A précis of my summer in China, emphasizing my experience filming Buzkashi, the horseback sport of Central Asia.
Looking through the train window, he noticed a blur of fall color. The whirr of branches and leaves pulled in his gaze, and he slipped into a trance of yellow and orange. After several lost minutes, he realized that the sweep of the passing bouquet had stifled his ability to make out any of the individual trees that, collected together, called out to his spellbound eyes. So he leaned forward, picking out one tree on the horizon and tracing it with his eyes as it traveled along the length of the window frame. This way, he could see how the bark was a rugged cream color on one tree and a dark grey on another; how what looked like an old oak had pale green lichen draped over its torso; how a sapling of some species he couldn’t identify had decaying leaves that refused to fall off.
And then he thought that love is like a forest as a train rolls by. He felt regret that there were so many trees in a forest—trees that, had they been in his back yard, would have been affectionately ingrained in his memory. But these trees were not loved, not known. They just sat there, on the side of the tracks, and waited patiently to die—their existence meaning nothing to no-one. Perhaps one day they would be made into paper, and someone would write something down on what was left of them, and maybe, just maybe, that something would be important.
Love was like the trees that nobody came to look at. Love was mere chance; luck. Love was the way you would be forced to focus on one tree because the whole array of colors was too overwhelming for your senses. Love was the way you couldn’t focus on reading Nietzsche because that woman in the pink blouse to your right was telling her friend Carl about how her daughter Samantha had failed her Chemistry test.
There were countless other trees, other people that you would never meet; the fact that you chose this one to pay attention to—to love—was meaningless and random and stupid.
Love was like life, and life was like the shadows among the gaps in the trees of a forest that nobody came to look at.
29 October, 2013
Put on a jacket and tie
(though sometimes the tie is optional)
And enter the Club through the front door
(the navy door with the polished golden 4);
Hand your keys to the man at the desk
(it’s better if you arrived in a Bimmer)–
The one with a face that doesn’t know you
(he’s wearing a bowtie but no jacket).
Pause for a moment, then ask for your friend
(the one who’s a member, whose name they know);
It’s like they already knew you were coming
(though only in relation to your friend, his coat and tie)
As you’re ushered in to the back room
(the dim one with oil lamps and leather-bound shelves)
And led to your friend, sitting there thoughtfully
(the one whose coat they know and approve).
Now you’re upstairs, pressed against crisp white cloths
(the ones that are starchy and cover oak tables);
Only two sounds bounce off the oil paintings:
(some still-lifes and a few deceased white people)
The creaking of the stairs, as Members ascend,
(old, obviously; dulled with age, leather soles)
And references to Henry and William James
(they frequented this club– did you know?).
It’s warm there in the corner, a Crimson fire
(sweat starts to collect, soaking the oxford cloth);
And before too long the coffee is brought
(a silver pitcher pours itself into the lunar porcelain);
No bill is presented, that’s far too passé;
(just a smile and a nod, and we’re almost out the door),
Past old photographs from a more dignified age
(women weren’t always allowed into the Club, you know)
And onto the street: a normal Boston afternoon
(the light is lurid, but no coat is required).
I awoke before my alarm to the muted sounds of kitchen woks clanking and bicycle bells ringing, as grandmothers and grandfathers emerged from their hutongs, traditional Beijing dwellings, off to buy vegetables from the morning markets. These were sounds that could be heard in any number of neighborhoods around the old section of dusty Beijing; they were the sounds that had accompanied my alarm every morning— harbingers of a new, smoggy day.
And yet today, there was something particularly charming about those sounds— the woks reminded me of my mother’s kitchen, the twanging bells were reminiscent of an early Louis Armstrong wax recording. Today was the day that the United States Men’s National Team would face Germany. Today was the day that would hopefully see our undervalued, proud team, and their derided, confident coach, emerge from one of the most competitive World Cup groups in recent history.
It was impossible not to feel elated in that initial moment of consciousness that morning. The match would air today, after months of anticipation and anxiety; after a tremendous win against the Ghanaian team that outplayed us; and after an agonizing draw against a Portuguese team that deserved to lose. This delirious day of determination, which had been crawling forward in slow motion for the last week, had finally arrived.
Since its founding in 1924, China has only qualified for one World Cup— a disappointing 2002 first-round exit in which they failed to score a single goal. Yet despite this fact, China may be the world’s dark horse capital of football fandom. Each morning in my office, the woman who sits in the cubicle next to mine greets me by rattling off facts about the previous night’s matches, many of which she stays up to watch. This is the truly remarkable fact about this year’s enormous World Cup presence in China— because of the time difference, the earliest matches begin at midnight, and the latest matches don’t start until 6AM.
Each day, as the oppressive Beijing heat begins to recede and the massive Chinese characters bearing the names of restaurants and bars gradually illuminate into the noisy bouquet of neon characters found in cities all over China, there is an undeniable humming sound on the streets, foreshadowing the arrival of the throngs of men and women who haunt these bars and restaurants deep into the night.
I personally am only a second cousin to these raucous viewing parties— my experience of this World Cup has, with the exception of the United States’ matches, been limited to highlights and post-game analysis. But each morning, as I walk to work, I am a witness to the post-mortem proof of China’s soccer obsession: Beijing’s early-morning streets are sodden with the discarded clam shells and baijiu bottles of these alcohol-infused viewing parties.
While it has been unfortunate to not be in America during this World Cup, I don’t feel that my experience of it has been greatly diminished; in fact, I feel more connected to this World Cup, and particularly this American team, than I did in 2006 or 2010. For this I have to thank two unceasingly clever and self-effacing balding British men, Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, who co-host a soccer show called Men in Blazers. It may seem counterintuitive that two Englishmen have made an American living in Beijing feel more connected to the World Cup than he did when he was actually living in America. This illuminates an underlying quality of the World Cup—something that makes it singular in the world of sport and in the greater context of nationalism.
In this World Cup, my unbridled love for one team has not hindered my love of many teams. Entering the tournament, I felt acutely the pain of the Dutch, and longed for them to defeat Spain and redeem their crushing defeat in the 2010 final; I have secret hopes that Mexico will win the World Cup, if only to live vicariously through the celebrations of its coach, Miguel Herrera; when Iran lost to Argentina after holding them to a 0-0 draw for almost the entire match, I was disappointed, almost devastated; I even felt the plight of the Ghanaian players, our kryptonite of tournaments past, because many of them were poorly compensated for the time and effort they put into training for this greatest of competitions, this global unifier with more reach than the UN.
This is not, as Ann Coulter and others before her have said, some ‘socialist’ phenomenon through which the world becomes akin to a globalized commune. This is an a-political, primal, human, connection— engendered by the very same instinct that begets unconditional love and stops unnecessary wars, that curbs the more malicious human instincts and ultimately preserves our species.
Football is the most human sport for other reasons as well. It is a sport that is both individualistic, and collective. It is a sport of Homeric heroes like Pelé, Maradona, Messi, and Ronaldo; it is equally a sport of determined teamwork, like that espoused by Italy and Spain. It is a sport that denies the most primordial tool— mankind’s use of his hands— forcing players to discipline themselves into something unnatural, but ultimately more beautiful.
I carried all of these thoughts with me as I locked my apartment door later that evening, on my way to a bar on the expat-laden side of town where the match would be projected on a big screen, imported beer would be on tap, and fellow Americans would be plentiful. As I turned to walk out of the narrow concrete alleyway, the outdoor hallway that connected my apartment to the five other hutong dwellings, I noticed one of my neighbors smoking a cigarette in the fading dusk light.
An old man with a deceptively young face and a full head of hair, he greeted me, his face illuminated every few seconds by the flaring nicotine— intimate companion to so many Chinese men of his generation— that he pulled into his weathered lungs. Most Chinese men of his age would be preparing for bed at this point in the night. I asked him how he was.
“Not bad,” he responded, his voice deep and throaty, “I’m just killing time before tonight’s World Cup matches start.”
Surprised, I asked if he was planning on watching the midnight match.
“All of them—I haven’t missed a single one yet. I sleep some during the day…I’ll wake up to eat, but otherwise my life revolves around these games.” There was an unmistakable note of pride in his voice. We said our goodbyes.
“Good luck tonight,” he called after me as my footsteps faded into the Beijing street.
On the way to the subway, I stopped for a quick chat with Lu Tao, a middle-aged man who owns a convenience store near my apartment. Lu Tao and I had become fast friends, as he always had some incisive comments to share on Chinese culture whenever I would walk into his shop. The neighborhood’s resident philosopher, his bodega was a hodgepodge of Belgian beer, Chinese cigarettes and liquor, Korean sodas, as well as an international assortment of snack foods, cleaning supplies, and electronics. I knew him through the Belgian beer.
I mentioned that I was on my way to watch the USA match, to which Lu Tao responded: “You have no idea how disappointing it is that China is so utterly deplorable at football. We’re a nation of 1.3 billion people! Look at Belgium—a country of 12 million and yet they have a team bursting with Premier League talent. But China, my country, has never produced a single star player.”
I mentioned that I was equally baffled— the fact that China was so successful in the Olympics but not in football simply did not equate.
“Do you want to know why? Listen, I’ve been following the World Cup since I was 13— all these years, I’ve been waiting for a Chinese team to do our country proud. But it hasn’t happened yet because of the corruption— the players aren’t chosen purely on merit— they’re chosen through connections, through money.”
While this seemed like one exasperated fan’s exaggeration, I didn’t have time to press him for his rationale— the USA would take the field in a couple of hours, and I wanted to soak up as much pre-match atmosphere as possible— wanted to feel, for the first time in this World Cup cycle, like I was back in America.
I emerged from the subway and immediately noticed the difference between this Beijing and the Beijing I normally inhabited. Large, elegant advertisements for imported products littered the air, dwarfed only by the sleek glass buildings that housed Beijing’s multinational corporations and trendy nightclubs. Ah, the Sanlitun district— great crutch of Beijing’s expat community— Circe’s cave to any Odysseus finding himself marooned in a loud, cluttered, pungent China.
As I walked across the brightly lit, clean promenades, I momentarily lost a sense of place. French, German, English, and Spanish filled the air, a clarion confirmation that I was not really in Beijing anymore. It was time to experience the World Cup as it was meant to be experienced.
I sidled my way through a crowd at the door and found myself in a raucous atmosphere where the foreign faces outnumbered the locals by a margin of six to one. At the bar were the requisite imports on tap, and the even more requisite crowd of foreigners clamoring for their next round. These transactions were carried out in English, the tongue of common denomination linking expatriate life everywhere. After several minutes, I got my Lagunitas IPA and headed up the beer-spattered stairwell to take my place among a crowd of unknown faces. The match will begin soon; the match will begin soon. I could think of nothing else, and those last minutes before the game began were excruciating. I had waited so long for this moment.
The room was fairly segregated, with a large consortium of white German jerseys on the left and a kaleidoscope of red, white, or blue t-shirts on the right (but very rarely all three colors on the same shirt). The Americans had come out in greater numbers, but the lack of official gear was a clear bellwether of the difference between the two groups’ footballing dedication. The Americans were passing around pitchers of beer, chanting: “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN,” in loud, convincing fashion.
I respected the way the German fans were acting— calm, collected, and serious, this game was not an excuse to party or act wild— it carried real gravity; they expected to win, they wanted more than anything to win, but they were the old-money football version of our new-money American soccer fans— they saved the celebrations for when they were warranted.
As the national anthem was about to begin, I started to feel warmth within, a punch-drunk confidence that we might just win this game. More than this, I was elated to be with a group that was equally as optimistic as I was. I believe began to ring back and forth, stirring up a passion and excitement unlike any that other sporting events have ever been able to kindle.
The television’s audio went out just before the national anthem began, and nobody was singing along. I was disappointed, having expected a massive outburst from our side of the room. What was typically the greatest expatriate undertaking— belting the national anthem with a group of Americans in a foreign country— was in actuality like realizing that Santa Claus wasn’t real. The room, still buzzing but not especially so, had failed to do the core thing I had expected to catapult this viewing party into something legendary.
The same thing happened with the Germans. They just sat there and continued chatting in their own quiet way, eyes glued to the screen, of course, but not showing any added signs of emotion.
The match began, and it was apparent very quickly that this was going to be a struggle for the American side. Within the first ten minutes, the Germans had most of the possession and some fortunate misses. But if a blind person had been in that audience, only capable of gauging the score through the reactions of the crowd, America would have been winning 10-0. The Americans in the audience were even cheering whenever the Germans would accidentally hit the ball out of bounds.
There was a Swede standing beside me who had notified me the moment I had met him that he would be rooting for the Germans. As the game progressed, he began chiding the Americans for being ‘toddlers’ when it came to football— not understanding the rules of the game. Whenever the Americans would cheer over some seemingly inconsequential play, he would replicate their chanting in a caveman-like voice. He joked with his English friend, over and over again, that the US fans were completely ignorant of what it was they were actually cheering for.
That may have been true for some of the Americans present, but for most of us, what he only saw as idiocy was a sheer sense of joy at being alive at this stage, in this group of death. It was a manifestation of what the World Cup is for so many nations not named Brazil, Germany, Spain, Argentina, Italy, or the Netherlands— hope. What Americans have for this team is hope, and nothing more— something not common in American sports on the international stage, for which we are usually the favorites, and for which expectations are usually the active ingredient. In football, now, at our peak, America is on a level playing field with countries like Costa Rica, South Korea, and Honduras. We are potent underdogs, and that is new for us. And it’s exciting as hell.
As the game went on, I noticed that there were one or two Chinese people embedded with each group of expatriates: some wearing German or American jerseys and watching each play with intensity, others seated with French or Spanish speakers and seemingly not too committed in the outcome. This was comical, as any of these Chinese fans of Germany could just as easily have been sitting at another table rooting for America; their passion for Deutschland was a product of the chance encounter that had initially brought them together— perhaps on that street corner when they’d worked up the courage to start a conversation with a foreigner, or through any of the other myriad ways in which these connections are forged abroad. But it also spoke to a human truth— so many of our passions, our friendships, our careers, could have gone in a radically different direction.
The second half began, and each passing minute seemed to bring closer the inevitable moment when the Germans would finally score. Then, after an incredible save by USA goalie Tim Howard, they did. That goal, that magnificent, perfect goal, which came from the reflexive brilliance of Thomas Müller, caused an audible eruption in the German section, followed by a loud chorus of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland…’
However, barely two lines into rejoicing in their national anthem, the Germans were interrupted, as the Americans began to chant ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ so loud that they drowned out the German celebration. This action reflects the general American notion that things happen only in relation to us, and that even in defeat we are victorious, simply because we are American. The Germans looked slightly taken aback by this behavior, as if they had done nothing to warrant it. Indeed, they hadn’t.
It’s one thing to love your country, to hope desperately for victory, and to writhe in pain when a perfect display of football, of Platonic beauty, comes at your team’s expense. But to interrupt another team’s celebration— their fair, hard-earned, ebullient moment— that’s the type of mentality that has gotten America into its worst wars. That’s the type of spirit that makes America, in spite of its overwhelming number of wonderful, world-leading attributes, a source of spite around the world.
Throughout the rest of the match, songs of “Deutschland” were traded at decibels with ‘U-S-A’ chants, and the German fans were ceaselessly subjected to a slew of harsh jibes, such as the classic “suck a dick!” and the old-time favorite “Germans are HORRIBLE people!” This was distracting, it was unnecessary, and it did a lot to dampen this long anticipated event, and, more so, my feelings of pride in my home country.
The 1-0 loss, coupled with the news that Portugal had beaten Ghana, was a great relief. The Germans had drastically outplayed us, but we had made some gritty defensive stops, and projected flashes of offensive brilliance. The Americans in Recife, Brazil had performed admirably; the Americans in Beijing, China had behaved badly.
I left the bar content, if not a little deflated that it would be another painful week of waiting before the next match. I walked with aloof steps to the subway station, finally ready to return to my apartment in that quiet hutong, to return to the part of town that I had come to love, that had come to define this city.
As the subway rolled under the surface of Beijing— under that city that has supported human life for three millennia; a place whose people were once something and then something else a hundred times over before they became Chinese— I looked around and stared at several of the World Cup themed advertisements dotting the cabin. One ad for KFC chicken sandwiches with buns baked to look like soccer balls, stood out: a perfect analogy for the way China has simultaneously consumed the world’s game alongside its many other global products.
China, that nation whose rapid rise the Western world fears, that country filled with over one billion people who have never been abroad, whose most prominent link to the outside world is manifested in restaurants in the early morning, as football fans, feeling the residual excitement of other nations, sharing in the unbound fervor that only the World Cup can bring— an event that at once severs people and brings them closer together than they would otherwise ever become.
Originally published on The Airship.
‘To be an expatriate, or not to be an expatriate: that is the question: whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Culture, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’
The case of Hamlet is, in many ways, the case of the expatriate. Overnight, both find themselves in a world that does not really make sense. In relative terms, this foreign realm is not that different from the place the traveler calls home: people still drive cars to work, smoke cigarettes, and drink beer.
But the expatriate soon realizes that things are not what he or she expected them to be. For Hamlet, the state of Denmark is completely tainted by a change in his perception of the people around him. The formerly esteemed court, his father’s Denmark, suddenly seems to him a hotbed of vice. He must wrestle with the total inversion of that former world, of everything he once knew. Nobody seems to understand him; he is completely alone. In this sense, Hamlet is the ultimate expatriate—a man bereft of any conception of home.
There is nobody more alone than an expatriate without a country; it is difficult to find in literature a character more isolated than Hamlet. You may try to make the outside world your home, but you will never truly be a part of that new world, whatever country it may be. The expatriate, like Hamlet, is a wanderer.
‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
I’ve lived abroad for a long time. Or, more importantly, I feel as though I’ve been away from home for a good while. But it seems less significant to wax on about the number of daysmonthsyears since I’ve called my home country home than it does to simply assure anyone who asks me that I now feel more at home in China than I do in America.
It is true—I have only lived there for a year and a half. A year and a half is not very long, and I’m obviously still in the honeymoon stages of my overseas engagement. But while one and a half years—or eighteen months, or 78 weeks—doesn’t seem like a very long time, how exactly should one measure “time abroad?” A month in Shanghai can seem like a short errand run to Chinatown; a month in Mongolia might feel like ten decades on Mars.
‘I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I live in China.’
Indeed, those living out-of-country and those living at home in America seem to have very different ways of calibrating this “time abroad” thing. For my friends back home, every individual month that ticks by seems to give me extra credibility as that much more of a “knower” concerning all things “Asian.” But in China, time is irrelevant. There, most expats are not grouped into different categories based on the amount of time they’ve registered overseas, or on their respective age groups, but rather on their respective mental health.
‘Good Expat, cast thy nighted colour off, and let thine eye look like a friend on China.’
Some expatriates wander between the nether-regions of boredom, frustration, bitterness, and self-doubt: shouting expletives at anything overly “Chinese;” stalking the widely paved sidewalks of communism with an acerbic look in their eyes; jumping at the chance to eat any Western foods they can get their I’ve-spent-too-much-time-abroad-and-thus-this-McDonald’s-hamburger-is-the-greatest-thing-I’ve-ever-tasted hands on.
‘Doubt thou the stars are fire; doubt that the sun doth move; doubt truth to be a liar; but never doubt I love China.’
Others—usually the newly-arrived expats (read: intercultural newlyweds)—take every cultural mishap in perfect stride, labeling even the most painful mistakes as an “experience” that can be dissected into some sort of “look-at-what-I’ve-learned-about-Western-culture-from-token-non-Westerners.blogspot.com” discourse.
These young souls can be spotted easily on any typical Chinese street-corner, as they spend an inordinate amount of time fielding questions from complete strangers about their home country, and what it’s like living abroad in China. “How do you like China? Are you accustomed to eating Chinese food? How much is your salary? Would your mother let you marry a Chinese girl? Would your mother let you marry me?”
For these primaveral expats, every day is Christmas: Santa Claus is real, and his gifts present themselves in the form of gawking locals bearing countless opportunities for language practice and inter-cultural analysis.
‘There are more things in China and America, Expatriate, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
I fall somewhere in the middle. I can feel that crotchety expat’s disillusionment growing within me, and things tend to piss me off now more than they used to. But I still get a sense of naive excitement when overhearing a conversation that I inevitably feel has given me “insight” into another culture and, ultimately, my own country’s mores.
The spice of living outside of America is still jolting enough to keep things exciting, like Marco Polo’s descriptions of distant kingdoms in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: lands and urban centers opulent to the imagination take shape and become real in the mind of Genghis Khan, their very foreign-ness and mystique being the key to what makes them somehow tangible. It is, after all, the possibility of something truly unknown that keeps the itinerant soul upon the masthead, looking transfixed over a swirling sea of blue-gray and out into nothingness. At any moment the void could break and reveal stretches of whatever it is you’ve been waiting for.
This great desire is for something new, and it can never, ever, be sated; the Indies lie always on the horizon.
‘Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems.’’
If this boundless desire for novel experiences can’t be satisfied, why not make something up? This is perhaps the greatest license available to any expat. Transitioning from a life in your home country—speaking your native language with people who have grown up in the same culture as you—to one on foreign shores is equivalent to the difference between children playing with real toys and children inventing abstract games with their minds. In the former scenario, the toy gun is a cheap imitation; in the latter, the absence of any prop whatsoever gives the child the ultimate freedom to invent whatever type of gun suits his fancy.
Similarly, foreign countries become blooming gardens of the imagination: every moment is seeped in contextual clues that you’ve never encountered before, and therefore the possibilities for creative ascription are limitless—bound only by the constraints of your own dynamic willpower.
‘America’s a prison.’
While walking down the sidewalk one day, I overheard a woman on the street saying to her friend, “咱们吃饭就行 (zanmen chifan jiu xing),” which translates to “let’s just eat and it’ll be fine.” I remember thinking to myself: “Egads! What a perfect encapsulation of Chinese culture! Simply eating food is enough to be happy—the Chinese value their culinary tradition so much!”
Later on, I shared the observation with a Chinese friend. She insisted that I had missed whatever must have preceded the statement; my interpretation was incorrect and what I had overheard was likely someone implying to their friend that they didn’t need to bring any gifts to the meal. This was no isolated instance: while abroad, I regularly take inane conversations and interpret them in such a light that they become representative of the entire country’s ethos (or, more likely, what I presume the country’s ethos to be).
This is a human exercise—one that Marco Polo surely must have participated in, and one that the seekers of novelty—expatriates of the world—tend to utilize overzealously. There is little room for this in one’s homeland—the conversations you overhear on the street make sense, and they don’t allow for much abstract interpretation. Indeed, life back home can be downright boring.
‘I knew it, Expatriate: a country of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. It hath borne me on its back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!’
But did this malaise with life in America only come about after I had already lived abroad? Or is that what caused my departure in the first place? Perhaps I was already feeling an absence of something; I really don’t remember.
Regardless of the reasons—for there are certainly too many to name and explain—it will suffice to say that time moves much slower in America than it seems to in [insert the name of token ‘exotic’ country here]. This new, foreign world, once seen, will never leave me. Now, the feeling of isolation and utter fear of my surroundings only sets in when I’m back in America. I’m not sure if it’s caused by the bathos of re-habituation to the ‘ordinary,’ or if exposure to a different world has brought on an irrevocable distaste for that which is easily understood.
But back to the hinterlands (of China, for now) I go—until I grow old and realize that life is essentially the same everywhere and that only one true quest remains: to sail beyond the sunset.
13 January, 2013
It was a pristine morning. The harbor and the docks opened themselves into the ripening bouquet of autumn—when the colors swayed and vibrated between reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and browns. The caffeine smell of early morning issued from the silent hull of the ship while harbor waves treaded delicately. Passengers shuffled onboard and took their seats: the Nantucket Fast Ferry was guaranteed to arrive in Hyannis Port within two hours.
Some minutes passed, and the doors of the ferry closed. Everyone was inside, sitting calmly in the rows of nylon. Next to the front row window sat a man. He was complaining about something, and in the reflection of the window his withered hands trembled, subdued by the cold iron voice of his once bewitching bride, who sat next to him—a sweet looking woman in her early eighties, wearing a pale gray sweater and chic blue foulard. She had on dazzling pearl earrings.
She began to shout as she stood up and Why don’t you quit whining! made the room swell with bitter feeling and Jesus, just STOP it already! words that pounded against his wilted ears. She walked off.
The solitary profile of his once handsome face was barely visible from behind the tall ferry seats, but the hands—they stood out in the light against the tinted windowpane. Slowly, they worked at the muffin and tried to make the pieces drag themselves up to his mouth. They were hands that betrayed themselves—now scraggy and pale but clearly once muscular and commanding. The thin glass veins struggled to lift the wrapping from the baked treat that was his breakfast. It seemed that somewhere behind the back of the chair, a mind was pulsating intense decrees to make even the most basic movements possible. Deliberately, the pieces began to disappear. The ferry pushed off from shore; it would be only two hours until it reached Hyannis, and no more.
His wife came back and, bending over him, forced a coffee into his hand. As it spilled out he gasped and cursed her Well good JOB! in his own emaciated way. Furious, she ripped the cup out of his hand and You can take care of yourself, all right! threw it into the trash bin. What should have been a moment of sympathy—an old shell of what had once been a tall rugged man now unable to even hold his own coffee—deteriorated quickly into GET UP, it isn’t a big DEAL! something pitiful as he looked up at her and with a crack in his voice begged her Please don’t, you’re embarrassing me… for just one moment of understanding, of unconditional love.
Where were his children? They had probably dropped the two of them off at the ferry and fallen back into their own circuit, their own youthful life filled with its own host of first-world problems and just enough good health never to really notice how good it all was. But the circuit would again come round, and in twenty or thirty or some number of years they too would be dropped off on some ferry by their own children and face the cold unforgiving Atlantic, alone.
That was the way of Nantucket—of countless other islands that catered to the wealthy—where fathers’ houses were bought by children at good rates and then updated and redone in ways that were fashionable and modern. The parents then became strangers in their own homes, no longer movers and shakers but now pushed aside to make room for fast-paced dinner parties. Gradually, the children began making more and more money and the parents stopped earning anything, relying on the image of what used to be—the oh-so-important appearances of manifold wealth and importance. Draped over their threadbare bodies rested expensive suits of impeccable cloth—articles from a bygone era when they triumphantly swarmed upon the islands and felt like they were somebody.
Unsure of what else to do, his hands—sufficiently greased from the ferry-bought breakfast—began to search for something to clean themselves with. They looked this way and that, one finger haphazardly prodding the blue blazer lapel before deciding not to further sully the wardrobe. The jacket was as traditional as they come: navy with gold buttons, probably bought at Brooks Brothers some ten years earlier. It hung loose, with pockets of fabric sagging across the shoulders of his frame.
Unable to bear this slow, unproductive effort, his wife shoved some napkins his way. After several seconds, his hands grasped the old crumpled paper, now brown and worn with the refuse of the blueberry muffin. He worked diligently, as if the one thing he had left, the one quantum of control that he still possessed, was his ability to keep his hands clean and civilized.
Finished with their work, they fell back into place at his sides, gone from the light of the windowpane. The ferry continued onward: the engines humming, steady, consistent.
It’s strange being told the reason for some bodily phenomenon by someone from another culture. The advice always comes in the same cookie-cutter, old-wives-tale, assured-because-my-mother-told-me-so fashion: you need to drink hot water, or you’ll get sick; you need to wear more clothes, or you’ll get a cold; you need to see a traditional Chinese doctor—Western medicine is overrated; you have to drink tea to stay healthy; it is better to eat medicinal foods than to take medicine in pill form; you should always take a walk after a meal; don’t eat in restaurants—it’s unhealthy; don’t drink coca-cola or other beverages—you should only drink water; never drink anything cold, especially not with ice; ice? in a drink? are you crazy? you’ll get sick and die!
The universal Chinese cure for everything—ranging from the common cold to a broken leg to a divorce—is to 多喝点水！ (duo he dian shui), or, in English: drink more water! It is the anthem to which each Chinese soul steps in unison, a billion three-hundred million people sharing this common cultural value. No, the Chinese do not all concur about the virtues of Communism or the glory of Mao Zedong; instead, the only thing they can all agree on is this one infallible principle, by which one merely ought to drink plenty of hot water. If you can follow this sagely advice, all ailments will leave your body faster than a foreigner can figure out how to spell and correctly pronounce ‘Genghis Khan.’
While I do understand that drinking a lot of water is very healthy and that Coca-Cola is unhealthy, I fail to understand this predominant concern with the temperature of things. In the classroom, it can be 70 degrees inside but if it’s cold outside, my students will all continue wearing their heavy winter coats for the duration of class. When, in the heat of a lecture, I decide to discard a sweater, opting to downsize to a single layer, I am greeted with the gasps and shocked, pallid faces of concerned Chinese youth. It’s as if they’ve already begun to grieve about the sealed fate of their pitifully misinformed foreign teacher—chronic illness and a certain, early death.
I can only guess that this phenomenon arises from the fact that the majority of Chinese people are either raised by or in close proximity to their grandparents. From a young age, the people of the People’s Republic are indoctrinated with the primordial fears that the elderly have of things like the cold (after all, the gray-haired members of the human project lose body heat at a rate far higher than adults or children do), handed down from grandparent to grandchild for millennia. It makes sense, therefore, that my young students were baffled at the fact that I would wittingly remove a layer during the winter season.
We just have a different understanding of the word. The winter, for me, is a season dictated by whether I am outside or inside. If I am inside a heated room, it ceases to be winter there in that moment. The idea of winter still pervades my senses, and I am much more likely to consider drinking eggnog. But as far as the physiological side of my body is concerned, I follow the ambient temperature, not a psychological idea of what the temperature should be. But for the Chinese student, it doesn’t matter how hot the room is—the notion of winter has cemented itself firmly around the student’s frame of consciousness. Refusing to let go, the cold takes on a demonic persona: it tempts one to get comfortable, to be tricked into disobeying old grandma back in the village. Yes, the cold is all in your head, there’s really nothing to it…go ahead, relax, take off your coat and stay a while it seems to whisper. Ever the misguided foreigner, I am easy prey for these daemons of the arctic.
But these Chinese values have gradually become instilled in my daily habits. After just a year and a half, I now only drink hot water; I try to wear a sweater inside until I get so hot I can’t bear it anymore; and I drink as much green tea as possible. This shift was a conscious one at first, where I would say to myself ha! look at you, drinking hot water! who do you think you are, Lawrence of China? But then, gradually, it became a part of my repertoire—something that went unnoticed and became so indispensable to my everyday life that to ignore the advice of my students was to fall prey to some East Asian ice-god’s malediction.
Now, when I get sick, I inevitably come to the conclusion that my body’s cosmic balance is off somehow—that if only I hadn’t gone outside wearing just one layer under my jacket—if only I hadn’t opted to drink coffee instead of green tea the day before—if only I hadn’t lazily decided to drink that cup of water it in its lukewarm, anemic state: then all of my maladies would be gone, left back in America where people are fat and overmedicated and addicted to Coca-Cola and ice in their drinks.
As it turns out, these students were here to teach me something. Grandmothers of China, I salute you!
3 January, 2013
The world’s oldest rougheye rockfish
Was caught off Alaska, in July of 2013.
You were 212, they later found out:
Your eyes were bulgy and cold,
Pupils like black pebbles in a shallow glass of milk.
He held you up, that fisherman did,
(The article said he was from Seattle)
With cheeky lips that ran up to his glasses,
As he stretched that yellow measuring tape
To consummate the whole thing.
There was probably something in the pageantry
That attracted our fish friend—
After two hundred and twelve years
Sitting at the bottom of that cold reef,
Older than all his cohabitants,
(The others had all taken the bait)
His children all grown up and doing well for themselves—
He’d spend his days sitting in leather kelp armchairs,
Watching that silent underwater world go by.
You lived longer because you were smarter,
My old rougheyed rockfish friend.
There was something exceptional about you—
Something you’d figured out in all those years
That finally made you bite that hemlock baitfish.
That’s more than we can say for that quahog clam
They scooped off the shelf of Iceland—
400 years old, it was, at the time of its death.
But that quahog clam didn’t have any choice,
And besides, being a bottom feeder is a boring business.
No; you, my fuchsia friend, decided your years were enough;
You’d seen all you needed to see with those big Homeric eyes;
Or maybe you’d felt the ocean temperatures begin to rise;
Or you’d tasted all the best sashimi—the freshest there could be—
The type they put a premium on and sell
For thousands of dollars to Le Boissonnerie in Paris.
But nobody’s going to eat you—you’re far too old for that—
Your centuries of thought have toughened your hide
And made you inedible, much more than mere meat.
So we’ll drink to you, and your life, my fine fish friend,
And ponder a little (with a nice Chablis) your moment of triumph,
And how, being caught, you gained the greatest gift
mankind can bestow: momentary immortality.