Getting Good at Having No Clue: The Traveller’s Journey

No Lying

Always look for local advice.

Never do I feel quite so self-satisfied as when I enter a Chinese subway.

As you exit Shanghai Central from the intercity trains to the metro, there is a long, horrible corridor coated in sadness and human suffering. There are banks of ticket machines for the subway, each bracketed by greasy aluminum barricades to hold in the masses. As each train lets out, hundreds and thousands of people flow through this hall as they move to the subway. Almost every machine is constantly utilized by people who have absolutely no idea how to work such a machine, nor how to use money, or possibly even their own fingers.

For months I huffed and grunted and tapped my feet, waiting desperately as dozens of people tried and failed to use the machines that worked so simply. I grew frustrated even as I knew that I could cast my speedy technological gaze over the device and have my own tickets and theirs produced in several seconds. Worse yet, experience meant I could probably manage to use the hulking brute in English or Chinese and still get in and out in just a moment. In recent months I have taken the extra step of self-congratulation and have purchased a reloadable metro card, which allows me to bypass the line and feel deeply, undeservedly metropolitan at the same time.

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Hangzhou Photoglut: Experimental Gloomtography

Hangzhou Title Pic

Behold glorious Hangzhou, city of a very nice lake, some cool pagodas, and actual woodlands! I can barely stand all the nature. Alas, like most weekends of late this particular weekend was shrouded in dark clouds and a hazy mistglob that covered all the lands in grey. Well, being China: greyer. Luckily, the Hangzh’ was still very pretty in its own dreary, spooky way, and I have collected a day’s worth of photography for you to point your oculoids at. Continue beholding.

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Visions of Sickness From Faraway Places

Friends, Romans, and countrymen and -women, I have fallen ill. It has been a gross several days of torturous hot-and-cold, toss-and-turn, binge-and-purge grossness, the details of which I will spare you. Well, mostly. I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with tonsillitis. He helpfully described the pus forming on them as a “cheese.”

You will be proud of me in that I totally did not barf on his shoes at this description.

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Ayi Audition: Livecast of the “Michael’s Gross Apartment Maid Invitational”

All right, lady. Do your thing.

All right, lady. Do your thing.

At long last, I had cracked. For months, friends and acquaintances had assured me that life on the other side was something incomprehensibly better. That once you crossed the threshold, going back was no longer an option. That even glancing back at your old life would make you shudder and recoil, terrified that you ever could have lived such an unfulfilled, empty existence. I resisted, mostly out of a strange attachment to the status quo. Change is scary. Change is change.

But finally, I relented. On Sunday, I opened my door and let a pleasant middle-aged Chinese woman in to clean my house. And I don’t think I can ever go back.

12:32 I have been tidying slightly, although I know it is a ridiculous impulse. I am somewhat terrified at what this stranger will think of me, what the state of my apartment will say about my character, my personhood, my lack of culture. I imagine her peeking inside the door, cringing visibly, shaking her head and muttering in Mandarin before trudging back to the elevator in disgust.

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A Toe in the Mandarin Waters

The wall

And for my next trick, I will use my powers to decipher the meaning behind these symbols.

About twice a week, the laptop ayi visits my class.

The laptop ayi is the Chinese tech support woman who delivers a trolley of computers to the classes around the school, keeping them safe, making them purr, and treating the trolley like it was her prize pony. After I book the laptops she brings them at the designated time, unlocks them, tips her metaphorical hat, and saunters on her way.

But occasionally an issue arises: the laptops were not safely stowed in their closet for her to fetch them. A computer is missing, or some headphones, or a powerchord. The trolley has been double booked and she wants to clear up all the fuss so that everyone can be happy. At least, I assume this is what she’s saying. My Mandarin doesn’t exist.

There is nothing more embarrassing than when an adult tries to communicate with you and your failure is so abject that a group of six year-olds comes to your aid. As my students see my face redden they suddenly appear at my side, the whole lot of them, the ones who have spoken Mandarin from birth and the ones who learn it recreationally at school. “Don’t worry, Mr. M,” they seem to say, as they shoo me away so the grown-ups can talk. “We’ll handle this.” The gaggle of them converse pleasantly to the ayi, who nods and responds, thanks them pleasantly, and ambles off along down the hall.

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Smoglife: The Various Horrors of Indoor Play

I'm sure setting up a classroom will be no hassle at all.

The prison.

Smoglife is a series of vignettes relating to various things that happen when the air in China gets mad murky.

The smog in Suzhou had settled like an unruly houseguest, and was eating all of the good chips and cookies and never making the bed. The air began to taste sulphurous and metallic, always with the tinge of carcinogen and burning computer parts. People would squint to make out objects in the middle distance and try to not think about the weeks and years slowly being peeled off the end of their lives with a China-shaped paring knife.

One of the side-effects of this acidic haze was the necessity for indoor play. Much as throwing children directly into a volcano or a sewage pipe would be seen as inadvisable to their health, it was deemed inappropriate to allow our various charges to careen about in the toxic slurry that we were all conspiring to call air. Their tiny, fragile lungs being susceptible as they are to incredibly hazardous levels of choking coal smoke and industrial chemicals, it was thought that for their safety, the children should stay inside on a smoggy day.

At first all was well. A day of indoor play is an excuse to unearth old toys, different parts of the classroom and the school left unexplored.  It is reason to connect with new friends, with old chums, with new games and with creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention; boundary is the foundation of innovation.

But in time, the confines proved too constricting. In time, indoor play drove the children to extremes.

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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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A Night in a Chinese Karaoke

We left a restaurant called The Love Room at 10 and walked under a pulsating LED screen, a teeming river of light in the murky night sky. Karaoke was calling our names.

In Korea, regular visits to the noraebang were a consistent part of my life. I knew their rhythm, knew their menus, knew their song books. I always knew where to look for a tambourine, knew exactly how to work the controller, even as it was swathed in Korean words I never quite learned. I had the 5-digit number for Bad Moon Rising memorized permanently, its consistent coding across all karaoke rooms bringing to mind some deep uniting truth underlying the whole of our universe. I knew exactly how many songs it would take before I could no longer belt out a high note, and how many more songs before I could no longer sing at all. Liquor was beneficial, not necessary: I could scream and sing dry, if the situation called for it.

That I had been back in Asia for two months with no songs to sing felt like a weight on my back, a badge of dishonour on my travelling feet. Was it not my mission in life to walk all the roads, eat all the things, see all there is to see, and sing like a madman the whole way through? Some part of my soul ached, like a piece had torn loose somewhere high above the Pacific and got carried away in a strong wind. I wasn’t really alive if I wasn’t periodically screaming Bohemian Rhapsody into a tinny microphone at midnight.

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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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