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.