Wants and Needs: Trying to Figure out Which is Which

Ask yourself: What is the single most basic human need? There are a lot of needs and I suppose they do coalesce somewhat into a hierarchy—starting with what will keep me alive and for how long and morphing into what will make my life enjoyable (ie what will make me think least about the fact that I will die sooner or later), and probably ending with something like “what will make my life meaningful?”

But, anyways, if you said that anything other than oxygen is the most basic human need, I must call you crazy and disagree. If you can’t breathe you can’t eat. You can’t pay rent. You can’t, for more than at most 60 seconds, ponder your existence.

“Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.”

“Down again?”

“Down. Dead. Ridiculous.”

“It works for me. It’s quite fast actually. See, look I’m watching a video.” I smirked.

“Well, fuckin’ A. It doesn’t work for me.” Mr. Yang has the foulest mouth in the history of second grade teachers. He’s an epic malcontent—a man so irritable he is irritable about how irritable he is. “I’m so pissed off today. It’s pissing me off.”

On a cold day: “Freezing my damn balls off. Everyday. Cold. Bullshit.”

On a hot day: “Sweating like a pig. No AC. Bullshit.”

On the most beautiful day in recorded history: “Clear blue sky, billowy white clouds, soft breezes cascading off the early spring harvest, butterflies alighting to caress my face. Buncha bullshit if you ask me.”

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Today, Mr. Yang is pissed off at the teacher’s lounge wifi, which was installed a few weeks ago. He’s not the only one. Most teachers have been complaining about its efficiency since the day this particular series of tubes was tubed-up. In most cases—Mr. Yang turned out to be no exception—the teachers had simply neglected to enable wifi on their phone. I instructed Mr. Yang how one might do that. He began to flash a smile, but quickly shook his head and remarked on the inherent and profound bullshit coursing through the situation.

Now, obviously, there is something that needs to be addressed between the bullshit. A month ago, there was no wifi in the teacher’s lounge.

There’s this interesting interplay in life, one that plays differently based on different inputs. That’s the interplay between wants and needs. On a macro, societal, human level, the interplay between wants and needs is a complex series of promotions and demotions—a rather fluidly progressing shift in perceptions and expectations. How we distinguish—honestly distinguish—between the two tells a great chunk of the story of our societies and us.

One thing is clear about this interplay: It is much harder to go one way than the other. Promoting a want to a need (expectation works too if need seems to strong) is a satisfying process. It’s nice. It means things are better than they were. The prospect of demoting a need to a want is the type of shit that people fight wars over to avoid. No oxygen, no wars. No food, no politics.

I’ve thought about this more than I’ve thought about nearly anything during these last couple years. And that’s probably due to a rather drastic recalibration of my wants and needs—a shift in my expectations for my world. Obviously, my revision has been tangibly downward. I need less. It’s less a function of self than circumstance. To rapid fire a few things that have gone from habit to afterthought: Internet, heating/cooling, daily showers, consistent access to food, weekly showers, infrequent but existent sex, a new outfit everyday, clean water, sitting down to poop, refrigeration, driving……. Are any of these things people need? Obviously, the answer is no. Are these things people need as certain societies are presently constructed? That’s a little more complex, but yeah, probably.

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Even during these two years—as I have reconsidered the interplay—I have witnessed a lot of those wants being gradually converted into needs on a grander scale. Boxes checked off, one by one, signaling “progress.” Ding, ding, and ding. Half the teachers at my school bought new cars and learned to drive. We installed a flushing toilet (https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/commode/) We got that bullshit wifi. Slowly, where there was once nothing, there emerges that which one cannot live without. Crazy. So quick. Kind of, in many ways, like hard drugs. Once you get a taste, you’re fucked. It’s a lot easier to live without them until you’ve lived with them.

I went to India last summer. India and China are special analogs. Similar in perhaps only that they both have a whole lot of people and are both romanticized by hygienically challenged Brits in dreads and parachute pants. One thing struck me pretty hard though: India, economically speaking, is in a different universe than China. Compare Shanghai with Mumbai. Compare Yunnan (where I live), one of the poorer parts of China, with the Indian countryside. There is almost nothing to compare. To be clear, there is still intense poverty in China. But, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a little—nah, a lot—different.

Lately, I’ve been hearing an uptick in a different kind of need. I’m not going to go into it too much until I’m back under the watchful eye of the NSA and not the PRC. But, you can venture to guess what it might be. It’s got something to do with that third type of need/entitlement/expectation. The one about meaningfulness—fulfillment of self. It’s another area where India and China are very different. One’s system is inherently considered right. The other, scary and dangerous. It’s a thought I couldn’t disengage myself from after seeing family upon family of shoeless, clothes-less kids on the streets of India’s biggest cities. What, I often thought, are the priorities here?

Everyone has their own kneejerk reaction to stuff like “communism” (quote unquote because what they’ve got here isn’t really that), human rights, will of the people, freedom. These are issues of great importance. They cause wars and highly intelligent/intellectual/well thought out/factually-supported debates on the Internet. They are inarguable dogma to most everyone. But, where do they fit on the hierarchy? Would you rather eat, would you rather sleep in a bed, would you rather have a road from your tiny village to the hospital 20 miles away, or would you rather have the right to say, talk about all the idiots in congress and choose the president? Please do not for a moment think I am advocating for less rights. Each and every government in the world deserves to be subject to their iteration of the first amendment. I am not trying to speak for anyone. I am simply trying to ask some questions—analyze some of the stuff I’ve seen. In many instances, you can have both basic needs and basic freedoms! But just think about the choice. If you had to choose? Where is the line? Where is your line? Perhaps if you have never been hungry, if you have never slept on the street, you—like me—are unqualified to draw one.

We are lucky, many of us, that we will never have to draw this line. Many of our revolutions have already happened. But, there will be more.

Oxygen–the kind that isn’t bound to two hydrogens. That’s all I would think about if you tied me up to a bunch of cinderblocks and tossed me overboard—not dinner, not the Keystone Pipeline, not whether or not the wifi password is capitalized. This is obvious, perhaps a little preachy. But, it’s just a good starting point. It scales up rather smoothly. Check the box, move on. Check the box, move on. That’s kind of what we do, how we measure our progress. We check a box and then start searching for the next one—kind of like leveling up in Q-Bert or something. You can’t just go skipping around all out of order, it’s against the rules! Maslow would be pissed. You can’t be stressing about cancelling your colonoscopy when you’re underwater. That would be a pretty depressing last thought, anyway.

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Where is your line? Are you lucky enough to be able to choose your line?

It’s been pretty damn fascinating to watch how quickly a new status quo takes hold and becomes something of an inalienable foundation for living in the world—how stuff that didn’t even exist seems to materialize out of thin air and morph into something impossible to exist without. Because, innovation is a drug. It starts out as an added bonus—a cool new experience. But, then it becomes just another part of life. Something you need to function. Something that clouds your perspective of what life was like before it arrived. A box cast in stone that you just can’t uncheck. It’s a good thing though, as long as you remember the oxygen.

Old People and Young People

I’m sitting casually on the steps to the speaking platform/flagpole at Sanzhuang. It’s a clear, bright blue day as always. On the step above me is Zhang Jin Wei, a sixth grader who I taught as a fifth grader. Zhang Jin Wei’s body’s too big for him, but he’s too young for his age. He has a lego-head-shaped-head—and a haircut that almost makes you think he might be balding, even though you know it’s biologically out of the question. He’s profoundly awkward—a characteristic alive and well in each and every sixth grader, past, present, and future. He talks in spurts, his speech moving not in step with neural synapses, but the rapid thump of his circulatory system. In short, he’s a kid. But, Zhang Jin Wei is also a profoundly smart kid. In a class dominated by intelligent and focused girls, he’s the only boy that even cracks the top ten.

He seems to search for an out of our conversation before it even begins.

“Zhang Jin Wei, did you have any problems with your research?” I’m asking about our CORE project. It’s his third year with the project.

For anyone who might not know, CORE is an uncertain acronym, but the generally accepted iteration is Community, Outreach, Rediscovery and Engagement. It’s a project started five years ago by Teach for China fellows in the Heqing region. The goal is to connect kids with their homes in new ways and try to lead them toward thinking about how to improve their villages without sacrificing the things they love about their villages. Over the years, we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of RMB and given winning teams a chance to go to cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. This year, the theme is Old and New. Students were asked to go into their towns and compare old and new methods of doing things and think about what the development has meant. For example, a washboard vs. a washing machine or traditional Chinese medicine vs. modern “Western” medicine.

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Zhang Jin Wei dances around my question.

“Well, there was, I mean, there was one, there was one time we couldn’t get information.”

“That’s normal. What happened? Maybe I can give you some resources.”

“Well it was during the interview. We had to interview people, right?”

“Yeah, you couldn’t find anyone? You can always find someone. They don’t have to be an expert.”

“No, not like that. We, we, found a guy. This old guy in the village who knew about Chinese medicine.”

“That’s a good one!”

“Well, not really.” He struggles through a laugh. “We went to his house, you know, on Sunday afternoon. And we knocked on the door and opened the gate. ‘What is it? Who are you?’ he said. And we told him that, you know, we were there to interview him like we planned the other day. He said OK, he remembered. He said that he just wanted to finish watching a history soap opera and he would come speak with us. He said he’d be done 马上 (ma shang).”

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马上 (ma shang) is the most deceptively deployed word in Heqing, and I’m led to imagine other parts of China, too. The word literally means “On a horse’s back.” It apparently originates from the Warring States Periods of Ancient China. A messenger approached one kingdom’s general with news that one of its strongholds was under attack. The general, who had been doing training exercises with his troops, replied 马上 (ma shang), implying that he and his men would not leave their horses’ backs, but proceed immediately to battle. Or something like that. 马上 (ma shang), of course, implies immediacy. ‘I’m on the horse. Let’s do this thing.’ But, it’s usually used like this: ‘Sure, I’m on a horse, but that doesn’t mean I’m going anywhere. I’m just going to hang out on the horse for a little while.’ The most flagrant abusers of 马上(ma shang), are, of course, 面包车 (mian bao che) drivers. These guys drive van cabs. 马上(ma shang) is their natural, knee-jerk reaction to the question, “When are we leaving?” or “Are we there yet?” or “Where are we going?”

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Zhang Jin Wei continues, “Well. We waited like 30 minutes at his door and we went in to check if his show had finished.”

“Were you nervous?”

“A little, yeah. But, we waited 30 minutes. I thought he was probably sleeping. He wasn’t sleeping. He was smoking a cigarette and watching the news. We asked if we could do the interview. He said 马上 (ma shang). He just wanted to finish watching the news and he would come find us. He told us to go outside. Then, like 15 minutes later we checked again—because he didn’t come out. This time he wasn’t even watching the news! He was watching a show about 象棋 (xiang chee—‘chess’)! And Zhang Run Jing asked him if he could do the interview and he said maybe now is not a good time. He was going to go take a nap and we should go away because he had to take a nap.”

George RR Martin

Naptime, bitches. 

“Wow! That’s difficult. Doesn’t sound like fun. What did you do?”

“Well. We decided that there are three places to get information: Old people, books, and computers. And Zhang Run Jing, he has a computer. So, we just looked up the answers online. We found them pretty 马上 (ma shang).”

I Don’t Know

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“Want something to drink?”

Ah. Here we go.

“I’m good.”

I roll to the left. I’m on a bus, about to pull away from the station. I’m headed five hours west, straight for the heart of 临沧 (Lincang) prefecture. Lincang means water-facing, an allusion to the 澜沧江 (Lancangjiang) river, also know as the Mekong—a beautiful waterway that might evoke eerie green and black images of bloody jungle war. Lincang is home to the 佤族 (Wazu), an ethnic group that the British and French—when colonizing the region around Burma and Vietnam—characterized as too “remote,” too “savage,” too “fierce” to attempt to administer—a designation essentially unheard of in the historical record of the two most ruthless and obstinate colonizers.

The area, and its corresponding region just across the Burmese border, would later become home to sweeping narco-armies that played one of the most pivotal roles in the worldwide opium trade. But, of course, very few people know this outside of the region itself. Certainly few people in China. Certainly fewer people in the West.

I won’t see any of it.

The guy sitting next to me offers me a can of Red Bull. He’s not offering me Red Bull, though. He’s offering me a conversation and I tell him “I’m good.” Not right now. Almost every bus/plane/train ride begins this way. Understandable. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner is infinitesimal. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner who can carry a conversation with you is pretty much zero percent. Perhaps there are 50 such people in the entire region. Should a rarity of such magnitude pop up in anyone’s daily routine, it would be difficult to resist conversational temptation. It’s important sometimes, as the object of endless small-talk, clandestine photo attempts, and countless barrages of “hello!’s” to remember and even embrace your inherent rarity—your uncommon opportunity to represent (or be perceived to represent) an entire country. Otherwise, you’ll go insane.

“Where are you from,” A few minutes later the guy has abandoned the Red Bull angle—probably because he’s now drinking it. He’s going straight for the conversation. This question, the most potent weapon in any small-talker’s arsenal, is never not the first one I’m asked. Sometimes I wish I had a different answer—Moldova or Andorra—or something. Something that would immediately quash the conversation for lack of questions. But, alas…

“The United States. Where are you from?”

“凤庆 (Fengqing county). I’m going home. I need to attend to some stuff at home. What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to meet some friends. I live in Dali. I teach English in a small town.”

“How old are you?” He asks.

“24.”

“Oh! Me too.”

He tells me a story that is ostensibly synonymous with nearly every other young person I meet. He is from a small town in Fengqing. He now lives near Shangri-La, the deceptively renamed tourist town that sits at the Yunnanese base of the Tibetan Plateau. He works “up the mountain,” crushing salt for a big company. He’s on a six-year contract that ends in 2017. I do not ask him why he is coming home, as it’s almost certainly not for leisure. But, he says the return trip is extremely rare. He usually can come home once a year during Spring Festival. The journey takes about two days and is expensive. And, besides, the month-long Spring Festival holiday is the only vacation he has all year, except for Sundays.

He shows me a smiling picture of his girlfriend. He says he wants to marry her, but thinks he needs a more stable job first.

He talks about his perceptions of my home country. It’s so big, so developed, so full of opportunities. I, as always, point out that this isn’t entirely true. There are many parts of China—say Shanghai—that are more developed and more full of opportunity than many or most parts of the United States. But, he points out that those parts of China have very little to do with him. They might as well be on another planet. And I, acknowledging that the same can be said for the places in the US that I’ve just referenced, agree.

Because I’ve told him I’m a teacher, we begin to talk about education.

“I envy your American system.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s much more relaxed and much more stimulating. I think it would have suited me well. School was very difficult, very tiring. I think I would have done well in America.”

“How did you do here?”

He laughs. “Average. I, you know, cheated a lot.”

“Sure. Me too,” I say.

“We would go to school at 7 and leave at night. You know how it is. Writing, cleaning, busy all day. No extra-curricular activities. No tutoring at home. These are important things.”

“How do you know about those things? You know, if you didn’t have that?”

“Well, I am 24 years old now. I will get married soon and have a child, of course. I think about my child. I want to learn about what I can do for my child.”

“That’s big stuff to be thinking about.”

“It’s really all I think about, you know.”

I don’t.

The bus twists through the green and black mountains. Twilight falls. We meander along the path of the Mekong’s upper reaches. Strikingly blue, turquoise even. Much different than the sepia-toned rivers cutting through Shanghai. We flow through mountain village after mountain village, clusters of mud brick homes dug deep into whatever passes for flat ground.

I rarely meet people my age. Mostly, the folks I come into contact with are decades my senior or pre-pubescent types. Why? For the reasons described in the conversation above. Young adults are simply not here. They are in the mountains, in the cities, already getting started on the next generation. I wish I did meet more of them. Not only because it would be nice to have more friends, but because it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it through the eyes of people born when you were born. Older people are part of something else. They came up as players in a game almost entirely devoid of the “opportunity” or “choice” we like to think of. They speak a different language, they have an entirely different outlook on things, they will change little. Children are living in the now for the future. That future is hard to forecast, because it will almost surely be “brighter” than it would have been twenty years before. They are young, unformed, mostly unaware of the relative world they live in. In some ways they are like the grandparents that so often raise them. Both groups are abstract to me.

But, people my age are not so abstract. I can understand, that if I happened to be born in Fengqing County in 1990 the likelihood that I would be teaching in the capacity I do is, for all intents and purposes, zero percent. The likelihood that I would have already been crushing salt for four and a half years on a mountain above Shangri-La, entirely wiping out my four years of college, is much higher. The likelihood that I would be thinking critically about my next career move—where, how, how much, ­why?—is zero percent. The likelihood that at 24, I would be thinking instead of my as yet unborn child is much, much higher.

The word unfair did not once cross his lips. He has probably said it many fewer times in his 24-year-old life than I have in mine. And I think, though I often refuse these conversations, I should not. I will never have enough of them.

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.

A Strange Encounter with the Self

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note: Extremely trippy and mildly graphic

Nanning at 5:30 am. A few hours north of Vietnam.

I emerged from the airless stuff of the train station and found myself on the sidewalk. It was dark but for the red and green taxi lights and some neon blurs on buildings across the street. It rained, still. It had been raining for a while now, I gathered—the kind of rain whose presence makes people bitter. They screamed and yelled and pushed. No one is happy at 5:30 am in the rain. It is never a sought state. The rain fused with colored lights and made everything foggy and finite. I stopped for a while under cover of a bus stop and watched the stream.

After some time I hailed a cab to the only hostel in the city. Light started to peak out through the mist, revealing a dark green overgrown metropolis. Fully-grown queen palms came up in front of half-grown buildings, one after another. I got out by the hostel and sat down on a bright red stool in a noodle shop. Dawn broke, but not fully, as happens when night becomes day in the rain. The stillness of the city persisted. A man received a Styrofoam box of food and rode off on his motorcycle. I ordered pigs foot flat-noodle soup and sat down.

“What are you doing here?” The cook, a woman no more than 40, said eyeing me curiously.

“Just passing through.”

“To Vietnam?”

“No, just going east.”

She handed me the soup and a pair of plastic gloves for the pig’s foot. I tasted a hint of China, a hint of Southeast Asia. It is incredible how perfectly fluid location and culture can be in this part of the world, how flavors and accents blend in and out of each other with the seamlessness of a color wheel. I paid and walked down the misted green street and came upon the hostel. There was a little blue light beside the door and a bunch of cigarette packs scattered on the ground. It wasn’t open yet, so I sat down on a bench and looked at the street through the overgrowth. Very C.S. Lewis. The door, the wardrobe. I rang the doorbell a few moments later.

A small, bespectacled, Mr. Tumnus of a man peeped out—clearly roused from sleep by the sound of the bell—and I walked in with my bags. We whispered.

“Do you have space?”

“But, of course.”

We moved through the motions and I got a bed. There were few others in the hostel and no others awake. I sit down at a table in the main room.

The place is very small—cramped almost. It was clearly once a small house. It has a wooded feel, like a small cabin in the forest. It’s dim. There are no windows. Cozy. Eerily cozy, maybe. I stare at my computer for a while as the room steadily eases to life, slow, slow life. A few people filter solemnly out from the rooms.

“You goin’ to Vietnam?”

“No. just going east.”

“Oh. I’m headed that way, toward Vietnam that is. Trying to work out that visa. It ain’t easy.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Passport picture. Can’t find the place that takes ‘em. Can’t do much here anyways. Can’t speak that Chinese.”

“Well maybe I can help you.”

“Alright then. Maybe I can help you too. Name’s Bruce.”

“Taylor.”

“Good to meet you Taylor. You aren’t from the states per chance?” He sat down—Interrupting me from whatever I wasn’t doing on the computer.

“I am. Connecticut.”

“Alright then. I’m a teacher out here. Love it.” You aren’t the first, Bruce.

The hostel is very quiet. It’s still not yet 9:00. The dimness inside gives the air of being deep underground, completely unwitting of the world and things like time. Bruce gets going. He explains that he’s an ex-Marine (post-Nam), a former roadie, commodities broker, and construction project manager in Central Arizona in 2007. “Every time the phone rang, I made a thousand bucks, and that son of a bitch rang a lot.” We talked, as ex-pats do, about the hopeless state of America, and also about Norman Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz, Wild Turkey, police and military warrior culture, the state of transportation in Lima, Peru. There is something refreshingly authentic about information coming from a superficially unlikely source: a girl with fake nails discussing the San Antonio Spurs’ motion offense, an offensive lineman talking about Handel’s Messiah, or an ex-Marine named Bruce talking about everything this dude was talking about. Bruce had talked and I had listened for the better part of an hour—or what seemed like an hour in that timeless universe.

“But, this is all entertainment talk.”

“Sorry? Entertainment talk?”

“Yes. Because, this…” he spreads his arms out, brings his fingers back to his temples and makes a popping sound, “is all an illusion.” He leans in and widens his eyes and says it in the way you’d imagine Gob from Arrested Development saying illusion.

“Oh?”

“Yes, yes. Everything your senses are telling you is real is nothing but the ego rising up and playing a trick on the body. See this?” He grabs an idle pack of tissue paper and raises it to eye level. “It isn’t real. Anyway, quantum physics proved it. Holographic principle. We live in a two-dimensional universe. But, I go farther. Nothing exists, but the self.”

“The self.”

“That which exists is the self. The body does not exist. It’s merely a vessel for suffering and desire. You and me, as we know it, do not exist. This.” He holds up the tissue paper. “Does not exist. The self is all. I am you and you are me. That bottle is me. Think about it. We’re talking right now. Who’s talking? Is Taylor talking? Is Bruce talking? No. The self is communicating with the self. There is no conversation. There is no room. There is nothing.” He raises his eyebrows flings the packet on the table. His eyes get wide again. “There never was.”

Maybe I hadn’t slept enough, but for a fleeting moment, I came unglued—like my consciousness lurched and only with conscious mental effort could it be laid back on its tracks. I’ve never gotten to that feeling before, never without psychedelic assistance at least. For a brief hypnotic moment, nothing, including my own mind, was under my control. A strong, but fearful desire comes over me to reach up and touch all the things in the silent, vague room. Just to make sure.

“And feelings. Feelings don’t exist. Of course, this isn’t me telling you. This is us, the self, telling you. Feelings are created by the ego. Love, hate, anger, compassion. All that, is simply a barrier to self-realization. ‘He who is free from the notion of ego, whose intellect is unattached, though he annihilates all the worlds, he slayeth not, nor is he bound by the results of his actions.’ That’s what the Maharshi said. Say a bunch of people are machine-gunned right there. Right there.” He points to the still hallway. “Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist. Now, I’d never do anything like that, because what that hurts is the self, because, of course, this is all the self.”

I shake my head and blink, only to recover my own—what I perceive to be my own—mind.

He leans back and relaxes. “You know, I obviously can’t talk about this stuff to everyone. It fucks with people. Ruffles their faith.”

“No kidding.”

“This body is hungry. Shall we eat?”

For the rest of the day and evening we walk aimlessly through the inclemently mysterious fog of an urban tropical rainstorm. Somewhere during his rolling parable, I help Bruce get his visa and ticket to Vietnam.

“Thanks for helping me out man,” Bruce says.

“My—our—pleasure.”

“You’ve done a karmic service, you know.”

We float steadily back toward the hostel and seek refuge in a small Muslim restaurant. Two plates of soup noodles arrive.

“The fact is,” Bruce says—his expression visible through two warm clouds of steam, “once you have devoted your life to self-realization, to knowing who you are, you will achieve it. You will be consumed by it. Nothing, nothing can stop you.” He pays.

The next morning, he was gone.

Late that evening, I stood once again in front of the train station, graced by raindrops and wind and surrounded by muted commotion and neon lights, preparing to head east. I flicked a cigarette into a puddle and began savoring a chocolate bar: the abandonment of desires would wait, at the very least until the end of that Snickers. It was phenomenally strange, obviously. I do perhaps, in some way, feel as though I had entered an alternate truth—some place where reality exists in and only in the fluid conception of the mind.

I’m not even sure it happened. Not even sure he existed. If you asked him he’d tell you, of course, that he’s as real as nothing itself.

Stuck in Ambrosia

You tumble out of a van that exceeds the legal capacity by a factor of three or four. The first thing is the dust—thick and mobile. All those trucks you see filled to the brim with loose rocks are coming here to be dumped, tirelessly smashed one by one with large hammers, and ground into the invisible substance floating in the air. Then the sound. Giant tankers incessantly, gratuitously announce their arrival with profound horn blasts. A little kids sets off a firecracker in the middle of the street. A stray dog yelps. Then the heat. All these people, all this movement, all this progress, a sun that cuts seamlessly though mountain air. You feel, in so many ways, at the heart a massive movement. You are at a literal intersection of then and now—people from the past fashioning the future because that is what people from the past do. Women in traditional Baizu dress splash water on rocky dust that congeals into cement and someday into a sidewalk. A chicken darts around a speeding, honking BYD SUV. It’s hard not to feel it.

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Then the smell. You follow it a moment—past drying concrete and some badminton-playing kids contemplating a birdie that just landed in it. You know where it’s coming from. It’s in a pot. It’s wedged between a tiny convenience store selling booze and cigarettes and ramen in a box and a stairwell that leads to an oft-empty bar. It’s at a dusty intersection in a dusty mountain town. It’s in Yunnan, China. It is the greatest food in the entire world.

I’ve eaten some things. Tsukiji fish market before sunrise, a quiet taco shop called La Gringa serving simply captivating al pastor with a lime on a hot dry street in Cuernavaca, $3 Banh Mi sandwiches from Dong Phuong bakery in the middle of desolate New Orleans East, a steak so preposterously good at La Cabrera in Buenos Aires that I pondered vegetarianism purely out of respect, the footlong Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki crafted by my local green and yellow clad sandwich artist. Deep in the middle of nights (such as this one) as my feet dangle over icy tiles and my stomach grumbles without reprieve, I think of these things and how impossibly far off they are. And I feel like you feel when your girlfriend says its over. I feel deeply, deeply stomach-broken.

But, every Friday afternoon I squeeze into that van between a slobbering infant and a stare-y old lady and I am taken to the intersection. I get out and follow the smell. I take off my bag and fall onto a foot-high stool begging to be crushed under my weight. There’s a large-mouthed steel cigarette bong resting against my table. A line of thermoses sit under a shelf, hot with water for tea. I glance at the chef, waitress, owner, busser, personality, and possible validator of any and all claims of higher-power. She nods and reaches into a bag of long white strands that look like the transcribed remnants of a Bush-Cheney sit-down. She tosses the strands into a wok, film-thick with what remains of the pleasures of those who once sat in these stools—a well-crisped recent history of culinary perfection. There are two things on the menu—though there is no menu. Er si (thick rice noodles) and Mi xian (thin rice noodles). You may have them fried or you may have them boiled. You may have them in a small bowl or you may have them in a big bowl. Smoke flares up and I get Pavlovian.

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There’s an aged and withered man wearing a scuffed blue suit and a newsboy working on a cigarette at the table next to me. His bowl is empty. A young mother watches her infant daughter struggle with the epic historical pairing of evasive noodles and thin wooden sticks. Two middle-aged van drivers sip tea as they pound on the table and complain about the road, the sound of their keys jangling faintly discernible through the dust and commotion. Sometimes you’ll see the county mayor sitting here with his comrades, methodically slurping soup and talking about the high-quality of the road. There’s a sign above the chef displaying a green happy face, a yellow “satisfied” face, and a red sad face. The three faces are paired with A, B, or C. In the box where this particularly establishment’s happy, satisfied, or sad face should be, there is nothing. It doesn’t matter. A scruffy dog scoots out of the kitchen. A, B, C or “high likelihood of sickness and/or death”, it doesn’t matter. Everyone from every corner of the social spectrum can be found at these tables.

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A, B, C.

She calls my name and I shoot up. Sitting in the hazy window is a mountain of Er si capped with shredded scallions. I thank her and snatch the dish and set it down on another counter and generously add leaves of sour Chinese cabbage. I return to my stool and drown the noodles in a dose of vinegar. I say grace for the proprietor and begin. The noodles are sticky with oil. They bind together and I lean closer. The flavor is something like salt, sour, spice, heat, grease. The texture sticky and smooth. But, truthfully, like a special book or a transcendent movie or a glass of baijiu or the rice terraces down the road or anything that is incredible in its way, there is no description aside from experience. It is what it is.

I proceed through the mountain and watch it disappear before my eyes. For these few moments at this intersection of future and past, there is now and only now—so too feels the old man and the young mother and the drivers. The final few bites are golden-brown pork strips and scraps of sour cabbage and oily vinegar soaked noodles. Like a great novel that you can’t stop reading but never want to end, I finish them off. It is a flavor rollercoaster with no drops. I ponder the remaining pool of vinegar and grease and weigh the social implications of lifting it and pouring it into my mouth. I lift it and pour it into my mouth. I pat my stomach and rise for the bill.

“Boss, you work too hard.” I tell her.

“Every day, seven days a week.” She says, smiling.

Every day, seven days a week behind a smoky little opening at a hot and dusty intersection, bending and lifting—with only the occasional helper. I think for a moment about the riches she would reap with a shop like this on Canal and Mott.

“You need to take a rest, boss,” I say contradicting my true gastronomic desires.

“No breaks. This is my iron rice bowl. This is my life.” She says, referencing an indelible Chinese concept.

“Well, it’s the best food I know. You’re the best there is.”

“Bah. None of that! I just make noodles for people to eat, Mr. Luo. Today’s on me,” She says as I reach into my pocket.

“Not in a million years, boss.” I hand her a crumpled five and two ones. One dollar and ten cents. That’s like a small bottle of Poland Springs or four gumballs. Shit, I can’t think of anything worth a dollar and ten cents. I’d pay 15 bucks for it if she asked me to.

“You should charge more.” I tell her every time.

“I charge one Yuan more and no one comes. I charge one Yuan less and I go out of business. Seven Yuan is the price.” Hard to believe the initial statement, but I know it’s true.

“Take it easy, boss.” I head back into the dust’.

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This is where the best food in the world is. It’s here, lodged in an open stall at the intersection of before and after. Stuck firmly between six and eight Yuan. Caught between a day off and some extra cash. A simple rendition of something that’s been done here for centuries. Some noodles and a lot of oil. Something for the people to eat. A few sticks and a plate. A tiny stool. A newborn child and an old man in his twilight years. You can see it all from here. It’s hard to try to imagine it anywhere else. The reality of what it is, its genesis is so inextricably chained to this small corner. It’s not a gastropub or a hot new chef’s foray into molecular gastronomy. It’s function first with barely an eye to form—here they are the same. It really is the best there is. It is straight-up ambrosial. And it has to be. It’s a labor borne of necessity. It’s a matter of fact. It’s life. It’s the only way it could possibly be.

(comm)Ode

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“只要去探索,美无所不在”

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

-Confucius

The earth shook for months. Everyday, every single day, they pounded and blasted. Dust drenched men and women took hammer to stone, trowel to loam, and heart to progress. Their toil, routinely forged under oppressive sun, often endeavored through searing torrents, was a toil for the future. It was a toil for henceforth. It was a toil for progress. It was a toil for a toilet.

It’s over now. History is written. The scent of the past will soon be flushed from our collective consciousness. For that, at least, no one will complain. But I have lost a dear friend.

On the night of Sunday, December 7, 2014—a day before a day that might live in infamy—I walked to the bathroom. It was late. After 10:30. I heard two voices, one unmistakable. I walked in. The sole bulb tasked with illuminating all nocturnal lavatorial activity dangled and swayed, as always. Spider webs clutched at wooden beams, as always. Some place to live. Chinese schools teem with inspirational graffiti. In the cafeteria it says, “Food Safety is Golden.” On the basketball court it says, “Health Comes from Exercise.” On the peeling, faded wall above the communal urinal it says, “For a Little Gift Approach the Trough. For a Big Gift Approach the Hole.”

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As I prepared to follow the latter instruction, I noticed the sources of the voices. The unmistakable one was Mr. Yang, my ubiquitous principal. The other was a fifth grade student, Shane (Liu XingYang). Shane is a chubby, reserved kid with buckteeth and a crew cut. He’s the number one student in 5th grade. Shane apparently didn’t feel so good.

“Yes. I think so.” Shane managed.

“Of course it’s important! A person needs good habits. Habits are everything. An idiot even knows it.”

“Yes. That’s true.”

Mr. Yang turns to me. “Good evening, Mr. Luo! I was just talking about the importance of habits with this guy here… What’s the name guy?”

“Liu XingYang.”

“Yes, XingYang. He’s quite sick.”

“Good evening, Mr. Yang. Yeah, Liu XingYang. He’s the best student in my class.” I take the spot next to principal Yang.

“Wah! How about that? Then he knows about all of this. You know about all of this. Never mind it.”

“OK.” Shane squeaks.

“But, I bet you don’t know a damn thing about traffic safety.”

“I don’t know.”

“What are you up to Mr. Luo?” The principal asks me as Shane mentally checks off the shortlist of less desirable places on earth.

“Using the bathroom.”

“Ah, yes. An honest man. Ha!”

We chat for a few moments. I did what I did and departed. Walking away, I could still hear Mr. Yang’s virtuous seminar and Shane’s strained acknowledgements. Preachers have their pulpits. Professors have their lectern. Mr. Yang, too, has his oratory platform. Oh! The pure, raw humanity of it all!

When the sun rose on December 8th an era would close. The era of the new bathroom—under construction (and “nearly done”) for over half a year—would be (fl)ushered in. It is a crowning achievement of sorts—an architectural marvel. It is a flawlessly white building, replete with elegant artwork and sophisticated Chinese proverbs that I don’t really understand. It has stalls with wraparound walls that almost create an illusion of privacy. It has squeaky, easy to scrub tile floors. It smells bad (it’s a bathroom) but nothing like its predecessor. It has a mirror. It has a sink. It flushes. It is Principal Yang’s magnum opus, his urinalis maximus, his Big Gift to Sanzhuang. He is proud.

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I feel weird though. I’ve had a rather ambivalent year-and-a-half relationship with the old guard. It’s all I know. A piece from August 30, 2013 may help put my then and now into perspective. Consider this an update. Back then, the thought of public Big Gifting was almost out of the question. Imagine going full-squat right next to your elementary school teachers. That’s a notion you’d have trouble warming up to, even next to your dearest of dear friends. Now, imagine you’re the teacher—and you’re foreign. I generally made use of the fact that students are in class 90% of the day. Sometimes though, we are slaves to nature. In a school with 150 male students, 15 male teachers, and one men’s room, privacy is a laughing matter. I learned to deal with it and even disentangle decades of bathroom usage schema embedded deep into my conscience.

I’m not going to write that approaching the hole in the presence of others is a profoundly delightful leisure pursuit. I was never psyched about the proposition. I never brought the People’s Daily and made a morning of it (as some teachers did). But, at the very least, it was an interesting process in destigmatization. Hygienic privacy is not a universal human right. In fact, I would venture to guess that half the world doesn’t have it and certainly a far greater number do not approach rigorous American standards.

I won’t miss that, though. But, this building with seemingly no redeeming qualities has been a fixture of my time here. The new swirled order will change things. Some indelible memories have been forged. There was the time Frank—my fourth grade student—fell in. This is not funny. It is incredibly hilarious. There was the time when Mr. Yang brought all of the boys in the school together to investigate the party responsible for a footprint on the white paint. There was the time Mr. Yang gave a school-wide lecture about “屁股位置” (positioning) after one too many missed approaches. There was the time Mr. Yang lectured Shane about traffic safety under a cold moon and a swaying light bulb. The new toilet will deprive me of this inexhaustible preposterousness. I used to make egregiously bad students clean the bathroom. The new toilet even undermines my authority.

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It’s quite a contrast—the shiny white new and the drab flaky old. There’s still a long way to go. After all, this new toilet isn’t exactly a model of seclusion. It’s not the best on the market. It’s progress though, I can’t deny. It’s interesting, the excuses we make for tradition. It feels strange to espouse the virtues of something that a group of outside observers would unanimously regard as “not so good” or “ungodly” or “I cannot breathe in here” A day will come when some other conflicted and confused blogger living in rural Yunnan writes this same piece about the new toilet that, by then, will seem so unseemly. “The memories!” But, you know, I have to tell myself, “Taylor, you can’t live in the past. You must squat forward with the people. You must receive the future as inevitable. You, too, must change.” That is what I tell myself. That is how one copes.

In China there is the phenomenon of the “钉子户”(Ding Zi Hu). You know it. It translates roughly into “saboteur householder.” These are the people who won’t leave their homes in the face of developers. They place themselves between hulking construction apparatuses and their house. The Ding Zi Hu almost always loses. But, they fight an honest fight. They stand up—quite literally—for their past. I wonder, has a Ding Zi Hu ever squatted for his past.

I wonder… Has there ever been a Ding Zi Hu for a toilet?

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