Tuesday, December 07, 2004

God Bless The People's Liberation Army

Chapter subtitle: Thanksgiving Alone, Or Adventures With Mashed Potatoes

Merry Oyen 12/04

Last night’s Old Red Movie featured a portly, jovial Mao Ze-dong in a run-down hut, little to eat but joy all around, offering pencils as gifts to his children late in December, 1948. The scene then cut to a cold, sour Chiang Kai-shek lounging about before a fire in a massive mansion, with elaborate garlands and lights lining the room and a feast laid out on a table, all alone. At the moment when the piped refrain – in English, no less – of “Silent Night” became audible, it dawned on me: this is no ordinary Old Red Movie, it’s an Old Red Christmas Movie! It’s perfect, too: Chiang Kai-shek as the surly Scrooge with every material thing at his fingertips but no true interest in the masses, Mao Ze-dong as Cratchit, the man who has nothing but a desire to live in a world where everyone is warm and well-fed. I half expected Mao’s little daughter to stare joyfully into the camera, clutching her pencil, and cry, “God bless us and the People’s Liberation Army, every one!!” Of course, the whole thing did not end with the Generalissimo experiencing a change of heart (where are the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future when you need them?), but in Mao’s final speech to the masses, his demeanor did bear a striking resemblance to that of a certain right jolly old elf. I tell you, there is nothing like a little communist propaganda to put you in the holiday spirit.

The only other sign of Christmas around here is the fact that suddenly it seems that every cell phone in China has switched its ring-tone simultaneously to “Jingle Bells.” Perhaps there was a memo, and I missed it. Do you have any idea how many cell phones there are in China? Every where I go, every hour of the day, I hear small, tinny bells proclaiming, “da da dum, da da dum, da da dum da duuummmm….” Sometimes I sing along, which so far amuses adults and seems to frighten small children, the latter of which is not really in the spirit of the season, so I might need to refrain in the future. We’ll see.

About recent holidays: Thanksgiving was lovely. The big talk to the Nanjing University grad students association was moved to Friday, so the general topic of Thanksgiving was off the holiday agenda (it went fine, by the way. We American panelists were a little boring, though, so nothing much to report on it). I was, however, busy writing a paper for a conference that was due right after Thanksgiving, so I didn’t venture out much. I decided instead to stay in and have a traditional holiday meal of mashed potatoes, stir-fried green beans, and Tsing-Tao Beer. (I know, I know, some of you are thinking, Tsing-Tao Beer? The pilgrims didn’t drink beer! But in fact, the pilgrims, puritanical tendencies aside, did drink beer, as did everyone in those days. But aha, you think, where would they get Chinese beer in the 1620s? Impossible! May I be so bold as to point out, however, that it was not impossible for there to have been Chinese people at the first Thanksgiving. Improbable, yes. But not impossible: thanks to the trans-Pacific Spanish Galleon Trade, Chinese laborers were living in Peru by 1613, and in Mexico not long thereafter, and having traveled that far, it would not be unworkable for such intrepid souls to have made their way up to the Massachusetts Bay area in time for that first Thanksgiving. “But,” you continue, skeptically, “Tsing-tao???” Ah. Therein lies the real problem. The brewery at the German concession of Tsing-Tao, China was not established until 1903. So perhaps my meal was not altogether authentic. Of course, if you were going to start shooting holes in the whole thing, a faster approach would have been to start with the potatoes, which were not yet grown in North America at that time. Let’s hear three cheers for green beans….)

I had a bit of a time with those mashed potatoes, actually. I had them all peeled, cubed, and cooked – i.e. ready to mash – when I suddenly looked around my kitchen and wondered what I’d be using to mash them. My kitchen utensils are limited to: one spatula, one vegetable peeler, and about eight pairs of chopsticks. Tricky. I went with the spatula, say what you will, but although they were rather lumpy, they were still some awfully fine tasting ‘taters.

It might sound a little grim, me in my apartment eating mashed potatoes and drinking beer over a stack of documents and a paper draft, but I assure you, it was nothing of the sort. Beyond the Great Comfort that is the knowledge that I will be home for Christmas, there is also the Inescapable Truth that I have a great deal to be thankful for, whatever the circumstances of my holiday. I started making a list, in fact (as many of us are prone to do this time of year), and found that I ran out of time before I ran out of ideas, which is a blessing in and of itself. And, of course, at the top of the list were all of you friends and relatives (in some cases, even the same people in both categories!). Well, to be perfectly honest, at the very top of the list were “black sesame filled glutinous rice balls,” (a.k.a. hei zima tang yuan) which is what I was eating at the time, but the list was in no particular order, especially not in order of priority.
In other news, I got started at the Number Two Historical Archive this week. My first day there was a mere two hours, and consisted of me applying for admission and looking at some of the document catalogues.

It was, frankly, two of the most stressful hours I’ve had in grad school, second only, I think, to my PhD oral comprehensive exam 18 months ago. It’s hard to explain, actually, why it was so stressful. Certainly it is not because they refused my entrance, because they didn’t: I’m in. It also wasn’t because they aren’t letting me see the documents I want; again, they are. Really, I think most historians would scoff and say, “You think that’s tricky? Let me tell you about the time I was in [insert third-world capital with an authoritarian government here] and took gunfire in my quest for historical truths….”

Okay, maybe not, but historians, like all professionals, have their share of “war stories,” and most of them involve wrestling documents out of bureaucrats’ hands but leave you with a mental image of a grand adventure like something out of Indiana Jones (er, not that I would know really. I’ll see those movies someday, after Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and all the other pop culture classics I’m delinquent on getting around to watching as I re-read Jane Austen for the 11th time). My Number Two archives introduction would impress no one in such circles.

It began with an examination of my credentials.

On their website and publications, they state very clearly that they require every researcher to come with a letter of introduction from their local work unit (in my case, Nanjing University, where I’m affiliated for the year), their ID card or passport, and a general statement of some kind about their research topic. Before I went, I met with some professors at Nanjing University and asked what I needed to get in; they told me I would need a letter of introduction, my passport, and a statement of my research topic.

So, off I went, with a letter of introduction, my passport, and a statement of research. I went into the office where they manage archive admissions, sat down opposite to a busy man who thought he spoke English (after a few false starts, we switched to Chinese), and there I remained for about an hour. He showed me other people’s applications. I pointed out that I was carrying all the same credentials they were. He asked what university I was from. I told him Georgetown. He was forced to acknowledge that he had heard of it. He told me that a researcher from Harvard came, and she brought a letter of recommendation from the President of her university. I said how nice for her. He said I should bring a letter of recommendation, either from Nanjing or Georgetown. I said I had a letter of introduction, and pointed out the place where the archive rules said that introductory letters, but not recommendation letters, were required. He said it would be clearer with a recommendation. I asked what would be clearer. He said that he thought my discussion of what I wanted to study was too vague. I said my topic was large, but that I had all year as I’d be in China until next summer.

He said that gave him something to think about, and he left the room for a little while, apparently to ponder this strange fact. (Actually, the statement was awfully vague, but intentionally so. I’ve heard a lot of stories about this archive, and they often included people getting refused documents not because they were classified, but because they didn’t mention the possibility that they might one day want to see them the first time they applied for admission.) It all ended, rather unceremoniously, with him guiding me up to the research room and dumping me on the staff there. My application was, of course, accepted exactly the way I had submitted it.

I spent the second hour I was at the archives looking through the catalogs. I spent fifty minutes on the first one, panicking. I discovered upon opening it that I could not read a word inside. It might as well have been in Manchu, for all the good staring at it was doing me. How was I going to figure out what documents to order, much less read them? Finally I set it aside and opened up the second volume. Here the characters were in small, neat calligraphy – I could read every word. Whew. I’ll figure out what to do about that first volume later; the important thing is that I’ve at least got somewhere to start.

By the time I left that first day, I never wanted to go back. But back I was the next morning, ready and waiting when they opened at 8:30. This is when I discovered that first day anxiety aside, working at this archive will never be a truly grueling experience. That is because they are open from 8:30 to 11:30, then close for lunch for two and a half hours, finally reopening at 2, but only until 4:30, when they shut down for the night. This schedule keeps up five days a week, except that they close for the afternoon on the last Friday of every month, apparently to give their poor, overworked staff a much needed breather. If I had serious time constraints on my research, I’d be cursing these hours (by contrast, the US National Archives is open 60 hours a week), but as it is I’m in no hurry and can afford to find them amusing. My greatest concern is that I’ll get used to them, so that next year when I’m back home I’ll be insisting on a two and a half hour lunch, and what, me work after 4:30? Ridiculous.

With a hearty “Bah Humbug, The East Is Red” to all,


Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen


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