When I was a kid my sister and I had one of those old 45rpm records of a British comedy team called "The Goons." As British comedy is wont to be, it was totally off the wall, sort of a pre-curser to Monty Python, which I am still a fan of. This record had 4 or 5 sketches from their radio program, and our favorite was a silly song titled "I’m Walking Backward for Christmas." The chorus of the song went like this:
I’m walking backwards for Christmas,
Across the Irish Sea,
I’m walking backwards for Christmas,
It’s the only thing for me.
I’ve tried walking sideways,
And walking to the front,
But people just look at me,
And say it’s a publicity stunt.
I’m walking backwards for Christmas,
To prove that I love you.
I hadn’t thought of that song for years, but a couple of weeks ago, while I was visiting Tianjin for a day, I saw something that instantly made me start singing it. I was in a car on a major highway in town–six lanes, with a huge fence in the middle. Three lanes going one way, three lanes going the other way. An expressway, really. Our car was cruising the inside lane, a mere 3 or 4 feet from the divider. In China, these big fences are put up to prevent people from crossing these 6 lane highways, an activity that is obviously death-defying. But the only thing that people in China seem to love more than building walls and fences is finding ways over or around them, so there’s always someone either tearing a hole in the fence or clambering over it to cross the highways. It’s not uncommon, then, to see someone standing between that inner lane and the fence looking for a break in traffic so he can get to the other side. So I wasn’t all that surprised to look up ahead as we were driving and see a man walking in that space. As we got closer to him, though, we realized that he wasn’t just walking on the expressway, he was walking backwards!!! And carrying a plastic bag!
Now I have to spend the rest of my life wondering why that man was walking backwards down the expressway, and whenever I think of him, I think of the song!
I have a confession: I’m terrified of electricity. It’s not an entirely irrational fear given the fact that I was electrocuted when I was in college. It’s a long story, but I was in a lake that became the conduit for 200 volts of electricity. Working as a lifeguard, I jumped into the water to rescue two swimmers, not knowing that what had immobilized them was electrical current. I was fortunate in that, other than being in a state of shock (literally), I was not seriously hurt. One of the other swimmers died and another was severely injured.
Since then I have been terrified of electricity. Even the slightest shock can send me into near panic. Having lived in China for many years now, this fear has been transferred to lightbulbs, which, at least when I’m around, have a tendancy to suddenly explode. It happened again tonight. After spending the afternoon and evening out with a friend, we decided to come back to my house to relax and watch a movie. I opened the door and turned on the light in my entry way and KABOOM!!!! Sparks flew and the lightbulb shattered, as my friend and I ran for cover in the hallway outside my door!! Of course the explosion knocked out all the electricity in my apartment, leaving us totally in the dark!
This has happened to me before. Once when I was living in the northeastern part of the country, all my bulbs exploded in one evening. I walked into my place, and turned on the lights. KABOOM!!! As glass reigned down on me, I threw myself under the dining room table! When that was all over, I went into the living room and turned on the lights. KABOOM!! I jumped behind the piano. Talk about feeling like someone is out to get you!
So now I"m always a bit jittery whenever I hit a light switch. Usually at home, I stick my arm in the room and hit the switch, while the rest of me cowers in the hallway. It’s just become a way I turn on lights. I also am afraid of changing light bulbs, so have to beg friends to come over and do it for me.
At any rate, I really can’t figure out why these bulbs have to explode as their way of telling me they are "spent." Simply sitting there and doing nothing when I flip the switch would be sufficient.
I recently had the chance to spend a few days in Kashgar, China’s westernmost city. It’s about 2000 miles west of Beijing, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Flying time is about 6 hours, with a mandatory change of planes in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi (which has the distinction of being the city in the world that sits farthest from an ocean). Two main groups of people live in Kashgar–the local Uighur ethnic minority people, and the Han Chinese, who have migrated to Xinjjiang since China assumed control of the region in the early 20th century.
Now, you know what happens when you travel west—the sun does too. Apparantly that’s not so obvious in China, a country that is slightly bigger than the US, but still only has one time zone. The entire country is on Beijing time, the position of the sun notwithstanding. Officially then, Kashgar time is Beijing time–there is no time difference. But the locals know better–know that it’s a bit silly for your watch to show 9AM just as the sun is coming up over the horizon. So they operate on an unofficial "Xinjiang time." It can get quite confusing because all official things (train schedules, plane schedules, banking and office hours) are according to Beijing time, while informal things (meals, visiting friends, etc) are in local time. If your flight is scheduled to depart at 8AM, you’d better be thinking about Beijing time, not local time, or you’re going to miss your flight by 2 hours.
It seems to me that someone in Kashgar is in denial, but I’m not sure who it is. Is it the Han Chinese who are in denial that the local time should have at least some relationship to the position of the sun? Or maybe they are in denial they they are out there instead of enjoying the relative comfort and ease of Beijing. Or are the locals in denial that the Chinese are in control?
Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.
On Sunday I was flying back to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The flight path across China was due north to Beijing, after we entered Chinese airspace over Hong Kong. I’ve flown that routing numerous times, and am always struck by one thing: the southern part of China, up to just north of the Yangtze River is almost under a cover of clouds. But then, as if someone has drawn a line, the clouds dissipate somewhere between the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers, giving a view of the land below. What struck me this time as we flew beyond the clouds and out over the North China Plain was how brown it was, even a few months into the growing season. And the rivers are empty. Except for the Yellow River itself (which is filled with mud mostly), every single river bed we flew over was dried up. I kept asking myself, where has the water gone, and how to the millions who live down there survive without it? The Xinhua News Agency today wrote about the same thing, noting that 4.8 million people are now directly affected by a severe drought that has hit 4 provinces in northern and northeastern China. In one province alone, more than 200 reservoirs have dried up. That’s really quite hard to comprehend!
I’ve been travelling a lot lately, so haven’t had much time or energy to post anything in awhile. So I’m going to take the lazy route here and send you to an article in That’s Shanghai written by a friend of mine. It’s called "Aural Sculpture." Here’s the teaser……..
Not so very long ago, I was sitting in a Chinese railway station
awaiting my train, which like the first snowfall, the Second Coming and
Godot, was taking its sweet old time. Worse still, I was experiencing a
throbbing headache. Then suddenly an announcement came over the
loudspeaker system: “Miffle babble gribble, mao mao mao, glizzzbo
hemmat.” I strained, along with my fellow travelers, to understand what
the announcer was saying. I asked a local man sitting next to me if he
understood it, but – like me – he found it near incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, he was able to catch something about the train to
“Miffle” being slightly “glizzzbo.” Meanwhile the buzz and screech of
the station’s public address system seemed to me like the opening
ceremonies of the Migraine Olympics getting underway in my skull.
I love to eat hot (spicy) food, food that’s so hot it’s guaranteed to knock everything out of my sinuses. A few years back I stumbled onto a brand of salsa called "Pain is Good." That just about says it all. Much to my delight, there are many hot dishes in Chinese cuisine. Sichuan cuisine is probably the most famous for it’s heat, but Hunan food is also very spicy. I lived in China’s northeast for 8 years, and was pleased to find that they also have a love of firey peppers, thanks to the Korean influence.
As I’ve studied Chinese over the years, I’ve made note of the various ways in which Chinese people talk about their food. I’ve also found that food is a popular topic of conversation and one well-placed question or comment about food can keep table talk at a banquet going for hours on end. Invariabley the matter of spicy hot (la) will be raised, and this is where the linguistic fun begins. The language has an elaborate set of colloquialisms to talk about a person’s tolerance for hot food. They are:
pa la: pa means "to be afraid of," or "don’t like" and la means "spicy hot." Someone who is pa la can’t take hot food.
bu pa la: bu means "not" so this phrase means "not afraid of hot," or "I can eat a bit of hot." It emphasizes that one can eat hot food. The food is hot? No problem! I can handle it!
pa bu la: this phrase is the strongest, meaning "I’m afraid it won’t be hot," which is to say bring on the hot food. The hotter the better (yue la yue hao).
A new Hunan restaurant has opened in our neighborhood and has quickly become a favorite of my teammates and me. As I mentioned before, Hunan food’s signature characteristic is hot! We’re talking off-the-charts hot. I’ve learned a new term to add to the ones above: wei la (micro-hot). When we order a dish the waitress asks us if we want the food prepared wei la or zhengchang la (normal hot). Recently I was eating lunch there with my boss and we decided that since we both take pride in being pa bu la, we’d go for the zhengchang la. Yowzer! I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten anything so hot in my life, which is something given the fact that I was born and raised in Pakistan! We could almost feel our brains burning.
Next time this pa bu la is definitely going for the wei la.