#6: 再见美国

There is a trope one sees on social media; someone does something quite badly (this often seems to be Donald Trump) as if to dare others to do worse. To indicate that someone else is up to the challenge, one identifies the original screw up, and who can surpass that level of incompetence, along with the phrase “hold my beer.”

I used to think United Airlines was the biggest disaster in the airline industry. Frequent delays, poor communication with customers, missed connections, lost luggage: you name it. But then there is American Airlines. Here’s to American Airlines for being able to say “United can’t do anything right? Hold my beer.”

And props to Delta: they took off when they said they would, the flight from Philadelphia to Detroit lasted as long as they said it would, the layover was as long as they said it would be, the flight to Beijing lasted as long as they said it would, and my bag was where they said it would be. I was suffering a little cognitive dissonance, I have to admit, to have a United States airline company tell me things that turned out to be true.

I’m in Beijing for the site-specific (e.g. China) Fulbright orientation. I got here a couple of days early for sight-seeing; there is a lot to see in Beijing, and I only managed to make it to a few things. As usual, pictures and brief captions to follow. For your viewing pleasure, I give you some of the sights of Beijing.

Jingshan Park, where the last Ming emperor saw the Manchu writing on the wall.

Overlooking the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

The White Dagoba in Beihai Park

The steps up to the White Dagoba in Beihai Park

Yonghe Lama Temple: The Buddhists were out in, uh, force.

Confucian Temple.
孔子 was less popular on this day than the Buddha.

I’ve already learned much here; e.g., my new teaching approach.

I just finished the first full day of the orientation. Heard good stuff, learned good stuff, and, as usual, the staff was helpful, efficient, and informative. As usual, my colleagues had many questions and interesting things to say. Mostly it seemed that every time I turned around someone was feeding me. Seems like a pretty good deal. Here’s the gang having Beijing Duck and 5,346 other dishes. I may return with the new nickname “胖子.”

The irrepressible Iris is not pictured, because she is taking the picture.

#5: Firenze, Venezia, America

La serenissima

A couple of trips outside of Rome took us to Florence and Venice.

Everyone loves Florence. We were there for much too brief a time (e.g., I didn’t get to see Michelangelo’s David). Climbed Il Duomo, toured the Uffizi, ate some gelato.  Sounding like Douglas MacArthur, with a different attitude: “I will return.”

Everyone hates Venice. It has been turned into a theme park, invaded by enormous predators, unloading their locust-like cargo to overwhelm the small area and the small population of actual Venetians. These predators are called cruise ships. They are not popular with the locals. On the other hand, I had a great supper, saw some fabulous art and St. Mark’s Basilica, and, why yes, ate some gelato. My Roman friends said “you have to go to Venice. Once.” Seems about right.

Eventually, I had to leave Rome and head back to the States. I had not realized at the time that Air Canada took so literally the term “eventually.” 40 hours between Rome and Albany, NY.

Il incubo.

Arrivederci, Roma!

I then headed to Charlotte, North Carolina for my Fulbright orientation. On the way, I spent the night in Lexington, Virginia, saw the cemetery where—among others—Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson is buried, and toured his house. I don’t think of Jackson as a saint, but the tour guides apparently did, complimenting him on just how wonderfully he treated his slaves while also neglecting to mention that he died after his own troops accidentally shot him at Chancellorsville. Details, I suppose.

In Charlotte, we had our Pre-Departure Orientation. Normally, if I have to wear a name tag and participate in “team building” exercises, I flee or at least find some place to hide. But this orientation was remarkably well-run, all the people attending were fun to talk with, the staff was professional and efficient, and I learned a lot. I heard some great stories, including one about a scientist in Antarctica who went mad, barricaded his part of the site and proceeded to make his own meth and weapons. This combination of The Thing and The Shining, however, ended well. I did, on occasion, wonder how I got included in a group of such talented people.

I must compliment one staff member, who shall remain nameless since I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want it known that she has been seen with me in public. The last session was a 2-hour discussion of all remaining questions about going to China. This quickly turned into 35 over-educated, naturally inquisitive academics asking remarkably detailed questions about tax liability. The staff member fielded all questions with aplomb, professionalism, and extraordinary patience. I’m pretty dubious about the political appointees in the State Department and related areas, but the permanent staff members I met, including Field Officers, were as good at their jobs as anyone I’ve met.

The next blog entry will be written from Beijing, and the actual Fulbright will begin.

But, of course, before leaving the USA:

Baseball. Hot Dogs. Bluegrass.

# 4: Roma

Gelato e sorbetto sono da morire

People asked me what I did in Rome.

[For those not following along, I taught in Rome after leaving China, and before returning to the US for my Fulbright orientation.]

I could say I did a bunch of things: saw all four of the famous Basilicae, toured the Vatican (twice), ate a lot of cacio e pepe, taught a business ethics course, drank good (cheap) wine, saw virtually every tourist site in the city, and walked 15 km a day.

Really, all I did was

  1. Eat gelato (and sorbetto)
  2. Wonder what happens if everyone buys a “jump the line” ticket

It is fairly clear that I am now an expert on gelateria, and am prepared to argue with any Roman about the best one (and the best flavors). This is a good thing, since every single Roman I met had a firm opinion (albeit often wrong) about the best gelateria in Rome. The answer, dear reader, is Guttilla at Via Fabio Massimo, 23.


Oh, for that other stuff Rome has, here’s what I saw:

The Vatican and Vatican Museum

The Sistine Chapel


The Forum

The Pantheon

The Basilica de Santa Maria de Maggiore

Palatine Hill

Trevi Fountain

Spanish Steps

Piazza Navona


Museo Nazionale di Sant’Angelo

Basilica of San Clemente

Victor Emannuel II Monument

Piazza Venezia

Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola

Piazze del Popolo


Ausgustine’s Mausoleum (from outside)

Non-Catholic Cemetery


St. Peter’s Basilica

Archbasilica of St. John Lateran

Site of Julius Caesar’s Assassination

Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls

Ponte Milvio

Underground Rome

Museo Capitoline

Baths of Diocletian

Chiesa del Gesu

#3: Between China and Rome

I finished teaching in Suzhou (PRC) in late April 2019, and then started teaching in Rome in late May. I didn’t really want to go back to the US, get jet lag, and then turn around and head for Rome and get jet lag again. So I had to find some interesting place between Shanghai and Lisbon. Not that difficult.

I chose Madrid, and took a couple of days out to go to Lisbon and a brief guided tour of very nice (and very touristy) spots in Portugal. I’m considering various places in Europe to retire: feel free to offer suggestions! The criteria are: a) close to a beach b) not too cold c) a language I can learn, more or less d) something I can afford. Spain is looking very good; Portugal as well.

I took approximately 9,473,214 pictures. I’ve posted here a few representative ones, with minimal captions. I left out a lot, such as the Palazzo Real (Madrid), the cathedral and synagogue in Toledo, the opera in Madrid (I saw Handel’s Agrippina), a lot of paintings and sculptures, and most of the food pictures.

Madrid is one of my favorite towns now, right up there with Aix-en-Provence, London, San Francisco, Cooperstown, Austin, and, of course, Suzhou. If you’ve been there, you may well agree.

In any event, this blog is mostly pictures.

The Prado: Overwhelming
Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”: 哇!
This Ramen place always had a long line until late (11:30) one night, when I could get in. I found out why: the best meal I had in Spain was, interestingly enough, Japanese.

Empañadas at Mercado de San Miguel
Cabo da Roca, westernmost point on mainland Europe

So, in a few weeks, I went from Shanghai, China to Cabo da Roca. Portugal: 10,718 km (6,659 miles)

#2: So, What Do YOU Know About China?

Some characters are harder than others.

Not that much. I mean, if I asked a random person sitting in a random waiting room with me “So, what do you think about the Taiping Rebellion?,” I’d probably sound informed. But, generally, I started the China game pretty late in the day—not advisable when trying to catch up on 3,000 (4,000 or 5,000: take your pick) years of history. Especially when that history involves 56 ethnic groups,  a bunch of surrounding countries, quasi-permeable national boundaries that change from time to time, approximately two zillion names and locations, and all of it wrapped within the Chinese language(s). And the latter itself has its own ridiculously complex history.

There is a game some academics play called “Humiliation™.” The idea is to sit around and identify books in one’s discipline that you haven’t read; the most embarrassing lacuna wins. I used to win with Plato’s Republic, but then I screwed up my substantial competitive advantage by reading it.

This blog will have a bit of that about it. I first went to China in 2007, and I’ve been trying to learn Mandarin/Putonghua/HanYu since then. I can say a few things, I can read a few things, I can write some characters. But when someone says something to me, I often haven’t the slightest idea what he or she is saying. Things are improving, but it is a bit embarrassing to be so bad at a language after 12 years. I do, however, persist, so I have obstinacy on my side. I told my Chinese tutor, the lovely and wise Xiao Shu (who will be discussed again, no doubt) that I was confident I would be fluent by the time I was 187 years old. She gave me the same look she usually gives me when I say something, regardless of the language in which it is said.

But I’ve read a lot, listened a lot, watched a lot, and lived about a total of two years in China; this academic year will be the longest (11 months) continuous period. I’m just about ready to identify the tip of the iceberg. If I understand just part of the tiniest part of that iceberg, that may be all I can hope for.  

Mostly I just want to be prepared in case someone behind me taps me on the shoulder at the grocery store and asks “”So, what do you think about the Taiping Rebellion?”

I’ll be ready.

#1: Controversy

I’m not all that comfortable blathering on about myself, but this seems to be standard operating procedure for this kind of thing (a blog). This week’s entry will be a little background about what I will not be talking about.

Those who know me also know that there are few things I’m unwilling to discuss, criticize, dismiss, argue about, make fun of, etc.. I was always told not to talk about religion and politics: where’s the fun in that? I have lots of views about lots of things, although I’m the first to admit that many of them are half-baked. A few of them, I like to think, are fully-baked.

At the same time, I’m going to a country where there are certain things better not discussed in a public forum. If you’re here to see my views on, say, the three Ts and an X, well, I won’t be doing that here. (If you don’t know that reference, then you probably aren’t here for that anyway.) However, I’m happy to discuss all these things and more in person. So if you happen to be in Suzhou, pop by for lunch and, well, controversy. I’ll buy

Does this approach make me happy? Of course not. Do I feel cowardly avoiding such important issues here? Certainly. But in most senses of the term—probably not Plato’s—I am a realist.  

There will be many other things to discuss here, of course: Suzhou, the PRC, wherever in the PRC I happen to get to, philosophy, reading, baseball, teaching, the gym, language, and, especially, the people I meet (Chinese and otherwise). And I won’t avoid commenting on American politics; there’s only so much one can ask, after all.

One last point for my readers in China: I do not know if one needs a VPN to reach this site; I do know you will to view some of its content. 对不起.

Nin Hao!

Ou Yuan, Suzhou, PRC


Welcome to my blog. I will be spending the next year (August 2019-July 2020) in Suzhou, PRC. Stay tuned for harrowing accounts of electric scooters, stories and pictures of food (identifiable and otherwise), and tales of my death struggles with learning the Chinese language (or, more precisely, a Chinese language).

I arrive in China August 22. Before then, I will be discussing the classic theme “What I did last summer,” how I went from Shanghai to Cabo da Roca (Portugal), and other fun things, mostly revolving around gelato. Stay tuned.

I hope to post once a week. We shall see how it goes.