Friday, July 31, 2009

A pair of shoes

One of the vexations I omitted from my 'I really need to get out of China for a while' rant last month was my experience in the Yashow market. I'd gone there to change some money, but while I was there I thought I'd check out the basement and try to buy myself some new shoes. Big mistake. I've always hated Yashow. It's such a tourist trap that the vendors there are particularly aggressive and persistent in their soliciting, particularly obstinate and bloody-minded in their 'haggling'.

After about 20 minutes of futile discussion of the price on a couple of pairs of loafers I rather liked, I gave up in despair and walked away. Inevitably, the stallholder pursued me up the escalators - finally prepared to accept only slightly more than I'd been offering from the outset. I told her to shove it.

We seem to have reached a point with many of these stallholders where they will refuse to consider a price below about 150 or 200 kuai for anything. And these days, you can pick up shoes, jeans, polo shirts, etc. for that kind of money at budget outlets in the UK or the US. I explained to the two irksome shoe-sellers in Yashow that I would quite happily pay what they were demanding - three or four times what I thought they were worth - if I bought similar shoes in the US.... because I feel that in America or Europe, we might have slightly more confidence in the quality control (even though most of the products might originally have been manufactured in China); because it's easier to try stuff on, and shop around between different stores; and because there won't be any problem about exchanging stuff if it does fall apart within days of purchase. I think those benefits are worth the modest extra expense. That, and not having to waste 20 or 30 minutes of your life in interminable arguments over the price!

So, while in America the other week, I bought two pairs of casual shoes in a sale - for about 20 bucks apiece. Yes, they were made in China - so this might seem to be a rather wasteful and uneconomic way of addressing my chronic footwear shortage. But those prices are probably not much more - maybe even rather less - than I'd be able to get comparable shoes for in somewhere like Yashow (and that only after enduring the half-hour haggling rigmarole).

I was pretty pleased with myself. The suede hush-puppies, in particular, are possibly the most comfortable pair of shoes I have ever worn.

But China yet again finds a way to bite me in the arse.

I find that the suede uppers are bound to the soles by nothing other than some rather shoddy stitching; and the right one is falling apart already, after less than three weeks. And, of course, I'm not in America any more, so have no chance of trying to get an exchange (might not be possible on sale items from Dress For Less anyway??). Damn.

Whenever you think you've got China beaten...... you find yourself with the rug pulled out from underneath you..... or with your shoes falling off your feet.

There's a very memorable, important exchange in the film version of Primo Levi's The Truce, his memoir about his tortuous journey home through Russia and Eastern Europe to Italy at the end of WWII, after being liberated from Auschwitz. The Levi figure (played by John Turturro) falls in with a wily old vagabond, who tells him at one point:

"In time of war, only two things are important: shoes and food. Maybe shoes are more important. Without good shoes, your feet may get sick, and then you can't walk around to look for food."

"But the war is over now," interjects Levi optimistically.

"Is always war," replies the old man, heavily.

I know what he meant.

Haiku for the week

Old Age waits, patient,
Poised like a mountain bandit
To launch an ambush.

In addition to all my other woes, I seem to have acquired a Wii injury. Either that, or it's common-or-garden arthritis of the shoulder. Shit.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The enemy of my enemy

It is rare indeed for me to find myself feeling any sympathy at all with acts of censorship - and particularly not with the acts of China's Net censors, the buffoonishly heavy-handed and bewilderingly inconsistent rabble that I have dubbed The Kafka Boys.

But I hear that their latest piece of petty tyranny has been to block Facebook in China. And I find that I do in fact loathe and despise Facebook even more than I despise censorship. Good on you, Kafka Boys! If you block Twitter too, you will be doing the world a great service.

Although, if such measures are conceived of as part of a policy of social control, I think they could be a serious misjudgement. Social networking, instant messaging, chatrooms, and other general blather sites eat up a huge amount of young people's time - and hence keep them off the streets, prevent them from doing anything significantly subversive.

The Internet - alas - is not so much about the dissemination of information and the organization of protest as it is about the cultivation of apathy and inertia. It is the new "opiate of the masses". Repressive governments - like China's - ought to be doing everything they can to encourage the soul-sapping, time-wasting addiction among their populations.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world."

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

Friday, July 24, 2009

The weekly haiku

Everyone's sneezing.
The littlest cough spreads unease.
Spectre of the 'flu.

I hadn't realised how rampant the epidemic is becoming in the UK. My great fear now is not catching the bug, but finding myself excluded from China when the time comes for me to return there next month.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Surely they jest?

The pilot on my Virgin Atlantic flight back from the States at the start of this week introduced himself over the intercom as Captain Spunkmeier.

I shouldn't laugh. I know it's a perfectly legitimate name.

I didn't quite catch what he said his first name was. He only said it once, in a brisk mumble. But it sounded like something Greek - an odd combination with the Teutonic surname. Something like Papsmear....

And when he announced his co-pilot as Dirk Diggler, I began to think there was some tomfoolery going on on the flight deck. Was it a bet, I wonder?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Too polite!

That's the standard Chinese response when you display any routine social courtesy. It's meant to suggest, "You don't need to be so polite", but the clipped, choppy nature of the language always make it seem more a rather abrupt and disimissive instruction - as if to imply, "Why on earth are you bothering to be polite?" It's one of the features of the 'culture' that I don't much like: the exaggerated deference which seems to require that people hold themselves unworthy of any kind of compliment, courtesy or consideration from others, and which leads to the expected social response to any such pleasantries being to reject them.

However, there have been times recently when I have felt that American drivers are overdoing the politeness.

It is, I admit, a very pleasant change from Beijing, where drivers treat pedestrians as something to be recklessly ignored or murderously aimed at but never ever as something to slow down for. After a long spell in China, I always find my first few days in the more civilized road-user environment of the USA (or Europe) highly disconcerting. Drivers slow down for you if you're anywhere near the kerb. They usually STOP for you, if you look like you're attempting to cross the road - even if you're not at a designated crossing place. Such behaviour is quite unheard of in Beijing!

But this can be overdone. In Alexandria, VA, over the past couple of weeks, while out walking or (especially) running, I have frequently had cars stop and wait for me to cross in front of them..... when I was not yet anywhere near the junction. OK, these are mostly four-way stops, so drivers are required to come to a halt before proceeding across the junction. And it's a very sleepy, small town kind of environment - so drivers are in less of a hurry, more graciously disposed towards their neighbours, or inclined to be more wary of the possibility of kids or tourists crossing the road without paying attention. That's all very nice.

But really, guys (and gals), if I haven't yet reached the kerb, please feel free to drive on without waiting for me. I might not have decided yet if I want to cross the road - I might change direction, or loiter on this corner for a while. I might stop to re-tie my shoe laces, catch my breath, get my bearings, have a drink of water. There is no other traffic on any of these four roads for at least a quarter of a mile, so you're quite safe to go ahead. There's really no need to wait for me. You see, if you move on, after pausing for a few seconds to check for the possible approach of other road users, you won't be in my way when I finally jog across this road. And if you pause just a little longer, are a little slow to pull away.... well, I'm quite happy to jog around the back of you. But if you stand at the junction motionless for several seconds as I'm approaching, I wonder what the hell is wrong with you..... and I STOP at the kerb, because I think you've probably just zoned out for a moment, and will lurch forward as soon as you come to yourself again, without noticing my presence.

If I'm at or near the kerb and obviously looking to cross, then your waiting is a much appreciated kindness. But if I'm still five or ten yards away, it's really not necessary - you're just wasting everybody's time.

But, oh boy, how I wish I had these problems in Beijing.....

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"People do not like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions. And conclusions are not always pleasant."

Helen Keller (1880-1968)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't write off the old men

This afternoon I went to see Stacy Keach's Lear at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre.

However, while having a quick bite of lunch in a sports bar over the road from the theatre, I was able to watch the last two holes of Tom Watson's final round at Turnberry, and the beginning of his play-off with Cink. I was sorely tempted to ditch the Shakespeare and stick with the golf. I mean, you can see Lear any time, right? Watson's achievement this week was truly unique, unrepeatable.

I stuck with the Lear because, when Tom missed his putt for the Championship on the 18th, I sensed it wasn't going to be his day after all. But still, for a man just shy of 60 to get himself into that position - magnificent, incredible. People will remember this for centuries, even if he didn't win.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A nasty moment

I've been running almost every day while I've been here in Alexandria.

Enjoying the route along the river and back through Old Town; not enjoying the physical enfeeblement that is making even this modest (for me, for my aspirations!) little circuit of 8 or 9 miles impossible for me to finish without frequent rest stops.

And I did suffer a severely unsettling experience on the very first of these runs.

I tripped.

Heaven knows how. I retraced my steps to the spot and examined the ground carefully. There did not appear to be any significant gap or unevenness of the paving slabs; no obstruction of any kind. It felt like I'd been brought down by a tripwire - but I guess somehow I must have just tripped over my own feet. Perhaps it was divine retribution for my ogling the backside of a young woman who'd just whizzed past me on a mountain bike....

Anyway, I was done for. I was going down fast and hard. On to concrete. I knew I was going to break something - collarbone, wrist, kneecaps, face. It was one of those moments where your lack of medical insurance flashes before your eyes.

Luckily, I was running alongside a railing of tubular metal. I instinctively flung out my right forearm against one of the uprights (I might well have broken the arm, but it seemed the lesser of two evils), and was able to slow my downward plunge just enough to pull my feet back under me with a couple of lightning-quick extra steps (two desperate, stumbling, off-balance steps that strained the ball of my right foot and the outside of my left knee rather badly) and avoid the catastrophic faceplant.

Not a pleasant experience.

I wonder if a little bit of post-traumatic stress about that incident is corrupting my metabolism still, diminishing my performance, "putting me off my stride".

It must be something - because at this rate, I'm never going to make the Beijing Marathon this October. Damn, damn, damn. What is wrong with me??

Friday, July 17, 2009


My host in America, the British Cowboy, delights in surveying the 'Recycle Bin' trash his neighbours have left out, as we wander back from his neighbourhood bar at midnight on the eve of the weekly collection day.

You can tell a lot about your neighbours from the trash they leave out.

In the week following the 4th July weekend, there is of course a higher than usual proportion of six- and twelve-packs of beer and empty beer bottles. It becomes easier to distinguish the major partiers from the modest consumers, and the modest consumers from the teetotallers.

But the guy who gets through a dozen or more large bottles of Diet Dr Pepper each week - that's rather creepy!

(I struggle to understand why such a product would even exist. Why would anyone drink something that tastes that nasty, other than for the sugar hit??)

Haiku for the week

Slumber deep and long.
Nothing now to wake up for -
Holiday lie-ins.

Ah, rediscovering the lost art of sleep. Possibly the best thing about a vacation. Possibly the worst thing about the prospect of returning to work....

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Yet more gobsmacking naivety in Chinese academe

I've just finished another of those brain-mulchingly tedious editing jobs on a foreign policy paper.

The English was a lot less awful than in the last few of these I've done over the past week, and the subject matter - the future of NATO - was intermittently modestly interesting.

No, today's humdinger of crapness was saved for a footnote near the end. The citation this author gave as the basis for his comments on American military spending was...... Wikipedia!

You might accept this kind of slovenliness from a high school student, or maybe even a first-year undergraduate.... but from a Doctor of International Relations??!!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ambushed once more by mischievous Fate

My host here in the USA has high-definition TV.

I had been sceptical of the value of this "premium service" since 90% of American TV has not been made in HD (and 100% of the stuff I might want to watch, since I have ZERO interest in baseball), and thus, when you watch it on the HD channels, it actually looks worse than normal (and, most of the time, the soundtrack is out of sync as well!).

But just now, as I channel-hopped after catching a bit of breakfast-time news, I found..... the MGM high-def channel. This morning, it's The Train, followed by Charge of the Light Brigade.

Oh my god! I may never leave the house again.....

Monday, July 13, 2009

A numbers game

My vacation has been somewhat sullied by offers of work - editing jobs for the policy thinktank back in China, which I felt obliged to accept for the sake of maintaining good relations with them.

This morning's was a particularly painful experience - more explicitly 'political' than most of the articles I rewrite for them, and hence replete with ponderous set phrases from the Chinese Communist lexicon that are pretty much devoid of meaning. (You wouldn't think it possible, would you, to drone on for 10 pages about 'China's model of development' without once mentioning what that model actually is?)

Ordinarily, when I edit pieces like this, the finished version ends up being slightly longer than the original, since Chinglish is chiefly characterized by the frequent omission of small but important words - articles and auxiliary verbs in particular, but also quite often prepositions, especially in phrasal verbs. The Chinese also have a propensity to use pronouns without any clear antecedents, and to pile up strings of clauses or adjectival phrases which make a sentence hopelessly unwieldy, if not completely dislocating its grammar. So, I find I usually have to do a lot of breaking down of 40-word sentences into two or three constituent parts, and then adding in some linguistic grout of my own to smoothe over the cracks. And then they also quite often use jargon phrases or abbreviations which they assume are generally recognised, but in fact need an explanatory gloss. And so on, and so on. In short, they tend to leave out a lot of stuff that a native speaker would expect to be included in order to render the English grammatically complete and readily comprehensible.... so I have to add stuff to fill in all those omissions.

I did a lot of that in today's piece too. But much of it was such hopeless drivel - either so grammatically corrupt as to be irretrievable, or staggeringly turgid and repetitive - that the only sensible 'fix' was to delete whole chunks of it.

Starting word count: 4,680

Final word count: 3,400

That is a stunning reduction in wasteful verbiage.

(And if I'd been writing it in English myself from scratch, I could have brought it under 1,500 easily.)

Bon mot for the week

"In strong sunlight the blues evaporate."


Saturday, July 11, 2009

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Angela Hagenbach

One of those happy accidents... I happen to be staying with an old college friend in Alexandria, VA, this week. His house is a few miles away from Old Town, where I have usually stayed on several previous visits here. Thus, almost every day, I am making that short walk into the historic district along Wythe Street..... which involves walking past the Alexandria Black History Museum..... which currently has a splendid exhibition of black & white portraits by photographer Dan White of leading figures in the Kansas City jazz scene.

His picture of Ms Hagenbach fairly takes your breath away (you can find it, and the rest of the series, on Dan's website). Yes, she used to be a model in her youth, we're told.... but then was inspired to become a singer after being blown away by a Sarah Vaughan blues tune. All this, and she can sing too! And she writes songs. And runs her own music publishing and promotion business. I think she's in her 50s now, but still looking mighty svelte. Oh yes, definitely 'Fantasy Girlfriend' material.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A holiday haiku

Bright sun overhead,
Cooling breeze from the river:
Perfect morning run.

I do like the Mount Vernon Trail. (Apart from all the bloody bikers!)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

New Picks ofthe Month

A couple of recommendations from the old archives to keep you diverted while I'm 'away'....

From Froogville I select one of my darkest posts, Very bad things - a post that explains why I am often so depressed in the month of June, and why I do not always manage to maintain the sunniest of dispositions towards China and the Chinese.

And on a (much needed) lighter note, from The Barstool I would direct you towards Ideal job? - some musings about the most suitable employment for someone like me, prompted by my then imminent (though, as it turned out, shortlived) plunge into conventional office drudgery.... and touching - in my usual, wide-ranging, discursive (not to say rambling) way - on life in Greece, a favourite film and a favourite film director, the musicality of the French language, and the useful concept of esprit de l'escalier.

Monday, July 06, 2009

A double bon mot

Destiny - A tyrant's authority for crime and fool's excuse for failure.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)

'It is destiny' - phrase of the weak human heart! 'It is destiny' - dark apology for every error! The strong and virtuous admit no destiny.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

List of the Month - trivia quiz team names

As I have recounted a number of times before, I have - in my time - been quite an enthusiastic quizzer. I first encountered the pub quiz phenomenon during my teacher training year up in Durham, and played quite often with some of my fellow students at a number of pubs around the town and at my 'local' out in the wilds, The Loves (scene of one of my most salutary experiences in the sport). During my first teaching job, I became a questionmaster/question-writer for our inter-house version of University Challenge. Then, drifting back to Oxford for a few years, I found myself reunited with some university buddies who had never managed to leave the lotus-eating city - JimBob ("The Nags"), The British Cowboy, The Bookseller - and played with them (and, usually, also with Roger The Dodger, the most nerdily formidable quizzer I have ever encountered, a man who used to read things like Whitaker's Almanac and Burke's Peerage for fun in his spare time!) in a number of weekly competitions. In fact, at one point we were playing four times a week: Mondays in the Oxford Union Jazz Cellar, Tuesdays in the big Sam Smith's pub next door to the Union (which is now long defunct and whose name I forget), Wednesdays in the Lamb and Flag on St. Giles (where the convention was that the winning team would act as quizmasters for the following week; rather frustratingly, this meant that we hardly ever got to play against our closest rivals amongst the regular teams there, since we were always setting the questions for each other's victories in alternate weeks), and Thursdays in the Oxfordshire quiz league (in which the standard was, not surprisingly, extremely rarefied - although with The Dodger on our side, we did briefly manage to get promoted to the 1st Division, and had a couple of decent runs in the knockout cup competition), playing for my favourite pub of the time - one of the best pubs ever - The Black Swan.

When I first moved to Beijing, I played a number of times in the quiz at the John Bull Pub (which, alas, ceased to exist three or four years ago) with my two disreputable teaching colleagues/drinking buddies, Big Frank and The Chairman ('The Three Amigos'), in which we fairly regularly used to manage to place 1st or 2nd, despite having a team about a third the size of everyone else's - and despite The Chairman being almost completely useless. We got disenchanted with that because of the absence of a cap on the team size; a raucous assembly of Australians, often nearly twenty-strong, began to beat us rather too regularly. After that, I had a bit of a lull in my quizzing. It's only in the past year or so that I have - a mere handful of times - been tempted to revisit my old vice.

Anyway, one of the key components of a good night's quiz is a good team name - unique, memorable, amusing, but perhaps based on references so obscure and personal that only the team members will really get it. Over the years, I must have played under dozens, perhaps hundreds of different quiz names (in the early '90s, the Oxford Union used to run occasional 12-hour Quiz Marathons for charity, and in those we'd usually adopt a different quiz name each hour - but on a related theme, so as not to confuse the poor quizmaster too much; I remember one time The Bookseller and I named ourselves after a succession of Abba lyrics; their classic grammar-mangle in Fernando has to be my favourite: "Since many years I haven't seen a rifle in your hand"). These are a few of the ones I remember most fondly.

The Three Represents
[The name The Three Amigos usually used to play under: it's a Chinese political slogan, the key contribution to the evolution of Communist Party doctrine from Jiang Zemin.]

Free The Grampus 8!
[Grampus 8 was an oddly named Japanese football club which became briefly famous in the UK in the early '90s when national hero Gary Lineker - one of the England team's most prolific strikers ever - chose to join them for the twilight of his career. Many quizzers of the time could not help but be tickled by the reminiscence of famous campaigns on behalf of groups of people unjustly imprisoned - in the UK, the most notorious were two IRA terrorism cases, 'The Guildford Four' and 'The Birmingham Six'.]

Pistol Pete's Karisma Klub
[For reasons I can't now recall, the British press were somewhat hostile to Pete Sampras at the outset of his career - suggesting that he had no personality, was boring to watch, and that the 'Pistol Pete' nickname deriving from his metronomically consistent big serve was the most interesting thing about him. Of course, within a year or two he would be a national hero - probably the greatest Wimbledon champion ever. My quiz buddies and I were ahead of the curve: we decided to mock the negative coverage and take the young phenomenon to our hearts.]

Touch The Monolith
[The source of all 'wisdom' in 2001.]

The President's Brain Is Missing
[The title of a series of skits about poor old Ronald Reagan in the classic latex-rubber puppet satirical show Spitting Image.]

12 Square Monkeys
[Terry Gilliam's sci-fi puzzle Twelve Monkeys furnished an irresistibly appropriate name for a group of quizzers assembled from Beijing's smallest bar - 12 Square Metres.]

The Nattily Attired Gentlemen Of Colour
[Yes, there is a story behind this one too - but I don't think I dare tell it in a public forum. Well, maybe later - in the comments... ]

The Rain Dogs
[A favourite name during those Oxford Union quizzing days. It is, of course, taken from the title of a great Tom Waits album.]

Norfolk & Clew
[A provincial estate agents' firm? Or a self-disparaging pun?]

The Crafty Homosexual Gangsters
[Charles Moore, an affected and rather unworldly journalist who used to edit the amusingly reactionary UK magazine The Spectator, wrote a long and disparaging review in that magazine of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, in which he labelled Steve Buscemi's 'Mr Pink' character "a crafty homosexual gangster". I thought that was hilarious, and still regularly advocate it as a quiz team name today - even though nobody ever gets the reference. I assume Moore was taking rather too literally mob boss Joe Cabot's throwaway jibe that he has allocated the uncool codename to Buscemi "because you're a fag". There is no suggestion that this is meant in earnest, and no hint anywhere else in the script that this character is gay. I like 'crafty', though: 'Mr Pink' is much the most astute of the hapless gang of robbers.]

Any personal favourites you'd like to share?

Friday, July 03, 2009

A holiday haiku

Change of place, and pace,
Refreshing a weary mind.
Needful vacation.

I'm not sure that I've ever felt so broken down by work, life, the whole damn thing. I need to get away from everything for a good long while.