Porn is blocked in China and fireworks are illegal. Both, you might argue, pollute in their own way, but I’m a big fan of living in moderation, so I wouldn’t agree. I’m also a depraved individual who likes bright lights, so I wouldn’t be easily convinced, either way. While I don’t think I’ll breathe my last breath in Nanjing, I’m convinced the poor air quality here has contributed to it. On days when the Air Quality Index shines orange or red, indicating the intensity of pollutants in the air, I get the sensation of inhaling vaporized metal, both in the rusty, smoky smell akin to that of soldered chips flying from the grinder that presses against smoothing metal, and in the phlegm that accumulates in my throat throughout the day. Chinese men and women spit—a lot. It was quite off-putting when I first witnessed the phenomenon, and incredibly disconcerting when I would hear the cooks in the restaurant do it, too. But it’s a habit that emanates from necessity, because if they didn’t do it—if I didn’t do it—we’d constantly push back the mucous our bodies desperately wanted out. Like water vapor, the haze is visible, though I didn’t know it was haze when I first saw it. I remember walking across a busy intersection and seeing what I first thought was fog. Odd, I thought, since it’s early afternoon, on a dry and sunny day; I didn’t make anything of it until much later when, in retrospect, I thought, “Oh, that was haze. Interesting.”
Normally, my posts take an abstract angle at right about this point, and this one will be no different. I, however, felt like rekindling the poetic sparks that initially lit my desire to write—I’m talking my first desire to write, back in middle school. Bad writing tells you what is going to come next. It warns you and bores you with every unnecessary word inside the author’s head. Good writing is direct and demonstrative. This, right here, is an example of bad writing, but I’m doing it for stylistic reasons. I hope you’ll excuse my doing so. It’s enough to provide an explanation as to why what’s coming next, is coming next. Continue reading Witness→
The raucous year that was 2016 is almost over. I graduated college and now find myself in China. Unable to escape domestic news, I helplessly watched the upsetting political upset of Trump, the unrest in American society—I’m struck by what appears a general loss of direction. We’re moving forward, but it’s as if all of us are being bulldozed together with no one driving the damn thing. That should be a feeling confined to individuals, fresh college graduates or young people in general who are making it up as they go along; but now, an entire society can’t work together to decide the best path forward, and so the bulldozer continues its steady trampling. The only cries heard debate the best way to be trampled comfortably!
But I digress.
2016 is almost over, and for the first time, I will conduct a Selfies…with Books! retrospective look, not just for this year, but to the beginning of my campaign. My first post is dated February 8, 2015 and it recommends The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. I have made 35 other posts, showing 40 books, since then bearing the #selfieswithbooks insignia, with Gary Jennings’ Aztec being the last of this year, the year of Our Lord two thousand and sixteen, to borrow the writing style of one of the characters in the book. I have gone through three phones in the past two years, the great HTC One, the marvelous Sony Xperia Z3, and the too-oftentimes awful LG G4, the phone I’m currently tolerating.
There are condoms everywhere. Unlike in the US, where you have to go through the 7/11 clerk to ask for a pack, or wave down a supermarket associate so that she (it’s usually a woman) can unlock the glass door and know more about you than you wanted to reveal, since she has to lock the glass again after you’ve made your selection, China has condoms next to the bathing products, and the snacks, and the wine, and the miscellaneous items, and on this corner, here, because you’ve walked too far without seeing a condom pack. Family planning, after all, is part of Chinese culture. Though the one-child policy has been relaxed to allow for two children, the Communist Party still caps the number of children a family can have to avoid its 1 billion+ population from becoming a John and Kate + 8 scenario. Chinese people have very strong knees, a colleague explained to me, because of the way toilets are, or rather, aren’t. Squat toilets reign supreme here, which to me feels like an urban camping experience, but you’ll often see people squatting in the street while on their phones, to rest—in the absence of benches, squatting provides a suitable substitute. Continue reading Minority Report→
We’ve reached the post-truth era. 2016 will be the year the phenomenon of soothing truth was finally recognized, truth that massages our own biases and kneads away troublesome knots of inconvenient fact. Gradients of truth, varying in their veracity, overload our supposedly shortening attention spans and we are collectively led to the newspaper’s logical conclusion: memes housing bite-sized factoids. Their intake quick and easy, memes are the fast food equivalent of news consumption. 2016 marks another epitaph for the intelligentsia. This one reads:
Here lies plethoric hubris. It declared everything fine even as the last nail pierced its ankles.
Things made in China do not say, “Made Around the Corner.” Dogs run around, unleashed, beside their owners, and they maintain a reasonable proximity to passerby traffic. Despite their small size—poodles are popular here—they do not bark or try to intimidate like the poodles and Chihuahuas back in the US. The price of winter coats goes down during the fall, not up like in the US; I chalk that up as a victory for the socialist part of China’s socialist market economy. Gratuity is factored into the final price and every restaurant, including McDonald’s and KFC, will clean up after you. The metro system is fast, clean, and routinely cramped, sometimes to the point of bursting, on which occasion you have no choice but to wait for the next train and hope for better luck. Apartments reign supreme in Nanjing, so I have no idea what houses look like in China. Life hasn’t been very different from living in the US, save for the obvious language transposition. Oh, and I’m much closer to North Korea now. Continue reading Wary Observer→
I don’t endeavor to emulate de Toqueville. For all the niceties and praise he laid on the then-newish America, the American people have run with his comments much more than is currently applicable. No, my observations filter through a perspective influenced by myriad ideologies, identities, affirmations, and rejections—you read only what I think, all the while unaware of everything that led me to that thought, and you to these words. My account, therefore, is always incomplete, as is your knowledge; as is all our knowledge. Continue reading Mandala→
I want to learn French. I’m in China and I want to get better at French. How seriously I want to learn French, I cannot say. Most likely, this is symptomatic of procrastination: I’m in China so I should learn Chinese. I think back to my college days—crazy how I can say that now—when I had papers to write, or tests to study for, and I would decide that, rather than begin working on papers or studying for tests, my time would be better spent reading a new book, or organizing my room, or doing laundry. Still, my desire to improve on my French is helped by the fact that, even though I could talk to the waitresses in Spanish or English, and be equally misunderstood, I automatically think in French; none of those languages would actually help me order anything here, I just find myself resorting to French, for no reason. Continue reading Fluency→
I’m still alive. Hooray! Let’s take a moment, first, to appreciate what it takes to survive in today’s harsh, cruel, cruel world. Money—that’s all you need. I don’t need to learn how to cook, as there are others who can do it for me. I don’t need to learn how to sew, as there is no shortage of garments and apparel ready for purchase. Hell, I don’t need to know how to do anything, as long as someone exists who I can throw my money at and receive their knowledge, or skill, or labor. I don’t even speak the language of the country I’m in! Just like the nearly identical pyramids and monuments that sprouted all around the world in ancient times, from people who, presumably, had no contact with one another, body language—and the language of pointing, specifically—is universally understood. At the most basic level, having money and being able to point have been the two things I’ve needed to do, to get anything and everything. Continue reading What It Takes→
I set my alarm for six in the morning, but I’m often awake earlier than that. Maybe it’s the firmness of the bed, or the misshapenness of the pillow, I don’t know, but something keeps waking me three or four times a night, every night. With the curtains drawn, my room is adequately dark, with the exception of the pulsating light above my room that startled me when I first saw it. The paranoid in me thinks it’s a recording light going on and off, the telltale sign of wishfully discreet surveillance. My rational, perhaps naïve side, tells me to stop being so stupid. Despite being awake before my alarm sounds, I don’t remove the covers and begin my day. Being awake that early feels like I was cheated from a full night’s rest, so I stubbornly cling to my blanket, wrapping myself up more tightly, in an attempt to compensate for lost comfort.
—I am a child again and it’s Saturday morning, the day I must do chores. My inner clock does not align with astronomical rotations and movements, causing my own body to rotate and move in my bed. I impatiently wait for someone to rise and emerge from their room, so that I may do so, as well—we had, after all, a morning hierarchy of waking. I could not watch TV or play video games before completing my chores, and I would not do my chores before at least one of my parents was awake for fear of waking them. So I had to wait.
I am awake again, many years later. There are no chores to complete, but I do not stir until it is time to wake up. The sounds from my adolescence, of doorknobs turning, of doors creaking, of water running as it is poured into the kettle for morning tea or coffee, are now replaced by my preferred alarm. When it goes off, I am quick to rise. “Finally,” I think, like when I was younger. “I can wake up now.”
For though I leave my land,
I simply step on another
What does it mean to write of the universal human experience? Do I deprive a people of their identity and a land of its signature by shaping my mindset to think of an all-inclusive narrative, or my eyes to see worldwide struggle and joy, or my mouth to speak of triumph and sorrow? Themes exist for this reason, do they not? China has tragedy, Bolivia has betrayal, Chile has passion, and the United States has jealousy; exchange any of those themes with any country, not just those listed here, and the statement remains true.
Differentiation results from actions undergone as a result of, or in response to, different circumstances. History, we call it. Whether victory or defeat was attributed to outside barbarians or inner incompetence, specific actors, and the names they carry change, but their roles do not. Storylines remain fascinating, however, despite their repetition, and even though we as a human race have thousands of years to lay claim to, sometimes we rise—sometimes we fall. Continue reading Thoughts Abound→