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. You haven’t tried opium, have you? 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 Chinese inhabitants of this village built a formidable opium kingdom here in 1961. The profits were used to fund a counter-attack against the PRC that never came.

Ultimately they traded in their aspirations of returning to China for the more prudent plan of helping the Thai government defeat its own insurgent communists. In return for their efforts they were granted Thai citizenship. 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 each of the village’s groups mostly communes with itself, 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 together, sitting on makeshift stools beneath the awning of her small shop. Each of them spoke varying degrees of Mandarin, allowing us to communicate in a common tongue. In between our conversations, my interlocutors switched between languages with the ease of our languid afternoon. Their rapport was warm and unaffected.

With no real government of their own, and facing the risk of attack from the Burmese to the west, the PRC to the north, and Thai military to the south, the Chinese colonizers of Mae Salong developed deep and lasting relationships with the neighboring hill tribes. Brought together by a confluence of 20th century circumstance, what was once a friendship of necessity had evolved into a paragon of Chinese-minority relations.

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 two or three or even four schoolchildren in clean white and blue uniforms. The day was uncharacteristically dry, but dark clouds were rumbling over Myanmar. For all I knew 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 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.

Watching America vs. Deutschland in 北京

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.

Hamlet and My Life in China

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

An Ode to Old Wives’ Tales

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

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

The Accidental Bactrian

It sure can be hard to find milk in China. Let me clarify. The Chinese have milk a-plenty; that is, they have lots of drinks that look like they should be milk, once you overlook the fact that they are in fact not refrigerated and come from a powder. Hankering for some Calcium? Tired of all the extra hardship that opening up and reaching into a refrigerator presents? Like watery milk? Well you’ve come to the right country! China—the land where futuristic milk is all the rage!

Well actually it turns out I’m in luck, as I’ve found that the native, non-Han peoples of Xinjiang province—Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks—happen to love milk. Fresh, delicious, rich, REFRIGERATED! milk. Last weekend I visited Urumqi, the ultra-diverse provincial capital. The streets were littered with people that looked like they could have been any combination of East Asian, Central Asian, and European descent. Shop signs featured Chinese, Russian, and Uyghur. Urumqi is very unlike the city I live in—a bastion of Han identity, 95% of those living in Shihezi are the Han Chinese descendants of soldiers who fought in Mao’s army. With abounding diversity in every direction, it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t in China anymore.

I went to a Uyghur restaurant with a Kazakh friend who, while on the phone, received a frosty mug full of delicious, thick looking MILK. After greedily watching him gulp down the stuff in a matter of seconds, I promptly called the 服务员 (waitress fuwuyuan) and had my own frosty mug within minutes. My eyes feasted on its cold, consistent milkiness. I lifted the chalice, felt the chill of the glass against my hand, and took a hearty sip of…WHAT IS THIS? I asked my Kazakh friend.

‘Uh?’ he replied, as if I were some kind of ignorant person: ‘well, it’s camel’s milk.’

So now I’ve had myself some camel’s milk, and indeed it wasn’t so bad after all. At first, I thought I was drinking some sort of perfectly chilled drinkable yogurt. It wasn’t quite as sour as goat’s milk, but it was definitely a shock to my palate. So I said to the waitress: ‘Excuse me, I thought that my friend had ordered milk…er, I mean, cow’s milk…could you please bring me a glass of cow’s milk instead?’

‘Cow’s milk?’ her eyes gesticulated a look of supreme suspicion: ‘We don’t have that kind of milk here.’

Perhaps I had offended her, I don’t really know. What I do know is that I saddled up and continued drinking that Camel’s milk like Lawrence of China—the slightly less famous but equally badass man of yore who went from village to village on the Northwestern Chinese steppe in a similar fashion to that of Lawrence of Arabia, drinking Camel’s milk all the while.

So in essence I’ve learned not to assume anything. That, and the fact that Camel’s milk tastes like sour yogurt.

December 11, 2012