Yesterday we did a speech in a mall in front of a Burger King. Don’t worry, it was planned – the sponsor even built us a backdrop and put out chairs for everybody. About 200 people were there, mostly student-parent pairs. Having the parents there seemed to help the students pay attention, but also meant we were trying to entertain teenagers and 30/40-somethings at the same time. It was the most amusing incidental Burger King commercial I’ve ever done.

We’re now headed back into deep Hakka country for the last three days of speeches. SPEAK OF THE DEVIL we just passed a sign that said “Hakka Park,” apparently some kind of cultural novelty land. Wonder if it was built by Hakka or Han.

The scenery in this part of Guangdong is super sweet. Guangzhou, where I spent a couple years early in my China life, is at the head of a huge river delta, so it’s mostly flat-like and riverwindy. The rest of Guangdong (or the northern parts, at least) is mostly sharp, densely forested hills. Not high enough to be mountains, but sharp enough to be shapey and rock-facey and fun.

The team is bummed because as soon as we get to the next town, we’ll be back under Hakka hospitality, which means the same dishes ordered meal after meal by hosts who are proud to “introduce” us to Hakka food. I’m not bummed at all. Even during our brief “reprieve” in Huizhou this weekend, all of our meals have been typical oil-covered Chinese fare (except for that one seafood lunch with snails and various kinds of shrimp and squids and oddly tubular mollusks). And the peanuts in this part of the province are top-notch.

I’m rambling now. I guess I’ll pretend to sleep some more.

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Don’t you think so?

I’m in a coffeeshop on the shore of Huizhou’s beautiful West Lake, not to be confused with Hangzhou’s beautiful West Lake (I knew you were wondering about that). I had 30 minutes to do a massive photo dump and write the script for my next video, but I knocked that out in 10, so now you get one of Josh’s patented 20 Minute Blog Entries!

So, uh, we’re in Huizhou, another predominantly Hakka area of Guangdong province, though one with a much more developed economy and diverse population, such that Mandarin and Cantonese are both all over the streets. We even ate a couple meals that weren’t Hakka food! My Chinese companions were psyched about that, but honestly, it’s not all that different… to a white guy, anyway.

Had a long conversation with one of our handlers from the publisher. This is not the first time she’d been sent to handle us, but I hadn’t ever really talked with her before, ‘cuz keeping your distance is how you keep things simple and make sure your precious moments of down time on these tours don’t get taken up by extra business or unwanted socializing. She kept asking me what kinds of cultural differences I found most annoying, so I talked at length about the forced hospitality – the kind where the host is just SO generous and SO caring that they just MUST force you to eat EVERYTHING and then MORE of EVERYTHING, no matter how many times you politely decline, no matter how many times you protest that you’re full, no matter how many times you cry and beg for mercy, no matter how many times you rip your clothes and invoke the ancient gods to take your life to end the suffering. When you try to force someone to eat something they clearly don’t want to eat, you’re not doing it for THEIR benefit. A big part of what we do on these tours is sacrifice our comfort and our agency to appease the ego of local officials and principals, who greedily devour this human sacrifice while boasting of generosity through blood-stained lips.

This conversation happened on the way back to the hotel from a lunch that they planned for us, even though we insisted we’d rather take care of our own lunch. Not sure if she got the point.

I had a brain-good: I asked the event organizers to ask the local teachers’ association to offer a highly-ranked teacher to be in my next video (I make a short English video every week). I’ll probably also invite some of the students who volunteer on stage at our next speech to be part of the video as well. I think it will be fun, and I also think it will inspire the local teachers’ organization to spread my videos as much as possible. I should do this in every city we visit. They aren’t paying us to do this, so I’m OK with shamelessly promoting myself.

With that in mind, I’d better use the last 10 minutes of my time to go through the script again and make sure everything will be smooth during the shooting. Can’t do a re-shoot when you have guests.

*poof*

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“Sir, We are English Teachers.”

I doubt this will be much of a cohesive post, but I think that’s just where we’re at right now. Too much goes by without getting written down; the volume itself seems to inhibit the writing. A paradox worth a remedy.

Have I told you that I moved to Shanghai to start a kids’ show? I’m now a kids’ show host cum puppeteer, and creative director of the whole project. Unrelatedly, I’ve either become smarter about how to get things done OR luckier about finding the right pieces, because I think I might finally be able to put a paid content project together for one of China’s largest video sites (they’ve been bugging me for content for six months now), which would result in a comfortable amount of passive income for the foreseeable future.

I go to the gym and I lost 4kg in three weeks. I don’t look any different, but one of my belts doesn’t fit anymore.

Right now I’m in a backwater of Guangdong, near the border with Jiangxi, going from town to town doing speeches and book signings in the middle schools. My co-author is with me, and we will do this for about a week altogether. We’re sleeping in different town each night, floating around in a 7-seat van with a small team of employees from our publisher and from Xinhua bookstore, which actually counts as a branch of the government and is therefore able to let us sell our book inside of schools. Go figure.

This is the second such week-o-speeches we’ve done. The first one was all in the city of Shantou, so we stayed in the same hotel throughout and ate lots of stupid delicious Shantou beef and seafood. This time we’re in poorer area, mostly populated by the Hakka people, a somewhat nebulous culture that is famously diasporatic, to the point that nobody is entirely sure exactly which part of China they came from anymore. They occupy a large area of Guangdong Province (better known by the older name Canton), and I love the fact that most of them out here don’t speak Cantonese. I like cultures that defy boundaries. I like outsiders and exceptions to the order. I like complexity. This is the opposite of what someone in my geopolitical position is supposed to like, but I can compartmentalize. When the big boss from the (local education bureau? Local Xinhua branch? Teachers’ organization?) bounded out of the blue in the middle of dinner with the advice, “Just don’t say anything about politics,” I deadpanned him with a slow nod and a solemnly oblivious assertion: “Sir, we are English teachers.” My secret insides were buckets of giggles.

For the record, we don’t say anything about politics in our speeches. When they asked my “political leanings” in the WeChat group before we arrived on-site, I just ignored the question. Nobody benefits in any way from that. The question was asked and it did not receive a dissatisfactory answer; the bureaucracy sleeps content.

I like Hakka tofu. They put balls of meat inside. I think I like everything about the Hakka. Their name in Mandarin means “the guests.” That can’t be what they call themselves, for obvious reason – but it is what they call themselves when they speak in Mandarin, which is the only way I can speak to them. I feel like I can only hear them refer to themselves in the third person.

Cantonese woman from Shantou, literally a two-hour drive away: 哇,你们客家人真的很好客诶!“Wow, you Hakka people really love entertaining guests!”

Me: 所以才叫 ‘客’家吧。 “I guess that’s why they call them ‘Guest-People.'”

Hakka woman, laughing: 没错。就是这样。“Yes. That’s exactly it.”

Hakka man: 别吓死他吧,不是这个意思。“Don’t mess with him like that. That’s not the reason at all.”

Another Hakka man: 广东人管我们叫客家人是因为我们原来不是这里的,我们原来从北边过来的。”Cantonese people call us ‘Guest-People’ because we’re not originally from here. We came from the north.”

Me [knowing that’s probably not the whole story]: 所以广东人叫你们客家是因为你们原来是外地人吗?“So they call you ‘Guest-People’ just because you’re from somewhere else?”

Hakka man: 是的。“Yes.”

Me: 那么对广东人来说你们是客家,然后对你们来说我就是客家。“So you’re Hakka to them, and I’m Hakka to you.”

The table laughs, except for my co-author. He gives me a funny look. I don’t think we’ll ever understand each other. I think it’s possible for some brains to exist in mutually-exclusive dimensions.

I didn’t write what I wanted most to write, but my time is up. My potato chips, my sorghum spirits, and I wish you a good night, when next the moon finds you. And make no mistake: it will.

It will.

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Have you read the sequel?

I believe that not all items in a to-do list are created equal. They LOOK the same, standing (or lying?) in a row (stack?) with no color coding to indicate qualitative differences (unless, like me, you picked up one of those 5-color pens from a corner store, which apparently sources them from our collective childhoods), but some of them tend to get picked off the list relatively quickly while others can linger for days, months, or even years (Hi, Jan Hall’s un-replied-to email from 2014! You’re still marked “unread” in my inbox).

What’s the difference? Why are some tasks easy to cross off, while other, seemingly simple tasks can stay on the list for LITERAL DECADES (I’m looking at you, “the gym”) without managing to get did’d?

I suppose there could be various reasons, but for me and MY list, we will follow the (no no no, wrong thing) but for me and MY list, there’s one current item whose reason of resistfulness has only just now revealed itself to me:

The things we “think” we should do but do NOT do are those things that do not fit into the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. To do a thing that contradicts our identity is to, uh, contradict our identity, which is, uh, hard? Man, this is getting dumb.

ANYWAY, the SPECIFIC reason for all this COWFECES GENERALIZING is that the thing I’ve been supposed to be doing for THREE DAYS now is Part the Third from last time: clean out my apartment and get ready to move. It’s the only Part I didn’t get done that day, and it didn’t get done yesterday, and it’s threatening to not get done today, unless…

(Wait wait wait, I need to explain some more before I finish that sentence, so let’s put that train of thought on pause and parenth for a bit, ‘k?

(In order for “Get ready to move from Hangzhou to Shanghai” to be a necessary thing, I must believe that 1: I live in Hangzhou, and 2: I’m about to move to Shanghai.

(You might think that #1 is easy, but it’s not. That’s because belief is more than just the absence of disbelief. I see nothing to disprove the proposition that I live in Hangzhou, but it’s still kind of hard to stomach. Really? Hangzhou? Why? This far out in the boonies? Who is out there? Nobody? Where’s your office? Nowhere? Can anyone out there vouch for your existence? How many neighbors can you name? How many neighbors can name you? NONE of it makes sense, and it’s kind of making it hard for me, even as I sit in my living room, to convince myself that I am sitting in MY living room, and that I therefore must take responsibility for this whole WTF I roped myself into out here for all of 2017.

(#2 is equally difficult to congeal into a solid belief. I’m going there for a project that hasn’t really even gotten off the ground yet, and intend to support myself for the majority of next year through similar freelancing to what I’m doing now, only more of it, somehow. It’s all very… nebulous.

(Also, it’s COLD and houses don’t have heaters here because, and I’m not kidding you, southerners just believe that “it never gets cold here” so to put a heater in a house would contradict their BLATANTLY FALSE BELIEFS I MEAN FOR THE LOVE OF GORB THERE IS SNOW ON THE GROUND LOOK AT YOURSELVES DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT ANYTHING IS

(…and the point of that observation is that the cold kind of forces my higher reasoning into hibernation from time to time, so belief of any sort requires more resources and warm White Russians, which, I don’t know if that’s a thing everywhere, but they certainly are in THIS house which… hey, whose house IS this?

(So all this parenthing is to explain that the reason I’m having trouble forcing myself to pack is the place I am, the place I’m going, and the reason for doing so are all equally beyond belief that until I can trick myself into believing them, the act of packing will feel too pointless to force myself into doing.

(And with that out of the way, we can now resume the original train of thought in three, two, one…)

…I can BLOG myself into believing BELIEVING the story about myself in which I REALLY AM MOVING TO SHANGHAI using the power of WORDS, preferably spelled out with CAPITAL LETTERS for HEIGHTENED EMPHASIS that may or not bring about AN ENHANCED IMPRESSION OF CREDIBILITY.

I’m now going to turn on some “Holy F*cking Science” episodes, stand up, and get started on adding the second sentence onto Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am:”

“I believe, therefore I move.”

(I’d say “Wish me luck!” but I DON’T BELIEVE IN LUCK I DON’T BELIEVE IN ANYTHING WHO AM I WHY IS IT SO COLD OH FOR THE LOVE OF GORB IT’S SO COLD LOOK AT THE WATER IT’S ALL DEAD ALL THE WATER IS JUST LYING ON THE GROUND DEAD WHAT WILL BECOME OF US see you in Shanghai.)

 

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In an incremental effort to undermine the Perfect’s almost one-year tyranny over the Anything, I bring you tidings that today will be a day in four parts, starting with:

Part the First, wherein I lock myself in a tiny room and babble into a microphone for a half hour, and then spend two hours in a larger room staring at a screen, tweaking the babbles I babbled to take out the bad babbles and make the good babbles better babbles,

(upon completion of which we will proceed to)

Part the Second, wherein I dust off an old-ish computer and make it WORK I tell you WORK for the love of God why won’t you WORK, and then install some windows-only software on it that will let me do more WORK for which I can be paid, after which I will then do the WORK,

(following which will come, with immaculate sequentialness,)

Part the Third, defined mentally as “large steps taken to erase from this apartment, in which I’ve lived for almost exactly 11 months and 1 week, evidence that I ever lived here at all, in preparation for other people (presumably) living there in the future; this step may, depending on my whimsy, be accompanied by a mostly useless glance at some Shanghai real estate aggregators, as I will probably have to sign a lease there within the next 10 days;

(and then)

Part the Fourth, subtitled “Nightlife: Tuesday Edition.”

You have been apprised.

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How do you commemorate a life in a space?

City: Guangzhou (广州)
Duration: 2.5 years
Jobs Held: >4
Houses Lived In: 3
Friends Made: [SYS ERROR: unquantifiable]
Fell in Love: Once (didn’t realize it until later)
Defining Moment: Smoking a cigar in that window of my Jiangnanxi apartment
Greatest Achievement: Learning to throw (in the sense of a ventriloquist throwing a voice) my sensibilities, thereby consistently achieving previously unavailable patterns of behavior; which is to say, learning to govern my behavior and not vice-versa
Greatly Missed: Deeply-felt certainty re: life and its purpose

 

City: Haikou (海口)
Duration: 10 months
Jobs Held: 1
Houses Lived In: 1
Friends Made: 1
Fell in Love: Once (see: Haikou, Friends Made)
Defining Moment: Night before I left, sitting on the beach with her; going to play in the water for a bit; coming back to find my backpack had been stolen; not caring at all; her inability to process my indifference
Greatest Achievement: Surviving in a completely Chinese work environment. (See also: Haikou, Fell in Love)
Greatly Missed: See: Haikou, Fell in Love

 

City: Beijing (北京)
Duration: ~4 years
Jobs Held: 2
Houses Lived In: 4
Friends Made: <10
Fell in Love: Once (didn’t realize it until later; I used to think it was 3 times)
Defining Moment: [SYS ERROR: insufficient emotional distance from source material]
Greatest Achievement: Holding, and not completely failing at, a real job with real clients and real consequences (better late than never, eh?)
Greatly Missed: [EXISTENTIAL ERROR: inability to answer this question is the impetus behind this post]

 

City: Hangzhou (杭州)
Duration: TBD (calculation to begin on or around Feb. 28, 2017)
Jobs Held: All and none (self-employed)

Houses Lived In: 1 (by a river and a fishing pond)
Friends Made: TBD
Fell in Love: TBD (optimistic)
Defining Moment: TBD
Greatest Achievement: TBD
Greatly Missed: TBD

 

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From the other side

I found myself in a bookstore last week and decided to do the only honorable thing: buy a book. I chose something in Chinese that I guessed would be [somewhat] easy to read: a translation of Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country.

Wikipedia says it is often named “one of the seminal literary works of the 1980s.” This is a title often shared by yours truly, making the fact that I had never heard of In Country all the more puzzling.

As I read, I try to guess what the English probably is. How would this character have said that line? What 1980s American English word would cause a Chinese translator to select those characters? Etc.

By far, the best part is the helpful footnotes, which contain enlightening little explanations for such unrecognizably exotic references as Chevy Chase, Bruce Springsteen, Walter Mondale, and the Talking Heads. Unfortunately, I am still left in the dark about the identity of a certain late-night comedy host whose name is transliterated as Qiong Li’wei’er. I would like to ask  you to help me figure out who that would be, but you will need a few points of reference:

Walter Mondale = Wo’er’te Meng’dai’er

Geraldine Ferraro = Jie’la’er’ding  Fei’la’luo

Jim Morrison = Ji’mu  Mo’li’sen

Bruce Springsteen = Bu’lai’si  Si’pu’lin’si’ting

Chevy Chase = Sai’wei  Cai’si

Lorenzo Jones = Luo’lun’zuo  Qiong’si

Kentucky = Ken’de’ji

Emmit = Ai’mi’te

Sam = Shan’mu

Washington = Hua’sheng’dun

Lexington = Lei’ke’xing’dun

 

Got it? Good. I’m counting on you.

My favorite footnote yet came hanging off the edge of the teenage protagonist’s question to her teenage boyfriend, something like:

“Where on Earth did you get the beer?”¹

¹ By American law, you must be 21 years of age to consume alcohol. Stores that sell alcohol to anyone below 21 years of age will be punished, so young people who buy alcohol are usually asked to show identification. The law also states that, when consuming alcohol in a public space, the label must be covered. Thus, stores usually sell bottled alcohol inside brown paper bags.

 

Reading that on the metro, I could not help making a little swoosh motion with my hand (like a shooting star) and sing-whispering,  “The more you knooooow!

 

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