Saturday, July 24, 2010

Redemption by simple things

I’ve been back in the country for a couple of weeks and things have been anything but dull. I thought it would be tough coming back to this life after a full month at home, and it was about as bad as I expected it to be, worse perhaps in a dozen little nagging ways. When you don’t want to be somewhere, the refrigerator door that won’t close is something close to intolerable. As are the elevator that smells like cigarette smoke and the mayonnaise jar that you can’t get open. Never mind the fact that it’s crappy mayonnaise and the picture on the label – a little line drawing in red of a kewpie doll – is enough to warrant defenestration from the 24th floor. But you get through those things and settle back into your routine and focus on the bigger issues. Like spending time thinking about your situation and what you’ve gained and lost in a commitment such as this. I’ve learned and awful lot about people, and I’ve learned a bit about myself and chief among those epiphanies is the one associated with how I feel about what I’m doing. Not what I’m doing at this moment, but what I’m doing at this stage in my life.

Throughout my time here my emotions have been mixed between wanting to beat the quickest path to the exit and never wanting to be out of the action. When you’re central in something big and in the lives and experiences of a lot of other people, people who depend on you to be a rock, you find yourself feeling that you don’t want that to end. You want to be important and you don’t want to miss out on the action that will surely continue once you leave. And so you find yourself not wanting to look forward to the inevitable moment when you board that last flight home and wave goodbye to your adoring friends on the tarmac, the door closing as they stand there behind the barriers holding signs that say “Bon Voyage” and “We’ll Miss You!”, tears streaking their faces as they wave while your plane lifts off and disappears into the clouds. Of course that done, they get in their cars and go home and forget that you ever existed focusing instead on where to go for Sichuan hot pot that evening. Such is the nature of “out of sight, out of mind.” I was never sure about whether I was anticipating being out of the buzz or being forgotten by the people around me, well, all it takes is getting forgotten by the people around you while you’re still there to take care of the latter. The former might be a bit tougher, but one day this past week I woke up and realized I was done. As in there is nothing that would entice me to continue with this life when I could be home sitting on the front porch with My Lovely Wife, My Handsome Dog and a flock of White-winged Doves picking their way through 10 pounds of sunflower seeds in the bird feeder. No, no amount of overpowering traffic, bad air, rude people, rotten food or spitting women is going to change my mind this time. I’m done, it feels that way and I can’t wait to put an end to the full time expatriate phase of my life. So in the context of being done, I set about to spend my last few weeks enjoying myself as much as possible.

During my time here one big pleasure has been the classical music series at the DDA Theatre. I’ve actually attended far more classical music concerts here in my two shorts years than I have in my entire life in the US. Some of them have been fantastic, some of them average, but each of them has been a treat because it’s meant a few hours of western culture that truly served to recharge my psychic batteries. The first Wednesday I was back I discovered that there was a concert that Saturday night - I find these things out by walking past a big construction zone fence on the way to the grocery store down the street from my apartment. It’s been there since the very beginning and it’s been my source of concert information since the moment I moved into my place. I made a mental note to give Jiang some money and the next morning I sent him to the box office with precise instructions on where I wanted to sit – Row 8, Seat 0 – dead eye level with center stage and the best seat in the house.

When he picked me up that afternoon he had my ticket and an interesting story to tell – my seat was unavailable. Now this is one of those situations where my Chinese is taxed – we’re using words and concepts that break new ground and it’s very hard to fully understand what is being conveyed. I struggle through with a mix of pretending I understand, actually knowing what he’s talking about, asking a lot of repetitive questions designed to zero in on the core concept and plugging translation questions into my iPhone while I stammer the traditional Chinese delaying phrase - “naguh, naguh, naguh”.

“Why?” I asked.

“Too many people, your seat was sold out.” he replied.

“That’s very unusual, these concerts never sell out” which is true, although over the course of the years, the crowds have grown from the 10 or 15 souls who braved a piano/cello duo in the dead heart of January to the hundreds that came out for a piano/Erhu concert offered by a well known Chinese classical musician last Spring.

“The theatre doesn’t have so many seats this night” was his answer. Okay, so now we’re entering into a completely different realm of conversation involving conditionals, seating, tickets, theatres and my lack of understanding of any of those things.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“For this concert they will have temporary seats. You will be in Row 1 which is the same as Row 5 which is close to Row 8 because tonight there will be temporary seats in front of where you normally sit.”

Okay, so now I’m thinking what the heck does that mean? There is no room for temporary seats – the fixed seats go all the way down to the stage. When I pointed this out, he replied that perhaps there was construction in the theatre. I let it go at that figuring I’d solve the problem when I got there; I did have a ticket that said Row 1, Seat 8 and I asked him about the seat. From there we went into a long conversation about the position of the seat relative to the aisle which was apparently to my right. These words I understand because I know how to ask for an aisle seat on an airplane. Never mind the fact that the way I ask and how Jiang says it are completely at odds. “Why not the center?” and he told me too many people and too few seats and perhaps they had given away a lot of free tickets to the government people because that’s what they do. I let it go at that.

I took the mile long walk down to the theatre that Saturday night thinking all along the way that perhaps hiking in the tropics was not a good idea. Too short for a cab and too humid to arrive dry, I knew that the theatre would be an ice box when I arrived and so I chose to overlook the full body sweat I was developing – my bare arms shining in the gloaming. Climbing the stairs to the broad plaza that fronts the place, I noticed that they were using two entrances, something I’d not seen before. Being a creature of habit, I picked my way through the speeding rollerbladers that use the plaza as a race track and went to the doors I normally use and got in the queue. A guard instantly came up to me and told me to go to the other doors. I said “There?” and he said “Yes” so I walked along the front of the building and got in the other line. Inside, it all became clear – the reason none of Jiang’s information made sense to me was that this concert was in a different theatre, one which I had no idea existed. And sure enough I found my seat on the right aisle of the center section in Row 1 and the reason that Row 1 was the same as Row 5 was that there were four rows of temporary seats in front of me. Examining the seats answered the question of “temporary” – the entire theatre was full of them. They were nice – little steel blocks of four seats each done in pink fabric and being temporary I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to make Row 1 just be Row 1 instead of “virtual” Row 5. The first four rows were marked with a “+” and the sequence was 1+, 2+, 3+ 4+, 1, 2, 3, 4 and then a cross aisle. Clear as mud and in no way out of line with what I have come to expect in this truly strange place. My seat was good enough and though not in the center; I’d have a decent view of the performer.

As I sat there waiting and wishing I’d brought a bottle of water, the theatre quickly filled up with hundreds of children. Chinese parents often bring their kids to these concerts, no doubt to impress upon them the importance of playing an instrument. Unfortunately kids do not fare well in 3 hour presentations of classical music regardless of their parent’s noble intentions. I settled in thinking that this would be a challenging evening and figuring I’d leave at halftime if the kids were distracting. A guy across from me set up a tripod and attached a video camera to it and I figured that would end badly. Looking around I saw a lot of people bringing cameras out of their bags and I gathered that I was smack in the middle of a giant festival of copyright infringement.

But then the lights went down and the pianist came out accompanied by a translator.

One thing that I have come to understand about the pictures classical musicians use is that they are rarely current. The giant woman on the billboard had long black hair, a big bust and an even bigger head relative to her body. She was perhaps late 20’s and had pretty blue eyes. This woman’s head was more in proportion to her body, her bust was average and her hair was short cropped and red. And she was 40 if she was a day. I knew from the program guide that she was Russian and I was surprised to see a translator with her. Normally the musicians are introduced by a poorly dressed young woman and they just start to play. The Erhu player was one exception; he had introduced his pieces in Chinese and English. This woman spoke decent Russian tinged English and began by introducing her pieces and describing the nuances of each. The translator more or less told the audience the same thing; it’s funny now because I can actually tell when the translation is not literal. The program guide spoke of Chopin merged with Chinese themes, the pianist told us she was playing an evening of Tchaikovsky and Liszt and settled down to for an hour or so of well executed short pieces.

The video pirates were going full blast when a guard came by and stood in the front of the theatre and one by one told them to shut down their cameras. The guy with the tripod was first to go followed by the woman across the aisle from me who first looked shocked and then sullenly put the camera back in her purse. A woman directly in front of my kept right on taping, having not been seen by the guard who had now disappeared into the shadows in the side of the theatre. He was an interesting character, older than the young guys who normally provide security here. His clothes were rumpled and his shirt was unbuttoned at the neck given them impression that he was from the countryside. He wore his policeman’s hat raked stylishly to one side and his way of telling people to stop taping was to point at them and then dismissively wave his arm off to his side. The young guys are always pin-neat and very stiff when they come over and they impart a sense authority when they speak, sort of “Do this or you have to leave.” This guy came across more as “Do this or I will grab you by your collar and throw you out of the theatre (you morons) because I’m just getting warmed up for my night of bar fights.” He made a second pass before the intermission, this time catching the woman in front of me who continued to tape up to the point where he stood in front of her and blocked her view.

The lights went up at the intermission and the children started to run wildly up and down the aisles. I was actually surprised by the behavior of this mob – outside of two little ones in the row in front of me the lot of them had been quiet and polite. I decided to stay and took out my phone for a quick game of Solitaire and I’d just started when the person behind me tapped on my shoulder and asked me (in English) if I was a Russian. This question is not unusual; I’ve been accused of being just about everything here except for an American. I was introduced to a German once who did a gape-mouthed double take when I told him I was not European. While cycling we’re often pegged as French, but Russian is the most common guess because they are common here, escaping from Vladivostok for a hot weekend in China’s most livable city. In fact, that same day in a village out in the middle of nowhere a young woman far too beautiful for the meagerness of her surroundings had pronounced me that nationality as I had cycled by.

I turned around and realized my interlocutor was a woman, probably early 40’s. I replied that I was in fact American and her face lit up – I think I was the first she had ever met. She wanted to know why I was there at the theatre and told me that she too was in love with classical music. She asked about my work and my state and told me that she knew where New Mexico was. Her daughter, perhaps five, came up and her mother told her to tell me her name. She held out her little hand and introduced herself and then her mother told her to say “I love America” which she did. I shook her hand and thanked her.

Our conversation drifted to my time here and what I thought about it. I may feel the way I feel about these last 5 years spent traveling and living in this country, but I know it would be horribly impolite to concentrate on the things I hate. Instead I always say that I love the Chinese people that I have met and that I have enjoyed my travels here. Usually they are surprised to find that I live in a Chinese building instead of the gated expat communities that are often chosen. This woman listened intently to my ramblings and then said “You seem to love China.” I replied that I did, and she then asked “Then why do Americans here all hate us?”

I’m going to admit that I was floored with that bluntness – it is very unusual for a Chinese to be that direct. I thought about it for a bit and told her that Americans are afraid of being here, the language is so different and the culture so foreign that they are simply uncomfortable. I told her that they don’t hate Chinese; they are just being guarded because they are not at ease. She countered that with an example – she wanted to know why if an American came to her house for dinner and was full, that they would get mad if she offered them more food when it was her responsibility as a host to do so. I explained that this was a good example of what I was talking about, that they were not mad, rather they were simply uncomfortable. In short I said they don’t know what to do.

The lights went down and our conversation ended. I smiled and told her I was happy to have to have talked with her and she returned the same compliment. As I turned around to face the stage she tapped me again and handed me a pen and slip of paper – she wanted my name. I reached in my bag and gave her a business card, handing it to her in the traditional two-handed Chinese style of respect. From the look on her face you would think I had handed her a bar of gold.

The concert continued and eventually came to an end after a couple of embarrassing almost encores. As we filed out the woman I’d been speaking to asked me if I needed a Chinese teacher as she wanted an opportunity to practice her English. I’ll admit that I was genuinely sorry that I had not met her two years ago as this would have been a wonderful opportunity for me and her; sad that it came so late in my assignment.

It was sprinkling as I walked home, not so bad that I needed a jacket but just that light amount that tickles your face. The streets were far less busy than they normally are on a July Saturday night, no doubt due to the light rain and as I headed down the street my thoughts drifted to how I felt about this place and how something as simple as a conversation with a nice person can redeem a passel of otherwise black thoughts. I don’t think I’ll ever say that I loved my time here but I will admit that I learned a lot and that I was made better by the very few people with which I made a true albeit brief connection. I’ve had these moments all over the country, and when I look back on this place ten years from now, I hope that these are the things and people that I remember. Because in the end, I think they are the important ones.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Reflections from 462,000 miles down the road

“I don’t exist when you don’t see me; I don’t exist when you’re not here.”

Or so sang the singer in a song I used to like - away back when. Those lyrics have been threading through my mind these last few weeks as I spent some time managing the horse ranch and trying to maintain some control of my work which sat 8000 miles and 14 time zones across the sea. While the man singing the song was of course talking about his SO, I think those words speak clearly to the life of an expatriate. When you live in two places, it eventually feels like you live nowhere at all.

While your family clearly doesn’t forget you, you certainly fall off the Friend Radar. You run into people in your home country and you can see their tubes firing as they try to remember the last time they saw you. You talk about insignificant things because if you’ve been gone long enough, the ongoing changes have mounted to the point where you may as well start anew in getting acquainted. The flip side – your friends in the foreign country - just go on doing what they’re doing and you fall behind there as well. While this latter thing can be insignificant if you’ve gone home for a week, forget it if you leave for a month, you disappear. I suppose this speaks to the notion of what makes a true friend and at what point friends cross the line to almost becoming a sort of family. Those transitions are formed of years of support and contact and the creation of shared values and experiences. The friends you make living in a foreign country are born of different stuff – being stuck up the same creek if you will. They may very well end up crossing the “blood barrier”, but only if they come with the bigger package of being a lot like you to begin with. And most don’t.

The result is that as an expat you live in sort of a shadow world - you’re never sure where you are or why you’re there. Sure, I went home to cover for My Lovely Wife as she went off on the first of her biannual trips to cater to hundreds of ungrateful horse owners. That part is clear, the raison d'ĂȘtre if you will. Having done this for years it’s an easy routine for me to fall back into – feed horses, ride bikes, cover work throughout the day and evening, make some dinner, feed horses, and walk the dog. It’s no different now than it was in 1994, I know the routine and I like it. But hovering off on the horizon is another house, another tangible job, a tough place to live and responsibilities that need to be tended. Try as I might to believe I’m home and back to being “me”, the other Chinese-speaking, elevator riding me is there, pushed in the background itching to move into the primary slot. You get this battle of dualities and wonder which one is going to win. It’s not an unusual day when you talk to yourself and answer in a foreign language. Your anchor chain has stretching and your boat is floating back and forth alternately grounding on one of two sandbars.

I’m now five years into this vagabond and life and the more I do it the more I think my edges get frayed. The Concrete Me is now the Sand Me – I’m still a solid life form in my commitments, my passions, and the people I love. But I’m also a shape shifter, being what I need to be depending on where I am. It’s an odd line to walk and I can see with better clarity the story of some of the people I have met along the way. Like a middle-aged Aussie I met sitting in an expat bar in Shanghai, slowly getting stoned and flirting with the girls which he told me were his reason for heading out of the house every evening. He’d been there for more than 20 years, and this was now his life. He made me think that a lot of people head out into the world on an assignment like mine and eventually the anchor chain stops stretching and simply breaks – you lose the connection that made you “you” in the home world and you permanently change into the expat “you”. Some might do it to escape. Others might do it out of preference. But I’ll bet that many do it without even knowing it – they wake up one morning and realize that they no longer have a place back in the world, their world is now simply where they are.

For many it’s perhaps a hard thing to avoid and for others likely impossible. There are many enticements to living abroad not least the fact that it can put you into a perpetual state of personal development which can be intoxicating if you’re the kind of person that likes to continuously expand their horizons. It’s also a wonderful thing to wake up every morning and see something totally alien to what you know and have grown comfortable with. It keeps your mind sharp and it makes you think. I come to know that it takes powerful magnets to keep you focused – a supporting partner, wonderful children, things you like to do that can’t be done well in the new environment – to enable you to stay grounded and to know that when this phase is done, you have something that you want to return to. Lacking those (like my middle-aged friend courting his snarly-haired twenty-something Chinese girlfriend in the Kai Fa Qu Starbucks) it looks to me like an expat assignment can be a one-way ticket to another life. The key thing about that though is that you must make sure it’s a ticket that you want punched.

So I spend my remaining time in this phase of my life sitting in lounges, waiting for flights and observing my fellow travelers. It’s interesting enough, but I’m ready for a break. Between the teeming masses, the poor food, the stress and the entire anonymity of it all, I don’t think in the long haul it’s the life for me. I guess at this point on the road I’m traveling feeding horses, riding bikes, making some dinner and walking the dog just simply feels a whole lot more attractive than living in a place where those things can’t be done well. Particularly when trying to do them alone. I guess the thing I’ve finally learned is that putting yourself through the gristmill helps you to know who you are, what you like and the value of the things that are important. A tall price but from my current vantage, one that’s been worth paying. In short, it’s time for me to ground my boat on the proper shoal.