Put yourself in the shoes of the rich and the poor; diseased and healthy; smart and dumb, knowledgeable and ignorant; gay and straight–do anything contrary to your lived-in reality and you’ll have willingly subjected yourself, admirably in that case, to an exercise in empathy. Notice the missing conjunction: or. Context and perspective are only possible when accompanied by a parallel yardstick, one that may even run perpendicular at certain intersections.
Citizen and immigrant are not two sides of the same coin, though our political environment on both sides tries to make us believe it. On the right, the separating line is a legal one, simply that of legal and illegal. On the left, the legal distinction isn’t a relevant one, because morality takes precedent; these are human beings, and by now I’m sure you’ve heard the latest slogan to come out of leftwing advocacy groups: No human being is illegal. I don’t agree with that sentiment, which is a dangerous thing to admit nowadays, because, while our laws aren’t perfect and can be quite cruel under certain circumstances, like those regarding immigration, the fact remains that our entire society depends upon adherence to these laws–this we call the rule of law–and to every other law that keeps this experiment in coexistence from explosive combustion. We have a process in place to amend, repeal or create new laws reflective of popular opinion, but that process is necessarily cumbersome–certainly burdensome for those trapped in the legislation–because it demands the deliberation of consequences, coupled with the consideration of those who stand to benefit or lose. The process is cruel in the same way that it’s cruel to put people in line when they are in desperate need of a heart transplant. But it’s the best we’ve got. Continue reading Born-again Immigrant→
Some flights are rough. When faced with delays, turbulence, toddlers, Pepsi-only products, one can either groan against misfortune or one can accept that 7-Up really is the better beverage. Having a bright outlook means that even if you didn’t get the window seat, you can look up at the sky any time after you land. Outlook is everything.
My story begins in Nanjing, a rapidly-modernizing city with a sizeable expat presence.
“It’s nice,” Jennifer says, my school contact at Nanjing Foreign Language School where I was assigned. “But it’s getting expensive.”
During my stay, I transformed from American recluse to Nanjing gadfly, joining the chorus of locals who loved and loathed their city in equal measure—too many people, too much traffic, too much noise, but very convenient!—in the way that metropolitan dwellers do all around the world. I extol Nanjing’s transportation system and its ease of travel. Metros, taxis, and buses are inexpensive by any standard, with minimal wait times, and I wish I could implant their efficiency on my native DC metro system. Perhaps Nanjing traded authenticity for convenience, but for someone who wanted to spend his time in China on Easy Mode, or Mild on the Taco Bell scale of spiciness for this lightweight, I appreciated the Burger Kings and McDonalds’; the Starbucks’ and Pizza Huts; especially the H&Ms. But while these brands were available, they were comforting visuals more than necessary fallbacks, as I marveled at and regularly sang the praises of Chinese cooks, or the prices of Chinese clothing. Also, I found wonderful sources for French baguettes, which is an essential component of my Bolivian breakfast and occasional snack, so I was ready to excuse any slights against me, perceived or otherwise.
An experiment in solitude became an experience of growth. Although I was living in a country with over a billion people, I at first felt lonely. Possessing zero Chinese language skills and woefully poor knowledge of Chinese culture, separation became my unwanted companion due, quite simply, to these initial deficiencies. However, once I got an apartment with two other AYC teachers—and once I learned more words and customs—challenges shifted their connotation from negative to positive, and we used those challenges to guide our stay in the country, as we fixed upon what needed accomplishing and how best to accomplish those goals. Most of the time, pointing at things was enough for me to function alone in the wild, as I turned my index finger into a multitool for inquiries and requests. You’d be surprised with how much I accomplished with this simple gesture and rudimentary pantomime. I will forever appreciate the patience of Chinese cashiers, passersby, and store clerks who endured my gestures and my mumbles, my hand-waving, charade-playing self. Necessity may breed invention, but survival undoubtedly destroys shyness. Whenever I needed anything, the only way to accomplish my goal was to venture outside, surround myself with a language I could hear but not listen to, and make myself understood in any way my desperate mind could conjure—nothing less than lunch was at stake, or a cell phone plan.
While struggles make for funny, albeit whiny stories, it was the successes that created my most poignant memories. Early on, I set one thought to conviction: before touring my city, before looking for the things I thought were authentically Chinese—thanks, Hollywood!—I reminded myself that, first and foremost, I was here to teach. What an experience that has been. I worked quickly to undo my students’ shyness, with my reasoning being that if I couldn’t be shy in the street, they couldn’t be shy in the classroom. I regularly made a fool of myself, waving my arms erratically, milking humor out of PowerPoint slides for all their worth, but if you’ll believe it, I succeeded. It wasn’t long before walking out in the hall meant saying hello to every student that passed by; or before my students took their best shot, often with stunning success, figuring out the difference between literal and figurative passages, which I began most of every class with; or before their hands flew up to answer my questions. They were especially eager to mimic my gestures, which functioned as a great strategy for memory recall after the laughter subsided.
For me, the laughter will never subside. This is partly because I have enough videos of all my students to comfortably last a lifetime. It’s also because I’ve made friendships in the program that I anticipate lasting beyond our tenure in China. The support has been consistent, the answers immediate—the experience, deep and lasting. But mostly, I’ll continue laughing in optimism because of what the AYC program means: reminding one another that all around the world, there are people willing to teach and learn, to exchange ideas and cultures, to ask questions and be receptive to perspectives. And to share laughter.
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→