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.
Beijing and Xinjiang, 2014
Hamlet and My Life in China
Originally published on The Airship.
‘To be an expatriate, or not to be an expatriate: that is the question: whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Culture, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’
The case of Hamlet is, in many ways, the case of the expatriate. Overnight, both find themselves in a world that does not really make sense. In relative terms, this foreign realm is not that different from the place the traveler calls home: people still drive cars to work, smoke cigarettes, and drink beer.
But the expatriate soon realizes that things are not what he or she expected them to be. For Hamlet, the state of Denmark is completely tainted by a change in his perception of the people around him. The formerly esteemed court, his father’s Denmark, suddenly seems to him a hotbed of vice. He must wrestle with the total inversion of that former world, of everything he once knew. Nobody seems to understand him; he is completely alone. In this sense, Hamlet is the ultimate expatriate—a man bereft of any conception of home.
There is nobody more alone than an expatriate without a country; it is difficult to find in literature a character more isolated than Hamlet. You may try to make the outside world your home, but you will never truly be a part of that new world, whatever country it may be. The expatriate, like Hamlet, is a wanderer.
‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
I’ve lived abroad for a long time. Or, more importantly, I feel as though I’ve been away from home for a good while. But it seems less significant to wax on about the number of daysmonthsyears since I’ve called my home country home than it does to simply assure anyone who asks me that I now feel more at home in China than I do in America.
It is true—I have only lived there for a year and a half. A year and a half is not very long, and I’m obviously still in the honeymoon stages of my overseas engagement. But while one and a half years—or eighteen months, or 78 weeks—doesn’t seem like a very long time, how exactly should one measure “time abroad?” A month in Shanghai can seem like a short errand run to Chinatown; a month in Mongolia might feel like ten decades on Mars.
‘I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I live in China.’
Indeed, those living out-of-country and those living at home in America seem to have very different ways of calibrating this “time abroad” thing. For my friends back home, every individual month that ticks by seems to give me extra credibility as that much more of a “knower” concerning all things “Asian.” But in China, time is irrelevant. There, most expats are not grouped into different categories based on the amount of time they’ve registered overseas, or on their respective age groups, but rather on their respective mental health.
‘Good Expat, cast thy nighted colour off, and let thine eye look like a friend on China.’
Some expatriates wander between the nether-regions of boredom, frustration, bitterness, and self-doubt: shouting expletives at anything overly “Chinese;” stalking the widely paved sidewalks of communism with an acerbic look in their eyes; jumping at the chance to eat any Western foods they can get their I’ve-spent-too-much-time-abroad-and-thus-this-McDonald’s-hamburger-is-the-greatest-thing-I’ve-ever-tasted hands on.
‘Doubt thou the stars are fire; doubt that the sun doth move; doubt truth to be a liar; but never doubt I love China.’
Others—usually the newly-arrived expats (read: intercultural newlyweds)—take every cultural mishap in perfect stride, labeling even the most painful mistakes as an “experience” that can be dissected into some sort of “look-at-what-I’ve-learned-about-Western-culture-from-token-non-Westerners.blogspot.com” discourse.
These young souls can be spotted easily on any typical Chinese street-corner, as they spend an inordinate amount of time fielding questions from complete strangers about their home country, and what it’s like living abroad in China. “How do you like China? Are you accustomed to eating Chinese food? How much is your salary? Would your mother let you marry a Chinese girl? Would your mother let you marry me?”
For these primaveral expats, every day is Christmas: Santa Claus is real, and his gifts present themselves in the form of gawking locals bearing countless opportunities for language practice and inter-cultural analysis.
‘There are more things in China and America, Expatriate, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
I fall somewhere in the middle. I can feel that crotchety expat’s disillusionment growing within me, and things tend to piss me off now more than they used to. But I still get a sense of naive excitement when overhearing a conversation that I inevitably feel has given me “insight” into another culture and, ultimately, my own country’s mores.
The spice of living outside of America is still jolting enough to keep things exciting, like Marco Polo’s descriptions of distant kingdoms in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: lands and urban centers opulent to the imagination take shape and become real in the mind of Genghis Khan, their very foreign-ness and mystique being the key to what makes them somehow tangible. It is, after all, the possibility of something truly unknown that keeps the itinerant soul upon the masthead, looking transfixed over a swirling sea of blue-gray and out into nothingness. At any moment the void could break and reveal stretches of whatever it is you’ve been waiting for.
This great desire is for something new, and it can never, ever, be sated; the Indies lie always on the horizon.
‘Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems.’’
If this boundless desire for novel experiences can’t be satisfied, why not make something up? This is perhaps the greatest license available to any expat. Transitioning from a life in your home country—speaking your native language with people who have grown up in the same culture as you—to one on foreign shores is equivalent to the difference between children playing with real toys and children inventing abstract games with their minds. In the former scenario, the toy gun is a cheap imitation; in the latter, the absence of any prop whatsoever gives the child the ultimate freedom to invent whatever type of gun suits his fancy.
Similarly, foreign countries become blooming gardens of the imagination: every moment is seeped in contextual clues that you’ve never encountered before, and therefore the possibilities for creative ascription are limitless—bound only by the constraints of your own dynamic willpower.
‘America’s a prison.’
While walking down the sidewalk one day, I overheard a woman on the street saying to her friend, “咱们吃饭就行 (zanmen chifan jiu xing),” which translates to “let’s just eat and it’ll be fine.” I remember thinking to myself: “Egads! What a perfect encapsulation of Chinese culture! Simply eating food is enough to be happy—the Chinese value their culinary tradition so much!”
Later on, I shared the observation with a Chinese friend. She insisted that I had missed whatever must have preceded the statement; my interpretation was incorrect and what I had overheard was likely someone implying to their friend that they didn’t need to bring any gifts to the meal. This was no isolated instance: while abroad, I regularly take inane conversations and interpret them in such a light that they become representative of the entire country’s ethos (or, more likely, what I presume the country’s ethos to be).
This is a human exercise—one that Marco Polo surely must have participated in, and one that the seekers of novelty—expatriates of the world—tend to utilize overzealously. There is little room for this in one’s homeland—the conversations you overhear on the street make sense, and they don’t allow for much abstract interpretation. Indeed, life back home can be downright boring.
‘I knew it, Expatriate: a country of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. It hath borne me on its back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!’
But did this malaise with life in America only come about after I had already lived abroad? Or is that what caused my departure in the first place? Perhaps I was already feeling an absence of something; I really don’t remember.
Regardless of the reasons—for there are certainly too many to name and explain—it will suffice to say that time moves much slower in America than it seems to in [insert the name of token ‘exotic’ country here]. This new, foreign world, once seen, will never leave me. Now, the feeling of isolation and utter fear of my surroundings only sets in when I’m back in America. I’m not sure if it’s caused by the bathos of re-habituation to the ‘ordinary,’ or if exposure to a different world has brought on an irrevocable distaste for that which is easily understood.
But back to the hinterlands (of China, for now) I go—until I grow old and realize that life is essentially the same everywhere and that only one true quest remains: to sail beyond the sunset.
13 January, 2013
An Ode to Old Wives’ Tales
It’s strange being told the reason for some bodily phenomenon by someone from another culture. The advice always comes in the same cookie-cutter, old-wives-tale, assured-because-my-mother-told-me-so fashion: you need to drink hot water, or you’ll get sick; you need to wear more clothes, or you’ll get a cold; you need to see a traditional Chinese doctor—Western medicine is overrated; you have to drink tea to stay healthy; it is better to eat medicinal foods than to take medicine in pill form; you should always take a walk after a meal; don’t eat in restaurants—it’s unhealthy; don’t drink coca-cola or other beverages—you should only drink water; never drink anything cold, especially not with ice; ice? in a drink? are you crazy? you’ll get sick and die!
The universal Chinese cure for everything—ranging from the common cold to a broken leg to a divorce—is to 多喝点水！ (duo he dian shui), or, in English: drink more water! It is the anthem to which each Chinese soul steps in unison, a billion three-hundred million people sharing this common cultural value. No, the Chinese do not all concur about the virtues of Communism or the glory of Mao Zedong; instead, the only thing they can all agree on is this one infallible principle, by which one merely ought to drink plenty of hot water. If you can follow this sagely advice, all ailments will leave your body faster than a foreigner can figure out how to spell and correctly pronounce ‘Genghis Khan.’
While I do understand that drinking a lot of water is very healthy and that Coca-Cola is unhealthy, I fail to understand this predominant concern with the temperature of things. In the classroom, it can be 70 degrees inside but if it’s cold outside, my students will all continue wearing their heavy winter coats for the duration of class. When, in the heat of a lecture, I decide to discard a sweater, opting to downsize to a single layer, I am greeted with the gasps and shocked, pallid faces of concerned Chinese youth. It’s as if they’ve already begun to grieve about the sealed fate of their pitifully misinformed foreign teacher—chronic illness and a certain, early death.
I can only guess that this phenomenon arises from the fact that the majority of Chinese people are either raised by or in close proximity to their grandparents. From a young age, the people of the People’s Republic are indoctrinated with the primordial fears that the elderly have of things like the cold (after all, the gray-haired members of the human project lose body heat at a rate far higher than adults or children do), handed down from grandparent to grandchild for millennia. It makes sense, therefore, that my young students were baffled at the fact that I would wittingly remove a layer during the winter season.
We just have a different understanding of the word. The winter, for me, is a season dictated by whether I am outside or inside. If I am inside a heated room, it ceases to be winter there in that moment. The idea of winter still pervades my senses, and I am much more likely to consider drinking eggnog. But as far as the physiological side of my body is concerned, I follow the ambient temperature, not a psychological idea of what the temperature should be. But for the Chinese student, it doesn’t matter how hot the room is—the notion of winter has cemented itself firmly around the student’s frame of consciousness. Refusing to let go, the cold takes on a demonic persona: it tempts one to get comfortable, to be tricked into disobeying old grandma back in the village. Yes, the cold is all in your head, there’s really nothing to it…go ahead, relax, take off your coat and stay a while it seems to whisper. Ever the misguided foreigner, I am easy prey for these daemons of the arctic.
But these Chinese values have gradually become instilled in my daily habits. After just a year and a half, I now only drink hot water; I try to wear a sweater inside until I get so hot I can’t bear it anymore; and I drink as much green tea as possible. This shift was a conscious one at first, where I would say to myself ha! look at you, drinking hot water! who do you think you are, Lawrence of China? But then, gradually, it became a part of my repertoire—something that went unnoticed and became so indispensable to my everyday life that to ignore the advice of my students was to fall prey to some East Asian ice-god’s malediction.
Now, when I get sick, I inevitably come to the conclusion that my body’s cosmic balance is off somehow—that if only I hadn’t gone outside wearing just one layer under my jacket—if only I hadn’t opted to drink coffee instead of green tea the day before—if only I hadn’t lazily decided to drink that cup of water it in its lukewarm, anemic state: then all of my maladies would be gone, left back in America where people are fat and overmedicated and addicted to Coca-Cola and ice in their drinks.
As it turns out, these students were here to teach me something. Grandmothers of China, I salute you!
3 January, 2013
Let’s go have a drink he said. But my stomach was upset and I was on time change and I didn’t care for a drink although this was Istanbul and the cafe was beautiful and oh, what the hell, a drink might calm my coming-from-nowhere anger that arose from every corner of every action that they, my parents, seemed to perform. A drink then.
Father let’s have a drink I said; and son what would you like—it’s your birthday! he responded; and I asked to have what anyone has on their birthday and so I had that, sipped it down. We ordered another.
And it was my birthday and so where would you like to go see today? they asked, and somewhere was the start of an answer; and of course the great, famous mosque was where we would go, so we finished our third drink and began to walk; it was a good city for walking.
I trampled the dead streets beneath my feet; this, my second time here in this spellbinding city, Istanbul. We were in Istanbul, and I had been here once before. But I suppose there’s nothing special about that, because Istanbul is so old and the concierge at our fancy hotel seemed like he’d seen me at least a thousand times over the three thousand years that this city had been headed toward being called Istanbul—seemed like he knew me and Istanbul better than I knew myself, because I myself was meant to enjoy my day of birth—was meant to get my maximal gain out of the whole damn thing. My parents had paid a lot of money for the airplane ticket, and this was their son, was their baby boy who was back from China, for now.
But I hadn’t been born on this day: I’d been born twenty-three years earlier, on a day that called itself today, and in that instant it seemed that this city—the place that had called itself Byzantium then Constantinople and now Istanbul—was waiting for me to arrive all along. So of course we would go to the mosque that was actually a museum because it was famous and it meant so much to so many it meant theworld was connected through a soul through god through channels of prayer and marble and taxis and expensive airplane tickets and cocktails.
We were drunk, wandering amidst the whirr of concrete and stone porticos, the kebab peddlers and ice cream stands, when suddenly that cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum came into view and look at the nuance in the marble she said; my mother was right and I hadn’t noticed it. But I didn’t care for the marble or the historical import it carried—probably it was the alcohol,the drug,the intoxicating liquid that had been promised by many to make me enjoy this day,my birthday. It was the day I was born on: two decades and two years plus one, now, ago.
Let’s go somewhere else I said, (did I say?) as the buzz began to fade we walked across the painted streets, smeared with the colors of old/new stone, mixed with the soft warm fleeting light of stale afternoons that inevitably ran away to some place where there were no mosques ; then we were on the sidewalk and the cars whipped around the corner moving fast look at the Bosporus somebody said; then we too were moving very fast and I could see beautiful women with dark eyes and even darker hair and soon everything was dark outside and it was time for a birthday dinner with wine, the shade of which white—hectic red—? didn’t matter because it was the feeling it gave you that mattered. But I couldn’t focus I was really drunk now I kept seeing her, that girl I loved here three years ago, and I was there then/now but I wanted to be there just now.
Let’s have a rest we said let’s get some sleep let’ s twenty three,twenty-two+1:
words,numbers you grew up so fast they said I’m not grown yet I
said; my mother began to cry on the table;
Let’s go somewhere else the world said let’s go back I wished I had said:
‘to three summers ago,’ ‘three suns or moons ago,’
‘just a measure of time
let’s go back ‘three measurements ago:’ ‘three lost loves ago;’ I wanted something to measure
a previous visit
the previous Istanbuls the previous me’s/I’s.
My birthday was
10 June, 2012
Water and Tea
It was a blur.
It was a blur that reached out onto our restaurant table and wove itself into the napkins and our glasses of tea and water. It was very clear.
It was very clear that this blur that existed in the space between our sips of water and our vocal chords was what I had tasted on many occasions. I wondered if its opacity was mutually transparent.
I smiled. We’d been friends for the year, my year in China. We’d been friends for this, my first year in China—abroad—and we went to meals together once or twice a week. In typical Chinese fashion, we alternated between who treated whom to dinner. This time it was my treat. The last time it had been his.
We were friends for the extent of a year. A year was a long time. We knew each other well, and this was my treat.
I was not merely taking my friend out to eat spicy chicken with noodles (the chicken came on a big plate with flat white noodles); thestakes were higher: I was taking the possibility for interconnectedness between people from disparate cultures out to dinner as well.
I sat there awkwardly and consumed this heavy serving of clarity—that we had had so many dinners like this very one and that our meals had always come with a side order of the same, dull dinner-table conversations. And then I wanted to leave the table, wanted to escape the haze of in-between and its rich hoisin (hoisin? really? was it?) sauce. It was a dark brown; it was a bright red; it was spicy.
It was spicy and it stung my nose and confused me. It was dark and rich and beautiful indescribable and yet here it was, asking me to describe it.
The best I could do was to say that we weren’t friends—that our year together had been spent playing with our forks, gently pushing the food around our plates without really knowing what it was or why we continued eating it. We were posturing at being full.
And then it appeared that we had continued eating it because we believed that eventually the cultural issues would break away and we would find each other truly interesting. So I kept asking him to lunch, or dinner. We continued eating that chicken with wide noodles and the rich hoisin sauce because there was nothing else to do; because we had forgotten how to order anything else; because Will the intercultural interloper was looking for some savory dish of an experience to bring home with him after his year abroad and serve piping hot to my friends and family and potential colleagues. Internationalism was social currency.
I took another bite; the dish was cold. We put our napkins down, said our goodbyes, and went to our separate apartments where we would listen to different music sung in tones that were linguistically comprehensible but emotionally unintelligible.
We walked out, leaving behind the tea in our glasses; it tasted like water but called itself tea.
14 June, 2012
Our Last Night in the Park
We walked through the trees, and the snow, and there was no sound but your breath and the resounding glances we would take deep into each other’s eyes in the darkness among the firm, old oaks. Perhaps they weren’t oaks.
We walked deep into the recesses of the small park, standing between the saplings and trying to find solace from whatever you called ‘reality.’ We stood still like the trees, embracing like long lost lovers who knew that after years of waiting, there could only be this last moment, and then nothing.
We were quiet, sentimental, and your touch was delicate and soft, like the powdered snow that rested on the ground and surrounded our feet. There was only this moment and nothing else: the sweet black of your eyes and your short hair and the way your head warmed my hands.
You whispered that it was our last night together, and I wished secretly that we could somehow be unstuck from time’s cruel forward assault, that we could be light, not carrying any of the weight that our feet did as they trudged among the soft, urban snow.
There was no rustle in the branches, no sound of birds moving to build a nest or tend to their bellies; there was only the movement of our winter jackets as we slowly made each other feel okay again, tenderly changing my grip around your back, wanting to hold you in every way possible. But the snow was fresh and comforting and it hugged our feet and seemed to beckon them into submission: “don’t move,” it breathed.
Then I heard an inevitable car’s honk and realized that it was probably close to 1AM and that you would return to your dormitory soon; I would be left alone, once more. My feet were cold and I needed to blow my nose and so I unzipped my jacket pocket and pulled out the tissue, as white as snow, and blew into it the reality of my body—the warm, contrasting truth that now needed a garbage bin so as not to be considered ‘littering,’ so as not to ruin the idyllic scene that we had made, painted, for ourselves. I walked out of the clearing and over to the bright yellow box and tossed the tissue inside its dark recesses. I came back and you were there waiting but it was different. Your phone rang; it was your roommate.
We left the place where you had hidden your memory, your moment, deep within your heart; that forest that was filled with ancient oaks and resplendent redwoods carved deep into the glistening, radiant moon-filled snow that went up to our knees and kept us there for eternity. For you, the sun never came up, the birds never started their busy day, the cars were nowhere to be found, and the only thing that moved was our pulsing hearts as we stayed there, frozen, wrapped in an unrelenting embrace that was sweet and tender and, never to end.
You told me that nobody had ever made you feel this way, that you were your true self with me. Then you said goodbye.
I kissed you and it felt as though it were a mere stamp upon something inevitable, like a formality added at the last second to fulfill some sort of bureaucratic protocol. There was nothing real in it, because every second that the kiss lasted for was just a reminder that I was so much closer to the kiss’s conclusion—our own sudden, clear-cut consummation.
It ended. It had to, it seems. I looked at you and sensed a disconnect—suddenly, we weren’t inhabiting the same place anymore: you were still in that imaginary forest dreaming about our eternal moment. You were there, back in the warm blanket you’d knitted of knee-deep shimmering snow; but I was standing next to my apartment on the pavement, the materials that had been constructed by the Chinese provincial government in the 1990’s in order to attract the Han Chinese to come and live in this city—this pile of smog and concrete—of crumbling apartment buildings with questionable construction.
She said goodbye, turning the other way faster than I ever expected. She didn’t turn around; she was gone. I wanted to cough: to show her that things weren’t pure and clean like she wanted, imagined, in her delirium. Suddenly, I became angry—knew that she would never feel how I felt and hated her for her ability to transcend this place—this hard concrete hell—and replace it with that pillow of imaginary snow, that same frozen-water-substance that had left its mark on my wet and frozen feet. I shivered.
28 February, 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
A Table for One
He was the kind of person that could make you have an opinion. I wasn’t very fond of speaking, and it would be nice to think that I made up for it by listening carefully, but that would be stretching the truth. The truth was that I always listened, but only sometimes did I actually pay attention. Most of the time, I would sit and hold someone’s gaze, nodding at the sentence breaks and raising such pointed questions as “really?” or “is that so?” This was like breathing. I was like the perfect moderator, never interjecting my own ideas, but merely recapitulating the appropriate small sentences where they were needed. This kept the other person interested in what they were talking about.
When I did pay attention, I usually didn’t have anything to say. In group discussions with older, more wizened beings, I would play the part of the inexperienced young lad whose role was to look earnestly into the eyes of each person as they ate their own personal plate of opinions. I was the audience, and they the experts. This wasn’t out of chivalry, or absence of ego; rather, I would mentally choke up, not knowing what I could possibly say that hadn’t just been said.
But things were different tonight. His name was Bill; he was being imperious and American to our normally jovial translator. Bill spoke no Chinese, and so his entire trip in China was mediated through this man, who had a convenient English name: Murphy. I think he liked Eddy Murphy’s character in “Shrek,” but then again none of us ever asked him.
Murphy had just finished telling us about China’s system of values; namely, how it was opposite from that found in the West. As a young Chinese man somewhere in his early twenties, he was very proud of his country’s emphasis on community.
“Americans love individual, we Chinese are different. Did you see Beijing Olympics opening ceremony? Entire world was jealous to see so many people moving together,” he said with affection.
Murphy was enjoying himself and especially the large meal that, as a translator for wealthy foreigners, he was privy to from time to time. Back home, he would cook his own meals in a crammed Shanghai apartment, which he told us had cracks in the ceiling and a smell that wouldn’t go away. His face was wide and full when he told us stories about his childhood, his parents, and his time studying English at university. Murphy always smiled such a big smile that it looked like his happiness was written not only on his face, but saturated within every little particle of his flesh and bone, every crevice of miniscule ribosomes and lysosomes and other –somes that I’ve long since forgotten the names of. It was like the parts of his self that nobody—not even himself—especially not himself—ever saw were composed of ingenuous light that danced out from within and gave his personage an unmistakable aura of innocence and joy.
Bill didn’t like that Murphy was enjoying himself at his country’s expense. In his 78 years, he had seen America go through too much to just site there and let a Chinese national tell him about his own country—to let our translator think for one minute that we American individuals were at all impressed with this collectivism.
After Murphy finished speaking, there was a slight pause—a fraction of quiet. Then, with burning immediacy Bill launched into a full offensive: sending in statistics as paratroopers, promptly followed by an army of anecdotes. He spat out his diatribe for thirty straight minutes. Step by step, Bill swallowed up a small part of Murphy—gorging himself on the task of stifling our translator’s abundant glow.
Murphy—gracious, innocent, proud—was deflated. Second languages are no terrain in which to do battle. But it didn’t matter that he hadn’t understood everything, that he didn’t know the meaning of words like “ubiquitous,” or “obstreperous,” because the impact of Bill’s words rested in their cold, mechanical force. For every minute that Bill went on, a sliver of Murphy’s face was replaced by a confused, hollowed-out paleness.
Bill paused to catch his breath. Murphy got up from the table, politely excusing himself. He walked, or fumbled, to get more food. His steps were remarkably light. As he slowly floated from one buffet table to another, you could tell he wasn’t thinking at all about the dishes that lay before him. He stared blankly at one plate, lifted another lid, and then finally realized he would have to choose something. The green beans made it halfway to his plate before they fell to the ground. There was no escape.
He frantically looked down at the spilled green objects and then back up at the table, as if searching for some familiar feeling, some touch of mild embarrassment. But he couldn’t find any of those redeeming notes that could usually be called upon in such situations. It was as if the faint pink flush of everyday embarrassment couldn’t find its way to his cheeks. It had evaporated, gone elsewhere; there was nothing written in his face but void.
His skin seemed unnaturally tight, like it’d been covered with a taught layer of saran-wrap. He placed his plate on the buffet table. It made a soft clink as it shook hands with the metal serving dish. He looked back down at the green beans, perhaps deciding whether he should pick them up, whether or not the act itself would exhume him out of that saran-wrapped entombment. Finding no answer, he scurried to the rest room.
Suddenly, I had an opinion. This was wrong. You just don’t beat someone into the ground like that—especially not someone like Murphy, our translator who probably loved “Shrek.” Trying to show conviction, I threw my napkin onto the table. I’d never felt so passionate before. Bill was right, and to an extent I agreed with him—but he was also wrong. Unlike Bill, I had no figures; no names of successful CEO’s; no information about Nobel Prize winners, or how individuals had shaped our country’s greatest inventions; what I did have was a sense of right and wrong, and that would do.
“You hurt Murphy’s feelings,” I tried to say with visible empathy.
I was polite; I needed to be polite to my boss. I remember looking down at my napkin while I spoke, noticing the wrinkles and the stains left by the kung pao chicken and the Beijing duck. The oil had started to dry.
“Look: he offended me, and he offended our country. I have done nothing but my patriotic duty.” Bill, no longer heated, was relaying his actions as an old man shares his collection of mores and life lessons. His eyes had a look of compassion in them that whispered: “one day, you’ll understand.”
“He’s allowed to feel proud of his country. At least he wasn’t being rude,” I attempted.
Bill thrust his napkin down in front of him. It glistened, the bright oils smeared against its exhausted threads. “Listen, you can’t let people get away with these things. You have to set them straight. They think their countries are so great– so much better than America, and it’s absurd. Murphy’s just another brainwashed idiot who’s going to go on thinking his culture has won—unless people like us give him the facts and shut him up,” he snapped.
I felt for my napkin, trying to collect myself. It felt crisp and I traced my hand slowly along the lines where it had been ironed. “He’s just one person… He’s been so nice to us,” I said as Murphy emerged from the rest room and slowly crept toward the military museum that was our table, toward the soiled napkins and the plates with grease smeared across their porcelain selves, their existence controlled totally by the whims of stomach and expensive appetite.
“Either way, let’s change the subject.” The other two voices at the table– our colleagues– quickly gave their consent.
Murphy returned to the table, plate vacant. He looked down at it, as though he was thinking about something to think about. He didn’t have time to find it, whatever it would have been.
Bill was going back for seconds. He leaned forward, the creases in his old face becoming more pronounced. It was a face of supreme intensity, a face that had lost touch with its former youth. It scared me.
“Listen Murphy,” he seethed, “I was in Germany once and I had to sit through an entire meal with this woman going on and on about how much she disliked America; how our cuisine was disgusting; our companies weren’t elegant like Mercedes and blah blah blah—well, do you know what? I waited patiently and I enjoyed my dinner, and as soon as she was done talking I looked at her hard and told her exactly where she was wrong and exactly what an ignorant European bitch she was. I was almost embarrassed for her: she’d hardly taken a bite of her food because she was so busy going on and on about her beloved country—then all of a sudden I let her have it and she hardly knew what to say because I had the facts and she only had opinion.”
Murphy merely sat there nodding his head slowly, eyes seemingly transfixed by the floor.
“The fact is, Murphy, that you foreigners hate us because, deep down, you envy us. We could devour your country if we wanted to and your culture would be right where it belongs; your esteemed coordination and desire to replicate and not innovate is nothing more than an iron shackle that keeps you all in line and stops you from becoming anything truly great. Because you see, Murphy, there’s nothing great about you. You can translate from Chinese to English but there’s nothing you can do that a computer can’t—you and your whole country, your idea of a ‘Civilization.’
“This isn’t my first time in China, Murphy—this isn’t the first time I’ve heard some pathetic infinitesimal soul try and tell me what ‘success’ means to the Chinese and how we in the West are too caught up with this idea of the ‘self.’ The fact of the matter is that you and your overpopulated country of replicators have no ability to think for yourselves. You manufacture and you steal ideas from other, more creative people, but you never actually invent or do anything remotely singular. No great human accomplishments came from replication– a colony of ants building some huge mound of dirt impresses me about as much as your utterly inane Great Wall—‘great’ only because of its scale. So keep on overpopulating our world and keep on using the sheer weight of collective numbers to feel impressed with yourselves: I think nothing of you. Now if you’ll all excuse me I’m going to bed.”
Murphy shivered for a brief moment, nodding his head at intervals. He said ‘goodnight’ to Bill. All of a sudden, he reminded me of the way food looked after it had been left out overnight: hard with solidified grease latching on to what just hours before had been appetizing, alive with flavor and aroma. Murphy had become a jaundiced piece of chicken that nobody wanted anymore. He no longer looked confused. His confusion had been replaced with an emaciating sense of self-understanding, like he had understood for the first time that his natural disposition was to be disgusting and inedible.
As Bill rose from the table, he gave me a look of smug delight. The wrinkles in his face no longer looked like scoured granite. They were soft, rejuvenated, as if he had found the fountain of youth and had a small, salubrious drop. I said nothing, I did nothing. The other two voices floated off to some other topic—I believe it was the merger of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America.
I touched Murphy’s back, and he glanced halfway in my direction, his confused eyes darting up to meet mine for the smallest quantum of measurable human time.
We still had four days left on our trip, and Murphy continued to work as our translator. Bill of course knew this would happen. When he first launched into his tirade, he knew that Murphy was contractually obligated to keep taking our company’s money. That might have been what delighted him most in the whole affair.
The opinion I’d been waiting so long for is now just a distant memory. I wonder where Murphy is, whether he has a family, if he still thinks about that day he lost his color and became so small.
October 5th, 2011