I think I will take a short break from my Kunming travelogue, if you don't mind. I'm stuck, you see. The words are already written down in my pretentious little Moleskine® notebook. There they are, perfectly visible, scribbled down in barely decipherable black ink. All I have to do is type the words. But they don't feel good on my fingertips, however many times I type and retype them. Lost in transcription, I guess.
To me, the hardest things to write about are the things that happened in the not-so-distant past. It's like retelling the joke you just told. The joke everyone laughed at. But somebody missed the joke. So you have to repeat the joke for this one inattentive dude, even as you ruin it for everyone else.
When you find yourself caught up in a story, you run that story through your mind so many times that it becomes too big to fail. Then, lo and behold, when you finally sit down to write the story, it fails. And you can't bail it out, however late into the night you filibuster, however many Starbucks stimulus packages you sneak past the House. The story fails. It fails because it's too big to fail, because it was never supposed to fail, because you never believed it could fail. It fails because it is a good story but you're not yet good enough to write it. It fails because you're too far away from the story to remember what it felt like when it happened, and because you're still too near to the story to comprehend what the hell it means.
I find it much easier to write about things that happened in the not-so-distant present. Like what happened just now. I can write about that. So that is what I will try to do. Something happened this evening, just a couple hours ago, though I'm not quite sure anything happened at all. Well, obviously, something happened. Something is always happening. But I'm not sure whether the events are related to one other, or whether I am stringing them together after the fact. Whatever. I'm writing this because I'm verbally constipated for the moment. I'm writing this, mostly, to see what happens when I write it.
It was round about midnight and I was on the prowl for beer, a couple bottles to unblock the aforementioned writer's block. The usual shops - the shops whose shopkeepers know what kind of beer I want - were all closed, shutters down. So I resorted to a back-alley shish-kebab place. I try to maintain a steady rapport with all the shopkeepers in my part of town, especially with this back-alley shish-kebab man who is ethnically Tibetan and therefore almost as foreign as I am. I tried to score a quick trio of takeout beers but the Tibetan invited me to sit. So I sat. I knew I would be there a while. A couple of college kids came dweebing into the restaurant and sat across from me. They didn't bother me. I sensed that they were not the usual Chinese undergraduate riffraff, so I offered them cigarettes. We got to talking.
They were not the usual Chinese undergraduate riffraff. They spoke no English, but they understood my Chinese - which is to say they possessed an uncanny knack for hand gestures and sound effects. Over the course of an hour, I successfully explained the existential impact of the Obama presidency, the ever-widening income gap in the Western world, the ominous rise of the Tea Party, the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords and the many reasons why it scared the shit out of me. The college kids, in turn, offered me some unusually candid opinions on Chinese politics. They, in turn, offered me some unusually candid Chinese cigarettes. They recommended some Chinese proxy servers, the better to access my own blog with. These kids were not the usual Chinese undergraduate riffraff. We feasted upon spiced pig brain - the first time I have ever eaten brain, believe it or not, in all my time in China. The pig brain was good, and I feel slightly smarter for having eaten it. When it was time to leave, I tried to pay the tab, but the college kids swatted my hand away. I tried to swat their hands away, but they swatted my swatting hand away. They paid the tab.
We parted ways. I was running low on cigarettes, so I hailed a cab. The cabbie was an old timer with a wife and a son, and he was awfully happy to talk about his son, a recent graduate of Sichuan Normal University. The cabbie stopped along the way to pick up a couple college kids waiting on the side of the road. There were two of them and one of me. I scooched over to the left back seat because the kids would have to get in from the right side. I knew this because in China, or at least in Nanchong, the left side door of the cab is always locked. I suppose the cabbies keep the left side door locked to prevent renegade drunks from bailing on the fare. Or perhaps if the cabbies didn't keep the left side door locked, Chinese Fire Drills would rage in the streets every time they stopped the cab. Truth be told, I don't know why Chinese cabbies lock the left side door. But the left side door is always locked. This is a rule and I have adjusted to it, as I have adjusted to so many other rules in China, as I have adjusted to so many other rules in Nanchong, often without knowledge, always without quite understanding.
The college kids eavesdropped on my sweet Chinese nothings and complimented my accent. The cabbie agreed that it was good. I contested that it was shit. Everyone laughed. I offered the college kids cigarettes and they thanked me. We smoked for a bit. The cabbie dropped the college kids off at the train station, then waited while I ran across the street to buy cigarettes. The cigarette vendor was all giggles and smiles to see me. She complimented my Chinese. I complimented her Chinese. She giggled and smiled.
On the ride home, the cabbie ran out of things to say. So I thought back on the dreams I'd had last night. It was a rough night's sleep as I remembered it. I had dreamt that I was back in Omaha, smoking a cigarette outside The Brothers on 38th and Farnam. My favorite bar. A cold and dark night. Breathing fog. Black ice everywhere. I smoked. I joggled my leg to the faintly audible bass line of the Roxy Music song I'd just put on the jukebox. I shoegazed. I gazed back up. A derelict was shambling my way. He pulled a gun. I threw up my hands. He shot me in the gut. I woke up in a cold sweat, as one does. Holding my gut. I was stunned, but I wasn't altogether surprised. This is one of many possibilities in America.
In China, among many other impossibilities, being shot down in the street is not a possibility. Never in Nanchong could I be held up at gunpoint. No, in Nanchong, one of China's most violent cities, I can troll the shady avenues in the shady hours to my heart's content and I will never be assaulted - or if I am, as I have been a couple times, it will not be at gunpoint, but at the feeble meathooks of a thoroughly drunk Chinese salaryman. For however much I loathe the place, I have nothing to be afraid of in Nanchong. And after months and months of homesick idolatry, that dream reminded me that in America - even in mild-mannered Omaha - I have a great deal to be afraid of, indeed. I can almost understand why so many creepy Americans linger around Asia for decades, extending their visas indefinitely. The Asian existence is an antlike existence, but if nothing else, it is a safe existence.
And there is the hospitality to consider. In America, a night like tonight would never have happened. Consider this: I walk into The Brothers for some beers-to-go. I'm wearing my pajamas, basically. Some college kids treat me to dinner and drinks. They pay the tab. They bid me farewell. They will never see me again. They ask for nothing in return. Impossible in America. A nightly occurrence in Nanchong. Granted, it's because I'm a foreigner. But that kind of hospitality doesn't exist in America. It's not that I seek out Chinese meal tickets. The Catholic guilt, in fact, is almost too much for me to bear. But it's such pleasant companionship. No pretensions. Just the amusingly futile attempt to understand one another over beer and spiced pig noggin. I know that once I leave Nanchong, these sorts of things will never happen to me, never again. I will go to hipster bars with my very best hipster friends, and each of us will pay our share. We will divvy up in the Dutch manner. At the night's end, a handshake, maybe a man-hug, and we drive home separately. In Nanchong, amidst all the xenophobia and cross-cultural weirdness, any sane interaction is a miracle. So those interactions verge on the divine, when they happen. Acts of generosity leave you overfed, half-drunk and breathless. But in America, I will find naught but good conversation, mutual respect and the occasional gun-wielding raving derelict. At this point, I'm not willing to say that either set of circumstances is better than the other. Instinctively, I prefer the American way. I miss my home. But at no point prior to tonight did I think that I would miss Nanchong. At no point prior to tonight did I even entertain the thought that I would miss Nanchong. At no point prior to tonight did I even dream of thinking that I would ever entertain the thought that I would miss Nanchong. But I suppose, pending tonight's dreams, that for the moment, very tentatively, I am willing to risk saying that I might yet dream to think that I will one day entertain the thought that I will one day miss Nanchong, Sichuan Province, People's Republic of China.