Thursday, March 10, 2011

Via Chicago

I've found
the way those engines sound
will make you kiss the ground
when you touch down

Three months left in China and I'm sputtering towards the finish line. Shuddering my way through black plumes of industrial backwash, muttering my way through ribbon after ribbon of red tape, stuttering my way through Oral English 101. Sputtering my way through Chinese airspace like a battered old Sopwith Camel, fuselage peppered with artillery wounds, professorial elbow patches sewn into my wings, the whole thing jerry rigged together with dental floss and Chinese finger traps, faltering and fluttering, stammering and stuttering but still, still sputtering through the People's secondhand smoke towards a drive-thru McMirage on the distant horizon.

Rest assured, when I return home, via Chicago, I will return in one piece, but it will be a piece so shoddily taped together as to inspire some metaphysical debate.

China has been rough on me, as I imagine it is rough on just about anyone who isn't Chinese. As I imagine it is rough on many people who are Chinese. Here is no country for old men. Here is no country for young men. Here is no country for middle-aged divorcées, or bright-eyed college graduates. Here is no country for peasants, or priests, or philosophers, or poets, or the sad lot of soft-hearted daydreamers who submit themselves daily to the process of being hammered and screwed into bright yellow star-shaped pigeonholes. It must be a country for some particular demographic of people. But I'm pretty sure by now that, wherever else I belong, I do not belong to that demographic.

So I am sputtering. Here is no country for pandas. I haven't cleaned my apartment in months. The Maginot Line between my living room and the garbage dump outside has been reduced to a matter of geopolitical nitpickery. I sleep when the sun comes up. I rise just before it sets. My routine has grown so erratic that the erratic has become routine. The pitching rotation of my wardrobe - through theft, loss, and washing machine mishaps - has been thinned down to a single middle reliever, a colorblind knuckleballer thrust unexpectedly into the Major League limelight - and he starts more games these days than I am comfortable admitting.

I am sputtering, but I have not yet crashed. And I'm not likely to, not at this point. Because I'm so close to the finish line. Because however much my personal hygiene has suffered, my life out of doors has gotten that much better. A wonderful sort of existential callus has formed around my person. I no longer notice the traffic noise, the construction, the esophageal explosions that rage in the streets, not unless they are pointed out to me, not unless I consciously decide to think about them by way of reminding myself of just how numb I have become to the sensorial circus of my surroundings. It matters very little to me what I have for lunch or dinner. Let's do Chinese, I figure. These days, I teach with the part of my brain that reptiles use when they are snoozing on rocks. Which is not to say that I have grown lazy, or that I care little for my work. But it is to say that I no longer panic, or worry, or even think about teaching. It is something I do, almost instinctively, rather than something I get my panties in a bunch about. Not even my hecklers can get my goat these days. Foreigner, foreigner! Chinese person, Chinese person. I am mindful of the fact that every heckle is one heckle closer to the last heckle, which will occur on an eastbound flight from Beijing to San Francisco. And then, for that one heckler at least, the tables will turn, indeed. Have fun on Haight Street, asshole.

Sputtering though I am, I have turned a corner. Sichuanese winter died in its sleep last week. The westerly winds have ushered in days of warmth, days of something resembling sunshine: a dusty orange tennis ball dangling down from the aluminum-tinged sky. I am in a consistently better mood when there is something resembling sunshine to wake up to. The days will be warmer from here on out, I know, and the sun won't be the stranger that it was. Things will be easier from here on out. It's as though, after rowing against the waves for the past 21 months, I have finally settled into a warm and easy current. It is only a matter of time before I am sighted by the Peace Corps rescue chopper and hoisted aboard with fistpounds and manhugs and bottles of champagne to be uncorked and splooged about the cabin.

I have turned a corner. I have already lived far more days in China than I have left. The next time I clean my apartment will be the last time I clean my apartment. The next time I step on a fresh baby turd on the sidewalk will be the last time I step on a fresh baby turd on the sidewalk. There remains a daunting amount of Peace Corps paperwork left to be done, but I will fill it out with the same giddiness as a middle schooler cleaning out his locker, or a high schooler returning his books, or a frat boy foiling the crusty dean one last time.

Back when I was still grappling with the enormity of two years abroad, I used to measure the time on my late night jogs. I would run for 24 minutes - two years - and if I had already spent six months in China, I knew those 18 remaining minutes were what I had left ahead of me. Two months ago - my 19th month - my right achilles tendon had an unfortunate run-in with the front tire of a moped. I walked it off and thought nothing of the encounter. Until last week - the start of my 21st month - when my right achilles tendon started talking to me and, on a mid-afternoon cigarette run, audibly popped. No more running. I can barely even walk. But late at night, after the eleven o'clock curfew has sent all my hecklers to bed, I go out for a hobble, if you will. Every step is a bitch, as every day in China has been a bitch. The walk (the hobble) takes about half an hour, but for my purposes I round it down to 24 minutes. And those last three minutes back home, when my achilles tendon feels about ready to snap in two like a Chinese condom - well, I say to myself, that's where I'm at. I'm so close to home, and every tedious, tentative step brings me closer. I really have nothing left to do but keep hobbling, and keep an eye out for mopeds.

1 comment:

alison said...

One of my favorite moments in preparing for my departure was to throw away (i.e. leave out for the old ladies) almost all my clothes, then go and buy some new ones. I traveled home with a single suitcase, because really all you can take from China is inside yourself.