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Jul. 8th, 2011

Peppers

Carpe Diem!

Another week gone by. I looked at a promising apartment this morning, and will see another this evening. Ideally, Cathy and I will be moving into one of them. I realize that is a definite “knock on wood” statement but I’m seizing this opportunity to reclaim my life from the scurrying machinations of the unknown –– do your worst, wood sprites. (“Coincidence: the thinking man’s fate!” See also, “Murder –– the extrovert’s suicide!”)

The last few days I’ve been reading Bill Carter’s The War for Late Night, concerning the contretemps between Conan and Leno a year or so ago. The story is interesting and I’ve been enjoying the potted bios of O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and others, especially since I have a few friends who are at least tangentially connected to that world. Stylistically, though, Carter is beyond hyperbolic. He employs similes the way Michael Bay employs explosions. (Made-up example: “He seemed calm but inside his guts churned, like he had accidentally swallowed a hand grenade, mistaking it for an unusually tough avocado.”) I find I’m happier reading nonfiction on my iPad than I am reading fiction. This may be because I prefer to restrict my e-books to titles I would only like to read once, saving physical books for fiction that ostensibly has more staying power.

I’ll be flying to Beijing a week from today and staying there a further week or so. While I’ve been back to the Mainland several times over the last few years (mostly Shanghai and environs), I haven’t been to Beijing since I was a student there for six months in 2002. At the time I was going through my default response to a change of scenery, namely, hating most everything around me for most of the time. This was in large part due to my being seriously stressed-out by my program and its attendant language pledge, which forbade us to speak English, in class or out, for the length of the program. (One fun side effect was that for the first week or two everyone in the program went to bed with pounding headaches every knight. The first time I saw that scene toward the end of The Bourne Identity where Clive Owen, whom Matt Damon has moments earlier ventilated with a shotgun, complains about the terrible headaches that their super spy training gave him, I could totally relate.)

That was all a long time ago and I’m a lot more sanguine about life now. (I managed to revisit Japan last year with minimal psychic distress, for example.) So for the most part I’m quite excited to be heading back, to see what has changed, what has stayed the same, and so forth. Of course, it helps that I’ll be staying with friends, which always makes such ventures a lot more bearable. Additionally, I’ll be fully in international academic mode, polishing connections at Beishi da and, with any luck, maybe scoping out a first edition of Gujin xiaoshuo or Jin’gu xiaoshuo –– that would be a fun coup. Fingers crossed.

Jul. 6th, 2011

Peppers

The Two Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Bah: various minor annoyances these days. I looked at a promising apartment on Friday afternoon and said I’d take it. The woman responsible for the ad said she’d just have to check with her roommates and get back to me the following day. Finally, just before midnight on Tuesday I heard back –– she’d checked in and apparently as the result some communications argle bargle (or is it a foofaraw I’m thinking of) the room had already been let to someone else, which puts me and Cathy back to square one. It has been suggested that the “checking with roommates” line was just a smokescreen of some sort but the woman wrote back today very apologetically and I’m inclined to take her at her word. Considering that it is now less than six months until I leave this probably means a stiff lowering of standards is order, which bums me out: most of the taofang in this city are pretty bleak. I just hate the thought of paying ten thousand (NT$) plus a month for a grubby room with a shower attached but if that seems to be the direction the wind is blowing then let it never be said I do not also blow.

Second in my list of trivial, white collar crosses to bear: my faithful iPod Touch seems to be on its last legs. That is to say, if not actually dead, then aggressively getting its affairs in order, calling up estranged relatives, etc. Considering it’s over four years old at this point and has spent most of the four years getting dropped in Forest Park as I gracefully faceplant I’d say that’s pretty good. A lot of the secondary functions seem fine but every time I try to play any audio it automatically reverts back to the menu screen without playing anything. I tried restarting, of course, and I’ve wiped it back to factory settings and restored to the last sync, but still no luck. Assuming the damage is irreparable, I may consider replacing it with a nice little 16 gig Nano, since most of the fancier stuff I can now do on my iPad.

Jul. 4th, 2011

Peppers

Monday Monkey Lives for the Weekend, Sir

Up betimes-ish and did my morning flailing with my Pilates for Dummies DVD, which I’m trying to do three times a week. I dream of a day when my Taiwanese colleagues will not greet me by saying how fat I’ve become.

Then off to the library for story number four: 閒云年庵阮三冤債 (Ruan San Redeems His Debt in Leisurely Cloud Nunnery). It start with the usual tropes (well-intentioned parents fall short in their parenting, their kids give in to their throbbing biological urges, calamity results) but takes a nice turn into dreams and ghosts, something I’m always in favor of.

Jul. 3rd, 2011

Peppers

Whoa! Eh? Whoa! Whoa!

The internet connection around here has recently been pretty unreliable. It comes and goes, leaving us all shuffling around with sunken eyes and receding gums, salivating for just a taste of sweet, sweet Hypertext Markup Language.

I’ve been carrying on with my work in the library at Shijian University, although I haven’t much been able to focus the last few days. I think the long commute to the library is part of the problem there –– hopefully things should improve on that score once we get a new place. There’s reason for optimism on that front but I’m going to keep quiet for now, so as not to jinx it.

Cathy has been away all weekend on an extended Girls’ Night Out type thing with her friend Celine, leaving me to tend the fort in Taipei and ensure the city doesn’t burn down. (So far, so good). I went to the National Palace Museum yesterday afternoon where I met up with Yunjing to see the Huang Gongwang 黃共望 exhibit. On the bus ride over I rescued a nice girl named Wendy who was caught up in a mild contretemps resulting from her use of the wrong kind of metro pass. I invited her to walk around the museum with us and she was good company.

Afterward I bused and MRTed and walked my way over to Guting and environs for a rooftop barbecue at Jess and Jen’s place. The guests included Bryan, Canadian Brian, Kevin, Yen, Council, and the dogs Foxy and Ani. There were burgers, hotdogs, salad, banana bread, and Heisong Sarsaparilla (and who doesn’t love that?). It was cool and breezy on the roof and I didn’t even feel vertiginous and queasy near the edge (yes, mom, there is a wall there).

Up this morning and not much to do. I mostly puttered around the apartment all morning, had dumplings and doujiang at a nearby Bafang for lunch while listening to the Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review (excellent rant there condemning Transformers 3 as pornographic in the nastiest, stickiest sense of the word) then back to the apartment for a nap while listening to a thunder storm (now passed by, I think).

Jun. 17th, 2011

Peppers

Forward Motion

I’ve had a somewhat difficult time focusing on my work this week but that’s Ok. This week’s story is “Censor Chen Ingeniously Solves the Case of the Gold Hairpins and Brooches” (陳御史巧勘金釵鈿), which I vaguely recall reading in the fall. It’s making a stronger impression on me this time around. I’m certain this is in large part due to my reading it in Chinese, which requires a slower pace and closer gaze; I’ve been reading like a squinty old man in an art museum with his nose six inches from a Monet.

It is encouraging to see my reading level gradually improving. Say what you will about my spoken (actually, please don’t), you will soon enough not be able to fault me for my grasp of the vernacular of the 17th century Jiangnan region –– in practice, what this means is that I’ll be unconsciously larding my conversation with four hundred year old slang and such (“How now, 7-11 wench –– what cheer? Prithee gather up a flagon of sarsaparilla and a loaf of melon bread most sweet and toothsome, for I would break my fast like ye kings of old…Why do you tarry so? Do you not mark me?”), which is both kind of awesome and kind of pathetic. At any rate that world is very slowly coming into focus for me and it’s a fascinating place, all merchants and maidens and rogues and ghost and demons and what-have-you. It’s a setting I’d like to explore creatively, through some kind of fiction project, as well as academically. If I get anything written you’ll hear about it here first.

Jun. 14th, 2011

Peppers

"For your comfort and convenience you will be sharply kneed in the groin."

When I graduated from my language program some four years ago I was told that the facilities are still open for alums, that we should come on by whenever we need to use the computer lab, the reading room, etc. It was a cool offer and in the time since then I’ve happily taken advantage of it when I’m in town. In fact, the reading room is where I spent most of my productive time last summer. It’s clean, free of the distraction of Wi-Fi, and generally ignored by the students. Another nice thing is that the teachers and even the janitors tend to remember and say hi.

So it came as a bit of surprise when I was peremptorily evicted by the director of the program this afternoon. She (yes, the same one from he good old days) barreled up to me in the reading room with a big smile on her face (in hindsight, an obvious red flag) and said hi, where have I been, and so on. I gave her the precis of my current visit to Taiwan (doctor research, etc) and she said that’s all lovely and would I mind joining her in the hallway to talk, lest we disturb the one other fellow in the room.

As we continued to talk it gradually dawned on me that she was effectively telling me to leave without ever coming right out and saying so: isn’t mafan (a bother) to commute all the way from Banqiao; surely there must be other places more convenient for you to study, and so on. My favorite: “You know, since none of the students know you, they’ll want to ask you who you are and what you’re up to –– don’t you think that’ll be terribly mafan?” Me: “I see, so you’re really trying to save me a lot of mafan, is that it?” Director: “Yes, exactly. Of course, if you wanted to sit in the study room occasionally that would probably fine, so long as you notified me in advance of every visit. And we’d need to set an event for you to be formally introduced to all the current students if you were ever going to do that…”

The thing that pisses me off so much about this is not that I was asked to hit the road. There are all sorts of more or less legitimate reasons she might have –– insurance liability, my distracting good looks and pleasant smell, etc. If she had given me an honest answer, that would be just dandy. No, the thing that really burns me is that she had the unmitigated gall to give me a transparently bogus rationale, smiling all the while, and try to present it as though she were doing me a favor. Because god forbid I should have a commute of my choosing or suffer a conversation with someone about my work.

Well, guess what, little miss petty water cooler dictator, I don’t need you or your overpriced, parochial, one horse, small beer fiefdom. From what I hear, the grape soda in the vending machines was sour anyway. Bah.

Jun. 10th, 2011

Peppers

光陰似箭

And so ends my first week of productivity for the summer. I’m a little behind where I had hoped to be but I think that’s mostly because of the Monday holiday and also the text I worked on for this week is about twice as long as they typically will be in weeks to come. After working through the vernacular Jiang Xingge story on Tuesday and Wednesday I got started on its classical Chinese source material yesterday. It’s interesting, this is the third version of the story I’ve read (if you also count the English translation) and even though the language is so terse, it’s very impactful. (婦人內慙欲死 “His wife was ashamed at heart and wanted to die.”) There’s something about the blunt character of the prose that makes it very affecting at times.

I think this must be registration week at ICLP (my old language program) and it’s been interesting to see a few more 書呆子 taking up residence in the reading room. Naturally I’m curious about them, since I’ll be spending so much time there, but I find myself hesitant to approach them. I guess it’s just that as an alumnus I’m not sure what my role is there –– I don’t want to be the ICLP version of the random older dude who shows up at college frat parties even though he graduated years earlier and everyone tries to figure out whether he’s an undercover cop or just some townie who wants to party. This hint of uneasy alienness is exacerbated by the fact that the default ICLP restaurant, which was almost universally known as “The Classic,” (as in, “Where shall we go?” “Well, the classic option would be…”) is suddenly, shockingly gone, having been replaced by a pretty good pizzeria. Change equals alarm.

Jun. 7th, 2011

Peppers

"Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage"

I got down to work today, reading the first half of the first story in Gujin xiaoshuo (for those of you playing along at home, that would be “Jiang Xingge reencounters the pearl shirt”). As I often do when I’m back in Taipei for the summer, I was working from the ICLP reading room. It’s clean and comfortable and affords me plenty of desk space. The only major problem is that I keep expecting to see classmates who haven’t haunted those quarters for going on four or five years now. Also it turns out there are more subtle dangers –– for example, along with the usual mechanical lock on the door to the room, there is an electronic lock, meaning it is quite easy to step out for a drink of water, return, and let the door swing shut behind you. From there you can enjoy the sinking sense of your own immense stupidity as you discover that the electronic lock has engaged, imprisoning you alone in the room with no obvious way to get out. In the end, by way of a series of pathetic hand gestures I was able to catch the attention of one of the teachers in the nearby office and arrange for my liberation.

Jun. 6th, 2011

Peppers

(no subject)

One of the indices of my misspent youth is the number of fortune cookie fortunes I’ve managed to collect over the years. Probably the best of these is one I collected in college that just says, “Life is a dark tunnel.” (Drôle). I was reminded of this at about 11 last night when the bus I was on took literally forty minutes to pass through an impossibly long tunnel. After a while it became a joke. The scene outside the windows kept repeating like a Hannah Barbara cartoon: concrete wall, mosaic, emergency exit, concrete wall, mosaic, emergency exit….

Please don’t conclude from this that I was having a bad time, though, because I had a marvelous day. Cathy and I had reconnected with a group of very good friends (Jess, Bryan, Jen, Jenny, Yen) and together we rode out to Yilan 宜蘭 for a housewarming barbecue. The host (one of Jess’s friends) had just moved into an apartment a five minute walk from a totally bucolic stretch of beach on the ocean and so we brought our swimsuits and bobbed up and down in the water, tossed a Frisbee around, and just generally indulged in the kind of aquatic horseplay that lifeguards are always warning about.

Afterward we went back to the apartment, showered off, and had a really delightful meal that had been organized by the host, apparently a professional chef at an earlier stage in his life. There were probably twenty or twenty-five people floating around, both foreign (American, mostly) and Taiwanese, and it was deeply awesome to be at a get together with foreigners speaking Chinese (in many cases way better than mine –– better get to work), Taiwanese speaking English, and everybody getting along in a totally cosmopolitan way.

Jun. 3rd, 2011

Peppers

Cat Scratch Fever

I’m writing in the Cat’s Cafe, a place my friend Lingling showed me last year. It’s the quintessential college coffee shop: mismatched secondhand furniture, old paper backs on every surface (including Gulliveriana, the erotic adventures of Lemule Gulliver’s female double), the menu written out in chalk on a blackboard, Chinese-language shoe-gazer indie rock, folks sitting around for hours nursing a single drink, and so on. It’s a very familiar seeming environment, and I could almost forgot I’m in Taipei –– not that I feel the need to forget I’m here.

Someone recently asked me about culture shock but that’s not something I’ve ever really had a problem with in Taiwan (unlike Japan and the Mainland). I would say the biggest contrast is seat-belts, of all things. I’ve been so thoroughly programed to put on my seat-belt in all vehicles that I get the strangest looks from cabbies and other locals. I think many folks see it as a little insulting –– “You really think my driving’s that bad?” It probably looks like a foreigner climbing into a New York cab and putting on a helmet and mouthguard but I truly can’t help it at this stage.

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