Category Archives: Narratives

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.

“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.

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.