March 2011 Archives

Adventures in ba guan

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"Do you fear pain?"

The woman asking me this questions was a cute, young migrant worker named Nana.  She was wearing a white lab coat,  and standing - with a lit firebrand in one hand and a glass cup in the other - in the cramped back room of a hair salon.  I, meanwhile, was lying in my underwear on a massage table, my hair easily within combustion proximity of the flame.

"No," I replied, figuring that amusement was the only reasonable response.  Nana looked confused, but after muttering how most clients were scared of pain, she proceeded with the treatment.

For the record, getting ba guan (usually called "cupping" in English) had not been my idea.  Rather, a Chinese friend at the gym had recommended it.  I'd been explaining how I was trying to lose ten pounds before a marathon (lighter is faster), and she told me that her ba guan practitioner guaranteed ten pounds of weight loss in a month.  She added that she had purchased a series of treatment that she wasn't going to use, and that I could take her sessions for free.

Thanking her and open to trying - well, just about anything - I thus found myself in the aforementioned posture, flesh exposed to fire. 

The fire was not mere theatrics.  Ba guan practitioners insert the firebrand into the cup to suck the oxygen from the space and create a vacuum.  They then apply the cup to flesh, and the vacuum draws blood to the surface of the skin.  (In my experience, the treatment doesn't hurt.)  In theory, the treatment kickstarts one's qi, getting stagnant blood moving and generally supporting enhanced metabolic functioning.

In practice, the cups were falling off my body. 

Nana was becoming increasingly flustered.  "Maybe ba guan is not appropriate for you," she offered.  "Or maybe I'm doing it badly."

"Did you study Chinese medicine?" I asked.

"说实在的,我不好学," she replied.  What she said was ambiguous: it could have meant either that she didn't study at all, or that she had studied, but had done poorly.  Either way, it didn't inspire confidence.

After two sessions, I'd actually gained weight.  "That's not possible," Nana objected.

"It's not a question of possible," I said.  "It happened."

Nana seemed unwilling to accept this distinction.  She wanted me to see her boss, who was a Chinese medicine doctor. 

Dr. Tan was serious, but skeptical.  "Our method shrinks the stomach," she said.  "But you're eating more because your training for a marathon.  Our method won't work."

I assured her that I was eating very little, and Dr. Tan began the treatment.  The cups fell off my body.

"Was it me?" Nana poked her head into the treatment room.

"It wasn't you," Dr. Tan announced.  "Because she [that's me, folks] is a foreigner, she has body hair that prevents the cups from sticking.  Ba guan is not appropriate for her."

I didn't bother protesting that my arms and (shaved) legs were unlikely to pose body hair obstacles to cupping.  Amused acceptance seemed the only reasonable response.

I didn't manage to lose the 10 pounds before I ran the marathon. 

(Image of ba guan treatment from Confucius Institute Online)      

The books ain't helping

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Dan_Chiasson.jpgI attended law school during tumultuous years when affirmative action was being phased out, and my legal education is indelibly fused with a serious dose of American race-based identity politics.  I accepted the paradigm and my place within it because I believed (and continue to believe that) doing so is morally necessary; the unfairnesses of the alternatives are intolerable. 

Since law school, however, I've lived overseas in environments where American-style race-based identity politics appear absurd.  Racial classifications in China, India and Kenya - where I've spent most of my time since 2004 - exist, of course.  Broadly speaking, such classifications are enormously crude, relatively overt and highly-tolerated by the societies.  Jargon and academic methodologies haven't yet throttled these inequalities: they are facts of life.  If one chooses to engage them, one does so concretely, not conceptually. 

As a result of my experience, I stubbed my reading flow on the following passage in Dan Chiasson's otherwise fine New York Review of Books review of Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois' book, The Anthology of Rap:

Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the American tragedy of whites trying and failing to understand blacks. Age incomprehension is comic, since everyone young eventually grows old; race incomprehension is tragic, since nobody knows what it is like to change races.
I'm guessing that, thirteen years ago, when I was in the fishbowl of American race relations, these sentences would have seemed moderate and sensible.  My view now is a bit different. 

What strikes me first is the lack of proportion.  American race relations certainly has its tragic dimensions, most saliently its violence and its capacity for depriving large swathes of humanity of the fundaments of life - including recognition of their humanity.  But whites trying and failing to understand blacks isn't high on the list of "tragic" elements in the American race relations saga.

Next is the lack of precision.  Chiasson begins talking about whites trying to understand blacks, but then recharacterizes the issue as "nobody knows what it is like to change races."  In this shift, problems abound.

First, people do know what changing races feels like: people pass (for instance, Anatole Broyard).

But the larger issue is that achieving understanding across the racial divide and "chang[ing] races" aren't equivalent.  "Chang[ing] races" is not the point: being another race is. 

The question is not one of whether whites can understand blacks, but whether anyone can understand being a different race than the one into which he or she has been born.  In assigning whites an empathetic task without a reciprocal role for blacks, Chiasson assumes a typical, American identity-politics "moral white person" responsibility that manages nonetheless to dehumanize blacks by exempting them from the empathetic tasks inherent in the social contract. 

The obvious situation in which this variety of one-way empathy works is in the animal rights context: we're supposed to feel compassion for the rat in the cancer drug trial, but the rat has no burden of empathy for the cancer patient whose life is saved by the drug.  I'll admit that I have doubts as to whether this paradigm is appropriate for animals; I have no doubt that non-reciprocal empathetic relations are not suitable for humans.  

Once Chiasson's issue is framed in terms of anyone's capacity to understand the racial experience of anyone else, the issue isn't tragic, but universal.  (I doubt that Chiasson would have written, for example, that blacks trying and failing to understand whites is tragic.) 

The problem isn't even particularly American, but one that has arisen between peoples interacting for eons.  Power and wealth imbalances between the groups are better indicators of the extent of eventual understanding that any member of either group will achieve (or not) than are classifications of "white" and "black."  Only unusual people (and never the group as a whole) will deviate from the pattern set by his or her group's demographic profile.

Which brings me to my final observation about the quoted passage: its disconnect from actual interactions between white and black people.  Indeed, Chiasson's next sentence is: "Growing up in Vermont, I met a total of one black person." 

An empathetic attempt grounded in the concrete, rather than the conceptual - and Chiasson goes on to discuss looking up "afro" in the dictionary - seems likely to have yielded a different insight, perhaps this one:  Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the reality that too many American whites and blacks are willing to settle for superficial relations defined by commercialism, vulgarity and distanced hyper-conceptualization.     

This abstract compartmentalization of race matters doesn't defend us or protect us from whatever we fear from engaging the issues concretely.  To the contrary, such extreme conceptualization only corrupts our thinking.  Inevitably it implicates books in our dirty work: in this blog post alone, an anthology, a book review and a dictionary have been caught aiding and abetting. 

American race relations may be the only topic as to which I would advocate: Read less.  Engage more.  Don't settle.
(Image of Dan Chiasson from Wellesley College website) 

If only "only connect" . . .

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EM_Forster_1938.jpgIn his Express review Wendy Moffat's biography, EM Forster: A New Life, Duncan Fallowell wrote that "the great and beautiful theme of all [Forster's] work [was] 'the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being.'"

Certainly Forster's theme is no secret.  Indeed, his formulation of it in Howard's End is endlessly quoted:

Only connect! . . . Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.  Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Although "Only connect" obviously resonates with many people, I prefer Forster's statement of the principal in concrete terms.  Here he is, explaining in A Passage to India, how "only connect" works in action, without any of the abstract "beast" and "monk" references:

There needs must be this evil of brains in India, but woe to him through whom they are increased!  The feeling grew that Mr. Fielding was a disruptive force, and rightly, for ideas are fatal to caste, and he used ideas by that most potent method - interchange.  Neither a missionary nor a student, he was happiest in the give-and-take of a private conversation.  The world, he believed, is a globe of men who are trying to reach one another and can best do so by the help of good will plus culture and intelligence - a creed ill-suited to Chandrapore, but [Fielding] had come out too late to lose it.
Forster's description of cross-cultural connection through conversational interchange is something I recognize from experience.  But the more important reason for preferring "good will plus culture and intelligence" to "only connect" is that, in A Passage to India, Forster illustrates something else I know from experience: the limits of his doctrine.

"Only connect" just isn't enough.  Abstractly stated, it's easy to romanticize; contextualized in A Passage to India, it's exposed as wishful thinking.

A brief summary of the plot of A Passage to India is here useful: Fielding and Aziz manage to become friends despite the British raj.  When Adela Quested accuses Aziz of making criminal sexual advances, Fielding maintains Aziz's innocence.  Fielding resigns from the British club in protest of the colonial community's racist presumption of Aziz's guilt.  Adela receives vulgar support from racist colonials, against which her intrinsic decency recoils.  On the witness stand in court, Adela dramatically retracts her accusation.  In the aftermath of the trial, Fielding houses Adela at the school where he teaches, and he urges Aziz not to sue Adela for libel.  Aziz accuses Fielding of helping his [Aziz's] enemy, and years later refuses to see Fielding when he returns to India with his new wife.  Upon learning that Fielding's wife is not Adela Quested, but in fact Stella Moore, the daughter of an elderly woman who Aziz loved and honored, Aziz relents in his anger, but the rupture in their friendship is permanent. 

In the book's last scene, Fielding and Aziz meet, "aware that they could meet no more."  Aziz asserts, "if it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then . . . and then . . . you and I shall be friends."  Fielding questions this perspective: "Why can't we be friends now? . . . It's what I want.  It's what you want."  But Forster makes clear that everything in the environs - the horses, "the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion . . . they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there.'"     

As even the plot outline clarifies, the connection between Aziz and Fielding does not make manifest "human love at its height."  It reveals that individual human connections devoid of social support are fragile, fleeting and unstable.  The flip-side is shown by Adela Quested, who is propped up by people she loathes: social support devoid of human connections are equally fragile, fleeting and unstable.  Both - as demonstrated by the ostracization of both Fielding and Adela -  lead to loneliness and isolation.

I have lived this saddening dynamic myself.  The vast majority of interactions that I've had over the last seven years have involved some attempt to connect across a cultural divide.  The connections so achieved don't mean what I hope, or wish, or think they mean; they're superficial; they evaporate with a hint of pressure; they continually disappoint.  Falling into the trap of blaming myself - I didn't try hard enough, I didn't have enough compassion - is easy, but the truth is hard.

What EM Forster could have said - what's accurate - is "Only connect, in a context that supports connection."  The drawback to truth, of course, is what Forster describes at the end of A Passage to India: contexts often don't support connections.  The temples, the sky, they don't want it.  And if you're in a context that doesn't support the connection you want or need, then you must remake your context, which is vastly more difficult than making a connection.

To describe Forster's "great and beautiful" theme as finding individual connection with another human being does a disservice to Forster, I think.  In his own life, he knew that what he needed was not an individual connection, but a gay-friendly social context.  And in A Passage to India, he suffused his art with that more complicated version of his theme: "Only connect, although the connection will fail, fragile, fleeting and unstable is our portion."
(Image of EM Forster from The Daily Mail)

Recommending Henry

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A friend recently wrote to me asking for recommendations of classic books he could read over Spring Break.  (Plainly, he's not one of my friends who believes that nothing in the classics can rival Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break; and for those of my friends who do hold such beliefs, what about the "lioness on the cheese grater" position referred to in Lysistrata?)

So back to my friend: I replied with a list of books that included Henry James' The Aspern Papers, possibly my fave of the James oeuvre.  Short, shocking and chock full of nasty conflicts of interest and sexual tensions, The Aspern Papers is my idea of reading satisfaction.

Not so much my friend: "I tried reading the Aspern Papers, but didn't really enjoy the writing style."

Poor Henry!  All those long sentences with tangential, intermediary clauses; all that punctuation - those dashes, those commas; all those asides, all that effort, all that style: all beyond the ready appreciation of today's reader.

And poor friend!  Henry James is not called "The Master" for nothing.  All his learning, his intimate knowledge of the human viscera, his understanding of emotional contortion and manipulative behavior, of the corrupting power of money and the dangers of life on society's periphery: all inaccessible under the lock of his impenetrable prose.

The situation brought to mind the scene in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, when Aziz spontaneously recites a poem by Ghalib to an assortment of well-wishers who have come to his bedside when he's sick:

[The poem] had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs.  They were overwhelmed by its pathos; pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers.
. . . .
Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry.  The minds of the others were inferior and rough.  Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization.  The police inspector, for instance, did not feel that Aziz had degraded himself by reciting, nor break into the cheery guffaw with which an Englishman averts the infection of beauty.  He just sat with his mind empty, and when his thoughts, which were mainly ignoble, flowed back into it they had a pleasant freshness.
(p. 99-100.)  With humor and a deft description, Forster captured - almost 90 years ago - what we have lost and, still today, haven't been able to replace.  The "infection of beauty" imbues even the ignoble thought with a "pleasant freshness."

Translation: Girls Gone Wild is even better after reading The Aspern Papers!

(Image of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Henry James from State College of Florida website)

Live weight

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Lead_stops_radiation.jpgFor about twenty-four hours, from Saturday through mid-day Sunday, I felt leaden.  Productivity on any front was futile: accomplishment was too heavy a goal.  Even sleep was a beyond me; I lay in a thick stupor, conscious, unmoving, dark.  My thoughts grouped in clumps, the manifold forgotten things in the spaces between them. 

I dragged the word "lead" around like a manacle.  The image and sense memory of a lead apron pressed on me.  I wondered at the weight, then appreciated my own summoning of it.  Lead is protection from radiation.

That I could summon the metal without the metaphor!  That I could cast a lead canopy over Japan! 

The pain of the planet's only population to know nuclear fallout on the receiving end of two atomic bombs, now facing the potential meltdown of as many as six nuclear reactors - if that pain were distilled in a cry, what answer could suffice?  My imaginative connection with that pain, my expression of helplessness, was a temporary immobilization, a 24-hour leaden-ization that melted when I became conscious that it was sympathetic: an empathetic burden made manifest.

Though I cannot imagine the depth of pain wrought by the post-earthquake nuclear situation in Japan, I can understand what's necessary to withstand it: resiliency.  Whatever the outcome of the attempts to cool down Japan's overheating reactors, Japan's population needs reservoirs of resiliency.

Realizing this, I thought of Nathaniel Rich's review of Ryu Murakami's novel, Popular Hits of the Showa Era, in which Rich writes that, "grotesque behavior is a logical response to a society [Japan's] that discourages expressions of individuality, self-reflection and personal ambition."  Clucking our tongues at such un-American strains in a foreign culture is easy, but all three of these characteristics - by fragmenting the community, by shifting the focus from the group to the individual - may reduce the overall resiliency of the population and, indeed, of its individual members.

Developing high pain thresholds and resiliency comes at a price; I'm not romantic about the social costs of conformity.  Nor am I soft-minded about the difference between solving social problems and feeling better about them.  So at the risk of doing the latter without the former, I wonder if the resiliency of Japan's population can be at all supported through collective action of a poetic nature, a broad-scale inhabited metaphor:

We will be your lead, and our own.  We will shoulder your weight with you, diffuse your pain as the radiation diffuses over us and the planet. 

Let the lead be live.

(Image of the radiation-stopping properties of lead from BBC)     

Design miracle

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"Ask and it shall be given you" is not typically a phrase in which I put much stock.  After all, I've been asking for some pretty basic things for an awful long time - a home, financial stability, a family - without having been given in any readily cognizable way. 

Of course, I haven't been asking Jesus for these things, so maybe that's the problem.  On the other hand, maybe the key is to ask for less foundational, more tangible things.

In a prior post, I asked for a better cover image for the audio book of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, than the one I'd come up with myself.  Remarkably, despite the rather conspicuous lack of material reward associated with my request, it has been given.  And not by Jesus. 

My saint in my hour of need is the talented, multi-lingual, well-read and generous Kurt Rodahl Hoppe.  For those of my loyal blog readers who recognize Kurt's name, it's true that Kurt doesn't flirt, but - as the image above demonstrates - what he can do with graphic design software redeems not merely this shortcoming, but that same shortcoming in all his countrymen.  Not quite Jesus-level redemption, but possibly worthy of worship nonetheless.  Thank you Kurt, and amen!

Take this book jacket graphic - please

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Book jacket graphics seem to be the locus of all manner of anxiety for authors.  I believe it's a law of physics that authors - universally - are required to hate the cover art on their books.  And, as I've blogged previously (here and here), when dealing with international, cross-cultural or multi-racial stories and / or authors, the visual representations of those stories become extremely contested.

In all these contests, however, the author squares off against his or her publisher.  I have never before known a situation in which the author's nemesis is herself.  Yet that is the situation in which I find myself.

In conjunction with my (shortly) forthcoming audiobook version of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, I need to include a picture with the audio file.  If the book had been published, that picture would be its cover; since the book is not yet published, I need to furnish a "cover equivalent."

The experience of assembling this cover equivalent has given me new empathy for graphic designers who work at publishing companies.  The process seems simple: get a relevant image and juxtapose it in a visually-pleasing way with the title of the book and the author's name.  Duh.  Yet my efforts suggest that the process's "simplicity" is more alleged than actual.

You can see the results above and draw your own conclusions about how lucky the world is that I have not attempted to inflict my graphic design work more widely on the innocent public.  The nicest thing one can say about this proposed cover is, I believe, that it's very DIY.  The font, in particular, comes awfully close to inducing stomach cramps. 

Nonetheless, I have surrendered to my limitations and throw myself on the mercy of my blog readers.  Anyone who wants to send me a proposed cover of their own making will find a happy recipient at maya.alexandri [at]  If I use your proposed cover with the audio book, you will receive - in addition to the privilege of licensing your work to me for free - a free copy of the audio book and my undying gratitude.    

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