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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Smoke & Testicles

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I stood at an existential crossroads.Turn left: I’d be in front of my computer, shrouded in clothes I bought on taobao and thinking terrible thoughts about taobao. Turn right: I could be sitting around an incompetent space heater with a bunch of middle-aged dudes insistent on shoving flammable liquid into my throat.

I eagerly turned right.

It was a solid crowd of 5 or 6—the familiars: The principal, the security guard, a couple of administrators, a local shop owner. They were watching local news and screaming at each other. I sat down and the security guard—the host—filled my glass. There is no such thing as “say when.” “When” is “when” pouring more means losing some. I noticed dozens of empty bottles of baijiu in the corner. Our security guard would not do well in Salt Lake City.

You can always tell what kind of a night it is based on sip to gulp ratio. This is something I learned in college. This Wednesday evening, as it were, was a gulp night. A cavalcade of cheersing ensued. After a few minutes, I was two glasses deep and starting to feel warm. On my left was Mr. Zhao, a new teacher at our school. Mr. Zhao spent the last six years at a 1-4 school in an isolated area thirty minutes off the main road. He was one of two teachers at that school. As an aside, this is only plausible because the village where he taught, Dongpo, sends its kids to school every two years. So, if there is a new 1st grade class in 2014, there will not be another one until 2016. For obvious reasons, Mr. Zhao was forced to teach English. Consequently, Mr. Zhao has a fluent command of the 3rd and 4th grade People’s Education Press curriculum.

“It’s cold.” He says.

“Yes.” I say.

“I’m old.” He says.

“Nah. Mr. Zhao. If you told me you were a day over 30 I simply wouldn’t believe it .” I say in Chinese.

“I am forty.” He says and then proceeds to state the age of each person in the room in rapid sequence. “He is fifty-two. He is fifty-nine. He is forty-three. You are twenty-four,” etc.

“That’s true, Mr. Zhao. Not bad.”

Mr. Zhao smiles.

After the collective BAC climbs to “ambitious,” the local shop owner (not drinking) suggests that we get some food. It’s 10 pm now. Food is twenty minutes and a lot more baijiu and cigarettes away. Another existential crossroads emerges. I have things to do, matters of consequence to attend to, goddamnit. I’m still at the level of inebriation that allows for—potentially enhances—work.

I go with them, naturally.

Mr. Zhao, who is long past the aforementioned level begins banging wildly on the doors of other, likely asleep, teachers. After minutes of persistence he manages to roust Mr. Duan—a tall, thin, quiet man—from slumber. The crowd lets out a raucous roar as Mr. Duan emerges grouchily from his room. They (we) begin chanting “Lit-tle Duan, Lit-tle Duan,” as we move toward the shop owner’s Ford.

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We pile into the car: Two in the passenger’s seat, four in the back. Seven total. Mr. Yang is on my knee, shouting orders at the driver. Mr. Duan is crammed in the corner, imbued with feelings opposite warmth, love, and affection. We arrive in town—Songgui—after twenty swervy minutes. The driver pounds the breaks and Mr. Yang hurls forward, letting out a roar of approval. We dodder into a shaokao (barbecue) spot. The place is flush with middle-aged males—the fast crowd in this pocket of the human universe.

After the obligatory volley of introductory head nods and “Ehs, ohs, and ughs” we sit down at our own table and the waiter produces two fresh bottles of baijiu and sparks the grill. The security guard takes initiative and fills everyone’s glass. Mr. Duan’s feeble attempts at refusal are met with collective guttural chortles of shaming disapproval.

The waiter brings out the food—not a vegetable in the house—at least not until Mr. Zhao powers through three or four more tall glasses of firewater. The shop owner tosses some livers and ligament-y looking things on the griddle. The fire roars and the smoke swats me in the face and we sit back and cheers. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao drain their glasses with frightening impunity. They are small dudes and notorious lightweights. Cigarettes are passed out and smoked livers and ligaments are crisp. Mr. Zhao and Mr. Yang are screaming at each other in nearly unintelligible dialect. I think I can make out small bits.

“I clean the damn bathroom. Clean it with my own hands, Zhao.” Mr. Yang says.

Mr. Yang gestures from a hand with a cigarette and a re-filled glass of baijiu in it. The drank sloshes and falls onto the grill. I get a fresh sheet of meat and cigarette smoke in my eyes.

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OK. I’m sorry,” Mr. Zhao is speaking English again.

“Listen here, Zhao. I clean the damn bathroom. It’s my job.” He is so sure of it.

OK. I’m sorry. Meester Yang.” I suppose Mr. Zhao had disparaged the bathroom.

The waiter brings out some large, beanish looking things. The shop owner strategically places them on the grill, one by one. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao are shouting. The security guard appears to be asleep. Mr. Duan is pondering into his glass.

“What’s that?” I ask through the smoke.

“Oh, you know.” The shop owner says, smiling like a 10-year-old boy.

It is eggs! Pig eggs!” Mr. Zhao points emphatically, returning to the fray. Egg is the Chinese slang for that particular anatomical feature, as it were.

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The shop owner paints the testicles with oil (lol) and they flare up. I receive a thick cloud of testicle smoke to the eyes. I wonder what happens when a pig is tumescent, if you will, before meeting its fate. First of all, awful way to go. Second, well you know, what’s the flavor profile there?

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Eggs!” They all shout in English. Mr. Duan, an actual English teacher, drily repeats the word. We eat the eggs. They’re not bad. We finish one and a half bottles. I hide the remainder behind my stool. I fend off Mr. Yang when he discovers it. He relents. We drive back with a Styrofoam box full of testicles. Messrs Yang and Zhao, and the security guard rest peacefully on the seat.

When we arrive it’s just past 1 AM. Mr. Zhao has morning study hall in 6 hours. We approach the on-duty room, where a teacher, Yang Yan Han, is sleeping. They begin pounding on his door. I quickly make my escape. They pound and chant, “Give Yang Yan Han the testicles! Give Yang Yan Han the testicles!” I find out the next morning that they gave him the testicles. I return to my cold bed.

When I walked to the security guard’s room, and then when I piled into a car, and again when I was getting faced with fumo de cojones, I kept having this thought. I was thinking about the interplay between things we have to do, should do, want to do, need to do. The way you live your life boils down to what types of things you slot into each of those categories. I was thinking I should go “get shit done,” I should “do some work,” whatever that means. Everyone always wants to “get shit done.” Then I was thinking, I have to go down the hill and drink baijiu and smoke cigarettes with these guys. I have to. What could possibly be more important? Now, I recognize that that sounds like some sort of Nihilist excuse for debauchery. It very well could be. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe once in a while we should reprioritize our priorities.