Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
- Random House Dictionary
Don't call me Ishmael. Call me Panda. I read the better part of Moby-Dick in the bathtub of my childhood. Splashing around with a vinyl fleet of rubber duckies, making submarine noises, Johnson & Johnson No More Tears Shampoo, the whole deal. I was 24 years old at the time, and I was living at home. I had just returned to Nebraska after a year in South Korea. Between countries. I had little or no money in my manpurse and nothing particular to interest me on shore. In those tedious days of born-again infancy, I split my time between the bathtub and the coffee shop and the piss-tinged reading rooms of the Omaha Public Library. I read Moby-Dick for a living. I loved the book and loved it deeply. It had me at Ishmael. Eventually, I got myself a job. I was a scrivener, basically. But the job wasn't enough, and neither was hunting the White Whale. Wanderlust, restless legs, et cetera. I had to leave. But how?
Spoiler alert: Ahab and me, we didn't get the whale in the end. Sigh. The one that got away. After two full months in the tub with Melville, Moby-Dick was a hard book to put back on the shelf. I didn't want to stop reading it. As far as books go, it was a messy breakup. Herman started dating that pretentious asshat bartender at The Anchor Inn. In retaliation, I kept all of Melville's favorite sea shanty records. But several years down the road, I find myself returning again and again to that first chapter of his, the unimpeachable LOOMINGS - which just has to be the most bad-ass chapter title of all time.
Call me Ishmael, but that first paragraph of LOOMINGS rings truer to me than anything I have ever read. Especially when I read it for the first time, nestled there in my parents' upstairs bathtub. Grim about the mouth, indeed. A damp, drizzly November in my soul. An icy, windblasted January in Nebraska. I remember that winter well, however much I want to unremember it. The rocksalted roads led nowhere. The street lights were all flashing red. My gym membership had expired. So, too, had my library card. All relations with the fairer sex had come to naught. The cubicle work was sharpening my soul to a fine, shiv-like point. Rest assured I would have started knocking off the backwards "DEEZ NUTS" hats that were so en vogue amongst the Omaha frat boy community in those days, if I had stayed in Omaha any longer than I did. But I willed myself out of the country. I did some intercontinental ballistic job searching and found myself a teaching gig in Kielce, Poland. And in February, I left Omaha for a place that was even colder, even more miserable than Omaha. What can I say? My hypos got the upper hand of me.
Nanchong, Sichuan Province, People's Republic of China. Three years later. I am 27, somehow. The winter semester shuddered to a close sometime last week. The campus has been evacuated. The students are gone. I was relieved at first. As a bearded laowai, I am heckled, harassed, hectored and huckstered whenever I leave my apartment, mostly by students. So any set of circumstances that conspires to reduce my daily quota of degradation is a godsend. But with the departure of the students, the shops have closed down. The oldsters have gone home. And the outside world has become a very cold, very damp, very empty place, indeed.
The only open restaurant within walking distance of my apartment is a dingy little dumpling shop that is eternally sold out of dumplings. But nobody eats there. So my guess is that they don't bother making dumplings in the first place. This evening, out of desperation, I walked a half-mile to the Dumpling Restaurant of Woe and supped on a tiny plate of stale radishes.
"These aren't very good," the boss said as he slid them across the table. "Eat slowly."
He was right. They weren't very good. I ate slowly and left quickly.
There is one convenience store still standing. I go there for toilet paper, soap, shampoo, beer, smokes, snacks, water. These days, I go there for conversation. The boss always asks me if I'm going back to my hometown for Spring Festival.
"Probably not," I tell her. "Too expensive."
"Where will you go, then?"
"I dunno," I say. "Probably nowhere."
And so far, I have gone absolutely nowhere. I spent the first two weeks of the new year, the Year of the Rabbit, in Nanchong: reading, writing, taking long walks. Squatting in my apartment like a hen, with a space heater tilted upward towards my netherregions. I actually started reading The Bible, just because I had never read it before and figured that I ought to read it before I died. But somewhere around the end of Exodus, I began to wonder what the fuck I was doing with my time. Why am I here, I wondered - not in the broader existential sense, but like, why am I here in Nanchong when I don't have to be? I'll be stranded in China for seven more months, and then I will leave, almost certainly never to return. This is my last vacation in China. Let my people go, I said. The cruel Sichuanese winter had sunk in. Fog upon smog upon fog. A deep grayness. A damp, drizzly November in my soul. LOOMINGS, et cetera. Let my people go, et cetera.
I put down The Good Book. It was Sunday night and it was late. Let my people sleep, I said. I polished off my nightcap. I zipped my coat up tight, pulled the hood over my head, and I curled up into bed under two layers of sweater and two layers of blanket. A human burrito. I drifted off to sleep and I dreamt that I was in Yunnan Province. I was in Kunming, at a youth hostel. And I was sitting outside in the sun, across a table from a gorgeous raven-haired girl with black wire-framed glasses. We didn't talk because we didn't need to. We were in love. And we both knew what that meant. She was wearing a frilled white blouse and a purple skirt. I was probably wearing the same clothes I've worn for the past month. I forget. She didn't say a word and neither did I, but we knew. It was not an erotic dream, not at all. I never got past first base in the dream. Heck, I never left the on-deck circle. But the dream was more erotic than anything I have ever experienced. Nothing happened. We just sat there at the table, reading our respective books and understanding each other until I woke up. Groaning and babbling sweet nothings to myself, I tried to get back into the dream, but it didn't happen. In my experience, you can never get back into the dream. You just get shipped off to somewhere you'd rather not be. I fell asleep again and I dreamt I was walking along the edge of the Grand Canyon, wearing a backpack full of neutron star material. They say a spoonful weighs a ton. I kept falling over. Getting back up and falling over. Getting back up. Falling over. Eventually, I gave up walking and let myself tumble over the edge. I fell and I fell.
I woke up gasping for breath. After a while, I realized that I was very hungry. So I caught a cab to the McDonald's downtown and there, a very drunk Nanchonger grabbed me by the neck and threw me out into the street. Threw me right out into damp, drizzly Nanchong. A damp, drizzly November in my soul. Loomings. I decided right then that I needed to leave town. Let my people go, I said.
So, here is what will happen. Tomorrow, I will wake up around noon and throw my laundry in the washing machine. Then, wearing the same clothes I have worn for the past month, I will march right down to the front office of the China West Normal University Foreign Language Department. I will ask my boss for my passport, a vital document that I haven't seen in eight months. He will tell his underling to go find it, and his underling will tell his underling to go find it, and his underling will rummage around his employer's office for the better part of an hour, before discovering my passport in his coat pocket. He will open up my passport and laugh at my photo. I will thank him. Then I will return to my apartment, collect my laundry, wave it around a lot by way of drying it, and stuff it all in a plastic bag. Then I will catch a taxi to the train station. I will purchase a one-way ticket to Kunming, Yunnan Province. The train bureaucrat will ask to see my passport. I will show it to her. She will giggle at the photograph. I will thank her. I will while away the hours until departure in some bar. Then I will wait in line for a good long while. Then I will board a greasy chain-linked vessel bound for the south. I will lay me down in a cot some fifteen feet off the ground. I will read Hermann Hesse until I fall asleep. The next morning, I will wake up to the sun coming in through the window. Miraculously, I will wake up in a warm part of the world. I will step out onto the platform in Kunming and nobody will care none too much that I am a foreigner. And I will catch a cab and check into a youth hostel and squeeze the juice out of two weeks - lying out in the sun, eating greasy sandwiches, drinking coffee by day, imbibing beer by night, playing ping-pong with any and all comers.
Of course, I did the same exact thing last year. I went to Kunming last year. A year ago to the day. So I am retracing my steps. I am repeating myself. By escaping to Kunming, I am leaving one rut for another. But Nanchong dogs me. And this dream of mine haunts me. Being choke-slammed out into the damp, drizzly streets of Nanchong. And this raven-haired girl with the wire-frame glasses: who is she? Does she exist? My dreaming self has posed a question that my waking self must answer. I don't believe in dreams, but one never knows, does one?
I have never been a very good traveler. I never seem to make it to the places you're supposed to go see. I am an American who has never seen the Grand Canyon. Can't even imagine it. In all my time in Poland, I never made it to Auschwitz. I never did Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro, though I was only a couple hours away from it. I've never seen the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors, and I probably never will. And on some level, I don't care. I don't really care to see those things. I don't chase places. I chase my own tail. I chase whims and vapors. Smoke and mirrors. I hunt the white whale. The raven-haired girl in the wire-framed glasses. The end is there in the beginning, and it's there for all to see. Because I will never catch the white whale, you see. Nobody ever does. But I'd like to think that I'll land a pretty damned hefty bass fish somewhere along the way. And it won't be the white whale. But I'll take it over a can of sardines. You know?