Smoglife

Pagodatown

Occasionally grey skies.

There are some days when the air here has the same density as a Flintstones’ chewable vitamin.

There are days when outside there is a lazy grey fug slapped languidly across the buildings and the trees. Days when the wind smells like sawdust and plastic. Days when the sky is a hazy smear, the colour of the bottom of your shoe when you’ve been walking for too long. There are days when I can’t really see down the street and I must spend a few minutes considering whether my eyesight is bad or whether I’ll need a machete to cut through the atmosphere for my evening constitutional.

Sometimes I will wake, emerge from my bed and peer cautiously between my curtains, curious as to what condition I will find the sky above me. My vision darts around, as though searching out phantom particulates, as though they are folklore tricksters who sneak and hide and try to cheat their way into your lungs through riddles or games of chance. When the sky seems to loom too close, when the buildings in the distance become indistinguishable fog figures, a gooey water-colour wash of a steampunk London, I close up shop. Sometimes I just can’t fathom going outside, and thus the curtains are re-drawn, and I pretend that the scary air from outside has no ability to slip within the confines of my sacred, holy apartment. I erect a mental barrier around my home, through which no carcinogenic winds can blow.

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The Every-Asia and the Ghost of the 7-11

The path

Good old Anywhere, Asia. Right?

My street was lined everywhere in convenience stores. Two were physically inside of my apartment building, I could see another three from my window, and the luxury convenience store with the wide picnic tables and the jovial, buoyant staff was at the corner. They were all gleaming, well-groomed affairs: shiny shelves; shiny floors; shiny, moderately-enthused smiles. Triangles of kimbap arrayed neatly, unceasing displays of drinks in various sizes, and snacks in such plentifulness and variety that the bounty of man should surely have offended the gods.

Most of Korea reminded me of my neighbourhood, my tiny shimmering neon hamlet. Family Marts and love motels, coffee shops and karaoke rooms, the constant and effervescent hiss of fluorescent lights, wafts of dumplings and sausage and bubbling vats of oil. The truck that barrelled down my street every morning at 6 a.m., caterwauling about the quality of his oranges, seemed to be a predetermined and omnipresent facet of the Korean universe. This orange truck was the same truck that surely trawled every street in Korea, much as Santa Claus must blast across whole continents and reach every house at staggering velocity.

Wherever I went in Korea, I saw visions of my wedge of the country. Cell phone stores and cafes reconfigured in placement and number, barbecue restaurants occasionally were replaced with stew restaurants. A dumpling cart would be selling fried chicken would be selling rice cakes in piquant red tar. Family Mart would disappear and a 7-11 would take its place. Puzzle pieces were moved, shuffled around, reassembled to slip comfortably into local cartography. And underneath the same heart beat, the same comprehensible rhythm.

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The Singular Joy of Being Invisible

Inwangsan Route

On strange streets, far far away, no one can see you at all.

My university campus was crawling with causes and vigorous young people supporting or decrying them, as most university campuses are. It was impossible to walk anywhere between St. George and Bay without being accosted by earnestness, without being molested by ideology. Everywhere there were plights to be consternated over, things to be enraged at, passions to fill your heart and empty your wallet.

Have you heard about the oil sands, and what various parties want to do to them? Did you know that a politician once said a thing? How about those abortions, and the current number of them, which was not very satisfying? I couldn’t emerge from a subway station without leaflets appearing in my hand as though through sorcery—eager, deeply-feeling youths who didn’t shave would somehow slip their pamphlets and brochures into my unwilling grasp at a rate that astounded my senses and resistance.  Periodically they would invade classes, make heart-felt announcements to lecture halls full of people, their voices quavering with yearning, with emotion, with fire. Cartoon hearts pumped ludicrously in their chests, bounded out through their rib cages and their fashionable cardigans, exploded outward for everyone to see.

As a commuter the number of things I gave a shit about was perilously low. Rush-hour buses and subways drained absolutely all ability I had to care about much of anything, and being 18 siphoned off any remaining ardour. I had assignments and readings and plans to succeed, and combined with two hours of daily rides through busy underground public transit, I simply didn’t have it in me to care. My apathy was deep and oceanic and incomprehensible to the impassioned philanthropists, to the fledgling Marxists and the proto-demagogues and the neophyte neocons. There was a black hole where my fervour organ should have been, and to them I seemed like an abomination from a far-off dimension, betentacled and terrifying and outside of the realm of understanding. They looked upon me and despaired, as I did to them.

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China on Easy Mode

Dragon-dog

The dragon dog says: this attraction costs ten kuai!

I go to trivia on Thursday nights in a Mexican restaurant. The bar is loud, full of talking: English, Dutch, German. The beer is Belgian, and the questions are asked by a middle-aged British man in a fisherman’s hat. The guacamole is pretty convincing – real avocados were involved in its production, and cilantro is buried somewhere inside of the kitchen. The margaritas are margarita-y. Waitresses flutter by in Daisy Dukes and take your orders in pleasant, accepting English and ask if you want the burgers medium or well-done.

This is one of three Tex-Mex joints within walking distance of my apartment in mainland China.

It is hard not to have a strong heuristic for China in your mind: Great Walls down every street, terra cotta warriors planted on every street corner. Martial arts and noodles, ancient masters perched on craggy hills, people and smog and tight, contorted writing everywhere you look. Even with my previous visit to China, I had a fairly strong vision about what China should be. Ancient pagodas, old women with scarlet fans doing synchronized tai chi under moonlight, sculpted boreal trees in architectural gardens. Surrounding these tended, verdant patches of history would be enormous buildings, hundreds of factories under a soot-grey sky, marvels of the modern world.

There would be Chinese language everywhere, and not much else. There would be Chinese food everywhere, and not much else. Chinese culture. Chinese television. Chinese people. In a huge nation with a billion humans wandering around, you kind of don’t need the accoutrements of foreign culture, of foreign language: there’s enough of them locally to learn and explore and discover.

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The Conversion Rate Epiphany

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

A wad of damp, sickly looking coloured notes clung to the inside of my pocket like so much lint and gum wrappers. I pulled out said wad before a store clerk and considered the rainbow of wet paper, the cornucopia of meaningless money before me. I tried to peel a few sickly, soggy slips from the clump, as some simple offering, a meagre supplication before this strange new altar. There were numbers on each, and I could read, and I could add, and yet none of those things particularly helped me. Yuan meant nothing to me, much as won had once meant so little, as rupees and baht and euros.

I had no viable concept for local money. The relative values and exchange rates gyrated across my synapses in a disturbing conga beyond my comprehension, visions from only the darkest obelisks sent from the spookiest, least sensible parts of space. I know that six yuan is one Canadian dollar is one thousand won is fifty rupees is something like 98 American cents. I know this fact and can repeat it by heart, can confirm via apps and research, can mentally convert great sums of multiple currencies given enough time, encouragement, and chocolate milk. But when confronted with a shopkeep who would really like for me to stop staring dumbly at him, drooling all over his counter with my bottle of off-brand local cola, I am a little adrift.

Exchange rates are theory, rather than practice. They are factoids kept and shared, interesting anecdotes to tell people back home, numbers to spit out when you want to sound knowledgeable about your environment. But in an actual place that requires your attention, your involvement, and your money, numbers mean nothing without a sense of value. Six yuan to a dollar is all well and good, but what does it mean if a packet of strawberries is forty two yuan?

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Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Red Light, Green Light (The Asphalt Hierarchy)

Is he still following us?

Drive. Or walk. Or cycle. Fight your way.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

The road is a warzone, a constant battleground where every car, every bus, every streetcar and pedestrian and bicycle is a guerrilla commando. In each of their hands is their own life and the well-being and punctuality of everyone else, and people are happy to play fast and loose with both. How this war plays out differs based on location in time and space, differs based on local hierarchies of importance and cherished modes of transport.

As a kid growing up in Toronto, I grew accustomed to a certain sense of ownership, of visceral claim, upon the road. No matter my conveyance, I was always in the right. As a passenger or driver in a car, everyone else on the road was an idiot just waiting to be plowed into by everyone else in an enormous, catastrophic explosion of stupidity and organ-meat. In the back of a bus, forced to share breathing-space with the armpit stank of dozens of strangers who hate sharing seats, I felt like it was our right to burst through traffic, and sneak through lights, and be as overbearing as possible. On foot, smarmy in my commitment to being green, I was imbued with a sense of immortality, a knowledge that the laws of man and the road did not apply to me, and that every opportunity to jaywalk was as natural a human right as life and liberty and frozen yogurt.

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Songs from Under the Boughs of the Bodhi Tree

Stone lotus

The stone lotus.

We leave our shoes at the gate. Attendants brush past with long wooden brooms and keep the stones swept for the thousands of feet that press over the surface, that slip around the grounds. Lotuses bloom, and tiny flowers, yellow and orange, bob in minuscule cups brimming with pale sugar-water. The air is sweet and moves as though gently pushed.

It is past dusk, and there is a chill. The path below us is cold to the touch, it shivers through our feet and into us. The temple ahead is well-lit, a grey and purple beacon against a black banner of horizon. High above is a smattering of stars, tiny pin-prick holes in a sieve containing the light of the sky. It is a clear night.

There is chanting everywhere, everywhere. Loud-speakers pump a bass grunt, the voices of men, intoning in some difficult and throaty tongue, thrumming through the air. It hits us in the abdomens, it suddenly synchronizes with the deep noises in our bodies, the natural rhythm of heart and artery. There are other sounds in this distant ring of the grounds, in this peculiar orbit: bells; murmurs; the shuffle of dozens of pairs of feet moving in dainty, respectful gait. A dog’s bark, a baby’s cry.

Closer to the centre the music grows sweet. Monks and the lay gather in unison, in song. To my right, bald men in saffron lead dozens in Thai verses, more delicate and crisp than I have ever heard the language. I realize: it is a language that is meant to be sung, to be put to rhythm and harmony. A tinny radio accompanies them, by static and the scratchy percussion people shifting through the pages of their lyric sheets. Some gather to listen to their voices in the night, they sit along the balustrades and tilt their heads and are content.

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The Pyre and the Labyrinth

Sunrise cruisers

We have almost found our way back to the guesthouse. The alleys near the ghats of Varanasi are narrow and slender and impossible to navigate. The walls seem to reach towards each other as they climb upward, almost intertwining at the peak, revealing only the faintest sliver of dark sky. It is night, and we convinced one reluctant cook to keep his restaurant open for us for an extra ten minutes, but when we exit the alleys are black. We try to retrace our steps, turning at half-remembered marks of graffiti, backtracking to statues, making long, winding journeys.  We stumble upon one thin pathway completely blocked by a stolid, immovable bull, who grazes his two horns against opposite walls, who stares us directly in the eyes.

There is another path, another slick stair, another bull. We climb up and we climb down, and our fingers run over advertisements painted directly onto brick and concrete. At long last, we find a turn that looks familiar, a sign that calls us home like a clarion. We turn to move.

“Stand back,” a man remarks, waving us off the path. “They need room.”

We look, and a procession staggers past us. The men each are old and grey, their shirts are too big for them at this age, yet they are still strong and purposeful. Their arms are wiry and shaped by decades of work, they strain and haul like steam-powered machinery. Across their shoulders is a stretcher of thin wood, and on the stretcher is the body. He is wrapped in an orange veil from head to toe, swaddled like an infant, and these men will carry him to the water and will carry him to the pyre.

The fires burn all day and all night. We can hear a crackle in the distance, the snap of tinder consumed by flame, the hushed murmur of elegy. Much of Varanasi this close to the river smells like woodsmoke. The sky is heavy with grey.

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The Jade of the Road and Coping With Niceness

Scoot to Glory

Scan through photo history for pictures of road. Find one. “It’ll do.”

Every time I entered Bupyeong Station in downtown Incheon that spring, pretty young women would bound up to speak to me. Not just to speak to me, but to speak to me in English, and to invite me to various events and ask for my phone number. They would smile, and dutifully compliment my Korean, which was then (and still is) a widely known key to my heart. I was unaccustomed to positive attention from strangers while abroad, and was terrified by people willingly approaching me to speak English–an action so unfathomable I have had Korean strangers literally flee from me when confronted with the possibility. Their positivity and pleasantness was unexpected–rejuvenating, even. But it was also a little bit suspicious. After me, they approached any vaguely non-Korean looking people around and talked to them, too. What was this? Had Korean society changed overnight? Were we finally being embraced? One world? Could we all hug, and throw down our stupid racial differences, and maybe have a drum circle?

Well, no. Actually, all of the pretty young women were cultists.

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Your Concert Photos Suck: A PSA

The band takes the stage. Chatter moves to a hush, anticipation swells in the room like a physical presence, like dozens of extra people filtering into the crowd. Smoke billows, and a hazy purple light bursts through the din, silhouetting the lead singer. Fingers wrap around a microphone, tremble readily over strings, hover above keys. A note is hit, a chord is struck, the show begins. The crowd moves. It is alive.

And you can’t see a damned thing, because the moron directly in front of you is holding their iPad up, over the crowd, a great matte-grey blockade of idiocy.

There is a disturbing trend in concert-going that is widespread in its prevalence, an epidemic of douchery virulent in infectiousness, and vicious in how it desolates enjoyment. A striking number of individuals at concerts these days feel compelled to document every second of the show in photo and video, in tweet and update, on every shimmering electric rectangle they have on their person. Every second must be captured. Every note must be recorded. Every line of sight must be blocked, because if anyone needs to see this show, it is the unwashed masses of youtube rather than the paying customers currently present.

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