Monthly Archives: March 2017

Crucible

Mike’s seven years in Asia receded into the distance. They seemed increasingly remote and strange. Still, he kept having flashbacks, as vivid as ever – like a combat veteran, except that these were happy memories that haunted him, bursting into his gray, purgatorial existence in the Midwest.

Above all, he thought about the girl he had left behind. Leaving her was either a wise move or the epochal blunder of his life. Of course, he would never know which. They kept in touch occasionally, but he thought about her often, wondering if they still had a chance together, if he should go back to be with her, or bring her over here. In the end, the answer was always the same: he didn’t know.

Otherwise, his life was devoid of personal drama, and indeed of normal human contact. He had no real friends and no girlfriend in Indianapolis, mostly because he didn’t feel like putting in the effort. He kept his colleagues at arm’s length without any particular intention to do so, and conversations at the office were frequently awkward.

A colleague named Jordan gushed about the musical Hamilton, which he had seen on a recent visit to New York. Mike’s interest in Hamilton could only be described as non-existent, but he agreed to listen to the soundtrack on Spotify to ingratiate himself with Jordan. He did not enjoy it and had to find a way to tell Jordan without either lying or doing more damage than if he had simply declined to listen to it in the first place. In the end he decided to lie.

Mike had to admit that things weren’t going well, overall. He was inexorably slipping into a mindless, bovine state. Hating his job, yet lacking the energy and conviction to apply for another one, he simply drifted from day to day, hanging on through a series of increasingly severe workplace crises. Here again, he had no energy to improve the situation, to manage the crises in a truly effective way; his only ambition was to keep going, to the growing exasperation of his boss, until the final, unforgivable cataclysm that would get him fired. That was his true ambition: to get kicked to the curb.

It was probably delusional to expect any other job to be better. The problem was that things were so much easier in China, at least for Mike, who struggled to accept the ramped-up workload and demands of corporate America. Punctuality was taken for granted here, and your work had to be accurate and of consistently high quality. People would ream you out in front of your colleagues. You couldn’t even take naps at your desk – I mean, what the hell. Offices in China were like a slumber party after lunch. He had the photos to prove it.

Socially, too, the adjustment was vast. In America, everyone was a celebrity (in their own heads), and nobody really gave a shit about you. It was a weird feeling, not being the center of attention anymore.

Also, you couldn’t bullshit your way out of a difficult conversation by talking fast and using big words (so as to blame the “language barrier”) or deflecting with a joke or an empty platitude. That dog don’t hunt in America. On the other hand, your guard was down when people pulled that crap on you. Unlike in China, you couldn’t just dismiss them, couldn’t hide behind your foreignness; the best-case scenario was to be a remorseless sociopath.

Mike was aware that his social skills needed work. Much had atrophied during his mini-lifetime in Asia, and his self-imposed isolation was making things worse. He needed a girlfriend, that much was obvious. Friends urged him to try dating sites or apps. His answer was that he didn’t need an algorithm to meet girls. The dearth of actual women in his life suggested otherwise.

Over and over again he thought about the girl in Chengdu, the possible key to his current mental crisis. They had complemented each other so well. But now they were separated by 7,000 miles of planetary crust. Just getting his ass to her apartment would burn 50,000 gallons of fuel. You might say the logistics were bad.

Yet, there was no way for either of them to move to the other’s country without radical, and possibly irreversible, disruption to their lives. As with his job, his romantic situation was untenable, yet he could do nothing to change it. He hovered in an eternal present of intolerable stasis.

Or maybe it was more of an interlude, and he would soon be seeing more of the girl, in some unexpected context. He genuinely had no idea. The only thing he felt sure of was that he was going through some kind of trial, the meaning, purpose and outcome of which he could only guess at.

Narrowing your horizons

Some deep thoughts on travel by the English author G. K. Chesterton, writing c. 1922:

I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind. At least a man must make a double effort of moral humility and imaginative energy to prevent it from narrowing his mind. Indeed there is something touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist, who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and clasping Patagonians to his heart in Hampstead or Surbiton, but for his blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like. This is not meant for nonsense; still less is it meant for the silliest sort of nonsense, which is cynicism. The human bond that he feels at home is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is rather an inner reality. Man is inside all men. In a real sense any man may be inside any men. But to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside. So long as he thought of men in the abstract, like naked toiling figures in some classic frieze, merely as those who labor and love their children and die, he was thinking the fundamental truth about them. By going to look at their unfamiliar manners and customs he is inviting them to disguise themselves in fantastic masks and costumes. Many modern internationalists talk as if men of different nationalities had only to meet and mix and understand each other. In reality that is the moment of supreme danger–the moment when they meet. We might shiver, as at the old euphemism by which a meeting meant a duel.

Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction; but most travelers are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed. I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese. Where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously. They base on it their serious ideas of international instruction. It was said that the Englishman takes his pleasures sadly; and the pleasure of despising foreigners is one which he takes most sadly of all. He comes to scoff and does not remain to pray, but rather to excommunicate. Hence in international relations there is far too little laughing, and far too much sneering. But I believe that there is a better way which largely consists of laughter; a form of friendship between nations which is actually founded on differences.

The experience of travel interacts with the knowledge, personality, and mental habits of the traveler to generate a wide variety of effects, usually positive but often negative. The same goes for living abroad. I’ve seen far too many disgruntled expats in Asian bars, consumed with hatred for the people and customs of the countries in which they have, quite voluntarily, taken up long-term residence.

 

Adaptation

Mike was floundering after several months back in the US. It wasn’t that he wanted to throw in the towel and move back to China, per se. But something wasn’t clicking; something about his new life didn’t “take.” An important part of him had missed the flight from Chengdu.

He walked aimlessly around the capital of Indiana, as exotic-seeming to him now as the sloppy villages of rural China or the Beijing subway at rush hour, choked with black-haired humanity. Mike had left the US as a kid, for all intents and purposes – a dumbass with a diploma – and had spent most of his twenties in Asia. Coming back home now, he felt immeasurably older, more seasoned, and also more detached, a stranger in America, like an anthropologist studying the folkways of a remote Papuan tribe.

It was the little things: Everyone drank their water cold here, even in winter. Like the Chinese, he found it bizarre. Americans treated business cards with a nonchalance bordering on contempt. It was harder to send money to people – nobody used WeChat Wallet here. Tipping and being asked for donations all the time. A major difference: Large white people everywhere, hot white women commonplace. His people. The Chinese were again a minority, albeit a significant and growing one.

Mike felt vaguely dazed all the time. Unable or maybe just unwilling to shed his Chinese life, to “move on.” He still talked to his expat friends in China every day. He posted photos and funny memes on his WeChat account so cute girls on the other side of the planet would “heart” them. He ordered the occasional batch of dress shirts from his tailor in Chengdu – sent her the money and had the shirts shipped to his apartment in Indianapolis. Received visitors from China, girls he fucked. Hell, he was still chasing Chinese girls *here*, or perhaps more accurately, they were chasing him. What was it about him that they found so fascinating? In any case, he had come back to the US to fuck white chicks, not East Asians, and he was failing even at that simple task.

His moral standards had collapsed in Asia; there was no question about that. Even the degenerate moral climate of post-modern America seemed prudish and uptight compared to China. Or maybe it was just easier to get laid over there. Everyone was more easygoing, less coked up on stress. American girls were much nicer than he had remembered, but he was always turned off by them in the office. They reminded him of schoolmarms. Few things in this world were more boner-killing than an attractive woman spitting out phrases like “implementation specialist” and “success-based team” briskly and without irony.

Mike felt constantly outsmarted and outclassed by his hard-working Midwestern colleagues. His inadequacies gnawed at him, but that was not his immediate problem. His immediate problem was his job. He was overwhelmed on a daily basis by his job, the hideous and unrelenting pointlessness of it. Layer upon layer of mindless process that withered the human spirit. He was bad (slow, error-prone) at the tedious stuff, and the rest of it, the parts that required “soft skills,” made him want to sell all his possessions and go on a vision quest.

He had to persist, though. If he went back to Asia he would never be hired by anyone again, ever. Destitution would await him. He would have to go on food stamps; a slow spiral of despair, alcoholism, and petty crime would ensue; he would ultimately be murdered in a back alley. No, he had to stay in the US. More than that, he had to stay useful to his company long enough to save up some money, get a side business going with a reliable income stream, before the machines took his job. That was his quest, and it gave some semblance of a purpose and structure to his life.

Mike flew to New York and met a couple of American friends he had known in China. They both worked for the same consulting firm, which had relocated them back to the US, several months apart. He couldn’t believe how happy they were. They gushed about their new jobs, how exciting it was to be back, all the cultural adaptations they had to make, which bemused them. They joked about how chaotic things were back in China, the kids pissing and crapping in the streets. The toxic air and the tap water you couldn’t drink, even if you boiled it.

“I always drank boiled water,” said Mike. “I had one of those kettles.”

“No, that doesn’t work,” said Joe, who had brought his Chinese-American wife and three kids back to New York. “You’re just heating up the heavy metals in the water. You’re drinking hot pollution. In fact, you’re concentrating the pollutants because a lot of the actual water evaporates.”

“Fuck.” Mike felt reasonably healthy, though, after all those years of drinking lead and cadmium by the gallon. Or did he? Maybe that explained his malaise, his persistent mental fog.

Joe had become a full-blown China-hater before he escaped. The other friend, Sandra, spoke fluent Mandarin and was much more ambivalent about the superiority of Anglo-American culture. Nevertheless, Mike had never seen her so excited. Normally cool and reserved, she laughed with delight at their China anecdotes and rambled on about her fancy new position in New York. She gestured extravagantly as she spoke, tossing her blonde hair. She was getting married in a few months.

Mike’s heart went out to them both. Joe and Sandra had lived abroad longer than he had, and they had moved back successfully. They were happy and well-adjusted. Mike was not. But had he ever been?

No doubt Mike had left a lot of loose ends in China. His transition back was “unresolved,” like the end of the Korean War. It was about as far from a clean break as humanly possible; but then again, that was classic Mike – he was the still the same dumbass kid who had refused to attend his own college graduation ceremony. Stubborn, myopic, and fixated on the past. Nothing ever, ever changed.

He wasn’t suffering reverse culture shock. The problem wasn’t America; the problem was him.

I can see how that would be disorienting

It’s weird coming back to the late-imperial dystopia of America, especially if you’ve been overseas for as long as Thomas Fuller has:

AFTER more than 27 years abroad, mostly as a foreign correspondent in Asia covering civil unrest and poverty, I wander the streets of this city, my new home, like an enchanted tourist.

The people who share sidewalks with me must wonder why I sometimes laugh out loud. The advertisements for sustainably grown marijuana on the sides of San Francisco buses. (“That’s cannabis, the California way.”) The comfort dogs on public transport and the woman who brought her dog to the Easter Sunday service. Blindingly white teeth. The burrito that was so huge it felt as if it would break my wrist. Police officers covered in tattoos.

[…]

I spend hours in supermarket aisles. Organic ice cream sandwiches! Vegan shoes! A “Bluetooth compatible” electric toothbrush!

The America of 2016 is so much more specialized than the one I left in 1988. It almost seems that we have created needs so that we can cater to them.

I stop and stare at the giant trucks in San Francisco designed for the specific purpose of shredding and hauling documents. What a luxury as a society to produce tons of confidential documents and then deploy specialized trucks to destroy them. I knew yoga was big in California and ditto for cannabis. But it was still a surprise to discover “ganja yoga.”

[…]

Greater Bangkok, a sprawling metropolis with more than 10 million people, has 1,300 homeless people, a survey this year found.

San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as many homeless people.

The special loopiness of San Francisco, I would imagine, only heightened the contrast with Asia. The author seems to have taken it well — bemusement is a powerful mindset.

Home sweet home

Hessler on coming back from China

Insightful essay by Peter Hessler, author and formerly The New Yorker‘s China correspondent, on the complex process of moving home:

The first thing I learned while living abroad is that if you’re lost you have to ask for directions. The last thing I learned is that it’s possible to ship a hundred and forty-three boxes from Beijing across the Pacific Ocean without a final destination. I’ve never been good at planning ahead, and this quality became worse after years in China, where everybody seems to live in the moment. And in a country like that it’s easy to find a moving agent who’s willing to improvise. He went by the English name Wayne, and he wore his hair long, the way Chinese artists often do. When we arranged the contract, Wayne asked my wife, Leslie, if she had any idea where we were going. “It will be a small town, probably in Colorado,” she said. “But we haven’t decided which one.”

“Can you decide within the next few weeks?”

“I think so.”

Wayne explained that the shipping container would be on the ocean for much of a month, and there the address wouldn’t matter. But after it arrived in the U.S. the American partner would need to know where to deliver it by truck. That was Wayne’s deadline: we had to find a home in less than five weeks.

[…]

Neither of us had much experience as adults in the United States. I had left after college, to attend graduate school in England, and then I travelled to China; before I knew it I had been gone for a decade and a half. I had never held an American job, or owned an American house, or even rented an American apartment. The last time I bought a car, I filled it with leaded gas. My parents still lived in the Missouri town where I grew up, but otherwise nothing tied me to any particular part of the country. Leslie [Hessler’s wife] had even fewer American roots: she had been born and brought up in New York, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and she had made her career as a writer in Shanghai and Beijing.

That was 2010. America must not have offered what Hessler was looking for, because he moved to Cairo with his family the following year, and is apparently still there.

A thing not to do

Interesting cautionary tale about what happens when an American man searches for the woman of his dreams on the internet, finds her in a small town in Russia, flies her out to the US and marries her (you guessed it, long-term happiness does not ensue):

Everything was fine for about a year and a half(?), until one day James found messages on her phone communicating with another man. (As an Alpha Male 1.0, he compulsively checked her phone and Facebook semi-regularly.) Long story short, she had met this guy through some of her new American friends and was seeing him on the side, though I don’t know if they were actually having sex. He wasn’t better looking than James, and he was a beta, but he was both older and had more money.

As you might imagine, nuclear explosions went off in their relationship. They even become physically violent with each other (ah, monogamy). After much arguing, screaming, fighting, and bullshit, they “tried to make it work” and continued their relationship.

A few months later she moved out, and moved right in with Mr. Rich Beta.

Gentleman, don’t be this moron. If the perfect woman actually shows interest in you — grab your wallet.

Indianapolis

Every day was better than the next. Quote from There’s Something About Mary. How true it was. Every morning was a vicious struggle to get out of bed and then a miserable death-march to the office to face the inescapable. Its tolerability decreased as a function of time.

The lobby attendant at the building where he worked had become the focal point of his morning rage. Tall and bulky, with cadaverous skin and a cylindrical head, he stood at the elevators with his hands clasped behind his back and said good morning sir or good morning miss to the arriving workers. Mike found it excruciating. The man looked like Herman Munster. The way he shouted good morning at everyone, even from a great distance as they were fumbling through the security barrier, struck Mike as aggressive and challenging. He wanted to sock the man in his pasty, misshapen face.

It wasn’t personal, Mike reasoned. The lobby attendant was merely a symbol of everything Mike hated about his morning routine – a scapegoat for his generalized rage against the system. Perhaps that was why the man existed, why the system had put him there. As a psychological whipping boy.

And what was this 8:00 shit. Why did people have to be in the office at eight o’ fucking clock in the morning. At his company in Chengdu, the workday started at 9:00 but most people moseyed in between 9:00 and 10:00. Wasn’t 9-to-5 the standard in America? When did it become 8-to-6, with “lunch” being a bestial act of ingestion performed in front of the computer? China might be completely dysfunctional but at least people knew how to eat lunch properly. Lunch was a relaxed, social affair that lasted a full hour, not one goddamn second less. What was wrong with this country.

Whenever he paused to think about the accelerating disaster of his life, which was often, Mike wondered why he had moved back to the US. To be closer to his family, of course. So now he saw them several times a year instead of just once a year, and he could call them at all hours of the day. Which was nice.

And then there was something about his career. How he needed to go back ASAP because the longer he stayed in Asia, the harder it would be to escape. And how was that working out for him? He had traded a fun-filled existence in China for the grim life of a castrated corporate drone. Sneaking out of the office for beers now unthinkable. Sexual debauchery worthy of the late Roman empire replaced by blank stares from blonde marketing girls with 500-point compatibility checklists. Every day a desperate battle against the swirling chaos at work.

The pointlessness of his job amused him. Staring at Excel sheets all day so he could afford to eat at Whole Foods. Also, talking to his coworkers, a thing he loathed from the very pit of his soul. He was essentially a bot that converted unstructured information into actionable insights so that some jock wearing a pocket square could make more money.

Scanning the newspaper headlines every day as he waited for the elevator. ONE KILLED AS HUGE TORNADO TEARS THROUGH INDIANA. Good. What else? 11-CAR CRASH LEAVES TRAIL OF BLOODY DESTRUCTION IN AVON. Fantastic. A GUNSHOT, A CHILD’S DEATH AND… Ah, fuck it. Enough of this negativity. Focus on happy things.

The problem was that his happy thoughts revolved around China, not here, not fucking Indianapolis, not these disintegrating United States. Putting aside his occasional visits to friends and family at home in Boston, his most joyful memories lay in that parallel universe called the Middle Kingdom. The mystical Orient of lore.

Sometimes, as he trudged to work or filled his shopping basket at Walgreens, he remembered. Endless, lavish banquets lubricated by rice wine. Riding the bullet train across China from north to south, like flying on land – 1,300 miles in eight hours. That threesome at Shanghai’s Puli Hotel.

That expat bar in Chengdu. What was it called? Two fat, middle-aged men with bloodshot eyes, Canadian and American, slumped on stools and downing beers there every night. One had a walrus mustache. And the sensual Chinese stewardess there who had tossed a Negroni in his face (an overreaction, Mike thought).

Visiting Japan with his then-girlfriend. The endless megalopolis of Tokyo and those tiny, intricate backstreet restaurants. He should move there, get outta dodge. And the girl – just thinking about her face triggered a paroxysm of emotion so intense, he almost had a cardiac event.

Everything he had left behind – memories so vivid, they made his life in America seem as drab and depressing as a Soviet apartment block. But what could he do? He couldn’t just go back. He had to give America a chance.

He had to.

“That was such a wonderful time”

Hellish pit of despair: Shenzhen in 2010

A Chinese-American woman, traumatized by her 19 months in Shenzhen, flees back to the US. Five years later, she revisits the southern Chinese city and finds it wasn’t necessarily the hellish pit of despair she had remembered:

I had spent the years since I left China processing the experience and learning to accept my Chinese-American heritage. In trying to distance myself from my own dark chapter, I had not kept up with my local friends. I anxiously wondered if their lives today were as full of despair as they had been five years ago.

After several fumbling attempts to contact my old friends through email and text messages, I finally discovered that most powerful of communication tools in China: WeChat. My phone chirped with emojis and excited exclamations for days as we made plans to meet on a Saturday in the middle of May this year.

During that reunion I experienced something I had almost never felt when I lived in Shenzhen: joy. Our friends weren’t, as I remembered them to be, victims of vast, unfeeling forces. Instead they were empowered actors, charting their own destinies to find a purpose and hope we didn’t know was possible just five years ago.

Attitude adjustment

From the US State Department’s guide to reverse culture shock:

Myths & Misconceptions About the United States

Many people [i.e. Americans returning home after a long sojourn abroad] have misconceptions concerning life in the United States. Some of these myths include:

  • Everything works better back home.
  • People are more efficient.
  • Everything is clean.
  • Things are basically the same as when I left.
  • Personal relationships can be resumed easily.
  • I can cope easily in my own culture.

New Attitudes & Values of Sojourners

Americans often develop new attitudes, values and perceptions as a result of their travels. These can often cause stress on reentry.

  • I see America through a sharper lens, both its strengths and weaknesses. I no longer take this country for granted and I really resent unbalanced criticism by Americans who haven’t experienced the rest of the world.
  • I see the validity of at least one other culture. That makes me realize that the American way is not always “right” or “best.” I am impatient with people who criticize other countries and blindly accept everything American causing them to never question anything.
  • I have an unclear concept of home now.
  • I place more value on relationships than other Americans seem to. People here are too busy for one another.
  • Everyone in America is always so stressed and frantic. They never relax. I feel like I can’t relate to others.

This is so true, in particular the last two points. After several years of living abroad, I was shocked at how intense and stressed-out most Americans are. No more leisurely hour-long lunches with colleagues… everyone eats at their desks or goes downstairs to “grab something.” Once you’ve lived the good life, it’s hard to go back.

Civilization and its discontents

Article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese”

Definitely not Chinese

Mark Kitto, noted British expat, publisher and author, penned a classic and controversial article in 2012 about why he was calling it quits on China. He moved back to northern England with his family the following year:

Death and taxes. You know how the saying goes. I’d like to add a third certainty: you’ll never become Chinese, no matter how hard you try, or want to, or think you ought to. I wanted to be Chinese, once. I don’t mean I wanted to wear a silk jacket and cotton slippers, or a Mao suit and cap and dye my hair black and proclaim that blowing your nose in a handkerchief is disgusting. I wanted China to be the place where I made a career and lived my life. For the past 16 years it has been precisely that. But now I will be leaving.

I won’t be rushing back either. I have fallen out of love, woken from my China Dream. “But China is an economic miracle: record number of people lifted out of poverty in record time… year on year ten per cent growth… exports… imports… infrastructure… investment…saved the world during the 2008 financial crisis…” The superlatives roll on. We all know them, roughly.

Don’t you think, with all the growth and infrastructure, the material wealth, let alone saving the world like some kind of financial whizz James Bond, that China would be a happier and healthier country? At least better than the country emerging from decades of stultifying state control that I met and fell in love with in 1986 when I first came here as a student? I don’t think it is.