Friday, June 09, 2006

Moving to Brooklyn

My wife and I came back from Marfa, TX and found our living situation unbearable so we are moving to Brooklyn - Ft. Green to be more specific. No need to go into the details but our living situation here on Orchard St. has been bad on several levels. We found a brownstone across the street from Ft. Green Park and we will be renting the parlor floor and two bedrooms on the second floor.

My favorite thing about the move is that we are an easy walk from the Fire Lotus Temple. My Zen practise has been almost non-existent since the beginning of the year. I find that meditating on my own doesn't have the same power that meditating in the temple. I also want to more fully plug into the sangha.

Lately, I have been wrapped up in my duties as a reserve officer in the US Army. I joined 6.5 years ago to be a Mandarin Chinese linguist. I got a direct commission from civilian life and, viola, I was in the Army. I had absolutely no military background and very little exposure to the military before joining. No one in my family had been in the service except for a crazy great aunt who was an Air Force nurse. She never married and lived in a house out in the woods in Skagit Valley, WA with her dogs and piles of newspapers. So, when I suddenly decided to join the Army my family and friends didn't get it. In fact, I'm not even sure whether my parents were aware of my commissioning ceremony.

After the ceremony, I had a unit in Hawaii that I was ordered to report to. When I first tried on my BDU's, I had the pant legs on the outside of the boots and had no clue about saluting, standing at attention, etc. I felt like I was in some stupid comedy about someone who got drunk, signed up for the Army, and then when he came to was being screamed at by a drill sergeant. In fact, I felt exactly like Berger in the ending of Hair when Bukowski's unit is being mobilized for Vietnam.

Actually, Hawaii was a perfect place and a linguist unit was just right for an incoming direct commission. Most of the unit were very nice Filipino guys and they were extremely helpful and welcoming. It would have really sucked to be thrown into a more "hoo-ah" mainland unit. My Hawaii unit paid attention to Drill and Ceremony but they weren't too uptight about it.

I was quickly sent to my Officer Basic Course where I was an anomaly to say the least. Luckily, my classmates were fantastic and helped me learn the basics of being in the Army as well as our MOS.

Soon after that, I moved to Washington D.C. where I joined a reserve unit that allowed me to basically do the same thing as I did as a civilian. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with that unit. We were all mobilized in 2003 like everyone in the Reserves was but we were sent to the Pentagon. A few of us went to Iraq but the majority of us spent that year in the D.C. area.

Then my wife and I moved up here to New York last July and I had to find a new unit. I eventually did and now I run my own company.

I have tons of opinions about the military and I will get to them. I know that very basic to being a Buddhist is right living and not harming or killing. When I joined the Army Reserves, I was thinking that I could help the military deal with China by providing my Mandarin language skills. I wanted to serve the US by working for peace and understanding between China and America. I know that sounds naive but I made the 8-year commitment based on that mission.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Marfa, TX continued

My wife and I got back from Marfa, TX on Sunday and I am still basking in the memory of the trip. We stayed at the Thunderbird Hotel and loved it. It is a perfectly designed hotel with well-maintained rooms, an unbelievably friendly staff, and perfect location. The Coen Brothers were staying there while we were there and we didn't realize it until we left. Later I realized that I shared a table with them at the Brown Recluse coffeeshop but didn't know who it was at the time. The Brown Recluse - fantastic drip coffee, vinyl record player, used cowboy boots, nice mix of locals and out-of-towners (mostly New Yorkers while we were there).

The only thing that was a bit difficult was food. We ate excellent pizza and nice salads at the Pizza Foundation and I had very good enchiladas from Mike's. We also had a decent meal at Maiya's - I had the salmon and my wife had the roasted vegetables. However, we were dying for a good grocery store. We drove to Austin on Saturday because we had to catch a flight to LaGuardia at 6AM on Sunday. Right after dropping our stuff off at the Embassy Suites were we were staying, we went to most amazing Whole Foods I have ever seen. If only we could transport that Whole Foods to Marfa, we would move there tomorrow.

Last year Yo La Tengo played at a space across the street from the Thunderbird. While we were there, the Secret Machines were there doing a shoot. We met a very nice woman, Sabrine, who is going out with a Secret Machine band member. We were on the Chinati Foundation tour with her and it was a pleasure talking to her. I am surprised that I have never heard the Secret Machines since I love My Bloody Valentine and Krautrock. I am going to see Michael Rother from Neu! play with Benjamin Curtis from the Secret Machines play at the Bowery Ballroom this Saturday.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Marfa, TX

My wife and I decided to fly out to Austin, TX and then drive to Marfa, TX on President's Day. I am currently sitting at one of the best book stores I have ever been in, the Marfa Book Co. I have been coming here each morning since we arrived and I feel very at home here.

New York lulls you into thinking that it is the only place in the US that matters. Of course, there is LA but that is the land of the shallow and flaky. I bristle when I hear New Yorkers talk about 'fly-over states' but I find myself also thinking that all that matters in the US is in NYC. So, I find it extremely refreshing to visit a small Texas town, Marfa, and find culture, art, interesting architecture, and extremely creative, interesting people. I seriously would like to move here. This morning I was at one of best restaurant/bookstores I have ever been to - the Brown Recluse. It had the best scones I have ever tasted, excellent coffee, the Velvet Underground playing on vinyl, and used cowboy boots for sale. What more could you ask for?

I absolutely love this place and will write more soon.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Foreign Babes in Beijing

Yesterday we saw Rachel DeWoskin give a China Institute lecture on her book Foreign Babes in Beijing. She showed a promo for the show, told some stories, and had a Q&A session afterward. The book is about her six years in living in Beijing and acting in the Chinese t.v. show, Foreign Babes in Beijing.

I initially didn't like her. Her voice sounded like a cross between Parker Posey character in "The House of Yes" and Samantha from Sex and the City. After about 20 minutes or so, however, I warmed up to her and thoroughly enjoyed her story and opinions.

I found her comments about the Western press coverage of China particularly interesting. During the Q&A session someone asked her what she thought about the New York Times China coverage. She very diplomatically answered that it was had its ups and downs. When it is bad, however, the reporting falls back on tired stereotypes of China. Reporters will already have in the their heads the point they want to make about China and then pick the sources to back up their argument.

The best example of bad reporting she gave was the lack of interviews of Chinese viewers in all of the articles written about her t.v. show. The majority of the articles claimed that the popularity of she show demonstrated how the Chinese think that Western, particularly American, women are immoral, materialistic, rude sluts. Rachel said that actually the Chinese audience understood that these are fictional characters and do not represent American women. If the reporters had only interviewed common people they would have realized this.

I found the same problem in the reporting of Tiananmen in 1989. I lived up in Jilin City in Jilin Province in June 1989. I thought at the Jilin Chemical Industry Institute. The Institute was owned by the Jilin's massive chemical factory. All of my students' parents worked in the plant and they would also be going to work there right after graduation.

My students supported the student demonstrators in Beijing. Many marched and a few had a hunger strike coinciding with the one in Beijing. I had become friends with many of the adults in the area who worked at the factory and they also supported the Beijing protestors.

Most of the people I knew in Jilin were angry at the corruption of the government. Some wanted China to adopt a parliamentary political system others wanted to go back to the way the Communist Party was before the Great Leap Forward. Actually, the majority of people I knew in Jilin wanted China to return to the way the Party was in the early 1950's. Mao was still a hero to most people I knew in Jilin and Mao buttons cropped up on my students' school uniforms as the student protests grew in strength.

Even my friends in Beijing that I was in touch with in the Spring of 1989 had very complex and conflicting ideas about China's political direction. So, I was shocked to read the Western press accounts of the 1989 student protestors that made it seem as though they wanted to adopt an American political system. Yes, they put up a Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square that looked suspiciously like the Statue of Liberty but the students' goals was complicated and in many cases half-baked and unclear.

How did the press fail? Based on what I read, the foreign correspondence relied on their contacts who were mostly Beijing intellectuals. I don't remember any reporters going out to Ningxia or up to Dongbei to see what people there thought. I agree with Rachel that it is shocking how little contact Western reporters have with common people, even in Beijing.

A lot of this is wanting to sell news to the Americans. Americans want to be reassured that the world not only likes us but wants to be like us. The US press is simply giving the people what they want. As I experienced it, America was not central to peoples' thinking in China 1989. Is there some unwritten rule in US journalism that an international story has to have some American connection for the Americans to care?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Darlie Toothpaste

I stand corrected on 'Darlie' toothpaste. A friend of mine, Patrick Stewart, who worked at International Community Radio Taipei when I was there told me that he was involved in a group that put pressure on what was called 'Darkie' toothpaste at the time to change its name. Below is the true story of Darkie toothpaste that I found on

"Darkie Toothpaste" Blackens Colgate's Reputation

Darlie toothpaste is a popular brand in much of Asia. Its dark secret is that it used to be called Darkie, complete with a stereotyped logo of a minstrel man. Apparently its founder had come to the US in the 1920s and seen Al Jolson in his blackface show, and had been impressed with how white Jolson's teeth looked.

Stereotypes of this sort were not unusual before World War II. What was unusual about Darkie was that its racist name and logo were still intact in 1985 when Colgate bought the brand from the Hong Kong's Hawley & Hazel Chemical Co.

Here's where the story gets a little twisted. According to Alecia Swasy in her book Soap Opera, Colgate's arch-rival Procter & Gamble learned about the sale and immediately went to work to use it to their advantage. Both companies were releasing a tartar-control formula that year, and P&G was happy to have the opportunity to portray its rival as racist. It hired a public relations firm to surreptitiously slip information to activists and newspapers about Colgate's disreputable Asian brand.

The strategy worked. There was a storm of uproar: Stories and editorials in major newspapers, threats of boycotts, and even Eddie Murphy expressing his outrage on David Letterman. Colgate was unfairly attacked for a brand it had just purchased; however, the attacks became more and more justified as the toothpaste giant dragged its feet on changing the brand fearing a loss of business. Finally, nearly four years later, it announced that it was changing the name to Darlie and making the man on the package an abstraction of indeterminent race.The name change placated Western critics, who pointed out that the toothpaste actually sold better after the name change. What they didn't know, and apparently still don't, is that only the English was changed. The Cantonese name ("Haak Yahn Nga Gou") still stayed the same, and the Chinese-language ads reassured users that, despite a cosmetic change to placate those inscrutable Westerners, "Black Man Toothpaste is still Black Man Toothpaste."


Is the term, laowai, derogatory? This was a common debate among expats when I lived in Taipei and Beijing. On one hand, it isn't yangguizi, or foreign devil, which is clearly derogatory. I have heard Chinese people refer to people affectionately as laowai. Well, actually not affectionately. The term laowai, to me at least, indicates too much of a gap between Chinese and foreigners for there to be affection. However, I have heard women talk about the good-looking laowai. This is clearly positive but distant.

Laowai is simply 'old foreigner' but it is hard to come up with an accurate translation. If I was translating a book, I would just write 'foreigner' for laowei. Soon after my wife and I arrived, we had to deal with a Chinese plumber on the corner of Canal and Orchard, practically across the street. The guy we were dealing with didn't know that I can speak Mandarin and he kept referring to us at the two laowai. He was very nice and it didn't seem hostile. Yet I loved the irony that he was calling me the foreigner when I'm sure that there are at least a couple of Chinese workers in his office who are illegal aliens.

So, laowai has evolved into meaning white person here as well as in China. I have never heard the Chinese refer to a black person as a laowai - it is always heiren. Whether heiren is derogatory or not is more complicated.

I sincerely hope that it is better now but the racism toward blacks that I encountered while I studied in Beijing in 1988-1989 was horrendous. At the time, at least 80% of the foreign students in Beijing were Africans. They would go to study in China for four years at least and all of the African students I met had excellent Chinese. I hung out with a few of them and, I swear, each time we would get in a bus you would hear the most idiotic,vile, and racist comments - "Is it a man or a woman?", "Does it like bananas like a gorilla?", etc. Sure, you can make excuses until the cows come home. Chinese people back in 1988 had such little contact with the outside world. However, the ignorance toward blacks was far more mean-spirited and condescending than what I experienced as a white person.

The worst (or best) example of anti-black sentiment that I witnessed in China was the anti-black student marches at several universities in early 1989. I was at Beiwai at the time and we didn't have any on our campus but there were marches nearby at the Beijing Language Institute. Supposedly, an African student snuck into a bathroom in a Chinese girl dorm. This sparked a march that exposed festering resentment that I'm sure had been there for years. What started out as protecting the honor of their women quickly became complaints that there are only two African students per room while there were at least 8 Chinese students in a room of the same size. The Chinese students never complained about the white or Japanese students have only two to a room. Plenty of signs referred to African students as heiguizi and they really were vile.

There was also an incident in Nanjing around Christmas 1988 or New Years 1989. Chinese male students tried to teach the African students a lesson for having the gall to invite Chinese women to their holiday party. They showed up to the African party, started a fit, and got the shit kicked out them. The police showed up and I heard from very reliable sources that the police used cattle prods on the African students. Several African embassies issued demarches and it was fairly big news.

What really annoyed me about what I experienced as a very widespread anti-black sentiment in China was the hypocrisy. I was constantly being chastened by Chinese for the horrible race relations in the US. I was involved with more Q&A sessions at schools than I care to remember for my three years in mainland China and I tried to be very open and honest about US warts, both past and present. Yes, the average white person in America doesn't give a shit about a black person in the inner city. They care even less about a Native American on a reservation. Yes, I believe that US foreign policy has been and continues to be unbearably arrogant and borderline racist. I would go on and on answering the questions honestly. When, however, I would ask the most innocuous question about negative racial incidents in Chinese history, I would get stonewalled. Sure, I wasn't completely naive. I didn't expect honesty. I did quickly realize that hearing an American talk about US racial problems was just bolstering their infantile nationalism.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Racist Toothpaste

I just found some Darlie toothpaste in a Chinese grocery store on Grand between Orchard and Ludlow and I finally feel like I am back in Taiwan. I am amazed that they haven't changed the Chinese name, Heiren, which means 'black person'. It's better than if they called it heiguizi or 'black devil' but still offensive. I lived in Taiwan when it was still named "Darkie" in English and the mascot was a minstrel singer in blackface. Enough foreigners put pressure on the company to change the English name and the mascot. Now there is a little white guy with a top hat and bow tie as the mascot and it's 'Darlie'. However, it's still Heiren.

A friend of mine who worked at the same radio station in Taiwan, ICRT, was a member of the group that pressured the company to change its name. I remember that he was angry that they didn't change the Chinese name. They seemed to be assuming that no foreigners could read the Chinese. This was back in 1990 so I am amazed that no one else has put pressure on them to change the Chinese name, especially since they are selling it here in the States.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Chinatown Buses

I found the a good website for the Chinatown buses:

I still haven't ridden on one. I worked at an mid-town office last year doing a freelance research project on China's energy sector. The woman who sat next to me swore that the Chinatown buses aren't safe. She mentioned cases of spontaneous bus combustion which sounded fishy. I tried to look up cases of Chinatown buses suddenly bursting into flames with no luck. She was a huge proponent of Greyhound. So much so that I wonder if she ownes stock.