Sand

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My ass was sore for a week. For days after I could hardly move it. Overnight train rides were spent on my stomach, meals were taken over the backs of chairs, and I was more comfortable than ever about squatting over toilets. It was probably how long the damn thing took. I don’t care who you are: three hours on the back of a camel will do strange things to your body—the nearly constant state of gyration, made all the worse by an irrational fear of being slumped off at any moment.

Tyra and I saw brochures for the outing at our hostel in western Gansu Province. The literature was picketed with phrases like “relive the mystery of the Silk Road” and “experience one thousand and one Arabian nights!” The translations weren’t nearly as polished, but what really sold us were the tiny snapshots superimposed over the text—smiling tourists posing on camel-back, peeking out from inside a tent, and climbing up sandbanks. Almost two full days in the beautiful Mingsha Sand Dunes, the advertisement continued, complete with an overnight stay in the desert followed by a breathtaking morning sunrise.

My eyes widened to the size of saucers. “A camel,” I said to Tyra, beaming. “How many people can say they’ve done that?”

There were seven of us on the trip—two other couples, one Chinese and one American—neither of which could communicate with the other—and a lone female traveler from Shanghai, a spunky twenty-six year old intent on seeing more of her own country. She was seated third in the pecking order of the camel caravan behind Tyra and I, with the final two couples to follow, and an 8th camel charged with carrying the camping tents and cooking supplies bringing up the rear.

Each camel was tied to the one in front of it with a thick rope, a wad of knotted string protruding through its nostril and capped with a stopper to hold it in place. Any hold-up in the journey meant that each subsequent camel in line was turned sideways, its head precariously hooked to the one behind, which forced the camels to quickly learn to cooperate and move in tandem. At the head of the caravan was an older Chinese gentleman of Tibetan or Uighur descent whose inhabitants were not uncommon in the Far West.

The older gentleman acted as the foreman, and walked the end of the rope out in front of the line of camels. For a man of fifty or sixty (I have always been mercilessly poor at predicting age), he was rugged and fit, certainly aided by a profession that involved trekking ten or twelve miles into the desert every day. It didn’t help that it was the middle of July and the desert was sweltering. The foreman was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, gloves, and a hat, certainly to protect himself from the sun, whereas I had rolled up the sleeves of my thin T-shirt to my shoulders and was tugging helplessly at the hem of my jeans. Tyra was wearing black leggings and a button-down shirt and looked equally flustered.

For all of my ballyhooing about the camel ride, it didn’t take long before I began to tire of it. Out in the dunes, everything begins to look the same. On all sides there were white clouds, blue skies, and towering piles of sand that seemed to reach the stratosphere. The size and scale of it was dizzying. The closest I had ever come to sand was the gravely Coney Island coast, which, even in memory, bore almost no resemblance to the shimmering mounds that swelled and swooped around me, consuming nearly every square inch in sight.



I could tell Tyra was exhausted—as far as I remember, she nary said a word the entire time we spent bobbing up and down like inflatable buoys. Still, it was easy enough to stay amused by the feisty back-and-forth between the foreman and the young unmarried Chinese woman. It was as if she wanted to know everything about his life story—when he got started raising camels, how much he made per year, and what his family was like. It appeared that the Chinese fascination for “otherness” extended well beyond the American foreigner—it was true of its own marginalized citizenry as well.

The foreman acquiesced to her every nagging inquiry. The camels were not his, he explained, but he was able to rent them from a friend to do his treks. His expertise was in leading trips out to the desert and the care with which he took to make his foreign guests comfortable. He had been doing it for over thirty years, and in the winters when it got too cold to camp in the desert overnight, he helped to raise his grandchildren at home, of which he had over a dozen.

The woman seemed particularly intrigued. “How do you make your foreign guests comfortable if you can’t speak any English,” she asked with a smirk. Conversation up to that point had been entirely in Chinese. The foreman remained unfazed.

“Once a foreigner asked me where he could go to the bathroom,” he recalled, repeating the word “bathroom” in English. He hadn’t understood what the word meant and asked the tourist to repeat the question. “Toilet,” the Australian pleaded, looking close to desperation. “Where can I find the toilet?” The foreman smiled. He pointed to a shrub in the distance and, in his most exaggerated English, shouted, “there is toilet.” The whole caravan chuckled in unison.

“So besides speaking English,” the woman asked snidely, “what else can you do?” The foreman thought for a moment.
“I can sing,” he exclaimed, and almost immediately launched into an enthusiastic rendition of a popular Chinese folk song. The woman clapped her hands and looked pleased.
“What about you?”
“I don’t sing,” the woman said doggedly, waving a hand in front of her face.
“Well I’m not going to sing alone,” the foreman averred. “You there,” he said looking up at me, the first one in line. “How about it?”

“Me,” I asked defensively, wishing to distance myself from the banter. “I can’t sing either.” The foreman shook his head.
“Oh I’m sure you can sing,” he said eagerly. “All you Americans must be able to sing something. What about your national anthem?”

There were few things I detested more than my own singing voice. Karaoke with friends in an enclosed room was one thing, but the desert was suspiciously quiet and sound tends to carry for a long time across an open space. I spun around to look at Tyra. She was applying a new layer of sunscreen; the others on the tour looked even more disinterested.

“No, I’d really rather not,” I said. I thought it was an adequate enough rejection, but the foreman pressed harder.
“You need to sing.” He paused. “Or else I’m turning all of us around.” He was staring me dead in the eyes.
“I don’t want to sing,” I blurted out, half-shouting. The foreman’s pace slowed to a halt. The only sound was the lithe crunch of sand beneath my camel’s hooves. For what felt like minutes, no one said anything, and then, at last, the woman from Shanghai piped up.

“What else can you do?” she asked him.
“I can also cook,” the foreman said, as he gradually took the reigns in his hand and resumed course.

At some point along the way I managed to fall asleep. How one falls asleep riding on the back of a moving camel sounds hyperbolic, but there was something otherworldly about the experience. I could almost picture myself a wealthy Chinese merchant, a team of vassals at my beck-and-call, lazily slouching along the Silk Road. For the moment, neither time nor bodily desires seemed of the least concern.

By the time we stopped it was almost dark. The foreman helped let us down, and began unpacking the tents and cooking equipment. He tied the first camel to the last, rigging them in a closed loop, and instructed each one to kneel on the ground one-by-one. He announced that we would have dinner there at the base in an hour, but that in the meantime, we should enjoy the sunset on the lookout of a tall sandy peak he pointed to not far in the distance.

It was as if the sand rekindled some deep child-like exuberance in me. From the moment I stepped off the camel I caught myself running across the plains, rolling down hills and scrambling up embankments. I was six years old again playing in a giant, ever-expansive sandbox. Tyra, sensing my mood, began stalking me like a lion, and the two of us got down on all fours, pouncing and shuffling barefoot in our imagined African Sahara. When she got close enough to touch, I wrestled her to the ground, dusting her clothes and mine with sand. Her skin, white and smooth, contrasted perfectly with its tawny coarseness.

We galloped our way up the sandy peak to the lookout. At one point, we tried to race headlong up the nearly vertical shaft, but with each beleaguered step, we slipped increasingly more deeply into sand. Ours was a cacophony of laughter and high-pitched shrieks. When we reached the top, the lone Chinese woman offered to take our picture. Tyra and I sat with our backs to the sunset in the distance, her head nestled firmly in the crook of my neck.

We had dinner on two squat collapsible tables back at base. In front of us, the foreman had constructed a small fire out of packed twigs and brush. He brought out seven metal containers and placed them on the tables. Under each lid was a brick of instant noodles mixed with the once hot water transported from the town. On all accounts, it was a letdown. My body was starving, and after a full day out in the desert sun, the last thing I wanted to eat was lukewarm noodles. The foreman, sensing the collective disappointment, explained:

“The government doesn’t give me enough money to provide any food for the trip,” he said, in his accented Mandarin. “But since I expect tourists not to bring enough, I buy this out of my own pocket.” The foreman looked around the circle but still strained to make eye contact with me. It was easy enough not to trust him—that perhaps he just skimmed the extra money off the top to pay for cigarettes and liquor and gambling. But the narrative didn’t seem to fit. I added a flimsy packaged sausage to the water—something I almost never eat—and slurped up my noodles in silence.

Nearby, the camels snorted and shifted positions. They slept a stone’s throw away from where the foreman had set-up our sleeping tents. All roped together in a circle, they looked like this single living entity, the silhouette of their humps rising and falling with their breath. No respite from the cold night air, nor any food or water of their own, they still seemed perfectly, dispassionately, content.



Pretty soon everyone began preparing for sleep. Tyra and I and the other two couples each had a tent to share, and the unmarried woman had one to herself. The foreman slept outside beneath the stars—“how he liked it”—though I suspect it was more that he could afford to rent one fewer tent, further defraying his overhead. The tents were roomy but provisions were scarce. Other than a thin mat, the only covering we had was the tattered fleece blanket we had previously used as a make-shift saddle on the camels.

I was unfolding the mat when Tyra grabbed my arm to stop me. She had changed into a long black dress that cut a V beneath her neck and rested just above her ankles. Her lips were a searing, plump, red, and she had a ferocious, naughty glint in her eye. She pointed at me, then at herself, and finally at the mesh flap of the tent leading outside. In her hand was the clear Ziploc of condoms we had been steadily exorcising throughout the trip. I nodded greedily and she laughed, stashing the bag in her purse.

We made our move after the last of the tents went dark. Tyra brought the tiny flashlight we had used to examine cave paintings all morning, along with her purse and the quick-dry travel towel we had been sharing, and we slogged up the little ridge. Our tiny encampment was positioned in a man-made hovel at the bottom of a hill. There was higher ground to every side of us like the raised crust around a dessert’s center. This sand hardly gave at all—each step had to be calculated, like we were snowshoeing up a steep cliff.

When we reached the top, Tyra pointed at the sky. I’d never seen stars like the ones that night. Zealous and bright, the constellations shined like dazzling stadium lights in the distance. Further from the ridge’s lip, the view was the same: hundreds of flecked sand dunes, the moonlight shimmering off their glittery surfaces like a theater packed with flashbulbs—an entire inter-stellar audience waiting for the curtain to be drawn and the show to begin.

All at once, a wave of fear came over me. Not two hours earlier, the sand was near scalding to the touch, but now the cold was sending chills up my feet. I was shaking—those innumerable stars, like thousands of piercing stares, felt almost too much to bear.

At the same time, I realized that there were not many other chances I would get. Tyra rolled out the towel and laid it gently over the sand, and I held her tightly, easing her body to the ground. My body glided between her legs and she wrapped them flush against my thighs, bringing me closer still. My lips coursed over her lips and tongue, following the ridge-lines of her mouth. I wrung my shirt over my head and hooked her arms through the thin straps of her dress. She undid the buckle to my belt and I carefully folded the tapered ends of her dress above her waist.

A part of me ached desperately to take her then, to leave the two of us drenched and smoldering beneath the moon’s glow. But a different part yearned for something else, though it was impossible to communicate. In a parallel world, there would be no cosmic witnesses, no dull hum across the floating expanse—the shared moment existing for the two of us and us alone.

The words began to form in my mouth again. “I don’t—,” I muttered under my breath, but just then something stirred inside me. A blast of wind rolled over the dune, fanning out the sand beneath Tyra, and I slid inside her. There was something screaming inside me that needed to be released, a fire burning in the pit of my stomach. I grabbed her arms and held them firmly to the ground. Her body shook as the sand pulsed and swayed, each thrust sending the earth’s force resisting back against us and into the wind.

Beads of sweat trickled down the nape of my neck, but they didn’t last. As suddenly as it came on, the fire went out. And when it was over, we were both still breathing heavy, Tyra on her back, and me crouched in front of her, the jeans still looped around my ankles. The sand had coursed through her hair and mine, matting it at obtuse angles. She propped herself up with both arms and exhaled deeply into the sky. Her eyes, hazel-green, scanning the clouds like a beacon in the desert.

We ambled back down the sloped ridge, Tyra leading the way with her flashlight. As quietly as I could, I unzipped the mesh shell of the tent and we stepped inside. The temperature had dropped precipitously. On the thin mat, we huddled close together—her back curving to form a tight seal against my chest, and my arms clasped firmly against hers. We pulled the blanket up and let it hang loose around our necks. For some time, everything around us was still. I had nearly fallen asleep when Tyra stirred and reached for the flashlight. Rolling to my right, I took her hand in mine and whispered softly: thank you for being so wonderful.

She squeezed my hand and switched off the light. Silence filled the void like a vacuum. What else was there left to say?

*

This is the first of many semi-fictionalized short stories based on my two years abroad to be written and anthologized in a future book-length project by Wilder Voice Press. More details forthcoming soon!

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Green Onion and Frozen Pizza

Monday, October 17, 2011

Each dish starts out the same. A few cloves of garlic minced into thin ovals, limbs of ginger pureed into a thick pulp, and finely chopped stalks of green onion, sliced so that the flimsy green leaves coil out from the white stalk. Each is used in equal quantity at the base of the wok, to which is added a few hearty shakes of salt and black pepper, a dash of Asian five spice, and a dollop of spicy chili peppers.

We've been trying to cook together at least once a week, me and Yao Jie, this year's Shansi Visiting Scholar from China. We improvise a little with the ingredients, substituting what we can't get in America with its closest equivalents. The contents of each individual dish don't seem to matter much—strips of eggplant and squash, scrambled eggs and sweet onion, cubed pork and diced potatoes—the preparation is amazingly, eerily, consistent.

Sunday dinner at Shansi House (photo courtesy of Yao Jie).

In a bizarre twist of fate, Yao Jie also hails from Shanxi, the province home to my beloved Taigu, and is enamored by the same iconic Northern Chinese fare. When I lived in Taigu, I never thought I would miss it. So soon had the foreigners tired of the same five or six lei (types) of food that we eagerly sought out non-Chinese dishes at almost every opportunity. But amazingly, that plaintive disdain has quickly morphed into something more like desire. Food has become a metaphor for my unbridled nostalgia for China. The smells and tastes touch my taste buds in dreams, tantalizing me with the utterly fantastic notion of their feasibility, where the closest we get is the once-a-week meals we bastardize using ingredients from Stevenson and IGA.

I am constantly awed by her fascination about Oberlin. There is a certain wide-eyed focus to her gaze, a quiet calculation and analysis of the new world surrounding her, not too dissimilar, in fact, from my own. It’s been interesting, too, hearing what kinds of questions she has, and how even the most ordinary things require a lengthy explanation: “What function do the blue boxes on street corners serve?” “How do you choose the best cell phone service provider?” “What is the meaning of the sign in the Walmart parking lot that reads ‘Reserved Parking: Horse and Buggy Only?’”

I had nearly forgotten how much these small, seemingly insignificant queries dictated my own attitudes toward my first month in rural China. How even the most ordinary things were no longer easy—crossing the street, mailing a postcard—and how it forced me to pay special attention to the little details in my every day life. But pretty soon, everyone learns to adapt. Back in America, you get used to the wide sidewalks, the lack of honking, the monolingual road signs, the orderly grocery check-out counters. By now the joy of those small accomplishments has already fallen away, replaced by preoccupation with bigger, more pressing goals. But to the outside, it’s imperceptible: no one here, perhaps save for Yao Jie herself, understands that loss in quite the same way.

Yao Jie demonstrating Chinese paper cutting at this year's Culture Festival in Tappan Square (photo courtesy of Dale Preston).

I like to think I won’t have culture shock when I eventually return to visit Taigu, but I know that that won’t be the case. My reality is entrenched in my surroundings. I may no longer be shocked or amused by America, but I still yearn futilely for pieces of my past life. In one way, I’m paying it forward, helping to indoctrinate Yao Jie with the same welcoming and patience as those friends I made in Taigu provided for me, but in another, we’re both new to America, struggling with acclimating to this strange, different culture. At our last dinner Yao Jie refused cold water, opting instead to drink the boiled noodle water customarily paired with noodle-based dishes in the north. I paused for a second before I too dipped the ladle into the scalding pot and helped myself to a bowl.

*

I rarely cooked in China because from a pragmatist's point of view there was no ostensible need—restaurant food was laughably cheap and was much more efficient than cooking at home. Cooking always required what felt like a full day's preparation—shopping at the local supermarket in town for things like meat and tofu, the little mom-and-pop granary for rice and flour, and the farmer's market for things like eggs and vegetables. There was a two-three hour stretch of time at night devoted to the actual cooking—six pairs of hands in a crowded kitchenette taking turns by the electric hot plates, sharing cutting boards, and alternately washing and plating dishes. Then, the hour or two dedicated to eating, and finally the clean-up—scraping pans, storing leftovers, and wiping down tables.

Here there is almost none of that camaraderie. Most of my meals are cooked for one, and yet still, I find solace in that solitary act—returning home at noon, turning on the electric stove, letting the chop and sizzle of the saucepan add layers to Ira Glass's inflection. Then at night, the neat simplicity of reheated leftovers for dinner. It's not the co-op at Oberlin and it certainly isn't a Thursday night banquet in Taigu, but it suffices.

Two weeks ago I received an unlikely gift. Hand-delivered by Alexandra’s sister over seven thousand miles to Oberlin—what in Taigu could almost pass as a food staple unto itself—a package of Taigu bing. These particular bing—Chinese for “cookie,” “biscuit” or almost any breaded ration—came in a red plastic bag, the words “red date” emblazoned across the bottom to indicate the flavor. They are particular to Taigu and absolutely ubiquitous—rare is it to pass a store that doesn't carry them in large plastic crates, the stylized gold characters practically dancing across the label. But to receive them here, at a fancy restaurant in Oberlin, felt like something outer-worldly—my brain just couldn't process it.

I have been holding out on eating the last one, perhaps so long that it will end up spoiling in spite of my efforts, but I can't quite seem to let it go. This, a food staple that I bought with such utter regularity as to never question whether or not I'd have enough, a breakfast item I paired with a bowl of yogurt and a sliced banana each morning. For want of the more conventional Western pastries I once craved, these fluffy, sesame seed-studded cookies were all we had. And now, a single, solitary mouthful is all that remains.

It's a feeling that I find hard to explain. It's like being the sole proprietor of a contraband food ration in the army. Or, perhaps, like a foreign teacher laying claim to the only personal pizza in a rural Chinese town of 80,000. The pie that Gerald took back with him after each trip to Pizza Hut in the nearest big city of Taiyuan, an over four-hour journey in all. At each unveiling, there stood a small group swarming hungrily around the microwave or, more accurately, Gerald holed up in his own room alone, careful not to draw attention to the prodigious gift, like an archaeologist protecting a new discovery.

I can imagine him there, and then again after having returned back to the states—frozen pizza stocked in nearly every grocery store, Domino's delivery never more than 30 minutes away. But staring into that microwave, there was that one extraordinary moment—the collective hopes and dreams of seven foreigners pinned to that gleaming vessel of tomato and cheese, a time when any one of us would have traded the world for a bite. And now, as if in some distant universe, Gerald heats up a slice of pizza in his microwave back home in America, thinking to himself: remember when this used to be valuable.

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Mudd and the Towering Inferno of Flames

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I hate how much I missed Mudd. How as a student I could go there after a long day of classes and meetings and be comforted by the feeling that everyone there was in it together, working for this one collective goal. In a lot of ways, I liked being there more than my own house. My favorite place was this spiritually dead room, a window-less cube full of computer monitors and desk chairs. No color, no human interaction, hardly a sound. I couldn’t conceive of a better place to study.

Now that I’m here again it’s like an addict falling off the wagon: the brilliant glow of the fluorescent lights drawing me in, the smell of charcoal and pine outside filling my lungs like the flame of a kerosene lamp. And then there are the stars, lucid and unfettered, burning up in the sky. I could go to Mudd at my absolute lowest, and still feel better knowing that someone in there knew my name. Now, the same sentiment holds true, even if it's done in obscurity.

But if Mudd itself is full of the peculiar liveliness used to comfort individuals, then leaving at night, once the study carrels have emptied and the computer screens are left glowering at vacant seats, has a certain loneliness to it. Walking out into the stark night air—jacket zipped, bag thrown over my shoulder—I am immediately reminded of that senior year. It is a sensation so vivid it shocks me to realize it’s only a memory. Every detail, from the smoke-laced outlines at the side of the ramp down to the cold rush in my hands as I stoop to unlock my bike, is the same.

*

I saw her for the first time last week. It was midday, almost lunch, and there she was sitting at a bench with friends, speaking in loud gestures, the rise and fall of her hands like she were conducting a symphony. Before that moment, I never experienced what it felt like to have to avoid someone—how it was suddenly inappropriate now to make conversation with a person who, not long ago, had occupied an enormous part of my life. We dated prior to me leaving to go to China, and in the ensuing aftermath that followed, haven't so much as exchanged a word since.

Her friends stood up to leave and, against my better social etiquette, I walked up to her, not knowing what to say but knowing that I had to say something. It was short-lived, a string of empty pleasantries, and pretty soon the conversation was over, and I was walking not towards her but away. The whole episode felt so unsettling, how the underlying force of our convictions were laid dormant. Why is it that love always feels most alive when it's past its end, fraught with the sudden, crippling onset of its nonexistence? The passion that comes with all rejection—a sudden departure, a loss of life. Like how in some cultures even mourning can't be done quietly—a funeral pyre set in a torrential blaze, fiery and vivid and raw.

I hate when things fall apart. Even worse, when they fall apart and you don't understand why. I emailed my dad about it. He told me that sooner or later, you learn to let go. Sooner or later, he wrote, you learn that there's not always closure that is satisfactory. Sometimes things kind of sour and rot and smell bad. Sometimes you just have to walk away.

*

I saw her again yesterday, this time at Mudd. She used to tolerate my time at the library, but joked that I spent more time there than I did with her. This time, I managed not to talk to her. We were now just two people in the world, our lives detached from one another's, and I realized that it didn't have to be this long, drawn-out sadness. I remembered what my dad had written: If she deigns to see you, by all means, but be aware that it may actually be re-traumatizing yourself. Try not to be attached to the outcome. Give it your best. And if it doesn't work out, then let it out talking to me, or chopping wood, or sparring. But don't go back to the well again and again to be re-wounded.

Two years ago she left a note by my bike. Tucked into the metal crux of the handlebars, a slip of notebook paper, folded and creased, that read, simply: “Saw your bike and thought of you. Don’t stay out studying too late. Miss you. Love, C.” That should have been my cue to go and see her that night, but knowing me I probably didn’t. Here’s what happened: I pocketed the note, rode my bike south and west (the opposite direction of her dorm), walked upstairs to my warm, dimly-lit room, and, with the smell of sandalwood and marijuana piping in from my roommate's screened-in balcony, I went to sleep.

Weeks and months passed, but every day since then I kept checking my bike. Edging down the library ramp, hands bristling from the cold, it was the same routine—first the handlebars, then the front wheel spokes, even the narrow slit underneath the seat. Each time I left the library—fingers clutching the bike keys—hoping in vain for some trace of her. The fruitless game I played. I still do.

*

This is a piece of creative non-fiction, part of a new experimental direction I'm taking with my blog about short semi-fictionalized vignettes from my daily life, lightly polished and greatly embellished for online consumption.

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Our Need to Rebuild Is the Reason Everything Falls Apart

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It's my third night at the Feve in a row. I've been here just over a week and I'm batting well over .500. Or, to put it another way: I've been to the Feve more nights than I haven't. It doesn't hurt that there's only one real bar in town, but it still doesn't bode well for my steadfast conviction that China had made me an alcoholic and not the other way around.

Every night at the Feve starts out about the same: a handful of fresh acquaintances, stools nestled around a large wooden table, and a pitcher of beer so black you couldn't run a light through it. Small talk and, if the situation required, a small order of tots to follow. Then, the inevitable parting of ways, the block-and-a-half shuffle home, and Kent State's NPR-affiliate to lull me to bed.


East meets Feve. From left to right: Gerald, David, and myself (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

I was talking about the situation with my friend Martha online. She asked me how in just a few days I had already connected with enough people to merit that many trips to the Feve. I told her that it wasn't a coincidence—that meeting every new contact took a great deal of effort on my part. After all, I had to practically construct my entire social life from the ground up. “I feel like I have to go to every social obligation I'm invited to,” I told her, “so I have a chance of building up a base.” “Wow,” she replied without the slightest hint of surprise, “you really network fast.”

I wanted to explain that it didn't matter if I was good or bad at networking or whether or not I even liked to do it. It just wasn't an option for me—I'm an extroverted person and when I'm not around other people for too long I start to lose it. “I can't help it,” I said, “it gets lonely up in this ivory tower.” I paused. I knew I had used the wrong analogy and was sure she would call me on it. “Well this ivory tower seems to have a lot of other towers in its neighborhood,” she quipped, not missing a beat. “It's an ivory tower colony,” I joked, “with no zoning restrictions.”

My own ivory tower is located on the southeastern fringes of campus. It's not to say that I don't feel disconnected from the concerns of non-campus life, but it's so easy to get caught up in my own tailspin—work, school, friendships to maintain. Some of the isolation is self-imposed but most is a product of circumstance. There are “young professionals” (what we call ourselves) in other departments in the college—ResEd, Athletics, Admissions, the MRC—but there's little opportunity for contact, and I certainly never had my radar out for them when I was still a student.

Being older than almost everyone doesn't help either. That, and having to strike a balance between my so-called grown-up friends and my student friends. Then again, the distinction may be a moot point. On my fourth day here I went to a karaoke cook-out event for incoming international students and the staff from the MRC was up there right alongside the new first-years singing “Bad Romance” and doing the Cha Cha Slide.

It felt like looking at Oberlin through the eyes of a stranger. All of the buildings had a foreign newness to them, and I had been exploring them slowly, so as not to embarrass my former self. The people had changed too. No longer could I simply expect to have friends based on geography and shared experience. It made me realize how lucky I had been in Taigu. Oberlin felt, for perhaps the first time in my life, like most of the rest of the world. I wouldn't be able just to fall into friendships here; I'd really have to work for them.


Peters Hall, with newly renovated $1.4 million slate-and-copper roof.

The fall from celebrity to dime-a-dozen has played out like your classic fall from grace, marred by all the telltale signs of recovery and addiction. I realized that I had invariably switched roles overnight—instead of being the person whose door everyone else was trying to knock down, I had become the archetypal “rando” who shows up unannounced and bearing gifts at four in the afternoon, appealing for nothing more than genuine friendship.

The night I went to the Feve with Jerry and Dave—two of the six foreigners I had lived with in China—a new art installation was up on the second floor. They had always been characteristically out there, even when I was a student, but this one seemed odder than most. Next to a collection of multi-colored lighters forming the outline of the African continent there hung a simple blue-and-white ceramic tile, on which, in all lower-case, was scribbled the line, our need to rebuild is the reason everything falls apart.

I wondered, if we stopped trying so hard to create anew, maybe all that should be lasting in our lives would cease to come undone? The network I had gone to great lengths to craft in my four years couldn't have felt more achingly distant. Looking around the bar that night, some faces looked familiar and others I just convinced myself were. Either way, it didn't stop me from trying to make conversation. I seem to be doing that a lot lately—giving my phone number out to almost anyone who seems interesting, hoping only that they might call me back.

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Acceptance

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Yesterday was freshmen move-in day. North Professor Street, which until yesterday had still been razed and largely unpaved, was now home to double-parked cars heaped along the two-way road and spilling over into Stevenson parking lot. There were parents with U-Hauls and cargo carriers lugging boxes into dorms, stacks of cardboard piled out in dumpsters for pick-up, and the dozen or so restaurants along Main Street each with a line wrapped around the block during lunchtime. Compared with only a few days ago, it felt like this great accession, a veritable explosion of people arriving all at once.

I finally understood why townies tend to spurn the college, and why students who choose to stay in Oberlin for the summer lament the start of the school year. Oberlin is so refreshingly peaceful with most of its student body away that the transition back to hectic, pedestrian calamity doesn't come without its share of misgivings. Of course, the summer state of utopia wouldn't be sustainable even if the college shut down tomorrow, but it certainly is a romantic notion—to have this sleepy little town all to yourself.

As part of my new job, I was put in charge of working the Resource Fair, a gathering of outreach groups, local businesses and campus organizations that jostle for real estate in the collective mind space of the incoming class. Shansi pulled all the stops—free pens, pencils, books, water bottles, and tote bags—and for three hours, I had my fill of people watching. It was interesting to see the first-years in action—some still stooped behind their parents, others with the leadership reigns clumsily in hand, and still more boundless and free, eager to shirk, at long last, the final remaining vestige of their pre-college lives.

That night there was a buffet dinner in Wilder Bowl for new students and their families. Naturally, I made an appearance, a large take-away Tupperware container at the ready. The green was alive—the tension so thick one could hammer it out with an icepick. Everyone seemed to be waiting, preparing for this one collective exhale, for the moment when all the goodbyes had been said, all the first introductions made, all the wild-eyed probing and propositioning underway, and when all the strange, horrible, shocking, unbelievable theories about college life could finally be put to the test.

I told myself that if I tried hard enough I could fit in here. After all, aside from a BA, what truly separated me from this sea of unknowns—a girl with a shaved head, a guy with biker shorts and a denim jacket, two girls in sun dresses and wedges, a pony-tailed boy with purple nail polish and a “Steak 'n Shake” hat? Sometimes I don't feel my own age, and at other times, it forces itself on me like a creep at a dive bar. Some people looked too old, and others, just about what you'd expect. But for all of them, it was too early to tell: in what ways Oberlin would come to mold their self-image at the end of four years.

That sea of unknowns followed me into the inaugural orientation concert at Finney Chapel. The room was packed, with overflow seating available down the street in Warner Concert Hall. Both President Krislov and Dean Stull made long, meandering speeches, and everything in me wanted to believe that they were talking to me when they spoke—of the limitless opportunities, the expectations of greatness, the proud tradition we would serve to uphold. But they weren't. Like a scorned older child I had been cast aside, neglected at the unwelcome arrival of a new sibling. Now I had only the legacies of other alumni to aspire, their influence so great as to cast a shadow over my very existence.

It was the most engrossing concert I had attended in recent memory. It's not to say that the performances weren't great, but I think it speaks more to the time I had gone without hearing live music, without the sensation of feeling it in every part of my body—back arched, spine tingling. In two hours, I hardly so much as shifted my weight. I found myself immeasurably drawn to each musician on stage—to the way their hands moved, the arch of their fingers, the gape of their mouth. Insisting on going alone, of doing this simply and irrefutably for me, I reveled in music as the great equalizer, in the feeling that we were all one collective audience in the face of its grandeur.

Pretty soon parents and their kids began filing out. On the walk back home, I remembered where I was six years ago, rounding the end of my first day as an Oberlin student. My parents dropped me off at my dorm after the concert and it would be the last time they would know me as a son, a boy on his path to adulthood. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, and although I didn't cry then, I felt it now, the tears welling in my eyes like storm water. Suddenly I was that parent, knowing that his time had passed, letting go of what had come before to allow for all the greatness to follow.

Before the concert, I was sitting in the Japanese garden outside of Finney Chapel, where the class of 1996 had dedicated a memorial to those Oberlin students who had given their lives during WWII. Among a long row of plaques listing names and graduation years followed by the letters USAAF and AUS, I saw one, on the far right, with the postscript “AMT '40, Navy, Japan.” And I thought to myself, if in the annals of history, Oberlin could come to accept him, then they'll find a way to accept me too. I didn't need to be someone I wasn't to fit in. Maybe being exactly who I am would have to suffice.

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Uprooting, Replanting

Saturday, August 27, 2011

At the front door, just before turning to leave, she handed me the keys to the house. There were two sets—one for the back door and my apartment on the third floor, and another for the company van, a light blue Toyota that we drove back from the airport. The drive from Cleveland wasn't what got to me—stretches of anonymous highway interspersed with small-talk: in-laws, grandkids, vacation, exes. No, it wasn't until we rounded Lorain Road, past Deichlers and the IGA, that things really started to coalesce—that the fuzzy picture of “Oberlin” that I had in my mind was beginning to look more and more like something real than imagined, to come into focus right before my eyes. We took a left at the art museum and slipped past the Oberlin Inn, and before I knew it, we were pulling into the parking lot outside Shansi House. No doubt about it, I was back in Oberlin.

It was an eerily similar feeling to when I first arrived in Taigu two years ago. It felt like waking up from a coma; there was this immediate shock, an overwhelming sense of both dread and astonishment for all that was yet to come. A part of me had gotten used to the way things were, and another, anxious for something different, on this, the start of yet another new life. Standing at the front door, luggage in hand, I wondered, how many more of these can I really bear? I'm not built for change, and yet, the last two years have seen little but it. It's as if change has wormed its way into the fiber of my DNA. It was never an innate trait, nor one that had lain dormant like a cancer, but one that was transplanted, grafted from a more able body onto mine, in the hopes that in time it too might sprout buds and flourish into something large and outstanding and worthwhile.

The first thing I noticed about the new house was the space. More rooms than I could thoroughly explore in a single sitting. There was a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bathrooms, foyer, two office spaces, a library—and that was just the ground level. The second floor had six bedrooms, a private residence attached to the back, two bathrooms, a shared kitchen, and a living room. And then there was my room—bathroom, kitchen, split living room/study, bedroom, big bay windows, and more closets than I could possibly fill spanning the entire third floor. Perhaps many American homes are this big, but I have never lived anywhere even approaching this size. That's what was so ironic—in Taigu I could be forgiven for experiencing culture shock at my new surroundings, but if this truly was my culture, why did everything that should be familiar feel so unimaginably foreign?


Wide, open space. My living room/study at Shansi House.

Last week I went to Target and all I could think about was the space: how there were whole sections where mobs of people weren't clambering at clothes racks and stripping shelves bare. Standing in the middle of a wide aisle, I had only the gentle push of the shopping carts and the Top 40 radio to occupy my thoughts. Coming from China where people habitually live on top of each other, and even my mom's one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn where the four of us had to temporarily co-habit, the seemingly endless stretches of open space in Ohio have been the biggest readjustment to life here. It's like going from one extreme to the other, with nothing in-between. The same can be said of my Shansi experience, with my Taigu life and my Oberlin life each comprising polar halves. Trying to bridge them together in a cohesive manner is like trying to knit a scarf by starting with each set of tassels, and hoping to eventually meet both ends in the middle.

When I went to visit Karl at the office, he told me that being the Returned Fellow is like waking up from a dream, where it's hard to reconcile which part of your life was real and which was imagined—they are so disparate that it seems impossible for them to coexist. Upon first entering my new apartment, there was a 1973 hardcover-bound Time-Life book on the desk entitled The Amazon: The World's Wild Places, that got me half-thinking about embarking on my next great “adventure,” as if my two years of it had scarcely ever happened to begin with. After so long on “the road,” it's weird to be settling down. But even now I know that this is temporary. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, that's all life really is: one never-ending standing-only ticket on “the road,” with no end in sight. Besides, even if I really wanted it, does such a thing as “settling down” even exist?


Everything in its rightful place—coconut milk pencil holder, desk lamp, book on the Amazonian wilds.

Now that I'm in Oberlin, old friends and professors greet me with a hearty “welcome back,” as if I had meant to be back all along. I don't flout their politeness at all, but even being back connotes a return to some semblance of life as I knew it before, and even that is a misnomer. This life, like others that have come before it, will be very different from any life that I have experienced—everything will be changed, from my position at the school and my daily routine to my place of residence. Even despite being the only current inhabitant, this place can scarcely be called my own. All around me are the remnants of other people's lives—people who, like me, have come for a year and gone, leaving only discarded fragments of their identities behind: scribbled reminder notes, FedEx boxes, toiletries, reading materials, stationery, souvenirs, appliances. Theirs is my life to make sense of now—the same fate I left to my own contemporaries upon leaving Taigu.

“You feel like people are saying the same things as before but wearing different faces,” Karl said, as I was leaving the office. And then, just as I turned to leave, he added: “it can sometimes make you feel like you're going crazy.” I began to see it everywhere—the guys chain smoking by the library, the couple holding hands at Gibson's, the girl biking barefoot through campus, the family squatting down in Tappan Square for a picnic—weren't they all people I had known before? There are different faces with the same voices, but there are familiar faces too. On a trip to Yesterday's, I saw Marc, an acquaintance that I made when I was still a student, who is from the town and still lives and works here. I didn't buy any ice cream from him but we exchanged numbers and promised to meet up again. It was encouraging to know: in spite of it all, some things still manage to stay the same.

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We Sip Champagne When We're Thirsty

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Whether it was the worrying or late-stage jet lag that was keeping me up at night, no one could say for sure, but the worrying certainly didn't help. Past a certain age, birthdays become more of a burden than they do a reward; less an expression of one's individual character than they are a declaration of his social worth. It's not to say that I've crossed that threshold yet, just merely that it seems closer now than it had before the big 2-4 yesterday.

Sam and his girlfriend Brittany treated me for lunch at the Shake Shack near Times Square. It was my first time, and the excess of it all was what really stuck with me—mouths gorging on cheese fries, burgers oozing with mayonnaise and ketchup, Day-Glo Creamsicle floats and frozen custards. Just peering expectantly into the gray-swirled concretes studded with chocolate chips and fudge chunks was enough to make my heart stop. The burger was definitely good, but you don't need to take my word for it. The lines are so routinely out-the-door that even their promotional T-shirts picture their original Madison Square Park location with a line of people wrapping around the front.

But exactly how good? Consider that the cost of a single ShackBurger nets almost four Tuesday promotional $1.29 Whoppers at the Burger King a block from my house—where I ate my day-after-birthday lunch—and I'll reconsider whether or not I want to wait in line again for 40 minutes. We wandered our way through the Meatpacking District after lunch and darted into Chelsea Market to escape the rain—a hulking steel building outfitted with giant whirring ceiling fans and over-sized cargo elevators built in the late 1890s. The sheer depth to the stores there was remarkable—enough bakeries to fill a small New England township and a specialty produce shop that even sold tamarind rinds and dragon fruit. We bought zucchini and squash to barbecue for dinner.

I had my birthday dinner, not with my own family, but with Sam's. It wasn't so much the circumstances—Hannah was bussing back home from Maryland and my mom had called to say that she was out and wouldn't be home until late—we just weren't that kind of family. Besides, it was something of an accident—the three of us were playing Halo with Sam's kid brother in the living room and lost track of time. Dinner was fancy by my standards—pasta salad, poached salmon, bruschetta—the first real home-cooked meal I'd had since being back. It would have been any ordinary dinner had Sam not mentioned to his mom that we were going out, and before anyone had time to object, Mrs. Graves was out with a kazoo humming the four chords that no birthday celebration should be complete without.

We took the 4 train from Union Square to the Upper East Side. It had been over two years since I'd made it up to that neighborhood, and it felt like I couldn't pass a single building without staring hard at it, the way a dog might eye an errant stain of piss. Inside, the bar could have passed for any house party at college. Ex-frat boys, still wearing Greek letter T-shirts and plaid shorts, playing beer pong on two long tables by the back wall. Girls in tube tops and mini-skirts surreptitiously looking on. Dirty messages scribbled in the bathroom stalls. Blink-182 and Yellowcard blaring over the stereo sound system. A Jets game on one set of TV screens and a Yankees game on the other.

The seven of us were sequestered at the first table by the entrance. When we arrived, another group was in the process of wrapping up a birthday of their own—streamers hanging from the lamp shades, printed napkins in colorful hues, even a half-eaten cake sitting in the center of the table, the letters “PY” and “THDAY” left untouched. To the casual observer, the whole scene would have hardly garnered a second look. Even I, had I tried hard enough, could have believed that the whole production—paper plates and tiny serving forks, fragments of tinsel and wrapping paper—something I never would have asked for but at the same time would not have refused, could all have been for me.

About an hour in, the table next to us cleared out and another party was getting seated. Brushing aside stray cake crumbs, a short, trim man with a mustache inquired about an umbrella that had been left at their table. It was one of those long retractable ones, the kind kids use to propel at each other on rainy days. “Is this yours,” the man asked us, knowing full well that it wasn't and that he was now reluctantly charged with its fate. He turned to me, sitting closest to him. “Well, how would you like a free umbrella,” he asked with a smile. I thought to myself—it wasn't that outlandish of a request. “Sure,” I told him, really meaning it. He handed it over, careful to spare the drinks, and with a sense of irony he couldn't possibly have imagined, added, “Here you go, buddy. Happy birthday.”

*

Just to allay any worries, my birthday was lovely, and I want to thank everyone who came out with me to celebrate on Monday. Again, these vignettes are semi-fictionalized, and, like much of my writing, tend to ere on the darker side.

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Notes from a Casual Spectator's First Trip to Yankees Stadium

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The last time I saw a live baseball game was when I was twelve. The days of Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams. A powerhouse pitching staff. The Subway Series. Four World Series Championships in five years. A dynasty.

It's been a decade since. Back before Sosa and McGwire. Before doping became a household term. When Joe Girardi still played in pinstripes and the Boss was still “The Boss.” Back when “The House That Ruth Built” still referred to Yankees Stadium. I'm not much of a baseball fan now, but I used to be. How could I not? New York was experiencing one of baseball's great ages, its Renaissance, an absolute resurgence of the sport. No one, save for His Airness in Chicago, was as exciting and electrifying to watch.

Signed 2000 World Series jersey of Paul O'Neill, my favorite baseball player of all-time. On display at the Yankees Stadium Museum.

This time around, I barely recognized the names on the starting line-up. Only two or three players carried any weight—after all, I still cheered on the Yankees' 2009 victory via streaming webcast from China. But it wasn't the same. Ironically, I felt more at home in the Yankees in-house museum than I did in the rest of the newly-built stadium. At least there I could actually pass with some degree of knowledge. Everything else had a newness that was hard to place. Steel struts and supports that almost sparkled. Working water fountains. Ramps and walkways with nary a crack. No gum stuck to the bottom of the stadium seats.

So if not for the fandom and not for the familiarity, why choose to go to a Yankees game? Who on a whim buys three tickets for himself, his best friend, and his sister to a baseball game slated for the middle of the workweek? I felt like Ferris Bueller. To be sure, the “Free Hat Day” promotion helped to sway my vote, but it was more than that. I wanted a truly, one-of-a-kind “American experience,” and what better way than at a showcase of “America's Sport?" It was iconic—everything from the Cracker Jack and fried corn dogs (both of which I ate) down to the Star-Spangled Banner to start the game.


Submitted for your approval, Scott, Hannah, and yours truly, all sporting our free Yankees caps.

The atmosphere and company alone more than made the experience worthwhile. But if I had any doubts, the victory certainly didn't hurt. The Yankees beat the Angels 9-3—the game was never close. If you want the play-by-play, check ESPN; these are my own notes from the game:
  • I learned that metal containers of all kinds are effectively banned at Yankees Stadium, presumably to prevent escalating a heated physical altercation between fans or with players. Unfortunately, this also included my expensive reusable water canteen. Thankfully, security in charge of such dealings isn't very stringent. Even after a nescient once over made me suspect, I sneaked it in nonetheless.
  • The Asian food counter at the stadium had exactly four menu items: General Tso's Chicken, Chicken Noodle Bowl, Egg Roll, and Dumplings. And then, in something of a misstep, Rainbow Shaved Ice and Sno-Cones. It stands to reason that I would be upset. If this is your selection of Asian food, at least call it what it is: Bastardized Chinese.
  • As if I needed any more of a reminder that I was no longer in China, there was this: no alcohol being sold on the street (illegal), no pushing and shoving in the lines, ramps and passageways with enough space to accommodate guests, and enough exits so that wait time was effectively neutralized. Efficiency is a beautiful thing.
 
The third-tier bleachers directly below our section, still delightfully empty 40 minutes before game time.
  • Product sponsorship is far from uncommon in our modern age. But sometimes corporations take it too far. Official sports drinks, cleats, and athletic-wear I can fully accept. But when you call yourself the “Official Pudding of the New York Yankees,” I think you're trying too hard. (It's Kozy Shack in case you're wondering).
  • Overheard via stadium loudspeaker (liberally paraphrased): You too can own a piece of history! For a limited time, Yankees fans can now buy an original bleachers seat from "The House That Ruth Built!" All original chewing gum, mustard stains, beer resin, and dried blood perfectly intact! Display it in an abandoned parking lot or Industrial Sculpture Garden near you! Available now only from Steiner Collectibles.
  • If I missed an interesting play on the field (exemplified by the crowd cheering or wincing in unison), I kept half-expecting the players to revert back to their original position as the play unfolded again after a 5-second delay. My generation grew up with instant replay and it's as much a part of our world as, it would seem, reality itself.
 
A zoom-free view from our seats in right field. Angels up at bat and the Yankees take the field.
  • When the grounds crew comes on to sweep the field, the effect is uncharacteristically serene. Four men, each evenly-spaced with a long rake in his hand making a perfect half-circle of the dirt around the perimeter of the baseball diamond. With the right attitude, they could be practitioners at a zen garden. Except, perhaps, when they dance and raise their arms to the Village People's “Y.M.C.A.” at the end of the sixth inning.
  • Frank Sinatra's timeless “New York, New York” must have been for his generation what “Empire State of Mind” is for mine. I wonder if in twenty years we'll be hearing that to close out each game at Yankees Stadium.
  • By the time the last out was recorded, the electric banner reading: “Party City celebrates another Yankees win!” began scrolling across the stadium's LED display. And as fans started making their way to the exits, Scott Grabel was officially christened as a Yankees fan. He wasn't the only one.

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Kaleidoscope. So. Innocent.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

It felt like regressing. The four of us sitting in the living room—Jerry, Steph, Paul, and I, a pipe and lighter at the ready. We were in their new apartment—Paul and Steph both transplants from out-of-state. New-wave. Jerry was visiting on his way back home to Fort Worth from Norway and was crashing on their couch. I brought over a six-pack, and there we were, drinking, Paul taking stock of the inventory, Steph fiddling with the projector, and Jerry fishing Sour Patch Kids out of his backpack. We could have been in a movie. Four Asian stoners with time to kill. Like Better Luck Tomorrow.

It took me thirty minutes just to find the place. This, after Paul told me that it was a 5-minute walk from Nostrand Avenue—left on Pacific, right under the LIRR. He couldn't have made it any easier if he tried. I went the opposite way for twenty minutes before doubling back. It was the elevated tracks that tipped me off, crisscrossed metal struts fastened to a wooden track like some ancient roller coaster.

The day before we all got dinner together in Brooklyn Heights. It was the quintessential New York experience—view of the bridge, brick oven pizza, Sinatra on the jukebox. It felt like everyone in there was Italian. New-wave. That is, if you don't count us and the one other table of Asians by the window. And then, even after they left, they put another group of Asians right there in the same spot. Paul joked, “one pipe bomb through the window, and boom, all ten Asians are dead.” He said it so matter-of-fact he could have been talking to a child. “How's that for a 60 Minutes special?”

Before dinner I caught myself taking pictures of the bridge. Imagine that, staring up at the same goddamned bridge I'd seen since before I could think and fussing with my f-stop. I couldn't tell which had changed at that instant: the bridge or me. It was the same feeling I had when I went out with the three of them after dinner for drinks. We drove to Williamsburg, and yes, before you even have to ask, I'll tell you that we had the oysters. The last time I had seen any of them was in Asia—Jerry with me in China, and Paul and Steph living together in Korea. Seeing them here, in my own hometown was like the two halves of my life uniting—the alien and the local, the visitor and the native.

The Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

We talked for a long time that night—about what, it's hard to remember. Stupid stuff. The kinds of things friends can pass hours talking about. Movies. Girls. Reminiscing. Hopes and dreams. How nothing had changed. Or everything. How we could come back from being abroad and feel like strangers to ourselves. And all the while wondering: did we trade in our innocence for a shot at the world? But the whole thing was effortless—like the four of us, all transplants to America, had always known each other like this. It was like going back and forth through time, taking from the past everything we needed to get to that moment.

I woke up in the morning with three words scribbled in my notebook: kaleidoscope so innocent. The memory was fuzzy but still intact. At one point, the visualizer on their projector made a shape like a kaleidoscope—colorful geometric stencils dancing in rhythmic patterns. A kaleidoscope is a child's toy. Children are innocent. Perhaps to a superlatively high degree. Therefore, the kaleidoscope netted innocence of its own. I thought about the last time I looked through an actual kaleidoscope and the whole cognitive process checked out. I was a child. I was innocent. Times had, quite evidently, changed since.

Getting back home from their apartment took just under three hours. This, despite the fact that we lived in the same borough. There's the late night train schedule for you. What does it matter if the subway is 24 hours if there is exactly one train between two and three in the morning? On the way home, I went the opposite way again. I took the A train towards Queens instead of up to Manhattan where I had to change lines. All that trouble just to go back to Brooklyn again. Figures. Sometimes you have to backtrack before you can move forward.

*

This is a piece of creative non-fiction, part of a new experimental direction I'm taking with my blog about short semi-fictionalized vignettes from my daily life, lightly polished and greatly embellished for online consumption.

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Like Moths to a Light Bulb

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The first time she used the “moth to a light bulb” analogy I thought it was clever. Not clever in the “I've-never-heard-that-before” sort-of way, but clever in the sense that, as far as I could recall, no one in my circle had actually used the phrase in the last two years. It wasn't as if I hadn't seen moths, nor, certainly, light bulbs in my time away. Both were in relative high commodity in my daily life. The naked bulb that dangled on a pull string above my front door in Taigu came alive each night and like clockwork was descended upon by a swarm of moths eager to light their way. It was an enduring image, but one so common I had overlooked it. The analogy, however, conjured the memory back to mind.

But by the third time she used it, I was at my wit's end. “Tracy thinks she's like a light bulb, and everyone else is a moth.” In spite of our relative closeness at the bar, she was speaking louder than necessary. “Everyone's always expected to cater to her. But God forbid she ever move to where the other people are!” We were eating at a Japanese restaurant on St. Mark's Place. It was my first time there, but she had been a regular, taking friends nearly once a week in the time I'd been away. My friend Sam told me that he'd even been roped into going with her after he finished dinner just to sit in front of a bowl of dried edamame corpses and listen to her bitch and moan about her love life.

She grabbed my right arm. “When is she going to realize that she is the moth and we are the light bulbs?” She was wearing a loose-fitting black dress and her hair was smoothed back in a long ponytail that cascaded below her shoulders. “Can there be that many light bulbs in the world,” I asked dumbly, as if it were the most interesting thing I could bring to the discussion. “That's not the issue,” she blurted out defensively. “It's just that I'm tired of sitting around at her apartment all the time. It's eighty degrees out. If I'm getting a drink, I'm going to do it outside.” She motioned to the door with an exasperated look. She went on like that for the next 30 minutes.

I knew that I needed to change the subject. If she did sense that I was getting bored, she certainly didn't allude to it or make any attempts to remedy the situation. I'm not very good about masking my emotions—my face always gives them away. But perhaps, then, I was getting better, that my time abroad supplied me with a tougher outer skin that distanced me from what I was truly feeling—distanced me from myself. I could adopt a new identity, I reasoned, one quite unlike my “true” self, and could play it all the more convincingly because no one here had actually seen me in two years. So why not try something different?

Pretty soon conversation turned, as it is apt to in the right situations, to sex. But more specifically, to the idea of sex, in the capital H hypothetical, to the aura that sometimes surrounds individuals of a particularly vibrant and sexual nature, and how that aura distinguishes them from the countless others who go about their lives. I danced (somewhat gracefully) in circles around the topic, but she wasn't having it. What exactly defined these characteristics, she asked me. And who exemplified these traits? She wanted specifics, and who was I to beat around the bush?

So, I let her have it. “You know this 'aura' is hard to define,” I started. “It's almost imperceptible as a trait. But when you start looking for it, I mean really looking, you'll find that it's all around us. Take, you, for instance.” I paused. I was starting to mince my words and thought it better to slow down. She pointed inquisitively at herself, hard-pressed to find the connection. Her eyes were ablaze, set with as much fiery, inscrutable focus as I had seen all night. “You have this magnetism about you,” I went on. “People can't help but feel drawn to you. You bring people in like, like a moth to a light bulb. It's totally electric.”

She stared back at me, her lips like two thick scribbles on a sheet of oak tag. Just then, the food arrived. She had ordered a miso soup and a selection of grilled kebab skewers—chicken and scallion mostly. As for me, I got a thick bonito-flaked slab of okonomiyaki, a favorite I'd maintained since I'd first tried it in Japan. She started taking big sips of the soup and I tore into the eggy concoction stuffed with more seafood and meat than I could readily identify with the naked eye. We were silent for a time, occupied with the act of eating. And when we started up again, it wasn't about sex or even hypothetical sex. It was about Tracy and that apartment and how not even one of us was safe from its all-consuming orbit.

*

This is a piece of creative non-fiction, part of a new experimental direction I'm taking with my blog about short semi-fictionalized vignettes from my daily life, lightly polished and greatly embellished for online consumption.

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Dance Dance (Cultural) Revolution

Monday, July 4, 2011

There was a time not long ago that I was terrified of dancing. The thought of priming my clumsy adolescent body to step in beat to a rhythm was enough to send shivers down my spine. An image of a flummoxed figure, gyrating wildly and making stabbing motions at the air was my impression of my own body kinesthesis. I was panic-stricken at having to dance alone, but even more so at the primeval ritual of doing so with another person. I abhorred school dances, the coming together of girl and boy from opposing gymnasium walls, and I couldn't comprehend the appeal of a nightclub—a sardine sweat-box brimming with expectations as cloying and self-evident as a man's cologne.

Unlike my former self, James has absolutely no qualms about dancing, this time with our boss Xiao Fan after one of our banquets this semester (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

In my senior year at Oberlin, having already accrued more credits than I needed to graduate, I promised myself that I would take one class that really scared me. As it turned out, that class was Modern Dance I, taught by Elisa Rosasco. By that time, I wasn't shy about letting loose my odd conglomeration of jazz hands and the “running man” at the handful of campus parties that I threw in the living room of my house that year, so long as I was aided by a lack of adequate lighting and a generous amount of alcohol. But in class, with nowhere to hide in a large well-lit dance studio, and with a trained professional dancer grading my ability and improvement, I knew it would be one of the hardest things I had ever done. And, by most accounts, it was. But by the time I graduated from that class, and pretty soon, Oberlin itself, I was filled with a confidence and love for my body that I would take with me all the way to rural China.

*

When I arrived in Taigu, I was told a lot about the dance parties that for years had been a permanent fixture at the foreign Fellow apartments—how the teachers would invite their friends over to relax in a non-academic setting. It was a cultural exchange of a non-verbal nature. It gave Chinese friends the opportunity to experience a foreign party in spite of the limitations imposed by China, including the 11:00 student curfew which resulted in the ungodly early start time of 8:30. Those who liked the atmosphere came back—to bask under a dizzying disco ball, sip on a cold Snow beer, and dance to the beat of two gigantic speakers. Because of floor damage incurred from previous dance parties at their own house, my co-Fellows Anne and Nick insisted that the tradition of hosting such events—a sought after and noble post, they assured us—would fall to James and I.

Beginning with that first weekend in September of 2009 and continuing about twice-a-month for all two years of my Fellowship, James and I have played host to dozens of dance parties, so many that we have even exacted the art of party preparation down to a science. First comes the text message invitations in the afternoon. Then the buying of alcohol after dinner. Finally, there is the setting up of the house itself. After queuing up “Layla” on the speakers in the living room (The Derek and the Dominoes original, it should be noted), we take out the trash, arrange the furniture, move all unnecessary articles into James' room (jackets, desk lamps, house slippers), stock the flimsy coffee table with beer cans and position it against my door to guard against intruders, and light up the disco ball using the Jurassic Park-sized flashlight jerry-rigged to our bookshelf.

By then the “Dance Party Warm-Up” playlist will have already cycled through three more songs—Kanye West's “Slow Jamz,” KT Tunstall's “Suddenly I See,” and The Temptations' “Get Ready.” By the time “The Seed (2.0)” by The Roots comes on, the clock reads 8:30 and the front door is propped open and ready for business. In cold weather, guests pile coats and sweaters on the couch, and in the spring, due to space constraints and incessant heat, the party spills over to include the front porch. The living room is hot as a cauldron regardless of the season and there are typically 40 to 50 people who show up at any given party. Each time the parties go off in exactly the same fashion, and in their own way, they've always proved successful—that is to say, we've never once had a dud.

Me, directing traffic in the middle of a crowd, at our Halloween dance party in guyuan last December (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Still, the first twenty minutes are always the worst. You can spot those who are new to them because they don't yet know the American custom of arriving fashionably late, and as the first ones there, subsequently end up spending more time glued to the living room sofa than they do attempting to make conversation. It takes a few tries to truly become a regular. To be sure, there is nothing particular glamorous about the dance parties—glittery sequins are peeling off from the disco ball and the floor is practically glazed with a layer of dried beer. But the main reason that they have been so successful is that it's never hard to get friends to come. Most of the students at SAU are so bored on a given Saturday night that any break from their prescribed routine of chatting online or studying in the library is a welcome respite. Getting them to dance, however, is another issue entirely.

*

Halfway through the spring semester of my second year, my first-year English majors told me that they would be throwing a dance party on the 4th floor of guyuan, the school cafeteria. It was to be held in a room outfitted with a large dancing space as well as a stage, special sound and lighting equipment and a dedicated operator. They insisted that the party was in our honor, but they didn't take our advice when it came to the execution. Instead of simply playing music and allowing people to dance, there would be a prescribed program—hosts, contests, breaks for song numbers, closing remarks. It was the Chinese approach to throwing a party. They agreed to provide all of the snacks and set-up the space, but they wanted to know if I could act as DJ. This was not an unreasonable request—as it was, I had DJ'ed every dance party I had ever thrown in Taigu. In fact, it's a job I have really come to love.

Though it is by no means tough work, DJ'ing does require a considerable deal of awareness about your audience to know exactly what to play. With only a few people at the start, it's experimental hour—a time to audition potential songs before their prime-time debut. A waning interest for English songs on the part of the guests necessitates an injection of Chinese pop. A lot of high-energy songs in a row and the mood is set for a slower-paced cool down song. I confess that I enjoy the feeling of playing God, having the ability to gauge people's emotions with the touch of a button. And it's not just in China that I've had the chance to hone this skill. I was put in charge of music for a house party in Yogyakarta, Indonesia last February, and, in a strange twist of fate, I took over as DJ at a bar in Saigon, Vietnam on the night before my 23rd birthday.

We had had other parties in guyuan before too. Because of scheduling conflicts, our anticipated Halloween celebration ended up arriving closer to Christmas than it did October, but there were costumes and face paint all the same. There were probably close to 300 people for that event, and we were all looking forward to having another big party before leaving Taigu in June. But it was only until after the invitations went out to the usual slew of party-goers that Mary and Lisa, the students in charge of organizing the event, informed us that the time had been changed. Instead of being from 7:30 to 10 (late by campus standards), it would now be happening from 6:00 to 8. According to the students, school administrators had co-opted the space for a rehearsal singing competition to honor the Communist Party's 90th Anniversary. It hardly mattered that our students had booked the space months in advance and were just being told of the change hours before the event would go off—this was China, and plans change at the drop of a hat.

All seven foreign teachers dressed up in appropriate garb at last year's Halloween dance party (photo courtesy of Alexandra Sterman).

Me and the other teachers were livid. There was no time to warn my other students of the change, and what's worse, who wants to go to a dance party that starts when the sun is still out? Still, the party went off as planned. James agreed to host it along with a Chinese student and after I played the first song, all of the teachers jumped into the middle of the gigantic white-walled room, and with sunlight still pouring through the windows, began pulling people off of walls and chairs in an attempt to get them to dance. Usually a generous amount of prodding and hand-holding is par for the course, but this was by far the most effort we had ever had to exert. We succeeded in roping in a few students, but the vast majority continued to stand and stare at us like we were aboriginals performing a kind of rain dance.

By the time the clock struck 8:00, the dance party, much to my utter surprise, was actually quite good. The room was at about capacity, strobe lights were cascading across the floor, and students no longer seemed to be shy about dancing. However, it was just at that moment that Mary got on stage and announced that the party would be wrapping up, and almost immediately, students began packing up their things and heading back home. The girls apologized for having to end early, but there was nothing they could do—no one could so much as question the system. In a segregated corner of the room, I began calling for resistance—a chance to stand up to the administration. But my students were mired in inaction. It felt like a holdover from the Cultural Revolution—people were too afraid to do anything but bend to the will of authority. After all, what was more important to them: a permanent black mark on their record or a silly dance party?

I was noticeably embittered and began talking with one of my favorite English majors. I was telling her how frustrated I was at the situation, but she cut me off mid-sentence. “You're not angry,” she assured me in Chinese, “you're just disappointed.” But the truth was that I was angry. Anger is always so controlled in China—gun possession is strictly prohibited and there are few senseless acts of violence committed by common people—but by the same logic, it's hard for people to express their real emotions, there is too much face at stake. It was as if my favorite team had just lost Game 7 of the World Series—I was vengeful and out for blood. I started talking about how I wanted to vandalize a government office or teach bad words to the students performing “Crazy English” near the flower garden. It wasn't the early end to the party that got to me, it was my failure as a leader—that dance parties were my responsibility and I had let down my guests.

But ultimately, and just like everyone else, I did nothing. We went out to eat a late dinner of chuan, skewered meat and vegetables on sticks, over heaping glasses of draft beer. Gradually, I began to forget about my hostility, my anger slowly dissipating into the barbecued cubes of lamb and the fried green beans sitting in front of me. For the rest of my time in Taigu, dance parties were held solely at my house, where I, and not the school, held jurisdiction, and we were not subject to their indiscriminate decision-making.

*

If you play a song enough times, it starts to get imbued with a certain significance. Take, for instance, Avril Lavigne's “Girlfriend” which Anne sang with her then-students Maggie and Lynn last year as part of a grad school talent show. Or “Like a G6” which got popularized after our collective trip to Korea last winter, “The Situation” thanks to our brief obsession with the MTV phenomenon Jersey Shore, the conga line that forms around the circumference of the living room as a result of playing the Chinese song “Xi Shua Shua,” or screaming the words to “Semi-Charmed Life” with fists pointed toward the ceiling. “I Want You Back” always follows “Hot N Cold” just as “Tik Tok” always precedes “Good Girls Go Bad.” Later, after all the guests have left, we recite the words to Biz Markie's seminal “Just a Friend,” and without exception, we commemorate the official end to each dance party with the theme song to Family Matters.

In perhaps the most unflattering lighting possible, a glimpse at a typical Taigu dance party (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

During the party, I typically spend a third of the time dancing, a third doing damage control, and a third making sure I'm back to the speakers with enough time to change songs. At the musical helm, I do song dedications and shout-outs. I try to update the playlist, which has been passed down through at least three Shansi generations, with new songs every two or three weeks. It's fascinating to see its trajectory—a mini-Billboard Top 40 charting hit songs of the last half-decade. We have a stash of crazy hats and sunglasses that guests can try on and wear. I used to have a tradition where at 10:00 all the males did push-ups on my linoleum kitchen floor before rushing out shirtless to the faint amusement of the living room mob. This semester I began taking break-dancing classes and now sanction small cyphers as part of the dance party to practice new moves.

Though originally conceived as a way to give our friends and students a safe space to unwind and be free from the pressures of Chinese society, it has become equally as liberating for us foreign teachers. A few weeks without one and the overwhelming anxiety and stress of Taigu can sometimes be too much to bear. There are few places that make me feel more at ease, more free of inhibition, and more comfortable in my own skin than at a Taigu dance party. There is a pervasive feeling that I can let myself go completely, that nobody will care how badly I dance, and that it doesn't matter in that moment if I'm more a friend than a teacher. People now look to me the way I did my dance teacher at Oberlin—for the strength and confidence to be themselves without fear of being judged. Not only are the dance parties a fun place to unwind, they constitute some of my fondest Taigu memories.

Ten days before I would leave Taigu for good, we had our last dance party ever. After two years of memories, I was expecting it to be full of the sort of sadness and nostalgia reserved for truly special experiences reaching their untimely end, a metaphor for my entire experience in Taigu. But it was far more uplifting than I would have imagined. We had more guests than we'd ever had before, a long line of students stretching from the front door down the dirt path to where the road intersects, and the party went off as well as I could have hoped, interspersed with a generous amount of thanks for all the organizing and work that I had done to make them possible. Rather than a reminder of what we would soon be losing, it was a celebration of what we had, what we were able to create together, and the ongoing legacy that we, as foreign teachers, would leave to the Taigu community.

At 11:00, we each looked at each other, and to the handful of close Chinese friends who had stuck with us past curfew to the end, just as they had at every dance party that came before, and just as I knew, at that moment, that they would always stick it out with me, past time zones and border restrictions that force us apart in the physical world. I cued up the last song. “This one,” I started, “is for the greater love and the family.” And as the theme song to Family Matters crooned in the background, we forged a circle in the living room, laughing and shouting the words for all 81 glorious seconds. We played music until after midnight that night and I had nearly exhausted every song in the playlist. By the time it was over, the Daniel-and-James era had officially ended, but we also knew that someone would be there to pass the torch to, to pick up the reigns for next year, just as generations of Fellows before somehow knew that we would be there for them.

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