islamo-whatsits now?

I was only halfway through this extremely depressing New York Times article about the smear campaign against the founder and principal of an Arabic language public school in Brooklyn when I stumbled on this page:


You read that right. Islamo-fascism awareness week. Unfortunately we'll have to wait until October to learn why "[it's a] Big Lie... that Global Warming is a greater danger to Americans than the terrorist threat."


english fever!

Excellent profile in the New Yorker of Li Yang, a Chinese English teacher whose lessons sound like a weird hybrid of Maoist rallies and revivalist congregations. His method apparently involves holding English texts aloft and shouting phrases in unison. English teaching was never this exciting in Japan.


Canada to outlaw Nalgene bottles!

I started seeing them as early as high school. By college everyone I knew had at least one or two of these floating around. I drank my first gin and tonic out of one in the parking lot of a Phish concert. A bright pink one once appeared in the trunk of the car I shared with my brother. I think he still drinks from it at work.

But according to an article in today's New York Times every one of those hard plastic Nalgene bottles contains small amounts of the toxic chemical bisphenol-a. This stuff can mess up fetuses, put your hormones out of wack and can cause some serious endocrinal disruption. In an effort to restore order to endocrine systems the Canadian government is considering making B.P.A and any products containing it illegal... including Nalgene bottles.

Thank god I live in the US, where the right to bear reusable water bottles is righten somewhere in the bill of rights. If they mess with that they'll have to pull it from my cold, dead hands.


it's a blog! obama, pranks, arty stuff!

I have a few to add to this page. But I found out too late that new Canon digital cameras don't work with Macs...

Part of my mission back in the states is to convince people here that Japan is not as strange as they think it is. Japanese comedians, Takashi Murakami and Japanese TV are making it extremely difficult.

The internet also has smart people on it. Without this excellent column by Joan Walsh on the "Obama hates the working class" controversy I would still be stuck in sound-byte and pundit land on the whole thing.

So that's it. Hopefully I'll write more in the future, but for now the 21st century has its blue and underlined teeth in me, so I'll be posting the little bits of fluff that drift my way too.

Like this. Oh Japan.


I haven't had this steady of an internet connection in years. There weren't any clouds of wifi that would drift into my Japanese apartment, so I would sneak into the second floor of the local McDonalds. I had once seen a white person tapping at their computer with the blank concentration that only seems to come from dipping into that expanding universe of clicks and colors, the internet.

A combination of cheapness and ideological opposition to constant web access kept me from buying it at home, but I occasionally found myself sprinting down to the McDonald's because of an appointment to talk to someone across the world on Skype or just a desperate need to check my email. (I wrote about my experiences cadging free internet connections in Japan a while back in a previous post.) This gave me more time at home to just read, write or watch movies. You know, all the stuff we did before the web. I kept this blog up as a stream of infrequent and perilously long essays with literary pretensions. I didn't really get "real" blogs, aggregations of links to other places.

Since coming back to the New York I find I can't turn the corner without bumping into another damn wifi connection. Instead of settling down with a novel or essays before bed I'll be rechecking Slate and Salon.com. Now that I've started to addictively add links to the message in my gmail chat space I figure I might as well just put that big writing on China project on hold and post them here too. So this is an "I'm back" post, kinda. K, so... here's the cool stuff:


beijing, 2

We woke up to the sounds of backpackers gnattering over coffee.

Simple white cotton drapes fluttered off the windowsills, billowing out to scrape Robert’s nose. A big thick morning sunlight poured in through the broad glass window panes that opened up unto the courtyard. Somewhere out there a voice was complaining about the price of coffee.

Someone with a heavy German accent was grilling the harried staff on the proper English terminology for fried eggs. “Sunny side up? Ya, okay, you’ve got that, now, Over Easy? Yes? You understand? Ok, good.” We all helped China along in what little ways we could.

The hostel was staffed by a fleet of young girls who had all attended the same English program at a university in Fujian province, and had been come out to Beijing with the promise of a job that supplied a room, a wage, and a chance to use English at work. Each one was small, slight, pretty, and an impossibly young kind of twenty. You could see traces of a new China as much in their adopted names –Sage, Mandy, Francoise – as in the carefully selected jeans and t-shirts they wore beneath their red work aprons.

They all had an innocence about them, crusted up just as much as they’d been working there: hardened by streams of backpackers who often had more smiles and demands than money and sympathy. They all bunked down in the same room just off the entrance, and you sometimes caught sight of them slipping out bewildering lacy layers of blouses and skirts to spend their day off on the shopping streets just out the front door.

I tried to get to know them as best I could without coming off as a creep, but there was something fascinating about them, these creatures of China’s first consumer generation. If they had all been born in the second half of the nineteen-eighties then their parents should have grown up during the Cultural Revolution of the sixties and seventies, and their grandparents must have been part of the first generation to remake China in the fifties. So what would they make of themselves, these students of English, remaking China in their own way by just stepping out the door to look at all the shiny new things to buy. I asked a bit about their families, showed them pictures of my parents, my brother, and the American girl I was in love with, but all I could find out was vague details about shared apartments, missing their families a lot and very excited to be in Beijing.

I met the cook on a van ride to the Great Wall. For a flat fee the hostel ferried guests out to different points along the wall, I happened to share the ride with three Canadian girls who were studying business in Singapore, our Chinese driver with a leathery face like a cowboy and the hostel’s chef, all of us taking the afternoon to see the world’s longest wall.

Our point was a little under two hours from Beijing proper, two hours through the countryside, the first non-urban bit of China I’d come across. It was early May and we were edging into spring but the landscape looked like it had been beat up by hundreds summers. The sky was a hot haze of gray-blue, the ground was nothing but a swirl of soft dust kicked around by lazy winds and passing trucks. The soil looked to old and tired to be asked for anything more than to blow around listlessly. There was little green to be seen aside from the long rows of tired trees that had been planted to filter the waves of dust that blew off the Gobi desert and clogged into the machinery of Beijing. The chef sat up front and spoke with the driver, I strained my little knowledge of Chinese to eavesdrop on them. Every once in a while a bit of English would drop from the mix and they would crack up. “Ahh… very big!”Hmm… very beautiful!” From what I gathered the cook was asking the driver for more ways to talk about a very big wall in English. “What do you think?” There was a pause, and then the driver went haaah! and the cook went gwee hee hee!

The driver had been out this way before, so once he’d dropped us off by the women selling plastic swords and key-chains he disappeared to share cigarettes with the other men waiting by their empty tour buses. The rest of began the hike up to the wall, the Canadians charging up the hill myself and the cook walking behind. I had asked the Canadians all I could about their business school, and learned that it was essentially an expensive excuse to spend six months in Asia and see its officially certified wonders. “Have been to Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal, so this is my third Wonder,” one said, a distinct absence of wonder in her voice.

It was my very first wonder, and I got to thinking about what exactly had brought us out here. The wall itself was just a long pile of stones, the only parts that stood up were sections that had been rebuilt for tourists like ourselves. It was just a very long pile of stones, the longest in the world. The wonder was in the thought of a society that could mobilize millions upon millions of individual people –every single one with their own thoughts in their head, their own splinters in their feet, their very own set of fingerprints—and get them all to pile rocks, again and again and again and again.

We didn’t look so organized now, those of us scrambling up the slope to the wall on top, those of us selling bundles of gnarled walking sticks, those of us who had carried coolers of ice up the slope to sell bottles of water and cans of beer. I couldn’t even agree with the Canadians, so they bounded along the wall and I stayed back to talk with the cook.

He had decided to use the name John with me. We walked along the length of the wall, the structure dipping and swerving line graph style along the ridge, the stones scratched and marked with the names of some of the wall’s more aggressive visitors, like “Amelie, 2006” and “ZachBrittanyUSA!”

“Very beautiful!” John said to me. The line of stones wove off into the distance, disappearing into the soft brown haze that hung all around us. “Very big!” The ridge took a sharp upward turn and the stairs on the wall turned to a stone ladder. “Very steep!” I said, tilting my hand to show what I meant. “Steep… very steep,” he repeated under his breath, our hands leaping off of the masonry baking hot in the sun.

We passed the rest of the afternoon ignoring the wall and learning about each other. John was from the western city of Xian, where he had worked as a chef in a large hotel until a childhood friend had tapped his shoulder and begged him to come to Beijing and kick a kitchen into shape for this youth hostel he was working at. He had arrived in the city just a few weeks before I had, and we had pretty much the same opinion of the place. Bad air. Too much construction. Rude and stressed people. His ears perked up when I told him I also used to make food for money. “You can make pizza? Teach me to make good pizza dough.”

Like me he also had a lot of time on his hands, running a kitchen primed for four star guests for backpackers whose most complicated request was eggs, over-easy. He spent most of his time in a chair in the front lounge, twirling two dried and hardened walnuts in the palm of his right hand. When I asked him about them he pointed a finger at the temple of his forehead and said “Good for mind.”

That night we went back to the kitchen to make pizza dough from scratch. We mixed yeast into hot water and folded dried rosemary into the dough as a few of the girls peeked in from the doorway at the guest who had somehow broken into the staff’s quarters. In the end I didn’t have any secrets to tell John, he knew his pizza dough backwards and forwards. We ate the final product a few hours later, a decent enough batch of pizzas, wolfed down by the flock of desk girls and picked at politely by the women who swept the courtyard and the old men who were building the bunk beds and the skylights. Well, it was a change from the usual staff meal, the bowl of vegetables over some rice grabbed furtively in the corner. Instead we had this bread smeared with weird and expensive ingredients of tomato sauce and cheese.

It wasn’t then but later in the night when I felt I’d stepped across the language and the pressing differences in income to something like a friendship. It was 2 am and I was walking with John, some of the kitchen scrubs, and the girl who called herself Mandy. Mandy was taking us up to the lake where the tourists hung out. The streets of Beijing were endless, black and quiet. The construction workers from the provinces were sleeping on the sidewalks by their open pits, a few desperate red taxis tried to pick us up. We skipped stones in dust along the street. And then we were on the lake, and there were trees, lines of rickshaw drivers calling out to us in Chinese and English, and cafés and bars, cafés and bars that glittered along the shore. Those of us with money to spend were drinking laughing and glittering inside, and those of us without were looking inside from among the rows of darkened trees and listening to the water lap against the shore.


beijing, 1

Beijing was under construction when we arrived. From what I could make out, the screaming sounds that emerged from clouds of dust on the street were giant buzzsaws being lowered into the pavement, ripping open the city's skin.

The student who had befriended us on the train from Tainjin lived just minutes from our hostel, and offered to walk us there: an offer we were only too happy to accept. The walk from the subway station was a blinking shopping street of Adidas outlets, shoppers blithely stepped around the men who had turned the sidewalks into rubble pits, rooting around under the ground under massive headlamps like they'd lost something. Occasionally you'd walk down a path only to find it had been blocked off with temporary barriers, forcing you to retrace your steps for a few minutes. Robert and I blinked through all this, boots, backpacks and white skins touring through the jungle of Beijing sneaker boutiques.

The street unfolded like a cartoon illustration of a construction site, with clean young Chinese students sipping coffee in brightly lit lounges as scruffy construction workers dismantled scaffolding and swept the wood shavings off the newly tiled flooring, before moving on to finish the back door. It was an amazing parade of contrasts and forced myopia. Young Chinese shoppers coughed up laughter and stepped over broken looking men curled on the pavement. Construction pits would open in the sidewalk without warning: holes the size of pickup trucks where ropy little men in thin dirty jackets labored under high wattage projection lamps. The newly minted shopping class could barely stand to acknowledge the weary black bodies building their city for them, and the bodies had quickly learned to stop gawking at all the things around that they couldn’t have. Both sides had agreed to just put their heads down and get through this process as quickly as possible.

Hobbled by our ridiculous traveler’s backpacks Robert and I threaded through the mess as best we could, with the shoppers and the construction workers ignoring us as enthusiastically as they ignored each other. We followed the outline of Charlie’s bobbing melon-head, the student having volunteered to help us find our hostel. Our landmark for the hostel was the orange plastic sign of a Japanese fast food chain. Robert and I nervously fingered a map we had printed off of the hostel’s website, the letters and lines fuzzy and indistinct. After wandering back and forth for close to thirty minutes we found our turn: a black concrete box caged in a scaffolding of metal pipes and plastic bands, and empty except for tufts of wiring bursting from the ceiling. This was what remained of our landmark.

Charlie had a proprietary look on his face as he led us to the hostel entrance: a pair of red lanterns framing a wooden gate large enough to accommodate a bus. The three of us stood there awkwardly.

Umm, this is for your trouble I said, holding out a single yuan note. He stepped back with a twisted look on his face. Robert leaned in with twenty yuan and the smile returned. Bye-then!

That put Charlie twenty-yuan farther away from the men in the pits.