火曜日, 8月 31, 2004

Politically Incorrect Board Games...

...make me realize I'm uncomfortable with history.
    The #1 ranked game out of thousands reviewed and discussed on the huge site boardgamegeek.com is "Puerto Rico". Although 16th century Puerto Rico repels me as a setting for a game because of the evils of colonialism and slavery, I succumbed to the hype (that it is a game of infinite depth and strategy) and bought the game yesterday at Yellow Submarine otaku supply store in Sannomiya. I think now after reading this thread (after I had already bought it) that I should have trusted my initial impression and avoided this game, which is blatantly politically incorrect.
    This is what I bought at Yellow Submarine after my online research and before the typhoon confined me indoors last night. Now comes the hard part - bugging people to play them with me.

1) Puerto Rico - Will "brilliant and innovative gameplay" overcome my moral repugnance for playing the part of thinly disguised colonial slaveholders?

2) The Settlers of Catan - Capcom Standard Version
    Although everyone who plays this game seems to love it regardless of cultural and ethnic background, and it's so abstract it's not representative of any particular place or period of history, there are some issues here too. First of all, the colonization theme. We're led to assume that the island is uninhabited when the settlers arrive, but if so who is the "robber" figure? And why is the "robber" black? I was swept up in the hype over this game and forgot my initial discomfort with this aspect of it, until reminded of it again by Puerto Rico. Maybe the choice of color for the robber is unintentional, but I'll paint mine a different color anyway to express my lack of complicity with board game racism.

3) Carcassonne Hunters & Gatherers - According to my online research, this seems to be the most played of the "Carcassonne" series of tile-laying games. I think it will be a good one to have because it can be played with two players, and it's not very big or complicated so I can take it around with me in my backpack and inflict it on...I mean teach it to...my language exchange partners.

4) Die Neuen Entdecker - They didn't have Sid Meier's "Civilization the Board Game" or "Tigris and Euphrates" at Yellow Submarine. However, both Tokyu Hands and Yellow Submarine had this one (YS was 2000 yen cheaper!) and boardgamegeek reviewed it favorably, so I bought it. It's by Klaus Teuber, the creator of Settlers, but more importantly it looks fun in its own way. It reminds me of the exploration part of Civilization, the PC game.
    Except for Settlers, which is in Japanese, the games are all in German, which makes me feel like a total nerd if I didn't already, but I just printed out the English rules from the boardgamegeek site. I also don't even know how to play any of them yet except Settlers. Minor details.
    I'm not sure if I mentioned this before, but the last time we played Cranium it seemed very culturally biased - there is no way the Japanese players could answer the questions. It wasn't a language thing - it was culture. Games are unnervingly culturally specific sometimes - what is fun for one group of people can be offensive if carried overseas. Well, video games aren't that way, but board games tend to be - is it because most board games are created in Europe or America and most video games are created in Japan? Actually, it's not true that video games that are okay in Japan are never considered offensive overseas. Come to think of it, that happens a lot, too - see this article about the "Twin" monster in SH4. My copy of SH4 has the "Twin" in it (shudder).

    I'm also TEACHING soon (it's about time). I'm trying to encourage my 360 students to interact with me more by giving them stamp-cards for extra credit for either talking to me outside of class or keeping an English diary. I presented my idea to my two co-teachers at the lesson planning meeting today, and they seemed impressed. They think I'm going to have a lot of work on my hands, though, correcting 360 students' journals or talking to them individually. I'm not sure how many students will actually do it though, so I'm not scared yet about the effects this will have on my copious amounts of free time. If I lost ten hours a week for every time I told another teacher "I'd like to be busier" - well, I'd still have free time at school to spare.

金曜日, 8月 27, 2004

I'm Bored, But Fighting It

    Only a week until I start teaching again. It will be good to start doing something useful for a change, even if it's just playing word games with shy teenagers. In this entry I'll tell you how I'm fighting the boredom of summer vacation now that I'm back from China.

    Last night:
    After work, I went to Tokyu Hands to look at their selection of board games. I was surprised to see that they have several German board games in now. Cool. Today I'll look them up at boardgamegeek.com to see which one I want to buy. I can't read German so I couldn't read the backs of the boxes, but they come with Japanese rule books. I might host my gaming group again soon, and I have nothing good to play. I want to play "Tigris and Euphrates" or "Sid Meier's Civilization, the Board Game" (I love the PC game Civilization III!) - but they are impossible to find in Japan, and so expensive to ship from elsewhere (the price of the game instantly doubles when you ship it.) If you have any information about finding games like this in Japan, PLEASE tell me. I have a collection of the suckiest board games ever, having inherited some old ESS club standbys from departing JETs. Must get better games.
    While in Sannomiya, I got a keitai mail from my pal Takashi who was also there on his day off, so I met up with him at Logos Cafe. It was good to talk about my trip with an actual friend, not just a coworker or student. Some of my friends are still away for the summer, so it's been kind of lonely for a first week back. Tomorrow, though, I'm going to the BBQ party of a good friend of mine, so that will be great. I'm just nervous about cooking the Chinese food I said I'd bring. Sure, I can cook vegetarian Chinese food...I took a cooking class in China...no problem...right? This morning I made Chinese-style scrambled egg and tomato like we had almost every morning for breakfast there, but that doesn't require a lot of skill. I just added a little sugar and soy sauce, and some green onions to the tomato and egg as I was cooking it. Yum.

Currently Reading:

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. At the recommendation of imagimancer. Cyberpunk sci-fi with a Victorian motif, it's set in a futuristic Shanghai. I'm curious to see how these disparate elements come together.

Recently Read:

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman - I read this in China. I bought the rest of this critically acclaimed children's fantasy trilogy and had them shipped from Beijing, along with some other books (i.e. Chinese novels in English translation). I wasn't disappointed by The Golden Compass. It's stylish and appealing, original fantasy.

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde - I read this in China too. It was so funny. Yesterday a teacher at my school demanded to know what I'd read while I was gone (HE has read over 20 books, he told me!) and I tried to tell him about this, but I had to go on the Internet to find the Japanese title - まじめが肝心. I'm unsatisfied by this translation of the title, because the whole play hinges on the pun between the name "Earnest" and actual earnestness. Without using the name Earnest in the title, I think the charm is lost.

The Lady or the Tiger - a short story by Frank Stockton. I read this on the Internet the other day. If it were me, it would be the lady, because love that is that jealous isn't really love. It's murderous. Jealousness isn't benign. I think you have to let people be, especially if you love them.

Ordinary People by Judith Guest - I finished this yesterday. Because it's mostly dialogue, it's a quick read. I bought it because it's in English and I'd heard of it, not the soundest of reasons for reading something, even if it's cheap. The author let the characters, who were totally out of touch with their own emotions and inarticulate about expressing them, do all the talking. If you're going to let your characters' dialogue dominate the book, at least let them have a clue about how they are feeling instead of always saying "I don't know, man" and "Let's not talk about it right now."
    I did sympathize with Conrad, the depressed teenager at the center of the novel. He was getting over his brother's death and trying to reintegrate himself with his old life after a suicide attempt and a stay in a mental hospital. I could feel his pain, but the problem was that he couldn't express himself at all, normal perhaps for a depressed teenager, but annoying to a reader who wants to know what's going on. The author decided to cheer him up by throwing him a perfect romantic relationship with a beautiful girl (how often does that happen to suicidal teenagers in real life?) -sure, lucky for him, he falls in love and everything is happy again, except that his mother is still a cold evil monster for liking a clean house and traveling. Horrors! I don't understand why the author thought liking to travel is so sinister. Like everything would be okay if only she didn't want to take the family to Europe or Florida. Apparently her taking the family to Florida for Christmas last year was to blame for Conrad's suicide attempt! At the end the author just conveniently got the mother out of the picture without EVER showing her side of the story at all. The writing style was also coarse and stupid, with a lot of swearing and '70s slang.
    I did like the novel Mrs. Bridge, which has a similar sort of theme ("ordinary families are sick") - because the writing was more poetic and elegant, and it was like the surface of a still pool, with hidden depths. On the other hand, it occurs to me that Ordinary People is a famous novel that may have influenced a whole generation of psychological novels about characters with repressed emotions. I think the best examples of that genre are The Prince of Tides (I like the movie too) and Susan Howatch's novels. Ordinary People just proves to me that characters can be annoying if they are too uncommunicative.

水曜日, 8月 25, 2004

Three Kinds of Blog Entries

1) Contributing to the Internet
"I have an original idea or some information that I want to share with others on the Internet."    
The most noble kind of blog entry.

2) Responding to the Internet
"I see a web page that interests me, and I have an opinion about it, so I will publish my response."
    It doesn't matter if the site in question is new or ten years old, because all time is now. The blogger has freedom to comment on all things from the broadest to the most trivial.

3) Putting Personal Drivel on the Internet
"I have moods, listen to me whine while I tell you about the minute details of my humdrum day."

    In the past, before the Internet, these writings would probably not have been shared with a large audience, but would instead have been hidden away in a diary or personal letter. Now, you can read about the roller-coaster emotions of complete strangers. This is a huge change in the social geography of our times. What will it mean?

    Perhaps we're headed for a widespread loss of privacy. I often think it would be dangerous to maintain a blog if I had a stalker. How would I code my entries so that my friends and family would know what I was up to, and my stalker wouldn't? I don't delude myself that a stalker couldn't find out my page address without my help--I challenged an ex-boyfriend to do so, and he succeeded in less than 5 minutes. Would it be better to just leave things out, or write them in an ambiguous way? Or what if I needed to prove that I was really myself by knowing something only I would know (a situation that I'm sure occurs more often on TV than in real life) and this was impossible because everything secret and meaningful to me had already been blogged? Why am I willing to risk my privacy for the sake of self-expression?

Pronunciation Practice

    Sure, we English teachers think we have perfect pronunciation, but do we? The link is a list of frequently mispronounced English words. To practice eradicating bad pronunciation habits, I wrote the following story to be read aloud:

    Last February, I went camping in the Arctic Circle. The campsite was comfortable, but I wanted an espresso. Patience is not my forte, so I asked around until I located an old coffeepot and a minuscule amount of ground coffee. I decided to practice my pronunciation as I watched it percolate. I probably mispronounce all of these words often. In the past I was insouciant, but now I would like to sound suitably cultured before my upcoming nuptials, or else my fiance’s family will lambaste me. The last time I went to his family’s house, they wanted to argue with me about the role of the electoral college. When I didn’t want to discuss it, they asked me embarrassing questions about menstruation. It made me nervous. They seem to have a plenitude of difficult topics to discuss with me.

    Is your pronunciation perfect?

    Note: Dictionary.com explains that while pronouncing forte as "for-tay" is technically incorrect, 74% of people polled prefer the two-syllable pronunciation. I agree with the majority vote on this one. The correct pronunciation ("fort") is dumb.

Black Vinegar Ice

Originally uploaded by moglet.
The name of this product is "Black Vinegar Healthy Ice." Unable to imagine such a flavor, I bought a box from Daimaru and hurried home to try one.
    Along with the health food elixir black vinegar, it contains pineapple juice and lots of sugar, so the taste is not that bad, but it's not exactly what you expect to taste when biting into a popsicle. Sour and unexpected, the brown-sugared aftertaste reminds me of molasses.

    More pictures of ice cream bars in Japan

月曜日, 8月 23, 2004

Return To Japan

    I returned to Japan yesterday. Outside is a torrential downpour, just like the rainy weather I experienced in China. I filled both of my memory cards with over 200 pictures on my trip.
    On my second day in Hong Kong I went to a great museum - The Hong Kong Museum of History. I was totally fascinated.
    The best bargains I got in China were a 12-disc DVD set of all Miyazaki movies for about US $20 and a new pair of glasses in Beijing for about the same price. Beijing is a great place to buy glasses. I took my broken ones in to be fixed there, but they just made me new ones. They had them ready the next day. I wore them on the overnight train rides when I didn't want to deal with my contacts, and they're fully as good as the expensive ones that broke. As for the Miyazaki movies, I was careful to buy Japanese DVDs that would work on my PlayStation 2, and when I checked one last night it did work.
    Three weeks is a long time to be removed from ordinary life. I feel rather surreal resuming my old life as if nothing had happened. I saw China, I saw how big and desperate and poor it is, rich in culture but grimy and chaotic in contrast to Japan's pristine streets and impeccable manners. I don't want to be unchanged by the experience, but on a day-to-day level my routine is identical to the way it was before. I feel like I need to make some meaningful change to convince myself that what I learned matters.

Grotesque Imitation Japanese Food

Nihon Fuumi
Originally uploaded by moglet.
Perhaps created by someone who had seen Japanese food once but never tasted it. This photo was taken at the night food market in Beijing, where a hundred stalls sold food of dubious edibility from every province in China. There WAS authentic Japanese food in China, but this wasn't it. The yellow brick in the center that looks like tamagoyaki is actually banana cake. The bright orange balls that look like uni sushi are actually hard, tasteless, artificially colored dumplings. The bamboo thing has coconut rice inside. To my knowledge Japanese cuisine never uses banana and coconut. The "leaves" are plastic.
Nihon Fuumi Close-up

金曜日, 8月 20, 2004

Hong Kong

    Arrived in Hong Kong this morning. What a beautiful place--calm, modern, friendly, prosperous. I love the place names in Hong Kong; Kowloon, Nathan Road. I love looking at the bilingual street signs and trying to sound out how sets of two or three Chinese characters make the sounds of "Austin," "Kimberly," or "Parks." They DO make those sounds, magically. It's true what I've heard, that everyone speaks fluent English here. And as my Canadian friend Melanie found out, everyone says they're from Canada. Unless you hate crowds, you should definitely visit this great city.
    China was SO censoring my blog, along with other Internet sites I was trying to access there. It's so stupid to censor the Internet. I couldn't see my own blog while I was in mainland China, but I can see it just fine in Hong Kong. Why were they hiding my own thoughts from me?
    I found a large Japanese bookstore here. One of the English teachers at my school goes to Hong Kong every year. I can understand why.
    I wish I had longer than 2 days in Hong Kong - and that I was here with someone special - and that I had lots of money here. I'll be back with all three of these wishes, someday.

木曜日, 8月 19, 2004

Hiking in Longji

    After Shanghai, we took the train south to Guilin. I read in my guidebook that there is no old city of Guilin anymore since the Japanese destroyed it. No wonder they seemed a little hostile to foreigners. Actually people just stared at us coldly wherever we went. I'm normally oblivious to the "People are staring at me!!!" complaint that afflicts some travelers in Asia, but in this case even I was observant enough to notice the calculating, mean stare we got from the men on the streets as we walked around. They would not break their stare, even when we stared back.
    After a night in Guilin, the outdoor adventure part of our trip began. Steve hired a local guide for a few days, codenamed "Daisy," who was super nice. Daisy led us up and down the gorgeous rice terraces of Longji in the countryside not far from Guilin. This area is home to the Yao and Zhuang minorities. We stayed in a Zhuang village, which was awesome. You had to climb a lot of stone steps to get to the guesthouse. It rained the next day, so our planned 6-hour hike in the terraced mountains became a mere 2-1/2 hours. It was treacherous to find my footing in the rain, since the stone steps were steep, slippery and muddy. Near the beginning of the hike, we were told to take off our shoes to wade across the river, and it just took off from there with more fun stuff in the pouring rain. One guy's shoes went floating down the river, but luckily they were saved. I scraped my hand on my umbrella and bled. But as you can see, I survived this unaccustomed brush with outdoorsiness. And the scenery at the top was incredible.

Originally uploaded by moglet.

Right: The terraced rice paddies of Longji on a rainy day. Find the butterfly.

    You can see how steep the rice terraces are. At the top, Daisy told us that no water buffalo will live this high up, so farmers were forced to use their women as plow animals. This was so shocking it somewhat tarnished the view.
    The kids here had computers to play with, and it looked like the tourist industry was putting lots of new money into the village. We were shown the old buildings, but the villagers have already started living in new buildings bought with tourist money.
    Next door was the Yao village, which is called the "Long Hair" village because the women grow their hair down to the floor and wrap it up in a turban during the day along with pieces from their mothers' and grandmothers' hair. To see one of them comb out her hair, we had to pay one yuan each. Another unusual thing we saw in this village was hair-handled baskets. They were big baskets for carrying on the back and the straps were made of braided (apparently) human hair. Imagine if I took one of these on the subway to work in Japan...
    In the traditional village, the people lived on the second floor and the animals lived on the first floor. Melanie and I discussed the question of how weird it would be to hear animal sounds all the time in your house, because the pigs, especially, were quite noisy, when we were shown to our room in the guesthouse and guess what, there were pigs on the other side of the wall to our bedroom. So we got to experience that for ourselves. Lots of other farm animals everywhere, notably free-range chickens pecking around with their chicks. Nice to see after I've read so much about the cruelty of keeping chickens penned in crowded dirty conditions like we do in the U.S., but I didn't enjoy seeing a pig slaughtered as I was walking around one evening. Also, as we were getting back from our hike, we saw a cute little girl of about 5 or 6, but before we could exclaim over how cute she was we saw that she had a bloody meat cleaver in her hand. Daisy told us that she must have just killed a chicken. As if it were nothing for first-graders to carry bloody knives around. In this world, I guess it isn't.
    The next few days were full of more hiking, biking and outdoorsy stuff. Daisy led us on a long bike ride to her village in Yangshuo, our next destination, and we split up to either go to a mud cave or climb Moon Hill. I wanted to go to a cave, but this one is a dark river of mud in a cave, and you go down a huge mud slide and get completely covered in mud, mud up to your armpits, and you might get hurt or die in there if your flashlight goes out and you lose your way. The advertisements boast: "The best mud in the world." No thanks. I really got muddy enough in Longji. So I climbed the top of Moon Hill instead. It was so beautiful and calm at the top. I felt great.

Yangshuo scenery

    The scenery around Guilin and Yangshuo is famous throughout China for the striking limestone peaks that grace the landscape. Since it's summer now, everything is green and lush, more beautiful than the pictures of the area I've seen in any other season. You can see people rafting along the green rivers and working in the rice fields, children playing with bamboo waterguns, brightly colored flowers and red-bodied dragonflies. The air is clean and misty, the weather warm and rainy.
    I'm in Yangshuo still, and we're leaving for Hong Kong tonight. Yangshuo is a destination I would recommend for backpackers, since there is a lot of cool caving and hiking you can do from here, although the social vibe still seems a bit harsh compared to the friendliness of Thailand and Japan,and the coffee and food here has been disappointing. I would have gone to the Black Dragon Cave today, which I hear has no mud, but unfortunately I'm sick today. Everyone has been getting sick all week. If it's not one thing, it's another, and two of our group had food poisoning so bad they had to call a doctor. We got back from our cooking class and found them in bed with an IV drip hung up on a stepladder with a Chinese doctor sitting by their beds. Fortunately, they are well enough to travel tonight.


Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower
Originally uploaded by moglet.

    Fresh from the ancient slums of Xi'an, I was dazzled by the modernity of Shanghai. Unlike Beijing, the subway system has automated ticket machines, and unlike Xi'an, the streets are swept clean every day. Shanghai is amazing. With more than 3,100 high-rise buildings and the highest living standard in mainland China, it has an international, stylish urban feeling that attracted me more than any other city in China.
    Yet there was a dark side to all that perfection. Cops were everywhere. They policed the streets prosecuting unlicensed street vendors. We saw an angry merchant with an overturned melon cart; it seemed that the cops knocked it over because he didn't have a license. On the Bund, the waterfront street where foreign tourists like to stroll for a view of the Oriental Pearl Hotel and old colonial buildings, selling tourist junk is absolutely prohibited, as I found out when I bought some dancing mice from a man and his daughter, who ran away and hid as soon as the transaction was done. I was delighted with my illegal mice. On the dark streets, they look just like living things, with red sequins for eyes and lively mouselike movement when you pull the string. Later we saw a cop striding purposefully along holding a bag full of the confiscated toys. Street peddlars aggressively selling everything from frozen bottled water to terracotta warriors are virtually inescapable wherever you go in China, but here, unnervingly, they run away when they see the cops coming.
    Perhaps because of the number of Japanese tourists in Shanghai, or because tourists and students are allowed to go to Japan from Shanghai, some Shanghai residents can speak Japanese. I met a couple of them during my stay. One was a young Chinese man who had studied in Japan for 12 years, who worked at a Japanese restaurant near our hotel. The other was an older, bald fat man who mixed Japanese and Chinese when he talked to me over stir-fried vegetables at a grimy restaurant one night. I had put my plate aside, unable to finish the spicy tofu and vegetable dish they'd given me, and he began unceremoniously using my half-full plate as an ashtray. He urged me to come back to Shanghai for Chinese New Year, telling me that China was changing and soon I wouldn't be able to see the old ways any more.
    Walking back to my hotel late at night after this meal, I stopped at a fruit stand and bought the best mango I've ever tasted. That night, because I wasn't doing anything touristy but was just acting like an ordinary person, is one of my favorite memories of Shanghai.
    International tourism is changing the world, in ways we do not desire or predict. I understand now why people don't want to be tourists.
    I stayed 3 days in Shanghai. It's an expensive city, and my money didn't go as far there as I'd hoped. I started to hate the street my hotel was on. Though I loved it on the first day, as time went on I started to recognize it for nothing more than a giant mall. Mel and I saw the Shanghai Acrobats and visited the Yuyuan Gardens and the Jade Buddha Temple, which were cool, and I caught a bad cold on the third day. Three days is far too short to see all of Shanghai. I promised myself I'd go there again someday and took the train south to Guilin.

月曜日, 8月 09, 2004

Dichotomies in Xi'an

    Rich and poor; dirty and sparkling clean; beautiful and ugly; ancient and...well, pretty old--that's Xi'an. The ugly, dirty, poor side of Xi'an that you see if you walk the streets is nauseating. There are poor beggar children, hardly more than toddlers, who chase us on some of the streets holding out their hands for money; Melanie started carrying a bag of fruit to give them.

Dirty Street, Xi'an
Originally uploaded by moglet.
There is another street we always have to walk by to get to our hotel where they keep chickens and other animals; it reeks of slaughter and offal. That street is wet and slippery, with such a nauseating smell that Mel and I were genuinely afraid of it at first. A moment's inattention in that street could result in being hit by a car or bike or slipping and falling into the disgusting mess.
    On the other hand, there are upper and middle class people in Xi'an also. We walked into one of the big department stores and we could have been back in Japan; immaculate, pricy, with all the latest fashions. The guys we met at a nightclub last night were middle-class. The street poor, although few in number, command our attention the most at first, but they are by no means the only people living in the once-great western capital.
    My favorite thing to do here is simply to talk to people in my limited Chinese. This morning I went down to get breakfast from one of the street stalls. I had hot soy milk in a plastic bag with a straw, and a thing like a tortilla roll-up with shredded carrots, fried egg, and spicy vegetables inside. I talked with a man we bought a dirty, travel-sized Chinese checkers set from yesterday and his wife came out and talked to me also. That was probably the highlight of my day because they were really nice to me. We talked for maybe 45 minutes, in Chinese because they don't know any English except for a few words.

On the Xi'an City Wall
Originally uploaded by moglet.
Afterwards, Mel and Roman and I rented bikes on the city wall and rode on top of the wall itself. It's a really cool wall. It's from 700 AD or so and still sturdy enough to ride a bike on. But we couldn't go all the way around the whole city, because part of it was torn down and we had to turn back.
   At the bottom of the south gate of the wall Mel and Roman bought ocarinas from a souvenir vendor. I didn't buy one, but I was impressed with the plaintive sound of the ocarina as he played it to demonstrate. One thing I like about China is the diversity of the music. I wish I brought a tape recorder with me to record the interesting Chinese music I hear. It's strange because lately I've been completely bored by Japanese music and music in general. I rarely even buy or rent CDs. So Chinese music is great for me. On our first night in Xi'an I heard a street performer I really liked. I would have stopped to listen to him longer, but Mel had just had her first encounter with the aggressive beggar children and she burst out crying and went into culture shock. So I felt like I'd better just go back to the hotel with her and the others to make sure she was okay.
    On our first full day in Xi'an, yesterday, I started to feel a lot better. Until then I'd had a constant headache from the smog. I was enjoying the trip, but I didn't feel my best in Beijing or on the Great Wall. Then, apparently my body finally acclimated, because my headache cleared up and since then I've felt fine. Now I can really enjoy the rest of the trip. It was yesterday, the day we went to see the Terracotta Warriors.

Terracotta Warriors
Originally uploaded by moglet.
We went in the morning. We watched an exciting surround-screen movie which explained the significance of their discovery, and then we saw the actual terracotta warriors, which were discovered in 1974. There are thousands of them, and they are not all excavated yet. The coolest thing about them is that they all look different, with different facial features, hairstyles,etc., and in fact they were modeled on real people. We see a lot of modern historical simulations these days in movies and video games. Seeing the terracotta warriors was like seeing how ancient people simulated themselves. Military formations, hairstyles, armor, weapons, all reproduced down to the last detail in clay by their contemporaries. Their expressions when you look in their faces are so poignant. Some are smiling haughtily, but others merely look resigned to their fate. Some are sad. Some are limbless, lying in crumbled bits. Those soldiers really did lose a battle, but the battle was against time.
    In the evening we went to dinner at a Chinese-Brazilian restaurant and then to nightclubs where Mel and I were hit on by Chinese men. It was so great. As I said, the touristy stuff isn't so great here because it's so dirty and tiring, but it is fun to just talk to people. So at the disco we got to talk to these guys who wanted to dance with us and give us drinks and cigarettes. The guy I danced with was such a crazy dancer. I've never seen anyone dance like that in Japan. He asked me how long I'd be in Xi'an and seemed disappointed that I was leaving tomorrow. Will I ever be back? Probably not. It's sad. But it was so much fun. We also talked with some drunk French girls traveling through China. We stayed out till 2. I'm also enjoying watching a bit of Chinese TV. The food is pretty different from what we're used to, but I'm starting to like it too, especially the breakfast food at the street stalls. So let me leave you with that, my positive impressions of China. I have to go soon to take a quick shower and get on the train to Shanghai.

日曜日, 8月 08, 2004

The Forbidden City

Originally uploaded by moglet.

土曜日, 8月 07, 2004

Other News from China

    Okay, folks, due to technical difficulties with the Chinese Internet or my ignorance of it, I can (sometimes) post updates to my blog, but I can't view my blog, respond to comments, or post pictures until I get back to Japan. I promise I will post pictures as soon as I can when I get back, so please be patient!
    It's the 7th day of my great adventure. I'm in Xi'an, the starting point of the Silk Road and the largest city in the world during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). It has been in decline ever since, but interest was renewed when some farmers digging a well near Xi'an discovered the Terracotta Warriors in 1974. We will go out to see those tomorrow.
    Now I'd like to fill you in quickly on my adventures in Beijing and the Great Wall, since I've been away from the Internet for a few days. The coolest thing I did in Beijing was attend the Beijing Opera. I confess I was a little underwhelmed with sightseeing in Beijing. It was fun trying out my Chinese, but the pollution gives me a headache, and when I'm out on the street I feel like I'm inhaling carcinogens with every breath.
    The Beijing Opera was unexpectedly entertaining. Melanie and I were expecting it to be very serious like Japanese traditional drama, and we were happy that it wasn't like that at all. First, we were taken backstage to see the actors put on makeup. Then, we were shown to a nice table with some fruit, cookies and candy on it, and tea, with four other people. Two were Australians on their way to Tibet. The other two were Japanese. We started immediately talking to the two Japanese women in Japanese, and the Australians glared at us. Oops. I'm afraid I was kind of rude to them by not translating what we were saying.
    We had good seats near the front. When the opera started, they projected the actors' lines in Chinese and English on both walls to the side of the stage. The characters were charming, especially the lead actress who played "The Nymph". The costumes were amazing, colorful and ornate with many different impossibly exaggerated headdresses.
    The first story was about a nun fleeing a nunnery to meet her lover, Pan the scholar, and her witty repartee with the boatman. The second, longer, story was about a nymph and her retinue (who sang squeakily in unison). A man arrived, and the nymph's attendants told him, "Our nymph has admired you for a long time." (I'm not kidding). It was love at first sight. She gave him a pearl amulet to symbolize their love. But all was not well, because then there was a stylized acrobatic battle scene and they all had to fight fantastic beasts, frogs and flowers, and armored soldiers. It sounds cheesy and it was, but it was cheesy in a cute, lighthearted way that made the audience laugh by playing on recognizable tropes from Chinese folklore.
    That was one of the highlights of Beijing for me. After Beijing, we took a bus to a section of the Great Wall that's only partially reconstructed, so it's not as touristy as the main two Great Wall Spots. The spot we went to is called Simatai. I took lots of pictures. We went at night and again in the morning, and stayed the night at a guest house up there. When we went at night there weren't so many other tourists, but there were some local women trying to guide us and offering to carry stuff for us although we didn't want them to. In the morning there was almost no one except us, and that was the nicest time to go. Some parts of the Great Wall are really falling apart. At one place we had to turn back. I took this picture to show how it was all crumbling away, mossy and unclimbable. You climb the wall from tower to tower and it's basically endless...you can never climb the whole Wall, so there's always this feeling of incompleteness about it. Melanie said one of the Intrepid group leaders (not ours) had an article on the Internet about how it was his dream to juggle on the Great Wall, and he had a picture of himself triumphantly doing so. I wished I had something like that to accomplish on the Great Wall, but all I could do was walk on it and try to feel awe.
    Roman, a graphic designer from Berlin traveling with us, and I went on the Wall in the early morning to try to catch the sunrise. We gazed in the direction the Mongols would have come from on their horses (it was mountainous, almost impassable terrain). Though we missed the actual sunrise, the early morning calm was nice up there. I was still recovering from my Beijing headache, so I wasn't as energetic as I'd hoped to be about climbing the Great Wall, but I did my best and spent a few hours up there climbing the crumbling, steep little steps from tower to tower.
    On the evening before, we saw some guards running down the steps (the same steep steps we were stepping on very carefully to avoid falling). When they got halfway down, they took the paragliding cable the rest of the way down. They were obviously in a great hurry. The woman who was trying to guide us told us that they were getting off work, going home to eat dinner.
    The guesthouse was a little creepy because there weren't any streetlights; the darkness of the courtyard reminded me, incongruously, of Silent Hill. They left a big red thermos of boiled water outside our rooms for drinking. The door to our room was so decrepit the knob came off in our hands. I tried to use the boiled water for brushing my teeth, but it was so hot I had to let it cool off in my thermos cup for a long time. There was a hot shower, but to use it we had to plug in the water heater to heat the water for half an hour. Melanie took me outside to see the stars in the courtyard; since there weren't any lights, you could see all the constellations and the Milky Way.
    We took an overnight train to Xi'an and here I am. We played Hearts and drank beer on the train. The Chinese folk rock music that was piped in to the train carriage was good and most of us liked it. I liked it. I didn't know how to say "cards" in Chinese, but I was determined to buy some at the train station so I had to kind of mime playing cards and say "a thing to play with" in Chinese, and they guessed what I meant. We see a lot of people playing cards here, and outdoor chess (the shogi variant I read about in the manga). Mel and I are going to try to learn the local card game before we leave. At 10 it was lights out on the train. I found the train bed comfortable, but I was on the bottom bunk of three; Melanie was on the top, and she said that the cold air from the air con blew on her all night.
   In the morning, they woke us up with obnoxious Disney-esque music. We were in a whole new terrain with interesting landscape formations outside, so I started to get excited about seeing Xi'an.

Below: A view of the Forbidden City.

Originally uploaded by moglet.

    The Forbidden City is an important historical relic which should be preserved, but it's meaning, at least for me, was somewhat unpleasant. The gardens and Ming ceramics and decorated rooms on display were quite beautiful, but I know that if I were a concubine living there in ancient times I wouldn't have had a happy life.

    We all thought it was ironic that the Forbidden City has a Starbucks. The receipt carries the ominous message:


I saw Mao!

    Beijing is like a city built for giants. Each city block is huge, and there are many imposing buildings, impossible to photograph in their entirety, that you have to crane your neck to see. My main mission in Beijing was to see Mao Zedong where he is entombed near Tiananmen Square. I am fascinated by the Mao personality cult. My favorite Chinese movie is "To Live," about the tribulations of one family during the Cultural Revolution. Beijing is very much that kind of city. I felt Mao's legacy.
    Chairman Mao has been dead about thirty years now, but his body is still well preserved. To see him, we had to go in the morning between 7:30 and 9:30, leaving all bags and cameras behind. We kept small purses with us for passports and whatnot. I was with Melanie, who teaches English in Nagoya; I didn't know her before this, but on this trip through China we're roommates in every city. It's nice to have someone to turn to and compare whatever Chinese thing with what we're used to in Japan, and the other people on our trip (from England, Denmark, Germany, and California) don't understand those comparisons we're constantly making.
    Anyway, the line to see Mao was very different from lines in Japan. There were a ton of people, but the line moved very fast; unlike lines in Japan, and everyone was trying desperately to cut in line, but then scary women with loudspeakers would yell at them and in some cases physically pull them out of line. Then there were the guards. The first guard looked at our tiny bags and said they were okay, but all the way down through the line our purses would be spotted by more guards who would get angry and demand to examine them again. Melanie actually did have a small camera in her bag but the guards didn't see it. At one point they pulled her out of line and put a metal detector over her bag. Very scary. We should have just checked everything across the street and spared ourselves the constant panic of being caught by those guards carrying purses in to see Mao.
    We bought a small pamphlet for one yuan at the door. The cover had a picture of the Chairman and the words: Chairman Mao will always live in our hearts - Chairman Mao's Mausoleum. The text inside informed us that construction was started in 1977 and "People come here with a feeling of reverence in their hearts."
    Inside the building, we went through a nice lobby where a sign instructed us to be quiet and take off our hats. In the inner chamber, Mao was encased in glass with a guard standing by, and his face was quite ghostly and waxy looking. It looked like his face was glowing, and he looked very old. His body was wrapped in a Chinese flag. There was another guard there trying to hurry us past the body with barely a look, so before you could say the word "anticlimactic" there we were outside the hall again. On the steps people were selling everything from heart-shaped Mao lockets to Mao watches and postcards.

月曜日, 8月 02, 2004

Arrived in Beijing

Hi everyone,

    Well, I arrived safely in Beijing last night. I wanted to post last night and tried to from this very same Internet cafe, but I kept getting error messages. Hopefully it will work this time (fingers crossed).
    I'll just make this a test message to see if it works.