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Settling In


Life is settling into a routine. That's perhaps one reason I haven't written an update in a couple of weeks or so. The newness is wearing off a little, and my days are becoming somewhat standardized. I get up in the morning, have my coffee, go to work, come home. I have explored my neighborhood and have seen enough of others to realize they all pretty much look the same. I walk by lots of Chinese on the sidewalk, wedge up against them on the buses, eat at their restaurants, and they are now simply my neighbors and co-city-dwellers. I'm getting used to the traffic and the hustle and bustle and the shopping, and it is becoming my normal environment.

I am also doing things that occcupy my time more. I have been spending a lot of time trying to update myself on web programming, which I hope I can put into play soon (a lot has changed in the past few years, and not having access to books is no help). I am working on ideas for another website, not having to do with China, and that has been occupying a lot of my time.

And, importantly, I have made a couple of friends! There are two young women I've been spending time with; Ma Ruirui and Ma Yan. These are very different and interesting relationships.

Ruirui is a student in a year-long intensive program preparing for next year's national college entrance exam (which pretty much determines your entire future). She goes to school seven days a week, morning through evening! Her "day off" is Sunday after 3:30 pm, and we've been getting together and wandering the streets of Kunming on Sunday afternoons and evenings. I've been helping her practice her English. She speaks pretty good English, and we can communicate well and actually discuss abstract concepts like friendship, nationalism, and even the meaning of life to some degree (all with liberal assistance from the dictionary). She is one of the few Chinese students I've encountered who is really ambitious, and is into studying and working toward some pretty high goals, quite unlike my students. She wants to travel the world and she is interested in everything. She hasn't had much exposure to foreigners, so I am finding her a really valuable source of insight into (what can cautiously be called) a regular Kunming person's viewpoint about things. I know some Chinese who have spent a good number of years around foreigners and their thinking has been colored by consistent exposure to western ideas, so I take a different view of what they say about things. Also, Ruirui is very young (has to be about 18), so she is still deliciously fresh and idealistic. I vaguely remember what that was like.

Yan, on the other hand, is a bartender at Flying Tigers (my corner bar), so she is an entirely different experience. Ruirui's this young, fresh, idealistic student, and Yan... well, she's a bartender! You know! Yan speaks very little English, which is good because for once I get to speak a LOT of Chinese. I tell her it's my job to speak English and any Chinese who knows some English wants to practice with me, so I never get to speak Chinese. Of course, she wants me to teach her English, as does everyone else in China, but since she doesn't know any I don't have to talk in English! Yan is 25, and is really fun. We can't talk about the kinds of things that Ruirui and I do, but still, through a combination of intricate diagrams, pantomime and really bad foreign language we actually managed the other night to have a discussion about different nations' policies toward their national minorities, as well as Bush's Iraq policy. Hm! I'm not sure how much we actually said, but at least we got across the ideas we were trying to communicate.

Spending time with these folks is interesting and pleasurable, but really exhausting. Working through the language difference takes an enormous amount of effort!!! You can't just sit and talk, you have to be thinking the entire time -- not just about what you want to say, but how to say it and whether the other person understands. Conversely, you have to be completely focused on what the other person is saying and try to understand, and are constantly asking for more in-depth explanation. The other night it took us 15 minutes of work before I understood Yan wanted simply to say "a judge." She was telling me (in Chinese) "a man with black clothes and white hair." Where was I supposed to go from there? Of course, once I figured it out I understood the description, but you can see the problem. It's a constant racking of your brain, and it is not relaxing at all.

So I retreat to my apartment, as I often do even at home, and get on the 'puter or read. I was reading the famous Chinese author Lu Xun, who was active in the teens and twenties, but I tired of this after a while. Lu Xun's stories are all about the deadness of life in China as exhibited by the wearing down of people as they age (this circuit beginning and ending with the author); their loss of happiness and wonder and ambition and idealism, and their turning into tired old men resigned to their dreary lot, with all the life beaten out of them. It gets depressing. So I borrowed Moby Dick from my friend Sam Mitchell and have been having a blast reading that. Now, you may not think of Moby Dick as the most lighthearted of stories, but the exuberance of the storytelling is such a marked contrast to Lu Xun it's like going to an amusement park and riding on the WhipperSnapper. Lu Xun's China is small and dark and dirty and painted all in gloomy shades of gray. It's claustrophobic, a jail cell without a window or door. What can be more different than exploring the boisterous wharves of early American seaports, and getting on a whaling ship in Nantucket and heading out for a three-year adventure on the high seas with a cannibal for a best friend and a mad Captain at the helm? Even in the sober morality tales of Tolstoy, the world is large and colorful and full of possibilities, even if they are not seen or taken by characters who can't force their caravan out of the trails rutted by the constant passage of their gilt four-in-hand. In their case it is a personal foible, they are people whose choices are shaped by their circumstances. In Lu Xun's China there is simply no hope. I think I can take only so much Chinese literature (of that which I'm familiar) before I have to go back to western authors. So, this will constitute my little escapes from China, books and movies.

Oh! I must add, I don't mean to take anything away from Lu Xun, he is a marvelous author and very important in Chinese history (especially to the modernists). I very much appreciate his writing... his China is not the way it is by accident. He is making social commentary, I think, with the hope of effecting awareness and change. I just mean that for the reasons noted I cannot read him constantly.

Wooh! Well, anyway, there's a bunch of stuff of dubious interest and value. If you haven't been to the website in a while, it has a few new additions (mostly pictures of my students) but will be getting more shortly. I finally bought a camera and have been taking some pictures, which I hope to get up later this week.

Until next time, you all take care!

-Alex

alex@malcontent.info
www.china.malcontent.info