes, but that was long ago.”

“Did the Chinese people sing when they built the Great Wall?”

“No, they cried,” I’m told.

…..
Wednesday, July 26

Today was a tough day to get through. I think I was a little strident and feared a sore throat, which is going around and one of the first signs of the flu my colleagues are coming down with. But the poetry workshop, which Ingrid, Corliss, Anita, Mike, Rick and I did with fifty students, turned out to be great. What is poetry? It’s feeling (emotion) and thought (intellect) together. There is not one word in a poem that doesn’t belong there. Like a good soup that is boiled and simmered to its essence a poem is perfection.

The English language isn’t as old as the Chinese. English poetry as we speak it began around 1500 with Thomas Wyatt, although it comes from an oral tradition that goes back past the Anglos-Saxons through the Romans and the Greeks. Before people could write and read, it was easier to remember stories organized into a pattern of words with rhyme and rhythm. The heart beats. The sun and the moon rise and set, day and night are rhythm, the ocean crashing along the sand. Poets are nature manifesting itself in the rhythms of a poem. Here is a stanza of an early English one written by Richard Lovelace:
…..
…..Stone walls do not a prison make
…..Nor iron bars a cage
…..Minds innocent and quiet take
…..That for an hermitage
…..If I have freedom in my love
…..And in my soul am free
…..Angels alone that soar above
…..Enjoy such liberty.

We can follow the pattern of syllables and anticipate what is going to be next:

…..Stone walls ..do not ..a pri.. son make
…..Nor i.. ron bars.. a cage
…..Minds in.. nocent.. and qui.. et take
…..That for.. an herm.. itage
…..If I.. have free.. dom in.. my love
…..And in.. my soul.. am free
…..Angels.. alone.. that soar.. above
…..Enjoy.. such lib.. erty

I had to memorize that poem when I was in high school, but I still remember it. A poem must easily stay in the memory or the mind, so full of other thoughts, will forget it. I learned the following poem when I was in 4th grade:
…..
…..The fog comes
…..on little cat feet.
…..It sits looking
…..over cit and harbor
…..on silent haunches
…..and then moves on.

There is a pattern. The first line has three words; the second line has four, the third line three, the fourth line four, the fifth three, and the sixth four. Fourteen words have one syllable and seven words have two syllables: that’s fourteen words with fourteen syllables and seven words with fourteen syllables. The poet wrote this simple poem carefully saying that the fog is little cat’s feet. When I write

…..A frog’s a song
…..heard in the fog

I’m saying the frog in the fog is a song. When we say something is something else it’s a metaphor. When I write

…..A frog
…..sings in
…..the fog
…..unseen
…..as song
…..itself

that’s a simile comparing one thing to another, frog in the fog resembling, but not the song. What animals are like the fog? A turtle? A snake? A seagull? An octopus? A horse?

..Time flies like a horse jumping over a hole (Chinese poem).

Friday, July 28

I’ve finished with my morning class, and for the first time since I’ve been here, my class and I did not hit it off. These students are studying nursing. Today we did Jazz and Blues and some boys, watching the film clip of Billie Holliday singing Fine And Mellow, began to giggle as her musicians made faces, playing their emotional improvisations on the saxophones and the trumpet. I guess I’m tired, but it made me mad. It felt like they were laughing at me although I know the students’ laughter was about having to face the musicians’ face-deforming efforts and ecstasy.

When it was time to write, I put them in pairs, a boy with a boy, a girl with a girl, but I had one girl left over, and put her with two boys, who were closest to her. The boys began to joke around and wouldn’t begin to work. I had to become insistent and told them, “Pretend you’re songwriters in New York City. Songwriters write songs for male and female singers. It doesn’t matter.” Two other boys were joking as well. I told them all, “No one leaves until I have a blues lyric!” Cora, whom I’d stuck with the two boys, came up after class and said, “In China boys and girls don’t sit down to write love songs together.” I told her, “You guys are my eighth class and I never had this problem before.” She said, “We are students at another campus and we never had a class like this before.” I said, “But you are medical students who know all about human bodies.” Cora shrugged. I appreciated her frankness and thanked her. In China biology is one thing and emotions are another.

What is strange, from my Western point of view, is that the boys (and the girls) when they work together will put their arms around each other in a very affectionate manner, even resting their heads on the others’ shoulders, boys and boys together, girls and girls. China sublimates the sexual urge among the young. There are too many of them. Parents forbid dating in college, as I’ve already mentioned. Grades are everything and that can have tragic consequences. Last week, a boy’s body was found floating in the university swimming pool. It’s a mystery. The boy was taller than the pool was deep. During dinner the other night, three of my students each had a different reason for the death. Jacky thought it was an accident. Portia thought it was murder. Hector was sure it was suicide. Wuhan University has a high suicide rate. Just like at NYU, jumping out the window is a common exit.

The Chinese don’t usually commit suicide because of their two philosophers, Lao Tzu and Confucius. Confucius said that the individual must conform to society, that the whole is greater than the part. This is why in class when I ask a general question like “Do people sing while they work in China?” no one will answer. The class looks at me with blank stares. No one wants to go before another. I have to ask, “Angela, what do you think?”

There’s a story by Lao Tzu. A man had a horse. The horse ran away. The man said, “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.” Next day the horse came back with another horse. The man said, “I don’t know if this is a bad thing or a good thing.” While riding the new horse, the man’s son fell off and broke his leg. The man said, “I don’t know if this is a bad thing or a good thing.” There was a war the next day and his son didn’t have to go. No one knows tomorrow.

Perhaps the tradition of not committing suicide is changing as China becomes more capitalistic, but not the traditions of dating. If young men and women are discouraged from showing affection to each other, they will show it to their own sex as proxy. Homosexuality is not something I have heard discussed here in China. Someone told me that the attitude is that it doesn’t exist and you can’t talk about something that doesn’t exist. Well, it does exist. I have had gay men and lesbians in my classes. Today in class two lesbians sitting together wrote a lyric about a girl:
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…..My baby is like candy
…..Always makes me happy
…..My baby is like candy
…..Always makes me happy
…..Every morning when she kisses me
…..I feel like I’m falling in honey

Pretty sexy, huh? In the class, these lesbians could cuddle as they wrote because all the straight women were cuddling too. In a decade, as men increasingly outnumber women, gay men will be able to avoid marriage because the simple fact will be that there just aren’t enough women to go around. On the other hand, this may make things more difficult for the lesbians as the demand for a bride increases as well as the pressure to marry and have children.

The two boys, who were reluctant to write a lyric together, came up with the following. One had his arm around the other as they worked and sometimes rested his head on his partner’s shoulder:
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…..The Chang Jiang River is like a dragon
…..Although she has no fingers
…..The Chang Jiang River is like a dragon
…..Although she has no fingers
…..She produces uncommon people
…..We’re all the river’s children

That’s beautiful, but in no way is it sexy. Finally, Cora with her two male partners, none of them cuddling, worked out their dilemma of writing something personal together by making the lover ambiguous:

…..Life is a river
…..Love is the water
…..Life is a river
…..Love is the water
…..Life will be dull and empty
…..If I lose my lover

There’s so much to talk about and so little time. I have to go to a banquet now with the Chinese teachers. It is one thing after the other here in China.

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Saturday, July 29

I’ve just come in from jogging. It’s been rather balmy. Last night at dinner two of the English faculty told me that Wuhan has been getting cooler while other Chinese cities are getting hotter; perhaps another sign of global warming. I am enjoying the exercise in the morning. I get there around five when the sun begins to come up, revealing the horizon with the sculpted foliage that surrounds the track and ever more clearly the university faculty who start to gather. Old couples do stretches. A man comes with his Pekingese, stretches his legs on the bars and then, if it’s been raining as it was last night, gets a mop and wipes up the basketball court. His happy little dog follows the mop as it swipes along the ground. By the time I leave the track around six, there is a basketball game going, college girls doing calisthenics, and a whole lot of people jogging. People sometimes give me a thumbs-up when they see me doing some crunches or pushups, and I greet many of them with a confident, “Zow Shang How.”

There is (was) a duck that lives (lived) at the track. It has lovely coloring like a mallard and a strangely deformed neck, which seems to have a bit more curve in it than most ducks have. I am not sure if this is a lucky or unlucky duck, but I haven’t seen him since last Sunday, so I suspect he has become dinner for the caretaker of the track and her children. I’d been a little worried that he wasn’t getting any food so I started to bring him rice, but he stuck his bill up at that and left it for the mourning doves to swoop down and eat. Still he recognized me. We began to quack at each other when I arrived: Quack, quack, quack! Since I can’t speak Chinese, I was feeling good about being at least able to talk to a duck. Sometimes he ran along with the joggers and sometimes the joggers chased him, but he seemed to enjoy even that. The last time I saw him he was resting in the sun asleep, bill tucked under a wing. That’s how I want to remember him. The day before he disappeared, I’d nibbled on a smoked duck neck, a gift from a student, who’d said, “They’re delicious,” as he handed me a bag of them. When I remembered my feathered friend at the track, I didn’t want to eat anymore, and handed the remaining necks to the staff at the hotel who happily gobbled them up. Forgive me, my friend the duck; I am only human.

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Thursday, August 3rd

Today I have my last two classes and that will be that. I’ve loved and not loved this trip. I’ll be glad to leave as much as I’m sad not to stay. The weather’s too hot and muggy and I’ve been working constantly, but I’m also wishing to stay a little longer to communicate and explore. Like life itself, the stay in Wuhan has been much too short. Will I ever learn Chinese? At my age and with my schedule, I doubt it. A teacher here gave me a book of poems translated by professors at Wuhan with the Chinese on one side and English on the other, some of the great ones by Li Bai and Du Fu. Translations are rarely more than good because thoughts are created into feelings in the rhythms of their language, making it nearly impossible to create them in the original at another source.

Yet it’s easy to communicate. This morning as I went down the hotel steps to go out to exercise, the two doormen stayed sleeping and didn’t get up to unlock the big glass doors because I’d made it clear to them that I could do it myself. “Stay sleeping,” I’d told them with my hands in the air pushing them back to bed on that first morning. Now they do not wake or even stir because I told them without words that they don’t have to. Outside in the park, the sleeping soldiers on the lawn didn’t bother to wake either as I passed (In Wuhan many people sleep outside because of the heat), although some of them were already up and huddled around a transistor radio. They laughed. One sang out. I didn’t know what he was singing or what they were saying but I knew they were happy and didn’t mean me any harm.

Yesterday after class I walked up a long street of shops casually looking at things. I dropped off some film to be developed and ordered not just prints, but a CD. I went into a bakery and got a cold drink. I bought a tea thermos and bargained from 8 RMB to 5, then bought two stiff geometric beige and green woven pillowcases bargaining from 20 to 15. I could’ve gone lower, but the time was short, and it was over pennies. I went into a fan shop and looked at fans and went into a teashop and looked at tea. I’ll go back to those shops tomorrow after I decide what I want and that will be another story. It was dinnertime so I went into a restaurant and ordered a cold beer and some shrimp that were brought raw to me. There was a grill on the table that the waitress lit. It was my job to cook my own shrimp, turning them with chopsticks, adding the spices that I wanted, some chili and garlic. I did all this, including asking for a napkin using my wordless hands and face and the desire to communicate.

Back at the hotel, Amber, who is a teacher from Indiana, was getting ready to call contra dances. She’s a caller, and even though she’s lived in Europe and speaks perfect French, her essence gets a kick out of Americana. For some of her classes she dresses up like a woman from the prairie with a sunbonnet and long skirt and she also dresses up like an American Indian, and here she was having us teachers promenading and doe-see-doeing and swinging our partners. Amber was having a ball too swinging her skirt gracefully. At first we were bumbling, bumping into each other, but we got better. There was John, Amber’s English husband, Leo from Costa Rica, Adelia, Pete, Annie, Beth, Bob, Anita, Mike, Ingrid, John, Jim, Gary, Wei, our dining room waitress, Cynthia from Beijing, Susy, Corliss, Christine, Eric, Heather and I sweating and exhausted, but keeping up and yelling, “Ya Whoo! Yee Haw!”

“Ya Whoo!” How would you translate that shout into another language? As a Pennsylvanian from the Appalachians with ancestors dating back to William Penn, I have some hillbilly blood in me, real American settler: I know “Ya Whoo!” I know ”Yee Haw!” When babies are born they are able to mutter and hear every sound uttered by human beings, from tonal Chinese to the clicks of some Africans to the snow talk of Eskimos. As the baby grows, it begins to speak the language it hears and forgets all the others. Thus French babies speak French, Iraqi babies Iraqi, Pennsylvania Dutch Pennsylvania Dutch and Chinese Chinese. Although American babies can hear the high-pitched tones spoken only in Chinese, as the Americans grow up, they no longer hear them and forget. Now if I were trying to learn Chinese, I could never speak it without an American accent nor be able to differentiate and understand the subtle inflections of the tones. Lost to me forever. Gone. One lifetime is not enough. A big black ant comes crawling among the computers and the wires and the water bottles that my fellow colleagues have abandoned. It has just begun to thunder and pour outside. I can hear and see the flashes through the windows. Does the ant know that it is raining? She probably knows even better than I. Ants communicate through antennae. They don’t have much vision but an amazing sense of smell. If an unfortunate ant happens to venture into the territory of other ants, they smell her and attack. Ants fight to the death, rolling and tumbling. Decapitated heads, bitten off in the heat of battle, have been known to go on killing for a while longer, mandibles clamping down and biting off another’s hapless leg. Today the Israelis are invading Lebanon. I want to scream, “Stop!” In China, in an attempt to end a rabies epidemic, the police are grabbing dogs out of the hands of their owners and tearing them off their leashes. On the Internet, I saw a photo of a policeman throwing a dog up in the air, killing it. Perhaps China has to be strict to control all its people, but it has to figure out more humane ways of doing it. We can’t keep grabbing dogs out of people’s hands and throwing them up in the air forever. We need better solutions for a better future.

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Friday, August 11

I’m in Shanghai at an Internet Café. The computers are in English and the keys are so worn I have to guess sometimes what letters are here, but I’ve done so much typing in my life that I already know where the letters are once I don’t think about it but start to write. Shanghai is a remarkable city, NYC times ten. I wouldn’t mind living here for awhile. There are many bright new skyscrapers along the river and many people on bicycles. The cafe is bustling with teenagers; there is a low rumbling, a humming like a bee’s nest; sometimes the Chinese spit.

We went up the Yangzte River for two days through the Three Gorges. On the boat, the toilet, a hole in the floor to squat over, and the shower, a dangling dinky hose, shared the same space, but what I minded was the hot first-class cabin. On the second night I took my mattress up to the top deck and lay down with the Chinese in the pleasant balmy breeze flowing in off the Yangtze. Not only were the stark high mountains remarkable, and heartbreaking as the waters covered them, what impressed me very much was that the Chinese government had built whole cities higher up that were still vacant, waiting for those who will be displaced by the rising river. In New York it takes ages to build anything with all the permits and debates that take place, such as those at the site of the World Trade Center, which remains a black hole to this day. Contrast China where the central government doesn’t stall, but quickly builds the dazzling skyline of Shanghai in a decade.

Tomorrow I fly back to the States if the terrorists don’t blow us up first. Thank you George Bush for making the world not a safer but a more dangerous place. Jesus and Buddha said you don’t conquer hate with hate. Love does that. George Bush and his fellow hate mongers don’t get it. If Jesus walked up to them in the street and gave them a kiss, they’d call him a faggot and beat him to death.

Many of the teachers I worked with this month are practicing Christians who attended a Chinese Catholic mass on Sundays near campus. My colleagues didn’t proselytize; in fact, you wouldn’t have known except by their demeanors which were liberal and sharing, qualities of teachers as well who are optimistic people believing that learning does change things for the better. They respected the beliefs of the Chinese people and I even saw some of them give Buddha a friendly nod in his temple. Dr. Minru Li said some Christian philosophy would be good for China because Taoism and Confucianism lack a sense of charity. If President Bush had had a sense of charity and began an exchange of ideas between America and Muslim countries after 9/11, much like Ohio State and Wuhan Universities are doing, I am sure the world would not be in the shape it is today, with travelers constrained by the news of British Muslims planning to blow up airplanes with liquid explosives.

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Sunday, August 13

I left Shanghai on August the 12th and got to New York twenty-four hours later on August the 12th because New York City is twelve hours earlier than China, kind of like going back in time. My wish is that all of my colleagues got home safely without too much hassle. I will miss them. Last minute shopping sprees with Audrey and Christine, and drinking beer while getting foot massages with Jim and Leo linger in my memory. Four colleagues and I left Shanghai in the morning, our first stop San Francisco. Others were leaving in the afternoon for Chicago, Australia and the Philippines. Tara, Maria Theresa, Pete, Adelia, Annie, Amy, Alyssa, John and Amber, Anita, Teresa and Bob, Christine, David, Gary, Jane, Mike and Audrey came out to wave good-bye to us morning travelers. Some, Minru with his wife Ailain and son Hans, Susy and her fiancée Bud, Beth, Maria, Ingrid, Maggie, and Rick had already departed, and some others, Bob, Heather and Eric remained in Wuhan to travel later on or teach. Departing is always arriving. Hello must become Good-bye before you can say, “Hello,” again.

Getting home was not fun and had an anxious edge to it because I was carrying a lot of luggage and there were several security checks, taking off and retaking off my shoes, and taking out my computer to turn it on and off. In Shanghai, Leo had all his skin medications taken from him. They were necessary and expensive; he had a rash, which the heat of Wuhan had aggravated. It all got dumped along with other travelers’ baby lotions, colognes and toothpastes. I almost missed the plane in Shanghai and I almost missed the plane for JFK in San Francisco too. I last saw Corliss waiting for her luggage patiently at the baggage claim in San Francisco where she was staying to visit her sister. I last saw Leo running with his luggage hoping to catch the next plane to San José. I last saw Sharon, stuck at the first security check; I know she had her doubts about catching her flight to Houston. Jim was amazing, juggling all his baggage and getting through security. There he was on the flight to JFK! My one suitcase didn’t arrive with me and I had to wait an hour for it to come on another flight. I’m still resting from the jet lag and excitement. I went to jog at East River Park this morning and could say, “Zow Shang How,” to all the old Chinese doing their morning exercises. I woke at one o’clock this morning; that would be one in the afternoon tomorrow in Wuhan. At a little after six the red sun was coming up over the Williamsburg Bridge. I have gotten used to exercising in the morning, but unlike Wuhan where everyone but me and a few colleagues, Maria, Audrey and Beth, were Chinese, here in the morning I am jogging with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, red and yellow, black and white citizens and immigrants, all Americans mixed.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 1 Aug ’12 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Hi! I was curious to know if setting up a blog site such your own: http://donyorty.com/2011/02/04/china-journal-2006/ is challenging to do for unskilled people? I have been wanting to create my own blog for a while now but have been turned off mainly because I’ve always believed it demanded tons of work. What do you think? Appreciate it

    • Posted 1 Aug ’12 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      Someone helped me set it up because I have no idea how to do that; I was interested in getting my writing out there. I have a basic knowledge of how to post things and do the photos and vimeos and the blog stuff. I wish I had more time to write, think, and post more. Thanks for being curious, Emmit. If you are thinking of doing something similar, I’d say if you don’t know how to set it up, find someone who can. I went on a “looking for a job” site at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in NYC and found a student who could set things up. Pay your help the best you can. Good luck.