Eschaton, one of my heroes, was kind enough to mention this blog yesterday, and I am absolutely shocked at the uptick in traffic to my teensy little site. All I can say is Thanks.
February 23, 2003
February 22, 2003
I posted this earlier but must have somehow deleted it. Not untypical.
This poster — courtesy of Orcinus, who I hope doesn’t mind my stealing it — had me laughing out loud.
More, each funnier than than the last, can be found here.
Of Guards and Greeters
Every afternoon I look down from my office high up in the huge SOHO complex to witness another of those phenomena so unique to China. This one is the Changing of the Guard. Just about every building and every business has its own guard, if not an entire fleet. They invariably wear military-like uniforms and at first I thought they were actually soldiers of the People’s Army. Currently they all wear long coats and big fur hats, but I presume that will end once the weather improves.
Having security guards is nothing strange. What’s strange is the ritual they go through each and every day. Across from my office is a huge complex of high-rise apartment houses, and each tower has its own set of guards. Before going to work at their afternoon shift, the guards all congregate and stand in rows, in full uniform and at full attention, as the King of the Guards gives them what appears to be a pep talk. After a few minutes, they all march off in neat columns, goose-stepping to their respective stations. I have since found out that this goes on just about everywhere in Beijing (if not all of China).
Taking one’s job seriously and inspiring your team — these are obviously noble endeavors. Still, I can’t help but wonder what the King of the Guards says to his minions each day; is it always the same? Do they enjoy it? Do they receive some benefit, spiritual or otherwise, from it? After all, once they march off they essentially sit around all day and do nothing (which is not to say they are not important; but ideally a security guard will never have to do anything, except deter trouble simply by being there).
The guards are everywhere. Outside of every restaurant there are the guards. On the street outside of every business and every building, and in the lobbies as well. As to the ones who stand outside, I have virtually no idea what they do, yet there they are, permanent fixtures in uniforms that are often dazzling, if not a little scary, to behold.
A little higher up in rank than the guards, yet equally inexplicable (to me, anyway) are The Greeters. This is something that originally startled me, and now I just take it for granted. It is very nice to be greeted warmly when you enter a restaurant, but why, I wondered, do they need four women in bright red uniforms to stand by the door to say hello and goodbye to every customer? Wouldn’t one be sufficient?
There is a famous Peking Duck restaurant here (no relation to this site) whose name escapes me at the moment — Quanjude something — that has no fewer than eight (you heard me, eight) greeters standing around the front door. The first (and only) time I ate there, I was overwhelmed as the brilliantly clad greeters shouted “Huanying guangling!” (“Welcome inside,” I think) and grinned at me as though they had just seen god. And that’s what they do, all day, all night, day after day and year after year.
I frequent a Cantonese restaurant near my office, and I enjoy it even though they only have four greeters (which is four less than Quanjude). I would probably love it if they had only one or (I’d better not say this to loud) no greeters at all. Still, it’s obviously part of the culture and it’s certainly intriguing to experience. I only wonder, when I get back to the States and walk into a restaurant to find no greeters at all, will I feel dejected, despised and ignored? It’s funny, how these things grow on you and you come to expect them, to take them for granted. There are a lot things that absolutely shocked me when I first arrived, and now I don’t even flinch. (Is that a good sign or a bad one?)
February 21, 2003
While I don’t often cite articles from the Wall Street Journal (at least not in a positive context), today’s In Memoriam article by the father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl brought tears to my eyes. I did find it poor judgment on the part of the layout editor (for the online edition) to have a large and distracting advertisement alongside the article with the prominent caption Help Headhunters Find Out About You.
February 20, 2003
I worked in Silicon Valley during the glory days of the mid/late-90s, and every evening as my car and I crawled along Route 101, perhaps the nation’s least enjoyable and most constipated roadway, I would listen to the right-wing hate-mongers on KSFO, San Francisco’s right-wing, hate-mongering radio station.
I’m not sure exactly why I subjected myself to this torture. I’ve always believed that it’s important to know what all sides are saying, not just the side you believe is right.
To many, reading the news (or listening to it on the radio or seeing it on TV) is like getting into a nice, warm bath. You choose the media with which you most agree. As you open the page or adjust the settings, you know that you are about to have your own ideas and perceptions confirmed and validated. You know there will ensue that unique sense of comfort that come to us by way of agreement.
All of us are wired to love agreement. For some, it is, in and of itself, the purpose of life. I love it too; it feels good. Every day I read Mark Kleiman and Orcinus and Josh Marshall because I pretty much know in advance what they are going to say and that I will be in total agreement with them.
But then I am also careful to read Andrew Sullivan (social liberal, but conservative in every other way), Instapundit (I can’t bear to type down the link, it’s so ubiquitous) and even Ann Coulter and the like. When I lived in the States I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh. It keeps me on my toes, gets the adrenaline flowing and helps me hone my arguments.
Seems I’ve wandered off-topic. Back to Route 101: I would listen to KSFO every night during my commute, and while it got my blood pressure up I could at least deal with it. But when Michael Savage’s program came on, I became physically agitated. I would shout back at the radio. I would imagine Savage tied up in a chair, and me holding a stick with a long nail at the end of it. I would curse and clench my fist.
Never heard of Michael Savage? Then check out this article. To read that this foul-mouthed, hate-filled, lying sleazebag has actually been signed on to pontificate on MSNBC makes me truly sick, and makes me realize just how desperate the dot-com-era network is to win publicity and ad dollars. (Controversy sells.)
Listening to Savage reminded me at times just how stupid some people are, for he had a faithful constituency that hung on his every word. Had they exercised the slightest bit of critical thinking, had they been able to remember what this demagogue would say from one night to the next, they would have seen that his “arguments” amounted to inane, jingoistic, racist and foul rubbish — worse than rubbish, evil and intentional lies. But they couldn’t do that, and I was always amazed. As some famous person once remarked, “No one ever lost any money underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
This was years ago, but one example burned me up to such a degree that I’ve remembered it as though it were today. Savage would often cite figures from polls that reflected poorly on Democrats. He loved it, proving how despised they were. And then someone intelligent called during the height of the Monica craze, and said that Savage had to face the fact that the president, whom he slandered endlessly and joyfully, was still enjoying record popularity according to the polls. I will never forget Savage’s reply, which I’m paraphrasing, but pretty accurately: “How can you believe in those polls? Do you know how they do polls? They go to some bath house and they ask questions to a guy with an earring in his ear. And that’s your poll.”
This still gets my heart racing. Never mind the obvious anti-gay hatred and stereotyping. The sheer hubris and hypocrisy of forgetting everything you’ve said the day before in order to effectively and treacherously smear your enemy today — it was, for me, simply unprecedented. It went too far. I expect Limbaugh and Tony Snow and Cal Thomas to stretch the truth and play shamelessly on people’s emotions under the rubric of patriotism. But to so grossly and obviously (to anyone with minimal grey matter) contradict yourself and so brazenly assume that your listeners are retarded — I never really got over my shock.
Anyway, now you can hear and see Savage for yourself on MSNBC. It is an affront to journalism and a sign that the network is on its way down the drain.
San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor gets it right on Hong Kong:
HONG KONG CLAMPS DOWN: Security trumping liberty is a worldwide trend. Hong Kong’s leadership, for example, seems poised to impose strict security measures on its people.
The “anti-subversion” provisions moving through the rubber-stamp legislature could have been worse. But they will go a long way toward curbing political freedom in the former British colony, and furious, principled opposition has had far too little effect.
Some observers in China’s “Special Administrative Region,” which has been operating semi-autonomously since the hand over in 1997, say the government’s original proposals were considerably more restrictive. But what remains is bad enough, and according to one of the most keen observers, former legislator Christine Loh, there are new worries — including a proposal for secret trials in some circumstances.
There’s insufficient trust in the local government, she wrote in a recent e-mail newsletter to people interested in the issue. (My own interest, apart from a general desire that freedom prevail wherever possible, is that I’ve been teaching each autumn in Hong Kong and have grown immensely fond of the place.)
The influence of Beijing on this process is unmistakable. And unfortunate.
February 19, 2003
Well, I did it today. I handed in my resignation letter to the boss. But she rejected it, said I was “a valuable asset” to the company and insisted I give it another try. This lady really went out on a limb in hiring me and I feel I owe it to her to reconsider. The weather is improving, I am enjoying Beijing more and more, and work went well today because I actually met with clients and shared my ideas (as opposed to poring over spreadsheets of internal finances and worrying about “making the numbers”).
Of course, something very big is still missing, and I can’t be truly happy until that situation is rectified. I feel so torn. I read a disturbing story today about the state of the economy in New York, and I realize that giving up a job that a lot of people would kill for and returning without a plan would be a huge gamble.
My friend back home used to be an English teacher; maybe he could join me here and teach English and we could live a life of joy and luxury. That would make life so wonderful.
Sounds good, but it’s unlikely. You see, we own a house. No; a house owns us. So many years of acquiring junk — antiques, furniture, books, CDs, computers, electronics, art, silverware, linens, clothes, appliances, cars, etc., and building a swimming pool and a jacuzzi and a patio and dumping infinite amounts of $$ into repairs and fixtures and improvements….after so much acquiring and getting and spending, it’s incredibly hard to just uproot and say goodbye to all that. No, to a great extent we are slaves to the house, and until he and I come to terms with that, we’re stuck. To further complicate things, we have two cats, whom I love, Nick and Daisy (as in The Great Gatsby). What should we do, put them to sleep so my friend can come over here? Never.
Okay, sorry for getting so personal. It is past 8:30 p.m. and I am still at work and need to eat and sleep. I promise, tomorrow I will be less brooding and more witty. It can be hard, living up to my promise to write something here every day.
February 18, 2003
Physical Therapy, Chinese-style
I had to go to the hospital today to start physical therapy on my shoulder, which has been giving me grief for months now. The x-rays showed a chronic inflammation, similar to (if not the same as) tendonitis. The pain has become excruciating whenever I type or use chopsticks. Imagine what this means to a person who basically lives to eat and write.
This is a Chinese hospital, and the “physical therapy” has aroused my deepest suspicions. There is this gigantic contraption with leather straps that they wrap around my upper arm, and then they bombard my shoulder with jolts of electricity for half an hour. This ancient machine looks like it’s right out of a Boris Karloff movie (“It’s alive — ALIVE!”) and I have to wonder whether it offers any therapeutic benefit aside from titillating the stooped-over old man in the shabby white uniform who administers the jolts.
No, you haven’t seen China until you’ve enjoyed physical therapy here. It’ll be interesting to see if these jolts actually accomplish anything. I’ve gone three times now and so far nothing except bewilderment on my part.
The latest patient steps out of the Physical Therapy ward….
February 17, 2003
Apologies in advance for the whiny, syrupy, self-pitying tone of that last post. All I can say is that it is how I really feel. I guess I am just a whiny, self-pitying kind of guy.
Down in the doldrums again. Sometimes, when things are working, life seems to make such perfect sense, and you know that even the peasant slaving away in the dusty field or the beggar clanging his bowl of pennies year after year at the same exact spot by the footbridge in Causeway Bay — even they have something wonderful to live for, some light that shines in their life and brings just enough magic to their seemingly drab existence.
Today, that light is out for me. I have to face the fact that I made a fundamental error: I should not have moved to China. No, it has nothing to do with the weather, the elevators, the bad driving, the too-spicy food, the loneliness, the broken ATMs and perennial banking debacles, the traffic, the customer service, the language, the government, the Internet blackouts, the bad TV shows, the shabby infrastructure, the miseries of China’s gays, the daily breakdowns, the high price of coffee, the media’s pretense that everybody is happy, the lines or the noise or the pollution — none of these things.
It’s that I am in a job that cannot fulfill my need to be “creative,” to come up with new ideas, to write and interact and make a difference. I was able to do that in Hong Kong for a simple reason: English is a primary language there. There are so many English-language media in Hong Kong and they all need materials in English, and I helped to meet those needs. Here there is virtually no such need, and my love for words, for writing, for communicating — it is all irrelevant. I am suddenly an administrator and not an artist. (I don’t know how much of an artist I ever was, but at least when I write I feel impassioned and “in touch” with something that I like to believe is an artistic instinct or talent.)
I have thought about giving my notice, but that is not a decision to be made on impulse. The job market in my area is tight, and some people would kill for my job. My “reasonable” voice tells me to stick it out for a full year, my passionate voice tells me to give my notice today.
I could deal with a joyless job and stifled creativity if there weren’t one more thing in my life that is missing. Far away from here, in a city sitting in the midst of a vast American desert, is a young man I never see anymore, someone whose voice and whose memory are with me virtually all of the time. We have been apart for more than two years with only very occasional reunions that always seem to evaporate even as they are starting. It is his memory that makes it all but impossible for me to tolerate my present situation, especially at moments like these when all the lights seem to be extinguished. What am I doing here? At least in Hong Kong, where I was writing every day and really making things happen, I felt a sense of purpose and value. Right now that’s not the case, and it makes my sadness over being separated from my friend of many years more painful.
I really do not know what I can do. I have learned always to wait at least a few days before making drastic decisions. And I certainly feel like making a drastic decision now.