Sunday, December 21, 2008


A couple of days ago I found myself in the vicinity of Maizidian Road, home to a truly outstanding dumpling restaurant. It was midday. My only trouble was, I couldn't quite remember which way to turn on the Third Ring Road after emerging from the metro. So, I asked a passing woman for advice, and it turned out that she was headed for Maizidian as well.

At first we walked along in a kind of companionable silence. Then I asked her what she was doing in Maizidian. I thought she was probably going to meet a friend for lunch, or perhaps she was heading back to work after a morning out, or something like that, but she told me that she was going to visit her father in the hospital.

I didn't like to ask what the matter was, so I asked his age instead. The answer surprised me. I'd have thought my companion was some years older than me (and perhaps she was) but her father turned out to be nine years younger than mine.

She explained that they were from Inner Mongolia. I still didn't like to inquire too closely about her father, so instead I asked if she thought they would be able to get home for the new year. She said no, that seemed unlikely. "They still have to take the tumor out. It looks like it will be a while before he can stand up to surgery, and then after that -- you know."

Thinking perhaps I might take her mind off things for a minute, I told her, "You know, when most Americans hear the name 'Inner Mongolia,' it conjures up quite a romantic image."

She laughed. "Galloping horses."

"Yes, and grasslands, with the grass waving in the wind."

We parted at an intersection. I wanted to ask her to pass my greetings on to her father, but somehow I didn't get a chance. I suppose she must have gone straight into the hospital, probably up some stairs, past a nurses' station, into a ward. Or maybe she stopped and bought some flowers or a card.

Earlier that morning I had met a young man who volunteers at his local hospice, bringing medicine to terminally ill patients, sitting and chatting with them to raise their spirits. "I've learned that some people are unlucky," he said.

My dumplings were delicious: wood ear, forest mushroom and bamboo shoots in one kind, garlic chive in another. Not too far away, a daughter was sitting by her father's bedside. They won't be able to get home for the new year. I don't think I really have anything to say about that. I just wanted to mention it.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Tell Them Stories"

About a week ago I began introducing my seven-year-old students to a few Maori legends. We started with Te Ika A Maui ("The Fish of Maui"), in which the many-counselled trickster Maui fishes the North Island of New Zealand up out of the sea on his magical fishhook. Τhen I told them how Maui took fire from the toenail of the Fire Goddess Mahuika and imprisoned it in the kaikomako tree, where it lies ready to burst into flame whenever it is needed. Today I'll be telling them about how Chief Rata wanted to build a canoe but neglected to sacrifice to Tane, the God of the Forests, before cutting his timber.

I started on the Maori legends mainly because I wanted to take advantage of my students' fascination with New Zealand. (They've never been there, but they have heard about tuataras, and that's enough.) We must talk about something in our lessons, after all, and Maori legends are as good a conversation-starter as anything else.

But I did have other reasons for wanting to incorporate legends -- not just from the Maori tradition, but legends generally -- into our lessons. For one thing, I think my students ought to know what people who live in different places think, and what they have thought over the centuries. They ought to begin to see patterns, or at least be offered a chance to see them. They ought to see that nearly everyone has a flood myth, for example, and that we all take warning from the arrogance or imprudence of our heroes, and that most "just-so" explanations are far stranger and more convoluted than they need to be.

This is partly because they live in the world and should know something of what it is, and what it has been. We have it on good authority that there is one fairly simple way to placate the harpies who guard the gates at the Camp of the Dead, and that is to tell them stories. The idea (as I understand it) is that stories stand proof of the life that generates them, and a soul that has lived deserves free passage through the Camp of the Dead and into the sparkling, particulate cosmos that lies beyond it.

But it is also because knowing these things will help them know other things. Stories represent not just a kind of learning, but a way of learning. If a lifelong accumulation of stories is the hallmark of our respect for what John Updike calls "the marvel of being alive" -- evidence to show the harpies that we have not wasted our days -- it is also a mechanism of that respect. We learn stories as we learn language, because stories are language. They tap a primeval convergence of all knowledge and experience, a time when all learning was magical to one degree or another, and might be fittingly be called "gramarye" -- a time when, as Updike puts it, "history was geography and giants engendered races."

When my students first heard about Maui, they thought of the Hawai'ian island that shares his name, where their parents had taken them for a vacation the year before. Now they know of a person called Maui, and a place called Maui, and great fish that is both the name of a place and the story behind that name. As their understanding of the world becomes more richly textured, they develop a multivalent sense of language. They begin to net words together, names and stories and allusions that ricochet from pole to pole.

A few days ago, thinking to take a break from the Maori stories for a bit, I showed them a map of the world and pointed first to New Zealand and then to the British Isles.

“Look down here,” I said. “Here is the North Island of New Zealand, where the tuataras live and which Maui fished up out of the sea. Now look up here. This is Britain, the countries of England and Scotland and Wales, and now I will tell you a story about a boy named Arthur Pendragon and the sword he pulled from a stone.”

You would think that they’d balk a little at the old-fashioned lexicon. I mean, come on, they’re seven. They’re also still pretty much beginners at English. Advanced beginners at this point, but still not even close to proficient. But by the time I got to Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil is rightwise King born of all England, they were hanging on every word.

And, of course, they now have a new island to place amidst the others in their interior landscapes – Avalon, the island of the apple trees, ringed about with moonlight at the back of the North Wind. Since it has the same compass bearing as Tir Na Nog, the Irish Isles of the Blessed, I reckon they will have to be our next stop.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Du Temps Perdu

The shop around the corner has finally gotten its act together and started selling date biscuits. They have a crumbly exterior, something like shortbread, and a paste filling made of Chinese jujubes and crushed walnuts. I fell in love with them the last time I was in Beijing, when I came here right after college.

Actually, back then they were not quite my favorite kind of Beijing sweet. My very favorites were little pastry shells filled with rose-flavored sugar. They were so evocative of their Central Asian origin that, biting into one, you could practically hear the bells jingling on the camels' harnesses as they humped along the Silk Road, tramping over grassland and desert, plodding across wind-riven ridges and picking their way through stony valleys haunted by lizards and tumbleweed. They were most inspiriting. "How very wide the world is, and I am at large in it." That was how they made one feel.

But the more pedestrian date biscuits were almost as good in their way, and much more readily available. They were to my first sojourn in Beijing what Carr's Digestives were to my years at boarding school: they both marked and epitomized my days here with the placidity of a sundial.

I'd been trying to find them ever since I arrived back in Beijing a couple of months ago. Then a few days ago I finally saw them in the bakery section of the local grocery store, so I bought some and ate them dipped in tea. They were even better than I remembered.

But that was all. They didn't bring the past back to me. As I ate them, I didn't really think about my earlier year in Beijing at all. I just thought, "Boy, these are good."

Well, Nature may imitate Art now and again, but I guess she can hardly be expected to do so on command. Besides, it is surely a good thing to be able to enjoy date biscuits in such absolute terms, to be able to take them as such a thoroughly present pleasure that one feels no particular reliance on whatever history one might happen to share with them.

Still, the incident left me feeling puzzled and a little uneasy. I've always thought of myself as practically defined by a powerfully nostalgic bent. My "senior quote" in my high school yearbook , taken from Book II of Vergil's Aeneid, reflected this view:

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

Perhaps hereafter even this will be a pleasure to recall.

Of course, it's a common enough reference for graduating seniors, and, with its wry applicability to the travails of school life, its general appeal is easy to understand. But I meant it seriously. Even at seventeen, I had already had plenty of experience with an apparently unbounded capacity for affectionate regret, which was usually directed indiscriminately towards whatever lay behind me. More significantly, my understanding of both the past and the present often seemed to be principally delineated by that feeling, and by its attendant sense of irretrievable loss.

The years since then have introduced me to many variations on this sensation. Life in one place has repeatedly given way to life in another; with each transplantation I am little more laden with retrospection. Last week my students asked me what my favorite word in Greek was (we were doing Favorite Words as a conversation starter) and I found myself replying, without hesitation, "εντροπαλιζομενη," as Homer says of Andromache, who "turns and turns again" as she leaves her husband on the walls of Troy.

I don't quite know when my periodic visits to the Harvard campus began to leave me feeling rootless and dispossessed, but it happened fairly soon after graduation, certainly while I was young enough and connected enough feel that I still belonged there, had I been able to find my way to that point of view.

Yesterday I went to a conference at Beijing Normal University, where I taught English right after college. I wondered if the visit would produce the same forsaken feeling that I had come to expect from my trips to Harvard. In a way it did, but what I really felt was just rather numb and dreamlike.

This detached feeling was itself a little frightening. The vague sense of disorientation associated with the date biscuits and their failure to evoke my first year in Beijing quickly crystallized into a specific concern. I found myself wondering whether, without being aware, I had begun to protect myself so thoroughly against memory's incursions as to become a kind of fortress.

I thought these things as I found the conference hall and settled into my place. But then something rather unexpected happened. One of the other participants came over to me and asked me if I were on the foreign languages faculty at BNU. "Didn't you come here right after graduating from college?" he asked. "I remember you. I was in your class. You've hardly changed at all."

Once I had got over my initial flutter of pleased surprise, something else captured my attention. My former student told me that he was now a professor of history at a university in Shandong province and asked if I had been all this time at BNU. Well, he has only made a few trips back to campus since graduating; I suppose for all he knew I could have been a fixture here for the last dozen years.

I think one reason returning to an old school can be so fraught with emotion is that schools seem so unchanging. Some faculty do come and go, of course, but many of them stay for whole lifetimes -- or whole careers, anyway. We are the ones who change.

It gave me quite a start, thinking that I might have assumed the character of an institution -- temporarily, at any rate -- for this professor from Shandong. I found myself spending a long moment wondering how he felt about coming back to BNU.

I felt a little sad on the bus ride home, but not as sad as I might have felt, and not as numb as I had been feeling. I had spent a little time thinking of someone else, and of course that is almost always the answer.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

"The Tongues of Men and Angels"

A couple of weeks ago I started tacking a Latin phrase, proverb or quotation on to the end of each English lesson. We began with ad astra per aspera, which went over very well indeed; China's maiden spacewalk is still a reasonably recent memory even by a third-grader's reckoning. The next day we did omnia vincit amor. Then we did mirabile dictu and the next day its cousin mirabile visu. We've done Deo volente, my old high school's motto "non sibi" and ab ovo usque mala. In honor of the US general election, we did e pluribus unum and vox populi, vox Dei. Then, in honor of the holiday mood attending the results of the election, we did nunc est bibendum.

Now they want me to teach them Greek.

I just don't get it. For the most part, they have not, in the two months that I have been teaching them, shown the slightest interest in language for its own sake. They learn English because it is their parents' wish that they should. When they work hard at it (which is rare, not that I blame them for this -- they are seven years old and already overworked) it has always seemed to be because they wish to do well, not because they have any real love for what they are learning.

So here I am scratching my head. What is it about Latin that captures their enthusiasm? How did I happen to stumble on to something that works?

Because it really was a stumble. I'd planned to introduce my students to Latin because I thought that the almost mathematical symmetry of its grammatical structure would seem friendly and familiar to them. (I mean, hey, this is China. I haven't seen their syllabus for this year but as they're in the third grade I assume they're doing calculus.) I also thought that learning Latin would help them with the some of the rough patches native Chinese speakers often experience learning English at a more advanced level. In particular, I thought they would benefit from an extra perspective on the use of the subjunctive mood, especially in conditional expressions, which many Chinese students of English never really master.

The thing is, my students can't even begin to cope with conceptual grammar. Not in Chinese, not in English, and certainly not in Latin. (I mean, come on. What was I thinking? They're seven. Even if they are doing calculus in math class, their native language is practically grammar-free.) Occasionally they are able to differentiate between nouns and verbs. They can also sometimes spot subjects, but not predicates. That's about it. Objects, whether direct or indirect, might as well be written in Welsh.

When I discovered this I pretty much gave up on the idea of teaching them Latin. I'm not qualified to teach them through immersion, even if I agreed with that approach (it seems to be increasingly popular, and I don't disapprove of it, exactly -- I don't know enough about it to judge -- but I am not sure I want to hop on board either), and so since an abstract, grammar-based approach appreared to be off the table as well, I just shelved the whole project.

I came up with the "phrase, proverb or quotation" approach when I saw my students being drilled in a list of chengyu 成语, or four-character fixed expressions, which they had memorized for their Chinese class at school. Chengyu are a special characteristic of the Chinese language: there are hundreds and hundreds of them and it is impossible to speak or write really good, literate Chinese without them. It is not that the Chinese expressive tradition does not value originality, but its originality operates within a framework of highly articulated convention. Thus it is said of the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu -- widely regarded as the greatest poet in Chinese history -- that every line of his poems has its roots in antiquity; his corpus is one vast network of cultural, historical and literary allusion.

Perhaps because chengyu represent a substantial difference between Chinese and English models of self-expression, many English speakers underestimate their importance and most Chinese language programs tend to neglect them. Oddly enough, until I saw my students practicing their homework, it had never really occurred to me that Chinese children didn't just come by them naturally.

Anyway, that's how I came up with the Latin proverb project. I wasn't surprised when ad astra per aspera was such a hit, since it was so topical, and I figued omnnia vincit amor would produce a few giggles. I also reckoned to succeed with both mirabiles, since they are exclamatory: apostrophe and all its rhetorical ilk seem to be very popular with seven-year-olds. ("Oh, my God!" was evidently one of the first English expressions they acquired -- they were certainly using it freely by the time I arrived on the scene -- and they were very pleased to add "Wow" and "Whoa" and "Gosh" to their repertoire later on.) But I had kind of expected them to start losing interest after that. Nope. Now they want Greek.

They also want to write a letter to President-Elect Obama, congratulating him on his landslide victory and expressing their best wishes for his success in office. If I am not mistaken, they are also hoping to throw in "dum spiro, spero" -- a friendly nod between fellow linguists, half a world apart.

That being the case, I guess tomorrow we'd better do ex animo.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Anglers and Honest Men"

Gentle Anglers --

Flyingfish is pleased to report that she is back to skimming the surf after a few weeks running deep and quiet.

I'd like to be able to say that I was busy with something particularly exciting or worthwhile during these last few weeks, but, though I did meet with some excitement of a modest sort down on the ocean floor -- auditing a lecture on World Literature at Peking University, for example, and finally finding out what wildherb dumplings taste like after over a decade of unsatisfied curiosity -- the main reason for the protracted silence was nothing more than writer's block.

Here's the way I look at it, though. We are given to understand that writer's block from the desk of Ted Sorensen once saved the entire planet from total annihilation. I don't mean to suggest that my writer's block has anything like that much going for it, but at least while I've not been running my computer I've been saving electricity. And that, in the shadow of the local cooling towers, seems rather worthwhile after all.

It seemed particularly worthwhile a couple of days ago, when I paid a visit to the Purple Bamboo Garden. While I was there, I met a pair of young women who turned out to be quite knowledgeable tea-fanciers. They were seated on a balustrade in a hillside pavilion overlooking a lake. They were enjoying some tea, and when I came to explore the pavilion they very civilly offered me a cup. As we discussed its flavor and aroma, one of the young women remarked that the water was rather hard and slightly brackish. This led to a rehearsal of the various sorts of water used in making the best tea: water from rivers, from lakes, from wells and springs, and, best of all, water swept as snow from the branches of the winter-flowering plum. This last was my contribution to the discussion, recollected from a favorite passage in Cao Xueqin's famous novel The Dream of the Red Chamber:

黛玉因問: "這也是舊年的雨水?" 妙玉冷笑道:「你這麼個人,竟是大俗人,連水也嘗不出來。這是五年前我在玄墓蟠香寺住著收的梅花上的雪,共得了那一鬼臉青的花瓮一瓮,總捨不得吃,埋在地下,今年夏天才開了。我只吃過一回,這是第二回了。你怎麼嘗不出來﹖隔年蠲的雨水那有這樣輕浮,如何吃得。」

Dai-yu asked, "Is this last year's rain-water as well?" Miao-yu gave a withering smile. "Can you really be so vulgar? Fancy not even being able to taste the difference in the water! This comes from snow I swept from the branches of a winter-flowering plum tree when I was living at the Coiled Incense Temple on Darkbarrow Mountain five years ago. I stored it in that demon-green jar and, as I couldn't bring myself to use it, buried it in the earth and didn't open it till last summer. I have only drunk it once before; this is the second time. You really can't taste the difference? Whenever did last year's stored rainwater have this sort of lightness and effervescence!"

(Gentle Anglers will please note that I owe my translation of 鬼臉青 as "demon-green" to the late David Hawkes. I do not have his remarkable translation Cao Xueqin's novel before me, but, if memory serves, that was the way he rendered it. As I felt his choice could not be bettered, here it is before you.)

My companions in Purple Bamboo Garden agreed with me that tea made with swept snow is indeed the height of refinement -- or rather, the idea of it seems to be the height of refinement, for, as one of them pointed out, such pure tastes are beyond us now. Our water is polluted. It is dirty even as it patters down from the sky; it is dirty, even when it settles in white, crystalline flakes on the branches of the winter-flowering plum.

As I left the park and caught the number 534 bus home, I thought about how often I had encountered the idea of a life close to nature presented as a literary aesthetic, and how often this aesthetic had been linked with the ancient world. I suppose this is partly because, years ago, I wrote an undergraduate thesis about the description of trees in a selection of antique poetic traditions, and a central element in this thesis was a discussion of the various ways in which the relationship between nature and culture emerged in those traditions.

And, no doubt, it is partly because I am attracted by the aesthetic itself. Of course this is scarcely surprising, since more or less everyone from Vergil to Tao Yuanming to William Bulter Yeats has professed himself terribly keen to cast off the madding crowd and get down to planting some beans. I don't mean to say that I plan to go in for the material culture associated with this aesthetic. The realities of the rural life are probably not for me. I can't stoop and I can't be in the sun, so gardening is pretty much off the table in any case. But the poems are nice. I've always liked them, especially when hungry (that is when it is particularly pleasant to read about vegetable gardens), and I suppose I always will.

That my frame of reference is largely confined to the ancient world does not mean, of course, that I suppose this aesthetic to be missing from the modern world. Quite the contrary. Just last Saturday I was invited to hear a lecture on eco-poetry at Peking University's Institute of World Literature. I wasn't able to go, but, even without having heard the lecture, I know for sure that one particular difference between the aesthetics of then and now would have emerged. The literary value of a life lived close to nature used to lie in its simplicity, its deliberate rejection of ambition and strife. The personal refinement associated with choosing such a life was based partly on an ideal of finely-tuned sensibilities and a keen awareness of pure beauty. But now the natural world has become problematic -- not just in real terms, but as an aesthetic. A keen awareness of beauty has been supplanted -- or at least supplemented -- by a keen awareness of fragility. Whether or not a "nature" poem is about the earth that crumbles away beneath the poet's feet, the crumbling earth is its inescapable context.

As I thought these things, I was reminded -- not for the first time -- of E.B. White's remarks on a related subject in his essay Sootfall and Fallout:

These nuclear springtimes have a pervasive sadness about them . . . The rich brown patch of ground used to bring delight to the eye and mind at this fresh season of promise. For me, the season has been spoiled by the maggots that work in the mind. Tomorrow we will have rain, and the rain falling on the garden will carry its cargo of debris from old explosions in distant places. Whether the amount of this freight is great or small, and whether it is measurable by the farmer or can only be guessed at, one thing is certain: the character of rain has changed, the joy of watching it soak the waiting earth has been diminished, and the whole meaning and worth of gardens has been brought into question.

When I think of this passage, I always find myself picturing President Kennedy standing by the window in the Oval Office, watching the poisoned rain slanting down outside and soaking the White House lawn. I don't know where I saw this picture. Perhaps it was at the Kennedy Library. Or perhaps I just imagined it after reading a description or hearing an interview.

It is not possible to reach either Mr. White or President Kennedy now, or I would try to offer them some words of comfort. What I have to say is not much, but sometimes a little is enough.

On Saturday (when I failed to attend the lecture on eco-poetry) I taught a lesson on modes of transportation. It was rather heavy going after a bit, so, to keep the conversation rolling, I asked my students what they thought the vehicles of the future would look like. Well, that got plenty of action. Apparently there will be lots of electric cars and hybrids, cars that run on solar power, other (new word) "eco-friendly" cars, and -- the piece de resistence -- a solar-powered robotic flying unicorn. When I asked the student who made this last contribution "Why a unicorn?" she responded, "It's aerodynamic." (Not that she knew the word either in English or in Chinese -- hey, she's seven -- or even paid attention to the word when I taught it to her, but she's sure thinking about the concept. As well she ought: she plans to be an inventor.)

Both Mr. White and President Kennedy spoke of the blight our activities would one day bring down on "generations yet unborn." Earlier in Sootfall and Fallout, Mr. White remarked that the Cold War was being fought with the lives of future generations, rather than with those of living, existing young men. It is a ghastly thought. I don't deny the truth of it, but I offer this observation: perhaps those future generations are up for the fight.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

"The Sport of Truly Chastened Things"

Last weekend I joined the Beijing Hikers on an excursion through some of the hills that that lie just outside the edges of the city. It was wonderful weather for a ramble, with a skyful of grey, woolly clouds puntuated by the occasional shower of fine rain.

The instructions on the website said we should bring something to eat for lunch. I like taking curried dal on picnics, so I prepared a great heap -- fiery hot and hauntingly sour --and bought some steamed rolls made of a stiff cornmeal mixture (just the thing to take on a hiking trip, as you have to be famished to find them at all attractive). The preparations took a long time, but I was sure it would all pay off in the end, once I was halfway up a mountain and needed feeding.

Well, all I can say is, I'm never taking curry on a hike again. It is delicious but spilly. Next time I'm taking something self-contained, something you can eat standing up. Some kind of filled bun or pancake, for example.

When meeting for one of their weekend excursions, the Beijing Hikers set off from the Starbucks cafe on the first floor of the Lido Holiday Inn. I was afraid of arriving late (transportation in Beijing can be surprisingly time-consuming) so I got up at five and took a taxi and arrived at the cafe with a good hour and a half to spare.

Well, it was a nice breakfast. Normandy need not worry about its laurels, but even an indifferent croissant makes a pleasant change from rice and mung-bean porridge.

While I was sitting in the nearly empty Starbucks cafe waiting for the other hikers to appear, I noticed that the background music was not the sort of canned, featureless stuff I had expected. It was Frank Sinatra singing Cole Porter. "What Is This Thing Called Love?" to be exact. The really funny thing is, although I recognized the song right away, I wasn't entirely sure it was Frank Sinatra doing the singing. Since it has always seemed to me that the Mozart rule (if you think it's Mozart but you're not sure, then it's Haydn) can be adapted to apply to old blue-eyes as well, I sat there for a good long while trying to work out how to "tell the dancer from the dance." Then old Frankie dropped into one of his quiet and beguiling first-cold-pressed-extra-extra-virgin lower registers. Of course after that there was nothing more to be said.

It was a pleasant feeling, sitting in a cafe with the rain misting down, listening to the echoes of another America. Not the one in the news, but the other one. The one my mother's older sisters grew up in. The one everyone fell in love with, all over the world. The one people loved even more than France, perhaps, or at least differently from France. That America.

Just who can solve
its mystery?
Why does it make
a fool of me?

You might think it would just be heart-wrenching -- that it would be impossible to avoid crushing comparisons between then and now -- but actually, as I say, it was a pleasant feeling. I suppose I just didn't do any comparing, or even any thinking. I just sat and listened. Well, it was early and I was kind of dozy.

The hike itself presented me with a curious mix of experiences. The hills were small but spectacular, with great jutting chins of red-grey rock above narrow, viney gorges. Some of the hillsides were wooded in a mixture of pine and deciduous forest, both old growth and new. Others were covered in long, tough grasses of the kind one finds near the bluffs at Point Reyes. There were small purple flowers of the aster kind, with upturned faces on long slender stems. There were tangles of white daisies and a bushy yellow thing like a sort of wild phlox. From various eminences and promontories we could see the hills around us pooled in mist -- a wonderful sight.

It was gaining the eminences that was the problem. The climbs were long and steep. Though the hike was described as "reasonably easy," it seemed to me just at the near side of impossible. I climbed and climbed, soaking in sweat and dizzy as a whelk. It was hard to imagine the sturdy little mountain goat I used to be, twenty-odd years ago and half a world away!

No one else seemed to find the hike difficult. I was the last to round each curve and the last to gain each hilltop. Everyone had to wait for me. Even the guide, who was supposed to bring up the rear, went on ahead.

After a while, this experience produced some bitter reflections. They grew and swelled and welled up. I thought of how well acquainted with loss I had become over the last fifteen years. Too well acquainted, I think, for someone my age. The losses rounded themselves up into a kind of tally -- so much strength and health, so many years of youth.

I also thought of how familiar this kind of experience had become, the sense that what I was trying to do was too hard for me. Too hard for me, but not too hard for the people around me.

These reflections reminded me of the time a former classmate telephoned to tell me of her plans to spend a few months serving as an attending physician in a Nepali hospital. She said that she wished I were coming too. When we were in high school, we often spoke of hiking in the Himalayas together one day. After we hung up, I cried for many hours. Then I wrote a poem, which I called Admonition.

(To an old schoolfellow departing for the mountains of the East, there to practice her profession and indulge her taste for the far away.)

You do not owe me this, but still I charge you:

In the name of common cause
between all fellows,
kith of every kind

— yoke-mated in formation,
axle-paired, aligned in step,

or scattered as the Pleiades,
flung piecemeal, cast haphazard —

think of me.

Ringed azure
by the mountain sky,

do this:

watch the sundial;
let it tell a quarter-circuit;
while you wait, reflect;

think of my days.

You will be far from me.
your mind’s eye should
fetch forth a picture:

no sundials where I am;
there never will be.
No ridge, no blaze of blue,
no crack of rock.
No slow sigh of moss
beneath a lizard’s
winking patter-weight.
None of these things.

Healing is your business.

But, while you watch the sundial,
do this:

think humbly on wounds.

Think on loss and ravages.
Think on what is gone.

For a quarter-circuit,
think of me.

Then, when the wheel of things has called you home,
look at me.

Pale gold with upland air,

come to me and look me in the face.

I thought of this poem, and of the circumstances that had occasioned it, while I scrambled down the last slope. I was alone. The other hikers were still far ahead of me.

At the bottom of the last hill the other hikers had gathered around a small beck with a bridge of stepping stones. There was a praying mantis on one of the stones and they had stopped to admire him and to meet a local farmer. The farmer gave me a squash. Just me, nobody else. It was a very attractive little squash, shapely, pale green and remarkably weighty for its size.

I don't know if it was the squash, or the tea we had at a farmhouse-turned-restaurant just over the beck, or what, but, long before we had climbed into the bus that would take us back to Beijing, I felt something loosen inside.

At that time, I thought of the signature couplet in James Taylor's "Shed a Little Light:"

There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist;

There is a hunger in the center of the chest.

This was the opposite feeling. Opening, loosening, warming, easing. One of the other hikers was cold and I lent her my mittens. As we rode in the bus back to the city, I thought of all the people I have known over the years who would not even be able to think of climbing any hills at all -- people for whom doing what I had just done, even with as much difficulty as I had done it, would be quite as out of the question as hiking in the Himalayas is for me.

It's not that these are new ideas for me. I often think, as many of us do, of those who are less fortunate than I am. But usually, when I think of them, it is with pity, and pain, and guilt. This time, the feeling was quite different. I don't quite know what to make of it myself, but I am pretty sure some people would say it was love.

This leads me to another reflection. Though I do not doubt the squash and the praying mantis helped, I think it was the hiking that really caused me to open, and loosen, and warm. Isn't it written:

I will lift mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Basic Common Link"

What is more agreeable than the discovery, in a strange land, that the means of supplying all one's essential wants lie ready to hand -- if not in a familiar guise, then in a style that is only the more pleasing because of its unaccustomed character? In particular, what is more likely to give rise to the reflection, "What a good place the world is!" than a little foreign trafficking in nice things to eat?

I think Dorothy Dunnett understood this. In the historical imagination she unfolds for us, it is traders who make "the whole world to hang in the air." Though she does not exactly identify it as the best end of the best men, commerce does seem to provide fuel for that which is best and most constant in the best and most constant among us -- that is, the instinctive and persistent search for truth, as a compass searches out the pole. Of course, truth takes various forms, but, as Dunnett remarks, "God hath eighteen thousand worlds," each turning on its own "bright axle-tree."

And one of these, certainly -- perhaps more than one -- is made up of the fellowship found in common wants. It is essentially a fellowship born in a great metaphysical mess-hall, where we inspect one another's rations amid the steam and cabbage-smells, and where we gather together to be filled and made easy.

Thus Dunnett summons a malediction based precisely on the annihilation of this fellowship:

Je prie a Dieu, le roi de Paradis
que mendiant, votre pain alliez querre
seul, inconnu, et en etrange terre
non entendu par signes ni par dits.

I pray to God, the King of Paradise,
That you should be a beggar, seeking for your bread
Alone, unknown, in an unfamiliar land,
Not understood; not by speech, not by signs.

(My translation; apologies to those of my readers who actually, you know, speak French.)

Anyway, I found myself particularly susceptible to this sort of material comfort when I ran across it yesterday. It happened like this.

As my students have a break from lessons for the national holiday, I had planned to spend a good part of the day visiting the Summer Palace. The slanting autumn light on Kunming lake with its fringe of yellowing willows, the groves of massive cypress and the long, interlocking galleries painted in a happy mixed aesthetic -- chalky Indian pinks and yellows and the deep, clear crimsons and forest greens that would be at home as far east as Japan -- are all among my most cherished recollections from my last sojourn in Beijing, more than ten years ago.

But when I woke up yesterday I was conscious of a familiar sort of uneasiness and disorientation, and these vague symptoms soon gave way to nausea, stumbling and miserable chills (I put on two layers of wool and one of silk and I still felt them, though the weather here is warm for the beginning of October), so I was obliged to postpone my sightseeing and return to bed. When I woke up a few hours later I felt considerably better -- enough better, anyway, to think that a pancake would do me some good. So I went out in search of one.

I hoped the nearby supermarket to be open, but didn't really expect anything of the kind (it was a national holiday, after all). But it was open. I bought a fennel bun and a cabbage pancake, seaweed salad and steamed peasant rolls for dinner. Also some bottled peach juice, which was undoubtedly loaded with sugar but tasted delicious and was a very pretty pink. Also some scallions, slender as stalks of sourgrass, some cilantro, three limes, a sack of green bell peppers, a knob of ginger, some ready-made curry powder, some ground cumin and some ground red pepper.

Then I went home and ate the bun and pancake and a good bit of the seaweed. Also some of the peach juice.

While I was walking home, I was quite laden with things, and some of my layers of clothing began to feel thick and hot. Nonetheless, I felt quite buoyed up, as if my purchases had actually lightened me in some way. And, in fact, I think perhaps they had.

I think part of what made these purchases so heartening was that they did not consist entirely of ready-made foods, but also included ingredients that I would use in my own preparations. Still more to the point, I was planning to use them not to prepare a meal that would conform to the local style, but a dish of my own design, a vaguely Indian curry, which I like to have with hot buttered toast and strong tea, either as a sustaining breakfast or a comforting sort of high tea or supper.

For curious readers, here is how you make it:

Boil some lentils until they are just done. Drain them, reserving a little of the water. Then stir-fry some chopped onion, minced fresh ginger and, if you like, a little garlic, in either flavorless vegetable oil or clarified butter. Add a dry masala prepared to your own taste. I generally use a combination of cumin, coriander, cayenne sometimes turmeric and sometimes black mustard, or just a good prepared curry powder, such as the kind sold by Dean & DeLuca. Even when I use a prepared curry power I always add quite a bit of cayenne, as I like my curry very hot. Stir the masala into the onion mixture. Also add some salt -- pure sea salt or kosher salt is best. Then add some chopped vegetables, such as peppers (sweet, hot or both) and celery. Cooked cauliflower is good here, if you have some left over. Cook all these vegetables till they are nearly done, then add the lentils, water and the juice of a lime. If you have some cubes of paneer, they make a very good addition to this dish. Serve hot, topped with a heap of chopped cilantro.

This dish goes very well with crisp toast, English muffins or crumpets. Sometimes I have it with milky tea, sometimes I have the tea straight up. Sometimes I add sugar to the tea, sometimes not. It's always good.

In my Beijing version of this dish, I think I will have to substitute mung beans for the lentils at least some of the time. Mung beans are readily available, but I may have a bit of a job finding lentils.

Well, anyway, I didn't get to prepare my curry right away. After I returned home and ate my bun and pancake and seaweed I was so tired that I just went back to sleep for the rest of the day and well into the evening.

But perhaps tomorrow I will have a chance to make the curry. I am planning to join the Beijing Hikers club on a little ramble outside the city on Saturday, and it strikes me that this curry might be just the thing to bring along as a packed lunch. It is very sustaining, even without hot tea. (Of course, I might be able to bring the tea in a flask.)

While I was lumbering home with my satchel of nice things, a memory struck me. The event to which the memory referred had occurred only a week before, but somehow I hadn't quite paid attention when it happened. Last week, while I was out hailing a cab, a man with a wife and child in tow drove to the side of the road. The man got out of the car, walked up to me and asked me for directions.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Same Election As Everybody Else

I'm looking to make some international phone calls tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning Beijing time, that is, which should translate to this evening Central Daylight Time -- more specifically, this evening in the states of Ohio and Michigan.

It started with some email from As grassroots Get Out The Vote initiatives across the country shift into high gear, the folks at MoveOn are asking members to call potential volunteers in swing states and rally them around the flag. It's worked before (midterms '06) and I sure hope it will work this time.

When I first opened the mail, I thought to myself, "I'd have liked to do this; too bad I'm out here in Beijing. I love being here, but I sure wish I could be more involved in this election. Kind of makes me feel left out, being stuck here away from the action." Then I started thinking about what I could say if I did call. I mean, I know MoveOn gives you a script -- I've used it before, and it's pretty good -- but I figure I might be able to come up with something a little more tailored to my particular circumstances.

The conversation I ended up imagining features an antagonist rather than a fellow liberal, but even when you call the MoveOn demographic you occasionally run across the odd Republican, so there's a decent chance I'll get to use it:

Me: Hi there! My name is Flyingfish. I'm a member of and I'm calling you all the way from Beijing, China.

Swing State Resident: You're calling me from Beijing?

Me: Yep, that's right. I'm calling because I'm seriously concerned about the direction our country is taking, and I want to know if Senator Barack Obama can count on your help to win the Presidential election this November.

Swing State Resident: You're calling FROM BEIJING? To find out how I'm going to vote?

Me: Yes. And I'm calling because Barack Obama doesn't just need your vote, he needs the votes of all the people you talk to, all the residents of the great state of [insert name of state stupid enough to consider the McCain-Palin ticket as anything other than an obscene joke] who can swing [repeat state name] for Obama this November.

Swing State Resident: You're calling from BEIJING to tell me all this? Must be pretty expensive. You one of those rich liberal types from, I don't know, Massachusetts or somewhere like that?

Me: Yeah, well, never mind where I'm from originally. I'm CALLING from Beijing. And let me tell you, if this call WERE expensive, it would be worth every penny if it meant we could prevent John McCain from continuing the Bush Administration's policies, which aren't just expensive; they're drowning our entire country in red ink. They make Katrina look like a day at the beach. And John McCain just doesn't get it. I mean, this is the guy who recently described "the fundamentals' of our economy as "strong." In the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Maybe the worst financial crisis EVER? He says the fundamentals of our economy are STRONG?

Well, maybe we should give him a break. He is 72, after all. Maybe he was dizzy from trying to count his houses. Or his foreign-made cars. He might not really have meant "strong." He might have been trying to say "strange." Or maybe "staying," as in "staying right in the toilet where the Bush Administration dumped them five years ago when he pitched us into this disastrous war which has accomplished nothing constructive, cost trillions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of lives, acted as a great recruiting tool for Islamic extremism across the globe, lost us the goodwill of pretty much every nation on earth, and which I have consistently supported."

But, actually, no, this call isn't expensive. I'm using software that you can download over the internet for free. This call is costing me just a few pennies a minute.

Everyone here in Beijing uses this software. It's all the rage. It brings the whole world closer together than ever before. I can talk to my family every day if I want to.

And I love talking to my family. I've got family values like John McCain's got lobbyists. I've got family values like Sarah Palin's got the pelts of Alaskan wolves slaughtered by bounty hunters from helicopters and low-flying airplanes.

But I have to admit, when I first got MoveOn's email asking me to call you, it did take me a minute and a half before I realized that I could do it through the internet. Yeah, I know, call me a 20th century mind in a 21st century world. It took me a minute and 30 seconds to cotton on.

But hey, I'm not running for president.

I know I may need to adapt this script a bit. Can't expect everyone I call to say his lines on cue. But I figure if I make enough calls, I'll get to say most parts of my script at least once. And I plan on making a lot of calls.

As the fellow says, "Pennsylvania. Michigan. Ohio. That's an election."

By George

In the weeks leading up to my departure for Beijing, I often used to indulge myself in a kind of daydreaming about what it would be like -- the city, the food, the people, the teaching. I pictured a lot of different scenarios, especially concerning the teaching, and I'd often find myself playing them out in my head, like short film clips. I pictured reading with the children, introducing them to a few of my own early childhood favorites -- Charlotte's Web, for example, or Down, Down the Mountain -- and teaching them the songs and poems I loved when I was small. I guess all that's pretty understandable.

What is less understandable -- in fact, it's pretty seriously obtuse when you come to think of it -- is that it never once occurred to me that I would spend any time discussing the prevailing meteorological conditions on the Iberian peninsula.

I refer, of course, to words involving the long "a" sound, such as "wait," "afraid," "table," "danger" and "weigh." And, of course, "rain," "Spain," "stay," "mainly" and "plain."

What began as an exercise in spelling ('sort these words into groups spelled with ai, a, ay, ey and eigh") evolved into an exercise in pronounciation, as I found that when the students spoke the words aloud the "a" sound was so corrupted as to make the words themselves essentially unintelligible.

Well, as I coaxed one of my students towards the long "a" in "rain," something funny happened. Somewhere during the process, she just spontaneously started to practice a vowel continuum, beginning with a sound just longer than "ah" and moving towards, but stopping short of "ee." I don't know where she picked it up; I certainly had not taught it to her.

She sounded uncannily like the phonograph recording in Professor Higgins's studio.

Well, after that, you could almost say I had no choice. Nature had clearly decided to imitate Art -- who was I to gainsay it? I wrote it up on the blackboard for everyone to practice:

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.

The hardest part was trying not to laugh. Children are such mimics. In fact, these particular children have far from exceptional ears, and I won't be taking anyone to Ascot anytime soon, but, on the whole, I'd say they got it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Not So Deep as a Well"

I had some more really good pancakes yesterday. I was told they were called 春饼 chun bing , "springcakes," evidently because they are customary fare in the springtime -- I suppose during the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, though I forgot to ask for clarification on this point. Perhaps they might best be described as something like the 木须 mu xu (often spelled moo shu) dishes that have long been popular on Chinese menus in the West. With this difference: where a mu xu dish consists of a pancake, some plum or duck sauce and a filling prepared according to certain fixed criteria (by definition, mu xu dishes contain scambled egg; most of them contain cloud ears and tiger lily buds as well), spingcakes may involve any number of fillings.

At our particular board, we had scrambled eggs with garlic chives. Since garlic chives turn a very pretty emerald color when cooked, they made a pleasing background for the bright yellow eggs, like a deep green swale thick with yellow flags or daffodils. We also had garlic stems with bits of pork, and pale-skinned cucumber shredded as fine as grass. Also shredded pork with pickled cabbage, and minced pork with tricolor peppers, and another dish whose acquaintance escaped me, but who appeared, from its general dress and demeanor, to be of the spinach kind.

The pancake wrappings themselves were only marginally less spectacular than the ones I had at the Moon Festival a few weeks ago, but it was the filling that went to my heart. Though I heard one or two complaints round the table that the fillings were a bit too salty, I can't say I agreed. They were certainly salty enough, but then, salt seemed just the right character for the sort of pancakes one might have by the sea.

And the seaside is where I was, in the faded old city of Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall of China abuts the Pacific Ocean. I was visting a new friend, the wife of a classmate of mine from Princeton. My friend was staying for a time with her mother while she recovered from a serious and protracted bout of illness. Since I am pretty familiar with that scenario myself (she and I suffer from the same disease, though I have been lucky enough to escape its severest manifestations), there was, I suppose, a certain "transport of cordiality" ready-made between us.

But in addition to this somber bond, my friend offered a much happier attraction in her two-year-old daughter. Anyone who's ever had a two-year-old, or been a two-year-old, can pretty much imagine the rest. A couple of measuring cups, some grains of rice and millet, and you have yourself a festival of Pouring. Throw in a few toy spoons and you can get some serious Stirring action going as well. I have never been much engaged by the imperfect articulation that is so generally characteristic of the toddling stage, but even I was completely enchanted by this little muffin's soft, croodling commentary on her Pouring and Stirring activities.

But then a toy spatula was mislaid, and the tears began. I can hardly bear to think of it even now, though I am back in my own room in Beijing, safe and far away. What is it about the crying of a child that is so peculiarly calculated to claw at the heart and leave it aching with such dreadful pity? It is not hard to understand such a reaction when no comfort is at hand, or when a child is crying because of some terrible, unusual injury to body or mind. But a toy mislaid is hardly uncommon, and this particular toy was found and restored to its owner within ten minutes.

Perhaps there is something of the Banshee in me -- a sort of disposition towards adoptive lamentation where I have no particular cause of my own. At any rate, my own eyes kept welling up in sympathy. It was hard to resist joining the little thing where she sat humped on the floor:

Yes, yes, little one! We are heartbroken, you and I!

But, though we may not all be weak or impressionable enough to consider collapsing on the floor a reasonable response, children's cries are generally accounted the most distressing sounds known to humankind. I suppose whimpering animals come in a close second. That is why they have been put to diabolical use in the interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

So my question is, why? When it is an ordinary sound, an everyday sound, a sound suggestive even of health and growth? Think how disturbing a silent baby would be!

I think perhaps here, as so often elsewhere, Gerard Manley Hopkins may be onto the right idea:

Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts, care for, can you?
Ah, as the heart grows older it will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh,
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name;
Sorrow's springs are the same
Nor mouth had, no, nor mind expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed.
It is the blight that man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I should say that in this poem Hopkins offers not only an analogical map of time and loss, but a sort of telescopic chronicle of desolation. By "desolation," I mean that peculiar disassembly of self and world, when self seems at once to become lost in the infinite vastness of the indifferent universe, and to swallow up that universe in an unappeasable hunger for comfort, for society, for a sense of harmony and in-placeness, with all things ordered according to their fitness.

Algernon Blackwood seems to have made a few similar associations in "The Wendigo," though his reflections are much more roughly hewn: the avowed subject of the piece is certainly "the Desolation that Destroys," as he puts it, and the image of a child weeping lies at the structural core of the narrative:

[T]he lap of the water still beat time with his lessening pulses when another sound introduced itself with cunning softness between the splash and murmur of the little waves. And, long before he understood what the sound was, it had stirred in him the centers of pity and alarm . . .Then, suddenly, with a rush and flutter of the heart, he knew that it was close beside him in the tent . . . It was a sound of weeping: Defago on his bed of branches was sobbing as if his heart would break . . . And his first response, before he could think or reflect, was a poignant and searching tenderness. This intimate, human sound, heard in the desolation about them . . . it was so incongruous, so pitifully incongruous -- and so vain! Tears -- in the vast and cruel wilderness: of what avail? He thought of a little child crying in mid-Altlantic . . .

Little Pupu's desolation, for the short time that her toy spoon was lost and the combined efforts of her mother, grandmother and visiting "auntie" failed to restore it, seemed particularly keen and piercing because she was lonesome in her distress -- utterly bereft -- and yet not alone at all, but "bounden round with silken care." Though no doubt true lack is the heaviest burden of all -- and carried by far too many --it is quite hard enough to want without lacking, for then we have no recourse. Implacable longings may wash over us and overwhelm us in desolation, but, as they are part of the "blight" that we were apparently born for, all we can do is cry to Heaven, or for our mothers, according to age and disposition. Small wonder that the prayer most often repeated by those in distress should be the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my Shepherd;
I shall not want.

Perhaps I was the readier to feel for Pupu, because I felt rather disassembled myself. While on on the way to Shanhaiguan the day before, reflecting that I was about to visit a particularly impressive section of the Great Wall, I set about recalling a favorite poem of mine -- a yuefu ballad by 陈琳 Chen Lin called 饮马长城窟 "Watering My Horse by the Great Wall Spring" -- and found to my dismay that I could only remember snatches of it. After a lot of thought I came up with most of it, but even then I was missing a couple of lines toward the end. I used to know it like the back of my hand.

Later, when viewing some portraits depicting various distinguished generals from a range of historical periods, I found myself unable to recall more than a line of 杜甫 Du Fu's famous poem 丹青引 "Painting Song," about the restoration of military portraits by a great representational artist. This surprised me less: I once knew the poem, but never knew it so well as to be sure of getting it right from top to tail every single time. By the time I reached the actual sea shore itself, where the Dragonhead Keep juts out into the surf, I had only enough spirit to go through the motions of regretting that I had never troubled to memorize 木华 Mu Hua's 海赋 "Ekphrasis on the Ocean." I suppose I could have recited John Masefield's "Sea-fever," but somehow it never occurred to me.

Of course, it is quite possible to enjoy castle walls and painted generals and waves on a shore without the bracketing of any verses at all. But I am accustomed to an arrangement of things in the places that seem fittest to me; when pieces of my interior library go walkabout, as it were, without my having any notion when or if they will ever return, I am in want, though I lack for nothing, and so I feel bereft and desolate.

However, as I noted earlier, I am now back in Beijing, with a job before me, and, as Mr. Kipling pointed out, there is nothing like having something to do.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Rule Number Two (With Apologies to Calvin Trillin)

Well, well, well. I had to 86 a student today -- just for the lesson, not the whole course -- as he was found to be in gross and repeated violation of Classroom Rules 1 (Listen) and 3 (Be Polite).

I was prepared for such a measure, as it seemed to me that this little fellow had been testing some boundaries for a while now, but I am afraid I had to shout -- well, no, not shout, exactly, that is not quite fair, but I certainly had to speak in a raised, stern voice -- in order to get him to take his eviction seriously. This loud, stern speaking brought in reinforcements from outside the classroom, and to see his poor lower lip trembling in his little round face as he found himself ringed by disapproving adults -- well, I began to feel as if I might perhaps be in violation of some Rules myself.

I must make my students obey -- otherwise I could not hope to teach them a thing -- but I am in some ways unsuited to the task. Well, "unsuited" is not quite fair, either. I am luckily reasonably well furnished with both patience and resourcefulness. "Ill-prepared" might be a better way to describe my condition.

Perhaps my most significant difficulty is cultural in origin. I don't mean a difference between Chinese and Western culture. I have no idea whether the dynamic I observe amongst my students and their parents and grandparents and so on is more characteristic of China than the West or not. I suspect not, actually. But there is certainly a marked difference between the way my parents treated me and the way my students seem mostly to be treated by their relations.

When I was growing up, my parents gave me instructions and articulated rules, which I either followed or failed to follow. Failing to follow them had, for the most part, clear and immediate consequences. This is not to say my parents were strict -- quite the contrary. The rules were just fairly easy to follow. My parents asked nothing that was beyond my capacity.

Perhaps just as significantly, we were, as a family, highly verbal. Words had meaning. As a natural consequence, there was no nagging or coaxing on my parents' side, and my brother and I would have thought it a disgraceful waste of time (as well as an insult to our dignity) to whine or cajole.

But my students seem used to a different dynamic, one in which nagging and coaxing evidently play a fairly major role. And of course, these young scoundrels see no reason to listen to the fifth repetition of a request or command when they have not troubled to attend to the first four iterations.

So, until today, they did not quite understand that I mean what I say. I am not sure they understand it even now. I think it is possible that my poor little boy's expulsion will be interpreted as a consequence of anger on my part (which it certainly was not; I was sorry for him, as he deserved, since testing boundaries is what children his age are naturally obliged to do) rather than a necessary tactic. When I spoke in an ordinary register, he paid me no mind. Why should he? He didn't know.

Well, if he doesn't know now, he soon will know, and then I hope we shall all be able to move forward calmly and happily -- at least, mostly calmly and mostly happily. As Mrs. Croft remarked, "We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days."

At any rate it's easier coping with this sort of acting out when it is appropriate for the age of the actors, if not for the situation in which they act. This little tug-of-war today reminded me of a similar experience I had when I was teaching at a university in Beijing right after college. In that case the student in question was in a Masters program in electrical engineering. I don't quite know how it was, but she took an instant dislike to me, right from the first class, and I well remember the sight of her ostentatiously reading her newspaper while I lectured. She was clearly a thoroughly unhappy person, but the memory still rankles. I wished to fling open the door, thunder out her name (in what was then, if I say it myself, quite intimidatingly impeccable Chinese) and order her from the room. But how could I treat a graduate student like an ill-behaved school-girl? At least with young students you know where you are and who's boss.

And, best of all, my little scoundrels won't be ready for Andover -- where I have been encouraged to hope their friends and relations may send them someday -- for a number of years yet. They have plenty of time to prepare for the particular culture of discipline established there that, I think, is my favorite way to sum up the place when introducing it to strangers. To wit: there are few rules -- for a boarding school, quite astonishingly few -- and all students are given a second chance following the breaking of any rule, with one exception. No lying is allowed at Andover.

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it? Here's President Bartlet (who didn't go to Andover, what with being fictional and all) echoing two hundred years of Andover headmasters when he tells Charlie Young: "If you lie just once, if you lie just a little . . . you and I are finished." And here's the actual occupant of the Oval Office (who did go to Andover and is all too real) telling such whopping great lies so often and with such catastrophic consequences you almost feel we need to invent another word just to describe the activity. Lynching, maybe -- as an extended meaning of the extant lexeme, suggesting the illegal and peculiarly barbaric strangulation of truth. Or perhaps "Maintaining Large and Apparently Invulnerable Stockpiles of REALLY Massively Destructive Weapons and Refusing to Surrender Without Frequent and Shameless Resort to Such Weapons, Regardless of the Cost in Human Lives or Human Conscience" -- with requisite nods to Jack Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, and Brian Wilkinson (

Or perhaps just "Violation of Rule Two" -- with a footnote explaining that Rule Two means you follow directions. In Mr. Bush's case, those directions are handily codified in the Constitution of the United States.

Here's to better days, folks, past and future. Rex quondam, rexque futurus!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I've now taught two English lessons. Both of the lessons have proven to be de facto exercises in vocabulary, though in each case I had plans for a more well-rounded class in which vocabulary would be thoroughly integrated into the other aspects of the lesson.

The involuntary focus on vocabulary seems to have happened not because my students' skills fall significantly short of the tasks I set them, but rather because I've chosen to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary through a modified form of the Total Physical Response system, and this approach has been so time-consuming that it threatens to swamp everything else on the agenda.

According to the method I have (for the moment) adopted, I write the vocabulary on the whiteboard along with its Chinese translation, then call on the students individually for one of three possible "responses:" a short English explanation of the vocabulary word, a picture illustrating the word, or a charade demonstrating the meaning of the word.

Thus, for a pronounciation drill focusing on the sounds "l," "r," short "i," long "i" and long "e" I created the following sentences:

Lizards really like to lie in the sun. Leapfrogs really like to sit on lily pads.

I was pretty sure (and I turned out to be right) that my students would not know the words, "lizard," "leapfrog" or "lily pad" so I put them up on the whiteboard before class:

lizard 蜥蜴

leapfrog 青蛙

lily pad 荷叶

asked the students for their responses, and the rest, as Genghis Khan might have noted on turning to survey his ravaged wake, is history.

Well, no, it wasn't that bad. By the end of the lesson the classroom floor was carpeted with (providentially green-covered) spelling workbooks -- lily pads, obviously -- and the spillage from the odd pencil jar overturned in a festival of hopping, but that was not really the problem. The problem was that that the fairy tales gloss over the true mechanism of metamorphosis -- embarrassed, probably, knowing that after all it isn't really as simple as a kiss between true hearts -- and once you have transformed your students into frogs it is very difficult to turn them back into children who sit at their desks and do the next exercise in their workbooks.

It makes a person think. At least, it made me think, something along the lines of, "Were the old-school table-chanters onto something?"

The primary purpose (I submit -- I'm not an expert in language pedagogy but I think this is pretty elementary) of TPR and similar approaches is to short-circuit the internal translation process that generally attends the early and middle stages of foreign language acquisition, so that the students develop a mental context for encoding and storing the meaning of the words they learn that is entirely independent of their native language. This seems to be so widely regarded as a desirable end in itself that I hesitate to question it, but, on the other hand, I am not sure it really is quite all it's cracked up to be either.

I reckon to speak on this question with the authority consequent to a peculiar range of experience (though with no other basis): when I have studied foreign languages, I have always been taught through conventional methods, but from the very beginning of each course of study have automatically skipped the internal translation process, apparently being naturally geared to learn language without it. This has sometimes earned me a reputation amongst teachers and classmates as a formidable linguist, but, as is so often the case with reputations, the reality has been another thing entirely.

I have found that two main problems arise from skipping the internal translation process. The first is that language learned in this fashion seems particularly vulnerable to the removal of the environment that gave rise to its aquisition. One only has to think of the way children forget their cradle tongues on entering a school in which another language is spoken to see the truth of this.

The second problem is that certain words do not lend themselves to the non-verbal storage matrix, making it harder to learn them in the first place, and easier to forget them once they are no longer in constant use. For me, this was particularly noticeable in the case of what I used to think of as the "little words" in Latin: iam, enim, mox and so on. I wouldn't quite say that I had trouble learning these words, or that I forgot them readily, but I certainly was conscious of an uneasiness in their presence; they were not my friends.

Of course, another reason for using TPR or similar methods is that this form of study may be more palatable to some students. When I was in high school a classmate once told me about her Russian instructor's classroom antics: apparently he would caper about the room, snatching all kinds of props from desks and tables, hardly ever going near the blackboard. I can still see my classmate's face as she told me about his pretending to burn his hand on a desk, then dashing a cup of white confetti over a student, so as to illustrate the words for "hot" and "cold." I think it was the surprise of the gentle flutter of confetti, when the students expected iced water, that impressed me most. It is one of my sharpest memories from that time -- and, strictly speaking, I wasn't even there.

But, of course, if such methods are more palatable to some students (and perhaps more interesting for some teachers), they may also simply get in the way. They may be a distraction or a waste of time even when the don't actually fail to provide adequate storage tags for the new information. Earlier today I noticed a debate on a discussion forum for Latin teachers regarding drilling methods for verb conjugation and noun declension. One contributor offered a series of songs (first declension endings sung to the tune of "Joy to the World" and that sort of thing), while another came down strongly in favor of a no-frills approach. I expect the debate will continue for quite some time, as it has become embedded in the larger, hotter issue of grammar- versus immersion-based teaching, with at least one advocate for immersion pointing out the importance of actually being able to use Latin, rather than merely to translate it, and implying that grammar-based teaching fails to achieve this end.

I don't quite know where I stand on any of these questions. Certainly I remember being irritated enough when, during my first year in grad school, a Japanese instructor insisted that singing verb synopses to the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" would help us remember the critical endings. But then I was particularly irritable in those days, and after all musical mnemonics are as old as Homer, and older.

And, since I'm writing a dissertation on (among other things) the conjunction of orality and literacy in the transmission of performance, I can't help being reminded of the related idea that, since music itself may serve as a mnemonic carrier for orally transmitted performance text, it is reasonable to begin with the premise that the musical and textual aspects of song transmission are interdependent. This offers a striking analogy to the idea that oral transmission is characterized by the inseparability of the performance from the transmission, compared with the relative independence of written transmission from the performance that it transcribes.

In a suggestive case study concerning two performers of the Higo Biwa ballad tradition (“Relations between Music and Text in Higo Biwa: The Nagashi Pattern as a Text-Music System,” Asian Music 26.1: 153-154), Hugh de Ferranti argues that a performer’s initial acquisition of a piece incorporating both text and music from a written source seems to enable the recollection of the textual element of the piece as a separate entity from the musical element; but where the piece is initially acquired by means of oral transmission alone, the recollection of the text appears to be much more dependent upon the recollection of its accompanying music. In other words, even in its final stage (i.e., retrieval from memory), the oral transmission of the piece requires a certain degree of “performance” in order to take place at all.

Well, anyway, I haven't yet started my young pupils on Latin (I expect we'll get going with that sometime in the middle of October), but I welcome the prospect of a little rote chanting. In spite of the alternative methods discussed on the Latin teachers' alias, a reiterated singsong seems indispensible to me. It seems an essential part of Latin itself, because it links us not merely to the Romans (who fade, mirage-like, at our approach -- their cradle language will never be our own) but to the generations of Latinists before us, to Shakespeare's unwilling schoolboy with his "shining morning face" and to everyone else who has chanted and pattered, all participants of one sort or another in the ceaseless struggle for indelible memory.

That sort of chanting is poetry, as much as the verse of Horace or Vergil is poetry. Certainly as much of life, one way or another, is "caught in its meshes." Or at least it seems so to me. And no wonder. If one of the clearest memories I have of my years at Andover is based on a language lesson I never took, I remember even more sharply hearing Derek Walcott give a reading in the Underwood room:

The bronze dusk of imperial palms . . .
I taught Love's basic Latin
Amo, amas, amat.

It was a chill autumn evening early in my first year. Listening to that warm Caribbean voice in the lamplit room, I thought to myself, "This is going to be good."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Triple Moon

Last night I spent my first Moon Festival on Chinese soil in eleven years. I celebrated the occasion at a banquet given by the parents of my young pupils.

The banquet took place at a restaurant specializing in roast duck. It's a famous place, but I’d never heard of it. I’m not up on my Beijing haute cuisine, my low tastes usually being drawn more towards the bluff, crusty, salt-of-the-earth sort of food you get from street vendors. The sort that makes no apologies for its garlic content and reckons that two chilies are always better than one, particularly since the heat can generally be mitigated by plenty of mantou, the delicious steamed peasant bread my hosts are generally too polite to offer me whenever I am dining out.

Nevertheless, even I could tell that this duck house was quite special. The ducks came with certificates of breeding, and I don’t suppose you can really get much swankier than that. Unless perhaps you count its inversion, exemplified in the recent fad that requires hip restaurants in Union Square to authenticate their heirloom tomatoes by featuring their delivery (complete with muddy-booted farmer) through the dining room instead of at the kitchen door, as if the delivery were a kind of dinner theater – perhaps a morality play in which the farmer represents Sustainability.

Anyway, I couldn’t really tell if the ducks lived up to their pedigree. I was too distracted by the accompanying pancakes, which were out of this world, yellow and eggy rather than the usual floury white, and paper-thin but surprisingly firm to bite.

Perhaps it was fitting that the ducks should have been eclipsed by the pancakes, since they looked a little like representations of a hunter’s moon. And it was fitting on another analogical level that there should be such a correspondence, because I had primed my pupils with a hasty rehearsal of Vachel Lindsay’s poem “The Moon Is The North Wind’s Cooky” so that they could read it aloud for their assorted friends and relations.

The reading fell a bit flat, actually, but I am hopeful that there will be another poem for another season. There’s always more Vachel Lindsay next Moon Festival, I suppose – these same young students should certainly be ready for “The Moon? It Is A Gryphon’s Egg” by next year, even if I am not here to teach it to them.

It’s funny, I always seem to be surprised by the kind of moon celebrated at the Mid-Autumn festival. Of course it’s a harvest moon, golden, low and glowing, but I always find myself expecting a frosty winter moon, remote, high and silver. I have a feeling that this misapprehension stems from the image of the magic toad who is said to live on the moon. He’s called the “silver toad” (银蟾) and I remember first encountering him in a poem celebrating the Moon Festival in Cao Xueqin’s novel “The Dream of the Red Chamber.”

宝婺情孤洁, The Ladystar stands in loneliness unstained,
银蟾气吐吞。 Silver Moontoad gapes and gulps the skyey airs.

(Not a very literal translation, but I hope reasonably faithful if regarded with a tolerant eye.)

I remember being much taken with the idea of a faery toad. Certain animals just seem to signal the uncanny, don’t they, as if they were ambassadors of some shadowy otherworld, and the "silver toad's" association with the moon seemed to exemplify that essential "confluence" of rightness (to borrow from Eudora Welty) that occurs when the various resonances evoked by things and images echo one another.

There were many other dishes as well, including bird’s nest, which I have always wanted to try, various fishes both stewed and raw, straw mushrooms cooked with broccoli, duck feet with mustard sauce, clam broth and batter-fried pumpkin.

Perhaps classic cuisine has a certain universal characteristic, for all these dishes, iconic as they were, reminded me of nothing so much as eating out in Normandy. (Except the pumpkin, which I suppose might have put me in mind of Tuscany, if I had ever been there.) Though the sauces were certainly different for each dish, there was a sameness about them, as if they were different songs all played by the same instrument. In any case, grateful as I was to be invited out to such a splendid feast, it’s not the sort of experience I’d want to repeat too often. I still like chilies best, and I still prefer the sort of "distressful bread" with which Hank Cinq supposed the enviable laborer must be cramm'd.

And if that's a class thing, well, there it is. I'm a Democrat.