Friday, January 29, 2010

China '06 Part I: "The Pros and Cons of Eating Horse ... "

Last night I had a short, but lovely conversation with my good friend Amy Cluff. During the conversation, she reminded me of a series of e-mails I wrote to some of my friends and family about three and a half years ago during my first visit to China (along with my former roommate and mission companion Josh Law).

As Josh and I traveled from Shanghai to Nanchang, Guilin, Kunming, Chengdu, Xian, Beijing, and Dalian, I would send little tidbits of our adventures back home about once a week (mostly so my mother would know I hadn't been killed ... or forced into involuntary servitude in Tibet).

I thought I had lost these stories forever, though, when the e-mail account I used while traveling through China was shutdown shortly after I returned home and started law school (thanks USU ... whatever happened to "Aggies all the way," eh?).

Amy brightened my entire night, though, when she informed me that - wonder of wonders - she still had a few of the e-mails in her account and that she would pass them along.

In honor of that discovery, I'm posting them here for your viewing pleasure (and to make sure that I don't loose them again ... because I'm convinced that nothing short of a worldwide apocalyptic meltdown will ever put a dent in the eternal vitality of the blogosphere).

As you read them, though, keep in mind that these are just a few of my impressions of China at the time. In a land as dynamic, multifaceted, and fantastic as China, things are bound to be different from year to year, city to city, and person to person.

With that, I introduce Part I: "The Pros and Cons of Eating Horse" (Originally written May 26, 2006):

Greetings to all my loved ones and etc. (if you happen to fit in the latter category and would rather not receive these amazing, weekly e-mails, feel free to send me either a scathing rebuke or cookies with a note explaining why you no longer are an "etc."),

Again I greet you from the land of a thousand different ways to prepare rice. Right now, I'm at a pretty chill hostel in Guilin listening to the sweet sounds of Messr. Jack Johnson - the king of acoustic bliss - and healing after a day of mountain biking in Yangshuo (about an hour away). If ya'll ever come here (and how could you resist after reading all these pro-China infomercials I keep sending), skip Guilin and go to Yangshuo. The mountains there are inconceivably amazing. Pictures, even the thousand word variety, don't do a bit of justice. The whole place feels like a Dr. Seuss book, or a Salvador Dali painting. China would be worth it just for Yangshuo on a clear night in June (or May, as the case may be).

Josh is doing well and we're pumped, jazzed and ready to go to a small group Church meeting tomorrow. This is the first branch that we've been able to attend since coming to the land of the little ones, and I'm beyond excited. But before I lose ya'll with the mundane details of my glorious vacation, I should move on to this week's installment of Chinese Culture Corner. The topic: food, glorious food.

China has about four thousand years of food history, give or take a millennium. During that time, they've developed their food system internally with very little help from other countries/cultures. Real Chinese food is an entirely different world than that nap-scat excuse for egg rolls that we have back in the states.

They eat everything here. No, really ... everything. In the last three weeks alone, I've eaten pig feet, chicken feet, cow tongue and stomach, goose, pigeon, eel, every variety of weed imaginable, dog and horse. We've been in restaurants that sell monkey, cat, rat, bat and __________ (use your imagination). The funny thing though, is that they make it all taste really good, with a few notable exceptions.

Exception 1: Chou Dou fu - basically a type of deep fried, fermented bean curd, the smell from one of the shops selling these beauties is probably the chief punishment of the fifth level of hell (Dante's version). I really don't think anybody eats the stuff. They just keep it around so the foreigners will have something to write home about.*

Exception 2: Bitter Melon - the name says it all. Why, oh why, do they eat this paltry excuse for a plant? After eating them, I'm convinced that bitter is the only taste that won't rise with us in the resurrection.

Exception 3: Liver - it was bad in the states and, owing to the great variety of animals it can come from, it's even worse here.

Other than these beauties (and boiled eggs, which are absolutely revolting no matter what anyone says), the food has been stupendous to a fault.

One of the great customs they have over here is toasting the good health, long life, good education, etc., of nearly everyone at the table. At random points throughout the meal, someone will stand up, call out another person's name and say something like, "I bless you to have fish all throughout the year," or "I bless you to have good health and keep progressing." Then the other persons will say something back to them (often in the form of a self-deprecating joke) and they drink. Because most everyone drinks alcohol at these kind of dinners, you can guess that they have a lot of toasting ... All night long.

At most Chinese restaurants, people sit at a round table with a lazy-Suzanne in the middle. The food all goes in the middle and each dish is spun around from person to person, again and again, and everyone eats what they want straight out of the dish with their chopsticks. For the most part, they order way more food than they could possibly eat, and everyone eats until they're eyes bulge out for lack of internal space.

And since I can hear some of you asking the question, yes, I'm losing weight here. Really.

Owing to the fact that my time on the internet ends in six minutes, I'm gonna rap this up with one last praise of Chinese food - it's so friggin' cheap. A dollar or less a meal and you're stuffed to the rafters.

Well, that does it for this week. For the time being, live long, prosper, grow a beard or whatever floats your boat.

Lots of love,

Matt "Footloose and Fancy Free" Wright

P.S. If you eat dog meat and cat meat at the same time, are you gonna have an internal brawl in your belly? Now that's food for thought.
* NOTE: I didn't actually eat Chou Dou Fu until July 2009. Up to that point, I never had the guts to give it a go. Now, having experienced it first hand, I can personally witness that it is among the MOST DISGUSTING FOODS EVER INVENTED (this includes Balut and Caterpillar Fungus).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Quotable Quotes: The New Yorker (01-18-10)

  • Olson's team will argue that marriage is a malleable institution, shaped by shifting notions of gender, race, and property, while sexual orientation is innate. And the defendants will likely argue that marriage is immutable, and sexual orientation is a performative act, a chosen identity.
  • "You gotta help me stop looking up stuff I don't actually care about."
  • Children (and cool grownups) of the eighties remember a brightly lit room with fifties wallpaper, whose inhabitants included a talking chair (Chairry), a talking clock (Clocky), a talking globe who sounded like Henry Kissinger (Globey), a window with goodly eyes (Mr. Window), a blue genie head in a bejeweled box (Jambi), a cow in a tiara (the Cowntess), and a robot (Conky) who dispensed a daily "secret word," which, when it was spoken, would make all of the above scream real loud.
  • It was at this point that I decided to kill him. After all, would the world really mist this fatuous little suppository, with his preening self-confidence and emetic cuteness?
  • Our ability to take any pleasure, or even interest, in shows like this - in which participants are depicted as energetic but essentially aimless, oblivious of their own deficits, and delusional about their attractiveness and their importance in the world - hinges not on our ability to identify with them but on our ability to distinguish ourselves from them. Unless the show manages to make us feel as though we were anthropologists secretly observing a new tribe through a break in the trees, it hasn't done its job.
  • "In an effort to be more transparent, I've grown back my evil goatee."
  • "A question that so evenly but intensely divides the country is not one that should be decided by the courts nationwide," Eskridge said. "It's the mirror image of the mistake the Bush Administration made by trying to introduce a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman."
  • [H]e's not just a social grub but a raving paranoid, endlessly mouthing something about attempted homicide by a Hereford.
  • We seem to have been cursed with a new kind of film: the brown-and-white movie. What's so appealing to filmmakers about these post-apocalyptic tales, anyway? In the past decade or so, the world has been meteored, quaked, lavaed, nuked, melted, frozen, Godzilled, and repeatedly turned into New Jersey or New Mexico.
  • Iraq is clearly not an easy place to write a novel these days.
  • They're a few minutes' walk from the ocean, yet we've never seen them go swimming - they just slop around in their rooftop Jacuzzi, whose presence is so central to the men's seduction ritual that it's practically a character in the show.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Of Snickets and Snapdragons ...

Serious, unadulterated love.

Last night I picked up Book 10 in a Series of Unfortunate Events ("The Slippery Slope") and read through some of the pages, rediscovering the joy of that wry and witty wordsmith. In honor of that rediscovery, I provide some of the prettiest passages and choicest clauses from the Series (the books are chock full of this kind of magic):

Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant filled with odd waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don't always like.
Having an aura of menace is like having a pet weasel, because you rarely meet someone who has one, and when you do it makes you want to hide under the coffee table.
Books about law are notorious for being very long, very dull, and very difficult to read. This is one reason many lawyers make heaps of money. The money is an incentive - the word 'incentive' here means 'an offered reward to persuade you to do something you don't want to do' - to read long, dull, and difficult books.
We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.
It is very unnerving to be proven wrong, particularly when you are really right and the person who is really wrong is the one who is proving you wrong and proving himself, wrongly, right. Right?
If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.
Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do. But like most impolite things, it is excusable under certain circumstances. Stealing is not excusable if, for instance, you are in a museum and you decide that a certain painting would look better in your house, and you simply grab the painting and take it there. But if you were very, very hungry, and you had no way of obtaining money, it might be excusable to grab the painting, take it to your house, and eat it.
The moral of 'The Three Bears,' for instance, is 'Never break into someone else's house." The moral of "Snow White" is "Never eat apples." The moral of World War One is "Never assassinate Archduke Ferdinand."
Shyness is a very curious thing, because, like quicksand, it can strike people at any time, and also, like quicksand, it usually makes its victims look down.
Just about everything in this world is easier said than done, with the exception of ‘systematically assisting Sisyphus’s stealthy, syst-susceptible sister,’ which is easier done than said.
A cloud of dust is not a beautiful thing to look at. Very few painters have done portraits of huge clouds of dust or included them in their landscapes or still lifes. Film directors rarely choose huge clouds of dust to play the lead roles in romantic comedies, and as far as my research has shown, a huge cloud of dust has never placed higher than twenty-fifth in a beauty pageant.
It's hard for decent people to stay angry at someone who has burst into tears, which is why it is often a good idea to burst into tears if a decent person is yelling at you.
"People aren't either wicked or noble," the hook-handed man said. "They're like chef's salad, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict."
Perhaps if we saw what was ahead of us, and glimpsed the crimes, follies, and misfortunes that would befall us later on, we would all stay in our mother's wombs, and there would be nobody in the world but a great number of very fat, very irritated women.

Monday, January 25, 2010

France's Blossoming Burqa Ban ...

Passing laws to punish those who force women to wear a burqa? That, I may understand.

But this?

Banning the burqa across the board? Even for women who WANT to and CHOOSE to wear it? Fining them? Preventing them from using government transportation or picking up children from state-sponsored schools?

A nation that not only rejects religious freedom, but seeks to punish religious expression, walks the road to social chaos. After all, a people will only stand by so long and watch as precious, life-affirming agency gives way to secular insecurities . . . at some point, watching will not be enough.

And the actions that follow - as they inevitably will - may make us all regret the attitude of France and other self-styled secular nations.

NOTE: I do recognize that, in many countries, women do not have a choice of whether to wear the veil or not. Those nations too must change. The key is recognizing that the burqa is not the problem . . . laws that remove a person's right to religious freedom (in either extreme) are the problem.

In that context, it would seem that France is more like Iran than it would like to admit.

The Realities of Spiritual Rebirth ...

One of my favorite stories from the Book of Mormon has to do with King Lamoni's father and his conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Through a series of events, Lamoni's father,* the king over all the land of the Lamanites, is brought face to face with Aaron, son of the King over the Nephites. Aaron, who is already many years into what would eventually become a fourteen-year mission, was led by the Spirit until he came to the palace of the King.

When Aarono arrived, Lamoni's father, who had recently encountered Aaron's brother and fellow missionary Ammon, was "somewhat troubled in mind" because of Ammon's powerful words and his generosity to the King's son, Lamoni.

After a series of questions and answers, Lamoni's father offers what, in my mind, is one of the most beautiful prayers in all of holy writ (especially considering that it was offered by a person previously unfamiliar with God or His Plan for His children). He said:
O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day.

Notice that in this prayer, Lamoni's father (whose faith already appeared far greater than II think even he realized) didn't say "I will give away SOME of my sins to know thee" or "I will give away THOSE SINS THAT I'M NOT PARTICULARLY ATTACHED TO AT THE MOMENT to know thee" .... he said "I will give away ALL my sins."

Elder Christofferson provided an insight that, I think, squares well with the idea of giving away all sins - holding nothing back. In the April 2008 General Conference, Elder Christofferson said:
About a century before the birth of Christ, King Benjamin taught his people of the Savior’s advent and Atonement. The Spirit of the Lord wrought such a mighty change in the people that they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). Because of their faith in Christ, they said, “We are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments … all the remainder of our days” (Mosiah 5:5).

. . . The case of Alma is also instructive. As he and his companions went about seeking to destroy the Church of Christ, they were rebuked by an angel. . . . [Then, a]fter “repenting nigh unto death” (Mosiah 27:28) . . . there came to his mind the sweet message of Jesus Christ and His Atonement. . . . Forgiveness came to him, and he stood and publicly confessed: “I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.”

. . . Being born again, unlike our physical birth, is more a process than an event. And engaging in that process is the central purpose of mortality.

At the same time, [however,] let us not justify ourselves in a casual effort. Let us not be content to retain some disposition to do evil. Let us worthily partake of the sacrament each week and continue to draw upon the Holy Spirit to root out the last vestiges of impurity within us.

True repentance, real rebirth, experiencing that mighty change of heart ... all require a complete change. It is gradual, yes, but it is complete ... honestly renouncing the desire to do evil ... fully rejecting the yearnings of sin.

Nothing less will be good enough.

Now, I am (seriously) the first person to realize that we are all human and we all make mistakes. Even after we've been touched by the Spirit and imbued with that desire to change, we will fall again. I'm sure that even Lamoni's father, King Benjamin's people and Alma the Younger continued to make mistakes throughout their life.

But the point is that their trajectory - their hope for eternal life - did not change. They still wanted to be (and do) good.

Throughout their life, these great people moved further along the road of righteousness towards that heavenly destination. And that, I believe, is what Elder Christofferson is telling us: Casually cutting away our sins here will never be enough to bring the hope of eternity into our life.

If the change only sticks where its convenient or if the rebirth only affects those parts of us we're willing to give up at the moment, we may find ourselves stuck in the rather disfavored ranks of the Lukewarm:
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Rev. 3:16).

And, when all is said and done, that probably ain't the best place to be.

* NOTE 1: Unfortunately, at no time in the Book of Mormon do we learn Lamoni's father's name. Thus, like most of the great women who inhabit the Book (including the mothers of the young men who battled together under the command of Helaman . . . all of whom were amazing, strong, selfless and, unfortunately, nameless), we'll have to wait for the next life to be formally introduced to this great man.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Thought on the Special Election ...

Massachusetts state senator Scott Brown defeated Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in a stunning, unpredictable finish.

This you know.

Why he won? Well ... they say it all comes down to independent voters.* Refusing to affiliate with a particular political ideology, such voters look to issues and candidates instead of blindly touting the party line. In yesterday's election, they looked, I guess they looked at the issues ... and decided to stick it to a Democrat-controlled legislature by destroying the filibuster-proof supermajority.
"Independents like the checks and balances of divided government. They dislike the ideological arrogance and legislative overreach that comes when one party controls both the White House and Congress."
So they say.**

Well, all I can say is ... Bravo, Massachusetts.***

In recent years, I've begun to view myself as a political moderate who leans conservative on almost all social issues (and many economic ones). I am not extreme, however, and believe, above all, that the genius of our political system comes from balanced government. I don't believe that much good comes when one party (Republican, Democrat or any other) maintains plenary control in Washington.

That is why I applaud the recent election results.

Well, that and the fact that I really don't like the idea of a sitting president trying to sway voters with open endorsements of particular candidates.

Still, between Obama's endorsement of Coakley and his ill-fated trip to Denmark last fall, its becoming more and more apparent that the President may not be the guy you want stumping for you (Bill Thompson: "So say we all!") .

* NOTE 1: "They" are "the media." I guess one nondescript term works just as well as another ...

** NOTE 2: Again, "the media."

*** NOTE 3: One article covering the senate race in Massachusetts included an excellent quote by now-Senator Brown. The article stated:
Asked in a debate last week if he was willing to sit in Kennedy's seat and block health care reform, Brown replied, "With all due respect, it's not the Kennedys' seat, and it's not the Democrats' seat, it's the people's seat."
Indeed, not even the late Ted Kennedy could overcome that logic.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Quotable Quotes: The New Yorker (01-04-10)

  • If you want to see Hollywood at the last gasp of its otherworldliness, consult the photograph of [Grace] Kelly and her fellow presenter, Audrey Hepburn, backstage at the Academy Awards in 1956 ... Both are in profile, gazing in expectation, and both wear white gloves. They could be at their first Communion.
  • The right-wing hippie is a rare bird.
  • He led with an epigram attributed to Margaret Thatcher: 'The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money.'
  • For people who think that Vampire Weekend is making music that's inauthentic to us, the question is 'What is authentic to us?' Is it the Rolling Stones - some version of black Southern music? There are probably a lot better reasons why you could say we're not good.
  • It's a mixed-use facility: retail space, low-rent housing, luxury apartments, and an area set aside for making steel.
  • The [Grace] Kelly effect is not unlike the James Dean effect ... whereby a few brief hours of screen time continue unquenchably to burn.
  • To some, Whole Foods is Whole Paycheck, an overpriced luxury for yuppie gastronomes and fussy label-readers.
  • [N]othing can undo the movies that we are led to in our youth, or the skein of impressions that they leave.
  • During a famous exchange with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock argued that 'if sex is too blatant or too obvious, there's no suspense. You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom.'

Of destinies, obligations, and responsibilities ...

This morning, while listening to Elder Dallin H. Oaks' conference talk from last April, I came across a rather interesting point.
Unfortunately, some Latter-day Saints ... choos[e] ... to fix their priorities on the standards and values of the world. Jesus cautioned that Satan desires to sift us like wheat (see Luke 22:31; 3 Nephi 18:18), which means to make us common like all those around us. But Jesus taught that we who follow him should be precious and unique, "the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13) and "the light of the world," to shine forth to all men (Matthew 5:14, 16; see also 3 Nephi 18:24).

... [W]e are called to establish the Lord's standards, not to follow the world's. Elder John A. Widtsoe declared, 'We cannot walk as other men, or talk as other men, or do as other men, for we have a different destiny, obligation, and responsibility placed upon us, and we must fit ourselves [to it].' That reality has current application to every trendy action."
Certainly, the idea is not new. Disciples of Jesus Christ, of course, must live in such a way so as to "be in the world, but not of the world."

I guess, though, I had never really thought that one of Satan's chief means of bringing about the destruction of the souls of men would be to simply help each of us adopt the ways of other men to the point that, in the end, we were just another common person in the crowd.

So, I began to ask myself:
(1) Do I watch the same things that other people watch?
(2) Do I dress the way that other people dress?
(3) Do I spend my money on the things that other people spend money on?
(4) If I look, sound, and act like all other people, what is it, exactly, that distinguishes me from all those who do not know (or live) the Gospel?
Sobering questions (Sobering answers?).

Seeing that January is the time of year many people use to re-evaluate their life and make all those glorious New Year's resolutions, maybe its time to consider ways I can more fully fulfill the "destiny, obligation, and responsibility" I have to be the salt and light of the world - a unique, precious leader in the cause of righteousness.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Christmas Morning Blues ...

Even after Santa comes, it ain't always happy times in Whoville:

Thanks for sending this one along, Aunt Leslie!