Monday, September 21, 2009

Um, Seriously, Mr. Policeman?

For those of you in-country, you know that China’s a stickler for visas. I’m already running out of visa space on my new passport since I had to have an entry visa, a three-month visa to live in Chengdu, a one-year visa to live at my site, and now a second one-year visa to stay another year. Anywho, my old visa expires in about 6 days, so it’s getting pretty critical that I get it renewed. We were going to go today, but… visas schmisas! It’s more important that the station close so they can practice singing “that national songs” in honor of the PRC’s 60-year anniversary. And in case you didn’t get that the first time… yes, the police station (at least the part that deals with visas) is closed for three days so they can sing. But the madness isn’t only at the police station; classes at my university were also canceled Friday, Monday, and Tuesday so the students could practice their singing. It’s seriously confounding to me.

In other police news: I had my wallet stolen last week, and my waiban has been in contact with the police to see if it can be found (minus the cash, of course). I have a message for the man who said “thanks for supporting our work here at the police station”: no prob, Mr. Policeman, I’m glad I could get my wallet stolen so you’d have something to do today. Sorry to drag you away from the singing, though...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New blog template

Changing my blog template has caused me to ask some serious questions about myself and the universe in general:

1. Am I extraordinarily retarded when it comes to computers?

2. Do html programmers feel a sense of superiority when they create something that people can't figure out?

3. Why do electronics, more than any other object on the planet, cause us to revert to a caveman tendency to throw things against the wall?

4. Who decided that making each blog post on my site say "Posted in by Lisa" right under the title would be a cool or even grammatically correct thing to do?

5. Why can't I add the gadget that says what blogs I'm reading?

6. Why does it say edit at the top if I can't edit anything after I click on it?

7. Why am I sitting at my computer instead of doing something more useful, like finishing up one of the 472 half-read books in my apartment?

8. If I lean back against this wall, am I going to get mosquito guts all over my shirt and hair?

Oh well... I like the new template anyway, despite the grief it gave me. Kinda soothing, eh?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Greece 'n' stuff


It’s 2:00 in the morning, and I just put on a pot of coffee. And for some reason, Leonard Cohen is playing on my iTunes. Perfect time to catch up on blogging, right?

I’m not going to bore you all with endless prattling about my trip to Greece, but I do have one thing to share with a few specific people who will find this interesting. On the ferry between Athens and Santorini, I was struck, as always, with this fiery, consuming fascination for the water. So, I sketched out some prosetry, and I’m presenting it here with a very special dedication to the people who like to tease me about wanting to commit suicide in the ocean. It’s just a first draft and not what I would ever call good poetry, but I’m throwing it out there just so Jo and Sigma have some more fuel for their endless teasing of me. See? I sacrifice myself just to make you guys happy.


She hides secrets, the ocean.
Stolen from sailors, dictators, peasants, fish.
She steals them as she drags the unwary into a frothy green death.

If you listen closely, you can hear a word now and then.
A whisper.
An echo.
Each ripple, crest, wave sings a chorus.
The secrets of the ocean revealed in mumbles and hisses.
But if you really want to know her secrets, you have to make a sacrifice—
And you have to be chosen.

You’ll know if she calls you;
The whispering starts.
She beckons to you with the temptation of secrets.
Alexander the Great.
Your ancestors.
Their whole history lies hidden in her depths.

It starts innocently enough.
She offers you pleasure first—floating in the waves, feeling the sand bury your feet.
Then when she has you captivated, she shows you her darker side.
And before you know it, the fear consumes you.
She’s all you think about.
You long for her.
She sings like a siren until you go mad from the longing.
And then—

The sacrifice.
You think it’ll be something simple, like Odysseus sacrificing his men for safe passage.
But it’s never simple; there’s only one sacrifice she wants.
She wants to add your secrets to her coffers, and there’s only one way for her to steal them.

The last glimpse of the sun, the sky.
The world turns green and eddies around you.
After a few seconds, the agony takes hold,
But that’s all part of the sacrifice.
And then the secrets are revealed—
The messenger? The corpses of the dead who were also stolen by the ocean.
They grab you—slimy and phosphorescent green—
They pull you close and whisper in your ear.
They speak of history and war,
Love and loss.
You’d think it would take a while, to learn all these secrets, but it doesn’t.
Only about a minute.
About the same amount of time it takes for you to die.
And then… you’re wise—fulfilled at the moment you come to the end of yourself.
After that, you take your place among the chorus.
You whisper your secrets.
You become the mystery that others seek.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Yi, Thriller, Purity

I feel like I’ve finally experienced the real China.

Staff banquets are often a painful event for me here in Bijie, but this one was different. This time, the balance of foreigners to Chinese people was equal. This time, I felt renewed. This time, I connected. This time, I almost got sacrificed to the Yi god on a bonfire.

First: nature walk in white boots. Creatures encountered: millipede (ew!), ponies, gnats, butterflies, poop. Benefits: renewal, nature, flowers, fresh air, silence.

Second: eating, singing, and people dumping some kind of vinegar-flavored beverage into my mouth. Outcome: cool, smiles, men “happy”. Favorite quote from the night: “It’s okay if his juice goes into my cup. We are brothers. He does not have AIDS.”

Third: the sacrifice. People grabbing me, turning me, twisting me, making my arms and legs go in ways they aren’t supposed to bend. The fire blowing its ashes and sparks at me as if it knew I needed to engage in this purification ritual. A chant like two birds seeking their mates in darkness. Spinning. Turning. Channeling Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”? The dancing frenzies then mellows then frenzies again in a ocean’s tide of happiness and sorrow. Finally, emptiness. Release. It’s over.

Fourth: dirty songs in the van.

China is beautiful on this night. Maybe I did need the purification ritual.

(For a better account, go here.)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The beetle

I’m a murderer.

He came innocently into my home, announcing his presence with a flourish. He was beautiful, once I got over the shock of seeing him. Big and metallic red. Majestic, really. A god of his kind. But the sound and fury of his entry was like a war cry and I retaliated by grabbing the weapon closest to me. I closed him in the guillotine of my window.

In the morning when I opened it again, he was still alive. He’d endured the night of torture. He stumbled away, his legs and back broken, but made strong by his desire to die in the beauty of nature. He walked to the edge of the sill, hovering over the precipice where he knew he’d meet his death. After a moment, he spread his curved, red wings and fell.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Where my blood lives—a continuation of the last blog

I’ve learned to not look too closely at my apartment. If I do, I start to notice things—smears on the white tile floor, splatters of paint on the wood, nails in places where no sane person would hang things, the crappy engineering and architecture…

But today, I looked. I stared blankly at the stark bluish-white walls and I noticed. What did I notice? Bugs. Mosquitoes, to be more precise. They’re everywhere. Stuck to the grease on the kitchen windows because the last tenant didn’t bother to clean them off. Smashed on the walls. Dead in the windowsill. My apartment bears the signs of being an ongoing battleground for the war between humans and those blood-sucking, pesky, buzzing-in-your-ear-at-3-in-the-morning-when-you-have-to-get-up-at-6-and-teach mosquitoes. I’d like to say that the humans have been winning the war, based on the carnage covering my apartment, but I know it’s not true. Because my blood’s splattered on the walls right along with the mosquito that tore it viciously from me. It’s right by my bed. And the mosquito that lost the battle is squashed right beside it. That was a particularly joyous victory against the mosquitoes, despite the battle wound that I woke up with the next morning when my eye swelled shut from the bite on my eyelid.

But I find that little splatter of blood morbidly fascinating. It’s not red anymore, but a dull brownish color. Now I’m looking at all the squashed mosquitoes on my walls and wondering if the blood of past fighters in this war-on-mosquitoes is also smeared on the walls. I’m both disgusted and interested in this idea. Part of me wants to clean the smashed bugs off the walls, but part of me wants to leave them up there along with the blood that they sacrificed their lives for as a kind of monument to the war. Plus, I’m lazy. It makes me feel better to have an excuse to not clean up the war-carnage.

And why is it that mosquitoes in China seem smarter than their comrades in the U.S.? I’ve said before, and I still believe it, that they must have some kind of ninja training before they’re allowed to go out and join the war. They have this amazing ability to disappear the second the lights come on. They seem to know that if they land on a dark spot somewhere in the room and wait patiently, the humans can’t find and kill them. How are their brains even big enough to have that kind of survival instinct?!

Grrr. I hate mosquitoes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Places where my soul lives

I spent about 13 hours on a bus this last weekend, so I decided to put every Ryan Adams album on my iPod and play through all of them. I realized we have something in common—a fascination with places. He has at least 10 songs where he talks about the places that have affected him: “Oh, My Sweet Carolina,” “Dear Chicago,” “Tennessee Sucks,” and “New York, New York” are some of them. But my favorite is “The End”:

"Oh Jacksonville, how you burn in my soul
How you hold all my dreams captive
Jacksonville, how you play with my mind
Oh my heart goes back, suffocating on the pines
In Jacksonville"

My fascination with places started in Rome and became consuming in Edinburgh. But I didn’t understand it until London. I tried to define it, understand it, write about it, but as always, found my ability lacking. But I found the answer in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway:

"But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not "here, here, here"; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter--even trees, or barns."

Here’s how I understand the quote: we exist in all the places we’ve touched. But it works the other way too: those places exist in us. We leave parts of our… I don’t know, essence or soul… in the places we go and we carry those places with us afterward. And so to know someone—I mean, completely know them—we would have to see all the same things in the same places at the same time. It’s almost a kind of soulmates, but obviously impossible to fulfill.

The whole deal with places goes deeper than this, though. The place itself seems to have a soul and identity. Rome is a philosophizing old man with a long beard. Edinburgh mystifies me. I've tried to identify it, and this is all I can come up with: It’s identity changes to suit each person, to draw in every unsuspecting visitor until they become fettered to it. Edinburgh is a vampire, a wise old man, a Druid sacrificing naive virgins, a seductress with fiery hair and a black dress. China doesn’t have a clear identity to me yet, but eventually I’ll figure it out.

So I’ve been trying to figure out how China affects my soul and what parts of myself I’m leaving here. Actually, I think I’m leaving the best parts of myself. It’ll live in the people I’ve affected most—my students. But how will China live with me afterward? Maybe China is the place where my soul became strong. Home is where my soul is renewed. Edinburgh is where my soul is mystified. Rome is where my soul is satisfied. I haven’t yet found the place that burns in my soul and captivates my dreams, as Ryan Adams says, but I’m pretty sure that place exists somewhere.