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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The End of the Year

2008 has been a long year. I suspect I won't be the only one happy to see it go, and yet, 2008 has help some wonderful memories.

This year began for me ... well, let's see. My earliest memories of this year are of Harbin, China, and its Tiger Park and Ice Festival. I remember bundling up in every piece of clothing I had, in our Soviet-era hotel which felt like there was a blast furnace in every room, and stepping outside into the coldest weather I had ever experienced. An entire city made of ice, and not a single drop of melt from those sculptures.

And then ... whew. Too many places to count. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, southern Yunan province, traveling with Sarah and meeting up with Jim and Kat in Ayuthya and James and Caroline in Luang Prabang ... wonderful memories of those first months of 2008.

And then came my return to Jilin: teaching again, Chinese lessons and tutors, dinner with friends, reading The Baroque Cycle and writing lessons and watching downloaded episodes of The Wire and trying to figure out some kind of plan for life after China. Those months from March to June are a freakish ball of memories, a rolling katamari of moments and people and smells and meals. In the end, I left Jilin with little in the way of a clear plan, but taking my leave of China was welcome. And sometimes I miss it so much.

Of course, summer in Europe. This post would be far too long if I dwelt on that here. But seeing Europe with fresh, world-weary eyes made it all the more spectacular.

It's amazing how many times I've tried to take mental snapshots, moments where I've said to myself, stern and with force, "remember this!" Memories of importance, of trivialities, of times good and bad and scary, and each time I steel myself to take something in, capture it forever in my head, and yet here I sit, ready and willing to bring back a handful of awesome memories, most but a whisper in my mind, a suggestion of what was and what I wanted to keep. So it goes, I suppose. There's a certain sadness to it, that when all else fades--the photos, the souvenirs, the novelty t-shirts--all you're left with is memories. And when those are lost ...

And the final months of this year have been spent here, back in America, back home, working some strange hours at strange jobs, a soft-peddled struggle for some kind of next step. Christmas has been a kind of mental endzone for me for a while, a moment to look forward to, and now its come and gone, and I realize ... well, it's just a day. It's a special day, sure, but not that special, and whatever it meant to me to be here at home for that day, well, its time to find something else to live for, man. Time to find something more fulfilling and challenging and worthy to live for.

I asked a guy I work with what his New Years resolution was going to be, if any. He said he doesn't do resolutions, but each year, he dedicates himself to living for something. Last year, he said, he dedicated his life to living for laughter; it work? I asked, and he said with a smile, Yeah. I laughed a lot.

In 2009, I want to live for improvement. I want to improve my health, and hopefully, improve that waistline as well. I want to improve my Chinese. I want to improve my creativity. I want to improve my cooking. And I want to improve my future. Too many things to name, and I prefer the holistic, everything-is-connected approach anyway.

So here's to improvement. May 2009 be the most improved year ever!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving is Awesome

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Today my family hosted the "Smith" side of the Smith-Curran marriage which has spawned me and my kin. We had a large group of sixteen, and I eagerly helped prepare the meal.

First off, the turkey:

From Thanksgiving

Oh yes. Brined for about an hour per pound, in this case, sixteen hours the night before. The brine was 3/4 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of sugar for every gallon of water. After the brine I rinsed the turkey thoroughly and applied the rub: 1/3 cup fresh-ground peppercorns, 1/3 cup salt/seasoned salt, and about 1/6 cup garlic salt/powder. I rubbed the mix all over (hence the name), and brought it over here ...

From Thanksgiving

... to the steaming vat of waiting peanut oil. You can see the thermometer telling us the oil was far too hot to cook with, almost 500 degrees (Fahrenheit, my international friends; about 260C). We cooled it off to about 400F, and when we put the turkey in it dropped within the range of 300-350F (165C).

From Thanksgiving

Let's go to work.

From Thanksgiving

This ridiculously elaborate way of getting the turkey into the boiling-hot oil was all in the name of safety. I think next time I can just slowly drop it in there on my own.

The trick is to drop it in slowly, because the 350F oil does not take kindly to a 42F turkey intruder. It was a slow dip in, out, in, out, in-out-in-out-in, like some kind of deadly hot fondue.

Almost there ...

Ooh, that oil is angry.

OK, it's in. About three minutes of cooktime per pound, we've got about sixteen pounds, so I'll check back in fifty minutes, give or take. In the meantime, let's check out the spread ...

Very nice.

My brother is weird.

Joy! Is the turkey ready?

How's it look, dad? Almost there.

Ah, siblings. It's good to be home for Thanksgiving. Good to be not-in-China.

Obligatory artsy cranberries and coke shot.

Looks like it's ready.

Wow. That is one delicious-looking turkey. Just seeing that makes me want to fry another one.


And Duke gives his cautious approval.

In addition to the turkey, I made some damn good cornbread, and a giant bowl of wild-mushroom stuffing made with an olive oil and rosemary loaf. It was a great spread, and everyone loved the turkey: the skin was so crispy and delicious, and the meat stayed so moist and flavorful, the way I had always dreamed a turkey would taste. In case of a frying mishap, we prepared another turkey in the oven (well, hey, sixteen people, one turkey wasn't gonna cut it anyway ...), and it couldn't hold a candle to the fryer: it was dry, less flavorful, just kind of a dumbed-down turkey. I don't know if it was the brine, the fry, or a combination of the two, but I will never roast a turkey again.

Despite all I've bitched about being back in Delaware, it was good to be home for Thanksgiving, and not do it over Skype. Peering into that vat of oil today, checking the temperature and adjusting the turkey as it fried, I got (yet another) flashback of China, of my first dim sum in Hong Kong and Macau's meat markets, of rooftop hangouts in Zhanjiang and dumplings in Jilin. And as awesome as those moments were, as impossible as they seem now sitting here, a lifetime away, and as much as I may miss them or even be happy they're behind me, it's good to be here at home, having lived a bit, now cooling my heels, and waiting to live some more.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Building the World

I saw Charlie Kaufman's new film Synecdoche, New York the other day, at the Ritz East in Philly. I had some company, too.

The film was a hilariously funny, wildly comedic soiree, all wrapped around a story tinged with a profound melancholy. These feelings, I felt, alternated between the genuine and the overblown. You may have seen this neurotic, gloomy, hypochondrial protagonist before; he's in Kaufman's other films, he's a favorite of Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, and assorted others working in New Wave Quirk: a decidedly unlikeable, alienated (and alienating) lead character writ large for the sake of comedy. What "Synecdoche" does well is mix this impossibly self-absorbed and sad man with a surreal universe that seems to confirm every dreary thought and anxiety he's ever had, and delights in kicking him when he's already way, way down. If you're not laughing well before our main character is so sick he has to lube up his eyes to cry, this movie probably isn't for you.

I find the comedy--the dark, bizarre, surreal, uncomfortable, wry, ironic, and various-other-adjectives comedy--to be the real reason to see the film. But that overdone melancholy I was speaking of before is, well, overdone, and while taking something real and blowing it up to huge proportions to convey it in a film you can actually sit through is probably a necessary conceit for cinema (but I digress ...), every moment of poignancy the film conjures is overshadowed by the inevitable joke that follows. Hilarious jokes, mind you, but jokes that completely undercut the drama. It's hard to take any dramatic turn the films makes too seriously when it undermines itself with more comedy; how can the death of these characters you've never vested in register if you're laughing at the absurdity of their death on screen? Kaufman has juggled these ideas well enough in the past: his films have always been funny, but they also told a story with humanity and genuine connection that elevated the movie beyond simple comedy, that worked in concert with the laughs to create true poignancy for characters we cared for. But despite Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance, despite a great cast that effortlessly tackles some truly odd acting duties, and despite a story that is only half-told (and then only mostly-well), the film ultimately just can't figure out how to say whatever it is it wants to say. The story rapidly unravels in a messy and noticeably serious final twenty minutes that simply can't prop up the weight of the world that the film has made.

But that world that the film has constructed was a hell of a lot of fun to visit. Despite its flaws, and despite a story that doesn't make it to the finish line, it's definitely worth seeing. I saw it with an audience that had everyone laughing at different moments, which is a pretty interesting thing to experience; there were a few times when I was laughing entirely on my own.

Building the world is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. What kind of world we build for ourselves. Jim and Cecilia are getting married next month, for god's sake, and Matt and T are not too long after that: the whole world of jobs, careers, eventual families, back to school, progress from all directions. The future is bearing down, my friends, and it has appallingly bad breath. I saw Synecdoche with some friends, but also someone new. I had a good time, I enjoyed talking with her, it seemed to be all laughs and smiles making our way around the block for a drink and a snack before going into the theater. She had wonderful eyes, I remember that, a clear marble blue that never seemed to blink, never looked away, ravenous beautiful eyes that took everything in. The film ended, and in the lobby we decided what to do next ... and she had things to do. Generic, exculpable things. And it was in that moment, when those words hit my ears, I felt the weight of exhaustion that coffee and excitement and optimism had only barely held at bay. Because I knew exactly what those things were, those things that have been there these long 24 years, and my voice quivered for just a second (no one noticed, I think), my eyes closing too long in a protracted blink, a slight sorrowful nod as I instantly knew, yet again: this is how my world is made. Slow polite banter as we walked down the street, my car right, her place left, brief and noncommittal goodbyes, and I walked to my car alone.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Zhanjiang Propaganda

It's very bizarre to see a place where I lived and worked for a year propagandized, but I'd be lying if I said these videos didn't make me a little nostalgic for good 'ol Zhanjiang.

Here's one video for Zhanjiang. And here's another for the college where I worked.

Both those videos are brought to you by YouKu, the Chinese answer to YouTube. (And that's YouKu, pronounced, "yo coo," yo as in yo-yo and coo as in the sound a pigeon makes. Or, in the parlance of our times, "You were in China? Yo, that's coo'!) YouKu's great because the Chinese, in their effortless disregard for intellectual property rights, allow all sorts of things on there: full movies, entire seasons of popular TV shows, and all sorts of other copyrighted goodies that will get you punted off the YouTubes. So visit YouKu and have a look around ... don't worry if you can't understand a damn thing, just type English into the search box, assume roughly the same methods that are at work on YouTube, and go to town.

Well, as I was confident would happen, we now have a President Obama, and I am pleased. All I can say now, is: Mr. Obama, do not fuck this up. Too many people have put too much faith in you and your promises to be let down by politics as usual. Now get to work, and let me know when the first subpoenas are filed against Cheney and company.

I realize I've missed a lot of things that have gone on in my life since I've returned home, and I hope in November I can blog a little more regularly, or find a nice pasture to take this blog out to before I shoot it in the head and put it down for good. I don't have any pictures of lobster with James and Sarah and Mike "Maryland" Khan, and I don't have much else to say that I'd want to write in a little snippet here. So for now here are a few pictures of us at Lawler's place a few weeks back, the first time in a long time I'd seen some of these jokers.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Free Coffee for Voters

Bring in proof that you voted (I assume this proof varies from state to state) to Starbucks tomorrow and get a free cup of coffee! Spread the word, avid readers! And for those of you that check this thing once a month or so: Ha! Missed out. For Aaron: sorry buddy, doubt they have a 星巴克 in Zhanjiang yet.

I am excited for this election to end, and not only because it has dominated the news here and around the world. And since I know the media has been waiting for it: I'm excited for Obama to win. I'm excited for someone genuine, intelligent, and truly compassionate to lead this country, someone who is not only smart enough to write a book but intelligent enough to make bring his message to such a broad spectrum of people. I'm excited for leadership that doesn't rely on a coterie of sycophants, liars, and self-interested agenda-driven assholes to prop up a hypocritical born-again buffoon. I'm grimly pleased to see the career politician, the man who sacrificed his good name and all he stood for in his desperate grab of the highest office, be rebuked by a war-weary and unhappy populace that sees right through him; somewhere, someone is parsing a variation of that "absolute power corrupts ..." quote. I'm excited for Biden, despite his war hawk leanings and tendency to speak faster than he can think, to bring experience and restraint to a wildly overblown vice presidency. And I'm excited for that epically stupid, fatuous woman, that embarrassment to her party and her gender, to get kicked back to judging beauty pageants in her frozen sunless corner of the country.

So, in case you couldn't tell: Obama '08! He's got a tall order to fill, and if wins and doesn't make some drastic changes, we'll be down to our last best hope: revolution.

Don't forget about the free coffee!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

It's Getting Darker

I'm amazed that autumn, this beautiful autumn I've seen from Delaware to Massachusetts, has consistently evaded the lens of my camera. September to November, up and down the coast, I haven't taken a single photo of the gorgeous scenery that has literally taken my breath away a few times this fall. One of the downsides to being back home: everything is so normal, so familiar, and so I don't take my camera with me everywhere I go anymore, and thus I find myself in November without a single shot of the autumn leaves I so longed for in Zhanjiang and Jilin.

I feel kind of paralyzed lately. If not paralyzed, then orbiting, in stasis, without the momentum to break free of the gravity well, like a character in Dubliners. I don't like living here in DE, at home (despite its obvious financial and automotive upsides), and yet I am finding it incredibly hard to motivate myself to change my circumstances. I don't especially enjoy my job at Starbucks, and while I do enjoy my job at Del Tech, neither are fulfilling in the way I want a jot to be. So the impetus should be on me to get my ass in gear, find a compelling job, move out and get going. But where? Doing what? How? These questions are oppressively unanswerable, and so I push them to the back of my mental desk, and come around to them every now and then, only to feel overwhelmed by them again, and so I push them away, again.

And so I feel like I'm becoming agoraphobic or something: I'm staying at home and reading on nights when a normal virile twenty-four-year-old lad is out and about meeting attractive young women. I'm bored, and yet I just don't want to do anything, meet anyone, or anything. And so I visit, and I get ignored there about as consistently as I do in real life. My Chinese has gone right down the shitter. I need a change, I need a new environment, probably something urban and north. I have a few ideas, some of them longshots and/or crazy, and if they don't work, I don't know what the hell I am gonna do.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


I found myself thinking a lot about Hong Kong today.

A light drizzle started to come down as I was at work, and it reminded me of walking through the streets of Hong Kong at various times over the past two years. My very first night in Hong Kong, jet-lagged and sleep deprived and a twitching bundle of nerves, navigating the all-too-new maze of streets and bus routes with Nicki and Mike and James, fearing we'd never go home, sweaty and exhausted and quite literally about to cry. My time there over Chinese New Year, in the refuge of the Maryknoll house, watching movies from a staggering priestly library, eating tacos and cheese for the first time in months near the SoHo escalators, a calm before the storm of backpacking, before losing myself in Cambodia or Thailand or Malaysia for weeks at a time. My brief returns after those travels, so invigorating and renewing before returning to the mainland, of this past February when I met up with Kevin, James, Jim, and Sarah and we talked through the night. And my last night, sleeping with the screen door open as the sounds of Stanley bay whispered a lazy lullaby, my last day in Hong Kong spent walking around the now-familiar city with Kevin Clancy, with over $1700USD in Euros in my pocket, crossing the streets with those bells that urge you forward, looking around and knowing that this was goodbye for a long time, walking from the bank to the train station in the light summer drizzle of that strange island, saying goodbye and taking that airport express rapidly out of town for a slow goodbye, looking back at this amazing wonderful city as I sped through Kowloon, to the airport and away.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

September: One More for the Road

Last weekend I drove up to Lancaster, PA to see They Might Be Giants. I've enjoyed TMBG quite a bit; not as hardcore as my brother or some friends who seem to know the track list of every album and the lyrics to all the songs, but enough to want to cough up thirty bucks to seem them in concert. And see them I did, in an ultimately annoyingly small venue that attracted a wide range of listeners, from kids coming with their parents (and maybe even grandparents) to drunk obnoxious idiots who did their most violent thrashing and moshing in the quiet moments between the opening act and that headliner. It takes a special kind of idiot to mosh without music, but in their special mission, they achieved great success.

The opening act was Les Chauds Lapins (forgive the link to MySpace), a niche opener if I ever heard one. A duet, a guy and a girl, both playing banjos (and, eventually, an antique-looking acoustic guitar), performing almost exclusively French pop songs from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. I thoroughly enjoyed their show, the music was great, the French was lovely, and I found their vocalist incredibly cute, especially when she sang raunchy French lyrics. Reactions ranged from distracted apathy to simmering rage. I'm sure there were some who enjoyed them as much as I did.

At last, two hours after the show was supposed to begin, TMBG took the stage, promising to play one song from each of their albums. Since one of their first songs was from the one album of theirs that I actually know well, I almost immediately struck out for sing-a-longs. Peppered amid obscure fan favorites were a smattering of songs I recognized, but the good thing about TMBG is that every song was good, every song they played would be something I'd listen to on the album a bunch of times, and the concert only made me want to listen to their music more. They came back for not one, but two encores, and closed with the ever-popular Birdhouse in Your Soul and a long schizophrenic "song" that is really dozens of song-ideas mashed together. So, like quirky French opener and obnoxious musicless moshers, another resounding success for the evening.

Only downer was dinner at Fudruckers. I'll never make that mistake again. Another long-cherished childhood memory shattered.

So that was Friday night. Saturday night, something special happened: a performer actually came to Delaware. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, one of my favorite comedians came and played the Grand Opera House here in lil' ol' Wilmington, DE.

His name is Patton Oswalt, and he is one of the funniest men alive.

What I like about Oswalt ("Patton" to his friends) is that he seems to never repeat material. I've followed his comedy only through his standup (oh yeah, and Ratatouille), from the Comedians of Comedy and his albums, and now live, and he never seems to regurgitate jokes. So many comedians play from a tight script, and while Patton obviously has "bits" (forgive the show-biz talk, I mean jokes), he always seems to pack them in fresh, natural dialogue that doesn't feel rehearsed, like some wellspring of new material.

I showed up to the opera house alone, determined to make the Patton's visit to Delaware worth it, and I laughed my ass off. His opener was a guy from Philly (whose name I have forgotten) who was quite funny in a morbidly sad, passionately angry Bill Hicks kinda way. Once Patton took stage, the comedy came on like a caffeine buzz, just this inner energy that grew and grew, and I was that jackass who clapped when a bit finished and most people were too aghast to clap, who clapped when he tore Palin a new asshole and refused to care about the sparse applause. (Strange that so many in the crowd were as old as my parents ... did they know who was playing, or did they just have season tickets to the Opera House?) Patton was sick as a dog and damn near choked on (I can only assume) phlegm during an impromptu Tom Waits impression. His number one fear was, you guessed it, dying in Delaware.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Stephenson, PostSecret, and Greece

Right before I left for the stupendous Singapore-Malaysia-Thailand-Laos-Southern-China SuperTrip of last January/February, I was in Hong Kong, and I stopped by my favorite bookstore, flOw ("the organic bookstore") to see what they had in the way of road reading. I found a breezy 300-page paperback called Quicksilver by an author I had read and enjoyed in college, Neal Stephenson. I had read Snow Crash, a cyberpunk postmodern mish-mash of cyberspace, Mesopotamian language-virii, country-owning corporations and mobsters, and pizza delivery. I saw that "Quicksilver" was part one of "the Baroque Cycle," and I figured I'd be digging in to a neat little trilogy. Despite its glacial pace, deliberate anachronisms, and choking on an overabundance of history, economics, science, and math, I enjoyed it. I found part two of this cycle (King of the Vagabonds) in Bangkok, and so, having made my way back to Hong Kong two months and 600 pages later, I stopped back in at flOw looking for the third and final chapter.

I found book three, all right. Only problem: it was book three of Volume One, and sitting there in front of me at flOw was books four and five (Volume Two) and books six, seven, and eight (Volume Three). I walked out of the store with over 3,000 pages to read. And I actually read 'em, geek that I am, and enjoyed them, something I can only imagine a small, small number of people would ever actually attempt, let alone accomplish. I've since picked up another Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon, which is another thousand-plus page endeavor that links a Marine fighting in World War 2 and a genius mathematician cryptographer working in some fictional wasteland of an island in England cracking German codes with a internet-savvy capitalist in the early 2000's laying fiber-optic cable in the Philippines. Where will the stories intersect? Why does this guy need a thousand pages to tell a story? I don't know, but I'm enjoying it. Oh yeah, his new book came out in early September, and yeah, you guessed it: damn near 1,000 pages. Again.

What else? Last week I went to visit Deirdre at West Chester, and we went to see Frank of PostSecret fame. What is PostSecret? Well, click that link and see. He talked about PostSecret as a "community art project," its origins, and all that he's seen and done because of it. Very interesting concept, mildly interesting speaker, incredibly interesting show. At the end of the show, Frank set up two microphones, and invited people to come and share their secrets. It's truly saddening that so many people came to the mic and shared secrets of pain, isolation, suicide, and depression. If this small sample of West Chester had so many sad and unhappy people, what does that say about our country as a whole? I didn't get up to share anything, neither did Deirdre, and after the show we went in the lobby and read the post cards WCU students had sent in during the last few weeks. Walking back to Deirdre's apartment, I shared my secret: in Cambodia, in 2007, I was traveling alone, and I was in Siem Reap, this small tourist town just outside the Angkor temples. There was literally nothing to do in town but see the temples by day and party at night, and being there alone was an incredibly lonely, isolating experience. Well before I even know PostSecret existed, I took out a postcard, wrote a sad lonely little message for whomever, and left it there at a restaurant table. I guess the secret is that I feel that alone pretty frequently.

And one more, how's about some pictures? This time I want to share Athens with you.

There she is ... the Parthenon, the crown jewel of the Athenian Acropolis.

Listening to our guide.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus from afar.

The Acropolis.

I fell in love with this Cyclades woman, this strange sleek white statue from ancient Greece.

Temple of Zeus up close.

Hmm. That's it? So many great memories of Athens, from gyros to heroes, I can't believe I don't have more to share. Well, I do, but ...

I'll share some pics of the Greek islands next time. Now, off to see They Might Be Giants!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Charge of the Ad-Hocracy

Unlike certain songs by certain bands whose days are somewhat verdant, I did not wish to sleep my way through September. And yet here I am, waking as September ends, settled in to some kind of life here in Delaware, fresh-faced and newly 24, resisting the urge to burn it all to the ground and run for the nearest plane headed for a foreign country. September has been a month of adjustments.

I turned 24 to little internal fanfare. I went to bed Thursday and realized, oh yeah, tomorrow is my birthday. And I woke up the next day, and it felt like just another day, which I guess is how Mature Adult People deal with birthdays. I guess I wanted that first birthday back home to be really special, to have more meaning than it should, but it didn't, and as an aspiring MAP, I should get used to that. I went to lunch with mom at a great little gourmet cafe in Newark, dinner with dad and friends at a dive bar with a roast beef sandwich I'd been lusting over for a few years, came home, cut the cake, and that was that. Nothing special, no fireworks, and yet it was really exactly what I wanted: a birthday with friends and family right there next to me.

Monday I begin my work as an employee, ahem, a partner, at Starbucks. Now some of you may remember me having not-so-nice-things to say about corporate coffee and all that, but three things: a) I need a job with money and medical, which Starbucks offers to even part-timers, 2) Starbucks is actually much more progressive than I originally thought, and d) consistency isn't one of my strong points. I got the green apron, the stupid hat, and next week, I'll be behind the counter. And people say English majors can't find good work!

I've also been slowly going through the process of realizing a long-in-gestation goal. And I say realizing because, well, I think I'm finally coming 'round to seeing it as something I actually want to do, and not just something I'm shrugging my way toward. That goal: becoming a sub, becoming a teacher, and possibly going back to school for a full-time big boy career in education. Delaware has a good program in place to fast-track my teaching degree, and I could get a masters at Delaware for a fraction of the price I'd pay pretty much anywhere else. But we'll see; part of my still wants to do something surprising and scary for a year or two, maybe move to Peru to teach and learn Spanish or something, something that trumps China, something where I can be on the stage of life, shuffle the China experience behind me, and confidently say to the crowd, "And now for something completely different." But barring any more forays into the big beautiful world outside of America, that goal is otherwise moving, however glacially, forward.

And on top of that, I still haven't shared all my photos from Europe. Much like my journaling during the trip, Italy is such a bundle of awesome that it takes time to digest. So here we go: Venice! Florence! Rome!

Venice ... that floating city, that island-state, that strange canal-laden ad-hocracy of pre-modern urban design. So blisteringly Italian, and yet so uniquely Venetian. While it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the maze of alleyways and canals that cut through the city like veins, you ultimately leave Venice with too many pictures of lonely waterways and astounding architecture, which is not a bad thing to have a lot of.

Florence was perhaps my favorite city from my first tour of Europe back in 'aught 'aught (that's 2000 to you folks). I returned to Florence seven years later to see my friend David, and he hadn't changed a bit! We also sampled some of the best gelatto Italy had to offer; may I recommend the chocolate?

Rome ... Rome was my favorite city of the trip, a living breathing pollution-spewing awe-shattering city pulsing with history and life ... Rome. I've been to Beijing, I've been to DC and Bangkok and London and Paris ... something about Rome, I could live there.

Enjoy the slideshows; click 'em for more pictures. Maybe I'll get another blog in soon; I'll try to share all the awesome I saw in Greece.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Déjà Villanova (or: Jim and Law go to Labor Day Camp)

The much anticipated follow-up to last year's summer camp is here! Jim and Law go to Labor Day Camp!

I spent Labor Day weekend living like I did in college: sitting inside on beautiful days playing video games, eating garbage, and drinking what polite company would call "to excess." This time was spent with my good friends (Matt) Lawler, Jim (Hartzel), C(ecilia Bladino) and Keiff ("Keith" Benedict). Last summer Jim and I drove up to Boston to see Lawler, and on the ride home, Jim told me he was this close to buying the ring, and that he already had a plan for how to propose to C, on their third anniversary on the exact spot they first started dating. Fast forward one year, the wedding is in December, and I'm wishing them congratulations in person for the first time as they approach the one-year anniversary of their engagement. It's certainly been a year.

Yeah. It was that kind of weekend.

How does the camera know how to adjust accordingly for all that beer?


Oh yeah.

Happy Birthday, Jim.

My name is Matthew Lawler, and I approve of this cake carving.


Out and about in New Hope.

Jim enjoys looking weird.

Oh dear ...

Congrats you crazy kids.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

European Extravaganza!

My brother the auteur has put together a little video of our trip through Europe this summer. It's a lot of random clips from various cities, all set to a decidedly indie soundtrack. Needless to say, I'm a big fan! I know I have yet to put up all my photos from Europe, but I'll get to it eventually. If you like this vid, be sure to check out a similar video Patrick did of our trip through China!

Wow. It's September already. The first September I've spent in the US in two years. I feel like I should be struggling through class in some obscure Chinese city somewhere.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A story about China

Wrote this for Maryknoll's website. Thought I'd share.

The first day was hot. A new and tropical heat, heat that I had never experienced before, that I could feel rising even as I walked through the tree-shaded campus that first morning: my first day of class as a teacher in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, China. It was September in this sleepy southwestern corner of the Middle Kingdom, and if the broiling heat of the morning didn’t make me sweat, being on the precipice of the great big unknown that waited in the classroom certainly did. Walking through the door for the first time hushed the forty-odd students into a kind of awed silence: because it was the first class of the first day of the new term, yes, but also because this strange young foreigner, stiffly overdressed in the mounting morning heat, a young man who couldn’t help but look out into the classroom and smile like a little boy, had just walked into their lives. The bell rang, everyone was quiet, still, staring intently; just what was he going to do?

I had agonized over that very question the month, week, day, night before. The orientation Maryknoll had provided in Hong Kong was a good start, but Thesis Writing? Literature? There were few answers as to how I should approach these subjects in an ESL environment. Would their English be good enough to read Shakespeare? Had they ever written a thesis before? Standing there in front of my first class, wanting desperately to do the right thing, to act like a real teacher, I did what novice teachers had done before me on their nervous first day: I spoke, rigidly, seriously, about the coming term, about my expectations, how we would use our text, the consequences of not following the rules. I finished with a brittle warning: “If you don’t write in your journal, you’re going to fail. If you don’t participate, you’re going to fail. If you don’t do your work, you’re going to fail.” There, I thought self-importantly at the end of that first class: that’s being a serious teacher.

As the week went on, and I saw my well-rehearsed bluster fall on ever more shocked and uncomprehending faces, I realized how spectacularly I had failed on that first day. Later that week, tucked under my apartment door, I found a note from Blue (or Kellen, as an exacting fellow teacher would insist), one of the students from that very first day of class. Written in the gorgeous penmanship typical of most of my students, she requested two things: that I smile more, and that I talk slower. Asking me to smile was really a prelude to asking me to speak more slowly, but the subtle advice to smile, to create an environment that would encourage my students, was just as necessary. My students needed to be comfortable with me before they could begin learning, before they could have the confidence to engage their first foreign teacher with their timid English. I needed a different approach. By the end of the week, I had thrown out my speech, sworn off the swagger, and simply talked. And they, in turn, began to talk back, asking about my family, about my university, about my jobs and friends and life “back home” on the other side of the world.

The class was Thesis Writing, and my students were seniors, English majors, mostly my age if not older. The course was ostensibly meant to instruct them on how to write their senior thesis, a daunting twenty-thousand word research paper that every senior had to write and present before a small group of teachers in order to graduate. Like so many things in China, however, what was meant to happen and what actually happened soon parted ways. Our textbook was a pencil-thin pamphlet, a science textbook full of hypothesis, not thesis statements, a book about reviewing the literature, rather than researching literature. It was totally unfit for the class and for the work the students had to do. I asked my waiban, the liaison between the school and the foreign teachers, for specifications for the theses, but beyond the strict, oft-emphasized word count, my questions were deflected or ignored. The school, it seemed, had as little clue of what I was supposed to do in class as I did.

So the weeks were spent reviewing the foundations of basic writing, while also practicing note-taking, citation, crafting a thesis and shaping an argument on the page. For practice, the class chose different sides of an argument and wrote short essays persuading their classmates. Headline-making news about the environment or globalization didn’t seem to stir them, but the Olympics or the age-old debate of “should boys be allowed to visit the girl’s dormitory” was met with vigor. Their writing was beginning to improve, and we were starting to have fun with our in-class writing: the Crocodile Hunter, Calvin and Hobbes, and the Simpsons all became fodder for essays. With the end of the term looming, I felt that I had found a balance between that first day’s severity and the need for accessibility.
And then, a month before the end of the term, the school invited a former student to lecture the entire senior class on the “proper” format for the thesis. One afternoon, one lecture, hundreds of students stuffed into a sweatbox of an auditorium, an entire semester of practice and preparation, all tossed aside. My students were told to disregard everything from class, to follow the lecturer’s thesis format above all else. I was angry, confused at the pointlessness of it all, that everything we had practiced all term was just thrown away, all without any input from or explanation given to me.

But remember: smile more. Clearly, thesis writing, as far as the school was concerned, had been taken care of. So I decided I would occupy the class with something else; again, I needed a different approach. In the face of administrative apathy, I could experiment, make the class my own. And in doing this, in turning the class into something more than what even I had hoped it would be during those first nervous days, I began to feel like my work, my being there, actually made a difference. A lesson on résumé writing mushroomed into weeks of excited class time as my seniors, all on the verge of entering China’s brutally competitive job market, wrote and refined their CVs. Small groups of students personally asked for help with their theses, and together, inside the classroom and out, we crafted strong, persuasive essays that ultimately earned them high marks. And I began frequently meeting with students, individually or in small groups, to review homework, do writing drills, or just practice their speaking. Students like Kaly, who met with me after class every week to review the essays she was practicing for the IELTS exam, with the hope of eventually studying abroad in the UK. We honed her essays to a keen edge, and after scoring higher than she had hoped on the exam, I helped her prepare her admissions essays and run mock interviews. I had the pleasure of visiting Kaly this summer, on my way home from China; she took a bus from her campus in Warwick to meet me in London.

China, what it does to you and the success you have there, isn’t easily measured. The strange alchemy of China is that hours in class can boil away and disappear into the ether, while a short chat after class, lunch with a small group, or an hour’s talk with a single student can offer that flash, that connection between people that bridges culture and language. These moments were the most rewarding for me in China, and the truth is, they often happened outside of class. I was blessed to be a single teacher, engaging my (relatively) small group of students with ideas and topics beyond the narrow focus of the prescribed course, and the great thing was that these connections and friendships continued outside of the classroom, cooking dumplings in my apartment or reviewing essays after class, offering my students something truly valuable: a window, a forum, exposure to a new voice from half a world away.

I left Zhanjiang in the late June heat, a familiar summer heat that had somehow returned without ever really going away; a heat I now knew. I am convinced that I learned more from my students than they could possibly have learned from me. We struggled through a single scene of Hamlet, a whole chapter of Gatsby, and the theses were at last delivered. Some students loved the literature, many were apathetic; some improved their writing, others never showed up for class. My final days in Zhanjiang were spent cleaning my apartment, giving away all the things you accumulate over a year that you can’t take with you. And when the morning came to say goodbye, I was surrounded by students, friends, that had engaged me beyond the class, in that strange nebulous area of life not mentioned in any job description or orientation. Maryknoll sent me to China to teach, and teach I did; but they also sent me to China to live, and as I said goodbye to my students and friends, reflecting on all that my students and experiences had taught me, I knew that I had lived, too.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Watching My China on TV

"Live blogging" isn't really my style, because I'm not very witty and can only appear clever after much contemplation and editing. But I'm sitting here watching the opening ceremony to the Olympics (and it's really a shame I couldn't watch it live this morning, stupid networks), and while I know I'm watching a spectacle that cost millions (if not billions) to produce, and is being simultaneously watched by millions more, it feels like I'm watching something far more personal. This is China on TV, this is Beijing, these are clips of Guilin and Shanghai and all the other places I have been and seen and come to know. And it makes me feel ...

... oddly nostalgic. Because I've been to Beijing and I've seen the city and the sights that are so arresting in their Olympic splendor, and seeing Beijing just reminds me of a two-year past I've just put behind me, and the mixed feelings that go with that.

... somewhat resentful. Because I spent two years there, dammit, and this should somehow be exclusively special, but it's not.

... dubiously authoritative. Because I can talk about Beijing a bit, and I can read the (really simple) characters, and I can tell you (regurgitate) a lot about China. But I know that in some ways I have seen more than one needs to see, more than I may want to have seen, of China; and in other ways, I know I have really only scratched the surface.

... overall, pleased. Because the opening ceremony was cool to see, and it reminded me of the best parts of China: optimistic, 热闹 (renao, "hot and noisy," busy and full of life and fun), grand and over-awing but also quietly clever, endlessly complex and fascinating and baffling in its incongruities and quirks and immensity.


I Want to be Your Bartender

I want to be your bartender. I want to flash that wry smile as you wearily enter my fine bar, sopping up your sudsy wordless salutation as I calmly, methodically clean pint glasses. I want to talk about the weekend, talk politics, before slowly, inexorably shifting to drinks, to your drink, your beer, because that’s why you come here after all, best damn beer selection this side (whatever side) of the Mississippi. Make no goddamn mistake. I’d curse freely, cheerfully, because I’m a bar tender, understand, and you’d sheepishly smile, all blushing manners giving way to a refreshing smile that drinks it all in: bar, bartender, beer. Because you’re here for a beer, god damn it, and I’m just the man to give it to you; me being a bartender is incidental. What’ll it be, my eyes ask knowingly across the deep nutty mahogany of my countertop, well-oiled and dark, something sprawling and handmade, like something out of an Irish novel. You glance eagerly at the taps, the vast forest of small handles, and I begin to talk, gruffly, dryly, about the selection; what’s new since you were in here last, what I think you’d like, making my way all sales pitch and showmanship until I arrive at the tap I’d knew I’d be pouring the second you walked in the door. I begin pouring before I say a word, before you can ask what it is or even think about protesting, and it slides golden and amber and just-cold-enough into the glass. I let it cook a while, a nice foamy head forming as I peel off a slim smile at your lip-licking mug (mug, damn it, because I tend bar). The head settles, I pull the tap once more and dump a final splash of ale into the glass, and you lick your lips and smell the hops, and that’s all part of the job. I put it down in front of you carefully, the small quiet ceremony you’ve come to know, a glowing monolith to beer that you silently look down upon, awe-struck and eager, muttering a quiet prayer or short nod of thanks as you gingerly wrap your fingers around the glass, lift, and lay lip to my beer. My beer, damn it. Because I’m your bartender.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Blast from Winter's Past

Harbin! 哈尔滨! That frozen little half-Russian popsicle in the most northern part of northeast China. And what's so great about Harbin? Why, their amazing "Ice Festival" of course! The 哈尔滨冰雪大世界, Haerbin Bingxue Dashijie, "Harbin Frozen Ice World," a rose by any other name! It was a larger-than-life collection of sights and slides, all made out of ice, all perfectly preserved in the coldest weather I have ever personally experienced. Jim, Kevin, and I met up with James and his mom, to see this giant sprawling temple to winter, and we also enjoyed the sights around Harbin (like the Siberian Tiger Park, where we did our part to feed the residents). Enjoy the video, a little look back at winter's (and my China's) past.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I L♥VErmont

I suppose its hard to go from living and traveling in China and all over Europe to a homecoming back to America, and then come lounge for a week in Vermont. I mean, when is lounging for a week at a lakeside cabin ever a problem? But the problem, if you can call it that, is one of just feeling restless. I was country-hopping, hell, continent-hopping, a month ago, and now, staying in one place with such an empty schedule feels ... wrong?

Enjoy it, you dumb bastard, because the real world is coming to scissor-kick you in the face: insurance, job hunting, The Future comin' right at ya. A week of lazy nothing may feel slow and quaint right now, but you'll be yearning for it soon enough.

So what the hell am I going to do now? Sort things out. Work on my Chinese. Get ready in the short term to teach, in some capacity, in Delaware and/or Philadelphia. Train for a 5K, then a 10K, and then ... something more. Write: short stories, fiction, scripts. Find not just a job, but a career: something I can believe in, something I can enjoy, but something that can maybe make the world even the tiniest bit better. Attempt to, as a friend and others wiser than myself have said before, become the change I want to see in the world.

We'll see. It won't come over night. It'll probably take a long time, actually; and I'm prepared for some compromises along the way. But I'm hopeful (or maybe just naive) enough to at least try.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Queen's Guard Mounting

My video of the Queen's Guard Mounting (known as the "Changing of the Guard") from St. James's Palace in London. I (we) followed the guards as they assembled, were inspected, and then finally marched to Buckingham Palace. The tradition! The colors! The Britishness! As good as a banger and mash in your tea and crumpets, cor blimey innit? Brilliant.

Please ignore the witch-cackle in the beginning of the video ... no idea where that came from.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Deirdre's Birthday in Paris

Deirdre's birthday at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

Matt Karpinski Sexy Time Lap Fun

Matthew Karpinski is available for bachelorette parties and/or suppressing prison riots.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


It certainly has been a long time. This forced march through Europe has been spectacular, along with a very long list of other adjectives I can't be bothered to fish out, and here I sit, a month (!) later in a cafe on Crete, Greek coffee and conversation swirling through the air, in front of two computers you have to feed one-Euro coins in to like a Donkey Kong machine, realizing I forgot my USB cable for my camera (which means no new pictures ... good lord, I haven't even done Amsterdam, Munich, anything in Austria or Italy or Greece ...), tired and with a headcold and unable to stop swaying from the motion of the sea we've been sailing on, a slow rocking that even here on dry land still causes my body to gently roll to imaginary waves, a thrall to some invisible drunkneness ... what a trip.

I mailed some postcards from Turkey yesterday, when we stopped in Kusadasi... hope they get to their destinations soon, because it looks like postcards I mailed from Thailand last February are just now arriving to some people. Yesterday on Rhodes I went to meet the colossus, but sadly, he wasn't there ... was he ever? I stood where one of his legs would have been, a hundred-foot arch spanning the mouth to a tiny harbor, and colossi nonewithstanding (that's a fun plural), being on that island, dirtying my feet in the dust of what was once classical Greece, what was once the root of modern Western civilization ... that was awesomne. I walked back from the colossus-less pier and passed by a boat flying an American flag and a big "Delaware" stenciled on its back, the "Cerra CM" the ship was called, an no one on it spoke English save the Greek sailors who said the people on the boat were from Turkey and France. Maybe the world isn't that small afterall.

And now I gotta go get in line, get back on the ship, see some more of Greece and finish this trip.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Paris Purée

I'm trying to get this out and these photos up on a German QWERTZ keyboard, and please note the lack of Y. So here are some photos of Paris. More on the digicam but hey, Picasa is only so generous with free space.

I did this trip eight years ago, and I gotta say, I loved Paris immeasurably more than I did last time. In fact, I hated is first time through. But the sense of history is immense, and I know that history much better now, and how it fits in my whole scheme for the system of the world. The Louvre is still impossiblz big, Paris cafes are still far too relaxing for their own good, the pace of life strolling through streets and meandering over bridges is still far too slow for a city with so much to see, and even with a lot of museum-hopping and a compressed schedule, the list of things to see remains huge. We were lucky enough to arrive during a minor holidaz, a Fete de Musical (or something), and I met a girl from Luxemborg who speaks French, German, English, the local Luxemborg dialect, and had just finished her Chinese exam. She was cute, we shared a beer by the Seine, and we chatted in Chinese for a while. Ah, Paris ...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

London: Kaly and Sandwiches

Its been a great three days in London, but we have to go. Gotta catch a train to Paris ... how many times do you get to say that? Photos!

Of the many great things in London, two stood out. First, I was able to spend the afternoon with Kaly, my friend and former student from Zhanjiang. She's studying in England, in Warwick, for her masters degree. She took a day trip in to London and hung out with us for a bit. I took her and a group to the Tower of London, and we saw the Crown Jewels. I was able to help explain a few things about them to Kaly, who probably never would have seen them if she hadn't gone with me.

Another great thing about London: sandwiches. After (literally!) months and years of nothing but Chinese food, which in case you didn't know doesn't make for good sandwiches, I've been eating a steady lunch of fantastic sandwiches and double espressos. Bread with cheese and herbs, cheese with names I can't even pronounce, meats and other fixings that sound like something from a mead-hall in Beowulf ... none of that bland crap English food here, I'm all sandwiches and smiles. Good sandwiches and coffee on every corner! It's like I'm in a real place again.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Surprise! Home Early (Father's Day Presence)

Maybe you know, maybe you don't ... but I came home from China early, to surprise mom and dad and Patrick, in time for Father's Day, but also before this month-long pan-European trip I'm about to take. The lie was that I was going to meet Patrick, Deirdre, and the rest of the trip in London ... but really, I snuck (sneaked?) back home early, from Changchun to Hong Kong to Vancouver to Philadelphia, to spend just a few days with the family before flying out for this Europe trip. Rough life, I know, traveling the world and finding time to squeeze in visit home with the family ... but somehow I manage. The surprise was a total success, except for mom, who got a call from the moronic voicemail service of US Airways, who informed her that my flight from Vancouver to Philly was delayed. So to let me know my flight was delayed in Canada, they called someone else in America. Brilliant as always! So mom kinda knew, but dad and Patrick had no idea, as you can see. Some give Father's Day presents ... I give Father's Day Presence. Thanks for not groaning too loudly on that one.

And now for a few pictures (Vancouver pics and a few from first coming home here):

Deirdre holding a "Welcome Home Ashole" sign ... she says "ashole" with a fake lisp ... long story ... inside joke ... moving home ...

Meghan wearing her Chinese scrubs. The sisters made the entire surprise possible, helping me plan and buy tickets and keep everyone in the dark. Thanks shidders!

Just coming off the plane.

Sweet sweet milk ...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

When will the farewell end?

My last week of classes were simple: finals finished, I had some music loaded on my MP3 player to share, lyrics printed up, and I just went in, ready to talk. There were a lot of questions for me, questions about Europe and finding a job when I'm back home and the inevitable girlfriend (it's bound to happen some time, right?). We took a lot of photos, and I was glad that my truncated week included two classes that were a particular joy to teach this term.

These jokers ...

... and these characters.

As per usual, on Wednesday evening we attended the weekly English Corner, and for almost all the students there, it was their last time to see me. I didn't plan a big dramatic goodbye, but it kinda turned into one, as a lot gave me gifts, took (more) photos, started to tear up, and many worked up the guts to ask for a hug. (I ended just hugging everyone there ... it felt good.) It was a nice way to say goodbye, the week of classes to bring our time to a close, but always with the "oh but we can see each other at English Corner on Wednesday!" corollary to keep them a little chipper on their way out the door of our final class together. Only a handful could actually make it to English corner, but those who did were the students that I actually connected with in some way over the term, in or out of class, and so it was an effective if unintentional thinning of the so-long herd. So I wasn't having teary-eyed goodbyes to Student #16 of Class 7.3, but I was saying goodbye to Memento and David, Atlus and Amber, Hawaii and Maureen and Cassie and Violent and a whole lot more. It was personal, the students came because they wanted to, and that's what made it feel special.

I also did something that I hope will set a blazing inferno to whatever bridge connected me with BeiHua: I gave my students their final marks. Not the school's official bullshit final marks, but *my* marks, the real marks, the ones I kept and calculated based on their actual performance in class all term. Since the jackasses in charge just threw my grades out the window last term, with no regard for my assessment of the students or the student's performance, I got a little sneaky this term by making a photocopy of all of my grades, and handing them both their grades as well as the marked finals papers. With any luck, the powers that be at Bei Hua will be furious, and the students will either have enough leverage to keep my grades, or solid proof that those in charge of the school are crooks. Strong words, perhaps, but I'm never gonna see them again, so I don't care! In all seriousness, what will happen is this: BeiHua will continue to be oblivious to me and my actions, they will change the students grades, and despite having proof, the students will remain impotent. Sad that I can already see what will come, but that's Bei Hua.

On a lighter note, here's my little beer collection as per my leaving:

Those beers are: North Coast Brewing Company's Red Seal Ale, Rouge's Dead Guy Ale, Rouge's American Pale Ale, Harpoon IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Duvel Belgian golden ale, another North Coast ale, this one the American Pale Ale, Bucanero, a cheapy Spanish lager, and finally, a Belgian white many may know, Hoegaarden. There are two big bottles of some unspectacular Russian beers hiding in the back there, too. I don't know why, but I am both proud and ashamed of this picture.

And here's Jenny taking a nap:

Aw, lookit 'er! She's exhausted from playing with a roll of tape, like a kitten with a ball of string!

What? This isn't Jilin ... is it? Cold blue skies, ice-capped green mountains ... where could Matthew be?! Tune in next time ...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

So long, Farewell, Auf wiedersehen, Zai Jian

Two years in China: check. Grades are in, salaries are paid, tickets are booked, and its only a matter of hours before I leave this mysterious, baffling, wonderful, terrible country. And now it's time to say so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, zai jian, to all things China, good and bad.

Goodbye homicidal cab drivers. Drivers who would not just be arrested, but beaten to death by angry mobs back in the states, and yet somehow still manage to get offended when you put on your seatbelt when they try to play chicken with a bus. And that seatbelt, so filthy from never being used, covered in dust and cigarette ash and god knows what else from countless other passengers, that it leaves a stain like bacon grease on the front of your shirt.

Goodbye cheap eats. I am still amazed at how cheap it is to eat out, and eat well, in China. A group of four can go out and have a small feast of three of four dishes and beer (sometimes it's even cold ... but more on that in a moment) for less than $2US a person, no tax, no tip. It's going to be painful getting used to dining out in America again, assuming I ever have the money to do so.

Goodbye, freshmen. It was a very strange year of not really knowing if you were learning a damn thing. What small glimpses of success I had were outside of class, never within, as even good students who were chatterboxes face to face were as passive as wet dirt in class. Only when students talked with me outside of class, students who before couldn't or didn't have the confidence to speak three words clearly, it was when they started having meaningful conversations, started voicing ideas that weren't just lifted from some textbook, that I knew I was at least having some impact. But goodbye none the less, students who at turns delighted and frustrated me, who made up such a large proportion of what life was about in Jilin.

Goodbye bad beer. If I never have another piss-warm rice-grain Snow beer again, I will be a happy man.

Goodbye Jenny, my dear friend, who was such a huge part of making Jilin what it was. She'll have good people with here next year, Kevin and Aaron and the other two Maryknollers who will be going north to Jilin.

Goodbye gateway travel. Before China, I knew of travel as an EF package tour through Europe. Post-China, travel to me is doing everything on my own, taking the run-down local buses, eating where the locals eat, avoiding the crowds of the beaten path, and finding joy in getting lost and getting around in a new country, in a crowd of new faces and languages. China has helped me realize this, and it's been a gateway for traveling throughout Asia. I'll never be able to travel so far and so frequently again.

Goodbye loud disgusting loogies. No place on earth will ever match the loud throat-emptying frequency of China's spitters and hockers. On the bus, in a restaurant, snot rockets on the ground or wiping it on the bus seat next to you, China will always remain the king of phlegm.

Goodbye dog on the menu. For shame.

Goodbye dumplings on the menu. You will be dearly missed.

Goodbye plentiful photo ops. I could walk around Jilin, or any city in China, and I'd run out of steam before my camera ran out of things to snap. So many strange, stupid, bizarre, and funny things going on when you cram billions of people together.

Goodbye Bus 32, the sole bus to and from campus, that was never empty, often times more than full, horribly maintained dirty ugly uncomfortable terrible buses. Goodbye the refusal to make a line to get on, goodbye idiotic and meaningless bullrushes to get on an already overcrowded bus, goodbye moronic drivers, horn honking that'd make the taxi drivers blush, slamming on the brakes, and goodbye hot cramped crowded human cattle cars. If I ever become a millionaire, I'm going to buy a whole new fleet of buses just for that route. I hated that bus, and I rode it all the time, and will be so happy to never ride it again.

And finally (for now, at least), goodbye crowds. Goodbye crush of billions of people, goodbye never having any personal space in public, goodbye gawkers and staring and yelling "Hello!" and people remarkably oblivious to others' and their own bodies position in three-dimensional space. Goodbye yelling spitting loud laughing hot and sweaty pushing shoving angry awestruck oblivious charming annoying Chinese crowds.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bei Shan and the Flaming Bride

Sunday was "Dragon Boat" festival, a holiday I remember fondly from Zhanjiang, where there actually were dragon boats and races in said boats. Guess the boats don't make it this far north, but the holiday sure does, and so Sunday was a holiday (with the bonus of having Monday classes canceled!), and to celebrate, Jenny, Kevin, and I climbed 北山Bei Shan, a "mountain" that is really little more than a hill, and so centrally located that I must have walked past this "mountain" park a hundred times this past year without realizing it. Jenny also invited me to her co-worker's wedding, but more on that in a minute.

The entrance to the park. A lot of people were there to celebrate the holiday, which seemed to be lacking both dragons and boats. I asked Jenny why people came to Bei Shan to celebrate, and she said that every year people get up really early and climb the mountain and go to the 早市, zao shi, the morning market the springs up around the park. Again I asked "why," and Jenny said, well, she didn't know.

This old man is like China's version of Cupid. He goes around weaving a red thread between lovers. He's the only one that can see the read thread, of course, but once you're threaded, you're together, for good or ill. He's old and prone to narcolepsy or something, because "bad matches" are when the old man with the thread falls asleep at the wheel (at the needle?). Young couples came and tied red ribbons and heart-shaped locks around him and the chain-link fence that surrounded him.

See? Ribbons and heart-shaped locks.

Couples that want a baby come and tie red ribbons around this statue of a baby. I don't know if there's any relation to the old man.

A small Chinese temple, one of many within the park. Jenny gave me a good little history lesson on how a lot of quasi-historical people from China's (far too long) history eventually became revered and deified. Like Greek gods, each now is an "immortal" and has his or her own little provenance in the universe, and you pray to different ones for different fortunes.

More red good luck paper stuff.

At the top of Bei Shan, looking down on Jilin. A nice goodbye panorama ... on to the wedding!

The groom owned a nightclub, and so the whole ceremony went down in (one of?) his club(s), with all the trappings of the night club scene: loud music, fireworks, magic shows, and singing, all with that unmistakably Chinese penchant for the loud and fiery.

Jenny and one of her co-workers at the wedding.

In a rain of confetti, the groom asked (again) for her hand. I couldn't really understand why, there was a lot of spectacle going on, a really loud MC who guided the couple through candle-lighting, wine-pouring, and a bunch of other ceremonies. It was all really flashy.

You can see the candles and the heart-shaped array of cascading wine glasses.

That looks both professional and safe, and in no way poses a fire hazard.

She looks really happy here.

Whoops! Just as the ceremony was drawing to a close, with the bride and groom and the MC standing shoulder to shoulder at the front of the stage, bowing and saying thanks, a string of fireworks right above them began vomiting sparks and confetti. Clearly, this wasn't planned very well. The confetti immediately caught fire and came down in sheets of flame, like someone threw a buck of fire on the stage. The result ...

... the bride's (rented) dress caught fire. It wasn't a tiny little fire, either; the entire train was a mess of confetti and ash and melting nylon. I've seen a lot of indiscriminate fireworks in China, and swore one day it's end in tears, I just never thought I'd live to see it end with a flaming bride.

Well, an afternoon at Bei Shan and a truly incendiary wedding. Not a bad final weekend in China!