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.

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