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Saturday, July 31st, 2004
6:52 am
My life for the past week has consisted of hibernating, gatorade, and vogue. I slept for about 20 hours on each of the first 3 days, and though I don't feel as ill now staying awake for more than 5 hours at a time is still a bit of a challenge.

It is so, so amazing to be back. I don't think I've ever felt so enamored with America before. Just being able to actually communicate with people has a serendipitous element to it. The other day I went for an outing to my favorite coffeeshop with a friend, and throughout the course of the afternoon I was progressively astounded by how genuinely nice portlanders are. At one point I was waiting to cross a street which had no stop signs or lights, and within a minute the cars stopped and let me cross. Later her car overheated during rush hour on the Burnside bridge, and again within a minute two people stopped and offered to push the car to a side street. While we were waiting more people stopped to offer help, and then the AAA guys were very chatty and good-natured. It's taken a few years to say this earnestly, but I really love living in Portland.

I think the best thing about the trip was that it helped me to realize my limits. I think 6 months is about the longest I could spend in China comfortably, which is good to know since I was considering volunteering there for much longer after graduation. Chinese culture is stereotypically characterized by being "hot and noisy" and I think I'm really more of a "quiet and cloudy" kind of person. Score one for England. On the other hand, spending a month there kind of opened up Asia to me. In the last few days I met an amazing woman named Astrid, who has just finished teaching in Tokyo for 2 years and is travelling throughout China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia by herself for the next 3 months. She had gone to Korea, Laos, Thailand, and Bangladesh by herself while in Japan, all countries which (with the exception of China and Thailand) I haven't really thought much about going to, particularly not alone.

I think that is all I have to say for now. I've been talking about the trip so much recently that I'm kind of done with it. I'll probably post some of my interviews and drafts of my final paper here in a few weeks. It should be a good month--one very dear friend is coming to visit in 2 days, my family is coming in 2 weeks, and between my paper and working for the time-based art festival at PICA I should have lots to think about. This is going to be a really difficult summer to top.

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Monday, July 26th, 2004
9:58 am
HOME. will write about the last few days in shanghai once i recover from them and my wicked case of SARS (really just a cold).

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Saturday, July 24th, 2004
11:25 pm
long day. went to contemporary art galleries, blues club at night with new friends from the hostel. still exhausted and smelly. working at clinic tomorrow, so am going to take a shower now and then go to sleep. I probably won't be in touch again until I get back to the us, as tomorrow will be another long day and then I leave early on monday.

liz, if you can pick me up the flight info is posted in this journal way back in june. if you can't make it don't worry, i can just take a cab. i don't think I have your cell number, email it to me? thanks.

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Friday, July 23rd, 2004
4:31 pm - shanghai, part two
Shanghai seems familiar and bursting with energy this time around. I'm exhausted but happy. The hotel is interesting--it is the first western hotel in China and is pseudo-Baroque throughout, with very fancy common areas. The only downside is that the dorms consist of 18 folding cots in one big, slightly divided room. It's only three nights though, so I figure that this will make me that much happier to be home.

My plans for the rest of the day include finding a cafe, finishing the Portrait of a Lady (are you done, Kerin?), and walking around a bit.

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Thursday, July 22nd, 2004
4:00 pm - an open call...
Do any of my lovely friends in Portland want to pick me up from the airport at 8:15 am on the 26th? I know some of you have those things called jobs and some don't get up before noon, but if you can just email me and I'll send you the flight info. thank you thank you.

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1:17 pm
I do not like spectator sports. If there are to be sports involved I like to participate rather than watch, and will generally pass on any sport requiring a ball (besides croquet, of course). I also do not really watch tv. Therefore, no one could be more surprised than myself when I say that I am now addicted to Sports Scene with Edmond Redmond, a late night tv show which features a daily recap of worldwide sports news read by a goofy american guy who peppers his performance with lots of American slang. I think half the appeal is that it gives lengthy coverage to sports that are either never covered by most us sports media (like table tennis, sumo wrestling, and cricket) or that I had never heard of to begin with (such as handball). The funny thing is that the host always introduces himself as "your boy" Edmond Redmond, and apparently the studio producers really like this because they have the very stiff Chinese news anchors introduce him in the same way: Up next, your boy Edmond Redmond. He is clearly a recent import to Beijing and can't pronounce a third of the city or player names properly, and I confess that I get a strange sense of comfort from watching a foreigner that is more obvious and awkward than myself. This has become an especially profound experience in the last week, during which I have literally become "The Ugly American." My hair is in a permanent state of frizzy curl, I smell terrible because my poorly-washed laundry never really dries, and the combination of sunburn and dozens of mosquito bites have turned me into one big red bump. Schoolgirls never ask for my picture now, though at least they don't run away screaming in horror. yet.

The folk music/dance thing last night turned out to be really cool. The performance included samples of different kinds of opera, classical music, and storytelling in each pavilion. I had never been in one of the gardens at night before or seen it in use like that.

At the morning calligraphy lesson Old Mr. Wong showed me the different styles of writing and their basic mechanics, and was very gracious in his critique of my writing. He said something along the lines of "You write with youth and energy, like your home country. I write with history and deference, like my country. Both are good, both are special." Somehow even his random brush marks and splatters managed to look artful and intentional, while mine were just an inky mess. The best part was getting see his house, though. He lives with his granddaughter, and the whole house was wall to wall books in several different languages on poetry, philosophy, history, science, everything. He is one of those people who just knows so much that it can't all fit in his head and you can just sense the knowledge hovering around his body. He wasn't at all intimidating though, much more like a grandfather than a cantankerous scholar. He seemed to be equally as interested in me as I was interested in him, and was very eager to talk about gardens and tea and painting and all those lovely things. He studied at Oxford way back in the day (Magdalen college, very impressive), and it was really interesting to compare notes about being a foreign student. He was in croquet club, too, and was also frightened away by the vicious brits!

It is my last full day in Suzhou, and it is bittersweet. I feel ready to go home, as well as to begin the final, more concrete part of my research and my last year of college. I have been lucky to meet so many wonderful people while here, and though I wish I could stay longer to develop those relationships I'm trying to just take them for what they are worth. I probably won't really keep in touch with anyone that I have met on this trip, as much as I might like to. It is both the best and the worst thing about being the age that I am: constant change makes it possible to meet so many interesting, talented people, but moving around and being so busy makes it difficult to stay in each others present lives.

I will go to Shanghai early tomorrow by train. This time I am staying in a hostel that looks like a victorian boarding school, and will be there for 3 nights.

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Wednesday, July 21st, 2004
4:32 pm - Hangzhou, calligraphy, and a toad invasion
I've befriended a Canadian college student named Clara who is staying in the room next door to me. We started talking while both brushing our teeth in our shared bathroom this morning, and then decided to go to Hangzhou together. We walked around the lake and the historic part of town, and then came back in the early afternoon when the heat became overwhelming. It is not a bad place to spend a day, but I like Suzhou better. It seemed like most of the people we saw in Hangzhou were tourists, whereas Suzhou feels more like a community.

I'm surprised at how soothing it is to talk with a native English speaker. Clara could have a terrible personality (she's actually very funny) and I think I'd still like her because of her neutral north american accent. After three weeks of struggling to communicate, having an easy conversation is a welcome break. Tonight we are going to a folk dance and music performance at the master of the nets garden. It will no doubt be very touristy, but it is something to do.

Last night I had dinner with the Shen family again, which was even more fun than the last time. One of their other guests was an ancient (maybe 100?) man who is some sort of miscellaneous scholar, and he offered to give me a calligraphy lesson tomorrow morning. I'm really, really excited about it, and only wish that I had kept up with Chinese so that I could appreciate it more fully and converse more easily.

When I got back to my room last night I was met by an unexpected welcoming party of croaking toads. The floor attendent (it really is a dormitory) had left my door partially open so it would get some air, and 7 or 8 toads had hopped in and taken up residence in my nice dark room. My initial response involved a combination of shrieking and jumping on my bed, but then when the attendent and the porter were going to kill them I led the toad liberation front and convinced the attendent that we could just shoo them out with a broom. I did not complain, however, when the porter decided to immediately mop the whole floor and the attendent called over the hotel manager and made him turn on the air conditioning again. My room is now much cooler and toad free.

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Tuesday, July 20th, 2004
1:56 pm - complain, complain, complain...
It is now 38 degrees (c, i don't know what that translates to in fahrenheit but it is ridiculously hot). The street vendors have fallen asleep at their posts, withered by the sun. The air conditioning everywhere has been (voluntarily) turned off because of power shortages, and the buses are running less often. The goal today is move as little as possible. I should be grateful that I am in one of the few places in asia that is not flooded at the moment, but I'd be lying if I said I was.

I just went to a restaurant and was seated facing a long wall of sea creatures having their last swim. Crabs, mutant fish, snails, little tiny shellfish, and these long things that looked like snakes (sea cucumbers? eels? who knows). Since my vegetarianism is aesthetics-based this completely ruined my appetite. I wouldn't want to touch those things wearing thick rubber gloves, forget actually putting them in my mouth. The garlic sauce on my dumplings immediately morphed into fish goo, and my tea tasted like aquarium water. I think I might be off Chinese food for a while.

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Monday, July 19th, 2004
6:06 pm
Today I took a day trip to the Xishan islands, which are located in the middle of Lake Tai, about an hour away by bus. I didn't have any information about the islands (there are maybe 7 or 8 total), so my method of approach was to just stay on the bus until it stopped so that I could get an idea of what all there was to see. I had heard that there was one taoist island with some interesting caves, but I didn't know what it was called. The bus went through several islands which appeared to be cushy resort spots, complete with huge modern beach houses, a waterpark, and horseback riding. There were a few small gardens but I didn't see anything that looked like it would be worth a stop. I was considering just staying on the bus and going back to Suzhou when the bus made its final stop at the caves that I wanted to see, so I got off there and walked around for a few hours. It was a lovely spot, and in addition to the caves there were several well-situated pavilions with a great view of the surrounding islands. After that I just came back to suzhou, and went to a mexican restaurant that was actually pretty good. After three weeks without using a knife and fork it was surprisingly awkward, though the break from chinese food was much needed.

Yesterday as I was leaving the internet cafe Weiwei said what I partially understood as tonight...friends...hip-hop. The address he gave me was in the industrial part of town, so in my mind he was asking me to a sort of progressive, socially conscious hip-hop show in an old warehouse. I was naturally very curious. When I got there I was a little surprised that the place looked kind of like the old Onyx club in Portland, with flashy purple lights and general all around sketchiness. I went in and saw Weiwei and the cousin that I met with some of their friends, so we chatted a bit and it was all very nice. Nothing was really happening yet. About 45 minutes later the mc goes up onstage and makes some sort of introduction that I understood about 3 words of, and then, to my great surprise, they set up a karaoke machine. I was about to see Chinese hip-hop KARAOKE. It was the most entertaining thing I have seen in a long, long time, as about half of the songs chosen were american rap songs performed by kids who...are definitely not american rappers. For those interested, Tupac and Jay-z were very well represented, as was 50 cent (my parents' current favorite). I'm not much of a karaoke person so I had no plans for performing, but Weiwei's cousin really wanted to sing this old Salt and Pepa song (Shoop) and so we did it together. I think every single girl of my generation knows this song by heart, as it was the unofficial theme song at slumber parties in like, 1993 or therabouts. The days of dance routines, lip-synching, all that good stuff. Anyway, we had a lot of fun with the song, and only burst into giggles a few times from not knowing the words. It was a good time, and I enjoyed meeting a few more people my age. Most of all it was just so nice to hear music, even if it was karaoke music. In the interests of packing light I didn't bring my cd player with me, and I'm so used to listening to music throughout the day that I'm going through severe withdrawl. It's funny, whenever a store is playing music (chinese, american, elevator, whatever) I'm drawn in as if it were an oasis in the desert.

Tomorrow I will either go to Hangzhou or Tiger hill, depending on what time I get up. I've adjusted to my normal sleeping habits, so it was no small miracle that I left the house today by 10.

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Sunday, July 18th, 2004
12:49 pm
I have no idea where I was yesterday. I've gone to all the gardens in the central part of Suzhou now, so yesterday I tried to go to the Garden for Lingering In which is in the far northeast part of town. I was feeling pretty proud of myself after communicating with the pedicab guy where I wanted to go and negotiating on the price, and even finding the garden on his map. What I missed was what he said after I gave him directions, and I foolishly just nodded along. I think he suggested another place nearby the garden as an alternative, because he dropped me off at a place that was...well, I still don't exactly know what it was. Part of is was a temple, with the rows of burning red candles and incense and other kind of cool temple-like things. Then there were some tombs, for apparently important people though there were no English signs. So far, so good, though it would have been nice to know what I was looking at. Then there was a large hall with some performers wearing huge paper mache heads, and lots of women wearing fake beards and dancing throughout the audience with mini-cymbols. At this point I was a little confused...then I went out into this pseudo-garden area, which sort of looked like a public space, but all the little pavilions seemed inhabited because there were piles of shoes outside the doors. I tried peeking in the windows to determine if I could go in, and there was an old man looking right back at me so I got very flustered and quickly walked away. The weirdest thing though was the roosters. All over the place there were roosters in these tiny bamboo cages, very hard to see until they made their little rooster noises. After about the 5th surprising cockadoodledoo I decided that I should just get out of there and try to find the other garden. Easier said than done, but I did finally get out. Deciding that the trial merited ice cream, I went to a little convenience store and unknowingly bought this kind of ice cream with whole red beans in it. Interesting, though definitely a one time thing.

The part of town I was in is off my map, and I didn't know which direction the garden was in. I asked a young woman for directions, and though she just giggled at first she finally understood and pointed me in the right direction. So I walked, asking for directions a few more times along the way and eventually finding the garden about an hour later. I had some tea, rested a bit, and then concentrated on doing my research stuff. I left my notebook in my room today, so I'll just say that this garden was very rock-centric, and was flatter and less asymmetrical than the garden of the unsuccessful politician. I stayed in the garden for a few hours, leaving around 5 when it closed.

This is when the real difficulty began, as I discovered that I didn't have quite enough cash for a pedicab back to town. No worries yet, as there was a Bank of China up the road and I thought I could just use their atm. However, the atm system was down, and the bank of China is the only system I have found that will accept foreign cards. I walked a bit and tried a few other banks, but no luck. The only thing to do was to walk, though I still didn't know where I was or which direction to walk in. I asked people for directions, but the streets in this part of town are windy and don't go in the same direction for very long. I tried navigating by the sun, looking for mold on the sides of trees, and any other navigation tool that I could think of, which was all pure comedy as I have the worst sense of direction EVER. So I just walk, and walk, and walk some more, and 7 hours later I found my hotel (also, atms are working again today). I don't how it is for others, but personally I find being lost, illiterate, and having no money a humbling and slightly embarrassing experience. The hardest thing about being embarrassed for me is that it brings to mind all the other times I've been embarrassed. In most situations there is something to distract me from this line of thought, but yesterday it was stuck in my mind for 7 whole hours while I walked around in a state of confusion. By the time I found the hotel my ego was so thoroughly kicked from thinking about 21 years of conversations and situations where I should have acted differently, opportunities missed, and tests I should have studied more for (about 30 minutes yesterday was spent thinking about high school calculus, yuck), that I just wanted to hide under my bed forever. No doubt the heat contributed to my overall delirium, as did the crush of people on every road.

The day was not quite over. I went out again to go to a convenience store across the street, and on my way back I got distracted by a noise in the road and walked right into the canal. Though a bit of a shock to myself and the fisherman sleeping in his boat under the bridge, no real damage was done. Since I was right by my hotel I only had to walk through the lobby to get to the shower, not nearly as bad as the time I fell in that sewer in Mexico and then had to walk the three miles home. I'm actually kind of surprised that this hadn't happened sooner, as the street is really poorly lit at night and it is difficult to tell where the edge of the road is. Most of the street has a guide rail, but the part next to the bridge is wide open. Canal water is nasty; I don't recommend it.

The day started off really well, though. The staff at my favorite dumpling place was having breakfast when I first got there, and rather than disturb them I decided to kill time at the tea shop next door. I can get just about any kind of tea that I want from the little specialty shops in Portland, but somehow the idea that I would go to China and not buy any tea at all just seemed wrong. So, I bought small quantities of two kinds of oolong, jasmine pearls, and a few buds each of different kinds of the flowering jasmine like I had in Shanghai. The shopowner was very kind and let me try several kinds, pointing out his favorites and telling me all about his growers.

I'm still having problems with my email. There has been a crackdown on pornography in the last few days, and it is having the side effect of making all foreign websites very difficult to access. I spoke to the hiv clinic people though and they just want me to come in the day before I leave for an esl workshop, where I will be practicing with some nurses so that they can communicate more easily with foreign doctors. Until then I think I will just stay in Suzhou and take a few daytrips to surrounding towns, as hauling my backpack around in the heat sounds rather high on my scale of miserability.

My plans for today involve Henry James and resting my tired little feet. I miss cheese.

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Friday, July 16th, 2004
12:27 pm
Yesterday I went to the garden of the unsuccessful politician (Zhuozheng yuan), the garden which was the inspiration for the garden in The Story of the Stone/The Dream of Red Mansions. Like the Jia family in the story, the Wang family which owned the garden declined over the years. Wang Xianchen had it built in 1509, and the father's masterpiece was sold by his son to pay off gambling debts after Xianchen died in the late 16th century.

I don't know where to begin describing it, it was such an entirely exhilarating experience. I guess the first thing to note is its size, which at 5 hectares is about 5 times as big as other gardens. After that--well, all classical gardens in China contain the same basic elements, namely rocks, water, architecture, literature and arts, and plants. I think the key to this garden is that all of these elements are so perfectly balanced so that no view is dominated by any aspect. There is no center of attention, as with gardens that have central grottoes or marchmounts. The size allows for very layered, long-range views, though each one is so specific that one's attention is always focused. You see what the garden designer intended for you to see at every step, and the foresight and planning involved is just incredible. Patterns in architectural styling or other elements bring out accents from a distance, so that each view ties in the near and the far. Each element is of such a high quality that the total impact felt to me like the celestial paradise that all the tourist pamphlets claim. The rocks are the very best rocks, the plants are all well maintained and carefully planted so that their symbolism complements the site, and each pavilion is unique and well-positioned for its purpose.

A sample of the poetry from the garden:

Listening to the Sound of Rain Pavilion/ Li Lhongyou

Listen, rain is falling on the autumn bamboo
Let the monk go on playing at chess

The Cymbidium Goeingii (lotus) Hall/ Li Bai

Standing alone between heaven and earth
Cymbidium goeingii is exposed to the refreshing breeze

This garden had wonderful penjing (bonsai), including a series of mini-mountainscapes in a range of rock types, potted lotus, and a whole section devoted to the little twisted tree variety. The ponds are full of lotus blossoms, and the numerous zigzag bridges (designed that way to trip up the evil spirits) are so covered that it looks like people are walking on air through the lotus plants (loti? lotuses?). I walked around for hours with wide eyes and a frequently dropped jaw...I've never seen anything comparable. I'm truly amazed that human beings can make such wonderful things.

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Wednesday, July 14th, 2004
2:53 pm - a temporary derailment
The garden studies express has been faced with an unforseen difficulty in the last 24 hours, namely the discovery of a bookstore which has english novels actually printed in english for about a quarter each. I finished all the books I brought with me about a week ago, so this was a very happy discovery. On the down side, I was up so late last night reading Great Expectations that I didn't quite make it out to Tiger Hill, a garden up north of town. Luckily I have time for the diversion, and so after this my plans for the day include finding some dumplings and then reading about little Pip's misadventures in Londontown. Life is pretty good.

My random conversation of the day was with a postgrad chemistry student whose adopted name is Bill, and who is originally from Anhui province. He was walking behind me on the street on the way to the internet place, and then called out something like "Hey! I want to talk to you!" He is learning english, and happilly followed me the 7 blocks here just to practice a little. It was fun, in those 7 blocks he told me his entire life story and his very detailed goals.

The Surging Waves Pavilion was my favorite garden yet. It has a wonderful situation on the side of a canal, with several little seating areas (great for people watching) on the outside of the garden walls. It is (i think) the oldest surviving garden in Suzhou, with buildings dating to the 11th century. It was originally a princely estate, and then scholar Su Zimei lived there later on. This garden is different from many suzhou gardens in that it is less subdivided into smaller areas to make the garden seem bigger. The central courtyard was one big mini-mountain with elaborate grottoes and a pavilion atop the peak. This courtyard was about 3 times as large as is common. It has long, simple passageways on all sides, and is far more open in this respect than later gardens are.

For the past few days I had been eyeing a scroll hanging up in a shop window on my street, and yesterday I finally went in to get a closer look. It is a full-size hanging scroll with a few branches, layered white and deep red blossoms, and tiny gold flecks in the paper. The asking price was only about a tenth of what I was expecting, so it is now hanging up in my room. It is the first souvenir type of thing that I have bought, and I like it very much.

So...it seems all is well in Suzhou today. I'm getting more and more fond of my street, which is along a canal and is filled with an diverse range of shops, restaurants, homes, and a lively bustle of people. I think I could live here for a year or so quite happily, though my lame tourist Chinese wouldn't cut it. Oh, I haven't been able to read or send email yesterday or today though, so sorry if I've missed anything urgent.

pip calls...

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Tuesday, July 13th, 2004
12:35 pm
I've decided to stay in Jiangsu province for my last week here, and am working on a few different options of things to do. I've been corresponding with an HIV clinic in Shanghai and it looks like they may have some work for me making supply invoices from western companies, so if that works out then I will be in Shanghai from the 18th-26th. I've also sent an email to the volunteer program at a children's hospital, but haven't heard anything back yet. If neither of these work out then I will go to Hangzhou and Lake Tai (about an hour south of Suzhou) for 5 days and then back to Shanghai for the last 3.

Dinner last night with the Shen family was pretty fantastic. Weiwei's mother and father are both teachers, and each week they take turns bringing someone new home for dinner. The other people there included an aunt, uncle, two cousins, a grandmother, and a French woman who works with one of the cousins. They were a very jolly bunch, and even though I couldn't tell what some of the side conversations were about they were still fun to listen to. While eating (a bok choy dish, rice, some sort of mushroom fungusy thing, and some sesame buns) we got into a long conversation about families and family dynamics, and then started talking about traveling. One of the cousins had just gotten back from Korea and talked about how there is a great deal of exhange between the two countries at the moment. Luckily this cousin speaks English and was able to translate a few things back and forth throughout the evening. As Mr. Rex Ziak suggested I gave them a little bottle of tabasco sauce, and they got a kick out of the desert scene on the label. The group got louder and louder as the evening progressed and more rounds of wine were served, particularly the grandmother who everyone kept good-heartedly teasing. I stayed there until about 11 and then took a pedicab back to my part of town.

This morning was action packed, with 2 car accidents on my street. No one was injured, but the yelling drivers, traffic jams, and interested passersby were a jumble of a spectacle. I had a funny experience at the grocery store this morning, too. As I was leaving this older couple walked up to me and started going through my bag, checking out what I bought and examining it closely. They were really interested in my yogurt, and kept poking the sides kind of suspiciously. The man was especially curious, and he held up my pumpkin seeds in front of my face and then looked at me like he couldn't believe I would eat them. I just let them look for as long as they wanted to, and after a few minutes they lost interest in me and gave me my groceries. I wonder what would happen if I tried this back in Portland...

This afternoon I am going to the Pan Gate, the only remaining original city gate dating from 1351. Then I'll go to the Ruiguang Pagoda, a 3rd century pagoda which is the oldest in the province. Later on I'll go to the Surging Waves Pavilion, which was so packed over the weekend that I didn't even try to go in.

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Monday, July 12th, 2004
12:46 pm
I'm having a lazy day. This morning I have been catching up on email, and this afternoon I will go to the library. Weiwei, the guy at the internet cafe, asked me to have dinner with his family tonight. Luckily his family is Buddhist and so vegetarian, and he said he has a cousin who speaks English so I'm hoping that she will be there and that there won't be as much of a language barrier.

Yesterday and today I have been avoiding all major streets and instead walking in the network of alleys with no cars. The traffic is pure anarchy, with the sidewalks so full of parked bicycles that pedestrians can't walk on them. When the sidewalks are open then people on bikes and mopeds will drive on them, and the exhaust fumes are terrible. Very few roads have street signs, so for the first few days it was very difficult to navigate. The most difficult is crossing intersections, as even though there is an elaborate traffic light system people will go whenever they want. The crosswalks are full of bikes and mopeds, and the whole situation is really unsafe. Luckily avoiding major roads isn't too hard, and while alleys have some bikes and mopeds they are mostly residential paths with dramatically fewer people.

A few other random notes:

The telephone booths in Shanghai are little and red, just like the ones in London.

Female bicyclists wear white capes to shield themselves from the sun, which flap in the wind and look like wings.

Basic tv is about one third historical programming such as opera, one third soap-operas, and one third news. There is one english language channel which is mostly about chinese history and culture with frequent business reports.

The bars are the size of closets.

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Sunday, July 11th, 2004
6:27 pm
One quick grumble about exceedingly slow internet access (7 minutes to load one page!), but other than that today has been an excellent day. I walked to the far northeast part of town, which is the area least altered in recent years by what seems to be a drive to turn China into one very big mall. No new major roads have been constructed so the only vehicles are a few bikes, and there are more canals and little bridges intact here than in the rest of the city. While walking around this part of town I saw many women washing clothes and chamberpots in the canals, as though this area is high on charm for american college girls it mostly lacks indoor plumbing, safe electricity, and any sort of fire code. This area has many many buildings that used to be private gardens, and though the interiors have probably changed completely many of the exteriors still have their leak windows and interesting roofing. I like. My gardens of the day were dong zhuang, or the eastern estate, and the couple's garden whose Chinese name I forgot to write down.

The eastern estate was owned by Wu Yong (1399-1475), a hometown textiles merchant. This garden is different from many other gardens in that it was not strictly for asocial aesthetic contemplation but instead was a intended as a model of rural self-sufficiency in an urban area. It has rice fields, fruit and vegetable crops, and mulberry trees for silkworms. The conceptual basis for this garden is the philosophical tradition of what Craig Clunas describes as "antique simplicity and rustic clumsiness," which exalts the good old simple life as the key to happiness and spiritual fulfillment. This is an interesting to Suzhou itself during this period, which was so rich from silk production that it imported most food. It is noteworthy that this garden was owned by the same family throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, as this was a very turbulent time in the city what with a major flood in 1440 and a famine in 1454. The entire estate is about 60 mu...I'm not sure how many miles that is, but it is pretty big. It has a few viewing pavillions disbursed throughout the garden, inclusding one that is a copy of the Spring-Rear Cottage of the Master of the Nets garden. Why this one courtyard gets copied so much I don't really get, as the space feels hollow and lacks many views.

Today the eastern estate has become something of an amusement park, with a merry-go round, zoo, boat rental, and lots of modern playground equipment. The good thing about this is that there aren't many tourists, just lots of local families in their neighborhood park. I got to play with lots of little kids today which was great, easily the most fun I've had on this trip. At one time there were 5 little girls all playing with my hair, which they were fascinated by because it is insanely curly in the humidity. Then one girl's parents brought over their puppy, and any time you mix little kids and little creatures it is bound to be a good time. I had a picture of my dog pepper with me (I know, I'm such a dork) so I showed that to the crew of little girls and they were amazed by his big fluffy coat.

I finally left to go to the couple's garden, a qing period pleasure garden for baoning prefect Lu Jingzhi. Shen Bingchen, governor of susongtai region, bought it in 1874 ad, expanded it, and retired there with his wife. .8 hectare. The residence is in the center of the garden, with courtyards on either side plus a huge artificial mountain. Some of the couplets written for different pavilions are:

The Hall for Drink Settling Out

Set out drink in gardens
and make fun in alleys

Balcony Free of Frippery

the happy married couple live in the couplet garden
and compose a lot of poems in the depth of the city

this garden was a complete mob scene. I would guess there were about 400 people there at once, mostly in tours with guides who had the awful bullhorns. There must be another way to do it.

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Saturday, July 10th, 2004
10:21 am - silk, fashion, harmony, and a possible early exit
Apologies to my concerned readers for not writing yesterday, and thanks to all those who have emailed their concerns about my health. I was up and about yesterday, but the only internet cafe that I know of in Suzhou was not. I am still a bit ill, but feeling well enough that I'm not at all worried.

Yesterday I got an early start and went to the silk museum, which is located about two miles north from where I am staying. Apparently silk has been made in china for something like 6000 years, and suzhou has been a center of production for much of that time. This museum had many different samples of original pieces from throughout this period in various states of repair, as well as reproductions which showed what they think the original colors and full pattern would have looked like. The most interesting pieces to me were the Ming and Qing articles of clothing, which in addition to intricate woven patterns had exquisite embroidery. In addition to the historical part of the museum there was a small silk production area, which showed the progression from silkworms (which look like little white caterpillars) to cleaning, boiling and softening, winding, dying, design, and weaving. Now this is all mostly done by machine, but this exhibit showed the old-fashioned handmade process. It all seemed like such an incredibly monotonous, rigorous process, especially the unraveling and then winding of the silk. Since silk is so fine it would take forever to wind enough silk to make a scarf or tapestry, and though some of the finished products are quite nice I just can't fathom spending that much time on that kind of work. All in all a good introduction to the history of silk, though I would have liked a little more information on the silk trade and the lives and conditions of the people who worked in silk factories.

A little about the fashion of the times--
For the most part, the people in Chinese cities dress much like average people in any western city. Professional middle aged men rarely wear full suits on the street, instead wearing dark, slightly baggy trousers belted at the waist or higher, light colored button down shirts, and simple dark leather shoes. Older men wear the same kind of trousers with little white undershirts, and sometimes wear cotton shorts. They often wear little plastic sandals or Chinese cloth shoes. It seems that less affluent men wear whatever they have, usually simple cotton t-shirts and pants in dark colors. Young men are all over the place, some dressing like the older generation while others wear bright colors, sleeveless shirts, athletic jerseys, and dye their hair blond or orange. Hip-hop clothing is popular, as are tight jeans and t-shirts with cowboy boots and dark sunglasses. Children wear a milder version of the teenage urban gear, and babies wear little jumpsuits or just shorts. One interesting trend which spans all generations is for men to tie up their shirts and air their bellies while walking down the street, in restaurants, anywhere really. I have yet to see a hairy tummy.

Middle aged women usually dress fairly conservatively, with soft simply patterned blouses and trousers or skirts. Usually high necked tops, and skirts never rise above the knee. Older women are about the same, though they don't often look very put together. Very subtle makeup if any. Younger women are more adventurous, particularly in Shanghai. Women wear very bright colors, miniskirts, halter tops, and all that kind of stuff. Shirts with western phrases on them are popular, though they don't always make sense. I've seen a lot trendy stores with shirts from random American universities in their window, including the University of Illinois (???).
The dominant look among young women is a sort of girlish prettiness though, and many women are completely decked out in ruffles, ribbons, and bows. Young girls wear very innocent-looking dresses and usually have their hair in pigtails (so cute! little girls here are so, so adorable). The only major difference I have noticed between western women and Chinese women is that Chinese women wear pantyhose at almost all times, often in the form of socks with the seam showing. Pantyhose are usually either a dark tan or white, both of which are a sharp contrast to the visible skin color and a little odd to me.

After going to the silk museum yesterday I went to the Garden of Harmony. This is one of Suzhou's newest gardens, forst built during the Qing dynasty. It was originally owned by Wu Guan, a government minister during the Hong chi reign, around 1874 ad. He called the garden Fu yuan. Gu Wenbin, the governor of the Ningbo-Shaoxing region, bought it a short while later and expanded the garden with the help of Ren Changfu and others. He called it yi yuan, the garden of harmony, implying the "cultivation of the mind in retirement." it is .6 hectares, fairly small. The eastern part of the garden is the original part, and is mostly rocks, courtyards, and buildings. The western part of the garden is the expansion, and is centered around a pond. This garden absorbed many elements of design from other earlier suzhou gardens, and is therefore not really thought of as a great garden itself (though I liked it more than the master of the nets garden because it felt far more open and filled with light). Some sampled elements include the double corridor from the Surving Waves Pavilion and rockery arrangements similar to those in the Lion grove garden and the Mountain Villa of Secluded Beauty. I took notes on some of the pavilions but once again the tour groups made me leave little earlier than I was planning. This time the guides had bullhorns--yuck yuck. My favorite space in this garden was Suolu Xuan, a small pavilion with three open walls opening out into a small courtyard framed by a long white wall in the sphape of a wave. This kind of wall is more common than I had thought, and can be seen in many urban walls and gardens. It is copied in the New York garden, but not the portland one. Back to Suolu Xuan--the large waved wall is covered in some sort of ivy-like plant (I wish I had a better knowledge of botany!), the ground is shaped into a triangular stone design, there are numerous potted plants and trees, and a great narrow stone bench which faces the large circular door in the waving wall from which one walks into the next area. The adjacent courtyard is the one with the major rock grottoes, so it really makes for a beautifully framed view. Another great thing about this garden though was that they had a few musicians playing very soft, pretty music which could be heard throughout the rest of the garden.

Today I am planning to go to the Garden of Surging Waves for a while, which is supposed to be one of the best gardens for borrowed views, or views of the outside which are brought in to the garden through reflecting water and very deliberate alignment of windows and doors. I'm thinking about coming back to the us a week early, as I think I will be able to wrap up what I need to do research-wise by the end of this week. When I made my travel arrangements back in April I gave myself an extra week for travel since I figured it would be a long time until I can come back to China. Now, though, it just feels too hot to think, too hot to move, and way too hot to do either while feeling under the weather. My irritation level is getting pretty high as a result, and the heat often makes me sleepy and a little dizzy. I think after this week I will have seen what I came to see, and will be ready to go home. My other options would be to stay in this part of the country and go to more little towns or to maybe head up to Beijing for a week, so I will think about it for another day or two and try to figure out what I want to do. Meanwhile, the internet guy has just asked me to lunch, so the next hour should be interesting as he doesn't speak english and my Chinese--well, hmm. The way we have been communicating is for his to write down something in pinyin, I look it up in my dictionary, and then vice versa. Not great, but it sort of works.

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Thursday, July 8th, 2004
6:36 pm - a sick day
my wild culinary lifestyle has caught up to me, in the form of the inevitable traveler's illness. c'est la vie.

I stayed in bed today until about 1 re-reading Cao Xueqin's the Story of the Stone, which just gets better each time. Grandmother Jia, the matriarch of the huge clan, continues to be my favorite though Qin Zhong, the delicate intellectual best friend of the main character is a close second. I'm almost done with volume one, and I haven't read the other volumes so maybe I will look for an english copy at the bookstores here.

I finally dragged myself out of bed in the afternoon and went to Wangshi yuan, the Garden of the Master of the Nets. I think in the next few days I will have to go to the gardens as soon as they open in the morning, because in the afternoon they are so crowded that the supposed respites from urban stress are densely packed with pushy tour groups. This garden is the smallest in Suzhou, and is built in the classic urban Ming fashion with many small pavilions and courtyards tightly constructed to create multiple views which make the garden seem much larger than it is. It was designed in the 12th century, ignored, and then restored in the 18th century. The name has two possible sources: the 1st is that the 18th century restorer was a retired government official who said that he preferred the simple life of a fisherman (a common story, so pure and lofty is he), and the second is just that the garden is near wangshi lu, the road that bears the same title. This garden has been sampled in the west more than any other suzhou garden, including the direct copy of the astor court at the met and stylistic inspiration at several other gardens including portland. It has many small to medium tai hu rocks throughout, and a few grottoes. It is interesting to compare gardens in china with their western children in terms of basic function, as gardens here were for most of their history the homes of individual families. It is hard to tell what they were like in their peak, but at this point the plants seem kind of neglected and there are lots of little maintenance jobs that wouldn't be too hard to fix. It is helpful for me to think of them as family homes in this regard though and not museums to architecture, as every family home has a junk drawer and a few projects that the owner just hasn't gotten around to yet. I'll try to go back early on another day for a second try with this garden, as today I was more concerned with avoiding the texans than drawing.

there is an interesting article in the nytimes today about the dilemma of historic preservation. the link is http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/08/international/asia/08laos.html?hp=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1089285579-9u+MrbBw8U6FWQhJq1gzMQ

back to bed for me.

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Wednesday, July 7th, 2004
5:01 pm - in Suzhou
I arrived yesterday and found a hotel, and am now settled for the next 2 weeks or so. I left the hostel around 6 (I still can't believe I get up so early here voluntarily!), took the subway to the train station, the train directly to Suzhou, and then walked for about 2 hours with barnaby trying to find a place. The train service was excellent, much better than in the us. To announce different stations a man in some kind of military-esque uniform came into each car and shouted into a bullhorn, which cracked me up each time. it only took about an hour to get here, and there are very posh waiting rooms in shanghai which were a welcome respite from the crowds. The queue doesn't exist here. Buying a ticket involved a tightly packed 20-30 person shuffle to the ticket window, with people crowding in on the sides and cutting in front if there was even a tiny space in between two people. While waiting for the train in a nearby restaurant a guy came over and (i think) asked me to watch his bag while he went to the bathroom. I didn't really understand until after he set down his bag and then left, and it would have been okay except the guy was gone for 40 minutes! When he came back he sat down with me and tried to start up a conversation, but I quickly excused myself and ran off to the fancy train waiting room.

the hotel where I am staying here is run through Suzhou university, and is pretty much a dorm room. It is a relative palace compared with my hostel in Shanghai, and having both air-conditioning and a room to myself is a wonderful luxury. Yesterday I felt a bit travel weary, and having a little place free from the hundreds of curious eyes and tightly packed bodies makes it all much more comfortable when I do go out. Yesterday on the street it was raining really hard, and so I stopped under the eave of a building to wait it out. Within a minute there were five women standing around me just staring, and when I said hello and introduced myself they didn't even respond, and instead just stared more intently. 5 quickly became 10, and soon I felt so uncomfortable that I just walked out into the storm. I don't really understand it...I am dressing very plainly and conservatively here, and I don't wear any jewelry or carry anything flashy. I see other foreigners on the street fairly often, so I'm not a huge anomaly. The only thing that I can think of is that I am traveling alone. Staring groups aside, I do really like being approached so often by people who are just curious and want to talk a little. They get to practice speaking English, I get to practice my (rapidly improving) Chinese, and it is really great to have some sort of interaction besides just buying dumplings. This kind of situation seems to happen any time I sit somewhere like a park or library. In fact, the guy working in the internet cafe now keeps coming over every few minutes to talk a little, leaving when he runs out of questions and then coming back when he thinks of something. The last thing he asked me (I think) was if I play in the nba, and before that it was if I had eaten dog--this one I am sure about, as it was one of the first phrases I learned! For the most part I am just grateful that it is a time in history when Chinese people are interested in and think favorably about westerners, as it certainly wasn't always like this. Being able to travel so freely and independently is something that is impossible to take for granted.

Anyway, after finally finding the hotel yesterday I was exhausted, so after a short walk and some dumplings I just went to bed and slept for a much needed 14 hours. Today I wandered around a bit more, and had an interesting experience while getting my dumpling fix. A woman who was, I think, trying to convince the restaurant to start selling fancy coffee drinks kept giving me free concoctions, and then asking me if I liked them. They were interesting variations of ice coffee, some very sweet and others shockingly bitter. Then a guy who is, i think, a beer distributor, came by and started sending over free beers. This went on for quite a while, and I didn't know how to say no so I just kept on drinking. I like fancy coffee and I like beer, but after 7 or 8 rounds I was so caffeinated (and drunk) that I really had to leave and go recover in my room. It was a good time, though.

I like Suzhou much better than Shanghai so far. Gardens are everywhere, and random places like bus stops are built in the style of old garden architecture. The canals are very charming (though filthy!) and it is common to see a few fishermen out in their low, narrow boats. Outside the central city there are lots of factories, shantytowns, and modern housing developments, but you can't really see them from the historic part. There are many more trees here than in shanghai, and I have even seen a few little birds out and about. The most surprising thing about shanghai to me, besides the fact that it looks straight out of the Jetsons, was that there were no animals around. I think that I saw one stray cat, but besides that the only wildlife i saw was in a park which had a few birds locked up in cages. Grocery stores had lots of interesting animals though, including a wall of live frogs that were all staring at me.

This afternoon I plan to keep a low profile, maybe doing some laundry and some reading. Tomorrow I will spend the day at the garden of the Master of the Nets, doing some sketching and taking notes.

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Monday, July 5th, 2004
1:41 pm
i'm in the shanghai library, where I am spending my last day doing some research and escaping the extreme humidity. I was planning to go to an ancient water village outside of town, but I didn't want to deal with buses, heat, and crowds today. I'll be back in Shanghai for a few days before flying out, so maybe I will go then. Other than that, the only things left that I would like to see in Shanghai are the old Jewish quarter and some contemporary art galleries. I think I can pass on the new business area, in which one of the major attractions is the Super Brand Mall. eh.

I just wrote a long description of my reading and then accidentally deleted it, so I'll just say that today I am reading suzhou: shaping an ancient city for the new china, and that it focuses on historic preservation attempts through an educational conference format.

I had a revelation today. I have been seeing very young children all over the city with open seams in the front of their pants, leaving various anatomical parts out on display. This really puzzled me at first, as the parents didn't seem to notice or care. I've read about how the one-child policy has created a whole generation of "little emperors," and so at first I wondered if all these lavishly spoiled children had eaten too much for lunch and ripped their pants. Not quite the case: while in a paper shop (such beautiful paper here!) I saw a woman who was holding a toddler quickly go outside and hold her child in projectile mode on the sidewalk, using a tree as a bathroom. It makes sense, really...paper diapers are expensive and a huge environmental concern when you have the number of children that china has, and cloth diapers would be a nightmare to clean in the summer weather. Mystery solved.

i'll write once I'm settled in Suzhou and can find an internet place, which may be in 2 days or so.

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Sunday, July 4th, 2004
1:04 pm
The Paris of Shanghai is not quite Paris, though it does have a few similar features. The main avenues are lined with trees and fancy shops, including some like etam, nafnaf, and kookai that I don't remember seeing in many places besides paris. There are many designer boutiques, and to my great delight there are 10 or so stores that sell nothing besides beautiful chandeliers. I had to go in all of these, and was deeply involved in decorating my imaginary parisian apartment which has no furniture, only chandeliers. Lots of french restaurants, and the men in that neighborhood acted a bit french, i.e. aggressive and pseudo-suave. The architecture was kind of boring, mostly just basic new construction. I think I missed the streets with the concession architecture, so maybe I will have to go back another day. It poured all evening, and after dinner in the french area I just went back to the hostel to dry out and read. The wind was so intense at some moments that it was difficult to walk straight--and every person on the street was carrying an umbrella, causing a scene reminiscent of the one in Mary Poppins where all the prospective nannies are blown away. I don't know, people talk about how bad Chinese drivers are, but I think the real danger is the pedestrians and their umbrellas. People carry them when it is barely raining (or even not at all), and it seems kind of similar to Americans and their SUV's. Granted, there may be some times when an umbrella and an SUV are useful, but for the most part it seems like they are just part of defensive navigation. Just like Americans buy suv's so that they don't get hurt by other suv's, I got smacked in the head by an umbrella so many times yesterday that I considered buying one just for protection from the other pedestrians, forget the rain.

This morning I went to nan shi, the old part of the city with a ming style garden, temple, very famous tea house and lots and lots and lots of people in every place and on every street. It was overwhelming, and it is hot again today so I feel quite drained from it. I took some notes and sketched a bit of the garden, but there were just so many people that I think I'll have to go back when it is not the weekend and therefore less crowded. The plethora of tai hu rocks was very impressive, including one lace-like marchmount with ties to emperor huizong. Lots of rock grottos and an interesting elavated pavilion surrounded by curved walls that was supposed to look like a boat in the sea. The crush of people in the garden made it difficult to stay for more than an hour, so after that i went to the mid-lake pavilion tea house, which claims to be the most visited tea house in china and is situated in the middle of an artificial lake accessible only by two long zig-zag bridges. I went to the second floor and had the most beautiful jasmine tea, which was bound into one large ball and opened up into a flower shape filling the glass pot as it steeped. in the middle was a jasmine blossom, altogether quite a pot of tea. The waiter recommended some little snacks, which turned out to be dry tofu slices, some sort of gray tiny boiled eggs, little salty candies and a jelly kind of candy. Interesting to look at, though I was more interested in my tea. I window shopped at some of the surrounding stores, got a steamed vegetable bun from a street vendor and then headed to back to the part of town where I am staying for a little rest.

I don't think I've said much about food yet. I've tried out a few different restaurants, and have been a little disappointed with what I have ordered. I've found that it is easier just to say I want to eat ...(something basic, like dumplings or noodles) instead of trying to read the menu with my chinese takeout menus from the states, but so far all the restaurant food I've had is a bit bland and unremarkable. Last night I had eggplant hot-pot, which instead of being spicy was just really cornstarch-y. I've been much more successful with street food, though. My process is just to wander around until I see a little stand that has a long line (so it must be good), and then sort of look at what people are eating as they walk away and try to figure out if it is vegetable or meat. If it looks like vegetable then I get one, and if it turns out to be meat then I give it to a beggar and look for another place. So far this has worked really well and the food is much, much more flavorful than the restaurants. Since street food is so cheap (10 cents or so for a big steamed bun) it is okay if it takes a few tries to get something vegetarian. The best food that I've found have been out of people's homes in the little alleys in between more commercial streets. It is interesting to watch as one person fills the dumplings while another, apparently a family member, cooks them and does the business. Good stuff.

On the way back from old town I had a little run in with a crew of teenage pickpockets. Let me first say that everything wound up okay, so no worries. I was walking down a moderately-busy street and I could sort of sense that someone was walking very closely behind me, so I turned around and saw about 5 teenage boys, aged maybe 14 on average. As I turned the one behind me dropped my wallet on the ground, and rather than pick it up and run he just kept walking as if nothing had happened. I saw it on the ground and quickly retrieved it, and as i looked around I saw the boys exchange glances and say the equivalent of shucks, too bad. They started to walk back in the opposite direction, so I looked through my bag and saw that my digital camera was missing too. They were only about 50 feet away and were looking back every few seconds, so I waved to the apparent ringleader, took an imaginary photo to show that I knew my camera was gone, and then sort of smacked a fist against my hand and gave him a really dirty look. To my great surprise, the kid actually walked back to me and returned my camera. They were the worst theives I've ever heard of, and I'm very thankful for it.

I'm kind of tired, so I plan to take a little nap and then maybe head out again tonight and walk through a different neighborhood or go dancing with some people from the hostel. After tonight I am staying one more night in Shanghai, then off to Suzhou.

Is today the 4th of July, or is it tomorrow? My sense of time is all mixed up.

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