Friday, November 6, 2009

Another Year to Heaven

Last Friday I visited a small museum dedicated to the life and work of Xu Beihong 徐悲鸿 (1895-1953) , the first president of the PRC's Central Academy of Fine Arts and one of the most influential Chinese painters of the 20th century.

The museum is wonderful, but actually I found myself there more or less by accident. Last Friday was my birthday. I had planned to celebrate it by exploring the newly refurbished Capital Museum in downtown Beijing. There are a lot of museums in Beijing, but the Capital was a natural first choice. It's just off Tiananmen Square, right in the heart of the city center. The building is sleek and imposing -- ultra-modern, über-chic. From the outside, at any rate, it looks like a precise reflection of the kind of city into which Beijing has begun to shape itself, the kind of country China is hoping to become.

And, according to reports, the interior of the museum only adds to this effect. Special exhibits from all over the world are displayed in wide halls equipped with state-of-the-art, ecologically responsible systems for regulating temperature and humidity. There are cafes, lounges, conference rooms and restaurants. Admission is free. This is the new New China. She's not taking a backseat to anyone.

As I checked bus routes and closing times, it suddenly struck me that, actually, the Capital Museum hadn't attracted me because it is glossy and well-appointed. What I was really drawn to was the desire it seemed to embody -- the determination to inhabit a world characterized by a confluence of the graceful and the functional, the right-minded and the urbane. Or, more precisely, the desire not merely to inhabit such a world, but to belong there, to contribute to it. No doubt this desire is attractive partly because the world it projects is so appealing, but I think the allure stems still more from its seeming to define modernity itself in such welcome, beckoning terms -- sleek, civilized, inventive, knowing. It invites a sense of delighted arrival: So this is what the new century looks like!

But then, just before setting out, I discovered that the Capital Museum requires its patrons to make reservations at least a day in advance. So, I started thumbing through my guidebook to Beijing and eventually settled on the Xu Beihong Memorial Museum, which is tucked away on a narrow street in the western part of the city.

I knew the Xu Beihong Memorial would be a far cry from the Capital Museum, and so it was. The galleries were dingy, institutional and mostly ill-lit. If the building was heated at all, it wasn't so you'd notice. I paid a reluctant visit to the toilets and found -- with chagrin but small surprise -- that it certainly wasn't the new New China there.

But, in another sense, the Memorial turned out to offer a vision of modernity that was at least as compelling as the one suggested by the Capital.

Though Xu was perhaps best known for his traditional ink-and-brush paintings of galloping horses, he also had a profound capacity for innovation. As a young man, he travelled around Europe and studied art in Paris. On his return home in 1927 he helped introduce Western techniques into the Chinese art world, devoting the remainder of his life to the creation of a new national aesthetic based on a combination of Western and Chinese approaches.

The collection on display at the museum reflects this versatility. The first and second exhibition halls feature traditional brush paintings. There are clumps of bamboo, austere in black ink. There are stands of pine and cypress, pure, massive, and commanding. There are cranes and sparrows, cats and oxen; there are magpies and one magnificent eagle. And, of course, there are the famous horses, some running and some at rest, so beautiful they stop your breath.

On the second floor there are dozens of oil paintings, including some vast canvases depicting epic scenes drawn from myth and history. One such scene features a peasant woman in the dress and headscarf of early China. She is seated on the ground cradling a nursing infant. Something in her expression and attitude, in the scale of her body and her placement amongst the rest of the composition, suggests a curious kind of unfleshed Dutch realism, firm and precise but sparing of detail. Striking an entirely different note, there are several smaller studies of seated women whose veiled but glowing colors and quiet, almost remote intensity put me in mind of Edward Hopper. Different again but equally arresting, Xu's colleague Ren Bonian gazes shrewed-eyed out of an unassuming portrait. I don't know what creates this effect -- whether it is the way the subdued colors bring out the planes of his face, or the angle of his head against a certain degree of back lighting, or what -- but he looks for all the world like a Renaissance burgher, or perhaps a minor functionary in the court of Henry Tudor.

There is also a hall devoted to scenes of old Beijing. These paintings are executed with a fine brush on small canvases. I think the school or style is French, though I didn't recognize it. At any rate, I kept getting the same kind of shock each time I approached the pictures: what first looked like a standard Parisian cafe with windows open to the street would prove, on closer inspection, to be an old-fashioned tea house or a medicine stall. The Arc de Triomphe, seen from across the room, turned out to be the Drum Tower. And so on. (Of course, no one in their right mind could really confuse Beijing's old Drum Tower with the Arc de Triomphe, but I kept catching myself in the same kind of crazy mistake.)

There are also hybrids of different sort, whose fusion resides not in a combination of Chinese subjects and Western media, but in an integration of Chinese and Western techniques. In one particularly unusual painting, a human figure sits, hands clasped around his knees, beneath a giant tree. The tree is executed in a more or less traditional ink-and-brush style, but the human figure is in Western perspective. He is sketched rather than fully detailed; it is not his form but his place in the composition that is so suggestive of depth and foreshortening. It is almost as if he and the tree under which he meditates occupy different dimensions. I couldn't decide if the effect was pleasing or disturbing, but it was certainly hard to look away.

After I finished my tour of the various exhibition halls, I returned to the horses on the first floor. I looked at them more carefully this time, trying to work out what it was that made them so compelling. I couldn't identify anything in particular. In the end I decided that somehow they just reflected the essence of horse, the way a dirge on the bagpipes captures the essence of mourning, or a sonnet by Shakespeare the essence of desire.

These reflections reminded me of a famous passage in the eighth-century poet Du Fu’s 杜甫 ballad “Painting Song” (丹青引), addressed to the master-painter Cao Ba .


Your pupil Han Gan soon achieved the greatest mastery:
He too could paint horses, giving expression to every possible look.
But Han Gan only paints the flesh; he does not paint the bones,
Thus suffering royal, fiery chargers to fade into spiritlessness.

As I considered Xu Beihong's horses, and Du Fu's remarks on Han Gan, I thought about the idea that there is an essential, ineffable quality that differentiates the competent from the sublime. Of course this is hardly a new concept. In my family we've always called it the "dun-colored mare," after the Po Lo story cited in J.D. Salinger's "Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters." And, indeed, this idea is basic to Chinese critical theory. In Du Fu's poem it takes the form of "painting the bones," but generally speaking it consists of a premium placed on the expression or actualization of an interior essence, unseen but crucial. So, to take just one of many possible examples, the ninth-century poet Bai Juyi 白居易 complains


In the olden days, when people sang songs,
they were also singing feelings;
Nowadays when people sing,

they only sing the notes.

As I thought these things, and reflected on the painstakingly mastered foreign techniques that the paintings upstairs in the oil-gallery embodied, I found myself a little out of sorts. After a while I realized that my dissatisfaction sprang from a sense that something was missing, that there was a bias in the way I was understanding what I was seeing. Or perhaps not a bias so much as a vacuum. After all, the idea that artistic excellence relies on an unseen, ineffable mechanism insists on framing artistic creation as an interior process. It leaves no room for the community of skill that sustains culture of all kinds, artistic and otherwise.

At this point in my meditations, my eye was caught by a glass case standing in the middle of the room. I had been giving all my attention to the paintings on the walls and hadn't noticed it before. Inside the case was a handwritten letter, Xu Beihong's reply to a student's request for instruction. The letter was punctuated by illustrated details and explanatory captions: “raised hoof, angled backwards, the stroke commences here; hock, three-quarter view, lift the brush here; muzzle, quarter view, keep the lines short.”

I don't know if Xu's student profited from these directions or not. Who can say whether he went on to "paint the bones?" But, after reading the letter and looking at the illustrations, I realized two things. First, Xu's paintings of horses do not just reflect the essence of horse: they make the viewer think "How good it is to live in a world with horses in it." And, at the same time, "How good it is to live in a world in which people paint horses."

Second, the Parisian paintings of Beijing, and the Xia woman in her headscarf, and the shrewd-eyed Ren Bonian all represent the dissemination of skill, its transplantation from Europe to China. Xu Beihong's letter to his student represents the preservation of skill, its communication from master to disciple. Whether the results of these two kinds of transmission are sublime or merely proficient, the process itself is nothing less than that which feeds humankind: it is culture, the act of sustained community.

And that, I think, is what we want the new century to look like.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"The Wit of Eternity"

For twenty years, I have had nothing to say about Tiananmen Square. I still have nothing, really. Just a very short story and a translation.

A few days ago, some acquaintances told me that, during the 1989 democracy movement, they had initially supported the protesters. They had admired their zeal and shared the disgust they felt for the corrupt government. But later, when they got a closer look at the leaders of the protest, my acquaintances changed their minds. "Those leaders were so hypocritical," they told me. "They'd whip the crowds up into a frenzy, then go out for a big meal in a fancy restaurant while everyone else stayed behind at the demonstration. They were just as corrupt as any official."

OK, but they weren't the ones with the tanks, right? I didn't say that out loud, but perhaps something in my expression suggested what I was thinking, because one of my acquaintances seemed anxious to explain. "There's nothing we Chinese fear more than instability. Nothing. With our history, what we've lived though, anything seems better than that."

This time I found my voice. "So they reminded you of the Red Guards? Is that it? Because they were agitated, and reckless, and so incredibly young?"

Actually, I didn't think it was such a bad excuse. Not for the crackdown, I mean, but for the fear. If I'd lived through the Cultural Revolution, I'd probably be terrified of rebellious teenagers for the rest of my days. But someone else, joining the conversation, seemed to hear the censure implicit in my tone.

"The government had to crack down. They had to be stopped. But, yes, the measures taken were too extreme."

You think?

Someone else countered, "Actually, what other measures could they have taken? There were too many protesters, all out of control. It was terrible, but what else could be done?"

I didn't say anything more. I just tried to forget about the conversation as soon as possible. And I did pretty much forget about it. But while I was busy pushing it down to the bottom of my mind, something else floated lightly to the top. It was a poem by Liu Xiaobo. I had translated it for a commemorative anthology a couple of years before.

For Seventeen

(You didn’t listen to your parents’ warnings, jumped out the bathroom window, snuck away. When you fell, holding up a banner, you were just seventeen. But I lived; I am already thirty-six. In the presence of your shade, to survive is a crime, and to give you a poem is even grosser shame. The living ought to keep their mouths shut, ought to listen to the murmurs from the grave. That I should write a poem for you! I am unfit. Your age, seventeen, is worth more than any word or work – more than any thing that can be made.)

I live,
even sustain a certain notoriety.
I want the courage, or the quality,
to proffer a handful of flowers and a poem,
to come before a seventeen-year-old’s faint grin,
though I know – I know –
Seventeen doesn’t carry the slightest grudge.

Your age (seventeen) tells me this:
life is plain. It lacks splendor,
like gazing at a desert with no borders:
with no need for trees, no need for water,
no need for the dappled touch of flowers,
you take the sun’s malice; that is all.

At seventeen, you fell on the road,
and so the way was lost.
At seventeen, eyes open in the mud,
you were peaceful as a book.
Here, in this world,
you clung to nothing,
nothing but your pure, white, spotless youth.

When, at seventeen, your breathing stopped –
well, it was like a miracle –
you had not lost hope.
The bullets ripped through the mountains,
convulsed the seas,
as, for a time, all the flowers in the world
took on one color only.
Seventeen, you didn’t lose hope,
couldn’t lose hope.
Take the love you never spent,
give it to your mother;
her hair is white now.

Your mother, who once locked you away.
Her line was broken
under the red and five-starred flag.
High and fine,
your mother,
your own blood,
shout-roused by your dying glance.
She carries with her your last will,
walks among the tombs.
When she herself is ready to fall,
with your ghost breath
you brace her up,
you set her on the road.

Past age or youth,
past death,

As I explained a minute ago, it's been twenty years, and in all that time I've had nothing to say.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


While I was out running errands this morning, I saw a mother leading a toddler by the hand. The two of them were headed in my direction. As they drew near, the toddler stared at me, reaching up with his free hand as if he wanted to clutch at my skirt. I guess his mother noticed that something about me had captured his attention, because, rather than simply passing by and continuing on her way, she stopped and told him, "Say hello to the lady."

The little boy didn't say anything, but he didn't seem at all shy, and he continued to reach up and stretch out his fingers. It was almost as if he were a kitten wanting to bat at a dangling toy.

After a minute it struck me that he was looking at my parasol. I furled it, moving slowly so as not to startle him, and held it down so he could inspect it more closely.

"That's a parasol," his mother and I told him. "Parasol."

When it became clear that looking wasn't quite enough, I held it down still further, close enough for him to touch. He felt it gravely, rubbing the material between his fingers.

"Well, that's all right then," said his mother briskly. We nodded at each other, our transaction complete, and she led the little boy off.

I resumed my own progress a little more slowly. I was puzzled. Beijing is full of parasols at this time of the year. There's nothing special about mine. Not now, anyway. It's true that when I first had it I was very fond of it -- at that time it was a bright lemon-yellow, festive and sunny -- but over the years it has become grubby and faded. As I walked along toward the shops, I realized that I'd been discontented with it for a while now.

This set me thinking about the different kinds of parasols I would get if I could. Perhaps a navy-blue-and-white striped one, like a French sailor's shirt. Or a smart red, yellow and green one, like a cafe awning. Or, for very hot days, a pattern of cool green leaves, like the wallpaper in an old-fashioned drawing room.

The trouble is, the last time I looked in the catalogue that sells the sort of parasol I require -- it's made from cloth specially treated to block ultra-violet rays -- the only colors on offer appeared to be two shades of yellow (butter and lemon), a deep, dark blue, something between navy and indigo, and a rather nasty porridge-grey the manufacturers called "stone." They don't make anything else.

Actually, I do have one other parasol back home in the States -- lemon yellow trimmed with blue lace, left over from a friend's wedding. It is very pretty, but I wouldn't want to carry it on ordinary occasions, and anyway frilly lace isn't what I'm after now. I want something smart and sporty, or possibly something elegant and understated, but anyway something very fine and satisfying. It seems a great pity not to be able to have it.

I was feeling a little sorry for myself by the time I reached the shops. This was ironic, because my principal reason for visiting the shops this morning was to buy clothes hangers for some new summer skirts my mother had found at a sale and sent to me in a package that also contained anise cookies shaped like fish with currants for eyes. If I can't have the sort of parasol I would like, certainly my closet is overflowing with many other good things.

Then, while I was choosing hangers, something unexpected happened. An old lady standing near me in the aisle began chatting casually to me. "Look at this hanger. What were they thinking? All these hooks and doodads! Completely unnecessary! These plain ones are much better, don't you think?" As a matter of fact, I had been thinking exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment, but that wasn't really the strange part. The strange part was that she was the one who had started the conversation. Not many people here do this with foreigners, unless it's to ask where you're from or if you understand Chinese. But this old lady seemed not to care where I was from. We were just two women, shopping for hangers in a neighborhood supermarket.

On my way home, I began to feel a bit better. I'd been on the receiving end of some active friendliness from a total stranger. I had some new hangers for the skirts my mother had sent me. And a passing toddler had admired my parasol.

I found myself wondering if the little boy had been too young to notice the spots and blotches that seemed so evident to me, or if he'd seen something I couldn't, some bright blaze of possibility -- the parasol as it could be, perhaps, sunny and glowing, careless as a dandelion.

I suppose I suspected this last because it had been so easy to satisfy his wants. All he'd had to do was feel the thing, rub it between his fingers, and his needs were answered.

After thinking about it a little longer, I decided that it was too early to give up on my own wants. What is desire, after all, but an acknowledgement of prospect? Want need not always be accompanied by a sort of desolate hopelessness; we need not always turn our backs on the view that our hearts have awakened. Sometimes the things we wish for do come to us if we are patient. I almost feel I can see my new parasol now, as trim and fetching as a sailboat, bobbing on the horizon.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Last week we had a record heat wave. It was 80 degrees Farenheit and we were barely into the second week of April. The air managed to be both parched and sultry at the same time, as if a kettle of ashes had decided to see what it would look like dressed as fog. For a few days I was really afraid that spring was over for the year.

During this period I kept finding myself thinking of a favorite couplet by the medieval Chinese poet Xie Lingyun. He was a great hiking enthusiast and is said to have invented a kind of clog specially designed for climbing mountains, but poor health often confined him indoors. After one such illness he complained:


I had not yet had enough of the green spring's joys;
Now I must see the summer passing too.

Sometimes it seems to me that these lines say all there is to be said.

But then on Wednesday the weather turned round. Light winds blew the soggy dust from the air. Sunlight slanted on the deep green pines. The new leaves on the poplars looked impossibly fresh and cool against the bright blue sky. Chastened by the memory of the recent heat, I tossed all my work to one side and set out on a late-afternoon ramble through a nearby park.

This park -- it's actually more of a garden -- is really something else. It includes a kindergarten and two playgrounds. It has a small ornamental hill criss-crossed by flagged footpaths and terraced with small green plants, two stone bridges (though the stream they span is almost always dry) and dozens upon dozens of weeping willows. And, as I discovered this spring, it has an almost indecent profusion of flowering trees and shrubs.

There are peach trees, cherry trees, plum trees and flowering crab-apple trees. There are lilacs, both purple and white. There are dogwoods and magnolias. There is a wisteria trellis and a hawthorne hedge. And those are just the ones I recognize. There are also bushy plants with yellow flowers something like fluffy anemones, little purple bulbs something like a cross between an iris and a hyacinth, and many other things as well.

In order to furnish my ramble with a sense of order and purpose, I decided to start by visiting all the clumps of lilac in the park and then work my way through the peach trees down to the unidentified yellow bushy things.

The park was full of people. Late afternoon seems to be a popular time of day for airing toddlers, I suppose because they're just up from their naps. Their grandparents sat chatting on benches, turning their faces to the sun. The afternoon session at the kindergarten was drawing to a close; parents stood waiting by the gate.

At first I was too engrossed by the lilacs to pay much attention to the park's other visitors, except as a pleasant backround to all the flora, but then I noticed something. No one was returning my smiles. Every time I passed someone I smiled in the rather mild, sunny way you do when you want to suggest that it's a nice moment to be living in the world and you're glad the person you're smiling at is there to share it with you. And each time I smiled, all I got back was a blank stare. Deflecting the minor complicity I offered -- hello, there, comrade, God speed you -- the stare took nothing in, offered nothing back. It was very dispiriting.

The thing is, this particular expression used to be a standard experience for foreign visitors to the Middle Kingdom. I first heard about it from a teacher in high school who had traveled all over Asia. She told me that the only country she hadn't liked was China, and she hadn't liked it because of the way people looked at her. Sometimes the looks were merely blank -- taciturn, inward, unsmiling -- but other times they were actively hostile. I didn't quite believe her at first, but not long afterward I visited China myself and found that she had been telling the truth.

Though it was disappointing to feel so unwelcome, there were compensations. Plenty of people were eager to make friends. One had only to find them. "The China look" as I came to think of it, usually managed to remain part of the background, part of what made China what it was, like third-world toilets and pebbles in the rice.

But on this trip I have generally met with very different treatment. Until Wednesday, I had thought that the China look had vanished from Beijing, perhaps driven away by China's meteoric rise to wealth and power, or perhaps swept away by the pluralism that might be expected from an Olympic city. I'd been imagining telling all my friends about it when I went home for the summer: "You'd never believe how friendly people are. When you smile, they smile back. Sometimes they even talk to you. It's as if they think you're a real person. It's like a -- well, it's like what it is, a modern country."

So, my experience in the park was particularly unsettling. It set off a chain of resentful memories and began to eat away at my pleasure in the flowers. For a few moments, I found myself wondering if something had happened -- if President Obama had said something inflammatory about Tibet, or Taiwan, or silenced dissidents -- and imagining what I would do if the situation really got out of hand.

Then, after a few more minutes, I found myself thinking of something that had happened in one of the lessons I taught during my last sojourn in Beijing. I had asked the class to invent an English word and explain its meaning, and one of the students came up with the word "pandasmile," which she said described the face that China showed towards the world. I remember thinking at the time how ironic it seemed: "smile" was the last word I would have used to describe the way the Chinese faced the rest of us.

Later, though, I began to see the word my student coined in the very different context provided by Peter Hessler's remarkable book River Town. The book contains a number of descriptions of the "Chinese smile," all of them suggesting a tough and understated ethos -- brave, controlled, suppressed-- but the one I find most haunting is last, near the end of the book:

After our last meal the family lined up at the door and waved goodbye, standing stiffly and wearing that tight Chinese smile. I imagined that probably I looked the same way -- two years of friendship somehow tucked away in a corner of my mouth.

Every time I think of this moment, I feel as though I've seen that smile myself hundreds of times -- I can almost see it in my mind's eye -- but then it slips away and I realize that I am only imagining it.

I thought of these things, of pandasmile and River Town, of confusion, hope and disappointment, as I made my rounds among the lilacs. Then suddenly the scene changed. My path was blocked by a mother who stood waiting near the kindergarten. She was chatting to another mother, and, as I edged past her, she gave me a bright, absent smile -- the sort you might give to a stranger when your attention is taken up elsewhere but you are glad to spare some cordiality. My heart fluttered. This is what I mean, I thought. People are so friendly now. They treat you like a real person. Not an intruder, not an alien, not a foreign guest, just someone who passes you on the road.

It was as if a spell had broken. By the time I turned for home, several other people had smiled at me. There was an old lady trundling a toddler on a sort of combined pram and tricycle, and a young girl in a school uniform, and one or two others as well. As I passed a clump of the unknown bushy plants with the bright yellow flowers, Mr. Hessler's tight smile flashed again across my mind's eye, but, before I could quite get hold, it was gone.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Salad Seasons

Spring is here. Forsythia spatters the parks and gardens with speckles of bright yellow. Cherries have begun to bloom, both the pale pink and the deep. Light zephyrs whisk through the greening willows. Magpies hop about, looking hopeful.

And, more importantly, the local supermarket has begun selling pasta salad again.

It was during my last trip to Beijing that I first realized pasta salad has actual, you know, seasons. That was a dozen years ago, when I first made the acquaintance of the Beijing summer specialty known as liangpi 凉皮, "chilled skin." The name may not sound terribly appetizing out of context, but in the gasping, humid heat of a Beijing August, anything with the word "chill" in it is pretty welcome.

Or so it seemed to me, as I stopped by the street vendor's cart and peered at his display: neat cubes of diced wheat gluten, fresh green-and-white heaps of shredded cucumber, slivers of tough beancurd peel, bouquets of fresh coriander, six or seven different sauces and, of course, the "skin" itself, which is actually wide-cut fresh pasta made of mung bean starch.

"Try it," said one of his customers, a middle-aged woman who was digging into her portion right there by the cart. "This is real Beijing fare, a traditional summer snack. You'll love it." I didn't need to be asked twice. I stepped right up and requested a helping, plenty spicy and with all the trimmings.

The middle-aged woman was right. I did love it. Chewy, tender and slippery-cool all at the same time, fragrant with coriander, rich with sesame and breathing a curious, heady, almost perfumed heat -- I had never tasted anything like it. Soon I was visiting the cart almost every day, bringing my own metal rice box so as to avoid using the styrofoam cartons supplied by the vendor. (Who thought I was off my rocker. "It's to protect the environment," I told him, but he just shook his head. Crazy foreigners.)

But, before the mooncakes left from the Mid-Autumn festival had been quite eaten up, the streetside liangpi gave way to luzi 炉子, "stovelings," which turned out to be sweet potatoes roasted in their jackets and sold from makeshift ovens fashioned out of large barrels and lugged about the city by bicycle. There were also chestnuts, both fresh and roasted. A friend taught me how to make chestnut-chicken soup. With its pale slices of chicken floating in a deep, dark broth seasoned with ginger, clove and juniper, it seemed the essence of autumn.

Then the winds rose. Yellow leaves fluttered to the sidewalks. The skies grew high and blue. Frosts set in. Piles of pale winter cabbages lined the streets like stacks of firewood. Local eateries served a rough and warming concoction of dried mung bean noodles and pickled cabbage, with pork or without according to taste. The steamed buns at the local state-run bakery were equally hearty, filled with pork and seasoned turnip.

Then, long before I was tired of turnip buns, the winds changed. Willows fluttered pale green branches. Little round toddlers were gradually divested of their magnificently colored woolly coats and jackets, one layer at a time. The luzi man told me that this was his last week selling sweet potatoes. He was most apologetic, but actually I didn't mind. The buns and pancakes at the local bakery were now filled with a pungent chutney made of chopped fennel greens, extraordinarily addictive.

When I had eaten my fill of the fennel buns (which took a while), there were tiny, leaf-green cabbages about the size of a softball. Cooked with ginger and vinegar, they made a delightful accompaniment to the miniature guotie 锅贴 or "pot-stickers" sold just outside the university gate. Unlike the various sorts of "pot-stickers" or "Peking ravioli" sold in the West, these had wrappings made of a yeasted dough rather than a pasta. They were cooked in a large press something like a waffle iron (but without the cleats), producing a delicious, intensely flavored little gobbet that managed to be crispy on the bottom but, as Mr. Woodhouse might have said, "without the smallest grease."

The days grew warmer and another kind of guotie appeared, this time wrapped in pasta and filled with a mixture of minced pork and summer squash. You could almost feel the sunshine on the broad-leaved vines. It was like eating a garden.

I was home by the time liangpi season was in full swing again. I returned for a couple of months in the autumn, but, before I had a chance to make any chestnut-chicken soup, and I found myself back home again. I didn't return for a long, long time.

Nowadays the snack stalls have nearly vanished from the streets of Beijing. If you want liangpi salad you have to visit the deli counter in a supermarket. Most people blame the grand municipal tidying effort that preceded the Olympics, during which nearly all street food was banned or at least greatly restricted, but I think we were headed in that direction anyway. Outdoor markets are disappearing. We shop indoors now. Heaps of exotic produce decorate the supermarkets all year round. They hail from every region and represent every season.

There are gleaming mounds of multi-colored peppers, purple eggplants and deep green cucumbers. There are leafy branches of kale and rape, celery cabbage and spinach, watercress, lettuce hearts, rocket, mustard, fennel, chives, cilantro and many other things I don't recognize. There are impossibly slender scallions and thick leeks, lotus roots and fresh bamboo and mushrooms of every variety. There are apples, pears, peaches, lemons, melons, berries and pineapples. Some of them are packaged in plastic, some of them are sold loose. They are nearly all spotless.

The maids soak all our produce for an hour or two before cooking it, in an effort to leach out the pesticides. My hosts import as much of their fruit as they can, for the sake of their children. But the imported fruit isn't organic either, and of course the fuels burned in its transportation merely add to the burden assumed by earth and air, seed and water.

It is natural to be tempted by the prospect of having what we want when we want it. It is hard to ask the question:

Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots?

And it is harder still to answer it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Early this morning, I woke up with a strange sensation. I felt hushed and expectant, almost as if I were in a church. The air outside my window was cool, the light dim and grey. For a moment I thought that these things alone were responsible for the still, listening mood into which I seemed to have awakened.

Then I heard the music. It was a recording of the Tallis Scholars singing Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, and it was coming from the kitchen. Apparently one of my students wanted to listen to it while he ate his breakfast.

Well, that wasn't such a surprise after all. Allegri's Miserere is my student's new thing. He wants to have it near him all the time. I don't know how he can stand it, myself -- Miserere strikes me as so thoroughly exalted and celestial, so pure in its sweetness, so haunting in its crystalline articulation of the essential, ineffable longing that seems to lie at the core of the human spirit, that there's only so much of it you can take at one time.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea, et a peccato meo munda me.

I mean, come on. At breakfast?

But the thing is, this little boy gets very, very interested in whatever interests him, at breakfast and everything, so I guess that's that.

What surprises me, in a way, is that his taste alighted on this particular piece. Don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting his choice. In my totally untrained and ignorant opinion, Allegri's Miserere is, without question, the most unutterably lovely piece of music known to man. It's just that, in the context in which I introduced it, I'd have expected a more tempered response.

After all, the whole thing happened pretty much by accident. My students had spent the previous day (starting at five in the morning) at one of the innumerable academic competitions that seem to be the lot of the average eight-year-old in Beijing. During their English/Latin lesson that afternoon, they were understandably too tired to do the exercises I had planned, so I scrapped the main lesson and hauled out some recordings for them to listen to instead.

I had kind of expected them to get a kick out of the first recording I played, which was "It's Witchcraft," performed by Frank Sinatra. For one thing, we're in the midst of reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, so the idea of enchantment and its various ramifications is much on their minds. And for another thing, they are always asking me about jazz (I don't know why), so I had imagined that related musical genres would also interest them. But the big band sound seemed to leave them pretty cold.

So, I switched gears again and told them the next piece would be a Latin psalm. They perked right up at that. They don't actually know much Latin, but they love the idea of it (which is, after all, the main thing -- you can't teach that) and they also love the idea of the Christian liturgy. Anyway, I played it for them, not expecting much except the few minute's peace which the this-is-Latin-so-be-good-and-listen-to-it trump card usually furnishes.

In the event, they weren't quite as attentive as I'd have liked while the music lasted, but then when it was over one of them said to me, quite seriously, "I think maybe I have heard this before. In a movie, maybe." I told him that this was quite possible; it is, after all, a famous and much-loved piece and is certainly featured in some film scores.

(In fact, I had briefly considered playing's extremely successful spot "The Human Cost of War" for them, so they could see the way the music contributes to the power of the ad. But then I decided they would find it too upsetting, so I didn't. I mean, come on, they're only eight.)

Then I played them a Bach prelude -- Julian Bream on solo guitar, and then the lesson was over. As we packed up our books and papers, I asked them which piece they had liked best, and they both plumped for the Miserere. William said it was the best music he had ever heard. He said this a few times. Apparently he told his mother the same thing later that evening. Then he borrowed a copy of the recording from me.

We had Miserere again at lunch today, and I suppose we'll have it yet again at dinner, and tomorrow at breakfast, and so on for some days until William has had enough of it, or perhaps until one of us confiscates his iPod. In the meantime, I have looked out a Chinese translation of the 51st Psalm (luckily it is readily available online, so I didn't have to repeat the Horace adventure) and have promised to teach them the Latin version in our lessons.

Fitting out their Latin and Chinese translations in preparation for today's lesson, I was reminded of a story I told them yesterday: according to tradition, only the choir at the Sistine Chapel was initially authorized to perform Allegri's Miserere; anyone else who tried it did so under threat of excommunication. Then Mozart came along and (so they say) wrote it down from memory after hearing it once. After that, it could not be contained. As William has so effectively demonstrated, it now belongs to everyone, everywhere.

Of course, that's the thing about music, isn't it? It is a function of the laws of physics -- it inhabits the material universe in which we also live and breathe -- and yet it is disembodied, as if it were a being of pure spirit. It has a way of spilling over walls and stealing through windows. It floats on the wind and lodges in the heart.

Since I'm writing a dissertation about a closely related topic -- about the transmission of music by means of poetic description, actually -- I feel rather as if I ought to have something more to say about William's new discovery. But I don't seem to come up with anything. I mean, it's kind of all been said, hasn't it? As the Chinese Record of Music has it, "Music unites." And, as the philosopher Xun-zi pointed out, "Music is delight."

On that note, tomorrow we'll be doing The 59th Street Bridge Song. I am hoping that my students may be coaxed into connecting the line "I've got no deeds to do, no promises to keep" with another poem they have already studied:

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

As the fellow said, "When a friend arrives from far away, is it not indeed a joy?"

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Elephants on the Metro

If you stand on platform 13 at Zhichunlu Station just opposite the stairs, you'll see a number of posters lining the divider between the inbound and outbound rails. One of them shows a pair of elephants walking away from the viewer across a wide, green-brown plain. The sky is streaked with pink. One of the elephants is full-grown. The other is a calf.

When I first saw the poster, I thought it was intended to provide metro passengers with something pleasant to look at while they waited for their trains. "Well done, Beijing!" I thought. "What's nicer than elephants?" Then I saw the copy:

Mom! I've got teeth now!
Mom, I've got teeth now!
Hey Mom, I've got TEETH now!
Mom, aren't you happy for me?

And, to the far right of the poster: "It should be a happy event, when a baby grows its first teeth. But, because people are greedy for ivory, countless elephants are needlessly slaughtered."

I've loved elephants all my life, and I'm on about a hundred lefty email lists, so I'm familiar with the story. Nevertheless, as I looked at the poster and read the copy, I felt my eyes begin to water and my throat begin to swell. The feeling lingered long after I had boarded my train and left the station.

No doubt this was partly because that's precisely the effect the ad was intended to elicit. The spectacular beauty of the picture, too sweeping and glorious for sentimentality, the rhythmic economy of the imagined dialogue -- this ad's authors really knew what they were doing.

And I think that's another reason I felt such a substantial response. I'm the daughter of a former speechwriter and communications consultant. A powerful respect for the friendly art of persuasion is bred in my bones. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I memorized Mario Cuomo's keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention. This had nothing to do with political commitment -- I didn't have any at that age, apart from a transient and imperfectly formulated regard for the Communists. I memorized the speech because very little makes me happier than really good rhetoric.

But I'm pretty sure it wasn't just the combination of quality advertising and a sympathetic message that left such a marked impression on me. I think it was something else, something altogether larger and at the same time more personal.

On my first trip to China in the summer of 1990, I lived in a student dormitory at the Harbin Institute of Technology. For no particular reason that I can think of, except that conservation was much on my mind in those days, I decorated my door with handmade notices advising their readers to "Protect the Planet: Plant a Tree," "Save the Rainforests," and, in pride of place, "Protect Our Elephants: Don't Buy Ivory."

I suppose I wanted to practise writing slogans in Chinese. That was probably the main part of the attraction. But I think I also wanted to put down roots, short though my visit was to be. I think it seemed to me that if I transplanted, through communication, the thoughts and wishes that I had at home, then I would somehow be at home in Harbin as well.

I don't know that I ever felt at home in Harbin -- I was only there about a month. However, I did communicate; I did elicit a response of sorts. A student in the English department, a very nice young man who came to visit the dorm quite frequently, eventually scrawled the following riposte: "Protect Young Girls: Don't Let Them Go Crazy." Shop-worn at home, my slogans were apparently too eccentric to be taken seriously in a Chinese context, even on a college campus.

Later on the same trip, my classmates and I were taken shopping in Beijing. We visited all sorts of places selling all kinds of Chinese artifacts. Eventually a shop assistant led me over to a counter selling exquisite ivory carvings -- figurines and palaces and rural idylls, all in the most meticulous detail imaginable. Small wonder that some have said, "Wisdom hath alighted on the hands of the Chinese." But when I saw the carvings, and the shop assistant's pleasant smile, I pitched into her. "How can you sell this stuff! Don't you know that elephants have died for these things? Do you really think they are worth the life of a beautiful animal! How can you think I would buy this trash!" She was quite surprised, but she nodded politely. I wonder if she still remembers now.

If she does, I wonder what she thinks about it. Was I just rude? After all, she wasn't the one who killed the elephants and hacked out their tusks. She was just working in a shop that sold the results, and it's not as if she had a lot of choices in her life. No one had invited her on a summer exchange program to study language and culture in a foreign country.

Or does she look back and think that she saw one of the first pebbles drop into the pond? Does she pass that poster, ever, and think to herself, "This is commonplace now, but I remember when it was as bizarre as the blue-eyed foreign ghost who came from across the ocean to wave her finger in my face and tell me what she knew?"

Of course, I wouldn't really claim to have thrown one of the first pebbles. I have played virtually no active role in environmental conservation. I sign petitions, that's about it. But I do have this funny feeling, being in China now and seeing the stupid, pen-and-ink ads I posted on a door in a dormitory in Harbin nearly twenty years ago done properly, done by experts, and posted in a bustling metro in the middle of a world capital. I feel rather as if I had been waiting for a friend to arrive, waiting a long time, and now at last I am hearing a knock at the door.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"The Heart That Must Not Be Lonely"

One of the maids is leaving tomorrow night. She's going to catch a night train to her hometown in Shaanxi so she can spend the New Year with her husband and young son. I don't know how long it has been since she last saw them. Months, anyway. Maybe a year.

To celebrate her visit home, we gathered around the kitchen counter -- my host, her two children, the other maids and I -- and opened a big crate of lucky tangerines. They were round and tiny, bright as carp. Most of them still had their stems and leaves. My host urged us to eat as many as we could. "I bought three boxes," she said. She also told the maid to take some on the train with her. "Even if you don't eat them, take them for the sweet smell."

Then my host asked the maid what her son's baby name was. Baby names are nicknames that Chinese families use -- nothing to do with a child's real name. I think the tradition stems from a belief that evil spirits who might wish to harm the child will be confused by the multiplicity of names and end up leaving the baby alone. "Kaikai," the maid said. I thought I heard her voice catch, but when I looked over she was smiling.

This kind of scenario isn't at all unusual in China. The other maids both have families at home too. They are part of the huge population of migrant workers who flood the cities in search of jobs. Conditions in the countryside must be very hard, for these long stretches away from their families to seem worth the cost.

The maids' uncomplaining acceptance of their situation makes me ashamed of my own intense homesickness. Or partly ashamed, because of course we can't help what we feel, and after all I suppose the maids feel it too. Even their stoicism, praiseworthy as it is, may be as much a matter of necessity as it is elegance of character.

It also makes me wonder about the nature of home, and homesickness, in these nomadic days. I suppose people's minds configure the idea of home in all sorts of different ways, really, so perhaps there is no single, critical difference between the way we thought of home in our more parochial past, and the way we think of it now that seas and deserts are no longer any real barrier.

A couple of days ago a middle school student who is applying for admission to my old boarding school asked me about my experience there. I found myself telling her that, while I was there, Andover always seemed the best, most important place in the world for me to be. I never had any real wish to be anywhere else. Sure, sometimes I wanted my cat and a fireplace and my mother's cooking, but I never felt that sense of dislocation and desolate rootlessness that marks a real, desperate longing for home.

Later that day, my thoughts kept alighting on my answer to this young student's question. This was partly because it seemed to me to encapsulate what had been most important about Andover to me. I was glad to have been able to articulate my views, and glad to share them with someone who might find a use for them. But I think it was also because it suggested a possible answer to my own questions about home and homesickness: when the place you are in feels like the proper center of the universe, you feel no pressing hunger for the far away. You may admire distant mountains, or firelit windows, or ancient cities, but only as possible "adventures and contentments," not as a cure for the sense of being cramped in a narrow and unworthy place, or forsaken where "her nis non hoome, her nis but wildernesse."

Because that's the other thing. Even far-flung travels are essentially earth-bound. I suppose some people still feel that there's a certain romance to air travel, but, even if you are one of those lucky ones -- one of the ones who actually taste the pleasure of being aloft in the clouds -- quite soon you always have to land again. Then you are back on the ground. Unless you feel that the place you have landed is now the center of the universe, how are you to escape the sense that you have merely exchanged one wilderness for another?

But then this conflict between the desire for far travels and the yearning for home, for a focus of understanding and in-placeness, is nothing new. If old poems are any gauge, warring centripetal and centrifugal forces have always ruled our interior compasses. Even assuming all Odysseus really ever wanted was to get back to Ithaca as quickly as possible with no adventures on the way, he was not, after all, the primary character in his story. It is the rocks and spray, the circuit of islands in the wine-dark sea, that chart the blueprint of his days.

One of my favorite poems, sometimes called "China's epic," though it is only 92 verses long and is in every sense a true lyric -- modal, reflective, interior, musical -- touches on a number of these ideas. In this poem, the idea of home is characterized in two ways: it is at once the ideal seat of trust, of understanding and being understood, and the scene of a terrible sense of deceit and betrayal. Between them they produce an intense bitterness. Still more importantly, the poem speaks to the imagined power of unfettered journeying, featuring a magical itinerary through the sky. And most importantly of all, that journey is halted, in the end, by an overpowering longing for home:

陟升皇之赫戏兮,忽临睨夫旧乡。 仆夫悲余马怀兮,蜷局顾而不行。

But, in the aurorean glory ascending,
I glimpsed, on a sudden, my home far below.
My coachman was saddened, my horses were longing
And back their necks buckled; they would not go on.

I wonder if perhaps the key -- the key for our times, anyway -- is not to have a center of the universe, but to rather regard everywhere as a part of everywhere else. Of course, this is hardly a new thought, but it is comforting. And, the more we understand the material nature of our cosmos, the more true it seems.

At any rate, Caleb Milne seemed to think so. In his last letter to his mother before he was killed administering first aid to a wounded soldier during the Tunisian campaign in World War II, he described his surroundings abroad as "a vivid, wonderful world so full of winter and spring, warm rain and cold snow, adventures and contentments, good things and bad." But the strangeness of it all -- such a remarkable time, such an outlandish place -- apparently had no power over his capacity to think himself elsewhere, at other times, beyond longing:

How often you will have me with you when the wood smoke drifts across the wind, or the first tulips arrive, or the sky darkens in a summer storm. Think of me today, and in the days to come, as I am thinking of you this minute -- not gone or alone or dead, but part of the earth beneath you, part of the air around you, part of the heart that must not be lonely.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

La Belle Superpower

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that practically the second you become an expat you find yourself cultivating new attitudes towards your homeland. This can happen in a lot of different ways. Sometimes the changes are pretty subtle -- just a slightly altered set of emphases on the things, positive and negative, that you consider important about your country. Decent ice cream, say, or an insufficiency of municipal parks. But sometimes the changes are more drastic. Ferocious critics of the way the home store is run suddenly find themselves lobbing mortars in the other direction. Doves get hawkish. All kinds of stuff starts to sound different when it comes from people who grew up singing a different national anthem.

This thought occurred to me during my English lesson yesterday. In a review of the word "powerful" and the different ways it could be used, I found myself discussing the idea behind the word "superpower" and its various implications. It was all rather over my students' heads (hey, they just turned eight last month), but sometimes I like to talk to them about things they can't possibly understand. Just occasionally. You never know what will stay with them, after all.

So, I told them that America was, for a time, the world's sole remaining superpower (they liked hearing this, as they are very pro-America), but that China was also a rising superpower (naturally, they liked that too). Then I mentioned the Cold War and invited them to guess who the other superpower had been. I thought they might know the answer, actually -- might have heard their parents or grandparents talking about it, perhaps -- but in any case I have noticed that when they don't know something they like to guess. What I wasn't prepared for, though, was one of the first guesses: France.

Actually, what I should say is, I wasn't prepared for my reaction to the idea that France might have been the Other Great Superpower, the US's rival in the Cold War. I mean, "derisive laughter" doesn't begin to describe it. I just hooted.

See, the thing is, back home, I don't make fun of the French. I mean NEVER. It would break my Proust-reading, Paris-map-memorizing parents' hearts. But this time I laughed so hard I almost fell over. I was wiping the tears from my eyes. I felt so American -- so classically "freedom-fry"-eating, flag-waving, SUV-driving American -- I had to resist the urge to rush to a mirror to see if I looked any different. (People over here often ask if I am French, English or Russian and even quite frequently if I am Chinese -- I suppose they must think I am one of the Turkic minorities or something -- and they are always astonished to find I am American. "You don't look American," they say.)

I clearly remember the first time this sort of expat Americanization happened to me. It was during my last sojourn in China, right after college, and it was much more dramatic and sobering. Bill Clinton was President then and the US was riding high. But I knew that we still had plenty of critics. I was one myself. And so I wasn't too surprised when a grad student at the university where I taught began to voice anti-American views. One day, though, he stepped over the line. He told me that if he were President of China he would order an air raid on some random US cities, just to give us a taste of our own medicine.

"Well, that's awfully civilized of you," I said. "Very mature."

"Yes, that's right, that's your civilization. You boss everyone else around. You should see what it's like on the other end."

Being told that the US is bossy and overbearing (which is actually a fairly polite description) didn't really bother me. What bothered me was my interlocutor's phenomenal, staggering refusal to think rationally or argue fairly. After all, I wasn't the one proposing to bomb random cities. He was. It wasn't my civilization; it was his twisted, childish thinking. And while I was ready to engage in a real discussion of the complexities that inevitably attend the conceptualization and prosecution of any foreign policy in a geopolitically interdependent world, this grad student didn't even know what real discussion was. I guess that was really the scary part. He was a grad student at an excellent university, and he didn't even understand how far from the rational he had strayed; he had no concept of rational thought in the first place.

So, perhaps it's not surprising that I snapped. But what is surprising -- what surprised me at the time, anyway -- is the way I did it. Without warning, I switched from Chinese to English and said, coolly, "You want to take on the US? Good luck." The chilly arrogance in my tone startled even me. It was as if some brooding external force had been lying in wait and seized the moment to transform me from an individual person, a liberally-educated citizen of the world, into a living epitome of American power and American will.

Then the moment passed, and things shook themselves right again. Or almost right. I did lose contact with that particular grad student, though we had once been very close. I also developed a keener sensitivity to the national chauvinism that seemed to be becoming endemic among China's young people. Then I went home and startled all my friends with my endless complaints about China: how rude and unfeeling people could be, how ruthless in their pursuit of personal advantage, and, most of all, how determined to regard world culture in a competitive context, as if it were a contest they felt entitled to win and injured at having to entertain any doubts about. You're a rising modern power built on a five-thousand-year-old civilization, I wanted to shout. You have nothing to prove! But I never said it, or not to the right people, anyway.

Things have been very different on this trip. After eight years of the galactically unpopular Bush administration, I had dreaded playing the part of the American abroad, but I should have known better. We're too easy a target now. Bashing us is no fun anymore. Besides, now China is the one to be riding high. If it's a competition, China won it -- she's got the Olympic gold to prove it. If it's a question of personal advantage, well, there's nothing like the threat of a global depression to shift one's perspectives. We're all in a ditch; no one has the advantage now.

But of course now things are changing once again. As I sit here gazing out my window at the bright moon hanging over Beijing, I think about the coming inauguration of Barack Obama and the renewal of America. Of course, I don't know what this renewal will mean or what shape it will take. No one does. But the prospect makes me think of a strange question one of my students raised in our lesson yesterday. When I said that China was becoming a superpower, my tone must have left room for some doubt about whether I meant to say China would take America's place on the world stage, or merely join her there. I can still see my student's great, big, anxious eyes fixed on me: "China and America, right? China and America?"

As I said, I don't know what will happen. No one does. But, as I listened to the implications behind my student's question, one certainty suddenly shot through me. A lot of people have been suggesting certain parallels between Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy. Maybe they're valid, maybe not. But here's the thing. I don't know what kinds of dangers will prompt President Barack Obama to dispatch aides in the middle of the night to seek audience with heads of state in foreign lands -- maybe to France, maybe to China. I"m just pretty sure there will be such perils. And, for the first time in a long while, I think there's a good chance that those heads of state will find it reasonable to say, as once before, "I don't need to see pictures. I trust the word of the President of the United States."

"That's right," I assured her. "China and America. Both of us."

Friday, January 9, 2009


Earlier today my lesson was cancelled on me without explanation. This happens a lot and it ticks me off every time, even though I know no rudeness or disrespect is intended. It's just one of those cultural things. The Chinese operate in an ad hoc fashion. Advance planning is not a popular concept. In many ways this is a terrific national characteristic and I would do well to learn from it, because I'm about as flexible as a two-by-four.

Which is probably why I can never seem to get past the initial stage of my response: "How can these people just up and cancel my class without telling me? What the bloody hell do they think they're playing at? What about my plans? Doesn't my timetable matter?"

On this particular occasion, as so often in the past, I'd orchestrated my day around the scheduled lesson. I could have gotten a lot else done if I'd known I wouldn't need to hang around this afternoon. In particular, I could have returned my books to the library. In fact, that's what I had originally hoped to do with the afternoon -- they're due tomorrow and I am so frequently ambushed by bad health that I am really, really chary of letting anything with a deadline run right down to the wire -- but then I was asked to teach my lesson instead. The lesson that never happened.

The thing to do in these situations is to find some nice activity to take your mind off how irritated you are. After a while, you look up from your tea in a cafe or your walk in a park and wonder how you could have gotten worked up over such a piffling little thing in the first place. My problem today was, I was too tired to go out and treat myself to a nice dinner or a movie or some other cheerful little adventure.

So here I was alone at home -- only not at home because I am sort of a hired guest -- wondering what to do with my extra time and my bad temper. Alone, that is, except for the maids, who are very nice indeed. On the whole I try not to bother them too much. I'd like to be friends, and we do sometimes have nice chats, but I don't want to intrude. They work hard, and I have the feeling that when they have any time off they'd really just like to relax with each other and not be forced to take part in a cultural exchange.

I felt too tired and cross to start working on anything productive, so I just sat at my desk feeling sorry for myself.

Then I found myself thinking about milkshakes. I started wishing I could just hop in my little yellow Beetle and take a trip to one of the many first-class creameries that are sprinkled across Eastern Massachusetts. Well, all of New England, really. But my car is in Massachusetts and I am in Beijing. There are milkshakes here, but I would need to go downtown to get one -- probably an hour on the metro, and I've never been to any of the establishments that serve them, so there'd always be the risk that whatever place I chose from an internet directory would have closed or moved or changed its hours or gotten pregnant or something.

Then I thought, "Hey, wait. We've got a blender here, and the local supermarket is still open, and I know they sell both ice cream and milk. It's probably terrible ice cream, but still, it's likely worth a shot."

So I told the maids I was heading off to the supermarket for some ice cream because I was going to make milkshakes and asked what kind they wanted. Nobody specified a kind, so I bought both chocolate and strawberry.

We finished the chocolate up and left the strawberry for another time. One of the maids, who has quite a sweet tooth, drank two glasses. As she poured the last of it into her glass she said, laughing, "I'm not being at all polite." Only she said, "Like a guest," which is the most common Chinese way of saying "polite."

"That's right," I told her. "We're all mates here."

I was right: the ice cream was absolutely terrible. But it was good enough for us. Our party had no guests.