Chengdu insolite

insolite [French]: out of the ordinary, strange, unfamiliar, bizarre, abnormal, eccentric, singular.

In other words, anything unusual that gives me great pleasure when I discover it by accident.

passage with “21”

Caged windows

Brick wall with paper notices

Partially demolished wall

Side of a building, downtown Chengdu

Ken Macrorie, in one of my favorite books on writing, Telling Writing, might include these scenes with what he calls “fabulous realities,” the occurrence of the unexpected or the out-of-place in the midst of the everyday.

Life is routine more than it is fabulous. Without the steadiness of the expected, newness is impossible or chaotic. But most of us would gain from confronting a great deal more newness than we do.

My fabulous realities

I’m nervous, I’m jittery, I’m mad at myself for being overweight, I can’t understand why it’s taking me so long so adjust to cold weather, and I’ve got end-of-semester nerves.

I am going INSANE trying to read and reply to my Yahoo email messages over the Chinese internet! Thinking that it would be “convenient” for my students to submit homework to me via email, I encouraged this practice. The result: I received 120 student resumes in my inbox in response to our resume-writing class. The average time it takes to open an email is 30 seconds, completely unacceptable. Opening attachments and sending replies takes at least as much time. I can sift through “real” papers and grade homework 4 times as fast as it takes me to use this sluggish online method. I am filled with hate. Whoever said that computers and the internet were time-savers was LYING.

Some good news, at least: I finally visited the office of the Alliance Francaise de Chengdu today. It’s right here on the UESTC campus! They were very polite and welcoming. I only recently found out that they offer beginning Chinese courses. I signed up for one today, but I’ve already missed the first 5 weeks, and there are only 3 left. The class meets on Wednesday afternoons in downtown Chengdu, and after the class this week, I’m invited to sit in on a conversational French class, to see if I want to join that too. Je suis tres content.

If you’re following the adventures of my friend Puba, he called me Monday night from Kathmandu, Nepal. I tried to ask him about driving through the Himalaya, but I couldn’t make him understand, nor could I remember what the mountains are called in Tibetan. He still can’t tell me what his final destination will be in India.

Some more memories arrived today in the form of two boxes shipped to me by Kenton in Tucson. I had despaired their ever arriving, imagining them being swept overboard during a hurricane-force wind at sea. My creative supplies were there: my set of Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph technical pens, two sable watercolor brushes purchased in Chicago at age 25, and my collection of Speedball calligraphy pen nibs from my childhood.

The boxes also reminded me of how quickly I had packed, having only 10 weeks from the date of my teaching job offer until my departure for China. Why I felt compelled to ship a copy of Death of a Salesman by slow boat to China is beyond me. There were some prizes, though, that I had thought were lost: a ratty, cover-less paperback copy of What Am I Doing Here? by Abner Dean (printed 1957), filled with cartoon depictions of isolation, loneliness, and futility; and a paperback of Truman Capote short stories with an illustration on its cover of a woman who looks uncannily like my mother at about age 20.

My favorite portrait of my mother, taken at about age 19 while a student at the University of Kansas, was in a manila envelope in one box. The photo, sadly, was a little bent down one side from not being well-padded. I decided to flatten it between the pages of a slim volume of Dorothy Parker’s poetry, Enough Rope, inscribed to my mother from her mother, also in the shipment. Eerily, or perhaps in exactly the right spirit of things, the book fell open to a poem titled “A Portrait.” And a portrait it now has. Believe it…or not.


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