Author Archive - Teach

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Things I Love About China: Reflections on Summer 2007

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

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Coming home
On Friday, my two-month stay here in China comes to a close, and I return home to San Francisco and Stanford. With a few minutes here and there between packing, going away dinners, and a magical trip to the post office (nothing like shipping 4,000 RMB worth of books), I thought I’d reflect on my present and past trips to the PRC. Here are roughly forty of the things I love most about living and working in China. (There is no order whatsover to this list, mind you.)
玉米冰淇淋: After eating corn ice cream for the first time, one is inclined to raise one’s skinny fists towards the heavens and ask, “What else have You been hiding from me?”
“对对对对对对对…” Foreigners love to agree in China, because it allows us to use the machine gun-like expression “Dui dui dui dui dui dui dui…” (Translation: “Correct, correct, correct, correct, correct, correct…”). I’ve had entire conversations in which these were the only sounds I uttered.
“厕所里放挂钟-有始有终”: Jokes in other languages are often funnier than jokes in your mother tongue. I think this stems from two seeds. First, when you “get” a joke in Chinese, you feel proud. Not only did you have to understand the meaning of the words, but you had to do so rapidly. The sound of one’s own honest, heartfelt laughter doubles as a badge of honor. Secondly, each language is equipped with its own unique ways of crafting jokes. In Chinese, for example, the multiplicity of homophonic characters allows for a whole host of double entendres, my favorite of which is 厕所里放挂钟-有始有终 (rather than translating, I’ll let you conduct your own search).
柚子: My single favorite thing about living in Chengdu was probably Chinese grapefruit (youzi). These behemoths are something like three times the size of grapefuits back home, not to mention half as sour and twice as sweet. Many a night did I dine on the flesh of youzi.
“那个那个那个那个…” As with unique forms of jokes, each language has it own unique forms of stuttering as well. I still remember learning 那个那个那个那个… (“That, that, that, that, that…) in 1998. I’ve been abusing it ever since.
“It just looks like a crescent”: Some of the best Chinese-English signs involve typos or awkward phrasings. In other cases, their brilliance is far more subtle. I encountered a new favorite at Mingshashan and the Crescent Lake, just outside of Dunhuang, Gansu. In explaining the origins of the name Crescent Lake, the English sign foregoes all poetry and gets right to the point: “It just looks like a crescent.”

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Watching Pootie Tang in Beijing

Monday, August 20th, 2007

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My China kit
With less than two weeks before I return home from Peking University, it’s time I finally offered some scattered thoughts on two of my favorite films of all time, two films which have kept this lonely scholar company during his solo foray: Pootie Tang and Etre et Avoir (To Be and to to Have). Released in 2001 and 2002, respectively, these two movies have a great deal more in common than one would expect from their dust jacket precis. The first sentences of each tells us everything, and nothing, all at once.
PT: “Women can’t resist him. Evil can’t withstand him…”
EeA: “All over France, there are still examples of what are known as ‘single-class schools’…”

Despite these apparent differences, there is a fundamental commonality which connects them. Allow me if you will…

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I should not have eaten that camel.

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

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I wonder if they knew.
So, I’m back in Beijing now after a ten-day trip to the southwestern cities of Dali (Yunnan) and Chengdu (Sichuan). I attended a week long conference called Crossing Borders and Paradigms: Anthropology of Southwest China Reconsidered. The conference was co-sponsored by the Southwest University for Nationalities, Beijing University, and the Central University of Nationalities, and gave me my first opportunity to present an academic paper completely in Chinese. It went well, the highlight for me being when one of the members of the 1954 Ethnic Classification team (the focus of my dissertation and forthcoming book) chimed in at the end of my talk and announced to the whole room, in essence, “He’s right.” Needless to say, I “celebrated” at the bar that night. Special thanks goes to Stevan Harrell who, when his schedule did not permit him to attend, passed my name along to the conference organizers.

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Hall of the Supreme Something or Other

Saturday, August 4th, 2007

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On July 17, my two best friends Andy and Salley (not pictured above) came to visit me from the United States. It was the culmination of a plot we hatched back at Johns Hopkins University, where the three of us started our Freshman years in 1996. I don’t remember this exactly, but Andy reminded me about the first time we met. Apparently, I stopped by his open doorway with, now get this, a plate of brownies which my Mother had baked. Needless to say, I never did succeed in developing that ‘bad boy’ mystique which worked so well for many of my male classmates. Then again, neither did Andy. I suppose that’s why we hit it off right away.

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The Taiyuan Uprising of 2007 (太原起义)

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

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Where in the world is Professor Mullaney
When the balding Chinese man in his sixties began to pound the information counter repeatedly, his voice growing hoarse from berating the stunned airline attendant, I knew that the situation had truly taken a turn for the worse. It was the early morning hours of July thirty-first, nearing one a.m., and the Taiyuan airport had become a temporary base camp for about five hundred displaced passengers. By slamming his half-empty bottle of Wahaha against the table, the man was engaging in what in Chinese is known as yifen (义愤), or “righteous anger.” In layman’s terms, this translates into (a) a crowd of justifiably perturbed people led by (b) at least one vociferous spokesperson who the larger group openly resents yet quietly endorses (c) surrounding a much smaller number of official personages who (d) endure unceasing emotional abuse from the crowd’s advocate for as long as it takes – but rarely with any outcome that (e) is beneficial to the onlookers.
The official, in this case, was the Deputy Director of Taiyuan Airport, who was flanked by a silently weeping flight attendant, paralyzed with fear, and four completely ineffectual security guards. My traveling companion Emily and I were on our way back to Beijing after a brief, five-day visit to Urumqi, in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang, and Dunhuang, site of the famous Buddhist caves in the neighboring province of Gansu. Although scheduled to touch down around eight o’clock in the evening, a smooth return was not in the cards. Come nightfall, Beijing was trapped in the heavy embrace of an unrelenting thunderstorm which, when viewed from the window of our Airbus A320-214, invoked memories of the debut episode of the new Battlestar Galactica: one massive nuclear burst here, another there, an even larger one over there. The flight path went something like this: Dunhuang to Lanzhou to Beijing* to Hohhot to Beijing* to Hohhot* to Taiyuan (where * indicates cities which we enjoyed from the air, but where weather did not permit us to land).
But let me rewind a bit, and explain what I’ve been up to in China over the past few weeks. Stay tuned…
Thomas S. Mullaney
Assistant Professor
Modern Chinese History
Website here

Supergirl Liu Liyang spotted with BBQ-scented foreigner

Saturday, July 14th, 2007


刘力扬, aka, Supergirl
[The harrowing conclusion of Look for me in the Chinese tabloids. For those who missed Episode One, you can find it here.]
When we arrived at Agnes B, I felt about as sexy as a compost bin. Here I was, in a room full of professional models wearing a BBQ-infused “Brooklyn” t-shirt and slightly baggy brown pants. Applying my analytical prowess to the situation, I very calmy and dispassionately concluded:
There is no way in hell anyone is going to talk to me.
Looking around, I could not help but think, “how did I get roped into this one?” Down the street, my Korean BBQ chums were dancing up a storm, and here I was desperately trying to remain invisible. But it was my fault. Upon receiving my old classmate’s text, I immediately replied in the affirmative. What else can you expect from a single, 28-year-old man when he receives a one-line text message which reads:
“Who wants to party with some models on Friday?”

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Look for me in the Chinese tabloids (Part 1 of n)

Friday, July 13th, 2007

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Where am I and how did I get here?
“This one is your wife and this one is your lover,” the bartender explained, pointing first to the glass of ice cold water and then to the flute of complementary champagne. It was approaching midnight, and here I was at the Agnes B Fashion Showcase, surrounded by models and Chinese cultural icons. But let me rewind the tape a bit and explain how I ended up here…

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I had it all wrong

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

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D-22, Beijing, July 11, 2007
Today was some day. Like most mornings, I woke at 6:30am without the aid of my alarm clock (praise be to jet lag), and stumbled into my office at around seven. Waiting for me were the edits for my introductory chapter which, I’m happy to report, should be finalized within forty-eight hours from the time I get back to work tomorrow.
More importantly, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Professor Wang, the man with whom I conducted oral histories back in 2003 as part of my dissertation research. Four years since we last met. Four years. Unreal. The cab ride to get there took over an hour, due to Beijing’s unbelievable traffic these days, 50 minutes of which I spent experiencing hypertension. The driver, a nice fellow, had an absolutely booming voice, one which nearly caused me to have a panic attack. He told me all about the woes of Beijing cabbies these days – believe me, there are many! – and by the end I felt as if I’d just spent an entire set with my ear up against the loudspeaker. But then I saw Professor Wang…

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East by East East

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

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Ch-Indie Cred
On July 7, I headed to Ch-Indie Fest II, an outdoor independent music festival with a name you could only get away with in China. Accompanied by my friends Andrew, Frances, and Alex, I can tell you that the solemnity of the anniversary on which it fell (seventy years since the Marco Polo Bridge Incident) was out of sight, out of mind.
The fest was held at 2 Kolegas, one of the more popular venues in the Beijing music scene these days, from my understanding. The club of my Beijing youth, Scream Bar, relented to the bulldozers over five years ago, and I still don’t think I’ve recovered. For a few months, I held a Thursday night residency there, playing for fifty RMB and all the Tsingtao beer I could handle. Tsingtao is a light beer and it goes down easy. Which is all to say, I could handle a lot back then.

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Purism, aka, The Near Life Experience

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

The day before I departed for Beijing, my Father asked me if I was concerned about my Chinese language proficiency, particularly since I hadn’t been to China in a number of years. I was, I explained, but also suspected that the words and phrases would all come rushing back once I set foot on the mainland. Once I needed to speak the language, it would be there, somehow. For me, there is something thoroughly unenjoyable about speaking Chinese in the States, primarily because most of my interlocutors are far more fluent in spoken English than I am in spoken Chinese. When it comes to the question of “your tongue or mine?” I will almost always concede to the instincts of my conversation partner, regardless of how badly I’d like to brush up on my tones.
As it turned out, necessity reared its ugly head even before the flight attendants could press PLAY on the third, crappy film feature. Somewhere over the dead center of the Pacific Ocean – Mapquest “intersection of Terrifying Depth and Total Oblivion” for the precise address – my aisle-mate stood up abruptly, took four belabored steps in the direction of the bathroom, and collapsed in a heap on the floor. She was a middle-aged Chinese-American woman, heavy-set, with a kind but somewhat peculiar personality (in that born-and-raised-in-the-Bay-Area sort of way). At the start of the flight, she struck up a conversation almost immediately, telling me about her upcoming trip and asking me about mine. She was on her way to Beijing to study Mandarin, which she hoped to use with her fourth-grade class (her first language was English, her second Cantonese).

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Thanksgiving in June

Saturday, June 30th, 2007


The Asian Century? I say it’s the Pumpkin Bread Century.
Tomorrow is the big day. At 11:15 in the morning, I set off for China to put the finishing touches on my first book, and to begin exploring a second. Thanks to my generous colleagues and sponsors at the Central University of Nationalities, I will be met at the airport by a student who, according to the email I just received, will be carrying a sign reading “Dr. Thomas.” I’m uncertain how to feel about this, given the mixed company it puts me in: Dr. Phil, Dr. Nick, Dr. Pepper…

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Need anything while I’m up?

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007


24 Views of SFO
During my recent trip home, I extended an offer to my parents that I would like to extend to the Stanford community at large (and whoever else happens to be reading this blog). Please take a moment, write down five burning questions you have about China, and include them here in a comment. Broad questions, specific questions, I’m open to them all. While I can’t promise that I’ll be able to address each of them, or that I’ll be able to provide satisfying answers to those I do address, at the very least it will open up an energetic, transoceanic conversation. Fire when ready!
Sincerely,
Teach
aka
Thomas S. Mullaney
Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History
Stanford University

All is not lost: ruminations on disappearance and my famous blue recorder

Monday, June 25th, 2007


Reunited, and it feels so good

Seven months ago, on the thirtieth day of November, 2006, my former band The Black Spoons played its last San Francisco show at The Make Out Room. It was not a proper Black Spoons show, insofar as I was unaccompanied by my close friend and former bandmate Ruben Mercado, but it was still something I wanted to remember. As is my custom, I recorded the show on my Sony Minidisc recorder, my own personal FDR that keeps track of all my takeoffs, landings, departures, arrivals, and crashes. I used it extensively in China starting in 2001, when I was in Beijing conducting a research project overseen by Orville Schell of Berkeley. I captured the voices and opinions of American foreign correspondents stationed in China (Melinda Liu, John Pomfret, Odilon Couzins, and many others) as well as Chinese reporters covering the United States. I still remember writing the report, about media bias, and getting ready to present at the World Economic Forum in Shanghai at the close of the year. Then came September 11th.

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Summer in China: T-Minus Seven Days

Sunday, June 24th, 2007


Random shot of me and my buddy/bandmate MG

In all the tumult of the past few weeks, a fog of preparation and closure, I nearly lost sight of a small, personal milestone. It was nine years ago, nearly to the day, when I first set foot in the People’s Republic. I was a Junior at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and my entire life was on the verge of a thorough transformation, one both personal and professional.
Outwardly, I was a confident, highly focused International Studies major quickly absorbing the credits necessary to add a second major (East Asian Studies) and eventually a co-term MA. Inwardly, however, I hadn’t the slightest idea where I was headed. The Ph.D. was an attractive option, but so too was journalism, foreign service, and the private sector (much to my Father’s encouragement). All I knew for certain was: I wanted to travel + I had studied Chinese intensively for two years = Beijing made sense.

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