Unforgiving Progress: An Early Requiem for a Community

We’re really close to the sun here. Not in a metaphorical way or anything. You’re not about to get hit with some Icarus parallel. Like, literally—relatively—the sun is close. That’s why, especially in the winter, days are that perfect kind of weather where you don’t even notice weather and nights give you hallucinations of Leif Erickson shoving sno-cones in your face and whatnot. It also makes the morning bright AF. On cloudless mornings (and most right now are) you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself for solar beatdown. Having the complexion of a roll of unused toilet paper, it’s dangerous out there for me.

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My face, whiter than toilet paper.

Day 1 of the weekend. I told fifth-grader Yang Hua (English name Tom) that I’d meet him outside his house at 8:30 in the morning and we’d hang around his village. Stupid—that’s how I felt about that promise at 8:00 a.m. Two years ago at that time I’d have just hit stage 4 of the sleep cycle. Wouldn’t get a crack at the world until noon. I remember in college this one kid wanted to meet up for a group project at 8:30 am on Sunday. I think I must have said something like, “You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” before we kicked him out of the group. But anyways, I’m older now and I’ve created responsibilities for myself. It’s one thing to stand up an 8:30 am class, it’s another to stand up an 11-year-old kid.

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Sanzhuang Village

I got up, slunk into the brightness, and walked down the mountain to Yang Hua’s house. He lives in the first mini-cluster-village of the big-big village of WenXing (When-Shing for you foreign devils). As such, he’s attended school at SanZhuang—where I teach—since first grade because, even though he lives in WenXing, SanZhuang’s elementary school is 10 times closer to his house than the WenXing iteration. I thought that was a nice, strikingly un-bureaucratic arrangement for Yang Hua. I walked down through SanZhuang on my way. I passed a bunch of my students and this old farmer who seems to pop up everywhere in my life. Whenever I walk past, he announces to someone—or no one if someone is not there—that “It’s Mr. Loeb, the American teacher, Mr. Loeb is coming down the hill!” And laughs merrily. It’s kind of weird. I can’t tell if he likes me or he’s doing some Paul Revere type shit.

Yang Hua is waiting in front of his little village. I’m immediately washed with a pang of relief-guilt. Really happy I didn’t let myself doze. I suppose I have grown up. The way these things work: Clusters of houses, almost quite literally right on top of each other and then vast expanses of cropland before another cluster of houses quite literally on top of each other. It might make personal-space-loving Americans scratch their heads—and it took me a while to make sense of it. “But… but… where’s your backyard.” I might ask. “This is all our backyard.” Accompanied by a sweeping of the arms. Not even a single “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again,” sign. How barbaric. Gives me the creeps, it does.

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WenXing scenery

Yang Hua and I meet up with another one of my kids—Gao ZhiBin (who I creatively named Zeben, in honor of a TFC teacher I kind of knew). And then two 11-year-olds and me walked across the entirety of the big-big village of WenXing in the infinite brightness. We village-hopped, if you will. Remember, all of these clusters are separated by big plots of rice, wheat, and tobacco. Throughout the walk—which took a few hours—we ran into pretty much all of my WenXing students. About 10-12 come to SanZhuang each year. WenXing’s own school only has grades 1-4. So, its students—like students from other surrounding rural villages—come to SanZhuang for 5th and 6th grade. WenXing is small and, like most rural Chinese villages, getting smaller.

Quick modern history/rural economics lesson: WenXing is and has always been an agricultural village. There isn’t much in the way of concrete documentation, but from what I hear from locals, it was kind of what you picture when you think about rural China back in the day—and probably a little worse, given its mountain-hugging location. Up until the 70’s, poverty was the rule, the concept of “our” was law, and life was a grind. Most people will tell you that it’s been getting better since the mid-70s. A slow, upward trajectory that has been nothing, mostly, but good. Education got better, students stayed in the system longer, a new road sprung up every few years. Most people over the age of 30 probably have four, five, six brothers and sisters. But rarely, if ever, do they have more than two kids of their own. Even though the one-child policy does not apply to farmers or minorities, economics do. The advantages of having six children have been erased by incipient prosperity.

But, now it’s clear that the prosperity curve is starting to press up against the limits of reality. Alas, an hours-long agricultural community cannot sustain economic growth forever in its own little organic semi-vacuum. To be sure, this is also the case for cities, countries, and, sorry, planets. There are essentially no #millenials here. People aged 18-30 are almost invariably working in cities, living not amongst rice terraces and family, but in tiny little cupboards in cities like LiJiang or DaLi, with 10 other young people—and, mind you, making 10 times what they’d be making if they weren’t. This is demographic engineering. Whether policy or not, like the one-child law, it seems to be the logical course of economics meets life. After all, subsistence-or-close-to-it farmers do next-to-nothing for the proliferation of societal cash-money. Move those people to the city, pay them 10 times more (still very little), make them consumers, and convert the inefficient land that they used to farm and live on to Big-Agri-Central and shit like amusement parks (and way down the line perhaps 1,000 times pricier second homes for the grandkids of the people who left the village). Show me a “developed” nation where that story hasn’t played out. I dare you.

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Students messing around in the stream

But, not today. Each village-cluster (nine in total) is still sufficiently full of life. Every time we cross a field and enter a new village it’s kind of like entering a new country. People—especially old people—speak of the villages like that. I remember one guy warning me in my first days to “never trust a person from (the village right across the street)” as though the cobblestones represented some sort of irreconcilable moralistic divide. There is a dominant last name in each village, too. This makes sense. These are generally places people move out of. Outsiders with weird names like Loeb, rarely settle down here.

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We cross into the central village—the wealthiest of the nine. The village committee building is here. There are also three small convenience stores, shelves stocked haphazardly, cash stored in a creaky drawer—all bills tossed in with each other, ancient-looking men sitting outside on stools sucking the life out of cigarette bongs (and, sadly, themselves), and a brand of friendliness that doesn’t exist in places with garbage and traffic lights.

I buy the kids some lukewarm “iced” tea and they lead me up a side-alley to Zhang LiPin’s house. They pound on his door and scream his name. This is actually how people coordinate rendezvouses! I always thought Charles Schulz was full of shit when he wrote about this kind of stuff. Moments later an irritated old-woman-voice echoes from the other side of the door. “He’s not here. He’s ‘being an honored guest.’” The kids shrug and we keep walking. “Being an honored guest,” a phrase that carries with it that unnecessarily inherent formality that a lot of Chinese phrases do, is always hilarious in this context. First of all, because everyone is friends around here, people are always going over to other people’s houses for events—from funerals to weddings to liver-destructions. So, this is a super common reason for someone being unavailable. But, the word/phrase is used interchangeably for kids and adults. The idea of an 11-year-old, let alone a four-year-old “being an honored guest” cracks me up.

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Alleyway in WenXing

Zhang LiPin wasn’t home, so we walked to the next cluster. We called on another kid, Yang JianWei, who was home. His dad, shirtless and roundbellied, scrambled to receive us. He frantically looked for a teacup, and when he couldn’t find one, emptied, washed, and refilled his own tea-bottle and offered it to me. He ran into the courtyard and grabbed a few sticks of milky-ice (cream) from the freezer and handed them to the boys. The spontaneous acts of hospitality, incredible. We stayed for a moment—not long enough for my tea to cool—and walked back toward Yang Hua’s house. We would eat lunch there.

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Gao ZhiBin, Yang Hua, me

On the way back we stopped at the school to play basketball with a couple more of my students. The hoops were droopy and the ball flat. The school is only a few rooms—a real community operation. There are 43 students in total, grades K-4. My school’s own Principal, Mr. Yang, who happens to be from this very village-cluster of WenXing, said there were well over a hundred kids here 20 years ago, when his son—who know lives in the city of NuJiang—was a student here. One of the kids laments his fate as a fellow-townsman of Principal Yang. “He’s my principal seven days a week instead of five!”

We retrace past the little haphazard shops and the same ancient dudes loving on the steel cigarette bongs and the fields, fields, fields. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin playfully attack each other with fallen branches. I notice Yang Hua’s shirt is too small for him. Gao ZhiBin’s, too. They don’t notice, though.

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We get back to their village around two. The way back always feels shorter. On the way there, you never know where the end is. There’s an “uncle” sitting on a stool by the table. Always stools here, of course. I guess there’s a thrill in eating whilst trying not to injure yourself, or something. The uncle smokes a cigarette and nod-smiles at us. Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin mess around with my camera for a few minutes, before a pack of tired looking middle-aged women enters the gate and sits down at the table. I look up, confused.

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Food, literally, on food

“It’s the busy season,” Yang Hua informs. “They’re helping us with our crops, so we’re having them over for lunch.” The honored guests smile and nod and continue jabbering in deep, deep dialect, far beyond my comprehension. Yang Hua’s dad comes out with a few trays of freshly picked, freshly cooked, freshly fresh dishes—the only kind there are here. Pig’s stomach, milky potatoes, corn and green beans, leek soup, whole little fishes, and that thing that starts with an r and ends with an e. He greets me and offers a Dali beer and a Yunnan cigarette. I take the beer. He tacitly impugns my nicotine-free “masculinity.”

I eat gleefully, say thank you, and walk back up the mountain in the brightness. “Come visit us anytime, anytime.” The boys say. “See you on Monday,” I tell the students—more sullenly reminding myself than them.

It’s funny whenever I do this. I feel deeply nostalgic for something I never had. I feel like I’m vicariously experiencing a lost life—one spent on private property, one spent in cars, one spent with phones and distance—a decade on. Life has been good for me, to be sure. But, it was never like this. For some reason this is how I’ve always pictured “society”—close-knit, name-knowing, honored-guest-being, continuously, endlessly hospitable… neighborly. With a fuck-ton of corner shops. As many corner shops as corners.

And this place will probably be “running its course” by the next time Halley’s comet comes through. And I wonder why that has to be. Are the concepts of prosperity (the money kind) and simplicity, neighborliness, tradition, and community really so diametrically opposed?

It’s hard to argue that they aren’t.

Why does it always seem like we can only choose one or the other? Truthfully, this sense of community is something we’re always hungering for in theory—country, religion etc.. And I suppose when you think about it in that sense, the concept of community is OK until you consider its insidious exclusivity—an apparently fundamental characteristic to its existence. But, practically speaking, real, physical communities seem to be perhaps the greatest victim, among many, many positives, of prosperity. I would never argue that Yang Hua and Gao ZhiBin are better off staying put—my alleged purpose here pretty much represents the inverse of that notion. Surely, in most ways, they aren’t better off. But, remember from time to time, that progress and wealth are not no-strings-attached plusses. There are some things you’re gonna have to lose first.

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Noodles LLC

I’m sitting on a rickety plastic stool. I’ve fallen off this stool seventeen times in the last year. I’m shit at sitting in stools. I’ll leave China without ever mastering the skill. I do my best. Life is hard. A tower of fried rice noodles lands in front of me. I lean forward, shifting the impossibly fragile ass–to-stool balance, and lovingly serenade the noodles with vinegar. It begins—my weekly reunion with the divine noodles, the only food in the world that I would ever repeatedly risk breaking my ass and the subsequent public embarrassment for. I’ve told their story here: https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/stuck-in-ambrosia/ 302659

The chef, a tireless middle-aged woman with that Indira Ghandi-esque shock of white hair, sits down at a table next to me. She pulls a baleful of chives out of a bag and sets them on a cutting stone. She leisurely begins to chop.

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“How much longer you got here, Mr. Luo?”

“Three months, more or less. How about you, boss?”

She laughs, as though the thought of leaving her corner stall is the funniest joke she’d ever heard. “Probably longer than that.” She says. “I swear to you boss, I’m going to miss your noodles more than anything else. Far, far more than any living thing.”

“They don’t have Er Si (Are-Suhh—these particular noodles) in the USA?” We’ve had this conversation seventeen times in the last year.

“Boss, they don’t even have Er Si in most parts of China. I’ll tell you what. If they did… If we opened up this place in the middle of New York City, we could get $15 for a plate like this. I’m serious.”

“How much is that in Renminbi?” She asks, never drawing attention from the task of chopping chives.

“A hundred, more or less.” She laughs, because 100 Renminbi for a plate of her simple noodles is too much too handle—like when a you tell a kid to guess your age and he says 1,000 years old and thinks he’s blown your comedic mind.

“A hundred for these!” She holds up a fistful of uncooked Er Si—uncooked, it resembles shredded paper. “That’s… that’s stupid.”

“I’m telling you. No one has even seen Er Si before. You… we open up a little shop and do exactly what you do now. Fried Er Si and Er Si soup. We don’t even have to charge $15—a hundred. We could charge like $10—sixty RMB. I’m telling you, just the fact that people in New York have never heard of it will mean they’ll buy it. Er Si, LLC. Er Si Limited.” She tossed some cut chives into a ceramic bowl.

“How much would the stall be?”

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“I don’t know. Maybe $15,000 a month. So, 100,000 RMB” She roars with laughter, waving the imposing cleaver back and forth. “100,000 for a place like this. For a month! My god.”

“No, smaller than this. No seating, either.” No stools.

“Wow. Pshh. Where would we even get the money? You’re rich, right? You have the money?”

“No, I don’t even have enough for one week. We’d go to the bank.”

“Ha!” She motions across the street, where the Yunnan Rural Credit Union and their floppy disks and nice, but incredibly robbable security guard are located. “The bank doesn’t even have that much money.”

“Yeah, well boss, we wouldn’t get the money from that bank.”

No, we wouldn’t. We’d get it from a much less robbable, less nice bank.

“And then we’d open more Er Si stalls. And we’d have them all over the country. You wouldn’t even need to cook anymore.” She scooped up the last bit of chives with the blade of the knife and shook them into the bowl.

“I don’t know, Mr. Luo. You sound like you’re a little bit crazy. Er Si Limited, it’s too much. Why would I want to have a restaurant and not cook?”

“You’d be rich!”

She laughs, dismissingly. I finish off the last of my vinegar-soaked delicacy—the boss’s crispy hypothetical golden ticket to prosperity. I lovingly rub my belly. And, as one does at the close of any satisfying meal, stare longingly at the thick, lonely, barren oil on my plate and recline. A mistake. I slide off the stool and land ass-first on the dusty concrete.

“Fuckin’ stool.” I gripe in my native language. “Boss, you gotta get some new seats. It’s dangerous out here.” I advise from my position on the ground. 302659-1

“Mr. Luo, if I got new seats, we’d never get to see you fall off.” She cackles.

I think she has a point, a point at my expense, albeit still a point.

All that stuff I said above, I was only really barely joking. Obviously, the boss isn’t going anywhere. She’s got kid(s) (shhhh), can’t speak a word of English, and, more importantly, seems pretty damn happy. But, if I could somehow weasel her recipe and synthesize it for the American palate with stuff like Maltodextrin and Yellow 6 Lake, success is a given. Fast, cheap, and exotic noodles from a part of Asia that’s pretty close to Tibet, has trend dripping all over its oily curls. There isn’t even an English Wikipedia page for Er Si. In fact, the only page, the Chinese page, is five sentences long—with 20% of those sentences explaining that drinking cold water after eating Er Si can cause diarrhea (not necessarily true—sometimes hot water is enough). No one knows about this stuff, and it should be the most popular noodle in the world.

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But, the boss is right about the stools. It wouldn’t be the same without them. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without the cigarette bong offered as a courtesy to guests. Or the dust. It definitely wouldn’t be the same with health-code regulations. The ingredients, that the boss or her friends probably picked—those couldn’t change. Shit, everything good about this is un-replicatable. What’s more, the thought of having an Er Si LLC on every corner, the thought of Er Si having a Wikipedia page, the thought of writing a blog about Er Si—it seems like a betrayal.

You can’t recreate anything. Especially not this.

The Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament

“You’re insane. Completely oblivious to rules and regulations. Unreasonable!!”

“You’re breaking the rules.”

“Insane! You’re breaking the rules! You called me for five three-in-the-keys (three-second violations) in one half! And that was just me.”

“You went into the key.”

“I know I went into the key! You can’t call a three-in-the-key because I go into the key. I’ve got to be in there for three seconds. And, to be honest with you, no one calls three-in-the-key unless the guy is in there for at least four seconds!”

“It’s dangerous to spend so much time in the key.”

“That’s where the basket is!”

“Very dangerous, indeed.”

It’s halftime of Sanzhuang Elementary’s first game of the Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament. We’re playing against Songgui Elementary School tonight. I sit on a concrete ping-pong table, sipping a boiling paper cupful of tea, the official hydration method of the Songgui District Male Teacher Tea Drinking Basketball Exchange Tournament. Of course, boiling tea does little to quench thirst and replenish electrolytes, but does function effectively as a laxative agent—a fact that unsurprisingly slows gameplay as the second half begins.

I’m complaining to the ref, Mr. Li, who’s also the superintendent of Songgui Schools, the man in charge of my salary, and a not-so-infrequent drinking buddy. He’s taking desperate drags of a cigarette—a combination of referee-induced stress and heightened physical activity. He is not the only one. In fact, the other referee, Mr. Shi is smoking and has two cigarettes lodged behind as many ears in preparation for the second half. Besides the refs, almost all of the “teacher-athletes” are relishing their halftime smoke break, too.

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Mr. Li with a cigarette in his ear, preparing to call a three-second violation.

Mr. Li has gone rogue. He’s called an unprecedented 8 three-second violations in the first twenty minutes of the game—a number so preposterous, that were he a professional, would have gotten him suspended and fined large sums of money. But, Mr. Li is a man of power and means, and today he has chosen to wield his power in the form of baseless, reckless, and incessant three-second violations. He is feeling antsy right now, because the halftime break has made it impossible to call frivolous three-second violations. I can tell he is considering calling one, even though both teams are on the sidelines and the game is currently not being played.

“OK, I’ll lay off,” He says to my surprise. “But as you know, safety is our priority.”

“In that case, maybe you should consider calling a foul, Mr. Li.”

To his credit, Mr. Li only whistles two three-second calls in the entire second half. Sanzhuang wins 70-50.

This year marks my second annual Songgui District Male Teacher Chain-Smoking and Basketball Exchange Tournament. A more suitable name for our little tournament might be Songgui District Middle-Aged Men in Capris Beating Each Other Indiscriminately in Pursuit of Orange Ball Invitational.    

For two weeks in April, five or six teams of teachers, administrators, security guards, kitchen staff, and dubiously employed and suspiciously tall “staff members,” rise up from the valleys and peaks of the greater Songgui District to get together for a thing they call basketball. Schools are spread far apart in this corner of the world. Teachers drive miles and miles to show up for the contests, which take place on beautifully warm Tuesday through Friday nights at six o’clock. Hundreds of students, townspeople, and teachers come out. They cheer without reprieve as the chaos unfolds.

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Rebounds & Capris

I, for my part, am a phenomenon—a Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament anomaly. I am six-feet tall, relatively large, and have played basketball before. As a result of these three middling characteristics—that have come to define me for most people in the region—I am a basketball Jesus. On more than one occasion, I have been asked seriously about my NBA career. I can only say that it is yet to begin. I decline to divulge, out of the Chinese cultural norm of humility, that I was once the seventh or eighth best player on a slightly above-average middle school team.

The tournament is a spectacle. There are announcers, multiple referees, water girls and boys, and scorekeepers, all of whom know just enough about basketball to recognize my NBA-level talent for what it is. Each team buys a full uniform (shirt, capris, and sneakers) out of the school budget for the five-game tournament.

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A typical example of defense at the The Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament

The gameplay is a spectacle. The typical possession begins with a wayward heave from one end of the court to the other that invariably results in either interception or ball-to-head contact. In the event that the ball is successfully moved up-court, there will be a mad rush at the dribbler, who will be defended as though he is a leg, and his pursuers, dogs in rabid heat. If he manages to evade the attack/homoerotic advance, he will more than likely frantically hurl the ball at the basket, where it will rocket off the backboard. Should someone on the offense be unlucky enough to snag a rebound, they will be physically violated by a mass of sweaty, pot-bellied brutes, many of which will likely be wearing the same jersey as he is. A foul will only be called if the play results in a crippling injury. If—if—the ball does make it through the hoop, the crowd of hundreds will roar crazily. And the wild rumpus will repeat.

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A pick is set during the The Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament

Timeouts are a spectacle. The competitors will congregate on the sidelines. Cigarettes will be dispersed and smoked while guttural sighs and heaves of discomfort echo from each end of the bench—even from those who have not yet entered the game. The self-appointed coach (Principal Yang in Sanzhuang’s case), will offer seemingly erroneous, but contextually sage advice like, “Shoot toward the hoop,” and “Pass to the ones on your team.” The players will groan and nod, before flicking out their cigarettes and gradually returning to the court. Principal Yang, should he enter the game, with almost surely disregard his own advice.

I should note that, despite my relative skill, I am still (a lifelong struggle) one of the slowest in the game. I am at an utter loss as to how chain-smoking, middle-aged, fupa-packing men can constantly beat me up and down the court. It’s sick.

When the game ends, everyone congregates in the teachers lounge and gets shitfaced and talks about how much fun they had beating on each other for the last hour and a half.

Obviously, there is little rhyme and little reason to the events that go down on the court. It’s a crazy—albeit pretty fun—free for all. It’s not often that these teachers get to see each other. Most of them are stuck at school all week long. Few even get to see their family more than once a week, let alone friends, old classmates, and ex-colleagues—relationships that most of the teachers that play in the tournament share. The students get a rare chance to step out of the classroom and scream and yell for (at?) their teachers. There is no pretense—there is little to be pretentious about. No one complains about not having the time or not being good enough or being afraid of certain embarrassment. It’s endlessly hilarious, crazy, cigarette-filled, a little boozy, confusing, so damn genuine, and chock full of peculiarly arbitrary, yet harmless, abuses of power. It’s the only way a basketball tournament at Sanzhuang could ever be.

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.

Hesitate at the Crossroads

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

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

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

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

But, it didn’t always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But.

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

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

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

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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.

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.