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Published: March 23rd 2012
Our time in Xiasha is drawing to a close. We leave for Singapore this coming Sunday, and will catch our ship to Honolulu (by way of Australia and the South Pacific) on the 29th
of March. I will continue to post the blog from the islands we stop at along the way. China has been an unending delight and there’s a good possibility that we will be invited back. Sure hope so.
Last weekend we went to Hangzhou again, this time as guests of the Department of Foreign Languages for a party to say goodbye to two faculty members who are relocating to Beijing. We were the only Westerners there. It was held at the far end of West Lake in a traditional tea house. 1)
The festivities started at 11:00 AM around a long table that had been set up outside. Glasses of Longjin tea were served. Then teacher “Helen” (her English nickname) showed up with shopping bags full of Chinese treats: dried plumbs, salted water melon seeds, crab chips, sesame crackers, peanuts, and bamboo shoots, which we munched as we sipped tea, chatted informally, and gazed at the lake.
Then it was time for lunch and
we went inside. I was seated at the men’s table, Nancy at one of the two women’s tables. Food was served – specialties of the region – and also bottles of Chinese corn liquor, 55%!p(MISSING)roof I was told by the Department Chair. Then the toasts began and I did my best to nurse my drinks, but it’s the custom here that the guest’s glass should never go unfilled, and you’re supposed to down at least three glasses right to the bottom. So it wasn’t long before the party got loud and sloppy, and I had lost all feeling in my face.
Later, Helen drove us to our hotel where I crashed for the rest of the afternoon. Nancy told me that earlier one of the women had explained to her that in China the custom is not to raise your glass, but to try and keep it lower than that of the person you are toasting. It’s a mark of respect and a show of self-effacement, but it’s also a game to see who can keep his glass lowest. 2)
All of the sidewalks here have a stripe down them of pavers that are a different shape
and texture than the others. Elaine, one of my fellow Western teachers, and our source for all things Chinese, explained that this is not just a random design element. It’s done for the benefit of the blind, who make their way down the sidewalks by feeling the irregularities in texture with their feet. Pretty ingenious, when you think about it, and a totally different way of looking at the problem of mobility for the blind.
I pointed this out to an Aussie professor we met in Hangzhou last weekend. He called my attention to the fact that the path we were looking at led straight into a light post. But when we looked a little closer, we saw that the pattern had actually been set to make an abrupt turn to the right, then a left, another left, and another right, so that a blind person would actually be circumventing the obstacle. 3)
A fashion craze here is to wear those big clunky 50s-style black framed glasses, the kind Barry Goldwater used to wear – but without lenses in them. Just frames. Style, not utility, is the entire rationale. But what, I’ve been asking myself, is the unspoken
message buried deep within this particular trend? That suffering is inevitable? That old age and sickness will someday overtake me? That I may be young and have perfect eyesight, at least for the moment, but inevitably the light in these eyes will dim? And when that day comes, will I then put lenses in these hollow frames? 4)
I’m intrigued by the literal translations of dishes on the menus. Here are a few of my favorites from the New Discovery, a restaurant around the corner from our apartment.
Crunchy critters melon meters
Appetizing pickles infarction
Green crab speculation cakes
MaShuiGuo ghost with
Fire heel hand bamboo shoots off
Secret makes this chicken stew medicinal materials
Sizzling black pepper cowboy bone
Chop bell pepper evaporate double smelly
Le steamed tofu and the clinical
Sauce blasting bullfrog
Peasant and black fungus
Dry pan hand tore these cabbages
The new found gift endure
Flowers bacteria pot
Millet pepper in love with small cock
At first my pedanto-entrepreneurial side wanted to go to the management and, for a small fee, offer to correct these manglings of my native tongue. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that
there is a certain Dadaist/Surrealist poetic feel to these awkward translations, and I kind of liked them.
They call to mind Tristan Tzara’s recipe for Dadaist poetry ("Using a pair of scissors, cut up a newspaper article into individual words. Drop the fragments into a bag. Pull them out, one at a time, and copy them onto the page, verbatim. Et voila, there’s your poem!). They also suggest the definition of Surrealism by the Uruguayan poet Isidore Ducasse: “The chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”
No, I thought, better to leave these works of unintended poetry alone. To do otherwise would be, oh, I don’t know, "double smelly?" 5)
Here's a story told us by Elaine, who’s lived and taught in China for nearly five years. Elaine and two other foreign teachers and a Chinese colleague were sitting in an airport coffee shop waiting for a flight. She happened to notice that the menu contained something labeled “French Cunt Coffee.” She called the manager over and the Chinese colleague explained what the word meant. “Perhaps you could get a native speaker to write your menus for you,” she suggested.
“But madam,” replied the manager, “it was an English person who wrote this for us.” 6)
In the evenings around 5:00, the students at my university pour out of the buildings and make their way to the cafeteria en masse. Classes are over for the day and it’s a time to eat and unwind. What’s most endearing about the moment is that the students are serenaded in their procession by Chinese pop music broadcast from speakers hidden in the flowerbeds along the way. It’s a thoughtful gesture on the part of the Administration, and it speaks to the affection the Chinese people have for their offspring. 7)
One afternoon I happened to be on the 11th
floor of the library building at Hangzhou Electrical University, which is next door to ZSTU where I teach. The 11th
floor houses all the foreign books, and I wanted to have a look at them. It was a rainy day, and I went to the window to check out the skyline. Then I looked down at the wide promenade below. The students were walking along with their umbrellas open, and it looked from up there like a slow moving colony of lady bugs.
And walking close together and at roughly the same speed, they had formed, albeit unwittingly, a big parti-colored canopy that was protecting them all from the rain. 8)
The young women here are always dressed to kill. They wear really short skirts over black tights. The jackets are short enough to allow the skirts to poof out. High heels with fur around the ankles. A big leather handbag completes the ensemble. Chinese women, by the way, don’t wear fake Prada, or fake Louis Vuitton, or fake Yves St. Laurent either. They wear the real thing. The knockoffs get shipped to America. I asked somebody if the style was Parisian or what. She told me that no, China has its own fashion industry.
There’s a lot of talent in this country of 1.3 billion. We have no idea.
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