Jin Lu (魯進)

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

Friday, 22 November 2013 11:46

Grateful Reminiscences

There are moments in life when we feel backed into a corner and at the end of our rope. It seems only by near-miracle that we somehow managed to find our way. As important as we knew they were, we could not have immediately grasped their full impact. It is only over the years, as we revisit those moments through our grateful reminiscences, that we come to realize they have crystallized into points of no return and gradually transformed how we live the rest of our life.

I spent my last day in China frantically running up and down, round and round. It was early September 1989. I had a scholarship from Boston College to pursue my graduate studies. Already two week late for the semester because passport application had been halted for months due to the June Fourth movement, I had finally received my visa the day before. There was only one last task left to do: I needed to cancel my resident registration (hukou) and my food quota in order to receive the exit permit. The process was supposed to be straightforward for people with all the required documents.

When I went to the neighborhood police substation to cancel my resident registration, a grumpy women behind the front desk told me to cancel my food quota first; when I arrived at the local food station, a bunch of chatty staff asked me all sorts of nosy questions (WHO in their right mind would give up a Beijing hukou? Why would the Americans offer YOU a scholarship?) before announcing that I should cancel my resident registration first. After spending hours running between the two places and getting the same response no matter how pitifully I pleaded, it finally dawned on me that the employees from the food station made more sense: as long as I was a resident, I should be entitled to my food quota, which can only be cancelled when I ceased to be a resident.

I paced and paced desperately in front of the police station, where an inexplicably hostile woman seemed to hold the key to my future. Going anywhere else would be as pointless as getting inside once more to face her. My flight was to depart the next day, I needed to return the key to my apartment early in the morning, and I had even sold my bed. Even worse, as a required step, I had quitted my job, because unlike those who were officially sponsored by the government with state scholarships, I applied to study abroad with "private" funding... I looked at the sun in the sky, bright and scarlet, wishing it would never set. Tomorrow would be a terrible day.

A solid-built man walked towards the police station and asked me what was wrong.
- You look distressed, he said.

I explained why and he told me to follow him inside where he asked the woman to process my paperwork, right away, before walking into his office. I only knew his last name was Wang; he was the head of the station.

You need to know how things work, or don't, in China, in order to appreciate how unbelievably lucky I was on that day, and how much hardship would await me otherwise. The event changed my life in the most obvious way as I left for Boston the next day, but slowly and imperceptibly, it also altered my outlook on life. In my naïvely rationalist mind, I used to believe we reap what we sow and I worked hard to deserve things I wanted, but I could not have possibly "deserved" Mr. Wang's timely intervention, a pure gift. Deus ex machina: I would not have written a play this way, but that was how it happened. Looking back on that day and recognizing we do not necessarily deserve what happens to us remind me to be more grateful, more forgiving and more compassionate.

Years later, my daughter was born when I was a beginning assistant professor in a small Midwestern town. My husband, who still worked in Boston, took a leave to care for us and was driving back to Boston on the day Lydia turned one month old. She would have to go to a baby-sitter we barely knew during weekdays.

- Don't go downstairs to see me off. You would have to climb back upstairs with the baby, he said.

I stood in the middle of my second floor apartment, now so big, so empty, with Lydia in my arm, terrified by the realization that if I ever messed up my life, it would hurt her as well. I felt twice as vulnerable, yet at the same time, filled up by a tremendous love for this little life I brought into the world and for whom I would be irrevocably responsible.

Then, with amazement, I saw Lydia smiling, a smile of quiet contentment and calm assurance. As she smiled for what appeared to me a long time, I became less scared and more determined. I vowed that I would do my best not to hurt anyone or let anyone hurt me. Together we would prepare the background colors for the canvas of her life, so that whatever landscape she would decide to paint, the time she would have spent with me leave no stain of bitterness. Through complex situations and imperfect decisions, I have steered my heart to remain true to the silent promise I made to her on that day. I used to associate parental love with toil and sacrifice, but alone, literally a thousand miles from the nearest family support, during the nine months that I took care of her by myself while juggling a demanding career, I experienced it as a pure joy, and its intensity took me by surprise.

What is the chance that a baby would smile when her mother feels panic and helpless? Lydia was a sensitive baby who cried no less than most others. Some people think little children can sense how their mothers feel, perhaps that is not always true, or somehow, through an unfathomable connection, she was the one to anchor me.

What if Mr. Wang had not appeared at the moment when I was hopelessly stranded in front of the Police station? What if, instead of smiling, Lydia had cried, as babies often do? I probably would have coped, but I am grateful things happened as they did, without rhyme or reason, when I did not even know what to hope for and likely did nothing to deserve them. Those moments of grace are not something we can expect, or even wish for, but only to receive with utmost surprise and gratitude. They make mere happiness dull and uninspiring, as we ponder on the incredible mystery which is life.

Drawing by Bendu

Wednesday, 23 October 2013 10:36

Lonely Venus

She is beautiful and resides comfortably in a magnificent palace, but feels terribly lonely and constantly slighted. Each and every day, visitors from all corners of the world keep pouring in. The room where she stays is always packed with people who quickly pass by her as if she were invisible, because they are there to see her sister, Venus de Milo. When they can gaze at the most famous and the most beautiful of all Venuses, why would they waste their precious little time on anything less than that?

The contrast can be ego-shattering. Venus de Milo attracts so many admirers that she cannot help but looking somewhat fed up. She also suspects that some of them are there not due to their discerning appreciation but because of her widespread reputation. They push and squeeze to get near her even though there is not a remote chance anyone would ever get a moment alone with her. It is even difficult to move around to view her from various angles. Some raise their camera way up high so that they can take a picture of her from afar, while others manage to get close enough to take a picture with her amid the crowd, with a proud smile on their face, as if they were saying to the world: "Look at me! I am with her!"

I decide to spend some quiet time with Venus Cesi (do not kick yourself if you do not know her name; she is really not that famous), allured by her slightly downcast melancholic look and her modest silhouette, as if I wanted to assuage her self-consciousness and vulnerability. As I linger in the empty space in front of her, a few people become mildly curious and granted her a passing glimpse.

- She is just as beautiful, and she has all her limbs! A man said to his companion while hurrying away.

Venus Cesi would much prefer a moment of his silent attentiveness to his witty and indifferent compliment. She does not aspire to be as beautiful as her famous sister, but feels beautiful in a different way, shaped and molded lovingly by her creator. She has noticed the shifting standards of beauty over time and senses that her proportions may not appear as desirable now as they once did.

A few chitchatting women were thrilled to discover a quiet spot to take their own picture. They stood by Venus Cesi and put on their perfect fake smile facing the camera, as if they were telling the world: "I am in the Louvre! Look how pretty I am!"

Venus Cesi cringed. She is in no way trying to compete with Venus de Milo for the number of admirers, but she resents that people who are already in the same room do not at least take a good look at her to determine for themselves if she appeals more or less to their taste. If they only look at one Venus, how can they feel that she is the most beautiful one? Venus Cesi does not know that busy and important people only have time for the best. She is tired of being displayed in the world's best art museum, where her marginalized existence is almost always mortifyingly ignored in the company of her more famous siblings. She would rather live in the ruins of a port town with flowering wild grasses, where warm sunlight and sea breezes would caress her cold shoulder, and leisurely passersby would accord her a moment of their genuine attention. Some young men might even have a fancy for her, or some maidens would confide to her their joys and sorrows.

Not far away stands Athena, divinely serein with a pinch of irony. Because of the silly tale about her being born from her father's head, people seldom notice she is no less beautiful than Venus. Like Venus Cesi, she does not command a crowd around her either. Not that she cares anymore. The only mistake she has ever made in her entire immortal life was to have entered that ridiculous beauty contest which led to the Trojan War. How could she have subjected herself to the judgment of an impulsive young man with a questionable motive? She has since observed the vanity and peril of human obsession with superlatives, the never-ending race to become number one in each and every category: the most beautiful woman, the tallest building, the richest person, the most expensive wine, the most powerful country, the most devastating weapon, the fastest pie eater... If the lonely Venus can grow out of her silent suffering, she might even become friend with Athena, who is no longer her rival.

Athena

Photos by Jin Lu

Monday, 26 August 2013 14:38

Impromptu on Chopsticks and Cuisine

While directing an immersion program in Blois, France for American students from a Midwestern university, I have become friends with some of the French host families, who invite me to their home for dinner from time to time.  During one of those evenings, the hosts and I were sitting in the veranda surrounded by a small and lush garden, while the evening breeze was filled with the familiar scent of climbing honeysuckle.  They told me how pleased they were of the student I placed with them that year.

- Compared to Korean students we had before, Americans are so much easier.

I became intrigued, and asked why.

- The Koreans seemed so uncomfortable, poor things.  Imagine, since they did not have their chopsticks, they often dropped their forks and knives, and that makes them so embarrassed.  With the Americans, their culture is much more similar to ours, and they get more easily used to what we eat.

It had never occurred to me that switching from chopsticks to forks and knives could be such a dramatic challenge.  Growing up using chopsticks, I do not even remember the first time when I ate with a fork and a knife.  So direct and intuitive, it is one of those things that I fancy we do not need to “learn”.  My embarrassing secret is that I actually do not hold chopsticks quite so “correctly”, although I use them “fluently”.  It is barely noticeable, so my parents did not become aware until I was in third grade. They went into a panic mode attempting to correct it, but by then it was too late to change my habit.  My father signed in frustration:

- If you cannot even learn this, what else can you learn?

Decades later, I told my father what he had said to me. He had completely forgotten it and by then could not care less about how I held my chopsticks.  We both laughed.  He did not know how lucky he was though, because I remained a Chinese daughter, or else I could have blamed him for scarring me for the rest of my life with his negative comment about my learning ability. I have stopped telling my American friends as jokes certain things that my parents said to me, because instead of finding them funny, they were invariably horrified.

When my daughter Lydia was three, we took a family vacation in China. At Pudong airport in Shanghai, my sister-in-law came to pick us up and we all got into an airport shuttle bus.  We had barely sat down when Lydia said something in delight that astonished me:

- We all have black eyes and black hair!

I had never thought she would notice such details, but then I realized that appearances did matter.  In a primitive way, it may be the first thing that determines how comfortable we are with others.  Children are just more candid in verbalizing what we feel deeply inside and may go into great length to mask.  Rebekah Nathan, an American anthropology professor, spent her sabbatical year as a freshman living in a college dormitory (Cornell University Press, 2005).  She observed that students typically socialize along racial or ethnic lines, and while most of them reported having at least one close friend of a different race, very few of them actually do.  Perhaps Lydia’s generation will improve, because she regularly gets together with friends from nearly all the ethnicities in her high school. 

During that trip, Lydia and I spent several weeks in my hometown in Sichuan.  While eating in a crowded restaurant with my sister and brother-in-law, Lydia suddenly pointed to the chopsticks people were using:

-  I want that too!

Up to then she had been using only spoon and fork.  Worried that she would make a mess in public, I suggested we first start at home, but she insisted on right there and then.  She had always seen her dad and me eating with chopsticks at home, but did not show any interest until she was in China, with a roomful of people who were using them.  For me, this incident shows the powerful human desire to conform to the social environment surrounding us.

The poor Korean students in the French host family were in an unfamiliar environment for which they may not have been fully prepared.  Their discomfort was likely greater than that of my American students, because of greater differences between home and host environments, such as lack of chopsticks, or left unspoken, different physical appearances.  American students do not have as many visible differences with their French hosts, which makes them easier to fit in, at least at the beginning.

When I was a student majoring in French at Peking University in the early eightieth, our language instructors spoke beautiful French but had never been exposed to French cuisine, having received their degree during the Cultural Revolution.  Once they told us a story about how they had been invited by the French embassy for a banquet and came back still hungry.

- Only five dishes! We thought there must be more to come, so we ate very little when we were served a dish. Then they took each one away! By the time we realized there would be no more, we were still hungry. The food looked beautiful, but did not taste as good as Chinese food.

In a Chinese banquet, people usually take very little when a dish is served, because you can expect a table full of dishes.  It is always a good idea to save room for more and you can go back later because all the dishes stay on the table. 

My instructors’ misadventure stemmed from the fact that they did not know how a French meal was structured.  They did not complain about forks and knives, which must have been the easy part for which they were prepared.

However, as tempting as it is to believe that cuisines that use forks and knives (such as American and French) are more similar with each other than with those using chopsticks,  allow me to be contrarian here and explain why I think, beyond all appearances, it is easier for Chinese than for Americans to adapt to French cuisine.

Except for people who refrain from pork for religious reasons, where would you find more people who agree with the French that “tout est bon dans le cochon” (everything is good in a pig)? Generally speaking, like the French, Chinese from most regions eat tripe, offal, and giblets, and do not need any adjustment faced with andouillette, boudin, tripes, cœur, rognon, langue, gisier, which I do not even want to translate into English. Foie is more acceptable, at least in certain circles, because of the prestige of foie gras, although it would be wise not to translate it as “goose liver paste”, the way it is rendered candidly in Chinese without shocking anyone. There are even many Chinese recipes for cervelle – most Americans would be “totally grossed out”. There is certainly a much higher percentage of Chinese people willing to taste the tête de veau.  Like the French, Chinese tend to have their meat from a greater variety of sources than Americans. In Sichuan, frogs and rabbit are common sources of meat.  How about eating a whole fish? That is commonplace for most Chinese but a monumental task for most Americans.  Chinese and French share the same taste in pastries, and most of them would find American pastries much too sweet.  When I follow a French recipe for dessert, I put exactly the same amount of sugar, but use less than half with an American recipe.

Mayonnaise can serve as a fitting metaphor for the relationship between American and French cultures.  American and French mayonnaises have the same name, but taste so different that when you like one, it does not mean you would like the other.  The same goes for mustard.  If you enjoy French salad, do not ever, ever choose “French dressing” when you eat in an American McDonald…Between the two cultures, so similar on the surface, there are undercurrent of differences which anthropologist Raymonde Carroll devotes an entire book to analyze (Evidences Invisibles).  Just as outward differences may prevent people from recognizing the profound resonance that unites them, apparent similarities can also lead to bitter misunderstandings, because they make people least prepared to deal with their real differences.  

In fact, regardless of our background, we can always learn to enjoy a new cuisine, especially if we understand its language and culinary culture.  In terms of French cuisine, there is a great variety of dishes from different regions, which makes it possible to find what we like and gradually expand our food repertory. When I first learned to make French dishes, I started by watching my friends and helping them in their kitchen, and realized that our ways of cooking were based on very similar principles.  Our own taste can evolve as we explore different foods, embracing new ones or giving up others harmful to our health.  For me, yogurt and cheese are acquired tastes.  While I continue to enjoy spicy food, unlike my friends who stay in Sichuan, I do not need to put chili peppers in nearly all the dishes because I have learned to appreciate other types of flavors.  Being true to ourselves does not mean to remain unchanged.  Let our heart be free, and then we can choose the ingredients of our life and create our own recipes.   

Drawing by Bendu

Monday, 13 May 2013 13:18

Obesity and Freedom

I once experienced "culture shock" before even leaving my country. In the library of the Department of Western Languages and Literatures at Peking University, I read an article in Paris Match about Elizabeth Taylor. What shocked me most was not the fact that she was married eight times (the number appeared astronomical, but not unfathomable for a beautiful Hollywood star) or twice to the same person (I knew some people would change their mind back and forth), but the oxymoronic statement that when the two-time husband Robert Burton died, she was so heartbroken that she gained 30 pounds.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013 15:00

A Tale of Three Lands

Everybody thought she was a lucky girl, set for life. She worked at the small library of this huge and important boiler factory, one of the few young people there with a college degree, from a nearby provincial university. Her boyfriend, a young engineer in the same factory, was known to be gentle and attentive. They would get married when they qualified for "late marriage". The only quibble people could find was she cared too much about her appearance, compared with other Chinese women in the late fifties: she wore her silky black hair in two long braids, had a light mauve summer dress with elastic collar and dark mauve polka dots, even her jacket was fitted because she made alterations... But she had the redeeming quality of being really friendly, always smiled before speaking. Her warm presence made the library one of the favorite gathering places for the employees' lunch-time breaks.


Then came the "Hundred Flowers Movement." People in the entire country were encouraged to criticize the Party and the government. Meetings after meetings were held to pressure people to contribute to socialism through their criticism. She really did not have much to say, spending her days in the library with her nose in the books. When pressed, she finally said one thing: a famous poet from their province wrote better poems in the twenties, but his most recent collection of 101 poems, which he wrote in 10 days, was simply full of slogans. By writing more slowly, he might be able to produce socialist poems as beautiful as those written by Pushkin. Nobody in the factory paid much attention at the time to her bookish comment, which in the end got her into trouble in so many ways: praising poems written before the "Liberation" over those written after it, a foreign aristocrat over a socialist Chinese poet, and slowness over high speed. She was designated a "rightist", dragged from meetings to meetings to be criticized and humiliated. She lost her job in the library and was assigned to work in the cleaning crew. Her boyfriend disappeared from her view and publicly announced that he "had a clean break" with her. When running into her, people looked aside when they did not have enough time to walk away. For the first time in her life, she found herself in complete isolation.


The day Soviet expert Alexander walked towards her, she caught sight of his eyes looking straight at her before she had the time to turn hers away, and their blue gleam shone upon the darkness of her life. He used to go to the library frequently during breaks and had always felt a special connection with her. Knowing that she had fallen into misfortune by praising Pushkin, he came to her defense. Like before, they managed to communicate with his little Chinese and her little Russian; every new word or phrase they learned seemed to bring them closer to each other. When he read to her one of Pushkin's most famous poems "If life has deceived you", although she did not know enough Russian to understand the original much beyond the title, she was so familiar with its Chinese translation that she wept, bitterly.


After a few weeks though, he was called to a meeting with the Party secretary, and the director of the Women's Union came to see her. In order not to "damage international relation between two brotherly countries", they either needed to get married or avoid contact. They were by then inseparable and agreed to be married. Their marriage improved her situation. She stayed in the factory while other "rightists" were sent into exile in the countryside or the border provinces. Alexander enjoyed the warm weather and lush landscape of this picturesque southern town. They forgot themselves in the nearby bamboo forest dotted with ponds dyed green by bamboo reflections. When spring arrived, they immersed themselves in the clouds of peach blossoms on the hills, and ocean of undulating golden rapeseed flowers in the fields, under the splendid luminosity of the southern sky.


When the Great Famine (officially called the Natural Disasters) hit in 1959, they were largely spared thanks to the special treatment afforded to the Soviet experts and were even able to help her parents, but they could not have foreseen the split between the Soviet Union and China, and the abrupt withdrawal of all the Soviet experts. There was no choice but to follow Alexander back to his country. From the day she unfortunately talked about the Chinese poet and Pushkin, she felt like a small train driven by an invisible and silent conductor, never knowing where would be her next station or what landscape she would encounter. Alexander went back to the aviation plant where he used to work, in a mid-sized city near the Ural Mountains. They arrived in summer when the weather was mild. She gazed at this hilly city by a river, a tributary of the famous Volga, and was determined to make it her new home.
- We will go downtown so that you can get a haircut and buy some new clothes, he said the next morning.
- Haircut?
- Yes. There will be a gathering with friends and co-workers tonight.


bendu009decv11He was looking at her braids. He used to enjoy playing with them. He never had to change his hair or clothing styles while in China. Then it occurred to Anna that he was in China as a Soviet expert and she came to his country as his wife.
As weeks went by, Anna made increasing progress in Russian and met more people. Each new person encountered was like a new word endowed with its multiple meanings and shifting forms, wrapped around a sentence and surrounded by a paragraph, except that words do not look back at you and judge you, making you feel clumsy or awkward. They patiently wait for you and welcome you to discover their hidden messages. She started to work a few hours a day in the library of the city's technical school, completing simple tasks such as dusting the shelves and reshelving the books. Shy and meticulous, Anna felt a great satisfaction working in the library.
Then winter set in, and it seemed never-ending. Anna had never seen anything more than a few flurries that melted as soon as they hit ground, but now snow blanketed the entire mountains and the city, while the river was frozen, and gusty bone-piercing wind made her stumble as soon as she stepped outside. Before winter was over, she received her older sister's "last letter": Their parents had died during the continuing Natural Disasters. Food had to be rationed; there was not enough even for blameless people, not to say a family with a rightist relative who left for an enemy country.


As Anna spoke more and more Russian, Alexander was losing the little Chinese he had acquired over his years in China, as if the more she moved towards him, the more he was drifting away. To make matters worse, none of the doctors they consulted was able to determine the cause of their infertility. Meanwhile, the relationship between their two countries – yes, China still counted as Anna's country even though she could no longer go back to it and had nothing there to go back to – worsen, until the border disputes escalated into a military confrontation in 1969. Alexander lost his security clearance as a senior engineer in the aviation plant and was reassigned to teach in the technical school where Anna by then worked full-time in the library circulation department. They started to have those silly arguments which left them both upset and frustrated, even though she never knew how they started or why they mattered. She tried to make peace by apologizing.
- I am really sorry to have made you angry.
- If you know you were wrong, why did you do (say) it?
- Until you became angry, I did not realize it mattered.
- Are you trying to justify yourself?
- No, I am really sorry.
- How many times have you done the same thing? You always apologize, but there is never any improvement.
- I would be happy if you apologized just once.
- Are you apologizing or you want to make me apologize?

Anna realized when Alexander became angry there was no way to bring him around. Words were useless. The only thing she could do was to wait, for hours, days, or weeks. Patience was what she needed. She was grateful that he always returned home. She had nowhere else to go, and the small apartment felt so much warmer when he was there, even in silence. She would sit quietly close to him, but not too close. By observing him she could tell how a storm was gradually fading, and when a faint ray of sunlight was about to reappear. She learned to stop digging, stop talking as soon as she sensed a small trace of upset in him. She would watch him while he looked away, and her eyes would try to tell him how grateful she was, and how sorry she was to have messed up his career, his life. Marriage is a box. You feel safe inside not only because of where you are, but also because how people think of you: since you are so neatly "arranged" they would not wonder about you, try to figure you out, or project their inquisitive gaze on you. A natural librarian, Anna liked things neat and tidy.


The year Gorbachev visited China, Alexander had a stroke. He suffered speech loss and partial paralysis, with the ability only to move his left arm and hand. Anna retired from the library to take care of him. She learned to understand what he wanted by looking into his eyes and, in the most unexpected way, she finally felt her heart at peace. Words can hurt. Now that they could no longer talk with each other, they were safer than ever before. She would hold and stroke his left hand, let time drip away in the sand of eternity. To paraphrase Rilke with a twist: their story consists of two solitudes that met, warmed and comforted each other. For about a year, his condition fluctuated. One day, he fell asleep and never woke up again.


bendu 007dec11Anna continued to live in their small apartment. A year later, the Soviet Union dissolved. With inflation skyrocketing year after year, Anna's small pension became barely enough for bread and butter, while breathtaking changes were occurring all around her: highways, tall buildings, and new stores sprang up before she even noticed when the constructions had started. The worst part though was the weather, the monotony of seasons. She dreaded winter even in summer, as if she were waiting for the other shoe to drop. She felt like she was on a train, a preprogrammed automated train, which circulated predictably from short summer to long winter, very long winter, with snow everywhere, and gusty bone-piercing wind. What if she jumped off?


On a late summer day when she could already feel a slight coldness in the breeze, she walked by a newly opened travel agency, which displayed attractive photos of faraway lands. She had her eyes set on one place: tropical islands surrounded by the warm blue ocean, luxuriant forests with splashing waterfalls, cascades of unknown rainbow-colored climbing flowers and abundant fruits: mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and coconuts... no winter, no visa required for Russian citizens. The native people on the pictures somehow bore resemblance to her.

She sold her apartment to a crafty developer who had been pestering the residents of the building where she lived, and went back to the travel agency. She bought a one-way ticket to the only place she had ever chosen.

Drawings by Bendu

 

Monday, 18 March 2013 17:34

In Praise of Readers

This essay was initially inspired by Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness". It was gratifying, upon reading it, to realize that I had been spending my (too little) leisure time in ways that he might have approved. While I find Russell's essay illuminating, I am not worried about repeating his thinking though, because the distance between my mind and that of a great philosopher remains insurmountable. My praise does not involve a concept, however tangible, but a familiar figure, the reader.

Let us celebrate the readers in us, who chose to read the books that to some extent raised us and shaped what we have become. The books we choose show us alternative ways of thinking and life in distant lands, different from the immediate surroundings where we happen to be confined. They provide opportunities for us to exercise our freedom and to follow the path we otherwise might not have imagined, beyond what is obviously within our reach. It is readers who grant true existence to books, whose meanings remain in virtual state, waiting to be activated and constantly renewed. By readers I mean those who give their books undivided attention, the gift of attentiveness, and who enter a book with the willingness for dialogue, communion and transformation. Such readers may be in the process of becoming an "endangered species" in a world where an abundance of distractions compete for our attention. We are always in danger of losing the readers in us, because temptations lurk everywhere, even, or perhaps more so, for those of us who apparently chose reading as part of our profession: reading for summaries, in order to select elements to fit a pre-established theoretic framework, reading with little joy but the pressure of publishing... For several years I did not have time to read any new books unrelated to my research projects, and quite a few colleagues, reputable scholars in my field, made the same confession. It then dawned on me: it is less important for me to study an author's marginal notes than to read the books that he would have enjoyed had he been my contemporary.

Books worthy of our attention may require more than one reading in order for us to appreciate its value, as we grow with each of our re-readings. Over the years, the books that I reread have taken on the role of friends who accompany me in my meandering trajectory. One such example is Flaubert's Education sentimentale. When I first read it, as a teenager avid for any books I could get hold of, in a Chinese translation, I was struck by the beautiful and moving image of Marie Arnoux but rejected Frédéric Moreau as a feeble, indecisive and useless person, and to some degree, this novel as well. In my subsequent reading, enriched by years of learning French language and literature at Peking University, as I gained knowledge on its literary history and acquired its tastes, and coupled with my own experience and observations in the world of emotions, I came to appreciate the truthfulness and complexity of feelings as expressed in Flaubert's language. Later, when I spent a year in Paris through an exchange program between Boston College and the École Normale Supérieure, my familiarity with the city helped bring to life numerous scenes in the novel that previously I had only imagined, making me more sensitive to individuals' fate through historical changes, complexity of their particular situations, and their solitude facing the inevitable passage and damage of time.

Reading nourishes writing. It is through intimate knowledge of tradition that we can create something truly innovative. A young man once told me that he would like to be a writer. When I found out that the last book he read was a required one from his high school, I encouraged him not to write immediately, but first to read. Given the abundance of book productions, the world would be a better place with one more reader and one fewer writer, who, like the spider from Jonathan Swift's essay, weaves elaborate yet fragile webs out of thin air. The bee would be a more fitting metaphor for a writer who produces tasty honey with a fertile mind nourished by numerous flowers encountered through his wandering journey. On the other hand, in the bee's fanciful flight may lack gravity or pain (except what it inflicts on other creatures who accidentally come into contact), an often necessary creative dimension. The silkworm, a frequently adopted metaphor in Chinese literature, can complement the bee's shortcoming. Its fidelity is exemplary: feeding on a single substance, mulberry leaves, and producing, with the dedication of its entire being, a unique cocoon for silk. If we could somehow imagine a strange animal which is partly a bee and partly a silkworm, it could make an appropriate metaphor for a great writer.

Readers not only fulfill the meaning of existing texts, they can be part of the creative process as well. Few authors write without readers in their mind and even those completely disillusioned against their contemporaries place their hope in posterity, readers to come. In some cases, a writer probably would not have created a work without the existence of a special reader; this may be true for all creative works such as music and painting. A Chinese legend illuminates such a rare bond: Bo Ya, a consummate player of Guqin, an ancient seven-stringed music instrument, had a privileged listener, Zhong Ziqi, who perfectly understood his music, his mind and his heart. When Zhong passed away, Bo Ya broke his instrument in distress and ceased to play music for the rest of his life. In Chinese tradition, this legend is typically used to illustrate one's faithfulness to a rare friend who truly knows his mind (zhiyin), while some might reproach him for having such an exclusive taste that only one person was able to fully appreciate him. There is, however, the possibility that even if he had tried, Bo Ya simply would not have been able to play the instrument at the same artistic level he had attained in the company of his soul mate. Bo Ya, therefore, was not only faithful to his friend, but also to the idea of art that he chose to uphold. Considering that he must have played his instrument for many years prior to his encounter with Zhong, his ultimate renouncement also reveals the intensity of pain associated with an irreplaceable loss. The reader can thus be a metaphor for the selective person whose intelligence, receptiveness and resonance become instrumental in the creative process. To the extent that each of us can be viewed as a "work in progress", we can all benefit from the "reader" whose presence allows us to fully discover and achieve the unique potential in our being. The reader, in this sense, is not a passive recipient, but an inspirational partner, and people can be mutual readers to each other.

There are ways for the act of reading to become a collective event shared by many readers. Blois, France, a beautiful historical city by the Loire River and my home away from home, hosts an annual literary prize awarded to a first French novel published in France, the Prix Roblès. Reading committees are formed throughout Blois, the department of Loir-et-Cher, and worldwide, currently including Europe, Africa, North and South America, perhaps one day Asia as well? From March to the Award Ceremony, usually held in June, readers choose a winner out of 5 or 6 books selected as finalists by a committee composed of librarians in conjunction with the Académie Goncourt. There are two or three public forums led by literary critics where foreign committees can participate by sending their comments. Each committee has only one vote, and therefore needs to hold discussions and arrive at a consensus. The actual voting, full of suspense, is held in the morning of the award ceremony, a televised event followed by book signing. Since Prix Roblès takes place during my annual stay in Blois, I have witnessed how the Blésois were engaged in the selection process, caring deeply about its outcome and showing up enthusiastically at the Award Ceremony and the Book Signing. This year, I finally decided to take the time to form a committee with francophone colleagues at my university. At the time I write this essay, I am waiting for the books to arrive at my home across the ocean, mountains and rivers. I look forward to this shared reading experience, anticipating it to generate echoes that amplify the joy felt by readers in Blois and all over the world, each in our own corner.

Illustration by Bengua

Tuesday, 26 February 2013 18:54

Stories about Money and People

I should be the last person to want to write about money. Growing up in China during the waning years of Mao's reign, I thought happiness, or lack of misery, was when we did not need to think about it. To this day I still believe that wisdom consists of spending just enough time taking care of money matters so that we can free our mind from it the rest of the time. It is also wise to avoid the topic unless you are endowed with Benjamin Franklin's ease and wit. But then no matter where you hide yourself (such as in academia), how hard you try to turn a blind eye, at some point a thought creeps into your mind: money has permeated all aspects of human relationships. Workers, no matter how hard-working how talented, have become costs to be shifted, reduced or eliminated by the (job) creators with capital. The well-intentioned slogan of "the customer is king (God)" has perversely become an excuse for some "paying customers" to behave rudely, without necessarily realizing that the real king (God) is not them, but money. In some corrupted and money-worshiping societies, more and more human interactions are "translated" into monetary transactions. In such societies, incivility has increasingly become a common occurrence, because why would people bother to be polite unless they are, or expect to be rewarded with money, or its equivalents. Faced with such an invisible, dehumanizing force, I would like to attempt a contrary, almost quixotic act: to shed some light on the complex fabric of human relations interwoven with our money stories, which are seldom purely about money; they are almost always and sometimes foremost, about people.

One of my earliest money stories involves my best friend from high school. On my way back to Peking University after my first winter break in the early eighties, my train ticket and my student ID were stolen in Chengdu, because I committed the stupidity of putting them in my coat pocket. I had to buy another ticket, at full price, and had so little money left when I arrived at Beijing that I spent the entire month eating rice or steamed buns with salted preserved vegetables. Later, when I incidentally shared my unfortunate story with my friend, she was very upset that I had not written to her, because she would have reduced my misery by sharing part of her monthly stipend; by not even informing her, I denied her the opportunity to show how much she cared about me and at the same time signaled, due to the reciprocity of Chinese culture, that I would not do for her what she would have done for me. Her reaction made me wonder if maybe my self-abnegation actually reflected my selfishness, or maybe there exists a difference between what we would gladly do for others and what we can comfortably expect from them. I accepted her blame as her caring expression. By now the memory of my one-month hardship has long faded but she has remained a friend.

At Peking University, Michel Gauthier was a professor for both undergraduate and graduate studies. He taught a wide range of courses in French culture and literature, always including plentiful digressions, which offered glimpses of insights into French way of life and cultural reflexes. I learned how to write academic papers in French by working on my Master's thesis under his direction. We left China almost at the same time: he went back to Paris and I went to Boston College. During my years as a poor PhD candidate and beginning assistant professor in the USA, he hosted me on several occasions for two weeks at a time, until he passed away in 2002. It is important to note that the French are much more likely to host their friends than Americans. In fact, the finer points of French culture I absorbed during my stays with him through conversations and observations constitute an invaluable part of my apprentissage. Among Chinese friends, those who host usually pay for everything, and visitors are expected to bring appropriate presents; reciprocity is achieved when roles are reversed. This arrangement would not have worked as I went to Paris frequently and he was by then too old to contemplate trips outside of France. Michel would not let me pay for any restaurant meals either, which I do for my other French hosts, because he was an old-fashioned gentleman in that regard. Since I knew his favorite brands, I managed to buy groceries for him sometimes as a small gesture to show my appreciation. There was no way to make the situation "fair" financially. Like water that flows naturally to lower lands, in a true friendship, those who have the ability tend to contribute more, and reciprocity may be approximated when people genuinely enjoy each other's presence and give each other the best they have. In some circumstances, in a humbling way, we simply have to honestly recognize our debt, of which money is only a small part. This recognition may constitute our ultimate effort towards reciprocity.

I met Magali in China in 1987 when I was a graduate student and worked in summer as a tour guide for French tourists, an accompagnatrice who traveled with the group for the entire trip, which is different from local guides. We stayed in five-star hotels, had our meals with the group, and made less than 5 RMB per day. Young female guides sometimes received late night phone calls from mysterious personnel checking if we were alone. No matter how late we came back from sightseeing, the French would always insist on having some drinks, their sacred aperitif, in hotel bars before dinner. Each of those drinks cost at least 5 RMB, which explained why I always found a way to disappear during that time. It was the first group I accompanied and except for being a competent interpreter I knew very little about tourism service, but most people did not seem to mind. While the local guides delivered authoritative information about the cities and the sites we visited, the tourists asked me all kinds of questions about life in China, as if I were literally its embodiment. Magali and I liked each other right away, and within a few days she had shown me her fiancé's picture, let me know how nice he was, how they met, how many times her monthly salary the trip cost, etc. In White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, their final destination, instead of accepting my excuse, she insisted on asking me to join them for aperitif and offered to buy me a drink:

- Tu me feras plaisir.

I liked the idea and the expression. By drawing my attention to her pleasure, she showed me how I could reciprocate. We remain friends to this day, through many visits and trips together, mostly in France, and recently in my home, followed by two weeks in California and a series of national parks. The more things we do with our friends, the harder it is to avoid dealing with money-related issues, but the most important part to remember is why we get together to begin with. The underlying principle of reciprocity manifests itself in various ways across cultures and evolves with time. Those of us who live in "multiple worlds" sometimes have a difficult time assessing which sets of rules to apply in each given situation: you need to figure out who you are with, their cultural reflexes; if they have lived in different countries at different times, which country's rules at which time they currently follow; how to be generous without appearing condescending, taking into account personal situation and susceptibility... I prefer to be flexible and spontaneous: if we enjoy someone's company, we do not need to do careful calculations and split things exactly down to the middle. Some rough estimations of turn taking or division should be enough. Of course, I respect people who need to do calculations, which is probably the most practical way in some cases.

Due to the wide disparity of our social situations, true reciprocity does not necessarily mean equal amount of money. The quintessentially Chinese book "The Dream of the Red Chamber" contains an emblematic story. Zhen Shiyin, a country gentleman, had a new neighbor, Jia Yucun, an impoverished scholar from an old aristocratic family. Zhen intended to help Jia but did not find the opportunity until one beautiful moonlight night at the Mid-Autumn Festival. They spent the evening doing what traditional Chinese scholars enjoyed the most: drinking, conversing, composing and reciting poems inspired by the moon... Zhen appreciated Jia's talent and ambition as revealed in his poem. When he found out Jia needed money to travel to Beijing for the Imperial Examination, he eagerly seized the occasion to offer him money and two sets of clothes. Based on traditional Chinese ethics, the most important component of Jia's debt towards Zhen was the "debt of gratitude", contracted when a person's merit was recognized by someone in a position to offer help (zhi yu zhi en), never to be forgotten. Chinese novels and folktales are full of similar stories of "generously opening one's purse", based on needs, between people with congenial minds and mutual appreciation. It does not include the expectation of returning the money but carries numerous implicit understandings, of which Zhen mentioned the desire to see each other again, "what a delightful thing!". However, Jia, who succeeded in his examination and became a government official, did not make any attempt to be reunited with his benefactor. Meanwhile, Zhen renounced the world to be a Taoist monk after enduring great misfortune due to the abduction of his only daughter and a fire that destroyed his entire estate. When Jia chanced upon Mrs. Zhen's family, the amount of money he sent to them far exceeded Zhen's original gift. If this were a financial transaction, Jia would be a blameless man, but stories about money and people are always more complex... When Jia had the opportunity to rescue Zhen's daughter, he did not want to risk offending a powerful family and looked the other way. Jia's excessive ambition foreshadowed that he would fail the test of friendship, as his name suggests, phonetically, fakeness.

Having lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years, I cannot possibly end my rambling without adding a somewhat optimistic note. A few years ago, when my daughter Lydia was about 10 years old, she spent three weeks in Shanghai with my sister-in-law's family, who enrolled her in a summer camp with children from the Great Britain and Shanghai. The day the camp went to the Old City God Temple, the children were allowed to shop. Lydia told all the shop owners, in Chinese of course: "Uncle (auntie), I came from the United States of America, and need to buy presents for my friends. Would you please give me good prices? Thank you!" Now it is no secret that street sellers tend to rip off tourists, not to say those from foreign countries. Apparently all the Shanghainese children knew that, and one of them told my sister-in-law about it. I could imagine all of them laughing, splitting their sides. My sister-in-law was still laughing when she told me the story, but assured me that, amazingly, based on Lydia's purchases and receipts, all the prices were quite reasonable. Perhaps the merchants cared about their international reputation, but I would rather believe, or hope that, on a human level, it was simply too difficult to rip off a sweet and innocent little girl who addressed them so politely, and decency can overcome greed.

Illustration by Bendu

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