Hesitate at the Crossroads

IMG_0181Sanzhuang Village

A Chinese proverb goes like this: 彷徨歧途 (panghuang qitu), “Hesitate at the Crossroads.” It’s not a command or an instruction. It’s just a thing someone might do.

I’ve said this before: I live at-on-in a crossroad. The thing about these so-called crossroads though, in the big social, future sense, is that they don’t really exist. Why? Because, if you are at them you have come from somewhere else, and likely been consistently faced with them—various intersections, again and again and again. After a while you stop noticing. There is no singular crossroad, as we like to imagine it, just an endless series inevitably bypassed again and again and again. The crossroad I currently live at is the evaporating past and its foregone future. But, I reiterate: the crossroad has become a useless metaphor. It’s been replaced by a highway—the Highway of Time.

The funny thing about time, though, as I’ve come to find, is that it isn’t what we think it is. It’s got very little to do with ticks & tocks, waxes & wanes, and wrinkles & gravity. We can make it go. And this is our paradoxical obsession: to make time go as fast and as slow as we possibly can. To tame it. We want everything immediately, yet we want our time to move as slowly as possible—in short, to last.

Here—where I am right now—in this little, rapidly transforming county in the middle of this rapidly transforming country, at this supposed developmental crossroads, I see the desire to outwit, jump over, redefine, and move ahead of time on hyper-drive. It’s moving so fast, that you can literally see it. You can literally see the passage of time. What does it look like: wheelbarrows, shovels, straw hats, dust, rocks, cardboard boxes, burning trash, assembly lines, cranes. You can hear it too, of course. Slow time sounds like crickets under the moon, a plodding, ticking hand. But, time, when it moves this fast, is deafening: Cracks and hammers, shouts and drills, horns, turbines, whirrs. The louder, the faster. It does not plod away like the persistently predictable second hand. It doesn’t tick. It roars.

But, it didn’t always.

Why did we invent time? I suppose to challenge ourselves. Time is a measure of our own abilities. We are so obviously, viscerally constrained by it, that the only thing we can do is play against it. This has, I guess, emerged as the defining goal of people: to—realizing that we can’t stop time—go faster than it.

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And this, of course, is where the whirring turbines and crunching factories come in. Or in my life—the wheelbarrows full of rocks and the endless young men setting bricks on concrete, concrete on bricks, bricks on concrete. Because, some time ago, it became very clear that the only thing standing between the present of—shall we say, China, but really of anywhere—and the future, was, is time. Because, if time hadn’t existed—if we didn’t need to pass by noon to get from morning to midnight—the future, of course, would already be here. No, we’ve got to bring the future to us. Too bad. Funny, how that goes.

So, what you get is the largest, dustiest, loudest, fastest passage of time in human history. How do you measure time? It turns out not with clocks. You put together all of the time-busting methods and you decide how good they are, how good they have been, how good they will be: 0%, 2%, 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%!!!, 14%, 12%, 9%, 6%… and that’s how time moves. The faster we move, the better. Our success, our worth, our everything, judged on speed.

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It’s important, vital, crucial to make it go Fast, because once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. Wait what? That’s not right! It’s the other way around! We should make it go slow, precisely because we can’t get it back. Sorry, no time to think about time.

And what about the hands that turn the clock? Millions, billions! of hands smashing and crushing and huffing, sliding, tumbling across the numbers as they fall and rise and fall again? They are there, speeding on the Highway of Time, incapable of stopping at, now utterly oblivious to, the crossroads. And they—the crossroads, the moments of hesitation—don’t exist, like the space between line and asymptote; they have become so insignificant that their value can only be zero.

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But the faster we move, the worse, because it gets harder and harder and harder to go faster, faster, Faster. But we can’t help ourselves; the desire to beat time becomes so powerful. We have forgotten whatever the goal is, and whatever it was has been replaced by that desire, to continue to set the pace ahead.

But.

A tragic—or perhaps encouraging—fact emerges. We can’t ever beat it. We can only beat it for a while. Because, it never ends. It renews itself over and over. The future, by its very nature, will never arrive. And we’ve tricked ourselves into believing we could make time tick to our tock.

And only by realizing it, only by realizing time’s steadfast power, can we make it powerless. Only by hesitating at the crossroads, can we even make the crossroads exist. Otherwise, we’re just racing to lose.

No. Wait. Look left, right, look back. Then go forward, if you please.

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Principal Yang’s Barbershop

Xiao Zhou is crying. Big tears. The kind of tears reserved for upside down goldfish, and rooms full of finger-wagging adults. Twelve-year-old Xiao (pronounced: She-Oww but like ‘e’ and ‘o’ are one vowel) Zhou (pronounced: Joe) is dripping with blubbering, mournful, sorrowful upside down goldfish tears. To his right is a line of boys, faces splashed with increasingly frightened looks. In front of Xiao Zhou is a courtyard full of students and teachers, all curiously eyeing the spectacle. The bell rings and the teachers and students disperse, saving the other boys—momentarily—from self-imposed humiliation. Xiao Zhou, of course was not so lucky. Behind him is the happiest face a human being can make, I’m sure of it. Under the auspices of this ear-to-ear grin, Xiao Zhou makes a half-hearted attempt to depart for class. Locks of black hair slide off his body-shrouding apron.

“Are you insane? I’m not through with you yet, Xiao Zhou.” Principal Yang beams and gives me a wink before setting his shears back to work.

It’s the end to the monthly ill-fated game of cat and mouse for Xiao Zhou and most of the sixth grade boys at Sanzhuang Elementary School. A game they play relentlessly, over and over again, despite the sure-fire result that their incipient hairstyles modeled after Korean pop stars and Taiwanese kung fu heroes will be destroyed. Their adversary: Sanzhuang’s resolute Principal Yang, who waits anxiously, clippers and shears at the ready, for the day when hair becomes long enough to violate school code. He trots out tiny wannabe Jay Chous, bangs falling far short of their goal of visual impairment, and slices and dices their lettuce until they’re returned fully to awkwardly clumsy adolescence. Each time they knock on the door of teenagehood, Principal Yang mows them down with delight. And each time, they lament their elusive privilege to resemble a human mop with a whole bunch of tears.

o-BABY-MOP-facebookActual human mop

Principal Yang, for his part, is not only a despotic beautician determined to crush the follicle aspirations of China’s youth. He says if he weren’t a principal, he’d open up his own barbershop. But, I can only imagine the present arrangement to fuse cold, hard discipline with haircuts is about as close to cloud nine as Principal Yang will ever be.

“OK. Let’s take a look.” He pulls out a mirror and gives Xiao Zhou an extended look at his new haircut, providing the student a chance to confirm that he hates his new haircut. “ Wa! How about that? In like a bum out like an emperor. The guy looks sharp.”

Xiao Zhou nods, defeated. Principal Yang removes the apron and instructs the student to return to class. I move into the barber’s chair: a rickety wooden bench. He shakes out the apron and fastens it around my neck.

“You sure do look like an idiot.”

“I’m usually more accurate.”

I’d tried to cut my own hair—something I’ve been doing for years after reasoning that barbershops and hair salons are full of cheats and thieves. But, I’d really fucked it up this time, and, according to Principal Yang, the back of head looks like a mutated leopard.

“Let’s see. I’m going to give you the number one, best head in China.” (It sounds better in Chinese).

“Alright. I trust you, Principal Yang.”

“A man should trust the barber over all others.” It’s a profound statement, and perhaps partly the reason for my suspicions of hairdressers. They can strike at any moment, after all. He goes to work, seeming to express mild surprise (discontent?) that his subject isn’t crying.

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It’s just he and I now, and the faint creek of his scissors against my mutated leopard head. The rest of the school is sitting in class. I look onto the courtyard and beyond it, the deep blue sky consumed by undulating mountain chains in each and every direction. Living in the constant midst of such hulking green-black barriers, it’s hard not to view them metaphorically. You’re perpetually in a world with no horizon. I don’t mean that necessarily in the bleak, hopeless way it can be construed. I just mean, you simply can’t ever see anything else from where you sit. Your view isn’t constricted by the limited capabilities of your eyes. No, it’s external, something you can’t control—something nearly impossible to blast away—and certainly, without a great deal of imagination, impossible to see through. It’s not as though some days, weather-permitting, you can see far, far, far. No, your perspective always screeches to a halt at the peak of a mountain and a few China Mobile cell towers. It’s hard to really make sense of a world that’s looking at the mountain’s opposing face. It’s hard to imagine looking at that opposing face. It’s hard not to feel frozen in space.

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“Cutting hair is a wonderful thing. You can talk to the people. You can make them happy,” (An unusual result for this particular barber) “you provide and create and, of course, you socialize.”

“If you enjoy it so much, why don’t you open your barbershop?”

“I can’t do that, now. Don’t you see, no one wants an old man for a barber. They want a sharp, young guy or a slick, pretty girl.”

“You’ve got style, Principal Yang. No doubt about that.”

“Yes, yes. That’s true. I do have style. Much more than these young boys. A fact. But, besides, there’s no money in the hair world.” He says, as though repeating something he heard someone else say once. He shakes his head in lament and whirls around to tackle the stray scraps hanging over my forehead. “Ahh, being a principal is so tiring at times. So troublesome. If there’s a problem who do they call? They call me. Everyday, something. Always something. A barber—when the kids smoke in the dorm, when the education bureau comes to town, when that kid fell in the damn toilet, do they call the barber? I doubt it. They call the barber when their hair is too long.”

“Barbers have no influence, Principal Yang. They have no place in society—not like principals. No money, no influence—like you said.”

“Wa! Money and influence. All that stuff. You know, Mr. Luo, those are things so many people always want.”

“I would say you have that. Don’t you think you have that?” Being a school principal here, he definitely has that.

“Those are things everyone always wants: Why? Because no one ever has them.”

“What do you mean?” He squinted and snipped at the top of my head.

“Well… you can measure those things—and things you can measure can always be more. You’ll never be able to have all of it. Those are the things you have to get somewhere else. The only way you’ll ever get it all is if you take it from everyone else. But, what about the things you can make by yourself, without doing anything but sitting and talking to your friend or looking at those beautiful flowers about to burst—happiness, pleasant times?”

He held my head fixed and I gazed at the courtyard and out to the mountain faces.

“That’s the good stuff.”

He put down the scissors and replaced my view with a mirror. I looked at myself and the new cut.

“Wa! How about that? Now, that’s how you give a haircut.” He said, beaming.

Rarified Air: A Flatological Thriller

I’ve got this selfish guilty pleasure. No two ways about it, it’s simply not nice: I fart on airplanes. Routinely. In fact, there are times I go out of my way to fart on airplanes. If you’ve ever been around one of my kind, I understand how that might make you feel: disgusted, confused, outraged, demanding answers.

Why would someone do that, you ask? Hard to say, really. But, it’s probably simply that an aircraft cabin is the ideal location for clandestine flatulence. Proximity renders the amount of potential transgressors unusually high—as many as 10 possible guilty parties per given seat assignment. Plus, that profoundly subtle droning of flight and cabin pressure essentially knocks out auditory perception. The offender generally has fart blanche, as they say.

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And, of course, there is the captivity. No, there is no escaping. There is only the bathroom, which, I would be remiss not to say, will do little to assuage olfactory hardship. Sure, evacuating the aircraft is an option, but rarely an attractive one. You’re pretty, pretty, pretty much stuck.

Given the above, there really is no comparison. As Sinatra said, in reference to farting on airplanes, it’s rarified air up there.

Typically, nothing comes of this callous act. Sometimes, momentary confusion from left and right, front and back. Ordinarily, nothing out of the ordinary—aside from the run-of-the-mill perturbation. But, the perturbed know there is no recourse. Nosing out the miscreant is next to impossible, and what good would it do? Few things in life could be more awkward than sitting next to a complete stranger who you’ve just wrongly (or worse, rightly) accused of flatulence, for upwards of 12 hours. No, generally, nothing happens.

Which brings me to the present day. Not too long ago I had my seminal farting on airplanes moment. My magnum flatus, as they say. I was on a rather long flight, the details of which I will not divulge for fear of reprisal. It had been a particularly extended gate-wait and I had indulged in an unfortunate contrivance that the purveyor insisted on referring to as “food.”

The following is (relatively) true.

It began around cruising altitude. I remember because I had just been granted permission by the flight attendant to undo my seat belt—a symbolic act, as it were, which became the undoing of the couple sitting to my direct right. I, in seat D, the man in E, the woman in F. He had short but shaggy blonde hair, in what I can only refer to as the extraordinarily rare adult mushroom cut. “The Warhol” is really the only way to do it justice. He had a look and air that suggested a future full of facelifts. He was chubby, but unaware of it. He V-necked. He seemed like an excessive hand-sanitizer and watcher of reality TV. I’m also sure he outwardly disliked homeless people. That kind of person. She was quiet and fortunate to be seated in seat F.

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Shortly after we reached cruising altitude, he unglued himself from Candy Crush and shot up. Staring straight ahead, he remarked in an overtly frantuppity manner:

“Babe!

“Yes babe?”

“Is that a fart?”

She whispered, “Honey, what? I don’t know. I don’t smell anything. What do you think it is?”

“Uhhhh… I think it’s a fart, babe. Pretty sure I know what a fart-uh smells like.”

The source of his conniption receded into compressed air and he returned to Candy Crush. For my part, I continued to pretend-watch a muted Japanese game show.

Moments later, I struck again.

Oh no. Oh no. Babe. I smelt it again.”

“What honey?”

“I smelt the… I smelt the goddamn fart, babe.” He stammered. I composed myself.

“Honey, honey. Calm down. I honestly don’t notice anything. It’s fine. Honey, it’s fine.”

“So… so god— so fucking rude.”

Again, the elusive essence dissolved into parts unknown. He squeezed his iPhone and continued to savagely rearrange jellybeans and lemon drops. For my part, I shook my head in distaste and subtly pinched my nose to discredit any theories against seat 31D. Classic move, of course. Inside, I laughed hysterically, or was it manically?

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I allowed approximately three minutes to pass and began to read a book. The man in 31E, after hyperventilating for some time had pacified himself and was watching something on his computer and doing that thing where you laugh explicitly loudly to get the attention of other people—usually to bait them into asking you what you were laughing at so you can tell them about it. However, I had a sneaking suspicion he was doing it to take some sort of passive-aggressive revenge on the farter—aka the person sitting next to him—aka me. Well, I can’t stand when people do the attention-grab-laugh, whether grounded in need for validation or vengeance. So, I returned to the fray. This time, more ruthless than ever.

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“Goddamn fucking shit fucker son of a bitch.” He flailed.

“Jesus Christ, honey what is it?”

“Fart-uh.”

“What?”

“What do you mean ‘what?’ Someone’s farting and they’ve been doing it since we got to goddamn cruising altitude.”

“Shhh, honey. Relax. People will hear you.”

Good! I hope they hear me. Hey! If whoever it is keeps farting, you’re being so rude. This is so ridiculous. I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Please, Jeffery. Please, don’t let it bother you.”

“Well, it does bother me. I can’t be expected to stand for this. The farting has gone too far. Too far, Allison.”

At this point, I reasoned to end the game, which had begun to feel vaguely punitive. I focused inconspicuously on the book, headphones still in. Things had escalated beyond my wildest imaginations. Jeffery was right. The farting had gone too far. But, of course, there are times in life when body and mind do not see eye to eye.

“Oh god no. No way.” His hand shot up to the control panel and he dinged wildly for the flight attendant. A minute later a man arrived. But, of course, the dust had cleared.

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“Yes sir, how can I help you?”

His wife/girlfriend/babe shook her head and stared out the window.

“Excuse me, but someone has, uhh, been ummm, fart-ing non-stop since cruising altitude.”

I could not see the attendant’s face, but I imagine he, like myself, was going to great pains not to burst into rabid, uncontrollable laughter.

“Well, sir. Well, I’m sorry.”

“Yes, I assumed you would be. Not as sorry as me though.”

“Sir, please. I don’t believe there’s anything I can do. And besides, sir…”

“What? Besides what?!

“Well, besides, sir… I—I frankly do not smell anything, sir.”

“Yes, of course not! It’s a fart. It goes away, you know. But, it comes back!”

“Well sir, if in fact it does comes back, please alert the cabin crew.”

“Fine.”

Jeffery put his elbow on the tray table and ran his hand through his adult mushroom-cut. Defeat flashed across his face. No one believed him. No one cared. No one smelled anything. I, sitting there, clenching my secret tight, began to feel something like remorse. After all, it was my raw, cold-blooded lack of compassion that had brought so much woe, so much distress to row 31. I felt bad then. This time, in the end, it was wrong. What I did to Jeffery that day was wrong. Frankly, I was a bit scared. Might I be violating international law? Might I be compromising the integrity of the Clean Air Act of 1963? In a shocking change of events, the karmic tables had turned—I deserved it. I vowed to stop by any means necessary. I even decided to give him full domain of the armrest.

Now the joke was on me. The flight had only just begun. There was no escape. I flew too close to the sun. There was a whole ocean left to go and I’d already played my hand. I’d have to hold it.

He won.