Linguistically speaking

An archaeology of words: layers of posters on a New York wall, 1980
Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Show Me, from My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick LoeweA friend of mine once said of a woman we both particularly loathed: “Everything that goes through her brain comes out her mouth.” I may not seem like the type who harbors malice, but this woman truly had a case of verbal diarrhea [no, I won’tgive you the definition; it’s rather obvious if you think about it]If I ever start another blog, it’ll be called Talk to the Hand

I gotta hand it to you.
 Gimme a hand, will ya? 


Second-hand Rose.


Hand job [whoops – did I really say that?]

To be an old hand at something

You’re in good hands



If you want to know the meaning of these expressions, try the Urban Dictionary.


Then we can move down a notch: To have one’s finger in many pies, fickle finger of fate, etc. 

Since my students and I are now back in school, I feel an obligation to make my posts more, um, instructional. I inherited some of my grandmother’s love of words, so today I’m inspired by the book I’m currently reading: The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester. It’s the story of Joseph Needham, the scholar who authored the multi-volume Science and Civilization in China.

Simon Winchester also wrote one of my favorite books, The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

All right, class, are you ready? Our two words for today come from my current reading: peripatetic and phlegmatic. With a nod to Mr. Winchester, I’ll take my definitions from the Oxford English.


1. travelling from place to place.
2. working or based in a succession of places.

Derivatives: peripatetically (adverb)

Peripatetic is often linked with monks, many of whom have wandered far and wide in pursuit of wisdom or enlightenment. One of the more famous was Chinese monk Xuanzang who, in the seventh century AD, undertook an epic journey to India and back that lasted 18 years. His quest: to study Buddhist philosophy from the Indian masters and to retrieve sacred Mahayana Buddhist texts for the benefit of his homeland. His ultimate destination in India was Nalanda, an ancient Buddhist center of learning.


unemotional and stolidly calm

Derivatives: phlegmatically

The word derives from phlegm, and supposedly phlegmatic has to do with the phlegm humor (one of the moods). That’s about all I want to know about it.

The British are generally regarded as being phlegmatic: unemotional, taking it all in stride; Simon Winchester certainly describes them that way. I guess it’s part of their national character, along with the famous stiff upper lip.

So there you have two very different words, both of which occur in one book and, now, in one blog. If you want to earn some extra credit, here are a few more “p” words to research: perspicacious, persnickety, persimmon, and parsimonious.

What? You want to leave class early? Do I look like I’m finished talking? Did you hear that sorry-ass excuse for a bell yet? You put your behind in that chair and look like you’re halfway interested in learning a language. Just for that, you will take a pop quiz right this minute!


Good news

We’re here, we’re queer….


Same-sex partners Zhang Yi (L) and Hai Bei speak to the media at Qianmen street on Valentine’s Day in Beijing February 14, 2009. For some in Beijing’s gay and lesbian community, Valentine’s Day is not just a day to celebrate loving relationships, but also a time to campaign for acceptance of homosexuality in society. [Agencies]

For Valentine’s Day, the China Daily website [in English] carried a photo feature about same-sex partners in China, focusing on one lesbian and one gay couple in Beijing. I’m tickled pink to see more open coverage of gay issues in the Chinese press. Enforced invisibility can be one of the most cruel forms of prejudice, and there is a huge social stigma associated with being openly gay in conservative Chinese society.

The press may pay lip service to gay/lesbian issues, but I wonder how much real progress there has been in the past 3 years, since the government shut down first-ever gay and lesbian cultural festival in Beijing.


more: A Hidden Life: Being Gay in Rural China

The big picture


I made a really big picture. It’s a montage, actually, of 12 overlapping photos I took of a portion of one side of 水井街 Shuijing Street in Chengdu.




East side of 水井街 Shuijing Street, Chengdu. Click on the photo to view it in a larger size on my Flickr page. You will also have the oiption to see the full-size image at 6790 x 1177 pixels.


The street pictured above is part of the historic 水井坊 Shuijingfang historic district. I have been photographing this area since 2007.



  Here’s a view of the area from Google Earth. The two yellow arrows show the location of the street view above.
Here’s a Google Maps image of Chengdu, indicating the Shuijingfang historic area.



The Shuijingfang [水 shuǐ = water, 井 jǐng = well, 坊 fāng = lane] area of Chengdu shares its name with a very old local distillery which has been excavated, and is considered very important in the history of liquor production in China. As far as I can tell, what remains of the neighborhood is the largest intact historic area in Chengdu proper. At present it exists in an uneasy alliance with the very tall Shangri La Hotel, with its surrounding upscale boutiques and restaurants. The whole area is being developed for its tourist potential, but it seems as if its core of old buildings may actually be allowed to remain. The experience of stepping from one of the dim, narrow lanes, with its intimate scale of human activity, into the wide-open and impersonal space surrounding the Shangri La is jarring, to say the least. In Chengdu, the past and present seem to exist in separate camps like armies preparing for a clash; it’s a foregone conclusion, though, who is going to lose.

I recently introduced another foreigner (British) to this area, someone who shares my love of old things. Quite by chance, a friendly couple invited us into their home to have a look. It was an old siheyuan (4-sided courtyard) house that had been subdivided, but retained some of its original splendor. In my broken Chinese I managed to ask how old the house was. About 100 years, the man replied. The house’s entrance portico has some of the most delicate wood carving in the area.

Here are a few of my favorite views of the area.





Spring is sprung

 A distant memory of spring: pigeons above Michigan Avenue, Chicago, 1978
(texture added in Photoshop)

Spring is sprung,
De grass is riz,
I wonder where dem birdies is?
De little birds is on de wing,
Ain’t dat absurd?
De little wing is on de bird!

The Land of Nursery Rhymes

Ah, the conceits of childhood. For the longest time I thought I invented that verse. It goes through my head every spring, and this year is no exception, because Spring has truly arrived in Chengdu. During my first two years in China I thought that Spring Festival – the 15-day celebration of the lunar New Year – was basically wishful thinking, especially so this year since it began January 26. That’s, like, winter, isn’t it? It certainly is where I come from.

In the past 3 days, here’s what has happened: the weather has become warm, with a hint of breeze, so I could go outside with no jacket; green buds have appeared on the bushes bordering the local streets; there are flowering shrubs and trees blossoming. Now, Chengdu has flowering plants all year, hence the sale of (plum?) blossom branches for good luck during Spring Festival. Still, it isn’t really spring until you see green (show me the money).

Autumn comes late and spring comes early here in southwest China; the gingko trees (Chengdu’s official tree) didn’t lose their leaves until December, and in mid-February Spring has sprung. In between there’s “winter:” not terribly cold but damp. A new bloom of mildew developed on some of my apartment walls, by the bed, behind the curtains. Now that I’ve starting opening the windows again, a patina of dust blankets everything. You can’t win. As a former Los Angeles resident, seasons confuse me anyway; the running joke is that L.A. has two seasons: smog and no smog; there’s also a short rainy season, mostly in January. I once waded through a rushing river of foul water in the lobby of my Hollywood apartment building, not knowing that the manager had left a water-free side entrance unlocked.

So, the seasons are different from those of my Midwestern U.S. childhood. At least last year I got to experience snow. This winter has been mild by comparison, though no one’s forgotten the crippling winter storms that paralyzed parts of China during Spring Festival 2008.

I hadn’t intended to write a treatise on the seasons, but it seemed the thing to do, what with classes starting tomorrow and the students all returning from their holiday with their families.


In the abstract

Blue and white wall, with heart


Today’s thought – Tibetan proverb: When becoming older and older, one might see the dead corpse of gods.

If any one knows what the hell this means, will you please email me? I’m a little dense. Or maybe this saying is just too abstract (more on this subject later in this post).

It’s another “sunny” day today, so I must depart soon for a bicycle ride. Here’s some smarmy lyrics to get me in the mood:

I think I’ll go for a walk outside now
the summer sun’s callin my name
(I hear ya now)
I just can’t stay inside all day
I gotta get out get me some of those rays
everybody’s smilin’
sunshine day
everybody’s laughin’
sunshine day
everybody seems so happy today
it’s a sunshine day

….Cant you dig the sunshine
Love and sun are the same
Cant you hear him callin your name?



What I ate: 1

 First, I had to fortify myself: I chose the classic egg on toast. This version has several advantages: 1) I toast the bread in the pan with canola or olive oil, which means it’s really greasy; 2) I break the egg on top of the toast, then flip it over so the egg fries on the bottom, smooshing it down a little with the turner; 3) It’s gooey, stickey, messy to eat, with that runny-egg thing going on; 4) the bread is whole wheat – that’s good for you, right? 5) Did I mention that it’s really greasy?



What I ate: 2

After breakfast, I had to have lunch – a steaming bowl of 牛肉拉面 niú ròu lā miàn, ramen or “hand-pulled” noodles with beef in soup. This is my favorite noodle restaurant, and next time I go there I’m going to ask the noodle maker to let me take photos of him in action.

The business at hand: the theme today is abstract, as in isolated details taken out of their original context. “Abstraction uses a strategy of simplification of detail, wherein formerly concrete details are left ambiguous, vague, or undefined.” [source][/source]

This is the second photo essay based on my recent bicycle rides with my new camera.



 the new EGO building, Dongda Jie, downtown Chengdu

The only bad thing about this building is that it’s almost un-photographable from ground level, thanks to the wide tree-lined street and lack of any clear view of the whole structure. The whole facade is “abstract,” in a Frank Gehry-ish way; “EGO” is spelled out in giant letters of metal panels.