Anna and the King, or when I learned my boss was a king

First, a true story. Before my trip in 2003, I perused the local library for any information on China, and all I could find were pictures of men and women dressed in blue uniforms, riding bikes from a book published in the mid 1980s. China wasn’t in the news, wasn’t a rising power, but most importantly to me was different, a literal Wild West for a native Californian who had grown up in the Silicon Valley during the 80s. In many ways, my experience mirrored Anna Leonowen’s experience in Thailand during the 1860s (she also thought her employment in Siam would be a romantic excursion), and continues to mirror the experiences of expatriates working in China even today. I would like to explore the dichotomies presented in the story of Anna Leonowens (told by Peter Krikes, Steve Meerson, and directed by Andy Tennant in the film, Anna and the King) through three rules (or quotes from the film) as well as the impact of those rules had I known and practiced them during my first year.

Rule #1: “Best not to assume too much.” In the beginning of the film, the prime minister of Siam chastises Anna for jumping to conclusions she may be swaying the king towards changing his policies, when in fact he was just being polite. In her book, Leonowens remarks with stunning audacity (even to the end of her five-year stint in Siam) at the brutality of the culture, the uncivilized manners of the king and his ministers, and the horrifying treatment of the common people with an attitude that would do her contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe proud. Even in the film, Anna (portrayed by Jodie Foster) presents an image of a woman far more interested in securing the rights of women forced to serve as wives for the king than the bloated attitudes she taught her son to convey to appointed princes, illustrated when he shoved the prince of the country because of an insulting remark.

When I first arrived in China, I came saddled with a college education (worth around $100,000), a three-month EFL certificate to teach English, as well as six months teaching experience in a local community center in Chicago. However, when I arrived at the city where I was supposed to teach, my guide told me to stay on the train. Five hours later, I got off the train in a tiny mountain town near the border of Russia, escorted to my “apartment” (the operating room of the school’s former dental clinic, complete with chair and instruments), and a day later I was dumped unceremoniously in front of thirty-five toddlers and told to teach them English. No book. No introduction. No experience.

Little did I know that my boss knew as little as I did. I was selected for my position through a third party. When arriving at the newly-built school, they did not even have enough time to prepare a room or the prescience to issue me a proper visa; they were forced to bribe the police just to keep me in-country. Just as I made wrong assumptions, Anna was far more concerned with the rights of the women under her care, and she seemed to care little that Thailand was suffering from the brutal border violence in Burma, or hardly respected the stress of a man with thirty-two wives and eighty-two children. During Anna’s five years with the king, he also lost his favorite daughter to cholera, saw his beloved younger brother die, and even through his trials managed to turn Siam from a medieval kingdom to a country that embraced free trade and European education.

Rule #2: “Most people see the world as they are, not as it is.” Perhaps Anna should have shone the mirror back on herself, rather than criticizing the people of Siam for their acceptance of slavery. Her conclusion shows promise of transformation: “…or perhaps that is my weakness.” Even King Mongkut, according to Anna’s book, viewed her little more than a servant, having no concept of the suffragette popularized from John Stuart Mill. However, the world must be seen from both perspectives, the observer and the observed, as in the space between observer and observed is reality.

When I returned to the United States in 2004, I remarked to my family and friends that during my employment as a kindergarten teacher, I was little more than an indentured servant. I was locked behind the gates of the school (much as Anna was in the palace compound). Services were forced outside of my contract (similar to Anna’s translation and editing services, in addition to her tutoring of the prince and her teaching of the king’s 82 children and wives). I was also used as a marketing ploy for the school because of my white face, blond hair, and blue eyes (just as Anna was used when asked to serve as a third party to the governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring).

After ten years of living in China, perhaps I should not be surprised that the way I was treated was much the same as any other employee. At the time I saw corruption and nepotism; I now understand the realities of an ancient culture suddenly forced to adopt suits and ties. Just as there is beauty in the culture of coffee shop meetings and neighborhood potlucks, there is also beauty in morning employee exercises and the midnight blaring of disco boomboxes in the community square.

Rule #3: “They are the ways of one world.” By the end of the film, Anna has grown, throw aside her colonial attitude and adopted Thai life. While Anna’s real life was starkly different (she left Thailand a sick, tired woman, and a royal court that breathed relief at her departure), the film presents a vision all foreign workers should embrace. One culture is no better than another; difference must be judged according to the fruits, and fruits must be sampled carefully with an open mind.

When I left China in 2004, I had been through a gauntlet: moved to three different schools over one year, never teaching the same students for more than four weeks at a time, one fired colleague, one colleague that fled the school during the middle of the night, police raids on the school campus, and learning how to jump the school fence during the night so I could write e-mails to my parents. Seven of my colleagues angry, bitter, disillusioned or fired by the Chinese leaders who simply reflected Chinese values, and me? I had no desire to return to that country again.

Years later I realized that had I kept a more open mind during my time, I might have had a stronger impact on those I touched. King Mongkut’s final words about Anna were that she was a “difficult woman,” and while his son Chulalongkorn appreciated Anna’s diligence, he agreed with his father her impact was minimal, given her frequent desire to accost and challenge the king on matters of court legality. During the last month of my employment, I was also called “difficult” through my attempt to speak for those I felt were being unfairly charged by my boss.

Or when I learned my boss was a king. Midway through her service to the king as governess in 1864, Anna plead from the king to have an increase in salary, to which he bluntly refused and then followed up shortly after with a request for her resignation (feeling he would lose face if he fired her, as he did hire her). She denied him and over the years the king grew to bear her, culminating her time in Siam with a refusal to act as an intermediary in the writing of a letter to Sir John Bowring, a source of sensitivity for the king given his close relationship with the governor and desire to not hurt Bowring’s feelings (Bowring, 2011). After being forced from the palace by armed guard, Anna finally deigned to write a letter to Bowring, but only of sentiment (not of any substance). She returned to England; a year later, the king died, giving the throne to his son Chulalongkorn (Anna’s pupil).

Real life clashes harshly with the romantic image of Anna in the film, which ends in a slow waltz under a moonlit gazebo, the king and Anna embraced, tears rolling down their faces, the forbidden love of a god and mortal woman hand-in-hand hidden behind their eyes. King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) sadly recounts in the last line of the film of the love his father held for Anna, and the good she did for Thailand, giving power and authority to Anna’s transformation.

Near the end of my first year in China, I remember walking into my boss’ office to say hello. He was sitting behind his desk wearing his favorite turtle-skin glasses, playing Counter-Strike (a popular computer game among Chinese youth). I asked him how he was doing, and he gruffly looked up at me, smiled, nodded, and then went back to his game. Leaving the office almost as quickly as I entered, I could hear the bullets clatter from his gun to the ground, and the sound of his rifle reloading. I had caught my boss in a rather unrefined moment, yet was also reminded of the enormous authority he wielded. He knew he had power. I judged, to my shame.

The assumptions foreign workers make discredit them; their insistence on viewing the world through their particular cultural lens becomes a burden; but their transformation into holistic learners to respect and even admire culture, is the defining characteristic that sets them apart from others. Kings may be kings, servants servants, but beauty is always found when one is neither, but a learner.

References

Bowring, P. (2011). Sir John Bowring: The imperial role of a lifelong radical. Asian Affairs, 42(3):419- 429.

Leonowens, A.H. (1870). The English governess at the Siamese court: Being recollections of the six years in the royal palace at Bangkok. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8678

A personal mythology

Depending only on our assumptions to understand a culture is dangerous. Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner (1996) state that the only way to manage cultural change is to use stories to rewrite our assumptions about implicit culture. In this short essay I am going to talk about assumptions I had about Chinese culture (based on my initial reactions to experiences I had), and then relate several stories that changed my mind, and through these experiences explain some of the key differences between an American upbringing and Chinese culture.

“The Funeral”

When I first came to China, I had an opportunity to attend a funeral in the mountainside. Even though this was a funeral, I was curious to know how funerals among Chinese Christians differed from funerals among American Christians. You see, I come from a culture where the dead are mourned in personal silence. God, for Americans, is a mystical calculator they keep in their pocket, who I have often imagined has the voice of the late Richard Harris; a great, mournful voice, apologizing for the blood of the world, and a bright piñata for our confusion and angst, opening his arms to the barbs we throw in our pain and guilt. However, in China I experienced a different kind of God, one that surrounded the crowd on the mountain in a warmth only because we were together, and uplifted each person there with the peace of a prosperous and unique future, promising each family a future of peace while also promising each family a future of struggle.

The United States comes from a strong background of Puritan beliefs, capitalistic philosophy, Enlightenment idealism, and postmodern sensibilities, while China comes from a background of Confucian ethics, taoist emotionalism, historical precedence, and socialist methodologies. Every artefact of culture invaded my brain and tried to make sense, but continually failed: Russian winter jackets, German cars, French superstores, Korean movies, American fast food, Japanese televisions, and English accents: for a country that prided itself on an immense history and sterling culture, how could so many other cultures have so much power? In the United States, Chinese culture had been relegated to cheap restaurants, Japanese culture to cheap cars, and European culture to out-of-date emotionalism, but in China foreign constructs held immense power. In China, the political, military, and artistic systems were Russian imports, the economic model an American import, and the social system was a fragment of Marxist ideology and failed dreams, touched with a bit of ancient Chinese sentimentalism. The values and underlying beliefs of the two countries were not even comparable, and that fascinated me.

“The Cup”

While I was working as an English teacher at Peking University, I was invited to be a guest judge for an English-speaking competition, and later as an honored guest for the televised finals. In the story above, I spoke about internal characteristics of both China and America (values and underlying beliefs), but in this story I will speak about the external characteristics (the arts). Art in China has a long history of emulation, from the long-standing tradition of learning how to paint landscapes by copying the masters, to the art of calligraphy, a beautiful discipline where the artist instills his or her passion into the brush and the tiniest variant of movement in the shape of a word is considered beautiful and unique. As I was sitting in my front-row seat at the televised finals of the competition, this emulation became magnified in everything, although strangely the emulation was not from the Chinese masters but from American television shows.

Whenever I look back on the recording of the competition finals, I swallow a bit of my pride. Every object on the set, everyone sitting in the arena-benches in the audience, and every activity the participants took part in looked American… except when the camera panned to me. Bigger than everyone around me, dressed in a yellow tweed jacket, and clapping and smiling out of sync, I was noticeably different from everyone else in the audience, who were sitting quietly with their hands in their laps, trying to blend in with the background, not making sudden movements, but becoming a part of the portrait of intense expectations. The CCTV Cup was a realization that even as a spectator, my basic instinct was to act like an American, to move to my own rhythm, even when the rest of the world was clapping at the same time.

“Work is Work”

I was nervous; previously she had refused to see me, take my calls, or even recognize my desires to communicate with her. Just a week before, we were on good terms; suddenly we were enemies, beholden on opposites sides of a battlefield without a choice. She could not look at me; I could only wonder what I had done wrong. “Family is family, work is work,” she told me in her office, sighing and shrugging her shoulders as if she held a great burden. “When you work in China, you must understand this.” A week before, I walked up the aisle of a conference hall of the Saixiang Hotel in Tianjin, a city not far from Beijing. When I embraced hands with my bride, I had little idea that my school, unbeknownst to me, forgot about the date of my wedding and scheduled a very expensive class on that very day, and because there was no teacher to teach that class, the school not only lost a huge amount of money but also a great deal of face, and something had to change.

According to Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner, cultures deviate between universalism and particularism in the development of rules, and the use of internal and external control mechanisms to enforce those rules. China, for example, is highly universalistic when it comes to developing rules but incredibly particularistic when it comes to enforcing them. Furthermore, the influence of Taoist philosophy on Chinese culture has engrained among people a dialectic of natural movement between dark and light, or that people naturally transform from something into something else rather the American perception that people are born a certain way and can never change. Nothing good can last, and nothing can really last; therefore, the only things that last are the things that must change and in changing they last. After I was let go from the school, I spent a long time in mourning and anger, even though I left one of the most dismal schools and ended up in the highest university in the country, not even one day after I was let go. The American in me was stunned, but no one else seemed surprised. The American in me demanded retribution and punishment, but the Chinese seeping into me transformed that rage and frustration into the most amazing thing: forgiveness.

“The Walking Street”

More than the impersonal attributes of rules and control however, are cultural issues that affect a person’s self-perception as well as emotional state. Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner also relate the cultural values of individualism and collectivism (self-perception), and neutral and affective (emotions). Growing up in the United States, I learned some very difficult lessons about not allowing other people to define what I believed about myself, and that I was fully in control of my emotions: no external force could or should govern my state of mind, unless I allowed it to. Like most people, I believed what I knew to be the truth; that either people thought that way, or wanted to think that way because they knew in the darkest part of their heart, they also knew it to be true.

Consider my surprise, then, when I took my teacher for coffee. Over the last couple of weeks, I felt there had been some tension between us, and being that she was my tutor, I wanted to make things right. I should have realized something was off when the moment we stepped outside of the cab, she started walking on the opposite side of the street, and when I moved toward her, she reacted and asked me to stay a few feet away from her, but to keep walking. Perhaps she wanted to play the part of a spy? No, actually. She was embarrassed that others seeing her would think she was my girlfriend.

Later that afternoon, after buying her some ice cream to assuage her frustration as well as drinking a cup of coffee to try and force my brain to interpret the events of the day, she told me that not only had I embarrassed her in class by asking too many questions, but that everyday she felt a creeping doom when she had to mentally prepare herself to teach me. And here I thought I was the model student! I had been praised by my professors in university for my unflinching dedication to learning and truth-seeking, but in China I was considered a brute, little better than a hoodlum looking for an easy pinch (a term of endearment, I thought). However, for many people in China, self-perception is a reflection of perceived expectations from other people, and emotions are contextually defined by those same perceived expectations. I thought that by inviting my teacher out for coffee, I could make it right, but it wasn’t until I realized that by trying to make it right, I was constantly making it worse. Only after I changed how I acted in front of her in the classroom, was she able to change how she acted in front of me.

“The Teahouse”

One winter, I visited a friend who lived in the city of Xi’an. A prominent surgeon and Party member, a couple of years before he stayed with my parents in California while he was doing a residency as a foreign expert and cancer researcher at Stanford University. He quickly became a close family friend. While visiting him in Xi’an, I believed that like great family friends, we would spend some time together, visiting the sites, having dinner together, and speaking of my family back in California and his life there. However to my surprise we spent most of the time entertaining his friends, drinking in teahouses, schmoozing up to officials, and only speaking to each other in the car as we moved from place to place. By the end of the trip, I was so confused, upset, and in pain from the massive headaches I suffered from the large amounts of tea I drank, but more importantly, I was jaded by our friendship, believing he had used me to uplift his position as a Party member so as to ensure his status as the “surgeon with the exotic foreign friend”.

Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner speak also of three very important cultural concepts: specific and diffuse (responsibility), achievement and ascription (status), and past, present, and future time (orientation). My experience with my friend allowed me a unique glimpse into a special situation. My reactions were pure examples of American perceptions of responsibility, status, and orientation. As a friend, we should (responsibility) have spent the time together, growing closer and laughing about old times, thereby solidifying our status as friends, and securing the future of our relationship. However, in the mind of my friend, he would owe me far more by the simple act of allowing me an opportunity to show him off to his friends, and that action would ensure for decades to come his appreciation and dedication to us as friends. Furthermore, the status I would afford him would be “change in the bank”, so that in the future if I needed a favor from him he would be more than happy to sacrifice his time and effort to help me, something that even my greatest of American friends would likely need a lot of convincing to even consider. Once I had realized this, I was embarrassed, but I suppose I can write that off as being too American about the whole situation.

“The Man with the Turtle-Skin Glasses”

My first year in China I worked at a kindergarten. My boss was a big man built like a football player, with broad shoulders, a belly of iron, and huge, square-framed glasses that he claimed were covered in turtle-skin (he said with pride). I remember walking into his office for the first time and being surprised: he was sitting at his computer desk, playing Counter Strike, a popular computer game where the player acts in the role of a counter-terrorist officer and runs around a map shooting terrorists in the head. He was older, in his fifties, respectable, but when I walked in he motioned me to sit in a wooden chair beside his desk and continued playing his game. When he was done, he turned to face me and asked me if I liked Chinese food, and what did I think of the cold buns they served in the school cafeteria for breakfast. I was too stunned to reply; eventually I gathered up my energy and said it was good; I waited for some time, but he didn’t have anything more to say, so then I collected myself and after making up an excuse, went back to my room, about ten feet away just down the hall.

As a final conclusion to this short essay, I want to talk a little about leaders and followers. I wouldn’t necessarily say my boss was a good leader (he had to flee the country two years later) but he was an ordinary leader who did what he believed was expected of him. He was an authority, he was rich, and in general he didn’t have a lot of expectations of others except to not embarrass him and work with the other staff. He was always there, but rarely did he make his presence known unless circumstances demanded, but if his presence was made known his shadow fell over everything. Aside from being less personable, he was more or less like any other non-exceptional leader I had ever known. He expected his staff to fulfill their duties, and they expected him to tell them what to do. Sure, certain intricacies were apparent: the lack of discussion when he made a decision, the sardonic and cleverly worded remarks from the staff when he wasn’t around (as well as some moaning), and the fear of what it might mean to have a relationship with him. We are all people of flesh and blood and more or less respond in similar ways. If we let it, culture has power over us, but if we master it, culture is merely another language to learn.

Transforming values

Society is fundamentally ruled by the powerful, who maintain their power by offering others security. The powerful offer physical security, personal security, familial security, and quite often moral security that is based out of how that particular powerful group views the family and how they view the interplay between different members of the community. Opposing this “security” is more often viewed as a threat to the whole and put down immediately. The Pope was a shining example of how a leader could offer both moral authority and security, while at the same time stand out as a monstrous vehicle of power and dictatorship, “the leader of the world.” However, the United States was one of the first forces to truly challenge the papacy, and they did so through offering not only moral authority but intellectual authority through their espousal of freedom as a human right. During the beginning of the United States, scholars and thinkers were obsessed with the motivational forces that ruled over the human soul, and today, those motivational forces have evolved to values-based leadership. Leaders recognize today that people mobilize not only from the recognition of their own human rights, but from leaders who offer a living model of those values of human rights.

“Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / but leech-like to their fainting country cling, / rise like Lions after slumber / in unvanquishable number — / shake your chains to earth like dew / which in sleep had fallen on you — / ye are many — they are few.” (Shelley, 1819) Even in the 19th century, popular culture had begun to embrace the idea that values could transform the world. Shelley’s criticism that leaders were so distanced from their followers that they were blind, unfeeling, and stupid, was a bold thing to say when rulers still felt they had divine authority on their side. The idea that followers of a divine authority actually had chains was less a statement that people needed freedom, and more a claim that people had a right to live their own lives without being chained in the dreams of a leader who was blind.

Are one set of values any better than another set? How can you make a differentiation, without making a judgment? For example, we look at modern-day Sharia bound cultures, where women are forced to wear headdresses and covers so that they are not seen in public, when in fact many of those women support that culture and when westerners criticize those cultures, the westerners are the ones who are in turn criticized for being immoral. Do leaders need to stand for the values of their followers, or do they need to reframe those values and transform those under them? Should the leaders in closed countries such as China and Saudi Arabia seek to transform their countries to become more like other countries and their values, or should they seek to solidify themselves in favor of their own people’s values?

I often struggle with knowing where my values lie in the country I live. I am an ex-patriot, and for many people I come into contact with I am the first ex-patriot (or foreigner) they have ever met. When they see me and watch me, everything I do becomes everything the other world is. If I cry or scream or smile, I begin to form their own minds about the actions of people who are not Chinese. If I cheat or steal or sin, that is added to the value system of other countries, at least in the eyes of those who are watching me, in the exact same way that I erroneously attached the ethics and values of China to Tracy, that tiny little Chinese girl in my second-grade class, or how I also erroneously attached a judgment of Iran by observing the parents of my friend whose family fled to the United States in the 80s. However, I am an image of the West, and there is nothing I can do about that. The values I espouse become the main line in inquiry for anyone I meet, unless that person is lucky enough to meet someone else and grow their judgment set. As a leader however, the values I espouse are even more important, not because it should matter to me whether or not someone has a favorable opinion of the values of people from other countries, but because that will affect my effectiveness in reaching that person and trying to help them grow.

The Last Fairyland

Memories of Old Beijing: the swirling, stone fairytale bridges of Beihai, crossing over crystal clear lagoons of budding flowers and jeweled rocks. People pace on the hillside, reading from the classics, while children run and hide in the caves beneath, playing hide and seek from their shadows. A long corridor of brightly painted wood shadows them as the readers descend from the hill, where they sit and watch the small waves curling in the vast lake beyond, little boats dotting the water like intrepid explorers. This is Beihai, the treasure land of Beijing.

I am walking up the hill, toward the towering and bulbous White Dagoba, the crown of a four hundred year old temple that was built from the lakeside to the top of the hill. There is a slight moment of vertigo, as the zigzagging stairs sway a bit, but I regain myself and continue the hike. Green, foudroyant sabina trees, strong and tall, shadow the staircase as I ascend, and fleeting birds dart from the tops of the trees. I am a little tired, after spending all morning wandering the halls of the Forbidden City, but being here in the middle of wildlife and quietude refreshes me.

I have spent the greater part of two weeks trying to find a picnic spot in Beijing. While it is not uncommon to see people eating happily away on the sidewalk of a busy street with a kebob of charred lamb between their teeth, I would hardly call that a picnic. A picnic is a time of joy and serenity, sitting on a mat while surrounded by beauty, letting the feelings of the day wash away while eating with family and friends. It seems I found the perfect place. As I walk up the hill, everyone is eating: there are five people sitting next to the temple wall with a bucket of fried chicken; further up there is a couple with a child eating some sausages and oranges. While there are no tables, people have turned the hillside into a dining room, leaning on trees, unwrapping sandwiches and perching themselves on smooth rocks, while sitting red tea and sending their gaze across the city. The whole island seems to be a giant picnic table, in the kindest and most beautiful sense of the word.

The view is incredible from the top. I recall the vistas of Anacortes, of northern Washington, with flourishing green islands amid ships and boats dotting the sea, tiny stars in a vast sky. This hillside used to be covered in a giant palace, once upon a time. Kublai Khan, during his reign as Emperor, built a wonderland called the Palace of the Moon (Guanghaidian), where he entertained visitors, and even entertained Marco Polo when the Italian came to visit China. Today the palace is gone, having been destroyed in an earthquake, and during the Ming dynasty the Yong’an Buddhist temple was built in its place, meant to honor a visiting Tibetan lama. During that same time, the Emperor Qianlong had a Rosetta-like stele erected on the hillside, which included Han, Manchurian, Mongolian, and Tibetan languages.

Descending the hill puts me in a kind of euphoria. I don’t realize until I have paid the small three yuan fee for a system of caves that labyrinths the entire northern part of the island, and find myself face-to-face with grim-faced bodhisattvas and craggy walls, little slits of light filtering in to light up the wry grins of these venerable holy men. They frighten me a little, but only a little. There is only so much a little clay man can do. I imagine myself as a little child racing through the caves, while my parents sit together on the crest of the hill sipping tea. It is all too reminiscent of Tom Sawyer’s Island.

At the bottom of the hill, pink, budding bunge flowers poke out from the ground, and the smell of mint-like sorboria fills the area. There are couples sitting by the lakeside on benches, hand in hand, watching the boats drift by. The Fangshan restaurant, famous for their Qing dynasty dishes, stands awkwardly out of time, and an imperial painted boat floats by, filled with Sunday families.

I make my way back to the entrance of the park, walking past the boating docks of floating paddle-boats and old rowboats. I would like to come back here someday and try them out. It looks fun.

The Circular City (Tuancheng), the ancient capital of the Yuan dynasty, confronts me as I exit the park. Once an island of pine trees, it later became an Imperial Palace, and then was destroyed when the Eight-Power Allied Forces entered Beijing. This surprises me: not even the might of the rest of the world was able to shake it, and while it was destroyed, it was again rebuilt and stands once more at the exit of this fairyland, once upon a time a model of where the gods were supposed to have lived.

Beihai, for thousands of years, has been a place of relaxation, thinking, and joy for the people of Beijing. Throughout the dynasties it was used as a pleasure palace for the rich and noble; then in the 20th century it became a place for revolutionary thinkers and reactionaries; finally in the 21st century, it has become a family paradise. No matter where you go, it is that small part of Beijing that has always spoken in a small voice to the heart of people, and been a place of meditation and contemplation. Even as a foreigner, it appeals to me a place of bursting creativity and reformed passions. This continues to mull through my head as I head into a taxi, and see the last mists of the lake disappear as the busyness of the streets rise into life.

Shadows of the Queen

“How much farther?” she asks me, her breath already starting to sound heavy. The air is thinner up here, and the cars less. A few pedestrians pace on the sidewalk, while a gentle evening breeze comes on, racing through the shadows of skyscrapers.

“I can see it, up there,” or at least I think I see the building. In truth, there are so many trees and buildings blocking the view, it’s hard to tell if the building up ahead is actually the tram center for Victoria Peak. We decided to take the Mid-Levels tour, a staggering 800 meter-long escalator that runs up the belly of Victoria Peak from the sea. It was mostly because last time we were in Hong Kong we wanted to go on the legendary stairway, but we failed to find the entrance.

However, this trip didn’t turn out much better. I look up to the mountain and see the giant square building that looks out on the horizon from the summit, and wonder if we will ever get there before the sun sets. We are wandering in the upper levels of the city, a dizzying blur of restaurants, rising streets, and apartment buildings that rise like dirks into the murky sky.

At least we managed to find the entrance. Located squarely at Central Station, one need only follow the elevated platform towards the mountain and then… walk up.

 

The island of Cheung Chau is a dream. We sit at a seaside restaurant, listening to the sounds of the waves lap against the anchored boats. The ferry that goes from Central Station to the island is setting out, leaving a wide wake that causes several of the neighboring boats to dangerous teeter to one side. It was an inexpensive and relaxing ride, taking about a half-hour. I spent a long time just sitting quietly and listening to the sound of the waves.

Cheung Chau is an island steeped in mystery and intrigue. Home to the famous Cheung Po Tsai pirate cave, it once was the Tortuga of Asia, being a safe bastion for hundreds of ships, and about 20,000 pirates. They were under the command of a warlord named “The Kid,” who harassed Qing dynasty officials for years until he was offered a position in the government, when he relented of his ways and became an enforcer against piracy. The unique shape of the island provided that the pirates could anchor their boats on the opposite side, and the heavy mist that often cloaks the area provided for an almost unstoppable army.

The island is also famous to having an enormous number of dogs, many of them wild. When we took our walk to the Cheung Po Tsai cave later that afternoon, we passed by a group of dogs that were hiding out in a local cemetery. They approached us, and we froze, feeling like wolf meat. However, they merely crossed the road and disappeared into the jungle, and we continued on our way.

 

The sun has nearly set; we are now climbing. Somewhere down the road we missed the tram, and every now and then we can see it climbing the green hills toward the Peak. The road has risen to about a thirty degree angle, and we are putting everything into just staying balanced. The roads in Cheung Chau were much nicer; as we scaled the hills of the island, we were walking through a fairyland of luxurious abodes, a literal amalgamation of British architectural styles reminiscent of Tianjin. Here, finally on the Mid-Levels, the multi-million dollar apartments rise high above our heads and disappear into the mist, the tops covered by gray fog and burning electric lights.

“There!” I proclaim, and then with a sinking feeling realize what is ahead.

She looks at me, sweet as anything. I’m not sure she knows what I’m putting her through. This was supposed to be a romantic outing, but it’s turning out to be worse than a high school P.E. Class.

As the road ends, a trail begins. We step over the chain and find ourselves looking at an even steeper incline.

“Is this ok?” I am exasperated. Such an ordeal, but what seems like just a simple request: see the top of Victoria Peak, but rather than going on the usual tourist buses, find our own way there. Such idealism seems to have gotten us into a bit of trouble.

She smiles. “Let’s go!” I admire her optimism.

As we scale the mountain, the barking of dogs echo across the hills. The Mid-Levels are home to some of the most expensive homes in the world, at least for their miniature size. Millionaires are lucky to own a single flat. Much of the upper-class Hong Kong citizens employ workers from the Philippines as maids, and own a dog or two. We didn’t know it at the time, but discovered later that this was a secret trail known to the owners of those dogs and their dog-walkers, as they were the only hikers we met on the trail. That, and the sound of our feet.

 

Two days before we were scaling a different kind of mountain. Located in the furthest south you can go in Hong Kong near the city of Aberdeen, Ocean Park is an amusement park known for two things: an endangered species zoo/aquarium, as well as roller coasters that not only have awesome speeds and hills, but are built in Hong Kong-style: into the hills.

Riding on a 1.5 kilometer gondola cable-car system takes fun-goers from one end of the park to the other, scaling a high mountain with an unprecedented view, and letting people off near the summit, where they must climb down to either the rides portion of the park (which also houses a number of aquariums) or make their way through a series of labyrinthine escalators to the lower parking lot.

The top of the park gives a great view of Aberdeen, as well as the vast sea that spreads out to the south. At the low price of about 240 Hong Kong dollars (that’s about 31 US dollars) the trip was one of our most memorable, viewing giant pandas, riding roller coasters, and taking in the sights of one of the most beautiful panoramas on the island.

 

The sun has set. As we climbed through verdant woods, the sun set into the horizon and fell below the sea. We climbed high enough to across the tops of the Mid-Level apartments, witnessing light fall on their side and turn into a kaleidoscope of steel and glass.

It’s windy on the peak, but we’ve found shelter at the top of the mall, where the only sound is the air whistling through our jackets. It’s beautiful here; the night sky has made it clear it will not be held back by modern technologies, with stars glimmering above our heads, shining through sparse clouds.

The horizon of Hong Kong is glorious, and it’s no wonder why it is memorable. We hold hands and look out across a sea of lights, until they are swallowed up in darkness.

Orcs in the CBD

I stepped through the portal and felt an ethereal sense wash over me, as if I had donned a new skin and personality. There were dragons playing among waterfalls and sharp crags before me, and I could hear the sound of battle-axes and war cries from the distance. A faint green hue flooded the room, giving the walls an ancient, decrepit look. Painted onto the walls was an elaborate mural showcasing a great war between men, beasts, and even fouler things, with magical energies swirling about their strange horned mounts and a sky torn open by a rift. Before I could take another step into the maelstrom, however, a waitress cheerfully greeted me and asked me how many to seat.

Welcome to Azeroth. Or Beijing. Anyways, what’s the difference?

I suppose China is famous for their themed restaurants. There is that one restaurant near my house that is Mao-flavored, with a giant portrait of the great leader looming over every table, and little red flags draped across the railings like a parade. Then there is the Mexican cantina, complete with Gaudi lanterns and long, pitted wooden tables full of beer and popping fajitas. Near the Yonghe Gong Temple, there is a small dive called The Rive (clever, being that it overlooks a canal) with long couches, fruity icees, and art books and magazines shelved into deep-brown shelves, just like an old college locale. I think, though, that this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a World of Warcraft restaurant, inspired by the famous online computer game. It was an experience, no doubt, that I will want to try again, just for the sheer audacity of it.

The menu was a colorful selection of dishes from the game. Just to prove their point that these were really Azeroth dishes (Azeroth is the game world), below each featured dish is a picture of a character actually hunting down the particular foul magical beastie, and then a beautiful photo of the cooked creature, with salivating spices and colors to match. The price for the food was also very decent, being that the dishes that are prepared are so unique. I believe my favorite dish was the plate of lamb-something-or-other, that was basically a plate piled high with lamb tenderly cooked still on the bone.

The owner was kind enough to sit down and have a chat with me. Yuan Yuan and his partner, Tao, started the restaurant a mere two months ago, after they had been burned out selling Olympic souvenirs and made enough money to actually, “do what they wanted to do, and just have fun.” They wanted a place to make their dreams of playing the game a reality, and also give other players a chance to not only immerse themselves in the culture of the game, but connect with each other on a real level, meet each other, get together for special gatherings, and even find love. Once a month, the World of Warcraft restaurant has a Cosplay gathering, when players can come to eat and party with their friends dressed up as their heroes from the game. Already there have been several romances that have gone that extra mile, thanks to Yuan Yuan and Tao’s efforts to host these special gatherings.

After our conversation, Yuan Yuan took me around the restaurant and allowed me to take some pictures, showing me the mural his friend painted, that even showcased his cousin and his cousin’s wife on the wall (as their characters, of course, in heroic repose), as well as the many friends who have come and given their pictures to the walls of the restaurant. The restaurant also features computers with World of Warcraft loaded on them that customers are free to play on (as long as they have an account for the game). Finally, he took me to a special part of the wall where players post messages to each other, a community board of hellos and requests to meet up in the game sometime.

As a night out, it truly was a unique one, “Blizzard Restaurant” will be hard to forget. You can find the World of Warcraft restaurant by taking the Line 2 subway to Chaoyang Men, and then taking bus 846 to the Gaojing Baiyun Shichang (高井白云市场), or taking the Line 1 subway to Sihui Dong and then taking bus 648 or 488 to the same stop (or alternatively, taking a cab to the address). My suggestion, if you’d like to save about 50-90 kuai. Once you find the Baiyun Shichang, the restaurant is located through the front gate, at the back. It is visible from the street, with a very long sign and a number of orcs looking very happy with some very sharp weapons.

Address: 暴雪餐厅:朝阳路高井白云市场内 Tel: 8576-8949 (local Beijing number)

Price range: Dishes cost anywhere from 10 kuai to 50 kuai, on your fancy. Some are more.

Xun, Dreaming of Lost Names

I admire Lu Xun. Not for his timidness, which he was not; not for his resolve, which faltered often; not for his calculating mind, which carried the burdens of a man blinded with inhibited sorrow; and not for his kindness, which crossed blades with his cruelty so often he might have been his own doppelganger; rather, I admire his perspicacity with words, his transparency of soul, and his exuberant passion in the movement of ideas through the vehicles of people and systems. Once a teacher myself at Peking University, Lu Xun exhibits ideals I wish I had but also showcases the dangers of adorning the armor of a hundred ideals, each engaged in civil strife.

“The present passes step by step,” Lu Xun states, meditating on the temporal, changing, and suffering nature of the world. Relaxing with my wife and son by Weiming Hu in the shadow of Ciji Temple, I am swept in the immediacy and evolution of moments, as if the passing of people through the reflection on the lake were a mirror to another world where time could be rewound and marched backwards. The remaining walls of Ciji Temple show that the present world is unrelenting; pockmarked and fading paint the only memories of her fabled past, when people would stoop by the stone altars and press flame and smoke into their hopes and dreams.

Overlooking a pond while standing on a lotus-pod bridge, I cannot agree with Lu Xun about the suffering of the world. Lily-pads float on the surface of the water, and tiny skittering waterhoppers bounce across the translucent surface, living in an impossible dream of speed and haze. The reflections of the terraced rocks and spaces of rippling blue skies to the small creatures are not the only constants; for a good portion of their life, my figure standing on the lotus-pod bridge becomes an anchor to them, much like watching a tree grow, strengthen against the wind, and shed yellow leaves in autumn. Suffering is inconsequential to the process of time, existing only as a cloud marking the passage of life from one evolution into the next.

If suffering is an inconstant spouse, of what use is education? Learning is the process of uncovering truths, not only about the world but about ourselves. Students are the phalanx of learning, charging forward bravely into the unknown with no expectations. Lu Xun described the brave students of Peking University as “tolling alone in the caverns of wind and dust deep at the bottom of the sea,” and in my mind looking at the surface of the lake from beneath, I begin to understand his meaning. The waterhoppers cause ripples in the water, and the image of Ciji Temple shudders, the red walls and carved altars shrugging as if held by a fierce wind. As I rise to the surface of the water, images between the past and the present shift into one: mendicants kneeling by curls of gray smoke and scholars in long robes are replaced by the sound of a bicycle bell and the flash of a camera.

Emerging from the lake, the world has changed: sky-tall construction cranes towering behind green mesh shielding shoot dust into the sky, students with golden cards rush by with apocalyptic fear pressed into their cheeks, multinational sandwich kiosks hide behind forgotten and overgrown gardens, and an electric buzz permeates the ether: the sound of oil burned into flame and lightning humming through crisscrossed optical pathways. And yet, although the future has arrived I find myself on the dry shore, smiling and viewing the landscape with pride and joy, much unlike the dismal parades of Lu Xun’s dread and phantasmagoria.

Lu Xun always believed that the goal of education was to be “properly adapted to the individual to develop each person’s personality,” and everyday our society seems to be moving closer and closer to this tenable dream. There are mountains to ascend and rivers to pass, but we are on our way. “I am living among men,” Lu Xun remarks when reflecting on his proud time at Peking University, as his students gave him the hope to press forward, even in the dismal hour of warlords and massacres. Our times are lighter and more hopeful today; let us remember that and dare to dream.

Ash

The filmy dust of the new year floats, no, hovers over the edge of the earth.

Coming back to familiar territory, I hit a sudden realization that Brazil has finally arrived. The paint on buildings is flaking off like waves dried against a tombstone, and my breath is heavy with the weight of fallen dreams. But unlike those visions of the future, something is amiss.

In the corners of this world, where shadows meet light, there is laughter and joy. The scent of boiled pork and herbs, the feeling of fresh steam escaping like clouds into the sky, and the light inside people’s hearts shining through the gloom – these are differing alignments, hopeful buds on trees that are only beginning to sprout, or perhaps have been growing in the shade for a hundred years.

Buried beneath the carboned remains of burned things, new life awaits. That is the way of the world.

Pumpkins on the Wall

Whisperings under lantern.

 

A god goads me from the wall, and around him pumpkins dance. Red apples shine from the slick wipe of a dishrag, stacked in symmetrical circles over a plate of ivory memories.

Children are fleshed out in our words, giving life to space which would otherwise remain motionless.  The patterns of letters and sounds coalesce into models of tranquility and chaos, transfixed with a key centrality which I have yet come to understand fully.

Writings from a White Elephant in the Bedroom

A curious thing, setting aside various inhibitions, is to stare outside the window while staring at your feet at the same time. You get a unique understanding of where you actually are.

The clouds overhead become like whitewash, filling the skies with a dull sense of being *someplace* familiar yet set apart. The birds twittering tells you the morning has come, but don’t birds also sing in the evening?

My horizon is a green burough of leaves, cement pathways, and red brick memories clustering together in a menagerie of voices and images hard to forget.