Thursday, October 28, 2010

Good Work if You Can Get It

Would you like an all-expenses paid trip to Japan? Of course you would. Who wouldn’t?

Super sleuth Pipi just found an article suggesting that such a free trip is possible, courtesy of the Japan Tourism Agency. Unfortunately, the article is heavy on non-essential information, like why they’re doing this (something about wanting to know how to make the country more gaigin-friendly, to use an expression borrowed from an ex-patriot friend of mine) and light on what I really want to know, which is how do I get myself invited?

If anyone finds out, please let me know. You can have the window seat on the way over.

Friday, October 22, 2010

God Will Provide (But Bring Your Own Tissues)

I’ve been in China two weeks and it’s getting to me. Or maybe it’s just Beijing, which I’ve left only once in this time. Whatever the case, the novelty of being in China is beginning to wear off and the struggle to adapt to the culture is starting to wear me down. I’m tired of the spitting and staring, I’m tired of the effort it takes to make myself understood, I’m tired of people fighting each other (and me) like animals to get on public buses, I’m tired of squatting, and I’m tired of the gritty black dust that coats everything, including my nasal passages, which have been producing something the color and consistency of a mud slide all day.

This particular evening, I realize that I am not just homesick. I am physically ill as well. I’m in no shape to have dinner with anyone, but this is exactly what’s happening. I have quarantined myself as far as possible from other diners at one of the local dives catering to backpackers, but my isolation seems attractive to an Australian man in his late twenties who asks politely if he might join me.

I have always been under the impression that all Australians are Crocodile Dundee-sized loads of fun, so I say yes without hesitation. This one, though, has an odd idea of a good time. He tells me he is about to leave the relative comfort of Beijing for a stint working as a missionary in Mongolia. He says he’ll be arriving on the steppe at about the time of year when food is starting to run short and temperatures are beginning their plunge toward a constant -40. Adding to his list of challenges, he speaks not a word of Mongolian.

I wonder how he’s going to survive when I feel like this city of skyscrapers and running water is killing me. When I ask, though, all he says is, “God will provide.”

As if to underscore the fact that this kind of statement of faith invites no discussion, he changes the subject. “Do you have a philosophy?” he asks. I don’t. I have a cold. I’m blank. “Avoid cities,” I finally say, hoping this response makes me sound like I operate on a higher plane than I really do.

He tells me that his philosophy is that, “God made us, and we should do everything we can to serve Him.” I instantly feel like the most vapid creature in China. He continues, explaining that he is compelled to bring God to the people because, “God is very, very, very good, and people are very, very, very bad.” It’s just that simple. He says he doesn’t believe that people are capable of being good on their own, and that in fact, “Left to their own devices, they become worse.”

Kind of like a cold, I guess.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Silver Lining

Several months ago, I wrote an article for Curve magazine. Between my submitting it and it’s running, the magazine was sold to an Australian publishing firm.

This immediately seemed like good news from a reader’s perspective, because I know the magazine has been struggling financially, and lately, I’d been seeing ominous signs. For example, I noticed that nobody was contacting me to ask for an author photo, or bio info—and they always run that kind of thing along with feature articles. And the magazine abruptly cancelled an anniversary party, which seemed like a very bad sign. I really like Curve and so under the circumstances, I’m glad they found a new publisher because a sale implies that someone sees a future for the magazine.

Of course, regime change also means people lose their jobs, and that’s not good. I knew that the editor I had worked with lost hers, so I worried that my article would be ignored by the new team. Happily, I just had an email exchange with the new editor-in-chief, and she said she still plans to use it.

Even better, she said that she liked my piece, and that it “rang true” to her as an Australian. What a relief! If I’d thought months ago there was a chance my article would turn out to be me telling Aussies what Oz is like, I never would have pitched it in the first place.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Of Course, the Space IS Free for WWI Vets

I found this little memorial walking along San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland. I know it’s a little hard to tell what it is, partly because I forgot my camera and had to take this photo with my crummy cell phone, and partly because it’s a sad little thing that you have to get very close to to identify.

This monument turns out to be a memorial to Oakland residents killed in World War I. In the town fathers’ defense, it was dedicated in 1921, when it’s very likely that this plot of land was not yet a parking lot. (Or located in a slum.) But now it is, and the obelisk has to be fenced off from the rest of the parking places so no one will hit it.

Is this really the best we can do?

Friday, October 15, 2010

What Just Happened Here

Nothing much; yesterday’s posting was just me doodling around, trying to write down some of my memories from a long trip I took to China in 1992. For some reason, lately I’ve been thinking not just of things that happened while I was there, but of the people I met as well.

China in 1992 was not a destination for everyone. You didn’t just find yourself there because, say, your Eurorail pass allowed you a few days at no extra charge. Most of the Westerners I met had been driven there by fairly powerful forces, and just about all of us could be divided into those who were looking for something, and those who were escaping something. Gunther was a seeker. He was quite a bit older than I was (exactly the age I am now, as a matter of fact), and at that point in my life, I was not as receptive to his new-age spirituality as I might be now.

Okay, actually, I still think the whole “hot stomach” thing is a little weird. But I did like the guy, and his words of advice on dealing with frustrating situations you have little hope of changing have stuck with me all these years.

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, the photo that ran yesterday is an actual photo of Gunther. He and I and a number of other backpackers I was traveling with at the time had just gone for a camel ride, and we were now playing on the enormous sand dunes that exist on the outskirts of Dunhuang.

Funny, I remembered him as being bigger.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Once Upon a Time in Gansu Province

Gunther is a vegetarian, and I wonder if that explains why he is in China and not at home in Germany. When I ask, however, he tells me he’s here among the sand dunes in Dunhuang to learn about traditional Chinese medicine.

Gunther tells me a lot of things; for a guy who is not speaking his native language, he talks a lot. Some of his stories are strange, like the one about the time he broke the veggie faith, ate some pork, and immediately became afflicted with what he calls “hot stomach.” That meal ended when Gunther found himself compelled to leave the table and run into the nearby hills, stripping off clothing as he went, “because I had taken on the characteristics of the pig I’d just eaten.”

Our conversation turns from food woes to the ways traveling in China can try your patience. I ask how he copes with common frustrations like being overcharged, or lied to by ticket vendors.

“In those situations," he says, "You can let it go without saying anything, and then you have nothing.” I nod, thinking of the times when nothing is exactly what I had to show for whole afternoons spent at train stations.

“Or, you can make a scene and try to get your way. But you’ll probably still have nothing." He pauses.

“And now, you’re angry.”