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Hunanese all pau pau
Photo: The remnants of a Chinese meal eaten on 1940’s American dishes with Japanese chopsticks.

I never much cared to visit China. Other places in Asia, yes. I lived in Japan on two separate occasions. I traveled to Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore. I was disappointed that I missed out on Cambodia. The two Mongolian sumo champions in Japan made me imagine checking out a yurt, but I rarely felt a strong pull from China. I did go once to Hong Kong, enjoyed the food, had a coat made, walked the streets, thought it a fine visit, but I never shared the desire of many acquaintances who were feverishly booking the eight-day package tour of the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Terracotta Warriors. Yes, I would like to see those places, but I always noticed that no one returned from these trips with glassy-eyed glee. The stories were subdued and sometimes grim, as if their protagonists had been severely educated and had learned things they had rather not.

Much of my disinterest was just ignorance. We all live in our own limited imaginations about the world. I forgive myself easily for not knowing much about, say, Guyana, but China’s importance and size force my guilty attention. Some of my images of China come from Chinese movies, tragic stories set in cruel but cinematically gorgeous pre-Communist China. Some images come from Free Tibet campaigns (I subscribe to an American Buddhist magazine which puts me on certain mailing lists). But it was less politics and more time and money forcing travel choices. I had chosen Hanoi over Beijing, Penang and Melaka over Shanghai. Still uneducated about China, I left East Asia behind and returned home to the United States.

Recently, a friend who studies China recommended Jasper Becker’s The Chinese. I read the book with admiration for how Becker’s writing could inspire great loathing in me for the country. On the bus to work, before bed, while waiting for a chicken to roast, I made my way into stories of horror, corruption, abuse of power, environmental collapse, human folly in the full range of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Chapter after chapter the stories actually gave me nightmares, dreams filled with images such as a man thrown out of a window in a Cultural Revolution purge, “reeducated,” put back in power, crippled but living to oversee the same abuses he thought he was fighting against. There I was among peasants being taxed into starvation, local Party bosses buying cars and houses with money meant for infrastructure and education. The author occasionally wonders—can’t help but wonder—at the system’s survival despite all the abuses of the people, of the land, of trust in government. I finished the book one evening with a feeling of drab soul sickness.

To be honest, it left me with a cold-blooded urge to eat Chinese food.

Hunanese meal
Photo: Liuyang black bean chicken. Recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop’s, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province.

All I could think about were two Chinese cookbooks I own in which the stories convey lightness and happy ceremony: Chinese people making delicious food and enjoying their cultural inheritance. Here and there are a few references to poverty and injustice, but all is glossed over in Foodese:

Whenever we drove out to Liuyang, we would go on an urgent gastronomic tour, swooping down on the central market to pick up armfuls of freshly picked vegetables and spicy stewed meats. One of the gang would buy a bagful of golden, doughnutlike puffs of glutinous rice dough, dusted liberally with sugar, for her husband. […] Chief among Liuyang’s prized local food products are black fermented beans, whose fame is said to have been spread by monks who tasted them while visiting a local Buddhist temple as far back as the Tang dynasty. The following recipe makes generous use of these richly savory black beans, and it is scrumptious.

—Fuchsia Dunlop, Revolutionary Chinese Cooking: Recipes from Hunan Province

Are there any Buddhist monks left? I wanted to reconcile Becker’s Chinese purgatory with Dunlop’s happy stir-fries and wry invitations to try Mao’s nephew’s red-braised pork. Becker includes tragic stories of individuals, but they are illustrations of a principle. Becker admits to being mystified by attitudes among the Chinese. I couldn’t learn in his book what remains in Chinese culture to soothe and inspire people despite all that has been destroyed.

Hunanese meal
Photo: Stir-fried turnip greens with chilies and Sichuan pepper. Recipe from Dunlop’s Sichuan cookbook, Land of Plenty. The original recipe called for water spinach.

Dunlop herself tries to touch on the narrative of change in her introduction to Revolutionary Chinese Cooking:

[Y]ou will find echoes of Hunan’s ancient past in the hotpots and chafing dishes, the zong zi rice parcels that are tied up with the memory of the poet Qu Yuan; and the ingredients, like black fermented soybeans, that have been eaten in this richly historical region for more than 2,000 years. For the food of Hunan, like that of China itself, embodies a narrative of a place, a tale of shifting ideologies, […] of political change and revolution and, through all this, of the joys and sorrows of ordinary people’s lives.

The scrumptious photos and the titillating stories of food markets and of rich pork dishes sends me to a different China. If food is mentioned in Becker’s book, it is to illustrate that there are millions of starving peasants while the Party gives extravagant feasts and consumes the wealth of the country. These two stories of China abide in me simultaneously. The stories could multiply into thousands and I’m sure the paradoxes would never reconcile. Thus we learn of the world, the contrast of the particular experience and the sociological report. My previous images of China have not been erased, I simply add to the multiplicity.

Mao’s nephew’s red-braised pork recipe looks good, maybe I’ll do that next.


There is a story attributed to Cherokee wisdom:
One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces. “There are two wolves struggling inside each of us,” the old man said.
“One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear . . . The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love . . .”
The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: “Which wolf wins, Grandfather?”
His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

—From “Harmonies of Liberty” (January 21, 2009 National Prayer Service sermon), The Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins

Photo: Good doggie/bad doggie?

We watched the inauguration on TV. Despite the lure of history and the fact that we could have walked to the Mall, we sat in our cozy attic office and watched. We took a break for lunch and went to our “local” for our first drink of the new administration. With a good buzz working, we had Carlos’s brother and his wife and their son over to watch the parade. Everyone sank into beanbag chairs in front of the TV, ate some salteñas and popcorn, drank some beer. An hour later I looked around and everyone else was fast asleep while what seemed like every marching band in America passed by the almost empty reviewing stand. The TV cameras would capture the kids stealing a glance to see if President Obama was watching. Where were the rest of the people that were supposed to be in that stand? We caught a glimpse of a friend in the White House Social Aide program. She was in uniform, saluting as President Obama left the reviewing stand at the end of the parade. A captivating C-SPAN moment.

Yesterday I watched the National Prayer Service on TV. The sermon was given by Reverend Sharon Watkins, the first woman to give the sermon at an inaugural prayer service. This seemed a bland milestone, but we are celebrating our progression, so we’ll take evidence of progress wherever it appears. The self-congratulation and delight and relief in the air is affecting, but treacly with sentiment. At odd times on Tuesday (“odd” as in I could never predict what would set me off) happy tears trickled down my face. I laughed at my own indulgence in mass goofiness. Politics and the chaos of reality may wear down the sharp angles of our current optimism. What the hell, it felt good to be goofy and hopeful and to give praise.

Bland milestone or not, I watched Reverend Watkins give her sermon and was struck by the bad wolf/good wolf story, even if the sermon itself was a bit toothless. But then, what else could it be? (And where were the Buddhists?) On one of my trips to the fridge I noticed my own little shrine to good and bad wolves. The theme seems to be transformation, of self, of history.

Photo: The front of my fridge. Clockwise from top-right: Obama pin I bought at the Manassas rally the night before election day; a clipping from The Washington Post, November 17, 2008, Unseen Iraq article about “singing parties” in Baghdad; the doggie photo; a dry cleaning receipt; a quote from a Buddhist sutra, the Majjhima Nikaya 131 (“An Auspicious Day”); a cartoon by S. Beck from 1989 in Tricycle Magazine that reads: “And with great passion he approached another day of the same thing”; at center is a photo of us in the back garden of George Bernard Shaw’s home.

Reverend Watkins said that hard times are “…pawing at us, trying to draw us off our ethical center.” I loved that line for what it said to me personally, what the little shrine on my fridge was saying: Madam, which wolf are you feeding?

The quote from the Majjhima Nikaya 131 is about seizing the duties of the present without being confused by memories of the past or fear of the future: “Ardently doing what should be done today for—who knows?—tomorrow death may come. There is no bargaining with Death and his mighty hordes. Whoever lives thus ardently, relentlessly both day and night, has truly had an auspicious day: so says the Peaceful Sage.”

I think I’ve done enough watching. The speeches are over, the songs are sung. We’ll leave our new president to his work. Time for me to get up and ardently feed my own good wolf. Which wolf are you feeding?

Photo: Some Japlish from Matsumoto.

Happy New Year!

In 2009 may rainbows trickle in your hair and a tasty binky abide in your mouth.

See for background on Robert Shields.

Thursday, July 10, 2008
Yokosuka, Japan

7:00 Wake up, pull on t-shirt and loose pants. Take out burnable kitchen garbage and dump the two bags of weed clippings that I pulled from the backyard. I am about to replace the plastic anti-crow net over the pile of garbage bags when I solve a three-part Stephen Colbert puzzle that’s been bugging me. Colbert is my binky for this summer’s deployment, but that’s not the new thought. I already told Carlos that since he left on the ship I had taken up Web surfing Colbertiana, feeling a little unhinged. Carlos wrote, “So, I lose you every few years to an image on a screen, or a voice on the airwaves, but then I steal you back when I return from deployment. At least the past two times it has been to good Southern boys, and Colbert is a practicing Catholic to boot.” He is always so indulgent.

7:05 I run upstairs to watch an old clip from Exit 57 on YouTube, the sketch where Stephen and Amy Sedaris play a couple giving “church-sponsored” relationship advice to an engaged couple. Stephen and Amy are both in their underwear, pawing at each other, giving a talk about the spiritual nature of sex to the horrified couple. Stephen stands with his belly distended over his briefs and ritually presents himself: “This is my body. This is my body. This is my body. This is my body.”

8:00 I drink green tea and make a to-do list. I’m moving in 16 days and I’ve got a lot to do…I’ll start after I read the latest issue of The Believer. There’s an article about John Cheever’s drinking and his attempts to pick up male colleagues.

9:00 Take shower, dry hair, get dressed.

9:45 Get in car, drive. I stop when I realize I’ve left Carlos’s military orders in the house. I’ll need them to check out my medical record from the hospital. I back up, get out, get the orders, get back in the car, and drive to the base.

10:00 I check mail at the post office. A new issue of The New Yorker is in my mail box. I immediately open to the table of contents to see if there’s a David Sedaris piece. There is not.

10:10 I have the pack-and-wrap guy pack my care package for Carlos. I photocopy the financial papers to send to the mortgage guy in Virginia. Hopefully this will be all he needs. I hope we find a house quickly.

10:20 I wait in line at post office to mail the package to Carlos and papers to the mortgage guy. I hear the line in my mind: “This is my body.” I had realized in front of the garbage bags this morning that this line is from the Catholic Mass:

The day before he suffered he took bread in his sacred hands and looking up to heaven, to you, his almighty Father, he gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.

I think of all the Catholic Masses I have sat through with Carlos. I’m not Catholic, but I could have been a contender. It turns out my father was once Catholic, but he didn’t tell me until I was 37. I’m a Buddhist agnostic humanist Unitarian…whatever, but I really miss our priest in London who had a posh accent and who gave liberal homilies. I have gotten used to recognizing what the priest leaves unsaid that lets us know how he swings philosophically. Mass: I like the “Peace be with you” part, turning to our neighbors, smiling, and shaking hands. One time we went to a Mass conducted in Japanese, the deacon had to tell the crowd not to take a communion wafer if they were not Catholic. And when we were supposed to say, “Peace be with you,” everyone just bowed to each other. It was a little too sanitary; I like to press flesh. My turn: I mail the packages.

10:30 I drive to the hospital to check out my medical records. The entire parking lot is roped off for a change of command. I decide to return later.

10:45 Arrive at Auto Hobby Shop to leave car for junking. I fill out some papers, take license plates and base stickers off car. The gentleman in overalls tells me to call Monday to see when I can pick up the junking certificate.

11:00 I realize I have no car. This ruins my plan to go to the commissary to buy a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup ice cream. Without a car, it will melt before I get it home. Instead, I walk to the base hospital.

11:40 I sweet talk the prescription lady into giving me refills on all my prescriptions even though they haven’t run out. I go to the records department and get my medical and dental records. This is my body.

12:00 Walk off base to patch shop to buy more “USS Kitty Hawk Final Tour” patches, the design with a tori gate and a 10-yen coin to represent the Kitty Hawk’s ten years in Japan. Carlos gave his away to a chief and wants more. The shop is closed.

12:05 Try to decide if I should take a taxi or the train home. Stand on sidewalk staring at Route 16. It’s hot. I’m carrying my prescriptions, my medical records, my license plates, a few magazines, a binder of important papers. I go for the taxi.

12:20 Home: eat a PB&J sandwich and drink a glass of milk. Very childhood regressive. I get this way before every move.

1:00 Call Howard, my Australian hair dresser, to make a final appointment.

1:15 Finish filing all the loose papers in the office, weed though the old files.

2:00 Find the audio file of Bloomsday on Broadway 2005, in which Stephen Colbert reads from James Joyce’s Ulysses: the “Lotus Eaters” section. I listen for a while up to the scene where Bloom is in church:

The priest went along by them, murmuring, holding the thing in his hands. He stopped at each, took out a communion, shook a drop or two (are they in water?) off it and put it neatly into her mouth. Her hat and head sank. Then the next one: a small old woman. The priest bent down to put it into her mouth, murmuring all the time. Latin. The next one. Shut your eyes and open your mouth. What? Corpus. Body. Corpse. Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first. Hospice for the dying. They don’t seem to chew it; only swallow it down. Rum idea: eating bits of a corpse why the cannibals cotton to it.

Colbert gets a big laugh from the audience at “Stupefies them first.”

2:30 I stop the audio. Break over, I get back to work. Finish cleaning the office. Wipe the desk, put suitcases in the guest room. Think about what to pack for the move.

3:15 Fold laundry. Do some dishes.

4:00 Another break time. I know what’s coming, but I listen to the end of the Lotus Eaters reading. Bloom takes a bath:

Enjoy a bath now: clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid stream. This is my body.

He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.

My morning puzzle: the metaphorical progression of “This is my body” from the Eucharist to Joyce to Exit 57. Or binky sucking. Whatever gets you through the night ‘salright, ‘salright.

5:00 I try to write a blog post in the style of Robert Shields, but quickly tire of tedious details.

6:30 Feel hungry. Think I’ll have something healthy for dinner. Maybe some broccoli. I don’t know. I think about watching TV with Carlos when he’s home. He’ll be flipping through the channels and one of my past deployment binkys will appear. Carlos will point his chin towards the screen, “Hey, there’s your guy.” We’ll watch for a moment in silence until I say, “Yeah, whatever,” and he changes the channel. I miss my husband. I miss my husband. I miss my husband. I miss my husband.

Bob Lefsetz has done it again, dug up an old album for me—just for me, you see—and today it’s Peter Gabriel’s “Secret World Live.” I’ve written about Bob’s newsletter before and how he always seems to know what I want to hear right this moment.

Here’s Bob’s take on the album:

But the masterpiece is the title track, “Secret World.” It’s longer than the original studio take, it’s not a dirge, but a pied piper MARATHON! You can’t help but march along. And when the track explodes close to its nine minute finish, you experience something akin to aural orgasm. This is why you went to the show. For these moments. When you threw your arms into the air, pointed your head to the sky and SANG ALONG! These moments are religion. Far deeper in meaning than any I’ve ever experienced in a traditional house of worship. I’ll take the Staples Center over the synagogue ANY DAY!

So, here I am deep into “Don’t Give Up” and having a flashback to college in the last years of the 80s. How things have changed from cassette tapes. I read a music blog, buy the album (yes, I’m one of those old-fashioned types who pays for music), and start listening to it in less than 60 seconds. Technology allows the old(ish) to become new again. Music made live, in another time and place, can touch me deeply now, here in Japan, just at the moment I most need it.

You see, last night we had a little episode, nothing tragic, just a little sad. We had been eating nabe and drinking a sake I had bought last week while on John Gauntner’s sake course. It was a matured Sōkū Junmai with hints of chocolate in the nose and a lovely fat mouth feel. We were a little buzzed and waiting for Carlos’s birthday present to be delivered. He didn’t know what it was, but I had been teasing him all week after I bought it.

I had bought him an armchair. Finally. Years ago when we lived in Naples, Italy, we had ordered an armchair. It was a huge overstuffed leather thing, the kind with brass tacks and voluptuous curvy arms that embraced you as you read. It belonged in a cigar-smoke-filled lounge in a British men’s club on St. James Square. In the showroom, we rejected the standard reddish-brown glossy leather for a slightly distressed baseball glove brown. That chair was a big purchase for us. We had been married for only 6 years, and we weighed our decision as if it were the last chair we would ever buy.

The chair was supposed to be delivered right before our (government funded) move back to the States. But two months later there was a strike somewhere in Città Sedia Cuoio and the salesman called us to say our chair would be late. We had to pack out, we couldn’t wait for the chair, and we couldn’t afford to have it sent to San Diego on our own dime. Sadly, we had to let it go. I always wonder what happened to the chair. Had it been completed, but unable to get to us in time, languished alone and rejected in the factory? Or did they sell it to a good family?

Carlos lacked a reading armchair. We looked at armchairs from time to time in the places we lived after Naples: San Diego, Montgomery, AL, London, and most recently, here in Yokosuka. Nothing was ever quite right, or our then current rental unit couldn’t hold a big armchair. When we arrived in Japan, we toyed with buying a chair, but we found our taste had changed. We had moved away from big overstuffed chairs to trimmer, modern styles. Carlos showed me some new Italian chairs at a showroom, so sleek and tidy. We liked the styles, but didn’t want to buy a newly manufactured chair. We let the matter drop.

Last Monday, I was up in Tokyo seeing Howard, my Australian hairdresser. After my haircut, I saw an antique furniture store and went in just to see what they had. Almost immediately I recognized it: the perfect armchair. It was a Danish chair from 1960, with a sturdy rosewood frame and softly curved arms showing the lovely wood grain. The back was a wooden frame with a funky wire and metal inset. The cushions were original, a slightly worn gray leather. The salesman invited me to sit in it; it was wonderful, elegant, and generous. I felt a little sick at the price, but I knew this was the chair that Carlos would want and I would buy it for him for his birthday.

The salesman and I exchanged smiles as we examined the entire chair, carefully checking the frame and the new cloth supports in the seat (“Only this was replaced in the chair. All the rest is original.”). His face showed frank astonishment when I said, “I’ll take it. How much for shipping to Yokosuka?” I suppose I don’t look like someone who whips out her credit card on a whim. They brought me coffee; I filled out some forms, and I left, happy, knowing I had found it, the perfect chair.

There we were at home last night, waiting for the chair, although Carlos had no idea what the present was, just that a delivery was coming. The truck arrived, the men put the chair on the ground and unwrapped it. And something was moving unnaturally, like a tooth knocked loose in a fall. They pulled the cushions off and tested the the back. It jiggled. Their hunched and tense body language told me everything. Nevertheless, as I walked down the front steps towards the chair, my mind was coming up with all kinds of excuses—perhaps they had had to loosen something for shipping, everything was fine. Everything must be fine.

But no. Somewhere along the line, whether at the store as they packed it, or in the delivery truck, someone had leaned hard on the back and pushed it forward. The glue and dowels holding the back in place at the bottom had popped. This seemed repairable, but then one of the men shone his flashlight on the back support that crosses behind the arms of the chair. The wood had split, a horrible gash that flexed open each time one pushed on the back. The chair was killed.

They immediately called the store rep, who said they would take the chair back and see what could be done. I should call the next day to find out what they thought. But I knew what that split wood meant: goodbye chair. I called to Carlos to come outside to see the chair. The four of us—Carlos, I, and the two silent delivery men—stood looking at it. It looked alone and vulnerable sitting there on brown paper and bubble wrap in the middle of the street. Then Carlos realized that he was saying farewell to his birthday present. He groaned, “Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s perfect.”

They took it away and we went back inside the house. Last night in bed I stared at the ceiling thinking about the chair. After it had been made in Denmark, where had it been all these years? How did it get to Japan? How had it survived all those years only to be bitterly cracked in some Japanese truck?

We took a moment to mourn the chair. We thought about how we would have enjoyed it, and how it would have looked in our future home. Perhaps we seem ridiculous, but the chair was something beautiful that had transcended time to come to us, to please us. We regret that something old and unique has been carelessly broken.

We have bad luck with armchairs.


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