How Thai Curry Helped Me Conquer My Fears

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blog funnier plane crashI’ve never been good at flying. In fact, every time I step onto a plane, I immediately transform into a crying little baby. Everything about flying terrifies me – the sounds and the movements and the existence of phrases such as ‘shoe bomber.’ Whenever the plane makes a loud noise, I panic and crotch down, assuming the crash position while everybody else quietly naps. If the plane hits a patch of turbulence, my hands shake and I start praying to God like I’m the Pope or Kirk Cameron or someone. And on landings I’m a total disaster, allowing my mind to envision images of wreckage and wondering if my chipped tooth will help the authorities identify my remains.

So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on what would be about nine hours of flying, from Japan to Singapore, with a layover in Kaula Lumpur. This was on the Scoot airline, which I’d never heard of, and whose goofy name inspired about as much confidence as the phrase “Directed by Alan B. Smithee” does appearing in the opening credits of a movie. United Airlines? Air Asia? Now those don’t sound like airlines that would crash. But Scoot? It’s bound to go down. Let’s just say for a second that these airlines were stocks: who on earth wouldn’t choose to invest their money in American Airlines or Air Asia over Scoot? Investing in Scoot would be ridiculous, like pouring all your savings into a company called Boners Inc.

blog flying cartoon not confidentAll that’s to say, I was a nervous wreck the second the plane took off. I tried to stay cool, flipped through the airplane magazine looking at the pictures, and then I just waited for them to come around with the drinks. And then I waited some more. And some more.

See, Scoot is what’s called a “low cost airline.” That means that all the stuff you expect the airline to do for free – like checking your bag or giving you a thimble of orange juice – is not free anymore. This is how low cost airlines make their money. The tickets are mad cheap, but then you have to buy everything. That’s their clever racket.

“There’s no meal with this flight, right?” I asked the flight attendant, already knowing the answer. “Like, I mean, I have to pay for it.”

“Hahaha, of course!” the flight attendant said, laughing at my foolish question. “There’s a menu right in front of you. We take Japanese yen or Malaysian ringgit or Singapore dollars or credit cards or gold or kidneys or anything else that has value, really – whatever’s most convenient for you.”

I sighed. If only I wasn’t so tight with money, then maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. But I’m cheap, or ‘frugal’ as I like to say, and so this meant that I was going to try and make it through the nine hours without eating, and save money and to spite Scoot and their games. I figured if people can make it through periods of fasting, like Ramadan, then I could get through one flight.

As it turned out, I was wrong. My commitment to frugality didn’t last long. Yes, if this was Ramadan, a mere five hours would’ve passed before I threw in the turban.

“I’m starving,” I said to myself. “I can’t take it anymore. Scoot has defeated me in our war of cheapness.”

blog thai curryDisappointed, I called the stewardess over and ordered the curry meal listed in the menu. She disappeared into the back, then returned only to tell me some bad news.

“It’s going to be about twenty minutes. Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I said. “That’s fine.”

As it would turn out, by ‘twenty minutes,’ she really meant ‘an infinite amount of time that cannot be measured.’ Twenty minutes went by with no sign of the curry’s arrival. I was dying, wiggling around in the chair and staring helplessly at the back of the plane.

'I thought we'd never break through those clouds!'And then, what had been my worst fear began to come true. Suddenly, the entire plane jerked. It was sharp enough to produce an audible gasp from the crowd. The jerk was followed by another jerk, then another. Within seconds, the seatbelt sign went on and the pilot was making an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve turned on the seatbelt sign,” he said. “We just hit a pretty rough patch of turbulence. All passengers and crew please be seated.”

blog shatnerNow, normally this would be a complete nightmare. Normally, I would have been screaming and freaking out like Shatner in the Twilight Zone. But this time, while the plane bobbed and weaved, all I could think about was eating.

“This better not affect the curry,” I thought, looking at the seated flight attendants. “They better get their asses up and go get it. I don’t care if we’re crashing.”

It was probably the worst turbulence I’d ever experienced and yet I had no anxiety whatsoever. My fear had been displaced, my thoughts spiraling all around the hunger I felt. I began to realize that maybe I’d stumbled onto something brilliant. Maybe fear could be replaced by other things – hunger, thirst, a need to go to the bathroom, the physical discomfort of tight underpants. Minor physical sensations that could work as a distraction, could displace neurotic anxiety, sending one’s focus onto an alternate outcome (eating curry, obtaining water, etc.) that would assist them in achieving the original desired outcome (making it through a flight, robbing a bank, etc.).

The plane was still unsteady when the curry arrived. I couldn’t have been happier. I knew I’d done it – I had conquered my fear, and I’d even gotten a side of brown rice to go with it.

*   

Destiny Can Be So Overrated

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blog hippie guyI might not have noticed them had he played guitar better. There were three of them, sitting together in the hot sun. This was on the island of Gili Trawangan, about an hours boat ride off the coast of Bali. I was there with my girlfriend, S___, while the three strangers sat about fifteen feet from us, the sound of the guitar and their voices coming together into some sort of off-key musical jamboree.

I like the way you walk,” the girl sang. She was white with braided brown hair that sat on the top of her head like the trays of fruit the island women carried. “I like the way you walk, I like the way you talk, oh Susie Q.”

blog bali woman thing on headThe dude playing guitar had blonde hair and a blonde beard, a tan body and the type of posture that suggested he’d spent his life abstaining from laziness. The other guy had all the same features as the first guy – blonde, beard, no slouch to read into – but lacked the first guy’s charisma. They were like two photographs of the same person. The first guy was the picture in which the subject is smiling and has his eyes nicely opened, while the second guy was the picture in which the subject’s mouth is woefully crooked and the eyes have just shut, making the subject look drugged.

“It must be the guitar,” I figured, trying to determine what exactly made the first guy more charming.

Whatever the reason, the brown-haired girl seemed to agree. If she was a moon, she would clearly have been in his orbit and not the other guy’s. She continued to sing as he haphazardly plucked away at the guitar strings.

Give me one reason to stay here,” she sang, stopping now and then when the guitar player screwed up, making it sound as if she was singing while having the hiccups. “And…I’ll…turn right…back around.”

Gili Trawangan photoMore time passed and I wondered why I was drawn to watching them. They were really bad, the guitar and vocals all over the place, and yet they appeared to be having a blast. The girl had this huge smile on her face. The guy with the guitar beamed at her. And the other guy drummed away on his thighs with his fingers and nodded his head like he was witnessing a Lennon/McCarthy songwriting session.

“How cool,” I thought. “They don’t give a shit. They truly don’t. They just dig the vibes of the beach and the island and the music. I think I love them.”

It was about then that S___ turned to me and said she was hungry. She’d spent the last few days eating fruit and island coconuts while I gorged on hamburgers and beer, sort of providing a hint in case any of our waiters were wondering which of us would die first. The sun was starting to go down anyways, and so we got up and went back to the hotel, showered and dressed and assessed the severity of our sunburns.

The whole time, I kept thinking about the trio we’d seen on the beach. I wanted to know more about them. Where did they come from? What did they do? Were they really as free and divorced from the working world, the paycheck world, the non-island world, as they appeared to be?

blog adorable kittenS___ and I walked back down the beach, looking at menus and dodging stray cats. That’s an important part of the story. All her life, S___ has been terrified of cats. They fill her with an irrational sense of terror, similar to how Anne Coulter fears soccer. Every so often I’d point and shout ‘cat!’ and S___ would duck behind me so that an oncoming kitten wouldn’t brush her leg with its adorable head.

Anyways, we ended up eating at a place called Ocean 2, right by the water. We ordered our food and that’s when I looked to my right and saw them, the same trio of people from earlier on the beach. They were seated at a table diagonal from us, the girl sitting next to the guitar player. She was still smiling, he was still shirtless, and the other guy was still there. I ordered some Thai curry and a beer and began wondering if there was more to this than simple coincidence. If maybe, just perhaps, they’d popped up again for a greater purpose, something deeper. To any extent, I definitely enjoyed spying on them.

blog hippie loveThe girl was so drawn to this guy and yet he seemed oblivious. Wait, no, not oblivious, it was more that he was extremely cool about it. He just kept doing his thing, drank his water, chilled out, didn’t desperately try to return her flirtations. I liked the dynamic he’d created. They were obviously going to sleep together but there wasn’t anything sleazy about it at all. They weren’t using each other for pleasure or for ego. This was more real. More natural. They were two people simply being together for one specific moment in time, making a connection.

I drank my beer and secretly nodded in appreciation, although I still wasn’t sure what greater purpose their presence suggested. A few minutes later, I heard the loud, conspicuous cry of a beach cat. Since we were at an ocean front restaurant, it wasn’t unusual for the beach cats to wander around the tables begging for scraps of food. The cat cried again and I saw S___’s eyes widen with horror.

“Where is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, sure that it was close.

blog scary catIt cried again. We both knew exactly where it was.

“It’s under my chair!” S___ shouted. After that she screamed. “Aaaaaaaaagh!”

The whole restaurant turned to look. Some people laughed. I took S___’s hand and told her to breathe, that she was okay. And then it happened.

Fate stepped in.

blog fate is sealedThe shirtless guitar guy calmly leaned over and held his hand out. He made kissy sounds with his lips. The cat slinked its way out from under S___’s chair, over to his fingertips. He dropped some bits of fish down on the ground for the cat to come eat. While it did, one of the restaurant staff picked the cat up and bounced it out of there like it was an unruly drunk ass customer.

I was stunned. There it was, my proof that the trio had indeed been brought into our lives for a greater purpose. That purpose being to save my girlfriend from a kitten.

“That’s it?” I thought, a bit disappointed and let down. “That was the greater purpose? To distract a kitten with fish?”

blog coincidenceThen I thought that maybe that’s how fate works. Maybe we all want fate to appear in ways that will change our lives forever, when actually fate just does things so miniscule it’s barely noticeable. Maybe all the great big things in life come about due to hard work or knowing the right people or just plain coincidence, and all the small bits of shrug-worthy minutiae, maybe those are fate.

Met your future husband at the pizza place?

Coincidence. 

Had some guy pick up your sunglasses after they fell out of your pocket on the bus?

Fate. 

The next morning I saw them again at breakfast. It was only the two this time, the guitar guy and the girl. She still smiled. He still avoided shirts. They both still beamed at each other. Like a couple in love. Like two people that were free from everything.

I guess that’s what their significance was. Just to be there, and to not look like everybody else.

*

A Sentimental Journey, Somewhat Lacking in Sentiment

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blog split pantsIt was the middle of July, and I was back in South Korea.

For the previous six months, China had held me like a (somewhat abusive) mother, kept me close to her heaving breast. But now I’d broken free from her, fled back to Daddy South Korea. That might sound goofy, but it’s how I viewed the two of them. My second life had begun inside Daddy South Korea; I’d formed inside his scrotum and was eventually shot out into Mother China, somehow penetrating her Great Wall, which, in this analogy, I suppose would represent a diaphragm. Yes, it was all an accident, just like when my actual parents conceived me one sunny afternoon in the 1970s.

It felt good, being back in Seoul. Sitting around a deserted restaurant, eating dongkas by myself, I realized that it had blog dongkasbeen an amazing five years since I’d first set foot in South Korea. That was back in 2009, when I worked at an English Academy for the summer, before I returned to the USA and completely blew my life up. I came to Korea that summer with a wife by my side and a house back in North Carolina. One week after returning, the summer about to end, I had neither.

Suddenly, while savoring my delicious dongkas, the significance of those last five years seemed enormous. Meaningful. I could feel the wicked
pointer finger of nostalgia poking at me – nostalgia, that most awful of emotions, more prevalent in Americans than in others, the desire to relive one’s past through pictures or objects or stories. Nostalgia is almost blog blow up dollpornographic in a way, masturbatory, both sometimes revolving around home movies or toys, substitutions for a real something. I knew it was happening yet I couldn’t stop it. I wanted so badly to go back to my first apartment in Seoul, just so I could look at its façade, as though it was a kind of ancient ruins, standing there as a symbol of an era that ended long ago.

blog nostalgia comicYes, I could picture everything. All the images I’d snapped in my head five years earlier. There was that big fountain by the subway station, the one where thin arcs of clean white water would shoot up from the ground as if by some miracle the concrete was spraying out champagne. Then there was the apartment building where I used to live, old and exhausted, my former place on the second floor, sitting on top of a pig meat restaurant. And finally there was the building where my wife – prior to ex status – used to live, an all-girls dormitory, the place in which she sat and decided she didn’t care for Korea (her feelings alone) and didn’t like our marriage much either (that one was mutual).

So I went back. I got on the subway and traveled to Sinjeongnegeori Station, walked out of exit number three and, stepping into the sun, I immediately knew exactly where I was. It was weird, sort of like seeing a movie for the second time, remembering most of it, filling in the details that hadn’t seemed important the first time around. I easily found the all-girls dormitory, the pig meat restaurant, and the fountain where I used to sit and chill after work. All the locations were close to each other geographically, exactly as they’d shared the same space in my memory.

Now, I’m not totally sure what I expected to feel. Awe? Wonder? Anxiety? As it turned out, I felt very little of anything. I looked at all the stuff and kind of shrugged. Said, “Yeah, that’s cool,” in my head. Really, it’s probably
the way I’d react if my guardian angel came and transported me anywhere in my past. Replacing George Bailey with me would significantly lessen the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I would go through my past vaguely interested, bored, and then, at the end, jump off the bridge.

 

To heck with Christmas.

To heck with Christmas.

Undistracted by emotion, I sat down by the big fountain, opened my journal, and wrote this. I’d gone back in time and realized that nothing had really changed, although I don’t mean that in a negative or cynical way. The locations were the same, the people seemed the same. I was still writing in journals with a black pen, still amusing myself with my own thoughts. I was still in Seoul, even after all that time had passed. But more than all that, and most importantly, I still felt all the hope that I’d felt sitting on the same bench half a decade earlier. The belief that I could make my life better, create this brilliant new start to things. I thought about the future, just as I had before, and again it seemed beautiful, filled with limitless possibility.

The past is not a pretty place to get stuck in. I’d taken a sentimental journey there only to find it lacked sentiment, and for that I couldn’t have been happier.

*

10 Facts That Will Hopefully Get This Blog Nicely Re-Booted

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blog pop art worried manUm, hey. What’s happening?

It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? We should, like, catch up or something. Really it’s my fault. All my fault. I’ve been distant and I realize that. It’s just…I’ve been busy. No, really, I have been. Yeah, I know I’ve used that line before, said it a million times in the past, but this time it’s true. For once I’m not lying.

It's technically impossible not to love MJ at least a little bit.

It’s technically impossible not to love MJ at least a little bit.

What’s that? You don’t care? You’ve lost interest? Well, I can understand that. It’s sort of like Guns ‘N Roses, how all those years passed and by the time Chinese Democracy came out, nobody really cared anymore. And I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be Chinese Democracy. No, I’d rather be more like Michael Jackson, disappear for a long time and then be widely embraced when the new material finally surfaces. In fact, I’m listening to “Love Never Felt So Good” right now. Just to put me in an optimistic mind set. And I’m even dancing. Trust me, if you could see it, you’d love me for sure.

Just FYI: Paradise City is on a different album.

Just FYI: Paradise City is on a different album.

Huh? Say what? You loved Chinese Democracy? Thought it was the best record of 2008? Wow. Seriously?

Oh, I get it. You were just being sarcastic. You always were such a joker. It might take awhile to get your sense of humor again. It’s so dry. But things will work out. Trust me, they will. Now let me fill you in a bit on what’s happened over the last year. Just, you know, in case you’re curious. And I’ll make it snappy. Ten quick facts, shorts burst of truth, that encapsulate the last 12 months nicely.

1. I am indeed alive.

2. I still live in China.

3. I like China now. It’s cool. I’m even going to stay here another year.

4. While it may seem as though I haven’t been writing much, that would actually be untrue. I’ve written a lot. Boatloads.

5. In fact, I’ve written so much, I’ve completed a novel. Well, not totally completed it, but it’s mostly done. I’m sure that if I just tinker with a few sentences here and there, it’ll be perfect. A masterpiece!

'I found it to be the kind of book that once you put it down you never want to pick it up again.'6. This wasn’t the novel I set out to write. Not even close. I sort of wrote two novels…but the first one was so bad, I had to jump ship. The second one is good. In all honesty, I think it’s really good. A masterpiece!

7. Writing a novel is such an intense, agonizing, fantastic experience. Everybody should do it. You reach such a level of catharsis when it’s all over…it’s unexplainable. Better than any therapy you’ll ever pay for. Believe me. Knowing that you’ve completed something, such a personal and arduous task, will cleanse your mind in ways you didn’t think possible.

8. I won’t say much more about the novel in this post. I will in future posts. This blog will definitely not become about the novel or about the writing process in general, but, as I begin to enter the phase of trying to publish it, I think some people might be interested in what happens. Sending it out to agents. Trying to get it read. Perhaps having to self-publish the thing. It could be interesting, especially when you go ahead and write that novel you really should be writing now. The one you’ve always wanted to write. So every now and again there will be novel updates. Hopefully the tale does not turn out to be tragic. Although, if it does, that could make for decent material, because everybody enjoys stories of failure.

9. Topiclessbar will go back to regular posts starting this week.

10. The posts will be funny, entertaining, reflective, easy to relate to, enjoyable, purposeful, and worth reading. This is a new beginning. There’s much to be discussed.

So that’s about it. Come back in a couple days. I’ll have a nice piece about visiting Korea up and ready to go. And two days after that, I’ll post that thing I wrote about the hippie couple I inadvertently stalked in Bali. This is going to be fun. I can even fix you a cocktail to sip on while you read if you’d like.

I’ll let you get back to whatever you were doing now. But I hope you decide to stop by again.

Trying to make sense of this crazy thing called life is too difficult, so let’s just laugh at it together.

*

One Night in Russia with a Bunch of Damn Crazy People

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blog executive loungeI was only supposed to be in Moscow for three hours. This was my connecting flight – from Seoul to Moscow, from Moscow to London. I wasted time eating candy bars and trying to fix my hair in the bathroom mirror, unaware that I would end up getting stuck in the Moscow airport forever, seemingly living there like Edward Snowden.

A mere twenty minutes before my flight, I got into the queue, looking at my watch and wondering why we’d missed the scheduled boarding time so badly. There was a short American girl in front of me with long brown hair. “I heard somebody say that the flight’s been canceled,” she said, shaking her head. “God I hope not.”

I agreed, as I’m sure everyone else would have too if they heard her. I highly doubted there would be anyone who’d say, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind it. Today, tomorrow, next Wednesday, whenever. I’m in no rush. Not like London’s going anywhere!”

Some more time passed and then we were all led away from the flight deck and into a large empty waiting area. We were told that there was a problem at Heathrow and all flights had been canceled. So that was that. We would be spending one night in Russia, in a hotel next to the airport. There was a process though that would take some time, because they had to give us special visas or something to that effect, make sure we weren’t secret agents sent in from the West to find and rescue Pussy Riot.

“This is ridiculous!” the girl with brown hair shouted. “How long are we going to be stuck in this waiting room?”

Hours, it turned out. The Russians collected our passports and disappeared with them. We were told that we had to stay in the waiting area and, as the name of the area implied, wait. Time ticked away and little by little everyone started losing their minds, yelling at the poor blonde lady working at the desk or voicing their displeasure into the empty air.

“This is incompetence!” some dude hollered. “Either get me to the hotel or let me out of this waiting room!”

“Where is my passport?” a lady complained. “Where did he go with it? I am so unhappy right now! I want my passport back!”

Tension filled the room like the smell of rotting vegetables constantly fills my apartment. People’s moods got worse and worse, their faces drenched with sweat and hatred. It was like being stuck in the control room of the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, only not with Kennedy, but with a bunch of lunatics who didn’t know what the heck to do except complain about the Russians.

“This is the worst airport I’ve ever experienced!” someone announced. “I’m never coming here again!”

Well, why would you? Suddenly a voice came over the loud speaker, originating from a new airport worker, a tall man standing behind the counter. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we apologize for the inconvenience. As a token of our apology, we will be offering free passes for the Executive Business Lounge to our passengers bound for Heathrow. Please come up to the desk and claim your passes.”

In the blink of an eye, the rage evaporated. People rushed to the counter to get their passes to the Executive Business Lounge located inside the airport terminal with the sort of enthusiasm I would have had if they were offering free shots of vodka. Furious frowns disappeared. Shouts of hatred ceased. The Executive Lounge had turned this angry mob into a bunch of bizarrely happy and content individuals. The waiting area, in an instant, had become Whoville on Christmas.

"Fabu Foray! Dabu Doray! Business Lounge blah blah blah blah!"

“Fabu Foray! Dabu Doray! Business Lounge blah blah blah blah!”

“This is great!”

“I’ve never been in the Business Lounge!”

I stood there and stared. What the hell was wrong with these people? Is that all it took, some passes to the airport business lounge, to appease them? Five minutes ago they were ready to loot the place and hang the blonde desk woman from the rafters, and now they had huge smiles on their faces, as if they were going to break into song and dance. For some reason I pictured them singing “It’s Raining Men” of all songs. Hallelujah. The passports came back and we were given a choice of going to the hotel or spending the night in the business lounge. I went for the hotel while others filed out, dancing their way to the lounge.

The next morning I returned to the airport and saw the girl with the brown hair.

“Did you go to the hotel?” I asked.

“No, business lounge.”

“How was it?”

Her hair was all messy and there were bags under her eyes. “It wasn’t anything special.”

We boarded the plane and headed off to London. I hoped that the stewardesses had some upgrade passes to First Class, just in case somebody tried to hijack the plane and had to be persuaded not to.

*

Turkey Lo Mein – A Thanksgiving in China

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chinese thanksgiving oneThree days after Thanksgiving, I sat down on my computer and typed “why are there no turkeys in Asia?” into Google. This had been bothering me a lot. For the last two years, my Thanksgivings have been filled with odd turkey substitutes, strange stand-ins, as a Butterball turkey has become about as rare a delicacy as foie gras or steamed caterpillars. Last year, my girlfriend cooked me a fatty duck steak; this year, my Thanksgiving dinner was headlined by leg of lamb.

But that wasn’t all. Earlier in the week, pizza delivery had helped me understand the true nature of Thanksgiving. Nestle (pronounced like the chocolate) – my boss at the school in China where I work – had called a full staff meeting on Monday. “We know that Thursday is Thanksgiving,” she said, “and that this is an important holiday for our foreign teachers. To celebrate, the school will be getting pizza delivered for lunch.”

It was an awesome gesture on Nestle’s part. True to her word, there were six large pizzas waiting for us in the break room on Thanksgiving, all nicely laid out the same way I imagine the pilgrims set up their spread of corn, apple pie, and canned cranberry sauce. The Chinese teachers seemed excited, smiling graciously as we all greedily snatched up chicken wings and slices of pepperoni pizza. Miss Wang, who supervises the foreign teachers, snapped picture after picture, as though she was documenting something that would one day appear in a Chinese history book.

chinese thanksgiving twoChowing down on my third piece of pizza, I stopped to notice what was going on. All the Chinese teachers were there, drinking Coca-cola and munching pizza alongside the teachers from America. It dawned on me that this, as odd as it may sound, was what Thanksgiving was supposed to be about. It was just like the corny stories we’d been taught forever, the Native Americans and the pilgrims all sharing food and celebrating. The same thing was happening before my very eyes, and it wasn’t even going to end with one side massacring the other and taking their land. Two races of people had become bonded, side-by-side, a big happy family, enjoying life together and gaining weight.

A Chinese woman with a huge smile on her face appeared, holding a digital camera. “Wow!” Miss Wang said. “We need to all pose together. This is the woman who runs the school website. She will take a picture of us.”

Focused on my fourth piece of pizza, I slammed the crust into my mouth and chewed on it while the website lady took a bunch of pictures. Part of me felt bitter about this, the photographs making me feel other, an outsider. Look at the foreign people eating their pizza, how precious! I mean, you don’t see me following Miss Wang into a Chinese restaurant and photographing her eating Kung Pao Chicken, do you? I started to wonder if this was in fact a real Thanksgiving or if it was just a photo op, something the school would use to promote itself. Were the smiles real or fake? Was the intention to graciously provide for us, or simply to create promotional material that would, possibly, help the school recruit better teachers who would, in turn, take our jobs?

I shrugged. The intentions didn’t matter – this was about people and everyone was having fun. Maybe the story of Thanksgiving is really just the narrative version of a photo op anyways, and if there were cameras back in the day, that first Thanksgiving would’ve been full of posing and posturing as well. I felt thankful that this wasn’t the case. All the old photographs I’ve ever seen of Native Americans make them look tough and mysterious. My impression of them as a people just wouldn’t be the same if there was, in existence, a snapshot of Sitting Bull with a big chunk of green bean casserole stuck in his teeth.

That doesn’t exist on the Internet, and neither does an explanation for the whereabouts of the turkeys in Asia. All my Google search brought up was a bunch of pages telling me why a turkey, as in the bird, has the same name as Turkey, the country. It’s because the British bought the birds from Turkish merchants, and believed they had been imported from Turkey (although they were actually from Madagascar). So it was all a stupid mistake on the part of the white man, exactly like calling the Native Americans “Indians.”

I guess a name is only a word, and its significance is what you make of it. Just like how Nestle and Miss Wang could happily call a bunch of pizzas in the break room “Thanksgiving,” or how I could call all the people eating beside me “family” without the slightest hint of sarcasm.

*

She Dreams of Snakes and Bites Herself

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snake-AmyZhung Zhung comes to work with a swollen lip.

“What happened?” I ask her.

“Last night I had a bad dream,” she says. “It was horrifying. In the dream, I was crying. And then when I woke up, it was very sticky around my eyes. So I must have been really crying too, just like I was in the dream.”

“That must’ve been a very upsetting dream,” I say. “What was it about?”

“Snakes.”

“Snakes?”

“Yes. They were attacking me and biting me. Now my lip is puffy. I must have bitten down on it during the dream.”

This interests me because I’ve never had a dream like that. I’ve never been attacked by snakes or spiders or a pack of dingoes, nothing. I’m not sure what it says about my subconscious. Maybe I subconsciously trust animals, like dogs instinctively trust humans. Or maybe I just feel very safe in life, out of harms way. I find myself stupidly envious of Zhung Zhung.

I want to be attacked by animals in my dreams, too.

Later, she tells me more. “In a dream,” she says, “a snake is a metaphor.”

“For what?” I ask, although I think I know the answer (penis).

“A baby,” she tells me. “People say that snakes in dreams represent babies. That’s why I was very happy about my dream. It could mean that I will have a baby soon.”

“That’s interesting,” I say, nodding, positive that a snake in a dream does not represent a baby.

“But my roommate,” she continues, “says that a snake in a dream is really a metaphor for something else. She says that the snake means there is somebody that has a crush on me. I think that could be true. There could be somebody with a crush on me.”

After some more talk on her dream, I shake my head and say, “Really, though, isn’t the most important thing about your dream…isn’t it that these snakes were attacking you? Isn’t that even more important that what exactly they represent?”

“Why?” she asks.

“Well, it means either you’re going to be attacked by someone who has a crush on you, or you’re going to give birth to a baby, and it’s going to attack you.”

Zhung Zhung looks at me funny. She doesn’t say anything else, just thinks sullenly about her impending doom and bites back down on her swollen lip.

*

Unmade In China

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rural china twoI’m standing by the side of the road, in a patch of dirt where the grass has stopped growing. My hands are stuffed into the pockets of my jeans like loose Kleenex or two oversized packs of Doublemint Gum. Eventually an old bus will appear off in the distance, at some point between the granite and the sky. Until that happens, all I can do is wait, stand here on this spot that’s known as the bus stop despite there being no marker saying that it is. There is, mind you, a naked metal signpost that once clearly identified this spot of land as the bus stop, with a thin plaque displaying the bus number and its time schedule. Now the plaque is gone and there’s nothing on it – it’s only a curved piece of muted black metal that, like me, apparently has no idea as to when the hell the bus is coming.

The night before, I took a cab with a guy named Johnny, down to the Walmart about twenty minutes from our apartment building. Johnny is also new here – we both arrived on the same day, which meant our apartments were similarly empty and we were both similarly clueless as to how to fix that. So we went down to Walmart, and Johnny bought a bunch of cups and forks and I bought some clothes hangers. I’m not sure if I like Johnny. He’s loud and talks endlessly. He rambled all through our taxi ride back, going on about a book he read, millions of words describing thousands of years of ancient Chinese history.

“Sorry,” he said at one point. “I spent all of last year virtually by myself, reading in my room. I know I’m talking too much but I can’t help it. It feels good to finally have somebody to talk to. It’s been awhile.”

This is my first time in China. Johnny has already spent one year here, in a wealthy province to the west of where we are now. He tells me why he wanted to move.

“It was all the loneliness,” he says. “It wears you down. I read so many books…after a while, I didn’t even want to read anymore. The thought of reading depressed me. There was another guy working at my school – another American – and he flipped out. Couldn’t stand it any longer. He lived in the same building as me and one night he started screaming his head off. Totally freaked out. This was, maybe, three or four in the morning. The school had to send him back to the States. I remember hearing him screaming at the top of his lungs in his room and then the next day he was gone. Vanished. But I understood how he felt. That fucking isolation…it makes you start to lose your mind.”

This story is what I’m thinking about while I stand here and wait for the bus. Already half an hour has passed. A few Chinese people come, standing alongside me, joining me in looking off into the distance.

I turn my head and close my eyes. And when I do, I can almost hear that man alone in his room, screaming for someone.

*

A week passes. I run into Johnny in the school cafeteria. We sit down together.

“Have you met any of the other teachers?” he asks.

“Not really,” I say. “I mean, I met a few of them, as in I introduced myself, but I haven’t gotten to know them or anything like that.”

“Me neither,” he says. “What do you do all day?”

“Not much. Just trying to settle in.”

He nods. “I’ve been reading the history of Turkey. It’s fascinating.”

He goes on to disprove this, relating some dull details about the Ottoman Empire. Sometime in the 1500s, he gets bored of his own conversation and trails off, his train of thought switching tracks.

“Hey,” he says, “there’s a bar not far from here. It’s owned by an American. One of the teachers here. Want to go down there, get a drink? We can walk to it. Maybe there’ll be some other people there.”

rural chinaI agree and after dinner we head out, walking through a forest, down a narrow foot path lined with skeletal white trees. It’s getting dark. Johnny leads the way, taking me into a sparse Chinese village where all the houses are shaped like Lego blocks, short and rectangular, all painted the same baby blue color. I can smell burning coal in the winter air. I follow him to the bar. Inside, there are four other people, all drinking and playing poker. They obviously notice us – we’re new arrivals, unfamiliar faces. They tell us their names and buy us shots of whisky.

“Welcome to Beijing,” one of them says, and then bursts out laughing. We’re so far from actual Beijing, the center of it, so buried in the outskirts, that we might as well be in a desolate region of northern Russia. “It’s not too bad here. You’ll get used to it.”

Johnny and I sit and drink while the rest of them play poker. Hours pass. More beer, more shots of whisky. I stumble to a store where there’s no heat and the man behind the counter breathes out puffs of smoke and punches the price of the cigarettes I want into a calculator because he doesn’t speak enough English to tell me how much they cost. Back in the bar everyone is getting good and drunk. I go and piss in an alleyway next to the bar, in the darkness, while a litter of small dogs run around the opposite end. There’s no toilet in the bar and the public restroom down the street gets locked at ten, so this is it. A cigarette dangles from my mouth and I zip up. Johnny buys the next round and I get the one after that. Around one in the morning, my head is spinning and I step outside again.

“I’ve got to get away from this place,” I say to myself. “I can’t be here anymore. I want to be somewhere else.”

I wander off by myself. My thoughts have gotten all mixed up, knotted around in my brain like neurofibrillary tangles – they sound like a million voices overlapped. I walk back the same way I came, taking the footpath down through those white skeletal trees. I can’t see shit because it’s pitch black out, relying on my feet and instincts to lead me. There’s a dim light somewhere in the distance and I know that’s my apartment building. It’s dead quiet and I concentrate on following the path. I try to light a cigarette but have no lighter.

“Son of a bitch!” I yell, the unlit cigarette between my fingers. “This sucks! Where the hell am I? What the fuck am I doing here?”

My hands are shaking. Anger wells up inside of me, ignited by the whisky and the strangeness of this all. This is my first week in China and all I want is to be someplace I’m familiar with, back in the company of someone I know and care about.

“I don’t want to be here!” I scream into the dark sky. “I don’t want to be in this fucking place! God damnit! What was I thinking? What have I done?”

The next thing I know, I’m walking towards my apartment building, lost in a fury, gone, a shadow in the soft yellow lights that line the side street. In a flash, a motorbike whizzes past me, coming a bit close, almost hitting me. Or maybe it doesn’t almost hit me, I don’t know, it could’ve been ten feet away but I feel like it almost hit me, it seems as though that fucking thing nearly grazed the belt loops on my jeans. I have no idea who’s driving it, but I run towards it in a panic. I’m not a person anymore but the embodiment of an emotion, a living exclamation point, the dot at its bottom pooling around my feet. I hate this place, and I hate this motorbike and whoever is driving it, I hate everything. It’s parked slightly down the street, in a space close to the apartment building, and two men are getting off of it.

“Hey you, you motherfuckers!” I holler. The two guys on the motorbike look in my direction, understandably confused. At first they try to tell me to calm down but I’ve already lost it. I stagger up to one of them, adrenaline coursing through me, and throw a wild punch at his head. He ducks and I miss. The other man runs over and shoves me.

This second dude is much larger than the first. That doesn’t stop me. I take both of my hands and shove him back as hard as I can. He doesn’t budge. Instead, he pushes me again, harder, and I go flying. Airborne. Like Michael Jordan taking off from the free throw line during a dunk contest, played in reverse, only instead of landing on my feet I land flat on my ass, several feet away, and both of the men shake their heads in disgust and pity.

By the time I get back on my feet, they’re gone. I’d landed on my wrist and can barely move my hand. I attempt to make a fist but can only wince in pain.

The apartment building is right in front of me and I make my way to my bed. Before I get under the covers I try to light that same stupid cigarette I’d been carrying for what seems like hours, pressing its tip onto the stove burner. Nothing happens. This just wasn’t meant to be – I can’t even figure out how to turn the burner on.

Failure. The pain in my wrist. I never want to see a motorbike again.

I crawl into bed with my unlit cigarette and fall asleep.

*

rural china stray dogIt’s now six months later. I’m standing at the same bus stop, waiting for the bus again. The sign marking the bus stop has been fixed and a huge green and white schedule is screwed firmly into the crest of the looping black metal pole. I need to go to the store to get some clothes. It will probably take at least three hours to make the full trip. It’ll feel like a total waste. Half a day lost, devoted to a new pair of khakis.

That night at the bar, shit, that was the beginning of a dark depression that took some time to finally pass. I feel calm waiting for the bus to appear, not anxious. At peace with it, the waiting. About a month after that night, I was able to track down the guys on the motorbike. One of them eventually left, returned to America. The bigger dude. I never apologized but whatever, I’m sure he’s gotten over it. The other guy was the bar owner, as luck would have it, and he laughs and has me tell the story to a group of new teachers at the start of the next semester. He’s a good guy and I’ve probably apologized to him one thousand times. I’m glad I missed his head when I tried to hit him.

Then there’s Johnny. He’s gone now, too. He got too depressed, too worn down by all the nothingness, the empty land and the stray dogs. He’s moved to another place in China, one where there are more buildings and more stores, more history and more people to tell about it.

And I’m still here, along with that blue village and this black pole and those white trees, the silence and the smell of burning coal in the winter. I see the bus coming and I get ready, but it’s too filled with people, overloaded, and it passes by without stopping.

I turn my head to watch it go. Fifty people packed into a small narrow space. They disappear into the distance while I stand here, happily alone, in the comfort of the open air.

*

Some Random Thoughts on Dating and Writing

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Back in 1995, when I was at the peak of my failures with the opposite sex, scoring a date was about as easy as getting accepted into college (ie, not easy). Luck had nothing to do with it – it was all about finding someone who was willing to look past your grades and/or pimples and give you a chance. Getting a date, like applying to uni, involved a shitload of hard work. Just meeting the girl in the first place, having the luck or courage to exchange names, was a trial – after that, I would have to create a good impression, get the phone number, successfully call the girl, and then, finally, trick her into agreeing to meet me someplace. Usually a movie, or dinner, or something. And let’s not forget, this was before the days of cellphones and Caller ID, so procuring the phone number was harder, and calling meant you had to figure out the right time to do it, greet the parent, and then actually have a conversation with the person. Talk about stressful – no wonder I settled for the companionship of my pet dog and the sexual fulfillment promised by late night Cinemax.

But then two things came along that totally revolutionized dating – Texting and Starbucks.

Yes, that’s correct: Texting and Starbucks. Suddenly, getting a girl’s phone number became easy. The number exchange involved no commitment; there was no looming conversations, no fathers to get through, and the ability to screen calls allowed girls the freedom to pass out their numbers like they were handing out party invitations. Nearly anyone could get an invite; it didn’t mean a whole lot. The other big dating revolution came in the form of Starbucks. No longer did the male have to arrange such a formal occasion, meeting for a meal or a long movie, something that had an unavoidable date vibe to it. Nope, now the two people could go and hang out, informally, grab a cup of coffee and get to know one another. Making an ulcer-inducing phone call that culminated in a date request faded out, in favor of sending a cute text with the suggestion of getting a cup of coffee sometime. Whenever is good. What you doing Wednesday? It was that simple. People now had the freedom to make commitments without making commitments, and everyone was happier, with the exception of the people that run Cinemax, because their ratings dropped.

Writing, I believe, has followed much the same arc. A mere 20 years ago, I was typing up stories and putting them in big envelopes, mailing them out to magazines via snail mail with a SASE inside. I’d typically send out two or three stories a year, and I always got rejected, which sucked royally since just sending the story out was such a production. The other strange thing was trying to find magazines – I had a big book called “The Writer’s Market” that spoke of literary mags I had never heard of or seen before. Sending out my work was odd because it felt like I was submitting to some phantom venue with an unknown phantom audience of an indefinable number.

But then, just as texting and Starbucks changed dating, two things would come along that changed writing: Blogging and Kindle.

Really, I should say ‘self-publishing’ instead of Kindle – I was trying too hard to stick with the –ing verb/proper noun setup. When I learned that I could start my own blog (and for free too!), suddenly the stress was gone. I didn’t have to worry about mailing something out, getting a rejection letter back in an envelope I paid for. I could write an essay, a story, whatever I wanted, and put it up on the Internet without worrying. It was great! And hot damn! – thanks to places like Kindle and Smashwords, I could even write a whole novel one day and publish it myself. Formality had left the building, the old ways gone, replaced by the writing equivalent of hanging out, having fun, and hooking up.

The reason I’m blabbing on about this is because I’ve been spending tons of time lately writing what will eventually be my first novel. In my life, I have never worked on anything harder than I’ve worked on this, and I’m not even remotely close to finishing. Focusing on the novel has lead to a dramatic fall-off in blogging, a social life that lacks many of the social elements, and a constant sense of guilt anytime I spend a few hours watching TV and not ironing out Chapter 9 for the 127th time.

And yet, as frustrating as writing the novel has been, I kind of love doing it. The sense of ambition and, yes, satisfaction too, is unlike what I experience writing my blog. Don’t get me wrong – over the last two years, I’ve LOVED writing this blog, and have been hella lucky that people have read it. That said, like scoring a coffee date, there’s been the feeling that the blog can’t be the be-all-end-all – that it should be a step, something that leads to something else. Hopefully that’s the novel…although God knows when I’ll finish the thing. I completed the first draft in January (weighing in at a ridiculously bloated 125,000 words) and am currently in the process of basically writing everything all over again. It’s challenging and thrilling and I’m not sure what it will lead to, if anything – a lot like beginning a new relationship with someone.

If there’s any points to be made here, I guess, first of all, I want to thank texting and Starbucks, and blogging and self-publishing, for filling my life with hope and possibility where none existed before. And the second point, I further guess, is that everyone should sit down and push themselves to do something that takes more work than texting and blogging, because even though those things are great, there’s a different level of pleasure that comes with pushing oneself into areas less certain.

*   

And In Your Bank, I Deposit My Sanity

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blog bank piggy bankSometimes I think about how much simpler life was when I was a kid. There were so many things back then that I didn’t have to worry about. Paying taxes, watching the height of my cholesterol rise, getting hair on my nipples, impotence, and, most importantly, having to remember a million passwords. When you’re a kid, a password is just some random noun that you have to mutter to get your friend to let you in his tree house.

“You want in? What’s the secret password?”

“Bagel sandwich.”

Bam. You’re in. That’s all it took. But then I got older, and passwords got increasingly more complicated. I started needing passwords for just about everything. My email, my WordPress account, online banking, my ATM card, the electronic lock on my door, stopping Gort from destroying the earth. Everything. And not only were passwords becoming more prevalent, they were getting more involved as well. A simple noun or a sequence numbers didn’t cut it anymore. Nope, for my own protection, passwords must include capital letters, numbers, and at least 8 characters, so that hacking into my Facebook page has become as difficult as cracking the Da Vinci Code or getting a girl’s phone number (for me anyways). In the future, one can only guess that passwords will get even more complex, requiring everything from punctuation to emoticons to strange symbols.

“You want in? What’s the secret password?”

“Oh. It’s Bill/198228/!?!/ ; ) /The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”

All of this is to preface how I recently lost my mind in the bank, and all because I forgot a stupid password. I’d been living in Beijing for about a month when it happened. After getting my first paycheck from my new job, I ran off to the ATM to cash in, thrilled, ready to pull money out and do something awesome with it, like go to McDonald’s or buy a mop. I switched the ATM from Chinese to English and followed the instructions, not realizing that soon the horrors of modern security would entrap me, like a fat man who puts an alarm system on his jar of Slim Jims.

“Invalid Pin,” the machine said. I got two more chances, and then the machine cut me off.

“What? I only get three shots?” I said to myself. “I was just warming up.”

blog bank pin numberThe next day, the same scene repeated. Thus, I found myself sitting in Bank of China, a paper slip in my hand with a number on it, waiting to see a bank teller who probably spoke no English. Three hours passed. Finally they called me up. “Hi,” the bank teller said, “Please show me your passport.”

“Oh,” I said, “I, um, don’t have it.”

And that was the end of that. Back on the bus, a total failure. But I returned to the bank the next day, this time equipped with my passport. Make me sit there pointlessly for 3 hours once, shame on you. Make me sit there pointlessly for 3 hours twice, then you have a lot in common with the last two Lord of the Rings movies. Anyways, I ended up waiting a mere hour and a half on the second trip, before finally being called up to the teller.

(Apparently banks in China have notoriously poor service, due to the fact that they’re all government run. This leads to them being seriously understaffed and not particularly motivated by the ‘customer is always right’ mantra.)

“Nee Hao!” I said, enthusiastically. Then I tried to explain what was going on.

The teller was baffled. She called over the manager, who could speak some English. “What is the problem?” she asked.

“Well, it’s my fault, really. I can’t seem to remember my pin number.”

“I see,” she said, motioning to a keypad on the counter in front of me. “We can help you change it. Just type your pin number on the keypad.”

“Um, but that’s the problem. I don’t know it.”

She looked confused. “You don’t know it? Try to guess.”

I typed in a few numbers, again failing miserably. “Can’t you look it up in the computer or something?”

The manager practically burst out laughing at this suggestion. “It is your secret number. How are we supposed to know what it is?”

I stared at her like she was crazy, and she stared at me like I was crazy. “Because you’re the bank. You’ve got to have the number on file someplace…”

The teller twisted the computer screen to show me. “See?” the manager said. “In our computer system, in the password spot, it just says xxxxxx.”

“So how do I change it?”

“You can only change your password by typing in the original password.”

“What? This can’t be happening. Don’t you have a procedure for what happens when someone forgets their password?”

“No.”

“But this has to have happened before? Are you telling me that nobody has ever forgotten their password before?”

“No,” she said. “You are the only one.”

She really said that, and she was serious. It was not a sarcastic statement. We decided, finally, that I would have to fill out a form declaring my card lost (or something to that effect), and in one week the bank would be able to wipe the pin number out of the system and replace it. “Fine,” I said. “While I’m here, though, I’ll need to withdraw some money.”

“That’s impossible.”

blog bank bail out“Huh?” I was beginning to get upset. I told myself to keep cool. “I have no food. I need to eat. What do you mean it’s impossible?”

“It is impossible to withdraw money without putting your pin number in.”

“But I’m here,” I said, my voice wavering with desperation. “I have my ID. Here’s my passport. You know it’s me. Are you seriously saying I can’t have my own money because I forgot the pin number?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I cannot let you withdraw from your account unless you type in correct number. It is for security.”

The next twenty minutes were not the proudest moments of my life. I yelled. I demanded my money. I lectured the manager on the nature of passwords, how they’re supposed to stand in for identification when there’s just a machine there, nothing that can look at a person’s proper ID, and how this was insanity, the importance of the pin surpassing my being there, in physical form, me, my body and face, my real identity. Who was I? Had I become some number in a computer that nobody knew? I shouted until the security people came over. Five o’clock came and the bank closed. I refused to leave. I accused them of stealing my money. I had to eat and they were killing me. Again and again I waved my passport around and stated my name.

What did it matter? I’d lost the key, forgotten the combination to my locker, and I eventually left the bank with my head held low. Defeated. Rejected. Over a month would pass before the bank finally resolved the forgotten pin number problem. In that time I did what any person living in the modern world would do, and I put every last living expense I incurred on my credit card. See, MasterCard believes it’s really me…as long as someone keeps paying them every month.

I sat in my apartment after the bank incident and thought about things. I could lose my passport, have my face sawed off in a terrible carpentry accident, change my name to Cap’n Crunch, and none of that would make much of a difference, not as long as I kept track of all my usernames and passwords. A digital version of me had taken my place, like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as if I woke up one morning and I was gone, replaced, by some sort of computerized file.

What if the entire universe is based on code, and most of us just don’t know it? The cure for cancer, the key to finding love after forty, the secret to losing back fat – they probably all exist, somewhere, and are just very powerfully password protected.

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