What's in a name?

If it's not obvious by now, I've been struggling lately with what this blog should be about.

I've got my other blog for showcasing my Chinese swordplay translations, and with the time I've been putting into that, I simply haven't had much energy left for other writing activities.

The original intent, of course, was to share my experiences as I progressed along the path towards a deeper understanding of Chinese language and culture. Sadly, the longer I live in China, the less interesting it seems to be to blog about the stuff of daily life. Even the most exotic country can seem ordinary after a while.

If I am to find a purpose for this blog, I think it is wise to revisit my choice of title, "Rehearsing for the big square world." The line comes from the XTC song Playground. The song develops the metaphor of the schoolyard playground as microcosm of all of the interactions that will happen later in adult life. You skin your knees coming off the slide, but climb up again for another go; the bully's run the show; and that sweet girl you were playing house with "runs off with a boy whose bike she'll ride." (Ouch). Thus, all of that playing on the big square playground is a form of rehearsal for life in the the "big square world" of adults.

I've always liked the song, and one day it occurred to me that the Chinese have always envisioned the world as square, or rather, that the earth is square, and heaven is round. Thus, I saw that my study of the Chinese language was indeed a form of "rehearsing for the big square world," or preparing myself to be a participant in the world of China. Perhaps the fact that I am now participating as a professional in that world makes the notion of rehearsing seem moot.

On the other hand, any activity, whether pursuing your career, your hobbies, or some hare-brained project, always seems to involve some element of learning the "rules" of that domain. For example, I've been trying to learn bluegrass guitar lately, and I'm discovering it is mostly about training your hands to obey a complex system of contextual rules in real time. I know many music fans will revolt at the notion that music is anything but an unrestrained creative outburst on the part of their revered idols, but I can assure you, your idols have a head full of rules, too, they're just better at bending, breaking and recombining them is meaningful ways.

Same goes for finding ways to drum up new translation business. There are rules about the way that people in a given industry operate. Novel ideas will get you noticed, but to be effective, you must understand the background rules that are operating so you know exactly what queues and signifiers your ideas will exploit. That's how you figure out what sorts of things will get you noticed in a positive way, as opposed to, say, attaching my business cards to bricks and throwing them through the windows of prospective clients (which would certainly be novel and get my name out there, but might not get me work).

Finally, I think that the phrase "rehearsing for the big square world" sums up one more meaningful insight for me: the persistent sense that I'm always preparing for that day that I will arrive. This used to be disturbing to me because it meant I was always behind the game, toiling away at stuff that would only yield rewards later on down the road. Lately, however, the idea of preparing for arrival has changed its significance. It's merely a metaphor for constant learning and growth. Now, it's the notion of actually arriving that scares me. I prefer the constant stream of new challenges, because that is where life is really lived. Thus, I hope I keep on "rehearsing" for many years to come, as opposed to achieving some kind of stagnant state of mastery.

Keeping all of this in mind, I'm considering making this blog a sort of clearing house for all of the strange challenges I am taking on, and the insights I have as a rehearse my way forward with them. In that spirit, let me share something I have been working on recently: my first attempt at translating fiction that I believe is actually publishable!

The book is called Rock Soldier, and it is written by Chinese author and underground folk musician Liu Jian. Liu has had the perhaps singular experience of being a soldier in the People's Liberation Army while also working as a punk/folk musician at a time when the word "punk" hadn't even entered the Chinese language. As such, he was a punk before he knew what punk was, and he did it in the context of the decidedly un-punk PLA. Go Liu!

As far as "rehearsing" goes, I've found that while my Chinese could always stand some improvement, the real challenge here has been pushing myself to be a better English stylist. I am constantly re-editing my work, and you can see one stage in the development of this translation in Adam Minter's lovely China blog, Shanghai Scrap. Minter was kind enough to publish this small excerpt in support of getting Liu Jian's work more widely known in English.

Take a look, and expand your notions of what modern China is all about.