What do you Want to be when you Grow Up?

          Mike is small. He’s 13, but could just as well be 8. He has a cartoonish look about him, the kind that says he will always look like a 2nd grader, no matter how old he is. He’s one of the more popular kids in my 6-2 class. He likes to dance while I lecture. I was messing around on my computer, and Mike came over, inquisitively. He sat across from me and we started chatting. Simple things, “How is school lately?” “What’s the past tense for go?” “What’s your favorite Justin Bieber song?” I like talking to kids, because there is no conversational ebb and flow. There isn’t going to be one topic that we talk about for ten minutes. I’m just going to rapid fire random inquiries at them that I think will yield amusing answers. Kids ask questions, but kids generally, at 13 years of age do not have the willingness to lead a conversation with an “adult,” especially if they are alone.

            I like to ask the questions that they would ask me. Louis CK has this bit where he complains that his five-year-old daughter has never said anything important in her life. Kids like to ask fluffy things: “Do you have a girlfriend?” “What your favorite animal?” “Do you like hamburgers?” I can’t really remember being a kid, not much of it at least. I don’t recall my impetus for asking those types of things. Was it completely unmotivated? Was I just working into my linguistic capacity, honing my skills? Was I calculatingly judging those who said their favorite animal was “dog” or those who didn’t quite prefer hamburgers? Did I archive the information? “Ah yes, the kid down the street is crazy about the color blue and the girl next door likes chicken nuggets, I’ll certainly remember that next time we play house.” Frankly, it’s nice to not have to think about what I’m going to say. I could follow “What month is your favorite?” with “Do you like clouds?” and it would seem like a totally rational segue.

            So, when I hit a lull in conversation with Mike, I went for the surefire winner, the classic adult-kid conversation topic. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ask any child this question, and you will never receive an “I don’t know,” in return. It’s funny, the types of questions older people respond with “not sure” to are the ones for which kids always have an answer. “Have you ever been in love?” “Yes!” “What’s your favorite color?” “Blue, duh! “Who’s your idol?” “Justin Bieber.” No pause, ever. Adults have to ponder these things, and if they don’t, I believe that means they’re young at heart.

            Adults like to ask kids what they want to do when they grow up for a few reasons. They want to give them advice. They want to tell them, no matter how absurd their answer—I want to be king of Uranus—to follow their dreams and never let anyone stand in their way. They think its good for kids to start thinking about this stuff at age 12.

            I ask this when there is a lull in conversation. So I said to Mike:

 

            “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

            “I want to raise animals and grow some plants.”

            “You don’t want to be a policem—“I stop myself.

            “I want to grow beautiful flowers in my courtyard. All kinds of flowers.”

            “That is… I think that is a wonderful idea, Mike. I like flowers too.”

 

            Mike is 13 years old, so he knows what jobs are. Not only that, but he’s a sharp kid, the kind you might expect “doctor” or (gulp) “lawyer” or even if he was a little adventurous “dancer” from. You might expect a five year old to say they want to plant flowers when they grow up. Children are conditioned to have answers for this question. In fact, adults (I do not oblige to be one) are conditioned to expect answers to this question. Most of my male students want to be in the army or drive a car. Most of my female students want to be doctors or singers. I wanted to be a policeman at age five, now the police are the last people I want to associate with, professionally or otherwise. These persuasions stem from the fact that we delineate what is “good” and “bad” work. Whenever a student is behaving poorly, a teacher may take them outside and have this type of exchange:

 

            “Why did you do such and such?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You need to work harder. You laugh today, you cry tomorrow. You cry today, you laugh tomorrow.” Meaning that, you goof off today, you’ll pay in the long run.

            “Yes ma’am.”

            “Do you want to be like your parents, working with your hands all day?”

            “No, I don’t.”

 

            I am not arguing for an agrarian revolution. Further, I am not disagreeing with this type of treatment. Being a subsistence farmer is surely not fun. It’s arduous, unpredictable, and obviously, not entirely profitable either. It’s generally not a chosen line of work. But, I would never argue against it either.

           

            Mike is 13. He’s a bright kid. No, he’s not the top of his class, but he’s personable and curious. By the time he’s 22 and ready to work, the opportunities in his hometown will be much greater than they are today. They will indubitably be much greater than they were when his parents were 22. His most likely line of work will still be farming, but it won’t be as likely as it is now. Mike is 13. He’s bright. He didn’t say he wanted to raise animals and plant flowers because he truly thinks that is his realistic endpoint. Thirteen year olds are idealistic, from the top to the bottom of the class. They haven’t been compelled to decide their own fate yet. He said that because he is a happy kid. He doesn’t see his parents’ careers as a burden. He doesn’t see farming as “falling short.” And I don’t think he really cares if anyone else does.

 

            “What do you think?” He said.

            “I think you should do whatever you want. But, Mike, if you’re going to plant flowers when you grow up, I expect you to plant the best flowers you can.”

            “Why wouldn’t I?”

Advertisements

A Late Night Visit

         After our inter-school basketball games, the two rival squads get together in the teacher’s lounge and drink. At times I suspect the tournament may be an excuse for baijiu consumption. Which, frankly is fine with me. Playing basketball and drinking heavily are two things I did often in college, but rarely congruently, which I think is rather a shame. So, we gather in the lounge and take shots and eat sunflower seeds. We talk some strategy and forgive each other for the assured multiple incidences of barbarity that took place over the previous 40 minutes. Last night was Friday. We play our games in the evening, so the turn out was decidedly low. All the students, and many teachers, had gone home. After the game, we hit the lounge.

 

            There were eight of us: Two from the opposing team, four from our team, and the current and former Sanzhuang elementary security guards (if you follow this blog at all, you are aware that they are two all-county level imbibers). Throughout the night, people shuffled in and out. It was a pretty calm evening, save for fifteen minutes.

 

            At around ten, two guys came into the school to say hello. Party hoppers. They’d come from down the road to pop in before continuing on. They were introduced as brothers. Anyways, one of the guys was the superintendent of the entire district: In charge of all 15 schools. As such, the other teachers referred to him as “da xiaozhang” (big principal). He was pretty tall and had a Strahan-esque gap between his incisors. He wore glasses too big for his face, a clean, white button-down shirt, and khakis. His hair was parted awkwardly. He smelled of nerd. He was not drunk at all. Or, if he was he held it well. This guy, you could tell, had his proverbial shit together. Despite his bookish appearance, he was clearly the kind of guy who can drink until 3 and get up at 7 without a hitch. There are 4 types of people in this world: Those that can accomplish exclusively the latter (waking up at 7 without a hitch) or the former (drinking until 3), and those that can accomplish both or neither. I trust you can quickly find examples of all four. Those who can accomplish both are the types that rise to “big principal status.” In any event, I do not think the “big principal” was drunk on this particular evening.

 

            His supposed brother, on the other hand, I am sorry to say, was the type that most likely could neither drink until 3 am nor wake up at 7 am. He was, to be politically correct, rotund. When I say rotund, I mean that in both a physical and demonstrative sense. He was the kind of guy that embodied his body. He had a belly of epic proportions. He stood half a foot shorter than his brother, “the big principal.” He was all of 5’4.” He appeared as though he had just arrived from the front row of a Sea World Orca exhibition. He perspired ebulliently. He wore a blue and black striped polo that accentuated his features. His hair flew off in wild directions. He was shitfaced. Take that word and digest it. Create a mental image. He was shitfaced incarnate. He was probably the single greatest human being I have ever encountered. The juxtaposition of big and little brother was like none I’ve witnessed. If there did not previously exist a polar opposite to identical twins, there does now.

 

            As he entered the room, he hiked up his pants and ran over to me (we’d never met). “Hey, how do you say ‘foreigner’ in English. How?” I told him. He was one of those people that uses 95% Chinese in conversation, but any English word he may know, he insists upon employing and underscoring with great fervor. “Ni shi AMERICA nali de? AMERICA” “Wo hui shuo A LITTLE ENGLISH. LITTLE.” “Na ge ren shi wo de BROTHER. BIG BROTHER.” He yelled at and sweated on me for a minute. We took a shot. He lumbered over to the other couch and sat next to a local teacher, Mr. Yang. As a group, we took another shot. I watched their conversation. The local teacher was patting the little brother’s stomach, which was now partly exposed. For what it’s worth, he had an outtie. I leaned forward.

 

            “You’ve been eating, eh. Look at that belly.”

            “You know what this means?” He smirked. He rubbed his thumb, middle, and pointer fingers together. “I’m rich.” He, who had been smiling without pause since he entered the room, said that last bit with the stoniest of faces.

            “Well, you must be very, very wealthy.”

            “Yes. I cannot disagree.” He raised his hands about his head, shouted wildly and clapped his hands with savage, jubilant, aggression.

 

            The little brother hiked his pants and lumbered back over to me. He plopped himself down. In English: “Foreign friend! Good friend! He jiu (drink).” We took another shot.

 

            “Have you studied any Baizuhua (local dialect)?” He barked at me excitedly.

            “Yeah, yeah, I know two words. ‘Fu ji ka’ (I’m hungry) and ‘En zong’ (drink alcohol, essentially ‘cheers.’)” He was beside himself. He jumped out of his chair and did a little spin.

            “Fu ji ka. En zong. Wow! What a talent! Can I hug you? I’m going to hug you.” He gave me the sweatiest hug I’ve received, probably ever. He even lifted me off the ground (which I was rather impressed with). I attempted to lift him—which for some reason I believe I thought was the culturally acceptable response—but failed miserably. We fell back onto the couch.

 

 

            He raised his glass, which was very much empty, and proceeded to take a shot. Upon realizing he had failed to ingest any baijiu, he tilted his head sideways, furrowed his brow, and looked at the shot glass as though inspecting some rare gemstone. Part clarification, part disbelief, part bewilderment. Again, he inexplicably raised his hands over his head, hooted wildly, and clapped. Then, he slapped me in the face. Lovingly (and lightly), to be sure.

 

            Big brother said it was time to go. Little brother reluctantly complied. 

           And just like that, they were gone. The whole episode lasted no more than 15 minutes.

We Go Shopping

           Next week the Songgui district interschool basketball tournament kicks off. Seven teams, three weeks, one champion, no monetary reward. Copious amounts of face and shame on the line. Last year Sanzhuang, my school, finished dead last. Lucky number seven.

 

            For the big tournament, Sanzhuang will join forces with local powerhouses Changtou, Dongpo, and Cishi. Sanzhuang has nine males teachers (three participating), Changtou four (three participating), Dongpo one (of three total), and Cishi one (also of three). For the record, we’re talking schools that serve towns of a few hundred people. In the smaller schools, each year probably produces five to ten students. As a result, schools only enroll students every two years. For example, a given school will never have Kindergarten and first grade at the same time. If a school terminates at fourth grade it would offer Kindergarten, second grade, and fourth grade one year, first and third the next. Three teachers. Forty students, maximum.

 

            Anyways, the two other Sanzhuang team members—Mr. Liu (1st grade teacher) and Mr. Yang (principal and entertainer)—and I went down the road to Changtou for a meeting. We didn’t play basketball. We didn’t run suicides. We didn’t even talk strategy. We did, however, talk style. The eight ragtag warriors on our mighty squad sat down in a room full of couches, smoked cigarettes, and drank tea. Mr. Yang began…

 

            “First, we must remember safety. We are old (average age of 40). We must avoid injury at all costs.”

            “Second, last, and most importantly, uniforms. Uniforms!” (A round of head-nods and universal grumblings of agreement). “First, as far as uniforms are concerned, we must all wear the same one. When passing the ball, it is crucial that we remember that we are one team. We don’t want to make the same mistakes as last year, do we?” He glares at a squirrely looking guy in the corner.

            “Our uniforms must be of high quality. We must spare no expense on our uniforms. No expense! Now, we will go to Songgui and buy our uniforms.” And so we went.

 

            Songgui is 20 minutes down the road from Changtou. We arrive around 6:30. The eight of us duck into a tiny shoe store that appears minutes from closing. To recap, it’s me, the principals of both Sanzhuang and Changtou, the vice principals of both Sanzhuang and Changtou, and three other teachers. As far as this tiny pocket of the universe goes, it’s a rather reputable crowd.

           

            Mr. Yang, leads the expedition. Uniforms! He skims the racks, like a witness out to identify the perp. It’s a modest store. A real hole in the wall. Γ shaped. Men’s shirts and shoes on one side, women’s gear on the other. Pants and shorts in the back section. A giant poster of Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love takes up one panel of the wall. It reads, “Tenacious, fear-free, I am Love.” As I peruse the store, Mr. Yang identifies his target. A turquoise and white striped polo that for some reason has “sailing” written where the logo ought to be. Like a little girl who spots the puppy that she’s got to have there’s no talking him out of it. Sailing. Mr. Yang looks around at the other teachers. They oblige with a round of head nods and universal grumblings of agreement. This is the shirt.

           

            We’ve got to try it on. The proprietress, a middle-aged woman, wearing a red apron, goes in the back and grabs what’s in stock. Only five. “We’ve got the same one, but with red stripes, or yellow,” she says. I see them hanging on the rack. Sailing. “No problem,” Mr. Yang responds without hesitation, “We’ll send for the other three turquoise ones. Rush order!” She puts the shirts down on a bench. They’re in giant Ziploc bags. The teachers look at each other and motion in concurrence. Everyone takes off their shirts. Recap: Here we have a bunch of 40-50 year old guys, among them principals and vice-principals. Imagine your elementary school principal walking into the local Foot Locker, picking out a shirt, and disrobing. Imagine him smoking a cigarette while doing it. Imagine six other middle aged male teachers from your school doing the same simultaneously. Absurd! So, I guess I have to take my shirt off. I generally wear a medium to large in the US. They hand me the 3XL. It’s a little snug, but it’ll do the job. We actually look pretty good in the shirts, almost like a team. Everyone disrobes again and puts the shirts back in the giant Ziplocs. The proprietress takes our orders.

           

            So that’s it? We’ll be getting the other three shirts in the mail? Not. So. Fast. We need pants. Our team uniform will be a turquoise and white striped polo shirt that says “sailing” where the logo ought to be and warm-up pants. Does the polo get tucked in? A valid question. I guess I’ll find out when the time comes. We go to the back of the store. It’s a tight lane with female pants on one side and male pants on the other. I grab a pair. Mr. Yang shakes his head and shoots me a look of shame and embarrassment. I’ve picked a pair of female pants that have no distinguishing characteristic. Frankly, I don’t think he was ashamed that I had picked female pants, but rather that the pants lacked the appropriate level of pizzazz that our squad deserved. I put the pants back on the rack. Everyone takes turns in the fitting room. Apparently, it isn’t okay to drop trou in this store. Presciently, I waited to see how my teammates approached the situation before going full boxer-brief.

           

            None of the pants fit. Too tight, too short. The proprietress heads to the back of the store. After about five minutes she returns. She gives me a look that implies these are the biggest pants that exist in the country of China and this is my last shot. They fit. Barely. “They are very handsome. You will wear them in class from now on,” Mr. Yang announces.

           

            Time to go. Turquoise and white striped polo shirt? Check. Biggest-in-China gray warm-ups with blue streaks? In hand. Not. So. Fast. I walk back into the main lobby. The other teachers are contemplating the shoe rack. This cannot be serious, right? Shirts, pants, and shoes, for a glorified pick up game. We may not win, but you better fucking believe we will all be wearing matching pairs of shoes. Per usual, I’m the only one who finds anything abnormal in the situation. So, I guess it’s normal.

            Arms folded, cigarette between the left index and middle fingers, Mr. Zhao, Changtou’s principal, coolly motions to a pair of black mesh running shoes. He looks left, he looks right. The other teachers nod and grumble approvingly. “Why yes, yes indeed sir. Splendid indeed sir.” He looks at the proprietress. She heads to the back again, slightly flummoxed, and returns with a bunch of boxes.

           

            The teachers love the shoes. They praise Mr. Zhao’s cunning eye for fashion. The proprietress asks me my size. “I don’t know, 30 centimeters, thereabout.” She shakes her head. “No, no, no!” She brings out what I presume is the biggest pair she has because it takes her another five minutes to find them and they are neither black nor mesh. I open the box and squeeze. Absolutely no way my heel is getting in there. I look at her and shake my head. She frowns and shrugs. I look at Mr. Yang. He looks sad again.

            “But, do you have shoes that look like these? You have shoes that look like these, right?” A demand phrased as a question.

            “I suppose I do, maybe. Yeah, I have some black shoes.”

            “And they look like these? They’re black? Definitely black? This same color?”

            “Yes, absolutely. Black like the one’s you’re wearing.”

            “And this texture as well?”

            “Well, they’re black. They aren’t mesh though. I have mesh shoes, but they’re blue.”

            “This may be a problem. I will think about it. Give me one day to think about it. It reflects poorly on the team and the school, you are aware of this?”

           

            I seriously fear that I may be kidnapped in the middle of the night and wake up with my feet bound, lying next to a box of 28 centimeter black mesh running shoes.

           

            We purchase the uniforms. Apparently the school pays for it (for now). This is good news, because I really did not want to dip into my salary of $300 a month to buy a snug 3XL sailing polo shirt and a pair of warm-up pants that look like they’ve been lifted off a member of the Boca Raton Tennis and Racquet Club. We leave the store and head back to Sanzhuang.

 

            When we get to school, I hop out of Mr. Liu’s Volkswagen. He whispers something to me. I don’t catch it. I lean toward the driver’s window.

            “What, sorry?”

            “Don’t let anyone see the pants and the shirt.”

            “Ummm… ok.” Frankly I was hoping no one would ever see them, so this is encouraging news.

            “It’s a secret. We don’t want to unveil it until the game.”

            “Got it. You can count on me.”

 

            Honestly, as painstakingly difficult as it is for me to admit this (you know, as a man and whatnot), this last bit made me choke up a little. I felt like a dick for my undying cynicism. The entire evening had been a preposterous shopping outing between eight grown men, local public figures in their own right. We spent hours picking out the perfect outfit for a seemingly insignificant basketball tournament in a tiny little district in a tiny little county deep within the heart of the biggest country in the world. Sure the teachers laughed and smoked and had a good time with it, but it really meant something to them. It really means something to them. There really is pride on the line. Students will be watching, teachers will be watching, significant other will be cheering from the sidelines. Everyone that matters in our tiny little universe will be there. It’s not going to be serious. There won’t be any trash talking or hard fouls. But, what there will be is a rare opportunity to show some visitors what Sanzhuang is all about. And if that means a tucked in turquoise striped polo, a pair of gray windbreaker pants, and some black mesh kicks, then I’m all about

Shangrila

In May 1938, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler sent a research expedition to the Tibetan Plateau. The members of the party were anthropologists, mostly German. In exchange for the resources to complete their fieldwork, the group leaders, among them critics of the regime, agreed to become SS officers. While the team, led by renowned zoologist Ernst Schafer, would carry out anthropological study, as a final kicker Himmler required that the crew search for a lost tribe of pureblood Aryans. Remember, the Nazis believed the Aryan race sprang from a pre-Buddhist Indo-Asian society. The inverted swastika, now synonymous with hate is an ancient Sanskrit symbol for goodness. The group returned abruptly in 1939—with Europe on the brink of all-out war—with some valuable new material, but to everyone’s great surprise failed to locate any pureblood Aryans.

           

            Much of this wayward Nazi theory derived from mystical accounts of a high Himalayan Utopia, an earthen paradise shielded from the rest of the world by soaring snow-capped peeks and, potentially, overprotective gods. One of the major components of said ideology is James Hilton’s mythologically-informed 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Lost Horizon speaks of a place called “Shangri-La.” Shangri-La is a kind of original version of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s village of Macondo. It’s isolated and idyllic, has magical tendencies, and the inhabitants seem to live unearthly spans of life. It’s as close to heaven as you can get on god’s green earth. It’s position high above the horizon, deep within the clouds, adds to its aura of Nirvana. I went there a few days ago.

           

            Shangri-La is not real. Or, at least, it wasn’t real. It wasn’t real until 2001, to be exact. In that year, the Chinese town of Zhongdian (中甸), located in the northernmost county of Yunnan province and firmly within the Tibetan Plateau, opted to change it’s name to Shangri-La (香格里拉). The local government claims that Zhongdian is the setting for the (not real) Shangri-La in Hilton’s novel. They also claim, more rationally, that such a name change would be a boon to local tourism. They were right. Changing a Tibetan city’s name to Shangri-La is akin to a down-and-out university in the British countryside changing its name to Hogwarts. It’s probably not illegal, and if you can fool people into belief or at least curiosity, why not?

           

            Shangri-La (香格里拉) is a fairly large city near Yunnan’s border with Tibet and Sichuan. It has a KFC, which is, in my estimation, evidence that a Chinese city has arrived. The existence of KFC in Shangri-La also goes a long way in validating the government’s claims that their city is indeed an earthly paradise. Shangri-La doesn’t feel any different from your average mid-sized city in Yunnan. Lots of hole in the wall restaurants with “C” health ratings. The Chinese FDA rates hygiene on a scale of A, B, or C. A is represented by a grinning ear-to-ear yellow smiley face. B is a green “hmmmm…” face and C is a red, grumbling frown. I have never seen an A. Never. There are hustling tuk-tuk drivers. There’s a bunch of be-dreadlocked foreigners that look lost or in the process of being found (or probably just on drugs). There’s a “Next Station” bubble tea chain, the pre-KFC indicator of imminent arrival of a city in Yunnan.

           

            The current standout aspect of Shangri-La however, is not something the government, or James Hilton, planned. This January a worker, deep in the heart of the ancient city left a blow dryer on. Due to the fact that the ancient city is/was hundreds and hundreds of years old, things escalated quickly. Today, only a few blocks remain of the old town. Walking through Shangri-La’s old city is incredibly bizarre. It feels like ancient Rome, yet the destruction took place only a few months ago. And the cause of destruction was not violent Visigoths, but a hairdryer. Centuries of history reduced to complete rubble in days. A single steel spiral staircase rises up in the middle of a field of bricks and dust.

 

            On our first night in Shangri-La, three friends and I decided we best sample the local nightlife. We headed for the new town. I’d feel cheated if a place that purports itself to be paradise didn’t know how to get down. We first went to your run-of-the-mill Indian-Nepali-Tibetan-Chinese-Chilean fusion spot located down the road from our hostel. The proprietor, a Chilean guy named Ricky, served us the house specialty; yak meat empanadas. Tibetan-chic. As far as I could tell, Ricky, who’s lived in Shangri-La for three years, was the only ex-pat living in the city. After a delectable, eclect-able mix of yak meat empanadas, chicken tikka masala, French fries, and Shangri-La beer that made me feel like I was in Babu Batt’s Dream Café, we headed for the local scene.

           

            We bought some bottles of the local version of baijiu, qingkejiu (青稞酒), at a giant supermarket. This version was made with barley instead of wheat. It was, beyond my expectations of plausibility, even worse than our local Heqing interpretation. The brand we bought came in an inauspicious bottle that looked more like it belonged in the cleaning fluids aisle than anywhere near the “things people consume” aisle. The taste confirmed our suspicions.

           

            We settled on a tiny second floor bar/club/lounge. We climbed the rickety steps and sat down at a table next to the dance floor. The dance floor stood in the center of the place. About 10 tables and couches flanked the front and left side. The bar was on the right. The spot was so smoky I couldn’t open my eyes without crying, like I was trapped in a room full of onion choppers. I lit up a cigarette.

           

            The lights were bright. On the stage were two 20-something guys in traditional Tibetan dress singing folk songs. Some people sang along halfheartedly. Generally, people just walked across the stage to and from the bar without regard. About 15 minutes after we arrived, the music cut, the (presumably) Tibetan guys vacated, and intense thumping base started emanating from all corners of the club. The strobes hit “bad news for an epileptic, and incredibly annoying for anyone” level. The first song: a bassed-out bilingual version of “Happy Birthday,” sung by what sounded like a teenage Chinese girl. Boom Boom Boom. I looked around and realized the average age was probably 18 or 19. There were definitely some older people (my age, that is), but if you’re talking simple random sample, the crowd was probably on average post-’93. I felt like I was in an Abercrombie and Fitch: surrounded by darkness, loudness, suffocating stench, (this time smoke instead of Fierce cologne) and teenagers.     

            Chinese bars/clubs are weird. Weird in the sense that I’m used to American nightlife and Chinese bars/clubs aren’t like them. When travelling outside major urban centers, you are inevitably going to see some wacky shit.

           

            A few years ago, I went with some friends to Hangzhou, a short train ride from Shanghai. After some sightseeing we went to a club (glorified bar) downtown. Upon entrance we were rushed to a table and given a bunch of free drink cards. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Yunnan. I won’t say it happened a lot in Shanghai, but I won’t say it didn’t happen a lot. We were three: an Italian girl, a Saudi guy, and myself.

           

            Anyways, you get free drinks, you get drunk. I was suitably inebriated by one or two a.m. when shit started to get out of hand. The bar started playing some hyper-paced, high-pitched English songs (sung by Chinese people of course). Happy Birthday was definitely among them. The strobe lights picked up. Five or six people dressed as giant animals appeared out of nowhere (a rabbit, a cow, a dog among others). They began dancing a meticulously choreographed program and pumping their fists/paws violently to the beat. Everyone in the crowd clapped along with unbridled passion. After a few moments they dispersed throughout the club, dancing their way between tables as the beat boom boomed and creeping the living shit out of no one except me. They ran back on stage and danced for another minute. When they finished, there was raucous applause. I wondered if I’d be allowed to go back to earth at that point. Immediately after they finished, the bar turned the lights on and everyone left. I took my thumb out of my mouth and opened my eyes.

           

            The bar in Shangri-La was not quite on this level of flat-out lunacy, but it was just different. You get used to a certain type of procedure. A club or bar looks like certain things. Dancing, for one (or at least what American college students like to believe is dancing). There wasn’t much of that going on. There was one guy who would come up behind people and hug them and wiggle around a little bit. He probably would have gotten bounced in the US, but everyone kind of just brushed him off as funny. But dancing, not really. It seemed like more of a place to hang out and chain smoke than an avenue for casual encounters. And that was okay.

           

            You get used to certain things. You get programmed. You see the weird in the different but not in the everyday. Last night, a bit further up the road from Shangri-La, we stayed in a mountainside hostel called “The Feeling of Youth.” Feeling of Youth lies many thousands of meters up in the air, bounded by whitecaps as far as the eye can see. It was cold. That high-altitude, thin cold that creeps under your jacket and goes directly to the bone. I had to use the bathroom. I walked downstairs. There were three options: Two squat toilets without doors and a pristine looking commode with a door that actually locked. I went for the commode, obviously. I sat down and my body went ice cold. I got up, opened the door, and went to the neighboring squat toilet. It felt right, even comfortable.

           

            Did I receive a divine message during my time in Shangri-La? No, because Shangri-La is a fake place. Did I find the pureblood Aryans? I don’t think so, but there was a blond-haired, blue-eyed European couple staying at the hostel. However, when I made the symbolic switch from the commode to the squat, something certainly happened within me, literally and figuratively. I think I realized that I’m beginning to de-exotify my situation here. What appears abnormal and strange is starting to become my everyday, not just in action, but in thought as well. I’m not abandoning my former, American self. I don’t want to do that, not ever. I like my American self. But, what I’m talking about isn’t voluntary. It’s just happening. At first, I had to get used to chopsticks, not showering for a week, brutal baijiu sessions, and drivers that round hairpin turns over 10,000 foot cliffs while smoking a cigarette and screaming into their cell phone. Now, it’s just life, I guess. Maybe it took a freezing cold toilet seat for me to put it all together. I came, I saw, I used a squat toilet on my own free will. That was my Shangri-La.

Simplified Chinese

“月”(yue) is the Chinese word for month. It also happens to be the word for moon. Month and moon are two of the more basic elements of any linguistic repertoire. If you don’t know how to say month or moon, you certainly cannot claim to speak said language. Yesterday, I was looking at the moon, simple enough. It hit me. Moon and month. At first I was excited, like a toddler who figures out that he can fit his legos together and make bigger legos. Then, I was a little embarrassed, like a toddler who figures out that he can fit his legos together and make bigger legos, that it took me three years of studying Chinese to make the connection. For those of you who, like me, are a little slow on the uptake:一个月(yi ge yue), meaning one month, also means one moon. So primal, so natural, so Chinese. Upon investigation, I’ve discovered that the month-moon connection is actually rather ubiquitous among many world languages (English included).

 

It’s often said that Chinese is the world’s hardest language to learn. Technically speaking, it’s probably much more grueling to learn a language spoken only by a 90-year-old widow who lives in a shack on a remote mountain in Tierra del Fuego and doesn’t know how to read or write. At least Chinese has the resources. Frankly, though, declaring Chinese as more difficult than French, Basque, or Cantonese (nine tones) is only partly acceptable. Learning to read and write is a monumental challenge. Intuitively, a pictographic language should be as easy as it gets. It should be just like, well, seeing. You see a tree, you know what it is. You see a Tyrannosaurus Rex; you know it’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Obviously, that’s not the case. Mastering, or even grasping, a pictographic language requires intense exercise of memory. English speakers need to get familiar with 26 letters, Chinese speakers need 3,000 symbols just to have a crack at the newspaper, let alone begin to attack Analects. But, that’s if you want to read and write Chinese. I do and I can, decently, but one thing at a time.

 

English is a means of communication. I say, “Hello, how are you?” you say, “I’m fine.” I say “balloon” and “calculator” and “plane” because that’s just what I say. You can go back to Latin and Vulgar Latin, and a ton of other languages that made English what it is today and understand the roots, but even those roots are just words. Chinese on the other hand is a story, a history, a guide to life, masquerading as a means of communication.

 

The Chinese word for computer is “dian nao”(电脑). The first character, dian, means electricity or electric. The second character, nao, means brain. So, in Chinese, a computer is not simply a compute-er, an object that computes, it is an “electric brain.” A movie is not simply a move-ie, a thing (picture) that moves, but rather a “dian ying” (电影), an “electric shadow.” A mustache is a “ba zi hu” (八字胡). “Ba” (八) being the character for the number 8,“zi”(字) meaning “Chinese character,” and “hu” (胡) meaning beard. So, if you’re from the Middle Kingdom, a mustache is a “beard shaped like the character for the number 8.” Once again, the reference point is “ba” (八), the character for the number 8. Looks like a mustache, doesn’t it?

 

Standard Mandarin Chinese has no plural nouns, no tenses, no verb conjugations, and no “am, is, are.” I doubt the world’s 1.4 billion Mandarin speakers are experiencing any deep FOMO-like sensations when it comes to the above constructions of speech. English speakers are so used to irregular language structures, that travesties like “went,” “mice,” and “I have swum” are essentially second nature. Think about past tense verbs. It almost feels like there are more “irregularities” than not. Took, ate, bought, did, sought, swam, ran. The past tense for “read a book” is “read a book,” which means that the word “read” in the preterit is both irregular in the sense that it lacks the suffix –ed, and irregular in its pronunciation. That said, without this linguistic injudiciousness on the part of our English forebears, we would be completely lacking for the classic “What’s black, white, and read all over?” gag. And that would be a shame.

 

Chinese has none of it. It’s also basically devoid of articles. No a’s, an’s, or the’s. The spoken words for he, she, and it are all the same. There’s also no word for hello, goodbye, thank you, happy, sad, and person. That’s actually not true, but Chinese is a language that cut the fat a long time ago.

 

That’s probably the toughest thing about moving from English, an overcomplicated language, to Chinese, a relatively straightforward one. You want and expect things to be there that simply aren’t. Try to speak English without articles: “I went to movies.” “I bought new car.” “She sells seashells by seashore.” It’s like one rolling newspaper headline. Try to speak English without plural nouns: “I ate three piece of bread.” How about no tenses: “Yesterday I eat three piece of bread.” “I just go to bathroom.” For some reason, it sounds primitive. It certainly doesn’t sound right. But, in every single case, the reader knows exactly what I’m talking about. If you tell me that you’re planning to do something tomorrow, why are you compelled to alter the verb tense to clarify? There isn’t really any necessity behind these constructions. Chinese is contextual. English unnecessarily spoonfeeds context. Learning English must suck.

 

Mandarin Chinese is not exclusively simplistic. For example, there’s an historical (“an historical” is an appalling phrase) emphasis on 成语 (chengyu), essentially Chinese proverbs. They are generally four character phrases that convey a grander meaning. It’s often said that solid knowledge of chengyu implies Mandarin fluency. My chengyu knowledge is weak. One of the first chengyu every aspiring Sinophone learns is 随俗 (ru xiang sui su). It’s typically translated as “When in Rome…” The direct transliteration is: 入-enter,乡-village, 随-follow, 俗-custom. “When you enter the village, follow the customs.” However, without the knowledge that this specific phrase is a chengyu with a specific meaning, it wouldn’t make sense in isolation. How about, 好久不见 (hao jiu bu jian). 好-very,久- long time,不-no, 见-see. That one even made it’s way across the Pacific. Another example. 十官九 (shi guan jiu tan). -ten-govern, -nine, -greed; corruption. You get the idea. There are thousands. Check out the link below for some important ones.

 

http://carlgene.com/blog/2010/07/20-actually-useful-chengyu-成语/

 

There are other idiosyncrasies that show up in Chinese, but I’ve never run into anything nearly as insufferably, painstakingly, gratuitous as say, the Spanish subjuntivo. In my experience, the most difficult aspect of learning Chinese—aside from writing of course—has been unlearning English. Deconstructing the aspects of language that I’ve come to take as a given. “I am tall!” “I am short!” You want to say it like that, no matter what language you’re speaking. You try to shove the words in with reckless abandon, over and over again. The to be verb has got to go in their somewhere, somehow. But, it’s a square peg in a round hole. Or more, accurately, it’s a peg without a hole. Over time, you get used to “I tall!” “I short!”

The most used word in the English language is, the. I used it three times in that sentence. I remember looking up the in the dictionary when I was a kid. I always got a kick out of it—the Merriams and the Websters of the world trying to define the, an extremely difficult and arduous word to describe (it almost always has the longest definition in any dictionary) without using the. That word in question does not even exist in Chinese. Instead of saying “Give me the ball,” You’d say “给我球.””Give I ball.” There’s no him, her, or me either. A word that the average English speaker probably uses once every three or four sentences is completely absent in Chinese. It takes a long time to accept the fact that the is gone for good. It’s very hard to let go.

 

I started studying Mandarin out of pure opportunism. China’s big and there’s a lot of money here. Good language to learn. Probably—no definitely—the best language to learn if you already speak English. For the reasons I’ve described, getting past Mandarin’s ground floor is exceptionally laborious. At once, you must completely dismantle your linguistic preconceptions. At once, you must learn a totally new form of script that in every way defies all you’ve learned about sounds and even shapes. Now though, I enjoy it. I luxuriate in it. It’s fascinating. It’s truly beguiling in its complete and utter avoidance of—insistence against, really—circumlocution.

 

Every time I learn a new word it feels like I already knew it. It’s almost too effortless. Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” That’s Chinese. It’s so simple and logical that it must have taken, well, millennia, to come up with and perfect. Learning Chinese I feel like a mathematician or a theoretical physicist. I imagine Phythagoreas finally reconciling a2+b2=c2 and saying to himself (in his retroactive Larry David impression), “Damn, that was pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty obvious.” A couple moments after I made the right-under-my-nose connection between moon (yue, 月) and month (yue, 月), I put together the equally patently obvious link between sun (ri,日) and day (ri,日).

Future now

I recently finished rewatching the second greatest TV show ever—after The Wire of course—The Sopranos. There’s this scene in the final episode. Butchie and Phil Leotardo are speaking on the phone. Phil’s on a payphone, hiding out amidst the DiMeo-Lupertazzi feud. Butchie’s on his cell phone, walking through Little Italy. He passes a double-decker. The tour guide murmurs something to the effect of “Little Italy, once a neighborhood of 40 square blocks is now just a single street.” Butchie walks and talks. Within seconds he’s surrounded by characters and a strange language. He’s crossed into Chinatown. He looks around nervously and turns back. This scene bummed me out.

 

It’s a central theme in The Sopranos: The slow transformation, and at times, erosion, of a culture. Earlier in the sixth season, a Jamba Juice saleswoman who wants to replace some of his North Jersey property with corporate storefront approaches Tony. At one point, some of Tony’s guys set out to offer protection to a newly opened business, a coffee franchise. The manager pleads with them that every penny is accounted for by HQ. They’re out of luck. Tony initially denies the offer from Jamba Juice, realizing its implications on the neighborhood and his livelihood. However, after the offer is upped substantially (a package which includes some intimate contact with said saleswoman), he agrees.

Last weekend a few TFC friends and I traveled to a quiet town a few hundred miles and two or three mountains away. On our way back, we hitched a van in Heqing city center that would take us home to our respective schools. After winding through a few city streets, the driver stopped in front of a massive dirt lot. He got out and went into a nearby building to grab something. As we waited, we struck up a conversation with the local woman sharing our seat. She was around 45 years old, dressed in traditional outfit. I stared at the lot. A bunch of kids flew kites, some elderly people strolled. “They’re building apartments,” the woman said, as if on cue. I asked her what used to be there. Predictably, she responded that it used to be farmland, but it hadn’t been for a while. In recent memory, it had been what it is now, a dirt lot. That piece of land is in limbo, frozen in time. It’s not currently and probably never will yield rice, potatoes, or wheat. But, at least for now, it’s still a dirt lot and kids can still fly their kites in it.

Five hundred years ago, people thought the Earth was flat. The global population lingered around 1 billion. Life expectancy in Europe was around 30 years. Democracy was centuries away, colonization was in its early stages, and most people around the world were ruled over, not governed. People two counties away were foreigners, people oceans away were aliens. Five hundred years is not that long. That’s about six, six healthy lifetimes of 80 years old away from today.

The first commercial flight didn’t take place until 100 years ago. The loan passenger, Abraham Pheil, paid $400 to fly 23 minutes from St. Petersburg to Tampa Bay. That’s St. Petersburg, Florida. Today (4/8/14), there were 300,000 flights in total, and the $400 that Pheil paid is now worth about $9,300, which could get you to Asia and back about seven times.

The massive tradeoff that happens as a product of globalization and growth is what Tony Soprano struggled with when he mulled the offer from Jamba Juice. It’s what made Butchie turn around when he hit the terminus of Mulberry Street after what seemed like only a few steps in one direction. It’s what the kids with their kites don’t realize and the woman in traditional dress sitting in the back of a cab laments and welcomes at the same time. Human cultures and subcultures have been dying since they began to exist. Crusaders, explorers, colonists, dictators and numerous malcontents have caused people to change their religions, diets, leisure habits, jobs, convictions with absolution for millennia. However, there has never been anything like the disintegration we see today.

The tradeoff is practicality vs. tradition. Competition vs. identity. Why doesn’t Little Italy, ostensibly, exist anymore? It doesn’t need to. People stopped coming. Little Italy was the waiting room. It was the place between before and after. First, you escaped poverty and hardship in your home country. When you arrived in your new home, you retained the good things about where you came from while slowly frittering away the bad. So, you escaped the things you sought to escape, but not your identity per se.  Then, finally, before you even realize it, usually by the second or third generation, tradition begins to dissipate. Often, it comes with increased prosperity and quality of life. Culture is a function of time, place, and circumstance and is nearly impossible to recreate when those three variables are altered. Today Little Italy—the one on Mulberry and Grand—exists out of nostalgia and sentimentality, not out of necessity.

The core purpose of globalization is economics. Columbus and Pizarro didn’t sail the Atlantic to sightsee. They came for land and gold and stuff. More people study Spanish than Basque for the same reason. Opportunity. Practicality. There is a price though, and the price may be the spice of life.

Where I live is in the middle of a fascinating crossroads. I call it future-now.  It’s so rapid that sixth grade students’ native language is Baizuhua, the mother tongue of the Bai people that populate the area, while many to most first grade students can’t even speak it. Roads are torn apart as they’re being built, literally. Most older women wear traditional clothes, the divide being clear around 35 or 40 years of age. Minority language begins to disappear, supplanted by a regional dialect that will eventually be supplanted by a national dialect. Retaining culture—when I say culture I mean tradition—and increasing economic standing are incongruous goals, unless your people happen to live atop a gigantic oil reserve.

The funny thing about me discussing and bemoaning impending loss of culture is that I hail from one of the more cultureless places on the planet. I’m from suburban/rural Connecticut. If pressed, 99.9% of the world population could not produce a single fact about this tiny corner of the globe. It’s a place people live. We don’t have a staple food. We shop in strip malls. We have nice yards. There isn’t much tradition aside from living and buying shit. People will say that technically “everything is culture,” but I don’t agree. Culture is deep rooted and exists out of a combination of tradition and necessity. Culture isn’t always a choice.

It’s an “If you can’t beat ‘em,” scenario. That may piss people off, but that’s how culture is destroyed. You can go to great lengths to maintain your standard, but if dominant culture calls for a certain behavior and you’re stuck working a tough job and living in the metaphorical “bad part of town,” historically speaking, something’s gotta give. The paradigm occurs over and over and over again with immigrant groups all across the world, from my Polish-Jewish ancestors in the Lower East Side onward. It may be the language, it may be a type of observance, it may be dress. One thing leads to another, and dominant culture absorbs. Of course, this is the goal for many groups who leave home and enter a new country. Not necessarily for those who are usurped.

This is probably why I, and other products of dominant culture desire for retention of culture in the face of development: because we never had it. Or, because our people’s culture was absorbed long ago. I look at my father’s parents. The children of immigrants, speakers of Yiddish, born in Brooklyn and retired in Boca Raton. They were Jews. They had accents. They ate Jewish food, not because it tasted good or somehow invoked nostalgia, but because that’s just what they ate. To them, there was nothing to it. That’s just who they were. That was life. They spent their whole lives deeply imbedded in the culture. Americans, yes, but definitely Jews too. Along with that surely came a lot of bad things. That’s probably why they spent their whole lives in little Jewish enclaves across the country.

I threw bitch-fits when my parents wanted me to go to Hebrew school. I barely ever went. I’ve never been persecuted for my heritage in the slightest. I haven’t even been called names by people who actually meant it. Yet, I cling to this portion of my identity. I certainly identify with Jewish culture and I’ve had fringe contact with it throughout my life, but I never lived in it like my grandparents or my dad. Maybe I want to be a Jew because I want to be something different and unique. My ancestors though, it wasn’t entirely their choice. In short, I want the benefits of the identity without the shittiness.

Full circle. Practicality vs. identity. In today’s flat society, money (economic status) is usually the enemy of culture. Money means options. Money means the metaphorical suburbs. Money means up and out. Never has this been truer than in today’s globalized world. Unless you belong to a few large dominant cultures, you almost certainly have to sacrifice an element of culture or tradition in order to gain access to greater economic power. If you do belong to those dominant cultures, it’s likely your ancestors made the sacrifice long ago. I’m not stating opinion, I’m stating a modern-day reality. If you speak only Navajo, there is only so far you can go before you are compelled to learn English. If your religion forbids you from the use of electricity, you are essentially excluded from dominant culture, unless you are willing to make compromises. At some point, you must stop and be content with existence or begin to sacrifice your customs. In many cases, it will start to disappear before people even realize it. The tradeoff of globalization.

It dispirits me to see cultures disappear, but I never really had one, so I’m in no position to judge. Even a dubious subculture’s erosion, like the American Mafia, saddens me. Seeing AJ go on to work in the film industry always got me down, even though I am fully aware that it made the world a better place.  I wonder if it’s possible to keep cultures alive and “prosper”—in a monetary sense. There are examples: The Syrian Jews of New York, for one. But, it’s unusual. It takes an extreme amount of effort and often sacrifice, on the part of many people. Mark Zuckerberg probably would have run into trouble starting Facebook if he restricted himself from electricity on the Sabbath. Globalization has redefined prosperity. It’s made rich richer. It’s upped the requirements for participation in the global wealthy class. And it doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Close Encounters

The following diabolical account took place a few months ago:

 

It was a dark and stormy night… I was settled into my bed, which at this point was only a board with a thin mattress pad draped over top. The rain pitter-pattered on my windows and the roof above me. Outside, I caught intermittent bursts of faraway thunder. It was one of those comfortable storms, where you feel happy to be inside, yet completely unaffected, aside from some soothing sounds. Like a Jack Johnson Banana Pancakes type of storm. I’ve got no reason to be outside, and even better, I have an excuse to be inside and do nothing. Bad weather is a desire of the slothful.

 

I was new to China. I hadn’t lived here for two years. That afternoon following my classes, I was overtaken with that insatiable desire to take a nap—the unappeasable somatic inclination that generally overtakes me at least seven times a week. Being new to China, I made a mistake that every jaded American who’s ever been to a country with rational systems of measurements makes: I set my alarm twelve hours too late. It was 2:00 and I wanted an hour-long siesta. So I set my alarm for 3:00. Problem was, it wasn’t 2:00, or at least it wasn’t 2:00 on my cheapest-in-the-store, couldn’t-break-if-you-used-it-as-a-hockey-puck Samsung go-phone. It was 14:00! In my pre-nap giddiness/haze, I dialed in 3:00, when 15:00 was the appropriate hour for my wake-up call. In any event, I ended up sleeping about an hour and paid no mind to the alarm not ringing.

 

So, I settled into bed around 10:00 pm (22:00), blissfully unaware that I would be rousted from my sleep only five hours hence. I read a few pages of the beat up copy of On the Road I’d taken from the Sherman Library and shortly thereafter descended into dreamland, the storm pitter-pattering me to sleep.

 

Alas, as typically happens with alarm clocks, mine went off at the time I had set it for: 3:00. I came to, nodding my head back and forth on my pillow. I rolled over and reached down toward my cold tile floor to get a hold of my phone. I wasn’t hitting the right key. I glanced down to assess, and as I did so… Through the faint illumination of my hockey puck phone I could see it. And, even though it barely created any sensation, it felt like one thousand piranhas had gotten hold of me. A spider, the size my hand, and then some, had crawwwwled across the back of hand. I sprung into action with the urgency of Jack Bauer with 15 minutes to find and diffuse a bomb hidden somewhere in the walls of the White House. I grabbed On the Road and smacked it against the ground in the spider’s direction. One, two three. On the third smack, I jumped fully out of bed and went for the light switch. The room was now fully lit. And so was I. I’d gone from pure REM to full-on 5-Red-Bulls heart-pounding vigilance.

 

I inched over to On the Road, which was now backside-up, showing a picture of Kerouac in an old-school striped cardigan. This was one super large arachnid, and I didn’t really want to see it, dead or alive. I slid my index finger under the book and flipped it. Nothing. Thanks for that you beatniks. I cursed Kerouac and his friends. Now shit was really on. The innocent storm had now, at least in my mind, become an epic natural disaster. The windows shuttered, lightning pounded the mountains, and each moment brought us closer to utter destruction.

 

I gathered myself frantically. I’m a pretty easygoing dude, but when there’s a pancake sized beast on the loose, in my tiny room, I can’t just climb back into bed and play pretend. No. No sleep would be taking place before my adversary had been annihilated. I grabbed my flyswatter and, wearing boxer briefs and sandals, started the chase. I looked under stacks of papers, in drawers, and with great fright, under my pillow. I figured it would have to be under my bed. Why did it have to be there? Anywhere but under the bed. I was looking for something I didn’t want to find, like a test you know you’ve failed, but have to see your score anyway. But, if I didn’t find it, the result would be significantly worse. I’d never sleep again. I felt like the meek teenager in a horror movie who slowly goes to open the door that the audience knows the killer is lurking behind. Under my bed were a few suitcases, so I couldn’t really see anything. I edged closer, the storm pounding behind me, the walls shaking with each thunderous roar, and moved my suitcase to the side. Still. Nothing.

 

I briefly came to the conclusion that I’d made it up. I was barely awake after all. It was dark at the time. So, I decided to conclude my search. I knew, whether I had made it up or not, sleep would still be impossible. I pushed my bed as close as possible to the wall, shoved my covers between the crack so that, if the spider weren’t in fact imaginary, it wouldn’t be able to make any moves. Obviously, the light stayed on—I had to stay hawk-eyed, head-on-a-swivel. Couldn’t be fully on guard in the dark. And, potentially, I was scared shitless.

 

I cautiously lay back down. I made it up. No spider. Nothing to see here. I leaned over to grab On the Road, and there it was, darting from under my bed. I’d missed it. I jumped up with the adrenaline of skydiver. I seized my size 12 Florsheim leather loafers and attacked with full force. This time I didn’t miss. I knew I got him but I refused to look. The 25-minute 8-legged reign of terror perpetrated on room 302 was over.

 

 

The next morning I got up and reluctantly turned over the loafer. The spider was no bigger than a bottle cap.