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.

***********************************************************************

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 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.

 

From How Close Up Does Mr. Trump Start to Look Good?

donald-trump-chinaRight now, nearly 7,000 miles separate me and one Donald Trump. I’d really have to squint to see him, to make out the golden waves of hair-like substance that sit matted on his head like a pile of lint might sit on my kitchen floor after I’ve swept. From this distance, the Donald looks small. He seems strange and pathetic and the tiny little fingers on his baby hands look like cocktail wienies.

This is the view from my porch in Beijing, China. Mr. Trump as viewed by an American liberal living abroad. From over here, it’s hard to make out any positive attributes that Trumpy might have. By the time his tweets and his self-congratulatory boasts of being able to “call” really bad things before they happen, by the time those reach my small expat community in Beijing, they sound ridiculous. We laugh at Trump. We criticise him. But all of our condemnations are done from a safe distance. There’s an ocean between us, and viewed from a space that great, it’s difficult for the detached onlooker to see Mr. Trump as anything more than comical and frightening.

Question #1: Would Trump become more, er, attractive, if viewed from closer up.

This is what I wonder. Maybe being in China keeps me away from the sheer magnetism of the man. Perhaps if I was back in America (as I will be two weeks from now), I could get caught up. The Trump Wave would pick me up and pull me out to the Trump Sea like a riptide.

Is that what Trump has? Momentum? Is he like the Grand Canyon, where one has to be there in person to truly grasp the greatness of it? I try to imagine that. I try to picture myself at a rally, with his crowds of enthusiastic supporters all chanting his name. Then he walks out. I’m almost shaking, putting myself in this scene. Once he starts talking, I imagine how charmed I become. I nod along with everything he says as though I’m in a trance. Because that must be it. Up close, he must weave a magical spell.

Nah. I can’t imagine that’s true. Back in the safety of my Beijing apartment, I tell myself that Trump is more like war, where one can only grasp the true horror of it by being there oneself.

Question #2: Seeing that I’ve been okay with the oppressive Chinese government, why am I so frightened of Donald Trump?

It’s a good question. Here in China, things aren’t so hot. The Internet is terribly censored, human and animal rights violations happen constantly, the gap between the rich and the poor is even larger than it is in America, and the levels of government corruption are mind blowing. The RMB – China’s currency – is in a consistent state of flux, its value seemingly sinking down lower and lower every couple of months. They don’t elect their presidents in China and if you were to ask me to cite one good thing that appointed leader Xi Jinping has done – ever – I don’t think that I could do it. He has a nice peaceful countenance, I guess. That must count for something.

Still, I’ve been pretty happy here. Yeah, I’ve complained about a few things in China, but life here is sweet. It’s easy. And so I ask myself how Donald Trump could run a government worse than the current one in China, and I’m not really sure. I mean, this is the original country of walls and foreign exclusion. If I enjoy living here, what makes me think Trump’s America would be that much worse?

Sipping on my instant coffee, it’s a question that I don’t have an immediate answer to. I just know it would suck. That’s all. I think about the president of China again. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard him speak. His voice is a mystery to me.

So that can be my quick answer. If I’m going to live under an all-powerful dictator, at the very least, he could be quiet.

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.

 

 

 

 

Songs to Sing While Your Plane Crashes

planeThe woman sitting in front of me had the face of a rat. She appeared to have no top lip, her front teeth sticking out of her mouth like a rodent’s. Her eyes were completely black and her skin was pulled tightly over her skull. It was like looking at some Dorian Gray portrait of a regular person; she looked to only be about forty, and forty-year-old people aren’t supposed to look deceased. This was on the airplane, on my flight back home from Myanmar; the rat woman stood up every ten minutes or so, lazily examining the plane as though it was a maze she was stuck in.

I was in a bad mood, to say the least. I’ve always had a fear of flying, but on this particular flight, I was terrified. I’m not sure why, really. The turbulence wasn’t much worse than any normal flight and the stewardesses were above average looking. I should have been fine. Maybe it was the shear amount of flying that I’d done in the past few weeks that had finally worn me down. Traveling between Africa, Myanmar, and China, I had taken a whopping twelve flights over the previous three weeks. That’s an average of four flights a week. For a person with a fear of flying, that schedule is brutal. It’s kind of like being afraid of clowns and then getting gangbanged by an entire circus. By the midpoint of the flight, I was covered in sweat and my stomach was knotted up like a balloon animal.

Everything about the flight got on my nerves. The people sitting in the row in front of me – the rat, its husband, and their offspring – kept standing up constantly and talking loudly. A few times the plane hit patches of rough air and the stewardess would come over and tell them to sit, but they’d just keep standing up and yelling to each other. I couldn’t take it. Behind me, there was a little girl, five or six years old, who had formed a hobby out of kicking the back of my seat. I stared out the window and imagined the plane going down in flames.

“Only about an hour left,” my girlfriend, sitting next to me, said. Her words were supposed to make me feel better. The intended effect was for me to go, “Great. Only an hour.” But instead I thought, “Shoot me. I’ll never make it through an hour of this. I might as well give up and try my luck jumping out with a parachute.”

Nothing in life can be perfectly easy, I suppose. I love to travel – I really love it, more than anything else. But to do what I love, I am forced to fly, which I hate. And I’m getting worse on flights, disintegrating from the somewhat irritating paranoid doofus that I used to be into the intolerably whiny little ninny that I am now. I know I’m being silly, sweating and shaking and cursing through the flight, but I just can’t stop myself. I guess it’s like having Tourette’s. I tell myself to be cool, and then the plane hits a dip and I explode with expletives.

A couple hours earlier, during take off, there was an unfortunate incident with a group of foreigners a few rows behind us. They had been told to turn their cell phones off during take off, and they refused. Flat out said no. The stewardess kept being polite and asking them over and over and they were so argumentative before finally giving in. The entire ordeal pissed me off. I couldn’t understand why they were so rude, especially since they were told they just had to wait fifteen minutes and then they could turn the phones back on. Looking into the darkness outside the window, less than an hour left to fly, I thought about them and let myself be filled with venom, the brash bravado of those foreigners – what kind of monsters were they?

Didn’t they know that their cell phones could cause the auto pilot to shut off and send us all spiralling down towards earth?

I felt so disappointed with myself. Because I really felt anger, and because I really truly believed their cell phones would kill me. Then I thought that if the plane actually did crash, would it really be a bad thing? For the rest of world, I mean. In a selfish way, of course it would be – none of us want to die. But those people…the family in front of me unable to sit and be quiet, the crazy little girl kicking my seat like a lunatic, the cell-phone addicted foreigners…maybe the world would be better off without them. Even me, actually. No one likes a neurotic weirdo wishing death upon people. So, yeah. Although the death of my girlfriend would be a real loss for the world, the net result of a crash would be overall positive. Mankind would benefit from the subtraction. The idea calmed me a little.

Wanting to distract myself, I turned on my MP3 player. I chose to listen to the song “Death” by White Lies.

I love the feeling when we lift off/

Watching the world so small below/

I love the dreaming when I think of/

The safety in the clouds out my window/

I wonder what keeps us so high up/

Could there be love beneath these wings?/

If we suddenly fall should I scream out/

Or keep very quiet and cling to my mouth as I’m crying/

So frightened of dying/

Relax, yes, I’m trying/

But fear’s got a hold on me.

I turned the volume way up. My heart beat. It’s kind of like being in on a joke. A crash can’t be that terrifying, right, not as long as you’re so amazingly self-aware.

 

 

 

The Man Who Traveled the World and Ended Up Boring

It’s just after five pm, and I’m sitting on a hotel bed in my boxers, staring out the window into downtown Yangon, Myanmar. The window is but a thin barrier between me, my person, my body and legs and ears, and the outside, the concrete of the streets and the tip of a high reaching steeple that faces me, its peak culminating in a small golden cross that would look more fitting on a Christmas tree than here on this old green and white building surrounded by hotels. And while the barrier of the window is thick enough to keep the hot air and the bugs out, it isn’t so impenetrable as to keep out the music, the bizarre choral singing that has overtaken Yangon for the last two hours.

“Do you think that’s real?” my girlfriend asks. “Are people really singing? Or is it a recording?”

I don’t know. Neither of us do. We’re like children watching a movie and thinking the CGI effects are real. There might be people out there chanting away, but it seems so much more likely that this is something prerecorded and played loudly, probably daily, for reasons only the people here understand. I ask my girlfriend if she wants to take a walk and find out, see if there are crowds of people circling the pagoda or if instead there is one great enormous speaker, a choir replaced by a basket and cone the size of a jet engine. She declines the invitation. We continue to sit in the hotel room and eventually the music stops.

I get to thinking. Tomorrow I will be returned to my familiar setting, my home in China, away from all the weirdness of Myanmar. I will see friends and I will, as they are friends, speak to them. The conversation will likely go like this:

“Hey man! How the heck are you?” “How was Myanmar?” “Gee, you’re really red, man! Ever heard of sunscreen?”

Or something like that. We will talk about the different countries we’ve gone to over break. The conversation could last anywhere between two minutes and two hours. It’s hard to say. I adjust my boxer shorts, pulling down the fabric that is suffocating my scrotum like someone might smother a person with a pillow, and I try to plan out my answers.

Myanmar.

How was it?

There are things I need to pluck out. Extract. I can’t ramble on endlessly about everything I saw or that I did. I need to locate the interesting stuff, and so I start going through my memory with a highlighter. Entire passages end up getting omitted during this exercise; full days snipped out and dropped onto the editing room floor.

This is what you do when you return from traveling. You truncate everything. Somewhere along the line, after I’d been bouncing through different countries for awhile, I realized that my travels lacked the kind of narrative arc that I wished they had. Putting together a short synopsis of any certain place was tough because there was no concise beginning, middle, or end. In a literal way there was – starting with arrival and ending with departure – but that seemed arbitrary. What I had to work with was more a series of images, sounds, tastes, and feelings; not a group of events that formed a coherent sequence that moved forward with any kind of logic.

This is what describing one’s travels becomes. It’s difficult. If I were in a college course and the professor asked me for a descriptive essay, man, I would ace that. I could describe and describe, go into vivid details recreating temples or sunsets on the beach. But that’s not really what people want. People want narrative, and if that fabricated college professor asked me for a movie script or something, I would have to hand in a real test of audience patience, a clumsy group of scenes in which not much happens.

Because, really, there’s not a great deal of excitement when you travel. Not excitement another person can appreciate through you. The things that stick with you are actually pretty mundane. The food you ate on the street. The argument you had with your travel buddy about taking the bus. The guy you met at the bar who was alone and latched on to you, talking about the people he knew back home, maybe imagining you’re them.

To the average listener, this would be kind of dull. This is what I decide, sitting on the bed in the hotel. That I will keep traveling, and when it’s all over, I’ll end up being incredibly boring, because all I’ll talk about is food and hostels and quirky conversations I had with strangers. People will dread asking me about the places I’ve been, worried that I’ll lull them to sleep with a detailed travelogue about public transportation and tipping in the Philippines.

Oh well. If I live an exciting life but end up boring, so be it. The sounds on the street are more common now, car horns and the white noise of the city. My girlfriend pulls down the window shade.

We’re just two people, in a room, and we could be anywhere.

Adjust Me Like I’m Your Poseable Doll, Baby!

yangon good threeYesterday, I made a quick post about my first night in Yangon, Myanmar, and how my girlfriend and I had been somewhat overwhelmed. The lack of English, the sheer amount of people and cars on the street, and the general unfamiliarness of everything had our heads spinning. Today I waned to write something short about adapting, and how everyone, I believe, should get dropped into Yangon for two days at some point in their lives.

Fang Deng and I headed out this afternoon with a renewed sense of invigoration. We weren’t going to be moron tourists wandering awkwardly through the streets again, nervously chewing on street corn in a lame attempt to blend in. No, that was not going to happen again. And we weren’t going to be so damn snobby about things either, not like the previous day, when we tried to diminish our poor performance by blaming Yangon itself.

“It’s confusing!”

“It’s chaotic!”

“The street kids are persistent!”

yangon good twoThere would be no more of that. We made a plan and did some touristy stuff like visiting Kandawgyi Lake and revisiting Shwedagon Pagoda, which we had run away from the night before, frightened by the kids and their plastic bags. But today we had our own bags and we brushed the kids aside easily. Today we wouldn’t be afraid. Today we talked to people and bought pineapple chunks from street vendors and, you know, enjoyed ourselves.

It was a good day. Turns out the people in Yangon are cool; they even understood my charades when language was an issue (although, truth be told, I’m a pretty damn good charades player). Walking back to our hotel, I turned to Fang Deng and said:

“You know, I feel comfortable. This place is fine. It’s not disgustingly hot and dirty and impenetrable like we thought it was. I could hang out here for awhile. I could like it here.”

Fang Deng stared at me.

“You don’t feel that way?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

Understandable. She doesn’t like earthy things like dust and sun. Given a few more days and I think she would start to change. I think she would grow comfortable in time. I wondered how most people would do here, or anywhere that isn’t their home. It took me about a day to get the hang of the place; maybe it would only take a cloudy day for Fang Deng to feel at home.

yangon good oneThe ability to adjust to someplace – or something – that one is not comfortable with. It’s underrated. Although Yangon isn’t as nearly as uncomfortable as, say, being lost somewhere in Pakistan might be, it’s not a bad test. If you spend, I don’t know, more than two days in Yangon and want to get out of there before the burning hot sun scorches your neck one more time, maybe it’s time to reflect on who you are. Cause really, what’s so hard about applying sunscreen and eating some fried noodles on the street?

If I ever have a kid, I’m sending it to Yangon on its 18th birthday. Just so it will know how long it takes to adjust to things.

“When can I come home, daddy?” my offspring will say.

“When everything seems beautiful,” I’ll tell it. “Or they deport you.”