Either you are sorting it out, or you are full of it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Shanghai the Bourgeoisie

Shanghai was a bourgeois couple walking down the street. Their clothes were oh-so fashionable: Bright colors jumped out from the stitching that held together their coats, dark like the light in a coalmine. Their hair was cropped in strange angles, coming to a point like daggers assaulting passersby. Their canvas shoes were cheap, ironically-so, but still they were spotless, as if they had been bought just hours before. His were gray with yellow laces; hers white with orange. They walked arm in arm leering into the shops and eateries of the city with a distant interest, like a sated junkie just begining to contemplate her next fix.

They beckoned me to follow them, and I walked with them in silence. As we traversed through dark, narrow lanes where the canopies of the trees grew together, I couldn’t see the neon lights from the skyscrapers in the distance. I felt nervous walking with them – both of them beautiful and stylish. I was their third wheel, an accessory that would steady them in the face of some desire or psychic crisis. I asked no questions. I did it willingly; I was so intrigued by their radience.

We pushed through the creaky door of an old lanehouse and made our way up to the third floor, passing by an old crone hunched over a gas-stove. She gave me a look of caution and surprise. I returned her gaze with a blank expression.

When I entered their flat, I was amazed by the squallor. Everything was falling apart. The windows were caked in dust, obscuring the outside.  A great mold had taken over part of one wall, turning it black. A mound of trash was piled in the corner, wrappings and stickers and tags and take-out containers full of rancid food. The only thing well-kept in the den was a tremendous, ancient wardrobe in faded red lacquer. Its doors were wide open and the garments inside radiated with a rainbow of color. The two of them looked at me as I took in the spectacle.

When I turned to face them, their faces, smooth and angelic scruntched into smiles. Their lips parted to reveal the stumps of black rotting teeth.

posted by ferret at 4:56 pm  

Monday, September 20, 2010

Shanghai as a Bear Cub

The heat of mid-summer was stifling, and I journeyed to the woods looking for comfort. I was sitting by a fresh, mountain stream when I saw it. The cub was exhausted, dragging itself slowly towards the other side of the stream, panting with thirst. It was so tired that it didn’t notice me, or find me threatening. It suddenly slumped over, as if to pass out. I wasn’t sure whether it would make it to the stream or not, and I wanted to help it.

Thinking twice, I stayed where I was. You just don’t get involved in the affairs of a bear cub. You just don’t.

The mother is always around, and she is unforgiving.

posted by ferret at 12:18 am  

Friday, September 10, 2010

A ship, a fever dream

I had my own ship that could float across the water. It was my galleon of fortune, my caravel of luck with which I levitated above the crystalline lagoons, the dull brackwaters, the jagged inlets and the rack and tumble of storms.

I was the captain of the world, and I tucked its treasures in my pocket, letting the seams bulge with the weight.

When I came upon a port to unload my treasure, the stevedores sniggered at me. They were dressed strangely – their caps full of butterfly wings, their coats the concatenation of chrysalis shells.

“Why are you laughing?” I said.

“For change and hardship! For hardship and change!”

I shouted at them, “Don’t you know who I am? Have you not seen my exploits? I who have conquered the seas with my ship that floats high above the world? I do not fear anything. I do not fear death.”

And they howled at me, abusing me with derision saying, “Oh, you’ve conquered death? But that’s the easy part. It’s life that will change you. It’s life that will kill you. Do you not fear that? You who float above it all. Bring your ship down!”

Haughtily I brought my ship to the ocean and felt it sink in the waves. The wooden planks creaked with the weight of the world. My pockets burst at the seams, and I flung my arms forward to catch the treasures that came spilling down, suddenly losing their luster, looking worthless.

I looked at my arms then. I looked at my own body, strangely gnarled with growths, the lichens of age feasting on my skin. I’d been floating for so long I was unaware of them. I had the thought that maybe I’d missed everything, that my life hadn’t changed enough, and I gasped.

As I did, butterflies seemed to burst out from the cargo holds. I didn’t know that they were even there.

posted by ferret at 3:50 pm  

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Music of the Stars

Jazz is like astronomy; pop is like astrology.

The keepers of both despise each other, but find themselves consumed with wonder:

One says, How could such knowledge of the universe be so precise and exacting?

The other says, How could so many people rally around something so simple? So generic?

posted by ferret at 10:53 pm  

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How East meets West, West East

When you say you understand the West, don’t speak to me in the tired platitudes of freedom or individualism. I cannot stand them; they stick in my mouth like cotton balls. They are tasteless and they choke all discussion, leaving nothing but sputtering and agonizing gestures that the offending words should be taken back.

Ask me: where are the communities of the West? And who struggled to forge them? And the families? The histories that bind them?

And when you come bogging on about the East, don’t begin with your blunted generalizations about relationships and duty and society and histories of 5,000 years. They are just glass panes you look through. They are ultimately the keepers of your own reflection. Through them you see whatever you want, or nothing at all.

Start with the individuals. Start with the iconoclasts. Start with the ones who stand outside, few as they are.

Understanding any people is understanding their struggle, especially the struggle with themselves.

posted by ferret at 1:10 am  

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Shanghai as a Pressure Cooker

The lid is attached just so to the slot at the top of the SWFC, holding the entire thing in place. Condensation collects in the dome of the sky and drops down suddenly in torrents, only to evaporate again. The process repeats and repeats ad infinitum.

I like to think that we are all grains of white rice flailing around in it – growing larger, more saturated and clumping together. We are full, gushing with starchy energy, burning quickly for whoever could find a use for us. We accommodate all flavors.

We’re happy this way. Although we know well how we’ve been bleached, made uniform, stripped of our husks and the hearty way we once faced the world.

posted by ferret at 11:07 pm  

Friday, August 13, 2010

5000 years? Really?

I’m really uncomfortable with the non sequitur often batted about to justify a foreigner’s frustration when coming into conflict with Chinese culture – that it’s 5,000 years old.

I suppose the thinking is that Chinese culture is radically different, and the reason for its difference is that China is the longest surviving culture in the world. (Whatever that means.)  However, I fail to see how the length of time that a culture has had to develop is in any way indicative of its depth or its difficulty to be understood. There are plenty of people all around the world who find subcultures based around musical genres less than 50 years old such as hiphop and drum and bass absolutely inscrutable. Of course, it’s also important to note the reciprocal difficulties that many Chinese encounter with American culture, a somewhat radical off-shoot of European culture with a little over 200 years of history. (To be fair, this has gotten easier for many Chinese in recent years due to the constant inundation with American culture during their education.)

I would argue that the difficulty in understanding any culture has very little to do with how long the culture has been around per se. The difficulty in assimilation and understanding is a relative relationship having to do with the proximity that two cultures have in terms of their thought processes, values, etc. This could be related to the physical or temporal proximity of the cultures being compared (ex. China and the West), but it doesn’t have to be.

When people say something like “Don’t feel bad that you’re frustrated. China’s culture is over 5,000 years old!,” I’d like to think they are saying:

“China and the West have been developing as cultures relatively independently of each other for several thousand years. No wonder you feel frustrated!”

However, most of the time the statement is not used to alleviate or explain someone’s frustration, rather, it is used to diffuse argument and act as a conclusion, blocking further discussion. A foreigner might say, “Why do the Chinese have this social practice? I don’t understand.” And they’ll get back, “Take your time. You’ll get it. Chinese culture is over 5,000 years old.”

Although on the surface, the questioner seems to be reassured by their interlocutor that it’s just a matter of time. But what they have actually done is refused to justify or try to explain their values, thinking that at some level no explanation is possible or even worse, that the foreigner couldn’t understand, even if they tried.

Put simply, the idea is:

“Chinese culture is 5,000 years old. It is very complex. You couldn’t possibly understand.”

Really? I beg to differ.

posted by ferret at 8:15 pm  

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Lesson in Chinese Nationalism

Not all foreigners are devils;

Not all devils are foreign.

posted by ferret at 12:07 am  

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Selling Out is (not) Selling Out

I saw the following advertisement in a subway station featuring Chinese blogging legend, Hanhan:

A rough translation into English:

I love the internet. I love freedom. I love getting up late. I love night markets. I love race cars. And I also love 29 kuai t-shirts. I’m not some flag-bearer. I’m nobody’s spokesperson. I’m Hanhan. I only represent myself. You and I are alike. I am Vancl.

Is it me, or has Hanhan sold out, and then utilized the ad to explain why he’s not selling out?

Despite the hypocrisy, this ad could also be said to represent an entire generation of Chinese born in the 1980s, the so called 80后. They are caught between their society’s near-moral imperative to pursue wealth, and their desire to define themselves as individuals in a dynamic, quickly changing world.

Can you have it both ways?

Hanhan seems to think so.

posted by ferret at 9:38 pm  

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Shanghai as A Drunken Poet

All day long Shanghai made me think of a drunken poet, reeling his bearded-head around, shaking it in the breeze, as if he knows something that I don’t. The white, wild tangles of his hair seem to say so.

It’s nighttime, and he has just finished engaging in a night of drinking and feasting at an outdoor pavilion by a lake. All around him there are half-eaten dishes of food and empty bottles of beer and baijiu. There’s a pit of embers burning off to the side where there had been a barbecue. Small wooden stakes are sticking out of the ground nearby, monuments to the festivities.

I don’t know where his companions have gone, or why they left him there to contemplate the lake in the moonlight.

I greet him in English, finding it somehow appropriate, “Hello.”

He just shakes his head again, the same way he did before, smiling as he does so.

“What are you doing here?”

He shakes his head again.

“Are you composing poetry?”

Another shake.

I know I’m looking at Shanghai, but I’m compelled to ask, “Will you tell me who you are?”

And another.

I grow frustrated, and sit down next to him at the table, contemplating the mess: crab shells full of ashes and cigarette butts, fish bones piled like offerings to a lowly god of the nearby lake, gobs of pork bellies swimming in seas of purple, coagulating goo, tiny pieces of diced garlic that had once sat in a sea of green vegetables…

I notice that he’s now looking at me, watching me survey the mess. I ask him again, this time almost pleading with him, “Who are you?”

He shakes again, but this time points with his hands, out towards the lake then back across toward the table, as if that gesture itself could relate all that he is – a move from the lake and the forest beyond in the moonlight, full of promise, pristine and untouched to the glaring fluorescent lights just above us and the junkyard of scraps that lay below.

posted by ferret at 11:29 pm  
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