A 90-minute 20-minute Bus Ride

5:11 PM

“Wait ‘til it fills halfway. We’ll be out of here.”

“Yeah. Half is ambitious. She’ll leave before then.”

We sat on an empty bus in the county level city of Binchuan. The bus was small—15 padded seats, crowded tight. Silence. Buses rolled in, worn out people rolled out—weary from the cramp, the incessant honking, the cigarette haze, the tired life of people who ride these buses. This is China—the one you don’t know about. The sun had ducked behind the buildings—scores of incomplete apartment blocs. Scaffolding and cranes are fixtures of any Chinese skyline. There’s new money here and a lot of people. The cities are cramped—by design. Chinese municipalities tend to religiously follow the original intention of urban life—the intention that was lost somewhere in the American fascination with cars and sprawl plus an inflated fear and stigma against public transportation. They are accessible living spaces, with friendly corner stores and loudly convivial neighborhood restaurants, steaming street food and people who appear not to harbor inexplicable resentment as they pass each other on the street. There is no need for a car. Your feet can take you most anywhere you want to go. Should you find yourself in need of traveling some distance within the city, you can take a tuk-tuk or a cab or an unmarked car without license plates. None of this will cost you more than 5 RMB. Here, even lethargy is affordable. Should you need to leave the city, say to travel to a friend’s home in the surrounding towns, you can take a bus. The bus certainly won’t cost you more than 5 RMB, and unlike in the United States, the likelihood of stepping in Bubblicious or contracting disease is negligible.

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5:40 PM

“No way she fits another person on here. I can’t move my arm. Whole body is asleep.”

“Not sure. But I think I see some space in front. I feel like she could shove a medium-sized infant on top of the dashboard.”

“Yeah. Medium-sized.”

The Chinese bus system is a volume-based industry. There exists no complex algorithm relating customer satisfaction, constriction of space, or flagrant disregard for any presumed regulations with revenue. There simply does not need to be. The unambiguous profit model for a bus driver on the high mountain roads of Yunnan looks something like this. Customers • Fare = Money. C • F = $$$$. Since F is relatively stable—any increases beget a revolutionary environment—it stands to reasons that there is only one method to increasing $$$$—C. The better the driver is at increasing C—the less regard he or she has for the implications of increasing C—the more $$$$ he or she will reap. C is the variable. But, even by turducken-ing her patrons, she still can’t figure to hit the Forbes list. Think. The bus is small. Cram 35 people into it. If you get 3 RMB from each, you’re looking at 105 RMB. If you can utilize your rout to do some deliveries, you can bump that figure to 120. That’s $20 for a 40-minute ride. Give the bus company their cut and the driver is probably looking at a $7 or $8 at most. That is the maximum haul. It takes time to fill up the bus. Eight dollars for at least an hour of incredibly taxing work. It’s one of the most profitable jobs around.

Today, the driver—a terrifyingly adept businesswoman—was exerting herself to maximize C. She was a woman—rare—in her late 30s. She wore a pink sweater under a black leather vest and tight corduroys with a profusion of unnecessary zippers. Her hair was matted and curled on her forehead. A little greasy. Her expressions were vivacious, but her face betrayed a demanding forty years of life. With a busload that made the prospect of steep hills viscerally terrifying, we set off half an hour after climbing onto an empty bus. We were heading for a town halfway along the route, 20 minutes from the station.

6:01 PM

“What the hell is she doing?”

“I don’t know. Were this the US, I know we’d have Fletcher Christian’ed this shit 10 minutes ago.”

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The driver was shrieking madly into the giant white cell phone at her ear. She had eased the bus into the middle of an intersection and brought it to a standstill. The conversation was essentially unintelligible. I worked out that she was coordinating some sort of meet up.

“The intersection. No! In the intersection! A bus! Oh! The corner! You’re at the corner! Why didn’t you say so! I’m in the intersection! OK!”

She cackled into the phone and once again shifted us into motion. Moments later, she rolled the bus to a stop in the middle of a heavily trafficked thoroughfare and seized her phone.

“In the street! Yes! The street! We’ll wait for you!”

A collective tension and helplessness vibed through the bus. No one said a word, though—besides the driver. She was leaning out of the driver’s side, scanning the street for her friend/acquaintance/3 RMB opportunity. I cocked my head out of the window. Our eyes met.

“What’s the deal here, lady?”

We’re waiting. Two other people are coming. We wait here.”

I dejectedly slunk back into the bus, resolving to vociferously ‘boo’ the two people upon arrival. At this moment, an open-air truck with a four cages full of two tigers and two lions inexplicably rolled past and stopped at a stoplight. The giant, sad beasts stared at us. We shared a brief moment of commiseration. We were both miles away from home, at the mercy of lunatics. The light turned green and the cats disappeared. I saw three people walking briskly toward the bus. The driver hopped out to receive them. Two well-dressed women entered. They attempted to squeeze through the morass, eventually resigning themselves to a precarious spot on the stairs. A man with a giant white bag exchanged money with the driver. She shoved it into the trunk, which was also brimming. A few cars honked angrily and pushed past. No one raised any protest. The driver got back in and we left.

6:30 PM

“She’s out of her mind.”

She screamed wildly into the phone, no longer talking business. She appeared to be locked in intense conversation regarding her newly purchased pair of boots. She beat the horn indiscriminately. She didn’t smoke, but if she did, she would have had a cigarette in hand. Behind her sat and stood nearly 40 people, entirely unaffected, wholly unsurprised. Should the person on the other line make a particularly hysterical boot-related remark, the driver would surely lose control of the large vehicle she piloted and we would all die a very intimate death in the company of mildly irked strangers. I was happy my entire body was asleep. She stopped, and more people boarded.

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6:45 PM

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Easier said.”

We arrived. I climbed over the woman sitting at my left, who, at great pains, shifted her legs to let me squeeze through. We hopped off.

I’ve had the pleasure of taking public transportation in many places. I’ve taken tiny little Combis in Lima that weave in and out of traffic like deranged froggers. I’ve been on the New Orleans streetcar, a cautionary tale of why cultural relics ought not to be expected to provide beneficial public service. I’ve ridden the subway in Tokyo, which always arrives on schedule—to the second. I took a chronically broken down overnight bus in Laos with a college friend, an 89-year-old Argentine man, and 45 teenage Christian missionaries from Seoul, relentlessly chanting bible verses in Korean. I’ve taken trains in India.

Nothing is like the Chinese transportation system. The breadth. The scope. The diversity of method. The seamlessness in which a flawlessly paved highway can become a nearly impassible avenue full of animals and boulders. The controlled chaos. China is a nation full of rules and regulations, just like any other. It’s a big country. Rules and regulations crafted in Beijing have little hope of ever being followed in the Yunnan backcountry. How could they be? No one would drive a bus limited to 15 people. They’d starve.

The real wonder of the Chinese version of people moving—as portrayed above—has little to do with rules, buses, roads, and everything to do with the movers. They are loud. They are endlessly friendly before a customer transfers money, endlessly irritable after. They are multitasking daredevils in a position that could not be more at odds with such characteristics. They are perplexingly efficient. They are virtuosos of business. They are inescapable constituents to rural Chinese life. They are maniacs.

6:46 PM

“See you next time.” The driver said, winking ominously.

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Technically Challenged: A Hard Drive Disappears in the Mountains

Every once in a while something happens that doesn’t quite fit—it’s the stuff that can make life excruciatingly amusing. Conditions arise. They diverge from what you’ve come to expect as the existing state of affairs. It may be favorable—you win the lottery. It may be weird—a coke bottle falls from the sky in the middle of the African safari. Or, it may be bad—an Apple computer breaks down in the heart of Southwestern China.

It was an awfully cold Monday morning in the mountains. It wasn’t frosting quite yet, but it was threatening. A precarious film of dew plastered the blue ping-pong tables in the courtyard. Hands rubbed, people exhaled smoke. But I didn’t know any of that. I was in the only warm place I knew and deeply struggling with the prospect of withdrawing from it. The necessity of micturition ultimately made the decision for me—as it usually does. I peeled off the covers and sat on the edge of the bed for a long, reflective moment. When I finally touched my bare foot to the tile floor, I may or may not have yelped and peed a bit in my pants.

I gathered myself and slunk to the toilet, which is the word I use for the bucket in the corner of my room. I eyed my bed lustfully, but like an ex with too much history, I thought better of it. It was 6:40, I had to be in class in a half hour. I feebly flicked the switch on my teapot and tossed a few leaves in. I crept toward my desk, wincing in agony each time either my left or right foot made contact with the floor—which was, unfortunately, rather often. I sat down and slipped into the pair of sandals at the foot of the chair. I rubbed my eyes in preparation for the morning ritual of every twenty-first century worshipper of that which occupies the space between a couple of periods and the letters www and c-o-m. I pressed the power button and eyed the “f” key in anticipation.

I recoiled in horror, for I was not staring at faces of my 1,212 friends, but at a dark gray folder, with a light gray question mark blinking against a gray screen. I shut down the laptop in disbelief. I blinked blankly at the wall. I ogled my blankets. Surely, there was still some warmth left. I returned to the computer, and, covering my eyes with my left hand, eased it open with my right. I parted my middle and index fingers and peeked. It began to start. Then it stopped and the folder and question mark came into view, rhythmically blinking, mocking my very existence.

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“You motherfucker,” I dictated to the machine, which had just taken so much from whence it had given. “I hate you.” I sighed. “I really hate you.” The computer said nothing in response and continued to blink the folder and question mark. I shut it, spitefully put on my coat, aggressively drank some tea and continued to stare at the wall. As my computer was now broken, staring at the wall was the only alternative activity I could come up with.

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Something that has always escaped my abilities at reason: Why must a fatal computer crash always be signaled by an obnoxiously cryptic symbol like a frowny face or a blinking folder with a question mark stamped on the front? Why does the flashing question mark have the words www.apple.com/support under it? Couldn’t the developer save me the trouble of locating another device with an Internet connection and typing “Mac flashing question mark folder” into my search bar? Couldn’t they just tell me what’s wrong on the screen without sending me on a wild Google chase with the inevitable goal of discovering exactly how fucked I am?

That would be impersonal. After returning to my room a few hours later and being met once again with the uncompromising folder and question mark, I threw in the towel. I called via Skype that evening at 9 pm—7 am Central time—the hour when Applecare opens for business. I declined the suggestion to “Oprima numero dos,”—although I do plan to do it one day, purely out of curiosity—and connected to Markieff. He first asked me if there was a number to reach me at in the unfortunate event we should be disconnected. I eyed my tiny Chinese Samsung pay-as-you-go brick, which I imagine would spontaneously thrust itself out the window should it receive a foreign call and dejectedly told him no, no there wasn’t. The answer evidently surprised him.

“Well, do you even have an email?”

“Yeah. Kind of.” I couldn’t access Gmail without working through a proxy server. I didn’t have a proxy on the iPhone I was usingto call him. “I live in China, like thousands of miles from an Apple store.” I thought I was beginning to sound suspicious.

“Ok then.”

He deduced that my hard drive had disappeared. Poof. Presumably off on a journey of self-discovery.

“It’s alright,” He said.

“Oh. That’s good news.”

“You’ll just have to send it back to the US for repair. I hope you’ve backed your files up. They’re all gone.”

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‘It’s alright,’ I thought. I tried to envision a software-related scenario that would have crossed into Markieff’s threshold of ‘not alright.’

“Is that so?” I pondered.

“Yeah. That’s so.”

“Interesting.”

“Is it?”

“Maybe it is.”

“It’s not interesting.”

“No, not very.”

He gave me the information and we exchanged pleasantries.

The following afternoon, I went into town armed with my computer and Markieff’s instructions. I arrived at the tiny post office.

“I need to send this computer to the USA.”

The short, skinny, bespectacled guy at the desk looked at me as though I had entered without a word, dropped my pants and began urinating in the mailbox.

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“What?”

I repeated the request.

“Er. Let me see.” He frantically grabbed the phone on the desk and dialed a number. He began screaming in local dialect. He hung up the phone, looked at me curiously, and then pounded in another number and began screaming in local dialect. He hung up again.

“Can’t do it.”

“Why?”

“Can’t send electronics to the US.”

“What do you mean?”

“Against the law. Sorry.”

Dubious. I walked out and flipped over the computer. “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” Dubious, indeed, I thought. There are hundreds of thousands of electronics currently en route to the US from China. Either the guy was looking for an excuse to avoid doing something difficult or there was some head-scratchingly paradoxical bureaucracy at work. I had to mail something to a place to which it was forbidden to be mailed. It stood to reason that I was the first foreigner who’d ever had a computer failure in China. Probably because of me, they will enact a new law. Pending legislation/increasedwillingness, sending the laptop back to the States was out.

I got lucky, though. There happened to be an extra 2007 Macbook in a TFC employee’s apartment in the state capitol, Xiaguan, which was three and a half hours away. I couldn’t go during the week. She would return on Saturday evening. I persevered without connectivity for five days. I read Crime and Punishment. I stared at the wall. Sunday morning came. I woke up early in the morning, touched my feet to the icy tiles and tried to figure out what to do in lieu of checking my email. I smoked a cigarette.

I got on the bus around 7:45 after devouring a plate of fried noodles. Three and a half hours later, I was in the 12th story apartment of the owner of the extra Macbook. I was excited. I could once again rejoin society by not participating in it.

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“Here you go,” she said.

“Where’s the charger?”

“I guess there isn’t one.”

“Oh. How about that.”

I left the apartment with a sneer and headed toward Wal-Mart (Wo-Er-Ma). I bought an imported box of Ferrero Rocher that came to about my weekly salary and drank a vitamin water. As I left Wal-Mart, I came across a giant gleaming white apple in profile, with a bite taken out of its side. The apple was inverted, at least in relation to the one on the back of the laptop I currently held in my arms. I walked in. There were two young men smoking cigarettes and a woman behind a cash register. They wore blue shirts of a familiar color. Not light blue, but not quite navy. There were tiny spherical chairs and long tables of sanded light brown wood imitation. Along one wall were a handful of miscellaneous things: Headphones, cases, speakers, chargers. It was almost right.

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“Do you have chargers for this?” I held out the computer and asked one of the guys.

“Of course.” He offered me a cigarette. I looked around and accepted it. He lit my cigarette and went to find a charger.

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A middle-aged woman was sitting on the fluffy sphere next to me, inspecting a phone that was too large and bulky to be the type of phone that should be in this store, but was nonetheless stamped with a small apple, with a bite taken out of its side. The young guy returned with two chargers, flicked his cigarette onto the ground, stomped it out, and rummaged behind his ear for another one. I gave him my new computer and the charge lit up bright orange. It came to life.

“Wow! How much?”

He flipped the box around and tapped it with the unlit cigarette. 598 Yuan ($100).

“What? That can’t be.”

“Well…”

“Too expensive.”

“500?”

“Way too expensive, still.”

“450.”

“No way.”

“Well, sorry.”

I resigned to buy it online for much less (around 120). I asked him if they could charge my computer for a while. He said they could, but they couldn’t watch it and there was no way to be certain that it wouldn’t be stolen. I said thanks and left.

I got back on the bus and prepared for another week of having a valid excuse not to respond to emails. I bought the charger and picked it up at the same post office. I’m now typing.

We supposedly live in a—redundantly speaking—global world. We feel this globalization when we look at our European friends’ Facebook statuses, when Brazilian students read about hamburgers in their English textbooks, when you pass a “Chinese” restaurant on the street. But, true globalization is elusive and will always be so until the point where there is no such thing as a European friend, or a Brazilian student, or a “Chinese” restaurant. I guess globalization means a more accessible world—where we can do business with, experience pieces of cultures of, and meet people from here and there. It’s a good thing in theory, but it’s also incredibly self-defeating. I’ve found it very hard to recreate things so deeply rooted in their singularity and isolation. I like that. It reminds me that the world is still big and different and exciting. Is it annoying to not have a computer for three weeks in the year 2014 when others expect you to have one? Obviously you can tell from my initial tone, that it is. However, it was cool to  havea cigarette in an “Apple” store, be offered a smoke by a “genius.” It was even kind of funny to have someone tell me that electronics can’t be shipped from China to the USA. The thought of a world where everything fits, where everything is easy, where everyone understands each other and is prepared to send a computer to the other end of the earth with no hassle, where we can’t be wowed, where we aren’t at least a little bit different, isn’t as sexy as it sounds. The thought of living in a seamlessly global world depresses the shit out of me.

Fear and Locusts in Sanzhuang

“No time to waste. The sunlight will go away. The season will end.”

Miss Wang held an empty water bottle high above her head. She was ready for the hunt. By her side, was her daughter and assistant, Little Yanzi, with a large plastic bag and a look of enthusiastic tenacity written across her eyes. A few other children, with similar expressions, followed. In back was a sickly looking white guy wearing sweatpants and a puffy windbreaker with a runny nose and a face full of discomfort.

It was a few minutes to six and crisp. We wound through the rocky mountain paths, passing under expansive webs lorded over by hand-sized spiders. Families noisily sat down for dinner under subtly swaying light bulbs. The pigs in the pen grunted and squealed, perhaps gleefully aware that tonight the family was eating chicken. Miss Wang and the three kids sang songs and skipped. I focused my nervous attention on the spider webs. Then we got to the fields, the same ones that had been sowed and reaped and sowed again for centuries—the perpetual lifeblood of the village. I saw some of my students and their families, squeezing the last moments out of the waning daylight, ready to head up the path and join each other under their own swaying light bulbs, to watch their tea leaves tortured and twisted at the bottom of a boiling kettle and drink a warm bowl of bitter melon soup.

But we weren’t here for that stuff. We were here for locusts. And as Miss Wang and the three girls began to search for their targets, I lingered behind, sniffling.

It’s not that hard to catch a locust. Find a particularly grassy spot, drag your feet across it and watch them jump. Follow their path and snatch them up when they land. Toss them in a sealed receptacle and repeat. Speed isn’t even much of a factor. The only caveat is, you actually have to be willing to make skin to locust contact, and that made things rather difficult for me. After a few minutes of feigning locust pursuit, I came upon Little Yanzi. Her bag must have had 20 grasshoppers in it already. Her hand alone, held three, squirming and flapping to no avail. She tossed the three in and closed the bag.

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“Mr. Luo, how many did you get?” She looks up at me, with inquisitive 10-year-old eyes.

“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t seen very many.” It was impossible to look down without seeing at least 30.

“Really? But they are everywhere! How can you miss them?” She asked, genuinely shocked, in that exaggerated way that kids do when you present them with a blatant lie.

“I guess I just don’t have the eye for it.” Again, this excuse would only have been valid for the visually impaired.

“Look! I see some there. You can snatch it!”

“Ahh, shit.” I whispered under my breath. I felt like someone who exaggerates their Spanish abilities to an interviewer, to which the interviewer says, “What a coincidence! I’m from Buenos Aires. Let’s conduct the rest of the interview in Spanish, shall we?”

“Look, that’s a nice one! So big and fat!” Little Yanzi implored.

I twisted my head sideways and made the face of someone about to retrieve their Rolex from a pile of cow shit. I held out my thumb and index finger and made a pathetic quick, sharp grab for the fat little locust’s hind legs. I missed by a wide margin, and the locust flung itself into the sky.

“Green bastard.” I whispered through clenched teeth and furtively looked around to see if anyone had seen my miserable attempt. Little Yanzi was squatting next to me, looking me dead in the eyes. It was a look of confusion, sympathy, and possibly a faraway hint of disgust.

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“Man, that was quick one, eh Yanzi?” I said.

“No, I don’t think it was.” She attested. “It was very big. Usually, the big ones are slow and dumb.”

I wondered briefly if my 10-year-old student was mocking me.

“Look there are more! Quick, let’s get them!”

I plunged my fingers toward a brownish green grasshopper and this time snagged it by the wing and thrust it into Yanzi’s bag in moment of exhilarating terror, like when your tires clip a patch of ice. I stood up stiffly.

“Mr. Luo, we don’t want the dead ones.” She said, with a touch of compassion and reached carelessly into her bag of thirty or so jumping and flailing grasshoppers to grab and discard my proud catch.

I continued like this for a while; pretending to try to catch locusts, but knowing that that was the very thing I did not want to do. I would have had such an awful time as a biblical Egyptian, I thought. Miss Wang and the girls bounced around from paddy to paddy, snatching up and stashing the squirmy, flappy specimens with effortless ease. The sunlight was getting scarcer and I knew we would be heading back up the mountain before long. The locust season was coming to a close and there wouldn’t be another locust season for me at Sanzhuang. This time next year I’d be in the US, where people notify the authorities at the sight of a tiny green thing with bouncy legs.

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“Miss Wang, please give me the water bottle.” It was almost full, and I could hear the muffled tick tick of hundreds of frantic wings and legs scratching against the plastic. I turned to the paddy and set my sights on a small locust, reached down and scooped it up with my palm. It wriggled and batted its wings. I unscrewed the cap with the same hand and shoved it in before quickly sealing the bottle. I felt the exhilarating terror again, but it was accompanied by a great sense of fulfillment rather than a locust-induced sense of severe self-disappointment and utter hopelessness in my existence. Whether I would do it again or not, was moot. Very moot. It hath been done.

This is an insignificant and mildly pathetic story of a grown man held hostage by a field of tropical grasshoppers, but a real one nonetheless. It’s been a recurring theme for me in recent times, but it’s really just a recurring life theme. There’s something to be said for caution and reason, but no one ever felt that exhilarating terror of being alive whilst rolling over a speed bump. Scaring the shit out of yourself is good sometimes. In any event, the feeling of fear is usually worse than actually doing things that make us afraid—doing things that might be considered risks or strange.

We soon walked and skipped back up the path. The kids and Miss Wang were jolly, accomplished, and just so genuinely happy. It was past seven. I took a shower and washed my hands with special attention. I dressed and headed toward my room. As I neared the stairs I noticed an overwhelmingly enticing scent wafting out of Miss Wang’s first floor apartment. I put my toiletries down and walked in. A handful of teachers and their kids were huddling on stools around a still sizzling wok.

“Come in! We’re eating.” I looked down and saw the massive heap of locusts, tinged golden brown from vegetable oil.

“I’m good.”

“Here!” Little Yanzi placed a locust into my hand. I examined it. The legs and wings and menacing face. In turn, all the teachers examined me. It was happening all over again.

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No time to waste.

I popped it into my mouth and bit. Crunchy—not unlike a potato chip. I sat down and ate another one.

The Bearable Lightness of Heqing

“What do you think?” Big Brother asked me.

He’d made a common error. I’m sure he meant to ask, “What are you thinking about?” But his intended question was lost to the nuanced flexibility of language. Anyways, I understood and took another sip of beer.

It was a radiant early Saturday afternoon. I stared out the second story window of the only bar in the fledgling municipality of Songgui. I had a good view. Directly below the window stood “The Intersection.” It’s “The Intersection” because there is only one in the fledgling municipality of Songgui, so “the” functions as both article and adjective. There’s a woman selling oil-drenched potatoes and dubious reddish cylindrical things on a stick that she insists on calling “sausage.” Across the small passage that makes up the lesser contribution to “The Intersection” is a tiny shop for cigarettes, chips, a gratuitous selection of alcoholic beverages that strike fear in all passing esophagi and livers, and other basic needs for the living of life. A group of elderly women play cards, drink hot tea, and squawk at each other in a way that suggests an imminent elderly woman brawl, but is really just passionate friendship.

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Across the big road, the one that chops the town in half and connects the touristic hellholes of Dali and Lijiang, is a bank—the only one for a long ways. There’s an old security guard in there that once told me that I couldn’t use the ATM until three minutes after the previous user, because the machine “needed to rest.” I sat confused on the chalky steps with my empty wallet for a while and watched as customers flagrantly disobeyed the three-minute rule and marched on ahead of me until I realized I was either lied to, misinformed, unable to understand, or a sucker. I can just barely make him out now. Across the little alley by the bank there’s a fruit stand where a sly old woman double-charged me for a kilo of bananas. When I told her I knew what she was up to, she laughed, denied it casually, and offered to sell me oranges and sweet potatoes at a discount.

I can see beyond the intersection too, down the big road a little ways toward Lijiang and its endless markets of fake everything and oversized visitors wrapped in cameras. Then there are the mountains that restrict the rest of my horizon and there’s nothing more to say. I guess, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that was it. If I didn’t know that that dusty strip of concrete chewed you up and spit you out in the frenetic capital of kitsch, and that mountains have an up and a down, and that the money in the bank comes from somewhere past the road and over the cotton candy peaks, I’d have no reason to believe that I wasn’t looking at the entire world from where I sit.

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“I was thinking that I could live here for a long time. I really could do it.” I answered Big Brother, in Chinese. The words—even the thought—felt blasphemous. This has always been a two years and out deal.

“Do you mean like Walden. Did you ever read, Walden?” Big Brother has a Master’s degree in Literature.

“Yeah, in high school. But, I don’t mean like that. The general concept sure, but I don’t need to pick berries and collect firewood. I mean every thing someone needs or even wants is outside this window. What do you miss about Beijing?” We clinked glasses and I took another sip.

“My family, my girlfriend. I miss them very much.” He said in earnest.

“OK. That’s important and I’m with you. And that’s why this can only be hypothetical. But, you would miss them wherever they were. What do you miss about the place?”

“I guess I miss… I guess I don’t really know anymore.” He answered, genuinely balancing the scales.

“I don’t know either, anymore. I used to think I did, you know. I used to truly—passionately—miss cheeseburgers, Butterfingers, and shit, avocados. I guess I missed food.” I laugh.

“What about being at the center of everything? That’s something to miss. When you’re in the heart of the world and you can be anything, you can make any choice. Don’t you feel like you miss out here? Like you can’t be satisfied?”

I’m sure that missing out and dissatisfaction are modern humanity’s two biggest non-eight-legged fears. It comes with the territory, I suppose. Every minute is one less. Every year that goes by is full of things that weren’t. The clock ticks and we feel the squeeze. Maybe, by being in the center of things, we minimize our chances of missing out. Maybe we increase the possibility of avoiding dissatisfaction.

Maybe. But, I’m not convinced at all. Maybe we’re so focused on minimizing the potential of missing out that we don’t even know why we don’t want to miss out. Maybe we’re so focused on avoiding dissatisfaction, that we don’t even know what it means to be satisfied. That’s not just empty existential window dressing—I really believe it as I look out and happily listen to those women verbally bombard each other.

I continue. “It feels so authentic here. Enjoyment just comes so easily. I never have to go out of my way for it. Don’t you like it?”

“I do, very much. More and more.” He says.

I wonder if that’s good enough. Is it possible to convince ourselves that there’s nothing (better”) over the mountains? Is it possible to see the road and not be concerned with its direction? Is it possible that “The Intersection” is the center of it all?

Is it even possible to be satisfied? I reckon it is. But, you have to do the opposite of what you think it means. Because, we are at odds with satisfaction. We aren’t convinced we believe it when we see it. Satisfaction is always over the mountain, down the road, a couple clicks away. You know the clichés. The fact is, if you want to ascribe to the conventional meanings of “missing out” and “being satisfied” you’ll always miss out and you’ll never be satisfied. Maybe missing out is a good thing. Maybe it’s the only way to be satisfied.

Don’t drop everything and move to the wilderness. It will be difficult and you will surely get mauled by a wild beast and/or contract a life-ending disease. I’m certainly not saying that you’ve got to be in an empty bar in a fledgling municipality surrounded by mountains to discover satisfaction. Absolutely not. But, I’m just saying, you can find it there. Or perhaps, I’m just saying that you can find it. Period. Just stop looking so hard.

“Let’s go.” He said.

“Where?” We simultaneously drained the last drops from our glasses.

“I thought maybe we could climb the mountain today.”P1000365 Me, Bolin, Big Brother, and Jasmine

A Few Moments: The Agony of Chinese Meetings

“The most common lie a leader tells is: ‘I will only speak for a few moments.’”

Mandarin Chinese is utterly overcrowded with proverbs, aphorisms, archaic idioms, and sneaky turns of phrase that, when said in the right tone, can amount to verbal warfare and/or illuminating truth. Because of the terse nature of Chinese speech, such clipped expressions can be packed with endless degrees of meaning, be it contextual, historical, and/or linguistic. As a bright-eyed foreigner learning this mysterious dialect of ups and downs and side to sides, one gradually begins to discover the perfect instances in which to insert these seemingly pithy phrases. You also notice them pop up in others’ speech. Some of these instances, I will never experience. For example, the ones involving filial deference would likely be lost on my parents, as they speak approximately zero words of Chinese and as I am not filially deferent, at least not by rigorous Chinese standards. But, the phrase I mentioned above—which is less an idiom and more a universally accepted truth—is one that I have an opportunity to lay down almost every single day of my Chinese life.

I hurried up to the second floor of the teaching building. It was to be the first meeting of the new school year. I had only arrived in Sanzhuang the day before. Our twenty or so teachers crowded around old couches, slightly tinged with a pleasantly nostalgic mothballian odor. We were vigilantly watched over by the likes of Marx, Engels, and Mao, among other esteemed comrades. I would get to know them very well. The time was 8:55. I was five minutes early. I thought it strange that our meeting would be so late. After all school started at 7 am. The roosters would be crowing by 6:30. My fears were assuaged when my principal, Mr. Yang assured us that he would “only speak for a few moments.”

IMG_0295Sanzhuang Elementary Meeting Room

During the course of the next two hours, Principal Yang delivered a monologue of epic length and rather un-epic scope. The other teachers fidgeted in agony and I drew three separate pictures of Principal Yang talking. In the first, the sun was up, in the second, the sun was down, and in the third, the sun was up again. When the oration finally came to a grinding halt—I assume this happened only when Principal Yang ran out of things to talk about—the room felt like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Everyone looked around feverishly, like mice cautiously peeking their heads out from their holes to ensure that there wasn’t going to be another round of verbal assault. Finally, a teacher named Mr. Shi—a 60-something guy with a penchant for wearing a military surplus jacket five sizes too large—stood abruptly and walked out.

I caught up with Mr. Shi outside. He looked like he was searching for something to kick indiscriminately. Fortunately, the children were all asleep in their beds, rendering them, essentially unkickable.

“Mr. Shi, can you tell me the important points from the meeting, I didn’t understand a lot of it?” I ventured. At that point I was still acclimating to the heavily accented dialect of this part of Yunnan.

“You didn’t understand? Good for you.”

I didn’t understand.

“It’s better that way,” he said. “I also wish I didn’t understand.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Shi, since he had lived in Sanzhuang his entire life, he both spoke and understood the local dialect. He never did tell me the important points of the meeting.

I figured it would be a one-time deal. It was the first meeting after all, surely a great deal of administrative bureaucratic hullabaloo had to be addressed. I was right, partly. Two hours was the high-water mark. However, rarely did a Sunday night meeting ever fail to eclipse one-hour. In any event, the thing that drives these simple meetings to such lengthy degrees is never administrative bureaucratic hullaballoo. It’s rhetoric. Principal Yang approaches every Sunday night as a football coach whose team has just entered the locker room down 21-0 in the Super Bowl. The gameplan is out the window. Only invigorating, inspiratory bombast can save his squad from defeat. However, instead of hopes and dreams of millions of fans, Principal Yang’s rousing rhetoric is generally directed at a handful of topics, including but not limited to: Maintaining the cleanliness and order of the cabinets where students keep their bowls and chopsticks, ensuring that all teachers sign out before departing school on Fridays, and re-establishing that it is indisputably dangerous for students to skip over a step when walking down stairs.

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For example, “It has recently come to my attention that the condition of the cupboards in the cafeteria has begun to deteriorate. This is gravely disheartening. Gravely. It is unacceptable! It is depravity! Every day that goes by in which the cupboards are not perfectly clean is a black spot on the history of Sanzhuang Elementary School! Have some dignity! For God sakes, have some dignity! Now, I will read this 15 minute long form letter regarding the importance—no, the obligation—of order in the cafeteria cupboards graciously provided by the Yunnan People’s Committee on Hygiene and Nutrition.”

He reads the letter. I draw a picture of Mao in my notebook. Mr. Shi sinks into his jacket, where he is safe, and where he does not understand but is understood. The math teacher to my left begins doing that thing where he puts his thumb and index finger together and pretends to squash people’s heads. The Chinese teacher to my right slides off the couch and spontaneously combusts. No one notices. Principal Yang presses on.

IMG_0302“Red Mao” by Taylor Loeb

“And that, that is why we must attack the obscenity of cafeteria cupboard disorder, and we must attack it together, swiftly, and without tolerance.”

It’s like that every time, and now unfortunately, I understand. But, it’s not just Principal Yang. It’s a common affliction of leaders, as I’ve found. Provide a guy or gal that has a title with a microphone and an audience, and you are in for it. You are in for misplaced inspiration. I do not claim to understand where this burning desire for loquaciousness originates. It might be vanity. Maybe it’s a widespread misinterpretation of the term “a few moments.” It might be a legitimate conviction that no matter constraints of time or place, when you speak, you must speak like William Wallace on the fields of Falkirk. Or maybe signing out on the weekend is a matter of life, death, and dignity. Or maybe, the students, employees, and Mr. Shis of yesteryear—the leaders of today—lost their mind a long time ago listening to the verbose movers and shakers of the past—the guys on the wall. And, they’ve slowly devolved into a farcical state of mind in which up is down, a few moments means a few hours, and the meticulous arrangement of cabinets that hold the bowls and chopsticks of small children is an uncompromisable prerequisite to an operational, civilized society.

Why am I writing this??

Breathe out… I’ve been in Sanzhuang for almost a full school year now. Needless to say, 2013-2014 has been unlike any of my previous 18 school years. For one, this year was spent on the “other side of the desk,” as teachers often ominously say. But, perhaps even more importantly than that, I’ve spent it in a different language, a different country, and a completely different system. Let’s be real. The teaching part isn’t the most intriguing angle of this escapade. Teaching is different, but kind of the same wherever you are. Plus, the idiosyncrasies between a classroom in Heqing and one in Connecticut aren’t, I can promise you, probably very fascinating to anyone outside of the teaching profession. That’s why, from the get go, I didn’t want to make this blog about teaching.

Living, though. That is something that, generally speaking, all human beings have to do from time to time. That’s where the good stuff’s at. If you’ve never written a lesson plan or confiscated a love note, you’re probably not super piqued by how that stuff goes down in a Chinese context. But, everybody eats, everybody relaxes, and everybody… poops. Writing worth reading, I’ve found, is relatable writing with a twist. Only linguists with a Scandinavian persuasion want to read Practical Norwegian Grammar by Rolf Strandskogen. That said, one can only read the local news so many times before they’ve heard enough about the new zoning restrictions in Sleepy Hollow Park. Relatable, but enlightening, is how it should be. I’m not a writer. I’m a finance major who has a skewed view about how interested WordPress readers are in my bowel movements. If you’ve never read any of my previous posts, I recognize that that last line might be a bit disagreeable. I apologize.

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I chose to write because I wanted to give people a small window into China. But not China. Not what you see on the front page of the New York Times or on The Daily Show or on Fox Five, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not out to write the news. I’m trying to humanize China, specifically Yunnan, in a way that abstract newspaper features about impenetrable smog can’t do. China is so foreign, yet so inextricably important to everyone across the world. If you disagree, check the tag on any piece of clothing you’ve got on. Chances are…

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I’m not trying to do hard-hitting investigative exposés. I’m just trying to make the handful of people who read this thing laugh, learn, and most importantly, think about China. Because like or not, you’re going to have to. And when you think about China, I hope, instead of just smog and 1989 and Nikes—because those things are important too—you think about me suppressing my vomit after going bottoms up on a shot of baijiu. And think about the people sitting around the table with me, drinking that baijiu, who couldn’t give a shit about the smog in Beijing, because the only time they don’t see blue sky is during the rainy season. And think about the woman who collects my 1 Yuan toilet fee. Currencies are the last type of “floating object” she’s got on her mind. And think about the students. No, really think about them, because one day they might be making your Nikes or buying your real estate or shaking your hand at a ribbon-cutting ceremony or, if we really mess it up, invading your shores. Frankly, one day your kids might be making their Nikes. Gasp!

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It’s painfully obvious to say that China, or anywhere on the earth is at its core about people and relationships. But, it’s painfully easy to forget that fact when we see the same things over and over again on the news. Foreign visions about any place are molded by information, not experience. Not everyone can drop everything and move to the other side of the world, so information is the next best thing. As such, our views on China and vice-versa have literally been created by secondhand accounts. Entire policies, attitudes, and cold-hard convictions have been forged by indirect contact. That is CRAZY. I’m not the news, but I’m something. My intention in the next year is to keep reminding people that there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. I should rephrase that. There’s a lot less going on here than meets the eye. It’s not complicated. It’s just life. If you want to think about China in a geopolitical sense, it’s easy, if not expected. It’s pretty much the only option we’re given. But, do your best to see it in a human sense and future generations will thank you, I promise.