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.]