Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Salty Foreigner in China Rant

A new theme, a new look, a new cold and icy season. OK, winter is here in Beijing and we are all starting to get… what’s the word for it? Christmassy? Irritable? Irritably Christmassy?

Anyways it’s pretty cold out right now. I still ride the bike to work. As long as I remember to wear my long underwear, winter jacket, and a scarf I keep warm.

China.

I want to get out of here. Really, I can’t take it anymore. For so many justifiable reasons it feels like my head is splitting in two all of the time. (And not the kind of splitting when it feels like a headache. The kind of splitting when it feels like your literally going insane because you can’t accept reality.)

I don’t want to speak Chinese. I don’t want to eat Chinese food. And I especially don’t want to listen to my Chinese boss.

I suppose these are the fruits of international life, developing an expatriate complex, and eating at subway everyday.

OK, I admit it. I am just being a stereotypical, salty foreigner.

Yes, this country is different and there are many things I will never completely acclimate myself to (nor should I want to- for that matter). Yes, I am treated very differently, almost like an alien at times, and it is so very outrageous, isn’t it?

Well, all in all its not such a big deal. The whole thing will be over soon enough anyways. I mean, I will either leave the country or die. I suppose those are my two options.

And the whole time, while I am bitching and moaning and skyping my parents back home to tell them that I can’’t possibly finish out this contract, people are out there… foreigners and Chinese, having the time of their lives.

Isn’t that just… ironic?

Yes, ironic. Quite ironic. This whole damn thing is so fraught with irony that if you were to ask me who planned it, I would say no other than William Shakespeare himself. But, please forgive me if I don’t laugh.

No, I have got to take myself less seriously! Study more Chinese. Go out with the locals. Visit the hutongs. Do Taiqi…

No, I refuse to do Taiqi. I would look ridiculous out there in a white gown, making those gestures with my hands. You know the ones.

As you might know from my previous post, I have started studying Chinese again. I can say that does make the entire world of difference. Not only does it give me a goal, but it also connects me to the world that I am living in.

Is there a correlation between me not studying Chinese and falling into a bit of a depressive spiral? Well, I guess god alone knows that truth. That is, assuming someone up there is watching us. I wouldn’t be so bold as to tell you, my dear reader, what to think.

Taking care of my apartment has also been a good way to fend off the depressive spiral. Moving things into their proper places, sweeping the floor, cleaning the hair out of the drains, keeping my dish sink empty, and countless other little chores that I can do help me to stay sane. I guess that even if I will never be a complete member of this society, I still have my home.

Being there for other people.

Last week I was in an absolute rotten mood for Thanksgiving. When we went around the table and said what we were thankful for. I completely ruined everything when I said, “the bill” (as I need it for a tax write off), and the fact that we were eating at an Indian Buffet (which I thought was slightly ironic, albeit was a little bit of a stretch).

It takes a very salty foreigner indeed to use the gratitude period of a perfectly cheery Thanksgiving dinner to equate happiness with his individual tax exemption benefit and a nation’s history of oppression.

I have to be careful. Sometimes when I think I am being funny one half of the room thinks it’s clever and the other thinks I’m drunk. I guess there is just a little part of me that wants to see any happy moment in life shatter. I have been that way ever since I was a kid.

The point of that whole tangent is though, I can’t stick myself alone in my apartment all week. I need to go out and see friends, have dinners. That kind of thing. Be there for other people and in the minimum, complain together. It’s just better that way.

I’m happy to say that today it feels like I am coming back out of the spiral. I am feeling like me again. Maybe it’s the writing. Maybe it’s the fact that I have decided work can be a positive, if I decide to approach it like that.

It’s not easy for me. It’s not exactly the way that I am used to behaving. But the alternative is being an angry curmudgeon (why does it seem everyone is using that word lately?) and engaging with the all too alluring downward spiraling, depressive cycle, of expat blues in China.

 

Thanksgiving Weekend and I Just Want To Read

A lot is going on this week. We had Thanksgiving and I got sick (again). I think I should go to the doctor but then that brings up the whole question of health insurance and dealing with a Chinese hospital. I can’t go to an international hospital without paying a ridiculous amount.

Alas, small problems. It’s nothing too big. I can deal with it if I just keep doing the simple stuff that I know will help. Sleep, eat healthy, drink water, rest. 

I have been reading a lot recently. I just finished the book Junkie by William S. Burroughs. Is about the author’s notorious experiences as a Heroine addict. 

I liked it, for the most part. Although perhaps I should have read the abridged version, as opposed to listening to the unabridged. Three quarters of the way through, the book sagged, when Burroughs describes in painstaking detail his experience in New Orleans when he caught a firearm charge. 

The strongest writing in the book is the descriptions of that particular period of America during the 1950’s, when the country was still rising out of the Great Depression. In that time, people’s relationship to drugs, at least compared to today, in their relative infancy.

Burroughs does a very good job of articulating the phases of addiction and all of the elements which make up that life. As we know, every community has an ecosystem, and it’s very interesting to read about this one.

It’s a quick read. So after I finished that, I started up “In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts” which is about the Hungarian Jewish doctor, Daniel Mate, who works in the slums of Vancouver helping patients to deal with serious drug addictions. 

As Burroughs was not a trained physician and wrote directly from his own experiences as an addict, it’s good to read Mate. He presents a medical practitioner’s interpretation of addiction in the 21st century, some decades since Burrough’s novel.

I guess some of the readers may be a little disturbed by my fascination with drug addictions. That’s understandable. I would think it’s weird too, except for the fact that I have many people in my personal life that are directly affected by it. I guess in many ways your own reality will push you to read about certain topics.

I still haven’t finished Mate’s book but so far it reads well. He does a good job of not just presenting facts, but using his experiences to create a narrative in which the reader is given his perspective on addiction treatment.

I also read the Ascent of Money by Nial Ferguson. The parts about colonization of South America and the creation of paper currency are quite interesting, however after that he loses the reader a bit in the dry presentation of facts. 

It just works better when you use stories to tell facts, rather than the other way around. I don’t like reading text books. To me, it’s just a bit of a drag. I guess the only time that I would want to read a text book would be for an exam.

Yes, I have been on a bit of a reading binge.

Sometimes it gets like that for me. I finish one book and then I just immediately pick up another. Its almost like my own little addiction, in a way. I just love learning new things and hearing well formulated arguments.

There is so much knowledge in the world it will be impossible to consume it all. Even just a fraction, it’s not possible. But still, it doesn’t stop this urge I have to read and understand everything.

That’s why its important for me to go outside and talk with other people. It’s easy and seducing to just stay inside and read all day. To me, there would be nothing better. I think a lot of people can relate with that. It’s a form of security and protection, in it’s own bookish way.

But today I continue the book isolation. I feel OK, but not well enough to leave my apartment and interact with the world. I think it’s better to sleep and let whatever has inflicted my body run its course.

Anyways, if I do leave here, then it should be for the hospital. That way I could get a professional opinion. Texting your friends studying medicine only gets you resentments and half baked diagnoses.

Back to Studying Chinese! Huzzah!

I have been doing a lot of writing lately. I swear that I will get around to posting it on here one of these days… But as often happens when I commit the majority of life to one subject, it leads to emotional drainage and confusion.

So, as I lay sick in bed sick yesterday, I didn’t reach for my laptop to write. I ordered Korean fried chicken like I alway do on Sundays. It was raining outside.

I finished the book Junky by William Burroughs (I have always been a fan of Beat literature) and watched the movie A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯). Both pieces were amazing. I highly recommend both and furthermore suggest that their topics are much closer than you might imagine at first glance.

I also did something that I haven’t done in a couple of months. I studied some Chinese.

I have to say that it was exhilarating in a very odd, why is this so soothing, kind of way. It was like going back to the characters reactivated old areas in my brain and pumped brain juice their way. It was great and I loved every second of it.

I did it again tonight. After cooking myself a potato omelette, I sat down at the desk, turned on some house music, and started scribbling on the page again.

As with any subject I have loved and left, the coming back is always like going home after having been away a long time. You see familiar faces. You eat the food that sustained you as a child. Like walking through the woods on a brisk fall day.

I have felt that way about writing, finance, Spanish, reading fiction, and now Chinese.

While I am not giving up on my writing, I am coming to understand more clearly how my brain functions. In truth, I am a bit of a do everything type of person. I like to go deep into one subject for a period of time, but it can never last and then I want to go to something new and start all over. However if I rotate everything in the correct way then I can start to get into this weird rhythm of connecting seemingly unrelated things.

Anyways, I am picking back up the gauntlet. Perhaps it is a lack of structure, perhaps it is the clear, tangible pleasure that I got when I passed the HSK4, but whatever the reason I’m back in the game.

HSK5, here I come.

 

Perhaps I Will Always Be Haddock.

I think about the Koi fish. Those bright, orange darlings that swim around the ponds at the park near my apartment up here on the fifth ring road. Koi fish have always symbolized Asia to me.

If you go to that park you can see countless Koi fish. They are big and orange and fat from the children feeding them little pieces of bread. They swim under half moon oriental bridges. People like to go there and paint pictures of the Koi fish swimming around under the drooping branches.

I grew up on the ocean in New England. One of the defining characteristics of that part of America is the jagged, rocky coast line. They say that the fierceness in a New Englander’s heart and soul is caused by that same salt spray of the Atlantic.

Big, hearty fish live in the Atlantic. Lobsters, haddock, scallops, it’s all there. When I was growing up I worked in a seafood restaurant. It’s how I paid for some short trips to Europe. It’s how the settlers first survived.

Fish mean a lot to me, even if I will never live among them. I think about the coy fish and haddock, how each body of water has its own, unique aquatic life. I think about the depths of the water and all of the life teaming down there. All the things that I will never know about because its not my world and it never could be.

I always had that dream. That, if there was an Atlantis, then perhaps it had a spot for me. I could go there and they would accept me. Instead of walking to school, I could swim. Instead of seeing the gray, polluted sky in the evening I would just see the murky abyss.

I heard somewhere that fish lived in the time of the dinosaurs. If that’s true, then fish are a hell of a lot older than humans. I wonder if we will become extinct and if the fish will keep swimming.

And where there are fish there are sharks. A rule in life as true as any. The smaller fish run from the bigger fish. The bigger fish run from the sharks. The sharks rule everything but they are so greedy that they can’t think about anything beyond their next meal. Their next meal means more to them than any beautiful coral reef or delicate seaweed plant. Eat, eat, eat. That is the mantra.

I wonder if I were to pass, then would it be possible to come back as a fish. I wouldn’t want to be a small fish, but I also wouldn’t want to be a shark. Maybe I could be a Koi fish. Perhaps I will always just be haddock.

Fish

Hello, Mr. President.

So, Trump has won the election… OK, it’s official. An electoral landslide, a close decision by the popular vote.

I am very surprised.

I guess, me being an American, I should weigh in on it. Although I’m not sure how much good that will really do. What can I say?

If you didn’t vote for Trump, well, I’m sorry for your loss. I know that the elections this year were very intense and you are probably not feeling happy about it right now. I get it. You fought for some ideas but the other people won and now you feel hurt.

If you did vote for Trump, then you are probably very happy. Your guy won and that’s reason enough to make your day bright. Maybe your disenfranchised with America and I can definitely see your point.

I did vote, but I am not going to talk about that here. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it seems we as a country have been bamboozled by the media and led astray from, let’s say, more important issues.

In truth, it doesn’t really matter who is our president that much. My opinion, I know, but just think about how many people are in the country and how many governing bodies we have. You expect that all to change because a black man steps down and a white man steps up? No, I don’t expect too much will change.

In reality this whole election process was and is a bit of a sham. People getting passionate and disappointed and jubilant about things that actually don’t effect them too much at all.

It kind of reminds me of how everyone in my hometown is always cheering for the Patriots. But what has Robert Kraft done for you recently?

The things that can help us like reading, exercise, nutrition, being there for friends, well, they don’t have a CSPAN channel.

In some ways this whole thing was good. It made people, not excluding myself, wake up and take the time to more thoroughly understand the role of politics in society.

But in other ways it’s distracting us from the stuff that actually matters, in our world. For example, I let myself get distracted today at work. My productivity was probably cut in half.

Remember all those old adages they tell you about politicians? That they are liars and thieves just like teachers that work for the love, not the money? Well, guess what, those adages are more or less correct. It didn’t matter who won today, the fact is that each candidate was running for a political office and a politician was going into that seat one way or the other.

Thats the deal. It’s not necessarily a bad thing either. It’s just the way it is. Business people make money. Writers write. Politicians smile and kiss babies. Whatever it takes to please their constituencies.

Mr. Trump won, fair and square. He played the game and he won.

So, if your an American reading this, understand that I too share you confusion and fear of the future. Not because of Trump, but because of these greater underlying problems. It’s a dark and scary world out there.

Beijing Nights

The cold wind rips down over the Mongolian plateau and hits our fair city. Here in the heartland, all is silent. I look out over endless apartment complexes and 24 hour massage parlors. These are the Beijing nights.

Oh to be young, to be alive in such a time.

Winter is here. Last day was the official start of winter according to the solar calendar. Still, the temperature has risen since only a few days before the end of October, and I can now ride my bike without two layers of pants

We are all buckled down in our offices trying to finish out the last three months before Chinese New Year. Projects to be finished, KPIs to be assessed, bosses to appease.

I am excited for this week. I will be reading a short piece of flash fiction on Thursday night at the Other Place in the hutongs. I have written a few different stories and still have yet to decided which one will be in my hands come Thursday night.

The event is being put on by Spittoon Literary group. A small, indie magazine startup that is trying to make a splash in the English literary scene. Good for them. I’m psyched to be a part of it.

These cold Beijing nights make me feel at home. It reminds me of my first months living in the city, when I couldn’t speak a lick of Chinese and was teaching all the way out on the west side of the city. A lot has changed since then. But I still love jianbing.

So much history here I will never fully comprehend. That’s OK. It doesn’t detract from the old man carrying pigeons in cages to the park, or the young children in yellow caps running to school each day.

I wake up with the city every morning. And I fall asleep in the same way. Millions of people just trying to etch out their lives somewhere in between. Sometimes we get so caught up in it and we forget to laugh.

I forget to laugh. I forget to laugh at the funny way my life has turned out. How much I love a city I once hated. How much I cherish these Beijing nights.

Electric Red Characters

A cold and blustery day in November. I spent the whole day inside alone. That is, except for a run outside. 

I was writing. And I was reading. I cooked some breakfast. I tried to not look at my phone. 

It has been a couple of days since I wrote in here. The reason is that I have been working on a more substantial piece. I hope that everyone should like it when it comes time to press publish. 

The city is nice this time of year. Last night we went to a Sichuan restaurant near the fourth ring road in Wudaokou. We ate small, bit sized pieces of river fish that were topped with a layer of fat and mixed in between scarlet red chilies. We drank sweet pear juice to dull the spice. 

Then we bought Ju Ju bean cakes. They are so popular that we had to stand in line for over an hour just to buy a plastic bag full. 

After we road our bicycles through Tsinghua’s campus. The yellow lights along the pathway illuminated just enough for us to cruise safely through to the center. There we saw the main administrative building, a relic of soviet architecture and reminder of just how hard the hand of ideology can come down. It stood silently in the night as we whizzed by on our pedal bikes. 

Now it’s Sunday and the sky is black again. I’m not at the Sichuan restaurant, but at home, smashing my fingers against the keys. Spinning a yarn again. I’m drinking coffee in a large white ceramic mug the same color of the sky. 

It’s hazy outside, beyond my glass paned windows. But I can still see the electric red characters on the top of a building a great distance away. 

Another sip of coffee and another thought about the future. I wonder what this winter will bring. Joy, sadness, or perhaps just the dry ambiguity of another year passed by.

This is the way that I think on Sundays. A sort of disconnected malaise. Its like a drug that I am allowed to take and I enjoy it. It helps me keep everything in perspective. 

Tomorrow I will be sitting at my desk up in the industrial park and writing stories about characters in a fictional world. I will have my big, noise cancelling earphones on while I work. The kind that let me tune everything out. But tonight I don’t have to worry about that because I am not at work. I am not very much on this planet at all.