We are not where we were

It was raining last night.  Big lusty, heavy rain droplets coming down like bottle-rockets from heaven.  I’d just spent the evening over a few beers with Japanese teachers, Chinese students studying Japanese, and an American teacher fluent in Japanese.  Amid the language that sometimes sounds like a bird hopping along a branch, we were there, together, while the clouds rolled in outside.

When it all was over, I ran for the storm.  My excuse was that I had to take my compost down to the green barrels at the bottom of the 6-story apartment complex and my feet wanted to keep moving.  They did want to keep moving, though I didn’t know why.

Those bottle-rocket tears ricocheted of the skin of my shirt, slapping the soles of my shoes comically splashing through shallow puddles like a child in plastic rain-boots.  I headed for the park across the street from my room.  Along the pebble-encrusted path through thick green trees, fallen blossom-petals, and flickering street-lights, until I got to a tree big enough to cover me.  And as I stood there, I couldn’t muster the profound like I want to sometimes.  Instead, all I could think was “This is what it’s like to be under a lily-pad.”

And then, dashing through the park back home once again, hopping from lily-pad to lily-pad, it hit me.

Here we are, in the almost-fringes of May, and there we were, one year ago fearing the mass block of time called “The Future.”  And where we were is not where we are.

I think people see my life in China as a “what could have been” in their lives, or as a heart-pumping adventure before Life snuffs it all out.  But we’ve all been moving, not just me, and my “little adventure” isn’t a lark anymore–it’s a life.  Yes, we’ve all been moving, whether or not it seems that way, hopping from lily-pad to lily-pad, progressing through a life no one can define.  Trying new jobs, quitting old jobs, moving to a new home, finding love, sitting in the darkness of our own doubt as it threatens to suffocate us and finally saying “no”.

We are not the same.  We are not who we were.  We are not where we were.

We are only where we are, and where we are is another jumping-off point into the next moment of who we will be.

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The Weekly Weird–April 21-27

More strange things from across the pond!   If by pond, you mean gaping expanse of unrelenting Pacific Ocean waves, that is.

 

Carry the load

It could have just been a cotton shipment, I guess, but as the car came closer to the pickup truck overloaded with fluffy colored sacks, we knew it was more.  “Are those…pillows?” another foreign teacher, Elaine, asked as we passed it on the road.  Indeed, they were.  Large, overstuffed pillows with animated sheep grinning on them, some with their innards spilling out onto the road.  I wish I could say they were the strangest things I’ve seen stuffed (hah) in the back of a truck, but that would be lying.  See, China is ever-skilled at carting tons of miscellaneous things down the highway.  Who could forget the truck full of round razor blades?  Or, the one carrying cows?  Or, best of all, this jangling mass of curly metal wires?  It simply wouldn’t be traveling in China if one didn’t have to think “Is it actually okay to carry that much?”  Because the answer is always “Sorry, but I couldn’t hear you over the sound of my not giving a damn.”  Carry on, China!  Carry it all on your trucks, bags, and overflowing trains.

 

Epiphany Rump

I walk past the piece of modern art every so often when I want to poke some trees on campus.  It’s this giant metallic rectangle with a shape cut out of the middle that vaguely resembles Michigan.  Through it, I can see the trees, and I’ve always assumed it meant something like “no matter what state you’re in, nature prevails.”  Of course, this was giving the artwork more credit (and possibly more wit) that merited.  You see, when I at last came closer for a better look, I saw that there was a concrete half-pillar/podium placed in front of this metallic Michigan-square.  From a distance, it looked like Galadriel’s fountain, but upon closer inspection…there was a nice indent shaped out of the concrete for a butt to fill, and it was angled in a way to contort the sitter into Rodin’s “Thinker.”  There’s a lot to think about, it’s true.  But I think I’d be distracted by the butt-holes in the rocks to notice that the open space in the rectangle was a statement on using your imagination all along.  Still looks like Michigan, though.

 

Have a rest

I’ve learned from long train rides across country that Chinese people can sleep anywhere.  On top of sinks, sitting up in desk chairs, head down on a desk, leaning against a pole…you name it.  This week, though, I saw a new one: a man sleeping inside of his own wagon.  Lots of workers ride around on these 3-wheeled bikes with giant wagons in the back full of cardboard, or planks of wood, or anything used to build something else.  So it’s not a strange sight, I guess.  What was strange was that the guy almost blended in with his cargo, so that when I saw shoes sticking out of the wagon, I thought there was a corpse stuffed into the back.  But, no—it was just another Chinese man deciding that beds were for wusses, and if he wanted to rest, nothing in the world was going to stop him.  Least of all logic.

 

Flowers and Bees

As soon as we caught eyes, I knew I’d be eating it.  It was a yellow and blue wrapper, with cute Chinese characters on top, a picture of the world with children holding hands on the back, and then from there…everything got delightfully twisted in my WRT for the week.  The snack itself has nothing to do with bees and flowers, being dried spiced noodles, and yet on the front of the package are flowers, eyes round as saucers with multi-colored petals, circles painted on their cheeks to indicate happiness, and raised eyebrows to suggest horror.  I don’t blame them, because leering over every flower is a bee sucking on a straw that’s shoved down the flowers’ throats as they hang limp, subjected to their fates.  Some dare to look straight up at their tormentors, and then some flowers in the back look over at a flower that hasn’t been caught yet.  ‘Poor bastard,’ they’re probably thinking as whatever’s inside of them gets sucked out through a colorful silly-straw.  The bees themselves don’t have hands, but they have eyes, and these eyes are freakishly round abominations that don’t look at their prey, but at the viewer—the one holding the package and bearing witness to it all.  There are Chinese characters coming out of one bee’s mouth, but I know what he’s really saying.  He’s saying “Go ahead, try and stop me, if you dare.  You’ll be next!”   

If ever in doubt that life is a strange kaleidoscope of funny things, come back next week for more weird things in the PRC.  Until then!

The short of shorts

I want to make a brief (hah) amendment to the previous post about short-shorts, mostly because I walked into my class not two hours after posting it and saw three of my female students wearing super-short skirts with tube-socks, looking for all the world like anime characters.  

So here it is: short-shorts aren’t a thing in China, which is awesome.  But at a certain point, even “things” aren’t a thing in China and what seems to be a kind of rule gets bent and twisted somehow.  Girls don’t want to show too much leg, because it’s too racy.  But if they do, well.  They’re going to show basically all of it.  They aren’t seen as loose women, we aren’t seen as prudes.  There’s a line, I know there is, and I sort of hope to see it crossed one day just to figure out where it is.  For now, though, it all makes sense in a weird way.   

Why?  I think we all know why.

Because China, that’s why.

Screw you, short-shorts

Spring’s heating up into summer, which means that girls are pulling out their sun umbrellas, lazy afternoons are spent flying kites and eating pineapple wedges on sticks, and willow-thin girls aren’t prancing around in miniskirts. 

Which is sort of heaven for someone who never liked wearing shorts much anyway.  I mean, think about it.  Guys get all hyped up when the weather turns warm, because when the temperature rises, so do hemlines.  But for girls, it’s like “Oh, god…what can I feasibly pull off that won’t make me feel like the Michelin Man’s cousin?”  Some days, you can’t avoid it, like when it’s too hot to keep eating ice cream in the basement.  And on those days, I spend the majority of my time trying to cross my legs in a way that doesn’t make them bulge in unattractive angles.  Sure, dresses and skirts are all well and nice, but when there’s any kind of breeze, it becomes a battle against the elements.  And some guys, true, might be thinking “All right!” as phantom wind blows a skirt up, Marilyn Monroe-style.  But most girls aren’t thinking “Oh good, a chance to show off my underwear in public.” 

So, what does that leave us with?  Not much, if you really think about it.  Jeans?  Talk to me on a 90 degree day in the summer and we’ll see what kind of option those suffocation-tubes are.  Cute sun-dress?  What about the days I don’t feel like prancing around or trying to sit in a way that’s both comfortable and not scandalous?  Skorts?  Let the fires of hell decide whether or not they belong on my body.  So what have we got?  Capris.  Except most of the capris I’ve found tend to look like one thing: “I’m sorry, I just don’t want to wear shorts today.”  I mean, even guys seem to be able to pull off capris better than I can, which just doesn’t seem fair. 

But in China, well.  Here’s what’s awesome about China.  Wearing short-shorts doesn’t seem common (except on some willow-thin girls, but they always seem to win no matter the culture).  Instead, girls are in long skirts, or even knee-length skirts, or in capris that don’t look like a failed attempt at avoiding shorts.  Some are in skinny jeans rolled up a few times by the ankle, and that’s as much leg as anyone’s going to see.  I’ve seen girls wear leggings under jean shorts.  Tank tops aren’t a thing.  Bra straps shown in any way shape or form also doesn’t seem to be a thing.  Those denim shorts more tattered than a dog-eaten dish-rag are (THANK GOD) absent from this culture. There aren’t even backyard swimming pools or beaches to wade around in swimsuits, so that’s taken care of pretty nicely.

I can show as much or as little leg as possible and no one will think I have a horrible skin disease.  I don’t even have to worry about the tan that will never happen, because Chinese people think pale is gorgeous.     

You know what?  It’s a great day to be a prude, people.    

Here’s to you, Mr. Pachelbel

The practice room itself is a Room of Requirement of musical gadgets.  Mazas, Kreisler, Paganini, and Etudes all shuffled and stacked on top of the piano next to a thin wire-stand with Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol dog-marked at one of the harder pages. 

And then there was the student staring at me—a thin male student, leaning over the piano with thick glasses, a sweatshirt over a plain white t-shirt and jeans.  When I expressed my intent, he said “Yeah okay!” and led me over to where there was a “public violin,” while his lanky friend chortled at the foreigner who not only spoke some Chinese, but was also going to dink around on a violin because apparently, that’s what foreigners do in their free time. 

The public violin is nothing like the Meinel waiting for me back in Minnesota.  It’s dark brown, lacks a shoulder rest, is out of tune every time I find it, and seems to be perpetually thirsty for more rosin.  I tuned the strings, wondering how in the hell anyone could play music when the A sounded more like a B-flat, and as I awkwardly shifted with the instrument slipping along my shoulder, the boy (named “Allen”) scrambled over to another violin case and pulled out a shoulder rest for me.  “It’s mine, but you can use it.”  He gave me his phone number, so I could just text him whenever I wanted to be practicing.  “I’m usually here,” he said.  Actually, I often wonder if I’ve stumbled upon the phantom of the practice room, since he really is always there, but I choose not to think about it too much.

The reason I needed to find a violin so badly: a friend wanted me to play Pachelbel’s Canon in D for him. OF COURSE of all songs, that’s what people want to hear.  I think of all the weddings in which my quartet wanted to gouge our eyes out from the dirge massacre staggering out of our instruments.  Because there is nothing better in the world than Pachelbel, even though it’s the same freaking chords over and over again at a sappy “Just get married already!” tempo.

But I digress.

We were in this cramped practice room (not the one with all of the traditional Chinese instruments scrunched together, but that’s another story), and I was about to unleash the Pachelbel Beast.  It started out fine enough, the nice longer notes, slowly knotting together into the seemingly-difficult passages (all while the cello thinks WHY ME?).  But then I forgot exactly how this part transitioned to the next, and then what came next, until I was just sort of making things up that still fitted with the chords and then ending on a nice cadence in the hopes that he didn’t notice. 

“Sounds good…” he said.  And then asked for more sappy wedding-y songs. 

Oh, brother, I thought.  So I played a Minuet, and he waved his hands around as if conducting an invisible orchestra.  Then I played “Autumn” by Vivaldi.  And then…

“Oh my God…” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“I forgot Vivaldi’s Spring!”

“Maybe it’ll come back…” he said, asking me to play the Minuet again.

It didn’t. 

Instead, I played all kinds of Hornpipes, a Bach thing, a Handel thing, and Minuet in D again. All part of the wedding quartet tradition of playing the same things over and over again with standard, white-lace, gusto—sweetly enough not to be noticed when the bride entered.  Why am I doing this, I kept thinking.  Why not play something, I don’t know, FUN?  And I kept thinking, too, that my notes were out of tune, and SERIOUSLY HOW DO YOU FORGET SPRING??

Me and this rickshaw violin teeter-tottering around sounding great and sounding like a saw.  The notes warbling out on unreliably-tuned strings, the shoulder rest wavering whenever I shift, and the bow scratching like a monster trapped in a steel box.  The kind of playing that would make my violin teacher tell me I had lightning fingers, because “you didn’t hit the same place twice…”

But when I was done, I could tell it was the most special thing my friend had ever experienced.  And it occurred to me that it didn’t matter about the sound quality, or which pieces I remembered, or how perfect the Canon in D was.  All that mattered was that I played it for him, and that in playing it, brought us together through the mystery of black notes, or something Hallmark-y like that.

So, here’s to you, Pachelbel.  Here’s to you and your goddamned Canon in D.  May you rest in piece, and may we as musicians try to force another classical piece to catch on before our cellos fester in their own boredom.

Through the Dragon Gate

This blog used to be about a fish leaping out of a fishbowl. 

It was about the sting of oxygen crackling its scales as it finned the line between self-fulfillment and asphyxiation.  

But I didn’t randomly choose a fish, and wasn’t plucking it from the fishbowl because I like watching things slowly die.  In fact, there’s a Chinese legend (or so I was told) that’s about a fish leaping through the gate to become a dragon. 

I like to think of that transformation process—the bite of scales elongating and the punch of wings stretching for the first time in the air.  The dual clench of fear and exhilaration as the fish must drop all trust to the wind to see if indeed, it has wings.  Air speeding along its sleek body, like the moment after pedaling hard on a bike, the slick summer air rushing by and blocking out the world.  All in a breathless pant of that moment, with ginko leaves scattered on the pavement, patches of sod cut into squares and the tang of blossoms spreading open in the trees.  The ground, quavering from passing dump-trucks, hissing past—efforts to pedal forward, forward into the wild world of an afternoon letting go. 

As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t any need for the tank anymore.  The fish has already leapt.  And I’m not sure how the process goes, this fish-becoming-dragon-business.  Maybe there’s some kind of ceremony, maybe not.  Usually momentous things happen when no one’s looking. 

What I do know is that I was sick of seeing the tip of the fish’s tail brushing against the fishbowl’s lip, as though there was a chance it might get pulled back in.  It’s airborne.  It’s ready.  And its wings are already poking out, fluttering to fly.

The Weekly Weird–April 14-20

Rolling into my apartment after a 60 kilometer bike ride (which I thought would be more of a meander in the countryside, rather than a mad-hot race to the end), I present more weird things from the week…later than planned.  Luckily, the strange doesn’t reek like bananas do with age, so please enjoy them nonetheless!

Deck the Halls with Whatever You Feel Like

Christmas has come and gone, but it seems that the need to celebrate by hanging items in trees hasn’t disappeared yet.  At least I assume that’s the hidden meaning behind the pair of underwear hanging too high in the tree for anyone to retrieve it.  It’s a red pair, it’s on the very top of the flimsy branches, and it waves slightly in the breeze like the national flag from the Republic of Not-Giving-a-Crap.  I’m guessing that this republic is getting quite the following, considering that, not a few trees later, I saw a child’s scooter slung along the trunk.  All I hope is that, when Christmas actually does come again, the decorations will at least be properly dressed for the cold weather.

Curling Corn

It was one of those snacks that I’d seen from the corner of my eye, but hadn’t dared to grab just yet.  Until one day last week, in lieu of getting crackers, I decided to cash in another “Weird Random Thing” (WRT) and purchase them.  Called “Corn Curls,” which is written in loving script, with a picture of a teacup full of coffee, chocolate mounds in the corner, and then what look to be mini-éclairs bowing down to the teacup.  I had this mental image of a corn husk dipped in chocolate, so was surprised when I opened it to see that in fact, it was nothing more than corn-puff logs with irregular amounts of chocolate slathered on top.  Where’s the corn?  You can’t fool a Midwesterner like me!  I ate all the way to the bottom to taste anything even remotely corny, until I realized that the snack itself, the attempt to be fancy on a crinkled chip-bag is the corny part.  HAH I forgot to laugh, Corn Curls, you devils of the food industry!

Revenge of the Machines

This weekend, I went to the Sword and Scissor Museum in downtown Hangzhou, which, as advertised, had lots of swords and scissors.  Along with these time-old killing devices (watch Sweeney Todd and tell me that a pair of scissors isn’t stab-worthy), was a machine with two swinging robotic arms clutching swords.  They chopped up and down, some of them swung to the sides in a nice beheading motion, and then twisted as if making EXTRA sure the opponent bled to death.  Behind these machines were cartoon outlines of warriors fighting each other, but the robots themselves were a bit hypnotizing.  As I watched, I found myself making escape plans, should there be a malfunction, or if the circuits went wrong and decided to kill humans instead of empty air.  Lucky for all involved, there was an abundance of defense contraptions sealed behind impenetrable glass, should this occur.  Considering my basketball aim, I’d hate to see what would become of a sword-hilt swing in the face of gears and steel.

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Transmission from the Robot Overlords: We’re armed and ready for battle, baby.

Playing in the Stadium

I bought a kite the other day and when I asked my students where I might go to fly it, they said “Go to the campus playground.”  I hadn’t seen any places with swing sets or slides, but went to check all the same.  As it turns out, when Chinese people say “playground,” they actually mean the stadium, which would be okay, were it not confusing as all hell.  But then, it makes sense, since people in the stadium fly kites, make sandcastles in the long-jump area, sit in the grass of the football field to look at clouds, and do basically anything else they can think of. No, the weird part is that when I see what I call playgrounds—areas with primary-colored playthings–I see that locals are using it as exercise equipment.  Teeter-totters become Thigh-Masters, I kid you not.  Is there an explanation?  The same one as always: Because China, that’s why.

Come back next week for more weird things.  Maybe next time, the weird will hug right back, with its cold and clammy half-hug of a thank-you.