Monday, July 31, 2006

John Updike

I made my career trashing John Updike, and I'm not going to stop now. My new review of his novel Terrorist is up on January Magazine. You can also check out my very first book review (written at the tender age of nineteen) on Updike's Bech at Bay.


Friday, July 28, 2006


"Bad China Day" is a common expression here for a day when you're really fed up with living in China.

Dev and I are working on a Bad China Week.

On Tuesday, I got a call from a man speaking rapid and angry Chinese. Apparently while Ayi was out walking Shackleton, the dog nipped this man's pants' leg. The man was uninjured, but his pants were torn. I asked Apple to tell him I apologized and of course, I offered to pay for a new pair of pants.

He insisted on going to the doctor and threatened to call the police.

I told him, fine, go to the doctor and I will pay for your appointment (not realizing, at this stage, that the dog never even contacted his leg and he was totally uninjured). This negotiation stretched over five or six phone calls.

I was otherwise detained at an interminable banquet luncheon in a smoke-filled hall, gallantly ignoring the roaches running up the wall behind me so as not to embarass our hosts, who meanwhile regaled me with "10 Reasons You'll Never Really Understand Chinese Cooking" - a speech so often recited, it must be required memorization in grade school.

The man didn't believe me when I said I would reimburse him for the doctor and asked me to accompany him to the hospital. I offered to have Ayi escort him instead. Many more phone calls ensued. At last, it was arranged, Ayi took the man to the hospital and we agreed to meet him in the evening to discuss his pants.

I headed off to my hair appointment, got totally lost in a maze of trash-filled alleyways in the blazing heat, and a gang of loafers threw a cigarette butt at me for being laowai.

Well, as you should have guessed by now - though I naively did not - this man figured he hit the jackpot the moment a foreigner's dog bit him, and now he was trying to shake us down. His leg, and I must stress this again, was completely unblemished, though he did brandish his torn pants. He demanded 3000 yuan ($375) for his pants, taxis, missed days at work, and the four follow-up visits he claimed he had to make to the hospital. (For perspective, my consultation and two asthma prescriptions cost about 100 yuan.)

Eventually we settled with him for an undisclosed amount on the condition he sign a document ensuring we are not liable for any further complications or consquences from this non-existent injury.

The evening was capped by my first attack of stomach illness, the result of accidentally drinking tap water at the afore-mentioned banquet.

And then, this morning I was invited to a party in San Francisco with the editors of Salon (!), but instead I think I'll just go back to my job, eight hours a day trying to think up synonyms for "spicy."


Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Lunch Ruined

After a long, horrible week (more to follow), I returned to social intercourse and solid food with a trip to one of my favorite lunch spots, a western-style bakery near the office. Guiding my tray of tapioca milk tea, salad and packets of Thousand Island dressing, the nation's only approved salad topping*, towards the only available seat, I caught the tail end of a rather elevated conversation: ", what happened with the Gang of Four? I mean, there were four of them, right? Mao's wife and then, what, three others?"

I sat down next to a middle-aged Canadian man and a young Chinese girl, whom time revealed to be his English language student. The man was in the middle of pontificating on Chinese history, totally undeterred by his tenuous grasp of said history, and pausing only to critique his companion's choice of lunch items for their perilous level of transfats, described with horror as "twisted poison molecules" (yes, the best band name ever).

The girl appeared to understand no more than a few dozen English words, "cultural" and "revolution" not among them, and so the speaker interrupted his monologue just often enough to punch key words into an electronic pocket translator - "gang" was one such entry, "leap forward" another.

Our interlocutor was a bulbous, bearded man with a mane of shaggy white hair of the "counterculture professorial" variety, wearing a button-down shirt, faded jeans, and Tevas, with a wedded ring embedded in this thick finger (rather puffy for a man waging a multilingual war on transfats). His captive audience was a slim but inelegant girl of around 25, her plain features further dimmed by a look of deathly boredom which froze her politely upturned lips into a rigor mortis grin.

A second man, indistinguishable from the first except for his totally unironic Hawaiian shirt, joined the pair and the two men began conversing among themselves in English, to the evident relief of the young Chinese girl, who busied herself painstakingly rearranging the 3 inch stack of snapshots she kept in her wallet.

In the course of their conversation (which repeatedly referred to the girl in the third person), our hero explained that of all his students, only this young thing really understood him, had a real love of learning, a mature wisdom and insight - each virtue emphasized by a series of vaguely lascivious hand gestures, the last of which seemed to indicate "full breasts." He also made it clear that he speaks not a word of Chinese nor has any intention of learning any, and that he doesn't know this girl's name.

This is what I get for trying to sneak out of the office at lunch time.

* Recent menu sighting: "salad with your choice of thousand island dressing"

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Very exciting news!

Monday, July 24, 2006

this way madness lies

I'm sitting in my very warm office this Monday morning, while outside hundreds, thousands of cicadas are constantly screaming in the trees, this high, reverberating wail that seems to swell without ever breaking, until they die and fall to the sidewalk and their bodies rot on the ground, so large they look like dead birds.

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Friday, July 14, 2006


I have a Shanghai gallery review up on artnet, a tour of some recent shows in the city.


Monday, July 10, 2006

Our friend Andy just set off from Shanghai after a four-day visit on the way to Beijing as part of his round the world (twice) tour. He took some great photos of Shanghai which I will soon add to my own Flickr site, tagged as "andy."

In the spirit of these photos, I present a list of photos I wish I had taken:
  • A man bicycling while pulling a 9x9x9 foot cube of styrofoam;
  • A dog pelt vendor selling a row of furs on a bamboo stand, each so complete that you could still easily guess the breed;
  • Six women lined up in a row on the sidewalk, washing their hair in plastic buckets in perfect unison, their hair one sudsy black curtain;
  • And today, a domestic duck standing perfectly still in the middle of a warm, dirty rain in the middle of a ramshackle apartment complex garden in the middle of a dense, urban section of the city.

I absolutely must start carrying a camera at all times.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy Fourth of July! We celebrated with pork ribs and Coke (with ice!) at China's first Texas barbecue joint.

It made up for the long day I had today. The weather was well into the 90s, as usual, with a heat index of about 107. My office's single, extremely ineffective air conditioner doesn't cool the corner where I sit, so I was feeling a bit warm and drowsy even before I took a walk outside for a lunch meeting. The walk to and from the meeting was stifling, but the hour long, unairconditioned taxi ride I took after that was even more so.

I arrived at last in Pudong (the far-flung Brooklyn to our cozy Manhattan) at the Super Brand mall, an eight-story collection of stores and restaurants. I had a meeting at a new cafe that hasn't yet opened, but I was told it was in Super Brand Mall and next door to Hooters (yes, Hooters). I wandered through the mall, upstairs and down, and didn't see Hooters anywhere. Finally I was reduced to asking perhaps the most mortifying question I have ever asked: "Can you tell me how to find the Hooters?"

I asked several people about the Hooters in both Chinese and English, and kept getting answers like, "Go straight and then turn left." "Is it on this level?" "It's on this level, yes." After ten minutes, a thought dawned. I went back to the first concierge.

"Where is the Hooters?"

"Straight ahead, then left."

"When you say go left, do you mean go outside the mall and walk left down the street?"

"Yes, go outside, to the left."

No one ever told me that. Not once.

Pudong has wide, shadeless suburban-style streets, so I wandered, sun-dazed, down to the Hooters and then the cafe next door. The meeting was wonderful, but the taxi ride back as oppressive as the one that took me there.

All sweltering day long, I looked forward to resting in my air-conditioned apartment. When I opened the door, I found the dogs lying panting on the living room floor and the windows wet and steamy. The power was out.

(Now I feel terrible complaining about our broken air conditioning considered thousands and thousands of people here in China don't have electricity at all, but nonetheless, I felt pretty sick.)

Heat-addled, I made the dubious decision to fall asleep, figuring Dev would take care of the power when he returned from work. An hour later, I woke with a jolt and a gasp to the sound of Dev opening the front door. I was dazed, breathless, covered in sweat, completely disoriented.

The electrical box was locked, so Dev and I took the dogs downstairs on a walk to the property management office. Dev went inside to inquire about the power while I stook outside with the dogs. Several minutes later, I was weak and weaving, and had to lie down on the lawn with the dogs, made blessedly docile by the heat.

Finally, an electrician came to the apartment and uncovered our dangerously inadequate wiring with several small smoking explosions in the switchbox. He hastily taped together a makeshift solution, and promised to return tomorrow with a safer one.

Which, in sum, is why I was so happy to have Coke with ice.

Also - we have some great photos from Mina and James' recent visit, to be posted soon.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Chinese Medicine

On Friday I went to a Chinese doctor to seek a cure for the early morning coughing and sneezing that keep me awake. Asthma and lung problems are fairly common here, and I figured local doctors must see such cases often. My boss recommended a hospital in town; his girlfriend was also waking up in the early morning coughing and the doctor gave her something to calm her coughing and help her sleep. My friend and coworker Jessie, who is Chinese, agreed to go with me to translate.

We took a taxi to the hospital on a sweltering day, with a heat index well over 100 degrees. The hospital is on a busy street, tucked behind a row of ramshackle stores.

Now I suppose I had a somewhat romanticized view of the Chinese hospital as a dim, calm shop with rows of tiny glass bottles containing exotic herbs in tinctures and powders.

What I found was, of course, rather different. The large, multi-level building looked like a dilapidated bank, with expanses of cracked, dingy marble and a row of teller windows. Elderly people shuffled back and forth across the wide, empty center space, while the more unfortunate sprawled out on stretchers under the florid sculpted awnings or huddled into rows of plastic chairs. It reminded me of TV news images of high school gymnasiums, stadiums, and other public venues turned into makeshift hospitals after a disaster.

Despite their depressed circumstances, nurses and receptionists wore smart, white uniforms with old-fashioned nurses' caps pinned above neat hairdos. No one spoke English, but Jessie helped me navigate through several stations as I got a medical ID/membership card and checked in to see the doctor, whose consulting room was one of dozens of small, numbered cubicles on the third floor.

The doctor was competent and friendly, with a warm, earnest bearing and obvious personal dignity. He spoke English rather well, though with a heavy accent. (I spent several moments wondering over his injunction to "monitor my lan feng xian" before I realized he was saying "lung function.") The doctor suspected I might have only a cold that's been hanging on for many weeks, but he also wants to make sure I don't develop asthma, since my mother's is quite severe. He gave me several medications (pills, not teas) and asked me to return in six days to check for improvement in my lungs.

(Incidentally, my more romantic notions are not entirely unfounded - many pharmacies here do sell exotic plant and animal parts alongside antibiotics and other "western" drugs.)