China was quite amazing, a little business, a little vacation. No dancing, but we stayed in a nice whorehouse, right close to the Forbidden City. I'm not sure if they thought Andrea and I were husband and wife. Anyway it was very clean, for a whorehouse anyway.
Here's the summary. In Shanghai I went to a table tennis school, then travelled around a lot with my Mom and sister Andrea, first to the Massacre Museum in Nanking which made me pretty mad at the Japanese militarists, then to Qingdao where the beer comes from, then to Beijing to the Imperial Palaces and to hang out with my former boss whose new company has been building an office there. How about a turtle dish? Will this turtle do? It was definitely an adventure.
I spent a couple of days at the Shanghai Cao Yanhua Table Tennis Training School, where my personal trainer, a very handsome gentleman named Mr. Liu, was a former member of the Chinese National Team, and had also coached the current Olympic gold medalist. Mostly it was instruction and drill, with a couple of games thrown in with some of the kids just to show me how it can be done. The kids' skills can be pretty well summarized by the formula, 200 points times their age (probably an underestimate). I am a 1600 level player in the US rating system, (#1 in the US is about 2800), and I'm ranked around 47th in the state of Washington; both of the 9-year-old players there allowed me only 8 points in the games we played. So they were probably 1800 to 2100 level players. The 10-year-olds, well, there wasn't much point in playing them, they were way too good. As far as the 7 year olds, I figured I could probably beat them; they had a very fast, low-to-the-table game with a lot of acrobatic drives and counter-drives, but not many loops and not much spin sophistication. So I think they would be rated about 1400 in the US. When I was rated 1376 last December, after the US Nationals, I played and lost a fairly close match to the previous-year's US National Champion under-10 player last year, who was rated 1100 before that particular tournament, and 1500 afterwards. So I think their 7-year-olds were much better than our 10-year-old national champion, so that any one of this crowd of kids could be the US National champion for their age group, and probably any of the 15-year-olds could be US national champion (open age), or close to it.
Much to my surprise, in the country of penhold players, most kids played shakehand. Maybe 10% or so used penhold grip (and those kids mostly did have the reverse backhand stroke down pat).
One student that I saw from a distance had an amazing pistol grip on his paddle, with the blade between forefinger and middle finger and a wide flange covering the palm for a handle. He was a serious 2000-level 10-year-old player, and the grip and style allowed an amazingly powerful, whiplike topspin and chop stroke in both forehand and backhand, with slight hand angle adjustments making the difference between topspin and chop. Although it seems experimental at this point, it may well turn out to be the dominant playing style of the future; if you're interested in table tennis, you should look for it to emerge over the next decade or so.
The coach especially, but the kids also, taught me just a whole lot of important things, including doing a forehand/backhand drill that forces me to watch quickly and move my feet quickly, and neither anticipate too much nor sit on my heels. I learned to keep my posture very low to the table, extremely deep-bent knees (I'm six-feet-two, so I have to get down to the table, which is only two-foot-six from the ground). I learned to lower my shoulder on the hitting side and turn my body a lot farther than I had thought during the stroke anticipation phase, which of course requires even better footwork. I learned to hit my penhold backhand with a stroke that begins at my feet, with deeply bent knees and forward-leaning body, with a low and forward hitting-hand shoulder and with a rotated body, that continues with a flat-hitting upper-arm rotation that has follow-through only to an angle parallel to the ball path, and that gets both power and control from an explosive body-extension that continues up all the way till I'm standing on my toes in a long tall arch with my hand just beyond my face. I learned that when I'm really exhausted, putting my spine into a fully straight posture, even slightly arched back, and letting my knees bend more and my legs do more of the work to set my shoulders in position for each stroke rather than arching my spine forward in the intended direction, gives me three things: more physical endurance, better coordination and stroke stability, and an additional level of mental clarity and stamina. So I learned a lot in a short time. It was really, really great.
I am a pretty unorthodox player, being an American who plays penhold grip (already I'm the only one I know in that category), a left-hander (and those are a pretty small fraction also), and one of the few penholders that use the penhold backhand reverse-side stroke which has been recently developed by the Chinese champions. So I wanted to work on that reverse-backhand stroke and actually learn to loop with it. A loop is a topspin stroke that commonly produces around 2000rpm spin and as much as 125mph speed just after contact, which requires a coordinatedly explosive full-body movement to get sufficient paddle-contact speed and an extra-deep sinking-in between the ball and the layers of rubber on the paddle; this produces a distinctive cork-popping sound and due to the powerful spin it curves downward dramatically, so you can hit it very high and fast yet it still comes down and hits the table, and when it hits the table the spin is so great that instead of bouncing up again, it bounces sharply forward, and indeed it curves down again toward the floor after it comes off of the table. It's very depressing to receive a loop from the other player, because even if you anticipated correctly and you think you can drop back and give yourself enough time to get your paddle onto this rocket ball, the after-bounce drop effect means you already missed it because it hit the floor. Anyway I've only seen a couple of loop strokes with this particular reverse-penhold grip, on a videotape of Liu Guoliang, who is the Chinese Olympic gold-medalist from 1996, but it is very hard to learn it without some pointers from people that really know.
So on the second day, after they had already taught me all that stuff I talked about earlier, they did something very smart and wise and had me play with first a coach and then a 10-year-old girl (who in a game would have allowed me maybe 5 points), who were both specialist choppers. A chopper in pingpong is someone who is pretty athletic and acrobatic, and many of their points are hit from far away from the table, using a big downward chopping stroke that follows an arc path of probably three to five feet in length, and which is fast enough to add even more spin to a topspin drive that you just hit at them. Normally when you chop against topspin, the ball has enough spin that the chop is ineffective, and it just climbs up your paddle and straight up into the air. But because this is a big acrobatic stroke, they actually get enough blade speed to make a chop spin come back at you that is a continuation, or even a strengthening, of the topspin that you sent to them in the previous stroke. It's hard enough to describe it, it's even harder to learn, only a few people do it (only one in Washington State, that I know of), but these women -- should I call that 10-year old a woman? I think so, after all, she was my teacher! -- they were quite proficient, and no matter what I did they could hit it back. Unless I hit it off the table, which is exactly what I did most of the time, a lot more than I want to admit. They were very kind, however, and allowed me my incompetence for quite a while, as gradually I learned to respond to their heavy backspin coming at me with a similarly powerful topspin, which as I worked on it, gradually became a loop, using my Chinese reverse penhold backhand stroke.
Hey, I didn't even tell you about the food. They said, you probably want to eat in a restaurant, right? And I said, no, I want to eat whatever you eat. Which was definitely the right thing to say. After the first hour on the first day, and again before the afternoon session on the second day, they brought me to the coaches' floor of the dormitory building, where I discovered they had two or was it three friendly smiling cooks making up a six or was it ten-course meal for the coaches and some of the kids. Maybe I can remember some of the things I ate. Of course there was rice, a bowl or two. You have to use chopsticks, obviously; even Chinese restaurants don't own forks and spoons, except porcelain soup spoons. There was a barbecued-beef dish that was very tasty; I haven't had beef in 14 years but I ate it and it was very good. There were a lot of chicken dishes, chicken in soup, chicken on rice. There was some yummy Chinese cabbage dish, you know that bok choy or bai tsai stuff that comes in a whole variety of different shapes and sizes and colors from snow white to deep green. There was a fresh pear, hand-peeled by my coach just for me with a straight knife into single long curl. I think there was some tofu dish; you know, I'm not going to be able to remember them all. But I remember they gave me a Qingdao beer to go with lunch, and played Julio Iglesias on their Video CD for me while I "had a rest"; they were clearly going all-out to make things nice for their unusual guest.
Andrea looked at me. I looked at Andrea. We both laughed. We tried to talk to the people in the office. They didn't speak English. They didn't understand us. They said they ran an elementary school. Andrea looked at me. I looked at Andrea. We both laughed. Then they brought in Miss Yang. Miss Yang looked promising, she was beautiful and athletic and was wearing a modern gym suit kind of thing. She didn't speak English either, very well, but she had studied English in school, and she could somehow make herself understood to say that I should write down what I want to say, and she could translate it, perhaps with a dictionary, and then we could figure each other out a little bit. So I somehow explained to her that I was there to study pingpong, and to get some instructor who could teach me, and maybe I'm just in an elementary school so I should get on the bus and go back to Shanghai and try to just play informally at the stadium or wherever I could find someone. But after all that, that is, after at least 20 minutes of blushing, laughing, scratching our heads, looking things up in my Mom's Chinese-English dictionary, and wondering how I can communicate my message to her, I finally wrote the right thing down, and she finally said, Yes, you can study here, we have great coaches at your service, and we would be delighted for you to stay for a week or two. They had to charge me a fee, but it was really a very small charge compared to instructors back in the US. And they thought that if I were to stay I would be welcome to stay in the dormitory with the coaches and the children there. We worked out the food thing, and that I only had two days, and wanted to go back to stay at Mom's place in the evenings. And they told me the pingpong schedule was in the afternoon, 1pm-5pm, and the evening, 6pm-9pm, so perhaps we could play a little bit now, but then we could have lunch and "have a rest" and play more after that. So through the language barrier it turned out that these were the nicest, the most considerate and helpful people, the best instructors, the most totally amazing players, that I ever met. It was just unfortunate that I couldn't really say anything to them, except "very good", which I had learned before the trip.
At the end it occurred to me that I could put a web page up for them, in case there are other people that might be interested in going to this school. They are interested in having visitors, even adults, to come and play, and if I could help, that would be just nice.
Okay, so much for pingpong, what about *China*!!
My first boss, Joe Kua, lost 6 of 13 siblings to the Japanese, and he grew up closer to Hong Kong. So mass killing on an incredibly thorough basis went on on a geographically wide enough range to produce his family's disastrous result. Consider what that means: almost half of the family members in a random but large family in a random place half a country away were killed. That means that with pretty high probability the Japanese were killing just about everyone they could get their hands, probably throughout their entire occupation of China. It suggests that the estimate I read at the museum of 35 million killed by the Japanese during their occupation of China (forgetting about Korea/Manchuria and the Philipines and South East Asia) may be a very low estimate, since China had had 450M people already in 1850. And instead of hiding the murders in camps and delegating specialists to do them as the Germans did, this was done on a full-population basis by the common soldiers, from officers to brand-new recruits. That is, while the Germans in WWII had a society-wide problem of denial and submission to the frightening authority of Nazi power exercised against random neighbors in a way at least somewhat sanitized-for- public-consumption and by a somewhat hidden mass murder apparatus, the Japanese had a society-wide murder ethic, skewering babies with swords before crowds of laughing admirers. The museum was very understated in its art, but one of the things was a large field of round white stones, symbolizing the bones of the dead. Very meaningful.
So I do recommend that you read "The Rape of Nanking" and even if you're a political opponent of Chinese Communism and an advocate of the neopacifist Japanese state, as I am, you may at least understand the feeling of, shall we say, caution, that many Chinese feel with respect to the Japanese and perhaps even their immediate postwar allies the Americans.
My theory of Chinese landscaping is that tidy and carefully arranged chaos equals beauty. Somehow nothing should be symmetrical; busy and wild bubbling volcano rock juxtaposed against raked gravel. The eye as it wanders from tree to stone to grass should find no system, no rest of clear self-conscious understanding of geometry and color, but only intentional confusion, implemented thoughtfully and then carefully tended. As in the theory of humor, where the mind cannot hold on to a single fixed idea, there is mental release and freedom; this is certainly a characteristic of humor, it perhaps is also one of the characteristics of natural beauty.
So my impression of China was of ancient beauty and peace, everywhere rich gardens of mysterious random beauty, quiet groups of older people doing tai chi along the waterways, silent vistas of morning fog among the greenery.
My Mom, who teaches English in China but doesn't hardly know any Chinese beyond bargaining skills, is nevertheless very skilled at animatronic communication. She was wondering if this was really Sun Yatsen's mausoleum, even though it was a forty-foot-wide path heading straight up the hill with no branches -- it seemed pretty obvious to me where we needed to be going. But there were some handsome looking Chinese gentlemen there reading a sign, so I said Mom, you're single, I'm not going to cramp your style, if you want to go schmooze with some handsome men, go right ahead, but I'm just going to go on up this path. But I watched as she butted in to their conversation with map and English, of course they spoke only Chinese, so she gesticulated: Big head like SO (referring to the great leader Sun Yatsen), death-bed like SO (drawing finger across throat, crossing eyes, executing the Q sign (mouth open, tongue stuck out downward diagonally), dropping head to the side, hands together and beside face, referring to death and sleep), where? like SO (pointing around in a circle, shrugging shoulders). The Chinese gentlemen looked quite confused. I couldn't stand to watch it any longer, and hiked onward. Mom met me at the top, saying that they had explained to her that we were indeed in the wrong place. Somehow she did it. I have got to hand it to Mom, she does the most amazing things with the fewest resources of anyone I ever met.
My own way of solving the communication problem was to have a chat in the morning with someone at the hotel desk who spoke a little English, and to ask them to write down for me on a piece of paper the names and addresses of all the places I wanted to visit that day. Then I'd flag down a taxi, point to the piece of paper, and we'd be off, all set for the next three or four hours. In other words, I was completely hopeless. Okay, I learned to say I, you, it, good, bad, agree, and disagree, but I still don't know how to say Yes or No (unless 'agree' and 'disagree' are it). Hopeless.
It was especially difficult in restaurants that had no English on the menu. What do you do when you're hungry, you can't even read the menu, and the waiter can't understand anything you say? That's when it's great to have my Momma around. She was in her element at those times. She would enthusiastically jump up, walk around with the waitress following closely behind her in a slight panic, peer closely at all the dishes on every customer's table, and point at the dishes that she thought looked good, raising a finger to say, *one* of these, smile and laugh hysterically, pointing at the dish and raising a finger, one!, one! until they nodded and got the idea, and then rushing off to the next poor customer who thought they were having a nice private dinner. Once she went right into the kitchen to look at the ingredients they had available and pointed out four or five things, some of which, as it turns out, came back as really tasty dishes.
Oh well, I can't complain, the system works, and works a lot better than it might. The thing is, the Chinese people are just so very helpful and nice and cooperative when you are obviously helpless and well-meaning and asking for their help. A hundred times random people gave me their time and kindness to put me on the right bus, to try to figure out what this clueless foreigner wanted, to argue about the right answer with five passersby who also wanted to help, even to take us on a trip for the afternoon to the Taoist temples and famous springs of Lao Shan. It was just remarkable.
What I noticed was that the Chinese people's normal interaction with a stranger starts with a perfectly inexpressive stone face, but that that is a very thin veneer, because as soon as you smile at them or wave or even wrinkle the corners of your eyes with a good feeling, they open right up with a big smile or laugh with you, just immediately. It was really wonderful. Then to contrast that, the Americans and Europeans that I encountered there seemed to be just a bunch of dead carcasses. I actually had a chance encounter with an acquaintance from home while walking around in Beijing (we were both going to be attending a conference the next day nearby, so it shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was to me), and his reaction was as if he were allergic to my presence, one second to recognize who I was, and another second to turn around and start walk away. You know, at the Chinese seafood market there are some very cold fish, with stiff frozen bodies, yet not so frozen that they don't slip mucilaginously out of your hands when you try to pick them up. But those cold fish didn't make me feel as bad as the Westerners in China, after all the actual fish were actually dead, not seemingly dead. But I don't think it was personal, it didn't seem to be just this particular acquaintance of mine, it was all kinds of whiteys, one after the other they looked stone-facedly at me, and looked away, while I was trying to smile, looking a little bit lingeringly at them to make some kind of connection, and of the thirty or so such encounters I got only one smile back in my whole trip, whereas giving 2-second smiles to probably a hundred Chinese people in the trip I probably got sixty or eighty smiles back. So I'm thinking they had all been trying to be "Chinese" (in their projected way) with the initial stone face, while not realizing that it was only a surface layer, held up front, while you wait to see what the other fellow's intention is, instead these visitors were trying to be deep down as tough and inexpressive as they probably felt the Chinese with their inexpressive veneer were. I don't know, it's a mystery. But it seems to me that the Chinese people are really great people, and also that the Western presence in China is one that is distorted in the direction of ugliness and unfriendliness rather than gentleness and beauty. So there you have it; one man's opinion.
Anyway whatever his name was, God bless him for getting rid of the emperor. We Veatches left England last time they reinstalled the hereditary dictatorship (and removed that revolutionary Cromwell), kings can go to a deserved hell as far as I'm concerned, I'll have no truck with dictatorship, and among dictatorships, hereditary dictatorship has to be the worst kind -- skill in government being evidently quite uncorrelated across generations. At least a dictator should be a competent holder of power and administrator of, you know, at least an army. But a hereditary dictator, what you call a king, a queen, an emperor, is on average nothing but a random spoiled brat. No wise country should ever put its political power into such hands. If the British ever finally dump the monarchy as they should I'd like to try to organize a celebratory Veatch Family Return. 350 years later, after monarchy was removed the first time (with Veatch help, no doubt, since the Veatches left town when the monarchy was reinstated and went to Maryland in the 1650's), when it is removed again, the Veatches should celebrate it. So I certainly celebrate the Chinese success in removing their emperor.
Actually, the dynasty system they had going there was pretty remarkable in its castration of not just the eunuchs that ran the Palaces and thereby the country, physically, but of the emperors themselves, administratively, by locking them into the Palace, and filtering everything they knew about the world through rings of advisers. I read a wonderful book once called something like "1516, the year nothing happened", all about the politics of one of the dynasties of China, and the way the system worked there, had worked for hundreds, even thousands of years, and continued to work for hundred of years longer. It was just a remarkable, stable, and ever so corrupt system. I think the key to its stability was the coopting of the ambitious and intellectual elites through the bureaucratic examination process. They would study everything known to man for decades of school, take these hairball exams in front of the Emperor Himself in the Imperial Palace, asking them about some detail in some Confucian classic, and the best of the best in their educational system got these powerful jobs and positions and more or less administered the country insofar as it was too far from the eunuchs for them to manage it directly. Just like Knighthood in England, a fundamentally corrupt system that nevertheless coopts the energies and ambitions of the most talented and brightest people in the country, is one which can be historically very stable over even several centuries. Even when there is a revolution, on a fairly regular schedule of about two or three times a millenium, even the new hereditary dictators more or less plugged themselves into the previously established system, and let themselves be ruled by the palace Eunuchs. That was why Sun Yat-Sen was so great; he stopped that whole thing, and instead of inserting himself as the next great dictator, like Mao the Destroyer who followed him, he actually served in, and in (too short a) time resigned, the presidency of a new-founded democracy, just like George Washington, the father of our United States.
You've heard of Qingdao beer, I'm sure. I think it's a little bit stronger in China, 3.2% alcohol. Is it? It was definitely a little wierd wandering the open-air vegetable markets and then seeing a truck full of beer kegs drive by.
In Qingdao we
The second day in Beijing I went to a speech recognition conference, ICSLP-2000, the most important speech rec conference of them all, which happens every two years. I got to see a couple of plenary talks, talked to a grad school friend, a professor I admire a lot, and someone new, got copies of the proceedings on CD for myself and two colleagues, and put up an advertisement to hire technical staff. In short it was a great conference. In the evening we ate turtle, sea cucumber, and every wierd fish dish of (what looked like) boogers and peas, and then got on the plane back to Shanghai,
Coming back to the table from ordering some more noodles I had to pass through a doorway, when a crowd of Chinese tourists touring the brand-new airport building there came through, for 3 or 4 minutes I stood watching faces go past. Freshly sugared up with the first chocolate donut of the trip, I was smiling at them the whole time, and person after person, one after the other through the entire crowd of faces walking by, everyone looked up at the big whitey beside the door, saw me with just a tiny little smile of sugar satisfaction on my face, and lit up with a big friendly grin of appreciation and goodness. I got more random, unqualified, fresh, unexpectedly-evoked smiles in 3 minutes than I've had in 5 years, I felt like a new person. What an experience. And so unlike Americans.
Then we had to go, we flew off sleeping to Japan, where the public face is indeed a smile, but it is a prophylactic smile of hostility-prevention, similar to that Californian's or cowboy's forced smile of defusing friendliness, no doubt taken to an artistic and Japanese extreme, but not a genuine smile that you can really believe, as is the Chinese flipover from initial inexpressivity to light and open interest.
Both the Japanese and the Chinese similarly lacked that subservient lack of cultural self-respect of India and much of the third world. They are interested, but not needy.
In Japan for a few short hours between flights we did another tourist marathon. In two hours we learned how to exchange money, figured out the subway system, took a trip to a nearby temple, walked around through a lovely underpopulated tourist street with recently tended flower pots carefully arranged in every place, bought me a new table-tennis paddle, walked into the temple, had a nice experience looking at the painfully lovely gardens and elegant beautiful buildings and the inspirational statue of a skinny old buddha in a cave in the garden, took pictures, threw coins in the wishing pond, ate hot potato-bacon pies (Andrea) and banana milkshakes (me) at the local McDonalds, and got back to the airport, all in plenty of time for the flight to Seattle, where we arrived at 11am the same day, to discover that (Murphy's Law) my email and voicemail had been down the whole trip, no messages for me. Now finally they are fixed, and I can write this.
So there you have it, our trip to China. I wrote way too much, at the same time I missed a lot. Oh well, maybe next time. Ask me about it. Or go yourself, round trip on United from Seattle was only $619. How can you lose?