My writing teacher describes knowledge in terms of an artist’s palette. When you sit down to write, she explains, you turn inward and draw upon your “palette of knowledge.” Her palette, for example, is filled with university-honed spots of art history, philosophy, and literature, with a lot of life experience to go around.
You can understand my excitement, then, about deciding to take a semester off from school to go to China. You see, while I’m working actively on the knowledge part of my palette via school (forgive the ongoing metaphor), I’ve been seeking more splashes of life (sorry, again) considering schoolwork has been at the forefront of my brain place ever since I learned how to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar. (Here I’m picturing a fictional version of my three-year-old self, sitting in the library reading The Brothers Karamazov while using Crime and Punishment as a seat cushion. Apparently my imagined younger self is a pretentious tool?)
With this in mind, a particularly heightened excitement filled my room the night before I left. My bags were packed, and I was ready for adventure. I decided to sit down with my journal and wait for the thoughts to come, the ones begging to be immortalized on paper . And this is all that came:
I feel like I should do a “before” and “after” chart so I can really evaluate the change in my perception of China upon my return home. So, words that come to mind when I think of China right now are as follows: crowded, dirty, flashy (particularly Shanghai), green tea, yuan, Mandarin, rice paddies, and Communism.
At this point in time, I’ve returned home safely after an eye-opening trip and, having just awakened from my jet lag coma, I can say that my words most certainly apply to the country that is China.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to begin recounting my three-week adventure at the end of my trip because it’s fresh in my brain. Really good movies do this, so I figure I, too, can do it. (See Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Fight Club, and many more of the best films from the 20th and early 21st centuries for concrete examples of this.)
I decided that my word association game was quite accurate while riding on the subway from my hostel in Shanghai to the Pudong airport. The Chinese are early risers (“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich,” the Chinese proverb goes), so I expected the subway to be packed to the brim at 7:30 AM. I was right. I was used to this, though, so I waited patiently by the door with my luggage surrounding me, kind of in a circle, my body the bullseye.
And then I heard it.
It started as a faint buzz from above and behind—loud at first, then quiet, then loud again just a few seconds later. The source of this buzzing, my dear reader(s), then revealed themselves—forgive my language—as the fucking mosquitoes that harassed me throughout my entire three weeks in China.
Now, I’m not one to complain, but I’ve never before experienced such an unwelcome discomfort. Let me explain. The bugs typically planned their attack on me come nightfall. I could picture them, hiding invisibly in their little corner as I prepared for my midnight slumber. “Daughter, you get his arm,” the mother mosquito would say. “No. He’s expecting that. You get his left elbow, and I’ll get the inconvenient area just to the left of his lip,” she’d soon add. (Why female mosquitoes in this little scenario, you ask? Fact: only female mosquitoes are capable of drinking the blood of mammals.)
In moments like this, I view my imagination as a gift. Here, it allowed me to foreshadow the site of my enemy’s attacks, so I decided to sleep under the covers in socks, sweatpants, and a hoodie. I’d outsmarted the bugs. How would they get me if my skin wasn’t exposed?
But the bastards got me. And they got me good. I stopped counting after I awoke with my twentieth bite, but anyone who traveled with me can tell you the red itchy baseballs on my forehead, elbows, and hands were not flattering in the least.
Anyways, I was on the subway and I heard this familiar sound of doom, so I gracefully slipped into an empty seat as we approached the next stop. I’d temporarily avoided the beasts, and I was grateful for this.
Then, a kid stepped on and took the seat next to me. He was about my age and had a backpack on one shoulder, so I assumed he was a student. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him look at my face, then my bag, then back to my face. I didn’t want to make eye contact prematurely, and I certainly didn’t want to explain the baseball on my forehead, so I glanced down at my bag and noticed the ID tag sticking out. He was just looking to see where I was from. I would’ve told him myself, but I had a feeling he wouldn’t understand. At the beginning of my trip I probably would’ve tried, but I was tired of launching into conversations with people and discovering blank stares halfway through, in turn realizing that the conversation was one-sided and thus not really a conversation at all. So I resumed looking down, and so did he.
The kid got off eight stops later, but before he stepped onto the platform, he did something unexpected. He turned around and smiled. My aunt taught me to treasure small joys that life brings you each day, and in this moment, I did just that. I smiled back, and it was a good day.
A little monster landed on my right arm, and I’d killed her just before she got to suck my blood like a dirty little thief. She ruined my moment. And for that, she will not be forgiven.
Skip an uneventful flight and three-hour nap in the Tokyo airport (you could wash your bum though in the toilets, which was new for me) and I’m on my 10-hour flight to L.A. Now, here’s the magical thing about long international flights: they grant you the gift of time. Time! Holy Moses! It’s the thing everybody wants but of which there certainly isn’t enough. Therefore, as a television and movie enthusiast, having unlimited TV and movies at my disposal is like taking a trip to see old friends and meeting new ones along the way. And so, while taxiing for thirty minutes before takeoff, I let my OCD run wild. I browsed the entire TV and movie list and wrote down every one I wanted to see—categorized, of course, by 1) genre, 2) seen it? and 3) how bad do I want to see it? To help you visualize this, I’ve reproduced a part of the chart below:
|Selection||Genre||Seen it?||How bad do I want to see it?|
|My Blueberry Nights||Indie Drama||No||Pretty badly|
|Grown Ups||Goofy Comedy||No||Pretty badly|
|Certified Copy||Foreign Drama||No||Really badly|
|Citizen Kane||Classic Drama||Yes||Not really at all|
|South Park||Comedy||Yes||Really badly|
|Modern Family||Comedy||Yes||Really badly|
|It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
|Mad Men||Drama||Yes||Really badly|
|30 Rock||Comedy||Yes||Really badly|
So what did I do?
I watched everything except Citizen Kane because, well, who fucking cares that it’s “the greatest movie ever.” I know I placed it earlier in this post in the company of “the best films from the 20th and early 21st centuries,” but I cared what you thought about me back then and now that we know each other I can say confidently that the movie is boring as hell. (I can hear the uproar now among every offended film student who gets off on the mere utterance of the word “Rosebud.”) Mind you, I enjoyed these selected shows and movies while slumping awkwardly low in my seat on account of the rude Italian woman in front of me. She thought it comfortable to recline royally in her little airplane chair without consideration to the fact that, in turn, I could not see the screen on the back of her chair. Tradeoffs, bitch. Think about ‘em.
In spite of this, I asked her politely to raise her seat so I could enjoy my flicks. “Grrr hmpff,” she grunted, just before falling back into a deep, selfish sleep. The nerve of her! Did she thing she owned the whole fucking cabin?! She had her feet up on the seat in front of her, too. With her shoes off. And socks. I rarely curse or get mad when writing, but bunions and mosquitoes do this to me. I then unbuckled my seatbelt (sorry, Captain), slouched low, and enjoyed me some Liz Lemon. For the moment, I was happy.
As we landed in D.C. hours after arriving in L.A., my rage was replaced by a mental inquiry into how I’d feel if my luggage got lost. This is what I decided: after an initial annoyance, I’d be more curious as to where it ended up. Would pieces of me be scattered around the world? My computer in China, my books in Tokyo, my shirts in L.A….I doubt this would be the case, but it’s nice to know that maybe, just maybe, they’d end up in the hands of someone who needed them. And now that I’ve had more time to think about it, the next time I’m at the airport and I see an attendant wearing a medium-sized NYU crew sweatshirt (navy blue, $39.95), I don’t really think I’ll mind.
In any case, I made it home after over 26 hours of traveling and all I wanted to do was something I’d done with ease for most of my life: speak English and communicate. So I obviously went to Auntie Anne’s for a little chat and lightly salted pretzel. “One pretzel, please!” I nearly sang, showing off proudly my mastery of American politeness. “I’m just getting back from China so”—
“Next!” she offered in exchange.
I also happen to know a thing or three about the possibilities of subtext in our little language, or at least enough to know what she really meant was, “Welcome back to America, bitch.”
I took my pretzel and slumped away, head down and wheely suitcase wheeling slowly behind. I reached into my bag to find my sweatshirt, but it seemed to have shifted from its assigned spot during flight.
The flight attendant.
“Gimme back my sweatshirt, bitch,” I thought to myself. Picturing the attendant reclining in my nearly $40 sweatshirt on an empty plane in First Class, warm cup of coffee resting gently in his personal cup holder, I clutched my Auntie Anne’s bag tight and stepped onto the pedway.
I was cold and wanted to go home.
China Chronicles, Part 2: Peanut, Sick Boy, and the Stinkbug Whisperer