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Greetings from Vienna, #19

April 27th, 2004



Greetings from Vienna
Part the Nineteenth, A Off Week

The Once and Future Ditch[1]
I didn't work on the ditch this past week. I must admit that my back and my arms were rather happy about this, but the break wasn't to their benefit. Rather, the rain I'd mentioned in the last newsletter had drenched everything; so, a break from the ditch. I go back to work tomorrow, and I hope to report on the completed ditch by the next newsletter.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about how this parallels my father's life. For a time, he too was a ditch digger. In early 1949, my father left mainland China, just ahead of the Communist take-over.[2] While his final destination was Taiwan, he ended up in Hong Kong for a time, digging ditches. A fellow ditch digger--who ended up in Japan, married a Japanese woman, emigrated to the States, and now lives 30 minutes away from my house in California--showed us pictures he had of them from this time.[3] It showed two skinny Chinese men, wearing white shirts (?!), standing in wide ditches that came up to their waist, leaning on picks, and smiling at the camera. I could tell which one was my father by the glasses, and the fact that we look very much alike at the same age, though I certainly outweighed him by at least forty to fifty pounds (eighteen to twenty-three kilos). And no, I have not asked him for advice on digging ditches. For one thing, they were digging fairly substantial ditches, either as a part of road- or water-works. For another, I'm sure that he will tell me to bend with my knees as much as possible, and not with my back. Since you've seen the pictures of *my* ditch, you can see that such advice can only be followed so far while still maintaining progress on the dig.

So that's the old family ditch digging story. Since I don't have the original picture to put on the site, here is one of my parents shortly after their wedding in 1963, visiting my mother's family in Saigon. (Yes, my family history is full of running away from communists.)

Red King Dreams[4]
Austria just had their presidential elections this past Sunday. The winner, Heinz Fischer of the Socialist party, is referred to in one of today's papers as "Der Rote Kaiser". To Americans, the whole procedure might seem just a little off-kilter compared to *our* process: voting on Sunday, a viable Socialist party, and a President that has no formal powers. But I think the America political process might receive some much needed re-invigoration if we'd study the Austrian model. I don't suppose that I'm proposing to change the US presidency into a ceremonial role. For one thing, we don't actually have that many bits of pure ceremony throughout the year: putting up the Christmas tree in the White House, throwing out the first pitch of the Major League Baseball season, hosting the Easter Egg Hunt on the White House Lawn, presenting medals. But I do like the idea of having elections on a Sunday. I'm not sure how the Founding Fathers came up with "the first Monday after the first Tuesday in November" as the date for presidential elections, but now all sorts of elections at the state and local levels are either put on the same day, or on other Tuesdays, which really does seem a little silly if the goal is to get as many people to vote as possible.[5] And while I'm not sure if the Socialist Party, in any form, would be viable in the US, the current system certainly keeps the Democrats and Republicans firmly entrenched, effectively preventing the formation of third parties at the national level.

Since I expect to continue this newsletter for the foreseeable future, I'll write up the 2004 US presidential elections for the benefit of the non-American readers. Should be highly amusing, I'm sure.

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts[6]
Gift - English for "present", something you give/get on birthdays, Christmas, &c.
Gift - German for "poison", something you use to get rid of rats, ants, people with the annoying habit of having annual birthdays and expect presents.
Tasche - German for "bag" or "pocket".
Brieftasche - *Not* German for "briefcase". German for "wallet".
Aktentasche - German for "briefcase".
Tongue-twister - English for phrases that are very hard to say. E.g. "She sells seashells by the sea shore."
Zungenbrecher - German for "tongue-twister". "Zungen" is "tongue"; "Brecher" means "breaker" or "crusher". I told my German teachers that German tongue-twisters must be harder than English ones.
"ins Gras beißen" - German equivalent of "bite the dust". For some reason, German speakers prefer to bite grass when they die.
"Jemandem etwas aus der Nase ziehen" - Literally, "someone pull something out of the nose". English equivalent: "like pulling teeth".
"Jemandem einen Bären aufbinden" - Literally, "someone loosed (untied) a bear". Apparently, German speakers can't just "pull someone's leg".


That's all for now. There should be pictures from the completed ditch next week. Cross your fingers and hope for clear weather.


Bis bald,



[1] "The Once and Future Ditch": A play on "The Once and Future King", a novel by T.H. White based on stories of King Arthur. The Disney cartoon is loosely based on this book, where Merlin turns himself and the young Arthur into birds (Merlin's an owl, I forget what Arthur becomes) as part of Arthur's "education".

[2] "ahead of the Communist take-over": My paternal grandfather was the "big man" in the home village, and his brother happened to be the head (or commissar) of the local Communist Party. Having failed to convince my father of the finer qualities of communism and the soon-to-be Chairman Mao, he nevertheless told my father when the communists were finally going to take over the country. Thus warned, my father left a couple of months before Chang Kai-Shek and the Nationalist Party fell.

[3] "pictures he had of them": My copy of this picture is, unfortunately, with a box of family photos in California that has not been scanned in. I began the process this past summer, but it is fairly slow, given my desire to scan the negatives at high resolution.

[4] "Red King Dreams": Aside from the political connection, I suppose that there is the possible pun on "Red Chamber Dreams", one of the first Chinese novels (from around the 17th century, I believe), and also a reference to "Through the Looking Glass" by Lewis Carroll, where Alice is told that she is only a part of the dream of the Red King.

[5] "as many people to vote as possible": Of course, the Founding Fathers were also quite leery of the "People" in general, so it might've been a device to limit voting to those who were willing to take time off from work to do so.

[6] "Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts": Reference to the Fall of Troy, when the Trojans unwittingly brought Greek soldiers into the city by accepting the Wooden Horse.



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