#35 谢谢啊!

Frequently, the athletes in a winning competition will thank God for their success. No one in the losers’ locker room ever blames God. I would. Or I would blame Emma (long story).

Ideally, the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament will conclude with the ethically-challenged Kansas Jayhawks beating the University of Dayton (Go Flyers!) in a close, exciting championship game. The Jayhawks would, presumably, thank God. The University of Dayton would blame God. Or Emma.

It is an interesting theological issue to ask whether a theist should blame an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omnibeneficent being for COVID-19. Or whether that theist should, instead, blame Emma.

COVID-19—in addition to killing people, quarantining people, and threatening to ruin enough economies to pose a genuine overall threat to the world economy—is pretty goddamn inconvenient. It made me leave China. It prevented me from visiting Taiwan and Berlin. It cost me a bunch of time. It cost me a bunch of money. I blame Emma.

With that said, I have been remiss in not saying thanks to the staff at the US Embassy for all the help they have been. I didn’t want to leave China (don’t tell anyone), and I was not the only Fulbrighter who registered an eloquent and insightful objection (something like “Noooooooooo!!!”). But it was not their decision, it is safe to say, and they were outstanding at providing information about health, safety, travel, etc.. As I said in a very early blog entry:

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.

That evaluation is not only true after working months more with them: my respect probably increased. So this is my very inadequate way of saying thanks. (特别感谢, Taozhen!)

We have come full circle. My first couple of entries were made in the US, probably Ohio (“We’re 75% Vowels!”). Then I headed to Beijing. At various times, I worked with some of the following folks, but I kind of forgot to take pictures of all of them.

Steve, Sophia, Kerry. The odds of me getting all these names spelled correctly are slim. But there is beer. Really, really good beer. 很好喝!
Supper with China Fulbrighters and Staff.
Beijing Embassy. This woman was very nice, very smart, and either has a PhD or is close to having one. Have you figured out yet that I don’t know her name?
Beijing Embassy. Good luck at Fair Hahvahd™, Yin Dan!
Meta-violation, Beijing Embassy

Then I headed to Suzhou. 上有天堂,下有苏杭。

Since most of this whole blog is about Suzhou, no pictures are here. Plenty are already available.

I arrived in a China that looked like this (and this is the China I know):


I left a China that looked like this:


And now I have nothing but poignant and overwhelmingly positive memories of China, of my half-Fulbright there, and of the people I met. And of this, possibly the single-most ethnically-diverse food I have ever encountered:

I have one last blog to offer after this one, which will be in Chinese. Otherwise, I ain’t got that much to say.

So I shall close with this fine picture of a famous Hungarian prince named Chuck.

OK, it’s really Iris. Who is not Miao, I’m pretty sure. But this captures her somehow.

#34 哭哭了

This is my friend Nick. He used to work in Suzhou with me. He misses China. I miss China. We miss China. This blog entry will be about what I miss most. If Nick wants to tell you what he misses most, he can do his own damn blog.

I miss the beauty of China, particularly the beauty of Suzhou. I could have put 10,000 pictures here, but limited it to two from my neighborhood. If you want scenery, go read #19.

Yipu Yuan
Part of my evening walk, just down the street from my flat, between Shi Quan Jie and Soochow University

I miss the food. Lordy, I miss the food.

The weekend Bánh mì from Rong’s.

Watermelon Juice (西瓜汁) in Beijing
My standby neighborhood restaurant: YangYang Dumplings
One of many post-tutorial food sessions with the wise and lovely Emily, this time with fish.
Fast. Cheap. Delicious. Dan Dan.

Most of all, I will miss the people.

Mi amigo Jairo; 我朋友 Jill
Jimmy and HongXia. They made my life much more interesting and fun in Suzhou.
People I’m still pleased to call my friends. Some of the former staff of the University of Dayton China Institute.
Hong Xia: my friend, colleague, amanuensis.
Five great students all of whom thought their teacher would never stop talking about Kant.

The irrepressible Zoe, who will not like this picture, but would like it better than any of the other ones I have.
阿姨. Quite possibly the nicest person in Jiangsu Province.

There are good things about being back in the States. Allegedly I’m safer; presumably less risk of exposure to COVID-19. A helluva lot more exposure to being a gunshot victim. Personally, I would prefer to take my chances with the former relative to the latter.

Showers are better. Steaks are cheaper. It is good to see my family and my Dayton friends. Barbecue is barbecue (although somewhat shaky in Ohio, I am headed to Texas in May). I understand what people say, for the most part. I don’t have to take my life into my hands crossing the street. I don’t have to use a VPN to access many parts of the Internet.

But . . . but . . . but . . . perhaps I mentioned this.

I miss China.

#28 新年:第二

Part Two of the New Year’s Holiday report.

You want quiet? Come walk around a large Chinese city on New Year’s Eve. Or New Year’s Day. I’ve been in louder libraries. I live in a town of about 10 million, and this is what my street looked like New Year’s Eve at about 8 o’clock (a Friday night):

I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of what this street normally looks like, but suffice it to say that it is quite dangerous to cross (I’m getting better at it, though), and there are a lot of restaurants, convenience stores, jade shops, clothing stores, and, of course, the hooker bars. This is what it looked like on New Year’s Day:

One of the busiest streets in Suzhou, usually full of locals and visitors, is Guan Qian Jie, with high end stores, very famous and very old Chinese restaurants and candy stores, coffee shops, a Taoist temple, a Pizza Hut, two McDonalds, and all sorts of other things. It looked like this on New Year’s Day, the middle of a Saturday afternoon:

Ping Jiang Lu, also always so chock full o’people—tourists and locals—that one can hardly walk or avoid being run over by a motor scooter, looked like this:

One thing one gets used to in China—if one plans to survive—is people everywhere, all the time, and a lot of them. The first complete Chinese sentence I think I learned was the standard complaint “中国有太多人”/”China has too many people.” So seeing Suzhou, or Guiyang, as a ghost town is not just a little unnerving; it can be a little creepy.

Pretty much people hang out with their family, eat, maybe drink, and many watch the New Year Show that is all over the TV and various other media platforms. Which is kind of cool. So I did my part to participate.

This quiet, of course, was not helped by the Coronavirus issue emerging from Wuhan. But, to be honest, I don’t think it would have been any different without the health emergency; there was no Coronavirus last year in Guilin, and I would not have been surprised to see a couple of tumbleweeds roll through on New Year’s Eve.

The outbreak of the virus has, of course, put a damper on a lot of things. It is not unusual to see people wearing masks, but most do not. Yesterday walking around, I would say that 60-70% of the people I saw were wearing them; today was closer to 80%.

A lot of public gatherings, including in Beijing, were cancelled; people generally followed instructions (wear a mask, wash your hands a lot, use sanitizer, avoid live animals [human and non-human?] and live animal [human and non-human?] markets, be careful about what you eat.

Wuhan, a town of 11 million, was completely shut down; the closest analogy I can think of is closing down Los Angeles—nobody in, nobody out, including LAX—on the afternoon of December 24th. Some people are suspicious of the government reports on the Coronavirus, given some of the things that happened in the past (e.g. SARS). From my angle officials seem to be doing a pretty good job of keeping people informed about what to do and what not to do, and they have extended the range of the general shutdown to include some 56 million people. But people travel, and Wuhan and its environs has a lot of folks, so it remains to be seen what the contagion vector is here. Yes, I just said “contagion vector.” It also makes me wonder what the moron in the White House (I realize this is unfair to other morons) would do with this kind of emergency: or any kind of emergency, for that matter.

In any case, things will be calm for awhile. Then school starts, I head to Taiwan for a week, and come back to warmer weather. I will close with a thank you to my lovely and wise Chinese tutor Emily, who gave me this electric blanket. I told her she revolutionized my world; she said I exaggerated. I’m not sure I did; down here in the southern part of China (江南/Jiangnan) people act like it never gets all that cold. So the apartments aren’t all that equipped for cold. I think it is cold. Not Chicago cold, not Murmansk cold, but pretty damn cold. Emily saved me, and I’m getting a lot of reading done since I can do that in the warmest place in my flat.

And a quick thank you to the family for my Christmas delivery; a sweatshirt from a fine university (part of trying to stay warm) and some candy, the life expectancy of which was disturbingly short. Not too sure about the flip-flops, but one can never have enough.

Oh, OK. A couple of food pictures, as is now de rigueur:

Excellent noodles from YangYang Dumplings
Yes. I risked Coronavirus: going outside, mingling with the masses, and eating street food. But these here taters are darn 很好吃!

#27 新年:第一

In about a week, it will be next year here, and everyone is getting prepared. We leave the year of the pig, and head into the year of the rat. I do not like rats. I really do not like rats. Conveniently enough, the Chinese word for “rat” seems to be the same for the word “mouse”: 老鼠. I have no problems with mice, beyond the fact that its plural reminds me of irregular things in language, which reminds me of Chinese, which reminds me of the effort I’ve put into learning Chinese, which reminds me that said effort seems have had little payoff. But otherwise, mice are okay. Rats: not okay.

Mice can be cute. So as I walk around, I see New Year’s greetings featuring cute mice, including this one. (It does make me wonder if Disney knows about all these copyright infringements; they seem to be a litigious bunch.)

Compare the pretty much uncute contrast, from the old “Underground Comix” days.

Otherwise, things are getting ever quieter. A lot of people are packing up and heading out. Walking through Soochow University’s campuses (there are two, one close to where I live and one where I teach), one sees a lot of people walking their suitcases, getting ready to catch a bus to catch a train, and then another train or plane, to go home and hang out with the family. This will almost certainly involve having two dishes for good luck: fish and dumplings. There are also all kinds of New Year’s candy available, and there will be, no doubt, some fireworks, and some hongbao: the omnipresent red envelopes full of cash. It seems unlikely that during the Song dynasty (960-1279) these were delivered on one’s phone, which seems to be the case frequently now.

I’m staying in Suzhou for the holiday; last New Year’s I was in Guiyang, and I have never seen such a large city so deserted. It will be interesting to see how quiet Suzhou can get. I’ve been stocking up on food, just in case it is difficult to find. My friend Zoe informs me, though, that many restaurants will be open. She added that people will stare at me, eating alone during the holiday. I observed that given that I’m a Westerner, and that I use my chopsticks with my left hand, I’m pretty used to getting stared at. But I’m not as much a novelty as some people; no one wants, for instance, to touch my sparse remaining hair. My African and African-American friends are not so lucky.

The other excitement of the week was attending another meeting for which I was entirely unprepared. I was asked this (and I quote):

The Suzhou Foreign Affairs office is going to hold a meeting of International experts this Friday afternoon to collect suggestions for the future development of the city.

Since I have already established beyond all doubt my undeniable expertise in “Urban Logic,” I said I would attend. I’m not quite sure I qualify as an “international expert” on anything—perhaps on the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals, or on forgetting Chinese characters—but I didn’t have anything to do, and I thought there might be food. (There wasn’t. But the tea was good.)

So we sat around and each of us made a little speech about what we would do to improve Suzhou. I was the only American; most people were Chinese, but there were Japanese, a couple of Italians (one of whom made his speech in Chinese), and a Croatian (more about him later). Some talked for what seemed like nine hours; some spoke in both Chinese and English. I, of course, made my standard apology for not being able to speak Chinese (which I make in Chinese), then gave my spiel (Hey! German! or Yiddish! Or both!).

Mine was definitely the shortest, probably about six minutes. I said I was a Fulbright, and could choose to go anywhere in China; since I chose Suzhou, obviously I didn’t think much was wrong. (How’s that for international expertise?) I said one area of restaurants, bars, and teahouses along the lake should be shut off from traffic, and I said that it would be nice if more restaurants had pictures and/or English on their menus, recognizing that English was—whether we like it or not—today’s lingua franca. (Hey! Italian! Sort of!) I also mentioned that development is a double-edged sword, and too much of it can risk exactly those characteristics that tourists come to see. (I made a snide reference to Venice here, and the Italians nodded knowingly; or maybe they were just nodding off, I’m not sure.)

The guy running the show seemed to think that adding English to menus was somehow a great cultural affront, which I didn’t really get. I just thought it would help folks make a little more money—my money, for instance—if you could eat in a place without being able to read Chinese characters for food (which, as mentioned previously, are not always illuminating even if you know what the characters say).

The thing that kept me awake—I have to admit, there was some serious boilerplate being tossed around—was that we were all using this translation device. It will, when it works, be extremely cool; you speak your language, and up on a big screen it is very quickly translated (in our case, into English, Japanese, or Chinese, depending on the speaker). But it is not quite there yet, and I had to quit looking at the English translations because they were just off enough to be quite hilarious. I wish I had direct quotes, but here is an attempt to reproduce the effect:

Thank you for inviting me today. My primary suggestion is to develop sports and athletic endeavors, and remind Chinese children, and their parents, that physical activity is not only good for them, but makes them better students.

[Translation on the screen:] This day is a day of Yes! Suggestions of anus sports and production don’t deny our cats the needs they have. Physics can prevent tomorrows from the aspect of now, but spend time on pop. [I am not making this up; during the Croatian’s speech, both “anus” and “sexually” showed up in surprising contexts. Please observe the use-mention distinction. And, yes, I am immature.]

One last point: I have met a fair number of Croatians, largely because where I lived in Chicago every single building superintendent was Croatian. But the Croatian at this meeting was by far the largest Croatian—one of the largest humans—I have ever met. It was nice of him to stand next to me in the picture, so I look like Linda Hunt (without her talent, of course).

International Experts

Next week will be New Years Part Two. In the meantime, food pictures.

Basically: Chinese Scrambled Eggs. Meh.
Bamboo. Crunchy. Good.

Shrimp. Zoe ate almost all the shrimp. That is okay, since I’m pretty suspicious of shrimp in Asia.

Basic noodles. My staple dish.
Fake chicken made from tofu. (素鸡). Didn’t taste like chicken. Didn’t taste like tofu. Weird texture. Weird taste. Weird. Not bad, but weird (or new; I’m a tolerant soul).

#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!

#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!

#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.