Monday, September 16, 2013

Biking Wanzhou City: Pt. 1 of Many

The Peace Corps has sent me to teach Oral English at the Three Gorges Dam Vocational College in Wanzhou, a 'suburb' of  Chongqing. If you have read Peter Hessler's River Town, Wanzhou is two or so hours down the Yangtze River (the third longest river in the world) from Hessler's site in Fuling. I will be living in Wanzhou for the next two years. A post on Wanzhou is in its early stages. There are five other Volunteers teaching in Wanzhou, including my amazing sitemate, Gabby. If you see this, know that I am continually thankful for your guidance and veteran insight. Now, moving on . . .

My palace in Wanzhou:

Living Room/Dining/Where I sleep

 Kitchen/Laundry Room/Bathroom+Kitchen Sink/Atrium Room
 Toilet/Shower/Mop Storage Room
 2nd Bedroom (I forgot to take a picture of my 1st bedroom)
 Balcony/Cloths Drying Room/Mosquito Haven
 I was told that I will be moving to a building in that complex next year

To shift to our topic, I bought a bike the other day. Although one bus fare in Wanzhou costs 1 kuai (16 cents USD), the buses drive slow in the mountains and stop in practical places, rendering the hapless explorer largely immobile. Even though my purchase might be seen as exorbitant by the virtue of the PC, I believe it is fully justified by its potential for fun.

A map of Wanzhou City I marked up for you:

To make it easier for non-Chinese Language speakers and students I translated the names of the subdivisions into English myself. The translations have been edited by Wanzhou natives and the boarders were traced by their fingers. Above are the four primary subdivisions in Wanzhou. If you can see it, I live and teach in the little red circle at the south end of Dragon Baby.

I set out at around 10:00am with two slices of bread and a bottle of water. I rode South. Past the South border of Dragon Baby and into a very dusty industrial area. Massive trucks hauling rubble, dirt, and barrels roared by me heading uphill. All incline. Passing old peasants carrying their crop. It is hot. There are no clouds only sun and blue. My goal was to break the Wanzhou City limits and ride into the countryside. After passing the 'Chemical Industry Park (which is certainly not a park but the small area outside of what I suspect is a chemical factory)' three times, I decided to double back and look for a mesa like mountain that had grabbed my attention the day before from a long distance bus.

 As seen in many places in China the contrast between the new and old ways of life is apparent
 View from the bridge leading to 'Chemical Industry Park'
A factory hangs over receding farmland

I knew the mesa was somewhere in Five Bridges, so I crossed the towering bridge that connects Baby Dragon to Five Bridges. The official name of the bridge is literal, 'Big Bridge.' The reverse catenary (idk, bu xiao dei . . . thing) of this bridge is gaping - you could fly a fleet of spaceships through it. 
 Riding across Big Bridge
 Ports and development on the Yangtze
Bu xiao dei!

After crossing the Big Bridge, I rode North in search of the mesa. After riding for 20 minutes I spotted it! The next issue was figuring out how to get to the top of it. I realized that I was not in the US and the mesa had not been developed into a river lookout, yet. From where I stood, I could see a little ridge that connected to the back of the mesa. It was covered with little planting sections, so I figured I'd have to talk to some farmers in order to gain access to their backyard. Riding on, I passed a dim little dirt road covered by low trees. There was garbage burning at the entrance. There were a few dogs and lingering and a thin old man sleeping on a stone slab. After realizing that I had ridden too far and obviously missed the entrance, I decided to try the dim road.

Inside the covering

I rode downhill. I did not see anybody but could hear yelling (which is usually friendly in Chongqing). Over trash, mud, and loose rocks I thought about turning back. I thought of the consequences of trespassing and ways to redirect a confrontation. And then the trees cleared. 

 I parked my bike to hike

 The top was filled with planting beds, some fresh and some ancient
Victory over nature portrait

From the ridge I could see a waterfall running into a Yangtze tributary

I had been planning on riding back to campus but I had to see the waterfall. My initial plan was to ride to the base of the waterfall, but after discovering that I had to hike down steep dirt stairs to reach the riverside I settled for riding to the mouth of the waterfall. 

Maybe its because I am from the Midwest and we have nothing like this, like rarely will we, if ever, have a need for vocabulary like fjord, but I am always in awe of natural scenery involving elevation, trees, and water. 


In order to walk to the waterfall I had to cross a stream littered with garbage runoff and possibly miscellaneous diseases. To fear the plunge is not out of fear of getting wet or slipping or being swept away by the current, but by contracting a skin infection or whatever. A video of the crossing for you. 

I got back to my apartment at around 3:00pm, made noodles, and then went to help set up the English Library.
Come to Wanzhou! I will take you to these places!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

La La Mien

I wish the circumstances were different. Friday late in the afternoon I was told that I would be living alone for an undetermined amount of time. When my Host Family found out that our grandmother had fallen deathly ill they dropped everything immediately and left to be with her. Since I do not have a cell phone or land line I cannot contact them. We are both sitting in the dark. Wherever they are, all my hopes are with them.

What can I do for them when they return home? What would make my Host Mother happy?

Not knowing what is considered -- a socially acceptable reaction, I asked one of my PC instructors if she thought buying gifts was a good idea. Breaking from her usual quaint elegance, nearly the dip of a curtsey demure, she backhanded me with a flat "NO." Unless her answer was stock and dictated by my low income and/or position, to which I hope it was not, the logic is commonsensical: gifts do not cure grieving. It is amazing how distracted and ignorant you can become when trying to help remedy the anguish of an august friend. 

Thinking, I remembered how I made my host mother cry with laughter when I announced, with my chest inflated, that I could make 'wontons.' My 3rd generation americanized pronunciation of the Cantonese word, wonton, turned her intensity knob from a natural 7 to a 10. In Mandarin, wonton, is pronounced, hundun. In fact, many Chinese ingredients and foods available in the U.S. have Cantonese names, such as bok choy. If Mandarin is the dominant or official language in China, why then, do we have so many Cantonese words in American cuisine? By 1890, a little over 100,000 Chinese people had immigrated to the U.S., most of which came from Canton Province (now Guangdong), where Cantonese was/is dominant. My Chinese family is one of those immigrant families, hailing from Taishan county, like many old Chinese Bostonians. Although some people may contest, I contribute the popularity of wok style cooking in the U.S. to early Cantonese immigration, in that the wok is a Cantonese word and invention. After I displayed my, might I say, exceptional jiaozi (dumpling) folding technique, in her whiplike shrill voice, my Host Mother kept repeating, "Guangdong! Guangdong! Guangdong!," with spurts of uncontrollable laughter in between. 

You have heard, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach," well, I plan on applying this technique, in a less crude sense. When my Host Mother returns I plan on cheering her up though my cooking. I will construct my own dish with all fresh Sichuan ingredients. 

I have been cooking for myself since I can remember. Dabbling in and experimenting with many cuisines. But as you may have heard, Sichuan cuisine is a whole different ballpark, a different narrative of flavors. Since I am paid something like 6.10USD a day my dish will not be fancy, but basic and hopefully tasty. Without a recipe I will attempt to make a vegetarian la mien (spicy noodles).

La Mien

 1. Ingredients:
- Freshly Made Noodles 
- Four Flaps of Bok Choy Lookin' Stuff
- Spicy Green Pepper
- Two Dried Sichuan Spicy Red Peppers
- A Three-Finger Pinch of Peppercorn 
- Three Cloves of Garlic
- Two Glops of Sesame Seed Oil
- Two Big Glops of Mysterious Red Cooking Oil In Bucket
- One Big Glug of Soy Sauce 

 2. Cook
- Boil Bok Choy Lookin' Stuff in pot on the left to eviscerate all bad things that cause your stomach to churn.
- Boil Noodle in pot on the left.
- Put everything else in the pan on the right.
- Mix contents from pots carefully.

3. Eat!

It is not as spicy as I'd like it to be but that can be fixed. Adding put the costs of ingredients it comes out to about 3 kuai (50 cents USD). Don't let the pictures deceive you, that bowl is very big. This is a full meal. In about a month I plan on eating a dish like this every night. 

I don't think my Host Mother will care much for my food but I hope that she will be able to laugh about it. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Let's Catch Up In China

Let's catch up. I am unwilling to give up the initial presence, rather than purpose, of this blog. Since my last harangue much has happened in my life. I graduated from Lake Forest College with a double major in Asian Studies and Philosophy. I spent two weeks between Boston, Phili, and New York, everyday filled with  a cesspool of hot, uneasy class and gnarl, like a wrinkled dress shirt and worn Sperry's.

My brave girlfriend and her fancy job look down at Rockefeller Center. I marvel at this image confidently.  If I were not where I am now I would be in New York City, for sure. Either in Brooklyn or Harlem. Their auric urban aromas cause one to wince yet somehow dually enchant. But this is a conversation for another day. 

Funny enough, I wrote a one hundred thirty sum page senior thesis on, "Thucydides' Trap: The Possibility of War between the United States and China," and the Peace Corps sent me to China to serve! I achieved my Plan A right out of undergrad. Although I can't speak about the quality of my job yet since I am still in training, I can honestly say the volunteers of China 19 are some of the most good natured and intelligent people I have ever met in my life. Every 19 is in inspiration.

Right now I am siting in my room in Chengdu, China. My dress clothes are hanging on an ancient, unsteady bamboo stick outside my window. I fear the wind will carry all of my cloths away.  My host father, Mr. Xiao and I built a desk for my room. One of my desk's legs was too small so we had to shake down the pirate desk salesman for a new one. There are pencil scrawled abysses all over my walls. Some may think my room looks filthy but I feel as if I were living in a Cy Twombly painting. My bed is like a Hostess cupcake, it fills most of the package. . .  

The Twombly in my room.

To me, most of what I have written above is uninteresting. I find stories of others, stories of things, and movements of the world interesting. I will continue to post about people and books, but most of all I want to show you a side of China that is ungarbled by media and politics. To start, here: 

Huang Long Xi


A vineyard on the outskirts of Chengdu

Thursday, January 10, 2013

When Monetary Value Meets The Sentimental

This is a brief review I wrote recently for Gibson.
 "I play a 2004 Gibson Supreme ebony under gold.  I traded something for it when I was 17 and I see no reason to get another guitar (unless it be a full hollow body electric). The sound of this guitar is so distinct - its genius (and ought to be for the price). It has the depth, rather the essence of a hard old electric blues sound, but what makes it distinct is the light treble that is embedded in the roundness, which usually overpowers that type of sound on new guitars at least, sort of a coarse roundness. Since the treble is not to harsh and the roundness is still full, it makes for an organic sound, which is very rare in my opinion. Don't let the sheen and sparkles deceive you, this guitar is dirty. 

We Supremiers [People that play Supremes] must make sure we have good amps! I recommend an older Vox [like the one above]. Not too old tho. If you are looking to experiment by melding the older more organic sounds with the newly digitized  get a BOSS Digital Delay any of the newer models should work. An old amp with new effects exfoliates its versatility. 

One thing that some may not be aware of about this guitar is that it is great for bowing. Since the bridge is raised fairly high off the body, pointedly higher than most guitars, and a tighter action is not a terrible thing, just ergonomically it is one of the best you will find. If you want to have a totally new experience with guitar, as an idea, get a cello bow and a delay pedal (open tunings are recommended)." 

Lo, Bolivia!

Woke up to new Charango strings (Note: The body of a Charango is traditionally made of an armadillo shell. Charango deservedly means 'noisy' in Bolivian. It is said that Bolivians have strummed it atop their Alpacas while frequenting the barren Sub-Andean region for centuries, but this is only legend). For my family's sake I held off stringing it until dawn. If you play this little monstrosity we ought to pow wow.

Floating On Brackish Water

Scorseses' interpretation of Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York resembles a dance after reading this this work of nonfiction(?). Since I can remember I've never really cared for gangs. The fascination with 'Gangland' boggles me. But this epic written in 1958, of the gangs that plagued New York's Five-Points district, now Chinatown, is comparable to Herodotus' Histories. Hegel's 'Original History' would have a commentary on this piece.  It has that nice blend of, "(What! 8 foot man uprooting a couple trees to bash his foes with! This is fiction! Or....)." I read quite a bit and I must say that no book has held my attention like this one for sometime now. I didn't put it down until I finished it (4.5h). Speaking on reading ergonomics, the wordage is not too pretentious, you may need to use a dictionary a few times because he did write it in the 1920's, and as we all know some words do expire. Comma count is fairly low, so eye flow is constant. Prose is surprisingly smooth.

Getting to the good stuff. One of the reason this book is so fascinating is simply for the gang names. We get names like The Forty Thieves (petty criminals, on of the first to run 'the Points'), The Daybreak Boys (labeled as the first organized criminal organization, they robbed ships on the coast one hour before dawn, ironically they were also the first to be exterminated), Plug Uglies (hulkish brutes, always loves a good tussle in the mud), Slaughter Hausers (I don't recall they were German,  but they have a Warriors caliber name), the infamous Dead Rabbits (One of the biggest, Irish ), The Bowery Boys or pronounced B'hoys (I find them a little boring, but they must be mentioned in that they were the largest gang for most of the Points existence, they resemble the Plug Uglies),  Native Americans (my favorite name, the irony in their mission, lo! the gang of Bill the Butcher, they despised foreigners, immigration, and abolition).

Although I would like to asses the topic of abolition in the Points, I cannot at the moment, I hope you will find the time to DIY(-alas). One point, Scorsese did not expand too much on was the opposition of abolition in the Points. Asbury made it appear that all gangs were opposed to abolition. Regardless of their motives (e.g. Civil War draft), the people of the points were surprisingly tolerant of all races. Although many were living in abject poverty, living in caverns below tenements (projects) or abandoned buildings (sometimes it was too dangerous to walk up to ground level so residents of the earthy caverns simply didn't leave, it is recorded that ten families (or residents) did not leave the caverns for over a week), there were interracial couples - marriages - and they were tolerated (and not simply traditional 'interracial,' but Asians too), whereas the Confederates may have had a different opinion on the issue. Moving 'Forward,' I will stop.

Django Fire

Influentially, he is on par with Edith Piaf, Marcel Duchamp, and John Locke. Born in Belgium (1910-1953), but you can call him French. I like to think of him as a complex combination of flavors. Was raised in the border lands of civilized France. Cart and horse, with lanterns swinging through the night and mud.  Calling him the inventor of Gypsy-Jazz would be unfair, but he certainly is the most prominent to rise in history. His bassists of ninety some records never own his own bass, he rented it from a small music shop monthly, that was their style.  Severely burned in a caravan fire, he lost the use of three fingers on his left hand. Fortunately for the future of music, his index and middle digits were left undamaged. In a letter to a friend, he was cited saying that people ask him for guitar advice all the time, but he didn't know why, "It is sad that I will never be able to play the chords in my head." It is likely that no guitarist will ever invent a "style (pointedly remarked by Djangologists)" as era-descriptive as Django. With complex orient swinging his riffs side to side, he captured the rhythm of a night culture.  We all need more Django flavor.