Sunday, July 1, 2007

The White City

We are in Guanzhou, and have been here for several days. It is here that we shall end our trip, and me this journal. Nothing of interest happens at this point, at least nothing I shall tell you.

Our hotel is the White Swan. I could write to you of its placement and its decadence, but I’ll let the promotional materials speak for themselves:

The White Swan Hotel is set on the edge of Shamian Island. Originally a beach on the Pearl River facing the White Goose Pool, Shamian was separated from the mainland in the Qing Dynast and turned into an island which overlooks the River on one side and has the city at its back on the other.

It is very nice here. All the staff of the hotel and all the shopkeepers outside speak English, as this is a hotel where United States parents bring international adoptees on their way out of the country to get the proper certification from the consulate. And Americans are not exactly known for speaking Chinese.

I get a lot of compliments on my speaking from the shopkeepers. A few tell me that I have a Beijing accent. None of them say it believably; everybody’s just trying to make a living.

It is not appropriate to end an adventure without learning something. I have learned the following:

1. Parenting is hard. Do not think that there is wide agreement on what to do. There is not.

2. Great empires grow because the people there do things that are difficult. Great empires die because the people there refuse to do things that are difficult. People in the United States assume that if they go to work and do their job and pay their mortgage that things should just Magically Work Out For Them. Sorry kiddo, but no. Working really hard in something that many people can do is insufficient. Working for a long time is also insufficient. We have to do the things that are difficult to do. That said…

3. Chinese is not a difficult language to speak. Tones are not as hard as you think. Learn how to speak it. Yes, that means you. Now. I write to you from a bastion of Western opulence in the middle of the next great empire. Either you will learn to be a part of it, or outside of it. I have always enjoyed the inside, thanks.

4. Chinese is a difficult language to read and write. It is as hard as you think. Learn how to read and write it anyway. Children here start learning English from the age of six. Even the beggars even know enough to be polite. The least literate person of this century will not be the one who cannot read, but who cannot read fluently in more than one language.

I am among those who did not take 3 and 4 seriously in university, and now I have catching up to do.

Zhe shi Ba. Zai Zhongguo. Zaijian.

The Pass at Caradras, Part Three

The last portion of our Taiyuan Temple excursion is the Tian Bo, the Heavenly Dragon Mountain. It is decidedly heavenly; it takes nearly a half hour to climb in a van, on a narrow two-lane road. At one point we pass a massive compound and ask what it is. “A cemetery,” Niu Yun replies. That’s right: in China, you cannot be buried on the ground, but you can be buried on the side of a mountain. It’s like being taken straight to heaven!

When we arrive at the top, we are surrounded by junk. Junky restaurants, junky stores filled with, well, junk. There is no sage at the top of the mountain, only capitalists. I am disappointed; even I enjoy places where the market does not exist, even if I am impressed by its invasiveness.

There is a temple. We enter. It is calm, serene. There is no market here; it ends at the door. A division between the sacred and the secular. I look out to the proprietors of the junky little shops. They do an extraordinary job, to run junk shops at the edge of civilization.* I bow nine times to Guan Yin and return to the world.

* The edge of civilization is still in civilization. Dave sees two cell phone towers at the top of the mountain.

The Pass at Caradras, Part Two

The first temple is unremarkable, though it is very beautiful. I am not, nor have I ever been a student or admirer of architecture; my tastes are likely quite quotidian, even if I find unnecessary ornamentation interesting. Architecture or no, there are several good moments.

To start, within the compound dedicated to a long-deceased governor is the Temple of the Sacred Mother. The sacred mother, that is, of the governor. It is in the middle of a courtyard, and was built a few hundred years after the entire complex to memorialize the woman who raised the man that everybody thought was pretty swell. This reminds me of my own mother, which makes me happy, except that she wouldn’t like the giant wooden dragons that crawl up each of the columns of the temple. I guess even a sacred mother’s temple has her kid’s toys lying all around.

Next to this temple lies a tree. And “lies” is the proper word: if not for another similar tree (Cyprus, I think) and a good deal of manmade support, it would have fallen long ago. Niu Yun tells me the story of this tree, which I herein share with you.

It is called the Male tree; it once had a “wife”, the Female tree. Somebody planted both trees more than two thousand years ago. Several hundred years ago, the Female tree died from a disease, and the next year the Male tree slowly began to fall. But suddenly and without warning, a new Cyprus grew up next to the Male tree to support it.

Niu Yun seems to want me to see the beauty of this story, but all I can think is, “So the Male tree’s a widower for a whole year before he finds a new Babe tree to fall back on? Wow.” Sometimes it is better not to exchange one’s thoughts on culture.

The Chairman sees stairs leading downward towards water and bolts for them. He is caught and regretfully restrained, but on to a good idea. There is a little creek down there, with small stone walkways, a pagoda, and a little stone Buddha sitting beneath water pouring from the wall. I learn that this water bubbles up from a spring that has flowed for over a thousand years. Its water is now, and has been for some time, considered a source of longevity.

I have to touch it. I wait for the Chairman to lose interest (he leaves for the bathroom), then I creep down the staircase to the spring water. There is a crowd in the pagoda; some take pictures while others dip their hands, arms, and head it the water and touch the white head of the grayed stone Buddha. From my position, I can touch the water, but I cannot reach the Buddha; the crowd gestures that I must touch the Buddha. Three times. Three is always better in China. It means that things are finished.

I gingerly make my way across a wet stone walkway in the middle of the creek to arrive at the pagoda. I move through the throng of a dozen or so people, who enthusiastically push me forward. I get to touch the Buddha; I “baptize” him three times. The crowd smiles. I smile. One woman holds a bag filled with water and mandarin oranges. She offers me one. No thanks, I say.

Even I have a limit to enthusiastic participation in cross-cultural experience.

When I get out of the creek, Niu Yun informs me that touching the Buddha three times makes one clever. The water gives longevity. I wonder aloud: does the experience give people longevity and cleverness, or just weed out those who can’t walk carefully on wet stone?

“It’s a melding of philosophies,” says Dave. “Buddhism and Darwinism.”


Each time we approach a change of scenery that suggests a place less grandiose or wealthy than where we have been, somebody says, “So this is China.” As if this is the real China, and the rest is all a show or a movie set.

On the trip to the temples near Taiyuan, we pass through towns I that deserve the name of village. A few hundred people or less. Old-style houses with courtyards. Little community farm plots. Gripping poverty. All of it and more, just a few kilometers from cities bigger than any to be found in my home state. All of it in a country with high rise buildings that scrape an ever lower sky.

It’s all China.

The Pass at Caradras

To pass the time in Taiyuan, we visit temples. There isn’t a whole lot to do in that part of Shanxi Province, or, as Andrea says, “if the most exciting thing in Dodge is a double pagoda, we’re gonna go see a double pagoda.” The double pagoda is beautiful but ultimately not at all story-worthy. The other temples we visit, however, are.

We begin the journey by taking an hour or so ride. Normally I choose not to mention our driving. The drivers thus far have all be excellent, strong-silent types, and I have liked each one. But our driver in Taiyuan goes above and beyond the call of duty, and thus his actions deserve mention.

Normally, our drive would take an hour. It involves taking one relatively new road to another relatively new road that leads more or less to our first destination, a temple dedicated to a former governor of the province (and by former, I mean several centuries former.). The first road, however, is under reconstruction, and thus we need to take a detour. We do, straight through the woods to the side of the roadblock.

No, I am not kidding.

The driver takes us off-roading in an eight-passenger van. And he is not alone. Several other drivers follow suit, including a small truck that somehow ends up in front of us. As we approach a place to re-enter the blocked-off roadway (the road, by the by, is totally fine, completely useful, and has almost no workers on it. Yet it is blocked off. Hmmm….), some laborers from a little nearby village appear. We are using their little road onto the main road. They want compensation.

Again: no I am not kidding.

The driver and Niu Yun, along with the drivers of other vehicles, begin bargaining with the villagers. We sit for fifteen or so minutes. All parties strike a deal; Coasian bargaining works even with transaction costs. Yay!

As we pull out of the woods, our driver hands payment to the villagers. Five yuan; a little less than seventy U.S. cents.

[Had I known, I would have offered to pay everybody’s toll, just to get moving. By my reckoning, that little stop cost me seven dollars as is!]

We ride to the main highway. The driver enters the highway. As we approach a toll booth (most, perhaps all?, main highways are toll roads), he turns around and begins to drive backwards on the highway. Let me emphasize this.

He drives backwards on a highway. Got that? Good.

We pull off down an entrance ramp. The driver drives us back around the “roadblock” on the other side of the road. The side where the village isn’t.

The whole point of the exercise is to turn around on the non-village side of the road. He knows this the entire time, but we don’t. “This is why China will rule the world!” Andrea exclaims. Indeed.

That kind of ingenuity to avoid a roadblock? They can do anything.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The growth of Middle Earth

Everywhere we drive I see old buildings torn down and new buildings rising. Even in the poorest villages through which we have passed, this phenomenon occurs. I rarely see such things in my home state of Ohio. Thus do I wonder: is Ohio on its steady-state growth path, or is it merely stagnant? Furthermore, is China “leveling up” to the steady state, or is this what a country with so much labor and human capital, but so little physical capital looks like? And how could the Solow model, so simple in hindsight but so elusive before discovery, keep me awake at night?

My macroeconomics professors were correct to quote Lucas. Once you start thinking about growth, it is difficult to think about anything else.

Return of the King

Two days after the Chairman’s arrival, we take a two-hour drive to Victor’s village. Niu Yun arranges for us to visit the orphanage, but having done so, informs Andrea and Dave that the mayor of the town would like to greet Victor and his family when they arrive. The city would like welcome him, then the city fathers (and yes, they’re all men) would like to have lunch with the family. “It’s a village,” I think. “This must be a pretty big deal to a small village.”

Let me disavow you of any misconceptions. When Victor was adopted, his hometown had a mere 80,000 people living in it. Today over 400,000 individuals live there (and yes, you read that correctly). And yet it has the feel of a village. Only three years ago, the only road out to it was a two-lane coal road, not the highway we use to get there. Most of the buildings are low, and there are many of the traditional houses with enclosed courtyards. The streets are uneven and not often paved. And yet it will be as big as Cleveland in a few years. Wow.

When we arrive, a car awaits us at the off-ramp of the highway. It guides us into a town that is growing and prospering, but it is not wealthy. It seems to me that the wealthiest part of town is city hall, though many factories and high rises appear in the works. We are escorted to city hall, where fifteen people, including the mayor, deputy mayors, assorted associates, the dean and administrator of the orphanage, a television reporter and a newspaper reporter flock to us. This flocking phenomenon follows Victor everywhere this day. People touch him, hug him, lift him, pull him, and kiss him. “This is, like, too much!” declares Andrea amazedly at one point. It’s a big city, but it acts like a small town.

As this is Victor’s story, I shall herein keep my remarks to my own very small experience in it.

During lunch, we dine not only with the city officials, but also with the General Secretary of the District. Each official makes a toast to us with “fenjiu”, a locally produced liquor. Let me say that, as the one sitting closest to these officials and of drinking age, I am privy to many side toasts, on topics as diverse as the use of chopsticks to the ancestry of my beloved. I am informed that I like fenjiu more than the Russians or the Japanese, both of whom are big drinkers. We toast to that, too. I believe I engage in nine or ten toasts. Nine is the luckiest number in China; I probably have ten.

Dave makes an excellent toast when presenting each of the officials with a small token of our trip. Then I do something stupid: I, too, make a toast. I will write it here in English, though I attempted parts of it in Chinese:

“In college, my friends and I had a toast we made at every gathering. ‘To the continued wealth of the Republic.’ In thanks for the affection you have shown us, I say to you today, To the Continued Wealth of the People’s Republic!”

Or something like that. After ten toasts, everything everyone says is clever, right?

A new member of the Fellowship

Our first day in Taiyuan is dedicated to getting the last member of Andrea and Dave’s family. As we leave the hotel, Victor shows distress through acting out. It is his last day as the youngest, and as the only son. Does he worry he will be loved less? That he is less special now? Possibly, but he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Victor may not be happy, but the Heavens approve: we see blue sky and sun, or at least the forms of sky and sun one gets here in China. I take it as auspicious; later I learn that this weather is fairly common here. We have it most days in Taiyuan.

We drive to the wholly nondescript building that houses the government agency that handles adoptions. During the drive, Andrea and Dave talk about what Taiyuan was like during their last trip and ask our guide what it is like now. “A lot more cars,” Andrea observes.

“Yeah, a *lot* more,” Dave replies.

Niu Yun informs us that Taiyuan now has 2.5 million residents, a rather large city by Western standards. It’s a coal and steel town; the buildings look gritty and somewhat unimaginative. New buildings, however, rise up out of the ground everywhere we look. Dave once joked to me that the national bird of China is the crane. The construction crane. The crane, though, has a long history in China. It stands for longevity, and is the bird that carries your soul to heaven.

Perhaps the ancient Chinese were on to something. Or yet another thing, rather.

At any rate, despite being a large city, it has the remnants of a village everywhere. We can see old houses with courtyards being torn down; people still sell produce and meat from trucks. Andrea asks Niu Yun about development in this area; a curious question, I think, as our guide is neither trained in economics nor from this province. But as long as I have been her student, Andrea has always had an interest in the experience and insight of everyday people. She has also exhibited high expectations for others. These are two of many ways, I think, that I differ from my advisor. I would not ask this question, and were I to hear the answer, I would disregard it as irrelevant. Somehow she finds information where I hear noise.

We arrive after a fifteen or twenty minute drive. And from this moment forward, we leave my story, and we enter the Chairman’s. The Chairman is the newest member of Andrea and Dave’s family, and I lack the Chinese, and he the English, for me to get permission to tell his story. You can ask him in the future, but not today.

I will, however, explain the change in what I call him. He is a trifle demanding; we originally call him the Little Emperor, then the Little General. Napoleon is even up for consideration. After observing him with his brother, and watching how he is dressed a few days later, I dub him Chairman Mao. He’s little, he’s Chinese, he loves red.

And he seemingly has no respect for other people’s property.

Welcome the Chairman!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Strider 3.0

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Taiyuan. Thus do we have a new guide, “Celene”. Niu Yun lives and works in Xi’an usually, but is the nearest guide to Taiyuan in Shanxi province. She is cute and demur and very proper; she alone of the guides so far does not complain when I address her formally. She does, however, ask that I call her by her given name. She studied English and French in college, but only remembers English.

I wish I could tell you more about her, but we spend most of our day her in Taiyuan in the hotel, just waiting for paperwork for Ma Ding. To the extent that I can tell you about that process, I shall. In the meantime, the rest of the family is downstairs having dinner, and I am not. Which means, for a whole hour, I am alone. Please excuse me; I have aloneness to ponder.


We leave Beijing for Taiyuan in a torrential downpour. Air traffic controllers delay the flight for one hour; we sit in the plane. I sit not only in the plane, but between Kina and Caitlin, both of whom are bored and restless. It is a very long short flight.

Taiyuan has only recently become an economic development zone. As a coal and steel town, it has some aspects that remind me of Cleveland. It looks industrial. Gritty, really. There is very little ornament. And yet there is some; here sits a double pagoda Buddhist temple of some interest. We shall see it on this trip; Dave and Andrea did not know of it in 2001.

We are in Taiyuan for two reasons: Victor was born here, and Charles “Zhuangzhuang” is here. The latter trumps the former for the moment, but we shall see Victor’s little village soon. We shall also meet Zhuangzhuang.

Some notes at this juncture: I have already met Zhuangzhuang. I shall call him Ma Ding, for reasons you may never learn. Though our meeting is interesting, though his story is fascinating, it is not mine to tell. I shall write it, but you may never read it.

Instead, let me tell you a little about Ma Ding, whom we met yesterday. He is a six-year-old firecracker. Andrea calls him “the little emperor,” as it is fairly clear he has never had to bow to anyone’s rule. Well, kid, that’s about to change. Everybody talks to him, but I believe I am the only one who can really understand anything he says. He has, I believe, picked up on this. He told me today in the car that we are now friends. I’m not sure what I did, but I’ll take it.

“Parenting,” as my friend Liana once wrote, “is hard!” Doubly so, I believe, when the kid was someone else’s, is now yours (or your friend’s), and you speak less of the language than he does. I am so tired by the end of every day with him, and there have only been two. He challenges his parents’ authority; he certainly does not bow to me unless I use both Chinese and force. You’re a little Chinese boy, Ma Ding. Have you read the works of Xiang Yu? I am tempted, but have so far refrained from anything beyond grabbing him.

This is not to say that I do not like him. I do. He is bright and clever and cute; he will make a fine addition to Andrea and Dave’s household. At one point we have a shouting match, and in Mandarin, he calls me “Mr. Fart.” The name sticks; I now refer to myself as Mr. Fart when I really need his attention. I think it’s funny. So does everyone else. Especially Ma Ding.

Elven archers everywhere!

On our last night in Beijing, we attend the acrobats. Let it suffice to say that we have the same reaction there as we did to the tea house in Chengdu: wow. It is a sight to behold, men stacking chairs three stories high, lifting themselves by a single arm atop the pile. Over a dozen women riding a single bicycle in a circle as they climb around upon each other. Boys who cannot be teenagers flinging themselves through hoops like arrows. It is amazing, and I, for one, am amazed. Most impressive is the theatricity of it all. The choice of music, lighting, and costumes is sometimes over the top, but it all works together to heighten the tension of even the simplest trick. It reminds me greatly of Cirque, but with fewer safety precautions and no singing.

I consider both omissions to be beneficial. Three cheers for Chinese acrobats!

Did Aragorn get a summer cottage in the Grey Havens?

The last remnants of Great Imperial Monuments consume our last full day in Beijing. We begin with the Summer Palace, the emperor’s refuge from April through October. It is a sight to behold, but is not nearly so, well, imperial as the Forbidden City. As we enter, it is clear that this is a place not at all devoted to projecting power, but solely to enjoying it.

The Summer Palace is a compound build around a manmade lake. The lake takes up most of the compound, and if I understand our guide Zhou correctly, most of the compound is the lake. I cannot imagine the countless number of slav—er, ‘workers’ who must have toiled away on that project alone.

And that project is not alone. A reasonable large hall (for state affairs) sits in the entrance way before the lake. And all around the lake stretches the compound.

The compound, for my money, has exactly two points of interest. The first is the Long Hall; the second is the Marble Boat.

The Long Hall is a several-hundred meter open-air hallway. That is not its significant attribute. Nor is its significant attribute that it runs along the manmade lake, though it does. No, the significant attribute is that on each of the several hundred crossbeams of the Long Hall’s ceiling, a different vista of China has been painted. Apparently, some emperor along the way wanted to keep an eye on the kingdom, but he didn’t want to have to travel there. Thus the pictures. Pretty handy if you have enough slav—er, artisans. Sorry. Artisans.

Despite my reaction to the imperialism of the production, I would like to emphasize two things. First, the vistas are truly beautiful; they are the product of immense talent. Second, I don’t know which emperor commissioned these paintings, but I like his style. I’ve always though of pictures and reading as a good substitute for travel, and now I see I’m in good company!

The Marble Boat is a monstrosity on the shoreline of the lake. It was, at some point, a traditionally-styled Chinese boat, but some emperor decided to emulate the West along the way and add a mishmash of European elements that make it look rather silly. The story on the boat is that an emperor decided he wanted a parallel to an old Chinese parable, the contents of which indicate that an emperor is as to his people as a boat is to water. The boat rides atop, above, beyond the water, yet agitated water may tip a boat.

This emperor did not want to be tipped, Zhou tells us. He had his boat built on the shore, and made of untippable marble. I find this hilarious and nearly double over laughing. “What?” Zhou asks.

Don’t you see? If this boat were to ride upon the water…

“It’d sink,” says Andrea.

Indeed. I wonder if the current government of the Middle Kingdom understands the parallel, too.

The wondrous items of Middle Earth

[I have lapsed in my posts a great deal; this applies to last Friday. All is now well in Middle Earth. Well, all is now well in regards to that which kept me from writing. As you shall see, all is not well with the adventurers…]

Our day of commerce in Beijing involves two basic goals: to purchase instruments for the children (a cello and a violin, and, if he wants one, a bass for Victor), and to visit the Pearl Market. Let it suffice to say that it is a banner day for capitalism. Mao, stick it in your ear.

We start with the instruments. Zhou has found a music shop that claims to have both violins and cellos of good quality. As Caitlin is not (and shall not be) bigger than a very petite sprite, she requires at largest a 7/8ths cello. Kina shall get a full-sized violin.

I shall not bore you with the particulars of shopping for instruments, especially not instruments whose precise function I do not understand. What I do understand is that the girls feel a little pressured to perform at these places, when all that is really needed is to hear the sound of the instruments. It is the instruments, and not the players, who need to perform here.

This place, this action, though, reveals what China teaches us. The girls seek to explain why they do not play perfectly. This instrument is too big; it is difficult after becoming accustomed to one instrument; we have not practiced in some time. “Stop making excuses, girls. That’s not what they do here,” says Andrea.

She’s right. Just that morning I watched as a two-year-old boy in split pants peed on the sidewalk. But as he did, he counted to five in English, said “hello” and “good-bye”, and responded to “how are you?” I contrast this with the ESL teacher I met at the hotel a few days earlier. We spoke in English; he indicated he was heading to South Korea. “So you speak Korean?” I asked. “Hell no! I’ve lived here six years and I don’t even speak Chinese.” The people of the Middle Kingdom learn what they must, and excuses are inexcusable.

The instruments work out pretty well; I keep myself out of things. It is generally rude, I think, to involve oneself in purchases when one is not footing the bill.

After the instruments, we head for the Pearl Market. It is not merely a pearl market; it is an emporium of everything under the sun. Pearls, antiques, jade, electronics, handbags, clothing. They have it all in spades. Some of it is even real. Joy!

I love places like this. These are the only places I like to bargain. Generally, I don’t like bargaining at all. It’s silly; we have a world of posted prices. There’s no need to talk about it. You tell me what you want for it; I’ll tell you if I want it.

But bargaining here is multidimensional. First, there is the bargaining over the stated price. “Hen gui!” Too expensive, says I. The shopkeeper enters a new number in her calculator. “Renmingbi,” she says, lest I think she’s quoted me a price in dollars. This is my least favorite form of bargaining; it’s too basic. Also, I usually don’t know what a given thing is worth, so I often lose.

The second form of bargaining is over volume. It is often in tandem with the first form of bargaining. I like volume discounts, but I prefer that they be pre-ordained. Except, of course, when the volume includes exotic weapons and ancient coins. Then I enjoy trading in and out this trinket for that and seeing how the price changes. A very valuable method for finding the supply curve, that.

The final form of bargaining, however, is my favorite. It’s very easy: do nothing. Just stand still. If you stand still in an antique shop long enough, staring without intent at nothing in particular, the shopkeeper inevitably opens some nook or reaches below some table and pulls out what you really want to see. And the less impressed you look, the cooler the stuff you get.

The coolest thing, the Thing That I Should Have Bought, was a 100-year-old Chinese sword (I expressed my disinterest, nay, my marked distaste for anything from Japan. That also helped.) made of Damascus steel. For the uninitiated, that means it was hand-hammered hundreds of times from a single sheet of metal. It has a marbled look to it as a result. It could cut through many things. Such as a person. In a car, for example. Or a person in a Toyota pickup truck wielding a hammer. Just sayin’.

The sword stays in Beijing. I buy a smaller artifact. I cannot buy that sword. The owner cannot bargain on it, which suggests that it is the genuine article. And were I to have it, the temptation to use it as the genuine article would be too great.

It is better that it stays behind anyway. It belongs in the hands of someone with even less impulse control than I. Someone who knows what it is good for, and who uses it accordingly. We need fewer hammer-wielding truck drivers, after all.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The lidless eye...

I am, unless you cannot tell, already doing poorly. I have failed my beloved, and because of the way that I am, the things that I think and do, I may lose her forever.

I would--nay, will--do anything within my power to avoid this outcome.

To add to my difficulty, I have run mildly afoul of my hosts. They are not angry, but Andrea is rightfully worried about what I post here, especially about the children. This started as a project for me and you, friends and family, not the world. I screwed up, got too excited about the story, opened it to too many people. I need to dial back. For my hosts, I have become the all-seeing Lidless Eye.

And that's too much for any hobbits to bear.

Don't expect any posts for a few days while I figure out where the line is. Also, I won't be posting any stories on the kids' adoption sites. They are not my stories to share.

Friday, June 22, 2007


What did he do when he hurt Eowyn, deeply? When he made he think that his ties to the stewardship were more important than her? Did he beg forgiveness, offer to fall on his mighty blade, what?

Tomorrow I shall write about our adventures. We went shopping, and I hope to explain how fascinating and alive the commerce was. But not today. Because I have learned recently that I do not have much insight into the feelings of others, and I would be remiss to indicate that I have insight into anything else.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I am a servant of the secret fire, wielder of the flame of Arnor!

Today I saw blue sky. It was just for a bit, during the ride to the hotel. I lay passed out and clammy in the back of our van, dehydrated and afflicted with heat stroke.

But I saw blue sky! The haze never completely lifted, we could never really see the sun, but our skyline expanded greatly this evening. And it was magnificent. The more Beijing I can see, the more of it there is. But it pales in comparison to clear blue sky.

Atop the walls of Gondor

We leave the jade factory to drive to our ultimate destination today: the Great Wall of China. I am distracted by my recent decision. Should I have bought more, smaller items? Was this a silly indulgence on my part? Is my credit card frozen again? As I ponder, Andrea discusses income distribution and Social Security with Zhou, the rest of us listen, after a fashion.

Zhou changes the subject and begins to tell us the history of the Great Wall, much of which I know.* The Wall is old; its original foundations date back to 7000 BC, though the bulk of the building takes place in the Ming Dynasty. In case you didn’t know, most of the things that you think of when you think of China—the Wall, vases, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven—were either built, completed, or renovated by the Ming. They were pretty prolific.

She pauses in her story, looking for a new fact with which to regale us. She finds one. “You know,” she intones, “Mao once said, ‘You cannot be a real hero until you have walked the Great Wall.’”

Suddenly I have something to distract me from my mishandled purchases. I will walk to the highest point in sight when we arrive. And then I will come down again. Today, I shall be a real hero, if not a real thrift. Upon arrival, I look up. The goal that I have set is formidable. We can see the topmost watchtower, but not the path to it. I see a pagoda a little lower. The pagoda becomes my goal.

Andrea and Dave immediately indicate that they are not hiking to the top. Nowhere near it. “I am,” I say. “I am going to the top. Who’s with me?” All three children decide to come along.

One might think that this was a bad idea, marching three children under the age of 13 one mile up a mountain and one mile down again. One might think that this would eventually result in the failure of the mission, due to accident or boredom or the capriciousness of youth. I know that, on those first few flights of stairs, I thought it.

But I was wrong.

The children acquitted themselves excellently. Each took a turn as our Fearless Leader as I extolled them to continue marching this day for glory and honor. Often during one of my diatribes on heroism, designed to motivate the kids (and distract myself), they’d interrupt me. “Less talkin’, more walkin’!” shouted Victor at one point, without even turning around. He was our unofficial taskmaster, indicating on more than one occasion that now was the time for climbing, not for stopping, talking, drinking, picture-taking, or anything that didn’t move one’s feet.

The earliest stairs were, obviously, the most crowded. As we moved on, the air thinned imperceptibly, the people quite so. We stop at every watchtower to rest and drink water in the sanctuary of cool stone. I engage an Atlantan in repartee over what form of transit should come for us at the top of the mountain. A helicopter? An ATV? A great blue dragon with bright green eyes? “If you have a cell phone to summon one, I’ll take any of them,” she replies. If I had a cell phone, I would do that for her. She was climbing in heels.

Time passes. The southerner in heels falls behind. “Um, Jared, nobody’s on the stairs,” Kina points out. And she’s right. Except for a couple of young Asian guys quickly approaching us, we are alone. The guys begin to pass us. “Ni hao,” I say as they approach.”

“American?” the younger man responds in a decidedly southern accent. “We speak English.”

The gentlemen are Chris and Phillip, a couple of North Carolinians by way of Guanzhou. They join us on the way up. Like me, they regularly fall behind the children. Fine men both, and we get a picture with them at the end of things.

At each rest point, there are fewer and fewer people. Soon, we are they. We are the resting. No one else comes, save a trickle from above. And nobody under the age of 18, except Caitlin, Kina, and Victor.

I ask the kids if we have reached the pagoda that I wish to visit in lieu of going to the top. “We passed it,” says Kina. “There was a sign back at the last stop.”

There was? Why didn’t you tell me?

“I figured you knew.” Ugh.

Now we have a choice. Do we go to the very top of the mountain, or do we go back to the pagoda? The kids want to see the top. They want to be heroes.

And they are. After another 15 minutes of climbing, we reach the final watchtower. We enter; a family (no children) have a picnic spread out in the corner. “Can we do that?” asks Phillip. “Hang on, let me call for delivery,” I suggest. We laugh.

Victor finds one more upward staircase, with six steps about five inches wide, each about two feet high. It leads to the top of the watchtower. We ascend.

The view is breathtaking. Like Jodi Foster in “Contact”, there are no words. We have conquered the mountain; we pull out our water bottles. I toast the children. They laugh. I take pictures of each of them atop the watchtower of the old Empire.

On the way down we head towards the pagoda. It is Guandi Temple, the significance of which I do not know. When we reach it after a not insignificant or risky climb downward, I bow nine times to the north, three with the head, three at the waist, and three on my knees. We are much higher than the Temple of Heaven, closer than the emperor could ever come to the gods. The sun is out, though it does not penetrate the haze. I am grateful.

There is a path that leads downward from the temple. We know not where it goes. Caitlin and Victor want to climb back up to the Wall, then march down the way we came. Kina and I want to explore the unknown path. Chris and Phillip like both choices, but their aunt shouts up to them indiscriminately through the public address system. We have no time for adventure; we must do what we know. We slowly return to the wall then descend down it.

I would have liked to see what the other path held. I would like to climb the Wall again.** But I am not worried about missing out on the opportunity.

Today we are heroes. And heroes always return.

* Zhou does tell us something that I didn’t know: the individual walls of the city-states that made up China originally were connected to protect the commerce of the Silk Road. Though I hate empire, I do like dedication to trade.

** Phillip and I actually discussed the romance of climbing the wall with our significant others. How we concluded this, sweating, short of breath, and dehydrated I cannot say. Perhaps it was the delirium that sets in with heat stroke.

The dwarves delved too greedily and too deep.

On our way to the Great Wall of China, we visited a jade factory. Upon arrival at the factory, several workers station themselves outside the door. They largely follow us and other tourists as we move through the factory, first viewing the production of the jade items, then listening to a brief tutorial on how to tell real jade from the many knockoffs sold around the country, and finally onto the showroom floor, where many authentic jade items are on sale for prices ranging from a few dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars.

To see the carving of jade live is quite interesting. The little blade rotates, bathed constantly in water to keep it cool. More surprising to me was the lack of safety equipment for the artisans. They had no gloves (understandable), no eye protection (again, understandable, though very risky), and lastly no masks (bwuh?). I understand the importance of personally handling the items, and that the masks could become clouded and difficult to work through, though I suspect that this concern is limited merely by our ability to peer through the glass to the workers as jade dust settled on the floor. But the masks really disturb me. Given the incredibly small cost of a mask and what I would think is the high cost of having a fairly skilled worker miss time due to pulmonary malfunction, I’d shell out for the masks. Perhaps the fact that the factory has not indicates that there is information I do not have.

[Learning how to tell fake jade from real jade: educational and practical! For starters, real hard jade, or jadite, makes a sound like cut crystal when struck. Furthermore, jade is a mineral, so when held up to light, it should be neither perfectly clear nor uniform, but rather translucent and exhibit crystalline patterns within the piece. Finally, jade is harder than glass. It can scratch glass without any damage to the item. Good to know, yes?]

The showroom is my downfall.

I begin by looking for tasteful pieces. Simple pieces. Inexpensive pieces. But I do not have inexpensive tastes. I find a traditional piece that I like, a “happiness ball”, which stands for the successive generations of a happy family. A “peaceful” wheel. A Guan Yin. I cannot stop myself.

All told, I find $6,300 of things I want to own.

In the end, I part with everything but three simple pieces. Two of them are fairly expensive. One of them is not so, though it is very intricate and very meaningful to me. The bill comes to $2,600 after haggling for a few minutes. I lay down my Visa card.

I will regret this. I already do. It is my hope that the recipients of these pieces treasure them as heirlooms, because if they don’t, I clearly shopped in the wrong part of the store, even for the least of the pieces, which I love.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Renewed shall be blade that was broken. The crownless again shall be king.

[These are collected funny moments that fit nowhere in the story today. I just want to share them out of context, or with as little context as possible.]

As Dave, Andrea, and I ascend the Circular Mound Altar, the spiritual center of the universe for Imperial China, Dave observes, “you know, we’re climbing the Stairway to Heaven!”


Victor wants to get a miniature set of Chinese Opera masks. He did not see them more than once today, and was quite disappointed. We did, however, encounter some very… enthusiastic sellers of what, frankly, was pure, unadulterated crap.

Victor: If they had masks, I would buy some.

Dave: If they had masks, it’d be a robbery!


An exchange between Victor and myself today:

Victor: Sometimes when you talk, you’re like a grown-up.

Me: Only sometimes?

Victor: Yep. But only sometimes.

Me: Is it good that I only sound like one sometimes?

Victor: Yep.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring.

I saw this on a sign on Legend Street between the Forbidden City and our restaurant for lunch:

Legend Street
Over 600 years of commerce.

...the old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

Religion bothers me. It’s purpose, as far as I can tell, is to suggest that the common person cannot understand the universe, and to understand it, somebody else must contact some additional plane of existence in order to give meaning to the common person’s actions, as well as to prescribe what those actions should be.

Hooey, I say.

And yet, when I walk through the gate with nine rows of nine raised, painted semicircles, I touch one in accordance with the belief that it will give me good luck (nine is the luckiest number in China. As if you couldn’t tell.). When we pass the Happiness Door, I touch the double happiness and make a wish. When we stand at the Altar of Heaven, where only the emperor went to communicate with the Heavens, I too pray for the good harvest.

Why is that?

I want to believe that these are low-cost superstitions, that any idea that required more devotion would be cast aside in favor of the scientific explanation. And yet I know that I, too, am the common person, and I want my life to have meaning. I want to commune with the Heavens, to plea on behalf of everyone for a good harvest.



A similar problem arises with respect to my own work. Andrea read my entry on Caitlin’s orphanage. She points out that (1) Caitlin plays the cello, not the viola, (2) most boys up for adoption these days are healthy, and abandoned due to societal developments surrounding weakening marriages from long-distance relationships, (3) the cross-eyed boy had recently broken his nose according to the orphanage director, so he’s going to get better, and (4) girls have always been preferred to boys in international adoptions, according to international adoption agencies.

These things are all true, or very likely true, and yet I resented hearing them. Why? I suspect it is because I prefer my experience and the feelings it evoked to the data. Why is that? Why am I so willing to trust a sample of one person to the testimony of many? How does one overcome the bias towards one's own experience?

...not all those who wander are lost...

There I am, standing before the artificial mountain of the emperor, imagining what it would be like to have my own mountain (and my own concubi—er, loving wife. Yes. Loving wife.), when I realize that I have lost the children.


I find them hunched over a koi pond, gleefully counting fish. There we are, immersed in 600 years of history, and they’re counting fancy goldfish.

But I’m not sure they’re wrong. The buildings are dead. The fish are alive. Sellers of every item in the city approach us wherever we go, just as the fish rise to every crumb. Would I have noticed the parallel sooner if I paid more attention to what interests the kids?

Perhaps I should count more fish, too.

All that is gold does not glitter...

The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven are amazing places. Truly they capture the grandeur and decay of Imperial Chinese civilization, indicating both how advanced and how repressive (given the social system the architecture embodies) the empire must have been.

We approach the Forbidden City by first crossing the exterior moat. It is low, revealing the piping for the fountain system that now lives there. “The moat’s low, we can storm the walls,” jokes Dave. I ask him how much the emperors would’ve paid to make water shoot into the sky without letting outsiders see the mechanism. He thinks it would take a large fortune. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and magic can keep one’s palace out of the hands of invaders.

Immediately after entering the initial walls, Kina speaks. “There are stores over there. I want to go!” Of all I see today in Beijing, to me the most hopeful sign is the ubiquity of commerce. On Tiananmen Square, not less than two-dozen people tried to sell me something. Within every wall of the Forbidden City lurks no longer courtiers and concubines but now gift shops and coffee bars. The government can erase Tiananmen from the minds of the Chinese people; nothing can erase the human tendency to truck, barter, and exchange.

While the kids get waters and peruse the trinkets, I survey the first courtyard. It is wide and flat, lacking any shade or object. The stone paving on the ground is still the original, Zhou says, making it almost 600 years old. Why can’t ODOT build something that lasts more than a year, I ponder.

But I have little time to think. There is a military drill attracting a crowd. Row upon row of Chinese troops executes some series of… martial arts? Tai chi? I cannot place it. Then Dave helps us understand.

“They’re practicing crowd control,” he says wryly.

And he’s right. Each swings in such a way to strike a person in the gut, knock them over the back of the head once prone, and then move to the next protester. The troops indicate, in a not-so-subtle manner, what would happen to us if we got a little out of line.

All the same, I flip them the bird when none of my companions sees. The soldiers also don’t see. This is probably a good thing.

As we pass through the second wall, Andrea remarks on a library we visited on our last day in Ningbo. It was far more beautiful, she thinks, than this place, however grand it might be. I agree, but as I look around, I realize why. The walls, the moat, the flat, open courtyard. This place was not built for beauty; it was built for power. And it was very, very well designed. Dave and I frequently exchange comments on how defensible this or that position is, how the imperial guard would have used this or that tactic given the palace’s layout.

While walking, Zhou teaches us little facts about the Forbidden City and its customs. The center road of the compound, for example, is only for the emperor himself. At one point we walk on it. “Walk as an emperor!” Zhou exclaims. I do, but I do not feel more imperial. Zhou teaches us the meaning of the use of different colors. Blue, she says without irony, is for the heavens. I want to ask her if she’s looked up recently, but decide against it. We pass through the Gate of Moral Standards. Dave exclaims that Congress couldn’t pass through it without Heaven striking them down. I think about the rocks in my pocket, 600-year-old pieces of Chinese history. Heaven does not strike me; do the emperors approve my conduct?

The farther in we go, the more two things happen. First, we see much more renovation. The government prepares Beijing and all its history for the 2008 Olympics; the Forbidden City must get a makeover. Second, Andrea begins exclaiming, “this is so beautiful!” And she’s right. Everything is beautiful. The buildings, the tree groves, the small house built upon an artificial mountain in the middle of the compound (for the emperor and his concubines to climb up, and then for them to sit “and exercise”, says Zhou. Right. Exercise.). We have past the part of the City dedicated to projecting power; we have entered the part of the City dedicated to enjoying it.

But the Forbidden City is not China. It was China, and some of the ideas embodied in this building still reside in the minds of the Chinese. But this building and its contents are dead. Unchanging. Dead trees are propped up with painted lumber. Empty buildings lie full of covered artifacts. The scaffolding of the renovators mislead. It looks like growth, like life—the new paint, the reforged roofs. But it isn’t. It’s preservation, but each new coat of paint embalms the last. It's entombment. It is the last touches of a mortician, lovingly preserving an ancestor who will never live again.

Mordor where the Shadows lie.

I was less than enthusiastic about visiting Tiananmen Square. It is the scene of a great evil, a dual reminder of the barbarism of imperialism and the barbarism of communism. Biblo wore mithral chain; I slip on my Amnesty International t-shirt.

There is no sign that anything took place in this area, any battle was fought. It was not, of course, a battle. It was a slaughter. But still, no plaque, no memorial, not even a sign exists to say of what took place here.

At least not what took place in June of 1989. There are several references to what took place in 1949 and 1919, though those events have a different interpretation than I would give them. What is most striking, however, is that the people who walk the Square itself do not seem to know its story.

As Mu Zhou begins to explain the various happenings of Tiananmen, Andrea asks her. “Shall we talk about 1989?” Zhou replies in the negative and smiles. She knows, I think. We might get her into trouble? Perhaps. I say nothing.

Andrea comments on the difference with Soviet Russia. “There are no soldiers goose-stepping around,” she notes. I see a column of five or so troops marching.

“There’s some.”

“Not really,” she says. “They’re not goose-stepping. They’re barely enthusiastic.”

“They’re not Marines,” says Dave, himself a former Marine.

“Not Jarheads.” Then Andrea thinks twice about her choice of verbiage. “Sorry, dear.”

But they are jar heads. The soldiers, the tourists, even our guide. They are empty, and the Communists have filled them, not with lies, but with ever more emptiness.

I contemplate this idea as we walk across the Square. Zhou asks me why I look so serious. “You don’t know, do you?” I reply. She looks at me quizzically. “You really don’t know what happened here?” She shakes her head.

I cannot restrain myself. I tell her of the students who protested, of how the Communist government sent not just soldiers but tanks to quash them. I tell her of the everyday people who gave their lives to delay those tanks and those soldiers. I tell her of the famous pictures that the West has seen and she has not. Of a student holding his hand up to a tank, of a woman, back from shopping, standing before a column of mechanized death to give the students more time to flee.

She stares at me blankly. It appears she does not believe me. “Google it,” I say. “You won’t be able to read any articles, but you can see the pictures.” I say this because I checked before leaving the hotel that morning. I know what is available, and what is hidden.

I know she has no reason to believe me, as no other tour group has ever mentioned this to her. And yes, I asked her. Not one ever brought it up. Andrea said it would be the politically correct thing to do, to remain silent. I disagree. It is not politically correct to ignore the wanton execution of hundreds of protesters yearning for liberty. It is shameful.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I bet this happened to Galadriel all the time.

Today in Ningbo, I was stopped by a Chinese girl, perhaps a little younger than myself. She did not say hello, nor did she ask a question. She put her arm around my waist and before I could really react, her friend took a picture of the two of us.

I am not particularly attractive. I'm short, not very well built, and I have a geeky sort of look about me. Why me? I have blonde hair, that's why.

You know, the one time my hair would help me get the ladies, and I'm one ocean and one continent away from the only woman I'm trying to attract.

Eh, at least the girl was cute. That gets me some jealousy points, right? Perhaps I should start seeing how many people want pictures of my golden locks. And maybe some short guy will offer me the most powerful magical artifact on the face of the planet. That would be good, too. a safe but unruly place.

I have come to appreciate the anarchy of the road in China. Traffic rules as indicated by signs and road markings appear similar to the States, but the mores of the drivers indicate otherwise. These mores indicate that all available space shall be used by those who are most able to use it.

I love these rules.

Cars regularly drive head-on towards each other, the self-interest of each being the only thing that keeps a collision from happening. Cars that nominally have right of way will often yield it to larger, faster, or more reckless drivers. My college roommate used to call this the Road Law of Force: mass and acceleration matter more than rules.

What is most surprising is this: I have ridden in vans, taxis, and buses for several hours at a time here, and I have yet to see a single accident, nor have I seen evidence of one. I do not go but a few hours in the States without seeing one. I wonder if it is our concentration of cars or our reliance on right of way over driving opportunity that leads to this outcome. I cannot say, but I wonder.

The road to Gondor...

On a sign in the Daxie Development zone:

“Only development is the truth.”

Indeed. Indeed. Perhaps there's hope for the ol' authoritarians yet.

In Middle Earth, everyone speaks in the common tongue. Lucky bastards.

Yesterday was just awful. My apologies for the lack of communication; it will not happen again. I do not wish to speak of the particulars at the present time, except to say that had I the ability to fly home right then, I would have used it.

There were, however, moments of interest. One moment involved my daily attempt to use Chinese. Like Wang Rui, Mu Zhou is hesitant to sit with us during meals. Thus we are often left alone precisely when we require assistance. While she was away at one point, we ran out of Sprite for the kids. The kids do not like any other sodas. I stop a waitress and ask her for a bottle of cola, hoping that she will ask types and I can pick out “Sprite” from her list.

“Ni keyi gei wo yi bei kele ma?”


Crap. No list. What to do? I wait. The waitress approaches me with a can of Coke. The measure words for liquids are either “bottles” or “glasses”. I asked for a glass. I try again.

“Duibuqi. Wo yao yi ping kele.” I gesture to an empty bottle of beer on the table. “Yi ping, hao ma?”


Now I hope for a bottle of Coke, and I will negotiate my way to Sprite. Go me! The server brings out a bottle of Coke.

“Duibuqi,” I apologize. Again. I pick up my glass, still half-full of Sprite. “Wo yao zhe ge.” I want this. “Hao ma?”

“Shi bei zi ma?”

Now we’re getting somewhere. The name for Sprite is something like “shi bei”, so I should get what I want. Huzzah!

The server comes back with a single plastic glass. I stare. The girls giggle. “That’s not Sprite,” says Victor.

I shan't even tell you what happened when I tried to get soy sauce.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hobbits at play, Father's Day Edition...

Caitlin and Kina: Dad, we have a surprise for you. (begin to sing) HAPPY HAPPY--

Victor: (singing) HAPPY!

Caitlin: Victor, shut up! You don't even know it.

Victor: Sorry.

Caitlin and Kina: HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TODAY'S YOUR SPECIAL (dissolves into giggles as they realize their mistake).

Victor: You don't know it either!

I love these kids. If all kids turned out like these (or within a very tight distribution around these kids), I'd take a baker's dozen.

Happy Father's Day, Dad! I love you, and am glad that you haven't died yet, though your heart could give out at any moment. Or something like that.

Strider 2.0

"Chris" is a 25-year-old woman from the north of China. She was born under the one-child policy, and thus has no siblings. She has a pixie haircut, which she thinks is cute, even if it makes other people think she's younger than she is. Her friends tease her for being a spendthrift; they bought her a jade Pigu, a dragon god's son whose power is saving, to help her. He eats, but never, um, yeah. Let's just say he has the power of saving.

Her real name is Mu Zhou. I like her; she's the kind of person I'd flirt with in a bar. She is not, however, as good a guide as Wang Rui, and we all notice. She isn't as good as a translator, and as a guide, she's a Beijing native who has never been to Ningbo. So it goes.

One small advantage, for me anyway, is that she does not seem at all threatened when I try to speak Chinese. Wang Rui acted as though I was trying to push him out of a job; Mu Zhou appears to get that I'm just trying to talk to a native speaker who doesn't want to sell me knicknacks.

So small good for me, but on balance, I believe we were better off with Rui.

The mirror shows many things. Things that are...

A few other observations from the orphanage trip that do not fit into the general narrative:

1) on the way there, I noticed a group of four or so workers irrigating a soybean crop. Each worker held the hose at a different intersection, moving it as the last man watered the plants themselves. In the United States, this work would be done by a series of interconnected aluminum devices that roll across the field. A simple illustration of the price of labor in two countries influencing the decision to use labor over capital.

2) The entire time at the orphanage, I felt like we had returned to the panda preserve. Can everything in China be viewed as a tourist, if one only asks?

3) At one point, we visisted with a group of children, none of whom could have been more than two years old. As we left, we smiled and waved. "Byebye!" shouted the children. Come again? Yes, that's right. The children shouted not "zaijian", or "see you later" in Chinese. They shouted "byebye" in the Queen's English. So you tell me: teaching the kids a necessary business language early, or the orphanage conducting clever marketing by teaching a few key English phrases?

The Kings (and Queens) of Gondor are descendents of the Men of Westernese.

[This is not your story. It is Caitlin's. If you want it, you can ask her someday, when she grows up and writes her own stories. But not today.]

Saturday, June 16, 2007


When I took Chinese in college, we were instructed to buy Oxford's Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary. I hated it; it was totally worthless. It was a short, squat book that fit poorly in a knapsack. It was paperback and easily bent. And all the new words we had to learn were in the textbook. What was the point?

Now I love my little dictionary. I carry it everywhere. It does not always help in conversation (in fact, it rarely does), but it has helped me pick up a few new words every day. When I was without it for a few hours yesterday, I felt naked. It is my only weapon against ignorance.

Speaking of language, Wang Rui told us a fantastic little parable today:

A mother rat had a litter of baby rats. As they grew up, they noticed that their mother went and talked to the other animals a little bit every day. "Mama," one said, "why do you waste your time? We're rats. We need to speak rats."

"You will see someday," said the mother.

One day a cat came sniffing near the rats' house. When the mother rat heard it, she began to bark like a dog. "Woof. Woof woof woof!" she said. The cat became very scared and ran away.

The young rats were very impressed. Their mother turned to them. "Now you understand the importance of learning a foreign language."

Indeed. I shall miss Wang Laoshi. He has been an excellent guide.

It is morning. There shall be no dawn.

There is no sun in Chengdu. Or in Ningbo, where I am tonight. The humidity and the coal-burning power plants blot out the sun. There is light, but it is never sunny. It is my understanding that I shall not see the sun except when we are in an airplane.

I miss the sun. When we saw it today in the plane, I waved to it.

At the watchtower of Amon Sur...

In our last day at Chengdu, we visited a Daoist temple. I am not one for religion*, but I have a very respectful attitude towards visiting another person's church as a tourist site. For starters, running, pointing, staring, or reacting in any way that one would not react were one in her own church is strictly forbidden. (I chastised the girls on this several times. That's not smoke, kids. Those are somebody's prayers.) Second, I try not to understand what each of these symbols means. However good your interpreter/guide/tourist attraction finder might be, he is incomplete. You're getting the watered-down version of the story. Just take in the sight in reverence and keep moving.

Finally, once, and just once, I must perform a ritual that I see a native worshipper perform. Nobody else may see me do it. It is a sign of respect** to acknowledge that one is in the presence of the divine, even if one does not believe that there is a divine in whose presence one can be.

*Assuming, of course, that it is not worshipping me. I am all for religions centered around me. The more, the merrier!

**Today, I bowed low three times, got on my knees, and focused on one of the twelve lesser dieties of Daoism. It is not only a sign of respect; it is also a hat tip to Pascal's Wager, but in multidimensional religious space.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards…

Because they can blow fire and change their faces a dozen times and do a quadruple backflip and a hundred other things I know I’m forgetting.

We just returned from the oldest tea house in Chengdu. In the tea house, you take tea while watching various performers. We saw several musicians, two scenes from Chinese opera, a shadow puppet master, a Chinese puppet show, fire breathing, and masters of the mask.

They were amazing. The shadow puppet master created images with his hands that I did not think possible. A wolf and rabbit chase, ending poorly for the rabbit. Bunnies and horses running, though not at the same time. A dove. A pair of doves. An owl. A kitten.


The musicians and opera pieces were interesting, but they were longer than I would have liked. This may be due to my mental state (see the previous post), or due to my 15 hours awake at the start of the show. Or because the pieces build to too many climaxes. Once you’re banging on every blessed surface on the stage, call it a day. Please.

The fire breathing was fire breathing. Very cool, not anything new, but always fantastical to see. The masters of the mask were amazing. A flick of the wrist and BANG! New face. They even came out into the audience so we could see them up close. I was less than ten feet away, and I’m still not sure how they did it.

Rivendell magic was the manipulation of the matter of the universe. Earthbound magic is the manipulation of expectations, the diversion of attention. I wonder where I was supposed to look.

He hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself.

Kina is sarcastic and quick to pick up on things, but she is also easily bored. She gets irritated when the simple answer she devises is insufficient. For example, we were at dinner without Rui and Caitlin wanted some soy sauce. Despite what you may think, soy sauce is not just sitting on the table like salt and pepper in China. Far from it. When I didn’t know the Mandarin for “soy sauce”, Andrea noted that she didn’t even have the words to describe it (neither did I). Kina chimed in. “Duh. It’s BLACK.”

Thanks, kid. Because no other sauce in the world is black. I’m sure they’ll understand.:-)

Caitlin acts like her mother a great deal, often to the consternation of her parents. She likes to boss Kina and Victor—really, just Victor—around. She speaks much more loudly than is necessary, given the size of the room and the closeness of the listener. She likes to chime in when she knows the answer, often before a question is asked. That said, she is the same little girl I fell in love with five years ago, just a little bigger.

Victor is a little slow, but very observant. His slowness may be in large part attributable to his difficulty with the language; a function of his time in the orphanage, his adoption, and the City School’s inadequate treatment of him. He cannot stop moving; I often have to grab him around the shoulders to keep him from wiggling or wandering into someone. He is also sweet and loving, and begins most sentences, whether declarative or inquisitive, with “Okay. But I have a question.”

I mention all this, these factoids about the children that I love, because right now I want to eviscerate Caitlin and Kina in the worst possible way. They are so mean to their brother. Savagely mean. Unbearably mean. It tears at what’s left of my soul.

An example: on a vehicle ride at some point so far, Kina, Caitlin and I developed an “electric handshake”. I hold Kina’s hand and Caitlin’s hand, then when they hold each other’s hands, we all shake and make a noise like we’ve been shocked. Well, in the elevator on the way back from playing some games in the “game room” (read: billiard hall), I grabbed Kina’s and Victor’s hands. Kina asked what I was doing. I told her and Victor to take Caitlin’s hands, to make a four person electric handshake. Kina immediately dropped my hand, and Caitlin crossed her arms. “We’re not doing that with Victor,” Kina said.

I have two types of mad. One of them is the fly-off-the-handle, shout-and-jump, hafling-barbarian rage. It is terrifying (and sometimes comic) to behold. In it, I would drink the blood of my enemies out of their recently severed heads. This type of mad, however, pales in comparison to the steely cold, I-will-make-you-obey, power-is-my-boot-on-your-neck-forever mad. If I get this type of mad at you, go dig your grave. Now.

That is the type of mad I got at those girls.

I lowered myself to eye level, and with the wrathful, quiet voice of a vengeful diety, said:

“Look at me. You will never exclude Victor. Ever. He is your brother. Do you understand me?”

They wilted in my gaze. They did not respond.

“Do. You. Understand. Me?”

They nodded.

Later Andrea informed me that they walked straight into her room and began to sob. They hated their brother, because hating me was inconvenient. Victor had come between us. If only he could go away.

Once a speaker came to my university, the guy they based “Remember the Titans” on. He talked about integrating the football program in Alexandria, Virginia, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I remember only one thing that he said:

“You can’t legislate love. Ask your Senator! No, for love, you gotta have a dictator.”

And so my first impulse is not to let it slide, as Andrea suggested. She thinks the best answer is not for me to keep forcing the girls to include Victor, since that will only further alienate them. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but I think it’s something like maintaining a friendship with two sides of a divorce.

My first impulse harkens back to the history of the land of my adventure. To call upon those that united this land into one nation. Do you know the writings of Xiang Yu? That is my first impulse.

I love those girls. And I hate them. I hate them because I love them, and they are so mean to Victor. I hate them because I love them, and they act as I know I would to a slower, unwanted sibling. I hate them because I love them, and they bring out my will to dominate, to force obedience to a reign of kindness. And I hate them because I love them, and they bring out that which I hate in myself. Because I know the writings of Xiang Yu.

I could have written them.

What does one do with such feelings? That I do not know. But my first impulse, that will not avail me. That I know.


Our guide’s full name is Wang Rui. He studied English and Law at Sichuan University, and is about 30 years old. He had difficulty finding a job as a lawyer, and thus is our interpreter, storyteller, and local travel agent. As a child, his nickname was Xiao Hu, or Little Tiger. His older brother (Da Hu, or Big Tiger to Rui) is a musician who plays the drums and accordion all around the country. I suspect he is a starving artist, which would be a rough life in a country where a whole lot of non-artists are already starving.

I have taught in a university and advised statewide candidates for office, while Rui explains his province’s historical treasures in simple, digestible bites to tourists and adoptive parents. He is no less talented than I; he is likely far more talented. But he will lead a very different life than I do because of an accident of birth.

If somebody with some clout is reading: open our nation’s borders. Open the god damned borders now.

What the dwarves have wrought in stone...

Today we went south of Chengdu to Leshan to see two of the UNESCO cultural sites. They are two representations of Buddha, the Giant Buddha and the Sleeping Buddha. The latter is a natural phenomenon such that, when looking down the coast of one of three rivers that meets in Leshan, you see what appears to be a human body in repose. Obviously, this is the Buddha; who else would it be?

The other Buddha is simply phenomenal. It is the largest representation of Buddha in the world (and yes, we asked if it became so only because the Taliban destroyed those other Buddhas. Nope, this one was always bigger. Take that, Afghanistan!). It was built in the eighth century, and I mean all of the eighth century. It took 90 years to complete. It’s massive, at 71 meters tall and 27 meters high.

[Who was paying attention when Rui explained everything? Me, that’s who.]

We boarded a boat to go see it, as it sits at the intersection of three of the four great rivers after which Sichuan is named (“si” being four and “chuan” being rivers. This is one of the few things I could figure out without being told). I was under the impression that we would take the boat across the river, then walk to the Buddha. So I was shocked—there is no other word—when we came around a bend in the river and face-to-face with Siddhartha himself. He was truly awe-inspiring. I don’t know if he calms the intersection of the rivers, as he was created to do, but he had a calming effect on our boat.

There was also the opportunity to hike through the hills and stand at the foot of Buddha, but I don’t think anybody wanted to do it but me. There are 333 (I asked. Twice.) steps to the top of the Buddha. An auspicious number.

How the Precious works…

My Precious works backwards. Rather than making me invisible to the world, it makes me visible to the world and the world invisible to me.

Translation: I cannot read my own blog in China. I can only post. I cannot see your comments, however clever or insightful they may be. This does not mean that you should not make them, just that it’ll be a month before I read them.

On an unrelated note, I shall also start pulling titles from plot points of the Lord of the Rings, as there’s more material to work with that way.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Glamdring and Orcrist

The last stop on today’s sightseeing was a museum dedicated to archeological findings in Sichuan province that reveal the earliest culture in the area, the Sanxingdui. This stop was doubly neat: I love museums, and I had just finished reading about this period in Chinese history just two days ago.

The exhibit was primarily pottery and Big Jade Blades. Big Jade Dagger-Axes, Big Jade Adzes, Big Jade Rings, and, of course, Big Jade Ceremonial Swords. The archeologists have almost no idea what any of these swords were for, or what the markings mean. Most of the time, that bugs me. I’d rather read a book.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I want to see a Big Jade Sword. I think I’m set for a few decades now.

The burglar vanishes and reappears…

We lost Victor for about five minutes today. Today was my day to keep track of the girls, but they keep track of themselves, so I mostly monitor Victor. At any rate, when we approached the red pandas’ habitat, a large tourist group gathered. Our guide led us away from the group, but as Dave and I watched Andrea and the girls skip down the steps, he asked me where Victor was. I told him to follow the girls in case Victor was ahead of them; I would double back towards the red pandas.

Just as I doubled back, the tourist group began to head in our direction. I waited, peering through the crowd for Victor. He was nowhere to be seen. I ran up to the red panda habitat; still no Victor. Anxiety set in, but as I walked back down again (to chase the tourists), I saw a very scared Victor wandering toward me.

Now I know that Victor is in deep, unrelenting trouble for wandering away from us, and that he knows this. So I do what I can: I ask him if he thought he was following me while I nod my head repeatedly. He says yes. Good, I say. Please be careful next time. We don’t want to lose you. I will tell your parents that you thought you were with me, that this is all a mistake, again nodding my head repeatedly. Yes, he says. Mistake. Sorry.

I love the power of suggestion.

Then I took him to get his picture taken with the red panda. He was really good; he didn’t even tell his parents that he had his picture taken until we were on the way back from the Panda Adventure.

He will make a very good burglar.

Beorn is not a xiao xiongmao, either…

In addition to giant pandas, there are also many red pandas (“xiao xiongmao” means “little bear cat”, in case you wanted to know). Red pandas are adorable; the have the best traits of teddy bears, raccoons, and kittens, except they are much larger than kittens. How would I know?

Because I got to hold one, that’s how.*

When Caitlin and Kina had their little run-in with Jing Jing, I asked our guide, Roy, if I could get a picture with a red panda. He said I could. Thus, when we arrived** at the red panda area, I plopped down my 100 yuan***, and the authorities plopped one red panda on my lap. I got to pet it and feed it and take several pictures with it.

*If there’s anyone out there reading my little journal, anyone who is just head over heals about red pandas, anyone who ever made me sit unnecessarily in the heat waiting for red pandas that did not exist, this post is for you.;-)

**Actually, this is not how it happened. First there were lots of people. Then we lost Victor. Then I found him. But that’s a separate story.

***Giant pandas are endangered; red pandas are threatened. Even without different demand schedules, which there undoubtedly are, you can see how scarcity affects prices.

Move over, Beorn. Make way for Jing Jing!

There are pandas (xiongmao, or “bear cats”) at the Panda Adventure. Lots of them! I was overwhelmed by the xiongmaoness of it all, for it is everywhere, from the giant metal panda when you enter, to the pictures of pandas on every flat surface in the park, to the pandas themselves.

Pandas, by the way, are not nearly as interesting as the Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club would have you believe. It turns out that these once mighty carnivores now subsist on a diet of about 40 different kinds of bamboo, supplemented in the park with apples, milk, and some coarse wheat buns. In the wild, it’s all bamboo, all the time. One might think, thus, that pandas are very good at digesting the fibrous stalk of the bamboo tree, but they are not. For every kilogram of bamboo that they eat, as much as fifty to sixty percent is excreted undigested. And yes, there’s a picture of that too, because Panda Adventure is nothing if not thorough.

Panda Adventure (or, rather, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding) is also the home of Jing Jing, a several-year-old panda who has the distinction of being the official mascot for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. Not to nitpick, but I cannot think of a less appropriate mascot for athleticism than a creature that spends over two-thirds of its day sleeping and the remaining third ingesting and excreting bamboo shoots.

At any rate, Caitlin and Kina had the opportunity to meet Jing Jing today. See, the Research Base gives individuals the ability to support their efforts by practicing “Beneficence Towards Pandas”, or some such tripe. What it means in practice is that you fork over 400 yuan (about $50) and the authorities frog march a panda onto a bench, where it sits munching bamboo whilst you pet it and the authorities take pictures of you and the recently bribed panda.

[Please note: I am not some tree-hugging activist, but even I thought this was a little over the top. But not so over the top that I wouldn’t participate, as you shall see.]

So Dave pays 800 yuan, and Caitlin and Kina get to have their picture taken with a panda. But not just any panda; it’s Jing Jing herself! The authorities indicate that only one camera may take pictures of this moment, and they enforce this rule by leading the girls onto the island in the middle of Jing Jing’s habitat.

I am not, however, about to tolerate that. For 800 yuan, we’re getting as many pictures as we please, thank you very much. The authorities have Caitlin’s camera, so I grab Kina’s and Andrea’s. Andrea sees me do this.

“Jared, what’re you doing?”

Getting pictures of the girls, that’s what.

“You little anarchist.”


The pictures, by the by, are lovely. Jing Jing has nothing on those girls. Nothing.

Economic development outside of Rivendell…

Chengdu, as mentioned previously, is the socioeconomic capital of southwest China. It is quite impressive. That impressiveness does not, however, extend to the entire area.

On our way to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (also known as the “Panda Adventure”), we witnessed rather stark difference in living conditions between city and suburban dwellers. I cannot comment on the presence of utilities or household equipment, but the general upkeep of the buildings declines dramatically, and the age of the buildings rises, as we get farther from downtown Chengdu.

One striking feature of the landscape is the presence of family enclaves of four or five houses surrounded by rice paddies, and only rice paddies. There is nothing like it that I have seen in the western hemisphere. Caitlin noted that rice grows in China like corn does in Ohio, and she’s right. It does; it is omnipresent outside of the city. Which leads me to this thought: there are two reasons to grow a crop. Either it is very profitable, or it is very subsidized, because farmers aren’t growing that much of any crop for subsistence. We know which is true in Ohio. Given the nature of the government of China, which do you think it is here?

Second breakfast? I want third breakfast!

The buffet at our hotel has both conventional European and Chinese breakfast food. And I like them both. But I have a newfound appreciation for Chinese breakfast food. Savory noodles? Sweet, steamed rice flour dumplings with bean paste? Chinese broccoli? If I can have these every day, I’ll tell you what you can do with your croissants, France. Or I would, if I weren’t such a well-raised citizen of the Shire.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Ring is a diaper bag.

No, I am not kidding. The Ring holds the papers that turn a kid in Taiyuan named Zhuangzhuang into a kid in Granville named Charles Ziegert. If the kid understood what that meant in terms of his material well being, he'd want us to guard these papers like the One Ring, too.

I have told the children that the Ring is like an egg, and that at some point it will "hatch" into Charlie. They think I'm crazy, but on a two-hour flight, they'll play along with anything. I asked Kina what kind of bag she hatched from. She didn't know, so I told her she hatched from a pretty handbag with sparkles on it. She squealed. She wanted to come from a fancy lunchbox.

So I asked Kina what Caitlin, her elder sister, hatched from. She giggled. "Something girlie." Caitlin does not like girly things. She is my darling, but she's also an archer.

I told Caitlin she hatched from a hot pink quiver with orange stripes. And sequins. She squealed, too.

Rivendell 2.0, and why I'm glad there are planes...

We are in our hotel, and only drove through Chengdu (the largest and most socioeconomically and politically important city in Sichuan province and probably in all of western China) for a half hour, so I don't have a whole lot of interest to say about it.

Our guide is very nice. His name is "Ray". Right. Ray. He says "Okay?" at the end of every sentence, and it annoys me. I realize it annoys me because it's exactly what I do to the children. I hope he will speak with me in Mandarin, because we have guides all throughout this trip, and I'm not going to learn anything unless the guides talk to me.

Ray has explained that there are two places to see pandas. One of them is five hours away, has only black pandas, but they are in their natural habitat. The other one is an hour away, has black AND red pandas (and cranes, and... ugh... hiking), and did I mention it has red pandas? Bet you know which one I would prefer to visit.

He also indicated that there are several Buddahs one can see in the area. There are, in fact, five UNESCO-designated cultural areas around Chengdu, and two of them are representations of the Buddah. (I have now done my duty as an unpaid representative of the Chengdu Chamber of Commerce. Can I have a cookie?)

Anyway, one of them is carved into the side of the mountain, was carved there during the Tang dynasty, and took 90 years (and who knows how many hours of unpaid labor). Ray tells us that it is the largest carving of Buddah in the world. My first thought was "the Taliban really did these folks a favor." I think Andrea and Dave thought it pretty quickly too, because Dave said it as soon as we were out of earshot of Ray.

The other one is a very pretty natural representation of the Buddah. I think it's the one we will visit. Of course, it involves hiking.

And that's why I'm glad there are planes. Because I suspect we're going to spend a good bit of our earthbound time walking.

There's nothing like a panda in The Hobbit, so...

We have arrived in Chengdu, the first of several cities on our grand tour of China. We are here, I believe, to see pandas.

I'm pretty excited about seeing pandas, possibly more excited than even the children. Why? Why would I, who lived in Washington, DC, for three years, where the zoo has *both* red and black pandas, be excited about more of them?

Because I have never seen pandas, that's why.

I mean, I have kind of seen black pandas in DC. They pretty much sit there. They are not exciting. I have also tried to see red pandas, but that never quite worked out. Let me explain:

At one point in our tumultuous ongoing relationship, Christine and I went to see the red pandas of the DC zoo, because they are the cutest, sweetest, funniest, most wonderfulest... you get the idea... creatures in the world. Or so I was told. Thus did we hike up to the zoo one hot summer day to see them.

We arrived at the red panda area. There were no pandas. We waited.

Several familes walked by. They did not stop, except to read the sign. "Red pandas" it said. "Elusive little buggers," said one father. He only slowed down.

We waited.

Finally a cute, adorable, wonderful little creature made a mad dash for the food in the middle of the panda area.

A panda! we cried.

A chipmunk, actually.

So I'm pretty excited about seeing pandas.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The road goes ever on and on…

You’d think that getting to sit on one’s behind for twenty-one hours wouldn’t leave one drained, but it does. Curiously so. I tried to sleep on the plane, but for aforementioned reasons, that didn’t happen.

Kina sat with me on the first flight. Our most common exchange began with her saying, “I’m bored.” I suspect that Kina exists in a constant state of boredom, requiring ever increasing stimuli to remain out of it. Either that, or she’s not happy unless she can constantly move around, and on an airplane, that just isn’t happening.

In between flights we continued our brilliant track record of still-sitting. The kids and I took a few walks around the concourse (where Kina noticed that our flight would be delayed… maybe letting her move around is a good idea). We ate something like lunch.

By lunchtime I had noticed a distinct pattern: Victor is a rambunctious little guy, but he doesn’t have to do anything to irritate his sisters. He just has to exist near them. And by near them, I mean within the greater metropolitan area in which they reside. It made me sad, because I love those girls, and I hate to see them being mean.

Anyway, I mentioned this observation to Dave after lunch. He sighed, then said, “yeah. It’s like that. I like to think of it as good training for marriage, though.” Heh.

Though at some point my resolve shall surely fail me, I have not yelled at any of the kids yet. It is difficult not to do so in some instances (“yes, we need to walk down the concourse. No, I will not drag you by your arm.”), but not particularly so. Andrea and Dave have really raised them well, and they are easy to like. They make parenting look much more rewarding than I imagine it for myself.

An example: It’s midnight (EST) on the plane, and Victor sits next to me, trying to sleep. He looks over at me and says, “Aren’t you going to sleep?” No, I say. I’m going to read. “Oh. Can I sleep on you?” Of course you can, buddy. So here’s this little kid, curled up on my lap with a couple of airline pillows and blankets, hugging my arm. “I love you, Jerry*”, he says, then he nods off** for a few hours.

I am sure that I have done this with both of my parents on several occasions, and they have explained how they feel about it. And I have shrugged it off. But at this moment, it is so unbearably clear to me. Who wouldn’t want one of these? Who wouldn’t want several?

*He calls me Jerry sometimes, rather than my name. He says I can call him Tom. I’m not sure I like what that implies about our relationship.

**Which completely cut off the circulation to my foot. You should have seen me trying to reposition his head periodically so I wouldn’t have to amputate.

Second breakfast? I want a nap first…

I could not sleep Sunday night. Traveling makes me nervous; traveling to a foreign country where I do not speak the language doubly so. Traveling to a foreign country where I do not speak the language and stick out like a sore thumb renders me an incomprehensible nitwit jittering in a bed at the Inn.

It soothes me that I can blend into the background when required to in daily life. That I cannot do that anywhere that we shall go leaves me feeling exposed. That I know people will speak to me slowly and say things in Mandarin knowing that I shan’t understand them keeps me up at night. I wonder whether I shall sleep tonight.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Back in the Southfarthing...

I now remember why I agreed to go. Because I love these people, and they are fun.

Caitlin, Kina, and Victor are not much bigger than I remember them, and much, much bigger than I remember them. For starters, Victor can communicate now. He had a cleft palate as a baby, which was not repaired, I believe, until Andrea and David adopted him. At any rate, my entire time babysitting him consisted of a series of dichotomous choices. Like playing 20 Questions. Only the machine can run naked around the room grinning like a fool and humming songs from Blue's Clues.

Now he talks, and he wants attention, and I adore him all over again. I totally understand why he needs a brother, since Caitlin and Kina tolerate him in a haphazard fashion. And I totally understand why they tolerate him haphazardly, as he could annoy me, were I only two (rather than twenty) years older than he.

When I watched the kids back in the day, Kina was the one with whom I interacted least. David always took her to school on his way to work, so I wouldn't get to play with her as much. She's become quite the corker, and is clearly going to challenge me most often. Which is perfect. She also wants to be my pinochle partner; I can't wait.

Finally, Caitlin. My darlin'. She and I spent a goodly number of hours in the front yard, waiting for buses, picking clovers, doing magic. She is most convinced of the three that I am a wizard*, despite being the eldest child. While I attempted to choose stories to read to the kids whilst abroad with all of them in mind, I admit to choosing them with an eye to what Caitlin and I used to talk about reading.

David and Andrea are delightful. They are quintessentially calm; as I am not, I find this trait of theirs to be very soothing. I hope I do a good job with their kids. They certainly do.

It is also very calming to be leaving from my alma mater. My time here (as I look back on it with five-year anniversary rose-tinted glasses) was idyllic. If one must go on an adventure, this is a good place from which to leave.


[*Do not let the above paragraph suggest that I am not a wizard. I am. Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.]

It was a hobbit-hole, and that meant comfort.

I would not have agreed to go, had I realized that we would actually go.

There. I wrote it. In the 'sphere. There's a record.

About seven months ago I called my undergraduate advisor, Andrea, with whom I am still friends. She mentioned that she was heading to China with Dave (her husband), to adopt their fourth child from the PRC. She is taking the other, pre-adolescent children with her, she tells me. Do I want to come along to help keep track of them?

Sure. Sure I would, says I. When are we going?

December. After finals. That is when we are to leave. But that trip falls through, as I thought it would. And a similar plan existed for May, right after finals. But by the end of April, I knew we weren't going to China, so I didn't worry about agreeing to a similar plan for June.

Because we weren't going to China in June. This trip was like waiting for Godot. It just wasn't going to happen.

But then it was May and a plan came together and the next thing I know we have tickets to fly from Columbus to Newark to Hong Kong. So the trip shall happen. The trip shall happen tomorrow.


I am, at my core, a Hobbit. Adventures are dirty, nasty things. They make you late for dinner. I like the idea of having gone on an adventure, I like talking about the adventure I am about to go on, but I do not like going on adventures.

There had better be some damn fine stories that come out of this, or I shall be sorely disappointed.