Let’s Get Shameless: Or How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love the Black Sea Coast

Spuneti, September 2004

Looking through my email today, I happened to notice a message from Peace Corps Training announcing group 19’s site placements.  Though I’m not well acquainted with the group, I was eager to see who was placed where.  For me, site announcements left me feeling a little depressed.  A security leak in the system informed me slightly before the big Oscar-themed gala that I was soon headed to Eforie Sud, a small town on the Black Sea Coast. I had visited the coastal city of Neptun with my group not long before, and the thought of returning to the area worried me.  Among my memories of my three-day stay there were getting hit in the groin with a volleyball, severely burning my arms and legs, being accosted by a mustachioed gypsy, and hearing 50 Cent’s “In the Club” blasted outside my hotel room day and night no less than 47 times.  I remember taking lots of pictures, thinking I’d never be back.  “Well,” I figured.  “I’ve never been to this ‘Eforie Sud’ of which they speak.  How bad could it be?”  I consulted the experts at Lonely Planet.  It took some searching, since they didn’t even bother with a sub-section for the town.  I had to look under the Northern Dobruja general section, which collected it with other local towns in the garbage bin of “concrete jungles of the late 1960s,” these “dilapidated, dying resorts.”  I needed a second opinion.  I found a perpetually positive Volunteer friend with a Rough Guide.  “Chin up,” she said.  “How bad could it be?  Let’s just see what the Guide says, hmm?  Hmm.  ‘Squalid, depressing, and not worth a visit.’  Well, good luck with that.”

This wasn’t fitting in with my plans.  In my site placement interview, I remembered asking for a place in the mountains and expecting a small, rural town filled with simple country folk.  Sure, they’d be suspicious of me and my big-city ways at the beginning, but I’d slowly win them over, regaling them with stories of “iced-cream” and motorized carriages, and generally catching them up on the last 100 years of history.  We’d wear animal skins in the winter and sing folk songs to keep us warm.  I might even have a rival or two – a young buck with something to prove.  But I’d charm him too, and we’d secure our hard-won brotherhood by exchanging crude friendship bracelets.

So I tried to look surprised and excited when they called me out in front of the group to present me with my site announcement prize. Getting stuck with a seemingly has-been tourist village had me feeling cheated and overlooked.  It all reminded me of my sixth grade summer camp when at the closing awards ceremony I was deemed “Most Likely to Eat Apple Pie.”  In neither case did the prize seem the result of much personal consideration on the part of the organizers.

Looking back, I came to site last summer with kind of a poor attitude.  My town had all the sounds, smells and appearances that I thought it would.  Not only was I disappointed, but I felt twice as alienated because everyone around me was having so much fun.  It was like being at a party that I wasn’t invited to and couldn’t leave.  I decided to shun their party to make myself feel superior.  I began to venture out of my apartment in daylight only once every two days or so, rubbing my eyes and covering every part of myself with clothing like a recluse in a fallout zone.  On a subconscious level, I also hoped people might notice my strange appearance and absence and reconsider the direction of their lives. Like some seaside-exiled Grinch, I thought I’d teach the people of Eforie Sud a lesson for having fun without me and living in a town and country that didn’t fit my romantic expectations.  I’d show them how they were wasting their lives on the beach!  Some part of me thought I’d accomplish this by walking around town in my winter clothes, perhaps pausing every few minutes to gaze at the horizon thoughtfully and shake my head disapprovingly.  “Who is that somber young American man dressed in corduroy pants and a wool shirt who stays inside his apartment most of the day feeling sorry for himself?” they’d say.  “He’s really teaching me a lesson about how I’m wasting my life here on the beach.”

So I’m happy to say that things have changed after a year.  After getting through a generally boring and cold winter where my tourist town turned into Tumbleweed Alley, I was happy to see the people return this summer.  My town’s not the prettiest, but it has an understated charm.  Heading down to the beach in June, I found that it was easy to join the party, since there’s really no way I could stand out any more than the average Romanian beach tourist, with their luminous sunburns, screaming toddlers, and bright orange shirts that say things like “You Can’t Touch This” with an arrow heading southward.  I began to admire the shamelessness natural to beach goers the world over, such as when morbidly obese men and women here discard even their thong bikinis to stand with only their feet in the Black Sea, stretching their arms open wide and pointing their exposed loins eastward.  It seems no matter where you’re from, the lure of the sea is strong, drawing away your inhibitions and making every man, woman and child feel like a varitable Zeus.  It’s enough to make you fall in love with it.  Looking along the coast, my Grinch heart grew ten sizes.  I bought a Frisbee and even started wearing shorts.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.

I thought about all of this as I scanned the list of group 19 site assignments to see who my lucky new sitemate is.  Who, too, may be born again by the summer sun, shaowarmas and unceasing Manele?  Kelly Henshaw of Mangalia, I’ll see you on the other side.

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Meat People From Around the World: Or a story for Ben and the occasionally regretful

Spuneti, March 2005

It’s been said many times that PCVs in Romania do nothing better than complain.  Since this is largely true, it’s worth examining.  Taken as a whole, most of our complaints are pretty ridiculous, the product of a group of people with too much free time, an inflated sense of self and unrealistic expectations.  Complaining begins in force during PST (“Can you believe they made us go to that boring session on safety and security?  Those animals!”) and only seems to increase over time.

But then there are those with legitimate complaints.  I’d include in this category a friend of mine in group 16, who we’ll call Ben.  Ben wanted to do meaningful work for his local managers, but they weren’t interested in using his skills.  In terms of work, anyway, this hasn’t been the experience he hoped for.  Though Ben has never said it, I’m sure there have been many times when he’s wondered if his time here has been well spent. So for Ben and everyone else who’s ever felt the same, I offer the following story of hope and redemption.

I wasn’t feeling especially good about my work as a volunteer even before I met Florin. It was late January, and it hadn’t been a good week at school. While trying to distinguish Martin Luther King from Martin Luther, I inexplicably and with conviction told two different classes that the religious reformer was also the inventor of the printing press.  Later, while talking about Valentine’s Day, some other students said that it was because of my Valentine’s preaching that Dragobete is a dying holiday, and that all we ever do in class are “stupid games.”  So I was feeling like a misinforming, dumb-as-rocks cultural imperialist when I boarded an overcrowded Rapid from Bucharest to Sinaia.

For anyone having doubts about the value of American influence abroad as I was, traveling on a Romanian train isn’t recommended.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to imagine how anyone could collect such a dizzyingly horrendous assortment of pop music as is piped into the compartments of so many trains here.  Since most of the artists featured on these broadcasts are American, it’s a testament to the typical Romanian’s ability to withstand the cruelest of punishments that, forced to listen to this garbage, they don’t riot and throw me out the window.  When I entered my compartment to the sound of “Living La Vida Loca” blasting from the speaker above the door. I found my seat between a burly old woman and a middle-aged man with an enormous hair coming out of the top of his nose.  The two stared ahead stoically, Ricky’s ubiquitous vacuity just one more trial.

After a few minutes of pretending to read, I sensed I was being stared at.  I looked up to the seat across from me to see a greasy, crazy-looking young man with startlingly bad acne grinning at me. As I really didn’t feel like talking, I gave him a half-smile and went back to my magazine, thinking he’d lose interest.  He didn’t.

“Where are you from?” he said.  I ignored him, staring at the page and scratching the back of my neck.  I hoped he’d get the point.

“HEY!” he shouted.  “I SAID, WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”

“America.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding.  “I don’t like your country.”  He kept looking at me, as if I was supposed to respond to this.  I went back to my magazine, cursing myself for not taking a later train.

“What are you doing here?” he said.  “Romania sucks.”

“I teach English, in Eforie Sud.”

“That’s stupid, we already speak English.”

I thought about explaining Peace Corps’ three goals and the whole cultural exchange thing, but then I noticed the sweater he had on backwards and the shoes he had on the wrong feet.  I decided not to bother.  But he wasn’t finished.

“Hey!  American!  Do you know about Dracula?”

“Do I know about Dracula?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah, I know about Dracula.”

“Do you know about the impaling?”

“I think so.”

“How do you know about this?”

“Well, I’ve seen some movies, and – “

“You Americans, all you know about is Dracula.  Have you been to Sighisoara?”

“Yes.”

“How have you been there?”

“I’ve lived here for a year and – “

“Did you know Dracula was born there?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know that?”

“Well, I – “

“Have you been to this hostel?” He handed me a brochure from the Gia Hostel in Sighisoara.  I scanned the front.  At the bottom it read “Come and have a look and you’ll stay longer than you thought!”  I took this to mean that the owners might bind you and force you to work in the less-advertised Gia Brothel.

“I don’t think so.  Have you?”

“No.”

“Then why did you give this to me?”

“It looks nice.”

After a few moments of awkward silence, he had more to say.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, smiling sheepishly.

“You do?”  I said.  I was just wishing I had put my headphones on sooner.

“Yes.  And I am not a gay.  No, I just like to meet people from around the world.  I knew you were a foreigner.”

It was here that he introduced himself as Florin.  He was on his way to Brasov, where he lives and does odd jobs “mostly in tourism.”  It seemed strange to me that someone with no attention span, cultural sensitivity, national pride or an ability to dress himself would be hired to do anything, much less to work in tourism. But why make an issue of it.  He asked for my cell number, and I felt safe in giving it to him, since I had exchanged numbers with people on trains many times before and never heard from any of them.

“Hey!” Florin said.  “Do you know about Counter-Strike?”

After what seemed like hours of conversation, we stopped in Ploiesti to the tune of “Take my Breath Away.”  Florin eventually got back to basics, asking me again why I was in Romania, but this time allowing me to answer his questions.  I told him, as concisely as possible, about my job and Peace Corps.  He seemed to listen attentively.  I grew bolder, even sentimental.  I gave him all my reasons for devoting two years to serve here. How I too wanted to meet people from around the world, make a difference, grow as a person.  In the end, I felt I had expressed myself with understated grace.

“That sounds really stupid,” he said.  “You don’t get paid?  I wouldn’t do that.  And we don’t need the help of foreigners.  And we already speak English.  You should go back to America, it’s much better.  Bush!  What do you think about this Bush?”

Back on CFR radio, we had reached a new low with “You’re in the Army Now,” a cautionary tale about the standard downfalls of military service.  As Florin droned on about international politics and American incompetence, “unbelievable” was the word that came to mind.  Unbelievable that I this song was written.  Unbelievable that it was recorded.  Unbelievable that anyone allowed it to be played.  Unbelievable that I had to sit and listen to it as well as this nutcase across from me criticizing my job and values and home.  I kept quiet, but this was just what I didn’t need to hear.  Sure, he was insane and harmless, just as my students with their complaints were young.  But when you’re already feeling down, it can be hard not to let people like this get to you.

Florin got up to use the bathroom, giving me a much-needed break.  It was then that the woman who had been reading a magazine silently next to him spoke up.

“Don’t listen to him,” she said.  “I think he’s a little crazy.  It’s great what you’re trying to do here.”

After saying goodbye and getting off the train later, I thought about what she had said.  Maybe she was right.  Maybe things like tangible outcomes and appreciation were unrealistic.  Results took time and you might never see them, but they happened, often in ways and to degrees you didn’t expect.

About three weeks later on Valentine’s Day, back in my apartment watching The Young and the Restless, my phone rang with a text message:

happy valentines ross!

it was nice to meat u!

ur the first american

i meat.  i like u! enjoy

romania! ur friend

florin

In Romania, Every Day Is Halloween

Seattle Times, October 2004

Logically, Halloween should be huge in Romania.

Or so I thought before I came here a year ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. After all, it does contain Dracula’s native Transylvania. Last Halloween however, I discovered there’s little interest here in our day of movie monster dress up and tired ghost stories. In Romania, where superstitions are abundant and spirits are evil and invisible, every day brings something to be afraid of.

It was halfway through October, at the local high school where I work as an English teacher, when I first mentioned All Hallows Eve to a class of Romanian students. “What are you planning to do for Halloween?” I asked, expecting enthusiasm. “I don’t know, nothing,” they responded. I was confused. “But what about the whole Dracula thing?” I asked. They shook their heads, incredulous. “Is that all Americans know about Romania?”

Well, yes. I didn’t have the guts to tell them that I knew nothing else about their country when I was assigned here. I decided I also shouldn’t mention that I always imagined the real Dracula looked and acted like a cross between Bela Lugosi and Count Chocula.

The historical Dracula wasn’t much of a bloodsucker, it turns out, though he was truly bloodthirsty. Dracula writer Bram Stoker based the character on 15th-Century Romanian Prince Vlad Tepes, a brutal leader known for ruthless punishments. He gained the name Tepes (“Impaler”) from his favorite form of punishment. Far from being a seductive super monster, Tepes is considered a national hero in Romania because of his defeat of fierce Ottoman armies and brief uniting of the country. At best Romanians are amused (and at worse very annoyed) by the misinformation spread about Prince Tepes. The building of a Dracula theme park outside of Bucharest has done little to create enthusiasm for Halloween and its role in misconstruing Romanian history.

When the week before Halloween arrived however, I decided to prepare a series of related classroom activities, undeterred by my student’s clear lack of interest in the holiday. I created a lesson wherein I would brilliantly connect current superstitions with the Pagan roots of Halloween. I decided I would decorate my classroom with candles, pumpkins and fake spider webbing. Then I’d pass out candy.

But on the way home from a large Western-style grocery store where I’d purchased my supplies, there was an incident that was to have terrible consequences for my festivities.

In Romania, there is a phenomenon known as the curent. The curent can be best described as an evil wind that is created when two pathways are made to the outside in a room. For example, the curent is apt to appear when two windows are left open on opposite sides. According to many Romanians, the result is a wind current of terrible power, invading the ears of the unfortunate within and causing them to drop dead, or at least get the sniffles.

To the annoyance of skeptical Westerners (myself included), keeping the curent tamed often means having to keep windows closed on buses, trains and classrooms, no matter how hot the summer afternoon or how foul the air within.

Unlike many of my American colleagues, I had been patient with the curent to that point, shrugging it off as a quaint cultural difference. But the bus from the store that late October day was particularly crowded, hot and unbearable. I decided I’d open a window.

An old woman that looked like a dried apple wearing a handkerchief standing next to me immediately closed it. I re-opened it. She yelled at me and closed it again. After a few more attempts and more yelling, I gave up. I had had it with Romania. How could a people be so unreasonable?

Trying to forget that episode, I went to school the next Monday and decorated my room. When my first class came, I began my lesson by opening the discussion comparing American and Romanian superstitions. Apparently our countries share certain superstitions. It seems a black cat crossing your path in Romania is just as much trouble here as it is in Missouri. Broken mirrors, Friday the 13th, spilling salt, and opening an umbrella or whistling indoors are also all bad, we concluded.

Then things started getting a little strange. Simona in the front row told me that if a pot of milk boils over on your stove that your cow will get sick. “What if I don’t have a cow?” I asked. She seemed puzzled by the question. “Then maybe it will be your mother,” she said.

Raluca next to her then told me that a baby walking on its knees is good luck, which seems reasonable. Catalina said that it’s necessary for the bride to be kidnapped during the wedding and held for ransom by an unspecified man. Simona said something about how a woman must dance with a dead chicken smoking a cigarette. Bogdan in the back row spoke of the godfather riding a donkey into a field to meet the new couple the day after the wedding, though the class was unable to agree on the details and significance of this practice.

It was then that I made a mistake. Feeling too comfortable with my students, I decided I would bring up what had been bothering me for days. “What about the curent? I asked. “Some people think that’s a superstition.” It was as if an evil wind blew threw the room. “It’s not a superstition,” scolded Catalina. “It’s real.” I pressed on. “But it doesn’t effect me or my American friends. Are we a race of supermen?” “You haven’t been here long enough,” was the stern reply. “It’s real.” I had gone too far. I needed an exit. “Who wants some candy!” I said.

After class, with my students alienated and my room covered in Halloween paraphernalia, I began to feel a little silly. Here I had come all this way to a country I knew nothing about, imposed my customs and logic, and expected them to listen. My students had shown me Romania was a fascinating place, albeit one where a pot of milk or an open window could kill you. Maybe it was time to learn more than teach, and be grateful I lived in a place with distinct customs. Sitting down to fill out my grade book a few minutes later, a breeze came through the window. My papers fluttered, and the classroom door slammed shut violently. “Close your window!” yelled someone in the hall outside.

That was enough for me. This Halloween, I plan to celebrate as Romanians do, near a fire, with friends, telling true scary stories, and with all the windows and doors safely locked.

Getting Away to It All: Xuanwu Lake’s vibrant paths demand another lap

(Map Magazine, 10/07)

Last year, I was fortunate enough to live and work just a few minutes walk from Xuanwu Lake and its (mostly) surrounding free park and walkway. This proximity allowed me to continue my long held running habit, albeit in an environment that, while relatively quiet and relaxed, bore little resemblance to what I was accustomed to, and made Xuanwu so much more than a place to exercise.

My first few runs around Xuanwu were inspiring but a bit stressful. It was an unquestionably beautiful spot, its combination of history and nature seeming to place it a world apart from the city outside. There’s the old city wall to the south creating so imposing a barrier to modernity, the respectfully maintained flowers and trees in its shadow, the southern temples rising above it like sentinels, and Purple Mountain above even that, barely visual through the haze like a dreamt idea of a mountain. I remember coming through the park’s south gate and, seeing it all for the first time, looking back at the guard next to me uncertainly, as if to say, “Is this okay? Can I be here?” This place couldn’t be public or free, I reasoned. So I was happy to see him stare at his shoes and smoke his cigarette, completely disinterested in me.

Yet the park was often much more crowded than I was used to. Back home, I ran as much to find solitude as to stay in shape, and there were a number of parks where I could reliably blend into the environment, finding relatively few people from whom I was mostly indistinguishable. At Xuanwu, I seemed to be a magnet for attention. Sure I looked silly in my running shorts and hat, but did people have to stare so much? And why were cars and mopeds allowed on the path?

Once I learned to dodge the cars and ignore the stares and giggles at Xuanwu, I better appreciated its unique features. More than just a beautiful place, the park was a world in itself, a gathering of terrific sights, sounds and smells, a sort of public square where people of all ages and backgrounds came.

It was a gathering place for the religious, whose incense and chanting would reach me as I ran past Jiming Temple just outside the south gate. For the elderly, it was a place to exercise and relax, such as for the women practicing Tai Chi on the park’s lakeside spaces, waving to me between songs playing on their vintage tape recorder. Opposite them, I’d often see an older, shirtless man straddling a tree inside the park, punching its trunk with the sides of his arms. Without exception, he would turn and grunt at me as I ran passed.

For the young, it was romantic. In the spring, I’d see countless couples posing for their wedding photos along the park’s finest stretch near the wall to the south, the grooms looking slightly bewildered in their borrowed tuxedos, the brides’ eagerly racing from one location to the next, lifting their gowns just enough to reveal tennis shoes underneath.

Scores of other couples were never far away, snuggling on a lakeside bench, in a swan shaped boat or hammock. In warmer weather, they grew bolder and more obvious, setting up tents for a conjugal getaway, about as private an arrangement as many could find in the world’s most populous country. I considered Xuanwu as having perhaps been the inspiration, photographic background and now consummation setting for countless relationships, a sort of matrimonial giving tree.

For athletes, it was a training ground, a place where some of the country’s best came last fall in preparation for the national games. I’d often encounter them running along the lake, looking at turns terrified and terrifically confident, but always physically impressive. I’d smile at them and sometimes offer a “Jia You!,” which was usually answered with embarrassed smiles.

For the fishermen sitting along the banks to the west, it was a source of food and relaxation. It seemed to me they were rarely rewarded for their patience. Solitude was its own reward, I hoped.

Xuanwu was also a place of work for many, such as the vendors selling tea, binoculars, chicken in a bag, or apples on a stick along the north side. For children, it was a place of excitement and strangeness, such as for the boy who, walking hand in hand with his father, stared un-self consciously at the foreigner running by, building up the confidence to send a “Jia You!” in his direction. I smiled and forgot for a few moments whatever pain was in my legs and lungs.

Reaching the small walking bridge that signaled my halfway point, I turned around to repeat the path back home. Walking for a minute, I took in the entire park, all of its people and places, and started again, glad to do it all over.

Where the “Young Warrior” Found Her Fight: Ten years after Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking brought international attention to the Nanjing Massacre, those who helped her research the book in Nanjing recall their work, how it changed them and the author’s enduring legacy.

Map Magazine, December 2009

Yang Xiaming still remembers the day he first met Iris Chang.  It was the summer of 1995, and he was working as an International Relations instructor at Jiangsu Provincial Young Managerial Cadres College. He anticipated a light workload and some vacation time.  So when his former classmate Wang Weixing asked him if he was willing to work as a translator for “an American writer” researching a book about the Nanjing Massacre for about 20 days in late July and early August, he agreed.

On the sweltering afternoon of July 24th, Yang, along with Wang Weixing and Professor Sun Zhaiwei of the Jiangsu Academy of Social  Sciences Department of History, traveled to Nanjing University’s Xiyuan Guest House, where they had arranged to meet the newly arrived writer.  Yang knew nothing of the person he was to assist, so when a smiling, ponytailed 27 year-old Chinese American emerged from her dorm room that day, he was astonished.

“So young!” Yang recalls thinking.  “Like a college student, sort of.  Her Mandarin was okay.  She could basically understand our speaking, but she needed English to express complicated ideas.”  Yang, like those who met Chang in Nanjing that summer, doubted that this ostensibly sweet tempered and inexperienced young woman could even complete a book about a subject this dark and complex. Yet, over the course of a few weeks, he and a handful of others would help Chang collect the information that provided the basis and the fuel for one of the most influential and controversial books of the decade.

The book Chang wrote, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, became an international bestseller, launched Chang into literary stardom and made her the spokesperson of a political movement.  To date, it has sold over 500,000 copies.  One of the first English books devoted to the subject, it has been praised by many prominent historians, and is considered a landmark in Massacre studies in the West.  Bill Guttentag dedicated Nanking, the 2007 film about the Nanjing Massacre he co-directed, to Chang. “Anyone who makes a film on this subject owes a great debt to Iris Chang,” he told us.

Iris Chang took her own life on November 9th, 2004.  She was 36, the author of three nonfiction books, and considered one of America’s best young writers.  In China, she was widely known as “the young warrior” who brought one of the country’s most tragic events to worldwide attention.  None who came to know her in Nanjing during that summer could have imagined that she would achieve such heights, or that her story would end so abruptly less than ten years later.

In retrospect, Iris Chang’s path to Nanjing and the ensuing book seemed almost predetermined.  The city was home to her maternal grandparents, who escaped just weeks before Japanese troops arrived in the city in December of 1937.

Among Chang’s strongest childhood memories were the vivid stories of the Sino-Japanese War and, in particular, the Nanjing Massacre.  The stories had been passed down to her parents, and they in turn told them to her.  According to her parents, Japanese soldiers during the massacre “sliced babies not just in half but in thirds and fourths. The Yangtze River ran red with blood for days.  Their voices quivering with outrage, my parents characterized the Great Nanking Massacre, or Nanjing Datusha, as the single most diabolical incident committed by the Japanese in a war that killed more than ten million Chinese people.”

She tried to research the events in Nanjing at her school library, but found nothing.  “That struck me as odd.  If the Rape of Nanking was truly so gory, one of the worst episodes of human barbarism in world history, as my parents had insisted, then why hadn’t someone written a book about it?”

Chang studied journalism at the University of Chicago, where she was offered an internship at the Associated Press bureau in Chicago.  She later worked briefly as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune before winning a fellowship to study writing at Johns Hopkins University.  There, instructors at Hopkins quickly recognized Chang’s talent, and recommended her to an editor at HarperCollins Publishers, who was looking for a writer with a background in Mandarin and the sciences to write a biography of Hsue-Shen Tsien, the “father of the People’s Republic of China’s missile system.” The resulting work, The Thread of the Silkworm, was published in 1995.

Chang’s attention returned to the Massacre in 1994, when she spoke with two film producers who had made a documentary about the Massacre. Chang began researching the event, and attended a conference in Cupertino, California focusing on Sino-Japanese relations and unsettled war crimes issues.

If Chang’s interest in the Massacre had recently been rekindled, Cupertino set it afire.  The conference included an exhibition of photos taken during the Massacre, which Chang described as “some of the most gruesome photographs I have ever seen in my life.  Though I had heard so much about the Rape of Nanking as a child, nothing prepared me for these pictures – stark black-and-white images of decapitated heads, bellies ripped open, and nude women forced by their rapists into various pornographic poses, their faces contorted into expressions of agony and shame.”

“In a single blinding moment I recognized the fragility of not just life but the human experience itself,” she wrote.  “I was suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying, this reversion in human social evolution, would be reduced to a footnote of history…unless someone forced the world to remember it.”

Hearing of Chang’s plans to write a book on the Massacre, the conference organizers, the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II, provided her with funding, grant writing assistance, travel contacts and the names of Nanjing Massacre historians.

One of those experts was Wu Tianwei, a history professor then based in Illinois.  Professor Wu wrote a letter to Sun Zhaiwei, asking him to assist Iris in her research and find her an English translator in Nanjing.  Sun agreed, enlisting Wang Weixing to collect related documents and Yang Xiaming to translate.

Yang speaks with us on a cold, grey mid-December day in the living room of the Long Jiang Xiao district apartment in West Nanjing that he shares with his wife and daughter. He is currently a history professor at the Jiangsu School of Administration, and is considered one of the leading experts in Nanjing Massacre history.  He traces the origins of the inspiration for his work directly to Chang’s visit.  “At the time I didn’t know very much about this subject,” he tells us.  He estimates that he spent much of the last 12 years researching the Massacre.  Chang’s commitment, compassion for the survivors and sense of duty inspired Yang.  “I changed my entire academic research area because of her,” he says.

Recently, he completed the third Mainland Chinese translation of Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Though he stays very busy with his classes and research and does not consider himself a translator, he said that when the book’s Mainland publisher and Chang’s parents requested that he undertake the project, he didn’t hesitate.  “The book wasn’t complete here,” he says, referring the notoriously poor prior Mainland Chinese translations.  “I said to her mother, ‘I am not the best translator, but I witnessed the book’s birth.  I also have the background.  Even more, I want to do this work and make it good for Iris.’”

Though 12 years have passed since he and Chang worked together, Yang has seemingly lost none of his enthusiasm for speaking of his friend.  He talks readily, getting up frequently to show examples of Chang’s work or evidence of her time here.

Yang recalls that Chang’s planning and sense of purpose allayed his doubts about her abilities. At their first meeting at the Xiyuan, Chang told Sun, Wang and Yang her goals for her time in Nanjing.  She wanted to interview survivors, visit massacre sites, see Nanjing itself, and translate related historical documents.  “She was very clear about what she wanted to accomplish during her time here,” Yang remembers. After she told him of her previous book and success at Johns Hopkins, “I knew she was quite capable of doing something like this.”

Yang, Sun Zhaiwei, Wang Weixing and Chang set to work immediately. Sun contacted Duan Yueping, then assistant curator at the Nanjing Massacre Compatriot Victims Memorial Museum, and asked if she could help them find and interview local Massacre survivors. Wang Weixing was asked to gather related archives and data, while Yang was to serve as Chang’s local guide and translator. He estimates that he spent nearly every one of the following 20 days with Chang.

On their first day of research, Sun Zhaiwei, Duan Yueping and Yang accompanied Chang to massacre sites. At each site Chang took photos of the monuments’ inscriptions and the surrounding environment. Yang remembers that Chang “often stood alone in front of the monuments for a long time, immersed in thought.” The following day, the two visited a number of city landmarks, including Jiming Temple and the city wall at Zhonghua Gate.

Yang, Duan Yueping and Chang began interviewing survivors on Chang’s third day in Nanjing.  Tang Shunshan was her first interviewee. Chang, Yang remembers, always asked the survivors the same three questions at the beginning of each interview.  “She first asked permission to use the interview as content.  She then asked for autobiographical information.  Finally, she asked the subject to describe his or her experience during the Massacre.”  Chang videotaped the interview on her camcorder while Yang took notes.  The majority of the survivors were clearly eager to tell their stories.  Tang, Yang remembers, spoke continuously for nearly 40 minutes.

Yang and Duan Yueping recall that Chang asked highly specific questions of the survivors regarding their lives before the Massacre.  She would ask “different questions for different people, like ‘When did you get up?’ ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ ‘What kind of shoes did you wear?’ ‘What did you do when it rained?’  ‘Where did you have lunch?’  ‘What were roads like then?’  Very detailed.  That’s what made her different from historians.  We just try to write the facts.  She tried to describe the humans.  Not just history, but history with a human face.”

The information she gathered from such questions such as these allowed Chang to create the vivid descriptions of Nanjing circa 1937 found in The Rape of Nanking.  One description of old Nanjing found in the book, Yang notes, originated almost entirely from the memory of survivor Pan Kaiming.

The survivors’ living conditions, coupled with the continued denials of many Japanese nationalists that the Massacre ever took place, greatly disturbed and incensed Chang, Yang and Duan Yueping remember. “She was very angry that the survivors were suffering,” Yang says. “That the perpetrators lived much better than the survivors.” Visits to two survivors left Chang particularly shaken. Survivor Chen Degui’s house was “utterly destitute,” Yang says.  “The apartment was only six square meters,” with “space only for a bed.” Another survivor, Liu Yongxing “had no bathroom.  He washed himself with a towel that he used in a washbasin with a bit of black water in it.  His house was narrow, small, disordered, damp and dark.”

Chang would later tell interviewers that her time with the survivors’ solidified her commitment to the work. “I wrote the book out of a sense of rage,” she said. “I didn’t care if I made a cent from it.”  Yang believes that Chang’s time with the survivors caused a fundamental change in her perception and goals.  “After interviewing [survivor Liu], she told me she was going to quit writing and learn law.  She wanted to be an advocate for the survivors. When she first came, her intention [with the book] was to write something in remembrance of those who died.  Because many didn’t know who they were.”  But later, “she changed her plan and tried to prove the nature of human beings.  I think this change took place because of what she saw here in Nanjing.”

Though her experience in Nanjing clearly emboldened Chang, it also took a toll.  “I was weak during the whole time I was writing the book, and physically unwell during the month I spent in China,” she said in interviews. “I lost weight and I lost hair. I got sick frequently. I was very unhappy.” Yang confirms that Chang “was sick all the time.”  However, like Yang, Duan Yueping remembers Chang’s overall mood was positive while she was here.

Chang had only one confrontation during their work in Nanjing, though it was to have important consequences.  Following the survivor interviews, Yang accompanied Chang to a number of landmarks in the city and sites of important events during the Massacre.  While filming near the former home of Massacre photographer John Magee, they were loudly approached by an older man. Though they were filming legally, the man implied that he wanted to confiscate Chang’s film.

Yang subdued the man, but Chang “didn’t talk for some time” after the confrontation. Later, she “insisted that her videotapes be copied and left here in case someone confiscated them.  She thought the tapes were the most valuable thing she had made during her time here.” Yang walks into his study, returning moments later with five VHS cassette tapes. He indicates the sides of the tapes where Chang wrote detailed names, dates and places.  He is surprised to learn that, according to the producers of the recent film Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking, these tapes are the last known copies of the videos Chang made while in Nanjing.  The tapes, the films’ coordinators tell us, were essential for recreating the story of Chang’s time in Nanjing.

Chang and Yang became good friends over the course of their work that summer.  He recalls the afternoons they spent, along with Wang Weixing, at Nanjing University’s scientific research center, where they translated documents and the videotaped testimony.  Yang’s wife and daughter would bring them lunch, and they stayed to enjoy the building’s air conditioning during that exceptionally hot summer.   Chang was also a frequent dinner guest at the Yang family home. She would play their piano or spend time with their daughter, with whom she bonded over a mutual love of books and music.

He remembers the day when Chang told him that she discovered the diary of Minnie Vautrin, the missionary known as “The Living Goddess of Nanking.” Vautrin saved an estimated 10,000 women and girls from rape and murder by turning Jinling College into a safety zone, and her detailed diary provided invaluable insight into the event.  Chang, Yang remembers, called her mother with the news, her voice trembling.  Mostly, he remembers her idealism and compassion.  “We talked a lot about social justice, how to be fair.  Though she gave me the impression that she believed in individualism, she very much empathized with the survivors.  I was very impressed with this.”

Yang accompanied her to the airport the day Chang left Nanjing.  It was the last time he saw her. “I never thought it would be a yongbie, a farewell forever.  Never thought that.”

The two stayed in touch after Chang left, corresponding via mail and email, where they shared news of new projects and mailed each other books and archives.  He remembers his surprise at The Rape of Nanking’s success after its publication in 1997.  “I didn’t realize that the book would be so popular.  I think she didn’t realize either.  At that time, the best I could hope was that maybe some specialists would read it.” Only when the book was a success in the West, Yang says, did he recognize “the significance of her work when she was here.”

While the book received high praise, it was also fiercely attacked by some critics, who charged that it contained historical errors, was one-sided, too subjective, and lacked sufficient analysis of the reasons for the brutality it describes.  Her book’s position on the Massacre and charges against Japan’s government also incensed many, especially Japanese ultranationalists, who sent her “torrents of hate mail.”

Yang received his last email from Chang several months before she died. He last spoke to her from Washington DC in December of 2003, where he was doing research at the National archives.  “We talked for several hours,” he says.  “I thought she was very happy.  I didn’t sense that anything was wrong with her.  Never.  She told me about her plans for her fourth book, about American POWs at the Bataan Death March.  I even shared with her some information that I found in the archives.”

When Chang took her own life in San Jose, California in the fall of 2004, Yang, along with others who had come to know her during her time here, was stunned.  “I never saw it coming,” he says.  “I never thought she would kill herself.  Because she was so young, you know?”

“I was in shock” says Duan Yueping. “I couldn’t believe it.  I wondered, ‘How could she end her life at such a young age?’”  She believes that Chang “came into contact with too many fierce and brutal things.  Not only did she write about the Nanjing Massacre, she also wrote about other atrocities later, which were too much for her to take.”

Yang, who has remained a Chang family friend, sees other reasons for her death.  “I think she was too young for such success.  She never thought her book would be so successful.  She had a two year-old son.  Her parents told me that she used to work at night and sleep in the daytime, and that he was very ill for the last three months of her life. They said that she had a breakdown three months before her death, and saw a psychologist.  I think she felt a lot of pressure, and many people criticized her.”

Following her death, the Nanjing Massacre Museum added a statue in honor of Chang.  Museum director Zhu Chengshan, who also assisted Chang while she was in Nanjing and later visited her in the US, believes her impact locally and abroad is clear and lasting.  He estimates that the number of annual visitors to the museum doubled to 1.2 million people after the book was published. The book has also improved the museum’s international recognition and funding.  “We all think she contributed so much,” he says. “Her spirit will never die, especially in this fight.  Her influence won’t die.”  Sun Zhaiwei agrees.  “I sincerely believe that her contributions to Nanjing and to world peace will always be with us.”

The Rape of Nanking, Yang says in his translation’s afterward, “is an important contribution to Western consciousness.”  While it contains some errors, as an historian he believes “it is a very complete work, even ten years after it was published.  In terms of source material, her book is very detailed.  Nothing’s missing.  She did a very good job.”

“Iris never called herself a historian,” he writes.  “She called herself a writer.  She wanted to make a contribution to understanding and encourage other writers and historians to investigate the survivor’s stories.  I think she completely accomplished her goal.”  It’s a work, he says, that came from Chang’s “desire for justice, her sympathetic heart, and her interest in mankind and its future.”

At the end of our interview, Yang shows us some of the few photos he still has of Iris Chang during her time in Nanjing.  She appears exactly as Yang Xiaming, Duan Yueping and others remember her: young, vibrant and confident. “Like a typical American girl,” Yang says with a smile.  Nowhere is there any hint of the arc her life is to follow. In the final photo, Chang stands in front of Gulou park with Yang’s daughter.  She wears her hair pulled back, tennis shoes for sightseeing, and a t-shirt and shorts against the heat.  She smiles easily, her eyes anticipating, as if staring out over something limitless.

A Comprehensive Approach to Securing Land Tenure in China

daping farmer with knife

Landesa.org, October 2011

On a recent visit to Tianzhong, China, I was reminded of how many of China’s rural development, planning and justice challenges have roots in the country’s centrally-planned and nationally-controlled policies.

Officials in Tianzhong, like local officials across China, have recently carried out a series of land expropriations.  And farmers had been compensated with about $1,500 (USD) per mu (1/15 of a hectare), only a fraction of the true value of the land. Tianzhong’s farmers, like many farmers across China were understandably frustrated.

Across China this is a problem because national tax laws provide local officials with exclusive rights to land conversion fees. And the vaguely-worded public interest clause in China’s property laws gives local governments broad expropriation privileges, while nationally-mandated compensation standards require officials to compensate farmers by providing only a fraction of land market value.

In addition, banks managed by ex-officials and encouraged to lend by centrally-set low interest rates and directives, are eager to provide loans for government-affiliated projects.  Thus local leaders will sell land to developers, leverage sales for greater equity, then invest in infrastructure projects with the aim of attracting more investment and driving up real estate prices. In China, converting land remains the most direct and efficient means for local governments to fill their coffers.

A related and recently promoted policy further undermines farmers by allowing local leaders to expropriate arable land for development so long as it is offset by a comparable amount of arable land. This has resulted in even more farmers being moved from their homes to new apartment blocks—forcing them to commute (sometimes long distances) to their farms.

On a macro scale, the trend appears to be towards separating farmers from their primary source of identity and social security – their land – and forcing migration to cities where, as a result of China’s household registration system (hukou), they are still registered as rural dwellers and lack the same access to urban social services as official residents and are treated as second-class citizens.

There are a number of possible approaches for addressing the problem of land tenure security in China.  These include advocating for national reform of the public interest clause, compensation standards, the cadre management system (which encourages officials to focus on short-term gains) and China’s tax laws.  Legal aid, legal rights education, and land rights titling all can empower those who would resist expropriation or compulsory leasing.

While advocating for these large-scale top-down reforms is worthwhile, major change is unlikely in the short-term.

China’s economy is presently dependent on revenue from land takings and cheap migrant labor.

Not only would the reforms necessary to end a practice like land expropriation require a restructuring of China’s economy, they would also require political reforms the Chinese government is not ready to undertake.  Beijing knows its present economic structure is unsustainable, but it is still hoping to restructure gradually without causing economic and social instability.

Generally, China’s government prefers to start small with experiments to see what works before taking reforms to a national scale.  In the past it has crafted vaguely-worded legislation on a variety of sensitive topics to allow local-level experimentation.

The household responsibility system that broke up the collectives and gave families lease rights to land began as just such an experiment in the late 70s in a village in Anhui.  Export manufacturing began in a similar experiment in the early 80s in Shenzhen, then a sleepy fishing village.  Currently, experiments in hukou reform are being carried out in villages outside of Chengdu and Chongqing.

In part because of this, struggles over property rights are presently taking place in towns and villages across the country.  An economic approach to improving land tenure security should also be considered. Such an approach would help local governments craft development plans that are financially viable as well as sustainable, equitable and reduce land taking.  Feasible plans must conform to the present demands of the cadre management system by generating revenue for the county government in the short and long term.  The process for creating such plans begins on the ground with examining a village’s specific challenges and strengths.  What are the local government’s revenue needs?  Are the local conditions conducive to other, less destabilizing development models?  Such development alternatives can plug the revenue gap that typically necessitates land takings.

In Tianzhong, for example, sustainable, equitable development that addressed site-specific needs and worked from the village’s strengths would include cooperative farming, which could provide a means to raise and stabilize incomes on a large scale primarily by creating a single brand and eliminating competition and price-fixing middlemen.  A plan can be developed that ensures revenue is used to provide a basis for the kind of equitable and sustainable growth that provides true tenure security.

Large-scale land rights reform will not come quickly.  But the process can be expedited by providing a plan for how to increase land rights security on a small, site-specific basis, thus providing development alternatives that can lay the foundation for the kind of legal and political reform that cements those rights.  In so doing, we can more clearly articulate and powerfully advocate for our vision for the future, one wherein smallholder farmers in China have the ability to define success on their own as well as the means to achieve it.

Off the Map South of the Clouds: Two remote villages in Yunnan’s Nujiang River Valley are home to unlikely traditions

Map Magazine, October 2007

The Three Parallel Rivers area in Northwest Yunnan Province, any source will tell you, is a stunningly beautiful and rich place.  It’s so-named because of the nearly matching southward flows of the Nujiang, Mekong and Yangtze rivers through the province’s narrow, mountainous northwest corner.  Each forms in the plateaus of Tibet and Qinghai before making a near-convergence in Yunnan, violently carving through mountains and gorges.  The area is one epic range followed by major river and back again, a terrain responsible for the area’s lack of development and sparse population.  The region is host to more than 20 percent of the country’s plant species and 25 percent of its animal species.  UNESCO has deemed it a World Natural Heritage Site.

Its remoteness, however, means that much of the area is rarely seen by visitors.  The sites around the Nujiang river at the very edge of the province haven’t yet found mention in most travel books.  Looking at maps, I had assumed the region was inaccessible and largely vacant.  But a friend who visited a village near the river told me a different story about the people she met there.

“They’re Tibetan Catholics,” she said.  “And they love basketball.”  According to her, these villagers finished every Sunday sermon with a spirited game of round ball.  It had never occurred to me that Tibetan Catholics existed, and the thought of them dribbling, passing and dunking made my head spin.  I wasn’t even aware there was a road leading there, but a few weeks later I was on it, headed for the village of Dimaluo, hoping to see it all for myself.

A long journey

I soon understood why this area is so rarely seen.  Getting up there is a fantastic pain, typically taking two to three days of hard travel from Kunming.  By the time my overnight bus starts winding its way north along the Nujiang, however, the effort pays dividends.  The further north we travel, the more spectacular the scenery becomes.  The mountains rise in steep, lush angles along the highway, the river sitting in a gorge reaching depths of almost two miles.  The hard-running Nujiang – known as the “angry river” – turns from blue to jade as we head upstream.  Out of the bus window, I see the brightly-colored clothes of the minority people – including the Nu, Lisu and Dulong – who live in the towns and villages along the river.  I also see the occasional church, evidence of the Catholic and Prodestant missionaries who started coming here about 150 years ago. I follow the road north to its nearly furthest point, stopping at the town of Gongshan.  Traveling much further ahead would take me to Tibet.  Only a dozen miles to the west is the Myanmar border, while to the east, where I’m headed, lays the Baima Mountain Range.  I catch a ride into Dimaluo in the army supply truck of a friendly villager, traveling in the back with some farm equipment, meat, vegetables, beer and one enormous, ill-tempered hog.  A bumpy, dirty three hours later, we arrive in Dimaluo.  The village is small and simple, with about 1,000 residents.  It sits low in a valley alongside the Nujiang tributary that runs through it, both seeming swallowed up by the mountains rising fiercely from both sides.

The guide; yak kissing

I’m soon greeted by Aluo, a man who runs the town’s guesthouse and guides backpackers on multi-day treks through the Baima to Deqin.  He’s a friendly, athletic Tibetan with an intense stare.  He leads me up the hill to his lodge, a large and simple two-story home where he lives with his wife and two daughters.  Guests stay upstairs, above a large meeting hall in one of a dozen or so beds.

Aluo and I sit down to chat, and his wife pours me some yak butter tea.  Taking a sip, I remember just how much I dislike this local favorite.  Drinking yak butter tea, I imagine, is like licking an actual yak.  I’m asked to drink liters of it over the next week.  Aluo speaks little English but very good Mandarin.  We discuss the village and its history.  The first settlers here, he tells me, were the Nu, Lisu and Dulong, who arrived in the area about 500 years ago.  The Tibetans arrived later, about 300 years ago. The Jesuit missionaries who introduced Catholicism first came to Dimaluo from Deqin in the 1850s and 1860s.  People here are mostly farmers, growing cabbage and corn on the steep hillsides, and raising livestock like pigs, yaks and chickens.  Globalization has mostly ignored them so far, though some families, like Aluo’s, have TVs and wired computers that keep them in touch with a China and outside world they seem so disconnected from.  Because of their location and some chance encounters, their way of life has been just as informed by the cultures of other countries as it has been by that of their own nation. As a child, Aluo used to watch TV programs picked up by satellite from countries like the U.S., Russia, Germany and Thailand.  “I didn’t understand much of it,” he says, “but it shaped my views.”  He tells me that, slowly, Chinese cities and the lifestyle they promise are drawing local people away, literally or in spirit.  Interest in traditions, like Catholicism, has always been mixed among townspeople here, but what exists is waning with the widening appeal of modern life.  “You can see it at church,” he says.  “Many of the people’s hearts just aren’t in it.”  He says he likes talking to foreigners because, when it comes to his interests and perspectives, he has increasingly more in common with them than with his own people.

“That sounds a bit lonely,” I tell him.

“Yes,” he says.  “That’s the word.”

A walk; the keeper

The next day, I tell Aluo that I’d like to explore the area.  He suggests I see the village of Baihanluo, two-hours up the mountain to the west.  It has, he says, a lovely church.  I head up a steep, rough trail, hiking past evergreen and conifer trees under cloudy skies that seem to part just over the valley.  Approaching the village, I come across five or so locals heading down to Dimaluo, including an older man wearing wrap-around Terminator-style sunglasses, who bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Walken. When I tell them I’m headed for the church, Walken gets very excited.

“That’s my church,” he says proudly.  “I take care of it.  I have the key.  I can take you there, but not until tomorrow.” I accept and promise to meet him the next day. I reach the village and sit on the mountainside, staring out at the endless Myanmar and Tibetan Himalayas under the setting sun.  I take out my phone to tell a friend where I am, only to find that, not surprisingly, I’m out of range.

Compared with Dimaluo, Baihanluo is smaller and less developed.  It also seems empty.  I spot the town’s small but ornately designed Catholic church and, next to it, a basketball court, deserted except for a donkey standing forlornly at the three-point line.  I sit at the edge and eat some Oreos.  The donkey watches me, the rope around its neck fluttering in the late winter wind.

Wine; a shepard; the spirit

I’m invited by the town’s schoolteacher to spend the night at the tiny village schoolhouse, where he has an extra room and cot.  I ask the teacher about Walken, and he says his name is Amei.  The teacher gives me directions to Amei’s home and the next afternoon I set out to find him.  Amei greets me at his door with a warm smile.  After some tea together, he takes me to the church as promised. He’s in his mid-60s, he says, and Tibetan.  He too is a farmer, raising corn and livestock.  He tells me the church is 108 years old, and was built by three French and American missionaries.  He opens the padlock on the church’s outer gate and shows me inside the courtyard. We walk up the crumbling steps towards the church’s door and he points out the faded floral paintings on the outside.  He opens the front door and allows me inside, where it appears that nothing’s changed in those 108 years.  The ground is stone, and there are no pews.  On the walls are the 14 Stations of the Cross – paintings depicting the Passion, Death and Resurrection – and in front is a simple altar with a Virgin statue and pictures of Jesus behind. Amei says the church is waiting for a real priest, and in the meantime he is acting as reader.

Amei invites me to have lunch at his home with his sister and her daughter, as well as to a service that night.  After lunch, we sit by the fire as Amei keeps our tin cups full of baijiu.  He’s more optimistic than Aluo about the area’s future, believing its traditions will endure.  “Our ways of life have been around for too long,” he says.  “This is a Catholic village, and that won’t change.”

With some time before the evening’s mass, I decide to hike further up the mountain.  Hours later, high up at the snowline, I meet a shepherd.  He approaches me to take a closer look.  Seeing that I’m a foreigner, he starts to laugh.  He invites me into his cabin with a wave.  We chat and share more baijiu by the fire.   After an hour, I stumble down the mountain back towards Baihanluo.  It’s dark when I reach the church, where I find Amei welcoming the townspeople as they enter.  The church is, at most, half full, and lit only by a dim chandelier.  Amei begins by reading a hymn from the Bible in Mandarin that I don’t understand.  The parishioners follow this with a chanted “Amen.”  Amei then leads the church in identical incantations, one for each of the 14 Stations on the walls.  Each incantation lasts about three minutes, most of which is spent kneeling on church’s stone floor.  My head is still buzzing, and the eerily beautiful singing becomes trance-like in its repetition.  It is at once one of the most beautiful and painful experiences of my life.  After a while, I lose track of time.  In my memory, by the end of the service, the room has become terrifically bright.

A prayer before tip-off

That Sunday in Dimaluo I attend their town’s service.  As in Baihanluo there is a basketball court directly alongside the church, though here it seems that the entire town has come out for the morning’s service.  It’s so crowded that I stand outside with latecomers.  Three or four young people take turns reading from the Bible because, Aluo explains later, they’re some of the few people in town who can read Mandarin.

After service, there is indeed a basketball game.  Most of the town gathers to watch, and it’s no casual matter.  There are established teams (Dimaluo east and west sides), a referee and a scorekeeper.  And some of these guys can flat-out play.  The only miracles I saw at church that day were a no-look pass on a fast break, a fade-away jumper in double coverage and a perfectly timed give-and-go.  Granted, the customary one-beer-after-each-game rule did dilute the quality of play over time, but those first two games were truly something to behold.

One last visit with Amei

After church and before leaving the next day, I decide to visit Amei one last time to say thank you.  The only gifts I can find at the town’s store are beer, baijiu and cookies. I hope they will count as at least as well-intentioned if not especially unique.  I hike back up the mountain, only to find that Amei and his family aren’t home.  I find his neighbor and ask him to pass along my presents and thanks.

On my way back down the mountain, I stop for a moment to look one last time over the mountains to the west and the valley below.  What I’ve seen this week is evidence of a country far more complicated and rich than I knew.  I take out my camera, and find I can’t come close to fitting this scene in its frame.  So I focus on the brightest section, where the clouds part over the valley, and open the shutter.

Aluo’s Guesthouse:

aloudekezhan@yahoo.com

General regional and travel information:

http://www.geocities.com/aloudekezhan/

http://www.chinatrekking.com/destinations/yunnan/nujiang-gorge

Travel tips:

Treks can only be taken between Dimaluo and Deqin between April and October

Allow two to three days for return trips from Dimaluo to Kunming

Enough About Me

Amazon.com, November 2001

More of a literary adventure than an actual autobiography, David Shields’s Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography presents a collection of loosely organized, self-reflective essays, ranging from such disparate topics as the author’s past, dreams, and heroes to his thoughts on basketball, Jewish culture, and Bill Murray. Uniting the book is Shields’s examination of autobiography, his interest in the way we identify ourselves, and the most effective ways of investigating and communicating our identity.

Shields writes with convincing intelligence and fluidity on the book’s more academic topics, such as the effectiveness of Nabokov’s structure by memory association in Speak, Memory and Renata Adler’s use of collage in Speedboat. Yet when he emulates such works with random glimpses into his own past and character, he doesn’t provide enough personal detail to make effective use of these techniques. He’s a bit too preoccupied with theory to offer a satisfying self-portrait. Ultimately, Shields seems distracted by the need to cover all his critical bases and make a postmodern statement, consequently distracting and distancing the reader from establishing much of a connection with the author. He writes in the book’s prologue that he “wants to cut to the absolute bone” of “his own damned, doomed character,” yet admits in the epilogue to having falsified much of its personal information. It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t let his academic guard down more often, because what personal insight he does provide (accurate or otherwise) is very entertaining. He recognizes the absurd self-absorption inherent in memoir, and that goes a long way in a book about the subject. An interesting if flawed experiment, Enough About You should nonetheless appeal to memoir enthusiasts looking for perceptive and humorous views on our own perpetual self-fascination. –Ross Doll