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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Priorities

Wanted to Facebook this, but didn’t want my name attached to it. Doing so would compromise the protagonist of today’s vignette.

I’m co-writing a book about communication. A big part of it is about how to strike up a conversation with strangers. My co-author and I have already read a small library of books on the subject, from both of our respective countries.

Last week, co-author (hereafter referred to as “co”) called to tell me that his friend recommended two more books. “He says they’re the best,” co said. “They really helped him talk to new people.” He said he had English versions, and they were in the mail.

Last week I received the first one. It was a book on how to pick up women.

I sent a picture of it to co. “Yeah, that’s it!” he said. “How do you like it?”

“I haven’t read it.”

“Neither have I. But my friend said it was good.”

I tried to explain to him that pick-up culture was the opposite of what we were doing. Pick-up artistry trains you how to see other people as commodities. Its techniques are manipulations. Aside from being repugnant, that’s the opposite of what our book is trying to do: teach our students how to NOT see foreigners as an English commodity, and interact with them as real people.

Co didn’t seem to get it. I Googled the author, looking for more ammunition. Turns out, after writing the book he checked himself into rehab for sex addiction. He later wrote an exposé about pick-up artistry. He was happy that he had gotten over that part of his life. He wanted other people to avoid his mistakes.

Co still didn’t get it.

“I’m going to throw it away,” I told him. “I can’t have this in my house.” He didn’t seem to care either way. He just repeated that he heard it was a good book, and I should take a look.

I was perplexed. I wasn’t asking for an apology. I didn’t even want him to admit to any wrong – he was just passing on a friend’s recommendation. All I wanted him to do was agree that a book on picking up chicks is not a good model for our book. I felt that this was vital to our continued cooperation. He didn’t seem be processing it at all.

The next day, he came to Beijing to hammer out some revisions to the first draft. We were in his hotel room. I’d brought the book and left it out on the couch so he could see it. After about an hour, he finally picked it up and started flipping through it.

“What!” he exclaimed. “I really bought this kind of bookI can’t believe it!” He tossed it back onto the sofa, and sighed a disappointed sigh. I wanted his thoughts, so I prodded him with a “Yeah?”

“The type!” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “It’s so small! I just hate books with small type!”

Just now I received the second of the two books he sent me. The tagline: “How to get beautiful women into bed.” Doesn’t seem so hard to me – just wait until about eleven o’clock or midnight. They tend to get tired and go to bed all by themselves.

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Being the guy in the back of the room compulsively saying, “But none of this makes sense!”

I mentioned a while ago that I’ve sunk some money into a thing I want to do. I haven’t done it, but I’ve done another thing, sort of a prototype.

Hold on, let me go check the previous entry to see if I explained the background for what I wanted to do…

…Nope, I didn’t. Here goes:

You know about Periscope? It’s a live-feed app, where any user can open up a live feed and other users can watch and post comments in real-time that all viewers can see. China has a lot a lot a lot of these apps – it’s a big market, and an immature one. There’s kind of a gold-rush feel to it, because in the Chinese apps, viewers can give virtual gifts that the live-feed host can redeem for real money through the app.

This has resulted in a race for the lowest common denominator – a scramble for the formula that gives the best returns. A sociological study in exploiting the masses; finding which things to be, places to be in, things to be doing that will make people be giving you money. And the results are in. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the depressing formula:

Thing to be: an attractive woman (sometimes man; roughly 1/10 of the time)

Place to be: in your bedroom (the pinker the better)

Thing to be doing: flirting, winking suggestively, possibly dancing suggestively, and (this is the most important part) flatly asking the audience to “like” you, subscribe to your channel, and send you gifts.

That sounds reductive, right? Like, if what I just wrote were true, then there would be lots and lots of apps full of pretty girls just sitting there, flirting with the camera and directly asking for money. That seems a bit ridiculous, so our author (me!) must have overstated things a bit. Right?

No. No. No. I dare you. Go download any of them – Yi, Huajiao, Ingkee, etc – and look at the top 20 channels on the home screen. It will be big eyes, cutesy hair, and cleavage. And if you click on any of the identical faces (and they are identical. Even Chinese people say so. The word for it: “hostess face.” It’s a thing), you will see a girl asking you for money, and you will see other people sending her money.

I’m currently double-fisting a latte and a lager, so I think my writing style is probably slipping a bit, so I will just skip the descriptions and appeal to you directly to feel alienated and weirded out and [whatever word we use to mean “disappointed in humanity”] about this. Go ahead. I’ll give you a moment.

[Allow for the passage of time here]

Now, see, I’m a bit of a bleeding heart. When I look at this travesty, this blatant exploitation of man’s (not sexist ‘cuz I am talking specifically about men) basest instincts, I get sad, the same kind of sad I get when I see people salivating over the next Pokemon game or luxury car (and I work in luxury car marketing. I get paid to make myself sad). The sadness of seeing people do their enthusiastic best to be hamsters on the wheel, rats at the lever, joyfully exploited capitalees.

No place on Earth is as adept as hypercapitalist China at making me that kind of sad. And when I get sad, I get satirical. “If only there was a way to reach into their phones and let them see the emptiness of their endeavor,” I say. “Jolt them into awareness of the virtual nature of their connection to their object of desire, break through the illusion into which they fling their money, their time, their affection.”

Basically, the project is to take the tacit absurdity of the medium and make it overtly, inescapably, absurdly absurd. I have a plan for this. But I need some help, and I haven’t yet met the right team.

In the interim, I can at least take some pot shots at the medium itself. Engage in a bit of cheeky weirding. Do something colorful, amusing, unexpected; something that doesn’t play along with the narrative; something that flitters about, dancing the absurdist tango while whispering softly, creepily, “This is all weird and we should perhaps reconsider.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Magic Mask.

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Guy Fawkes mask (just because I happened to have one, which in retrospect is also kind of strange) taped to a white poster board. Mini-projector playing a looping kaleidoscope video. Phone in a clamp, pointed at the mask, logged into the app, constantly broadcasting.

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Put the video in Keynote (like PPT for MAC), painstakingly adjusted some white shapes (and red eyes) to make the mask pop. Had to turn it sideways because I had to put the projector on its side because video screens are longer than they are tall, while phone screens are taller than they are long.

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Because you can’t zoom when you’re in the app, I had to put the phone closer to the mask than the projector. This meant I couldn’t center the phone on the mask, because then it would be in the way of the projection. I had to put it off to the side. Will correct this later with a clamp-on zoom lens.

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The first broadcast went from 1:30 to 5:30 this morning, while I slept. I was a bit buzzed when I set this up, as I did it on a whim after an evening of writing (I adhere to the “write drunk, edit sober” method). As such I forgot to disable the screen saver, so everything after the first hour was just a white apple dancing around on a black screen. I would be disappointed, but then again, I can’t help but feel that it’s just as appropriate as what I meant to do.

This is just the beginning. The premise of “live feeds” involves honesty – it’s realtime video, no chance for editing or effects. I circumvented this by using projection. I’ll continue to subvert other aspects of the medium in later versions. I assume that when I do, I’ll blog about that as well.

Now, if you’re anything like I imagine you are, you’re probably thinking, “This seems like an ingenious but ultimately pointless project.” I agree. It’s the very pointlessness that makes it so refreshing.

We often judge art (yes, I pretend to the term. I can do that – have a degree in the fine arts, you know. Yes, it’s technically a BA, but… Hey, look, behind you! A psychedelic floating mask!) by the final project, but sometimes the process is just as inherent to the meaning of a work. Nobody sent any gifts or subscribed to this broadcast, but that would have been icing on the cake. I did “the thing,” and some people saw it, and it was fun. It’s the sentence we often always never see in any description of a work, no matter how whimsical: “In this piece, the artist is clearly just effing around. He would be delighted that you’re looking at it, but kind of weirded out if you took it too seriously.”

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An excerpt of… something. Not what it appears to be.

“Where are you from?”

It’s an easy question, but I never know how to answer.

“America,” I could say. But then they would think of New York. California. They would think of Taylor Swift, and Big Bang Theory, and guns. All of these things are American. But they are not who I am.

“Texas,” I could say. But then they would think of cowboys. Steaks. They would think of George Bush, and the Rockets, and, again, guns. All of these things are Texan. But they are not who I am.

“I’m from a small town,” I could say. But American “small towns” are so different from Chinese ones. A small town in China can still have a million people. My home town only has twenty five thousand people. That would be a “village” (农村) in China, but my hometown is nothing like a Chinese village. I don’t think my Chinese friends could imagine what my home town is like, unless they go there.

My Chinese friends can only use their imaginations to understand where I come from. But the “America” in their imaginations is very different from my home.

It’s the same for you, too. Tell an American that you a Chinese, and they would think about kung fu. Dragons. They would think of Mao Zedong, and crowded trains, and fried rice. It’s impossible for them to imagine what China is really like. If you have ever talked to an American about China, you know exactly what I mean.

So if we want to know each other, we have to start from scratch. Forget what you know about America. I’ll forget what I know about China. I’ll listen to your story, and you listen to my story, and if we can understand each other, then we can be friends.

Deal? Deal. Let’s begin.

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The forward march of

Lately I’ve been alternating between this blog and an honest-to-gob physical paper journal for my daily diaries. Between the two, I manage to make an entry about once every three years or so. You do the math.

Had a weird idea the other day and decided to run with it. Will be personally financing a piece of concerted weirdness cum social commentary. Hand-drawn diagrams have been hand-drawn. Secret experts have been secretly consulted. Have just sunk my first sum of monetary money into equipment (about $180 in real money). Here goes nothing.

Don’t worry. It’s not illegal or subversive. If I ever get myself thrown into jail I’ll be sure it’s for a hard crime, like jaywalking or… or… or like jaywalking for a second time.

I leave you with a visual bit of “And now, in Shanghai…”IMG_5940.JPG

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Somewhat less existential than the last post I remember writing about trains, years ago. Do you remember that one? I seem to remember that it devolved into incoherence. Sounds familiar.

The train ride from Beijing to Tianjin is a microcosm of something, I’m sure of it. You start off gliding through the edge of Beijing, seeing the backs of buildings you never thought of as as having backs. Then the buildings peter [not all the way] out and get spaced by fields, some of which grow crops, some of which hold trash, some of which surround fish farms, but none of which are empty.

By the time you get a few miles out of the city the tracks are raised, roughly to the height of a highway overpass, just high enough so that you can see over the tops of the trees you never thought could exist so close to Beijing. What buildings are left at this point are, almost without exception, puzzling. Clusters of thirty-story luxury apartment buildings and huddles of three-story whitewashed concrete shells puzzle the mind through their proximity to each other. An unmarked three-story gray building inspires the imagination with a huge antenna on the top and plethora of surveillance cameras that are, for some reason, densely clustered on the southeast corner of the second floor.  Later we pass a curious construction that looks like a cross section of one side of a college football stadium, 20 yards wide, with its back to the tracks. In the distance, a seven-story white building with uniform black windows that stretches on uniformly for several hundred yards.

I’m sure they all have perfectly reasonable explanations. I wonder if anyone knows what they are.

I remember an ad for an Amtrak program of a few years ago, wherein authors were to go on trak journeys (or so I assume they would be called) around the am (ditto) and auth (none of these words actually work, do they?) about the experience. I read one of the resulting authees and found it to be distressingly solipsistic and not at all in evidence of the supposed romance of rail travel. That it failed to enhance the romance of rail travel was disappointing to me; the solipsism less so, as in retrospect I realize it was all but entailed by the premise of a young writer forced to sit in one place for a long time and then write about it. Not that my own train reflections were any better.

On a solipsistically related note, finding the “right word” is becoming increasingly more difficult. I encounter “tip-of-the-tongue” sensations in almost every English sentence. In most cases, I can’t even think of an appropriate Chinese word – there is just the impression of a meaning that I want to express, and a feeling of the inadequacy of all the words I throw at it. I tried to cover one such impression in the above paragraph with the words “evidence” and “impression” – and I believe both to be wrong, and I am not disappointed, and (because) I find myself thrilled by the sudden tangibility of nonverbal meaning. Maybe, perhaps, there is more in heaven and earth than is spelled out in our philosophy.

If I find out what it is, though, I’ll never tell you. I won’t be able to. Maybe I should take up painting.

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