Monday, November 27, 2006

This Is Just to Say

It's midterm-week, round two, so I haven't got time to entertain you. I'm giving a long, boring presentation tomorrow on Beijing's air pollution. Wish you were here?

Just wanted to report that a new Red Sky article appears in today's Tufts Daily, and you-- yes, you-- can read it here . The article, incidentally, is also about Beijing's air pollution, and is also long and boring.

Unlike my presentation in Chinese, however, it is chock full of snarky jibes and waggish wordplay. Also unlike my presentation in Chinese, the article has spaces between its words.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Nothing Much

It's late on a Friday night in Beijing, but I've been lolling about for too long, and sleep is unappealing. So I thought I would write to tell you all that it's snowing here, and though it's not sticking yet, the ground may have a little coat by morning. The past week has brought a(nother) steep drop in the temperature, to the point that I'd be willing to guess it's colder here than it is in Boston right now. Kind of makes me miss the ocean, and its climate-stabilizing properties.

This time of night is the time for overblown and magniloquent analogies. So here's one that will probably leave you feeling woozy afterwards.

The Chinese language is like a wall. A wall in Beijing—- which is to say, a wall shrouded in a haze of coal dust. It goes on endlessly in two directions, and the top is out of sight in clouds of soot and smoke. During my semesters studying the language in Medford, I got up close with the wall, going over it with a magnifying glass, trying to figure out how to get through. Can’t go around it, can’t get under it, no ladders… I decided to come to China, with high hopes.

I stepped back, ran full speed, and threw my body against it, expecting to crash through and find myself in a paradise shared by a billion Chinese and a few odd outsiders—but no such luck. As it turns out, this wall isn’t drywall, or even loosely piled stones—something closer to brick. So I dislocated my shoulder smashing against the wall, and here I am, bloodying my fingers, crumbling the mortar away one little pebble at a time.

And if you misbehave again, I’ll make up another analogy and flog it to death.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Climacteric Elements

A new column is available for your reading pleasure in today's Tufts Daily. But before you go a-clicking, allow me to preface: I was a little disappointed to note that, somehow, somewhere in the editing process, the first paragraph of my column got clipped off, like the leafy branch of a great, majestic elm tree. Unfortunately, this was a load-bearing branch. As an exclusive for those lucky few who read my columns online, the real first paragraph appears here:

I think I’ve fallen in love with noodle girl #0110. It’s not her palindromic ID number that’s so attractive, nor is it the teal apron she wears over her starched-white uniform. No, what turns me on is the way she doles out justice with every ladleful of Shanxi-style cut noodles.

Now continue reading it here.

Think on this one.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Honestly, China

The ATMs in China will only give you 100 RMB bills. This is reasonable enough— roughly equivalent to $12 USD, they’re the biggest China has, and a few of them will last you though a week. The trouble comes when you try to use them. For unknown reasons, shopkeepers and cashiers in China are fanatical about exact change, and no matter how you try to pay for your 7.5 RMB bag of persimmons, they’ll look at you dolefully and ask if, perhaps, you have 5 mao— half an RMB.

But when you whip out a 100 RMB note, that's when all hell really breaks loose. The proprietor will usually open with a startled shriek, and look slowly up at you with an expression that seems to cry “et tu, Brute?” I usually try to look abashed and mumble in Chinese, but it’s often a lost cause; if I’m making a purchase under 5 or 10 RMB, they’ll turn away my business in favor of some ass with an endless supply of small bills. Honestly, China, what's the problem here?

The generator above is just another example of Chinese ingenuity, along with gunpowder and paper. In other news, yesterday's baseball game was canceled-- we showed up, and cars were parked all over our fields. Apparently, there was a Ping Pong tournament in the neighboring gym that had attracted an overwhelming crowd. Honestly, China, get a real national sport.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Men in Green

I’ve joined the Beida baseball team. I went to my first practice on Wednesday, and today I was starting at shortstop and batting third. It’s a relatively recent arrival in China, and certainly not popular like it is in Japan. The team itself is a sort of club team—they aren’t funded by the school, and they have to fight for crappy field space… which sounds sort of familiar, now that I think about it. They do manage to have games against other Beijing university club teams, and I’ll be playing in my first one tomorrow.

Nearly five years removed from the last time I picked up a bat, my calluses are coming back slowly and painfully. Everything else, though, snapped back like it was last week. All the muscle memory behind swinging a bat, throwing a ball, fielding a grounder… it came back quickly and joyfully. My teammates probably take me for some kind of idiot, because I couldn’t wipe a huge smile off my face through a good portion of our 3-hour scrimmage this afternoon. It’s been too long, and I love this game.

They practice twice a week, for four hours—it’s a lot, but it’s a good way to fill up afternoons that have become increasingly long and empty. I can also persuade myself that I’m making good use of my China-time, because I’m hanging out almost exclusively with REAL CHINESE PEOPLE. Certainly, one of Baseball’s advantages over silly sports like soccer is that it’s a social game, and you spend at least half your time hanging around, scratching yourself, spitting and, under normal circumstances, talking with your teammates. I’m not quite managing that last bit, but I can understand more and more of what they’re saying, and when I have an urgent thought, I can usually make myself understood.

During practice today, a film crew showed up and started shooting the practice. As usual, it took them about 10 minutes before the producer called me aside to get some special footage. I’m not totally clear what the video was for, but she gave me a brief on what she wanted me to say, and I think I more or less understood what she wanted. So I introduced myself, and gave the 10 second explanation of how I had found the baseball team, and was very happy to be playing with them at Beijing University. My brief speech had the whole film crew in stitches, but it seems my content was clear enough to satisfy them, and I went back to hitting home runs.

Above, the police in Tiananmen Square are humorless, to say the least. Below, a slightly photoshopped picture of a crazy looking Yam guy outside the East gate of Beida. I have no idea what his gang-sign means, so don't ask.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Having wasted three hours of my day reading his essays, I urge you to do the same, and visit Maciej Cegłowski's weblog: idle words. He's just a guy- "a painter and a computer guy"- who happens to be a great writer, and happens to be in Beijing. Many thanks to Stork (whom you may just know as Storkus Maximus, or, if you are his mother, Aaron) for pointing me towards this web-gem.

He writes about all manner of topics, but China has been the recent trend, as that's where he is. His essays manage side-splitting hilarity, truly perceptive insight, and occasional poignancy. It should give you a taste of what this blog would be like, if I were a better writer.

Try out The Day That Nothing Happened, a fantastically clear and incisive look at the woes of China's working class. Hong Kong is a great and hilarious picture of that city, and I Spy is a ridiculous and characteristically Chinese account of some shenanigans right in my neighborhood. Frankly, I wish I had written these essays.
Poor lion.

As for my own life, I was walking through Beida campus today, on my way back to my dorm, when a teenage chef- clad in the appropriate white garb- shot out the back door of some dining hall kitchen, and ran like the dickens up the road, apron waving behind him. He was followed, seconds later, by an identical-looking being, wielding some weapon- maybe a spatula, maybe a chicken head- and chased around the corner. It was all good fun and jocularity- but just the sort of absurdity that the western-conditioned mind forgets to expect in China. The image of Chinese is of a hard-working, quiet, well-behaved people, and though this is often true, the opposite is true, too. These Chinese people- sometimes they'll catch you by surprise.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Telling Stories

Tempting as it was to entitle this post "Tom Who?", I refrained, for fear of wearing a joke thin, past the point of tolerability. Word play aside (or, not at all, actually) I had the chance to go see Tom Friedman speak yesterday at the Beijing Bookworm, an expat bookstore/hangout. The place was packed, mostly with hoity toity foreigners eating penne and sipping pinot noir.

So packed, in fact, that, despite showing up an hour and a half early, the goons at the front door still tried to turn me away. Luckily, the aforementioned Vickie had already gained admittance, and came outside to my aid. While I tried to look hoity toity, she insisted a seat was saved for me, and the goons quickly relented. I heard tales from some classmates here of paying off the security guard at the back door with 600 RMB- about $75, or half a month’s pay. Sheesh.
Tom was good— the speech was basically a recap of his juggernaut best-seller “The World is Flat.” Fortunately, I’m too much of a snob to buy his book, so the material was fresh for me. He’s had a few good thoughts, no doubt, and he’s surely a great writer.

After the speech, he answered questions, including a few about China. I’ll let you in on a secret—his column this Wednesday is going to be about China’s dire environmental situation. I was seriously tempted to rip off the anecdotes and analogies that he gave away, and preempt him with my own article in the Tufts Daily on Monday. But I refrained, and decided instead to learn from him, rather than steal from him.

Asked about his writing style, he made an interesting comment: “When given the choice between making a point, and telling a story, I always tell a story.” Interesting, and probably wise. Certainly, his storytelling talents are at the source of his skill as a columnist. I decided to take that to heart for today’s column. Granted, I did it a little backwards, in that I found the best topic to fit my story, rather than the other way around, but I still managed to say a few things I’ve been meaning to say. Plus the story is a pretty good one. Read it here.

In closing, I would like to hang my head in shame for a bit of foolishness— in an attempt to block comment spam on this site, I accidentally shunted all comments off into a bizarre corner of the internet, and hid them from view. In any case, all comments have been resurrected and duly noted.

And as for these two photos, above is the inimitable Roy, with whom I had dinner this evening. He’s a Masters student in environmental engineering and sustainable development—the sort of person China could do with more of. Also, he approves highly of democracy, and thinks this puts him in the majority of Beida students. Shhh. More on Roy in future Red Sky content. Below is an abstraction taken while standing at a bus stop. Don’t look at it while you’re on drugs, or it might blow your mind.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


In case you missed it here the first time around, or in the noble pages of the Tufts Daily the second time around, here’s another chance to read "An Open Letter To the Chinese Language." If you’re in China, pick up today’s copy of the China Daily, and turn to page 10.

Yes, indeed, Red Sky at Night has made its initial breakthrough into the "professional" media. Don’t believe me? Check it out on the China Daily’s website. I can’t guarantee it will be more hilarious than the rest of the paper’s content, but then, you’ve never met the boy who stole half a million RMB to pay for the treatment of a stomach bug he contracted after his parents’ divorce. And you have met me, most likely.

Basically, the China Daily, the national English-language newspaper, has a weekly page devoted to the trials and tribulations of learning Chinese. They take submissions from anyone who has something to say, and they apparently decided to divert from their usual aggravatingly upbeat "you-can-do-it" attitude to publish my occasionally despondent column. Huzzah for realism.

Last night I went to see the "Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet" in a performance on Beida campus—the third stop on their tour of China. You probably haven’t heard of Abigail Washburn, but you probably have heard of legendary banjoist Bela Fleck, and may have even heard of Casey Dreissen, who plays a mean fiddle.
Bluegrass was the genre of the evening, and it was lots of fun. Abigail has spent some time living in Chengdu, and speaks half-decent Mandarin. Some of her lyrics were in Chinese, too, which was pretty hilarious. And seeing Bela Fleck was a treat.

If my sister read my blog, she might leave a comment about how innovative Casey Dreissen’s fiddling style is, or perhaps about how cool bluegrass is. But she doesn’t. Gosh, how embarrassing for her.

Speaking of my sister and her ilk, I recently met Vickie, a Taiwanese/Chinese/American girl who is taking a year off before going to college in Williamstown, Mass, and hanging around Bejing. Turns out she knows Michelle Miao, an Andover friend of my sister’s, and is close family friends with Andover economics teacher Carroll Perry. Wacky!

The earlier photo was from yesterday’s trip to the Dashanzi art district. It was a very cool, very funky low-rent area of old communist-era factories that is now chock full of little art galleries, showing the hippest of the Beijing art scene. The shows were mostly ok, more fun was to be had outside taking pictures. What follows below is a reminder that, even without a beard, I could probably still have you killed.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Things You Already Knew

It's old news now, but a new column appeared hot in the Daily yesterday. If you missed it's first run, you can read it here. I apologize to those who find it boring-- I realize the number of people actually interested in Sino-African relations is relatively small... If nothing else, I think the title of the column should have wide appeal. Here's a bonus factoid: I (and everyone else in the city) got a text message from the Chinese government this morning, thanking me for my cooperation and good behavior during the Africa summit in Beijing this weekend. Wacky!

There's a tiny bloke I met last weekend. And when I say "met" I mean "photographed and then sent running, screaming to his mother, in sheer terror." I'm sure he's recovered by now. In other news, winter arrived in Beijing in a hurry. Last week I was cavorting about in shorts, but a weekend of high winds brought in some frigid air that has settled. So much for the unseasonably warm autumn.

Finally, as, if you are an American, you may already know, today is election day! If you haven't already, I hope you're reckoning on heading over to the polls sometime before the closing bell rings today. It is your duty as a citizen of a democracy, indeed, it should be your honor. I confess I'm abdicating everything I believe in, and actually not voting in this election for the dual reasons that it's a pain to have an absentee ballot shipped to China, and every election for which I would be able to cast said ballot is a foregone conclusion. NOT that that is any excuse. Really, it feels wrong.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Gratuitous Photage

Never again will I promise a photo-a-day. I will, however, continue to promise an article-a-week. That said, I have to confess my stock of ideas gets smaller every week. If you've been reading my columns in the Daily regularly, I'd greatly appreciate your thoughts. Let me know what you've liked, what you haven't, and especially what you'd like to read more about. Now that I'm a few months removed from the category of "people who don't know that much about China," I've begun to forget what I didn't know, and what I was interested to learn. Anyway, send me an e-mail.

One of the nice things about posing as a photographer is that one has a nearly universal pass to wander aimlessly in sketchy locations at all hours. Shortly after taking the above, a group of my fellow Americans passed me standing by the side of the road, in the dark. "Oh. Hi!... I'm taking pictures." They were satisfied.

Not much to say, really. She was on her father's shoulders at Tiananmen Square for the daily flag-lowering ceremony. Feel free to ponder on the artist's meaning-- contrasting the youth of today, against the backdrop of Tiananmen. What, indeed, am I trying to tell you? And what, precisely, is the significance of the two flags? This is deep, I'm telling you. While you think, have a gander at the next photo, which I took at the Beijing Botanical Gardens a while back.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


I ought to begin by thanking the uncounted thousands of you beautiful people who wished me a happy birthday yesterday. I only wish I had time to personally thank you all. Celebrating the anniversary of one's birth in a foreign country has its perks, not least, I was spared the hassle of ripping through layers of orange and black crepe paper to get to my (numerous) presents.

I celebrated last night, after an unholy nine hours of class (a Wednesday ritual), with an excellent dinner among friends. I ate way, way too much, and had to sit still for a few hours so as to avoid the possibility of exploding. A good evening, all around.

Failing already in my effort to put up a photo a day this week, I will seek forgiveness by offering you a short series, taken last weekend. I found this little boy and girl playing in an alley on campus here at Beida. I snuck up on them and took a picture.

I said hello, and the boy practically jumped out of his socks with excitement. He jumped on his friend, and twisted her head up to look at the camera. I certainly appreciated the chance to photograph such a willing subject.

One of the nice things about photographing kids is that they enjoy it. Nine times out of ten, when I ask permission to take a picture of someone older than 15, I get waved away. As such, I have stopped asking permission, but that is a tactic that sometimes invites a frown. Not so with these two.