Saturday, June 30, 2007

Annie Wang, Wei Hui: My Bad

I've sacrificed a handful of hours of my life to you two. And for what in exchange? Annoyance, trite amusement, and plenty to bitch about.

To put it pointedly: These books are dumb.

Annie Wang writes as if she thinks she's being subversive, clever, ironic, but the only irony is that she's clearly buying into the bullshit she claims to be poking fun at. Wei Hui is supposed to be edgy, scandalous, outrageous, but just because every other chapter of her second novel (I fortunately haven't read the first) includes the word "sex" doesn't mean it's progressive.

Not only are both books indicative of the west's hunger for contemporary Chinese literature presented in a way that conforms to their limited perceptions of what China was and is, but these two ladies serve it to them, and in so doing, fulfill the one claim attributed to the Chinese government that is boasted on the back cover of "Marrying Buddha": Wei Hui is a slave to foreign culture. How can sex be so taboo in a country that has sex-toy/porn shops on every street corner? Guess what: It's not, and this isn't a country of prudes and Puritans any more so than the States is.

It's writing that's so self-consciously trying to be something, trying to please, trying to shock and titillate that it simply falls flat on its face. Wish I hadn't too been trying to be a Chinese-lit gobbler-upper and opted for that book by a contemporary U.S. author I'd been eyeing in Bangkok. .... My bad.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Over Post-Bangkok Blues

Upon returning from Bangkok, I was pretty cranky. Perhaps the worst culture shock I've experienced in my three years outside the States. It might have to do with the fact that the week I spent in Bangkok with my pregnant friend (who has given birth to a healthy boy) was probably the most luxurious week I've had in ... a while. We spent the entire time walking from air-conditioned soda shop to air-conditioned gelato shop, drinking cold beverages, eating lots of delicious Thai and western food, and, of course, ice cream.

So perhaps it's not surprising that when I got back to the dirty 'du, it was quite the contrast. Central AC doesn't seem to exist outside of the highest-end shopping malls (which I've never set foot in), there is certainly no gelato shop that I know of here, and I tend to walk a lot faster when I'm walking alone. But I was mostly re-bothered by the staring. And then, because I was allowing it to bother me, I was getting annoyed at myself. I'd have to say the vast majority of people don't even notice me, especially if I'm walking with my head down, or, if they do, don't respond to it. So it's not even that many people who take an obvious good look, but some of those who do make it so obvious (body swiveling 180 degrees, neck craning) that I couldn't help but cringe.

But it's been a few weeks, and I'm over it again. Chengdu's been my home for the past two years, and I have recently decided that it will continue to be for at least another year. Because while people here might stare, I've worked at learning how to speak Chinese and can now communicate reasonably well, and a lot of people are just out and out friendly once that barrier is broken through--which is something that was really pointed out to me during my stay in Bangkok, when I really couldn't communicate beyond getting food.

Next, I just have to figure out how to get a visa...

Once-a-Year Drenching Has Passed for '07

I tried to go for a run last night, only to be caught up in what has probably been Chengdu's heaviest storm to date this season. It seems inevitable that once a year, everybody's going to be caught in one of these--last year it was on my way to teach classes, and I was on the bus when it started pouring, and when I had to get off it hadn't let up at all; all three of us foreign teachers were drenched to the bone. Yesterday was my turn for this year.

I figured, when it started drizzling, that there would be a chance the rain would get heavier, but I persisted running around the track anyway. Along with the rain drops, which, with the heat and my running, didn't feel very cold anyway, came plenty of thunder and lightning, which, thanks to this article, was causing me some concern. As the drops grew more frequent, I finally decided to head home, and I was walking through campus when buckets just started pouring out of the sky. I've only witnessed this in L.A. once, but it seems to happen in Chengdu (and also Bangkok) with some regularity. I sought cover under a building overhang, while everybody else--who all seemed prepared with umbrellas--ran around screaming and hailing cabs. I figured I could hang out under the overhang for a while until it lightened up, given that all I was wearing was a white T-shirt and running shorts, when suddenly an empty cab appeared! Hallelujah! An empty cab in the rain is a rare thing indeed. Figuring it was then or never, I ran out into the rain, completely soaking myself in the process. The driver looked at me, slowed down for a second, and kept on driving.

Figuring that I was already drenched to the bone, I might as well keep going, so I made the ten-minute walk out to the bus stop, being poured on and wading through puddles that were five or six inches deep in some places. I got to the bus stop and stood there, wringing out my shirt and trying to look nonchalant.

The weather here is wack, and this entry is totally banal.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Rousing Interest in this Ol' Town

I just came back from something pretty sad.

I'd been requested, earlier this afternoon, to attend tonight's meeting of the creative writing club at the Bookworm, which meets weekly to write and give feedback on writing. They had arranged for me to come as people had apparently expressed an interest in publishing in Chengdoo.

I turned up at around 8, which was the designated start time, and was met by the manager, who subsequently left, though not before introducing me to two Caucasian men, one who appeared to be in his mid-50s and the other in his 60s.

As it turned out, they comprised the creative writing club.

The writing was pretty bad (think sci-fi without even any new, weird, or mind-boggling innovations and narrative riding on the backs of tons of cliches) and the attitudes of the guys weren't exactly spirit-lifting, either ("Learning Chinese is something I've just been putting off," said the younger one, who coordinates the weekly meetings. He's been here for about three years total. The elder one, in the meantime, was having a field day discussing his Chinese girlfriend--the reason he goes to the Bookworm, he says, because he needs the staff's help to translate between them when they're talking on the phone--as well as other Chinese women he's gotten, shall we say, "friendly" with. Yippee. He stopped suddenly at one point, turned to me, and said in an almost-whisper, "Did I piss you off, Jane?")

But despite all that, I can sympathize with them on at least one front. Trying to get people here to participate in stuff is a pain. I don't know if it's the numbers, the culture gap, the infamous "lazy" Chengdu lifestyle, or what, but trying to get people (with the exception of a very diligent few to whom I am eternally grateful) to consistently help out with the magazine, or to get people to participate in activities at special-events nights I've co-organized, or, apparently, to get people to turn up to a creative-writing group on a regular basis, is no walk in the park.

A few months ago I'd pitched an idea for a workshop at the Bookworm--on making and using reusable cloth menstrual pads. The (male) manager there blinked, did a double take, asked if he heard correctly, and then sort of giggled. I guess I'd get the same enthusiasm as the writing club. Maybe I'll try organizing it with the international women's group instead.

Monday, June 18, 2007

a hat = respect.

I'm just going to vow right now, to myself, and to whomever might view this in the future, that this will be a blog worth checking at least every now and then. Aka not a waste of cyberspace.

Now that that's out of the way, onto my first point. Which is, it's pretty clear I'm going to need a camera if I want to live up to that. And a much more diligent shift-key-holding pinky finger, for "standard" capitalization.

And now, finally, to the meat.

I went to the Bookworm yesterday, which, despite many a Chengdu (dude, where's the strikethrough option? How am I going to create a blog worth its salt without a strikethrough button?) resident's grumble, isn't all that bad a place to hang out. Sure, the drinks are overpriced (I believe the cheapest thing on the menu is 15 RMB, and that amounts to a tea bag and endless hot water and sugar packets), but there are literally thousands of books to read, free Wifi, and a nice row of tables against big windows that they open up during the day.

Anyway, I wasn't there completely by choice, but for official magazine business. Meaning, we're in desperate need of a photographer--or hell, if not a photographer, then just some photographs!--seriously, people, it's not only a lot more effort but also a lot more ugly to cover every inch of a 40-page magazine with text than it is to do the same with photographs or, ideally, a combination thereof. And there was, lo and behold, to be the culminating meeting of the Bookworm's second photo scavenger hunt. After a successful first, there had been much ado about this, so Djjoe and I agreed to meet up there in our ongoing attempt to recruit anybody, anybody at all who owns a digital camera.

You really wouldn't think this would be so difficult, would you?

Neither did we, and that's where we were so wrong.

After being told about the 40+ enthusiastic photo pros and amateurs who turned out for the last round, we thought we had them in the bag, so to speak (wait, is that even an expression? Hell if I know). Proceedings were to commence at 4:30, and by 5 p.m., a grand total of one photographer had shown up. Yeah, one.

What's up with that? But rather than let that get us down, industrious Team Chengdoo sat down to work on content-gathering and updating for our next issue. Which meant, in turn, that we would have to order something.

"We still have 55 RMB or something," Djjoe told me, of the credit that we had received in partial exchange for giving the Bookworm advertising.

"Great. Let's party it up," I said, eyeing the smoothie section, the "fresh-squeezed juices," and the mojitos--all of which are in the 25- to 30-RMB range--before we ordered two 15-RMB cups of "wild berries" (I don't make these names up; I just report them) tea.

About 45 minutes later, Djjoe ran out the door for a meeting, leaving me to finish up my work and take care of the bill. "Put it on our tab," he instructed me.

"Are they going to know I have the power to do that?" I asked, knowing full well that while everybody in town knows Djjoe, nobody knows me. And it's not like I carry ID around here, or like I even have an ID, for that matter. Or even if I did, that it would do any good.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, they'll know," he said, and vanished, his hideous brown leather hat on his head. See, a big part of his visibility comes from that hat. Apparently only one person, Barownerchloe, has ever managed to remove it from his head and beheld him hatless, or so legend goes. I attempted, once, in a team effort with Mctenzin, to remove it while Djjoe was DJing, but our mission failed, in no small part due to my reluctance to actually touch the hat, which by now must have accrued several years' worth of sweat and crud.

The hat is a trademark, in any case. "You know, that guy with the hat." "Oh, you mean the guy who always wears the hat?" "Yeah, that guy."

When you have a hat, apparently, you don't really need a name, or any other identifying feature. It's not like glasses (which I have; they're even sparkly, although their sparkliness may be negated by the fact that Mcdoogle has giant glasses that apparently look soooo good they should be illegal), or even a lip ring (which I also have); it's a hat.

There's another guy that has a hat around town. He's "the guy with the cowboy hat and white hair and beard." I met him without his hat on once, and it took me many moons to realize that he was the same guy as the guy with the hat.

When I finally went to take care of the bill, of course, as I suspected, none of the waitstaff knew what I was talking about. Chengdoo? Magazine? Huh? Who are you? Djjoe, we know, but who are you?

I thought they were going to make me pay the 30 RMB, but in the end they just told me to write my name and number "in case there were any problems" when they checked with the manager. I wrote down Djjoe's name and number instead.

Argh. Tomorrow I'm buying a hat.


And just for fun, because I'm really lame and not-with-the-beat, <3. <3 <3 <3

I've always wanted to do that.