Monday, May 10, 2010

Listless Mistress

Just before I came to China, I wrote about wanderlove. I coined the pun to describe the long-term contentment with living abroad that sets in after wanderlust has faded, after you've grown jaded to all manner of foreign novelties - squat toilets, babies crapping in the street, movie theaters that sell beer, the Royale With Cheese. Wanderlust becomes wanderlove at the point when you cease to view those cultural quirks as novelties, but as inescapable facts of life.

Love is a difficult thing, and so is wanderlove. It's all roses for the first three months, when you're still flying along on the wings of wanderlust. Babies crap at your feet, and you laugh. You slip and tumble headlong into the squat toilet, and you laugh. You order a Royale With Cheese and they give you six of the goddamn things, and you laugh. Then you hit month four and all those shenanigans suddenly cease to be amusing. You wish you didn't have to sidestep so much human feces on your walk to work, and you wish that you could sit and read Bakunin on the crapper, and you wish that you could just get a Quarter Pounder With Cheese fer chrissakes. You spend the next three months reviling everything about the culture that surrounds you, too proud for homesickness but thoroughly pissed off that nobody conforms to your definition of normalcy. So you sulk and delve into your Russian novel collection, because therein lies normalcy, right?

After six months, you peek out from under your Dostoevskian shell and find that life is once again livable. You make friends. You establish connections. You flourish, sort of. And so begins wanderlove, the understanding that you are not separate from the foreigners around you - however separately they may regard you as a foreigner - but that you are a human being, and that they are human beings, and that you all must live with each other somehow and so on and soforth. Which sounds like a happy ending, but it really isn't. It is only the beginning of a long and often tedious marriage built on a foundation of routine, compromises, petty squabbles and honey-do chores.

It's like courting the ravishing Anna Karenina and, after six painstaking months, finally luring her away from that robot husband of hers – only to watch her grow obese and leathery and dull before your very eyes. After six months abroad, you start to wonder where the spark went. We used to have such great chemistry, me and China Karenina, but nowadays I'm lucky if she even puts out. She refers to the sex act as our "duty to the Party." And now she wants kids. Kids? To be perfectly honest, there are days when I get home from work, crack open the Rand McNally World Atlas and ogle the hell out of Kyrgyzstan - her exotic netherregions, her vague southern border, that skimpy little green bikini that leaves little of her topography to the imagination.

This is my roundabout way of saying that I am fending off another bout of writer's block. China remains as quirky as ever, but at the moment, I don't find her all that alluring. I tried attacking my writer's block with gross amounts of Nescafe, with formaldehyde beer, with Panda cigarettes. I experimented with cleaning my apartment, then I experimented with trashing the place. Perhaps, I thought, my diet had something to do with it. I ate nothing but cabbage for a week, then I devoured four Royales With Cheese in rapid succession. Then I started appearing at strange new restaurants and pointing at random menu items whose Chinese characters looked menacing, to say the least. I discovered spicy pig intestine soup that way, but the experiment did little to clear my writer's block - or my colon, for that matter.

I'm not sure what the problem is. There is no shortage of material to write about. I still haven't written about my trip to Yunnan, or the Kunming Dwarf Kingdom, or the World's Largest Transformer – nor have I written about the Zebra Music Festival, or the two-hour lecture on Western History and Culture that I gave the other night, or the rural middle school I taught at a couple weeks ago in exchange for a pack of Panda cigarettes, or the Mrs. Robinson of China, who first tried to set me up with her daughter, then literally threw herself at me in the darkness of a karaoke room, asking me in a baijiu-breathed whisper whether I wanted "a Chinese mama." And meanwhile, the babies continue to crap at my feet, the cabbies continue to scare the bejeezus out of me, and my students continue to baffle me. So there is no shortage of material. But what I lack at the moment is the ability to see any of that material as new, or amusing, or worth writing about.

Which leads me back to wanderlove. Who is this pimply old China Karenina in my bed? This is not my beautiful wife! This is not my beautiful house! And the days go by, same as it ever was. You watch her playing mahjongg with her oldster friends and wonder how she could possibly find that lousy game so damned fascinating. For four hours she plays mahjongg, then she comes home and nags you to shave, to get a haircut, to tie your shoes. She asks if you can use chopsticks. Look, honey, for the 1.3 billionth time ... She tells you your classes are too easy, then she tells you they're too hard. She flips through the Russian novel you're reading and shouts, "I can't understand a word of it!" On the street, she picks up and coddles somebody else's baby, then holds it over a sewer drain to take a crap. Then on the walk home all she talks about is babies this, babies that, oh Panda, shouldn't we perform our duty to the Party and make one of our very own? And meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan, that saucy little thing, beckons you from page K-72 of the 2006 Rand McNally World Atlas.

But something about China keeps you around. She is nothing if not consistent. She's loyal, hardworking. She keeps you well fed. She isn't much for conversation, but then, neither are you. Every now and again, she does something charming to remind you of the good old days, when you were young together, and the spark flickers anew, if only for a minute or two. Then, one day, you hear through a mutual friend that Kyrgyzstan has fallen off the democratic wagon and checked into rehab again. You breathe a sigh of relief. Dodged a bullet, there. Maybe, you begin to think, you don't have it so bad after all. You watch China slaving away in the kitchen. My God, you think, the size of that rump! No, China might not be much to look at anymore - the old grey mare, as they say, just ain't what she used to be. She's stubborn, impolite, surprisingly filthy. She's sensitive to a fault and moody as hell. She's jealous of all your past loves: Germany, Poland, Mexico, and especially South Korea, that soju-drinking hussy. She's a sucker for gossip, she pries into your personal affairs, and she can't carry a tune. All and all, she's a totalitarian woman. But can she ever cook ...


Adventures In China said...

I loved this, except now when I hear the words "Anna Karenina" I can only think of our writer's club...and the other books we were reading out of that night. Which are also kind of appropriate for the metaphor, I guess.

Nicely done!

Anonymous said...

I hope you don't plan on bringing China Karenina home to meet the folks. I don't want that fat ass breaking my furniture.
An anonymous parental unit

Donna said...


Donna said...

To make sure nothing is lost in translation, I'll do it myself:

Mr. Pan Da,
I read your entry, although I felt like smiling, but I couldn't laugh.
Cunning but naive, lazy but smart are certainly part of the essence of the Chinese, but if you spend all day dealing with this aspect only, I can only sigh, I can only sympathize.
I hope you can have a true friend, to lead you, and indirectly us, your readers, to discover the Chinese as endearing pessimists and ridiculous idealists, to observe the hidden but undying side to them beneath their everyday veneer. I also hope you can encounter someone whose understanding of the West is at least on par with your understanding of China, so you can have equal, level-sided conversations.

Anonymous said...

this article was an exercise in mental agility that i found very rewarding.