Sometimes conversations in China turned sour. The risk substantially increased after the novelty of being somewhere new wore off and culture shock set in. Here it was very easy to idealize my beautiful country of golden fields and azure skies, and criticize my new home in the City of Perpetual Gloom. You can try staying sane in an insane world all you want, but there was always something that would trigger an avalanche of pent-up emotions, finger-pointing and stereotypes. Maybe I would get mad about personal motorized vehicles (“Cars should be outlawed!”), smokers (“I’ll pay good money for signs at all my favorite hang-outs and enforce it myself regardless of how much face I lose!”), and littering (“Qing wen, ni diao le shenme?”).
Such conversations were great for building laowai solidarity, but in the final analysis I always left such conversations feeling out of balance. But weren’t these the things that which lend the Middle Kingdom its charm? Well, that would be stretching it. What follows are three things I love about China. I list them here to counterbalance the above mentioned Three Great Aggravations commonly encountered and commented on by laowai in China.
East of Eden, West of the Wasteland
Back home there were vending machines everywhere. Feed the machine a dollar and a brown packet of M&Ms or a shiny red Doritos bag would drop from a rack, and then you could jack up your blood-sugar level and go into a food coma. Your body remained unfed, dissatisfied, and craving more. In the West you can be stuffed and starved at the same time.
Back home only the rich could afford Fuji apple snack breaks and well-tossed salads every meal. But the situation in China was different. There was a fruit vendor on every corner. In lieu of food-like products such as Twizzlers or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups you can eat real strawberries and peanuts. Farmers sold eggplant and cabbage and lotus root from the back of rickshaws. Need a snack to tie you over until lunch or dinner? Step outside and have a slice of watermelon, honeydew, or pineapple.
There was just one slight problem. I had this strange feeling that I was exchanging heart disease and diabetes for cancer or chronic exposure to heavy-metals, insecticide and fertilizer.
Dawn of the Dead
Shortly after the First Gulf War and when I was in high school, some friends and I skipped morning classes and went to the mall. Then it was as if we had entered the Twilight Zone. The mall was open but the stores were closed. All was quiet, yet there was a flurry of activity. There were dozens of people in their golden years striding past Abercrombie & Fitch, Hot Topic, and The Gap in tracksuits and Velcro sneakers with and without walkers and canes. At the time we were shaken; our banter mixed with nervous laughter. It was our first brush with mortality. We sped back to school and agreed never to talk about that again. That was the last time I ever saw elderly Americans so physically active. Now it was sad for me to see The Greatest Generation suffering from heart disease, turning into couch potatoes, victims of targeted advertising, listening to Fox News, and revising their wills.
That was of course until I came back to China. It was as if the elderly were all staunch Republicans; they took personal responsibility for their own healthcare. Every morning I saw octogenarians out and about strolling along the river, dancing with or without themselves, hanging from pull-up bars and otherwise just putting their qi in order. Here too there seemed to be a playground on every corner. There was somebody’s great grandmother on a dip bar. A grandfather in a wife beater, shorts, black socks and leather loafers went to town on the climbing bars. His face bloomed with joy.
Still others found quiet areas of the plaza to practice tai-chi. They moved forwards and backwards and sideways in slow circular motions as if they were sculpting the air around them with their hands. There was a lady with silver grey hair cut short and slicked back. She was alone in her own world. Her face was weathered, flecked with brown age spots, and permanent laugh lines fanned out from the corners of her eyes. Not even war, revolution and famine could erase the beauty in her face. She was slow and deliberate as she crafted the space around her with a sword.
China could save America if only they could put that in a pill and export it.
The Call to Adventure
They say war is a drug. Indeed, I envied soldiers, Marines, and sailors their chance at death and rebirth. But I was at odds with this war on the ragged edge of the Sino-American frontier. I did not like the fact that it was boys and girls fresh out of high school — many of whom having no other options in a time when 1 in 7 Americans lived in poverty – who were doing the dirty work of empire. That this was happening on the premise that they had signed up to hunt America’s boogieman made the situation all the more deplorable. That was not adventure. That was just prolonged groupthink in the highest echelons of business and government. It was also one reason why I withdrew my application to become an officer in the summer of 2010, and instead make a new life serving the proletariat in China.
On the other hand China was committed to enforcing a policy of a peaceful rise and the strict maintenance of social harmony. Despite this, China was a land ripe for adventure. And this country too was a like drug. I went through withdrawal symptoms over the summer after my first year in China. I craved novelty, risk, and adrenaline rushes. So by adventure I do not mean shopping in Hong Kong or going to a Cantonese restaurant. No, I mean adventure that is the stuff of story and film. Such things that only happened by experiencing suffering and hardship and talking to people different than yourself.
Back in China you could experience the thrill of bicycling during rush-hour, your morning commute as exhilarating as piloting the Millennium Falcon through an asteroid field while being gunned down by Imperial Tie Fighters (Han Solo in Star Wars: “Never tell me the odds!”). But that wasn’t really adventure. That was just a cheap Carnival ride with lethal potential and no benefit for the greater good. Unless of course, if you were training for the inevitable chase scene in the movie of your life.
Let the buyer beware the country was a labyrinthine bazaar of the bizarre. It was a good place to get lost and find your Self again for a bargain price. But in order to do this you had to embrace conflict. It just so happened that in China, conflict abounded. There was Man Against Nature (or lack thereof): earthquakes, landslides, flashfloods, sprawling megacities, shoddy construction, toxic atmosphere. There was Man Against Man: old China Hands half-mad from chronic alcohol abuse, merchants bidding up the price if you wanted something functional, motorists using rearview mirrors to drive backwards against traffic, and black marketeers selling tiger penis elixirs. There was Man Against Society: disenfranchised knifemen like boogiemen out of a Friday the 13th horror film, widespread corruption and extortion which always made life interesting, disillusioned westerners ranting about their fucked-up countries, and there were expat and native writers alike in quest of the unknown unknowns. And finally, there was Man Against God and God Against Man, but I’m not supposed to talk about that. All in all it was a good place to call home. Though home was where the heart was; only conflict made it healthy, wealthy and wise.