Awakening of the Meager Conscience

The Chinese author and Nobel Prize winner (in literature, 2012), Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death, in my opinion, is a literary and linguistic feast.  One might argue that the word feast contradicts the novel’s theme—a most gruesome form of capital punishment which can hardly arouse any appetite for a normal reader.  Well, maybe it does take such an extraordinary form to convey the thoughts so heavy and so relevant.

The main characters, with names so generic that they clearly symbolize any Chinese citizens in ancient and modern settings, act roles in an intense dramatic opera (literally!) that fuses love, loyalty, honor, and subtly but most importantly, conscience.  At the transition of the 19th and 20th centuries, the feudal China is in her chair days, while strong and ambitious new bloods from the West reach into this ancient realm.  As the Germans start to build a railway across the northeastern province of Shandong, the locals interpret it as a violation to their sacred inheritance, the land, and respond with organized sabotages and attacks, which invite military retaliations that inevitably cause the death of a German soldier.  Sun Bing, the perpetrator, is captured and subjected to the titled punishment.  Various rescue attempts add to the dramatic elements of the story though all end up futile.  And Sun Bing the former folk opera (Mao Qiang, or Cat-Tune) singer turns the execution field into a theater where his martyrdom is poetically extolled.  The story climaxes as the punishment is cut short by Qian Ding, the local magistrate, as a frail sign of protest and compassion, and ends abruptly.

Mo Yan’s literary style,  praised as “hallucinatory realism (that) merges folk tales, history and the contemporary”, is on full display in this novel.  The sentences carry rhythms so melodic that they remind me of the classical Chinese poetry form of Qu.  And similar to the Qu genre, they reflect voices of ordinary souls from their hearts.  In this case, the souls  are in search of justice and dignity, and such pursuit eventually erupts with a deafening volume.  Analogous transformations of character images into animals are used so uniquely that they not only reinforce the intensity of emotions, but also sharply point to the darkest facets of human nature—malice, oblivion, apathy.

The author’s pen name, Mo Yan, means “don’t talk”.  With good reasons, it is his way to gain relative freedom to decipher history and humanity’s baffling codes.  After all, there must be many alternatives better than silence.   In this novel, He is successful in conveying his message through the sandalwood death, the details of which should be left to those who are absolutely interested to explore.  Though made-up, it is inspired by the many real ones of the same nature throughout the history of the civilization.  The purpose of the punishment is none other than a showcase of terror to intimidate those who bear similar rebellious minds.  In a regime where the profession of execution has become a mystified and revered form of art, or, in a more relevant context, where doubting minds are silently estranged and stifled by the social norms, one may say it might have taken effect.  However, when the new magistrate in the novel conducts his final act knowing the unthinkable consequences to his career and life, we can still hope that this brief fragment inspires the readers to search for their own conscience.  —WZ


One-Word Photo: Keys

7 Lines

What do you play
All night and all day?
A piano; that’s right!
In the dark and in the light,
This building shines oh so bright.
With colors here and colors there,
Its melody will never wear.  —EHZ

The car park at the Nottingham Train Station was designed by Leeds Studio and constructed by VINCI Construction UK Limited, in 2012.

Tranquility in the Bustle

Los Angeles was where our family started our journey in this foreign country back in the early 2000’s.  My wife and I spent a few years there attending graduate school, and had our daughter Emily.  Every trip back to LA since we had moved to the Bay Are, this kaleidoscopic city seemed to be constantly changing, adding colors and shades here and there.  The recent trip was no exception.  In early January of 2018, we visited LA again and spent a few wonderful days with our close friends, the Kim family—they were one of the families that helped us with incredible generosity when we had first settled down there.  Deep friendship had developed between our families and each reunion had been so memorable.

During this visit, we took a nostalgic trip to the campuses where we did our postgraduate studies.  As we entered the southern periphery of UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), staggering buildings of familiar maroon exterior started to remind me of the many walks I used to have along this same path, and yet the scene had certainly changed significantly with the addition of a handful of new buildings.  Modern and vibrant, these buildings were said to have fulfilled some of the growing needs of the university.  The heart of the campus, however, remained solemn and placid as I had remembered.  Buildings of Romanesque architectural styles, though not uncommon on American university campuses, contrasted from the surrounding buildings.  Royce Hall, one of the four original buildings of the campus when the University was established in the 1920s, had always been my favorite architecture on campus.  The most intriguing attribute of Royce Hall is that the two prominent bell towers on the front façade subtly differ from each other in terms of structural and decorative details, even though they are dimensionally identical.  Inspired by the Abbey Church of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, such asymmetric design was intended to exhibit man-made beauty inferior to God’s perfect creation.  I found tremendous awe and peace in such humility, which was becoming rarer in academia as in the rest of the world.

UCLA’s Royce Hall
In Royce Hall’s front porch
Bruin Bear, UCLA’s mascot
Magnolia in front of Kerckhoff Hall

University of Southern California (USC) was located much nearer to Downtown LA.  The campus was equally spectacular, with similar maroon-tiled buildings shining in the warm sunlight.  As we strolled down Trousdale Parkway, passing the towering spire of VKC library, the martial Tommy Trojan, and the elegantly ornate Hutton Park, groups of new students and families were also there for the spring orientation, with beaming excitement and curiosity.  USC is known for its warm welcoming culture to international students.  Judging from the crowd, the school was still a popular destination for youngsters from all over the world.  Our biggest surprise came from the newly renovated University Village (UV).  As a top research school, USC also had an contrasting poor reputation for its unsafe neighborhood.  The new UV area seemed to be a significant step toward improving that reputation.  Brand new dorm buildings were enclosed in a plaza with vast lawns, a grand central fountain, comfortable outdoor sitting areas, as well as convenience facilities within.  Recognizing all good intentions, I personally doubted the necessity of such luxurious living conditions.  After all, one attends a university to equip themselves with skills, knowledge, and wisdom.  And I had a difficult time connecting what I was seeing with that purpose.

Main building of new UV of USC
Tommy Trojan, USC’s mascot
VKC Library
An old piano outside the University Religious Center

One spectacle of LA in the last decade was the booming of Silicon Beach.  A large number of startup companies, together with high-tech moguls, had established their offices  on the west side of LA, boosting local economy tremendously.  Driving westward from the Kims’ home on Jefferson Boulevard, the neighborhood of Playa del Rey had become like those we typically saw in the South Bay Area, with numerous buildings of contemporary styles, extravagant apartment complexes, and vivacious shopping centers.  All were pleasing to the eyes, but once again, I did not find bliss and enjoyment until we drove further down and reached the beach area.  The azure ocean leisurely raised waves white as snow; the surrounding neighborhood was rustic and quiet.  Our children spent the entire afternoon running in and out of water, molding sand into various structures with their wild imagination.  My mind was pacified by such simple, innocent joy.

Beach at Playa del Rey
Beach houses
Beach village

To us, the City of Angels is always different from the one where glamour and prosperity dominate the popular culture.  It is a second hometown, a place where we were and continue to be nurtured by intimate, enduring friendship.  In this world that keeps jolting forward with indiscreet strides, it comforts me to find such pleasing tranquility.

Los Angeles is a cultural melting pot that can certain fulfill a foodie’s cravings.  Back in our LA days, we were so blessed by the hospitality of our Korean American friends, who had repeatedly treated us with the best Korean food.  In this nostalgic trip, we did not want to miss the opportunity to relive those experiences.   Sundubu jjigae, or soft-tofu stew, was one of our favorite dishes that strike a remarkable balance between spiciness, flavor, and texture.  Cooked in a small clay pot, the piping hot stew brings together silky tofu, earthy seafood or meat, and the signature Korean chili broth, a perfect dish to share with family and friends especially on a cold winter evening.  We ordered three varieties (beef, pork, and seafood) from one of the best local tofu houses, BCD tofu, and they surely satisfied our stomachs.

BCD’s sundubu jjigae, they were so good that nobody remembered to take a picture until we were half way through
Sundubu jjigae from our kitchen

Back in our own kitchen, I had to use a larger clay pot we usually used for Asian soups and stews.  I mostly followed the recipe on with minor modifications.  First step was to prepare Korean style dashi stock, leveraging seaweed and dried anchovies.  The simple, 30-minute process would extract such strong, earthy umami from the raw materials.  The anchovies smelled pungent but did not render the stock overly fishy.  From the local Asian market, I found both guchujang (Korean chili paste) and guchugaru (Korean chili flakes).  Instead of using the flakes as the recipe called for, I used the paste like a few other recipes recommended—I personally preferred the sweetness from the fermented rice in the paste.  Three types of mushrooms, enoki, oyster, and shiitake, were all used in this dish, which were another source of the wonderful umami.  For the seafood, I made the shortcut to use the seafood medley from Costco that included shrimp, scallop, mussels, and calamari.  The rest was simple: sautéing the seafood briefly in the chili paste, adding hot dashi, tofu, and mushrooms, bringing it to a boil, garnishing with green onions and a dash of sesame oil.  This rich, flavorful stew will certainly appear on our dining table for many more times.  —WZ



The Difficult Reconciliation

Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata’s works were among my very first foreign (non-Chinese) literary experiences back in my teenage years.  At that time I was impressed by Kawabata’s unique ability to accentuate the tranquil beauty of Japan.  Upon revisiting his top-rated works recently, I gained some more understanding on his interpretation of love and death, and his unresolved question about the conflict between tradition and new fashion.

The Dancing Girl of Izu was one of Kawabata’s earliest works, a semi-autobiographical short story about the narrator’s brief encounter with a teenage dancing girl, Kaoru, on his hiking trip to the hot spring country.  The narrator is drawn to Kaoru by her innocence and sincerity despite her low social status at the time, and develops an affection so deep that it revitalizes him with hope and compassion.  Kawabata’s pellucid and poetic language flows throughout the story, wholeheartedly praising the primitive beauty of the lower-class performers, which may be a projection of the Japanese culture heritage that Kawabata deeply admired.

In that sense, Snow Country can be viewed as a loose and peculiar sequel to The Dancing Girl of Izu.  Once again in the remote countryside, the male protagonist Shimamura (a middle-aged wealthy loner) is physically and emotionally trapped in his obsession with two women, Komako and Yoko, both of whom are unattainable in different ways.  In this little town that represents his delicately designed safe space, Shimamura’s attempts to establish intimacy with either (or both, at times) of the women end up tragically futile.  The sharp turn of sentiments from Dancing Girl to Snow Country was surprising to me.  But it may be a genuine reflection of Kawabata’s struggle about the fate of the traditional Japan.  Komako, a geisha-turned-prostitute, depicted with vivid beauty and barely noticeable frivolity, is in danger of irrelevance despite Shimamura’s efforts.  Her alternative, Yoko, introduced so vaguely into the story with an interesting western literary approach, however, only remains remote for the most of the time, and vanishes so quickly before becoming tangible.

Such sentiments are also the main theme  in The Old Capital.  Staged in the historic capital Kyoto, the story evolves around twin sisters, Chieko and Naeko, whose fates symbolize the clash between the old and the new.  Kyoto’s spectacular natural and historical landscapes, together with its rich cultural traditions in the forms of festivals and rituals, unfold magnificently in this novel.  More specifically, the art of kimono (thing to wear) is the vessel that showcases the delicacy of the Japanese traditional culture and Kawabata’s deep affection toward it.  As the modernization of Kyoto becomes inevitable, the characters attempt to preserve the old and find peace with the new.  Kawabata used this novel to gauge the acceptance of such transition in his heart, and in that of the Japanese people.  Based on this story, his conclusion seems pessimistic.

Thousand Cranes continues to explore the state of Japanese culture heritage, in a much more intense, dramatic fashion.  Tea ceremony, a traditional ritualized art that promotes harmony and grace, becomes the canvas on which Kawabata boldly portrays sexuality that is simultaneously impacted by old tradition and western culture.  The main character, Kikuji, haphazardly steps into an entangled net of relationships after his father’s death.  While gaining more appreciation of the charm of tea ceremony, of which his father was an expert, he treats Mrs. Ota, his father’s mistress also as a form of inheritance, through which he finds his identity and power .  To me, this points to a phenomenon universal to many cultures, which is sin being passed over generations.  What consoles me is to see the deep sorrow that is inflicted on Kikuji and Fumiko, Mrs. Ota’s daughter, after his incestuous actions, and their eventual but painful resolution to cross the bridge of the past.

Kawabata’s sensibility enabled him to compose such exquisite pieces with a highly enjoyable level of literary virtue.  The  Japanese mono no aware (an empathy toward things) tradition blends with modern realism touches, rendering his works vulnerable and poignant.  When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, Kawabata was praised for his ability to “express … the essence of the Japanese mind.”  They are also deeply thought-provoking, in a way that aside from the author’s deep contemplation on and skillful interpretations of the very nature of humanity, they do not pretend to have reached any simplified, self-justified conclusions.  Kawabata himself was tragically torn between the richness of the Japan he loved and the waves of modernity that struck the ancient culture.  The beauty seemed to diminish, while the shades of hideousness never ceased to expand in many ways.  That, to me, is a dilemma worth exploring at all times.  —WZ

The Weight of the Choice

East of Eden was the first classic in English I picked up to read.  The biblical reference in its title seemed mysteriously intriguing, and the fact that John Steinbeck set the story in the Salinas Valley not far from where I currently live added to my curiosity tremendously.  The experience turned out to be simply marvelous.

This 600-page novel tells the lives of the Trask family together with a number of other characters on the periphery.  Their life paths of these characters, all with radiant virtues (maybe except for one person on this end) and woeful flaws  interweave in to a story so vividly real and relatable.  The novel, however, does far more than just evoking empathy.   As the fate of each character unravels with both inevitability and unpredictability, it stimulates reflections on subjects as deep as the fundamental meaning of life.  The story convincingly leads to the author’s eventual exclamation on the principal theme, that all humans face a crucial choice between good and evil.

The protagonist, Adam Trask, bears multiple allusions to the accounts of Genesis in the Holy Bible, but mainly points to the First Man.  Innocent to begin with, he is tempted in the grandest scale.  Fallen to the darkest abyss and struggling to recuperate, he inadvertently passes the weight of his suffering to the next generation.   Cal and Aron, Adam’s twin sons, fulfill the novel’s reference to the biblical tragedy on the land to the east of Eden with a heart-wrenching tale.  Cathy Ames, the novel’s antagonist, seems to be a rendition of pure evil that not only plagues the Trasks, but also corrupts the entire Salinas Valley.   The slightest human soul of hers eventually awakens in the forms of fear and guilt, which lead to her demise.

On the surface, the novel may look like a masterpiece of melodrama that incorporates all the necessary elements—love affairs, sibling rivalry, family feuds, conspiracy, murder, sexual scandals…  But to me, all of these only fortify the central theme in the most powerful way.  The temptations that everyone in the novel encounters are painfully realistic.  The author seems to have raised a philosophical paradox about the flaws each one of the characters are born with.  These flaws may be the culprit of the transgressions they commit, the agony they inflict on one another, and eventually the consequences they have to take on their own.  Translating to the physical world, the author recognizes war as a destructive incarnation of human sin.  But more subtly and cautiously, he criticizes the traceless loss of conscience, induced by the pursuit of  financial prosperity at the time when technology brings unimaginable opportunities to the world.

On his deathbed, Adam Trask utters his final word to his surviving son Cal—Timshel, which means “thou mayest” in Hebrew.  To me, it reveals the author’s utmost urge to the world, that no matter how dark the surrounding, how miserable the heart, we all have the power, and maybe more critically, the obligation, to choose.   As a Protestant, I find this message comforting and reassuring.  He also says in the book, “… it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal.  Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”  Firm as he is about the fortitude of good, in the way he wrote the novel he seems uncertain about its origin and universality, or the means by which to persevere in its pursuit.  Timshel only points to half of that vital truth.  —WZ


Sunshine After the Storm

I landed in Orlando, Florida, right after the catastrophic Hurricane Irma had passed the state.  Overlooking from the airplane, all seemed to be normal already.  Slightly overcast but no wind or rain, the city felt perfectly normal;  only patches of palm trees and pockets of wetland at the end of the sight reminded me this was the tropical Southeast.

The lion statue at the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine

I finally got to have a relaxed appreciation of this area after a few days of in-and-out of conferences, meetings, and dinners.  Northeast from the city of Disney World and Universal Studios, the road led me through lush wide-leafed woods and humble residential houses.  At this point, the impact of the hurricane started to show.  Only few of the giant billboards along the roads were intact; debris piles of tree branches lined up; some houses still had sealed windows and doors, indicating the absence of their owners.  To my comfort, my destination, the old town of St. Augustine was calm but vividly colorful.  Spanish colonial architecture of various shades of bight colors, studded with tall cathedrals and stone monuments, revealed a charisma different from most American towns I had been too.  After all, this was one of the earliest European settlements on the North American land.

Castillo de San Marcos was a 17th-century masonry fort built at the shore of Matanzas Bay in St. Augustine, guarding the  waterway that led to the Northern Florida.  Over the past three hundred years, this fort had witnessed the richness of history on this land.  Its ownership had been exchanged multiple times, between the rivalry of Spanish and English colonist armies in the early years, and similarly, between the Confederate States and United States during the American Civil War.  Constructed with coquina, a sedimentary rock composed of ancient seashells and corals, which had been quarried locally, the fort’s extraordinary mechanical strength had successfully resisted firepower from these historic battles, and remained its original form today.

Wall of Castillo de San Marcos and water-filled moat
One of the sentries

When I started to stroll on the broad roof of the fort, I realized that it had a simple, square outline.  On each corner of the square, however,  an arrow-head-shaped bastion protruded, each with a garita (sentry in Spanish) at the tip, silently boasting its defensive sharpness.  At that moment, the fort felt like a colossus ancient beast in dormancy.  The numerous marks of erosion on its grey skin testified to its age, but it felt firm, solemn, even a bit grim.  After all, besides the battles it had endured, it eventually became a prison that claimed the freedom and lives of a large number of Native Americans towards the end of the 19th century.  Landmarks like this are often times mesmerizing in many ways.  On the one hand, they may be remarkable demonstrations of engineering excellence or artistic merit.  But more often than we imagine, they expose a fragment of history that triggers our introspection.

Fishing along the quiet lagoon

Going south along the scenic Florida A1A toward my next destination was a pleasant drive.  The wavy Atlantic and calm lagoons on the two sides of the road composed a dramatic contrast.  Cars were still scarce shortly after the hurricane, and most of the vacation beach houses and resorts looked idle.  Sporadic piles of debris added some ruggedness rare to tropical beaches.  By the lagoons, however, joggers and fishers were already out enjoying a peaceful afternoon.  It was difficult not to pull over and take a closer gaze at this scene in front of me.  The clear, still water extended into clusters of emerald woods at the end of the sight; the humid, warm air brought slight saltiness that felt so strangely exciting to me; the sound of clashing waves echoed gently from far behind.   This corner of the world became surreal.

Looking south on Canaveral Seashore
Shells on the beach

And all led to absolute reclusiveness when I approached Canaveral National Seashore.  This federally preserved and protected area includes a 15-mile-long barrier island, its adjacent wetlands, and thousands of species residing there. The Atlantic Ocean continued to fascinate me with its warm embrace, coarse sands, and colorful seashells.  Thriving marsh plants weaved into blankets and rose like towers, rendering the land with prominent livelihood.  Flocks of large shorebirds—egrets, storks, pelicans—were leisurely gliding over the sky.   In water, families of endangered manatees surprised me many times while I as pondering upon the lagoon scenery.  My stay was quick and short, and yet it relaxed and amazed me perfectly.

When I stopped at the visitor center, the worker there explained that this was actually the first day that the seashore park reopened after the hurricane.  Parts of the park were still closed due to the hurricane damage.  “We are still in a rough shape.” She explained apologetically.   I responded with a word of appreciation.   So often we travel with the expectation of being entertained, and Orlando evokes none other than the paramount of such expectations.  I was so glad I had chosen to visit these hidden gems to appreciate and celebrate something far more worthy.

My trip to the southern states left me with many wonderful culinary experiences.  With the leftover North Carolina barbecue pork in my last post, I also tried to recreate Brunswick stew that I had enjoyed.  It was a tomato-based soup with chunky meats and a medley of vegetables, which was delicious, hearty, and nutritious.  Jamie Deen’s recipe seemed to resemble what I had eaten most closely, and the outcome of the imitation was satisfactory.  By the way, it was the first time I used baby lima beans in cooking, and they were fabulous!

Brunswick stew from our kitchen

In a coastal state like Florida, I thought I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to check out the local seafood venues.  Karen’s, a humble, self-serving eatery, presented a southern-style crab meal that was not to be missed.  Crab legs cooked perfectly in spicy, buttery Cajun-Creole seasoning, were tender, juice, and so flavorful that I could not stop eating.  In my kitchen, I used more meaty, but less tender Dungeness crab that was readily available in California, and married them with YouTuber Blissful Creation’s oven roasted crab legs recipe.  Without quantified instructions from the video, I had to devise some of the details, but it was more fun that way, and again, the flavors were quite all right.

Recipe serves 4–6

3–4 lb cooked, refrigerated Dungeness crab, cleaned and separated into sections
1 lb small potatoes, halved
1 lb corn cobs, halved
4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
1/3–1/2 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 TBSP parsley, minced
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 TBSP minced garlic
1 TBSP Cajun seasoning
1 TBSP Creole seasoning

In lieu of Cajun seasoning and Creole seasoning, I used the following mixture of seasonings:
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp ground mustard
1/4 tsp dry thyme
1/4 tsp dry basil
1/4 tsp dry sage
1/4 tsp dry oregano
1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, depending on preference
1/2 tsp chili powder

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Mix butter, oil, and all seasonings in a bowl. Liberally brush the crab sections, potatoes, corn cobs, and eggs with the seasoned butter until they are completely covered. Place them in a large baking dish.  Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes.
3. Flip all the pieces, and apply more seasoned butter if needed. Return to oven to bake for another 10-15 minutes, until all pieces are thoroughly heated. Serve warm.

Last but not least, cheese grits were served multiple times both in North Carolina and in Florida.  This rich, savory staple side dish added so much flavor and substance to the meals that I fell in love with it quickly.   After I visited Canaveral, I stopped at Goodrich Seafood & Oyster House for a late lunch.  The rustic, waterfront diner’s beautiful deck had been completely wrecked by the hurricane, but the quality of their food was not affected, nor was the hospitality of the owner, who sent me a bowlful of fish stew as I was waiting.  The fried alligator I ended up ordering was a blast, but certainly something I cannot replicate easily.  The remediation was to whip up some cheese grits to remind me of the bold, warm southern flavors.  Paula Deen’s recipe turned out to be an even more flavorful version of what I had tasted.  I used half the butter and cheese the recipe called for, also replaced 1/3 of the cheddar cheese with some nutty Gruyère.  Next time I will probably use less chicken broth as well.  —WZ