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.

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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.