#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.

#14 螃蟹!

The famous crabs of Yangcheng Lake

It is crab season in Suzhou now—the famous “hairy crabs” from Yangcheng Lake. People come from pretty far away to eat these. This Sunday, some friends were nice enough to invite me to join them in a crab extravaganza.

The star of the show was, of course, the baby: Xu Liman, or 徐黎曼. Her mother works at the China Institute, where I used to teach; perhaps you can tell her father is a mathematician, since they gave her the English (well, German, well, Western) name “Riemann” (which is “黎曼” in Chinese). I congratulated them on not choosing “Lobachevski” (which, if you are interested—and you are—is 鲁巴切夫斯基).

I must admit that eating these things is a lot of work. I have heard that one actually loses calories eating raw celery, because it is mostly water and digesting it takes more energy than it provides. This may, in fact, be nonsense. But I could see how one could lose weight consuming Yangcheng crabs, given how much effort they require. But they are, indeed, tasty, and it was a very pleasant day all around. Above you see the “before” picture; here is the “after”:

To be fair, this is really the “before” picture.

I live in the old city, on a street that used to be called “bar street.” Most of the bars moved out, and have relocated to another area called LiGongDi; most of the bars that are left are, um, a bit, um, sketchy. Many of the women who work there greet me in the most animated fashion, and really seem to want to get to know me. Walking home I am often greeted with enthusiastic “Hello!”s in English. I remain slightly suspicious that they are dying to know about the metaphysical deduction in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—I could be wrong. But mostly my neighborhood is jade shops, some tea shops, and hookers.  

It takes awhile to get to where I teach and, mercifully, my department chair arranged it so I don’t have to do it very often. There are two ways: one is shorter, but involves a brutally crowded bus.

It is not quite this bad.

The other way takes longer, but I can stop at Starbuck’s between the first bus and the second bus and it is not crowded: hell, compared to the other route, it is serene.

The excitement this Friday was discovered just as I arrived to teach, when I was told that classes were cancelled. I could have stayed home if I’d known, but the obvious thing to do at that point was to go eat. And when in Suzhou, clearly one thinks of feta, kalamata olives, and souvlaki, right?

And, finally, for no reason at all, here is a picture of my daughter Emma with a troublemaker I know, Art, in Washington Square Park (NYC). I met Art in graduate school and we have been good friends since; I have many amusing stories about him, most of which I cannot share here. He despises the current US President as much as I do.

#12 黄金周 Golden Week

The Seventieth Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China was this week (October 1, for those keeping score at home.) Lots of businesses close, people travel; there is a big parade in Beijing although, from what I understand, the proletariat generally has to watch it on TV.

Most people I know just like having the week off. I know I did; I spent most of the time reading (in English) Outlaws of the Marsh/Water Margin/水浒传. It is a lot like the Robin Hood stories Westerners are familar with: the good guys whuppin’ up on the bad guys, often corrupt government officials. The Outlaws of the Marsh, however, has way more alcohol consumption, quite a bit more craziness, and a lot more heads being detached from one’s opponents’ bodies. (Just imagine Friar Tuck after a couple of bottles of mezcal, with substantial anger management issues and a propensity to extreme violence.) Fortunately, Song Jiang, their leader, keeps them in control, for the most part. No Maid Marian figure, however, and it is five volumes (1500 pages) long. I have five more chapters (out of 100), and then it is on to The Scholars/儒林外史. Only 600 pages!

Other than that, I got ready to give a second talk. This is a philosophy talk, on Rousseau’s influence on Kant. It’s a paper I’ve been kicking around for quite awhile (and if Kristen Oganowski is reading, she is snickering), but I don’t have access to the kind of library I need (and my Internet access these days, possibly because of the holiday, has been—at best—sporadic). So we shall see how it goes.

I did try to go on another “Walk with Steve,” this one exploring the city walls and gates (or at least half of them). It started raining hard, I guessed it would continue for the rest of the day, and left. I guessed wrong. My loss, to be sure.

This picture has nothing to do wiith anything; I just liked it (and stole it from someone on WeChat). The characters on the building (known as “the pants” or, sometimes, as “the underwear” building) say “Suzhou,” in case you forget where you were.

In general, an uneventful week. But a good one for nerding out, playing guitar (working on Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller, currently) and mandolin, and walking around Suzhou. So I shall close with my pictures from Panmen—”Panmen Scenic Area”—one of Suzhou’s old gates, where there is some pretty seriously old stuff. It is also beautiful although, due to the holiday and the nice weather, pretty crowded.

For those who have heard the story—and those who haven’t—last time I was here I climbed up the pagoda (a very good view of this part of Suzhou). A woman and her daughter were trying to get past me on the stairs (I was coming down, they were going up) and were yelling at me in Chinese. I yelled back “I don’t speak Chinese!” (in my best Chinese) and they both gave me the oddest looks. As I left the pagoda and reflected on the encounter, I realized I had been saying (in my best Chinese) “I don’t speak English!”

No, I had no clue about this either.

#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.

#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.

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.