26 September 2002

a Peng by any other name . . .

the new public school year started recently and with it came about 200+ new students i am currently teaching. all of these students want an english name, and so i have been racking brains, web pages, cast lists and any oracles that will help me to complete this daunting task. since my capacity to read names using chinese characters is shaky at best, the homeroom teacher has been kind enough to provide a pinyin-ated listing for 100 of the 200 impatient tykes (all first graders), and i have been at it for the past week or so. most students have three names - the first is their family name followed by one or two given names. names are very important in chinese culture, so in picking a name one must be cognizant of the chinese name's sound and meaning and the english name's sound and meaning. for instance, the english teacher's name at ji che chang (my public school) is Nancy, and she told me that her name acquisition was originally met with hearty objections from her sister. Nancy sounds very much like "nan xi" which means southwest. her sister asked her why she didn't just name herself dongbei ("northeast"). another example (and sorry, Shea, but it must be told again) is Heather's laudable decision to be known as Shea. a lovely name in my estimation. however, it carried with it one small issue in that shea sounds exactly like "shui" which means "who" in chinese. so the first few days introducing her to marketowners and fellow teachers proved interesting, a sort of "who's on first, what's on second" feel. i'll give you a second to recreate the conversation in your mind's eye. "ta shi shea" (lit: she is who?). "wo bu zhidao" (lit: i don't know). "bu shi. ta shi shea" (see above). "wo gaosu ni le. wo bu renshi ta" (i told you, i don't know this woman). it was an interesting few days. i still catch myself in pockets of confusion about it, but i'm learning.

this all brings me to my request for help: i have 5 boys all with the given name Peng (sounds like pung with a rising tone) and i have no idea what to name them. so here is your big chance to name a child whom you don't have to put up with through adolescence. thoughts?

in hopes that you are well,

24 September 2002

long promised, now delivered

so here it is - the long-awaited (well, at least long promoted) story of the motorbike, followed by the russian-speaking chinese grandmother.

i acquired my second bike about a month ago after the first one had been stolen from my chicken-saturated hutong (this more or less means tiny street in chinese) in april and was again becoming accustomed to "riding euphoria". anyone who has ever tried to navigate a borderline anarchic road system such as new york, bangkok or china (to name a few) will readily appreciate the courage and detachment involved in bicycle navigation. so armored, i was returning from a swell swim and peddling to my heart's content around a roundabout (dastardly things) when a motorbike ripped around like hell on wheels and pounded into my poor unsuspecting front tire. i flew like a superhero and landed on my backpack (blessings be to towels and soggy suits) before i even saw the feller's shirttails whipping in the wind as he accelerated away. now i should not have taken offense. the ways of the chinese street are as yet still foreign to this waiguoren, and i should know better than to curl my fist in the air. but the fact that it was a BRAND SPANKIN' BIKE (i named it clyde), that he was most definitely going the wrong way around the intersection, that he sped up expressly to hit me and then didn't stop to see if i was alright really got my goat. and i don't even have a goat (though my neighbors do). the rest of the day was spent as a transformed me, from contented swimmer to anger ball. this feeling subsided as soon as i took my much-abused clyde to an able bike mechanic for a 20-minute overhaul. the fellow, like most bike mechanics in this area, have a set of tools and a chair or two. this guy had a deluxe setup, with added features such as large umbrella and two chairs for waiting customers. for 8 yuan (referred hereafter as kuai), he tightened my spokes, set my handlebars to rights, straightened my wheel, realigned my brakes and filled my tires. and clyde shone like my blue steed again. all was mended. ahhh!

as i become more and more acquainted with this wacky language of mandarin (aka hanyu aka putonghua aka zhongwen aka . . .) i understand more of what people say about me. as it happens, i am finding that everyone and his chicken, goat and donkey thinks i'm russian. considering jilin province is within a discus throw of russia, this is not an unwise assumption. and since most people over the age of 35 were compelled to study russian in school, some feel it a great opportunity to exercise their linguistic skills in my general direction. my ignorance of aforementioned language is met with disappointment or suprise, but in a few cases with blinking disbelief. and so it happened one evening that my friend, michelle, and i strolled into a store ("shangdian") with every intention of buying chocolate. during our perusal, i noticed an elderly woman staring at the two of us, and once she caught my eye she started touching my arm and spattering off a line of speak that met my ears as jibberish. it took a few solid seconds to realize she was speaking russian. no matter how hard i tried to tell her that i'm american, not russian, she would not stop. her daughter behind the counter even joined my plea to dispense with russian, but she was not budging. i felt so ashamed that i had not spent more time trying to learn russian from stacie or my brother, but i figured that regardless of my desire to communicate, the few words and phrases known to me (hello, how are you, out the window there's a church choir) would be of little sustained use to a woman bent on lengthy communication. and so i left the store bereft of chocolate and with a greater sense of how very much in this life i have to learn.

anyway, that's the news from here. sorry for the length, hope you slogged through, and thanks again to those of you who have been reading this! so marvy to know that my meanderings aren't sputnik. as perhaps can be seen, i have realigned my last email to its true temporal state.

22 September 2002

mood indigo

yesterday was marked by two special occasions - the chinese moon festival and Shea's (aka Heather Springer's) birthday. the moon festival (and please correct me if i'm wrong, those of you more heavily knowledgeable of chinese culture) is a holiday in which families reunite, eat a lot, and watch the moon at its fullest. the big delicacy at this time is mooncakes, which are thick pastries stuffed to the hilt with gooey sweet . . . goo. a few friends and i decided that mooncakes would make great trail food and we should remember to bring some hiking with us if we can only get our hands on them between festivals. of course, this is all assuming that they don't turned into the hardened oversized hockey pucks i envision given a week of air and mysterious nonpreservative evolution. mooncakes could become the basis for the next in a long line of extreme olympic sports, and i wonder if i could make a suggestion to the 2008 beijing committee to this purpose. can you buy stock in chinese companies? i put all my money in pastry manufacturers. all 200 yuan of it.

Shea enjoyed one of the two main birthday traditions it has been my pleasure to witness here in china, and that is the Candle That Never Ends. it is a plastic version of a lotus flower that, when stuck on a huge white cake and lit in the middle, opens up into numerous candle-festooned petals. there is then a flash in the middle and "happy birthday" squealed eternally and excrutiatingly. this ear-rending natal salutation is powered by a battery that could solve the energy crisis. you can imagine why birthdays are so memorable here. the other long-lived tradition to which our dear shea was not subjected was the birthday noodle, a torturously long and truck-lane wide noodle that could be used to repave broadway. it is supposedly bad luck to break the noodle while eating, but i have as yet only seen one person slurp the whole thing down. either good luck is not dependant on the birthday noodle, or only one person within my circle of friends lives untouchable.

golly, what else has happened recently? since i'm not sure if anyone will ever read this, i feel as though any typed meanderings will just find themselves spiralling through an unobserved vacuum like sputnik. i have daydreams of neal stephenson randomly finding my prosed spacejunk and going "hmmmm . . . interesting." if you're reading this, neal, i loved "zodiac".
i promised i would talk about the russian-speaking chinese woman and being run over by a motorbike, but i would rather close this entry with last night's phonecall. i get numerous phonecalls from people trying to contact my landlord. last night's was the most rigorous and loquatious (sp?) of all the inquirers, and i thought it was because i was tired and dressed in my sarong pajamas and reading "the diamond age" again (another neal stephenson reference) and therefore not prone to discussion. but as it turns out he kept talking because he thought i was chinese! he must have been REALLY tired or been kind of gone on baijiu not to notice my tendency to ask him to repeat everything he said, but i took it as a compliment anyway. right before i dozed off with the beautiful girl in the moon to watch over me.

that's all from me. hope all is well with you.

11 September 2002

a first note

so here it is, my latest attempt in some form of communication along the vast expanse between fiesty, far-away friends and family. thanks to Heather Springer, hereafter known as Shea, who provided herself as a writing role model and journal inroduct (if this wasn't a word before, it sure as hell is now).
in coming editions: the motorbike that ran me over, the woman who could not accept the fact that we were not russian, and the homing donkey fro mei he kou. mahjiong stories and hard sleeper tales. hope you all enjoy.