September 30, 2005

Buying books from China

Online book shopping in Taiwan is even more convenient than using amazon.com. I've used www.books.com.tw four times so far without any problems. After placing an order, I receive an email informing me when the books have arrived, then I pick up the books at a nearby 7-11, paying cash. Buying books from China, on the other hand, requires much more effort, so I had not tried until recently. The main problem is that most Mainland retailers do not accept foreign credit cards. Buyers are required to remit Chinese currency to the bank account of the retailer, which is not easy to do for those outside of China. Some sites allow you to remit US dollars, which I might try in the future.

I found the site www.cp1897.com.hk, an online store for Hong Kong's Commercial Press, which allows payment by credit card on a secure web page. For the Chinese books that I ordered, the site predicted 15-30 working days were needed to send the books. After 43 days, which is just over 30 working days, they informed me that two of the books I ordered are ready to be shipped, I just need to reconfirm my credit card information by email. No mention was made of the four other books I ordered. By asking them nicely, they told me that I could confirm the credit card information on a secure web page, but they ignored my question about the other books. So, I continued waiting. Two months after placing the order, they reported that the publisher has no stock of the four remaining books. I asked them why it took two months to tell me that the books are out of stock. They replied politely as follows.
We have tried our best to source the books outside the Guangdong province for you. You probably know, Hong Kong is very far from Guangdong province. We picked through mountains of books searched for your order. However, due to the shortage of the stocks, we regretted to inform you that we could not fulfill your order. So, we inevitably cancel it. We apologize for any inconvenience caused. But frankly speaking, we looked very hard for two months and are tired
and you should not expect too much. For better service, please order books that are in stock.
Perhaps that wasn't the exact email, but I think it captures the spirit. I am sure the two books that were in stock will be sent speedily, once they remember to send them.

Sensing that this transaction was going nowhere, I checked my other options. Taiwan's biggest seller of Mainland books, online at www.waterlike.com.tw, accepts special orders from members. You can become a member by spending NT$2000 at the store, or you can place an order without becoming a member for orders of at least NT$3000. Their rates are roughly a 50% markup from the original price, which is reasonable, considering that the cover prices are dirt cheap. It is supposed to take 45-60 days to receive an order.

Typing in www.books.com.cn brings you to www.dangdang.com. They allow payment by Paypal and credit card. Their markup for overseas shipping is 50%. I would try ordering here if I they had the books I am looking for.

September 26, 2005

Link to Bug Photos

I just found this great page of photos of bugs found in Taiwan.

Large spiders do not usually annoy or scare me, but two exceptions are when they are in my bedroom and when they are on my body. I found a huge wolf spider on the wall of my bedroom a few weeks ago. (It looked like the spider carrying an egg sac on this page, but bigger.) Despite its size, the spider was incredibly fast. I tried to herd it into the open using a can of Lysol spray, but it holed up underneath a desk. The Lysol was not working, so I added a lighter. After a blast from this blowtorch, the spider leapt down from the desk, narrowly missing my face. I eventually caught it, but it robbed me of a few hours of sleep.

September 22, 2005

Book Review: Nao Xue Ji

鬧學記 (Nao Xue Ji)*
By: 三毛 (Sanmao, also known as Echo Chan)
ISBN: 957330084

When was the last time you saw an author’s photo on a book’s spine? If your answer was “never,” then you have not seen the new editions of Sanmao’s complete works. Each of the twenty-six books in the series has a picture of Sanmao, both on the cover and on the spine. This should give you a clue as to Sanmao’s popularity. She was a celebrity writer, something than is becoming hard to imagine. Celebrities write books, but rarely does a writer become a celebrity. Sanmao wrote books, newspaper columns, song lyrics, even the screenplay for “The Chess Master.” Her works have not been translated into English, but she is known to Chinese not only in Taiwan, but throughout the world. She talks about “China” synonymously with “Taiwan,” and just as she embraces China in her identity, she has a great number of readers from the Mainland who are attracted by her uniqueness and free-spirited mode of life.

This collection of essays begins with her experience studying English in America as an adult. Sanmao’s life was about making connections with people and exploring life, so “studying” is not the right word; attending school would be more accurate. She finds the ideal English class for her purposes. She describes how each class begins: “First, chat for 10 minutes, at the same time observing that day’s clothing. Whoever is dressed especially well should stand up and turn around. At this time everyone calls out in approval. Next, we pour our drinks and make tea. If the teacher has baked banana bread, then plates are passed out.” I can’t help but think that this is most students’ idea of a dream class. Language classes often resemble some kind of club meeting more than any traditional class, such as math, science or literature.

She describes bringing candy for her classmates: “As soon as the colored things appeared in the classroom, everyone became children, picking and choosing…” This brings back memories about what I dislike most about language classes: because students are able to communicate at the level of children, both teacher and student revert to the behavior and conversation of children. It doesn’t require candy for this to happen. Jokes become mind-numbingly stupid and students are encouraged to chatter about any topic whatsoever. A class specifically for “conversation” is the most mindless. The usual goal of a conversation class is not to learn about a language, but to produce language, which means that as long as a teacher or student is gabbing away, the teacher’s goal is being achieved. However, for Sanmao, who was a voracious reader, learning a few new grammar points was obviously less important than befriending her classmates, and therefore, her class really was ideal.

Sanmao’s tales about schooling occupy only one third of this book. After this first section, there are five miscellaneous essays taken from various periods in Sanmao’s life. Next is an eleven-page poem, followed by a book review. The review of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” makes sense thematically; in this book and other books by Sanmao, she is an outsider. But despite the theme, inserting a poem and a book review in the middle of this book turns it into a hodgepodge of writings.

The next section of the book is titled “Yi'ai” (遺愛), which means love left behind, especially by death. This section deals with Sanmao repeatedly moving away from people who love her. In the first part of the book, she goes into detail about parting with her friends and classmates in America. In the second part of the book, she returns to her house in Spain’s Canary Islands and then quickly sells her house and departs. She also writes about leaving her apartment in Taipei, where she had made many friends, because she had impulsively decided that she wanted another apartment. In contrast to the lighthearted beginning to this book, these departures are overshadowed by Sanmao’s death, which came years later. Although some consider her death to have been murder, most people accept it as suicide. Suicide looms like a specter over this book, making her impulsiveness even more mysteriousness.

Sanmao describes her feelings about departing, and her actions that bear out her thinking are described in detail, but after reading only two of her books, she is still very much a mystery to me. Mystery is a major element of her post-mortem aura. Trying to understand Sanmao, and enjoyment for the unique way that she lived her life, are enough to make me continue reading her books.

*Note: A poor translation of the book title, 鬧學記, is "Record of Schooling Havoc." Tell me if you can think of a good translation.

Book Review: Momoko's Childhood

Momoko's Childhood
Momoko no Hanashi
By: Momoko Sakura
ISBN: 9571019186

In “Momoko's Childhood,” the sixth collection of essays by Sakura Momoko, the hilarity of her earlier books has been replaced by mild amusement. As Sakura makes abundantly clear in the book's afterword, the book was written hurriedly to meet the quota of one book per year. Sakura is still able to find the humor in everyday occurrences, but these occurrences really are more commonplace than in her previous books. (See my reviews of Monkey Circus and Ikoiri Musume, also by Sakura Momoko.) Topics in this book include her love of baked sweet potatoes, how she spent Valentine's Day as a child, hurriedly finishing her summer homework, going to a concert with her sister and father, teaching her father song lyrics, her love of horticulture, how uncomfortable winter is, how uncomfortable summer is, and more. Not ground-breaking, but they are inspiring. Her recollections of childhood inspire readers to re-imagine our own childhoods. The things that annoyed her most as a child, such as the constant nagging of her mother, have lost their power to annoy. She imagines her mother as a talking doll who repeats the same nags when her string is pulled. The trait that gets Sakura into the most trouble, her laziness, becomes the most charming thing about her. She turns the everyday events of her life into sitcom episodes. (Literally, in the case of her cartoon series. Some of the episodes from this book feel just like episodes from Maruko Hibi-chan, the cartoon series that she wrote.) Reading this book, she encourages us to see our eccentricities as the things that make us interesting, and our flaws and weaknesses as the things that make us loveable.

September 17, 2005

On Stair Climbing

Taking elevators is an unavoidable feature of life in Taiwan cities. After gradually learning elevator etiquette, I am no longer angered when the elevator door is shut in my face. I have become savvy enough to know that one shouldn't rush to squeeze between closing elevator doors; one should rush to tap the up/down elevator button and then calmly enter. I have become experienced enough to quickly recognize the density of sardines in the can; one has to look past the line of guards blocking the entry way and determine if they are simulating a false full. Most important of all, I've figured out when it's just not worth it to take the elevator.

Although taking the stairs requires some physical effort, it offers peace of mind. When riding the elevator, which is mirrored on all sides, your eyes appear to be staring at someone, no matter where you look. If you avoid that by staring straight down, you begin to feel the eyes of everyone else on you, and if you are the only white face on the elevator, that feeling might be more than just paranoia. By taking the stairs, you can trade these worries for the simple mental effort of putting one foot in front of the other. But don't be fooled into complacency, putting one foot in front of the other is no small matter when wearing size-12 shoes on a Taiwanese staircase. The width of the stairs appears to be designed for a child's foot, so if you are wearing an extra-long dress shoe, you can forget about getting your whole shoe on the stair.

After mastering the basics of propelling yourself upwards, you can devote your time to contemplating the greater questions of stair climbing. The greatest of these questions is: Since when did the stairwell become sanctioned as a racecourse? It seems that many people have taken the notion that stair climbing is good exercise quite literally, bounding up the stairs with more energy than anyone at the gym puts into the stepper. These extreme stair climbers are all strapping young men. They are not tamed office workers, afraid of arriving late; no, they are bursting with virility, and their virility just happens to have burst out in the stair well. I can accept that. But what I can't accept, is why does it begin and end in the stairwell? Why have I never seen any of these men continue his jog after leaving the stairwell?

Before we can understand why are they are running up the stairs, let's examine why we are not running outside the stairs. The simple answer is that most of have put a lot of effort into cultivating an impression that we are not nine years old. Running down hallways tends to damage that image. When the clock strikes six o'clock, time to go home, and I catapult out of my desk seat as if I just realized that I was sitting on a tack, my body is inclined to race toward the stairs. However, decorum requires that I regulate my pace (and that I strangle the joy welling inside, so that I only show a polite smile instead of a delirious grin).

Why is there no decorum in the stairwell? A simple answer is that there are few people who can see you while climbing the stairs. Unfortunately, I can't tell you if that is the true answer. I will have to continue to ponder this question, as I move aside to let the vertical runners pass, and as I continue on at a slower pace, the pace of someone trying not to break a sweat.

September 14, 2005


At a Hakka restaurant in Beipu: two plates of fried bantiao noodles and a plate of yam leaves.

In the mortar is green tea, and in the dish at bottom are the other ingredients for lei tea (擂茶), peanuts, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, and black and white sesame seeds. At top is a glutinuous rice snack covered in sesame seeds and at right is a mashu (glutinuous rice mash) covered in sweetened ground peanuts.

Those little balls of mud were rolled out of the holes by little sand crabs at the Nanliao beach. The crabs run across the sand so quickly they look as if they are being carried by the wind, which makes them very hard to catch. But I developed a bold technique wherein I swiftly cover the crab's body with my shoe. However, this method was frowned about by the pro-crab lobby, who complained that it could have a serious impact on quality of living for the crab.

This snake died on the road near my apartment. After cooking in the sun for a few days, it turned blue, which was equally attractive. Unfortunately, my picture of it as a blue snake didn't turn out.

September 12, 2005

Worth watching: “No Borders” series on National Geographic

Last Sunday, the National Geographic channel aired the first part in its “No Borders” series of documentaries. I like documentaries, so I recorded “The Boy Who Plays On The Buddhas of Bamiyan” and then forgot about it. Yesterday, the second film in the series, “Ou Dede and His Daughters” aired. It is classified as a documentary, but some of it felt like it was scripted. I checked on the internet, and I found this quote: “And although you may wonder whether some shots or even sequences were contrived, the whole thing carries such conviction and the story is so fascinating that you willingly believe in the basic truth of what you see.” I think that sums it up. It’s the most interesting thing I’ve seen on TV in a while. After watching that film, I started watching “The Boy Who Plays On The Buddhas of Bamiyan” and it is also fascinating. Check here for a summary of the series.

The regular broadcast time in Taiwan for this series appears to be Sunday at 9 pm. Check listings for reruns and program shuffling. Use the “英文” download button on the Chinese National Geographic site for weekly listings in English.

September 09, 2005

Lyrics for Wilbur Pan's "Bu de bu Ai"

I can't stand the silent entreaties any longer. Since I posted in July about the song "Bu de bu ai" (不得不愛) performed in Mandarin by Wilbur Pan (潘瑋柏) and Xianzi (弦子), there has been a steady stream of visitors to this site looking for lyrics to the song (looking for romanized lyrics). I'm not interested in the lyrics to most pop songs, so I have resisted the request. But now I've crushed under the pressure, and I'll present the lyrics in Chinese and Hanyu Pinyin.

To follow up on my previous post, I finally found out who performed the song orginally. It was the Korean group Freestyle - Y. I was going to post the lyrics to the Korean and English version of the song, but I feel too silly seeing "My baby love you so much forever" over and over. If you have only heard one of the versions of the song, then you're not missing much because they are almost identical. (The major differences are that in the Korean version, the female's part is in English, has backing vocals, and is more repetitive.)

The spacing is a mess. Maybe I'll fix that after I finally get a links section up on this blog.

Bu de bu ai


(女)天天都需要你愛 我的心思由你猜
Tian tian dou xuyao ni ai Wo de xinsi you
ni cai

YOU 我就是要你讓我每天都精彩
I love you wo jiu shi yao ni rang
wo mei tian dou

天天把它掛嘴邊 到底什麼是真愛
Tian tian ba ta gua zuibian Daodi shenme
shi zhen ai

I LOVE YOU 到底有幾分 說得比想像更快
I love you Daodi you
jifen shuo de bi xiangxiang geng kuai

(男)是我們感情豐富太慷慨 還是有上天安排
women ganqing fengfu tai
kangkai haishi you shangtian anpai

是我們本來就是那一派 還是捨不得太乖
Shi women benlai jiushi na yi pai haishi
shebude tai guai

是那一次約定了沒有來 讓我哭得像小孩
Shi na yi ci yuedingle
meiyou lai rang
wo ku de xiang xiaohai

是我們急著証明我存在 還是不愛會發呆 BABY
Shi women jizhe zhengming wo
cunzai haishi bu ai hui fadai baby

(合)不得不愛 否則快樂從何而來
bude buai fouze kuaile conghe

不得不愛 否則悲傷從何而來
bude buai fouze beishang conghe erlai

不得不愛 否則我就失去未來
bude buai fouze wo jiu shiqu weilai

好像身不由己 不能自己很失敗 可是每天都過得精彩
haoxiang bu youyi buneng ziui hen
shibai keshi mei tian dou guo de jingcai

(Rap)I ask girlfriend how
you been

來去了幾回 我從來沒有想過 愛情會變得如此無奈 是命運嗎
lai qu le ji hui wo conglai
meiyou xiangguo aiqing hui biande ruci wunai shi mingyun ma

難道難過是上天的安排 沒辦法 天天的每天的心思到底由誰來陪
nandao nanguo shi shangtian de anpai
mei banfa tian tian de
mei tian de xinsi daodi you shei lai pei

我誠心 我誠意 但周圍擾人的環境始終 讓我們無法在這裡自由相戀
wo chengxin wo chengxin dan
zhouwei raoren de huanjing shizhong rang women wufa zai zheli ziyou

我精采 你發呆 兩顆心不安的搖擺 應該有的未來 是否真的那麼的無法期待 捨不得在傷害
wo jingcai
ni faidai liang ke xin buan de yaobai yinggai you de weilai shifou
zhen de
name de wufa qidai shebude zai shanghai

You're girl my girl my friend

How much I love you so so much baby

看著你哀愁 要我如何怎麼承受面對
ni aichou yao wo ruhe zenme chengshou miandui

I'm sorry you're my

My love My one & only baby

hui bu
hui you yidian wunai

hui bu hui you yidian tai kuai

keshi ni gei wo de ai

rang wo
yangcheng le yilai

xinzhong chongman ai jiepai

Book Review: The Dyer's Daughter

The Dyer's Daughter: Selected Stories of Xiao Hong (染布匠的女兒)
By: Xiao Hong (蕭紅)
Translator: Howard Goldblatt
ISBN: 962996014

The Dyer's Daughter is the eighth and newest entry in the “Bilingual Series on Modern Chinese Literature” published by The Chinese University Press. The series publishes attractive additions of modern Chinese classics, with top-quality translations opposite the Chinese original text. The Dyer's Daughter was translated by Howard Goldblatt, who received a translation of the year award from the American Literary Translators Association in 1999, as the book jacket states. (According to the association website, the award was in 2000, and Goldblatt worked with co-translator Sylvia Lin on the translation of Taiwanese writer Chu T'ien-Wen's “Notes of a Desolate Man.”) So, I expected that the experience of reading this book would be as much about examining the craft of literary translation as about reading the works of Xiao Hong.

The first thing to figure out was the best order for reading the Chinese and English texts. The layout of the book suggests reading a page of English followed by a much shorter page of Chinese. I did not opt for that approach, but in any case, one cannot help but scan back and forth between the texts. The result is that reading the book takes considerably longer than reading either monolingual text.

Reading the text twice gives ample opportunity to observe one’s reaction to seeing the same narration in two languages. What I found, to my surprise, is that I appreciate a well-written English sentence much more than its Chinese counterpart. The problem is not limited understanding; the problem is that although Chinese words have tones that the English words do not, for me, they lack a musical quality that I guess comes only by hearing and reading millions of words. To extend the metaphor, understanding a word is like recognizing pitch and volume of a musical note. A history of hearing a word used allows one to recognize its timbre. So, until you have heard words and phrases many times, reading a text is like experiencing a tinny MIDI reproduction, rather than a high-fidelity recording.

You are probably thinking, if reading Chinese as a foreign language is like listening to a reproduction, then what is reading the translation like? In a quality translation, you can distinguish the tone quality, but it is as if a violin is playing the part of a Chinese erhu. Or as if a soprano is singing a verse of Chinese opera meant to be sung in falsetto. It’s just not the same thing; it has been culturally transformed.
* * *
The six short stories in The Dyer’s Daughter appear to be in chronological order. Unfortunately, dates are not included with each story, so I am not sure. Regardless of date, the order of the short stories undoubtedly shows development in narration and tone. The first story, “Wang Asao” is “a tale of almost unrelieved sadness, in which the fundamental cause of death and misery is poverty, while the issue of class (landlord/tenant, rich/poor) underlies the personal tragedies” as Goldblatt states in the introduction. In the following stories, poverty and class remain dominant themes, but the range of emotions expands, and the concerns of the character become more personal.
The third story, “Hands” (手), is the story from which the collection draws it name. The protagonist is a cloth dyer’s daughter who struggles to make it through school. Unlike the first story, which exposes the cruelty of feudalistic society, the situation in “Hands” is one that is easy to imagine in the present. While the character’s dyed hands are a powerful visual symbol of class, elementary school children have always been able to practice class discrimination by noticing much subtler signs of class. As I read the story, I could not help but think about an elementary school classmate who was tormented for class reasons, similar to the girl in “Hands.” Her clothes were cheap, her mother drove a junky car, and people complained that she stank. When her mother came to school to try to settle things out, the mother’s manners just gave kids more fuel for their insults. (In a pitiful attempt to counter their insults, she had a limousine pick her up from school on her birthday.)

In the fourth story in the book, “The Family Outsider” (家族意以外的人), the abuse continues. This time, there are two objects: You Erbo, a man who does not have the blood line to be a true member of the family, and Huazi, the narrator, who is a daughter of the family. The effects of being an outsider are shown physically and mentally. One passage uses a lone tree as a metaphor for an outsider. “By the time winter arrived, the elm tree had shed its leaves; as it stood there alone, every gust of wind from the west struck it with full force.” This image of You Erbo is foreshadowed earlier in the story: “You Erbo was standing under the eaves still half naked, that wet garment of his hanging on a line and flapping in the wind.”The last story is a satire. It is the story of a teacher who attempts to flee the war with the Japanese while carrying a heap of belongings, including fifty catties of old newspapers. Like the other stories, the story seems designed to raise consciousness about the maladies of the society, but the style is humorous and modern. “Although before the War of Resistance he had been almost violently anti-Chinese, after the outbreak of war he’d softened his attitude a bit.” The difference in style from “Wang Asao” is even more remarkable when you realize that Xiao Hong (1911-1942) had only nine productive years of writing.