Monthly Archives: November 2011

Fortune Kooky

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While fortune cookies are explicitly analogous with Chinese cuisine, many Westerners would be surprised to find that most Chinese have never eaten a fortune cookie; the ones that have, just like us, probably wish they hadn’t. However, the Chinese would find the Japanese origin of the mostly-unsweetened-cookie-pocket to be even more scandalous than its lack of flavor. Though the facts surrounding the introduction of the confection into Western society are uncertain (it is suspected that Japanese entrepreneurs unfortunately took advantage of a niche market for stale baked goods), its popularity is not. The fortune cookie has been a mainstay in Americanized Chinese food culture since sometime in the 20th century, and its entertained and sometimes superstitious fan base isn’t wont to let it die out soon.

The paper-cut-happy slips of destiny inside these crunchy cardboard compartments are largely (read: entirely) responsible for the fortune cookies’ longevity. Whether or not you’ve bought into their ability to divine the future, wallpaper your dorm walls with morsels of wisdoms detailing the proper way to say ‘I ate too much’ in Chinese, or simply enjoy adding ‘in bed’ to the ends of the fortunes, you’re probably one of many Americans who find an increment of joy in reading ambiguously universal predictions.

In the time I have before class, I’ve compiled a list of fortunes that I think one might read were the cookie to be produced here:

1. “Step out in traffic without checking both ways ten times, never step anywhere again.”

2. “He that can’t endure the bad will not live to see the good, so stop whining and finish the cookie.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/niainneverland/6281601962/in/pool-21755378@N00/

3. “A black cat will cross your path and meow adorably. Do not touch it, it has rabies.”

4. ” You will soon be forced to make a choice between having a closed umbrella which is a useless umbrella, or an open umbrella which is a soon-to-be-demolished-by-the-wind umbrella.”

5. “Copyright laws, like menu descriptions, leave room for interpretation.”

6. “You will make a new friend on the bus whether you like it or not, with invasion of personal space as grounds for friendship.”

7. “Courtesy is contagious. Wear a mask.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/11482851@N00/5970841651/in/pool-21755378@N00/

8. “Save face, wear someone else’s.”

9. “You have a deep interest in all that is artistic. Good luck getting into college.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristinwilliams/6044716124/in/pool-21755378@N00/

10. “An admirer is concealing his affection for you. Call the police if he changes his tactics.” http://www.flickr.com/photos/rckmsckm/5985430758/in/pool-21755378@N00/

11. “Confucius say, stop quoting me unless you’re studying.”

12. “If you love your bicycle, leave it unlocked; if it loves you, someone will return it eventually.”

13. “Learn English: Economic Decline 经济衰退”

14. “Lucky Numbers: 8, 8, 8, 8, and 8.”

(of interest: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/jamesreynolds/2008/07/lucky_number.html)

6 and 8 are both lucky, and 6+8 is 14, so I should stop here. But 1+4 is 5 and that’s bad. Guess I’ll just have to risk it.

Becoming 明星:Babysteps towards rockstardom

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“They ambushed you in the hallway?!” I sputtered, shaking the rain from my Sesame Street umbrella as Camilla and I trudged up the slippery stairs of our 宿舍楼. “Did their purses also happen to be big enough for bodies? Say, involuntarily immobilized ones?”

“What, do you think I can’t judge character?” Camilla challenged, smiling.

Earlier that day, when Camilla was escaping the torrential price of living in a beautiful but rainy locale, a pair of girls had approached her in the stairwell. “Wow, you’re beautiful! And foreign!” they’d expressed admiringly, “Can you sing?” A surprised Camilla had hummed a few bars, and they’d collected her phone number, convinced. Their intention? To put her on stage during a festival and have her 表演.

This was not the first time I’d heard of ‘random acts of foreign entertainment collection.’ In fact, I’d been recruited before myself. One day in 口语课,a marginally unhinged but fun Polish-American had informed me that he liked to jam, and had been paid to play at a business function with a few of his international friends. I told him that ‘OhmygodIlovetosing’ and after making me prove it by singing to him in the dorm lobby, he gave my name to his agent (i.e., a bandmate’s ex). She emailed me the next day about a singing function, asking for my measurements and pictures of me– but not for a clip of my voice. If she wanted me to sing, shouldn’t she know whether or not I could?

The prevalence of jack-of-all-trade entertainment agents, who simultaneously serve as Chinese teachers, real estate agents, modeling agents, travel/passport acquisition agents, and probably secret agents, is due to the fact that EVERYONE IN CHINA IS OBSESSED WITH FOREIGNERS. I have a friend who was paid to stand at a door for an hour in a tux and do naught but say ‘Hello’ and smile (with gritted teeth- he felt a bit demeaned, but of course ‘sold out’ of his own accord). Essentially, it doesn’t matter if you can sing, dance, act, juggle plates, juggle lawnmowers, whatever; it just matters that you look foreign and that you look good doing it.

Though I’d declined to follow up with the first agent (I hadn’t met her and was a bit sketched out that she didn’t care if I could sing or not), I ended up getting scouted by a foreign singer herself at a loft party one evening.

“I have two gigs tomorrow night and I can’t make both of them!” she fretted, leafing through her planner. My ears perked up.

“What do you have to do?”

“Sing three songs, for like $100 each.” While there are a lot of agents and a lot of people who want to see foreigners perform, there aren’t that many foreigners, making them a hot commodity. Agents will literally stand outside classrooms, ready to poach a foreigner with potential for stage presence.

“I can sing,” I ventured, excited and nervous.

“Can you sing these songs?” she asked, her eyes brightening as she pushed a scrawled list of tunes into my hands. I suddenly became acutely aware of just how much of an aberration my musical taste is, and how much I’ve only ever memorized the lyrics to musical theater songs.

“I can memorize them quickly. When is the concert?”

“From 1pm-8pm tomorrow.” Oh. Rockstar dreams dashed again.

“I’m meeting my language partner, but please let me know if you ever need a backup?” I received an affirmation, and that was that.

Camilla had met her new friends in person, however, swore they were the real deal, and knew what the concert would be like; she had enough to go on to think the gig was both safe and that it would actually come to pass.

“Camilla,” I started nervously, “would you give them my name, too? If they need other singers, of course.”

“Sure, why not?” My heart leapt higher than a roundhouse-kicking monk.

Two days and many hours of agonizing over which song I should sing later, I put down my hairbrush microphone and went to meet the girls with Camilla. Insofar in my life, I’ve only sung songs that I sort of liked in legitimate performances (musical theater—I’m trained classically as a vocalist) and performed songs actually really like in karaoke bars; I’ve never had the opportunity to sing a favorite song at a real concert. With that in mind, I was really intent upon making a good impression. I wanted this.

The girls sat us down in the first floor of our dormitory and explained what would happen in Chinese. Of the twelve people in the performance, Camilla and I would be the only two singing. The entertainment, it turned out, is multitalented: dancers of all designs, musicians, you name it. When asked about our accompaniment, Camilla and I realized that it’d been a good idea to download the karaoke versions of our songs for practical use; we’d be singing on stage, by ourselves, with karaoke accompaniment. Not as real of a concert as I would have liked, but there would be a real stage and real speakers and real lights and real people listening to me try to be a fake rockstar, so I was appeased. Rather, I was in no position to make ultimatums. Camilla and I were asked to sing our songs again (I’d chosen I Think I’m Paranoid by Garbage, a band with a statuesque redheaded frontwoman whose voice is even deeper than mine), right there in the lobby. We complied, received positive feedback, and let down our guards a bit to get to know our ‘agents.’

An hour and a half of Chinese conversation later, I finally felt like I had a reason to be in China. The girls were students in the Fine Arts program (the Chinese have Fine Arts programs in college, kids, it’s not all Math and Science) who had planned the concert all by themselves—this was their pet project. The Chinese music scene is alive and well, and as someone with an interest in the music industry, it’s encouraging to think that a nation with over a billion people could be tapped as a potential audience, were I able to communicate with them effectively. The girls were genuinely interested in us and learning about our personal language histories, too—it wasn’t simply a business transaction. What’s more, they told us we were outgoing and pretty and that I was ‘sunshine.’ It always boggles my mind how much Chinese people think literally ANY foreigner is pretty, but I’m not complaining. I liked them already. The best part was getting to practice my Chinese in a real world setting—they knew a bit of English, but not much, and we both had to whip our trusty dictionaries out of their holsters to complete the lingual transactions.

Sometimes, though, even if the words themselves are understood, the meaning gets lost. When 天主 asked me if I could dance, I told her that I like to dance but that in America I’m considered to have two left feet. As I laughed to myself, I noticed the two girls eyeing my feet with surprise. They’d actually thought I had two left feet. Five minutes of laughter later, I managed to explain that I’d used an idiom.

The dress rehearsal is tomorrow, the concert the day after, and a huge after party with the girls’ friends right after that. I have a lot to look forward to, a lot of practicing to do, and a lot of artistic reasons to continue my Chinese education.

I Column Like I See ‘Em: The Last Mandated Tour, or, Thinking Deeply Without All The Facts Hurts Brains

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“The city we are going to visit is poor because there are lots of private businesses there.”
Say what, Tour Guide? I took out my earbuds. Lost in translation?
“They don’t like to pay their taxes so the government is weak.”
Oh, nope. Just China being oxymoronic… like usual… hold on a second, I see what’s going on here…

Train of thought (Moral of Story: Don’t make rash assumptions, especially when sleepy): Greed is pervasive in Chinese culture, even though the Chinese insist that they’re community-oriented (haha oriented)… but, those two things don’t go together, so China’s a hypocrite? Will I only find peace in studying China when I affirm that I can’t understand it because its culture is in flux? Wait… are my standards for hypocrisy different than the Chinese standards? Is it okay for concepts that don’t mesh to exist side by side? How do I say ‘standards for appraisal’ again, 评价的标准,right?Man, these seats are uncomfortable… am I, am I listening to Bob Dylan? Or is that Britney Spears?

…yep.

8 am is way too early to start blowing my mind.

———–
The gaggle of groggy undergrads and myself had flung our appendages about the tour bus seats (themselves so mod they would not be out of place on the cover of a geometry textbook), readying ever so gradually for what would be a taxing day. Part of participating in the Xiamen Program, Professor Yue’s pet project, is paying homage to a plethora of historical places. On Saturday, this meant spending a workday’s worth of time taking in various Confucian temple museums and the creepy robe-clad mannequins within. We weren’t so thrilled about rising with the sun and proceeding to involuntarily immobilize within seat constraints; I’d still managed to get a workout alongside khaki-clad businessmen at the track beforehand, as I anticipated sitting for the better part of the day. Even so, our group tries to make the best of edifying experiences, though why students would ever want to learn, I don’t know.

STOP NUMBER ONE: THE BUDDHIST/TAO/FOLK PARK

“No way,” I gaped, pointing at the tower of graduated roofs. “There is no way that is real. It looks digitally enhanced.”

We stood at the base of a skyscraper of a pagoda. It juts out from the ground in waves of rock, its peak seemingly flush against the clouds. I’m usually appreciative of architecture, but not maniacally so (buildings are just inanimate collections of stuff—a bunch of atoms you can’t really interact with [unless you count vandalism, but I won’t {publically} condone that]) but I’d never seen a pagoda before, and I was more impressed with rocks than usual; Too big for my scope of vision, it required more than a good stare, or even a scan of the eyes, to comprehend. While our tour guide gave us a lecture, Professor Yue simultaneously gave his own bonus lecture. Meanwhile, I noticed an expanse of chains reminiscent of a ropes about a ship’s mast at the top of the pagoda—structural or aesthetic, I wasn’t sure. I asked about them in Chinese (dumbdumbdumb), to which I received an answer (as expected) in Chinese, and came away with no new knowledge other than how to say ‘chain.’ I remain yet suspended in my understanding of suspensions.

We then checked out a giant wall embossed with three-dimensional images of creatures. According to the tour guide (who we understood despite the Chinese explanation this time), the big image in the middle was of one of the sons of a dragon that gave birth to nine ‘different skinned’ (unlike) children. This one happened to be, I think, a unicorn—but all the Chinese mythological creatures look equally four-legged, scaled, and fire-breathing to me in their temporal depictions, so I’m not sure. On either side of the ‘unicorn’ were cranes and a special kind of tree (whose name I didn’t understand despite the English explanation), representing Taoism and Buddhism, respectively. When I asked then, for which sect exactly is this yard intended, the tour guide and Professor Yue explained that while the yard is primarily Buddhist, conflicting faiths and ideas intermingle in China (Okay! Score!). Buddhism isn’t Chinese in origin, so it’s had to integrate itself into the culture with the help of native adaptations. According to Professor Yue, the laymen’s version of Buddhism isn’t even pure Buddhism. When we visited the yard’s main temple, presided upon by a family of intimidating golden buddhas, Professor Yue told me that I was right in saying that the purpose of Buddhism was to let go of material attachment—which is why it’s ironic that people pray to a Buddha. As he would mention again at the Confucian temple, people need something to pray too (I disagree), or something to ground themselves (I find plausible). I then asked about the tiny green aberration of a monster (in Chinese again- I NEVER learn) that was peaking out from behind a Buddha. Though my first stab at understanding let me to believe it was a bodhisattva, I later realized that it was a Buddha’s personal steed. In any case, it was seriously deranged in appearance; I could only imagine riding one at a rodeo. That would be one exciting way to re-enter the cycle of rebirth.

After that, we played in the courtyard and took pictures with shocked Chinese children. It was here that I would make one of my worst puns to date.

“Hey Alex,” I started, as Janice, Jaydee and Keeli climbed the roots of a fichus to pose for a picture, “how many Asians fit in a fichus?”

“I don’t know, Hannah. Do I want to?”

“Tree.”

I should have hung my head in shame, but Alex took it upon himself to complete that task for me.

STOP NUMBER TWO: I DON’T REMEMBER SO IT MUST BE SOMETHING SUPER IMPORTANT OR NONEXISTANT

STOP NUMBER THREE: THE MUSLIM MOSQUE, c. 1009

We stared at the ground, ambivalent. At a point in the distant past, the entire dome of the mosque’s prayer hall had caved in, covering the ground in priceless relics. The keepers of the mosque decided to build a new prayer hall rather than clear the scene, and time had allowed the ground to reclaim the dome and cover it with a lush layer of grass and other weeds. “If you like treasure, you should dig here!” our tour guide joked lightheartedly. I hoped that there were no imams in earshot.

The mosque also had a mini-museum with various documents detailing the ‘pedigrees’ of some families and ‘genealogies’ of others. Racism, or unintentionally poor translation? I never asked.

Other exciting stops and the inside jokes that accompany them (this post is long enough already…)

STOP NUMBER FOUR: LUNCH AT THE BLUE NUN (or, The One Where Everetttook our pictures as we ate Buddha only knows what)

STOP NUMBER FIVE: THE CONFUCIAN TEMPLE (or, The One Where I made even more bad puns, just like everywhere else, and Professor Yue taught us that Confucius is prayed to as a god even though he tells people that he can only help people who help themselves)

STOP NUMBER SIX: THE MARITIME MUSEUM AND ISLAMIC CENTER (or, The One Where we, tired, expressed Zoolanderesque astonishment at the model boats [‘Let’s hire different engineers, these ships are too small, and hey! Why are they testing their ships in stagnant water? There’s no wind here!’ ‘This rock is the first and only rock used as a boat.’ etc.).

As we walked through the museum, I accidentally turned off the filter between my brain and mouth and started rambling inanely about my personal philosophies.

“My conscious is telling me that I should feel bad for generally not appreciating museums, but, people are too attached to attaching meaning to things. They should just accept that this stuff is just matter (oh boy materialism, here we go) doing nothing right now. I know that on a deeper level they’ve HAD meaning before, and in the context of human existence they’ve meant major turning points in innovation, but… I just don’t feel like appreciating them. I’m utilitarian. Is it wrong that I only attach meaning to things when they apply to my life and ungraciously deny meaning to things that don’t directly influence my existence or help me? Or…”

At this point, Rich stopped me (thankfully, ‘cuz I probably wouldn’t have stopped myself).

“Woman, you’re trippin’,” he said, “most people don’t think this much. It’s a rock. A ROCK. Maybe you should just recognize that these stones and ship models are kind of boring and move on. Stop analyzing. Take a nap or start making sense.”

I was struggling to isolate my conscious from my ego while simultaneously trying to find meaning in the fact that I wasn’t finding meaning. Rich is right: no way these models, or anything really, deserve that much of my mind.

STOP NUMBER SEVEN: THE CONFUCIAN TOMBGARDEN er GRAVEYARD (there goes my English, oh dear) (or, The One With the yards that look like empty pools, replete with unused towels, and have really bad paint jobs; also, The One Where Rich decided that if when he becomes Ruler of the World, he will spend government money on creating a sculpture of a giant man on a horse with a raised hand to complement the one that exists on a hill at the cemetery, to represent The Most Epic High Five The World Has Ever Seen (‘Isn’t he just shielding his eyes from the sun?’ ‘NO IT’S A HIGH FIVE!’)

I SHOULD STOP WRITING BECAUSE I’M UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF CAFFEINE.