I am carried through these listless days
Still frantic and amazed
Crying with awe at every sight
As pink skies fly into the night
Still the world moves quick
And I’m full of hope
My expectations taut
Tight as rope
I’m a tightrope walker
Walking where I please
I feel the adrenaline
Fly through my knees
There are fantastic dreams
That still catch my eye
Although most of my visions
Are programmed, by and by
There are still adulations
To be cried to all above
Although most of life
Is lost in regular push and shove
I want my smile to be a touchstone
A reminder in my mirror’s gaze
That yes! yes, I am living!
Through all these listless days
There were those girls I met years ago when I first came to Shanghai, the ones with names like Xinglei, Liming, Zhang Jing… there were many. I could never remember their names the first time. The second time was hard too. And the third. Point is that I eventually got it, and when I did it was glorious!
What happened? Years later Xinglei became Cindy, Liming Linda, Zhang Jing Jane.
I feel a bit sad, almost like there’s a part of them missing now. I wonder if they feel the same.
It’s come to be the opinion of this humble Ferret that cultural exchanges in China are generally plagued by a kind of Orientalism, a perception of an intractable Other, or a perceived mystery that prevents people from having a meaningful exchange. This happens on both sides of the aisle. Foreigners feel that there are some things about China that are impossible to know; Chinese feel as if there are some things foreigners will never understand. And vice-versa.
Recently, I had a rather truthful exchange. A model perhaps for all future cultural exchanges:
[Ferret walks into a bathroom at Sichuan restaurant. He pees a urinal, thinking perhaps far too much about his expat, Chinese dilettante status. Old Chinese Man walks in as he is zipping up. Old Chinese Man notices Ferret.]
Old Chinese Man
Old Chinese Man
All things exchanged! All things understood! A four-part exchange where every message is conveyed clearly to the other succinctly and straightforwardly. Oh, that it could be so easy!
Your humble Ferret recently went to a banquet at a very fancy Cantonese restaurant and stuffed himself silly.
While eating some “hand-fried squid” (手炸鱿鱼), I noticed that they were sitting on a piece of paper with a Chinese poem written on it.
Having 干杯’d a little too much wine, I attempted to read it 繁体字 and all in front of some Chinese folks. I did okay and only made a few mistakes, blustering my way through it like a 7 year old. But it didn’t really matter anyway. All the Chinese people there knew it by heart.
Meng Haoran (Tang)
A springtime sleep, day breaks without me knowing
Everywhere I hear birdsong
The night was full of the sound of storms
Who knows how many flowers have fallen?
(Apparently there is a political angle to all of this, i.e. flowers getting blown away in the night. I don’t know what that had to do with fried squid. 炒鱿鱼 maybe?)
These languages are homes for my spirit.
My Chinese? An apartment in a great highrise of thousands. The doors are new but flimsy. The floors are half finished (the name for them often escapes me). The scrolls of ancient poems line the walls, most of them tattered and ripped in half. It’s cold, but there’s a heater in the corner. It’s broken a lot of the time. I should get someone to fix it, but a lot of times I don’t want to.
My Latin? A faded postcard of a house that looks like hundreds of houses that I see everywhere. What knowledge of this house I have from the picture gives me the feeling that I know hundreds of houses intimately. I feel myself to be veritable architect. I make wild assertions when I am in other homes and occasionally I am correct. I stun others. Most of the time I’m wrong.
My Greek? A foggy island lost on a foggy sea.
My Spanish? A decaying treehouse in the forest built by children. It’s shoddily built. I don’t dare to climb up into it.
My English? A worn-in rambler. I think I know every inch of it and every corner. I feel as if I can remember the day every piece of furniture was placed inside it. Still, every once in a while I’m intrigued. That air vent! Was it always there? That hole in the corner near the closet! How did that come about? That trap door in the cellar! I swear it leads to other worlds…
Skyscrapers unfolding in the cold night air
Petals of iron bars and green mesh ready to fall away
And you too are what you are, unfolding in the night
This skin, this fragile frame ready to slip off
And let you reach for the sky.
Away from here and far
Where the ocean meets the land
And the sun peaks down
Through the curtain of clouds
Like the iris of an eye
Blinded long ago.
No one will see you here
Where the streets pulse
Against the limits of nothingness
And the windows of the houses
Are shut tight against the rising black.
If you shine here, you can
Only shine like a star
Burning hard and fast
Raging with a fire to stay alive
Raging with a fire those outside
Can never know.
I was swallowed by you. You, a great giant beast, a leviathan that holds worlds within itself. My life was storms and troubles. Hope had dissipated on an endless ocean of despair. Throwing myself into the waves, I found you.
Here the people speak their own words, a vast network of syllables gleaned from thousands of travelers over time. Those living here are weary of outsiders because they were once outsiders themselves. While many stay here in the depths, many plan to leave. They know that the belly of the beast will come to land, and they will find a way out. And I am waiting, unsure if I will be one of the ones to leave, or one of the ones to stay.
…and I still can’t say the word for “city” properly.
My girlfriend recently gave me a bamboo iPhone case made by a company called Cicada. On the box by way of explanation for their company, they included a Tang Dynasty poem:
Yu Shinan [Early Tang Dynasty]
Hanging from a drooping branch drinking dew,
Its sound scatters though the phoenix trees.
Living high up it makes sounds that travel far,
Not relying on the fall wind to carry them.
Note: The last two lines of the poem are supposed to represent the idea that if you’re doing something good or you’re powerful, you don’t need to rely on the help of others to publicize it. The Baidu review of the poem has this to say: 蝉声远传，一般人往往以为是藉助于秋风的传送，诗人却别有会心，强调这是由于“居高”而自能致远。这种独特的感受蕴含一个真理：立身品格高洁的人，并不需要某种外在的凭藉. So I guess the idea is that these iPhone cases are supposed to be so sweet that word about them will get around without any help at all…