[*With apologies to other six-year-olds, this probably looks like it was written by a six-year-old. I tried. My first draft had some problems: a couple of major ones, a couple of medium ones, a couple of minor ones. Some may remain, in spite of the best efforts of the lovely and wise Wang Shuren.]
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.
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.
The Fulbright is over. My expectation of being in China until July 2020 is over. I have nothing to do, as far as I know, until August, when The University of Dayton (Go Flyers!) Fall courses begin. If you have nothing else to do in the Fall, pop by for a little symbolic logic or the seminar on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Par-tay!
Until then, I fight being depressed about having to leave China, supported by some friends here (Hi, Nick), some other Fulbrighters (Hi Jerry; Hi Steve), and some friends in China (Hi Zoe; Hi Emily; Hi Kong Nai; Hi Taozhen). I’m now in Dayton, having survived the City of Brotherly Love (yes, I’m aware of the irony). I read, I write, I go to the gym, I play guitar and mandolin, I still practice Chinese. I look for jobs in China. The Chinese universities are, it is fair to say, distracted right now; hiring me is not (nor should it be) a priority.
It was nice seeing the family in Philadelphia; it made my least favorite American city (Lubbock is a close second) quite pleasant. So this blog entry is, for the most part, just pictures of things in Philly. Easy to digest, just as was most of the food in the pictures below. So scroll through for pictures and some captions.
I don’t know how many more of these blog entries I will write. If you want to stay up-to-date, just do whatever it is one does to follow this thing; it then gets sent to your e-mail. I will warn you, dear reader: in a couple of weeks my entry will be in Chinese. That will probably be the 绝唱 [juechang/swansong] of Kurt’s Fulbright.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . .
“Watermelon Juice” may well be what my audience thought I was providing at my talk. In any case, this week was a talk to philosophy students and some philosophy faculty, on Kant and Rousseau. I know those reading this are dying to know the basic claim, so here it is: in On the Social Contract, Rousseau claims that “freedom is obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself” [“l’obéissance à la loi qu’on s’est prescritte est liberté”]. I argue that in spite of the almost-exclusive focus on Rousseau’s influence on Kant’s moral philosophy, this sentence actually provides a strategic hint that encapsulates Kant’s strategy throughout the Critical philoosophy, specifically the Critique of Pure Reason. So there.
The talk went pretty well, although it was a bit technical in places. This may be why one of the first questions (from a faculty member) was to ask me to summarize the main points of the paper. A student asked a very good question that raised an important point Frege emphasized, that of the normativity of logic. So there.
Perhaps you are wondering why I mentioned watermelon juice. It is because it is extraordinarily good: refreshing and full of that prized lycopene. It is also one of the things (along with coffee) that I can successfully order in Chinese: there is some sort of moral victory walking up, ordering in Chinese, getting what you ordered, and paying for it, all without having to resort to bizarre hand signals (I don’t know what the hand signals are for “watermelon juice,” anyway). It should be much more widely-available in the US.
I’ve been working with my tutor on ordering food in Chinese restaurants. It is not made any easier by some dishes having names that are a bit tricky: after all, if you see this dish on a menu— “Seven Sparrows Flying Across Purple Mountain”—would you order it? It could be chicken feet (no thanks), fried duck tongue (surprisingly good), or a dreaded vowel food (eggplant, oysters, artichokes, etc.) It is a slow process, summarized beautifully by this meme.
So a week spent on scholarship, reading, and a lovely evening walk that took me to the Northern Pagoda.
Finally: how can I not frequent a restaurant that sports this winning slogan?
I don’t know. I seemed pretty busy this week. I gave a
talk, taught four classes on Friday and four on Sunday, went to an official
dinner to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s
Republic of China, walked around a bunch, and had to wear a tie.
There are no pictures of me wearing a tie, nor are there pictures of me toasting with the Suzhou Chair of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, nor the Mayor of Suzhou. In spite of the fact that we are all pretty much now besties, some won’t believe any of this without evidence.
The talk went well. The issue was whether the current President of the US is the worst president in US history. I tried to stick to facts; the basic premise is that the US has had some bad presidents, because they were corrupt, incompetent, racist, dishonest, and/or divisive. Trump is all of these. Thus he is the worst president in the history of the US, and any other candidate one might mention (Buchanan, A.Johnson, Harding, Nixon) was not as bad. Since he is worse than the worst presidents, and a worse one cannot be named, he wins. (I did suggest that we need to leave a special place in our hearts for William Henry Harrison, since he was only in office for 31 days.)
I ended up with 54 PowerPoint slides, could have had another 50—at least—on the topics I addressed, talked for an hour an a half, and still didn’t even address some very important aspects. Hence this slide:
I got a pretty good crowd, and all the questions (both from the audience, and then later on WeChat) were informed and insightful.
I’m confident that the eponymous target wasn’t aware of my talk—which is sort of funded by him—but this letter did generate the smallest, tiniest, itty-bittiest glimmer of some emotion one might call “guilt.” I got over it.
Suzhou is sometimes called the “Venice of the East.” This is, of course, nonsense; Suzhou began in 514 bc/pce, and Venice didn’t really get going until 568 ad/ce. So can we agree that Venice is the “Suzhou of the West”? Suzhou is a very beautiful city, which is why I asked to come back here; it is my favorite of the Chinese cities I’ve been in (Beijing, Guilin, Chengdu, Xi’an, Shanghai, Nanjing). Here are a few pictures, with many, many more to come.
A couple of closing photos, the first from the campus of Suzhou/Soochow University, where I teach.
And, of course, some food; this from a good—not great, but good—Uighur restaurant. Some of the best restaurants in Suzhou are from Xinjiang Province.
I’m giving a talk this week, so most of my time has been preparing for that. Details about all of that will be the topic of next week’s entry. Since that entry will be mostly words, this entry is mostly pictures of the few things I managed to do, with captions. (My apologies if some of these pictures load slowly. Blame Emma.)
The excitement of the week was to take another “Walk with Stephen”—Stephen Koss, author of Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou, China. Last week’s walk was on Guanqian Street, and while I learned some new details about the area, this part of Suzhou was quite familiar. Our walk this week was all completely new, in an area of Suzhou I had not been in and looking at things I’d never seen. It was 六六六。
First up was a site dedicated to Sun Wu (Sunzi), famous as the author of The Art of War (孙子兵法).
Next up was the Suzhou Museum of Imperial Brick. Indeed, this is a museum devoted to bricks. But these suckers are special bricks. Before the end of the Imperial Era, these were the only bricks (known as “Golden Bricks”) that could be used in the Forbidden City in Beijing (and possibly a couple of other sites special to the Emperors). Hence the process is very precise, and as we learned, out of the bricks produced, only about 20% were good enough to be shipped to Beijing for the emperor. There was a lot of detail about mud, how the mud was treated, formed, cured, baked, shipped: about everything you would ever want to know about Imperial Bricks. While one might say “Brick Museum? When I could go to a toaster museum, or maybe a museum devoted to watching paint dry?,” it was very interesting and fun to see.
Last stop was the tomb of Wen Zhengming (文征明), one of the four great Southern painters of the Ming Dynasty. Steve had some good stories about Wen that brought him to life. He was a bit . . . idiosyncratic, which is surprising, since famous painters are always so stable and predictable.
And I shall close with a little non-Chinese weirdness. My daughter Emma, for reasons that are complex and, indeed, a bit mysterious when seen from a cosmic perspective, lived for a year in Slovakia, and speaks Slovak. It would be a bit of an understatement to say that she has a great deal of affection for Slovakia. This may explain the following picture.
As noted in the previous blog entry, my schedule is, um, forgiving. I met with my students and taught my classes on Friday the 13th (in spite of my being a recovering triskaidekaphobe). Then MidAutumn Festival arrived: along with many mooncakes and threats of more mooncakes, school was closed Friday, so I had the day off.
My courses meet Friday the 20th, but I have to fill out some forms
to establish long-term residency before my current temporary status expires.
Hence, I will be off Friday afternoon to do that. But I do have to teach my
morning classes! (And I think the afternoon classes will be rescheduled.)
The bureaucracy is rather unbelievable: I’ve had to get a health exam, including an ultrasound; I had to open a bank account; I had to register with the police; I had to register my short-term residency; now I have to register my long-term residency. The bank alone required me to sign what seemed to be 1,519 documents—probably closer to six—all in Chinese. I had help (Jill and Tianyu to the rescue, again!), but I did mention that I was a little uncomfortable signing things I could not read. I also mentioned that if I returned to the US to find this bank lady living in my house, that I had somehow signed over to her, I would be a bit miffed.
I admired the MidAutumn moon and walked around Suzhou. I pretty much walk around Suzhou every day. But this Sunday I actually walked with others, doing a walking tour with Stephen Koss, author of Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou, China. I’ve read about half of it; it is quite good, and Stephen knows, evidently, all there is to know about Suzhou.
He arranges relatively small, relatively informal tours during the part of the year he and his wife live in Suzhou (the rest of the time is spent in some place called “Manhattan.”) This tour took us to Yi Yuan (The Garden of Harmony), one of the many gardens of Suzhou. This particular garden is small and fairly new (middle 19th-century), and, as Stephen pointed out, it lacks the originality of the other, more famous gardens (e.g. the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Master of Nets Garden). For these reasons, presumably, there were very few people there—always a plus, and a rarity, in China—and it was quite pleasant walking through it. It is also close to where I live, so I will return.
Otherwise, it was a relaxing week, with a fair amount of looking around and a fair amount of reading. I have started The Water Margins/Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒传) one of the (four? five? six? depends on who is doing the counting) classic novels of Imperial China. I’ve read The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber/Story of the Stone, and Journey to the West (all in English translation, of course). They are long, full of many names, but very, very much worth reading. After Outlaws of the Marsh, I will turn to the Plum in the Golden Vase (JinPingMei/金瓶梅)—when I tell my Chinese friends I’m going to read that one, they always laugh because it has a reputation for being somewhere between being risqué and pornography.
For the obligatory food picture: I made it to Rong’s for lunch. It may not be the best restaurant in Suzhou—it would be hard to identify the best restaurant in Suzhou, although I’m working on it—but it is pretty close to being my favorite. Excellent pho, excellent bánh mì, excellent spring rolls, and Larry Rong remembered me from almost a year ago, as well as remembering that I was there with a student and famous (well, maybe not so famous, yet) rapper “Legend.”
And for the obligatory China weirdness: I see a lot of people wearing shirts with English on them. I like to think that some of them don’t know what the English states, such as the woman working at a store in Chengdu while wearing a black shirt with enormous white letters that said, simply, “FUCK.” I have also seen a very old man, at least 85 years old, wearing a Public Enemy “Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” shirt (clearly he was OG), as well as a surprisingly-woke 10 year old Chinese boy wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt.
One of the hazards of taking (or teaching) logic is wondering about things from a particular, possibly idiosyncratic, perspective. No one else seems to care about the paradox (antinomy?) of the Vatican Museum: as mentioned before, what if everyone buys a “jump the line” ticket? Similar kinds of questions keep appearing: since the Fulbrighters had their Pre-Departure Orientation (PDO) in North Carolina, what was the orientation called in Beijing; the Departure Orientation (DO)? And, if what I learn from Twitter is true—and it undoubtedly is—is it true that nobody uses the phrase “it is not the case that” unless he or she has taken logic? Also why, in the civilization that invented paper, are the napkins so small? Finally, is the rule for left turns when driving in urban China that there are no rules? There is only one pizza that can help with these conundra:
We spent most of the Orientation hearing presentations, including two good student presentations about their expectations of teachers, particularly foreign (American) teachers. We also were told some technical information about ID, crime, and how to avoid rabies: standard kinds of things you think you don’t need until rabid you shows up at the hospital having just been pickpocketed, only to discover you have no ID.
We also heard from the professionals about politics and economics. Bottom line? It’s complicated. The word of the day to describe the Trump Administration was “interesting,” which I have come to discover can be said in a virtually infinite number of ways. The payoff for this was to eat Western food and hang out with the US Ambassador to China, former Iowa governor Terry Branstad. I asked, but he was unwilling to state a preference for Hawkeyes vs. Cyclones. Hey, he’s a politician. As you can imagine, no one discussed politics.
The next day was Fun Day. We were taught by the fabulous Michelle Tang, the Pride of New Zealand, how to make hand-pulled noodles (along with a basic tomahto sauce). The two surprises, given it was a bunch of academics cooking? No injuries and the food was not just edible, but good. I sense Michelle was largely responsible for this success, and I highly recommend checking out The Hutong if you ever get to Beijing. (You could check it out if you never get to Beijing, but that would be fairly pointless.)
We also got a great tour of a Hutong from Jeremiah Jenne, the Pride of New Hampshire. My dad used to refer to people as being so smart that they needed two heads to carry all of it around in. Jeremiah might need three heads. He is also connected with The Hutong, if you want to get the inside skinny on Beijng.
And we finished off the fun day with . . . beer. (Wise King Serge stuck with water.)
Then off to catch the bullet train (fast, clean, reasonably
priced, efficient, on time: US politicians might consider how US transportation
. . . ah, never mind) to Suzhou.
I had a very helpful tour of, and informative welcome to, Suzhou University, from Jill and Tianyu (aka Jairo).
Then it was off to some of my old haunts: Zemos, Costa, Blue Frog.
And the week concluded with a magnificent banquet with the Dean and several other administrators of Suzhou University, as well as a couple of other people whose lawyers insisted I leave nameless. It was a great evening, with many toasts and a little bit of food: it made me feel very welcome. 干杯!
Finally, some China weirdness. I saw this mug and had to have it: there is no love deeper than Elk Love, as is clear from the phrase “Heart to the Distance.”
And, yes, I thought I was buying some Kleenex™.
I came home to discover I purchased a package of 卫生护垫 (panty liners.)
The packages look pretty similar, but I have been told I sometimes don’t pay attention.