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Gardens Green and Grounds for Optimism (Part One)

UPDATE: Author is reminded how to work his wife’s electronic mystery machine; photographs are added.

On a recent escape from Dalian – where lie wage-earning, grocery-getting and stale routine – my little nucleus explored choice cuts of Suzhou and Beijing. I dwelt on some of the unpleasant things of life in the Venice of the Orient here and here, but there was a great deal to like, especially when we were free to wander in parts of the old city less infested with tourist buses.

Photo opping the photo op: a view from Pingjiang Street.

Photo opping the photo op: a view from Pingjiang Street.

My bride and I strolled narrow Pingjiang Lu, and sure, it was meant for tourists, but it wasn’t garish, and it wasn’t wide enough for cars (let alone buses), and there were genuinely pleasant sights: bits of canal-watching, a pottery shop stocked with original pieces, Jiangsu street foods we hadn’t sampled before, and frequent tableaus of young Chinese women dressed in, I guessed, early 20th-century costume in the Chinese bride’s eternal quest — well, eternal for the last few years, anyway — for the perfect pre-marital backdrop. (I first thought the young women in sundresses and parasols lounging by the canal for a smoke, which is rather risqué and newly fashionable in China, might be “working girls”, but they were likely just waiting to turn a photographic trick.)

We’d heard about the “Humble Administrator’s Garden”, purported to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and had walked near it on the slightly nightmarish previous day.

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The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show*

*With Chinese Characteristics

While this all happened, I was scribbling in the dark, periodically shielding my eyes when the gyrating stage lights tried to blind me in my privileged-foreigner (?) front-row seat. For reasons benevolent and charming, some still unclear, and others only a little nauseating, my college puts on its “Christmas Show” on the second weekend in December. When Western universities were completing exams, we had one last bash before the grim final few weeks of term. Exams started yesterday; I have papers to mark and journals to read, but remembering this is more fun. Besides, it’s (barely!) still 2013. I’d missed the show in 2012, on some pretext. Hmm, and also the year before that. This was Chance the Last, and if I hadn’t gone, you wouldn’t be able to read this breathless blurt of hyper-opinionated Western bemusement, befuddlement, wonder and dismay at the spectacle that is a Chinese celebration of we’re-not-sure-what-but-you-must-have-a-great-time…

This is Part One, and a second blast will soon follow. Happy New Year.

Oh, the sparkles, the spangles, the balloons! Oh, the frilly clothing and the 38-yuan red high heels that it was the honour of the young women honoured to be conscripted as the honoured hostesses to buy! Oh, that song, again and still – China takes all the weariness of the post-Hallowe’en deluge of Christmas songs and sharpens it all to a fine point, a stabbing red-hot poker called “Jingle Bells” that plays on repeat. Here is the same version that has impaled me for weeks at the mall where I tutor overpaying English learners on Thursday nights, at one of the many cash-cow private Business English academies. Worse, it’s a rendition that is a sonic cheese-grater to the soft parts of the ears, apparently called “Jingo Be-yo”:

Jingo be-yo, jingo be-yo, jingo ah de whee

Oh wha funny tease to righ / Inna one-hoss oben slee…

[Surely to punish me for my impertinence, the McD’s where I’m hiding away for freedom from distraction and high-grade Author Fuel is playing a diabetes-inducing version of “Here Comes Santa Claus”, which at least has the virtue of not being the George Michaels classic “All I Want for Christmas is You”.]

The glittering MCs come to the fore, to great applause.

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Better Read Than Never: “Rudy Kong” & Dragons, Donkeys, Dust

Faithful readers may have been expecting a different BRTN, the third part of the series of summaries I’m doing on John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization. Today’s review is of a decidedly less weighty book, a borrowed one that I finished a while back and have to return to my friend Ladon, who lived parts of it. JRS will return soon.

Dragons, Donkeys and Dust: Memoirs from a decade in China

by Rudy Kong (Bing Long Books, 2010)

Teacher Conradi had a story to tell, actually ten years worth of them, the tales of a foreigner spending an unexpected decade in China. Not only China, by the way, but my very own neighbourhood, the modest and reputedly lovely small city of six million where I’ve spent a half decade of my own: Dalian, the number-two burg in Liaoning province. Conradi is a Canuck, too, and spent his time teaching in the Canadian-based high school that I at one point thought would be my professional home and visa-provider. He left town not long after we came, but he left behind a book and a few mutual friends. I’m glad to know him.

The first story of Dragons, Donkeys and Dust is told in Conradi’s pen name, Rudy Kong. Much as Chinese young people usually choose, often with startling or laughable results, an English version of their name, “RK” is the anglicized version of the Chinese name that this Canadian ex-patriate was given by local friends. Conradi begat Kong Ruidi begat Rudy Kong. (This strikes me as a mild and fairly sane version of an Internet game that has replaced the old “Telephone” fun of seeing how much a message changes with repeated re-telling — put a phrase into Google Translate, and watch what happens to it after sloshes through a few languages. My son loves this.) I’m guessing at how his pseudonym came about,

And away he goes! He spent ten years in China, and all he got was three kids, a million memories, one book (so far) and this cool portrait.

but Mr. Kong has dozens of tales, and he is an engaging and appealing story-teller. He’s a foreigner who genuinely lived in China. He wasn’t here to score a quick million, or view a changing China from the safety of his chauffeured SUV, or to cure his chronic bachelorhood with a compliant (or financially or geographically ambitious) local woman.

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reORIENTation

(Or is that DISorientation?)

(Or maybe a simple case of disappointment? )

Downtown Dalian: Labour Park and Highrise Central. No view of the hills, or of the sea, that highlight this windswept little village of six million.

They’ve had a tropical summer in Dalian. My dry, windy Chinese city had wild thunderstorms last night and remains a humid mess of clingy air and greyness. Usually, the ocean winds blow away the smog, but not today. (Maybe it’s not all car exhaust this morning.) The gardens at the top of our hill are taller and more riotously green than I’ve seen them. The weeds make visions of compost dance in my fevered head. The last few weeks of our Canadian summer, plus a weekend near Los Angeles, were bright but surprisingly cool for August. Here, I go through several shirts a day, and I’m not even trying to move much.

Marching music plays on an endless loop from the college next door, where this year’s pseudo-scholarly inputs are being put through their paces, without a hint of a metaphor. Their introduction to higher education, these future hairdressers and kitchen hands of China as well as their more highly tested university counterparts, is to march and march. There are team-building, patriotic and letting-off-steam aspects to the drill, but as bystanders our experience is one of martial music on repeat, amplified exhortations and ceaseless counting: Yi! Er! San! Si! Yi, er, san! Si!

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07/01/2013: The Longest Canada Day

I’m almost back to normal, though my body remains confused about why I

Missed the big party in the capital, but that was alright with me.

insist on lying down in the dark between 1 and 5 am, which it regards as Afternoon Drive Time. It would be if I was still in China, but I’m sitting in a sunny, leafy backyard behind a loving occasional home that features books, the resumption of sweet old conversations, gustatory temptations that haven’t crooned to me from such close range for nearly a year, and beds in the basement for son and bride and me. We’re back in Canada, almost completely. We flew on Canada Day, which for a long while seemed it would never come; when it did, it went on and on.

It started the way most days have recently, at least for this displaced Canadian trying to figure out Where is HERE? Though worn to a frazzle by an exhausting wrap-up of my working year in Dalian, China, my bladder and the barking of sunrise called me from my bed at about 4:30 a.m. Happy Canada Day! I tried to get back to sleep, but my mind-emptying mechanism was on the fritz. (I couldn’t stop writing parts of this thing, for instance, but I was also mentally packing, packing.)

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In the Village

I went to Beijing and all I got was this gorgeous chocolate…

I wrote recently about the extremes of wealth and poverty that may, at a certain level of unremitting seriousness, be the essence of professional sport. Sport is not the reason I came to Beijing, but here I am, in one of the Chinese capital’s many little shrines to conspicuous wealth.

SanlitunVillage. I assume there must have been a village here once, but now it’s something rather other: sexy Adidas megastore with giant photos of a steely-eyed David Beckham; Godiva Chocolates, where I lost

The shopping heart of Sanlitun, from the street. The “bar street” is to the right, Soho luxury highrises are behind and to the left of us, and spending is dead ahead.

my mind and my dietary determination just twenty minutes ago; Starbucks, naturally; McDonald’s, ubiquitous and inevitable, but almost shamefaced in the basement among the more glittering expressions of European, American and Chinese wealth; a Megabox cinema (five posters of a kneeling, battered and helmet-less Robert W. Ironman are leering at me as I write, but I ain’t goin’); and, off to the side, “Sanlitun Bar Street” which I walked towards after leaving Godiva’s in a chocoholic swoon – two quick solicitations for “lady bar, mister? lady massage?” got me back into the den of conspicuous consumption and away from the pits of addictive loneliness. Ah, escape.

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Time Goes Fast, Learning Goes Slow *

Love this album.

* This is a line from from Bruce Cockburn‘s song “When You Give It Away”,  from his 1999 album Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. Bruce is mighty, but this post isn’t about him. It’s all about me, folks. (Well, and maybe them, and her, and all of us, and maybe even you.)

I should know by now.

(I do know, as through an angry glass, darkly.)

I should know by now that vehicles on Dalian streets do not yield for pedestrians, but may accelerate around corners or slalom from one lane of traffic to another to get past them. I should know better than to get revved up, but I still do. It happened again yesterday, though I didn’t shout and flail. (Progress!?)

I should know by now that my freshman class’s leader wouldn’t really understand my directions, though he said, “Got it!” I should have known that he would go upstairs to ask the school administrators for an empty classroom, rather than just doing the quick walkabout I’d recommended to find a spot for a writing class that we’d had to re-schedule. (I knew they wouldn’t help him, since he was a mere student, and they likely wouldn’t have had any better answer for me. Such requests are, no matter how banal, always “very difficult”.) By the time I arrived, just barely at the time we’d agreed on, some of the group had dispersed because there were “no rooms available”. Yes, well, except for the one on the first floor, the one on the second, and the one on the third. I didn’t go any higher.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn, later that day, that our Canada-bound sophomore students are required to pay a 6500-yuan “service/counselling fee” to get their visas. That’s about a thousand bucks. That’s about two months’ rent for our well-above-average apartment. My surge of head-shaking disgust was surely redundant. I shouldn’t have been surprised, either, that the kids seemed entirely resigned about it.

I should know better than to have let my temper rise at dinner last night, too. He was only 20-something, and yes, he had too much to say, and he talked right over the friend to his right and was sublimely uninterested in hearing from the two women at our table. Four bottles of beer in an hour didn’t help him much, come to think of it, and I do have a son-of-an-alcholic’s distaste for those who find loud courage in a bottle. It’s true, also, that most of our students and young Chinese friends assume that Canada is paradise and that our lives are far more fortunate than theirs – which, in most ways, is nothing but true.

But he got so aggressive in bemoaning how hard it was to find a wife, how little he had learned in seven years of university, his not knowing how to do his job, how difficult it was, how long it would take him to save for a house so long as he turned down his well-off daddy’s standing offer to buy him one or two (which would, according to Chinese custom, make his wife-hunt much easier, sad to say). By the time he launched into you don’t know, you’re from Canada, everything is easy for you, I should have known it was time to bid a polite good night, but this spoiled prince-ling had hit a whole bunch of a cheek-chewing Canadian’s buttons. He probably doesn’t think a lot differently than many young men I know here, but he was rude and insistent enough that he got both barrels. I don’t like to be so salty and direct, and I wish I’d been able to do it without so much heat, but enough was enough and maybe I was burnt by a long day of learning what I ought to already know. We had spoken earlier of the value of directness, and maybe he learned something, too. We parted civilly, all of us, with mutual congratulations for frank discussion and the importance of seeing for ourselves, but I was still muttering to myself as I got ready for bed. I slept long.

I knew this wouldn’t be easy. There is so much education to be had! (Trouble with nations, trouble with relations / Where you gonna go for some illumination? / Too much to carry, too much to let go / Time goes fast, learning goes slow…*) As we approach the end of four years living and teaching in China, I know who the real student is. (Imagine: I complained a little in our first year that our living conditions in China were too comfy, that we weren’t really experiencing sufficient hardship to genuinely grow, to contribute usefully to this society. I hope I’m growing. I hope I’m giving something that China can use. But I should’ve known better than to tempt the fates as brazenly as that!) I wasn’t used to thinking of myself as a slow learner1, but I should’ve known that a stubborn idealist and a fiery perfectionist (those would be me) would take some bumps.

 

1 And, if more evidence were needed, I’m headed for another adventure in old-boy basketball Sunday night, playing students again in the same gym from which I took an unscheduled hospital trip in January. Some guys never learn, and sometimes that ain’t so bad.

Hoop Crazy: My Kingdom for a Club!

Oh, man. After nearly four years in Dalian, China, I found a club for my boy. Lucked out, I did – it turned out that it operates out of my own university, and I happened to poke my head into the gym one Saturday morning in the middle of a run. Kids?! Playing BASKETBALL?!I was so excited, and between my limited

I miss Linus, too.

Chinese and the coach’s non-English, I managed to walk away with a sheet of paper I couldn’t understand, a vague conception of how the club operated, and a phone number. A few translations, a little coaxing, a couple of months and a friend’s phone call later, I spent some weekend hours watching Son the Fourth on imitation hardwood. An old coach’s pedestrian prayer has been answered. I love it too much! as my Chinese students say. They mean so much, but in my case, my fever for the game does run absurdly hot, sometimes, even after all these years.

My nutbar is 12, and when he was seven and eight, he looked like basketball might be good to him.

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Battling the King of Wealth

For an hour and a half, I’ve been fighting. From just before 7, the outbreaks of man-made thunder began. I fought the adolescent curses that leapt to my mind. I stayed still in my bed, calming my mind with whatever detachment and fatigue could do. Some of the explosions were just rumbliings from a distance, but there have been at least 30 outbreaks of the kind that jolt you. (Vipassana bride has been trying to meditate her way through. I am writing, but I want to hurt people.) Ten or so of these long skeins of firecrackers have been set off right outside our apartment building. My first half hour of relative equanimity, acceptance, and “it is what it is” was bludgeoned into irritation, resentment and rage. Adrenaline. I want to fight, or to run far away.

God of wealth, my sworn enemy.

It is the fifth morning after the big barrage of Chinese New Year’s eve. Something like this has happened every morning,  but not so insistently as this. (Inscrutability: this is no doubt some special kind of day. Oh, it’s special, all right!*) Each new kraa-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka lasts about 15 seconds, though I’ve seen guys set off ribbons of red that bang on for a minute or more, leaving a spreading heap of red paper casings on the ground.

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Another Hit to the Head

McDonald’s is not a place I often go when I’m home in Canada, but in Dalian, it’s a bit of a treat. (All things are relative, my friends.) I began this post, which  begins as an adventure in middle-aged basketball and ends with a journey through Chinese health care, under the golden arches. Last Christmas, I gave you my heart / The very next day, you gave it away / This year, to save me from tears, / I’ll give it to someone special… (Wham!) The Mai dang lao Christmas collection, which I know shockingly well, is still going strong. “Jingle Bells”, a distressingly perky version, just ended. This is a place I sometimes come to avoid the distractions of home! I am the King of Distraction. Speaking of which, here’s the story I wanted to tell.

For the second straight day, I got a call to play some basketball. Normally, that’s not great for the ol’ body, but I hadn’t played very hard Tuesday night. When Yinghua, a former student and a pretty good player, invited me to join him yesterday afternoon, there was no NO there. Projects I was fitfully working at were shelved; even when I was perched at the keyboard, I found myself Mentally Preparing to Play as if this game actually meant something. The King, indeed, but even codgers need something to look forward to. What I hadn’t prepared for was getting decked twice, and staggering away with a pair of more or less serious boo-boos.

Another day, no boo-boos. AND I blocked this shot, I swear!

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