When and Where You Can Photograph My Dumb White Face: A Guide

This was around photo number 43.

Very occasionally famous.

As a flagrantly white person living and occasionally roaming around Asia, I sometimes stick out. Whether through the rarity of the wild honky or through lingering effects of the many times with which my ancestors brutally wedged their big noses into other places, or some mixture of the two, I tend to be an object of occasional fascination and consternation. Why does my hair curl just so? Why is my skin so pale, and why does it ripen like a fresh tomato after exposure to a moderate amount of healthy, life-sustaining sunshine? How is it possible that a human being with my configuration of body parts, complexion, hair texture, and eye shape can manage to breathe, eat, speak other languages, walk in a straight line, and perform simple arithmetic? Truly, it is a mystery for the ages.

As a walking enigma, I am sometimes photographed. I have grown mostly at peace with this practice, as I’ve also taken photos of other humans before, for reasons just as nebulous. (When asked, I will usually tell the person, “Because you look really cool in front of this thing!” This usually does not clarify the situation). But sometimes I am also photographed against my will, captured in perpetuity in a desktop folder entitled White People Doin’ Things. Sometimes people jam a camera right up in my grille, camera-lens-to-eyeball-lens, and they breathe heavily as they seal my face into their personal digital memory banks without my consent.

As such, I present a helpful guide to all the times when it is perfectly cool to take my photo, for whatever weird, crazy reason you might want it.

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Hey Guy, Check Out This Sick Prayer

Overall, most of the people assembled for the Hindu self-mortification ceremony were very into Will’s dancing.

Rooftop Party

Sorry. Was this a private function?

We had stumbled, as we often did, into something rare and special and probably not meant for us. Boisterous and expanding across a rural roadway, we heard loudspeakers and shouting and joyousness, and we buzzed closer like moths driven to a technicolour flame. We had taken the ferry away from Yangon to Dalla for the day, and each rural roadway so far had proved fruitful and interesting and unexpected. We were drunk on sackjuice and adventure, and the sound of a party lulled us in.

I spied the goddesses long before we saw the hooks. I pointed out Lakshmi surrounded in parasols and bright orange petals, and then I pointed out the gentleman on the rickety wooden kitchen chair. Iron crescents slid in the skin of his broad, dark shoulders, and he grit his teeth and stared into the distance. Maybe he was on sackjuice as well. We realized instantaneously that this was probably a private religious ceremony, something sacred and honourable. Our baboon presence, with our flip-flops, DSLRs, and SPF-60, was at best ancillary to the nature of the celebration. We turned to go.

Hands grabbed at us, dabbing paint on our faces, smearing our palms with ruddy brown and red. Everywhere townsfolk reached out to shake hands, ask how exactly we managed to stumble into a Hindu religious festival in Myanmar. We shrugged, as while this situation was kind of becoming a custom for us, it was probably not for the residents of Dalla. We motioned towards the exit, which was the dusty road from whence we had first walked, and the people around us scoffed and waved. A pshaw, as though saying, “So soon? But you haven’t even seen the best parts!”

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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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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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My Default Second Language (Ein 볶음밥, por favor)

"Try the bibimbap!" it probably says.

“Try the bibimbap!” it probably says.

“So, you want Guanajuato? I don’t really know Teatro Principal. That in El Centro?” a Mexican cab driver probably said. I couldn’t be sure – I don’t, as it turns out, speak Spanish, but this was the closest guess I had to the question he proposed to me. It is equally as possible he was asking me about my thoughts on the weather, or on Mexican politics, or if I liked squash, vegetable or sport.

“Yes,” I said, feeling like an idiot. What a dumb, wretched Gringo I was. Couldn’t I even try? He wasn’t asking for extemporaneous speeches on Russian history.

“Ne,” I yelped, trying to cover my tracks. The man squinted into his rear-view at me. He knew enough English to know the word ‘yes’, and knew enough human to interpret my nod. He did not know what to make of my profuse sweating, my growing anxiety, or my next few statements. “Sorry, I mean oui. Er… kha. Or… maybe… sí? Sí.”

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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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