Anxiety

I often wish I could just calm down about the whole thing, go along for the ride and stop thinking so much. According to common knowledge, traveling is the most wonderful, enjoyable thing in the world.

Actually, I find travel extremely difficult. I do it not for a break, but as an effort; I can feel myself strengthening under its tutelage. I am sharpening myself against its stone. It fills my head with images of places I will never see again, love for people I will never see again, nostalgia for short lives I have lived that I will never go back to. I believe that I am stronger, less sensitive, more steady, less moody than I was a few years ago, and I attribute this to travel.

The anxiety I am using it to confront is still there, regardless; the idea isn’t that I don’t feel anxious when on the road, but that I do, and that it’s good practice. Sometimes, within minutes, I can go from feeling free from plans and expectations and so expandedly liberated to feeling overwhelmed with doubt that I’m not doing it right, not seeing enough of the tourist stuff, being too touristy, not challenging myself, making it too hard for myself. And then I remind myself that none of that matters because in the end I am just living life like anyone does, I just happen to be in another country, and then I have a sweet connected interaction or a great meal and then I remember the alternative, the 9-5 and counting down to the weekend, and I am so thrilled, and so present.

I’m not always this dramatic, and these swings have gotten smaller and less frequent over the years, signaling the kind of growth I am after. I look forward to the gentle kind of day/month/year where I am not planning ahead, not making any requests of the world or myself, simply being where I am and then going to the next where when it feels right to go. Once that happens, maybe I’ll be ready to be in one place and take that practice into a more settled kind of life.

Bergen County, New Jersey

Summer 2016

One day at my seasonal job at an English summer camp for international students, my manager called me urgently: “Come to the office, the Korean ambassador is here!”  I ran up, we shuffled things around to make the place look better, and I was encouraged to offer our guest a coffee when he arrived.

He soon did, short and stout with a grey combover and a staunch drinking tummy. At first impression he seemed serious and quite business-like, but as soon as he started speaking he revealed a very playful, almost silly character, giggling and joking. His English was quite rudimentary, despite having lived in the US for thirty years.

I don’t think he was an ambassador of any kind, but he did seem to be a head of the New Jersey Korean community and had arranged a school group to come every year for the last four years from his hometown Hapcheon-gun in the South of South Korea, even, as I understood, convincing the district to pay for their experience.

Later in the summer, he would treat his students to a Korean meal in New Jersey. My manager asked, smiling, if he was invited. Yes! Was the reply, and so are all three of you! Come to the meal! He treats the students to this meal every year, he proudly explained, using his own money.

The Korean students arrived a few weeks later. They stayed with each other, not mixing much with the other nationalities except the most advanced speakers. While the other students were desperate to stay up later than their 11pm curfew, the Koreans went to bed early and awoke early, talking and showering by 6:30am, banging doors and laughing loudly, to the consternation of the other students.

The group was excellent at snacking. They would buy bags of American and Korean chips, split them open not on the seam but down the middle, and lay them out on the table for everyone. They always had something to eat and something to drink. They entertained themselves merrily, playing games and telling jokes.

The day of the field trip arrived. When I asked about timing, I was told the trip would be from 2pm until 10pm- a long excursion for a dinner. My coworkers opted out, and though I had some misgivings about spending all day with a group that spoke almost no English I tagged along.

After a last desperate puff of cigarette the group leaders ushered me onto their rented bus along with the students. I had no idea where we were going, except for the Puerto Rican bus driver’s verification, “Hackensack?” at the beginning of the ride.

An hour later we pulled up next to a government building, somewhere in New Jersey. It appeared to be a city hall, and we were shuffled into a presentation hall. A stout patriot explained that he was a Freeholder, apparently one of the oldest government positions in the country and unique to New Jersey (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Board_of_chosen_freeholders … Who knew?) A young Korean translated, I think badly (though I don’t speak Korean), and the students fidgeted. They were given official looking folders with papers in them. We were shown around the building. I caught one of the shy Korean girls giggling with her friend in my direction and she explained, “You’re so pretty!” I returned the compliment.

Back on the bus, going somewhere. I was slightly creeped out when we arrived in front of an unmarked building in an empty parking lot, which turned out to be a warehouse full of cheap Chinese made makeup, hair clips, hats, wigs, beads, and other random goods. I realized we were calling a visit to all of our ‘ambassador’s Korean buddies in Hackensack. The owner of the warehouse passed out Korean popsicles. I was handed a red bean one, which made me very happy. Cold, sweet, and milky, studded with sweet chewy red beans, it was perfect in that baking parking lot. The Korean girl gave me a taste of her lime one.

Next a visit to a small outdoor Korean war memorial, where an old Korean man passing by gazed over longingly, wanting to say hello. I imagined more Korean was spoken in the neighborhood than English. A whisper of ‘hungry!’ swept through the ranks, and I knew dinner would be next, though it was only 6. The dinner was clearly everyone’s focus of the evening. I love people who love to eat.

The restaurant was on the side of a busy street, with a big parking lot. Only a few tables in the big restaurant were occupied, and we were seated at three long tables on one side. The shy girl wanted me to sit with them, but it was decided I would sit at the grown up table with the group leaders. The owner of the restaurant came out and sat with us, another friend of the ‘ambassador’. Our party grew to included several more by the end of the meal. When presented with a menu, I asked that they order me whatever they were getting, which was explained as a summer soup. Not on the menu.

Ten cold cans of Coors Light hit the table, along with a few bottles of Soju decanted into silver long-spouted pitchers. Beer and soju were mixed in our glasses, and everyone toasted. One of the group leaders showed me how to put one of my chopsticks upright in my glass and smack it with the other one, creating a fantastic fizzy bubbling in the glass and mixing the two liquids. Soju is a kind of rice wine, like sake, and mixed with beer makes a lovely lightly sweet and easily injested cocktail, perfect with flavorful and spicy food.

Banchan arrived- those free small plates that come with any Korean meal: kimchi, spicy chewy squid, and to my delight a whole fried fish for each person, hot and flaky and salty, with a delicate coating and fresh sweet meat.

I was glad to be at the table with the adults when more extra dishes kept hitting the table. I was offered tidbits off of a cold meat plate, with what seemed to be boiled sliced pork belly, pig ear (so fantastic- chewy and crunchy and full of flavor), and blood sausage with rice. Later, a mysterious dish of big chunks of raw fish and grassy herbs I couldn’t identify, coated with a heady spicy marinade.

The main attraction turned out to be Samgyetang, which I had never tried before. A big bowl was placed in front of me, with fine clear broth, floating jujube berries, and an entire small chicken. Wondering how I was to eat a whole chicken with my chopsticks and spoon, I gave it a poke, and it melted sumptuously, relaxing easily into bite sized pieces and revealing a stuffing of sticky rice and big sections of ginseng. The dish is made unsalted, and small dishes of salt and spice were meant to be used to season the broth and to dip the meat as desired. I kept my broth almost as it came, enjoying the lovely richness of the good integrated chicken fat and the pure delicate flavor of the soup which revealed its own complexities when left saltless. The meat was soft and edging it with flecks of salt made it deeply satisfying. The rice provided substance and starch. Fantastic.

Sometime at the beginning of the meal my neighbor asked me if I would like to come with them to the empire state building. I assumed he meant up on the observation deck for an evening view. I later realized he meant not the empire state building itself but rather the neighborhood- Koreatown. Which is where we went after dinner, and where we did the only logical thing to do after eating an enormous meal: get fried chicken and beer.

Korean fried chicken is a marvel in crunch and spice. I understand they fry it twice, which lends it its distinctive tongue crackling addictive texture. It comes in different flavors, usually honey with some spice and spicy with a lot of spice. The spicy version at this restaurant was exceptionally spicy; even the Koreans had a hard time with it. The students were playing a game, and they made the new punishment eating a piece of the hot chicken.

A great day of eating. Stuffed, we took the remainders to go and headed back to the dorm. Back in the lounge area, the leftovers were thrown onto the table. Then opened. Then we ate them. Why not?

 

Train Trip During Chinese New Year

Winter 2011

In China, a huge amount of movement has taken place from the countryside into the city.  Discovering no work outside the cities and relatively plenty in, because of industrialization and streamlining of production I suppose, leaving the now old fashioned work of agriculture (where the jobs have probably been taken by machines) basically obsolete, millions of Chinese born in a rural area have moved into the cities to work.. This means that many people live far away from their families in this, a very family-centric culture.  The child has to take care of its parents once it has grown, and now that means moving into a big city, living in a small room with twelve other migrant workers, and sending money home.  But they of course like to go home once in a while, and the most logic moment to do so is the most family oriented Chinese holiday, the new year, which falls sometime in late January or February every year.  Logical, until you take a moment to contemplate the sheer volume of human beings attempting to travel across the country at the exact same time, that is, the month or so before the new year, and especially the week before.  Any guidebook on China will therefore expressly discourage you to travel within the country during this period, while stipulating that if you can secure an invitation to someone’s new year’s celebration you should definitely try to be there, or just enjoy it inside one of the somewhat emptied but nonetheless extremely raucous cities, assuming, that is, that you aren’t afraid of fireworks being set off on your street.  (A totally burnt out skyscraper in Beijing prompted an anecdote from a friend about how it had been built to be a hotel, but had been totally fire blasted a few days before it was set to open.  The wreck had been apparently standing there for two years, and the theory behind this was that its neighboring building was built on the same foundation so they couldn’t pull it down.  This logic fails me, but so did lots of reasons for lots of things in China.  It was agreed that it had been burnt on purpose by the company who built it, because of some structural faults or some other error, in order to collect insurance money.  It had burned during new year, when an enormous rocket had ‘accidently’ made its way inside and effectively blew it up.)

I was one of the lucky foreigners this year, because I had been invited to celebrate the new year with a Chinese family in a village in Yunnan.  Technically I personally had not been invited, but rather was invited along by an American friend in Beijing, whose kind-of-ex-girlfriend’s brother’s girlfriend was from this village, and the couple, my friend, and me were going to see how the new year is celebrated.  The couple lived in Guangzhou, across the border from Hong Kong and one of the business capitals of mainland China, so they would be coming to meet us for a few nights in Kunming, along with another American friend of theirs from Guangzhou, after which we would all continue on together to the village, four hours or so north of Kunming by bus.

One can easily travel around China by air but it is not particularly cheap.  The preferred mode of travel in China is still by train, which, for an American with some fantasies about the way things used to be, cross country train trips, wild west, etc, is pretty romantic.  There are sleeper and first class sleeper cars (the only difference between which, it seems to me, is that the first class beds are only stacked two high and have frillier bedcoverings), sitting trains, and standing room.  The normal sleepers are stacked three high, and sleeping on the top bunk, as well as being slightly cheaper, is delightfully reminiscent of a jungle gym.  There are little steps to climb up, with a certain amount of searching around with your dangling foot, clambering, and swinging required to mount, and especially, to demount.  Above the top bed there is also usually extra space for baggage, which is convenient for playing cards, eating, and stretching out.

My sense of distance has been severely altered by my travels, morphing extremely so that I finally find it to be as relative as time.  In Europe, friends would inquire about Boston’s situation, asking for example how far it was from there to New York.  I replied that it was quite close, a short drive of four hours.  Four hours!? They would burst out.  In Europe, in four hours you can cross your whole country, or pass through different three countries.  In China, I asked how far Shanghai was from Beijing, and I was told it was quite close, only a12 hour train ride.  That put things into perspective.

Anyway I like traveling on trains for some reason, Chinese ones especially, where everyone slurps instant noodles, eats sticks of pink mystery meat, cracks and sucks up sunflower seeds (the Chinese have incredible technique and skill at eating them, cracking them and drawing out the seed, barely breaking the outside shell, and eating a huge handful in a mater of minutes.  I got some ideas of how they did it, cracking the thing on its seam between the front teeth, but never quite mastered that noble art) and hot meals and snacks from the carts that periodically passed by hawking their goods (I wish I could say the meals were excellent, in a country with such good food, but they are of course quite mediocre).  In fact everyone basically just eats constantly on a Chinese train, and I like any situation that allows you to eat continually (baseball games, parties, and celebrations are a few other examples).  I like the endlessness of train travel, the beautiful but monotonous rural landscape constantly whooshing by outside the window.  I like that you are traveling but can still walk around and laze about, have a conversation, play cards.  It’s that ticklish, curious, in-between space, neither here there, where you are accomplishing something even as you snooze on your bunk, hoping not to roll off onto the Chinese grandmother down below.  I had several very enjoyable train rides in that country, with one notable exception.

My friend and I were devising our trip to the southwest.  The Sichuan region is just north of Yunnan, and famously has some of the best, and spiciest, food in the country, so we thought we’d go to Chengdu, the capital of the region, and then make our way south, maybe even seeing tiger leaping gorge on the way (we were obviously too ambitious, and it was surely the wrong season to do such a trip, so we didn’t end up making it over there.  I would love to go someday, since it is supposed to be one of the most incredible natural attractions and truly something to behold.)  So we knew we needed train tickets Beijing-Chengdu, and wanted to leave two weeks or so before the new year after my friend’s semester was finished.  Everyone urged us to buy as far in advance as we could, but we were informed that tickets were not available for purchase more than five days in advance.  In typical Chinese fashion, it turns out you can indeed purchase tickets more in advance if, you know, your uncle works for the railroads, or you have enough money to convince them to sell you one (but probably not much convincing to do- in China, money is connections, so you would probably already have your source if you were that wealthy), or, would that we knew!, you can buy tickets through your university.

So we dutifully waited until five days before we wanted to leave, and got to the ticket booth in the student district at 7:30 in the morning, since it opened at 9.  There was already a line when we got there.  It was very cold, January in Beijing, and we took turns running to the McDonalds on the block to warm up and drink hot, horrible coffee.  We agreed that second class sleeper tickets would be ideal, and if those were gone, then sitter should be fine too.  The trip would be something like 22 hours long, so sitting wasn’t ideal, but doable.  We knew that tickets went fast during new year, but we were leaving two weeks before the start of it, and figured everyone else had to wait until five days before too, and we were there good and early that morning.  The office opened late of course, and I had to run to class while my friend generously offered to stay and buy us the tickets.

An hour later he texted me.  When he had arrived at the front of the line, there were no tickets.  The train had been totally, entirely sold out.  Not even any standing tickets remained.  He was totally flabbergasted, and thought the trip might have to be  cancelled.  He had asked if there was anything he could do, and was told to try going directly to the main train station.  So he had gone all the way down there and asked again and was told the same thing, the train was totally sold out.  There were a few standing room tickets for the train to Chongqing however, a city two hours away from Chengdu, inexplicably about the same price as a sitting ticket, but available at least, so he had bought two.

Friends commiserated and recommend we buy the small wooden stools available at a booth near the station, essentially wooden stakes hinged together and decorated with some safety belt material stretched across to provide the seat.  I optimistically remembered the ‘standing room’ situation I had found on European trains, that is, three or four of you unlucky bastards that got there after the seats ran out, chilling between the compartments, leaning against the luggage, and stealing a seat once someone got off at some station.

Naturally, this was not the case.  After buying our little stools and a reserve of snacks we went to board the train.  We found a bustling car, people in every seat, and as many people as there were in the seats huddled in the aisle.  Some stood, leaning against the seats, and most had scouted out and claimed a spot of floor to sit on.  We pushed our way into the center of the car where I had noticed a hole in the sea of people, and there we wiggled our stools and our rear ends onto the floor, our bags tucked between our knees and on our laps.  We looked at each other in dismay, finally aware of the hell the next 22 hours would be.

I thought of the food carts and figured they must cancel the service with so many bodies cluttering up the space.  Wrong again, they came through all right, and we contortioned ourselves to let the wide silver carts pass through.  Going to the bathroom took ten minutes, to push through the crowd and then wait for the toilet in the corridor between cars among the smokers and people stretching their legs, a slight breeze from outside providing a much needed breath of fresh air.  Sitting among us were old and young, babies crying, whole families, old men sitting on buckets that doubled as their suitcase.

Although they probably went through this ordeal every year, everyone around us looked the way we felt, exasperated and supremely uncomfortable.  Later in my stay in Beijing I took on a job writing children’s textbooks, dull work in an airless office being bossed around by my superior, a Chinese girl who thought her English was better than it was and who seemed to enjoy having people to boss around (although eating lunch at a local canteen with my food loving coworkers almost made it worth it).   But I realized that the real reason I left that job after only a few weeks was the commute in the morning.  I had to be in the business district of Beijing at nine in the morning, and so did a million other people.  At each side of each entrance of each door to the line 1 subway were twenty people waiting to take the train.  Whenever a train arrived it was always full but a few people were squeezed on with the help of subway employees in orange blazers whose job it was to push people into the car.  Once a man’s jacket got caught in the closed door, and the worker poked at it with her fingers to try to push it back inside.  It took many minutes just to get on the train, and once on the people were pressed so closely together one could barely breathe, faces and bodies squished up against each other, the bars, and the seats.  Once the movement of getting onto the train and the density of the crowd were so much that my messenger bag was yanked in front of me and my hand was pulled through so that it was left just hanging around my neck by the strap and the bag part stuck between the people in front of me, from whence I had to maneuver it back towards me.  I felt it choking me for a moment and I wondered what would happen if I was just strangled there and died, and no one noticed until everyone else got off the train and I just fell onto the floor, dead.  But the thing that struck me the most was the look on the other riders’ faces.  I saw a woman trying to come off a train where ten others were trying to go on, and her face held a look of pure horror at the immensity of the human movement pushing against her.  Other times I saw people giggle uncomfortably, wide eyed smiles, hiding what was obviously extreme discomfort.  Everyone displayed some degree of pretty intense unhappiness.  These people had surely been taking this commute every day of their adult lives and they were still not used to it; I  realized that you cannot get used to such conditions.  They are unnatural and unlivable and your humanity is threatened each and every time you experience them, even if you go through with it every day of your life.  Happily, the New Year’s commute is only twice a year, once there and once back, but again what shocked me the most was how everyone else looked as horrified as I was.

I slept very little that night, my friend even less.  I ended up putting my bag in front of me and my purse on my knees, and collapsing with my head on my arms.  People pressed up against us on all sides.

Finally passengers got off the train at other stops late the next morning, more in the afternoon.  When we finally arrived in Chongqing we felt the liberation and exhaustion of having completed a great ordeal, and we felt proud and strong to have gotten through it.  Stumbling out of the train station we tumbled into a cab and directed it towards the hostel we were staying at.  We checked in and collapsed in our beds, blissfully private and spacious, and slept for the rest of the day.

ramblings- weightlessness

Anytime I make a spontaneous decision, decide to go somewhere I’ve never been, buy a one way ticket, take a mostly stranger up on an invitation, try something I’ve never tried before, there is a feeling of stepping into a void whose bottom I cannot see, indeed do not know whether there is one or not, and then take that metaphorically consistent ‘leap of faith’-  believing in the goodness of the void, and that my feet will land somewhere or other, surely decent, possibly good, or even even sublime… believing that the landing will be cushioned enough not to be bruised, and that it just may be something so remarkable at the bottom that any doubt at the top is worth its sweat.  Worth it, but even, I am coming to realize, the thing itself- that the diving in is as regenerating as the experience it leads me to.  That a feeling of weightlessness, of middle of nowhereness, of blissful unknowingness, and a growing comfort with that feeling (but always with prudence), is as essential to my world knowledge as any facts or places or experiences I may have had the pleasure to know.  Many, most? people much prefer steady ground, known paths, a sense of heaviness, deep roots and well tended plants, known species and familiar surroundings. Who could blame them, such assurance allows you to sleep well at night, eat consistently, have someone to cry to on the telephone.  This life does not prevent against loneliness however, and it does not even keep you safe against improbability, against horror or loss or death or even total destruction, but at least you know what you will be doing this time tomorrow, and if you are lucky how you will pay the bills next month.  I am not sure how I will pay the bills next month, although I have done my best to create a nest of backup finances and have learned to live on next to no money at all so as to make it last a long time. Why would anyone choose to jump into an emptiness when fullness and knowness is so much simpler and so much easier?

 

I ask myself this question often, having chosen the former path- what am I thinking? why do I continue to trace the world’s plane and train lines, keep moving to a new community where I have to totally start over?  why do I put myself in a situation where I have to live as scarcely as possible, scrimping, uncomfortable, and with a constant part of my brain on my finances?  Why not get a good job, a nice apartment, a fiancé and a cat, a refrigerator full of organic vegetables, and, an image that I carry around in a drawer in my mind for whenever I’m finally ready for it, a cherry tomato plant in the window, healthy and covered with sweet red tomatoes for the salad tonight, a mint plant and a basil plant next to it.

 

All these things I want eventually, of course, maybe not permanently but in some quantity at least, to have and to hold, to plant and weed and feed someone with.  One day I want to try this reality too.  But for now I continue to jump into that void, because I have become aware of how much strength each flight has given me. How much faith in my own ability to take care of myself and in the fight I can put up, and how many times I have not perished, not at all, indeed have found wonderful things at the end of the uncertainty.  That without being footloose I would not have found half of these places or people or things.

 

And that death is still present in the householder’s life, and may indeed inform it.  Why should we as a species be so obsessed with matching a magazine lifestyle, thinner, more attractive, with better taste, richer, more cars and more money, new wallpaper, a better job with more prestige, but for a desperate feeling of a lack of time?  That is, an awareness of our own inevitable, (hopefully) eventual death? I don’t know how often the average householder or wallstreeter thinks about death consciously but the perfectionism to which she or he is culturally held to and personally anxious for must be, perhaps circuitously, a response to the fleetingness of time, an end to breathing and eating and being ambitious- that is, a fear of death.  But death does not feature a prominent position in most suburban houses, not in their decorations and certainly not in their conversations.

 

So I was wondering if the weightlessness of the jump is in fact a tete a tete with death, a face on view of the reality of nonexistence.  A willingness to not have anyone know where you are at the given moment, since not being known is a kind of not being.  And that floating in the haze of that moment between cities, when no one knows you yet, when you could vanish and no one would know the better, there you challenge the fear and build a respect instead.  And a defiance too- I continue to jump and yet I continue to be alive, and even to be extraordinarily happy, open and free and willing, scared of death of course, humbled, but in a way that does not buckle my knees, and in a way with less denial and less rejection of that inevitable reality.

 

Travel is not the only source I have found for this feeling of falling.  Literal weightlessness gives me the same release- swimming in the ocean, spinning (dance), biking.  Moments that take the consciousness out of the mind and back into the body have the same effect- making music, doing exercise, making love, a very good meal.  Perhaps this is what is responsible for our cultural obsession with these would-be simple biological necessities.  To feel so alive is to proudly face one’s death, accept its inevitability, love it for the way it empowers our every moment, and kiss it goodnight for now.

KTV in China

KTV In China

I lived in China for 8 months but miraculously was only dragged to Karaoke once in the entire time I was there.  I had always been averse to the idea, in the US or China or anywhere. I imagined a room full of drunk people singing horribly to overplayed pop songs, either ruining ones you liked or irrevocably lodging ones you didn’t like into your head, where they would play over and over again for the following three days like some inner ear inferno.  I love singing in a more formal context, where I can pay attention to what is coming out of my mouth, and if in front of an audience at least not a totally intoxicated one.  Besides, my knowledge of the songs included in the karaoke booklets is somewhat pathetic in the United States, and in China virtually null.

I have since been once in the US and must admit to enjoying it- ham that I am, singing in front of anyone gives me a certain high, and I found a Bonnie Raitt song hidden in the selection that I knew well enough to get into singing.

In Asia KTV is extremely popular, drawing huge crowds of college students, friends, even business men, the favorite pastime and most relished activity for a Saturday night.  It was amazing that I had avoided it for as long as I did.  The circumstances in which I finally found myself in front of the flickering tv, little ball bouncing along the tacky font, remains with me as one of the closest views I ever had of a certain side of China, the one making it the polarized, complicated, metropolitan country it is: extreme power and wealth.

We were in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province, in the Southwest of China, having just returned from Chinese New Year celebrations in a village a few hours north.  Kunming was one of my favorite cities that I visited, and I often wonder if things would have turned out differently had I stayed in that fair city instead of returning to Beijing.  We were there in February and enjoyed spring-like weather: balmy days, warm but not hot, soft and refreshing breeze maintaining an ideal jeans-and-tshirt temperature.  Yunnan is a fascinating region, boasting an incredible variety of terrain, including rainforest in its south leading finally down into Laos, mountains in its north, and desert in the southwest, all the way to the border of Tibet.  It is home to almost 30 of China’s 56 ethnic minorities, groups whose ancestors are not the Han, unlike the majority of Chinese.  In my limited understanding, they are given a certain distance by the mainstream population, are left largely to themselves and function as strong independent communities, are often plagued by poverty and sometimes racism, but have certain privileges in contemporary China such as an exception to the country’s one-child policy, in an effort to keep the groups and their traditions alive.  They also have some of the best food- no surprises there, so many marginalized communities do.  The Dai food we ate in Kunming was probably one of the best meals I had while in the country, and different from most mainstream Chinese cuisines. Among the many dishes, we ate a kind of hot grilled cheese similar to Greek Halloumi which you dipped into a mixture of salt and spices and that squeaked pleasantly between your teeth. They have other unexpected ingredients in Yunnan, including a salt aged pork haunch similar to prosciutto, eaten sliced off the bone or cooked into stews and stirfrys. They even grow coffee in that region. I cannot recall the rest of the dishes, except that they were excellent- some fish stew, herb based dishes, pork, vegetables, rice, all deeply flavorful.

We were still wheeling from our experiences of the New Year and were unwinding in our hostel, the strangely named Hump Hostel, predictably pleasant with an outdoor terrace and laundry. I was on the trip with my friend H from Beijing.  H’s ex-ish-girlfriend’s brother was also living in China, and his girlfriend B was from a village in Yunnan, which is where we had gone for New Year.  They were on route back to Guangzhou, a large city in South China just across the border from Hong Kong.  B’s friend was in town, was it all right if he hung out with us? He grew up a few villages over from hers, and they had been childhood friends.  We merrily acquiesced, glad to have a night on the town, imagining him a student type or local low level white collar professional. She summoned us, saying he was waiting in his car below to pick us up.

We made our way down the funky graffitied staircase, past the hostel restaurant on the first floor and out onto the street.  There waited what even I knew to be an extremely expensive car, recognizable even to the car-illiterate like me by the lack of a license plate: if you’re rich enough to have a car like that, the police wouldn’t dare stop you- you must be very well connected and thus immune to petty law enforcement. Who could this childhood friend be, with a car like this?

We were welcomed into the cool interior, and I sat in awe with no idea where we were headed. My limited Chinese picked out the word karaoke, so I couldn’t fathom why we were pulling into a tree lined driveway in front of what seemed to be a hotel. Indeed, we were informed, this was the nicest hotel in the city of Kunming.  We were led through a shiny-floored potted-planted main lobby and up a red-plush lined elevator, finally down an elegant hallway to a private room.   I caught glimpses of the hotel workers, scurrying around catering to invisible customers behind other private doors.  The same thoughts came as I had had in so many dirty, brilliant banquet style restaurants in China- who were these enigmatic masses, where were they from, how did they feel about serving this rich clientele? They were likely migrant workers, from the countryside, come to the city to make money, waiters by career. In the restaurants I had been to, all relatively humble ones after all, the waiters mostly ignored you, scowled, picked their nails or teeth or their uniforms, gossiped and giggled.  Here though, the clientele was clearly much richer, and much more demanding, and had much more money to spend, and was a much rarer breed- a tiny clan of outrageously wealthy people, the .001%. The service was acquiescent and impeccably subservient.

Up an elevator and down a carpeted corridor, into a private salon with lush leather couches, coffee tables laden with snacks (an enormous bowl of all different kinds of fruit; chips; some meaty spicy finger food), and of course an impressive television.

We sat down on the plush seats, the four of us, the rich friend, and what turned out to be his bodyguard.  He asked us what we would like to drink, wine perhaps? He would drink only a cup of tea, since he was very tired and had to fly to Thailand in the morning, and our friends noted that since heavy drinking is such an integral part of business interactions in China, most businessmen almost never drink for pleasure, being worn from the constant consumption their job requires.

Three bottles of wine were procured.  There is now a limited amount of domestic wine production, the most popular and noxious of which being the Great Wall wine.  This was imported wine, evidence of the desirability of western things and above all of dispensable income.  The wine was very good, and clearly expensive.  We were attended by a charming Chinese hostess, well dressed and available for our every need, and I could not help but wonder if they provided other services as well, in other rooms, with other intoxicated male clients. She opened the first bottle. We were appalled by her suggestion that we take ice in our red wine. She seemed to regard it as a sort of red version of the fiery clear moonshine-like Baijiu, a Chinese spirit that tastes a lot like nail polish remover smells, which can only possibly be ingested in small, rapid quantities, from a shot glass or directly from the bottle. Its taste is not to be lingered over. Indeed, baijiu can be literally translated as ‘white alcohol’, and the Chinese word for wine as ‘red alcohol’.  No surprise then that our hostess presented Bacchus’ introspective liquid as a shot, a small pour in our glasses, and a glass for herself with ice.  Then an elaborate process of cheersing, glass in both hands, bowing and clinking glasses with her, with each other, consuming the wine as if it were so much vodka.  I was surprised that she too was drinking, another cultural difference among so many that I encountered on this strange evening.

After a few rounds of toasts, we settled back to chat. I understood bits and pieces of the conversation but was glad for a translation from my friends.  The rich friend recounted his life story and his work.  He had grown up in a small village and then joined the army, made a  series of connections with important people, and ended up in business.  His company imported seafood from southeast Asia, which is where he had made all his money.  He offhandedly supplied the secret to his fortune- he only did business in a sector where he had a monopoly. Well. No wonder then.

High on the wine and the riches of our surroundings, as well as a complete sense of disorientation in what seemed to be a crazy dream, we scrolled through the options on the ktv.  There were very few songs in English but we scouted them out (mostly Madonna), and the Chinese girlfriend gave us her rendition of her favorite Chinese pop songs.  The rich friend left early with his bodyguard, and the hostess then quietly disappeared since the owner of the credit card was no longer there to impress. Left alone to our own devices in a luxurious hotel ktv suite and two bottles of good wine, we did what anyone sensible would do- we got drunk, sang loudly, and danced crazy.

It got late, we got sleepy.  Back to the hostel? No, to the spa! For the rich friend had apparently left us his spa membership card.  I couldn’t believe the spa would be open so late, but Chinese girlfriend said they were open all night, and even had beds, and since Chinese girlfriend and American boyfriend had a flight to catch early in the morning, they would simply sleep at the spa and leave there for their flight. So back to the hostel, we collected their bags, and took a cab to the spa.

Entering the lobby, we were given a skeptical look, but upon presentation of the membership card we magically gained royalty status, since we were friends of a Very Important Person, and were whisked into the antechamber.  Tired and overwhelmed, I floated wherever I was directed: a very hot shower in an impressive tiled shower, hot steam, a vigorous scrubbing to remove dead skin and toxins (so I was informed), special spa clothing, booties and robe, a female pampering salon, an array of beauty products available for our noble consumption.  An elevator ride somewhere upwards, into this temple of comfort.  An unlit floor, Chinese girlfriend told me we would now be given a massage, but by whom? It was already past 2 or 3 in the morning, quite late for China.  But Chinese girlfriend summoned the manager, and insisted that we receive massages, but no one was in the building, the manager bemoaned, but we must receive massages! We were friends of a Very Important Person so massages would be procured, the manager sighed deeply and retreated, we were shown to a room like a hotel room (were there special services delivered in this establishment also, I wondered? on these beds?) Exhausted, I laid down, at some point two young ladies shuffled in, and as they started to rub our shoulders, my last thought was to wonder where the hell they had been when they had been called to work so late at night before I fell deeply asleep.

I awoke as Chinese girlfriend was wheeling her suitcase out of the room to go catch her plane. It must have been only six or seven in the morning, but I was wide awake with a deep sense of strangeness.  I peeked out into the hallway and found my friend from Beijing, filled with an equal sense of not belonging. Lets get the hell out of here, we said, we slunk out, and went back to our hostel.

Paris Mosque

One of the nicest surprises of this visit to Paris so far has been an unexpected one, and one that most Parisians likely know nothing about.  In fact, it is not traditionally French at all, although much to the dismay of traditionalists or the staunch defenders of the Old France, it is an ever more present element of the new way, the integration and overlapping of cultures, the blending that immigration and newer generations brings. This was one of the centers of Islamic culture and tradition, the grand Mosque of Paris.

My friend’s roommate recommended, vehemently, that I go see the Arènes de Lutèce, ruins of a roman amphitheater built in the 1st century AD for gladiator fights and whatever other entertainment.  After, he advised, I could go to the mosque and drink some tea.

So I got on the subway, the Parisian subway that I have grown used to over the past week, on to line 4 at Alesia a few blocks from where I have been staying, changing at the enormous Chatelet for line 7 (that station always reminds me of the larger Beijing subway complexes, structures that only connected 4 or so subways but which led you in a maze of stairways, hallways, escalators, often broken, even outside through a gated area and then back down again, only Chatelet is much better organized, does not seem to be eternally in the middle of construction, and does not contain the thousands of people who always tramped along with you in Beijing, no matter what time of day).  Line 7 to Place Monge. (The announcement of the upcoming station in the subway is always announced twice, but with two different recordings. The first always with an upwards intonation, and the second with a more definitive downwards one- almost as if to say ‘Well I guess this must be Place Monge I think it is?… Yes it is yes I was right, Place Monge. Yep.)

I followed the instructions of the roommate to not take the back entrance to the Arena but rather find the entrance on the street, an almost unmarked cement archway leading to a little maze of turns, which finally opened out to the Arena itself.  Dramatic entrance indeed, but somewhat of a disappointing result- mostly an open sandy space where some teenagers played with a soccer ball, amphitheater seating around the edge where some other spectators had presumably sat two thousand years ago, and some nice greenery along the back part, trees and such.  The roommate had been quite enthusiastic about this place; clearly he is in dire need of a trip to Italy, where ruins such as this are a dime a dozen, and where the good ones are mostly intact, and very impressive, and plentiful.

Exiting again, I decided to find this Mosque, if only to make the trek out here worth it.  I rambled down the big avenue, went too far, checked one of the maps on a subway entrance, and realized it was a bit off to the side down one of the smaller streets. Passed a movie theater- Parisian movie theaters always seem very appealing to me- and, following the trail of headscarf clad ladies as well as my mind’s eye’s memory of the map, wove through, until a dream of a sparkling white building appeared, imposing and sacred looking.  I doubted again this idea of drinking tea in such a place- would I be allowed in without a head covering? – but I traced my way around the wall of the formidable structure, when that thing happened again, the revelation of whatever it was you were looking for, rising out of the mist of being vaguely lost: as I turned the corner of the mosque a vision of green, white, bustle, mosaic tiles, arabic sweets, smartly dressed, stressed waiters running around to accommodate the crowd.  First a front area just adjacent to the street, lovely little wrought iron tables and chairs; to the right, a glimpse of an inner, inside space, hinting of an entire restaurant (a friend latter told me they have baths there as well, expensive but luxurious); a small hallway with a case of sweets, baklava and rose water cakes, bird’s nest pastries with pistachio, many that I had never seen before; and finally the back area, roofless, tables arranged around the edges and some in the middle, groups of people or couples, quiet and cool or loud and hilarious, and again green and white and glowing and so utterly not French.  After selecting a square of coconut cake (2 euro, the dryness of the coconut balanced by the moistness of the base of the cake, soaked with something delicious, not too sweet), I chose an edge table in the back space and a waiter floated right over with a laden tray: “Mint tea?” which is what everyone drinks there, and in fact the items on the tray were for no one but merely an endless supply of mint tea, since when I affirmed he plucked one right off and put it down for me.  The tea was also 2 euro which is too much for such a small amount (served in one of those elegant decorated glass tumblers) but this was Paris, and the tea was good, sweetened and strong.

the beauty of the airport

A mini voyage this last weekend, to Providence, Rhode Island to see an old friend.  Get back into the mood of it, since bigger traveling is imminently approaching.

At the train station, sitting at one of the tables, gazing at the timetable announcing the train times and boarding calls, I am reminded how much I love traveling.  Yes, the destination, of course, but I love the act itself- the train station, the airport, the bus terminal, and then as I sit coursing idly through the countryside that part too- the train ride and the airplane ride, the bus and car trip.  Its boring as hell of course, and uncomfortable (although being very small helps a lot), and one is stuck with limited food choices.  But this in-between space continually fascinates and charms me.  There can be no ‘I’m late!’ or ‘There’s somewhere I have to be!’ while on an airplane; there is nowhere you Can be but There, and you are being perfectly productive, moving from one place to the other place, totally passively completing a necessary task.  A very slow one, and one that necessarily forces you into a meditative state.  There’s not much to do in the terminal or in your seat but think, or read, or observe.  It is also a perfect excuse to watch terrible hollywood movies, and to eat fast food (the only time I do), for lack of other choices, which in that context are lightly sheepish delights, exonerated as you are from the ‘guilt’ part of guilty pleasures.

There is also a small miracle that takes place in these waiting spaces.  People define themselves by the communities they belong to, the groups they identity with.  But they are rarely willing to create new ones without some introduction or connection, whether it be a mutual friend or a shared hobby.  Extraordinarily, in the waiting space a sort of exception to this rule is accepted, similar to the one made in emergencies, strange weather, or extra long lines at the movie theater- any circumstance that is extreme in any way causes the normal boundaries of interpersonal communication to break down.  With the unusual circumstances are allowed unusual interactions, a ‘Wow its really coming down, isn’t it?’ when only rushing past silently with heads down would usually have been appropriate.  Something about airports and airplanes, especially if something unexpected happens, such as a delay, clicks this ‘exception mode’ on, and people are much more likely to start a conversation.  Again, there’s not much to do on an hours-long flight but talk to your neighbor.  And in the airport, like on the beach, or in the hospital, or a few other locations, the rules of conduct are altered.  Loitering is fine, as is sleeping.  You can lay down on public furniture, and take your shoes off, and stare into space.

We have created the structures we live our daily lives in with much purpose and conscious thought, and they work very well to keep things in order.  If someone is shouting at passersby, or talking to themself, sleeping in public or staring at people, we understand them to be outside of the boundaries of our order. Perhaps they suffer from some mental illness, or perhaps they have willfully put themself in this outsider’s world, as a rejection of the system.  But it is clear to us and to them that there is an inside and an outside, and they are sitting on that side of the line.  Perhaps these constructions are limiting and confining, strangling our creative or social impulses, they are regardless our reality as it stands for now, and, personally, as allergic as I feel to the group mentality, I feel that they are brilliant structures based on collective social intelligence that indicate when something is not quite right, and which assure when everything is humming along smoothly.  The desire to break them is as irresponsible and juicily fantastical as jumping off a bridge- a thought experiment about what would happen if you did it, what it would feel like, but not something you should ever do, even consider doing.  So in the moments in the airport or the bus terminal, as people snooze on their luggage and make friends with strangers, as these social tropes are slightly skewered and a new set of rules are temporarily installed, if one takes a moment, one can experience the lightest of thrills as these structures shift on their foundations, the slightest group-wide breaking of rules that makes that crowd of the waiting-space align momentarily into a community, enjoying each other’s naughtiness, before arriving at the final destination, the baggage claim, the train depot, the bus stop, when the airplane-fellows fade away back into the everyman, collecting their bags, walking outside, waiting for the crosswalk sign to change color, looking straight ahead: the smallest death imaginable.