The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 6: Gwongzau

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Sender, message, signal, receiver: the standard model of communication. Or simply: sender, signal, receiver. There is usually a message, but it’s often hard to distinguish from the signal. Some messages are obvious—the time of day, the price of something. Or the words “I like you”: the message, fondness for someone, seems to be contained in the signal, the words. Or consider the glance of a person who likes you. Again the message is in the signal: the gaze, the eyes. The signal is so instantaneous it’s practically invisible, and what remains is the message. The message is the only thing we notice. Since the signal is so insignificant, we might be tempted to revise the model to: sender, message, receiver.

The problem is, without a signal, there is no communication; while on the other hand, a great deal of signaling—communicating—can go on without a message. The message is not necessarily crucial, or even important. Indeed, you can’t understand the nature of communication until you realize the message is not important. If the “message” could be defined as a specific packet of information, what we discover is that people withhold information more often than they give it. And they may wish to communicate this very fact. There may be signals to this effect: the empty message, the anti-message. There may be signals with no message. There may be contradictory messages. The message is redundant. It is just a distraction, an interpretation, something you think you understand. What stands in its place is more basic: mutual acknowledgment and reassurance.

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The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 5: Xinluoma

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“Tirare verso l’alto di più. Arricciare le dita. Più veloce. Non così in fretta. Più ritmicamente,” said the boy.

“I’m trying.”

“Ritmicamente. Rapidamente.”

“My hand’s getting tired,” said Malmquist. “I can’t do this forever.”

“Buxing. Lidao yao junyun wenjian,” said the woman.

Malmquist withdrew his hand and shook it. “Please, I have to stop for a minute. My hand is too tired. I’ve never done this before.”

“Nushi, ta buhui shuo hanyu,” the slave boy told the Chinese lady on the massage table.

“Ta butai wen. Ni gaosu ta yao wenxie.”

“Wo zhidao. Keshi ta ye buhui shuo yidaliyu.”

“Ni weishenme buhui shuo yidaliyu?” she yelled at Malmquist. “Ni bushi nuli ma?”

“I’m telling you I don’t understand.”

“Weishenme ta buhui shuo yidaliyu? Ta naozi shi bushi you wenti? Ta jingshen zhengchang ma?”

“Torna al lavoro!”

Malmquist beaked his hand and with a sigh reinserted four fingers into the woman’s vagina.

From Van Gogh to the Camino de Santiago: Symbolic travel and the modern pilgrim

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Pilgrims at Santiago de Compostela making crafts to sell.

O errant traveler, by your spirit of adventure that has caused you from tenderest years to leave behind father and mother…by the dignity man gains through voyages over distant territories and uncharted seas…
— Lautréamont, Maldoror

Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there’s nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what’s the odds?
We’re bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!
— Baudelaire, “Travel,” Flowers of Evil

In late 2015, I was one of the 1,900,000 visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, its busiest year yet. I don’t know the attendance figures in the early years after it opened in 1973, but only a trickle of people were evident on my first visit to the museum in 1976. What a difference between then and now. I recall being a bit embarrassed for the place at the time, such a sad and forlorn little museum, much like the painter himself, condemned in his lifetime to be misunderstood and ignored. The 2015 museum had undergone extensive expansion and remodeling, and it was no longer recognizable. The first floor, previously displaying Van Gogh’s early “potato eaters” paintings and a series of biographical displays, now served primarily to orient visitors to the two upper floors. I had no recollection of the upper floors on my previous visit. This was due to the many museums around the world I had seen over the decades since, not a few of them with Van Goghs of their own. His paintings were strung along a wall in my mind, detached from time and place. I needed factual confirmation from the staff that it was indeed the very spot in the same building where I had stood forty years ago. Meanwhile, a new wing for temporary exhibits (one pairing Van Gogh and Edvard Munch on my visit) had risen behind the original building; the two structures were joined by an airy atrium and a chic cafeteria.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 4: Chicago

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“There we go.”

“Hi, honey.”

“He’s still spacing.”

“Where am I?”

“You had a little knock on the head, buddy.”

“Jesus, a hospital?”

“It’s a whole lot better than a morgue. How many fingers?”

“Four.”

“Excellent.”

“Now how many?”

“One.”

“Abby, would you kindly enter Einstein?”

“I was really hoping—”

“I know what time it is. We’re spread thin tonight.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jeff Malmquist. Would you please tell me where I am and what I’m doing here?”

“You banged your head.”

“On what?”

“A bullet.”

“I got shot?”

“You’re very lucky.”

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 3: Zigaago

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The officer and her assistant regarded Malmquist with placid expressions. “Keoi zoekdou houci go gudoijan,” said the former.

“Oh boy, here we go again.”

“Bei ngodei gimcaa jathaa keoi.”

They gestured to him to remove his clothes.

“What?”

The assistant went up to him. She lightly bit his earlobe, blew into his ear and whispered, “Zoeng neidi saam ceoiloklei.”

“I don’t understand.”

The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd

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The clown I would have preferred seeing on the cover of Ash & Pellman’s While We’re Here.

I have to say Alec Ash and Tom Pellman’s recent collection of expat writings on China, While We’re Here (Earnshaw Books, 2015), has a catchy cover. It shows a street in what appears to be the popular Nanluoguxiang neighborhood of Beijing, a favored spot for the bohemian set along with hordes of tourists. A foreigner with a clown’s face looks a bit out of place as he stands in the street holding a bunch of balloons. The clown image conveys the irony that we foreigners cannot but avoid being buffoons in China no matter how cool and hip we think we are. We might as well accept our hapless role as objects of amusement and have a laugh at our own expense. But then I considered it from another angle. Is this merely the proverbial sad clown’s self-mockery? Or is there an implicit taunt or tease lurking in that face? Is the clown’s gaze an appeal, or a challenge? The title too carries a double meaning. Is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here please don’t be too hard on us; you will miss us bumbling foreigners. Or is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here we plan to cause some trouble. Treat us like clowns at your peril.