Purple Pottery Street

The first two photos are from an area in the Old Town, which was virtually deserted except for the occasional worker inside a store. I was walking with a new acquaintance of mine, Yu Sen (I was tasked with providing him an English name, so henceforth he shall be known as Sven). He was helping me find a coffeeshop, since I hadn’t yet found coffee. Sadly all of the coffe eshops here were closed. Unlike in Taiwan, there isn’t much demand for coffee here, and those coffee shops that exist typically don’t open until 1pm, I am told.

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Below are photos from the center of JianShui, an area called Purple Pottery Street (紫陶街). It isn’t terribly busy during the day, but at night it becomes a bustling market full of people selling jewlery, toys and pottery on the street, and door after open door to pottery shops behind them. This is where I found a coffee shop, called “Black Bear” and perhaps even better: fresh pomegranate juice.

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A few people walked around during the day. I saw a few kids at their parents’s shops doing homework. Inside the coffeeshop, there was no one there except the employees, who upon our entry turned on the lights, turned on music, and brought me some water. It rained on and off during the next couple hours, often with rain appearing to fall from a clear blue sky.

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Mainland China

This morning I was woken by the school bell. I’ve been keeping the small window in my room closed. The window opens to the living room, and the living room’s open windows  face the schools building. The electronic sound is not the school bell that I am used to in the US, or even Taiwan (whose schools use that ding-dong-ding-dong melody  we all recognize from old fashioned clocks). It is like a national anthem (for all I know, that’s what it is). I looked at my phone. It was a few minutes after 6:30am. I don’t know if the times change depending on the day of the week, or that I usually just sleep through the first one. The blinds over the tiny window keep the light out. I fell back asleep, and slept until my alarm finally got me out of bed.

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Three years ago I thought Taiwan would be a good Asian country to get me accustomed to Chinese culture without fully isolating me from the West. I was right: here in JianShui (建水), in YunNan (雲南) Province China, I am much more isolated. I have spotted only three other non-Chinese, two of whom were obviously backpackers. One was a tall, skinny man in maybe his early forties in an orange T-shirt and khaki shorts, who didn’t look like he was travelling. He was just walking down the street in Old Town (故城). I’m used to Chinese food by now, but now I’m finally eating it all the time, without exception. I’m still able to experience a bit of culture shock, which I felt my first week here. My first meal was something called “Over-the-Bridge Noodle Soup” (過橋米線) inside a restaurant whose aesthetics were refreshingly traditional. I did feel somewhat sick halfway through the meal, and got up to walk around the cloister-like small building. The waitresses wore old-fashioned long azure robes, with uniformly tied hairstyles.

I first noticed this the day I walked around Beijing over a year and a half ago; that the buildings and the music emanating into the cold, empty streets in the Old Town were healthier. Unlike Taiwan, where one hears Western pop music and sees ugly buildings in all directions, Mainland China has an enviable unity of style.

Personally, I can eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and feel fine, but give me noodles three days in a row and I’m going to get sick of them. The ubiquity of spicy food is annoying, but I’ve learned to forgo anything with peppers in it. One sees baskets of pomegranates everywhere. I don’t think I’d ever even tried one until a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll never get tired of them. There is also a kind of yellow, soft kiwi they eat here.

Beneath much of the beautiful architecture are modern stores with uniformed employees. This is a new phenomenon for this small town of 300,000 people; all this development and these new products have arrived within the past fifteen years. Within my short lifetime, places like these have gone from impoverished countryside towns to developed places with high standards of living. The infamous One-Child Policy having been ended last year, it is common to see pregnant women, or families with two small children. Well-nourished looking kids go to and from school. People are driving cars and scooters (not always patiently). People can afford luxuries.

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Above: old men play chess in a courtyard.

Below: a main street in JianShui, near the entrance to Old Town.

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As my friend and teacher Alex said to me one day: “Western media love to criticize the Chinese government. They talk about how terrible it is in China. But you look around. Not even Taiwan is like this. People used to sit on the floor with a bowl of food once a day and they would be happy…

“So, they can’t use Google. So what? Who cares? The people here love their government.”

This morning I went for a light run near the basketball courts on the campus. A man walked back and forth on part of the road. A woman with glasses walked slowly and concentrated on a book. The empty gray basketball courts were in mostly good condition, even if they weren’t pretty. I did my run around the small paved ‘track’, and then sat in front of the main building on some grass. Tall tropical-looking trees, tall grass with bees zooming in a pattern around me, flat patches where I stretched. I saw kids walk to and then from the building. Most of them wore a white uniform, but some didn’t. Most of them looked at me while trying not to stare.

It never gets too hot here. The sun is powerful, and I got a slight sunburn on my neck on my first day. It gets cool at night. Rain comes and goes, usually multiple times a day.

While I was stretching I heard the music again. Triumphant music. I wondered what it would be like to be a Chinese kid here, born around the year 2000. Everything has been getting better since the year you’d have been born. Better quality everything. More cars, more construction, more education, a shift away from the devastation of the so-called Cultural Revolution.

Ascendancy.

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Walking Around Madrid

Photos from Madrid, Spain, from early to mid July.

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At Puerta del Sol in the center of the city. One evening I met a man named Pedro through a friend in Taiwan. He brought me somewhere to have beer and olives, and do a bit of language exchange.

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Below is the street where I stayed for three nights.

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Below is the view from the third place I stayed at. I told the owner I felt like I could just jump out of the window onto the next roof and keep jumping.

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Stockholm

The city of Stockholm in late May, in a few different areas. “The Venice of the North.” I was told a lot of the architecture seen below was built in the 1930’s. Stockholm’s population is around 2 million, out of a total national population of 10 million.

Lots of nice restaurants, nicely-kept gardens, good roads, and so on. Someone told me that young people don’t cook so often, so restaurants are booming as a result. I suppose that’s applicable to a lot of countries. The Swedes are also hands down the champions of recycling.

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Here is the Nordic Museum, which at the time had an exhibit about modern lamps. That’s correct; there was an exhibit about lamps through time. There were lamps from the early twentieth century leading up to today’s Ikea-dominated lamp market. The actually interesting stuff was upstairs; models relating to Swedish traditions, pre and post-Christianization, dealing with holidays, burials, and so forth. There was also an exhibit on the Sami people: the nomadic Finno-Ugric tribes that live in the North of Scandinavia. Extensive exhibits of fashion of the past 300+ years, as well as famous modernist authors were there.

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Though this day was particularly cloudy, it looked like a nice restaurant/bar area by the river. Stockholm is obviously beautiful with one of the highest standards of living around. As most people know; taxes are high. Also: there is a queue for apartments. Apparently people who want to leave the nest and get their own apartment need to get put on a list and wait about three years. This strikes me as wildly inconvenient.

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Here is the site of a terrorist attack on April 7, 2017, where a 39 year old Uzbek asylm-seeker with ISIS sympathies drove a hijacked truck into the side of a department store, and killed five people.

While in a library, I opened a kid’s book on the vikings, and did a few small sketches:

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Later, while in Gamla Stan (Old Town) I did a few more brief sketches:

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Dialogue: Money

[Fiction]

C: So, did we pay the electric bill yet?
D: By ‘we’ you mean did I pay it. And yes I did.
C: It was pretty low, wasn’t it? We’ve been pretty careful about things. Less A/C, less time using fans, lights, the washer.
D: High level of economization for maximum frugality.
C: Miserliness. Building a life around saving wealth until you forget why you were doing it in the first place.
D: Not at all. I have a very concrete picture in my head for how I’m going to spend all my money.
C: Given that you’re an American, I assume that means you’re already counting how many hot dogs you will be able to afford.
D: That’s not too far off.
C: Hamburgers?
D: Earlier this year, while I was in between jobs-
C: Doing nothing, like a PhD student without the actual work.
D: Contemplating eternity, I made the time to read that book Rich Dad Poor Dad. Have you heard of it?
C: Hasn’t everybody?
D: At one point Kiyosaki quotes Buckminster Fuller, who once said: “Wealth is a person’s ability to survive so many number of days forward… or if I stopped working today, how long could I survive?”
C: That’s kind of how I think of it too. More money equates to more freedom, at least in theory.
D: Yes, this is how I was starting to conceive of my time working around the middle of last year. The closer I got to the end of my job, the more I started to rub my hands together and think about how far into the future I would be able to last without working.
C: And how far did you make it?
D: Well, I didn’t do too badly. I traveled a fair amount. I did get to spend some time reading. I got to develop a routine that wasn’t constricted by fixed hours of work and the subsequent spent energy.
C: You also worked during that time on a provisional basis though, isn’t that right?
D: True, though it wasn’t enough to make an indefinite living. It merely slowed the inevitable collapse. You know, I heard recently that age twenty-five is the age when a person is expected to start paying more into society than he takes.
C: Ha, you have a long way to go.
D: Yes. If you were to just ask me whether I felt like contributing to my society and world around me, what do you think I’d say?
C: I believe there’s a Bon Jovi song title that would sum up your answer.
D: No, not at all. At least consciously; of course I would say that making the whole machine work smoothly is the whole point. If you’re a caveman and your job is to help kill the mammoth, you get your spear, head out into the snow and get some calories for your tribesmen.
C: Are you comparing putting on your button-down shirt, going into an air conditioned room and teaching your native language to fighting for survival in the wilderness?
D: No, quite the opposite. I’m saying it’s easier to be solipsistic when there’s no primary motivator. Numbers on a screen are nice. But then those numbers become the whole game. If I make a fire, I don’t get X amount of dollars. I get warm. That satisfies a deeper part of the soul than possessing more fiat notes with pictures of Lincoln on them.
C: Well, it sounds like the only solution is to go out into the forest and make a fire and kill some deer. You’ve made a convincing case for it.
D: Yes.
C: So what’s stopping you?
D: At the start of the book, [author] talks about his childhood ambition of wealth. He didn’t want to be like his father who always worried about money. So he and his friend concoct a scheme where try to literally copy coins using empty toothpaste tubes or something.
C: Did it work?
D: No, but it’s pretty genius for age ten, or however old they were. They basically wanted to cut corners, and they had to learn the lesson that they had to provide substantive value if they wanted to earn money.
C: That’s not true at all. What about bankers? They just move numbers around and get rich that way.
D: Well you can tell from that example that there is a kind of corner-cutting mentality present in the proto-entrepreneur. Most people form the habit of showing up and being somewhere from 9 to 5 while they’re in school. They do this throughout their career, pretty much. But people who become rich are trying to win the game by rebelling against the spirit of the rules.
C: That makes no sense. The rich find ways to pay less in taxes. They lobby the government. They launder money. They cut corners, as you say.
D: What I mean is, they aren’t content to just pick a job, do it, and then collect the requisite salary for that position.  Rather, they want to be like a kid at the beach who really does think he can dig a hole to China if he keeps at it. While everyone else is playing frisbee, swimming, or sleeping under the umbrella, he’s digging. The project is fun because there’s a prize at the end. There’s no prize for just lounging around. The difference between work and play dissolves, because everything is play. Or maybe everything is work. Donald Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal back in the nineties: “I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form.
C: I like the beach. I want to be there right now.
D: Life is trivial without a dream. Even an innocuous one.

JianShui

A maroon teapot rests on a small square cloth, which sits on a smooth rock. The rock sits solidly on the beige cloth that spills over the long ends of the table. The top of one side juts thinly out. Three small, thin glasses stand on the cloth. One faces down. Corresponding white teacups face up on the table. Vestiges of 綠茶 remain at the bottom of one of them. Two cylindrical woven-basket seats sit by the table. A couch with more of the beige cloth and a blue pillow leaves a little space to walk in between. Sunlight makes its way in through the clouds, tall trees, and screen windows, reflecting on the white floor tiles to illuminate white pieces of paper clipped to boards set up around the room. Black, gray, hints of brown and blue lie splattered in each rectangular door into another world. I saw a stick soldier in one, holding his spear. Another: an arrow, from which the smoke-explosion arises and the energy spirals and swirls like smoke.

Somewhere, somehow, a slow cockroach crawls on the floor. His antennae twitch alternating up and down. The fridge in the room behind contains soft 奇異果. A bag of 石榴 sit in on a wooden stool. A long blue cloth hangs down concealing the bathroom door.

A bald man stands facing away from the 茶道, working at his table. He wears glasses, a black loose sleeveless shirt, and loose pants of orange, purple, and perhaps green. His sandals curve upward at the front. Children talk or laugh or shout outside. Water bubbles in a plastic teapot. Cardboard boxes on the table are full with paintbrushes, pencils, scissors, miscellaneous found objects.

The stairwell, sunlit by day through the diamond pattern in the wall, is dirty with scratches. In a room on the floor below, teenage girls leave their door open, yell to one another. Outside, water has collected into a puddle in an indentation in the cement ground. Traces of rainfall are all over the ground and in the smell of the air. Kids sit in the grass under a tree. One says “Hello.”

We enter a white car, where the seats are covered by that beige woven pattern. I listen carefully to the voices in the seats in front of me, speaking quickly, lackadaisically, and politely. I lose focus, and my eyes shift to the activity outside the window. As the 很難聽的說話 drifts by like clouds, I study the faces on their scooters and in the street. Mostly, I feel the traffic flow like swarms of ants carrying their prizes into the hive. Vehicles speed in all directions impatiently like a fish darting from one side of his aquatic cage to the other. Lights change, the sky gets darker, and everywhere I hear the irascible noise: BaBa……………..

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