#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).