The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Yeah, it's been awhile. (Or as Evan might say, I just made 150 unrelated daily decisions not to post anything.) In July and August Sherry and I flew to Scranton and Detroit respectively to show Jason off to my relatives. The fall was Sherry's turn, as she and Jason spent four weeks with her folks in Shanghai. I joined them for two weeks in November.

It started with a 13-hour flight, and once you're over that nothing worse is likely to happen to you, unless someone beats on you with a 2x4 made of hardwood. And it has to be hardwood; no way is getting whacked with a soft pine plank worse than spending eight dreary hours on a 747 and then realizing that you still have as much time left as a flight across America would take. I had an aisle seat, seven books, and an issue of Liberty Magazine in my favor, but toward the end of the flight I was dropping off while trying to read about particle physics, not the best combination.

One nice thing about trans-Pacific flights is when they come out with the warm towels before the meal and you realize that they're going to treat you like a human being.

I landed, grabbed the one large suitcase I had checked, and made my way out of the customs area. This was the week of the big tennis tournament in Shanghai, and I guess some of the stars were on our plane. I walked into a big contingent of scowling security guards, and off to one side were several pretty young ladies in sky-blue outfits chanting ... well, what I heard was "RANDY MOSS! RANDY MOSS!" But it seemed unlikely that Mr. Moss' lack of enthusiasm and dropped passes had made him many fans across the Pacific, and anyway he had not taken his dejection at being a Raider to the point where he would fly 7000 miles away from Oakland between games. I'm pretty sure that the baseball-capped fellow who was the object of all this adulation was Andy Roddick.

Sherry met me at the airport and we took a cab from Pudong (the site of the airport) across the river to Shanghai. One of the things that got me through the flight was the prospect of seeing Jason again, and fortunately he was still awake when we got home.

Sherry and Jason were staying at an apartment owned by her aunt, Daeema. A brief synopsis of family names: In Chinese, all close relatives are addressed by titles; given names are not used. The appelations precisely define the relationship; "Uncle Floyd" is extremely vague and could be applied to me by my sister's boy Scott or Sherry's niece Nunu. In Chinese, Scott would call me Dajo since I am his mother's oldest brother; Nunu would call me Gufu as I am her brother's older sister's husband.

If you have enough siblings, the titles are number-based, like Chaee, "#7 aunt" (which I have seen Sherry write in emails). Sherry's grandmother ("Abu") had ten children, six of whom live in Shanghai: Jedya (the #2 aunt), U-aee (the #5 aunt -- really #4, but the Chinese skip over that number since it sounds the same as "death"), Dajo (#6 uncle), Chaee, Shao-aee ("little aunt") and Arjo (the youngest uncle). (Daeema, the eldest, lives in Milpitas and went to China with Sherry; Sherry's mom, the third sibling, was visiting from Baoji in the north; Joaee (#9 aunt) lives in Australia; Baaee, #8, is deceased, but we will meet up with her later.)

These numeric titles can then be applied to "abu" (maternal grandmother) instead of "aee" (maternal aunt) for the next generation.

Here are "five abus" with Jason and his cousin Olivia. From left to right: Abu. U-abu, Shao-abu holding Jason, Du-abu holding Olivia, Cha-abu. From Olivia's perspective Jason's Abu is her Sei-abu, and Du-abu is her own grandmother. There will be a quiz on all this at the end of the blog post.



Daeema owns an apartment near the university and Ganghui Mall. It's a tiny place, maybe 800 square feet divided into kitchen, bathroom, living room/bedroom, and two other bedrooms. Two balconies on opposite ends were roofed and used as laundry room and kitchen preparation area respectively. One interesting habit that Jason developed during his stay was to have people show and name various vegetables; he even demanded to do this when he woke up in the middle of the night.

The apartment complex, from the outside:



Here's Jason using the bathtub:



I am always jetlagged when I fly west, and this was no exception. I had a lot of trouble sleeping, and still could not sleep for the next week -- I would sleep maybe six hours a night, and would be very tired in the late afternoon. At least I had access to caffeine. Just around the corner from the apartment complex was Ganghui Mall and its outdoor food court, with no fewer than two Starbucks. At 7 or 8 in the morning I had them practically to myself.

One of the restaurants in the food court was Italian and advertised this interesting combination of goods:



"Would you like a cappuchino pizza?" "Nah, I think tiramisu risotto sounds better." "I'll have the espresso pasta."

We spent a fair amount of time at the mall. This may sound kind of lame, but when you're hanging out with a 14-month-old you're tied to his nap schedule and it's tough to get out for serious expeditions. And the mall is quite impressive:



Six stories, plus a basement with a very nice supermarket -- I was able to find lots of imported beers there. I also found yogurt, which was labelled "fruit cheese." The ground floor was mostly open space, and often would have models sashaying while pop music played. The second and fourth floors were primarily fashion; the third floor had a huge shopping area for kids' toys. The fifth floor was packed with restaurants, and the sixth had a movie theater and a gigantic bookstore. The bookstore had a decent English language section, and I was happy to pay something like $3.50 for 800 pages of Sherlock Holmes stories, and $10 for Boo Hoo, an account of a dot-com collapse.

We also did a little shopping. I picked up some nice dress shoes for $35 -- but I remember the store fondly not for the bargains but for the best example of Lorem Ipsum I have ever seen:



Presumably the English text is there to impress the Chinese shoppers. It wasn't going to mean anything anyway, so why not be explicit about it?

Asians have a reputation for pushing their kids to study hard; apparently you have to solve algebra equations to shop at the mall:



This is as good a time as any to talk about my fascination with Chinese iconography. Chinese signs are much more explicit and detailed than corresponding Western signs. For instance, here is the sign for the hotel elevator:



See, there's a person, and he's going up and down, and he presses buttons to choose a floor ...

Oh, and speaking of buttons to choose floors, a bizarre off by one error on that same elevator, brought to you by the people who decided that 1 AD should be preceded by 1 BC:



Here's a sign from the vicinity of the mall:



From left to right: "There's gonna be five signs so listen up. No trumpet playing, Yao Ming is 2.8 meters tall, no bicycles, and no cigarettes. Lit cigarettes. The ones you've got in your pocket are perfectly fine."

Sunday night Sherry and I left Jason in the hands of his doting great-aunts and departed Shanghai for Hainan. We flew China Southern Airlines, which was my second experience with domestic Chinese airlines (I flew Northwest in 2000). Instead of a jetway, you get bussed at breakneck speed to the tarmac and climb stairs into the aircraft. The flight to Sanya was about three hours, which of course felt like childs' play after the endless trans-Pacific journey. I was reading Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit's polemic against string theory. This book is very dense, at least for the physics non-professional, and I was nodding off as I read it.

Shanghai's weather was mild, much like the Bay Area in autumn. Sanya was warm and humid. A van met us at the airport and we had a 40-minute ride, which got us to our hotel, Tian Yu, well after midnight. We checked into our room on the second floor of the left wing of the hotel, and crashed.



The hotel had a long single axis parallel to the beach, with various restaurants, bars, shops, and meeting rooms off to the side. Behind the hotel was a grassy area and three pools. The center one was a complex network of moderate sized basins, most of them not very deep, with some hot tubs interspersed. The back of the pool was kind of a grotto, with an underground area having more hot tubs and opening into the deep section, where at certain times you could swing like Tarzan off a rope into a water. I didn't bother with it though; jumping off such a rope does not produce a graceful arc. Rather you fall off the end on a straight line into the water. There were stairs leading into the grotto, but off to their right were entrances into several water slides. These didn't run all the time, but when they did I could usually be found sliding into the water, shaking chlorinated liquid out of my nose and eyes, and scampering back up to the top.

Back behind all this and down about five feet was the beach itself. There were a few outdoor bars where you could get water, soft drinks, or beer.

There were hammocks slung over the grass. Unfortunately like all hammocks, when you get in them your body forms an uncomfortable V and your butt dangles a few inches from the ground. Not very relaxing.



Tian Yu was delightfully uncrowded and pleasant. The guests were maybe two-thirds Chinese and one-third European; Sherry said the place was popular with Russians and Koreans, and indeed there was a Korean restaurant. We ate all but one of our meals at the hotel. Breakfast was served as a buffet in a sort of coffeehouse just down the stairs from us, with hot Western food and some Chinese dishes. We ate at two Chinese restaurants, the Korean place, and had some wonderful noodles at a little cafe. Tian Yu had signs for "Ice Cream House", which caused me to joke "Those liars! I expect a house made from ice cream!" But the joke was on me -- the ice cream shop was still being built while we stayed there. For ice cream you had to go to one of the two indoor bars and get them to scoop some indifferent stuff out of a carton.

Monday night we went to a hotel down the street and partook of their buffet. It had a lot of seafood but from my point of view was nothing special. Then we walked back in the warm night.

On Tuesday we took a long slog through the beach, which borders various hotels and parks. After an hour the walk came to an end, at a Chinese military base with some soldiers visible -- presumably they were protecting Hainan from amphibious assault. While walking along the beach we saw some of the island's indigenous people, the Mao, who are similar to the Hmong and wear large hats or hairpieces. (One of the attractions advertised in the hotel was "indigenous peoples' stockaded village", but I have no desire to gawk at people stuck in the bronze age.) Which reminds me of a pet peeve, that of well-meaning liberals claiming that natives of Third World countries can improve their lot by "eco-tourism." Eco-tourism sounds nice -- look at all the pretty animals -- but does not develop an economy. Dirty unlovely factories lead to economic development. Tourism leads to low-paid workers carrying clean towels.

On Wednesday we flew back to Shanghai. We took the new Maglev train back from the airport -- around 20 miles in 8 minutes with a top speed of 200 miles per hour. We mostly followed alongside the freeway and blew past the cars. At one point the return train sped past us, and the combined speeds of the two trains meant that we could barely even see the other vehicle -- it flashed by so quickly that we didn't realize what had happened till after it was past.

The last few days in Shanghai were rainy. We spent Friday at the Shanghai Museum of Technology. This was an impressively large building, but the exhibits were mostly tuned to children. Also we shared the place with approximately 5,000 schoolchildren on a field trip.

During the past two decades Shanghai has undergone an enormous building boom. Sherry grew up in a five-story wooden building owned by her grandparents. We visted her 90-year-old grandmother (and many other aunts and cousins) and climbed a steep stone stair to the roof. When Sherry was little the top of her home was higher than almost anything in sight. Now the landscape is dominated by tall buildings. From the roof I counted such structures, and even though it was a hazy day with visibility limited to maybe a mile, 99 tall buildings (at least 10 stories) could be seen.

Near our apartment complex were several gleaming new condominium towers. The Shanghai developers adorn their towers with fancy tops, each one unique:











As for the rahter drab complex we were staying at, it was due to be turned into gleaming new condos -- supposedly the apartment would be demolished in December. (In fact it still stands.) When this happened Daeema would be handed a check for about $300,000 -- not much less than what I once paid for a condominium in one of the most expensive real estate markets in America! Remember this the next time someone tries to persuade you that capitalism is bad for ordinary people.

On Sunday we packed our bags and left for the airport. Lots of aunts and uncles went with us to help us with our masses of luggage -- 8 bags -- and of course to say goodbye to Jason and Olivia. We arrived at the airport two hours early. The line to the ticket counter took about 30 minutes, and I began to get restive and wonder what I could scrounge up for a meal while waiting in the terminal. Then was the customs line. There was a long line that split into several streams for the various officials at their stands, and I began to notice that our line was slow. It was definitely slower than the other lines. After about 45 minutes steam began to rise from my ears. (The whole thing was a pointless bureaucratic exercise anyway. I was going to be processed again when I reached San Francisco; what was the Chinese government going to do, not expel me from the country if they didn't like me?)

The official in our line was obviously incompetent, and at some point he must have gotten some help because our line finally moved. But by the time we made it through was close to departure time. We hurried as fast as our carryon and baby stroller would allow us to run, and made it to the gate as one of the last few people to board the plane.

We had five seats across a 747, four in the middle (Daima, Olivia, Sherry, Jason), and me on the aisle. Having a separate seat for Jason was a godsend, not so much because he needed his own place to sit, but because it gave us a staging area for our masses of baby stuff.

Jason slept through the first hour of the flight. The departure from China was enlivened by military exercises that clearly exasperated the pilots; first we were delayed, then we were not allowed to change course when the ride got very bumpy. But after that he woke up, and we could not get him to sleep. He was somewhat fussy, and we wound up carrying him throughout the plane; he liked to see the No Smoking signs and the little lights in the ceilings. Surprisingly while our 747 had eight bathrooms within reach, only one of them had a changing table. And Jason wasn't the only baby on board, so by the end of the flight we were cramming diapers into a very full trash receptacle.

After more than ten numbing hours in the air we touched down, and when we landed and taxied Jason started bawling. He didn't calm down till we were in the customs line. We somehow managed to drag our eight pieces of luggage to the parking area, where Sherry's cousin and friend had driven two cars to pick us up. Soon we were headed home, with many more hours to kill before we could go to bed.

I never seem to have my camera when there is something really interesting to record. During one of the rainy days in which we stopped by Sherry's grandma's, we took a side trip to a Buddhist temple to honor Sherry's Baee (#8 aunt). Baee died from cancer ten years ago, a few months after Sherry started school in America. Sherry had paid a fair amount of money to have her aunt honored in this temple. It was a short taxi ride from her grandmother's, and we took Jason there.

The temple was a very utilitarian place. It looked to have been some sort of business or warehouse, which would make sense given Communist attitudes toward religion. The whole place sort of spiralled around. We walked ahead into a large anteroom, then to the right through a courtyard, and made another right into a temple with a side room and an open yard on two sides. We bought incense and prayed to the Buddha: Light the incense, hold it in clasped hands in front of you, bow three times. The whole thing was very simple and unadorned.

Americans like to believe that their culture is base, tawdry, and commercialized, that other cultures have much more meaningful social or religious experiences. Yet the Chinese went to the temple in the same perfunctory way that I used to shuffle off to church when I attended Catholic schools. The monks wore orange robes and did not act as though they were in the throes of a mystery too deep for Westerners. They looked like they were doing their jobs.

The focal point of the temple was the side room in which the dead were honored. I had expected a little display, maybe some flowers or a statue on a table, but Sherry's aunt was represented by a little black-and-white picture, one of hundreds on the walls. I thought of the dead, about how each one had parents or siblings or wives or husbands or childrens or grandchildren, all of whom had spent a good portion of their lives with that person, all of whom had stuck a picture and a few scribbled words on the wall next to a tiny black-and-white picture. Is this all that life leads to? You die, and sometimes the people that you love will remember you.

And sometimes they will not.


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