John Wayne and China

I used to watch a lot of Westerns as a child. As a six-year-old living in the Connecticut suburbs, I remember being captivated by the alluring, foreign world on screen—the land of gunfights and watering holes—that microcosm in which virtuous souls stood transfixed in an eternal battle with outlaws wearing black bandanas. The perils and customs of that open Western landscape were so different from my own fenced-in New England existence that, in essence, I had to learn a new language—to try and intuit, in the midst of a film, what was really happening on screen.

I remember being very confused about the concern many cowboys had with getting shot in the back. Why was it taken for granted to be a worse death than being shot in the front? Grasping for clarity, I concluded that being shot in the back must be more painful than being shot in the chest. In this way, I would form my own naïve notions about what was happening in the world out there, determining with my best guess the laws of that great Romantic world where John Wayne would ride for days across an open sea of stars and sunsets, passing wild horses that pummeled the earth with their native simplicity—running and flowing across the rugged yet nascent canvas like John Wayne; free.

The end result was that I began to feel like I was a part of a place that I still didn’t really understand. I experience this today, as a twenty-two-year-old living in China. Every day, I step outside of my apartment and find myself utilizing that familiar skill: interpreting the world around me. It is a rush; it is a rush that no longer excites me simply in terms of understanding the plot of a story or the reasons for one hero’s actions; rather, it fulfills me on a newfound, intellectual level—one that was never present in my early days with John Wayne. Every day, I see something new; every day, Chinese horses thunder along the avenues of my synapses and fire newfound cultural secrets and notions onto the forefront of my windswept, always roaming brain.

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Of course, it is only retrospectively that I am capable of recognizing my youthful misconceptions. Upon an older—more rational—inquiry, it turns out that I was wrong about being shot in the back. It isn’t more painful; rather, it is more disgraceful. It means that you didn’t go out fighting, didn’t fulfill your Homeric honor-duty to the gods of the Old Prairie.

Which means that I’m wrong about many things happening around me in China, too. I’m older; I possess more knowledge; I know that being shot in the back is, in utilitarian terms, no worse than being shot in the front; in short, I know a lot of things. But to fully understand a culture—its multivariable nuances and complexities—you can’t merely rely on that same spirit of discovery you cherished as a boy. That’s just not feasible.

Efficacious or not, I wouldn’t trade my suppositions about life in China for anything. It seems that I prefer the unknown—the guessed, the intangible—to any precise understanding. The colors of the prairie—lambent greens and hot, flowing stones of red—linger in my memory: infinite, and beautiful. I call them to me; I ask nothing of them; I care not for their accuracy; and, in turn, they fuel my infantine soul.

19 May 2012

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