Embracing Madness

One of the constants of life abroad, of living well where you don't belong, is the ambiguity — the feeling that everything you see and experience doesn't quite make sense.  Or, as I like to say (often), 'nothing is as it seem.'

A friend sent me a quote from a novel written by a foreigner in Shanghai in the 1920's.

Shanghai, and particularly being a foreigner in Shanghai, might have been purposely designed by Andre to illustrate and encourage the surrealist impulse. Every moment there possesses an air of peculiarity. Every corner there brings a moment of crystal clear absurdity.  My landlord there, as it turns out, was a policeman with a side business of child prostitutes. One of his girls used to sit in the courtyard playing the guitar and telling me her dream of becoming a catholic nun—once she had finished putting her older brother through university. The head of the missionary school where I taught for a while spent his every lunch hour with an opium pipe. One discovered a purity in the gutters and filth in the glittering shop windows—every hour of every day. I found Shanghai to be the very essence of surrealist doctrine. If the world is mad, then the maddest man is the most sane. So I became sane by embracing madness. I became intoxicated by sobriety.  (The Language of Bees, by Laurie King)

While the actual examples may be quite different, the underlying sentiment has a vague familiarity to it.



Gotta Have a Drink

Yesterday, I picked up some friends a their office in downtown Minneapolis to take them to lunch at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, The Bona, near the University of Minnesota.

Our route took us past the Hennepin County Medical Center, where we had to pause for a red light. As we sat there, we noticed a very strange sight — one of those sights that takes your brain a few minutes to process.  Crossing the street, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, was a man wearing a yellow hat, a hospital gown (yes, the kind that opens in the back), jeans (fortunately), and bright green socks.  No shoes; just socks. 

We kept our gaze dumbfoundedly fixed on him and watched as he sauntered across the street and went into a bar!

I guess he just couldn't get a drink in the hospital.

Narita Airport

Once again I find myself sitting in Tokyo's Narita Airport, something I've been doing for 31 years! I seem to have plenty of memories and stories that are centered in this place.

My first transit through here was in 1979, as I was returning home from a summer internship in Hong Kong.  I had stopped in Seoul for a week to visit college friends.  We all flew back to Minnesota together, via Narita, Honolulu, and Los Angeles.  My main memory of that trip was a marathon UNO game.

Even though I have floown through this airport anywhere from two to five times per year since then, only once did I actually exit the airport to see Japan.  In 1984 I visited a friend teaching English here.  We bought JapanRail passes and travelled all over the country for two weeks. 

My most Narita memory was in January of 2001.  I was flying from Minneapolis to Bangkok after having spent two terrible weeks at home following my father's suddent death.   A snowstorm had delayed our departure out of Minneapolis, so we all missed our onward connections in Narita.  Fortunately, Northwest Airlines put us up.  As I was sitting in the gate area the next day,  waiting to board my flight to Bangkok, I suddenly heard someone call out my name.  It was so surprising, because I was feeling so very alone. I turned to see the pilot of the plane that had just pulled up walking towards me–he was a friend of my sister and had been at my father's funeral the week before.  He came over and gave me a much-needed hug.  I will always thank God for that angel in a captain's uniform. 

And a year ago (in December) I had the fun (??) of being pushed through Narita in a wheelchair.  I was heading back to Minnesota for Christmas just 4 weeks after my knee surgery (which was one year ago this week).

I don't mean this in a negative way, but Narita kind of reminds me of pergatory–it is  full of people who are coming from one place, on their way to somewhere else. 

It looks like my plane is being pulled up to the terminal.  Onward to Culvers!!!




Once upon a time in China, it was commonplace to see people wearing clothes that seemed "out of place,"– things that would be common back home, but were so 'not common' as to stand out mightily here.
Since contemporary Chinese fashion (especially for young people) is pretty much the same as it is anywhere else, that sense of 'why is that person wearing THAT?' feeling is quite rare these days.
But I had one today, which is what got me thinking. I didn't just notice the 'out of place' attire, but also noticed that it was unusual to notice it.
So, here's what happened. I was in the big mall at Xizhimen and spotted a young man wearing a green 'letter jacket,' a uniquely American form of clothing worn by high school and collegiate athletes to identify their sporting achievements. To see one being worn by a Chinese guy in Beijing definitely caused me to do a double take, which in this case meant turning around to try and catch a glimpse of the name of the school or city.
What I saw surprised me even more! It said ROSEAU. Roseau? Can that be right? For those of you who don't know, Roseau is a very small town in Minnesota, just minutes from the Canadian border.
Why in the world a Chinese kid was wearing a Roseau, MN letter jacket in Beijing I'll never know.

The Establishment of Winter

Late yesterday afternoon as I was returning home in a taxi, I spotted groups of people on the corner near my place huddled over small fires.  This is a common sight around certain traditional Chinese festivals, particularly Spring Festival and Qing Ming Festival in April. On those occasions people burn fake money to send to their ancestors.  I wrote about this custom a few years ago in a post titled Hell Money.

I was a bit confused to see the fires yesterday, however, since I couldn't recall any festival this time of year.  I asked my taxi driver about it and he reminded me that yesterday (November 7) was Li Dong (立冬), the first day of winter according to the 24-cycle solar calendar that is still followed by some in China.  Similar to The Farmer's Alamanac, the beginning day of each two-week cycle has a name, usually marking a seasonal change or something directly related to the planting or harvesting of crops.

Li Dong is perhaps better translated as "the establishment of winter." From now on, it can really get cold. For what it's worth, it's definitely colder in Beijing today and it snowed in Changchun yesterday!

As for the fires, my driver told me that on Li Dong people traditionally burn money and/or old clothes (not real money or clothes these days) to send to their ancestors in the afterlife so that they will be able to stay warm for the coming winter.

Take note, my friends….winter has been established!


Count ’em Again, Just in Case

In August I wrote about being visited by China’s National Census takers.  In case you’re not up for checking out that post, here it is again:

In those days the People’s Government issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Middle Kingdom. This is the first census that took place while Hu (Who? yes, Hu) was President of China. And everyone went to his hometown to register…..(apologies to Dr. Luke)

…Only this time they didn’t, because this time so many people (200-300 million??) have left their hometowns looking for work; therefore, the census was to be conducted by counting people at their place of residence instead of at the location of their hukou (birthplace registration).

And this time, for the first time ever, foreigners were to be counted.

China’s 2010 National Census has begun. We’ve known it’s been coming because of all the green banners hanging around town urging everyone to do their patriotic duty and cooperate with the census takers.

Earlier this evening the census takers came to my door. Apparantly I was the first big nose on her beat because she seemed a bit confused about how to fill out the special form to count foreigners.

After the obligatory “you’re Chinese is so good — no, it’s terrible” pleasantries were dispensed with, she recorded my name, sex, passport # (not residence permit or visa #, interestingly), how long I’ve lived in this apartment, and my phone number.  That’s it.

Then, because an event of this magnitude cannot pass without the giving of a gift, she presented me with a bright pink “I cooperated with the 2010 census” apron!! Iwonder what I’ll do with that — leave it out for my housekeeper to use, I suppose.

I’m looking forward to next year’s release of the census results.  I can see the headline now:  In 2010, China’s population stood at 1.4 billion citizens and 724,000 ‘Big Nosed Foreigners.’ One of those big noses will be mine.

I’ve always wanted my presence here to count for something!

Tonight, they came back for the second round.  I guess the visit in August was just the preliminary round and this one is official.  I basically gave them all the same information and then eagerly awaited my gift.  What would it be this time?  A spatula?  A set of hangers? A bar of soap? Don’t laugh–I once won that by winning a shot-put competition at a university sports meet.

Well, as it turns out, tonight’s gift was none of the above.  In fact it was….TA-DA…this:

In case you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what it is, let me help. It’s a fold-up laundry basket.  In fact, it came all packed up in a little attached carrying case, and when I pried it open, it jumped out at me like a jack-in-the-box.

Isn’t that nice.  Now, everytime I throw dirty clothes into it, I can think of the China Population Census of 2010.