Dichotomies - not just a really bad name for an '80s New Wave band

My personal trade mission to China in 2011 began in Beijing. As a part of a group largely driven by newcomer curiosities, tourist-y highlights factored in right from the start. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square were among the first sights seen, before our collective jetlag really even had a chance of kicking in. By the time our group of 40 hit the public bathrooms at the Forbidden City, culture shock seemed to be taking hold for most. Nothing makes a Westerner miss the comforts of home quite like a hole for crapping in the floor. Sorry to go blue right off the bat. I'm just calling it as I recall seeing it. I was actually more struck by the walk back to my fancy hotel, sans group. Just so you know what to expect, I always look to walk and generally always spin off from the dictated path. Here or there or most anywhere. That's how I roll.

Stroll many of the business neighborhoods of Beijing and you'll see very little separation between the sort of places that burn garbage in the alleys (or "hutongs") and the places where the open display of copious wealth dominates way some modern Chinese urbanites live. I came across numerous Lamourghini and Ferrari dealerships literally right down the block or around the corner from the sort of urban lower class realities that made me cautious and a bit ashamed for taking the time to look more closely. I would love to go back and see if anything's changed in the five years since visiting Beijing. I'd do so tomorrow. I loved my brief explorations of urban, rising China. However, my bet's that the dichotomy has only become more pronounced.

Not that I'll find a perfect analogy to bring us up to the current day...but I did purposely come across a pretty damn close one today right here in Seattle. The Alexander Wang Pop-In Shop@Nordstrom...a brilliant bit of marketing overseen by the enigmatic Olivia Kim...currently open through mid-October. I troll through the department stores regularly no matter where I am. Nordstrom is one of my favorites, and not just because they're based here. I'll admit shopping there, too. When it's justified. Recent Nordstrom pop-up shops...which amount to temporary sections at just a few big stores set up to feature a specific company or designer...have drawn my attention and business. I love my Warby Parker sunglasses and wear them way more than I should. I just wore my new Olivia Kim-designed chukka-style maroon Vans and they're on their way to becoming faves, too.

Alexander Wang designs for a very different consumer, though.

Plus, Wang uses fur.

Just a few years ago I heard outright denials from Seattle Nordstrom employees that they even had any fur garments in stock. Today I saw the following $1000 Arctic Fox neck pillow. I was told it's made in NYC. Unlike most of his designs, which are made in China. Cue the irony music. But rather than explain more fully what I mean, I'll post a few pics.

The "metal diamond plate" flooring material makes any surface a mirror. And maybe a total bitch to clean regularly.

The "metal diamond plate" flooring material makes any surface a mirror. And maybe a total bitch to clean regularly.

The little bag charms up top in this display are accented with rabbit fur. The travel pillow is made with black Arctic fox, and features "memory foam" in the pillow. Probably so that you'll never forget you dropped a grand for a pillow. 

The little bag charms up top in this display are accented with rabbit fur. The travel pillow is made with black Arctic fox, and features "memory foam" in the pillow. Probably so that you'll never forget you dropped a grand for a pillow. 

I can't remember what the sales person said was the origin of the leather in the carry cover. Not soy, I'm pretty certain.

I can't remember what the sales person said was the origin of the leather in the carry cover. Not soy, I'm pretty certain.

My point for the day may seem convoluted. If I was being forced to pull it together into a simple daily thesis, I'd crack under the pressure and fall back on an unanswerable favorite. Dichotomies are everywhere. False ones, classical ones, and even some real, economic ones. Don't ask me which is formally which. That's why we use the Google. But I'm left to ponder...how did a country that during the Cultural Revolution sent millions of people to their deaths in re-education camps for any embrace of capitalism in a just few short generations become the world's magnet for both the manufacture and consumption of luxury goods? Or, closer to home, how did a company that responded not long ago to the threat of being visited by animal rights activists for selling fur goods with a blanket denial that they don't sell such things become the sort of place that's celebrating a fur neck pillow that costs more than the median monthly residential rent in the U.S.? Obviously, I have many many more questions. Some might even have answers.

Thanks for checking in. That's all I've got today. Good night, good grief, and good luck, World. 

Connecting censorship (in China) and uncensored storytelling (in Norway).

The combination of this week's 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and Evan Osnos's engaging new book Age of Ambition drew me back to an old photo library. I made my first (and thus far only...) visit to China three years ago this September. Since I'd embargoed most of my photos from that trip, I choose now to share a few (click through for a handful of images from around that central part of Beijing).

The most thoughtful things I've read to help understand this dark anniversary opened a bit more the tiny window I saw through while there. Massive overstatement alert ---> China moved on quickly and changed massively after events in 1989. Yet when I look at pictures of the aftermath, I'm shocked in many cases for the first time by the scale of it all. If the events of "liu si" (the term for June 4th) come up, most people feign ignorance or look for a polite segway elsewhere. Here, there, or anywhere. The best advice I was given before visiting China was simple - "don't talk politics." Whether or not that sounds cowardly, the coping mechanism worked well. 

Since I still don't know what to say...I'll dramatically spin the globe to recap a lit event I'm still digesting. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard came to Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company earlier this week. The release of the 3rd English-translated book in Knausgaard's six volume autobiographical "novel" (more on that in a bit) drew him to the United States for a brief tour - just L.A., Seattle and NYC stops before returning home in a week as he told me in the book signing line after his reading. This rare event kicked me square in the brainpan. Leave it to a somewhat reluctantly self-aware Norwegian to offer a powerful glimpse of how much we all stand to still learn about our skills and motives.

To drill down a bit...Knausgaard offered a disarming, great reading. He proved that banality can be deeply meaningful. He uttered a beautiful mantra in passing that I will borrow and try to use with attribution for some time to come - "self-criticism kills everything." He gave insights great and small, personal and universal, hopeful and darkly prescient to a standing room only crowd in a sweltering basement. Knausgaard's opus is called "My Struggle" and in the original Norwegian would not have been called a memoir. Because there is no such literary category in Norway. In American, we call it "Fiction" because we get all weird and wonky about storytellers manipulating their memory. Some call his work boring - he joked about it in fully owning up to the characterization. It is also deep, rare, and written in a twisting stream-of-consciousness. Hypnotic might be a great description. But I should stop there, because I have much more to read of his "Struggle." Needless to say, I am an immediate admirer and fascinated empath with respect to what Knausgaard has done in this work.

Seattle gets more than its share of authors with real star power jaunting across the stage. Knausgaard's appearance was something quite otherwise, however. This was a Salinger moment. If he comes anywhere in North America when Book 4 gets translated, I suspect Seattle may once again float up near the top of a very short list. But I would not count on him coming back, America. If you have the rare chance to see Knausgaard, do not let that pass without taking great pains to get there. No matter what happens with his work (or his personal struggles with success and happiness), I am quite pleased to have spoken with him briefly while he sat at what looked like the loneliest signing table imaginable...all while a line of dozens and dozens of fans waited for their chance to also thank him for doing us a solid by swinging through town.

Getting my Weibo on

A story in yesterday's NYTimes about the Chinese government once again clamping down on their microblogging sites got me curious. I encountered pretty obvious censorship when I visited two years ago. Facebook and Twitter were unreachable. Same for Blogger and the extended utility of Google. Things loosened up when I left the Mainland for Hong Kong. It was nonetheless striking to encounter.  

Fast forward to today, and I was able to register for an account on the equivalent of Twitter in China - Sina's "Weibo" (which means, simply, "microblogging"). I have no idea whether I'll get bounced. I didn't think an English version was yet available, but by using the browser Chrome with Chinese translation enabled...well, I'm up and running. Feel free to check me out there. Or come back here to see if I learn anything good.  

I should mention that I have a book-related purpose in this long-distance trolling. In a nutshell, I'm looking for "Big V" people (meaning, verified, or vaguely influential). Those are the folks the government began clamping down upon, after what had struck me as a period of relatively progressive advances. As with most things China-related, we only have the smallest sense of the reality here. For now.