Miscellany


There appears to be some confusion on this matter, so I would like to officially clear things up: I am at last back in New York, where I can breathe without coughing but certainly can’t find a decent lunch (or even an inadequate snack) for less than $1.

A few things seemed strange at first. The sky is such a vivid blue that I keep looking up at it. And every time I use tap water, I feel as though I’m doing something wrong. It even felt strange to say the words “tap water” in a restaurant, so I ordered “still” water instead and got something in a pricey, green-glass bottle from Europe. It was not what I had intended.

It’s a relief to talk to people who know their government’s faults, but I have noticed one ridiculous thing. People whom I consider partisan on both sides of the aisle keep trying to equate certain groups in America with the Chinese government. It’s been happening in repeated conversations, and the fact that it’s coming from Republicans as well as Democrats leads me to the conclusion that these assertions are entirely overblown. You can look at almost any government and find similarities to any other government, people. No matter how bad you think it is here, we do not actually live in a totalitarian state.

And I’m happy to be able to speak English whenever I want. I didn’t blog much about my actual Chinese program — because I didn’t want a bunch of entries like “Woe is me. Chinese is so hard.” Trust me, it was grueling. Most of you know that we couldn’t speak English; we also had five hours of class a day, starting at 7:30 a.m., and then several hours of homework and study after that. My Chinese has improved by leaps and bounds, but I’m now at an awkward level. I can talk about China’s economic reforms and their effect on development, but I’ve never officially learned the words for, say, “keys” or “purple.”

All in all, I’m happy I went, and I’m happy to be back. And if you’re around the City and haven’t heard from me, drop me a line. We can go have some pizza or hamburgers or something that isn’t Chinese food.

Hong Kong panorama5) People Movers: Hong Kong’s public transportation is stellar. The buses are double-decker. The subway system is clean, modern and easy to navigate. But the best is probably the huge series of escalators connecting the lower part of the city to a previously difficult-to-access section midway up a steep hill. I just like the idea of escalators as free public transport.

4) Dim Sum: Following a tip from my Princeton in Beijing roommate, Jacob and I had dim sum at West Villa in Causeway Bay. The meat in the chashaobao was sweet, the rice noodle rolls were paper-thin and the steamed meatballs were mild but flavorful. After months of Beijing cuisine, Hong Kong restaurants were a real treat.

3) No Censorship: A summer on the mainland meant I was ecstatic to have unfettered access to the Internet and television stations. Hong Kong might be part of China, but for another 40 years it will be run under a separate system, and that means people have easier access to information.

2) The Views: I can’t decide whether I prefer the view of the city from the top of Victoria Peak or the panorama from across the harbor. Either way, it’s a riot of neon and buildings built onto improbably steep hillsides. I love skylines like this because there is no logical reason for them — no reason for buildings to be built with so many lights, or that tall and close together. It makes me happy that people build them anyway.

And the No. 1 Reason I Like Hong Kong: It’s where Jacob and I got engaged, at night across the harbor from the mainland. So I suppose we’ll have an excuse to go back sometime. Yay!

Me holding a red pandaAt last, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The culmination of my life’s work. A video of pandas.

I saw veritable piles of the little guys at a breeding and research center in Chengdu, Sichuan. The center is home to adult red and giant pandas, but the main attraction is the cubs. The young pandas you see in the video were born last year and are now in panda “kindergarten.” There also are younger cubs, but they live indoors and aren’t supposed to be photographed, because their eyes are still developing.

In addition to being surrounded by overwhelming cuteness, I learned a lot about pandas at the center. Most surprising to me was the way pandas are born. Obviously, it’s through the normal channels, but it’s unusually speedy. The baby panda just kind of plops out onto the floor with little warning. It seems to confuse even the mother. (You can see National Geographic video of this here.)

The Chengdu center is famous for allowing visitors to sit next to or hold pandas for a fee. (Nobody is going to try to introduce these captive-bred animals back into the wild anytime soon. The ones that don’t stay at the research park are sent to zoos.) The babies weren’t available when I was there, and, besides, the park charges about $120 if you want to hold one. So I paid my $10 and played with a red panda for maybe three minutes. I can happily report that red pandas are as fluffy as they look.

Little Mao.If you visit Beijing and get tired of seeing endless temples and palaces, I highly recommend heading over to the Factory 798 area to check out the city’s contemporary-art scene. About a decade ago, artists began setting up shop among defunct military factory buildings in this district east of town. The space now is home to dozens of galleries, as well as some tony cafés.

As you might expect, a lot of the work references capitalism, nationalism and the Cultural Revolution. It’s sort of Mao-era kitsch for the upper-crust set. (The irony just kills you, doesn’t it? Sigh.) I thought most of the pieces were fun and successfully tongue-in-cheek, though some of it, like the giant upside-down fist, might seem heavy-handed. (That bad, predictable pun was fully intended. In fact, I restructured my sentence to put it in there. And now that I have forced in that pun and ruined this paragraph, I shall move on.)

My favorite trend among the 798 pieces is a tendency toward “cuteness.” Because a lot of the cute artwork is taking a critical look at Japanese and other “cute culture,” the works often combine cuteness with violence or other disturbing imagery. Sometimes the art uses rounded lines and innocent subjects, but transforms them into something disgusting. I’m a big fan, even if I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to art.

My top pick at the galleries combines elements of cuteness and Chinese history, leading to a disarmingly pleasant-looking bust of Mao. Too bad it doesn’t come in smaller sizes.

peach with a character on it After stopping by Tiananmen Square and a several parks in the past week, a few days ago I had my biggest adventure: the grocery store. The coolest thing I found: The Chinese might be taking the chemicals people use to artificially ripen fruit and having fun with them. The nectarine in the photo on the left has the word for “longevity” on it, through some magical process that may or may not involve actual sunlight. Is it awesome, or is it a creepy reminder of what’s on our food? You decide.

The grocery store also provides us with exhibit No. 1 in my Reasons Non-Chinese Speakers Should Not Get Chinese Tattoos. This store, Ito Yokado, helpfully has signs in English as well as Chinese. I really appreciate this effort. But translating between such vastly different languages is tough. Case in point: “The songis strange.” True, the first symbol of the Chinese word means “song,” and the second symbol is the first syllable for “strange.” But together, these are pronounced “qū qí” and mean “cookies.”

sign in grocery storeNow, if such a simple word as “cookies” leads to this sort of problem, I don’t even want to contemplate the ridiculousness that results when people try to write complicated concepts such as “peacefulness” or “fabulous warrior” or whatever Chinese words people are writing on themselves these days. Other examples of such “Chinglish” at the grocery store include “using in babies” (diapers) and “carbonic acid beverage” (which I will henceforth use to refer to soda).

Chart of Headline FrequencyA few people reading this blog may be chagrined at part of the title: the use of the words “in translation.”

See, one of my former coworkers has a theory that Sofia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation” has been responsible for an intolerable increase in the use of the phrase in headlines. These headlines have become a running joke — and a source of much eye-rolling — at the Online Journal. To test the theory, I counted the number of times the phrase “lost in translation” appeared in headlines in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Not only has there been an increase in usage, especially at the Journal, but it really does appear to coincide with the film’s release in the fall of 2003.

You may think the spike is simply a result of articles that discuss the film. But you would be wrong! I didn’t count any of the stories or reviews that referred to the film itself. No, it seems that the film brought the phrase to the forefront of editors’ minds, and they started using “in translation” more frequently in headlines. Sure, we’re getting only a handful of these headlines a year, but that doesn’t include variations such as “Found in Translation,” which the Journal used recently.

At any rate, I hereby call for a moratorium on the use of this cliché in headlines — except, of course, when it’s done knowingly, as it is in this blog.