Triple-Decker China

Characters by Wang Xizhi 王羲之(303–361 CE), Chinese general and calligrapher.

As I listen to an interview this morning on NPR about international leaders’ reactions to recent US elections; China is first. Takeaway: China is noticeably absent from the list of nations such as Canada, UK, and India that have officially extended congratulations to the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign. What’s the reason? Beijing is exercising extreme caution, as is Russia; neither country willing to engage until President Trump has conceded the race.

Let that be the top and bottom bun of my triple-decker China burger. I want to draw your attention to three patties in the middle. Kind of rude, I know, to allude to such a majestic civilisation as something I can put in my mouth and transform inside me. However, ten months trapped on North American rim of the Pacific have emboldened me. I feel confident enough to imagine myself as the agent of an ontological ecology of self; one integral enough to claim organic integrity. Digesting experience is a metaphor.

Experience is complex, levels within. I quickly sketch out three ways in which I’ve known China this past weekend.

One. In my research. Writing a book on how Chinese culture paves the New Silk Roads; this weekend took me to Beijing in China, Islamabad in Pakistan, Kabul in Afghanistan, Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey, Djibouti in Djibouti, Duisburg in Germany, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Damascus in Turkey, Jerusalem in Israel, Astana in Kazakhstan, Moscow in Russia, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Dubai in the United Arab Eremites, and Singapore of the Republic of Singapore. I looked at how Chinese creative and cultural industries are making inroads into each of these cities, and discussed my findings.

Two. Over WeChat and a couple of email accounts, I interacted with three graduate students I advise; a few other grad students I mentor, the kinds of students who are so bright you just want to give them more light; a translation team I manage; as well as faculty and administration at my university. Aside from this and on the same platforms in addition to Facebook and Instagram; I interacted with Chinese filmmakers, painters, and poets, discussing projects; theirs and my own.

Three. This morning I awaken, open the Sam Harris Waking Up app, and meditate for 20 minutes, then pause to consider what next to do with my consciousness. I’m up early, I have time. What is the best use of it?

Calligraphy it is. My ink, stone, and brushes are ready on my work table, I pull out the roll of rice paper and peel off a sheet, set my computer down on the floor along with the keyboard, mouse, and mousepad. Then in its place, I smooth rice paper on the table, holding the corners down with pieces of polished stone, put another piece of paper underneath, to absorb moisture. My cloth pad is back in China, so paper will do, albeit wasteful. On my iPad, I open up the Wang Xizhi 王羲之(303–361 CE) zitie 字帖, a book of example characters done by the Eastern Jin poet, calligrapher, official, and general. A quick google search on Wang Xizhi, in English, provides no information about his life, only his reception history, five hundred years after he lived, in the Tang, and through today. A quick Baidu (top Chinese search engine) search conveys first of all the man’s name, his style name, other eponyms, his place of birth, the names of his parents, as well as titles and officially held government positions. My mind has transformed, and indeed, this is the information I now consider important. His life’s work drives his art, not the other way around.

Placing a bit of water in the stone, grinding slowly in a circular motion with the ink stick, doing so until the viscosity and thickness of the ink expresses itself as ready, I then dip my brush into the ink. I have been remiss, forgot to rinse these brushes after my last use, over a week ago. They are hard and rigid, but after rinsing in warm and then cool water, they soften and clear of ink. After selecting the page in Wang Xizhi’s zitie from which I will copy out characters, place brush against rice paper, and begin the first character, xiao 晓 (realisation), my consciousness is still and attenuated.

Three very different experiences, or layers to experience, of China. It’s interesting to listen to NPR about China’s reticence in recognising the results of our election; however, this is just the top and bottom of a triple-decker burger, veggie or not, called ‘understanding China.’ One could experiment with other layers to understanding China…research into its millennia of political, economic, scientific, and cultural exchange with cities throughout Central Asia, East Africa, Central and Eastern Europe; actual Chinese-language interactions with Chinese students, intellectuals, and artists today; and the very immediate and, of the three, most informative experience, early on a Monday morning before work, play with Chinese brush and ink on rice paper.

Black Dot Focus

Black dot focus in Chinese Universities

One of the best moves I ever made in the early ’90’s was studying kenpo kickboxing at a studio in midtown, Ventura. I did it because I had been feeling increasingly nervous on the streets of this sleepy tourist town which, when the LA-sters weren’t up for the weekend during the bonny months of spring or summer; were overrun with meth addicts taking over its beaches and frontage streets. I liked to walk alone, but I didn’t like the feeling of being vulnerable. So I signed up for kenpo.

Barbara, the owner of the studio taught me the concept of white dot/black dot. In this cognitive model, black and white have less to do with the actual color of a dot, and more to do with the mind’s attention or focus. When the mind focuses on a single object or experience, ignoring its context; this is known as ‘white dot focus’; and when the mind, through training, learns to focus on context, on all that borders tangentially upon that single object or experience; then it’s called ‘black dot focus.’

In the case of kenpo, black dot focus trains the mind’s eye to see not only the striking arm of our opponent, but also the torque of our opponent’s neck and torso, the position of her feet, the gleam of victory or fear in her eyes. It also trains us to see not only our opponent, but who or what is behind her; in order to preempt threats entering from peripheral angles of the scene.

In the case of teaching at a Chinese institution of higher learning, the principle is similar. Let me explain.

Having read for my MA and PhD at Sichuan University, after a hiatus of two years, I was invited back to join the faculty. Thus professors I had learned from then became my peers, and many of my peers in the classroom now sat beside me at faculty meetings. Although I knew many of the actors in this play; the learning curve has been so steep I have constantly been falling behind, held back from that sweet spot where one feels confident and good about a job. There have been slews of challenges, the greatest of which is now working remotely, from 6,246 miles away, due to COVID-19.

Last semester I taught online, as everybody did, whether in China, the US, or anywhere in the world. But this semester China has COVID-19 seemingly all worked out, and just last week, undergraduate students at Sichuan University were called back to school. The measures being taken are legion, with all students in quarantine as I write this. Each student has a teacher in charge of their case, and biodata is collected daily on 38,000 individuals. Students coming from sensitive regions of the country are asked to take a COVID text within five days of leaving their home, and when they arrive on campus are placed in a special quarantine buildings, tested, and kept apart from the rest of the student body. Once students arrive on campus, they will not be able to leave campus again until further notice. Classes will resume at the end of next week, in person, with classes also being broadcast online for students in outbreak areas.

My last cancelled scheduled flight to China was in March. A faculty administrator in charge of foreign faculty had found out about my impending arrival and forbid me to get on that plane. That was when numbers in the US were ballooning, only the beginning of the mass debacle our country still presents to the world, half a year later. Two weeks ago I put in a request for the infamous PU letter, a letter given by the Chinese Foreign Ministry which provides the only means for an American to cross the Chinese border. The letter costs USD $1,500, and is only the beginning of a costly and complicated application process, which requires getting a whole new visa; as all visas given prior to March, 2020 have been cancelled. So the 3 year multiple entry residence permit in my passport is useless to me now.

Yesterday I received two pieces of news. One–my request for a PU letter has been denied, for the time being. Sichuan University is unable to provide these letters for Americans. Two–classes can be taught online and in person; but cannot be taught online exclusively. However, my class has not been cancelled. The college hopes that I will find another teacher in our Chinese Classics department to teach the class for me.

Enter: White dot focus

My mind shifted into extremely goal-oriented white dot focus mode. I had to find a teacher to replace me in the classroom. Now this is pretty big ask, and I don’t know anybody well enough to ask it. So I reached out to the director of our department and told him my situation. Let me explain the hierarchy. There is the University’s Education Department, which answers to the Central and Provincial government. Then a secretariat heads our entire College of Humanities as a representative of the CPC.  Then there are four deans of our College, and administrator of foreign faculty, and then the Director of our department. I received my notice through the administrator of foreign faculty, who received the notice from all the levels above him. This is all a lot to manoeuvre, and both needing guidance and not wanting to overstep, I could only think to reach out to the Director of my department, who set up my class in the first place, thinking, with white-dot focus, that he would be the person who could handle this situation. However, he was the only person who couldn’t help me. Precisely because he’s in charge of all the teachers in our department; he wasn’t in a place to command or even suggest any given teacher to take on the work of replacing me in the classroom. His job was to color within the lines, and anything outside the lines has to be handled through informal channels of interpersonal relationships.

All these communications are being conducted in Chinese, which stresses me out. Nothing stresses me out more than bureaucracy in a foreign language. I am the first non-Asian to graduate from our department; and I’m the first non-Chinese faculty member in our department. So none of what I do I is precedented, even before COVID hit the fan. I mention this because I want you, my dear Reader, to understand how much I was hoping my white dot focus would achieve results.

Enter: Black dot focus

When my director declined to help me, and refused to communicate officially on my behalf with any of the departments, administrators or secretariat above us in the hierarchy; I panicked, and dizziness began to cloud my vision, as rage and frustration gripped my trachea. Focused on a single white dot of expectation, upon a logical node of hierarchy, I had failed.

Then it dawned on me. I would reach out to the one professor in our department who had acted just the slightest bit warmer towards me, since I entered her course on the Chinese canon as a first year masters student, back in 2009. She is in retirement transition now, knows the ins and outs of things, and surely she could provide some insight. She did. She explained to me why the Director had been unable to help me. She offered to go to the Dean of the College and ask for clarification. She offered to fill in for a few weeks, until we could figure out how to move forward.

Which is when the knot of frustration loosened in my throat; and my focus began to expand outwards from the original site of expectation. I began to see peripheral elements at play here. How the community of my faculty is a rich resource, and that we all face these unexpected challenges together. My mistake has been trying to handle everything by myself, or through my direct superior. My professor, who I’ll call Prof. Li, was able to help me precisely because it was not her job to do so. I was entering the world of Chinese affairs known as guanxi 关系 [systems of connections], of backdoors and human connections. I am becoming indebted to her, and this is only the beginning. As my awareness of the situation grows and my black dot focus expands to include the periphery of my own predicament; I began to think of ways in which I can help my colleagues, so that when the time came to muster courage and make my ask (again, in Chinese); I will have a valuable contribution to offer in return.

My only failing now is to not already, much sooner and before I needed it, having expanding my focus beyond the white dot. My job as a faculty member in a Chinese university is not just to fulfil my contract obligations and be there for my students. In my role of faculty member at a Chinese university, there is an ecology to nurture. We are all in this together. When something outside the ordinary happens, we have to color outside the lines for each other, because the institutions are not flexible, and the hierarchies are inscrutible. Fortunately I have nurtured some relationships through the years; but I should have done this morning, noon, and night; from the very first day I began. In China, in a university as everywhere else, it’s about community, about relationships, about give and take, and networks of mutual indebtedness. By the time I get teachers lined up for the next few months, to hold my class in place until I get there (oh, Lord, please open those borders); I am going to have significant additional workload, as I work to hold my place in the guanxi equation. In the meantime, I am understanding what I can do to help my colleagues, how I can help them in ways that no-one else can. That is, I am finally prioritizing my contribution over my personal achievements. All this time I’ve been feeling ragged, just fielding curve balls and figuring things out on my own. Now I understand that we’re all in this together. I just hope it’s not too late.

 

 

moss

I wish I sat down that first day back, as there was definitely some crimp in my thought, some misshapen forming thing in my mind, a lens through which I espied China. But I was busy arriving. Busy being tired, just stacking moments on top of one another in the haze of coming to this foreign home of mine since 1999.

I arrived on Monday, September 1st, and I took pictures that first day. This spoke to me, phenomenally, of if its eminent unimportance. In other words, it struck me as important.

Chengdu weather usually enjoys extremely levels of moisture and humidity.

Chengdu weather usually enjoys extremely high levels of moisture and humidity.

This is moss on concrete by a drainage pipe. The drainage pipe you see in the upper left hand corner descends seven floors from the rooftop of building number thirteen. Building number thirteen is one building of nearly fifty much-the-same buildings in our xiaoqu 小区. In English you’d call it a huge gated housing community. Built in 1980’s China, this xiaoqu is an example of brutalist architecture. Cement blocks placed on top of each other, to form seven stories, cement phorms comprising floors, walls, everything except doors and windows which are supplied a la basic.

This protruding sections of the building are enclosed balconies. Often kitchens are located within, allowing for appropriate ventilation during the cooking process.

Protruding sections of the building are enclosed balconies. Often kitchens are located within, allowing for appropriate ventilation while cooking .

An example of Brutalist architecture, the prevalent mode of building in China.

An example of Brutalist architecture, the prevalent mode of building in China.

Windows are often of blue tinted glass to keep the sun out and they either slide or can be pushed outwards to open. Their frames are single two inch board with an awning made of either plastic or canvas arching over them. In some cases the awnings are just steel frame remains of what was whole years ago. My bedroom awning window is in tatters, which doesn’t make any difference, except to my morale.

bedroom awning

As the drainage pipe pictured in my moss picture descends from such a tall height, water tends to collect in this corner between the first and second units of our building thirteen. Rain water, of which there is plenty in our city, collects at its worst along this whole front side of the building making it slick slick slick. Myself and a couple of my friends have wiped out on our bikes trying to ride along the pavement there. You can see how damp it is. The asphalt is darkened with moisture and the moss is a fluorescent healthy green. This moisture, hitting above eighty percent humidity most days throughout the year, forms lichen along the walls of many buildings throughout the city. I wonder if the Bauhaus architects who came up with the international style and those who modified it into the Brutalist school of architecture took time and weather into account. Perhaps they thought… “No, don’t paint or adorn the buildings in any way. Rather let the elements and configurations of time and space be pictured on the buildings themselves in the most apparent manner!”

Majiang parlor.  Usually spelled Majhong, this game is loved by local people in the city of Chengu as well in the surrounding countryside.

Majiang parlor. Usually spelled Majhong, this game is loved by local people in the city of Chengu as well in the surrounding countryside.