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.

Read more...

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