Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

START with Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

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I recently wrote a book review on River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh, which held me spellbound, so riveting that I had to order Sea of Poppies, which is actually the first volume of the trilogy. I had heard a review of River of Smoke on NPR and although it was written as the second volume in a trilogy, it can be read as a stand-alond.

Yes. Yes, it can be read as a stand-alone, but it is so much easier, I can state with authority, if you read them in order. Once I started Sea of Poppies, I also discovered an extensive glossary in the back, several pages, a list of the words, annotated with suggested origins, and it adds so much color to an already brilliantly colored novel. Much of both novels uses words from many cultures, and words that have been formed by another culture’s understanding of the words (some hilarious). If you like Captain Jack Sparrow, you’re going to love the polyglot language spoken by ship’s crews from many nations trying to communicate with one another. It can be intimidating, but if you sort of say the words out loud the way they are written at the beginning, you begin to find the rhythm and the gist of the communication, just as if you were a new recruit to the sea-going vessels of the early 1800’s. I loved it because it captured the difficulties encountered trying to say the simplest things, and the clever ways people in all cultures manage to get around it, and make themselves understood.

Sea of Poppies starts in a small Indian village, with one of the very small poppy gardens, planted on an advance from an opium factory representative, thrust upon the small farmer, with the result that most small Indian farmers converted their entire allotment from subsistence foods to poppies. Ghosh walks us through an opium processing factory, which is a little like walking through the circles of hell. We meet many of the characters we will follow in River of Smoke, and learn how this diverse group bonded into one sort of super-family through their adventures – and misadventures – together.

It is an entirely engrossing work. Sea of Poppies was short listed for the Man Booker award, and was listed as a “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and The Economist. The theme is the opium trade, leading to the Opium Wars, with China, and is a chilling indictment of how business interests manipulate a population’s perceptions of national interests to justify . . . well, just about anything, in the name of profit.

The theme is woven through human stories so interesting, so textured, so compelling, that you hardly realize you are reading history and learning about the trade, cultures, travel, clothing, traditions, religions, food, and motivations as you avidly turn the pages.

I can hardly wait for the third volume. Get started now, so you’ll be ready for it when it comes out!

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March 3, 2013 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Financial Issues, Friends & Friendship, Gardens, Health Issues, India, Language, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Political Issues, Social Issues, Travel, Women's Issues | , , , , | 2 Comments

Amitav Ghosh and River of Smoke

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The National Public Radio website recommended this book as one of the best historical fiction reads, and I had never heard of it, so I ordered it. I ordered it in spite of the little voice I had in my head reminding me that this was the second in a trilogy, that the first is Sea of Poppies. I was too eager. I wanted to jump right in, and the review said it could be read stand-alone. I had read Ghosh’s Glass Palace a couple years ago for book club, loved it, and was eager to read this one.

With a raging cold and no possible way I can be around humanity, it was a good time to start. Just picking up the book, it has a dense feel. Once you start, it is like being suddenly in a whirlpool, drowning in new words, characters who have more than one name and more than one identity, whirling between England, Mauritius, Hindustan, Gujerat, Hong Kong, Macau and China, whirling between cultures and professions and trades, but oh, what a ride.

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It would have been helpful to be reading River of Smoke on an iPad, where I could poke at a new word and it would give me the meaning, but in truth, you can guess a lot of the meaning of the vocabulary from the context. The seafarers all speak a language sort of like Jack Sparrow, a pidgen language filled with simplified grammar and with words from many nations and cultures. It forces you to slow down. It’s worth it. It would also be nice if you could poke on a place-name and have Google Earth show you where it is. There used to be a website called Google Books, and you could put in a book and it would show you the places in which actions in the book took place; that would be particularly handy reading this book, provide context in place-relations.

But reading slowly is it’s own reward. This book has depth, depth of character, depth of textures and senses, and depth of morality. I love a book like this where you can smell the smoke drifting over the water, where you can smell the sewer and bloated animal corpses floating outside the foreign hongs of the Canton traders, you can feel the textures of the textiles and see their colors, you can taste the exquisiteness of Macau cuisine and you can hike in a Hong Kong not yet settled by anyone, Chinese or foreign.

The scope of time covered by the major part of the story is short, although there are years of back-stories for several characters. The period is 1837-8, during which the Chinese Emperor decides to put teeth in the long established edict against opium trade to China. The edict had been in place, but not enforced, and China watched her citizens sink into opium addiction and lowered productivity. The traders were making fortunes – shiploads of money. Opium was grown in India and shipped from there to China.

When the ban against shipping opium into China is announced, many traders believe it is just another attempt to attain greater bribes on the part of the mandarins, and decline to obey. There is great debate, and while it is lively in the book, it is based on documents from that era, many of the arguments word for word. Traders stood to loose a great deal of money, in truth, it would ruin most of them to lose their shipments.

There is a side story I also like, that of the botanical trade between China and England, and the importation of many of the garden plants we take for granted today, which were unknown until sent from China. Camellia – one of which is the plant for tea, did you know that? Roses, azaleas, orchids – many many familiar plants would be missing from our gardens were it not for their introduction during this period.

Ghosh gives us disparate characters of many cultures and upbringings, and slowly weaves them together, each one tangential to all the others, some closely interwoven. It is a fascinating read, and I can’t wait for the next volume. I may have to go back and read Sea of Poppies while I am waiting.

January 30, 2013 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Character, Community, Crime, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Fiction, Financial Issues, Food, Friends & Friendship, India, Living Conditions, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Social Issues, Values, Work Related Issues | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

China Trusts Prostitutes More than Chinese Politicians

LLLOOOLLLL, thank you, BBC News for livening up the deadly August news scene:

China ‘trusts prostitutes more’

China’s prostitutes are better-trusted than its politicians and scientists, according to an online survey published by Insight China magazine.

The survey found that 7.9% of respondents considered sex workers to be trustworthy, placing them third behind farmers and religious workers.

“A list like this is at the same time surprising and embarrassing,” said an editorial in the state-run China Daily.

Politicians were far down the list, closer to scientists and teachers.

Insight China polled 3,376 Chinese citizens in June and July this year.

“The sex workers’ unexpected prominence on this list of honour… is indeed unusual,” said the China Daily editorial.

“At least [the scientists and officials] have not slid into the least credible category which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors,” the editorial said.
Soldiers came in fourth place.

I can’t help but wonder how the same survey would result in other countries?

August 5, 2009 Posted by | Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Cultural, Entertainment, Humor, Law and Order, Leadership, Living Conditions, Relationships, Social Issues, Statistics, Values, Women's Issues | | 5 Comments

In Xanadu: A Quest by William Dalrymple

This book was on my (huge) “Read Me” stack, and I picked it up for a change of pace. As I started reading, I wondered “how did this get there?” My first instinct was it was a recommendation from Little Diamond. As I was reading, however, I came across a segment that was what our priest had read in church around the Feast of the Epiphany about the birthplace of the wise men who came seeking the Christ Child after his birth. I wrote down the title and ordered it from amazon.com (which has some copies used from 72 cents).

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William Dalrymple wrote this book when he was a mere 22 years old. He and a travelling companion took off to trace Marco Polo’s journey from Jerusalem to Xanadu, where he was taking oil from the sanctuary lamp to Kubla Khan.

In a world where we have all been taught to be so careful, they take incredible risks. They travel on the cheap – staying in fleabag hotels, sometimes sleeping “rough”, i.e. out in the open. They travel any way they can – an occasional train, but more often a truck, a bus, whatever is going their way. One very long segment they travelled on top of a pile of coal.

They travel from Jerusalem up through Syria and into Turkey, then turn east and cross Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to China. They have some amazing adventures, see some astounding scenery and because of their mode of travel, have a lot of time to talk with their travelling companions or people in the cities where they are staying.

I am blown away that an unmarried couple would cross Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I guess they told people they were married to share a room (they were on a budget) and they were only friends, not a couple, but what a risk. I am astonished that they were never asked to produce a marriage license or any proof of marriage when they stayed in hotels. I am astonished at the girls (one left in Lahore and another joined him, but these are girls who are friends, not anything more) would travel on the backs of trucks full of men, and never blink an eye.

The book is occasionally hilarious. Most of the hilarity results from foods they have to eat – sometimes it is the only food available – or from misunderstandings because of lack of a common language, or due to their frequent bouts of diarrhea, what I really liked about the author was that he was rarely pompous, and when he is funny, it is usually about some conversation he has had, or some mistake he has made.

One of my favorite parts of the book happens in Iran:

As we sat waiting for the bus to Tabriz, the next town on Marco Polo’s itinerary, we watched the mullahs speeding past in their sporty Renault 5s. Iran was proving far more complex than we had expected. A religious revolution in the twentieth century was a unique occurence, resulting in the first theocracy since the fall of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Yet this revolution took place not in a poor banana republic, but in the richest and most sophisticated country in Asia. A group of clerics was trying to graft a mediaeval system of government and a pre-medieval way of thinking upon a country with a prosperous modern economy and a large and highly educated middle class. The posters in the bus station seemed to embody these contradictions. A frieze over the back wall of the shelter spoke out, in the name of Allah, against littering. On another wall two monumental pictures of the Ayatollah were capped with the inscriptions in both Persian and English:

BEING HYGENIC IS DIRECTLY RELATED ON THE MAN’S PERSONALITY

and:

ALLAH COMMANDS THE RE-USE OF RENEWABLE RESOURCES.

We had expected anything of the Ayatollah. But hardly that he would turn out to be an enthusiastic ecologist.

The challenge of this journey is to follow as closely as possible the path Marco Polo took, but two segments of the journey go through off-limits areas. They find a way into one, to discover later it is an atomic testing area, and the second, at the very end, around Xanadu, they find receptive Chinese officers who take them to have a brief glimpse of the ruins of Xanadu while booting them out of the area. As they stand in Xanadu, they repeat a poem that every American child grows up with in English Literature:

In Zanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of gertile ground
With walls and twoers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills.
Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree:
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
(Coleridge)

I liked this book. Dalrymple is a history major, and often quotes from historical – even obscure – texts to illuminate what he observes. I think I may look at a couple more he has written since.

March 9, 2009 Posted by | Adventure, Biography, Bureaucracy, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Geography / Maps, Humor, Iran, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Pakistan, Travel, Turkey | , | 7 Comments

Eliot Pattison: Beautiful Ghosts

It almost always takes me a little while to get into Eliot Pattison’s books, and I can figure out why. He sets you down right in the middle of something going on, so you start off a little confused. You can read each of his Inspector Shan Tao Yun books as a stand-alone, but it helps to have read them in order – as I have.

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Even though I have read them in order, I still find myself disoriented each time I start a new book. New names, a new situation, and it takes a few pages to get back in the rhythm of thinking about things in a new way. Within thirty pages, I am in a new world, and I am totally addicted. When I am reading one of the Inspector Shan Tao Yun books, I can hardly wait to get back to the book. My household chores suffer, my projects suffer – even AdventureMan suffers, as I seek to return to Tibet, the Tibetan Monks and the world of Chinese bureaucracy.

One of the things I love in this book – we saw a hint of it in the last book I reviewed, Bone Mountain – is that the worst of the bad characters can have a hint of humanity, and develop a full-blown redemption, as we are watching happen with the prison warden, Captain Tan. The process continues in Beautiful Ghosts. In this book, Pattison strikes several additional chords – he combines a good mystery with art, art thefts, public art and a little bit of history, a family reunion, father-son problems, and a lot of action. I’m a happy reader.

In Beautiful Ghosts, a murder happens, but it is hard to understand, at first, who was murdered, why the murder was committed, where the murder was committed as well as who committed the murder. One answer leads to another, and ultimately, to long buried treasures and long kept secrets.

A great tickle, for me, is that in this book Inspector Shan Tao Yun goes to my home town, Seattle, which he finds very strange, and grey and rainy. Pattison describes Chan’s bewilderment at how Americans live, and as Chan leaves Seattle, he comments on how he has not seen the sunshine in his entire time visiting there, working in co-ordination with an FBI office trying to track down some missing and stolen Tibetan art pieces, stolen from the hidden monasteries by corrupt Chinese bureaucrats.

Shan still stood, studying the strange buildings and the dozens of people who were wandering in and out of the open doorways off the huge main hall. There were shops, he realized, dozens of shops, two floors of shops. When he looked toward Corbett, the American was already ten feet in front of him. Shan followed slowly, puzzling over everything in his path. Adolescents walked by, engaged in casual conversation, seemingly relaxed despite the brass rings and balls that for some reason pierced their faces. He looked away, his face flushing, as he saw several women standing in a window clothed only in underwear. He saw more, nearly identical women, in another window adorned in sweaters and realized they were remarkably lifelike mannequins. One of the sweaters was marked at a few cents less than three hundred dollars, more than most Tibetans made in a year.

“Why did you bring me here?” Shan asked, as Crobett led him into a coffee shop and ordered drinks for both of them. “This place of merchants.”

“I thought you’d want to see America,” Corbett said with an odd, awkward grin, gesturing to a table, then sobored. “And this is where Abigail worked, before getting the governess job. People here knew her, told me stories about her, made her real for me.”

. . . .

Shan began to marvel at the rain itself. Beijing was a dry place, most of Tibet a near desert. He had not experienced so much rain since he was a boy, living near the sea. There were many qualities of American rain, and many types of rain clouds. One moment they were in a driving rain, like a storm, the next in a shower, the next in a drizzle that was little more than a thick fog. Once the water came down so violently, in such a sudden wind, that it struck at the car horizontally. . . .

You learn so much reading Eliot Pattison, more than I can absorb! There are detailed art works, there are geographic features, there are Buddhist customs, there are bureaucratic networks, there are mysteries of Chinese history and dynasties. There are tribal customs and learning to think like Tibetan monks.

Eliot Pattison is a gifted and poetic writer. If you like mysteries that turn out to be very complicated and which teach you a lot about a culture you have never experienced (or would like to learn more about) I would suggest you start at the beginning. These are the books about Inspector Chan in chronological order:

Skull Mantra
Water Touching Stone
Bone Mountain
Beautiful Ghosts

February 28, 2009 Posted by | Arts & Handicrafts, Books, Bureaucracy, Crime, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Detective/Mystery, Fiction, Financial Issues, Law and Order, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Public Art | , , | Leave a comment

Gung Hey Fat Choi in Chengdu, China

The Chinese really know how to celebrate New Years. This is footage from Chengdu, China, taken as the Year of the Ox came in at midnight. Well, from a minute before midnight to several minutes afterwards. You cannot begin to imagine 180° of fireworks continuously, minutes on end. A spectacular display.

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, ExPat Life, Holiday, Living Conditions | , | Leave a comment

NYT: “Dynamic” Route for Olympic Torch

The New York Times.

Published: April 9, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — The Olympic torch arrived at the airport here from Paris in the wee hours Tuesday morning, exited out a side door and was escorted by motorcade to a downtown hotel. There it took a well-deserved break in a room complete with cable TV, room service and views of the city’s popular Union Square shopping district.

 

The New York Times

 

“It has very comfortable accommodations,” said Mike McCarron, an airport spokesman, who said the flame — ensconced in a handsome brass lantern and accompanied by several backup flames — was “treated similar to a head of state.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the flame will be under no such bushel as it makes its only appearance in the United States on an increasingly tense international tour en route to Beijing. It will star in a two-and-a-half-hour relay along this city’s waterfront, involving six miles of pavement, 79 runners and untold scores of law enforcement officials.

The precise route remained in flux on Tuesday as the torch extravaganza threatened to become more civic migraine than celebration in the face of potential protests by those upset with China’s human rights record and recent crackdown in Tibet. Mayor Gavin Newsom met with police and relay officials amid concerns that disruptions in London and Paris this week not be repeated here.

“I can only confirm that the route is dynamic,” said Nathan Ballard, a city spokesman.

April 9, 2008 Posted by | Bureaucracy, Entertainment, Events, News, Political Issues, Words | , | 2 Comments

A Case of Two Cities with Inspector Chen: Qiu Xiaolong

When my sister Sparkle recommends a book, I have learned to listen. I think I ordered this book about six months ago, but never cared enough to actually read it. After reading a recent Donna Leon (like dessert, I use it as a reward for reading something more challenging) I decided it was time to tackle Qiu Xiaolong.

I believe A Case of Two Cities is the first in the series; I tried very hard to make sure it was. When I first started reading it, it was difficult, but it didn’t take long to adjust. When you read a detective story written in a foreign culture, you have to park your old way of thinking, and quickly adapt to a new way of thinking. First, you have to learn what that new way of thinking is. They don’t just tell you at the beginning of the book “Here are the differences in values – you will notice . . .” no, but Qiu Xiaolong is courteous enough to take us by the hand and lead us gently into the Chinese way of thinking, the Chinese way of getting things done, and the technicalities of Chinese detective work.

As we meet Inspector Chen, a published poet, and a detective, ten pages into the book, a new anti-corruption campaign is starting in Shanghai, and Inspector Chen has been given a special assignment – a qinchai dacheng – as “Emperor’s Special Envoy with an Imperial Sword.” Even though imperial days are long gone, this warrant gives him emergency powers to search and arrest without reporting to anyone – and without a warrant. He is to seek and find Xing, a corrupt businessman who has caused huge loss to the national economy and is in danger of tarnishing the Chinese national image, and Xing’s associates.

Just as in the Donna Leon books about Commissario Guido Brunetti, and the Bowen books about Gabriel duPre, and James Lee Burke’s books about New Orleans, and Cara Black’s books about Aimee LeDuc, the detectives and investigators have to walk a fine line between going after the criminal and overstepping their warrant – stepping on the toes of those also engaged in corruption so entrenched that it has become a way of life. Each of these detectives has to maneuver that treacherously fine line – who determines when corruption has become too much? It usually puts their own lives in danger at some point, as those manipulating the system and making a fortune out of it do not want to be caught, do not want to be exposed, and will go to great lengths to protect their ill-gotten gains.

And just as in the above books, the book is more about the actual process than the crime itself. Inspector Chen must go about his task indirectly, having chats here and there, gathering threads of information with which he tries to weave a plausible tapestry of events.

As I was reading A Case of Two Cities, I kept making AdventureMan take me out for Chinese food! The meetings are often held over food, and the descriptions are mouth-watering.

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Best of all, when you read these books, you get a tiny little glimpse into another way of thinking, another way of doing business. We are all human, we all have the same needs, and we differ in how we go about getting those needs met. We differ in the way we think. It helps to enter another way of living, another way of thinking, it helps to visit through these books so that we can increase our own understanding that our way of doing things is not the only way, maybe (gasp!) not even the “right” way! Maybe (crunching those brain cells really hard to output this thought) there is more than one “right” way?

March 15, 2008 Posted by | Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Cooking, Crime, Cross Cultural, Detective/Mystery, Language, Leadership, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Political Issues, Relationships, Shopping, Social Issues, Travel, Women's Issues | | 9 Comments