Chengdu blues: Poetry in motion

December 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

On Day 2 I was told to be ready at 6:00 AM for my tour but it was wholly fake. By 6:30 no one had appeared. Without a watch it had been dicey waking up on time; I’d requested a wake-up call, they’d said “Sure!” but none had ever come. Instead I’d had to roust myself every hour or so to check the time on the TV, which was a real challenge.

First, you had to turn it on, but it wasn’t a regular TV that switched on and showed the time somewhere on the screen. Instead, it had to boot up, which took about a minute. Then it switched to an automatic Lancome commercial, which lasted about 30 seconds. Then a complicated menu appeared and you had to select the right program, wait another few seconds, and then get the briefest of time signals in the right-hand corner.

By this time I’d be wide awake, and it took the TV another minute or so to power down. The easiest solution would have been to buy a watch, because what on earth could be easier to procure in China than a fake Rolex or twelve, but on Day 1 there had been no watches for sale anywhere. I’d kept an eagle eye out.

As I waited for the non-bus to take me to the non-tour the hotel staff gave me an early breakfast bag. Solo travel is so good, even when you’re waiting for Godot and munching on a cold orange shivering in the unheated lobby. A fellow traveler waiting for his taxi wondered why I was alone and assured me solo travel was bad, that traveling without a phone was inviting catastrophe, and that there was no reason to be in Chengdu for ten whole days “Its so boring! There’s nothing here!” he exclaimed. “You want a real travel destination? Try Chongching. It’s the best.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.


I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I liked Chengdu just fine and that I planned to do more day trips if the bus ever came, then wander around the city on public transport if it didn’t.

There were two women in the hotel lobby glued to their phones like the great majority of people I saw in Chengdu. The phone is the key to social control. It locks people onto the tiny screen and distracts them from minor details around them such as they haven’t seen the sun in the last ten years. There was absolute individuation of the populace courtesy of constant cell phone access, outdoor wi-fi everywhere, and full time TV internet programming. They, like we, are only fed snippets digested as instantaneously as a Twinkie, with no intellectual sustenance at all, then on to the next snippet, never remembering or understanding what went before.

It is the absence of “what went before” that has such profound implications for China and for the U.S., this ability to erase the past while also having the means to ensure that no one even tries to create one. More about that later …

The phone also provides a continual diet of shopping and celebrity “news,” so no one has to pay attention to open air concentration camps in Xinjiang or ask questions about what’s going on in the world outside. It occurred to me that most people don’t want or deserve freedom, but they do want and deserve a home, food, and medical care. There were no homeless people either.

Better never than late

The shuttle van arrived and the driver dashed in. “Hurry up!” he shouted, as if he’d been waiting on me since Thursday when it had been I, not he, who had been cooling my jets for the past hour.

I and ten others were crammed into a van with a max capacity of ten and we crossed Chengdu, adding a couple more members at various hotels. Every few minutes we’d pass a particularly inviting street food vendor, and a passenger would holler at the driver to stop at the breakfast cart. Everyone got a killer breakfast except me, as I was afraid to dash out and order something, afraid that by the time I decided, paid, and was served, they’d leave me behind.

It took an hour to reach the Du Fu Cottage, an immense compound and literary shrine in Chengdu erected in honor of the great Tang Dynasty poet and father of Chinese literature, Du Fu. Every major figure since Mao has visited it, and among people who care about this kind of thing, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest poets of all time, from any land.

Like the tour of the prior day there was no interactive anything, no modern interpretation, no connection to anything, simply a sprawling grounds for you to decipher if you could, which even the Chinese couldn’t, as they agglomerated onto our tour and listened with fascination as our 20-something guide recited for two solid hours, read poetry, gave background about Du Fu’s life, and occasionally glanced at my blank face to confirm I’d grasped little or nothing. It was the latter.

I made friends with an older woman who was also solo, a grandmother, and we took turns snapping each other’s photos. She was from somewhere I’d never heard of and spoke with such a heavy accent that I could understand little or nothing, mostly the latter, and only enough of the former to snap photos. Our guide, unlike the one from the day before, spoke clear, beautiful Mandarin, but alas it wasn’t the fault of the speaker that I understood so little.

My Starbucks or your small snacks?

Our next stop was a 1-hour break at the famous Chengdu alleys of Kuan Xiangzi and Zhai Xiangzi, massive and charming tourist traps. My friend had never had a Starbucks latte, so for $5 I treated her to the finest of U.S. culinary exports. She drank it with exceeding politeness and after we walked around a bit more in the cold she suggested we try a Sichuan specialty “small snack” restaurant.

It was a set menu for $5 and was some of the best food I’d ever eaten anywhere. The comparison was obvious. U.S. overpriced, unhealthy, high-cal milk with a dash of stale espresso vs. tiny, delicious, art-like food that I won’t soon forget. We next went to another compound, a kind of religious-historical series of buildings and artifacts commemorating and celebrating Liu Bei, his two warrior brothers, and the story of the Three Kingdoms.

One of the exhibits, a 2,000-year-old stele considered the finest example of calligraphy and poetry in all of China, was simply placed in a shed behind a glass, a thousand times more impressive than the Mona Lisa, and no crowd at all. The Wu Hou lecture of our guide was even more amazing, to judge by the people who glommed on. I understood perfectly the exhibit captions in English but my appreciation was otherwise limited to the guide’s cute beret, fur-lined hood, and clear pronunciation of words I couldn’t understand.

At one point, before we had to enter the Wu Hou museum and she was buying our tickets, she asked me, “How old are you?”

I was nonplussed as it was the first thing she had said to me all day and I didn’t understand her at first. “I don’t know,” I said.

She turned to the group and said sardonically, “He doesn’t know how old he is,” which got no end of laughter. “Are you sixty?” she asked.

I had recovered from the shock of being addressed, only to be re-assaulted with whether or not I was — gasp — sixty years old. “No, I’m 54.97.”

“Okay, so no senior discount for you.”

Back to the ranch

At the end of the tour we were released like baby salmon into the massive shopping arcade of Wu Hou, every food, every drink, every shopping item ever. My legs were numb from standing in the cold and I couldn’t feel my feet as I set out to find a subway, which I did after even more walking.

Like Kunming, Chengdu is quite walkable if you have a map, which is surprising for a city of 14M. But it is walkable because the development is all vertical; there is no suburban sprawl commensurate with the population, or at least not the endless horizontal sprawl created by single-family dwellings. Everything goes up.

Although I had seen two of the major attractions of Chengdu, three if you count the shopping alleys, I made a note to return to the Du Fu Cottage. And I wondered … “Why do we not enshrine our great writers? Do we even have any?”

I had reluctantly begun to start seeing the Chinese point of view that freedom is a luxury, whereas food, clothing, lodging, and health care are not. Most people only want things. The spiritual travails of freedom and education and enlightenment are for the few. The grubby, greedy, possessiveness for more THINGS is for everyone else.

This was reinforced again by taking a deeper dive into news and cell phone individuation and their ultimate target, fostering consumerism. It’s the same in the U.S., only here we have a more ignorant, unhealthy, chauvinistic cohort, and one that is far lazier.

One great unburdening effect of taking a stroll through so much real and ancient history is this: You are freed of the obligation to say something new, as you realize you have nothing say or think that the Chinese haven’t already written a thousand books about, a thousand years ago.



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Chengdu blues: What time is it?

December 15, 2018 § 10 Comments

I was going to check into the H-hotel Riverside, but first I had to find it and so I had to buy a map. It took an hour of hard walking from the main square, but I found it, a small 6-story place wedged between a noodle shop and some bars. It was rated 8.6 on, which made me wonder what a room not soaked in cigarette smoke and actually having a closet or chest of drawers would rate. Perhaps a 400?

Oh, and no clock. There was no clock. This wouldn’t normally be a problem except that I’d forgotten my watch, didn’t have a computer or phone, and quickly learned that there are no clocks in China because, phone. What time is it? This becomes an annoying question when you can’t answer it …

Of course a blasting, copious, scalding hot shower makes up for almost any hotel ill, and when it comes to the ultimate in decadence, what could possibly top such a shower followed by one of those little Nescafe instant coffee packets with cream and sugar? One of the ways you find out that you are really white trash is when, left to yourself, you end up reveling in instant coffee.

The television had everything on it except a clock including long news text selections that were read out loud, Peppa the Pig in Chinese, and hardly any, make that zero, Community party speeches. But you couldn’t just turn it on …

The hotel’s location was heavenly for me, stuck in a ratty neighborhood filled with cheap restaurants and small shops selling hundreds of plastic wrap varieties, haircuts, motorcycle parts, and an infinite variety of bags. Paper, plastic, vinyl, uranium, everything. This was just a few steps off the beaten path of Chengdu’s well-maintained, spit-polished showcase for those who alight, snap photos of the Chairman Mao statue, and are then whisked away to enjoy a quick Xingbake before disappearing into a hotel no different from what you would expect in New York, Los Angeles, or Lubbock.

Why would you go to Chengdu just to experience Lubbock? I suppose because Chinese is easier to understand than Lubbockian.

My room with a view overlooked a ramshackle apartment building where oldsters sat outside, smoked, and stared unflinchingly into my room. An old man with no teeth lazily twirled his finger in his belly button and then picked the lint out from under his nails with his teeth.

I flinchingly lowered the blinds.

Take a tour on the wild side

This trip to China, rather than prowling the streets at 4:00 AM for the entertainment of those monitoring the 24-hour surveillance cameras, I had decided to find a tour bus company that would take me around the city, or around the wherever, and save me the effort of having to immerse myself in Chinese. What could be a quicker immersion technique, I thought, than finding tours in Chengdu, the capital of the famous panda bear steak?

Since I was in a hotel, surely they would have countless tour brochures as they had in Kunming, but which I had been too snooty to avail myself of. Sadly, I might as well have asked the front desk for a tract extolling freedom of speech, so confused was the clerk when I requested tour information. Finally she advised me that it was “Impossible.”


“Because all tours are in Chinese.”

“But,” I protested, “we’re speaking in Chinese now.”

She considered that for a second. “Yes, but I am speaking very simply.”

After convincing her that I could handle a tour in Chinese she whipped out a menu of trips and I selected an all-day offering for $30. Seven hours. We confirmed and reconfirmed the start time and price, so at 6:30 AM, half an hour ahead of schedule, I was in the lobby awaiting the bus. The roads were wet and it was icy cold. Perfect day for a tour, and here’s a hot tip: If you want to be immersed and make friends, a local tour is the best deal ever. Total expenses for the day were under a hundred bucks. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating about the friends part.

Things you really need to know

We drove for a couple of hours through miles and miles of China’s commercial garden plant farms. The bus driver was on a schedule and not afraid of crossing the yellow line into oncoming traffic, which was frightening, but it became even more so when I realized that the oncoming traffic was no more afraid of driving head-on into us than we were into them. It was a game of chicken where no one was afraid.

We got to the tour launching pad after receiving a mission critical, 30-minute speech by the tour guide. I understood only “This is really important!” and grasped the ordinal numbers as she enumerated the things WE ABSOLUTELY HAD TO KNOW. At the launching pad we switched buses, got a new guide, put on tour lanyards with an ID number, and got another speech about a new and even more important set of things WE ABSOLUTELY HAD TO KNOW.

“Did you understand that?” the person next to me asked.

“No,” I said.

Everyone was skeptical that I would understand a rapid-fire discourse about Chinese history, aqueducts, architecture, and similarly dense topics, but their doubt was overrated, it should have a certainty. After three hours I was frozen to the core and we climbed hundreds of endless stairs; my legs were seizing up.

At noon I was just as ignorant as when he had begun. On the bus my seat mate inquired, “Did you understand the tour?”


“He was speaking in Sichuanese dialect. Hardly anyone did.”

This, I learned, is the true Chinese experience, being a stranger in your own land. And it also began the long process of beating into me that in Sichuan you are going to be isolated. That China is all about isolation.

Lunch was included and we were all ravenous, the overweight smokers especially. We pulled into the restaurant and were served a giant selection of extraordinarily mediocre food, made world class by our hunger. Sichuan is cold in winter but nothing is heated. People can’t afford electricity and so they wear lots of clothes as the wet air chills them anyway, and you don’t pop into a restaurant to warm up because they are all open. The cold would stay with me the entire trip.

At first I didn’t know what to do at the table, as my first bite of food had chunks of tiny bone in it, but I looked around and saw everyone simply spitting on the table, so I followed suit. China, apparently, is not Japan. It’s kind of gross to spit on the table but it’s kind of fun, too, getting to smash one of the oldest childhood rules you were ever taught and no one GAF.

I was looking forward to getting back to the hotel, and nodded off on the bus. “Here’s your headset,” said our guide, shaking me awake. The dreaded headset meant only thing, that we had yet another guided tour. We parked in a vast lot, were herded off the bus, told to return at 4:30, and were sent off on our tour. We reached the entrance to the mountain where China’s history began, which from the looks of it meant the history of selling potatoes out of a basket along with holy plastic trinkets. Either it was where history began, or it was time for bed. My Chinese wasn’t good enough to tell which.

My downfall, which had already fallen a long way, came when I decided to follow the little 95-lb. lady in white jeans and her high school daughter wearing a Snoopy coat. “How fit can they be?” I smirked, happy that I’d found two fellow tourists I could keep up with.

After ascending another thousand or two steps, I concluded, smirkless, “Very fucking fit.” I, on the other hand was barely able to walk.

White Pants Lady chatted gaily all the way to the top, where we flipped a u-turn to descend, and the real agony began. The steps were tiny and had uneven run and rise so that soon my quads were quivering with every step. You know how when you think “It can’t get any worse!” and then it gets worse?

We reached a fork and White Pants Lady gaily suggested we go left and climb up to another holy site. After a few minutes of that misery the daughter weighed in with a groan and “I can’t go on.” I wanted to cry from relief as we turned around and labored back to the bus.

“Young people are so weak these days,” White Pants Lady said.

“And old ones,” I added.

Back at the bus everyone looked at us oddly. We were the only ones who had gone; the others, upon seeing the endless stairs, had stopped at an outdoor cafe, gotten drunk, and returned to the bus happy after enjoying shopping, level scenery, and cigarettes.

At the end we got a hard sales pitch from our tour guide for spicy dried fruit bags, $14.50 per bag. I passed, having recently stopped eating spicy dried fruit bags. Our guide had been so lively and on it; she impressed on me again how hard people in China work. Like the brutal climbing, stair-stepping, and endless walking on tours, the average American simply couldn’t hack the Chinese work ethic, either.

Back in the middle of Chengdu, somewhere, the bus driver pulled over to a random curb. “Everyone get off,” he said. “Tour’s over.” This seemed normal to everyone except me, and I was glad I’d brought my map because it took another hour of hard walking and subway riding to get back to H-hotel Riverside, which I had now conclusively determined was not next to the river side.

My seedy street was packed with people getting home from work, and all the little shops as well as restaurants were full. My stomach empty, I plunged into a spicy hot pot restaurant. These are restaurants where you sit around a boiling pot, fill it with meat and vegetables, and boil them as you eat. The staff was pleased to seat me but not so pleased that I had no clue how to cook the food or even select it off the refrigerated shelf.

Eating hot pot by yourself is pretty lame; it’s a super social occasion, kind of like showing up alone to enjoy a restaurant’s Valentine’s Day special.

The neighboring table couldn’t stop laughing as the waiter repeated instructions over and over, first with patience, then with exasperation, and finally with resignation, covering at least three of the Seven Steps to Dealing with Stupid Foreigners.

Once I got the hang of it, the hot pot turned out to be hot, hot with fire and especially hot with Sichuan peppers. A burned asshole would become a permanent fixture of my morning routine. I ate myself ill for $10. Back at the hotel I had to rate the day as “superlative.” I was so tired I couldn’t stand. I was full. Total expenses for the day, $85. Oh, and 100% immersion in Chinese language with a thick frosting of Sichuanese on top.

I didn’t, unfortunately, understand much. My brain was wasted from thirteen hours of nonstop concentration and from successfully navigating a hot pot. To perfect the day, one of my fellow bus bunnies had retrieved my backpack from the lunch stop, which was nice because it contained my passport, all my cash, and my credit cards. So complete was the day that I even stopped into a convenience store and bought a 10-pack of those little Nescafe coffee packets. I could white trash out to my heart’s content and no one would ever know.

Oh … and I made a reservation for the next day’s tour, which was a trip going somewhere to see something. Of that I was certain.



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Chengdu blues

December 14, 2018 § 11 Comments

I got back from China night before last, late, and my head is still spinning. The next ten days I’m going to attempt to transcribe the copious notes I took during my 10-day trip to Sichuan Province. Be forewarned. These posts are going to be long, short on eye candy, and completely unrelated to cycling in the South Bay.

If at some point I simply give up and return to my mode of writing about riding, it’s because this latest stage of my China disease was almost as painful to recount as it was to experience. But recount it I must not simply because China is our future, but because many of the most awful parts of that great nation are our present. Some things bear being regarded with the perspective of an ostrich. China is not one of them.

There’s no reason to stutter forward with additional preamble. Let’s get down to it.

Day 1: All in

Sichuan Province is cold in December, and vast all year round. It would have been good to know that first part before I left.

Sichuan Airlines earned a ranking of 10 Wanky Points not because of new planes or good food or super kind flight attendants but because I was dead asleep, 100% passed out in the lobby when my flight began boarding. The gate had been busy and filled with people waiting for the midnight flight to Chengdu, and, far past my 9:00 PM bedtime, I had fallen asleep.

“Sir! Sir! Sir!” the woman in the Sichuan Air uniform yelled directly into my ear. I awoke instantly and saw an empty gate area. “You are going to miss your flight!”

With that bit of professional rousing I sprang from my sleigh and raced through the doors, last one on. Then I found out yet another bonus to the midnight flight: It was next-level empty and I was going to get to sleep like a baby, if babies sleep sprawled across several ill-fitting cushions and awake with crooked backs, aching necks, throbbing joints.

A couple of hours before the airport I had been at King Harold’s Christmas Party, making a big deal out of the fact that I was going from an evening soiree to China, and going sans phone, sans computer, armed only with a pen, notebook (the paper kind), and tiny cheap camera. Leaving the party I had shucked off my jacket and white shirt and put on my t-shirt, thin wool sweater, and hoodie. It would have been more than a little humiliating to have missed the flight after all that.

In the security line they had lost my shoe and blamed it on me. Since I only had one pair for the trip, it caused a bit of anxiety, the thought of trying to find a size 11.5 shoe in China and before that, thumping around the city with only one shoe on. I sort of demanded that they find my shoe, and after a while they did, but not before lecturing me on the proper way to pack my security tray. Apology? Uh, no.

I had also experienced the check-in ritual of handing my passport to the ticket agent and getting that strangest of looks, “Is that your only baggage?” as she eyed my tiny knapsack. The boarding pass in hand made my tourist transformation complete. I was tethered to no phone, no personal tracking device, no portable work compulsion device, just a little bag, some cash, a credit card, a few changes of underwear, and fuckit I’m gone.

Of course when you travel you never really leave anything behind. Ever.

My patio furniture and valve fantasy

Unlike last year’s journey, I had almost no phone anxiety; mostly it was the excitement and anticipation of striking out unencumbered in order to play tourist and #fakechinahand for ten days. Compared to the delusion of #fakebikeracer, cast aside at the brokedick age of 54, this new delusion felt cheaper, more rewarding, more sustainable, and more fun in the way that brutalizing your mind is always fun. The yummy prospect of lots of greasy Sichuanese street food didn’t hurt.

In the airport I keenly felt like I’d missed my calling.

One of my buddies is a Texas valve salesman. He spends 200 days a year sourcing valves in China, crisscrossing the country, always with a guide, unable to so much as read a street sign or order a cup of coffee. As far as I know he’s never been into a museum, seen a historical sight, or bought weird fried animal parts from a filthy, steaming, delicious-smelling open-air kitchen.

Another friend owns a company that owns several companies that make all the patio furniture sold in America. She is often underway in China, inspecting factories and none too excited by it. To which I can only wonder in shades of the very prettiest envy, “Why was I not born a valve salesman?” and “Why didn’t my parents raise me to be a patio furniture factory inspector?”

Is any life more beautiful than peregrinating throughout China in search of valves and lawn chairs? Does it matter that I don’t even know what a valve is? The smog, the crowds, the surveillance, the indifferent lodging, could it ever really get old? How could it? Each city a new dialect, each day a shock to the psyche and body, crammed into a nation you weren’t born to ever fit into? Anyway, six hours into the flight the romance is strong, and I nodded off, my skull painfully pushed against a projecting aluminum arm rest, visions of patio tables and steam valves dancing in my head.

Quality in every cup

Familiarity may breed contempt, but travel familiarity brings knowledge of the good things in life. For me that begins in economy class. The Sichuan Air paper coffee cup with instant coffee, creamer, and sugar, I love thee! The rat cage seats and mini-video screens that cause shooting pains in squinting, myopic eyes, I love thee! The tiny toilets–how do plus-sized U.S. posteriors squeeze in and, more crucially, out?–I love thee! Red-garbed, painted, smiling stewardesses, I love thee, too!

Detethering meant memorizing the entire itinerary, flight numbers, times, using a map, forgetting about things that are #notreal and that #youcantchange. Detethering meant taking a point-and-shoot, which was lighter than a personal tracking device, took up less space, and was complemented by a neat little Moleskine notebook.

Detethering doesn’t have to, but in practice should, mean no luggage because nothing ruins life like things, and because the word “luggage” comes from the word “lug,” remember? When is the last time anything good happened conjoined with the word “lug”?

With a few essential things you know where everything is. You don’t have to keep track of where you put what. There’s no searching for places to plug in your work compulsion device or personal location tracker, and you realize how traveling tethered means being hooked up to your devices and being constantly on the prowl for places to charge them up.

How did the presence of electrical sockets become such a key feature of human movement and leisure travel? And of course it’s funny to watch people desperately fucking with their appliances when your worst malfunction can be fixed by “Hey, do you have a pen I can borrow?”

Detethering also meant bringing one book to read rather than a small library that would return as unread as it had left. In this case it was “A Man Could Stand Up” and “Last Post” in one volume by Ford Madox Ford. A man could also, I thought, if he were on Sichuan Air, sit down.

Maybe you should have studied harder

After fourteen hours or so we reached Jinan Airport, my layover where I had to pick up a domestic flight to Chengdu. As I filed into the waiting area I felt it. I was in China. I smelled it. And I heard it, the constant barrage of announcements, long and detailed in Chinese, and only partially translated into English, the best part being “Flight 28198 to Beijing delayed due to weather infection.” Ah, yes, the old weather infection! I had those often!

It dawned on me like an incoming shell that my Chinese, after another year of study, was still far from being up to snuff. Eavesdropping on conversations, desperately trying to understand all the announcements, trying, fumbling, to formulate sentences in my head, all of it pointed to the same thing: It was going to be a very difficult trip.

The domestic flight was full. People were excited and chatting. I was the only white person on the plane. It wasn’t the South Bay anymore.



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The importance of book slimming

December 10, 2018 § 1 Comment

When I was a kid, I learned that you don’t ever travel without books. We didn’t have computer games or phones of course, and about the only good entertainment was getting into knock-down, drag-out brawls with my brother in the back seat. Those never ended well, first because he would beat the shit out of me, and second because my dad would invariably pull over to the side of the road and beat the shit out of both of us.

You don’t see a lot of kids getting the shit beaten out of them on the side of the road anymore, which is a good thing.

Anyway, in addition to the beatings we learned to travel with books. Our dad always traveled with books, plural, and the older we got and the more independent we became, the more books we took with us when we traveled.

My dad was famous for taking a small library on a two-day trip. In between the beatings and the sleeping and the drinking he never finished even one, but he always had plenty just in case there was a nuclear war and we were stuck in Uvalde for a million years, which is about how long it was gonna take him to read Marx’s Capital.

As a grown man I can’t tell you how many times I’ve traveled with books, plural, and returned home having read only a little bit of one of them. The reason is that you think you’re gonna plow through a dozen books in between here and Augsburg, but in reality you sleep the entire time on the plane or you are drunk or both. Then all that dead time in the airport? You know, the time you were gonna use to chew through those books? Trust me, two chapters and you are asleep, getting neckbone disease from hanging your head on the back of those rubber seats with the steel neck-backs.

Of course you’re not deterred; when you get to the luxury resort in Hohenkirchen-Siegertsbrunn you will flop down beside the pool and read all day. Except you don’t. You tour the town, sleep by the pool, eat way too much, sleep some more, then go to your room and sleep some more again.

On the way home you know you’ll finish at least one book but it’s not possible. The first meal knocks you out, then you watch four movies, then dinner comes, then you’re asleep again, then you wake up and thumb through the in-flight rag for an hour, then you thumb through the in-flight store mag for an hour, then it’s 45 minutes to landing and you’re home.

So a few trips ago, and it was damned hard, I decided to do two things:

  1. Take one book.
  2. Throw it away on the plane if I wasn’t finished with it by the time we landed.

And it worked! I was so afraid of having to throw away an unread book, which is like putting a bunch of kittens in a bag and drowning them, I read the lone book before I even reached my destination. And I found it didn’t matter which book I took, so I’ve learned that the key is to take a really dreadful one that’s been staring at you from under the table for a couple of years, daring you to read it.

Here’s my next victim. He doesn’t stand a chance.



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Packing list

December 4, 2018 § 3 Comments

You know how I said I was gonna take a break from blogging? Just kidding.

I mean, I really was going to, but then I realized that I had some information about travel that I absolutely had to share with my two subscribers and four freeloaders. Here it is:

It’s important to pack well. I believe in traveling with lots of stuff so that you never run out of anything. Better to have waaaaaay tooooo much than too little. Because if you run out of stuff it can be serious.

That’s why I keep a checklist and follow it carefully before I travel. For example, I’m going to China, which is a country. You never know what you will need in a place like China because it is very wild and remote and far from In-N-Out, so you have to be sure to take everything. I’m including my China list in case you ever go to China for a couple of weeks. If you follow this list you’ll have everything you need. More than everything, actually.

The downside is that you will have significant baggage and probably a hernia from carrying all this stuff, but that is life.

  1. Itinerary
  2. Hotel info
  3. Passport
  4. Sweater
  5. Coat
  6. Hoodie
  7. Cap
  8. Credit card
  9. Cash
  10. Book
  11. Wristwatch
  12. Underwear x 3
  13. Socks x 3
  14. T-shirt x 3
  15. Pants
  16. Notebook
  17. Pen
  18. Camera and charging cord
  19. Toothbrush
  20. Toothpaste
  21. Floss
  22. Razor
  23. Shaving cream
  24. Shaving balm

Things to buy:

  1. Postcard
  2. Tea
  3. Map



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How hard is Chinese?

November 23, 2018 § 16 Comments

No bicycles or leaky prostate doping revelations to follow … no pictures or graphs or entertaining cat videos … only many words on a personally global subject, so, forewarned.

Anyone who has taken even the first step to learn Mandarin as a foreign language, indeed anyone who has even considered attempting it, has asked this question of the language’s difficulty, to say nothing of those for whom, mired in the muddy trenches that stretch along for years with no end in sight, a seemingly simple interrogatory reveals everything about the interlocutor and little or nothing about the inscrutable subject. Indeed, the question can only first be answered with a question: “Difficult for whom?”

The happy fraudsters

We were promised that the Internet would change our lives and it has, changed it by turning us into mindless Maxi-Pads capable only of absorbing the emissions of marketers, salesbots, hucksters, and the iron purchasing logic of the algorithm. Nowhere has the pop-up box of overpriced and ultimately undeliverable lies mutated, then metastasized, with such impressive virulence as the world of online Chinese study.

The Internet and its toothy maw can answer your questions about the difficulty of Chinese with precision and irrefutable, overwhelming logic, logic that is fluffed, then primped with testimonials and “One-time only” discounts promising that any fool with $8.99 to spare will soon be reading cursive scrolls in the shops of antiquaries, and doing it with the off-hand nonchalance you’d see from a parent taking his 2-year-old on his 500th stroll through Dr. Seuss’s A-B-C.

Here, then, is the ease of this supposedly complex and hard-to-master lexicon, brought to you by Sir John Algorithm, Ph.D. in Linguistics Sales and Marketing:

Irish polyglot makes it E-Z for you!

Or, within six months, you can do FUGGIN ANYTHING IN CHINESE and even bunnyhop, piggypack, or tongue-surf onto “related” languages like Japanese, Korean, and heck, why not Martian?

Oxford Dictionaries fucks around even less. Which part of “Chinese is not that hard” don’t you understand?

And then this self-promoting hack breaks down the whole mystery of Chinese into four awesome mythbusters. Boom. You are now fluent. Ni fuckin’ hao.

If it’s that easy, why do I still suck?

Unhappily for people who have tackled Mandarin as a foreign language, and even more unhappily, those who have tackled it in mid-life after their brains have hardened, and most unhappily of all, those who have tackled it without being able to live in China, there are voices in the wilderness crying out that the attempt is futile–couched in delicate terms, but futile nonetheless.

For example, these fine folks have provided a reality check: 2,200 hours. What they don’t emphasize is yeah, 2,200 hours if that’s all you do. No cycling. No working. No fighting with your S/O. No tee-vee. No fantasy football or binge drinking. Just you, Mandarin, and hell. If you take your eye off the ball, rest assured that 2,200 won’t cut it, nay, it won’t even slice the peel.

To put it in context, a junior associate in a meatgrinder law firm will bill 2,200 hours a year, a workload that no normal person will endure absent extreme need and compulsion. And if you really put in 2,200 hours for an entire year, that’s six hours a day, which, unless you are a full-time student, ain’t gonna happen.

Another voice, typed out long ago in 1992, makes the point that “hard” is a poor description for learning Chinese; better would be damn hard. Rest assured that people and web sites seeking to fleece you of your ill-gotten gains won’t be citing to the article by Dr. Moser and instead will be battering you with what I call the Chinese Imperatives:

  1. China will soon own the world! (You’ll be left with table scraps!)
  2. Chinese is spoken by a billion+ people! (How hard can it be?)
  3. Chinese is exotically cool! (Order off the Chinese menu, yo.)
  4. Chinese can help you get a job! (Purpose of college is to make $$$, dummy!)
  5. Chinese isn’t difficult, it’s different! (Be diverse, whitey!)

None of these imperatives, like a faithless lover, will be there for you in your time of need, however, because all of China’s economic power, all of its coolness and ubiquitousness, and all of its dangling job potential won’t help you memorize a single stupid character, won’t help you get a single tone right, and won’t help you read any part of the cursive scroll hanging in the restaurant as your friends say, mercilessly and riddled with mirth, “I thought you said you spoke Chinese!” And it won’t help you that none of the waiters can read it, either.

But what if you don’t have 2,200 hours a year?

Yeah, what if? What if instead of having six hours a day to bore into the side of the granite mountain with a toothpick, you only have, say, an hour a day or, dog forbid, half an hour? And what if that’s only four or five days a week? And what if you take vacations? In other words, what if, despite your abnormal interest in Chinese, you have an otherwise normal life?

In that case, you are what is colloquially known as “fucked.” Why? Because language is not cumulative in the way that, say, loading a wheelbarrow with sand is cumulative. You dump a shovelful of sand into the barrow, then come back in a couple of days, dump in some more, and then you forget about it for a week and come back and dump in a couple of shovelsful. Eventually it’s full.

No, language is not like that at all, not even a little bit. Learning a language, and especially learning something that is as rote-memory intensive as Chinese, is more like loading sand into a wheelbarrow where the wheelbarrow dissolves at midnight if you don’t keep loading sand into it. Especially for “mature” learners, a flattering phrase that means “old and slow and stupid,” (triple redundancy) you can’t let it alone for any time at all or every one of your hard-earned new synapses will immediately be filled in with chocolate, and after a few weeks’ rest you will stare, mystified, at the thing you spent hours trying to learn, as unfamiliar and beyond your ken as what you had for dinner two weeks ago.

So the horrible estimate of six hours a day works only for the young and carefree, all others are consigned to 10,000 hours, or ten million, because the thing will be as hard to pin down as the meanings of words that so eluded Socrates.

Who’s learning all that Chinese, then?

This, of course, is the first question, and the best one: Not “Is Chinese difficult?” but “For whom is Chinese difficult?”

Because China currently has close to 500,000 foreign exchange students, and although “only” 40% go there to study the language, Chinese universities are required to include language instruction to all foreign students, and in practical terms if you are in China to get a degree you will be taking courses in Chinese, as it’s the default language of instruction. And since most exchange students don’t show up already versed in the language, they are looking at a 1-2 year preparatory commitment before they can enroll in degree programs. So much for the fraudsters who claim that you can download the app, pay the fee, and cruise on to fluency in a couple of months.

Half a million exchange students may not sound like much compared to the U.S., where foreign students number over 1M, but it ranks third globally, and if the past is any example, China won’t be slowing down any time soon. In the exact reverse of American cultural imperialism, where the government lets English language dominance spread through media, science, and higher education, China has to knuckle down and aggressively promote its language. Why might that be?

The first reason (and second, and third) is that Mandarin is real fucking hard to learn even if you start young. The fourth is that linguistic imperialism is the sine qua non for being the dominant world power, and China knows it because at the end of the day if you want a consumption-based economy it means you want your nation to be customers, and the seller has to speak the language of the buyer … not the other way around. The first part of the equation, being the world’s manufactory, China has mastered; this only required its sales force to speak English. Moving to the second, more complex, and by far more powerful position of being culturally dominant, requires people to adopt your culture, which means your language.

Let’s start with a mis-translation

In 2013, Premier Xi Jinping announced what is most often translated as the Belt and Road Initiative, which sounds vaguely like what my dad used to do when we were on long car trips and started fighting in the back seat, that is, he’d pull over on the side of the road and initiate disciplinary proceedings with his belt.

In fact, the Chinese name of the plan is “One Belt, One Road,” which although still a bit unclear carries the unmistakable suggestion of unity, of coordination, of grand design, and that’s exactly what it is: A land-and-sea network designed to bind China to more than half the world’s population through soft power. Some might not find the economic reality of having half their national debt owed to China especially soft, but it’s unquestionably softer than the armies, assassinations, embargoes, and arms sales that the U.S. has traditionally used to get its way in, say, South and Central America.

Be all that as it may, China’s soft power in the long term cannot and will not be effected by trade, finance, and dual-use infrastructure projects that allow any port to instantly serve as a naval base if the moment requires it. No, China’s soft power in the long term will come from linguistic ascension, from a global familiarity with the deepest roots of its culture, which is to say its language.

No matter that Mandarin is a relatively new interloper even for the linguistic buffet historically spoken by the Han peoples. No matter that even today, hundreds of millions of Chinese can’t speak proper Mandarin. And no matter that the difficulties experienced by foreigners learning to read and write Chinese are also experienced by the Chinese themselves. What matters is that the highest levels of a command economy and an authoritarian political system have realized that however hard Chinese is, the world is gonna have to learn it. At the tail end of that realization is that Chinese, at least for foreigners, has to be inculcated with the carrot rather than the stick.

Let’s talk decades, okay?

As absurd as it may sound, this notion that the rest of the world is going to willingly learn one of the world’s hardest languages, consider that China is not especially deterred by big jobs and long time frames. Consider also that the country has an active hand in promoting Mandarin in the public sphere through scholarships, cultural centers, laws requiring language instruction, and state-subsidized language schools abroad.

China’s least best-known cultural program, the Confucius Institute, embeds on university campuses and offers language instruction as well as the official government line on all politically sensitive topics. Whereas those interested in academic freedom eye this type of state-sponsored propaganda as inimical to a university’s mission, the real value in such cultural institutes is that they reach young people at a critical time of curiosity and, perhaps even more importantly, cognitive adaptability to quick language acquisition. Whether their receptiveness is a function of brain plasticity, youthful motivation, or the huge blocks of time that young people can devote to studies, these institutes are but one of countless efforts that China is making to groom the world in its cultural image.

If it takes a couple of generations, so what? Rome wasn’t built in a day, either.

So, uh, how hard is it, really?

Ostensibly, it’s so hard that the government has to dole out billions in order to get people to learn it. It’s so hard that learning Mandarin is a full-time job. It’s so hard that even if you study it assiduously for ten years, you will probably never skim through a newspaper or novel without developing at least one big knot in your forehead as you read.

Why is this? What explains the difficulty? I’m no linguistics expert, and certainly no cognitive scientist, but my own experience points out some general areas where the problem lies, and it seems to do with the language mapping of your adult brain. Once you speak a language or languages, your brain has a kind of map burned into it, and that map is the network of grammar, vocabulary, sounds, and symbols that make up whatever languages you speak.

Learning languages is always a function of overlaying the new language onto the existing map and forcing your brain to first find analogs to the language you already speak even as it builds new neural pathways to understand, reproduce, and “think” in the new language. Those mapped pathways, or structures, are either very similar or very dissimilar to the new language, and I have a great example of what happens when you take a related, or similar language and lay it onto the existing map (or maps), versus taking a wholly dissimilar language and trying to overlay it.

In January of 2018 I began studying Slovak, a completely new language family for me, and I began it quite half-heartedly as my time was consumed with work, life, and, you know, Chinese. Although I started off with two hours of live Internet lessons a week, it eventually tailed off to one a week. The lessons were not especially structured and they followed the curriculum of Krizom-Krazom, the standard Slovak for foreign learners textbook. At the time I began Slovak I already had 2.5 years of Chinese study, study which was backed by about 4 hours of live lessons per week, and which, in the distant past, i.e. college, was backed by two years of intensive Chinese study. Another key part of my Chinese self-study has been listening to the Taiwanese RFI radio broadcast for fifteen minutes every morning as soon as I awake. Suffice it to say that after all this time I can only vaguely make out the topic of each news item.

As a comparison, after only a few months I could listen to a comparable Slovak radio broadcast and absolutely make out the topic and even understand some of the details, a level of comprehension that was absolutely comparable with Chinese, in which I’d invested years and several thousand hours. To make it even more stark, I noticed that when learning Slovak an interesting thing would happen when I asked my teacher how to say a word or phrase.

Basically, regardless of what it was I was trying to say, when the teacher would give me the new phrase or word, it “dropped in” to a structure that was already in my mind, like plugging a light into a socket. There was no feeling of cognitive stretch or mental effort other than pronouncing and then then trying to remember the words. But in Chinese, when I’m told a new phrase or word, it drops into … nothing. There is no existing structure, other than the feeble Chinese one I’m building, into which the new material integrates. And although it very loosely connects with existing languages I know, for example Japanese, it doesn’t “click” like new things I learn in Slovak.

There is something about the existing map of language that dissimilar languages like Chinese simply don’t want to play well with, no matter how much you hammer them. And this issue isn’t limited to Chinese; there are countless languages equally remote and therefore as hard or even harder to learn if your basic linguistic map is Indo-European.

If you are an average schmo with limited time, bound to your home country for 50 weeks out of the year, Chinese is not that hard compared to speaking Tuyuca or !Xóõ. Yet among the world’s more commonly found languages, it is beastly beyond compare. It will defeat your best efforts,  suck away your time, your money, your self-confidence, and it will leave a residue of failure and dissatisfaction to smear, like greasy fingerprints, on every other aspect of your life.

Why do it, then? Why pursue something as hopeless as this?

The answer of course is because you are pigheaded. You don’t pursue things because they will help you, because you will excel at them, or because they somehow, vaguely, make you a better or even a more interesting person. What is interesting about mediocrity? What is interesting about unimpressive, pedestrian skills after years of study?

No, Chinese is a cul-de-sac for all but those who are lucky and young, and yes, I know that’s redundant. But you realize when you reach the dead end that you’re hardly lonely or alone, populated as it is with countless quirky, oddball, mindlessly persevering people who are apparently just as pigheaded as you.



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Green socks and ham

October 30, 2018 § 1 Comment

I was at Phil’s Cookie Fondo on Saturday doing a lot of nothing as I walked around the exhibitor area. There was a tent on the corner painted green, Dr. Seuss green, and it had some stuff written on it along with a pile of green socks out front.

I started talking with the lady but she was a bit difficult to understand at first as she wasn’t a native English speaker but rather a Canadian. Soon however she understood my “dudes” and I understood her “Eys” and with the help of some sign language and Google translate we were getting along famously.

Over in a chair sat a dude, also dressed in green, with a green gimme cap and an extremely relaxed attitude. His name was Joel and the lady I was talking to was Jillian. I don’t know if they got married because of the alliteration, but “Joel & Jillian” is pretty hard to beat.

“So what’s this that you guys do?” I asked.

“Before we get to that let me ask you the big question,” Jillian said. “The one that matters.”

“Uh, okay.”

“Solid green or green polka dots?”


“Which sock design do you want? Solid or polka dot?”

“I’m kind of a polka dot guy as of late,” I mumbled. “And green.” She handed me a pair of free socks. “So what is it that you guys do?”

What it is that those guys do

Joel and Jillian used to be developers in Alberta, which is one of the nicest places on earth for about six days in July [cf. David Miller a/k/a Cat 5 Dave]. Those other days Alberta is pretty terrible, for example the day that we were chatting in our shirt sleeves at Phil’s Fondo on Saturday, the Albertans were already tromping around in over 19 feet of snow.

As Jillian was telling me about their life outside of Puerto Vallarta, where they lived with their kids because PV has 360 amazing days a year and zero feet of snow anytime, I thought about the last time I had taken a trip overseas. Here’s how it went:

  1. Got to Slovakia.
  2. Slept in hotel.
  3. Ate breakfast.
  4. Milled around with drunken tourists.
  5. Stepped in barf.
  6. Opened up my phone and did a search for “Bike Rental.”
  7. Walked a lot, got lost a lot, finally found the bike rental place.
  8. Sat in front of closed bike rental place for a long time.
  9. Left.
  10. Criss-crossed the city looking for a rental bike.
  11. Didn’t find one.
  12. Finally found one, a real POS.
  13. Rode it until the seat broke and almost punctured my ass.
  14. Returned the bike.
  15. Walked back to hotel, sad face.

I was thinking about this because Jillian had just asked, “Have you ever gone on a trip and wanted to rent a bike?”

“Not exactly.”

“Oh. You don’t cycle?”

“I do.”

“Just not on vacation?”

“It’s not that I have ever gone on a trip and wanted to rent a bike, it’s that I have never NOT gone a trip and wanted to rent a bike. But it is such a shit show and plus, where do you ride? So it’s basically massive frustration.”

Enter the chill green guy in the lounge chair

Turns out that my experience is common. So common that Joel came up with the idea to create a browse-and-book service for traveling cyclists, i.e. everyone. The idea led to an app and a business and the amazing fruition of an idea, putting cyclists in touch with local ride guides around the globe.

Now in 63 countries not including Antarctica, their Velo Guide app lets you check out amazing destinations, communicate with your potential guide, and resolve forever the painfully vexing question of “WTF am I going to do on this trip without a bike and place to ride it?”

Check ’em out!



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