Saturday, November 30, 2013

Up and Over

Up and over the brine today.  I’ve been settled for these past few months, in the dry ochre silt.  Yanjing.  Rooted.  Anchored, Focused.  I can watch the dust settle and accumulate.  And it is fine now to smell the salt.  Refreshing fluidity, the unlimited possibilities of the Ocean.  At first the crossing is only a metaphor.  A mere river’s worth, a brackish rivulet between two different jurisdictions.  The same river my friend swam to escape China in the seventies. 

The passage was, wretched.  We used the Huanggang crossing thinking it would perhaps be a bit quicker than Futian.  Last time we used Futian and there was an unfathomably long wait on the Hong Kong side.  At Huanggang you take the bus straight to Wanchai rather than the long, local MTR ride.  I’ve done the ride back from Wanchai and it is certainly faster.  Today I discovered that departing from Shenzhen this Huanggang bus wasn’t any faster at all.  I assumed I’d buy a ticket, board a bus and face the border a bit further on, but as soon as we arrived we saw the swarming, inescapable concentration of humanity.

It’s times like the crossing at Huanggang that you remember just how dense the population of China is.  Modernity and convenience allows one to bypass much of the volume.  But its never far.  Never hard to find.  In Tokyo, which is just as dense, it only ever presses in, when something breaks down, snow suddenly stops a train for example and the system breaks down and people don’t know what to do.  People are agitated and their civility evaporates.  When you’ve no choice but to work through an enormous crowd in China, it reminds me of a train station in Wuhan in 1993, trying to buy a ticket.  There was a scrum to reach a window that was positioned up high, so that everyone who approached it would feel insignificant.  Police guided people at the perimeter with electric cattle prods.  It’s one thing to watch.  It’s quite another to be stuck in the middle of a crowd that has its own momentum.

We’re in Hong Kong now.  My kids are trying to observe all they can about what’s different from two hours ago in “mainland” China. They’d lived here before, but it has been years now.  The license plates the street signs and of course, that they drive on the wrong side of the road here.  I just asked my little one, where else it was drives this way.  I could think of four countries she’s been to that do.  She considered, and then mentioned one, correctly that I hadn’t thought of.

It must have gotten much easier over the years, for Chinese citizens to do the walk over crossing because it never used to be this bad.  It certainly is now.  And there is nothing to do, once you’re committed to the cattle queue, but endure it.  Standing in line.   Something about the Hong Kong side of the queue in particular, is demeaning.  Like they haven’t caught up with the fact that people are in fact people.  Many of them, by choice, not desperation, need to make this crossing.  Standing and waiting, waiting to move a little bit.  People pressing.  Your children leaning on you.  It’s a systemic problem.  Staff more people for God’s sake.  Hold it up to the light.  This is not only inconveniencing nice people like myself, which is immaterial, but it is making tens of thousands of Chinese people daily, hate Hong Kong.  That’s a karma no-no.  The 苦海茫茫[1]

Everyone staring.  Staring at you.  Staring at me.  We’re stuck.  There is nothing better to do.  We’ll be here for at least another hour.  All in all I guess it took ninety minutes to enter and then exit.  I think I saw one or two other foreigners.  Has everyone else wisely given up on this method?  I missed the memo on the newer-smarter way to cross over.  I used to have a Hong Kong ID that let me cut through the fast line.  But now I’m simply a “visitor.”

Cruising along now in this crowded bus, it is finally the benign familiarity of Hong Kong.  You exhale a bit after the debasement of the crossing.  Intentional?  Traffic works a little bit better. Outside, the port. 

Cantonese everywhere sounds sharp and refreshing, actionable.  Traditional characters are on the walls.  The signs look beautiful, and of course, are even more difficult to discern. 

The big, spotty face of a not very attractive middle aged man trying to smile, off to left.  The poster is fastened to the guardrail.  He’s on the other side of the street too.  I think to point out these election posters to my girls.  “So, why don’t we ever see these in Beijing?”  Being here I will need to capture my thoughts on the Hong Kong I wrote about.  That was roughly eleven month’s ago.  Time to revisit the section on greed, avaritia, in my manuscript.  Greed’s still here.  So is all the potential for disenfranchised Hong Kong to model leadership with the Beijing government in the not to distant future.

The bus on the ride in has a TV, of course, and it is broadcasting drama, the news and  a propaganda video showing people how to avoid scams when they are shopping for apartments.  Don’t be fooled by this.  Don’t be fooled, fool.   Why do I feel at peace with Hong Kong propaganda and feel that it is generally positive and appropriate and reasonable, where as CCP propaganda feels ominous, suspect, clumsy?  They are both, actually, rather intrusive.

Now it’s later in the day.  It’s nearly five but the sun is still up in the sky.  I forgot that in  a more temperate longitude, the sun sets later.  Riding now on Pok Fu Lam road.  It is so familiar.  It feels something like the FDR Drive.  So many routines and time honored ways of getting from here to there. There’s the harbor.  That tall building across the way used to forever be unfinished.  Now, it’s done.  And Kowloon is so close now.  You could throw a stone. 

Sitting now on Elgin, finally.  Bad food, good wine, good view.  Watching.  Cabs pause and drop diners off.  People meet.  Chinese going here.  Europeans going there.  Sometimes they go together.  That section of HK where you can pretend that it's still a British enclave that Chinese come to occasionally. 

Ears flood full with  a bop mix.  The Brooklyn tenor Al Cohn.  I know the name but not the face, so I check.  He looks like he’s Al Cohn from Brooklyn.  One of the "four brothers" from Woody Herman’s “Second Herd.” “Unless Its You”  This disc is from the 1981 album, “Nonpareil.”   I looked on line but couldn’t find much at all as to who he really was . . .   I've determined that he, like Stan Getz, but not Zoot Sims, was from Brooklyn.  But where?

[1] kǔhǎimángmáng:  sea of bitterness is vast (idiom)

Thursday, November 28, 2013

No Fear to be Silly

My daughter’s friends who all slept over are out in the other room laughing.  Kids are unstoppable.  They did a great job at the Pilgrims meet the Indians play last night.  I can’t imagine having to perform lines from a play in Farsi or Portuguese at the age of nine. I’m already back from having driven my older daughter’s friend over to the school.  These kids all board there, so for them to have attend a “Thanksgiving Party” on a Thursday night, called for a special dispensation.  “Sleep overs” aren’t so common here, so I think this was a pretty big deal for most of them, and certainly for their parents. 

We invited all the parents.  But nearly all of them demurred. I can understand.  If some family has a birthday party, I’m happy to drop my daughter off and split.  If they sent us a text ahead of time saying, please stick around for our “Ancestor Grave Sweeping Day” party we’re going to have with food and drink, I'd likely have passed.  But it can be hard to connect with other kids families, without some of the “normal” institutions you might have suburban American community. This, and of course, language, and culture. 

It was a good time though, this come-all-ye’ Thanksgiving bash we threw.  I burned the Brussels sprouts.  Discovered too late that I was in over my head with a pumpkin pie I was trying to make for the first time.   Saw this morning that I’d completely forgotten about another a walnut pie I’d bought.  But the bird was good, and that’s the main box tick.  All the other things came together, as planned.  Not much left this morning. 

My one regret was loosing my cool with my younger one.  A friend’s young son ( aged 4 or so) kept wanting to play with me, and I’m working around the oven.  So you politely tell him to depart five or six times and by the time your own child ignores you once, you yell.  And she cries.  And you apologize.  I gave her a hug this morning and told her she was a star in the play.  And she was.  And like I told my mom, she was not only the star but the producer.

The kids are off to school now and the house is quiet.  There are some chickadees chattering outside.  I’ve a 1962 disc by Bill Hardman on, appropriately named “Coffee”.  The tune is “Assunta” and it dropped into a convincing swing after an absolutely majestic, somber intro that sounded like the most beautiful thing ever composed for a moment there.  I have no idea what “assunta” means.  OK, I looked and apparently it's the assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven.  The intro resonates differently now.  But what I was going to write was “I don’t know what “assunta” means, but I know “coffee” and am reaching out for mine now to steady myself." 

China is claiming air space this week.  And the U.S. immediately and Japan and South Korea subsequently called China’s bluff, by flying military planes through the space, unannounced, as they traditionally have.  So many mixed feeling here.  On the one hand I consume this story primarily through U.S. media.  Therein, it’s portrayed as a brash, awkward attempt by China to disrupt the existing status quo.  Awkward, because it was immediately shown to be something China was not prepared to back up. 

Every Chinese person my age or older knows the Maoist phrase “American Imperialism is a Paper Tiger” like it was the Flintstones theme song.  Now the Chinese press is suggesting that China is, through this episode, a “paper tiger.”  Those are most assuredly fighting words.  But that Chinese civil society can have a debate, rather than simply a propaganda deluge, is certainly progress. 

Then the question becomes, is this something that was a well planned or done abruptly by a brash unit within the defense establishment.  Was this a methodical,  well timed gesture designed by masterful weiqi players to ratchet up pressure and bolster their claim, that was well understood and agreed to by the central leadership before it was done?  Or has a PLA unit simply decided to assert itself.  The latter is unlikely, but not impossible.  But if we default to the prior, it’s hard to imagine the benefits to loudly asserting a claim that you have no intention of defending, knowing full well you’ll swiftly be embarrassed on the matter.  Unless you were willing to take the hit in the short term, because your goal was on shifting perceptions gradually, over decades. 

The “world order” works well enough for the people who made it.  It is not in most nation’s interest or capacity to disrupt things.  Smaller states that try to, without much wherewithal to sustain significant change, like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, we disparage as “rogue states.”  But China and India are critical actors within the world economy and they are absolutely not satisfied with the “order” they inherited that was created on someone else’s terms when they were weak, and helpless.  China will continue to stress this order and as they’ve done with standards in technology, they may look silly the first time and the second time, but each time they learn and get better and eventually don’t look silly at all. 

I understand that South Korea may not be ready.  But I feel very strongly that this kind of incident, should be their chance to step-up and show nuanced leadership. South Korea understands the Chinese distrust of Japan, and they understand the Japanese distrust and annoyance at China and they know as well as Japan and China that America will not be able to maintain this “order” for ever and that cooperation, not capitulation, is what’s in every country in this region’s best interest.  以夷制夷[1] didn’t work then and no one will like the results this time either.  

[1] yǐyízhìyí  to use foreigners to subdue foreigners (idiom); let the barbarians fight it out among themselves (traditional policy of successive dynasties) / To use western science and technology to counter imperialist encroachment (late Qing modernizing slogan).

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Happy Thanksgiving.  I just put the bird in the oven.  Guests, lots of them, will arrive in about four and a half hours when its time to take it out again.   We have a ritual of inviting people over and introducing the tradition.  Every year I need to call my mom ahead of time to remind me of the proper turkey prep.  Every year I prepare some of the same obligatory dishes that you only have once a year.  Every year the kids have a bunch of friends over from school and they put on a play.  Every year we try to explain the joy and the complexity of this holiday that testifies not only to “thanks” but to survival, near term survival, long term survival, between cultures. Regardless, nearly everyone gets it.  We should all adopt a 感激不尽[1] posture for reasons innumerable.

Most folks coming over are Chinese.  We used to do the same thing with our overseas friends when we lived in San Francisco.  Big feast, come on over.  It’s usually a big hit.  I like to try to explain that the meal ritual is perhaps most like the rituals around food during Chinese New Year.  I think of Chinese New Year as a sort of combination of Christmas’ centrality but the banquet of Thanksgiving.  Of course, people often have a big dinner at Christmas but it tends to take second place behind the tree, the gift giving, etc.  Complicated and ironic though this day may be, it serves to unify Americans, at least those of use far from home, in a way that Christmas does for all nations, but not for all souls.

I’m just thankful I have an oven.  Living here in the 90’s, forget it.  It was off to the banquet at the Swiss Hotel that put on a Thanksgiving spread.  This is one day I really want to be home.  I lived in Hong Kong five years ago in a lovely, modern apartment that was only a stovetop as well.  But today, you watch, I’m gonna lay it all down. 

Speaking of which I have a gorgeous duet filling the house today and I pause to pen this.  Mal Waldron is someone I’ve known about tangentially for years.  But I never really dug in.  There are some thirty albums I’ve been listening to on Rdio, one after the other.  Wiki tells me there are another 70 or more out there.  I don’t know why but I am so deeply “thankful” that the jazz tradition is manifestly inexhaustible.  Remarkable.  Aided on this particular disc by the stately angularity of Mr. Archie Shepp who I have loved for years.  

This disc, “Left Alone Revisited” was recorded right before Mal Waldron died in 2002.  Waldron was Billy Holiday’s pianist for her final years and as this lovely, brief review of the album John Fordham states in the Guardian, that Mal Waldron treats Archie Shepp, with his graceful, poignant honking as if he were setting him up as a vocalist.  Setting him up as the “singer’s personal representative on earth.”  Born in New York of West Indian parents, not unlike Sonny Rollins, not unlike Herbie Nichols.   Not unlike the entire world of jazz that could only happen at the American cultural capital, in those decades the way it did.  What a time and place to learn and listen.

No shortage of things to pause and nod grateful for.  A good ritual that, pausing to consider the bounty many of us enjoy, despite whatever persistent static we navigate through every day.  I’ve got to go chop vegetables.  I hope you are well fed and well loved, wherever you are today.  

[1] gǎnjībùjìn:  can't thank sb enough (idiom)

Ordinary Guy

The Fania All Stars as the name suggests were laden with a surfeit of heavy hitters.  I’ve already taken some time to discuss heavyweights, Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe a while back.  Perhaps we’ll have time to get to each estrella in due course.  Today, we’re taking on Joe Bataan who always stood out as achingly unique among this mighty group of bandleaders. 

An early number of Joe Bataan’s was, “Fuego.”  It came on during calisthenics in the morning and seas of inertia parted before the flame.  I’d peg it around 1965 or 66.  (I am wrong by one year, upon checking.  It was released in 1967.  If this were the 90’s or the naughts, who’d care?  What’s a year?  But those years . . . I’d pride myself on being able to tell quite clearly the difference between any popular music released in 1965 and 1967.  So much was about to change.  But Joe had one foot in another era for those first releases.)

Joe is wearing tux on the cove of the “Gypsy Woman” album, just like Curtis Mayfield would have done a few years earlier.  He was a sharp dressing “ordinary guy.”  All the change around him would catch up with him and his sound very soon. But for that year, he knew who he was. But looking back, the cover for “Gypsy Woman” in 1967 is a complete anachronism distinct from all the psychedelia going on around him in popular culture and in the City.  

The song, meanwhile, is just mighty, mighty, mighty.  It was introduced to me by one of the guards at a High School I worked at in Manhattan years ago.  We connected on New Yorican Salsa, which I was in a peak of fascination with at the time and he put a mix together for me.  I knew some other things of Joe Bataan’s but these cuts from the beginning of his career, carried this rough New York punk esthetic that is forever authentic.  You can’t fake it, you can’t embrace it, it’s gonna stand there and yell at you till you move.

I got to see him once in New York for a reunion type of show he had in what must have been 1995 or so.  He looked great.  People in the audience, mostly older, were so excited to see him.  I was excited to see him.  He talked a bunch about salsoul and latin soul and how his personal origin had nothing to do the mighty Puerto Rican, Borinquen esthetic he sprang from.  He was, after all of Afro Filipino heritage and he claimed it unapologetically that night.  He also claimed to have invented hip hop and confessed that he was disappointed that his son didn’t recognize this.  Pathos as one considers this lad and his dad.  

Joe Bataan, more than any of the other extraordinary Fania All Stars, navigated the space between soul and salsa, English and Spanish, effortlessly.  The albums were gracefully balanced between the two genres. The movement back and forth between “Ordinary Guy” soul and the “Mambo De Bataan” salsa were remarkable and poignant in a way that most other contemporaries, including Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe, labored at.  (To be clear WC’s salsa was celestial, just the soul tunes could be goofy sometimes.)

And where New Yorican salsa is already more punchy and aggressive to my ears than, say Cuban or Colombian salsa from the same period, Joe Bataan’s sound is yet again that much more pugilistic.  When I was collecting every Fania album from the late sixties early seventies I could get my hands on, I got a Larry Harllow (Judeo Marvilloso) and Ishmael Miranda disc that had an odd break on one of the few English numbers.  Ishmael Miranda says suddenly “Hey Joe Bataan, what are you doing on this record?” To which Joe replies with sullen aggressiveness “Just hangin’ out.”  It is so forceful and convincing, that there is really nothing else to say, and that’s where it stands.  Ishmael backs off as I or any other sane person would have done as well.  All of this music is best listened to in New York.  Or at least the NYC that haunts my mind. 

Joe Bataan was functional on piano.  His chops weren't flashy like Richie Ray, or Larry Harlow, he was never invited to solo piano on the group albums, like Eddie Palmierri.  But he was always pulled out to sing soulfully in English, and Subway Joe, always rose to the occasion.  Joe Bataan’s singing was a mixture of long Sinatra-like crooning, Curtis Mayfield soulful yearning and Benny More’s emphatic son .  The band demands attention with timbales and bass and at least three trombones to provide that power punch of Willie Colon’s band.  Three trombones in your face, is some strong stuff.  Even better live. I never imagined I’d confess to doing so, but “air-tromboning” is almost as satisfying as accompanying Pete Townshend on air guitar.  

And you finish your work out and your shower and you have the residue of that whoyoulookinat? 103rd St vibe that makes you walk cool, and drink orange juice cool.  And the air trombone in your mind is still there when you sit down to do some: (cut to terror music) on line banking. . . from China.

I called my friends at Bank-of-Toremainnameless today.  I didn’t want to call them as the process is akin to asking the dentist to turn up his muzak and slow down his drilling and kick back with his process.  I gave in though after behaving like a lab rat, entering and reentering and then reentering again the same information in the same fashion only to receive the same error message:  “We can’t process your order.  Please remove all %, <  and > marks.  Hit the back key and try again.”  I cursed the second time.  I cursed really loudly the third time, causing my wife to comment that I was ruining the environment.  I tried really hard not to curse the fourth time.  Then, (yes, I did) the fifth time, after noting with excruciating care  not to enter anything even remotely akin to a “%” mark or a “<” mark or a “>” mark and timing the nine minute process, I got the same message:   “We can’t process . . . “

Jello Biafra’s line in the great Dead Kennedy’s song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” was “stab our backs when you trash our halls.  Trash a bank if you’ve got real balls.”  This is the right ferocity.  Considering whether to begin a sixth data entry journey, I imagine myself at the controls of a wrecking ball, the bank before me.  I however took the more testicularly compromised route and dialed support. 

I reached Nathan.  Nathan wanted to be sure I was me.  I provided disparate data and multiple numbers to prove that I was me.  Nathan confirmed that I was me.  He mentioned to me that it was late and I said that it was 10:30AM in Beijing where I was calling from.  Oh dear.  Too much information. 

Nathan found in the manual or on some other online troubleshooting screen that the problem must have stemmed from a “foreign IP address.”  “Sir your calling from China and . . . “  That’s it.  It hit my ears like a megaphone order to board a cattle car.  “What precisely does it have to do with anything that I am calling from China?  Nathan, you need to be very precise, are you suggesting that the system segregates against people operating from this geography or from anyone who accesses their account from an overseas IP?  This is very important.  Please clarify.  They are different and you need to be precise.  Furthermore I am using a VPN and so my IP address should be registered as a U.S. one.”  “A VPN sir?”  “Nathan, you are in IT support and you don’t know what a VPN is?  It is a ‘virtual private network.’  What it means is that whatever you have found in the manual, be it the racist drivel about Chinese IPs or foreign IPs in general, it is all irrelevant as your system should detect me as being in America.”

This was way too much for Nathan.  “Thank you sir.  I need to check the manual.”  He checked the manual and suggested he’d go get a manager who knew the manual better.  I tried to explain to Nathan that the geographic profiling and rinky-dink IT support was not his issue, per se, but that I NEEDED A SOLUTION not a fascinating trot through various diagnostic possibilities and matrix management that the Bank of Toremainnameless operates by.”  “Yes sir.  I will get my manager.  She knows the manual well sir.”

I got handed to Natalie.  She was pleasant and promptly stooped over, yanked off her sock and pulled her foot toward her face and inserted her foot into her mouth just like Nathan, as if on queue.  “So you are calling from China and are having problems.”  跌脚捶胸[1]  “NOOOOOO. That should have nothing to do with my problem Natalie.  Let’s back up and go over it all again. That I am in China should be immaterial, unless you are telling me it is your practice to do geographic profiling of people who even utter the word “Cathay.”  Natalie plopped her foot back out and caught her breath.  “No.  No.  We don’t do geographic profiling. “   

Natilie was patient and well-intentioned.  She walked me through the reentry of all the data, which led to the same error message once again.  We then went through the data in detail.  Are we sure there are no “%.”  None.  Are we sure there are no marks that might be understood as “<.”  I see none that could be understood so.  How about “>?”  Do you see any Natalie?   I see none.  “Right.  Just a minute.”  Hit enter.  Pause.  Same error message. “So you got the same error message? Just a minute.”

“No worries” said Natalie.  “I can see that we were not able.”  Uh oh.  This is the “I give up” speech.  “We were not able to provide you with a solution today.”  “Well Natalie, the night is young.  Why are you giving up?  This is a fairly straightforward data entry issue. “  “I have raised a ticket.”  I see, what is the expected resolution time on such a ticket?”  “Well normally that is three working days, but with Thanksgiving.”  THREE working days?  Is that a turn around time you are proud to benchmark against?”  I asked, breaking out my “I’m in the business” voice my mom used to use when we got bad service in a restaurant.  Three days turn around on a matter such as this, is atrocious. 

Well Natalie understood, and she agreed with me, but there was nothing she could do.  “They will reach out as soon as possible and certainly within the prescribed response time.”  Natalie proceeded to write down my contact info and then when she asked my number, I paused with a laugh.  “Natalie, I am about to give you an international number.  I said the word “international” as if it were a new adjective in nursery school.  Can you colleagues handle that?  “An international number.  Oh, wow.  Let’s see the manual  . . . well there isn’t a place to enter that.  Let me put it in the notes. “ 

This is America’s largest bank.  They must have hundreds of thousands of overseas customers.  But they can’t handle the notion of dialing someone who resides outside of the United States.  I know, I know, they are looking out for my security and all these sensitivities are based on real experience with hackers and all manner of nefarious bad people, a disproportionate number of whom operate from this geography.  But pennies-per-hour, corporate VOIP calls to international numbers should be as easy as providing toilet paper in the lavatory in this day and age.  They simply don’t think, and don’t care.

What I object to is firstly the easy, bovine assumption of guilt associated with a particular geography and second the lazy reluctance to provide for services for non-money, to people who don’t reside within the 50 United States.  Anyone else in the world can deal with it.  Every other country can handle it.  Why are YOU still so damn provincial, as if the world might still be just a domestic one.  This is going to crash on your head, America.  

I put on my polite, ‘we’re all in this together’ voice with Natalie and explained that while she personally didn’t suck, her company, their IT service turn around and general systemic approach to customer service, online banking and life in an international world, was gargling on a rather large zucchini in my opinion. 

I’m way too sensitive.  I know.  I recently had a considerably worse time trying to set up a web page from Beijing with GoDaddy who made me send my passport page because “China could not be trusted.”  I am sensitive that every exchange will be a repeat.  I worry that this is the shape of things to come.  Increasingly me and my family are guilty by association for being in, let alone of, China.  And it will be an excuse for poor service in the name of protection.   And I remind myself that all this may one day seem cute and innocent when real difficulties, real inconveniences descend upon us.   

[1] diējiǎochuíxiōng:  lit. stamping and beating the chest (idiom); fig. angry or stressed about sth