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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Location: Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

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Monday, July 23, 2001

Shang High Life, #3

Shang High Life, #3
July 23, 2001

That’s What I Meant I Said

It’s fun to be condescending. It must be. I’m so damn good at it, which means I must have practiced a lot. But don’t go getting all judgmental on me. You do it, too.

For instance: laughing at the way Asians translate things into English. Stay with me. I ain’t goin’ where you think I’m goin’. Not at first, anyway.

For a long time, I’ve had this real strong opinion about ex-pats and others who are incredulous at outrageous mis-translations. Clearly buffoons and boors. No question. I mean, how about a little gratitude that the barbarians are trying to use your language, Chucky! How much Mandarin do *you* speak?

Facilitating this attitude, I have a cute nose, all the better with which to look down on other cultural imperialists. And, if a squirly look and snarly grumble don’t set ‘em to heel, all you have to do is mention examples of how royally we righteous Anglophones bugger it up when we deign to translate our bon-est of bon mots into the local clatter. The best stories, apocryphal or not, come from the advertising industry. Personal favorites include Kentucky Fried Chicken translating “Finger lickin’ good” into Chinese as “So good you’ll chew your fingers off.” Better still, GE’s “We bring good things to life” arriving in Mandarin as “We bring your ancestors back from the dead.” Charming.

Plenty of ammunition to shoot down those jocularly indignant monoglots who giggle at the sincere attempts of locals to make life easier for them.

But goddamn if I haven’t become one of them. It just doesn’t matter how grateful I am that the Shanghainese pull out all the stops to translate for me. The ways they get it wrong are just too damn funny not to indulge a guilty giggle. The joke is on us, of course. The reason the translations are funny, often, is that they come so close to being right. The tiny ways in which they’re wrong reveal our language naked, wobbly and very strange, indeed. English is so screwed up with inconsistencies, exceptions, and the most inexplicable idioms, it’s like a test designed specifically to drive its taker batty. (Sic, ibid, op cit, yadda yadda.)

So, no wonder you get sentences like “Free tea and one person!” But that’s kindergarten stuff. I like ‘em best when they’re so close you have to look twice. How about: “The natural sights are the unchangeable green window scenes.” Huh? Oh, I get it. Or, “Equipments of international brands shape out the spacious place with entire fitment.” I mean, these guys are GOOD! I reckon they’d translate a newspaper story and make it sound like Wordsworth on shrooms. “There is no limit of complexion or bloodline in our feelings toward fashion and our understandings of life art.” Damn.

Translation is a whole lot funkier than I usually think about, because language isn’t the only hurdle to clear. There’s the issue of what the words mean, sure, but there’s also the question of whether a native English speaker would have ever said that in the first place. (For an elephantine exegesis of this and other minutiae of the zany world of translation, check out Douglas Hofstadter’s *Le Ton Beau de Marot*. Ponderous, but stunning.) So, you see elegant translations like the following almost everywhere: “Such a lively and inspired air is spreading entrancingly over the restaurant.” Or, my personal favorite, which I hear almost every morning when I jump into a taxi, automated in the voice of a young woman: “Hello, dear passenger. I welcome you to Huang Xin taxi with all my heart, and I hope you have the most pleasant of journeys.” . . . at which point, you’re ready for her to take you on a ride to pretty much an-y-where.

But that’s just charming cross-cultural serendipity, rather than botched translation. I still like it when the words are just wrong, even if it’s subtle. Like the ad I saw for a restaurant with a newly revamped menu. The point of the ad, I think, was that the new menu was so wonderful, so surprisingly, yummily fantastic, that you would hardly believe your gustatory senses. The headline trumpeted: “Stomach shocker!”

I save my highest regard, however, the place of greatest honor, for the less gifted translators. They don’t speak much English, but they give it their best. These are the unsung heroes of the battle to bridge cultural and linguistic divides. Unsung, because they couldn’t find the battlefield, but they went down shooting, anyway. In my journey to date, the best monument to these courageous souls was painted in very large letters on the window of a restaurant near the Hilton. In the hope of attracting foreign guests from the foreign hotel, these foreign words were there left, crying out the restaurant’s best qualities as a beacon to passersby. They read: “Take a horn style. Self-conscious would be.”

* * *

PS: Something I forgot to mention in both previous notes… Before I left LA, something happened that meant a whole lot to me. It also taught me one of those lessons that I’d already learned about forty-three times, but was worth having knocked into me again. One of my best mates on the planet, Bill Stuart (also known as “Doctor Bill”, “Beverly Bill”, “Shinehead Willy” and “Big Lovin’ Easy Bake Oven”) and I had been meaning to get together ever since I moved back to the US from Australia. It hadn’t happened, mostly because of me. When I called Bill to tell him I was Shang-high-tailin’ it out of California, just about the next words out of his mouth were, “Well, son, what’d be the best dates between now and then for me to fly out to LA?” So, in the middle of me packing and carrying on, Bill came just to visit a spell. We ate Mexican food. We saw movies. We walked up and down the stars of Hollywood Boulevard. But mostly we just hung out in close proximity to each other the way folks that love one another ought to do more often than they might get the chance.

Oh, and we rode rollercoasters. In the choice between cute theme park versus lots of really big coasters, we chose to follow our testosterone. And our testosterone got a real treat. We ended up at Magic Mountain on a very hot Wednesday: mid-week, just as a few high schools and colleges let go for the summer. Almost no-one in the park, but half of those there were wearing their new bikinis. I don’t know how many times we rode that damn river flume thing that soaks nubile co-eds to within a transluscent lycra fiber’s width of two fast-approaching-middle-aged men. But, however many times we did, it didn’t get old. In fact, I’d swear it made me and Bill a whole lot younger.

Thanks, Easy Bake. You keep teachin’ me.

Sunday, July 15, 2001

Dad at 70

When my dad turned 70, there was a big, big party. I couldn't be there. I had just moved to Shanghai and started a new job. I didn't have any vacation time to fly home on.

I didn't mind missing the celebration, but I was gutted to miss the opportunity to celebrate him. So, I made a video tape (remember those?) with this message.

* * *

Hi, Dad…

I don’t know whether you’ll see this before your actual birthday, on the day, or after. Regardless, I hope you’re celebrating, and I wish I could be there throughout. So, since I can’t be, I thought this would be the next best thing.

Up until a couple of months ago, I was planning on flying in for this one. Seventy is an occasion that deserves at least a hop on a plane. Sending you this tape is a distant second-best, and I will always miss having been there on the day you officially became an old guy.

As a result, I thought it would be appropriate if I based all that I want to say on my feelings about why I’m here, and not there, and the role you’ve played in that.

A few months ago, I gave you a book, A Mass for the Dead, as a way of letting you know how fortunate I felt not to be in the author’s shoes. He was stuck, only having realized the great gift of his father’s character after his father had died. As much as the book was a celebration of his parents’ lives, it was soaked in his remorse about not having expressed—about not having even realized—his appreciation for his parents’ stewardship of his life, nor their legacy to him: the legacy of his own character, molded, despite himself, by their life-long example, and by their love.

Giving you that book, and the letter enclosed with it, was one of the best things I’d done in a long time, even if you didn’t like it much. I can’t account for your taste in books, but I can make sure you know what your son thinks and feels about you.

As good as I felt about sending the book and the letter, there was still a great deal left unsaid. So, even though there’s a chance it’s the most selfish birthday gift I could send you, I want to finish the job. I know it’s not much of a gift, by some standards. I wish there were something grand, and showy and surprising that you’d really value, and that I could have had delivered to your door in the biggest truck UPS has got. But I can’t think of it. So, this is the gift you get when you’re a pain in the ass to shop for.

Having made a big deal about this four dollar and 95-cent videotape being your present, I have a hard time naming what it is I want to put on it. In a way, it’s a tribute. It’s also thanks. But I hope that I get at a bunch of other stuff I can’t articulate, too.

I’m a little nervous it’s going to end up sounding like a eulogy. If it does, that’s only because people save their nicest things to say about you until you’re dead. And, mostly, so far as I can tell, they mourn the loss of the opportunity to tell the dead guy how much they loved him. I won’t make that mistake. I’d rather say it now, trading on the excuse of your 70th birthday, when you look like you’ve got about another 70 years in you.

The evidence of the success of those first 70 years is all around you. The material success sure, though in my life I can’t remember you emphasizing it all that much. Sandy’s boys, as your grandchildren—showing so many of your physical and temperamental characteristics already—are, in a way, a testament to you as a patriarch. Your marriage to Myrna is a monument to you as a lover and husband. Your golf handicap isn’t much of an achievement, but it’s a work in progress.

One of the things I don’t really know about you is how reflective you are, in quiet moments on your own. I don’t know if you sit back and wonder whether you were a good father…or whether you assume, to quote one of the philosophies with which you raised me, that you did the best you could at the time and that’s all anyone can ever ask.

To toss my two cents at that question—of the quality of your fatherhood—and to assuage my sadness at not being there in person, I thought I’d play on the irony that I reckon I’m in Shanghai right now, making this videotape, because of what an extraordinary father you are.

There are things I like about myself and things I don’t, but so many of my strengths are reflections of you.

Most of the teaching I remember you doing, as I was growing up, you did by example, rather than by lecture. If boys learn how to be men from the way their fathers are men, then here’s some of what I learned from you.

  • I learned that experiences are more important than things.

  • I learned that the night sky is worth noticing…worth lying on your back at midnight in the summertime, and drinking in with your eyes.
  • I learned that home is where you make it with people you love.

  • I learned that integrity and justice matter…and that even if they are rarely achieved as absolutes, they’re always worth pursuing.

  • I learned that you should always be careful with sharp objects.

  • I learned that the purest way to love someone is to do all you can to lift them up as they strive, so they might become more than they otherwise would.

  • I learned that fear is okay…but never to let it keep you from an experience that would help you grow.

  • I learned to love words, and I learned to love ideas even more, and I learned to love principles even more, still.

  • I learned that dedication matters.

  • And I learned that the only way the people you love are really going to know it is if you tell them and show them all the time.

I’ve gotten myself in trouble living out some of those lessons. But whenever I have, I have known I was in trouble for the right reasons.

More importantly, the things I consider my successes have grown out of these and other principles I watch you live.

This adventure I’m on now, in Shanghai, would seem crazy to most men’s sons. To me, it seems like an extension of my father’s desire to show me new places, new things…whether it was a cross-country camping trip for which he pulled me out of school early, or a trip to Europe, or a move to a country that, at the time, seemed as foreign as China, even if it was only Canada.

If your dad were alive, I think he might have a hard time believing his grandson is living in China. It’s a long way from the tobacco farm and the hand-built house in Greensboro. But I didn’t create that leap. You did. I don’t think you know that the part of my family history that I recount with greatest pride is of the hillbillies who never made it past grade school, and then of the one who did. Without knowing it, I internalized the example of your self-determination to create a life that would be all you wanted.

I can only remember three fights we ever had. One of them was about me being a self-absorbed dickhead. Both of the other two were about my education. …about you caring that I keep open all the kinds of options you had created in your life. …because you knew what it was like to have to fight for them.

It is because, by the light of your example, I’ve grasped every wild-ass great opportunity I’ve had, that I’m in China right now.

I’m still profoundly sad I can’t make it to be with you this weekend: to this celebration of the first seventy years of your life. But I hope you’ll take as a consolation this one thought: to me, every day I wake up is a small celebration of your life, because I’m grateful for who you have been, and who you are, that has made me who I am.

I’ve always wanted to give you gifts that you’d love, and that had something of me in them. So, asserting that 70th birthdays are a good time to be philosophical, I’ll posit that our lives and what we do with them are, in the end, all that we have to offer the people we love. Nothing else matters much. So, I hope you’ll accept, on your 70th birthday, my life—hopefully well-lived, but certainly gratefully lived—as my gift to you.

…and not just because you’re a pain to shop for.

I love you. Happy Birthday.


Sunday, July 01, 2001

Shang High Life, #2

The Shang High Life, #2. July 1, 2001

An Honest Story Not About the Weather

Savvy traveler that I am, I know that sitting at the front of the plane can get you out of the destination airport as much as an hour earlier than your less fortunate fellow passengers in the back. So, I was disappointed when I was assigned a seat in row 57 for the ten-hour flight from Sydney to Shanghai. I asked, with my best combination of Aussie and Good-ole-boy charm, if there was anything further forward. Row 11. Bingo. Second row of economy class, about 12 feet from the exit door. Also, by a quirk of logic and math, located behind the first row of economy class. Savvy frickin’ traveler should have also known that the first row of economy class is the bassinette row.

Now, I’m not saying that Chinese babies are more intelligent than other babies. Nor am I suggesting that fifty years of socialism has left a genetic imprint that makes newborns cognizant of their collective power from birth. All I’m saying is that the four babies in front of me had it down do an art: the moment the wails of one began to wane, the next cooing comrade would take up the cry. Thus, each individual infant saved three quarters of the energy of screaming non-stop, while the group realized the same net impact on their environment.

Anything would have been a relief: needles in my eyes, bamboo slivers under my fingernails, Celine Dion records. Shanghai airport, by comparison, was Shangri-fuckin’-la. My bags were first off, the customs guys actually smiled as they waved me through the green line, and instead of a non-English-speaking driver, I was met by my new boss, Wendy, a 50-ish Aussie, yoo-hooing energetically as I emerged from the melee. It was an incredibly thoughtful thing for her to do, given that it was about 10pm on a Saturday night. Wendy’s driver, Mr. Her—Wendy’s favorite joke: “He’s a Her!”—appeared and took my luggage, and we all sped off toward glittering Shanghai.

Once under way, Wendy presented me with my very own Shanghai show bag. Sporting a bright orange Alcatel logo, it had my new mobile phone, a Lonely Planet guide for Shanghai, the names and addresses of several good bars and restaurants written in Chinese (so I would stand a reasonable chance of getting there in a taxi), and even my new business cards, English on one side, Chinese on the other. I was pretty impressed with Wendy’s thoughtfulness, and with the efficiency of it all. I hadn’t even started the job—hell, I hadn’t even been in the country an hour, and I already had my phone and my business cards. The only spoiler was my sneaking suspicion that I, too, would soon be expected to be this efficient.

The business cards were a very practical offering. You’ve probably heard that they are incredibly important in most of Asia. Shanghai’s no exception. You can hardly sit down in a restaurant without the waiter giving you his “name card” and asking for yours. My first day in the office, the audio-visual equipment guy gave me his name card. I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a box of business cards in any job, but after three weeks here, I’ve just re-ordered. So, your name card is critical equipment.

Asian name cards have a little extra coolness quotient, in that they’re all bilingual. The cards Wendy gave me when I arrived weren’t my first bilingual cards—I’d also had some in Korea years ago—but I still dug them. The difference between Korean cards and Chinese ones, however, is how your name gets translated. In Korea, as in Japan, they just translated my name phonetically as closely as possible, so I became something like Yoo-so-tun Su-pen-saa.

In China, it’s different. They rarely translate Western names with phonemes in mind. In all likelihood, your Chinese name won’t come within coo-ee of sounding like what you’re used to being called. Instead, you get a name that has a meaning, with probably only vague sonic reference to your English name. Ideally, the meaning should reflect something about your character or qualities. So, for instance, a new acquaintance of mine at Alcatel, a good-looking French-Canadian bloke named Jean-Francois Pigeon, has a completely unpronounceable appellation that makes him “Beautiful White Horse” or “White Stallion”. How cool is that! In French this guy’s a pigeon and in Chinese he’s a freakin’ stallion.

Ordering my business cards in advance of my arrival, my new secretary, Anna, had to be a bit creative. She had to come up with a name for me without knowing any of my qualities. Her solution: give me a name that would kind of sound like my English name, but also describe characteristics useful for my job. So, as of that moment in the car with Wendy, I became Tse Ho Dun. In the Chinese form of putting the surname first, “Tse” is an attempt to reference the initial letter in my last name: “S”. “Ho Dun” is about as close as Anna could get to “Houston”.

Of course, I didn’t know this—or what Tse Ho Dun meant—at the time. I looked at the characters and they were…well…they were Chinese characters and, hence, indecipherable to White Boy. The next day, at a Sunday welcome lunch with the whole Alcatel Asia-Pacific communications team —sixteen courses, including “Juicy Fried Pigeon” (heads very much in evidence) ordered by Jean-Francois in a fit of what I assume was intended to be irony—Anna gave me a small slip of paper with the pronunciation and the translation of my name. Because all she had known about me was that I was a professional communicator, she had made me Tse Ho Dun: Honest Ambassador of the Story. Not as sexy as “White Stallion”, I grant you, but pretty damn cool.

As we were talking about this, I passed my new name cards to my colleagues in return for theirs. Anna took a close look at the card I gave her and immediately confiscated all the ones I had passed around, not to mention the remaining stack in my pocket. She was mortally embarrassed. In one of the characters, the printer had made an error so tiny it had escaped previous notice. So, instead of being the Honest Ambassador of the Story, I had been transformed, on my first day in China, into a Sincere Weatherman.