Saturday, May 10, 2008


Yesterday goes better backwards:

At 6 pm I broke my fast. After 50 hours on fruit juice and broth my first food was a plate of baozi (the doughier of the two varieties of dumplings ubiquitous in Beijing) and some egg drop soup. The place I usually go is right by work and consists of two rooms each no bigger than a California King. There's no sign, and no napkins that I've ever seen, but there is vinegar and two kinds of spicy peppers, and the disposable chopsticks that remind me every day that I forgot to bring my won. Two sisters work and live there with their school-age sons, the front room has the kitchen and two tables and I'm always making making one of the kids move his homework so that I can sit right by the door and catch some evening light as I eat.
My vegetarian visitors are going to love the egg drop soup if I can figure out how to say that they don't want any tiny dried shrimp that do not to a chinese speaker fall into the category of "rou" (meat).

Teaching had been difficult without food in me, and a few of the students noticed that I was drinking from a bottle of juice, a mug of broth, and a bottle of water in turns. With my elementary students I had the energy, but I ended up yelling at my high school kids with very little provocation.

On Fridays there's a two-hour gap between the high school and elementary classes, and I looked forward all morning to playing ping-pong with Alice, my bilingual classroom assistant at the elementary school. While he was here Devin and I played my first game of ping-pong as an adult and I've come to crave my afternoon game with a fervor normally reserved for marshmallow-based treats.

Again lack of food hindered my performance, but though my depth perception was a little fucked up Alice tends to hit with a fairly constant force and I was able to squeak by in the last two games. Oddly enough while I could hit quite well and my forehand was getting good power with accuracy I found it almost impossible to catch the ball. Each time it seemed to pass through my hand like a conjurer's trick.

The evening before my dentist, more specifically the artificer who will fit crowns on my three implant studs, called me and asked me to come in for a fitting, so 9:30 AM found me in the chair facing the doc and his inexplicable retinue of three other dentists who seem only to stand around, offering universally rejected advice and snapping the occasional photo of my lower jaw.

The dentist asked me a few questions about how to instruct a patient in english and snapped off my temporary crowns with a strange little rod and tried to fit on the metal base on which layers of enamel will be applied to simulate three honest molars. Suddenly there was trouble. While doctor Li spoke well enough schedule an appointment with me in English the doctors always converse in rapid Mandarin. My pickup is okay but the technical terms were many and all I understood was that something was too close to something, that something else wouldn't work, and that you could call someone but it was probably too late to something. The room filled with yet more doctors, and soon several new faces were pushing each others' heads out of the way to get a better view of whatever the problem was.

My only concern throughout was that it might cost more money, one pays at the start for the whole service and I hadn't brought any significant amount of cash, and that some part of this consultation required me to keep my jaw clenched throughout, a position particularly uncomfortable as the muscles on the right have atrophied since I've been avoiding chewing on the new implants for the last 3 months. Not a word was spoken to me except the occasional instruction to "bite" or "bite more."

In the end they did something with an allen wrench and a series of metal bits that satisfied everyone, and after doctor Li had talked to someone on his cell phone for a few minutes he made a new casting and popped the temporary crowns back on.

It was a strange thing, as he ground off the glue on the caps: there was no pain. Fasting lowers one's tolerance and the sound of the drill had made me tense but when he began I sat in perfect comfort but for the spray. There was no pain, how could there be? Titanium bolts are not part of me. They were put only a few months ago. They are a piece of China that I will carry in my mouth, and it will never tell me if they're hurting.

I was running late to make my appointment when I got off the subway. Despite going over a dozen times to the Beijing Dental Hospital I still haven't got the transport down perfectly and while I don't have to take a cab anymore I do end up going on three pedestrian tunnels to get to the right bus stop from the subway station. I'm sure there's a better way do this but I can't figure it out. The trouble is that one corner of the intersection in question is the southeast corner of Tian'anmen and there's a guard at that exit who checks your bags and I doubt once you're through that it's easy to get back out to the bus stop.

Anyway I was finally on the right sidewalk when I noticed a little crowd had gathered. The area south of Tian'anmen is mainly hotels and overexpensive snack shops, so I wondered what could draw such interest. It took me a minute to see that there was a man hanging from the fourth-floor window of a building facing the street. Window washers and construction workers are common enough. But this guy, in a dark suit over a brown sweater, was hanging forward, his arms back behind him grasping the edges of the window. His purpose seemed clear.

Nine months in the have not killed my desire to photograph everything, but as I reached for the camera in my pocket good sense got the better of me. The ghoulish act of taking a picture of a man aparently ready to dive onto the sidewalk is one I'm glad not to have on my conscience. I stood and watched for a moment, and saw that he was periodically reaching back into the room and grabbing handfuls of paper to throw out onto the sidewalk.

I thought at first they might just be his business papers: ledgers from a failed real estate bank or outstanding invoices, but as I edged closer I could see each sheet was the same: a glossy pamphlet printed in chinese and english with some photographs of what looked like a rural landscape.

One of the handfulls of pamphlets landed right in front of me, cohesive to the last it burst apart on impact scattering sheets in a large area. The police were already taping off the area and a street sweeper was whisking her little bamboo broom and picking up as many as she could. I read one bit over someone else's shoulder:

Soldiers piled the new trees in the pit here.

Accompanying a photo that presumably proved the act.

I was late for the dentist, I had a bus to catch that did not come very frequently. I hurried on before the scene played out. I don't know what the pamphlets meant. With police about I was scared to pick one up.

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