Monday, June 11, 2012

Book ends

We went cross-town last weekend to a Chinese doctor, a old, sagely, genuinely traditional earnest Chinese doctor, who operated out of a non-descript room in an old housing complex. He was a great guy, had said my blood was toxic and that's why I still have pimples on my shoulders. Fair enough, but on this particular day, he wasn't in. We were greeted with his door closed and a simple paper sign suggesting he wouldn't be in for the next few days. It wasn't a trip in vain as we got to see one of the most extraordinary sights of my two and a half years in China: from a narrow path in the complex came a topless teen riding an old bicycle in the process of putting on a t-shirt. Think a moment. You're on a bike, following twisting and turning paths, one hand on the handles and the other hand trying to pull a t-shirt over your head. How does that work? He actually couldn't get the t-shirt past his head. Don't try this at home, and definitely not in the narrow corner-ridden alleys of an old housing area. He struggled with the shirt. Didn't peddle. Missed us. Came close to a wall, somehow knew it. Turned at a right angle. Still couldn't get the shirt off his head and out of the way of his eyes. Turned another right angle and into the clear, where he managed to shake shirt down to his shoulders and, removing both hands from the handle bars to pull it over the rest of him. Genius!
Now I only raise this because I was profoundly disappointed by the doctor's absence. Not because of the lack of a diagnosis and prescription, but because I brought a book for this visit to the doctor. Which I wouldn't be reading this time. Queueing is an inevitability in China, and I had prepared my book for the long wait and I really wanted to read the book. Instead we'd be going somewhere else, where books were harder to read. So apart from seeing a miracle of instinctive blind control of a bike, I couldn't continue my book, and this was annoying. For once more my mind was obsessed with literature. Perhaps you don't know what it's like.
When I study Chinese, language takes up all my non-essential time outside work. I love language to bits. Witness the blogs dissecting Qingyuan dialect! But in a sea of hanzi, dialect, four character phrases and xiehouyu, one's brain does yearn for the familiar. Twice in these two years my brain has gone through a stretch of just wanting English literature. It desires it like water to a thirsty desert dweller. I'd see a book and I want to just ingest every word and paragraph. And then sated, I can go back to Chinese study with diligence and application. I haven't got to that point yet though. On our honeymoon I ripped through Mildred Pierce a great Depression era novel by an American author (James M. Cain) who no-one seems to know much about, but his work made The Postman Always Rings Twice (a movie I'd heard of but not seen). He wrote it in 1941, but we only bought it in Hong Kong because it had Kate Winslett on the cover. Apparently she'd starred in the mini-series, which I have since bought on DVD but also haven't seen. (500 minutes of Kate Winslett isn't a hard sell for me, but with other competing things to watch it'd knock out a fair few nights of entertainment.)
But that hardly stopped my hunger. Next I cracked into Crime and Punishment, an even older book written in 1866 by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was a struggle for 80 pages and after that it compelled me at every free moment of the day. Except in the bathroom where I read the much more contemporary About a Boy, by Nick Hornby, which was made into a movie with Hugh Grant. An adorable, cringe movie but likeable nonethe less. I like the idea of always having a book in the bathroom, or a newspaper or magazine at the least. I've always had short Chinese stories to read there, now I munch through a cutely written book fiction book in English.
While I had those two going, I decided to start my third book simultaneously: Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, a gentleman who'd been in China since the early nineties. This non-fiction book, though in English, I was still surprised to be able to buy and read this in China. It has some outstandingly sharp observations about China and politics, and one of his widely quoted acquaintances was a Uighur (a "Chinese" minority, pronounced wee-ger) with a hatred for Han Chinese (the majority) and quick with incendiary comments. Probably the reason for my dabbling with a third book is that one of my basest literary desires is non-fiction.
Crime and Punishment ended yesterday, the punishment had to come, and I've begun to rattle through Oracle Bones. Hopefully my yen for reading will last to the end of the other two books. And then? Mandarin, Cantonese and Qingyuan dialect will no doubt greet me with open arms and added zeal, especially before Dragon Boat festival, when I'll go back to Qingyuan and my diet will be set. There's nothing like urgency to switch one's priorities.

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