A Lament for Georgia

Her impending death trickled in
By way of her friend through a telephone,
Bringing shock to the afternoon.
And yet at once more shocking
Is the sheer pace of transition
From lament to consolation—
From ‘does it have to be?’
To ‘it is and it will be.’

Somehow I accept its arrival as immanent.
The facticity of the thing;
The ceasing of a dear friend;
The ceasing of conversations;
Of chuckling over coffee, of—
Stop pouring the coffee.
Live on only in memory.
Converse only in hindsight.

In the place of your breath—
In the place of your footfalls
Leading into the cafe
The key into the ignition
The food you consumed for breakfast
The chair you would sit on, an antique—
Only your memory.

In the place of your breath, imagined footfalls;
Imagined keys churning inside a now second-hand automobile;
An imagined car pulling into a driveway that is no longer yours;
An imagined hot breakfast that is in fact long-since cold;
An imagined repose on a chair that has been brought somewhere else,
For some other, for a time.

My memory of you, detached from you,
Is brought to finality.
Now my memory has the last word.
Now my memory must talk to itself.
My memory of you it lives alone!
Severed from the memories of others of you,
Somehow my memory of you is accepted as enough:
It will have to do.

03/20/17

One Quiet Night

The air is cold but not quite as cold as Siri had predicted as I step out of the yellow cab and close the door, the graceful click registering that I have neither pushed it too hard nor with too much delicacy. It is not an immense pleasure, but there is satisfaction even in this small act.

In my left hand sits the device that has allowed me to reach this place in the hinterlands of Brooklyn, the screen blaring in its own small waist-level corner of the night. I look up to make sure I am exactly where Google has told me that I am; seeing the neon confirmation that hangs above a dark and hermetic door, we, the map and I, nod our heads in assent; I have arrived.

There is a modicum of noise trickling out of the door but the street is otherwise quiet. Through the two large windows framed by a two-story brick façade I see the apparitions of revelry—dim shapes arrayed and in motion. The image strikes me as odd: the bricks feel puritanical, worn, static, and they appear to tell a story that is at odds with the glow of neon and the swirling Saturday-night crowd within their bowels. How many sober nights were spent in this once placid brick building before the hipsters planted the flag of PBR into the community?

I think to myself that I’m probably too sober for this. I stand for a dense moment, myself mute and unmoving, transfixed by the curvature of the neon emblazoned above the door located fifteen feet in front of me. The name of this place is fashioned in white cursive; underneath the appellation and three times as large is a single art deco all-caps word: BAR. The lambent green of those three letters seems to call to me; I, like a gnat in the night, am borne ceaselessly into its aura.

The door opens out toward me. An acquaintance emerges accompanied by a patchwork humming of voices and a particularly staccato moment in Alt-J’s “Breezeblocks.” She, clearly not sober, beams and comes to give me a hug, asking why I’ve arrived late to my own sister’s going-away-party. I offer my condolences, certainly not certain why I have arrived ninety minutes late and sober at 10PM on a Saturday.

The door is shut now and I can’t hear the song anymore, though I am inhabiting in my head its memorized continuation, and the exercise allows me to feel temporarily cut off from the moment’s awkwardness. I am for a few seconds more relaxed than my imminent entrance into the building—into a new vantage at which point the brilliant neon sign will no longer be visible, into a self-professed dive bar that has as much in common with a dive as a belly flop—would typically warrant.

She begins to smoke a cigarette and I politely take my leave (with, in my own opinion, not a trace of the emotional pacing I’m doing internally). My steps carry me forward, though I steal one last moment with the neon green hanging above the dark oak (oak? was it?) door. I am too busy thinking about myself to pay any attention to the make of the knob, or handle, or whatever it is, and I pull.

I had last spoken to my half-sister two weeks prior, in the days after I had returned from another summer in China. My father and I sat across from each other staring at our phones—a once highly busy clothing designer and a soon-to-be very busy graduate student—neither of us wanting to look at the fact that I had spent yet another spate of days in a place he would never visit, whose language he didn’t speak, and the memories of which he never seemed to be all that curious in exploring. Then the phone rang—his, to be exact—and after a few minutes I was handed the device. The conversation was short, tense. We both seemed to be aware that there had been a change in our relationship.

I walk into a new world. The air is surprisingly cool considering the size of the crowd—roughly a hundred people spaced among the booths that line the wall to my left, sitting at the long bar to my right, or standing in between these two habitats of drunken conversation. The room is much longer than it is wide. While I don’t recognize anyone yet, my gaze is pulled by the red glowing light that emanates from behind the bar. The bartenders are moving frenetically about, and the way their bearded complexions mix with the crimson lighting and the dark hues of their clothing seems redolent of some undiscovered ring of Dante’s Inferno. I imagine Vergil explaining the scene: “these poor souls are condemned to work the fun hours of the night while listening to the same songs on repeat as they watch others luxuriate in the evening liquid; every time they fill up a glass it immediately empties into a stranger’s hand.”

A beautiful woman smiles at me. I stand for another moment because the light is truly beautiful. I notice that the red is emanating from behind the impressive shelf of various liquors—the light carries through the different shades of the bottles and creates a decadent structure that is as radiant and alive as a Gustave Klimt dress. It now seems so obvious: I am looking at a shrine. The men in black are not poor servants paying for past sins, they are priests presenting the most holy of potables. Nunc est bibendum

The point at which our relationship really frayed was the moment I learned that she had told our father that her mother would never set foot in our house again. It was made abundantly clear that this stemmed from her birth-mother’s indignation at my birth-mother. A frequent guest at Thanksgiving and Christmas Day festivities for the last fifteen years, my father’s ex-wife had perhaps manipulated my sister into thinking that my mother—our mother—mama—had somehow contrived to make her wedding a painful ordeal for her. My mother, in spite of orchestrating almost the entirety of the wedding, of laboring for hours over every detail and working tirelessly to make our house nuptiable, did forgot one thing: the wedding bouquet. That in part led my half-sister and her mother to spend the following Thanksgiving in Maine.

I walk toward the back of this mystical room and in its shadowy recesses, removed from the ambient glow of the glass bottles, I find a swell of varying degrees of familiarity. And sitting in a booth near the back corner I find my younger sister and two of my older sisters. They jump up in a flurry of smiles; we hug. They are lovely people, and I am happy. My younger sister slides over and we all sit down. I am sitting across from my sister who is about to move to LA with her husband. She and I have never openly talked about what her mother said to our father; the absence from Thanksgiving; about how I resent the way she chose to handle the situation. She and my mother’s relationship has repaired in the year and a half since the wedding, but it may never be the same. Our relationship may never be the same. The booth is comfortable; we sit on the black leather that is roomy enough for three on each side. Seeing that this is a sibling moment, most of her friends continue to enjoy themselves in various pockets of the BAR.

She is doing this because her husband hates New York, the city she loves and has called home for eight of the last ten years. As we talk about the impending move I start to reflect on how much she hated the two years she formerly spent in LA, how isolated she had reported feeling. I think about the fact that all of her dearest friends live here. I am suddenly saturated in a moment of fear (which I also try to hide, because my sister is an extremely anxious person and to show her that I lack confidence in her ability to make this already-made decision work out is counterproductive). I am worried about her and the awkwardness I felt over the telephone completely dissipates. I notice that she is almost finished with her drink and I ask her what she would like.

For some reason, when I was in late elementary school my sister stopped spending as much time at our house. I don’t remember it being a stark shift; it was more of a gradual transition that some psychologist had probably implemented in order to make the changes in our lives as subterranean as possible. Weekend by weekend, fortnight by fortnight, month by month, my big sister became my half-sister. I leaf through my wallet and grab a $20 a $10 and four $1s, handing them to the bartender. There is no longer any impetus to write about the bar at his back, and I could describe his face but I thank him and walk back to the booth with two Moscow Mules; I hand one to my sister and I sit back down. We all raise our glasses and the clinking sound is enveloped by the warming legato of Odesza’s “How Did I Get Here?” and we joke about things that are profound in their triviality and I think I’ll never come back to this bar and that I want it to always be what it is on this night when the air felt slightly warmer than Siri had predicted and that Claire and I will always be Claire and me standing together on that cold night before Siri existed as a five and eight year old with our matching felt jackets with the leather sleeves and the red C with the yellow stripe running behind it that made me feel like a professional baseball player an image that I would turn to at various points in my later childhood as a symbol of who my sister was before I understood intellectually the concept of what a symbol was and yet it was all there she and I and her height belying the doubts and the anxieties begotten by a messy divorce and perhaps confusion over who her real mother was but one thing always apparent always evident that she loved me ceaselessly and always would

Xinjiang, 2016

Reflections on Mae Salong

Originally published in Columbia University’s Asia Pacific Affairs Journal.

“Most of the hill tribes here smoke opium in the evenings. For us Chinese, it’s almost exclusively the older generation—those who came with the Kuomintang. Have you tried opium? Why not? It’s medicine: the world becomes a blur of comfort and quietude after a hard day’s work.”

Two weeks through my stay in Mae Salong, I still hadn’t acclimatized to its peculiar language. A sleepy mountaintop town located near Thailand’s northern border, its population is as enigmatic as its history. Settled by the remnants of one branch of the defeated Kuomintang military that had initially fled to Burma in 1949, the village’s Chinese inhabitants built a formidable opium kingdom here in 1961. The profits were used to fund a counter-attack against the PRC that never came.

Today the guns are gone from Mae Salong, and the former opium fields swell with what will become delicate oolong teas. At night the dark green hills are lit intermittently with the subtle glow of fireflies and the more prominent beams of flashlights: patrols on the lookout for opium smugglers from Myanmar.

By day the languages of the Lisu and Akha hill tribes, as well as Thai, Mandarin, and the Chinese dialects of Yunnan Province mingle across Mae Salong’s landscape, making it exceedingly difficult for visitors to build a coherent picture of the community. While the groups mostly commune among themselves, important intersections do occur.

On a hot May afternoon, I visited a small neighborhood populated by several of Mae Salong’s most aged villagers. Chinese characters adorned the larger houses, offering blessings. Interspersed between these buildings were the more rustic Akha and Lisu dwellings. I sat with a wizened Akha woman, a middle-aged Lisu man and a Chinese woman whose late husband had been a KMT soldier. We drank tea on makeshift stools beneath the awning of her small knick-knack shop. Each of them spoke varying degrees of Mandarin, allowing us to communicate in a common tongue. In between our conversations, I listened as my interlocutors switched between languages with the ease of our languid afternoon.

Facing the risk of attack from nearly every front, the Chinese colonizers of Mae Salong developed deep and lasting relationships with the neighboring hill tribes. Brought together by a confluence of twentieth century circumstances, this interethnic rapport was more unaffected than I had ever encountered in Mainland China.

Somewhere within the house behind us, an old man coughed; another whooped with euphoric laughter. Beneath my feet, chickens peeped and scuttled across the cracked road, pecking at grain. Scooters whirred by, carrying up to four schoolchildren in blue uniforms. The day was uncharacteristically dry, but dark clouds were rumbling over Myanmar. Within minutes a swirling downpour would submerge the gleaming valley below, and all that would remain to characterize this place would be the sounds of my temporary, aged companions, their voices shifting back and forth between the somewhat familiar tones of Mandarin and the obscure languages local to this hilltop two hours north of Chiang Rai.

Apparitions of Northwest China

Originally published in Sidetracked Magazine.

Like most adventures, the concept for my motorcycle journey around China’s rugged northwest was born far away, in an oasis of art museums, corporate skyscrapers, and glamorous Beijing nightlife. The pattern is always the same: for every few weeks I spend roughing it on the open road, I spend months beforehand plotting routes in cafés with fast enough internet to support my Google Earth habit. After the journey ends and I return safely home, I begin to edit photos into a reconstructed narrative on my computer.

Perhaps it was the sense that my daily routine in Beijing was becoming too repetitive that led me to dream of forging out across some new frontier. Initially, I would flick away my afternoon office boredom by remembering that other China – the China of sweeping sand dunes that stretched across the horizon, glowing golden in the Central Asian sun. These were the montages that stuck in my mind from the two years I had lived in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, 1600 miles northwest of my Beijing office.

My cubicled existence in Beijing was becoming increasingly stifling, with my body growing weary of pressing against other bodies in subway cars, on buses, and in crowded alleyways as if being compelled to blend with the humid, impersonal flux of urban life. As I slept behind closed windows and closed curtains – barriers against the thick smog and noise of summertime Beijing – I dreamt of lying once again beneath the stars on the open plains, listening to the cooling Central Asian wind rush across Kazakhstan and into Xinjiang.

I had only a month left on my Chinese visa, so I left Beijing for Xinjiang. As the airplane lifted off of the grey day, I attempted to trace the outlines of the inscrutable city that I had come to love, in spite of its downsides. I would miss this China: the old couples that danced to pop music under a highway overpass outside my office every morning; the gleaming subway cars that shuttled trendy youths across the city; the hutong (alleyway) shopkeeper who handed me my Belgian beer; and the wizened souls who carried their grandchildren to the park every evening. It was the elder generation that stood out for me: they had endured uncounted hardship in their lifetimes, but today they were the tender and steadfast guardians of the idea that life would be better for their progeny.

Four days later, I was riding my motorbike swift and unbound through the Tianshan Mountains. No longer was my movement regulated by subway tracks or office walls. No longer were my thoughts interrupted by the noise of Beijing’s streets. Instead I could focus solely on the internal pleasure of my hand pulling against the throttle of my motorbike.

My route would take me on a loop around the northern arm of the imposing Tianshan range, a 1240-mile journey through the region’s most iconic ethnic minority areas. I hadn’t ridden a motorcycle for over a year, and had forgotten how stressful looking out for hazards could be. In Xinjiang, these included daredevil helmet-less motorcyclists, trucks carting coal from the alpine interior, four-wheel drives, goats, tractors, horsemen and the occasional camel. Many of the roads were more dilapidated than my maps and hearsay had suggested, but the rewards were great: as I gained altitude, the decadent landscapes became more and more beautiful.

As the morning wove into afternoon, I rode a gravel road towards a glacial mountain pass, 4,300m above sea level. But as I approached the pass, it began to hail, and I was forced to take refuge in a Kazakh yurt, laying my pseudo-waterproof clothing out to dry next to the coal-burning stovetop. My host was a burly man with taut crimson skin that suggested he had witnessed thousands of such summer storms, so I asked whether he thought I’d be able to cross the pass safely that day. He paused, staring through the yurt entrance to study the hail. After several minutes of contemplation, he delivered his verdict: no, he did not think I’d be able to cross safely.

However after a few hours, there was a break in the weather and I decided to press on, hoping it would hold. It did not. Just a mile into the nine-mile descent, a storm arrived, pouring across my helmet and drenching me in near-freezing rain. I noticed crunched corpses of tractor trailers lying prostrate alongside the steep pitch of the rock face: the final resting place for both machine and operator. It made me feel acutely aware of my own human fragility.

When I lost the sensation in my hands, I realised there was no time for poetic musings: I was now in a life-threatening scenario. Altitude sickness began to wrap its nauseous fingers around my stomach; I knew that I needed to descend as fast as possible. I focused my thoughts, clenched my teeth, and swore to myself that I would make it down the mountain. After seven frenetic miles of hairpin turns and washed-out mud roads, the storm slowly began to abate, and I climbed off my motorcycle to warm my hands on the engine. Then, I paused to look at the landscape. I have never seen anything more beautiful than the quiet scene in front of me at the bottom of that desolate mountain, as the indifferent fog rolled across the soaked, green hills.

I climbed back aboard the bike and continued on. Several hours later, with my body still thawing from the descent, I stumbled upon an unassuming small village. Exhausted, I decided to stay the night in a dingy guestroom at the back of a family restaurant. The proprietors, an introverted but gracious middle-aged Han couple, had been operating the ad hoc hostel for the last ten years.

That evening two friendly Mongol men in their early twenties invited me to join them for a meal of lamb with carrots, which we washed down with generous bowls of beer. The men kept asking me if I could introduce them to an American equine trainer because they wanted to purchase a US stallion to breed with one of their mares. I didn’t know any horse trainers but I played along, not wanting to ruin their dream of running a horse-breeding programme that combined the physicality of American horses with the ‘indomitable spirit’ of Mongol horses.

Once all the beer bottles had been drunk, I decided to go to bed. I stumbled back into my dank, concrete bedroom and imagined my companions making their way back to the felt yurts that stood in the foothills somewhere in the dark distance. But just a few minutes later, a commotion erupted in the restaurant next door. Nervous about getting caught up in a fight in a rural area that was technically off-limits to foreigners, I rushed around the back of the building and looked in through the window.

Inside, Nergüi, one of the men I had been eating with, looked wide and imposing. His hands were tensed into fists, there was sweat on his forehead, and his eyes burst with fury as he stared at a group of four Han Chinese men. ‘You filthy tourist bastards,’ he screamed in Mandarin, ‘Get the hell out of my village!’ The frazzled men stood in disarray, their eyes running around the room seeking some explanation for this outburst. Batbayar, my other dinner companion, was standing quietly in the doorway a few steps from Nergüi, looking on with indifference.

As other men in the room attempted to deflate the situation, at first in soothing tones, and then more aggressively, Nergüi menaced his body forward, stopping a couple of metres in front of the men. He kept moving back towards the door and then turning and charging forward, shouting threats at them. Each time he did this, he would stop just short of attacking them. After several minutes of this ‘shadowboxing’, he grabbed a wooden chair and hurled it across the room. Thankfully, the wood splintered a safe distance from where the shocked visitors were standing.

Afterwards, Nergüi stood triumphant, content with the horror that he’d pulled from the visitors’ faces. He hadn’t hurt them, but that was irrelevant – the men were merely stand-ins, surrogate Han souls that he had broken for that instant, shattering the imperial Chinese phantom that besieged his identity as a Mongol.

It appeared that Nergüi was not trying to inflict physical pain on this unsuspecting group of tourists, but rather to scare them and thus to have momentary superiority over them, becoming an avatar of what his conquering Mongol ancestors must have felt. I have never seen anyone so filled with rage.

Nergüi and Batbayar left the room, and then climbed on their motorbike. The engine roared to life and, for a brief moment, I could make out a look of serenity on their faces. A moment later, their tail light dissipated into the dark night.

I went for a walk under a vivid patchwork sky full of stars that burned too bright to be bound by anything. I realised the space that I had craved from my cubicle in Beijing didn’t really exist; or rather, it existed only for foreigners like me. The undisturbed vastness of the open plain, the Xinjiang that I had dreamed of and loved, was just a fantasy.