Here there be dragons

I could see my breath huffing out in tendrils of fog. A cold night in a wet city that reminds one of this fact every time stepping into a building and not having glasses fog up from central heating.  It would not be cold for long, though.  I had decided to spend the evening in the movie theater. 

“The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug” came out this weekend in China, and though my breaths were cold, I thought of them as clouds of fire as I got my ticket on a miraculous student discount and squeezed in with the full house of Chinese viewers.  I had somewhat selfish reasons for going.  I love Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice, and was very much excited to hear it as piles of gold shivered around and The Beast flapped its wings.  I had read The Hobbit as a child.  But I already knew that the story had been warped to make it into a 9-hour epic. So I thought instead about things that only the cinema could provide: warmth on a cold night, fight scenes that lasted more than Tolkien’s typical two-page side note, Cumberbatch’s voice, musical scores.  I had brought a chocolate bar with to really savor the night.  I don’t go to the cinema often.  It’s a treat.  

The theater was packed.  I was on the edge next to a Chinese couple, and the entire room buzzed with Chinese and audience members trying on the 3D glasses and speculating about the dragon.  Of course, I was thinking about the dragon, too, though for other reasons. 

And then I suddenly thought: Will they cheer when the dragon is eventually slain?

To be honest, I didn’t know.

In the world of fantasy that I had known growing up, the answer is decidedly yes.  A dragon represents greed, and provides a physical enemy to remind us of it.  A dragon burns down villages, and slithers around like a snake (which will always be a foe to me) and then flies around to find more livestock to steal and innocents to torch.  I think of Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and of course the loads of legends that they all come from. 

Somehow, I had never thought of China until I was in that theater, putting on the funny 3D glasses and trying to calculate how long the movie-makers were going to make us wait until the dragon in question appeared.   

Chinese people are proud of dragons, because they are a central and powerful figure in Chinese mythology.   The dragon is a symbol of luck.  I cannot count how many Chinese proverbs include dragons, or the pride parents have in finding names including the dragon symbol.  There’s a good article Chinese dragon vs Western dragon that talks about this difference, and how it has been mistranslated between cultures. Think about it: what looks to us like a fearsome dragon baring its teeth on a Chinese poster could just be a symbol for prosperity and luck. Whereas I think of an old friend in Decorah, Iowa, who had a sign on his door reading “Here, there be dragons!” and a warning to be careful.

There in the theater, with my chocolate bar tucked into my purse, Chinese audience members yelping and gasping when giant spiders jumped out on screen, all of us laughing when fat Bombur waddled into battle, and then groaning when the dialogue felt long–we were all at a crucial moment. A moment when the Dragon would appear and our cultures would come face to face in a way that only the cinema allows them to. Everything had Chinese subtitles, which meant that sometimes the crowd reacted at a different pace than me. Sometimes I laughed at a joke they didn’t think was funny, whereas they laughed at random acts of violence that I thought were strange.

And we were all wondering the same thing: When will the dragon arrive?

We were all there, under the Lonely Mountain, tensed to see what the dragon would do. And I think this sensation, this anticipation is akin to what the world feels in regards to China, still. What will happen when the dragon fully emerges from the mountain? What will the dragon do? How big is the dragon, actually?

I was caught up in the magic of the screen, and so forgot about these questions. Watching stories unfold in a group simplifies it somehow. We were all pleased to see how big the dragon was and gasped and trembled and rooted for Bilbo caught under the mountain with a mammoth beast. I shivered when the dragon delivered the last line, and we all braced ourselves for more surprises. There was no divide amid the reactions. This dragon was Scary and Evil, simple as that.

But what about when it was slain?

Alas, the movie never got that far. Perhaps by the time it does, I will already know.

Back in the PRC

It’s a feeling like I’m flying, racing, elated and giddy.  I am coming back to something with a sense of euphoria, with the breathlessness of trying to sit still when I hear Chinese and see Chinese.  I suppress the urge to leap from the platform and run alongside it.  A bursting sensation, like my heart is too big for my chest.  My tongue, eager, flicks out the Chinese sounds it has been wanting to wield for the past month. 

The zeal with which I dive into China–yes, China!

This past month marked the first time I left China in a year and a half.  Entering Hong Kong and having to depart the PRC.  And then meandering away and further away with the promise of going back to work someday.  I’ve traveled in China, I’ve lived for all things China, and then, very suddenly, I was not in China anymore.  But it’s better that way.

I think the places that matter the most to us are the ones we need to leave.  Not forever, but long enough.  We gain new perspectives, new ideas, and shed many of the habits and circumstances that we have grown accustomed to.  And then, if a place is really a home-of-sorts, we find ourselves appreciating it more.  We’re in the unique position of defending, explaining, even turning a critical eye on where we come from.  This has been true for both America and China–both homes that I attempt to explain and translate as best as I can.

It’s not a question of where any of us belongs. Maybe “belonging” is not a fixed state, anyway.  Maybe it’s always in flux and where we belong at one point in time is where we will be until further notice.   Maybe the question is more about where we want to go back to. 

The feeling of re-entering China, the utter relief of standing in a crowd of people both fascinating and frustrating–this is a feeling I never want to lose.  There’s a golden time to be here, and it all hinges on whether or not one leaves China wanting to come back, whether one leaves China with a twinge of bitterness on the tongue.  I have met expats who have stayed for too long and who hate everything Chinese.  I have met fly-by tourists who see The Great Wall and that’s it.  We go, and maybe we don’t come back. 

But I am coming back now.


Because, CHINA!

Tham Kong Lo–The Cave

I didn’t see how big a 7km cave is.

Because 7km of cave means that in every direction, there is blackness.  Blackness that fades away into the impenetrable.  We were given headlamps, and with mine, I tried to find the contours, to map out the vastness of something that can’t be mapped.  A ridge there.  A wall with grey wrinkles like elephant skin.  A rock protruding from the water in which we sometimes had to enter to pull the boat along when it got stuck.  Patches of red rock that looked like an animal rug nailed into the wall.  Shimmering stalactites.  A hole in the rocks ahead.  Anything that could be used to make the unknown more known.  To make the huge less huge.  To translate the infinite.

Did I succeed?  Of course not.  I only found snippets of the cave.

But from what I didn’t see, it was impressive.

The Bolovan Plateau

I was standing in a grove of trees on The Bolovan Plateau and thought “I have no idea what I’m looking at.”  In theory, I was visiting a tea and coffee plantation, but looking at the trees, I wouldn’t have known that.  Leaves are leaves.  Except when they mean different things.

So I ambled back to the little wooden hut where a Lao woman was making coffee.

“Sabaidee!” I said.  She gestured for me to sit down, and her daughter hopped around with a bag of iced coffee.  I sat, not really knowing what I was doing, to be honest, but the woman seemed happy and so I was happy.  

She set down a cup of tea.  “Thank you,” I said.

Then she set down a cup of iced coffee.  “Thank you very much.”  I said.

Then she set down a cup of hot, thick, Lao coffee.  I had no words.  There were three cups of delicious drink in front of me.

I should mention that I haven’t always been a coffee drinker.  My family insisted that I would become one, given my Scandinavian heritage, but I insisted that I wouldn’t.  But then, I had a cup of Vienna coffee and well, there’s no going back from that.  So I can now say that I delight in coffee, not merely as a pick-me-up, but as a smooth way to enjoy spare time.

Like I was in that hut.  But with three choices!

I took a sip of each, alternating most between the iced coffee and the hot coffee.  I couldn’t decide which was better.  (Both of them had condensed milk added to them–new addiction?  Yes.)   In the end, all three cups were empty, and in a way, I felt as though I had entered some kind of test of the minds, to see if I could pick my poison.

But instead, she just smiled.  

“Can I look around?” I asked, even though I had already looked.  She nodded, and then a different daughter (one not currently skipping around in caffeinated loops) who followed me around the trees.

“Coffee,” she said when I pointed to a leaf.  “Coffee,” she said again when I pointed to another one.  “Tea,” when I pointed to a bush.  Much of our conversation went this way and in the end, I learned that most of the plantation was for coffee.  

So then I got back on my motorbike, knowing what I had been looking at.

Sort of.

Bo Penh Nyang

If Hakuna Matata had a home, it would be Laos.  Except that instead of saying “Hakuna Matata” and dancing around like a warthog, one would just say “Bo penh nyang” (boe-pen-yang).  

Bo penh nyang.  No worries.  Say it with a smile, say it with a shrug, but never say it with sarcasm.  Because here in Laos, it is almost a national motto.  The clouds themselves seem to drag slower across the sky than usual.  Hammocks dangle under just about every home in all shapes and forms–stringy, patched, canvas, thatched…the list goes on.  People walk with a sauntering gait, as if each step is a delight in itself, rather than a means to move.  And though food takes longer to get, it’s given with a slight nod and a bow and no one waits to see if you’re actually going to eat it.  

From what I’ve read, this has everything to do with Buddhism.  The idea that we live compassionately and therefore contentedly, and so there is no need for confrontation or anger.  But there are other Buddhist places in the world, and this one seems more content than most.  Am I just seeing things in a rose-tinted lens?  Or are the “live in the moment” and “savor the now” phrases actually being put into practice?  

I think I already lost track of the question.

Bo penh nyang!



There’s a lot I don’t know how to say in Lao, which is why going to restaurants or convenience stores involves lots of pantomime.  I’ll wave my hands, point to something, then shrug my shoulders.  The Lao person usually smiles and we both sort of acknowledge that neither of us knows what we’re doing.  

From a guy named Lance in Don Det, Laos, I learned how to say a few things.

“Euh” (the sound you make when someone punches you in the stomach) means “Yes.”

“Kop Chai Lai Lai” means “Thank you very much” (and is best remembered by the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Boxer”)

But the easiest one to remember is “Sabaidee!” which means “Hello!”  This is because Lao people are always nodding and saying it when I enter a store, or as they pass on a motorbike.  

“Sabaidee!”  an old woman sitting stooped by a chicken says with cracked teeth.

“Sabaidee!” a child says on a bike that’s too big for his legs.

“Sabaidee!” a couple says as they carry food in a sack on their backs.

“Sabaidee!” I say in return with a smile.

There’s a lot to love about Laos.  The palm trees, the sunsets, the moreso-untouched feel parts of it have.  (At least compared to Thailand, which by now is a beaten off-the-beaten track).  I love the way that, passing along on a motorbike, I can see children fencing in the water with an old bike wheel.  Or Lao Cows trundling along in no hurry whatsoever.  

But what I think I, and many who visit Laos, love most are the people.

“Sabaidee!  Sabaidee!  Sabaidee!”  A school was letting out for the day and both sides of the road were congested with children heading home.  And they all had their arms extended, waving to me and my friend as we passed on motorbike, eager to catch our attention.  I extended both of my arms out and waved to try and receive them all.