"When I mentioned all this to my psychiatrist you can imagine my shock when she too suggested this course of action"

Stefan -- This, I sincerely hope, is a joke -- Matthew.

[Matthew, you clever person you. You are absolutely right. She never suggested I see the Titanic; I turned to Sophie solely to try to resolve some problems I was having reconciling Heidegger's reasoning in rejecting dualism in the context of his existential philosophy and Sartre's approach to the same problem. I was being boastful when I gratuitously included a mention of her in my Titanic review. Maybe in my next session with her I should bring up my chronic need to invent personae more interesting than myself whenever I contribute to the FICTIONS page.]

Movie Review: Titanic

Of late I have been getting concerned that I am becoming socially marginalized. I don't own a television, I listen to National Public Radio, and I even spent Oscar(tm) night in an East Village bar wondering aloud why it was so quiet. I've developed coping tactics, to be sure--on Friday mornings I call a few trusted friends and have them recite to me in confidence the previous night's plot essentials of ER and Seinfeld. Thanks to them, I know about the male brassiere, and have made a few discreet inquiries about purchasing one.

Recently, however, this tactic has been found wanting, because plot essentials are no longer adequate to capture certain recent mass-culture phenomena. I became gradually aware of the deepening of my handicap when faced with viewers of a film of which I have known the plot essentials since childhood: Titanic. Knowing that the ship sinks and that most of the protagonists die was suddenly not enough to secure myself a marginal if tolerated position at the modern-day watering holes that are office kitchens. I became increasingly incapable to relate. People didn't so much avoid me as suggest in increasingly pointed language that I should really go see the movie.

When I mentioned all this to my psychiatrist you can imagine my shock when she too suggested this course of action. Last weekend I obliged her, and well, I have to say, I really liked it. No, really, I mean it. I really liked the Titanic. I was swept up by its vision of optimism about the human spirit, by its technical prowess, by James Cameron's loving attention to historical detail and by the ease with which I found myself willingly suspending disbelief. I was afraid Leo would die, and i didn't want him to. I thought the rich behaved terribly, except of course for the 2 rich Americans--Guggenheim and that big bold woman.

I thought it was a really mean thing to keep all the poor people behind bars, and even got the symbolism it implied about the lack of class mobility in Europe. The poor had more fun, though, so it was OK to be poor. The movie also reminded me and no doubt the 300 underage girls around me that grown-ups never understand why sometimes you just want to get naked with someone, especially if it's Leo. Kate's mother really should have been more understanding, making Titanic a potent vehicle for teenage rebellion.

I even had some tender moments at the end as she laid on the plank and he slowly withered, although I didn't understand why he didn't get himself a plank too as there were plenty floating around with already-dead people on them. I think he died from being just too fucking cool.

Only a few things jarred. I really feel that justice would have been served had they put Celine Dion up on deck with the musicians as the Titanic sank. Ultimately, I think I'd prefer social irrelevance over accepting Celine Dion as a talented human being. And the script was just a little bit lacking in memorable phrases, but at least there were no complicated words, which is very democratic.

And what if Leo really did steal the diamond. After all, we only have her word for it, and he did have a chance. Maybe she even made the whole thing up and there was no Leo: she was only a servant girl for the charismatic rich guy that she fantasized was her fiancee--a Monica Lewinski of sorts to somebody from whom she proceeded to steal the crown jewels, in which case his anger was entirely justified. Or maybe she was never even on the Titanic but is simply deranged, and the last scene about her dropping the jewel into the sea is what she is obviously dreaming rather than actually doing. Or maybe I'm just seeing to much into this movie. I'll have to see it again and let you know.

I have a great idea for how to revive the sighs page. Rather than everyone feeling like they either have to tell us something abut their life (which is nice enough, but not thrilling unless you are Charles Glover), or write some terribly clever and eloquent story, I suggest we have debates about things we all care about. The more animated the better. I can start out, and hopefully someone will be insulted/outraged enough to write back.

1. American sports are more fun than European sports! (excepting winter sports that is, which aren't much different). I am the black sheep in my family for being bored to tears by football (soccer), unless I really, really care who wins. It is too slow, too spread out for my poor eyes to see anything, and hockey-hair looks no better on football players than on hockey players. (all possible evaluation criteria are valid). Cricket or rugby only the British and their former colonies understand. Basketball and baseball is so much more fun. (can't speak for American football, since even figuring out who the quarterback is confuses me). I just went to see the Wizards beat the Lakers (!! by ten points!!) in DC, and it was the most fun I have had in a long time. I love watching the hula-hula girls (or whatever) bop around like rubber balls, with the music thundering inanely. Constant, all-over sensory stimulus is a good thing. With scenes and music from Bravehart on a gazzillion screens at once ("noise, noise") spookily making the already tense last minutes even more so, while stuffing my face with extra-mega-spicy BBQ wings, watching amazing mutant-monsters perform impossible tasks (Shaque O'Neill makes everyone else look little and frail; even on the courts), ninja-something-stunt performers or other activities in every tiny little break; it is like being five years old going to the circus for the first time. (I barely stopped myself from buying spun sugar, or whatever that is called).

OK, I know a lot of you are thinking that this is typical American, MTV generation, lack of attention span etc. etc., but so what. It is great show, and I also happen to like watching cross-country skiing (especially with Norway winning everything), which in comparison is like watching paint dry on the wall. Watching drunk European hooligans, even when singing little songs and all that, simply is not as entertaining.

To travel is to contrast. North and South, city and country. Or capital versus commercial city, such as Washington and New York or Rome and Milan. On this point, I've never seen such a divergence as between Beijing and Shanghai. The former is Mongol, imperial, political, insecure, stately...old men in blue Mao suits, student centers under police watch, black limosines ferrying Party officials across massive boulevards...horse-drawn carts importing mountains of cabbages from the countryside. Shanghai is brazen, sophisticated, cocksure, brand new...women in high heels, bankers with swooshy ties...black limosines ferrying nouveau riche past Japanese department stores...shiney skyscrapers and disappearing low-level dwellings.

I was there on business but I really felt the pulse afterhours. Both cities are gripped with change on a scale the West has never seen. New towers are going up, traditional neighborhoods are vanishing. Strange new sexual mores are making their presence known (or returning after a half-century's slumber) but the state is keeping a lid on them. In Shanghai change is especially true. The endless skyscrapers did not exist four or five years ago, nor did the highways or the overpasses. A great grey sweep of back alleyways mixed with French and British victorian architecture has been blown aside.

In Beijing I met up with some friends of friends and enjoyed a Mongolian hotpot dinner with some local hooch to keep out the cold. The restaurant was bare and the service was fine--which is quite unusual. The bathroom was outside: the wall across the parking lot. Many people live without electricity or running water, although many also lead a comfortable life. Beijing is on the whole prosperous, China's second-wealthiest urban center, with a per capital income around US$14,000. Mind you don't step in a gob of spittle.

Several cab drives later--and there is nothing more surly than a Beijing taxi driver, particularly the ones who don't know where they're going and then yell at you for it, all the while letting the meter tick--we found a massive disco. Nevermind the many PLA representatives who declined to dance but kept an interested eye on the students and several foreignors. The student areas of Beijing (which also is home to about 90% of China's intellectuals) is also the most heavily-policed segment of the country. Foreignors got in for free. To lure local customers as well, the music stopped for 45 minutes while three girls in boxy blue skirts read out the winning numbers on locals' ticket stubs. The lucky ticket holders won home appliances. The tedium was unbearable and I drank heavily. Finally the DJ got back to work.

The scene grew old so we headed to another club, then a quiet bar full of quiet men nursing beers. This was a gay bar. They are a new phenomenon in China. On the one hand it is depressing, because the patrons are obviously not keen to whoop it up, they keep a very low profile. But two years ago they weren't allowed to have a bar at all, and so on the other hand it's thrilling for homosexuals to have a place to call their own.

My guide was a fetching Australian woman of Asian descent who two nights later took me to a surprisingly good Italian restaurant. The dago grub in Hong Kong is pretty lame, so this joint was an unexpected pleasure. FYI. I wanted to kiss her but I chickened out.

But no matter because now I was headed for Shanghai, the whore of the East of old. I never quite found the depravity I sought, although I was assured it was there. The weather was worse but the mood was good, staying at the Peace Hotel on the Bund and feeling positively Noel Cowardish. Jazz and scotch, wood finishing and tasteful stained glass.

My days when I did not have meetings were spent walking and walking, covering as much of old Shanghai on foot as possible. No doubt I'm not the first to tread there, but these old back alleyways don't see many white faces, particularly in November, in the rain. I poked my nose into windows and doors and other people's business. I battled through the street markets, wishing I were invisible. At night I passed beneath unlit windows, listing to the sounds of the misted hutong. These neighborhoods still exist in patches but they're all doomed, the residents being forced out, highways and shopping malls and office buildings and expensive condos ready to take their place. They may be gone in a year or two unless Shanghai decides they are good for tourist dollars.

I met up with a friend of my Aussie crush for dinner and a night on the town, two lads looking for trouble. Shanghai has a number of neon-lit streets crammed with seafood restaurants. You point to the fish tanks for what you want. The hostess correctly pegged us for two cold beers--they know foreignors well. We left with swollen bellies and contented smiles, not to mention directions to a nearby bar. Chinese are not big drinkers and bars are Western inventions. Most hang out in brightly-lit kitchens which double as restaurants, and the teenagers and young 20 somethings sit around hair salons watching TV and washing one another's hair. We never found the bar we were directed to, but did stumble upon another. This was a dark affair with a few buddies hanging around a TV. We ordered some beers and headed upstairs, much to the proprietor's embarrassment. The upstairs was very dark, full of booths. The proprietor, Chen, sheepishly explained this is where lovers go--to escape their parents, to escape their kids, to escape their spouses. The smooch joint was one year old. Again, it kept a low, quiet profile. Sex is becoming freer, people are figuring it out again...but don't cause any trouble.

On my final night in Shanghai I was ambling down Nanjing Road, China's version of the Golden Mile, and was approached by a man who wanted to practice English. I had no plans and no objections, although I soon grew to dislike Lee. He liked to roll off his half-baked knowledge of America without listening to whether or not an American agreed. But I like company so I offered to buy him a beer, and he led me into the nearest karaoke bar. The place was mostly empty, and there was no singing, but it was interesting to quiz him over a pint of local brew.

Lee wants to study English in America so he can return to Shanghai and be a tour guide. He doesn't really know anything about the US, it seemed, except state capitals. I mentioned my brother had once lived in Portland. "Salem," he said. But he didn't seem interested in hearing anything real.

Lee doesn't have a girlfriend. "I study first," he said, which seemed reasonable if a bit sad. The waitress brought us some bar food and Lee suggested we have rice wine, as friends should. Well, why not, and the waitress brought some shrimp snacks along with it. Two more guys showed up and sat down near us; one was American, and we nodded to each other.

"So what do you do on weekends, Lee?"

"Oh, I go bowling, or sing karaoke." Bowling is big among Chinese youth. "And I go to the hair saloon."

"Salon, Lee. Saloon is a bar." I spelled out the difference. I had also taught him a few expressions such as "to hang out" and "to draw a blank."

Lee said he went to the salon at least five times a month. He rarely had a haircut. Instead the girls who work there will shampoo your head and massage your scalp. The service costs around 50 yuan (US$8) and is very relaxing. You can sit around with your friends and watch TV and chat and it didn't sound too bad. Lee suggested we go after our drink. Why not? When in Shanghai and all that. I agreed.

He leaned forward conspiratorially. "At some salons, the girls let you touch them, and they will kiss you," he said. "You want to go?"

The whore of the east had risen its ugly head, lips beckoning.

"Do you go to those kind of places, Lee?"

"Sometimes, but not often." He took a sip of wine. "I don't want to get AIDS."

I suggested we should stick to the legal kind of salon and he called for the bill. It came to about 800 yuan, or about four times the price paid for a fabulous six-course seafood dinner a previous night. In other words, I was being scammed, and Lee was in on it. I shrieked holy murder, the proprietor offered to bargain. Lee, in a blow to his feeble alias as innocent English student, offered to pay half--no Chinese would ever agree to such a sum, particularly not a student.

The American man behind me said, "You pick that guy up off the street?...you've been set up."

The owner tried to have me name my price, but that was just a trap to negotiate some more when none was deserved. I told Lee to give me 100 yuan, which he foolishly did. I dropped 100 of my own on the table and, screaming every curse word I know (in English and a few "vaffanculo"s for style), stormed out. Lee remained seated, chest caved in, blinking like a stunned deer. I wasn't worried about taking flight. Screwing foreignors is a Chinese sport, but they'll always think twice before laying a hand on one.

I went back to my hotel but took the long way, back through the misty derelicts of Frenchtown. The streets were dark and quiet, although never quite vacant. The stores were boarded up, the restaurants silent. Only the hair salons remained open, groups of young people hanging around chatting and watching the TV, and a few lit in pink, women with dark eyes and sulty mouths sitting bored in the barber's chair, casting their gaze up at the odd passerby and filling his thoughts with warm imaginings.

I haven't submitted anything recently to the SAIS page as there really hasn't been much of interest to report. However, I notice that I find it very difficult to describe what it's like to live and work here to those who ask. Everytime I start I just can't seem to find adequate words. The lifestyle is not too bad, but trying to actually accomplish something work or business-wise is amazingly frustrating.

I think the following may provide a glimpse as to how it can really get to a person over time. [It's an e-mail] from me to a colleague in another Central Asian city and his response.

THIS IS RANTING EMAIL NUMBER 1 or "Why I hate Central Asian Banks."

No matter what you say, all these ****** banks suck and I wish we could just tell them to go to hell. I am so sick of signing stupid letters that mean nothing, doing work that is their ****** responsibility, paying them money for things they haven't done, playing these little games trying to coax them into doing things that if they didn't have their heads up their asses and hands in everyone's pockets they would see that it's what they should ****** be doing for themselves,.

What a dream it's been talking with an American who is running the new Turkish bank. He WANTS to lend, he tries to think of ways to ******* DO SOMETHING, he wants customers, he understands that it makes no sense to NOT cash a check because the signature doesn't appear to match when the customers stands ****** in front of you and tells you that he signed it!! That a customer shouldn't have to go to the ******* notary and get a separate card for every small, meaningless difference in the way he might sign his name which anybody who would take the ******* time to look AND THINK would see that it's the same signature.

What a ******* waste of human chromosomes. One guy in the office has beeen waiting 8 days to get money wired. First it's a god awful amount of forms that I have to sign with copies for everyone in the ****** world except the Pope, then he goes back several days later to find it hasn't been done because SUPPOSEDLY there was an error (which was the banks ****** fault) but no one bothered to call him to tell him that the form needed to be redone, so we go thru the whole painful signing process again, and days later it still isn't done. Finally, I sign a letter to the Pres of the bank complaining and when it's shown to the cashier, she promises to do it right away if we don't send the letter. What a bunch of shit. I doubt the ******* thing goes. I already decided to close the account but it's just a fucking joke. The whole ****** system and place.

REPSONSE or "Why my colleague has had enough of Central Asia."

It's really frightening about these people. It's all a control thing. They feel it's necessary to completely control everything. And doing so crimps commerce. They really don't want to see anything done, accomplished, upgraded because it's a threat to their control. When they can't control the people they are threatened. Because their system is morally decrepit and financially bankrupt so they have to invent rules and regulations that restrict most activity because they can't allow the markets and common sense to rule. It would reveal the shortcomings of their system and the people would revolt. And they would lose control- and all their benefits.

It's truly a fucked up place. Nothing will ever change because the powers that be don't have it in their interest to change, it will mean the end of their comfortable lifestyles. So they pay lip service to change, it brings the idiots' money, but really, it's the last thing they want. How can anything ever happen here?

I'm telling you TJ, the Chinese will overwhelm these losers without even noticing them. Economically, if not politically. Like a bug on a windshield. They are insignificant. And the do-gooders in AID and World Bank and wherever are throwing their money down a rat hole to "give them a chance" but it ain't gonna work. It defies nature, the natural direction of things, so it won't work. We can stay and take a salary and the frustration that goes with it but you have to understand that this whole concept is a losing proposition that will only change long way down the road and not because of us.

I give up, I don't care. It's their mess, let them figure out how to clean it up. I have no pity for anyone here because they accept it, they accept their gov't and they accept their "traditions". I don't want to mess with local culture.

THIS IS ANOTHER EMAIL SENT FROM THE SAME COLLEAGUE AFTER RETURNING FROM A TOWN IN NORTHWEST CHINA, URUMCHI. I FIND IT INTERESTING AND THINK OTHERS MIGHT TOO.

We should be putting our money in a place like China. Those people know how to work, make things, get things done, and don't squat eating seeds waiting for---? I'm sure there are crooks there too but, wow, I was impressed with even a backwater like Urumchi. Same size as here but it would blow you away. Modern office buildings, department stores packed with stuff, building construction like crazy, transport, industry, everywhere. If I was a foreign investor with a commitment (or mandate) to invest here [Central Asia], rather than put my $$ in directly, I would finance a Chinese co to buy one of these dogs and manage it. The [Chinese] aren't the nice guys that we [the Americans] are. They don't take the shit that we do. You don't like it their way, you can leave now. They can get things done with next to nothing in resources, it's amazing. They would put these people [Central Asians] to work. It would put the fear of god into these losers. You've got to get over there and see what goes on. There's so much activity, no one is sitting idle. Shops are open until all hours of the night. They encourage- rather than discourage- commerce. They don't send you away if you don't have exact change, they find it. They want the business. They're former communists too, so I don't buy that 70 yrs shit. They don't close for fucking lunch. They don't ever close. They can be a bit harassing for a shopper but it's better than being ignored and insulted. The other nice thing is that there are no gorilla security guards with uzi's and shotguns in every shop and bank and hotel lobby. There's not the same intimidation presence. I don't know if you get that in Bishkek but go into the Zum [the Bloomingdales of the CIS] here, especially the jewelry store, and there's a guard with the biggest gun I've ever seen. Even the grocery store guard carries a pistol. I would love to know their rules of engagement. I wonder how bad the crime problem is at the supermarket? You don't see any of that in China. They want your money and your business. Maybe because the chinese have some character and a work ethnic. I know they're not perfect but these people are a lost cause.

I thought I was done for today but I guess you got me started. I used to pity them but generally, with a few exceptions who I really feel sorry for, I despise them. I don't think I can stay here much longer. This is now and would remain purely a salary play. There is practically -0- professional satisfaction. I'm still too young for that. In many ways most jobs are, salary plays that is, but it doesn't always seem as hopeless.