#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!