#20 音乐

In Madrid (and, to a lesser extent Rome) there was pretty constant music: buskers, groups of classical musicians playing various popular classical tunes, the occasional want-to-be opera singer belting out an aria. For a while I wondered why the Spanish loved Elvis so much, since I kept hearing “It’s Now or Never.” I then remembered that the Elvis hit—Elvis apparently heard the original while in the army in Europe—was a reworking of “O Sole Mio,” with Elvis-appropriate lyrics.

In Suzhou, it is a little different. Few, if any, buskers; I don’t think I have seen any street musicians. Some people I know do a bimonthly outdoor session as a charity benefit, but that’s about it. Of course, a lot of younger people walk around with earbuds of some type or another, so who knows what they are listening to. Probably “O Sole Mio.”

However, there is music when you listen for it. Or have it imposed upon you. [This entry, by the way, definitely requires a VPN if you’re reading this in the Middle Kingdom.]

The Suzhou bus I ride with some frequency (the #178 for those keeping score at home) plays a standard announcement: behave, give up your seat to those who need assistance, which stop the bus is arriving at next. But to my ears, at any rate, the announcement starts with precisely the same rhythm as Flatt and Scruggs’ “Flint Hill Special.” So after riding that bus, I have this song in my head (I have been told that “耳朵虫子” or “earworm” is not a thing in China.)

Then there is my university. The end of class is marked by a sweet little tune that sounds as if someone has just opened a music box. Often I note this phenomenon by twirling around like a ballerina. This may not make me look especially sophisticated. But the beginning of class also starts with music and the song chosen to do so at Suzhou University is “Home on the Range.” I laugh each time it is played; my students don’t understand why, nor do they understand why I so often begin class—ostensibly about Kant, or the American Constitution, or Marx, or the role of the Supreme Court—worried about where the deer and the antelope play.

Here, for no extra charge, is a fine version of that song from The Awful Truth, featuring Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy:

To continue our musical tour of Suzhou, I should mention that the announcement (every 10 minutes or so) at the train stations (at least, so far, in Suzhou, Beijing, and Huang Shan) is exactly the opening bar of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” From Songs in the Key of Life. This is not a bad earworm, and four notes is sufficient:

Just as in America, teenagers here are pretty obsessed with acne. The ads about it here seem to be even more ubiquitous (if ubiquity has degrees). On the bus (again), there is a virtual certainty that one will see an ad for a doctor’s clinic that can cure what ails you in this area. Unfortunately, the song that plays over it is a Chinese version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands.” This is not an earworm one desires, but it may well be unavoidable if you aren’t earbudded up and you ride the bus. I shall not provide a video of that one. You can thank me later.

Finally, every now and then I think about the following song and its meaning (hmmm). And after the horrors of “If You’re Happy, etc.,” this will provide a salutary aural cleansing.

“What?” you say. “No food pictures?” Just one. More Uighur food.

The hand belongs to Zoe. More about her later.

#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.

#13 西瓜汁

“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?

#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.