these mornings I wake and steal away

these mornings I wake and steal away,
kiss my sleeping wife whose skin smells like home,
let the cat out of the laundry room
and lope down the stairs,
pass the guard station and the flower shop
and out to the street where anonymity plays a funny game:

beautiful girls turn shyly away and whisper to friends
behind the smallest hands I’ve ever seen

gangs of effeminate James Deans put on stone faces
and flick cigarettes,
wait until our shoulders just pass
to shout


and everyone—
the middle-aged store boss,
the old beggar tapping his bowl,
and the child licking the bright green remains
of a soy bean popsicle from his fingers
—laughs at the funniest two syllable joke
since cancer

smiling, I pass,
but my smiling puts them off
and we’re all back about our business
(theirs being being beautiful, looking cool, bossing, begging, licking,
and mine being some awkward paradox of standing out to disappear)

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Thoughts on Language: Part I

“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

China is a mystery protected by some of the best secret keepers in the world. The Chinese people have been mistreated by their own leaders for millennia and by foreign powers for centuries and often come across rather guarded, and rightfully so. In a city where we have seen only one other foreigner, and with our spoken Chinese at a level somewhere between infant and toddler, it is easy to feel alone and different. Everywhere we go we are met with stares. Cars slow down or stop directly in front of us as we try to cross the street or while we are waiting at the bus stop. We have been the cause of at least one near accident.

Isolated sideshows in the most populous nation in the world.

It is now more than ever that I begin to realize all of the things that I take for granted at home: anonymity, for one, and grocery shopping with a car. In the mornings I miss good coffee and in the hot afternoons and cooling evenings I long for a beer that has had some thought put into it. However, over the last few weeks I began noticing a frustration in me whenever I was out that I could not name. Less a craving and more a deficiency, like being in a room with too many people and suddenly noticing how forced your breathing is or how suddenly essential a few extra feet around you becomes. It was at the same time frustrating and depressing—that point in your thinking when you’ve reasoned yourself into non-existence and realize you’ve forgotten to leave the breadcrumb trail back out.

Then last night I had a dream. The stranger a dream is, and the longer it is, the more I question my diet and whether or not staying up until four in the morning to watch the World Cup is really necessary. The closer it is to reality, and the duller it is, the more I question what I am (or am not) filling my brain with. This fell under the latter category. In my dream I was sitting in a room that was (in true dream fashion) both the fireplace room at Papa Joe’s where I used to work and Dawson Taylor, the coffee shop I frequented back home. Subtract all of the non sequitur nuances and remove the chiaroscuro fisheye lens of dreams. I simply sat and listened. I not only heard, but processed conversations around me—a healthy dream-mix of nonsense and inane banter. Someone gave a speech. Someone else cried. The lasting impression, though, was the sound of it all, the familiar expressions and cadences, the rise and fall, the seamless transition from sound waves to meaning.

It wasn’t until I began writing today that I remembered the dream and the feeling of it. I was content. And not just that—I was inspired. In all of the new experiences here, all of the small victories and the comedy of it all, I have felt more exhaustion than inspiration. Then a dream barely worth remembering, much less mentioning, comes along and I feel suddenly recharged, the deficiency gone, or at least staved off for a while.

Though I miss them, I don’t know if I really took coffee or beer for granted as much as the availability of such things. There were days when they were simply the means to an end, but I have never had much difficulty taking pleasure in small things, tangible things. But language, understanding and being understood, or simply sitting in the middle of a dozen different conversations and getting some strange buzz off of it or letting it roll over and break on me like waves, this I miss, this I had unknowingly devalued.

Language not only allows us to interact with the world, but determines what form that interaction takes. As Henry Michaux says in his poem-essay, Ideograms in China: “Every language is a parallel universe.” It erringly describes our world, but is also a world of its own. Chinese is a mystery. Learning and decoding it is an adventure. English is familiar. It is home. It is the small town and the open road. But it also is an adventure, for every small town has its secrets and a road is never the same twice. As I knew would happen, now outside of America, I can appreciate it again. Without the luxury of understanding in my day to day, I have come to see more clearly the inadequacy of language but also the beauty of it, and the beauty in English, a language so different from Chinese, with such wonderful variation in its word length and sounds, and above all, a language the strength of which lies in its flaws, making it that much more malleable, like so much putty in the hand.

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作家的块 (Writer’s Block)

“Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke

What causes writer’s block? I’m sure there are a number of different things, but what is it in me? In the last two weeks I’ve jotted down a number of lines about this place, for there isn’t a dearth of great images here—middle-aged women in high heels and Mickey Mouse t-shirts, bamboo and laundry swaying in the breeze, the tinny flatbed bands and fireworks of funeral processions outside my window doing their best to wake the dead (and the sleeping)—but the inspiration wasn’t there. It isn’t as if I lost it somewhere over the Pacific. I’d misplaced it long before that.

The truth is, I’d had a pretty good writing spell until about two months ago. Before that point, my journal was full of musings, poems, dreams, and story ideas, a few middle-of-the-night-epiphanies that did not seem quite as inspired in the morning, and notes on whatever book I was reading at the time. From the outset I felt good about what I was writing:

January 12, 2010 2:09 am

Reading this article about train travel gets me excited to leave the same way a neonlit conversation with you (sometimes whispered under the din of drunkards, others yelled over bad metal or rap) makes me want to stay here in this, the strangest country—in Updike’s America, in Kerouac’s America, in the America of the open road and the small town, in the fractured America who some days wakes to find itself beautiful in those few unspoken, undefined unities we both (we all) go out in search for every night. I’ve seen it in the books you’ve leant me. 200 years of poetry and we’re still saying the same thingsa continual adolescence (wonder and immaturity in a beautiful, ephemeral packageboth the form and the imperfect incarnation) looking out over the repetitious suburban skyline and thinking, ironically, like a picture inside a picture inside a picture, “Where is my culture? What is my calling?” And that’s just it. It’s in the asking!

Inspired by my first entry, I gave my journal a topic: America. I put myself to task trying to better understand my homeland, but soon digressed (as we often do) into self-centeredness. When I realized this four months later and just before leaving for China, I was disappointed in myself. I had wanted to use that time to iron out my thoughts and feelings about America and the West as a precursor to my time in the East, but had failed. I believe this is when I lost my inspiration.

But this morning as I reread my deviate entries from February to April, I saw them in a new light. Though they did not contain the purposefulness of my first few entries and the subjects themselves were not particular to America, my voice, the language, and the feelings and opinions expressed were wholly American if for no other reason than that they were my own. When I wrote about religion it was about my experiences with America’s brand of religion. Reading a long entry about masculinity I realized that it was about the dangerous expectations and crumbling ideals in America. I wrote about my family and, in turn, the American family system. I wrote what I know, and I know America.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that today a positive change took place. One of the reasons I wanted to return to China was to compare and contrast it with America and hopefully know both places more deeply. I have been worrying these last two weeks that I do not have the skills to understand either. I do not have a background in sociology or cross-cultural studies and my understanding of both countries seemed to be lacking. But this morning I realized I have the tools to begin: namely, I am American and I am in China. My perception may be off and I may not have the background necessary for an academic approach to the subject, but I am only as fallible as anyone else.

Note to future faithful readers: I would like the main subject of this blog to be West meets East, whether that be in daily life, politics, or literature. All questions, suggestions, and corrections would be most appreciated.

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