Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Zen and the Art of Rickshaw Maintenance

Two months into Korea, I met an expat named Wolf, a bearded, ponytailed rat of a man who, from his whitewashed jeans and black metal t-shirt, I was able to carbon date as a fossil from the Reaganomic Era. My comrades and I were new to Asia, bursting with all the greenness and enthusiasm that entails, whereas Wolf was a veteran and a lifer: he did not thrive in the east, but would shrivel up and die if he were ever extradited to the west.

On the night in question, the newbies and I were huddled around a table at one of the expat bars downtown, while Wolf sat in the corner oozing disdain into his can of fake Heineken. The Canadian was doing impressions again. He stood up and did me: cradled his head in his hands, compulsively stroked his beard, covered his mouth and let out a high-pitched giggle.

"Stop it," I said, "or I will fade out of existence again."

He changed channels and took a seat next to Wolf.

"Okay, guess who I am!" He crossed his arms and glowered down into his beer. "Life sucks. I hate Korea even though I've lived here for 26 years. Metallica is the best band in the world."

Wolf looked up from his Heineken and stared down the Canadian. I searched the room for a black hole to crawl into.

"Anyone? Any guesses? That's right! I'm Wolf!"

"... the fuck you are," murmured Wolf.

These were the first words I'd ever heard him speak, so I thought perhaps Wolf was warming up to us, or at least to me because I was not the Canadian.

"How long you been here, Wolf?" I asked.

"What the fuck is it to you?"

I cradled my head in my hands and compulsively stroked my beard, then felt like I was impersonating myself, so I just sat there silently, looking hurt, until Wolf spoke again.

"How long have you been here?"

"Two months," I said.

"And you haven't snapped yet?"

"No," I said. "I don't mind it here."

"Give it time," Wolf said. "It'll come."

After the bar closed, we made our way to another joint and without a word, Wolf went meandering down a darkened alleyway waving a tallboy of Cass in the air, belting out a surprisingly svelte rendition of "Unchained Melody" as he faded into the night. That was the last I ever saw of him.

Wolflike expats are not uncommon in Asia. Permit me to borrow another wonderful David Foster Wallaceism: when you speak with Wolves, you feel as though the conversation is being warped and diffracted, like a beam of light passing through swimming pool water. In short, Wolves are a little off - and they make you feel a little off, too. What creates a Wolf? Your average English teacher in Asia is not under much duress. He is overpaid, overfed, saturated with free alcohol, and generally beloved by the locals. And yet the long-term Asian veteran wears a thousand-yard stare and a permanent sneer, and loathes expats even more than he disdains the general population.

Of course, even among the lifers, there are more non-Wolves than Wolves. But make no mistake: there are pitfalls to living here and I am only just starting to become aware of them. After an especially bad week, I can see something of the Wolf in me, the urge to turn upon myself like an ingrown toenail, to stock up on instant ramen and bootleg DVDs and get me to a nunnery. And that is what I would like to talk about in this chautauqua: how to maintain one's sanity living in a society that on a literal level cannot understand you, and in a more existential sense, cannot understand what you are about.

The main culprit in the Wolfization of an otherwise well-meaning expat is what Robert Pirsig calls a gumption trap: the loss of any sort of desire to interact with the weirdness that surrounds you. Gumption traps can be brought about by general gumption erosion, specific gumption-sucking events, or what I will call Laowai Escapism Disorder (LED). Often a combination of all three is involved in the formation of a bona fide Wolf.

Gumption erosion results from the sustained, unlubricated friction between the laowai's individualist rickshaw and the collectivist traffic that surrounds it. There is no obvious treatment for gumption erosion aside from lubrication - i.e. alcohol - and lots of it, but drinking oneself stupid should be regarded as an occupational hazard rather than a cure. Much of the adjustment to gumption erosion is made by the subconscious, though the right mindset will go a long way towards expediting the process.

Gumption erosion in Asia is primarily a matter of space. Your average East Asian city is more densely populated than an oversexed beehive, which means a lot of people, a lot of cars, and very little unoccupied space. The Chinese in particular are far from claustrophobic. The rule for public transportation seems to be "cram in as many people as possible" and when it comes to public spaces, people to tend to get as close to other people as the laws of physics will allow. Whereas westerners en masse instinctively arrange themselves in horizontal and vertical lines, the natural state of the Chinese crowd is a forward-shoving mob. There are no referees in China: no one will blow a whistle for a handcheck, an elbow to the breadbasket, or a forearm shiver.

As a westerner, you are at a twofold disadvantage, both because you are not used to being in such close quarters with so many total strangers, and because those total strangers are very curious about you. Frankly, they have never seen anything quite like you before, so they will take an unusual interest in the book you're reading, the email you're writing, the money you're withdrawing, or your armhair.

China is under construction, so it is an extremely loud country. The work is in progress twenty-four hours a day, not exempting The Sabbath, so the jackhammering and buzzsawing never cease. Meanwhile, Chinese drivers are not bashful about laying on their horns, and the muffler is an invention that never seems to have caught on.

Underneath the general cacophony of China is a steady stream of laowai-directed noise. A fair amount of young people will scream "HELLO!" from a safe distance of twenty feet. The more of the language you understand, the more you realize what a sensation you are. You will quickly learn the local words for "westerner," "foreigner," and (if applicable) "white devil." If you are already inclined to introversion, as I am, crowd noise can make walking to the convenience store for toilet paper an almost insurmountable task.

And of course, China is dangerous. There is no obvious difference between the traffic laws and the laws that govern walking down the sidewalk. The roads carry two ill-defined currents of cars, trucks, madhat cabbies and relentless buses, with a circus of bicycles, pedestrians, trishaws, and mopeds scuttling every which way amidst the honking, screeching torrent of smoke-belching metal.

This state of affairs - a claustrophobic, noisy, dangerous state of affairs - can make leaving one's apartment less appealing than other antisocial pursuits, say: making a list of all the girls you have ever kissed, Spider Solitaire, or Season 3 of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

As I mentioned earlier, adjusting to one's Asian surroundings takes time and most of the work is done while one is asleep. Some expats choose to spend a good amount of their time abroad drunk, but this only leads to hangovers that are several orders of magnitude worse than any state of consciousness known in the west.

The trick is to wait it out. Recite a mantra of your choice. Avoid rice liquor. Wear headphones when you make public appearances. Gradually, your mind will make the necessary adjustments. Your instincts will sharpen themselves on their own accord such that you will one day find yourself able to talk a fifty kuai cab ride down to twenty and navigate a Chinese crosswalk like Christ upon the Sea of Galilee. Your brain will learn to filter out the high-frequency garbage that comes roaring in from your overtaxed sensory organs: you will nap upright as a horse on the bus home from work and you will walk the street blissfully unaware of the migraine-inducing ruckus and seizure-inducing lights of the city.

You will also learn how to defuse hecklers and cat callers. "Hello," you might say to someone who says hello to you. "A laowai? Where?" you might gasp in the local tongue when someone claims to have sighted a foreigner. Above all else, you must remember that your presence in Asia is bizarre and inexplicable to the common man. If you saw a talking St. Bernard go walking down 32nd Street, you might be inspired to say to your neighbor, "There goes a talking St. Bernard!" - or perhaps, if you were brave enough, to call out "Hello!" from a safe enough distance. I am not saying that westerners are talking St. Bernards or that we should be treated as such, but it is important to keep in mind that, at least in Asia, we are only slightly more commonplace.

The second kind of gumption trap I want to talk about is brought on by specific gumption-sucking events. Amidst a lot of general gumption erosion, these are the straws that break the rickshaw's back. I can think of three specific examples, but the list of possible misunderstandings that can send a laowai into semi-permanent hermitage is too vast to record here.

There was an African-American teacher living in Hangzhou, I believe, who ran away crying when a Chinese vegetable vendor approached her shouting "Nigga nigga nigga!" One imagines the vegetable vendor was as baffled and startled as the American. In addition to meaning "that one," the phrase nigga is the all-purpose Chinese stall word. So the vendor was saying, "Er, um, ah." (Though I was sheepish about using it at first, I am now able to carry on whole conversations of nigga nigga nigga with a straight face.)

A former Peace Corps volunteer stormed back to her apartment after an old lady, late at night, cornered her in the street and said, "Go home." Of course, it is possible that the old woman was indeed saying, "Yankee, go home." But considering the impeccable politeness of the Chinese toward foreigners, it seems more likely to me that the old woman was nicely suggesting that the young lady go home because it was unsafe to be out on the street so late at night. Or perhaps she was asking the laowai whether she was going home or not. In any case, unless one is a master of Mandarin, there is no use in taking offense at anything, even a remark that seems overtly insulting. To begin with, it is likely that you have misunderstood the situation and anyhow, as a laowai, you don't have the language or the legal representation to settle the score.

A few weeks ago, I was walking back from class on a particularly foul and rainy day when a group of college dorks spotted me and started chanting, "Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!" I went home, locked the door, and had myself a nice, long sulk: I came 10,000 miles to teach you dorks English and this - this - is the thanks I get, et cetera. But then I had to laugh at myself. "Fuck you," as chanted by some Chinese college dorks, does not have the same meaning as a "fuck you" uttered through the clenched teeth of some frat boy down at Billy Frogg's. In all likelihood, the dorks had no idea what the phrase meant, or had at best only a vague understanding that it might evoke some sort of response from a passing laowai. Probably, they just picked it up from watching Scarface and liked the sound of it.

The only way to deal with a specific gumption-sucking event is to assume something has been lost in translation and forget about it, because there is not a damned thing you can do one way or the other.

This leads me to Laowai Escapism Disorder (LED). Inevitably, though laowais are few and far between, one foreigner will encounter another foreigner at the bus stop and before long, that germ of western brotherhood will snowball into a raucous herd of laowais who prowl the streets at night and frighten the local restauranteers by drinking large quantities of beer without ordering anything to eat. There is nothing wrong with making foreigner friends in and of itself, but all too often I have seen it lead to the disappointing realization, on the flight back home, that you can't understand a word of the captain's announcement and that you have to order your celebratory mid-flight Budweiser in English. And so the time spent abroad amounts to a passport stamp and a blip on a future resume.

But the real danger of Laowai Escapism Disorder is that it exacerbates general gumption erosion and specific gumption-sucking events. You get in the habit of blowing off steam with your nightly laowai therapy group and before long, one-upmanship leads to nasty little Two Minutes Hate sessions where the five of you get sloppy and talk trash about nobody in particular, or everybody in general. You begin looking for specific gumption-sucking events to bring up at the next meeting and never fail to grumble about the general gumption eroding process. Meanwhile, all sorts of locals are streaming past your table, secretly longing to take you and your band of laowais out for a ridiculous night on the town. But alas, you will never meet them, because by then you are as insoluble as a drop of motor oil in a glass of baijiu.

I would like to close this chautauqua by saying that, though Hinduism is about as widespread in China as Denny's, there is a karmic ebb and flow in the day-to-day existence of the laowai and it tends to tilt overwhelmingly in his favor. For every long-range heat-seeking "HELLO!" there are a hundred smiling old men who are content to sit and smoke cigarettes and quietly ponder your existence. And for every cab driver who gyps you on the fare, there is a college girl you have never met who will walk two miles with you to the bank, then run two miles to her dorm room to find her Chinese I.D. card, then run two miles back to the bank so you can exchange your $100 U.S. dollars for life-giving Chinese RMB, so you can pay for the bus ride home, so you can afford to sit and write this blog post, so you can eat, and so on.


patti s said...

Yes, I read the WHOLE thing. (very interesting, by the way). Everytime I read any blog that even remotely has the same theme, I can't help thinking about the pcv's there who worried that they wouldn't experience the "real peace corps". It is just as much a challenge to adjust in China, (in a different way) as it is in a hut in Africa. (I mean, I guess it is, I have never been to either place) I have kissed goodbye a big piece of my heart and patiently waited for him to come back from both. (too much? sorry, moms do that!)

Donna said...

Hi Keith, I stumbled upon your blog and I find every entry simply captivating. I was born in China but brought up in French Canada. Therefore, this summer, when I returned to China on a solo trip, I was doubly expatriated. Throughout my three months stay, I mingled with expats at hostels and blended in with the locals on the street. This schizophrenic experience stirred up some unrelenting questions on cultural integration/assimilation/alienation/appropriation (I can't quite put my finger on it) and aggravated a long-existing identity crisis. All this to say, I am really glad to have found this blog which strikes so many chords with my own ruminations.

Regards, to you and to the late DFW.

joe said...

i read it and really enjoyed it.

Jansen Cudal said...

i too read the whole thing. great insight. you might consider starting a cult.

adrian said...

The guy above me turned me this blog and I have been enjoying your posts.

Entertaining, insightful, and down to earth. Keep em coming.

And yes I read the whole thing. Normally I wouldn't say that as my posting would infer this though the previous statements of this fact have created a situation where I feel it necessary

patti s said...

sorry adrian, i started a situation with the whole reading thing. (it was long though wasn't it?) and i can't resist this. i can't remember who turned me this blog!
now you started something.

M said...

Pan-Da, are you really truly American? this strikes me as British humor somehow.
(don't be offended don't be offended, it's all good)
Awesome job, by the way, but you know that already.