Saturday, March 26, 2011

Narcissus, Reflecting

gonna forget about myself for a while
gonna go out and see what others need
-Bob Dylan

The other day I walked into class and found an unusual word written on the blackboard in the impeccable cursive penmanship of a Chinese English teacher. The word was "Narcissus."

"Who knows what this word means?" I asked the class.
Nobody knew.
"Well, it's pronounced like this," I said. "Nar-sis-us."

A low murmuring: narcississississississ ...

"Not bad," I said.

"What is Narcissississississ?" asked one of the suck-ups in the front row.
"Narcissus is a person," I said. "He is a famous character in Western mythology. He might have been Greek. Or Roman. I'll have to Wikipedia that."
"For what is he famous?"
"Narcissus is famous for loving himself. And only himself."
Much giggling from the peanut gallery.
"Seriously," I said. "He saw his own reflection in a pond or some shit and he fell in love with himself."
More giggling. I whirled around to the board.
"And we call people who fall in love with themselves ... " I wrote the word in the gnarly mixed caps of a native speaker. "We call them 'narcissists.'"

More murmuring: narcississississississ ...

A hand shot up in the back row, the back row that persistently avoids kissing my ass.
"Mr. Panda," asked the hand, "are you a narciss ... iss ... iss ... isst?"

I grinned and tugged at my necktie. Then I dodged the question and fished out my lesson plan for the evening - unexpectedly, it was the best class I have ever taught in my life. But more on that later. In the meantime, let's talk about me.

Mr. Panda, are you a narciss ... iss ... iss ... isst? The question unsettled me more than I'd like to admit. Am I a narcissist? Frankly, I'm not sure. I'm not Greek, if that helps any. I don't have a mirror in my apartment and the tap water is too grimy to reflect much of anything, so my living arrangements grant me very few opportunities to fall in love with my gruff, red-bearded visage. So, at the very least, I am not Narcissus incarnate. But when I think about my writing and what I write about, and when I think about this blog in particular - lo, I have to admit to the very self I love and cherish so much: you and me, my friend, we are narcissists.

It's hard not to be a narcissist if you happen to be a foreigner in China. As a foreigner, you are the center of China's attention. Everywhere you go, you are special. Harassed, yes. Cheated, certainly. Worshiped, occasionally. But whatever which way the Chinese treat you, the treatment is always special.

And then, after spending the day at the center of China's attention, you return home to your crummy apartment, where you are the center of your own attention. The narcissist joins the Peace Corps seeking to annihilate his narcissism. But in China, you find yourself wherever you go.

Some degree of narcissism is unavoidable. But why, when it comes time to write, does the narcissistic expat continue to write about himself instead of, say, geopolitics or cultural differences or the Chinese education system or the rest of the world outside his own nappy-headed noggin? From a practical standpoint, I suppose I'm not really allowed to write about those things very much. But even if I could, the thing is, China continues to elude me. After two years, I know more about the place than I did when I arrived, but I feel less and less qualified to write about it. China is too complex. Too many variables. I, myself, am relatively simple by comparison. So when I sit down to write, I cling to the most solid Cartesian rock I can find - myself - and I go from there. Sometimes I brush up against China. Sometimes I bump into China. Sometimes China runs me over with a moped. But China is always the agonist and I, for better or worse, am the protagonist.

Protagonism is a habit I would like to get out of. I'm tired of being the center of attention. I long to dissolve into the obscurity of the Chicago O'Hare arrivals terminal. I long to be ignored and neglected. I long to be belittled by sassy Starbucks baristas. I'm tired of finding myself. Nobody ever finds themselves. Or I don't know. Maybe they do. But what would that entail, anyhow? You find yourself and then what? Then you have to live with yourself.

No, at this point, I would like nothing more than to go back home and eat a baby-sized Chipotle burrito and be good to the people who have been so very good to me over the years. I suppose, at the risk of sounding like Eckhart Tolle or some shit, I suppose that one finds oneself only to the extent that one forgets about oneself. A narcissist I am, indeed. But it is a temporary narcissism, a narcissism born of necessity. Necess-iss-iss-iss-iss ... Narcissism is my way of remaining sane in China, the self-grooming of a cat that has been left out in the rain. I look forward to going home and forgetting about myself for a while. Maybe I'll get myself a warehouse job. Maybe I'll take the GRE. Maybe I'll volunteer someplace. But that's all in the future. I never plan for the future. I think about my present to an unhealthy degree, and I dwell on my past. Also to an unhealthy degree. But the future? What's the sense in worrying about that?

No comments: