Manifest Breast-iny

snow shovelin'.jpgThe snow would fall. My father would clear the driveway with a giant shovel, one with a huge blade that looked like a barrel sliced in half vertically. We always asked him why he hadn’t bought a snowblower like our neighbors and he’d just cough into his hand and shake his head.

“That’s not how a man does it,” he’d say.

Shit sounded crazy to me. The way he did it, I didn’t look at him throwing heaping piles of snow over his shoulder and think, ‘Wow, now there’s a man!’ Nope. I thought, ‘Wow, now there’s a masochist!’

My mom used to come home from work at K-Mart and tell me to shovel the driveway. I hated even thinking about it. Most of the time I’d tell her no. Or I’d lock my room and ignore her. So she’d usually end up going out there herself, taking that big ass shovel and adding to the giant mounds of snow that lined our driveway like the all the cookie-cutter houses lined our suburban street.

When he’d get home, my father would be furious. He’d yell and scream at me.

“You let your mother do all the work?” he’d rant, foam practically cascading down his chin. “What kind of a man are you? To let a woman shovel the driveway! What the hell did I raise? A sissy?”

The snow and I had a knack for making him angry. But sometimes, when he was tired and filled with regret and he didn’t feel like yelling anymore, he’d stare off into the distance and speak to me in a low monotone. He’d look off into the unholy western New York wasteland that surrounded us and repeat the same blip of advice that he’d been repeating for years.

“Get the hell out of here,” he’d say. “This place…there’s nothing here.”

I’d look at his face and I’d see exactly what he meant. He’d lived most of his life in Rochester, and he was stuck. He didn’t know what to do. This was his lot in life, and while he saw no escape for himself, he did for his sissy son.

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sunny vegasThere are only seven days left. Seven short days until I move back to the USA. I’ve got kind of a countdown going. When a day reaches its end and the number decreases, I can’t decided if I’m excited or filled with dread. It’s kind of like seeing the seconds counting down when you’re microwaving a Hungry Man dinner. On one hand, you can’t wait to eat that processed meat and desert brownie. But on the other hand, it’s hard to block out the potential for disaster.

“You going back home?” people keep asking me.

“I’m going back to the States,” I’ll say. “But not back to my hometown.”

To move back to Rochester sounds crazy. All I can remember is the snow and the wind and my father scraping off his windshield. I picture the aisles of the K-Mart my mother worked at. The place seems like hell.

“Oh? Not back to your hometown?”

“Nah.”

“Where you gonna go then?”

“Las Vegas.”

That’s right. Fuck it. I sat in the bedroom of my apartment for a few days and I just asked myself where I’d like to live. Anywhere. The place that seemed sort of fun and interesting. And after giving it some thought, I decided I wanted to move to Las Vegas.

“Wow! Vegas! Do you know anyone there?”

“No. Not really.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“Nope.”

“You don’t have a job or anything? Do you have a place to stay?”

“I do not.”

People seem surprised by my lack of a plan. Apparently, as I’ve gleaned from their facial expressions, it’s weird to just pick up and move to a place for no real reason whatsoever.

Even though there is a reason. The reason is that it isn’t Rochester. It’s the opposite, or at least I imagine it being so. I picture casinos and bright lights and maybe Barry Manilow making eye contact with me for just a second as he sings, “I Write the Songs.” I picture beautiful people. I picture Elizabeth Berkley’s breasts in Showgirls. And I picture sunshine. Lots of sunshine falling down over the wonderful dessert.

Some people say that there’s a certain allure to the West. A kind of promise that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I’m not really sold on that.

I, like my father, just don’t want to buy a fucking snowblower.

 

On Dating Abroad: The Fetish and Green Card Conundrum

on dating abroadThis past weekend, I attended a going away party for one of my friends. It was a lovely event, featuring a large spread of Chinese food accompanied by a good amount of beer. About an hour into the party, I found myself in the Men’s Room at the same time as my friend Micky. While I took a leak in one of the stalls, Micky used a urinal and talked to me through the stall door.

“I tell you,” he said, “you and Fang Deng are just so good together. I mean, the way you two interact…you’re perfect for each other. Now, I know there are a lot of skeptical people that think she’s only in it for a green card, but if anyone pays attention to the way she looks at you, they’d be able to tell she really loves you.”

I thanked Micky for his kind, if somewhat jarring, words. Zipping up my fly, I found it hard to focus on the part about Fang Deng and I being a perfect couple or whatever he said. Instead, I kept thinking about the other part. The part about the green card.

“What fuckers are saying she’s only in it for a green card?” I wanted to ask. I fought against doing so. That would only make me look petty and lacking in confidence. Still, I imagined pushing Micky up against the urinal and yelling, “Tell me! I want names!”

When I first moved to Asia, I found that the foreign men here fell into one of two camps: those who were eager to date the local women, and those that had basically no interest at all in dating the local women. There wasn’t much of a middle ground. This was in stark contrast to the foreign women who move to Asia. They seem somewhat uncertain about dating in general, and are just as likely to date a local man as they would another foreigner. But the men aren’t like that. Some of them are totally on the prowl, while the others watch in disgust.

Truth be told, I guess I was in the former category. Moving to South Korea in 2010, I definitely wanted to date a Korean woman. I’d like to think that was more out of curiosity than because of some fetish, but who knows what subconscious things were working in my head. My first girlfriend, in high school, just happened to be Cambodian, and, before that, the first Playboy magazine I ever owned featured a centerfold named Venice Kong who was part Chinese. She is mildly famous in the history of Playboy for being the last centerfold to have a staple going through her body.

I think about these things sometimes. I think about how some of my friends in Korea and then later in China probably viewed me as a sleazy white guy with ‘yellow fever,’ a phrase that is only inoffensive when put in comparison with the far more candid ‘jungle fever.’ They probably questioned my motivations. Was I out for love, as I claimed? I’m sure they would say ‘no.’ I was out for Venice Kong look-a-likes.

This is the reality of being in an interracial relationship while living in Asia. The white male is viewed as having a fetish and being driven by sex, and the Asian woman is viewed as only wanting a green card. I’m sure the people Micky alluded to believe this, because sometimes, even Fang Deng and I start to think that.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Fang Deng told me one time when we were discussing the green card question. “I’m 31 years old. Do you really think I couldn’t find an American to marry me when I was in my 20s? I studied in Holland. Do you think it was impossible for me to convince any of the men in Europe to marry me and get me out of China? Are you nuts? If I was just marrying to go live in the west, well, I would’ve done that already.”

And really this little bit of reassurance is all I need. Of anything she’s ever said on the subject, I’ve found this particular argument to be the most convincing. Maybe to be able to shake off the green card question, one has to really believe that love is hard to find, while manipulation of men is pretty easy. There are tons of suckers everywhere, right? I have no doubt that Fang Deng could have worked a mark without any difficulty if that’s what she wanted to do. Had she chose to, I completely believe that Fang Deng could’ve gotten some dude wrapped around her little finger. Could’ve had him begging her for her hand in marriage. Could’ve had him buy her a home in Texas, with a bunch of dogs running through the backyard and a bed with a dozen pillows.

Love, on the other hand, is elusive. That’s something that evades you until you’re in your early thirties (or late thirties, in my case). Finding someone you care about is a bit trickier than finding a guy with an American passport or any random girl who can satisfy a sexual compulsion. Sketchy motivations aren’t hard to satisfy. That’s what dating apps are for.

Fang Deng and I authentically care about each other, although some people can’t see that. Micky could, which is why he gave me that little talk in the urinal. Micky could see the truth. Micky knew.

But of course he did. Micky has an Asian wife.

On Living Abroad: The A:R Ratio

ar ratioAs an American living in Asia, I’ve met tons of interesting expats over the last six years. There was Charlie, who was old as hell and had fought in the Vietnam War and could not for the life of him remember my name. I met a girl named Jalia who had somehow gotten cast in a Clint Eastwood movie and had one lengthy scene acting opposite Eastwood, although she refused to talk about the experience or give us any details. And then there was another guy named Bob who, as some Internet snooping would reveal, had gotten in trouble for having inappropriate relationships with several of his former students in Canada and had subsequently made his way to an international school in China, where he’s been teaching for the last ten years.

One meets a lot of colorful characters living abroad, some colored in hues perhaps a bit darker than others. But with every person that one meets, there is always one question that, also rarely asked or answered directly, is generally present:

What is it that brought you here?

A few years ago, I had a memorable conversation with my friend Trinity. We were talking about all the people we knew, and what we thought had lead to their decisions to leave their home countries and live abroad. During that initial conversation, we decided that every expat could be grouped into one of two categories.

Category One: Adventure – These are the young people fresh out of college. Maybe their degrees were in highly competitive fields, or maybe they just always wanted to live in another country and as soon as that diploma was secured it was off to Beijing. The adventure people are here to experience the culture, to gain work experience, to party and hook up a lot. On the same spectrum are the older people, some retired, who had gotten bored with the usual routines and had thus jaunted off to Asia in the hopes of breaking fifty years of monotony.

Category Two: Running – While true that there are some older adventurers, most of the middle aged people living abroad seem to fit into this category better. Running. Maybe there was a divorce. A death in the family. Maybe there were problems with alcoholism. Maybe they just didn’t fit in back home. Depression. A criminal background. Children that didn’t want to have anything to do with them. There are many reasons why one might be running from something. And young people aren’t completely exempt from this either. They just seem to have the skeletons in their closets hidden better.

Trinity and I would shout out names of people we knew and then try to put them in their correct category. It was pretty fun. When we got to ourselves, Trinity quickly identified herself as “adventure.” I sank down in my seat. I knew what was coming.

“You’re obviously running,” she said.

“What? Me? Why?”

“Well, for one, you’re divorced. You have problems with your parents. You talk about being depressed in the States. And you drink too much.”

All of these things were very true. Still, I wanted to be there for adventure. I didn’t want to be a runner. I argued that I’d traveled to over twenty countries after leaving the USA, which was pretty adventurous. I was a big fan of Chinese cuisine and enjoyed throwing back some baiju with the locals. And I’d dated Chinese women, which meant that I could include ‘romance’ in my pull factors. As opposed to only having the push factor of ‘sexual frustration.’

Our conversation ended without a conclusion. But a few days later, Trinity had changed the way she looked at things. She told me that the idea of having two categories had been the wrong way of going about it.

“Part of me is running too, I guess,” she said. “It’s more of a ratio, you know? Everyone is looking for adventure and they’re also running from something. There’s just a different balance for all of us.”

“We can call it ‘The A:R Ratio,'” I proposed. “The degree to which someone is looking for adventure compared with the degree that they’re running away from their own personal demons.”

“I’m 70:30,” she said.

“What about me?”

She thought for a moment. “30:70?”

Fine. I thought that maybe there was a nobility in running. I mean, if you think about it, running is actually an act filled with hope. It’s not giving up. It’s continuing a search. It’s believing that life does indeed offer an escape that isn’t death.

Now as I prepare to move back to the USA, I wonder if I’ll have a new ratio. Or if I’ll have a ratio at all. I think that maybe this is the reason that people decide to spend years living in other countries. Because when they return home, they know that the running has stopped.

 

Crawling Back to the USA

The last time I was in America, things were different. It was before Sandy Hook and before horror struck the Boston Marathon; television audiences had not yet been introduced to Honey Boo Boo and moviegoers were still hotly debating the ending of Inception. Gay marriage hadn’t been legalised, no one had heard of George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin, LeBron James had no rings on his fingers, and “Like a G6” by Far East Movement was the top song on the charts.

It was the fall of 2010. I got on a plane and flew to South Korea, and I haven’t been back in the States since.

Which isn’t to say I totally lost interest. No, far from it. I would often read about my home country, sometimes discussing the current state of affairs with the other ex-pats in my little community of misplaced westerners. We’d talk about drones and the NSA and the Tea Party and of course recently all we talk about is Trump. It didn’t really matter where I was living – during my 3 years in Korea and then my 3 years in China – there was always one very apparent fact:

The USA, for better or for worse, was always the most interesting person in the room.

Sure, I found it intriguing when South Korea elected Park Geun-Hye as its first ever female president and then the older men in the country started having all kinds of mental breakdowns. And I found it noteworthy when Hong Kong protested against mainland China in what was called the “Umbrella Movement.” But none of those stories had nearly the same kind of visceral, emotional impact on me as, say, Ferguson did. Heck, if I’m being totally honest, in the last three years I’ve probably spent less time reading about Chinese president Xi Jinping than I have about Josh Duggar.

Because, you know, those are my people. Flawed and trying to figure things out. In the country I spent the first thirty years of my life thinking I’d never leave. And as I hopped around Asia and hung out in Europe, they had to deal with those last six years. While I watched Ferguson unfold on the screen of my laptop, they watched it happen in their backyards. It’s one thing to discuss Trump with a group of Brits over drinks in a pub in downtown Beijing; I can imagine it’s something else entirely to discuss Trump with a person who actually plans on voting for him.

In two weeks, I’m going to come back. Yeah, it’s about time. The six years that I spent overseas will likely be the greatest years of my life…but while I was living them, I was always pretty certain that they came with an expiration date. An end time when I’d nod my head in appreciation and go back home.

Not to my apartment in Seoul or my room in Chang Ping.

Nope. Home. To the States.

So this is what my blog – completely and totally ignored for the last four months – is going to turn into. The story of a guy who left America six years ago, and now returns. Feeling older, wiser, and a tad bit unsure of what the hell he’s getting himself into.

 

 

 

 

In Which Time, Like a Common Person, Gets Sidetracked by Wine and Sex (A New Year’s Eve Post)

Somewhere. People stand in a room where loud music plays and the lights are low. Drinks are poured. Dance moves are put on display. All talking is done in shouts and yells. Men and women look around longingly, trying to spot their person. The one, the special one, who might be willing to kiss them at midnight. The room is filled with hope and tension and the vague promises of the upcoming new year. Yes, there is sadness and desperation, but all of that is in the background, made insignificant by the excitement and the energy and the wonderful idea that there is an ending to be made, and all one has to do is write it.

New Year’s Eve has always been my favorite in-theory-but-not-in-practice holiday. I mean, in theory, New Year’s Eve is awesome. It’s about the passing of time – but not in a bad way, not like a birthday. A birthday is an unsexy passing of time, filled with the subtext that you’re getting older and closer to becoming senile. New Year’s Eve is seductive. It’s like foreplay. It puts time in a g-string. New Year’s Eve is the only holiday that’s supposed to end in drunken sex. Easter doesn’t end like that. There’s no one drunk or having sex at the end of Easter. At the end of Easter, you’re sober and saying goodbye to your grandparents. And New Year’s Eve is also awesome because it’s all about erasing the slate, too. Whatever dumb shit you did the previous year is okay, because now that year is over, and all your mistakes are forgotten, even if they just happened the night before.

But that’s all in theory. The hooking up and the resolutions. The sloppy sex and the forgiveness. In practice, I’ve usually ended up in some club, striking out with the ladies and getting wasted with my friends, and then feeling hopeless and like a loser the next day. In reality, New Year’s Eve is pretty much a tease. It’s like a plan you make when you’re drunk, like when you go ‘Hey, maybe if I call my ex right now, we can get back together.’ It all seems brilliant and filled with possibility at the time, but in the end you wind up alone, wondering what you did wrong and peeling the labels off your beer bottles.

This year, at age 37, I wanted to do something different. No bars. No electronic music. No…young people. That ‘somewhere’ at the beginning, that was my memory, and the last thing I wanted was to repeat that scene yet again, regret and rejection being my New Year’s traditions just like a birthday has cake and presents.

So my girlfriend and I concocted a plan that seemed both fun and age appropriate. We booked a night in a fancy-pants hotel in downtown Beijing, and decided we would spend our New Year’s Eve pretending to be rich people. Because really, in a vacuum, a person can be anything. Put into the context of one isolated night, the money I have in my bank account indeed makes me wealthy. It’s when one elongates the time frame, when that same amount of money becomes not for one night but for an entire lifetime, it’s only then that I become economically disadvantaged. In the vacuum of a single night, we could be rich and successful and in love and everything else, and so that was our New Year’s theory. It’s harder to be all of those things over the longer haul, next to impossible, and so to ease that looming truth, we stocked up on wine.

By five o’clock on New Year’s Eve, we had checked into our five-star hotel and were busy figuring out how to turn the lights on. The room was big and spacious and dimly lit. It had a hot tub and everything was elegantly painted in hues of dark browns and creamy off-whites. There was a large television and a huge desk with a phone on it. I wondered briefly if the room also came with a secretary. Outside we could see the Beijing cityscape, all the tall buildings wrapped in the romantic soft-focused haze of heavy smog.

Dinner. Fettuccine with sea bass and a bottle of Chardonnay. We left the restaurant happy and light headed. The time was 7:30 pm.

“Wow, it’s earlier than I thought,” I said. “We’re really going to need to drink a lot to stay awake.”

Back to the hotel room. A bottle of Riesling. My girlfriend put on some music, a strange mix of pop tunes that began with lots of club music and eventually transformed into a long Juliana Hatfield playlist. I sat on the bed and watched basketball highlights. We finished the bottle. Time – 9:15 pm.

“We’re never going to make it,” I said. We’d started too early. The rich don’t eat dinner at six and they certainly don’t get bored before ten. We decided a change of scenery would be good and we went down to the hotel bar. The place was dead, about nine people lingering around and having cocktails while a DJ spun dance music. Balloons were everywhere and we sat at the bar and drank Cuba Libres that were cut with so much lemon juice they tasted like Hooch (which in turn sparked memories of New Year’s Eves from the late ’90s).

Back into the elevator. We inserted our key and hit the button. Drunk and exhausted. Time – 11:00.

It was then that I started thinking about time, right then as the elevator went higher and higher. Because time, I decided, is a lot like the floors in a big hotel. The numbers keep going up and up and getting larger, and it feels like you’re really going someplace. Like there’s this progression happening. I thought that the next year isn’t much different from the next floor, a step along the way to the top. But really, if you get off on any floor, you’d find that they’re basically all the same. Floor 5 looks a lot like Floor 15 and they both get mirrored by Floor 25. And that’s what I decided time is like too. That all these floors, all these years, it isn’t really a progression as much as it’s going from one thing to another thing that’s almost identical. Sure I’d gone from clubs and house parties to a swanky hotel, but I was still the same guy, and New Year’s Eve still felt like a tease to me.

Where was my fucking optimism? Where was my hope? I looked at the beautiful girl standing next to me. I could marry this girl and start a new life with her. I could begin a family and name my kid after a cocktail. Harvey Wallbanger Panara or something. I could do any of that. The elevator got to our floor and the doors dinged open.

We got back into the room and my girlfriend started up the hot tub. I stumbled over to the big desk with the purpose of opening up the champagne. I listened to the water running and I went over to the bed and laid down. I was beat. The time was 11:30.

I was ready for the new year, and I didn’t really care to wait for it. The new year would get here. They always do.

I closed my eyes and fell asleep.