#26 食

Classes have concluded. Grading has concluded. Nothing happens until after New Year/Spring Festival. So it is, naturally, time to eat.

I’ve mentioned before that the easiest introduction to Chinese culture is food. Food is everywhere; there are probably 50 restaurants within three blocks of where I live, and the blocks are not especially large. Many of these I cannot eat in because they list things only in Chinese. I am a bit intimidated by that, and even when I can read some of the characters, I can’t read all or enough of them, or those selling me those dishes will ask me questions I don’t understand.

Me:     I’d like the chicken soup.

Them:  XXXXX

Me:      Could you say that again?

Them:  XXXXX

Me:      (I wonder if they are asking if I want them to pour it on my head or down my pants?)

So I don’t go in.

And even when I can read the characters, and I’m ready for questions (I can usually deal with things like “do you want it heated?” and “is this to go or to eat here?”), the dishes may have names that are not really that informative. So I go into a place, and read the menu, and am not that confident what I will be getting when I ask for “Seven Swallows Fly Over Purple Mountain.” Is that fried duck tongue? (If so, ok.) Is that eggplant? (If so, not ok.)

This is frustrating. These restaurants are very cheap, and I’ve eaten at many of them when I’m with Chinese speakers. But I’m often on my own, would just like a bowl of noodles or some chicken and rice, and am too cowardly to go for it. I am working on it: characters and attitude.

In the meantime, I fix things at home and eat at a) Chinese restaurants with English menus, b) Chinese restaurants with picture menus, and c) Western restaurants. The last tends to be quite expensive, so I try not to go to those too often. However, it is sometimes nice to just get a hamburger or some pasta or a pizza.

But this week, it seemed all sorts of folks wanted to go out to eat. Monday there was my friend Jimmy, who helped me by doing some translation work; Tuesday was Emily, my Chinese teacher (and patient soul); Wednesday was a student at Soochow University, whose name I don’t actually know (I have it narrowed down to Mariah or Mary), and I’m not sure she knows my name either; Thursday was Emily again, and Zoe, an old pal. (Well, she’s not old, but I’ve known her since I arrived in Suzhou.) Friday was lunch with Ann and Hong Xia, two colleagues from my university.

Yet, foolishly, I forgot to take pictures, except with Jimmy. So no pictures of Uighur food, Chinese barbecue, or the various dishes I was treated to at the new Soochow University faculty dining room. What was I thinking?

But I did remember to take some pictures at the good dumpling restaurant quite near me; I eat there every couple of weeks, because their food is very good and it is close (and they have a menu with both English and pictures). It is a little more expensive, in part because it can be, given the reviews it gets on Yelp, Trip Advisor, etc.. And probably because of that, there are often people in there looking suspiciously like me.

So have some food pictures, and come back next week to see if anything more exciting has happened. Generally, at least in my life, everyone seems to be waiting to go home, or some place, for the upcoming holiday, the biggest holiday of the year. Not me; travelling during the New Year holiday is something for people much braver, and much more tolerant, than I will ever be.

[I will admit I have not yet turned on the TV in my flat, and have not had a beer since August. New Year’s Eve, I am going to have some beer, and watch—along with all the rest of China—the New Year’s Extravaganza. I don’t understand most of it (it is very Chinese), but I like watching it anyway. Last year I watched some of it (it goes on for awhle) in a bar in Guiyang. Beer seems to help me understand it better, or help me not care that I don’t.]

Jimmy—Korean Barbecue
Excellent Chicken Dish at Yang Yang Dumplings
Green Beans at Yang Yang Dumplings: a great dish

And, of course, dumplings (饺子) at Yang Yang Dumplings!

#25 小队目标

My daughter Emma, bless her heart, is good at introducing to me current lingo (although by the time I write this, it will all be, no doubt, out of date): “lit,” “HAM,” and, importantly, “squad goals.” If I understand “squad goals” correctly, it is the idea that one’s group has certain aspirations, either to be or to do. I’ll go with the explanation provided by Grammar Girl:

”Squad goals” can be simply the goals of your squad (your friends or your clique), but sometimes that seems to play out in practice as simply “awesome,” as in “This is awesome,” meaning “I or we want this someday,” or “We want to be like this.”


In the US—I don’t know about elsewhere, and I get mixed responses when I ask my Chinese friends about this—we like to make New Year’s Resolutions. Lose weight, read more, quit shoplifting, whatever. This generally seems to conform to the following recursive sequence:

  1. Make resolution for the new year
  2. Keep the resolution for a while (2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months)
  3. Break resolution
  4. Feel regret and/or guilt at 3) until New Year’s
  5. Make resolution for the new year

I make resolutions, but I’m surprisingly good at keeping them. Some handy suggestions for this successful strategy:

  1. Resolve to do things one already does
  2. Resolve to do things that one likes to do
  3. Resolve to do things that are ridiculously easy to achieve

No doubt, my reader would like examples. Well, okay then:

  1. I resolved last year to read 50 books. Since I read 50 books every year, this was achieved.
  2. I resolved last year to travel more. I like traveling, I found a way to pay for it (actually, I found a way for some of you to pay for it: your tax and tuition dollars at work), so this was achieved.
  3. People in front of me in line at the store are often challenged by math, by coupons, by natural language, by reality, and sometimes by all of these; I want to kill them. I resolved last year not to kill them. Since I don’t really think I could kill anyone, this was achieved.

Here in China, I spend a lot of time by myself. I have some good friends here, but everyone is busy, so I think this means my squad is what set-theorists would call a singleton, a set of one, or just me: 一个人. It’s okay; I’m good at keeping myself entertained, and those books aren’t going to read themselves. Plus I have a guitar and a mandolin, 10,000 steps to get in every day, Chinese characters to forget, courses to teach, writing to do: there’s a lot to occupy my time. So if I understand this correctly, my squad goals reduce to my goals.

(My daughter will be happy to correct me on this; she seems never to tire of telling people—including the Twitterverse—about my asking her what the “insult community” is, since I had never heard of the “incel community.” Of course, now having heard of the latter, I wish I had not.)

So my New Year’s Resolutions:

  1. Read 50 books
  2. Finish one philosophy paper, get a good start on a second one, and get a good start (~100 pages) on the book I’m writing. And finish writing the five songs I have started.
  3. Get better at Chinese, specifically listening comprehension

Otherwise, classes have concluded, except for grading the final assignments. I now have until February 17 to do whatever it is I do, which is mostly trying to write and to learn some new guitar and mandolin pieces. On February 17 I go to Taiwan for a week, to give a couple of papers, see an old friend of mine (a former student from Nanjing University), and check out Taipei. (Is it here that I’m supposed to say “Taiwan is and always has been part of China”?)

Then the next semester will begin in earnest, and I hope to as well.

A couple of final points:

I finally got to see the famous “Precious Belt Bridge” (宝带桥), originally built in 819 c.e.. It is a complicated but cool little piece of Suzhou history; for more details, see Koss, Stephen Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou, China (ppg. 62-64). And a major shout-out to my former student Danny—aka “Legend”—for helping me get there, which was surprisingly difficult.


I would also like to note that Neil Armstrong’s influence in the PRC is palpable. Over many urinals in China, one sees signs about one individual small step forward leading to profound cultural progress.

And for no particular reason, I celebrated my New Year’s Day with Italian food: a little mozzarella, some cornbread cake-ettes, and lasagna, from Il Milione (which is good, but not as good as MammaMia!, for those fretting about eating Italian food in Suzhou).

#24 中国观察随笔

I’ve already offered some of my observations about China, and about people I’ve encountered in China. This blog entry is just a bunch more random observations about the Middle Kingdom and some of its residents, a few of whom have appeared here before.

Since the first picture I post is the one that shows up on Twitter, I have to choose wisely. And it is especially wise to include a picture of my two student friends—helpers—Jill and Tianyu. When I have an emergency, they come to my rescue. Since I have not had too many emergencies, I don’t need to bother them: they have plenty of other things to do (such as study). I hadn’t talked to them for a couple of months, and then last week they showed up—completely on their own, and out of the blue—at my flat, bringing me that which is pictured below. It was an incredibly nice and thoughtful gesture.

They have been extremely patient with me, and with my one continuing problem: the bank. As mentioned before, everyone under the age of 120 uses the phone to pay for things, from a small bottle of water to, I guess, a car. (I haven’t witnessed anyone buying a car, to be honest, nor do I plan to. I once tried to buy a car in the US using my debit card, which certainly got an interesting reponse from the dealer.) Jill, Tianyu, and I have not had success in getting my phone to work to pay with AliPay and WeChatPay. My colleague Hongxia then tried. We spent an hour at the bank, only to discover not only could Hongxia and I (and Jill and Tianyu) not get it to work, the bank could not get it to work. While this is frustrating, at least Hongxia has La Gioconda to comfort her.

Hongxia is a philosopher at Suzhou University, with specialties in the philosophy of art/aesthetics and Martin Heidegger. She even puts up with me although everytime I write Heidegger’s name on the blackboard I seem not to be able to help myself and add a little symbolic comment.

A little existentialism, a little German, and a recommended bar on the Rive Gauche in Paris.

She is very tolerant of what I guess is my frequent tendency to annoy her, and even took me out for a lovely Christmas dinner at a Chinese-French fusion restaurant (mostly French), where I never even saw a single chopstick.

A little salmon, a little caviar

Hongxia also helped me (since—did I mention this?—I cannot use my phone to do this) order pizza for the last day of my “History of Western Philosophy: Kant to 1900”:


A couple other random remarks.

As my reader knows, I spend a fair amount of time on the bus. I’m often on the same bus with the same people, and while they may not have figured out who I am, I know who they are. One of the regulars is a woman who rarely says anything, but always sits next to someone who has quite a lot to say. This woman almost exclusively responds to her interlocutor by saying only something that sounds like “aaaaah” or “yaaaaah” or “baaaah,” over and over. Twenty-five minutes of “baaaaah” over and over has led to my new name for her: Goat Lady.

Another regular is a Westerner, a guy I think of as the albino Philip Seymour Hoffman. In fact, he is not albino (is that term politically incorrect? If so, I didn’t use it), but he is really, really white. He also looks a great deal like Hoffman. I’m pretty sure it is not, in fact, Hoffman, since the guy on the bus is alive. However, even though we are often the only two Westerners on the bus, every time he looks at me (looks through me) as if he has never seen me before, even though I have tried to say hello. This, in fact, is fairly standard in my lao wai encounters. Perhaps I appear very threatening.

But on this same note, apparently Suzhou’s bus riders met and voted that it is okay to sit next to me. I’m on the bus almost every day, going one place or another. From August through November, Chinese would never sit next to me unless that was the last available seat, and sometimes not even then. This was a remarkably consistent pattern. Suddenly, everything changed, and now people sit next to me even when there are lots of other seats available. I’m not sure what I did. I’m guessing that, as is so often the case, I did nothing.

One New Year’s holiday, our family spent it in Manhattan, staying near Wall Street. (The daughter wanted to do the Times Square thing, which turned out to be a little frigid for those not sufficiently drunk to realize they were getting frostbite and hypothermia.) The other reason we were there was to see the Vermeer exhibit at the Frick. (The lines were ungodly long, so we didn’t go. These holiday plans, as you can see, didn’t quite work out.) But behind the hotel desk was a framed picture, and the clerk—when he saw I was from Ohio—kindly informed me that it was not the original. That was certainly helpful, given that this is probably one of the three or four most valuable paintings in the world, and how surprising it would be that some random hotel would have the original hanging in the lobby. When I saw the same picture (okay, any philosophers reading this will quibble with the word “same” here) in a shop in Suzhou, I decided not to go in and ask the owner if this was the original.

I usually post pictures of good food; here’s an exception. This was listed as “mashed potatoes with truffle, bacon, and egg.” In fact, it was much closer to lukewarm potato pudding with an overwhelming egg taste, with no trace of truffle (and we all know how tasty those truffle traces can be), and a piece of undercooked bacon on top. I ate it—of course—but it was pretty terrible. Mistakes were made.

At least there was watermelon juice.

A last note, on what is known as “Chinglish.” Anyone who makes fun of odd or humorous translations they see in China should first show me their characters and the brilliance of their own Chinese. Most Americans, were they to try to translate English into Chinese, would come closer to producing a Jackson Pollock painting than anything close to a comprehensible sentence in natural language. So I understand why Chinese folks sometimes get annoyed at those who make fun of Chinglish (中式英语).

With that said, this seemed to be a particularly unfortunate translation choice, particularly given the color of the beverage in question.

#23 节日

I realize I don’t write all that much about the actual Fulbright experience. I seem to write about what goes on while I take advantage of the actual Fulbright experience. So be it.

I’m about four months into the ten month stay, and I know I won’t want to return to the US. I especially do not want to return to a US where Donald Trump can be reelected; but I don’t think I can afford to teach in China. But I have not stopped trying to do so.

The holidays are among us, and the one thing I definitely do miss—my guess is that almost everyone would regard this as obvious and/or self-evident—is the family. I have some pretty good friends in Suzhou, and even a few scattered around China: Beijing, Taiwan, Hong Kong. But given the following picture, who wouldn’t miss this, my son Henry playing with his food?

And this is Henry, a few years earlier, playing with an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas:

This, of course, is Emma. She often reminds me of Winston Churchill.

And this is Robyn, who has never reminded anyone of Winston Churchill.

I think this is the first Thanksgiving I’ve ever missed with everyone, which made me sad.

Emma’s no-doubt excellent greens, from a recipe she learned from her Nana

And I will also miss Christmas, meaning I will miss these kinds of profoundly thoughtful expressions of the Christmas spirit, and pie:

Then, in January, we will have New Year’s/Spring Festival here in China. I will no doubt be blogging about that, since elsewhere I have never seen such enormous cities completely shut down for several days, or more. Imagine standing in Times Square at 9 pm on New Year’s Eve, and seeing two people and maybe one car. That’s what China looks like. And it goes on for several more days.

As you may have surmised, not a lot went on this week. Classes are winding down, and given what we have been talking about, the students seem more than a little relieved:

And, for no reason that I can identify, here is Yindan:

Next week will no doubt be livelier and more exciting. In the meantime, have some more food pictures.

Potato soup and Crawdad flatbread
Green curry, and lemongrass chicken skewers. Unlike my last attempt at Thai food, the food was both good and spicy, and the server was not from the Twilight Zone.

#22 北京

Thanks to my pals at the State Department and the Fulbright program, I was asked to help interview 80 Visiting Research Scholars who are trying, more or less, to do what I am doing in China, only in the other direction. The candidates we interviewed were in all sorts of disciplines, from linguistics and law to economics and environmental engineering, and even a couple of philosophers sneaked in. The difficulty was, of course, the winnowing: in such situations there are always more qualified candidates than positions available. Overall, the candidates were very good, almost all spoke good or better English, and had projects that were creative and promising.

My favorite, as my colleagues soon discovered since I wouldn’t shut up about them, was the study of flute choirs in the US. I didn’t even know there were flute choirs in the US. I’ve played in a band for several years, know a lot of professional and amateur musicians, listen to a lot of live music, from classical to bluegrass (and a lot of music in between), and I had never even heard of flute choirs. The candidate made it sound as if the US is knee-deep in flute choirs, as if there is 1:1 ratio between flute choirs and Starbuck’s. I, of course, did a little research: she may have overstated their omnipresence, but there are quite a few. And, naturally, let me offer a video for those who wish, as I did, to have their flute choir ignorance diminished:

Those with whom I helped interview the candidates were all really smart; it is a bit dismaying to meet someone who speaks English better than you do, when it is their second language. There was a Yale MD, a lawyer, a teacher of American literature, some guy from the Ministry of Education who asked two questions during the week and spent most of his time on his phone, and a representative of the Embassy. Given we did 80 15-minute interviews in 4 1/2 days, it was surprisingly enjoyable. The only jerk was me; when one of my colleagues and I were discussing a mutual acquaintance, he said “Oh. I just met him at a conference on Tibet in Paris.” I immediately told him that this was quite possibly the most pretentious sentence I had ever heard. I spent the rest of the afternoon apologizing for saying such an obnoxious (albeit true) thing. (I am also, as I told him, discounting substantial envy here.) He went to the University of Chicago, so he was probably used to such behavior. Good guy. He’s in this picture, which unfortunately omits some of my other colleagues.

After we got our work done, I hung out in Beijing for four more days. I didn’t really do much; walked around, ate good food, went to the hotel gym, and enjoyed the shower. The single objectionable thing about my living space in Suzhou is the shower from hell: it sometimes doesn’t have hot water, the water pressure is pretty dubious, it is really narrow: my goals are to finish quickly and not kill myself. So far: mission accomplished. But it made the Marriott™ shower seem remarkably luxurious.

One thing I did get to do in Beijing was spend some time in the National Museum (中国国家博物馆 ). As with many things in China, the scale was a bit overwhelming. I only saw a small part; I avoided the enthusiastic pictures of the Long March and the great proletarian revolutionary victory over the capitalist roader running dog lackey counterrevolutionaries (not that I have any problem with that). The scope of the place required careful selection, so I headed for the oldest stuff. (Of course, I found out later that there is a whole ‘nother museum of old stuff.) And in China, old stuff is seriously old. This is, after all, a place where if someone is bragging about how long Chinese history is, you have to go to Mesopotamia and Egypt to keep them in line. How often do you find yourself in the corner of the Akkadians?

Anyway, the place was cool. Below are pictures with some brief captions or following descriptive pictures.

No, I don’t know what unsized paper is.
Shang Dynasty: going back a ways
Neolithic, boys and girls
甲骨文/Oracle Bone

The highlight for me was the separate room devoted to the first example of Chinese writing, referred to as “Oracle Bones.” Totally cool. It was interesting that the rest of the museum had a lot of explanations in English; this exhibit had none.

If you want to read more about these things—and you do—here you go:


The other thing I did was give a lecture on the Bill of Rights to a group of Chinese folks at the Beijing American Center. [Thanks, Taozhen!] Many spoke English, but I also had a simultaneous translator (who was incredibly good at her very demanding job). As usual, the focus was on the 2nd Amendment, in spite of my desire to talk for an hour about the 3rd Amendment. There were probably 75-100 people there, they asked excellent questions—one of them seemed to be channelling her inner John Locke—and overall it was a great time.

This is my “Can I have a witness for Elbridge Gerry?” pose

I had interviewed all day—which meant drinking coffee all day—and I had a bunch of coffee just before my talk, and a bottle of water during it, so you can imagine what was on my mind when I was done. However, some very earnest guys refused to let me go, so we all headed to the toilet while they peppered me with questions about Trump, China, trade policy, and such. It was a special bonding moment.

And, yes, you need some food pictures.

Since Beijing is one of the most international cities I’ve ever been in—my hotel was chock-full o’ Kenyans and Russians—I honored that with a little Indonesian Nasi Goreng.
Best pizza in Suzhou; this is the Pizza Polpette from MammaMia!
担担面-很辣!Dandan noodles-very spicy!

#21 死亡

This is not a happy blog entry. If you are here to be entertained, well, you might read #4 or wait for #22.

I am in Beijing, helping the Fulbright folks interview Visiting Research Scholars to see if they get their projects funded for a year’s research in the US. (More about that later.)

I woke up here one morning to an email telling me that my friend Ken Taylor had died. Ken and I were in graduate school together; he was a bit ahead of me, and worked in areas different than mine. But we had a number of friends in common, our paths crossed frequently, and we continued to have various exchanges, arguments, and the occasional word game ass whuppin’ (always delivered by Ken) on Facebook. Some of the younger grad students were a little intimidated by him, which was not helped when we heard he had been offered a job—straight out of grad school—with tenure at Smith. Unheard of, but Ken had his sights set higher than that, wisely turned it down, and ended up working at and being chair of the very good philosophy department at Stanford. Ken was smart, generous, ambitious, and talented, but most of all I think of him as a person who, as the phrase goes, was “comfortable in his own skin.” Then he was gone.

Credit Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service


My best friend in graduate school was Irl Barefield, the pride of Nashville. I met Irl one Friday night in the Regenstein library, while looking at philosophy journals (a typical nerd’s evening at the University of Chicago). He was just coming down with hepatitis, made no sense whatsoever, but was very entertaining. He recovered, and we began hanging out, mostly bonding over our affection for alcohol and the South; I’d just come from living in Texas for eight years, and the transition was not a smooth one. Irl and I discovered together my candidate for the single best bar in the universe, the Bucket o’ Suds. We wandered into this bar in far north Chicago one night; it was virtually empty except for the bartender, Joe Danno. We spent the evening talking with Joe and drinking his pure fruit liqueurs, Elixer Lucifer™, corn squeezins, and God knows what else. I concluded the evening pounding my fist on the bar, shouting “Irl! This is the greatest bar in the world! We have to come back every night!” Little did I know then that Irl would come pretty close to doing exactly that. For those familiar with the Bucket, no further explanation is necessary; for others, here is some useful information:


I certainly went my share—and the co-ed bachelor party the night before our wedding was there—but the 30 minute drive each way and the hangovers were not conducive to finishing a dissertation. Irl did not finish; he headed to California, got a law degree and worked as an AIDS activist and as a liaison between the gay community and the local government, mostly in San Francisco but sometimes in Los Angeles.

We lost touch over the years; my family got to meet him once, in LA, but he was on some sort of pharmaceutical that made him pretty incoherent. I had no idea—and to this day have no understanding—of the health issues he was dealing with. It was the last time I saw him; several months later I got a very late night phone call from Irl, asking if I could loan him some money. I said sure, he said he would call back the next day, but did not. Then he was gone.


When I started college at SMU, I knew a history professor there through my brother, who told me that SMU had hired a new professor, Dennis Cordell. Cordell was an expert on African history, and had done a degree in World History, which at the time seemed to be a very different approach to how history should be done. I took a course with him his first semester, then his second semester, and took a third; he was as good a teacher as I ever had. He spoke fluent French, more than a couple of Arabic dialects, and was the kind of intellectual who got a grant to do an MA on demography at the Université de Montréal.

He was also the first gay man I knew well and who I knew was gay. I think it is fair to say that I learned as much about tolerance—I may not have learned it as well as I should have, admittedly—from Dennis as from anyone I have ever met. I was always welcome at his apartment, came to love his boyfriend Joel who died at a horribly young age of AIDS, and never spent time with him without learning to be a better person. (Again, I may not have learned it as well as I should have; certainly not Dennis’s fault. He did his best.) I don’t know if I was able to convey this to him, but he came from Dallas to my wedding in Chicago, a gesture that amazed me then and continues to touch me deeply. Oddly, when I was in Dallas a number of times he would always be in Marseilles, or Bamako, or Ouagadougou; he came through Dayton once, and, naturally, I was out of town. He lived in Dallas, I lived in Dayton, and we finally caught up with each other in Paris. A few years ago, I got an email saying he was dying. There was no way I could get to Dallas in time, but I sent a letter overnight telling him how much he meant to me, and that I loved him. I don’t know if he got it in time. Then he was gone.


I’m getting older, and statistically it is no surprise that, therefore, more people I know die. But Ken’s death hit me hard—and not just because he was only 65, although that is a factor. It reminded me of Irl’s death, and Dennis’s death, and death, and the psychic devastation it can bring in its wake.

Obituaries often end with the suggestion of where one can make a contribution in the name of the deceased; most suggest a charity or foundation or project near to the heart of that person, often introduced by “in lieu of flowers . . . . “

In lieu of flowers, take some time out of your life—10 minutes—to tell someone you know how much they mean to you. Before they die, before you read an obituary, before you tell yourself you wish you had done so when you had the chance . . . before they are gone.

#20 音乐

In Madrid (and, to a lesser extent Rome) there was pretty constant music: buskers, groups of classical musicians playing various popular classical tunes, the occasional want-to-be opera singer belting out an aria. For a while I wondered why the Spanish loved Elvis so much, since I kept hearing “It’s Now or Never.” I then remembered that the Elvis hit—Elvis apparently heard the original while in the army in Europe—was a reworking of “O Sole Mio,” with Elvis-appropriate lyrics.

In Suzhou, it is a little different. Few, if any, buskers; I don’t think I have seen any street musicians. Some people I know do a bimonthly outdoor session as a charity benefit, but that’s about it. Of course, a lot of younger people walk around with earbuds of some type or another, so who knows what they are listening to. Probably “O Sole Mio.”

However, there is music when you listen for it. Or have it imposed upon you. [This entry, by the way, definitely requires a VPN if you’re reading this in the Middle Kingdom.]

The Suzhou bus I ride with some frequency (the #178 for those keeping score at home) plays a standard announcement: behave, give up your seat to those who need assistance, which stop the bus is arriving at next. But to my ears, at any rate, the announcement starts with precisely the same rhythm as Flatt and Scruggs’ “Flint Hill Special.” So after riding that bus, I have this song in my head (I have been told that “耳朵虫子” or “earworm” is not a thing in China.)

Then there is my university. The end of class is marked by a sweet little tune that sounds as if someone has just opened a music box. Often I note this phenomenon by twirling around like a ballerina. This may not make me look especially sophisticated. But the beginning of class also starts with music and the song chosen to do so at Suzhou University is “Home on the Range.” I laugh each time it is played; my students don’t understand why, nor do they understand why I so often begin class—ostensibly about Kant, or the American Constitution, or Marx, or the role of the Supreme Court—worried about where the deer and the antelope play.

Here, for no extra charge, is a fine version of that song from The Awful Truth, featuring Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy:

To continue our musical tour of Suzhou, I should mention that the announcement (every 10 minutes or so) at the train stations (at least, so far, in Suzhou, Beijing, and Huang Shan) is exactly the opening bar of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” From Songs in the Key of Life. This is not a bad earworm, and four notes is sufficient:

Just as in America, teenagers here are pretty obsessed with acne. The ads about it here seem to be even more ubiquitous (if ubiquity has degrees). On the bus (again), there is a virtual certainty that one will see an ad for a doctor’s clinic that can cure what ails you in this area. Unfortunately, the song that plays over it is a Chinese version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands.” This is not an earworm one desires, but it may well be unavoidable if you aren’t earbudded up and you ride the bus. I shall not provide a video of that one. You can thank me later.

Finally, every now and then I think about the following song and its meaning (hmmm). And after the horrors of “If You’re Happy, etc.,” this will provide a salutary aural cleansing.

“What?” you say. “No food pictures?” Just one. More Uighur food.

The hand belongs to Zoe. More about her later.

#19 黄山

I’ve been to some pretty scenic spots: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, the Camargue in the south of France, the beaches of Barbados, Cabo da Roca in Portugal. I’m not sure, but Yellow Mountain in Anhui Province, PRC, may have them all beat. Hence, there will be many pictures offered here.

My goals were to figure out Chinese trains on my own, from one town to another (check), to see a sunset (check: saw four), and to see a sunrise (check). Keeping one’s goals manageable is a good way to achieve them. I did not get to see monkeys, which was disappointing; but the bonus were the stars—simply incredible on the clear nights— where one could see that long cloud of stars that makes me realize the vastness of the Milky Way (银河) and, by extension, the universe. As Kant famously said: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” 

On the other hand, getting to the hotel (as outlined in the previous entry, #18) was a bit of a problem, and getting back to the train station was a bit of a problem. My hotel, which was quite nice, was up on the mountain. I was informed the only way to get back down the mountain was via cable car, or walking down the mountain. Since I had a suitcase and briefcase, the latter was not viable. The same guy who told me I had to eat in the hotel restaurant (cf., again, #18) told me it was a 14-minute walk to the cable car. So I set out, nice and early. After walking, almost entirely straight up some rather steep inclines, for an hour, I wasn’t close. I ran into a friendly Aussie who told me I had another hour. Sweating, panting, lugging, and unsure of where to go: it was all a pretty good time. I asked five or six more people, in English and in Chinese, how to get to the cable car: I was given five or six different answers. I finally ran into a very nice Chinese gentleman who spoke excellent English, and he gave me what seemed to be the most reliable answer, which it was. Then the cable car down to a bus, then to another bus, then a train, on to the Suzhou subway, and I’m almost home. I just need to catch the bus back to my flat; after standing around for 30 minutes, all of us waiting for a specific bus realized it had quit running for the evening, so that was another mile and a half walk with the baggage. I don’t believe in God, but if she were to exist, I would compliment her for having a surprisingly wicked sense of humor. 

A couple of interesting encounters. The first was when I was walking down a steep set of stairs, and passed a group of eight or so Chinese walking up them. A rather portly fellow in the group saw me, and said slowly and in a very unpleasant way “lao wai,” which is a term for foreigner that can be used neutrally or as an insult; the way this guy said it, it was pretty clearly the latter. So as I walk by, I respond “对对对,胖子,我是一个老外”—more or less, “that’s right, fat boy, I’m a foreigner.” Later that same day, I’m enjoying the scenery, and a Chinese fellow comes up to me and asks me (in quasi-English) where I’m from. I respond in my quasi-Chinese that I’m from the US, and ask him where he is from (assuming he would tell me what province or city). His answer is “China!” For some reason, his group regarded this as the single most humorous thing ever uttered by any human being: they were in stitches, and I could hear them laughing still as they walked off a couple of minutes later. Cultural differences in humor, I guess.

The rest of this will be pictures, with occasional brief captions; as good as I hope some of them are, I don’t think they do justice to the majesty of Huang Shan. If you get the chance to see it someday . . . .

Monkey Watching the Sea
One morning it was a bit foggy. The view of my hotel.
Flying Over Rock 飞来石
The famous “Sea of Clouds”
No luck seeing monkeys. Damn.
My first sunset at Huang Shan

#18 通讯故障

One of the difficulties of speaking to someone in a foreign language is that they are speaking in a foreign language. Hey: if you spoke it, it wouldn’t be foreign, would it?

Traveling to Huang Shan, the famous “Yellow Mountain” scenic spot of China, has been a case study in communicative perplexity. I was a bit stressed about figuring out the train; that was no problem. So I figured once I got there, easy: just follow the instructions my hotel sent me. “Tell the cab driver (or show him this message) and he’ll bring you to the hotel.” The message was in Chinese, which I could read (for once), so I told him in Chinese, then showed him it, and he had no idea where this place was. So he took me to the tourist center, said a bunch of things that I did not understand at all, and said “adios!” (Well, maybe not that exact word.) And I’m out 145 kuai, about $20, and still have no idea how to get to my hotel.

So now I’m wandering around without a clue; a friendly taxi driver tells me I need to take the cable car, and pulls out a map. I point to my hotel, he points to where we are, and some helpful woman decides all problems will be solved by her repeating the term “cable car” 7,481 times.

Then he tells me he is going to take me to the cable car—fine—I ask how much, he tells me a number. After a very long drive, I’m at the cable car. He tells me a different number, but also finally takes pity on my dumbass tourist soul and takes me in to buy a ticket. (Ultimately, I paid him the full amount and a tip—rare here—because he was about the only person I met today who made any sense in any language.)

So we go in and the woman at the counter says I need to buy an entrance ticket and a cable car ticket. I say okay; how much? She says you need to buy an entrance ticket and a cable car ticket. I say okay; how much? This happens several more times, then a Chinese couple steps in between us to buy their tickets. Finally I convince her that I have been convinced and she sells me the tickets.

I get on the cable car. The map says to go down to my hotel. The cable car is going up. I am confused. I ask the guy running the car; he says, pretty much, “Yep. Cable Car.”

I get to the bottom somehow, by going up, then ask a security guard where my hotel is. He points. I finally get there. I’m out a lot of money, have walked quite a way with my suitcase, and am certain this is not the approach used by the other guests at this hotel. Sure enough, a woman—checking in at the same time—speaks English; she tells me there is a bus from the train station, and another bus from the tourist center, that bring me right there. I would have suggested to the hotel manager that this might have been made clearer, but talking to him, as you shall see, turned out to be its own linguistic carnival ride.

I ask the manager where I can get something to eat. He tells me the hotel restaurant is closed. I ask where else I can eat. He says (he is speaking English, I’m combining English and Chinese) that people only eat in the hotel. I ask if all the tourists at Yellow Mountain eat in his hotel restaurant, he says they have to eat at their hotel restaurant. This starts to become a bit surreal, and this guy seemed fairly unconcerned that he is making no sense in any language. I gave up. (Later, I ended up eating at the hotel restaurant, and it all seemed to be some evil experiment exploring free will and determinism. And noodle soup.)

So I am finally checked in, and hungry, but I need to go see the sunset. Which is magnificent. My pictures probably do not do it justice.

This is a look back, to the promontory at Cloud-Dispelling Pavillion (非云亭) from where I watched the sun set.

To top off the evening, I go into the little hotel store and ask if they sell tea. I ask this in Chinese; the woman looks at me as if I have a fork sticking out of my forehead. I repeat it in Chinese, then in English, then hand gestures, then Chinese: she finally gets it. She tells me to go to the restaurant. I tell her I want tea to drink in my room. She seems to think this is quite possibly the most insane idea anyone has ever conceived. On my way back to my room, I ask the woman at the desk if there is a place to buy tea. She tells me to go to the restaurant. I tell her that I want tea to drink in my room. She says there is tea in my room; I say there is one package and I would like some more. She seems to think this is quite possibly the most insane idea anyone has ever conceived.

If only I could have remembered this suggestion from the Qing Dynasty:

That plaque is from a site near where I live, called the “Twin Pagodas.” It is very old: originally from the Song Dynasty (960–1279 c.e.). Some is gone, some is damaged, some is repaired, some is still there. A very cool little place to visit that doesn’t get many tourists.

And a few random points.

When I came to Austin from having lived in Chicago, I went to the student union for a bagel and a schmear. Fairly standard and often quite well done in Chicago. In Austin, the bagel had cream cheese already in it; the server wrapped it in plastic, and then microwaved it. Texas: it’s a whole ‘nother country, nu? I was happy to see these in Suzhou—these were the first I’ve seen in China, I think—but I’m also a little worried about how they are treated in China.

I also went to hear a paper (on Mengzi and the Ethics of Care) that was advertised as being in English, although it was in Chinese. The speaker was an American but he spoke excellent Chinese (I’m a little less sure about the excellence of the argument he presented.)  I understood a lot of what he said, but not much of what the questioners said after his talk.

I shall conclude this entry with two pictures; next week’s entry will be a lot of pictures of Huang Shan and, let us hope, no 通讯故障.

“原味” is being translated as “primary odor”; “natural/authentic taste or flavor” might appeal more to English readers. Just a guess.
Tea and Oranges. All the way from China.

#17 公交

I spend a lot of time on public transportation in Suzhou. Most of my Chinese friends have cars, although personally I think one would have to be slightly insane to drive in Suzhou. (One would have to be completely insane to drive in Shanghai.) Some of my expatriate/老外 friends use DiDi all the time (the Chinese version of Über). (I’m not sure if it is “Über” or “Uber,” and I don’t really care, because I know what it is supposed to be.) Others take taxis a lot, which are cheap.

I’m still setting up my bank account so I can be like every Chinese person under the age of 80, and not use cash. Everyone here just uses their phones to pay for things—for everything—and when I pull out cash they laugh, compare me to their grandparents, or both. So for awhile I’m neither able to use DiDi nor the fine delivery services that can bring food to my door. When I do get my phone up to scan like a real human being, I probably still won’t use DiDi: I don’t stay out too late, and I rarely drink, and those would be the reasons I’d use that service. (I will use those food delivery services, however, so stay tuned.)

Plus, I would miss all the fun on the bus. (The subway is less fun: I try to avoid it from 5-7 pm, when it is packed, and I mean packed.)

The other, somewhat surprising, thing about the subway is that it takes longer than the bus. If you find the right bus or set of buses, you can get pretty much anywhere in an hour or less. The subway almost always requires changing trains (to get places I’m going, at least), so it seems to always be about 90 minutes no matter where I’m going.

The bus, as noted, is a lot more fun. It is not like the old days I’ve heard about—at least in the cities—so people tend not to bring live chickens or pigs on board. However, while waiting for a bus one morning, a friendly gentleman did offer to sell me any number of turtles out his enormous bag holding approximately 50 of them. I’m not certain what my plan would have been, taking one or more live turtles onto the bus, but I’m not sure he had thought this through completely.

The bus can be a bit loud. My very scientific analysis indicates this is for two reasons: the older women on the phone (or talking to each other), and the men between 25 and 35 years old. The former talk on the phone without seeming to recognize its technological advantages, so they talk loudly enough that the person on the other end of the line can hear them without the phone. The men, in contrast, apparently think their brilliance and business strategies are so remarkable that they should be shared with everyone.

Sometimes it is older men, however. The two guys in the picture below were on a bus that was almost entirely empty; instead of one of them moving closer to the other, they screamed across the bus to each other for the entire time I was on there (20-30 minutes). It was pretty amusing, but it was also in Suzhounese, the local version of Chinese that is pretty baffling, to me at any rate.

The fun really never stops. There is yelling, there is sometimes loud music, there are students with intriguing hairstyles and mysterious English phrases on their clothing; today a woman just started vomiting. She did that for awhile, no one said a word, she finished, calmly walked off the bus, and only then did the bus driver start yelling about it. Hey, sometimes you need to vomit; it’s cool. I did not take a picture.

Otherwise, a week that was pretty slow; I’m getting ready to go to Huang Shan, the famous “Yellow Mountain” in Anhui Province. I will be staying four nights on top of the mountain, hoping to catch at least one of its famous sunsets and at least one of its famous sunrises. If you want to read more about it—and you should—here’s a link (which refers to it as “Huang Shan Mountain,” which is a bit redundant redundant, since “Shan” means “mountain”; you’d think the UN would do better):


Here’s a picture; come back to see if my pictures compare.

I did make it back to one of my old haunts for 炸酱面 (zhajiangmian) and a 鸡排 (jipai), in the old neighborhood where I lived when I taught for the University of Dayton (Go Flyers.) They were fabulous, of course, and I seemed to be nostalgic for . . . last Spring?

There is also a brand-new McDonald’s there, added since I left; I very rarely go to McDonalds here or in the US, but I had to check it out. It was very McDonaldsish.

A straw. 对不起

Finally, for those readers of mine who are trained (or untrained) economists (Hi, Art!): there are niche markets in the US, and for some reason good grocery stores need 10 or 12 different kinds of stone-ground mustard (yes, I know the reason is supply, demand, the efficient market hypothesis, etc.). But in the most touristy part of Suzhou (Ping Jiang Street) I saw a place that seemed to respond to a very specific market. It sells nothing but ocarinas.