28 February 2006


Lately I've been staying up to the bleariest hours of the morning reading reference books. This is a new development. I never used to like reference books much.

I remember huddling in a middle bunk on a sleeper car, nine hours into a ten-hour train ride from Guangzhou to Changsha, knowing nothing yet of the layout of the city, where I might stay, how I might amuse myself. My hand was on the cover of the Lonely Planet, in which I could expect easily to find some answer to these questions that so worried me. I didn't have anything else to read, had done enough sleeping, had no one to talk to unless I wanted to drag a stranger from sleep in order to rain lousy Chinese on them. Still, it took me another half an hour to badger myself into opening the guide and looking at the map, with the long skinny island in the river, and working out what direction I would head from the train station.

My aversion to travel guides was particularly intense. But I didn't like cookbooks--didn't following a recipe indicate a sad lack of invention and natural culinary judgment? I didn't like dictionaries--if I hadn't in all my compulsive novel-reading run across a word enough times to develop a pretty good sense of its meaning, then surely it was a word no one really needed anyway. I didn't like the periodicals index the people at school were everlastingly nattering on about when they wanted us to write research papers--what good was a list of awfully useful-looking sources one could not possibly ever get one's hands on in rural Alaska?

I did make the occasional exception to my general rule of leaving the reference books closed and shelved, but only for the sake of sociability. My brother was an ornery kid whose few amiable moments arose from enthusiasm over almanacs and encyclopedias. "Hey, the capital of Iceland is Reykyavik!" made a welcome change from "What's wrong with your hair? No wonder everyone hates you," so I whiled away an evening now and then helping him memorize the member states of the Soviet Union, or blanking out the country names on a map of Africa so we could xerox it and practice filling them in again. I even managed to pretend an interest in the decades-old stockman's manual he dug out of the discard heap at the public library, however little genuine attraction I might feel toward the diseases of cows.

So it surprised me when, coming out of the most recent of my long series of brokenesses and indebtitudes, the first thing I decided to splurge on was an atlas so big that by the time I got it home the binding was already tattered from me forcing it into my backpack.

I went to work that evening and bragged to someone there. He shook his head. "First it's a big-ass atlas, next an SUV, then a big house in the suburbs, and you perish in penury," he said.

I figure he's wrong, though. His other prediction was that we would have a big earthquake in late February this year, and as my cousin Kim pointed out when she came to my apartment, since I sleep on the floor under the bookcase with all the big-ass reference books, and the bookcase is not tethered to the wall, and the wall is in an earthquake zone, sooner or later I'm in for it.

It's the last day of February, so that quake is due tonight. Speared by an atlas I will die, but with money in the bank.

20 February 2006

I live on the side of a hill. It's a high enough one that on a day where, at my level, you might conclude that it had thought about snowing and changed its mind, up at the top you could make a definite statement that it had snowed, and might even be able to make a definite snowball that would do someone some damage if you threw it at them.

One of the people I work with lives up there at the top of the hill and, being terrified of driving in slippery conditions, keeps a sharp eye on the weather forecast. If snow is mentioned she schedules time off work, just in case she ends up needing it, and then she calls me to give her a ride.

The way to work from her house goes round over the back part of the hill and around the side, past a lot of potholes. V always makes sure I keep well to the right of the road for the first part of the journey, then scoot over to the left, to avoid bumping through all those holes.

Right around where I have to make that change from the rightmost to the leftmost part of the lane is a house V remodeled once, and across the road is a little grocery store.

"I used to go to that store all the time," she says. "Now you want to get way over on the white line--"

I do.

"The person who had the house, she used to go to these really authentic Chinese restaurants, and so I'd go over and get some bread and peanut butter and jelly."

"What was wrong with the Chinese food?"

"It just didn't taste good."


"Well, it was--"

She stops to think. Greasy, I expect her to conclude. Or maybe, "Too spicy?" I ask.

"No." In a very definite tone, followed by more time for thought.

"Bitter," she finally says, to my surprise. "Yeah, bitter. And slimy! Bitter and slimy."

"Yeah, better to stick to the peanut butter and jelly," I tell her. "No reason to force yourself to eat something you don't like."

When I lived in Kunming there was a dish of little twiggy things that, besides having an astringent effect reminiscent of toothpaste, were definitely bitter. And there were broad green leaves called 豆腐菜 that turned out unexpectedly (at least, the first time I didn't expect it, and after that, even though I reminded myself, I still couldn't until I bit down really believe it) to fill the mouth with okra-like ooze.

But I can't think of anything, authentic or not, that's both bitter and slimy. Should I just conclude she was wrong?

It never snows when she says it's going to, either.

19 February 2006

Self Indulgence, or Self Sacrifice?

I keep seeing women in their teens or early twenties wearing low pants, really long skin-tight shirts, and some sort of very short jacket or sweater on top.

This is very silly.

Admirably silly. I envy them, as I envy those who teeter around on tall skinny heels, or splay their feet out duck-like to keep from tripping on their pointy, pointy toes, or stroll about with their midriffs bared in midwinter. It would be very nice to have the aesthetic conviction to endure that kind of inconvenience--all that shopping, all that evaluation and weighing of the advantages of this stylistic detail against that, all those blisters and shinsplints and extra miles of driving--for the sake of providing the world with a variety of decoration.

I am bound by this peculiar need to be able to do things without regard for my clothes.

I want to get up in the morning and dive straight into work or housekeeping or idle diversion without thinking about how I will look as I do it.

I want to take as long a walk as I want without having to engineer a change of my shoes.

I want to be warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer.

Most of the clothes I see on mannequins, and a surprisingly large proportion of those I see on living, breathing people, are entirely incompatible with these desires.

But they look so nice.

I wanted to buy clothes one day not long ago, but I went downtown and could find nothing but the sorts of things that tend to hang from curtain rods: frills and cobwebs. Everything seemed to be just barely hanging together, and so oddly shaped you'd have to put on eight or ten garments just to get all the different bits of you covered.

So diverting. Different from last year, different from last decade, similar in some respects to what I saw in catalogs (labeled "suitable for layering," "body conscious"--doubtless the terms would be different now) back when I was in junior high school and all my clothes came out of catalogs, but not identical, sharing perhaps certain aesthetic principles but with careful variation of detail.

It is such an alluring idea, looking different every year, every season, having the ingenuity to use eight garments to fill the function of one.

But my aesthetic sense, sadly, is of the sort that comes out for an airing only when I have gone to the trouble of showing up at an art museum, or paid a substantial sum for a concert ticket, or somehow bumped into someone who has identified themself as one or another sort of an artist. Most of the time, I can't be bothered to think about these things at all. I put CDs on and play them through without really hearing them, hang things on my walls never to look at them again, put on clothes and take them off and wash them and put them in the closet and take them out and put them on again without thinking much about them unless they unexpectedly make my feet hurt or my arms come out in goosebumps.

And go downtown with grand aspirations to transcend the limitations of my own materiality; sigh at mannequins; and come home with cotton T-shirts and flat, clunky shoes, or with nothing at all.

18 February 2006

Chun Hua

So, at last I know--not only is my mom a ho, I am too.

People have always laughed at my Chinese name, 春花 (Chun Hua, Spring Flower), but never have they been willing to tell me why. I've asked innumerable people, and they smirk, but don't answer. Well, it is a bit old fashioned, they say.

Nothing to do with prostitution? I ask.

Oh, no! Of course not! Just . . . like a country girl. With flowers embroidered on her skirt. Blue. Very pretty, little flowers . . . .

But--I saw, at a Hou Hsiao Hsien film fest at the Freer in DC, a movie called 海上花 (Haishang Hua, Flowers on the Sea, or Flowers of Shanghai) about life in the courtesan quarters. And then I read Gail Hershatter's Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai, which confirmed my impression that courtesans were called 花 (hua, flower). Surely this must the source of all that uncomfortable laughter?

Still, no one would admit the connection.

I wrote an essay about it. I submitted it to literary journals. One editor actually gave me a mildly positive response: "It's a fine subject, but also too brief for us. I'm looking for a more detailed and curious examination."

Well, fine. Curious examination. I enlisted my friend Erne, in Shanghai.

I'm thinking of changing my Chinese name, she text-messaged her friends. To Chun Hua. What do you think?

It was a seriously bad idea, they told her.

Why? she asked.

Well, I just wouldn't advise it, they said.

Might it have something do with prostitution? she asked.

No, no, of course not.

I gave up. I came home to the States. I found a job and an apartment. One day, someone invited me to lunch with the managing editor of a university press. You know Chinese? she said. We don't have anyone who knows Chinese. Would you like to take our editing test? But you might have to start with proofreading.

So a few months later, what did she offer me to proofread but Cathy Yeh's book Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture, 1850-1910.

Clearly prostitution is my fate. There's no getting away from it.

It seems to be a hereditary problem. My mom's maiden name: Suzanne Bau Kam Wong. Suzie Wong. Bau Kam: 宝琴, one of those notorious early-twentieth-century Shanghai courtesans whose every move was reported in the entertainment papers (see Hershatter, pp. 122-124).

But not until today did I have any real confirmation of the connection of my name to harlotry.

My family is having a big reunion in Honolulu in June. My cousin Vivian is putting together a family history to mark the big occasion. She distributed a questionnaire; I filled it out. She wanted to know everyone's Chinese name. Mine sucks, I told her. Still legally part of my name (Chun Fa, in the version that appears on my birth certificate, passport, etc.), but I don't use it anymore. Call me 黄瑞秋 (Huang Ruiqiu).

Well, my mom always said Chun Fa was a good name for a servant, Vivian told me.

How about a prostitute? I asked.

Well, I don't know, she answered. Let me consult my friends.

So today she consulted her friends. And what do her friends say?

Don't you know Chun Hua's a common name for a courtesan? Don't you know Jin Yong wrote a novel, that one where the main character has eight wives and the mom was a ho? Her name was Chun Hua.

At last, at last. Vindication. I knew whoredom was involved somewhere.