I have been away from my writing desk for about a month now. I spent two weeks in Dazhou teaching teachers how to teach, and another week in Chengdu, bidding farewell to some of my favorite assholes in the whole world. July was a significant month for me, and a big part of why I haven't written anything about it is precisely because it was so significant. I'm not sure I can do it justice at this point.
Another thing is: I didn't have time to write. When I wasn't working, I was out carousing, and when I wasn't out carousing, I was avoiding natural disasters left and right (and up and down, for that matter). For thirty-odd days, I was refreshingly estranged from the internet. I'm the kind of guy who checks the Huffington Post every ten seconds for news of the impending apocalypse, so it was educational for me to return to the Huffington Post after a month and find that absolutely nothing worth reading about had occurred in my absence. The only news I cared about was going on all around me.
And yet another thing is: I have been avoiding writing. Every writer worth his or her own salt swears that hard work is a must. A writer must write every day, preferably for eight hours at a time, and preferably with a tumbler of bad whiskey at the ready. But as you well know by now, bad whiskey or no, I often go long stretches without writing a word. And I suspect I'm none the worse for it. For me, writing is like riding a bike - or a unicycle, if you happen to be a street mime. It does require hard work and dedication, but it is not incompatible with bouts of travel or debauchery. After a prolonged absence, when I finally do sit back down at my desk, I find that my brain has changed in all sorts of ways that I wouldn't have noticed if I had been writing all the way through. The compositional act is a bit awkward and clunky at first, but after a while the realization sinks in that the person writing now is very different from the person writing only a month before, which tends to make the writing process a lustier, sexier pursuit than it usually is for me. Who is this stranger in my head and where has he been?
In the same vein, reunions after a prolonged absence are often awkward and clunky (but also lusty and sexy) experiences. I believe that the most trustworthy mirrors are the ones that haven't seen you in a while. Your close friends are accustomed to seeing your mug around every day, and for that reason, they go unaware of changes in your physique or accent or patterns of thought because those changes happen so gradually. But leave somebody for one year, or even for one month, and when you return, you will find yourself oddly transformed in the eyes of your beholder, though you yourself feel not a whit different.
Last week, I visited my host family for the first time in over a year. After all the awkward embraces had been gotten out of the way, my host mother sized me up and said, "Pan Daaaaa! You've gotten fat!"
I laughed it off in the manner of the Chinese. Then I sat down to dinner. My host parents, apparently, were conspiring to make me even fatter. I devoured my share of veggies, but self-consciously avoided the twice-cooked pork. Then I got up and went to the bathroom.
I have never been sensitive about my weight because I've never possessed much weight to speak of. But I'd found my host mother's remark particularly cutting. So I switched on the vanity lights and lifted up my shirt. True: a bit more baby fat than I had in my early twenties, but that much is unavoidable. Baby fat and all, I was still as skinny as a chopstick. I sucked in my gut, then I let it hang out. It wasn't even a passable gut. Just a little more Panda to love, that's all. So I wasn't fat, at least not by any sane definition of the word. But for the first time since the throes of puberty, I had allowed anxiety about my appearance to creep into my head, and in that moment in front of the mirror, I swore off sweet and sour pork for the indefinite future.
When I returned to Nanchong a couple days ago, my first stop was the convenience store by my apartment. I slid a bottle of yogurt across the counter. The shopkeeper sized me up.
"Wow! You've gotten fat!"
"I've gotten fat?"
"Yeah! I mean, really fat!"
I put the yogurt back in the fridge and replaced it with a bottle of chamomile tea.
This afternoon, Cabbie Chan (who will figure very slightly into my upcoming Great Flood of Dazhou saga) squinted at me in the rear view mirror and commented on my newfound corpulence. He dropped me off at the restaurant across from the old campus and there, the laoban called me a fatty and looked at my heaping dish of kung pao chicken like she was about to cut me off. And just now at the coffee shop, where I came to write, the owner joined me at the table and distracted me for the better part of an hour by ranting about how fat I'd become. "Fat! Really fat!" he exclaimed, though he followed that up with, "More handsome, too!"
Who is this stranger and how did he get so fat? Maybe it's my haircut. I'm short haired and clean shaven for the first time in almost a year. Maybe that makes one appear fatter. Or maybe I've actually become something of a fatass. If anyone among my readership has seen me lately and is willing to shatter my body image in the name of honesty, I would gladly welcome your criticism so that I can step up my exercise regimen, if that is what is necessary. But I don't believe that I am much fatter than I have ever been, and in any case, I have never been the least bit fat. In fact, when I am among Americans these days, they are quick to point out how much stronger I look, with the appropriate fondling of biceps and manboobs that tend to follow such a compliment. So my guess is that something has been lost in translation, and I will attempt to translate that loss here.
In China (and in South Korea, for that matter) people do not ask, "How are you?" They ask, "Have you eaten?" There are reasons for that. Not so long ago it was a relevant question, hunger taking its rightful precedence over mood and state of being. So my guess is that plumpness in China, as long as it's not morbid obesity, is (at least linguistically) regarded as a virtue. Because plumpness was once, indeed, very much a virtue. Calling a friend or acquaintance "fat" in China is not necessarily the same as calling them "lard-ass." It's more like: you're looking nourished these days. Or at least, that is what I have to assume. Because I am not fat. Trust me on this one. In fact, over the past couple months, through sporadic push-ups and chin-ups, I've more than doubled my cup size and have added quite a bit of meat to my upper arms, though you could still easily wrap your hand around one of my biceps like a sphygmomanometer. I've also grown somewhat swarthy from wandering aimlessly in the remorseless Sichuan summer. All and all, I suppose I do look rather well nourished. But not fat. And if I am fat, then so what? There are worse things to be.
My ego has not been hurt by this recent spate of commentary on my waistline. I'm just puzzled that it came all at once. Fortunately, the Chinese often remark on my appearance, and I seldom find any of their remarks even remotely true. I am not a monkey, though I am distantly related to that species. I am not a giant, although I have been told so by countless Chinese men who are taller than me. My nose is not a triangle, at least not in the Euclidian sense. And I look nothing like Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol. Or Ben Stiller, for that matter. (But maybe I do look a little like Pau Gasol.) So I will file this judgment away with all the rest of China's warped perceptions of my appearance. Then I will wolf down four double cheeseburgers from McDonald's and sit on my fat ass at the computer and try to navigate the keyboard with my fat-ass fingers so I can painstakingly regurgitate all of the things that happened to me over the month of July while I was so busy devouring metric ton after metric ton of condensed lard.