Monday, May 31, 2010

Another curious late night Beijing street scene

While walking home through the hutongs around midnight a few days ago, I encountered a middle-aged man who appeared to have been knocked down by a car.

He seemed to be a local resident, and was being attended to by a few friends or neighbours.

I know some first aid, but would have been wary of getting involved (too many concerns, unfortunately, about being screwed over as a foreigner: either being targeted as a charitable soft touch who may assist with the hospital fees, or being blamed for causing or exacerbating the injuries, or being given a hard time by the police for.... well, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time). I did have a quick look at him to try to ascertain that he was going to be OK, and he didn't seem to be in too much distress: still lucid, no external bleeding or obvious broken bones. He was lying on the ground, and complaining about the state of his leg; but his friends had made him comfortable with some blankets, and it didn't look like there was anything seriously wrong.

The police were on the scene already (though not attempting to offer any first aid; they're probably not trained in it here), and an ambulance showed up a few moments later.

The astonishing thing was that the guy who had apparently caused the accident was still around, having pulled up a hundred yards or so down the street. Judging by the scrape on his wing, I deduced that he had grazed the wall as he'd parked there. (I don't think this was connected to the injured man; that would have been a near-side collision, and this was off-side. And there was a corresponding gouge in the wall next to his car.)

The guy was off-his-face drunk, barely able to stand; he was shouting abuse at the injured man (who he seemed to think was malingering), and threatening to get into a fight with the three policemen who were trying to restrain him from threatening or attacking his victim.

Why, you may ask, was this homicidal moron not already under arrest? Why, indeed!

I imagine, alas, that it was almost certainly because the policemen judged that he was probably too well-connected to mess with, or at least rich enough to be able to bribe them into sparing his licence.

That's just about the extent of the 'rule of law' in this country. If you have money, you usually get off scot-free.

At least - if he wasn't a scarily highly-placed big shot; and if the police eventually managed to get him calmed down and sobered up a bit - he would probably also have been induced to sling some cash to the injured man to cover his hospital bills. (Insurance? I doubt it. Neither of them.)

This is the country I live in. I get a bit frightened and depressed about it sometimes. And very, very sorry for the billion plus people who live here and have nowhere else they can go.

Bon mot for the week

"To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else."

This seems a particularly appropriate thought to carry into this week, something to remember whenever you hear Chinese people (or foreign commentators on China) suggesting that they'd really rather have 'stability' and 'prosperity' in China than respect for humanity, accountable government, and the rule of law.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Well, did you evah?

Via a post of mine on Flann O'Brien's surreal comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds (on Moonrat's book review blog, The Book Book), I received an invitation the other day to write an article on 'Flann O'Brien and Catholicism' for a biannual Irish Catholic magazine called CHRISTVS REGNAT.

Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather. It's very gratifying to learn that anyone thinks my writing is any good, particularly if they're willing to pay me for it (hm, no fee was mentioned, in fact). Alas, I could not in good conscience accept such a commission, since I really know fairly little about Flann O'Brien, and know absolutely bugger-all about Catholicism (except that 'bugger all' appears to be one of the central tenets of its priesthood).

I tried to turn the nice man down as graciously as possible:

Alas, I am only an O'Brien enthusiast rather than any kind of expert. All I know of the man is what I gleaned from Anthony Cronin's excellent biography of him, which, as far as I recall, does not have much, if anything at all, to say on his attitude to religion. I have always liked to think that he was an irreverent pagan like myself, but I can cite no evidence to support that notion.

Therefore, I fear I must decline your kind offer - on grounds of lack of time, lack of knowledge, and lack of interest in matters of religion.

And I am rather hoping that my young friend Mr O'Kane might possibly take up the gauntlet on this. He is, I believe, far more knowledgeable than me in both branches of the suggested topic.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film List - Crowning Moments of 'Awesome'

Somehow or other (for some reason, my ordinarily elephantine memory refuses to 'pay attention' to the paths of my Web-browsing) I happened upon the TV Tropes website a few weeks back, and was intrigued by their page on Crowning Moments Of Awesome - briefly defined as: "The moment when a fictional character does something for which they will be remembered forever, winning for them the eternal loyalty of fans."
That concept is more fully elaborated on the page, and they point out that for many action heroes almost everything they do would be a crowning moment of awesome for anyone else; so, what counts as a 'crowning moment' for them really has to be something especially awesome.

Here, then, are a few of my favourite character-defining moments.....

William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) in A Knight's Tale
I watched Brian Helgeland's zestful historical romp again just recently, and it's irresistibly good fun. The acme of our young hero's career in the lists is, for me, the tournament where - to indulge his capricious lady love's distaste for macho competitiveness - he accedes to her injunction to try to lose, and simply sits passively on his horse as opponent after opponent charges down mercilessly upon him (eventually, of course, she relents and tells him to start trying to win again; but by that time he's been beaten to a pulp by dozens of lance blows). The climactic showdown with villainous Rufus Sewell, where Ledger goes into the final joust without his armour, is, I feel, just a tad too over-the-top; 'moments of awesomeness' are - sometimes - compromised if they become too exaggerated or unbelievable.

Britt (James Coburn) in The Magnificent Seven
Sometimes, the defining moment of 'awesome' will be encapsulated in a cool line as much as, or more than, in whatever remarkable piece of action prompted it. Particularly if it is a faux self-deprecating cool line. This film is, of course, chock full of awesome moments and awesome lines from the seven awesome heroes (well, five - Harry doesn't get to do much, and Chico is just irritating); if they were making it today, they'd probably call it The Awesome Seven. The pick of this awesome crop, however, is the moment when Coburn's character shoots a fleeing Mexican bandit off his horse - at extreme range, with a pistol. The over-excitable Chico crows, "That was amazing. The greatest shot I've ever seen!" Coburn replies calmly: "The worst! I was aiming for the horse." Perhaps the best faux self-deprecating line ever?

Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell (Tom Cruise) in Top Gun
The aerial combat sequences all rather blend into one, I find, and Mav's trademark "slam on the brakes and he'll fly right by" manoeuvre doesn't really seem like something that Iceman or any of his other rivals couldn't easily pull off. Flying inverted over the Russian MIG is pretty fancy, but.... well, I just never quite bought the idea that Maverick was that much better a flyer than everyone else. The thing that defined his character was what a relentless - and awesomely cool - lady-killer he was. Having the guts to perform the karaoke serenade of The Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' to Kelly McGillis in the bar was pretty damned awesome (it softened her up for later seduction, even if it appeared to be a 'crash and burn' at the time). The culminating moment of cool, though - the moment that, when I first saw this in the cinema, had the women gasping in horror and frustration, and the men gaping in slack-jawed admiration - is when he's finally worn down her resistance and she is ready to fall into his arms (or, as some would more crudely put it, is 'gagging for it')..... and he makes her wait, deciding to go off for a shower first. Awesome.

Hans Grüber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard
Villains can be awesome, too. Alan Rickman, of course, steals every movie he's in; but this was the role that propelled him to stardom on the other side of Atlantic - quite an achievement to create a bad guy even more memorable than the impressively awesome action hero John McClane. He has such suavity, such élan; he dispenses evil so casually, with such world-weary ennui. His crowning moment is when he randomly adds to the list of his ransom demands the release of nine imprisoned members of an obscure Asian terrorist sect, a whimsical piece of misdirection which perplexes his henchmen; he explains, "I read about them in Time magazine."

Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) in Cool Hand Luke
Almost everything that Luke does in this film is thoroughly awesome - from getting himself arrested for decapitating parking meters at the beginning to taunting the bosses with his impersonation of Strother Martin's supercilious Warden at the end. It is, of course, his outrageous bluffing in the poker game that wins him his nickname; but that seems like fairly routine awesomeness (and he only got away with it because most of the other players were profoundly dumb). It's his refusal to accept defeat in his boxing match with George Kennedy's Dragline that first wins him the respect of the other prisoners; that's always been the most inspiring moment of the film for me, but I'm not sure if it quite qualifies as 'awesome' within the TV Tropes conception because, well, he does get the crap knocked out of him. The egg-eating challenge is probably the best remembered scene in the film, but its awesomeness is undercut by its grossness (and its unbelievability: 50 boiled eggs in an hour just isn't humanly possible), and by doubts as to whether he's quite succeeded (it looks as though he's still got a mouthful of egg at the time-up, but he's somehow managed to get rid of it when they prise his jaw open to check a few seconds later). Luke's role is to impress and entertain his fellow convicts, and to inspire them with a renewed sense of their self-worth. The three key moments in achieving this are: energising the road gang into working faster, so that they will have some free time to kick back and relax at the end of the day (a feat which prompts Dragline to exclaim, "Oh Luke, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothin'."); while on the run, mocking up a magazine photo of himself on the town with a couple of glamorous female companions and sending it back to his friends inside; and still grinning contentedly, defiantly, even as he was being taken away to his death ("That Luke smile. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile."). I find it impossible to choose between those three. Who says you can only have one 'crowning moment of awesome'?

John Matrix (Arnold Scharzenegger) in Commando
For me, this is Big Arnie's finest achievement, a deliriously camp action movie that exuberantly sends up the whole genre, yet somehow still works as an action movie. It's hard to pick an ultimate moment of 'awesomeness' from a film littered with them: Arnie discovered at the beginning of the film casually carrying a tree - not just a log, but a whole tree-trunk - under his arm; finding his truck disabled by the bad guys, so setting it rolling down a steep slope and then hopping into it to drive it unpowered down the mountainside, nearly intercepting the fleeing villains' cars as they round each bend in the winding road; tearing a phonebooth off the wall with his bare hands to prevent the baddie inside from phoning in news of his escape; threatening the weasly henchman Sully with the line "I like you, Sully; you're a funny guy. That's why I'm going to kill you last.", and then - when dropping him off a cliff shortly afterwards - following up with "You remember how I said I was going to kill you last? I lied." (and then, returning to his helpmate, the seriously gorgeous Rae Dawn Chong, who asks, "What did you do with Sully?" "I let him go." Awesomely good kiss-off lines!). However, the topping-all-the-other-awesome-moments moment of awesomeness is undoubtedly the celebrated 'toolshed scene' - which follows fairly soon after one of the cinema's great 'tooling up' scenes, where Arnie prepares himself for the climactic battle by strapping and clipping on to his flak jacket a vast array of guns, knives, grenades, rocket-launchers and Claymore mines. Unfortunately, fairly early on in his storming of the chief baddie's villa, he gets nearly blown up by a mortar shell and drops all of this impressive armoury. Taking refuge in a toolshed in the grounds, he then has to fight his way out with whatever comes to hand - garden fork, axe, machete.... rotary saw blades used as lethal frisbees. Hilarious. Wildly over-the-top and unbelievable, yes, but marvellously appropriate to the lightly comic tone of the movie.
[The lovely Ms Chong has her own 'crowning moment of awesome' in this film when she rescues Arnie from the cops by shooting up the paddy-wagon he's in with a hand-held rocket launcher. Arnie, miraculously unscathed by the explosion and ensuing crash, is impressed by her resourcefulness. "Where did you learn to use one of those?" he queries. She replies, "I read the instructions."]

OK, not strictly eligible for a 'film list', but I loved this '90s adult cartoon about the misanthropic super-anti-hero detective, voiced by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander (there's a great clip of one of his trademark rants here). My favourite episode (I can't recall the name of it) was the one where Duckman's fearsome sister-in-law Bernice decided that the city was in a lamentable state of unpreparedness for nuclear attack and organised a civil defence drill where everyone was supposed to take refuge in the sewers for 24 hours. Only the terminally un-public-spirited Duckman had managed to remain unaware of this initiative. Waking one day, late and hungover, to discover the streets deserted, he assumes that he is in some '50s sci-fi movie scenario where the world has abruptly come to an end and he is somehow the only survivor. Soon, however, he meets someone else, a terrified young waif who appears to have been rendered mute by the trauma of whatever has happened. He thinks, "Oh, the poor girl. She's so lonely and frightened. She doesn't understand what's happened. I must try to break it to her gently." He says, "Everybody's dead. Let's loot!"

T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) in Lawrence Of Arabia
Yes, serious films can have their 'moments of awesome' too, and Lawrence was a remarkable character, a real-life hero brilliantly revealed on the screen through Robert Bolt's superb screenplay. His crowning moment in the film is surely when he defies the snobbery and racism of the British ruling class by forcing his way, travel-stained from his epic trek across the desert and wearing native dress, into the snooty Officers' Club in Alexandria and demanding they serve him and his Arab companion a glass of ice-cold lemonade. (And he has a wonderful comeback, when the barman tries to refuse to serve them and reminds him that it is a bar for British officers: "That's all right. We're not particular.") Watch it here.

The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) in Fistful Of Dollars
The Man With No Name idea was an advertising tag; in the films, he does have a name - Joe in this first of the eventual 'Dollars' trilogy, Manco in the second, and Blondie in the third - although these are nicknames that others give him because they've got to call him something rather than how he identifies himself. Like other great action heroes, he spends most of his time being awesome; but I feel his very finest moment - the one that defines him for the rest of the series - comes right at the beginning of the first film, the first time we encounter him: he initiates a fight with a group of bad guys by demanding that they apologise to his mule (and having pre-ordered coffins for them from the town coffin-maker; having miscounted the number of his adversaries, he afterwards walks back past the coffin-maker to offer the laconic apology, "My mistake - four coffins."). You can watch that scene here. The other moment that particularly sticks in my mind from these films is in For A Few Dollars More, when an 'unwelcoming party' of Mexican peasants tries to dissuade him from entering the village where El Indio is holed up; he scares them away with a demonstration of his shooting prowess, knocking apples off a tree (and not just shooting the apples, but shooting through their stalks; at extreme range, while on horseback, and shooting from the hip) - it's very, very cool, but another of those incidents that's so over-the-top it challenges the suspension of disbelief somewhat.

Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) in For A Few Dollars More
Van Cleef for once getting to play a good guy in a Western (albeit a rather enigmatic and sinister good guy - his features were so angular that one critic observed of him that "he was the only actor who could show you a profile when looking at you full on"), manages to be even cooler than Clint Eastwood's principal hero, and the film's most awesome moments are all his: notably the nighttime 'duel' with Eastwood for top dog status where he prevails, and the scene in the saloon where he taunts Klaus Kinski's psychotic hunchback henchman by lighting matches on his stubble. This establishing scene, though, is probably the greatest of all such moments: the Colonel, travelling through New Mexico by train, adapts the railroad's schedule to his own convenience by blithely hauling on the emergency cord (and, miraculously, the train grinds to a halt with the stock car perfectly aligned with the loading ramp, so that he can disembark his horse with ease) - "This train'll stop at Tucumcari." Priceless. I love this scene.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Who do you think I am?

One of my former students was pestering me last week to accept a Token White Guy gig, going off to Shenyang for the weekend to masquerade as a senior executive of some company I've never heard of.

It is a fairly standard sort of happening in China. Some friend of a friend of a friend of hers - that guanxi thing again - was organising some trade junket or other, and felt he needed one or two more foreign faces to add glamour or credibility (or whatever the hell it is that we're supposed to bring to these events).

Of course, I said NO. Well, there wasn't even a fee on offer - just the chance of a few days away in sunny Shenyang and the nebulous promise of some 'expenses'. If there had been cash on the table (rather than just the prospect of being shafted with unreimbursed outlays of my own money), my ethical principles might at least have been put to the test a little. But this was a complete no-brainer. Do you want to go away to a shitty little second-tier city for three days, and be at our beck-and-call throughout, and trust us to pay you back for your flights and meals and hotel bills? NO.

I would like to think, though, that even if a substantial fee had been on offer, and my cash starvation had been particularly acute (and, er, it is), I would still have turned it down.

It is deeply unethical to endorse - however implicity or indirectly - a company or event about which you know nothing. It is deeply unethical to allow yourself to be represented as something you are not, as an employee or authorized agent of that company or whatever. It is deeply, deeply, deeply unethical to impersonate someone else. (I had an American lady friend a few years ago who accepted one of these Token Whitey gigs in a spirit of fun and mischief, and was alarmed to discover that she was being introduced as the head of an internationally famous jewellery maker. You really do not want to accept a 'free holiday' in an armpit town like Shenyang or Zhengzhou, and then find that your audience thinks you are Steve Jobs or Ralph Lauren.)

I was extremely disappointed, depressed that my student (one of the brightest young ladies I have worked with here, and someone who has subsequently spent 3 years studying business in the UK, where I might have hoped that she would develop a broader cultural awareness) would approach me with such a ridiculous proposal, that she would have such a complete ethical blindspot about how dodgy it was. I tried to get a bit of dialectic going with her: WHY do you think they want me there? How am I supposed to 'add value' for the organizers? She just did not get it at all.

White Face=Sexy. That's all there is to it. In China, you have more chance of closing a deal on whatever sketchy business proposition you're peddling if you have a foreigner along with you. (In these - ever so slightly - more enlightened times, I'd hope that our black or Indian friends might now be getting offered gigs like this as well, occasionally.)

These things sound fun and innocuous. And if they're trying to entice you to somewhere nice, like Dalian or Xiamen or Lijiang, then you might very well feel sorely tempted. But, really, if you have any concern for your soul or your self-respect, you should not go anywhere near one of these engagements.

Who do you think you are?

The other evening, walking down Jiugulou Dajie, the main street nearest to my apartment, I encountered a particularly outrageous piece of selfish parking.

Some would-be dakuan in huge black BMW had wanted to park right in front of the restaurant where he was going to eat. There weren't actually any parking spaces, since a number of people had got there before him (I think it's nominally a 'parking prohibited' stretch of road, but there's no enforcement). But at least these other drivers had (perhaps somewhat surprisingly, untypically) respected the crosswalk and left it clear. So, our man had used that narrow space to drive up on to the sidewalk and park transversely across it - almost completely blocking both the crossing and the sidewalk.

He had left one of those tin notices on his dash. I don't know what it said (not many characters on it at all, and two of them were bei jing), but these things are quite a common sight (I once took a ride with one of my students who, much to my embarrassment and disapproval, made use of one to cut through rush-hour traffic - he'd borrowed an official car from his dad, who was a very high-ranking policeman); their basic import is clearly: "I am way too important for you to even think of messing with me."

I glowered at his car for several seconds, and contemplated giving it a good kick. Then I glowered through the window of the restaurant, to see if I could identify the likely culprit - but, alas, the place was full of smug, sinister bastards with flat-top haircuts and expensive polo shirts (the 'uniform').

It's incidents like this that sometimes make you despair of this country....

Haiku for the week

Mercury rises,
Sweating city moves outdoors:
Sidewalks come alive.

For the past two years, with the government's exaggerated anxieties about first the Olympics and then the nation's 60th anniversary celebrations, Beijing's traditional street life has been at least partly suppressed: many bars and restaurants have been sternly discouraged from putting out any furniture on the sidewalks in front of their businesses.

Finally, it seems, we may be seeing a return to normal. Over the past week or so, it has been starting to get really hot here, and occasionally a little humid too. Most folks in the poorer neighbourhoods where I live don't have any air-conditioning (or are too thrifty to use it), so they spend summer evenings loafing around the streets, squatting on their stoop or on a tiny stool outside their favourite local xiaomaibu (a hole-in-the-wall convenience store, of which there are, around here, usually at least three or four in every hundred yards); many of them will even set up camp-beds on the sidewalk and attempt to sleep outside. Even our killjoy government couldn't really suppress these behaviours. But the buzzier atmosphere you get from having almost every restaurant move outside too, from having the sidewalks crowded with people drinking and snacking late into the night - that has been missing this past two years. I was therefore quite shocked - shocked, but very pleased - to discover when heading out to dinner a couple of nights ago that the hutong where I live was thronged with plastic stools and collapsible tables. This is what a Beijing summer is supposed to be like.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A man of principals

The other week in the recording studio, my partner DD had to read a short passage which was supposed to be a list of school notices being announced over a tannoy by the head teacher. At the end of it, she had to sign off as Principal Victoria.

Of course, being a man of a certain age, I could not help but be reminded of this other Victoria.

[PS I discover, alas, that this pin-up of my adolescent years is not looking nearly so appealing these days: one of those awful warnings against the perils of too much plastic surgery.

PPS One of Flann O'Brien's punning Keats & Chapman vignettes featured a schoolboy who - through some convoluted prank involving honey and/or glue - had become inseparably attached to the academic gown worn by his irate headmaster. Chapman sagely observed of the incident: "I admire a boy who sticks to his principals."]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Losing it

I am in a bad way at the moment - physically, emotionally, spiritually wrung out, at the end of my tether.

It's getting light horribly early in the mornings (they don't do daylight savings time here - silly 'Western' idea!) and I don't have any decent blackout curtains, so I rarely achieve more than four hours or so of sleep at night. It's now also started to get rather hot, and occasionally muggy too; and I discover that the air-conditioning in my new apartment is dysfunctional, so this past week I've been struggling to get even two or three hours' sleep per night. I am deeply stressed about work, and some other things too. I realise my earnings have been so low over the past five months that I really can't afford a holiday this year, much as I feel I need one. And I always get rather gloomy in the month or so leading up to the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.

Then, yesterday morning, while anxiously waiting for news on a big editing job (a windfall that would have paid for my imminent visa renewal, and perhaps for a short holiday as well), I suddenly discovered that I had lost my wallet. I ransacked my apartment for 10 minutes trying to find it, almost making myself late for an early teaching appointment at a university - no sign of it. I had to resign myself to the fact that I had probably lost it - or had it pick-pocketed - when I'd nipped out to the 7/11 for a few minutes the previous evening.

'Vexing' is an inadequate description of the effect this had on me: I wasn't so much annoyed as.... well, swamped by a sense of confusion and despair and self-lacerating frustration.

It wasn't the practical inconvenience of the loss that bothered me so (much, much less trouble than the loss of my keys or my phone might have been): there had been quite a substantial amount of money in it (the last ready cash I had to my name, having just shelled out for another quarter's rent and a new visa), but I at least had a wad of small bills in my pocket (the change from that apparently ill-fated grocery expedition) to cover my immediate needs, and I was expecting to earn some more cash-in-hand again in a couple of days. And I had recently cleaned the wallet out of potentially valuable business cards and phone numbers, and removed my bank cards (I only take them out of the apartment when I know I've got to make a withdrawal; I live entirely on my cash earnings 95% of the time). It had been rather a nice wallet, I thought, a recently purchased treat for myself; and it did have a few 'lucky coins' in it, which I would be sorry to lose, for their sentimental associations. But, really, this was not such a heavy blow. The loss of the money only pained me because I am so financially embarrassed at the moment; and I try not to be a slave to money, try not to be too concerned about it (especially when I'm short of it!). The loss of the wallet and its other contents was only a very minor regret.

I should have been able to bounce back from this small 'disaster' with a wry chuckle and a worldweary shrug - c'est la vie; easy come, easy go.

But in my current emotionally depleted state, this irksome mischance knocked me sideways.

Well, I've never been very good with losing things, I suppose. A lost handkerchief can drive me to rages of tears sometimes. And I loathe the sock-eating washing-machine as one of the most malign mysteries of the universe. Despite my best efforts to cultivate a Daoist mellowness about life, to expunge any obssessive-compulsive tendencies I may find in myself, and to pursue the Buddhist ideal of 'non-attachment' to the material world,..... somehow that all goes out of the window when I lose something.

Disruption of comfortable patterns and routines is no doubt part of it: I am seldom aware of my wallet in my pocket, but I am continuously aware of it when it is suddenly not there; aware of it, and troubled by it, tormented by a feeling of being naked, vulnerable, powerless without it.

Disruption of one's self-image is perhaps an even larger component: I am proud of the fact that I am mostly very careful and well-organized with my possessions, that I always know where things are (this was a skill that I particularly had to cultivate during my military training, when I might have dozens of diverse pieces of small - but potentially vital - equipment stashed about me in various pockets or pouches, and I had to be able to locate any one of them at a moment's notice, even when wretchedly brain-fogged by sleep deprivation); I am proud of the fact that I am the sort of person who never loses things. Thus, when I do lose something, it is sometimes not so much the loss of the thing itself that bothers me as the negation of this part of my self-image, the jarring sense that I have somehow lost part of myself.

And then, of course, there's the compulsion to understand - one of the strongest drives in my character, and one of the few arguably obsessive behaviours that I have not been able to (nor would want to) jettison. How could this possibly have happened? Where is the 'lost' thing now? It is a futile self-interrogation, I know, since it's seldom going to be possible to find an answer; yet I often find it impossible to shut off this insistent need to know, and the unanswerable questions just keep whirring round and round in my head.

Probably the worst thing of all, though, is the nagging conviction that 9 times out of 10 the thing, whatever it is, is not lost at all, but merely mislaid. And with that thought comes the awful knowledge that most times I think I've lost something, it is in fact exactly where I thought I'd left it all along. (Is this a common experience, or a special private hell of my own?) It is hard then not to succumb to paranoid fantasies that I am the victim of strange, malignant forces in the universe; unseen gremlins, perhaps, who remove and then return the things I've 'lost'; or some sort of imperceptible disruption of the timeline which has transferred me to a subtly different 'reality' from the one I occupied yesterday. Perhaps it is more comforting to try to believe in these outlandish notions than to confront the fact the world is not always as we perceive it or as we remember it, that our brains are frail and fallible organs which routinely deceive us in the most bizarre and intricate ways.

It is not nice to be haunted by this spectre of cognitive dysfunction. And it is not nice to have our certainty in our experience of the world so undermined.

I think that's why I so hate losing things.

The wallet was - as I'd always suspected - still in the pocket of the trousers I'd been wearing the night before. I had looked in there three or four times, and for some reason been unable to see or feel it. Strange, very strange.

[I tried to take comfort from the fact that at least my bank cards had not been in the wallet. Since I am currently without my passport - being processed for a new visa - and have no other form of valid ID in this country, I would have been unable to access any of my money for probably at least two weeks. Worse, even with the passport, I might have had difficulty 'proving' my identity to the banks to get new cards, and might have faced the prospect of being cut off from my life savings. This has happened to me before, and it was only by an amazing stroke of good fortune that I was eventually able to retrieve my money and close my account with the bank in question. I have long been meaning to blog about that incident, but it is such a traumatic memory that I have put off doing so. Indeed, this was a fear so devastating that I found no comfort in it, only heightened anxiety. If I ever lose my bank cards, I am in a world of trouble.]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

The pay cheque of Damocles

I am in a strange kind of limbo.

I have, sort of, almost accepted an editing job referred by a friend.

On the plus side, it's a complete book, so a different sort of challenge for me (I have done one once before, but years ago), and perhaps just a smidgin of professional kudos. It's on a potentially interesting topic. And it's written by a native English speaker, so it shouldn't be nearly as awful as the Chinglish abominations I have to wrangle in my more regular work. I've negotiated a rate of pay which, assuming I can maintain a brisk-ish pace through the tome, should work out a little better, perhaps quite a lot better than I usually make here in China.

So much for the plus side. It's a vanity publishing project, so it's an undisciplined mess: four or five times as long as it ought to be, and lacking any kind of structure. The writing is utterly dreadful (not quite as bad as the Chinese 'academics' I edit for, but pretty nearly - the rate of progress I had optimistically envisaged is just not going to be possible). And I would be paid in US dollars, which given the slide in exchange rate over the past year, is not at all the good news it might once have been. The project is dauntingly HUGE. And they want it completed by..... next Friday.

It is just about humanly possible, if I devote every spare moment to it over the next 11 days, don't go out at all, make do with 4 hours' sleep a night, etc. But I need the money. It will drive me MAD. But I need the money. I like to turn things down if I feel I'm doing them just for the money. But, oh boy, do I need the money right now!

So, it comes down to the money. And the time. Given the time difference to the west coast of America, I figure I'm not going to get a final go-ahead from them until tomorrow morning (although I've already spent most of today working on it on spec, because there isn't any other way I could possibly get it finished in time); that doesn't matter too much, since I'm busy with other things most of tomorrow.

However, the guys I'm dealing with don't strike me as eminently reliable - or, at any rate, not as eminently well-organised - so, there is no way I'm going to put myself through any more of this misery until I receive a tracking confirmation that the money transfer is on its way. And if they dither too long about getting that done (such that I'm not able to begin work on it again tomorrow evening), well, then, I'm just not going to have enough time left to meet their ridiculous deadline, and I will be forced to pass on the project.

I am sort of hoping they will fail to make that payment promptly. I'm in for a wretched fortnight if I find myself committed to this.

I go to bed tonight with my fingers tightly crossed, muttering hastily improvised lazy-editor-work-dodging prayers....

If there's no more blogging until June 4th, you'll know that I've been punished for indulging in such fatuous superstition.

Bon mot for the week

"Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one."

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Miss Scott

Miss Scott is, of course, the sexiest secretary in film history - the personal assistant (and mistress) to the manic Pentagon bigwig, General Buck Turgidson (the marvellous George C. Scott's career-best performance), in Stanley Kubrick's masterful 1963 black comedy, Dr Strangelove.

It's not just her perfect figure (generously displayed by the bikini she wears to 'work'), though, that commands the attention. She exudes considerable poise and intelligence, as well as a kitten-ish playfulness - suggesting that she is actually very good at her job, in addition to being drop-dead gorgeous. It's a rather impressive acting performance, too: I love the way she switches so fluidly between her businesslike and flirtatious voices on the phone.

Of course, the thing with secretaries is that they're usually seen as being rather unimportant, subordinate, and - when there's also the frisson of a sexual dimension to the relationship - as submissive. That holds no appeal for me at all. Miss Scott, however, gives the impression of being quietly in control of things, smart enough and sexually confident enough to wrap her men around her little finger. The intimation that she also has (or has had, or could have) a relationship with the younger officer on the phone nicely reinforces what we'd naturally expect anyway, that she's the hottest damn thing in the Pentagon and can have any man she chooses - and would probably dump poor old Bucky in an instant when she finds someone who's better in bed or can give her better introductions on the Washington social scene. Any 'submissiveness' here is purely sex play. This is a very cool, very shrewd cookie - and that's what I find so irresistible.

I hadn't ever noticed while watching the film, but the same actress is also used as the the Playboy centerfold we briefly glimpse being admired by the pilot of the B-52, Major 'King' Kong (Slim Pickens). I learn from Wikipedia that the copy of Foreign Affairs magazine coyly draped across her bottom here is a celebrated issue from early 1963 in which there appeared an article by Henry Kissinger titled 'Strains In The Alliance'. Another example of Kubrick's obsessive attention to detail!

The actress/model who played her, Tracy Reed, was the step-daughter of the great English director, Carol Reed (and thus tenuously related to his nephew, the notoriously hell-raising actor, Oliver Reed), and was married for a while to the aristocratic actor, Edward Fox. She had quite a busy career through the 1960s, though mostly on British television or in rather unmemorable films. I gather she was on the shortlist to replace Diana Rigg as Steed's sidekick in The Avengers (I imagine she lost out because she looks too similar to Diana; though I can't help thinking she would have been a better choice than the rather lacklustre Linda Thorson). This striking appearance in Dr Strangelove would always be the high point of her career.... ... although this rather famous glamour shot of her by Patrick Lichfield probably takes second place.

To conclude, here is the complete scene from Strangelove (well, unfortunately, I couldn't find the Miss Scott scene in isolation on YouTube, so this is a pretty big chunk of the movie, beginning with Slim Pickens briefing his bomber crew that they are about to go "toe-to-toe with the Russkies"):

Ah, Miss Scott. I'd happily spend 80 years down a mineshaft with someone like her.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Two weeks to go....

...until the 21st anniversary of the grimmest - and most important - event in China's modern history, the entry of the PLA into Beijing to bring a violent end to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

The Lego 'Tank Man' above was one of the first of a daily series of images of Tiananmen '89 that Stuart over at Found In China has been running this year as a three-week memorial countdown to June 4th. It might seem rather frivolous and irreverent to render that iconic confrontation with a children's toy, but as I noted around this time last year, I don't think we should be too stuffy about this sort of thing - humour serves its purposes, offers us new perspectives on the most terrible events, and provides a kind of cathartic safety-valve for emotions that threaten to become too painful, overwhelming. I'm sure Stuart will include in his series many more pictures of the terror and carnage that erupted in this city on the night of June 3rd 1989 and continued over the following days (in the comments to one of these posts he provided a link to this particularly grisly collection of photographs on the Democratic China Blog II [one of those resources that had long been inaccessible to me here, until I got myself a proper VPN at the end of last year]); we need one or two 'lighter' moments to recover our spirits after horrors like those.

I have long been pondering the idea of creating a provocative modern artwork drawing on the iconography of the 'Tank Man', a sort of guerilla performance piece - perhaps doing something with toy tanks down on Tiananmen Square; or staging a mass lookalike march, with dozens of folks donning white shirts and dark slacks and unruly black wigs, and carrying shopping bags. I would have dearly loved to see someone try to emulate the 'Tank Man' during last year's pompous militaristic parade down Chang'an Avenue for the country's 60th anniversary celebrations, stepping into the road to disrupt that hideous procession of armoured vehicles - but any attempt to carry out such a stunt would, I'm sure, have got the perpetrators swiftly despatched to the gulag, if not to a firing squad. I've also thought about instigating a portrait series of leading 'dissident' figures of today posing as the 'Tank Man' - I think Ai WeiWei would be up for it, but I'm not sure how many others would dare such a provocation, or have the status to protect them from dire retribution.

The idea I like best, and keep returning to - perhaps something that could be done in Photoshop, without having to risk a live 'event' on Chang'an Avenue or the Square - is that of a 'Tank Man' facing down a line of radio-controlled toy tanks. It suggests (I hope - without dishonouring the extraordinary bravery of the original 'Tank Man') the comparative impotence of the regime, and the potency of individual acts of defiance. But then I thought an even more apt message might be to depict not just a reversal of the scale of the 'Tank Man' incident (the intimidating hugeness of the tank rendered small and harmless) but of the numbers too:
a column of 'Tank Men' stretching away into the distance, facing a single tank.

Back in '89 it seemed impossible that one man could halt an entire column of tanks driving down the road, but this unassuming hero proved otherwise. Today it seems impossible that the outdated and discredited Communist Party can cling to power in this country using the threat of force against its own people, yet - alas - they continue to prove otherwise. Back then, one man had the courage to stand up to this brutal regime; today, a nation of more than one billion people is too apathetic or too fearful to do so. It really wouldn't take very much to start changing things here, to start the long overdue dismantling of the one-party state. The balance of power is on the Chinese people's side now, if they did but recognise it.

The weekly haiku

Too brief perfection:
Clear skies, hot sun, cooling breeze;
Early summer days.

Yes, I know - remarkably similar to last week's. Forgive me. But the weather has been (mostly) lovely this month.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The HELL of Chinese universities

I just binned the 'film appreciation' class I was supposed to have been running for the next two months at one of the capital's largest universities.

A class like that, you see, really needs to be held in a lecture theatre, with decent sound and projection equipment (and effective blackout curtains) and a nice big screen - and some space for the teacher to move around.

A DVD player is pretty necessary too; Chinese media player programs tend to be terribly glitchy and unreliable, and don't have very good picture quality (when they work at all: there was a big splurge of expenditure on computing facilities in Chinese universities in the late '90s and early '00s, but very little has been spent since, so most computers on campuses are now 8 or 10 years old, and encrufted to hell [Chinese IT assistants invariably seem to be utterly clueless about maintenance, and actually add to the needless clutter rather than regularly sweeping out cruft] - they simply don't have the processing capacity to run modern media programs).

Classrooms have only fairly tiny projection screens, which don't give a real movie experience. This screen is usually covering the board, so the teacher is not able to write anything about the movie he's about to show. And indeed, there isn't really anywhere for him to stand without getting in the way of the projector. And, as I just mentioned, trying to play DVDs with a Chinese media program on a Chinese computer is slow, fiddly and just not very dependable. Ah yes, and running a projector in a confined space can produce furnace-like conditions.

So, using a classroom for a movie class is utterly unsuitable. This should be self-evident to anyone with half a brain. But, of course, it was not evident to the organisers of this course, and I had to try to explain it to them. They promised to try and find me a lecture theatre from Week 2. I'm not sure if they did make any effort to do so or not, but I knew they wouldn't succeed. There are surely some dozens of lecture theatres on this campus (I know there are two in the building adjacent to the one we were using); and on a Monday evening, I doubt if any of them are in use. But, oh no, they're not "available" - with the insanely convoluted and inefficient bureaucracy that prevails in Chinese universities, you probably have to fill out applications in triplicate a month in advance, and money has to change hands (both 'official' fees and bribes to janitors - yes, university departments have to 'pay' to use facilities on their own campuses).

So, no lecture theatre for you, Mr Froog. Try and see how you get on with the classroom. Hm, I knew that was going to get ugly. In Week 1, I tried to use the ancient PC in the classroom, but - to everyone's "surprise" but mine - it kept crashing. I did eventually manage to show a handful of short clips, but the flow of the class was hopelessly disrupted. And the students couldn't really see anything because - get this - the lighting control was broken, so we couldn't switch the lights off. (Chinese classrooms and lecture theatres never have decent blackout curtains, but that shouldn't have been too much of a problem, since this was an evening class, and it was going to be dark outside within half an hour of us starting. But not being able to switch the lights off?! That was a new and unexpected vexation.)

In Week 2, at least the light switches had been fixed. And the organisers had thought that bringing in a laptop computer would be an adequate 'fix' for the other problems. (Much faster than the crufty old PC, at least; but still using a crappy Chinese media program.) Of course, they hadn't bothered to check if this would work earlier in the day; they were only just starting to faff around with the set-up when I arrived, 15 minutes before the class. And guess what - it didn't work: for some reason, they couldn't connect it to the projector. They brought in a second laptop, but they couldn't get that to work either (well, there was a feed from it, but the projector was displaying the test card upside down; and the useless IT guy had no idea what was wrong - I rather suspect he had just plugged in the connectors the wrong way round). Would I like to try using the PC again? NO. Eventually, they brought in a second projector, and we were able to get going with that, only about 20 minutes or so late - although I still had to wrangle with the awful media program, which refused to play one or two of my disks altogether, took ages to start up each time, and froze completely on a couple of occasions. And the sound control seemed not to work. Or the brightness either (the projector got steadily brighter as the class wore on, and again the IT guy was powerless to do anything about it; the final film I showed was barely viewable at all, a white-out). Ggrrrrr.

Even worse, this second projector had to be placed on a chair blocking the central aisle, leaving me completely trapped in the narrow space at the front of the room (the aisles at the edges of the room were less than a foot wide, and cluttered with students' bags). The projector (two projectors) and the enormous, dysfunctional computer console were throwing out a huge amount of heat. It was a particularly claustrophobic little classroom, with a very low ceiling. And the air-conditioning seemed not to be working (I'm always suspicious of systems with ceiling-mounted vents rather than wall-mounted ones; they don't seem to produce any circulation of the air). A lot of air-conditioners in China, I've been discovering, seem to have an 'inner' thermostat setting which overrides - and effectively renders completely redundant - your attempts to set the temperature via the remote control. Now, setting thermostats to 22⁰C is all very laudable and planet-saving and so on; but in China humidity tends to be more of a problem than the temperature per se, so you need to be able to set a lower temperature on occasion, just to get the fans working to dispel some of the clamminess in the air. This thermostat kept resetting itself to 25⁰C!! With all the heat from the equipment, the temperature at the front of the classroom where I found myself confined was frequently getting up towards 30⁰C.

Hell, indeed.

The organisers, of course, thought I was being unreasonably cranky, and were dismayed that I decided to cancel the course "just because the facilities were inadequate". Ah, China.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An arty Website of the Month

Somehow or other, I happened to stumble upon Bob Duggan's Art Blog By Bob at the beginning of last week, and there's just so much good stuff on there I've hardly been able to tear myself away since. There are around three years' worth of archives for me to work through, and I've barely scratched the surface so far, since he keeps putting up new stuff with remarkable frequency. I have particularly enjoyed this recent post on Paul Delaroche's The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, and last weekend's introduction to Entertain Us, an exhibition of portraits of the late Kurt Cobain now on at the Seattle Art Museum.

These days, most of his more substantial pieces seem to be re-posts from his regular column on Big Think, like this essay on the restrospective of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson at the New York MoMA (somebody, buy me the catalogue for my birthday, please).

You can read an interview with Mr Duggan on the Abbeville Press blog here.

Delusions of gravitas

The other day, I was offered a chance to appear in a forthcoming Beijing Television production about Winston Churchill. Alas, it was only a minor part as one of the great man's assistants, so the pay was going to be pretty piss-poor. And I've had quite enough of trying to work with Chinese film crews.

Also, as I noted to the acquaintance who had recommended me for the part, "I'm getting to the age where I ought to be playing Churchill."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A spammer I could fall in love with

I don't often bestow a lot of attention on the contents of my spam folder, but lately Yahoo Mail's filters have been getting skittish again and purloining stuff that is emphatically not 'spam', so I've been having to remember to glance over the spam folder's inhabitants once in a while to recover the odd Technorati newsletter and so on that really shouldn't be in there.

90% of the rest, of course, is advertisements for things you didn't know you needed. Well, for Viagra, mostly.

But at least they're getting very inventive with the fake names they're using to send this stuff out. Yesterday, one of these 'performance enhancer' peddlers was going under the spectacular monicker of Yoshiko Chateaubriand.

I fell off my chair - part mirth, part swoon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bon mot for the week

"Jokes that have a purpose run the risk of meeting with people who do not wish to listen to them."

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Sunday poem

When rooting around the Internet a few months back for some excerpts from War Music, Christopher Logue's series of adaptations of The Iliad, I turned up this piece by Dunya Mikhail on the Academy of American Poets website - my 'poetry Sunday' offering for you today. I gather from Wikipedia that the poet was born in Baghdad and is of Assyrian ethnicity, and has been a refugee in the United States for over twenty years now. The collection that takes its title from this poem was first published in 1993 (in Arabic, I assume), and was then the recipient of a PEN Translation Fund Award in 2004; this resulting translation by Elizabeth Winslow was shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006. You can hear Dunya Mikhail reading this on NPR here. (And there's a little bit more - not much - about Mikhail and Winslow on the Griffin Prize site here; quite a good short review of the translated collection by Susan Barba on The Boston Review here; and Mikhail's own website is here.)

The War Works Hard

How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
Early in the morning
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places
swings corpses through the air
rolls stretchers to the wounded
summons rain
from the eyes of mothers
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins...
Some are lifeless and glistening
others are pale and still throbbing...
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missiles
into the sky
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters
urges families to emigrate
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire)...
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets
it contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs
provides food for flies
adds pages to the history books
achieves equality
between killer and killed
teaches lovers to write letters
accustoms young women to waiting
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures
builds new houses
for the orphans
invigorates the coffin makers
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader's face.
It works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

Dunya Mikhail (tr. by Elizabeth Winslow)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Another academic goof (groan)

I was editing an article at the start of the week about the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, which included a number of thigh-slapping moments.

Nearing the end of his very superficial analysis of the summit, our author realised that he hadn't said anything about China (because none of the American commentators he'd been plagiarising had said anything about China), so he threw in a hasty paragraph about how China was so gosh-darned important these days that the summit would have been meaningless without its participation - and there had been anxiety beforehand as to whether comrade Hu might boycott it because of the tensions in Sino-US relations at the moment, so we should all be jolly grateful that he eventually decided not to. Really? Yes, the Chinese President saved the day by not behaving like a petulant child (for once).

Having softened me up with that humdinger, my author then floored me with the flabbergasting concluding observation that if every country in the world followed China's example of espousing "no first use of nuclear weapons", there wouldn't be any nuclear security problems at all. Ahem. That does rather seem to imply that the author thinks it would be perfectly OK for every country in the world to have nuclear weapons - so long as they promise never to use them (just like China does, with fingers crossed behind its back, and murmuring "Unless we're really, really provoked...." under its breath).

But even this dangerous fatuity (is that a word? I think it is, or ought to be) was not the nadir of this particular article. Oh no - the one thornbush from which I could not extricate myself was this: the writer had quoted a figure from an International Atomic Energy Agency report on 'missing' nuclear materials. Unfortunately, he hadn't distinguished between all nuclear materials and weapons-grade ones. And he hadn't specified whether the number of incidents quoted was a ten-year total (in fact, I think the period referred to was one of fifteen years), an annual average over that time, or a peak annual figure.

He hadn't made this clear because, rather than referring to the original IAEA report, he had simply copied a passage from this garbled summary of it from the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua. I've complained before that Chinese academics seem blithely unaware of the important difference between primary and secondary sources.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Recently, on The Barstool....

It's been a busy couple of weeks over on my 'drinking blog' (actually running a little ahead of Froogville here in number of posts so far this month!).

The stuff on the Midi Music Festival and The Beijinger magazine's annual Bar & Club Awards will be of limited interest to folks who don't live in Beijing, but I think anyone should be able to appreciate the joke in this recent exchange about Beijing drinking with my friend The Weeble.

Also worth checking out (I think) are this rundown of the most alcoholic wedding parties I have attended, my happy discovery of a Plastic Jesus, these recent musings on the so-called Art of Dating, and this link to the great free music giveaway currently going on over at BeijingDaze.

Another one for JES

My blog-friend JES shares my fondness for puns, so I dedicate this visual example of the genre to him. [From the wonderful Viz anthology of 'Crap Jokes'.]

Haiku for the week

Blue skies and breezes,
Heat without humidity:
Blissful time of year.

Spring and early summer (still feels like spring, really, although a full month late - some trees are still in blossom) is the best time to be in Beijing. We enjoy it while we may, trying to set aside the lurking dread of what is soon to come: in another four or five weeks, we will settle into almost three months of it being way-too-hot and muggy-as-hell. But, just for now, it's lovely.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Girl racers

In one of my early posts on here, I commented on how poor the eyesight of most Chinese is.

This causes vexing - and, indeed, sometimes potentially injurious - problems not just with drivers, but with cyclists and pedestrians also. This is perhaps one of the few countries in the world where someone will walk into you from behind - and react as if it's your fault.

It's happened to me twice in the last few days; on Monday, it happened at the gate of my apartment complex....

In motor racing, the shortest line through a corner is not necessarily the quickest. In most cases, a driver will move to the outside of the track approaching a corner, cutting to the inside through the middle (often, indeed, grazing the kerb as he comes through the apex), and running wide to the very edge of the track (or off track, on to the kerbing) at the exit. Keeping a straighter line through the corner (and perhaps having a slightly shallower angle of turn-in) allows you to maintain a higher speed, and this more than compensates for the fact that you're having to cover a rather greater distance over the track. Hence, that outside-inside-outside pattern for taking corners is usually preferred. In a few corners, though, it can be a bit of a toss-up: hugging the inside line all the way around may save so much in track distance that it's worth the greater loss of speed - or at least it gives you the opportunity to block a car attempting to get by you by taking a faster line.

Of course, it's annoying to find a slower car hogging the inside of the track through the middle of a corner, but...... you really shouldn't run into it from behind.

These observations, of course, only apply to motor racing - not to regular driving, or to cycling, or to walking.

Yet the young Chinese woman walking just ahead of me on Monday morning moved towards the right as she approached the gate of our building - as if she were going to turn right into the lane - but then suddenly veered across to the left, evidently intent on just creasing the rear corner of the car parked immediately outside with her dress as she turned the corner. It was unfortunate that by this time I had overtaken her up the inside, and was rounding the edge of the obstructive parked car myself. She was extremely surprised and displeased to find me 'blocking' her 'faster line' - and ran right into me.

I'm sure the stewards would deem it "a racing accident".

The Chinese way

I was having dinner the other night with a young American engineer visiting from one of the southern provinces where he's spent the last few weeks supervising the installation of one of his company's machines in a microprocessor factory.

The site is so big that they use a golf-cart to get around. They only have one of these, though, so it's mainly for the senior managers and engineers, and the rare foreign visitors. And it's pretty old, not in very good condition.

The right front tyre has - for some months - had a slow puncture. It wouldn't be that difficult to patch it (or, heaven forbid, replace the tyre?), but instead they've procured a bicycle pump to be kept with the cart at all times, and its driver has to re-inflate the tyre two or three times a day. Obviously this is a non-ideal solution, since the tyre is almost permanently below full pressure and this makes the steering decidedly wonky.

At least, that was the case until last week - when someone stole the bicycle pump.

This prompted the driver to take the cart - finally - to the forklift maintenance shop, where a mechanic put a patch on the tyre.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is an old and useful proverb. In China, however, we all too often encounter the attitude: "Even if it's broke, don't fix it."

Indeed, my curmudgeonly erstwhile teaching colleague 'Big Frank', in his sourer moods, would occasionally suggest that the dominating philosophy of Chinese public life was: "If it ain't broke, break it."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The crazy times are here again?

After some four months of work doldrums, suddenly things are starting to get busy again.

Very busy. Too darned busy.

Around the middle of last week, I started to fret about a new class I had agreed to start teaching this Monday, which would require an hour or two of preparation (it was to be a 'film appreciation' class, and most of my DVD collection is still in packing cases!). I realised, with a little surge of panic, that it was going to be difficult for me to find that hour or two free in the coming four or five days - without getting up very, very, very early in the morning.

Heavy sessions of recording on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (so much for not working on the weekends!) segued without a break into the first day of the Ditan Park Folk Festival on Saturday afternoon and evening. Then I had a wedding all day Sunday (some bar owner friends of mine; so, after the main celebration in the afternoon, there was a follow-up 'open bar' event all evening). I'd tried to fob off the private students I've been seeing over the weekend for the past few months, but of course they insisted they'd be quite happy to see me any time I was free, even early on Sunday morning, immediately before the wedding....

So, I really didn't have what you could call any significant amount of free time at home from Wednesday afternoon through to Monday morning. Luckily, yesterday's recording session was curtailed by sound pollution from building work in neighbouring apartments. But for that, I really wouldn't have had the chance to prepare for my new class properly. It was an evening class, too, and quite far away: I didn't get home again until nearly 10pm.

And this morning I had an 8am start in a university teaching job. I was looking forward to a bit of downtime this afternoon, but another of those infernal editing jobs landed in my Inbox.

More recording in prospect tomorrow and Thursday. And then on Friday I'm supposed to be having a video conference with someone in the UK about a proposed new training programme for their Beijing office.

Oh yes, and a friend of a friend is setting up a new online editorial agency, and this week is supposed to be a 'test week' to familiarise the core editing staff with company procedures and help to iron out any bugs in the CRM Web tools. Not sure where I'm going to find the time for that.....

Yet still I blog???

Tell-tale signs

Well, I've been wading through another academic editing chore this afternoon.

I think I've commented before on how Chinese academics tend to be quite shameless about paraphrasing - or often just cut & pasting verbatim - long chunks of other people's work, while only very rarely deigning to use citations or quotation marks to acknowledge the sources they are thus pillaging.

Usually, such plagiarism is very easy for a native English-speaking editor to spot because passages of perfect or nearly-perfect English do tend to leap off the page at you after long hours of grappling with Chinglish.

Today, though, I encountered another helpful pointer. This author had not even bothered to change the typeface or font sizes of his pilferings to match the rest of his text.

Intellectually shallow, irredeemably dishonest, and very, very lazy. Welcome to Chinese academe.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What's in an acronym?

A number of my female friends attended a forum on Saturday afternoon to launch the China chapter of professional networking group, Girls in Tech.

I couldn't help but think that 'Women In Tech' might have been a rather less patronising or ageist name for the organization, and would certainly have yielded a more imposing acronym. GIT-China sounds like something I should join.

At least they didn't opt for something like 'Classy Ladies In Tech' - that could have been embarrassing.

Bon mot for the week

"No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess."

Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

A Sunday poem

I've mentioned Larkin a number of times before. He's probably my favourite 'modern' poet, and his most devastatingly bleak work, Aubade, ranks among my 'Top Ten' poems. Something on JES's blog (I can't now remember what) put me in mind of this one, Church Going, a few weeks back. For me, the special quality about Larkin is that even when, as here, he's being more straightforwardly observational or autobiographical (or witty or facetious), he conjures forth the most perfect, resonant phrases. They lodge in the mind so powerfully that, with some of his poems, I've felt as if I were half-way to having memorised them after reading them for the first time. Here, I think, the best of many fine expressions is: "someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious." That could be another epitaph for me.

Church Going

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)