One Quiet Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Mae Salong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparitions of Northwest China

Originally published in Sidetracked Magazine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’” 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

Hills of White

We stood alongside the towering green-furred pines as the snow came down in small but plentiful white dots that scampered across our overcoats. We had paused to talk, to hash out our ideas about what was true in the universe. We had also stopped to see how educated we each were, to show that our university tuitions and the names of our respective institutions had paid off, had given us the ability to argue quickly and well.

Moments earlier the three of us had walked up the steep bank that was slowly turning white, was gradually becoming covered with a soft crunchy curtain that made a beautiful delicate sound as the thousands of individual beads formed a compacted whole underneath our heavy, insulated Gore-Tex boots. We hadn’t planned for snow but luckily we were prepared for it.

The conversation had ambled along with us, starting out with the usual mundane topics as we unloaded our food and Brandy into the Kazakh Yurt and prepared to make our way through the rolling grassland and up to the beautiful picturesque mountain that I had visited the previous Spring. The fog was hovering close to us then and it was impossible to see very far but we had come a long way by car and had planned the trip in advance and we were damn well going to hike in the beautiful draping layer of gray and white. We were young and hoping for the best, for a view of the mountains further up the trail.

* * *

An hour earlier, as we prepared to leave for our hike, I had needed to go back inside for water; my newly arrived Princeton in Asia cohorts waited for me as I re-submerged myself into the warm darkness of the Yurt—a gigantic white tent used by nomadic peoples—questioning whether we should in fact go hiking in such poor visibility. Then I rejoined them, the conversation.

We began walking up the road as delicate pieces of hail started to fall. It was not uncomfortable hail but rather it was dispersed and spread apart. It moved gently across the mossy green of the grassland, rolling across the hills and jumping playfully along the frozen gravel under our feet.

We continued along the road, talking about newly discovered mutual friends; sharing stories of past conquests borne from parties we’d been to; and quoting lines from the token American movies. The three of us had each chosen to spend the year in China’s far northwest, in a province that borders Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan, to name a few—clearly we would have some things in common. As we made our way up the slowly increasing slope, we started to feel more comfortable around each other—speaking a similar language borne from upper-middle class America and elite undergraduate institutions.

It was the first time the three of us had gone anywhere together, and while the car ride had been pleasant, we were finally here in nature, without our cell phones, or girlfriends (or possible flings), and we really, truly, liked each other.

* * *

The road forked to the right, but I decided that we should turn to the left and walk up the hill in that direction. I had been here once before, in the early Spring the previous year, and I had followed the road all the way up to the rightmost peak, which I couldn’t see now. It would be better, I decided, to get off the road and head toward the left-most peak that I hadn’t yet climbed. I was looking for a new experience.

“Are you sure we should go that way?” Chris asked.

I assured him that we wouldn’t get lost, that I had been here before, and that while it seemed very vast, the area we were walking in was in fact not so big and rather difficult to get lost in. So we made our way up toward the left slope and Robert got out his compass and took a bearing. This was a good idea, and neither Chris nor I had thought to take the precaution.

We couldn’t see very far at all now, but uphill was uphill, and so we knew we were heading in the right direction. Our progress was slowly halted every few minutes as we made our way up one slope only to realize that the white fog was leading our minds further up than the physical limits of the white hill actually allowed. The illusion was always the same: look up and see a big tall hill that continued up for hundreds of meters; climb up to the top; realize that the whiteness of the surrounding air was blending perfectly with the cresting white hill, and that instead of continuing upwards toward some sort of mountainous peak, it only led downward into another small micro-valley with another descent followed shortly thereafter by another deceptively small scoop of land leading up into more vacant space.

* * *

Slowly, the hills lost their green character and became wedded to the curtain that pressed low and soft above and around us. We were enveloped by the hills and so we put our trust in our footsteps’ ability to lead us in a straight line toward the mountain, which we knew was looming above us somewhere.

Finally, after being pushed and pulled up and then down in our attempts to ascend, we saw the first shadows of three big pine trees making their shapes known in the relative distance. They stood like dark sentinels, announcing the presence of a new microclimate, a new terrain.

The ground quickly became rocky and the snow started coming down in a pure thick fluff. The air was sharp now and we paused to rest underneath the awning of that first tree. We sat on the soft russet pine needles and I drank water, afraid of dehydration and altitude sickness, something that had plagued me in the past. I offered Chris and Robert some water but they politely declined. After taking a determined sip of the ice-cold liquid, I tried again to encourage them to drink, tried to make them understand the dangers of dehydration and exertion and altitude.

We sat for a moment and listened to the silent lapping of the snow against the foliage and the stones. It was like time had stopped moving, like nothing existed outside of what we could see with our limited vision. But our footprints from moments before were becoming less and less visible.

I was hot from all the walking, so I took off my down jacket and replaced it with a raincoat. The sweat felt uncomfortable, like it was trapped within my mid-layer and under-shirt. The heat was stifling and I began to regret my over-preparation, the way I had overburdened myself with layers that ended up serving no purpose.

With the jacket tucked away carefully in my daypack, we were now ready for the march; we continued, this time going unceasingly upwards, with no rolling hills to shackle us to the low horizon. We had finally found ourselves beyond the roller-coaster weaving grassland.

* * *

We turned toward the sound of water rushing cold against rock matter, invisible through the dense snow and low-lying fog. After a minute’s walk, we could see the rolling stream. Robert took another bearing, and we decided that it would be most prudent to make our ascent up along the river bank, to avoid getting lost. The snow was getting thicker now. Chris paused, looking off into the intangible distance, staring at the proximate nothing that we presumed was veiling the vast mountains of China’s Tianshan range.

It was cold. We walked up the river a few paces and somehow it was written that we happened to come across two gigantic skulls hanging from the base of another of those deep, imposing pines.

“Well that’s not creepy at all,” Chris offered upon finding the sinewy jaundiced remnants of a head. We couldn’t figure out what animal it was. At first I suggested cow, but then Chris adeptly pointed out that it probably belonged to (or used to, at least) a camel. Suddenly it was very obvious that it was in fact a camel, with its long beak-like snout and ridged teeth clearly advantaged for grazing on strands of roughage in the sparse desert grass. The teeth looked like razors and each of them had a dark hollowed out portion either from over-use or from infection.

We stood there transfixed by this reminder of death, this image that was present and real and not from some second-hand apocryphal story; death was ugly, sickening; it was horrifying but also amusing, because there were no camel dentists, apparently.

We continued on.

* * *

We slowly made progress up the side of the ravine, making sure not to get too close to the white edge. The snow became more and more thick under our feet and we slipped once or twice, each fall bolstering our determination to continue onward. Chris described a favorite website of his, XKCD, and one of the hilarious logical inconsistencies it had recently pointed out regarding the inane behavior of human beings.

“Oh yeah, didn’t you mention another article from that site yesterday?” I asked, groping for the story, feeling ashamed of my poor memory.

“Yeah, what was it…?” he too, couldn’t recall.

“Wasn’t it the one about the physicist who calculated that if there was such a thing as a true love, you would have to spend ten hours a day every day of your adult life looking for her to have any hope of finding her?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” he laughed.

Not content to let the opportunity shrink away from us, I continued, “Well that guy didn’t even take his analysis to the greatest extreme. Have either of you read Plato’s Symposium?”

Neither of them had.

“It contains a series of speeches on Love, and one of the speeches deals with the idea of True Love; specifically, how utterly improbable it is for one human being to ever find their True Love. The speech, delivered by the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes, makes use of a myth in which human beings, in their original state, were whole and perfect, never wanting or needing anything. They were both man and woman in one, and they never knew the idea of Eros, or desire, because their existence left nothing to be desired. In a similar fashion to the Old Testament’s story of the Tower of Babel, these early human beings grew too confident and their sense of supremacy angered the gods.

“To get revenge, the gods divided human beings into two—cleaving each soul from one harmonious whole into two wanting, needing halves. So Aristophanes claims that the root of Love—Eros—is the absence of something. Basically, we are constantly trying to re-attain that pure unadulterated form in which our souls were in perfect concord with everything. Therefore one’s True Love is that other half—the person whose soul used to be wed to ours. If we can find the other half, we will live in complete bliss, never wanting or lacking anything. But underneath Aristophanes’ entire argument is the notion that one’s True Love doesn’t necessarily need to belong to the same city, the same country, or even the same time period. What if your soul mate lived four hundred years ago? So ultimately it becomes almost impossible to ever find that one person who is your True, Perfect, Love.”

Chris and Robert listened politely, and they looked interested. I felt like I was contributing something to our walk.

“The idea that True Love could ever exist is the most illogical and ludicrous notion I’ve ever heard,” Chris said with stringent force.

“Is it?” I asked, caught off guard by his intense tone.

We stopped walking. The snow was falling with the same weight as it had been just moments earlier, but none of us seemed to notice or care; we didn’t move the few feet over to the cover provided by the stand of trees on our right. The three of us looked at each other, considering our own opinions. I personally had no real opinion of whether True Love was something I believed in or didn’t, but that the very notion should be ludicrous? I didn’t agree at all.

“This is a very common but very flawed notion that human beings have. We are animals that have evolved over time to have certain feelings that we like to cover up with saccharine idealism about our true calling, and the purity of our existence… but none of that is remotely real or verifiable. The majority of people would agree with you—that True Love is a tangible thing, that it exists—but if you look at it logically, it has no basis in the verifiable world, the world of science and observation.”

He spoke rapidly, the ideas hitting me like a cold wave. It scared me the way he could make an argument sound so cogent with such breathtaking speed. He accelerated, saying: “There is no soul, and there is no soul mate. No observable process in the universe lends itself to the idea that each individual, mating, human being has one match that is infinitely superior to any other. Animals have an innate desire to produce offspring, and in order to find a superior mate, we take the former necessities like strength and fitness and bedeck them with modern-day cosmopolitan attributes like a sense of humor or intelligence. We’re still relying on that same wavelength that the rhinoceros relies on, but we’ve fooled ourselves into believing that just because we can build computers and write books about the world that we are somehow separate, on a different plane from its dirt-riddled reality.

“Your soul mate isn’t living in some village in South America three hundred years ago. Your ideal lover needs to have a series of common experiences that you and she can both relate to. People don’t transcend society and culture unless they make a conscious effort to do it. To believe that there was some woman out there speaking a forgotten language three hundred years ago who was capable of making you utterly happy—it’s absurd. Go to New York City: you’ve got a much better chance of finding her there than you do scouring the entire history of human beings.”

He paused for a moment, then began again: “You want to believe in this idea of ‘perfect,’ but there is no ‘perfect,’ there is no one thing that is ‘most suited’ to you. You have lots of people that could make you equally happy. How on earth are you going to measure one person’s love as being the best?”
I tried to quickly consider everything he had said before I responded. But I felt rushed.

“What do you mean you can’t measure it? The idea is that there is one person whose every aspect is suited perfectly with yours. If you’re a utilitarian person your soul mate will be equally as utilitarian, getting the exact same use out of you as you are getting out of her. There are so many different types of people in existence, there has to be one person of all the people ever with whom you are most finely tuned. The natural world is filled with ‘most’ and ‘least.’ If you can say, for example, that water is at its highest temperature at x degree and its lowest temperature at x degree, why can’t you have one person that is most suited for you and one person that is least suited for you?” I was getting in over my head. I was feeling cold and my hair was getting wet. I felt the strands, and they were becoming icicles. I wanted to say, ‘aren’t you guys cold?’ but I remembered another work of Plato and laughed to myself that the body could so completely obstruct such an abstruse intellectual conversation. I refrained—tried to pretend that the cold and the wet weren’t bothering me.

“What does that even mean, ‘most suited to you?’ What you’re talking about is something completely abstract that has no bearing or relation to the natural, quantifiable world. You’re mixing your metaphors and trying to use something absolute, like ‘Hitler was a man,’ and saying that that statement is just the same type of quantifiable statement as ‘Hitler was a terrible man.’ You can never say absolutely that Hitler was a terrible man because it is a completely subjective claim. I could just as easily say that for me, the things Hitler did weren’t bad at all and then there’s no categorical rejoinder you can make.” It was exciting to breathe this air and exhale and watch his eyes as he quickly transitioned from one line of direct questioning to another.

“I think you both are saying interesting things, and overall I definitely agree with you, Chris, but you could measure things like Beta-waves, for example, to show tangibly how two people were perfectly suited for each other,” Robert came in to my aid and I felt grateful that I didn’t just have to rely on my own incredibly limited, dim view of ‘science’ to make my point come across.

“Again, what is this word perfect? And what if you run that test and then you have a couple who claim that they are completely in love and perfectly happy with one another but you have to say, ‘nope, excuse me, you’re actually not perfect for each other?’”

“Then they wouldn’t be perfect for each other, they would just have found someone very close to it,” I interjected.

“That is incredibly unspecific. There is no such thing as a Kantian Ethics and there is no such thing as a ‘perfect tuning of soul—’ these are just constructs of people who are afraid to face the world as it is, who need something more than just what we are—living, breathing, imperfect beings—to feel like life is a magical thing.

“The world is spectacular—it’s incredible—it’s magnificent—but there doesn’t need to be a God or a perfect harmonious union of souls for that to be the case.”

I looked at the ground, feeling that he was missing something beautiful about human life, something so intangible and vague that nobody could ever prove or disprove its existence. But at the same time I felt that what I was missing was something worse: something real. Suddenly, just the notion that True Love was important seemed silly, the idea that it should exist in relation to any of the laws of the universe a ridiculous farce. I felt ashamed for having taken eight political philosophy courses and then losing an argument to a graduate of Social Studies at Harvard who was soon going to enter the Ph. D. program in Political Science at the very same institution with that unbearably elite name, and here I was: the self-presumed intellectual who was thinking of pursuing Literature and Philosophy and feeling empty, like none of it was worth it. We walked on, and for a few dejected minutes I was unable to make steady eye contact with Chris.

* * *

The snowfall began to mount across the coniferous giants as we continued up the ridge and crossed the icy remnants of the river. Chris slipped and banged his leg up but managed not to get very wet at all. I was worried about him and suddenly the embarrassment from before was gone and he was not an intellectual assailant anymore, had again taken on the form of the super agreeable new guy with a great sense of humor.

He was not the complaining type and so we continued on without issue, finally moving beyond the looming masses of trees and finding a steep hill with a set of crags peaking out over the top. We climbed up to see what view there was on the other side, now talking about time and whether it was subjective or objective. Chris claimed that it was objective and Robert that it was subjective, that an hour in meditation could feel like no time at all and Chris responding that after an hour of meditation the clock still read that an hour had elapsed; probably missing the point, I claimed that time was in fact both, existing in a unique way for each life form, that within this uniqueness lay an absolute unyielding rule of which the individual experience was one particular form.

After ten minutes we had reached the top. But what should have been a pristine mountain view was just the beginning of a deep valley, with a disappointing thirty meters’ visibility. In the valley below were more trees, and they looked just the same as the trees in the valley we’d just come from. They were draped in snow—the thick white cobwebs of the early winter. The curtain hung across the valley and it became clear that there would be no view today.

We looked out and saw the wall of emptiness, a full cloud of non-visibility. Robert took some photos of the jagged granite, the only part of the peak that was not pure white, the only image that stood out against the starkly obscured hill.

* * *

We threw a few snowballs and watched them tumble down, picking up other small pieces of graceful flickering snow as they went, creating a tumbling of faint pieces of dust-like snow that drifted up in slow motion with each sliding bounce. Soon we too descended, sledding between steps in a controlled fall that was careless and young.

We started back down the same trail that we had ascended up, our uphill footprints dim in the growing quilt of soft snow. I wanted a change of scenery, wanted to walk through the forest that had embraced our right flank as we had made our way up the river one hour beforehand. Robert and Chris were skeptical about losing the way. I assured them that we wouldn’t.

Now the subject had shifted back to the less abstruse, and we talked—or joked, rather—about Google’s prominence and what their new Google Glass concept meant for 21st century interaction. We trudged through the drifts between the wooded, sheltered pine needles and described friends and friends of friends who were working on iPhone applications and of all the Harvard kids Chris had known who wanted to be the next Zuckerberg.

We arrived at the bottom of the forest and back to the foot of the grassland, this time too engrossed in contemporary affairs and pop culture to pay much attention to our footsteps or the direction they traveled in. We crossed a river or two and then thirty minutes to an hour had gone by and we were somewhere among the rolling hills that suddenly appeared as if they were leaping uncontrollably into one uniform, impossibly confusing mass. It was six o’clock and we had two hours left till nightfall—the time when the deep-set haze of white would grow into a dangerous, dark situation.

* * *

But I was confident that I knew the way back—if we would follow the river downhill, it would lead us to the main road and from there we just had to turn left and head up until the next road that went left and before too long we’d be back at the Yurt, warm and drinking brandy. We walked some more and Robert took another bearing, this time seeming more determined than the last. The situation was rapidly deteriorating and yet we three were together and not too worried because it was turning out to be quite a day, an adventure, a great story.

We continued our conversation, stopping every now and then to look at the odd exhibit of carrion strewn along the way. It seemed that with each step we plunged further and further into the fog; it became more and more thick and with the fading light went visibility and my left heel began to feel worn out but I ignored it and trudged onward thinking that everything would be all right. The cold was starting to feel more pronounced and I kept telling them that I recognized certain places and bends in the river but gradually I shut up because my statements were, as Robert rightly pointed out, a product of my own wishful thinking. I hadn’t actually been to this part of the vast grassland before. We were nowhere near where I thought we were; we were anywhere.

No path that we took seemed to be leading anywhere closer to our destination, and I wanted to start running along the riverbank while there was any light left, wanted to keep going down the stream, to plunge forward under the blind assumption that we would get lucky and find something. Robert warned against just following one direction continuously because it might just make us even more lost. It was seven o’clock and time was running out; we were at least an hour’s walk from the start of the alpine trees, where we had initially made a wrong turn.

* * *

We began back the way we came, this time with hurried, serious steps. Hills came and went slowly in and out of focus and my mind became worn with the idea that this day—this great story—might actually not end the way I’d always imagined it ending, that we might in fact have to spend the night in the rapidly dropping mercury or try to build an igloo, huddling together inside hoping that minor frostbite would be the least of our troubles.

Suddenly out of my peripheral I saw a small hovel with three jet-black horses standing outside. It was barely visible but it was really, truly there. We walked briskly toward the hut and called out as loud as we could. A dark figure emerged wearing a huge coat and a big fur hat, definitely Kazakh. We got closer and he smiled a big toothless smile, his face dark tan and wrinkled with years of hard work in the sun-steeped grassland. He spoke very little Chinese but we gestured to convey the fact that we were lost and he pointed behind his hut to another hill with a lone figure and some sheep, motioning for us to follow him.

He rode atop the smallest of his three horses, a pony really. His dark green coat and his legs hung over the side of the rotund, un-athletic animal. It was amazing the way the beast was able to carry even its own weight across the muddy snow-coated slopes. We reached the base of the hill, and a woman came down and greeted us, smiling warmth, her broad cheekbones welcoming and kind.

We explained our situation and she replied with a thick Kazakh accent that her father would show us the way back to our Yurt. Amazed, grateful, we shook her hand and followed the pony-clad Kazakh grandfather figure, our savior, out into the void. He led in front and didn’t say a word. He and the animal began to gradually escape into the distance, and we had to pick up our pace, joking about how silly it would be if we lost our way again. It was the most impossible scenario watching this hulking figure saunter out in front of us, the only visible sound being the slow pattering of hooves and the faint echoing of boots engaged in long, wearied strides.

Then he stopped. He turned around and waited for us to catch up. He pointed to some motorcycle tracks imprinted deep in the snow and gestured for us to follow them, saying ‘Yurt’ and pointing in their direction. I was very skeptical that this wasn’t just his apathy, but Chris and Robert reached out gratefully to shake his hand and I followed their lead, letting the warm powerful tanned baseball mitt of a hand envelope my cold glove.

* * *

We went forward into more of the same scenery and started up yet another hill when suddenly in the distance I saw a black dog with its teeth bared, standing directly in the motorcycle tracks and blocking our way forward. Quickly my mind jumped to the worst, and I grabbed Chris and Robert and halted them, pointing to the spot of our impending doom.

“Dude that’s a sign, not a dog,” Chris said in a reassuring voice. Robert concurred. I didn’t believe them—there it was, bearing its teeth all white and ridged, its hindquarters priming to burst forward.

We walked a few more paces, my tone turning to one of pleading caution, begging them to please be sure they weren’t making a mistake. I took my eyes off of the animal for a moment and a second later, when I looked back, it was a sign on two black metal legs with white writing clustered across its face. It had seemed so real…

We stopped to examine the sign, and Robert asked about a clarification of the Chinese characters printed across the metal frame. Chris clarified that it meant ‘deer bend.’ He then read the characters aloud in Chinese.

“Oh, that’s the name of this grassland,” I added. I’d known how to say it, but had never learned how it was written—one of the problems of studying a language like Chinese. “Guys, we really shouldn’t stop moving. This motorcycle track could be leading us nowhere,” I reminded them. They offered their assent.

By now it was no longer snowing, but the cold was biting in ways that flakes had been unable to. The worst part was the idea of the possibility of what might come.

But then out of nowhere emerged first one Yurt then a series of Yurts. They slowly unfolded in front of our eyes like the tree line had earlier that day, this too being a sign of something beautiful. Now, it had been a proper travail, an adventure we could talk about with our digits and limbs intact. We had triumphed, we had won.

* * *

We entered the compound and I felt like Odysseus realizing he had finally found his way back to Ithaca. We had big smiles on our faces as we told the affable part-Chinese, part-Kazakh owner of what had occurred. A jovial man with a hearty laugh, he chuckled at our errors in judgment and told us that he was glad we had finally come back. We would need some coal for the Yurt, and we were hungry. Chris and Robert went inside while I accompanied the owner to his own Yurt to look at the menu and see what food options we had. We had brought a miniature camping stove and plenty of instant noodles, but this was no time for cheap instant noodles.

Toward the tail end of our journey I had slowly begun to notice a headache, and now that we were safe it was coming on with vigor. Perhaps I had been so preoccupied with the task at hand that I just hadn’t noticed it; in reality my body was probably only now starting to feel the effects of the altitude.

I quickly looked over the menu with its predictably inflated prices and made the mistake of asking what his specialty was. Of course the most expensive option on the menu was the answer, but it was big enough for all three of us and we were starving because lunch had been a meager combination candy bars and cashew nuts and we’d been walking for hours since then. I left his Yurt and closed the scrap metal door behind me, the clanking sound bringing a new surge to the pounding in my head.

Once inside our Yurt it seemed like everything was cold and wet and I laid my clothes out to dry, hoping that the coal furnace would speed up the process. It took much longer than I had expected, however, and it seemed like forever before they were dry. The blood was pounding hard against the inside wall of my skull and I lost all of my appetite. I lay down and for the first time all day felt no desire to speak, to join them in their lively conversation. Just looking at the bottles of brandy on the table made me feel nauseous and the dim headlamp hanging from the ceiling was painful to make eye contact with.

I wanted so badly to regain my strength, to once again be a part of this new group that was exciting and stimulating to be around. I reclined back and laid the sleeping bag across my body, too weak to zip it up or properly climb inside. I could feel the cold pressing against parts of my exposed self, but pulling these parts in seemed like it would require too much effort and so I just lay there, having no energy to comprehend their voluble words but focusing instead on the dimness of the ceiling as I pondered when it was that the carpets and blankets had most recently been cleaned and how long it would be until the food that I didn’t even have an appetite for would come and when it would be that sleep would finally take me off into a place where my head didn’t hurt and the altitude was non-existent.

* * *

I fell into a daze, awake but unthinking, when finally the door opened and the overpriced food was brought in. I brought myself upward and tried a bite and then another of the chicken. The noodles came a few minutes later and those were easier to handle. I knew my body was hungry and that the chicken was actually prepared quite well but neither of those things registered as my mind decided for me that it was time to lie down again.

“How are you feeling?” Chris asked—an impossible question to answer because I knew it probably seemed like I was overreacting with the way I was laying there pathetically letting the chicken that I had ordered get cold in the empty cold space that drowned out the stove’s hot coals. For the first time a thought occurred to me that I didn’t necessarily have to stay there up on that plateau and suffer the whole night, that I could pay some ridiculous sum and have someone take me back to my apartment that rested at 500 meters above sea level, three hours away.

I ran the idea by Robert and Chris and it seemed farfetched but I was feeling so desperate I wanted more than anything to just get out of there and get back down close to sea-level, to find my warm apartment with the Advil and my girlfriend there to take care of me. I asked Robert to go and ask the owner if there was anyone nearby who would be willing to take me back.

Twenty minutes later a taxi arrived, had come from who knows where. He refused to take me all the way to Shihezi, but could take me as far as the closest city, at which point I could find another taxi to take me the forty minutes to my apartment. He wanted 300 RMB for a two-hour-long ride, which made me feel sick inside, and I tried to put up a fight and bargain him down to 150. There was no chance in hell that he would drive me for that little and he knew as well as I did that he was my only option and that I was too determined to get back home to care about such a steep price.

Robert and Chris helped me into the car and we said goodnight. I was freezing cold now but I entered the car and felt the fabric-smell and the blasting heat of the interior. The seat was uncomfortable but it had a seat belt and I wanted to leave as quickly as possible, to get down to a level that my body could handle. We lurched forward and the car bounced up and down across the stones in the makeshift road. Our forward progress, the fact that I would soon enough be out of this pressured hell, was enough to ease my headache to a tolerable level.

About twenty minutes into the ride I urged the driver to stop because I felt like I couldn’t hold the sickness in any longer. He stopped the car just in time and I threw open the door and stood up and immediately began to vomit for what felt like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes. The lactic acid smell was in my nose and my eyes were bulging with tears and my head felt like a summer day in the Gobi. We were still too high up—our progress was too slow—and the altitude was corrupting my body, its ability to self-regulate. I felt so powerless, so utterly incapable of living, of thinking and doing the things I so wanted to do. I had ventured a few hundred meters too high, and now everything had become bleak.

I spent a minute catching my breath and wiping away the vomit and the snot that clung to my face. I got back in the car, signaling the driver to continue. He didn’t ask me if I was all right, he just put the car into drive and continued on his way. I would get through this.

* * *

The rattling of the chassis didn’t bother me at all as we swept across the small ditches and corroded lines that characterized the mountainous road home. We built up speed, falling down, going back into the place with no ascents or altitude problems, a place I had lived for a whole year, a place with warmth and my girlfriend waiting for me with her sweet caressing eyes.

The fog gradually washed away—was brought to a tolerable level by the steep descending plummeting motion of the car. The lower the car went, the further you could see; gradually, city lights began to shine in the distance. My head hurt softly now. I slowly let myself fade out of consciousness, my head swaying back and forth in the enclosed cabin. I knew that I would be home soon, away from the fog and the hills of deceiving white, far removed from the mountains that Robert, Chris and I never quite fully grasped.

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.


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