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Subject FF

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

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I am foreign female. Call me Ethina, short for ethnicity. I am from the land of diversity.  

Sometimes this land is so diverse, so small and unique, that it is unidentifiable by normal earthling computers at land borders, and it must be validated by passport, bank cards, expired driver’s permit, Japanese ID card, expired American E visa card, or any other official ID I might have to offer additional validation.  Sometimes it is necessary to take Subject FF into the upper room with mahogany chairs that shine their polished governmental varnish beneath the interrogation light, sit Subject FF down, and ask meaningful questions like, “Where are you going in Vietnam?” or “You worked in Japan?” or “Where are you from?”


After Agent Border Control has run out of meaningful questions, and Subject FF is sufficiently feeling like a single cell organism, she can be released to walk out into the light where she is free to join her American friends and enter Vietnam, stamped and all, like shiny happy people holding hands around a globe.

Leaving Vietnam was much easier than entering it. We peddled our hearts out 30 km up the jungle mountains that stretch between its long spindly leg, and

Laos. We wanted to get out. Fast. I’ve read that the North of Vietnam is far less friendly than the South. My trip to Ho Chi Minh City (in the South) in 2005 was full of fun moments between warmhearted streetvendors in the market who tended to my needs like Grandmami’s with fleshy warm arms. I remember joking in the market with women who didn’t want to go down on the price of fruit, and walking away with a bag of things I didn’t pay for. It was picturesque. It was harmonic. It made me choke a little.

 But this is memory, which always projects itself in vibrant, Broadway musical colors. This was also me as a foreign tourist traveling with Japanese Yen to burn for 3 weeks, looking for kicks and giggles. This was not biking for a year, trying to make my means last till the end of the year.

But its hard trying to explain that to a woman working for pennies, who doesn’t have the luxury of leaving her job for a year to see the world by bike, who has fantastical images of beautiful exotic rich foreigners on display boards hoisted up in all her countries’ cities, who equates all the foreigners she sees as better off, rich, able to live beyond their means.

So we peddled hard and fast to escape the jeering “hellos” and the hands held out from the motorcycles, accompanied by long lipped yells, “money, money,” which is exactly what we felt like. Money. People without identities. Foriegners that blended into the pale pink landfill of other foreigners who’ve passed through. How to tell the difference between one type of tourist from another?

They called me Feijoren or African in China. So often that, in the end, when we were close to the border, I started to say yes to get out of explaining.  I had bought a map early on to show people my little unidentifiable archipelago nation. I would take it out, and people would look, and sound it out: Ba-ha-ma.

I took efforts to explain that I wasn’t from Africa, meticulously drawing out the geography of my country:

“It is NOT near Thailand or Africa. It’s a small island country in the Caribbean, between North and

South America. Near

Cuba. Do you know

Cuba? See?

Cuba?” I’d point. 


Cuba. Castro,” people would say.

“Yes. Castro.”

“She’s from Cuba,” they gestured at me, sweating from all the attention.

I would smile, exhausted and deflated, suffering from a feverish spell of deportation.

Over time, I realized that this emphatic explaining killed conversation rather than nurtured it, people would look and nod, and move onto someone else to wonder over. So, not wanting to miss out on the obsequious attention, (Subject FF, Ethina for short needs her kicks too), I tucked the map into the quiet pages of my GRE book, which I no longer have time to study.

But what is a person without a country? A color that blends into the wall, quietly screaming. A foreign devil. A dollar bill.

The Chinese are paranoid about size like I am paranoid about the name of my country. They’d sometimes ask us, “Which is bigger? China or America?” Which is a loaded question when you consider independent states, autonomous regions and indigenous peoples.

And really.

Africa is a big place. And I am from there ORIGINALLY, if we were to speak in terms of roots or neo-African, nu-soul, black pride movement. If we were to speak in terms of Vietnamese American, Vietnamese Australian, Vietnamese Brit. I mean, I don’t call myself African Bahamian because 85% of The Bahamas is black, but maybe I should.

I’ve never even been to Africa.  But I suddenly feel the need to take that repatriation boat back to the Ashanti tribe in modern day Benin, or join a Rasta Farian commune in Ethiopia.

I suddenly feel the need to nod heads with Nigerian and Cameroon immigrants selling Timberlands in Shinsaibashi, Osaka, or Shibuya, Tokyo, or Sanlitun, Beijing, or Kowloon, Hong Kong, with eyes smiling at the sides as they call me sister.  This is black pride movement coded in covert head nods and side smiles at checkpoints along an underground railroad to the North, like smoke signals, like expats-in-Asia that fish out other expats in disdain. I spotted a foreigner (the game most expats-in-Asia play) in Than Hoa, a small town in North Vietnam, and we both nodded at each other after being formally introduced by the restaurant owner. But nothing more. Meaning understood. Please forget you saw me.

But Vietnam doesn’t have a size complex. It’s small and that is all there is to it. And because it is small, its land border between Ping Xiang and Dong Dang towns, which mostly facilitates the passage of Chinese and Vietnamese people, and perhaps never before a Bahamian, it is unequipped to handle cases where new countries come up. And also, because it is small, most of it has been touched by foreigners. It has been mucked by travel. Its eyes, like our eyes, are desensitized, perhaps even hardened to the outside world that comes snooping and prodding.

Not many people have called me an African but have assumed I was American or Indonesian, or French, or Indian.  I am clumped in the foreigner pile, not set aside in the small country group as I was in China.

The country’s slender body has had more time to be infilitrated by foreign tourists than China’s closed borders would let.

Vietnam’s wars fought on its own soil has exposed it to the West. There are ATM’s with Visa and Mastercard signs in the small towns.  There are Western Unions set up in small towns where you are can’t send money, only receive it.

Doi Moi, Vietnam’s economic reform, has opened its markets to foreign investors and its shores to foreign tourists, gently urging its citizens to open their hearts to foreigners, to try and get along with the world for the benefit of the country.

And we bike sweatily through the dirt roads in the small towns desperately trying to avoid the bus usurping highway 1,dodging yippy “hello’s” and child laughter skipping across the road like pebbles from the sky. They know who we are. It’s like they can sense foriegners from a kilometer away. We must have a smell. Like old people’s children.

Unlike China, we have no camera crews stopping us on the road for impromptu interviews to be aired on local TV stations.  No one has invited us to the grand opening of their restaurant to draw the interest of American investors. No one fawns attentively at us.

Instead, we have to bargain hard for everything. Nothing has a set price. Everything is up to the whim of the stall keeper.  This is making us skeptical. We want to leave. We are paranoid of people’s intentions. These are not the innocent, pure third world country people that foreigners love. These are people with flaws. These are people who don’t give a damn about pleasing the doe-eyed foreigner.

But I have always been a bit paranoid, even in China, where people were wide-eyed lovely. Always a chip on my shoulder. These are the side effects of a black pride movement. These are the side effects of a struggle for identity:  Insecurity. Anxiety. Sharp ears.  These are the fist thrusting attributes of someone who wants to see their pen’s end, someone who wants to read their own writing, lost in the murk of ego and meaningfulness, lost in the mist of their own lofty soul searching points.

I killed a fly that crawled out from the sticky bottom of my beer mug, persistent to finish what I’d started.

So sometimes, not-so-pleasant experiences that are outside my realm of familiarity can turn ugly in my mind’s eyes. Experience is often so much built from expectation, which is often based on misunderstanding, our mind funneling out possibilities based on prior knowledge. Sometimes a person scowling is just a person scowling because they’re son came home late from school. Sometimes a woman cannot move because she is breastfeeding behind a counter. And sometimes, she thoroughly hates your guts.

But until we touch, until we communicate, break the skin of our mental glares, until we reach out past our own comfort zones, we won’t know and we won’t be able to do anything about a problem if there ever was one. We will also not see the kindness in some of the Vietnamese poeple who invited us into thier homes and asked us for nothing in return. We will expect something to linger beneath the surface, and walk away feeling a little jaunted and unsteady.

We will remain foreigners in the pink pail foreigner club undistinguishable from other foreign people, a sea of salmon. In which case, running from identity to identity, country to country, movement to movement, gets us as close as we can to the real deal: discovery. The travel bug has blessed me with a curse.

We’ve left Kansas

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

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We’ve left Kansas. 

The last 18km of China ran along a smooth highway with broad shoulders elevated above the actual road that sliced like a low flying duck through a valley. The road dipped suddenly then wound around a conch shell mountain only to exhale at the zenith onto a lumpy backstreet that hiked back up and through a gate.  What to do with this twisting shaking elation?  My peddling legs quiver. My hands grease the handlebars. This must be it. There was a man in green uniform staring straight ahead Queen Guard style.  I can hear my heartbeat.

 That was it. They stamped our passports out. They stamped our passports in.  We rode through into a cave of emotion built up over a week of expectation. Restaurant huts slumped with thatch roofs and patched sides that bulged out at the middle.  Dogs, bigger, Rin Tin Tin dogs, flopped their heads down on parched asphalt next to parked motorcycles mounted by men watching and yelling Chinese style, “Hello!” We’re here, aren’t we? 

It was sunny after a long stretch of rain and the cold that kept our emotions in check over Christmas and New Years. This was stepping outside and being free. As if China were our parent’s house.  This was like summer. I want a beer like now.


Lucky for me, they love beer in Vietnam. Within the first day of riding, before being comfortable enough to utter our first raw phrases of  pigeon Vietnamese, we see Bia Hoi (draft beer) signs hoisted above huts with chairs and tables stretched out beneath the brazing sun like tourists on a Bahamian beach. 


We are not in Kansas anymore. We are in freaking Vietnam!  And suddenly I feel lazier. Like I do when the plane lands in The Bahamas on a visit home, and the hot, heavy island air rests on me like the elbow of a large friend, and when I stand up to dismount the aircraft, my feet trudge as if through quicksand, as if gravity is more confident closer to the ground closer to the equator at Tropic of Cancer latitude.


They say that people from tropical countries are lazier because of the heat.


China is on the other side of a mountain.  Practically right there, bikable, touchable. Hyperactive frantic truck honkers. Factories smoking sulfur oxide pipes.  Little, barefoot children running up from behind hedges. Water buffaloes running to douse themselves in mud. We’ve impalpably switched countries: lo mien for pho bo, tea with meals for tea after meals, 645ml beer bottles with rice and dishes for draft beer served with peanuts at beer bars. The beer is just as weak. 3-4%. But it is sweeter, and cheaper, at 2,000 dong, or one quai or $0.10 (the cheapest ive ever paid) a mug And the people sit on the sidewalks to drink it like they do in Beijing’s hutongs.


 I sat and typed with a little espresso mug of Vietnamese coffee served with a French filter or phin and condensed milk or sua sitting unstirred at the bottom.  I am to let the coffee steep, then stir. The man who served it to me said that most people usually only have one cup because it is so strong. Foriegners might ask him to add water. This reminds me of the saturated coffee I drank mistakenly in full 200ml mugs in Spain. For my first two months there, I attributed an accelerated heartbeat to stress and change in atmospheric pressure. I thought I was going to have a minor heart attack.  I asked the Vietnamese man in the café  to kindly dilute my cup, which still left me wired until about 2am. I go mad over the sweet milk though.


The French left their charm.  Their ability to lounge delicately and enjoy a cup without looking gratuitous did not go lost on the Southeast Asian coconut trees that swing at the gentle folds in their waists and the lazy way people start their mornings with a mug of beer drunken with breakfast noodles, or the way women sit at restaurants at every time of day feeding children, waiting for kicks. This slowness pulls at our nerves, and we stride slower and shorter.


This is the tenderest way to travel.  To ease into a country, one road at a time.  We see only the road in front of us and the people we ask directions from and bargain with for food and shelter. Biking cuts out the stress of guidebook mustsees. It limits scope to the next town for lunch or rest. It ties our experience more to the connections we make with people we talk to, to the lands we must trek. A day contains so much for us because there are no moments folded into a bus ride, or a two hour bullet train. Vision is slow motion.


I forget speed. The adrenaline junkie jumping from kick to kick, text message to TV station, to music video, to dessert, to diet, to advertisement, to dancing on tables in dark clubs, to conversation topic, to shopping spree for candles, switched.


S   L   O   W      D   O   W   N  .  .  .  .


Notice: Motorcycles packed with three men warming each other’s hands in each other’s jackets or mothers with newborns curled up in sacs on their backs or little girls clutching pigs with fifteen chickens tied to their dad’s motorbike.


This does not seem odd to me. I panic that I am no longer surprised. What is experience if not shock? Is it all just muck? Treacherous annihilation? When all is well in the universe,  where is my irony? When all is equal, and we start on a clean slate in a new country where none of us speak the language nor have any prior history (except for a brief visit of mine in Ho Chi Minh City in 2005) where is there brooding space? Where is there a shadow from which to dispel myths and reveal hypocrisies? When all seems normal, and rolled out onto the scenery like a slow, winding road, where is there difference between the edge of my skin and the beginning of theirs?


In Hanoi, the tension of motorcycle speed and imminent danger raced beneath our skins as we road South from the Chinese border. They zoomed past, nipping small parts of our limbs, knuckles, wrists, leg hair, and we became nervous at this more agile danger that makes Chinese dumb trucks look like big stupid animals.


Yellow, the color of French colonial buildings, drooped dilapidatedly beneath weeping coconut trees onto the screaming streets. The unpreserved buildings bent their unmanicured backs hairy with smoke to the growling motored bikes like defeated relics bowing to their new, swifter masters. Doi moi, the country’s economic reform, has Asian and European investors pouring into Vietnam. They, like the Chinese are quick to develop. Rapid industrialization, urbanization, population growth and agricultural development has people fidgety to make a buck. It strains our communication because we can never be sure if people are trying to make a profit or be nice.


We don’t speak their language so we cannot build confidence or respect.  We can only smile and hope that  the smile in the crinkle of our eyes transmit feelings of friendship.  Sometimes, we are redeemed with mutual signs of friendship. A man paid for my dinner a few nights ago. Sometimes, we are treated like big companies with elaborate PR image management schemes.  Last week, a woman riding her bike next to mine, got off and asked me for money as calmly as if she were asking me for the time.


We’ve left Kansas. The homogeneity of hospitality and curiosity that followed all the way down China is variegated here. Statues of armed women and men with jungle hats reminiscent of famous images from the Vietnam war (the Vietnamese call it the American War) trickle through city parks. The fine arts museum in Hanoi was decorated with portraits of soldiers surrepticiously welcomed in clandestine villages where peasants rebandaged their wounds and restocked their food supplies. Huts hid beneath the shade of banana leaves where guerrilla units planned attacks against Diem’s government.


The Vietnamese like their freedom.  If China is known to the world for its Great Walls, Vietnam is known for its wars against the Chinese, the Japanese, the French, and the US. Our connections with them are more complicated because of this history. They do not fawn over us like the Chinese whose exposure to foreigners has been limited. We have to bargain hard for food and shelter.  For fruit. We ask a price for milk, eyes go up and roll around, and a price rolls out from the top of the head.  Little boys kick us out of their soccer games if we don’t make the cut.  Vendors kick us out of their alleyways if we linger too long without a purpose.


I sit and type slowly with the alcohol of midday beer rolling through my skull. Women are around me fondling their babies, pushing their 13 year olds towards me to translate. Fruit is peeled, sliced and put on my computer for me to eat. I am being motioned to come inside the house and eat lunch on the floor with a straw mat spread out beneath. I only meant to drink a beer and then leave. But men, liquored up from prior bar stops, keep motioning for my glass to be refilled as they ask me if I want to marry their friends. I’ve had three, and am about to have the fourth. I can’t keep this up. I am buzzing, typing through the buzz.


All the women in town have stopped here at one point or another and rubbed their hands through my locks. I write through it. It no longer phases me. I am sober cab. I have to be or I will get nothing done. Here comes a bamboo pipe with tobacco.  I tell myself the only polite thing to do is to smoke it. People swarm around me like flies, like whirring motorcycles on Highway 1A, Vietnam’s main artery, the road we’ve been avoiding for the last 5 days since Hanoi. Men, alcohol infested, old women with betel juice stained teeth, childbearing women, loud and catty, all try to talk to me, get a reaction out of me. But it is hot and I am tipsy and straining what is left of my brain to concentrate. It is difficult to write for longer than a two minute stretch but, I will not leave.


We’ve left Kansas. Things have slowed down. Life seeps through like coffee filtering through steel. When it is all on the other side, inside its proper cup, it will be right and strong, with a bitter sweetness like Angostura. Tasty enough to sip and brood over.



Monday, December 31st, 2007

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Things have been slowing recently. We wind down the last of the wicked mountains with their fake peaks, and gaping caves that gawk at us from a distance.  We trickle down the last thumb of China’s Southeast like the spittle that painfully combs the sparse grass hairs and tickles the muddy river belly of this border town Ping Xiang. 

I can smell Vietnam. Its right there: 18km away. It smells like rice mixed with mud. We will have to cross the Mekong, which fondles the banks of the Tibetan Plateau China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, dribbling rice and fruits like a no-good man pollinates his offspring. It will be brown a lazy spittle in dammed areas a rushing gorge near the delta. Brown is not a color of shock. It’s one that dulls, like the oversized blazers and the Mao hats of old men who play Mazhong (Chinese chess) in parks. Peasants who blend into the mountains. Planters who blend into the fields. 

We honker down and wait for it to come. We are not scared, but anxious. Crawling back and forth through the street lights filtering through steaming vats of dumplings and noodles, sallowing the viscous night with their fat yellow clouds. Tapping our feet, looking up into the sky, reading a chapter, looking for food, tapping our feet, restless in this halfway city with its half Vietnamese, half Chinese signs. We have nothing else to do but wait to leave.

I have guesthouse, restaurant, net bar radars and their Chinese characters zoom into my focal vision like a movie trailer. These are the only characters I can read so I notice them even if I don’t want to go online, even if I’m not hungry. This keeps my senses tuned to the present. These big gaping signs signify safety, and I look for them like they are Bahamian flags, a safety zone in war times. I tap my feet. I rub my freezing hands together like a New York vagrant over a 50 gallon drum fire. I shiver, waiting.

People are tapping the water pipes with laughter. Vulgar, drunken yells slam against the dusty hotel window like a drunk friend who doesn’t realize how late it is. We smell excitement. Our street is shaped like a tourist attraction with red tents, outdoor seating, and delicacies like skewered rat for gullible travelers to experience. I like to experience so I pressure my friends to go streetstall hopping. We sample a few, and have a beer acting like decadent expats in a lost generation, ortravelers just passing though, the only real attention this town seems to get from foreigners, unless your Vietnamese and you own a store.

Because of our visas and the holidays, we’ve been taking three day breaks every three days.  We have no more weddings to attend or friends to meet. We have no other purpose but to get to Vietnam, and it is 18km away. Aahhh! This is more like a vacation. My mind is vacating. My memories are slowing down. I am getting fatter and slower. Every so often I get a rush, and my group members and I play the “What night was that?” game. This stream is petering out.

Soon we will be looking at China in retrospect. Soon I will be comparing every other country to China and not Japan. Soon I will be looking for concrete architecture cropped by clay roofs and hollowed by courtyards, bright red wooden gates that smell of paint instead of age. I may no longer think of simple wooden temples with ferocious guardian statues and tatami mats and paper sliding doors, colossal gates that smell of cedar.

My imagery will be replaced by more recent contact. I will look for signs of China: its smells, its language, its sounds.  Soon I will miss it. Perhaps even the frantic honking of buses and the guttural growl of coal-carrying dumb trucks breathing their exhaust onto my legs like a teenage boy kissing a petrified ear will seem faraway and romantic. Like sound blown through a conch shell. Faraway pink sand.

I speak in the future tense because I do not know what is ahead.  Perhaps this is dangerous to do because I am making self-fulfilling prophecies that might kill the surprise. This is not living in the moment. This is waiting for tomorrow, like a fiance waits for a soldier.

In some ways, our trip is only beginning now.  All five of us having lived in China for a significant period of time before cycling through it, (my four months being the shortest period), we’ve traveled through the populous, Han-predominant East, knowing for the most part what to expect, knowing enough Chinese to interact with the locals, to tell them hello, to ask them their occupation, to get a little drunk with them.

We’ve seen indicators that might prove or refute premature suspicions we might have mustered up beforehand: 1. it is much cheaper to travel and easier to bargain in the countryside, 2. people are much nicer and will invite you into their home without knowing you, 3. it really helps to speak the language to gain people’s trust and make deeper connections, 4. many Chinese love foreigners and most in the countryside have not been exposed to them, 5. Most Chinese people have no idea where The Caribbean is.  

China is present tense. It is now, smashed against our faces in its graphic market scenes of hanging meat and dripping blood. It is raucous internet bars with individual speakers at every computer blaring individual versions of the same techno bass beat. It is cigarette smoke poking dirty fingers up our nostrils as we try to look undisturbed.  It is moody restaurant bosses pushing whole chickens on us, or otherwise ignoring us when we want to ask for the bill. It is rowdy hotel ladies who, shouting while smiling, confuse our senses, making us think they are angry with us when they really just want to help.

China is uncomfortable. It is always happening. It is loud with big signs, piercing music, shouting people, shouting buses. We cannot stop this life from happening. We cannot keep the children from creeping up behind us as we eat. We cannot keep curious people from grabbing and trying to open letters we want to mail home.

China is up close and personal. People interrupt, squeeze between, slap us amicably on the shoulders, breathe on our necks as we sit and they hover, run up alongside our bikes as we ride next to fields.

China breaks us out of our comfort zone kicking and screaming.

It is 1110pm December 31, 2007 the last fifty minutes before the new year and we waitshell-shocked and exhausted like night watchmen like the MC at a New Years celebration staring at the clock waiting for the jump the ball to dropfor people to go crazy. I hold my breath for the next adventure when we will not have the safety net of language and background to settle us in comfortably. Perhaps, we will not have the innocence of non-traveled eyes, and the muck of experience will muddy the surprise of that to come.  Perhaps, our expectations of what will happen will turn out to be completely wrong.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. We still have to get through tonight’s scheduled street performance on the cold river front with the dribbling water petering out beneath the concrete arched bridge. I hope the audience behaves. But you never really know in China. Or anywhere for that matterI hope the border cops are nice  

Technicolor Dreams

Monday, December 17th, 2007

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It is early morning, and this town is very vocal. All night long.  Truckers and other all night workers stop here and look for food at the all night food stalls with the chairs outside. Drew and I got caught by some women selling expensive green mango seasoned in salt, sugar, and red peppers. They told us to take up a seat in the all night out benches and chairs.

But it was the beginning of all night, and the children were still awake and rampant. Already, when we arrived at our lu guan at around 3pm, fat boys with husky shoulders and skinny ones with ripening bass gushed out of the white tiled industrial apartment opposite, looking into our open windows and shouting, “Hello,” in unabashed, take-the-moment-by-its-beard-hairs, Chinese style.

 This was clairvoyant.

When they started to follow Drew and I down the road from the market, it did not surprise us to hear the pitter patter of little feet tapping the unpaved road like the beginning of rain, the beginning of night and all those passing through until the warning of purple dawn floats furtively around the mountain to expose those who didn’t make it to bed on time. The children know of this banshee, this screaming Blood Wedding moon in cahoots with old lady death. They still have their occult sixth sense, the umbilical chord to the black earth, the mystery we lose once we’ve seen too many moons.

Perhaps, this is why we seek them out in the little rambling towns that roll around the hills and the cascading rice fields and dribbling creeks. They hold that Tantric Tibetanesque secret to the community. They answer questions without any adult psychosomatic premeditation. They are raw. They catch us at clandestine campsites, always on the heels of the last one of us to roll our bike up the path.

Sometimes, they come with treats: things that dropped from the trailer, a soccer ball,oranges, things lying on the ground. Children are closer to the ground. They see things like ball bearings and old snail shells, things we miss as we look out and onward into the air, sliding glimpses at booted ladies in garments too flashy, too grown up for little plastic towns replicating themselves after big plastic cities.  Children are waist high, and we meet glimpses in the middle, bracing our eyes against brazen pimply teenagers with bleached hair on motorcycles, yelping with their nasily basses, “Hello.”  We don’t like this obnoxious hello that is not really a “hello” that is a joke. It is too adult for us. It is jarring.

Sometimes, they come with dolls or ribbons they want to give us. We have no space to carry them, but somehow, we find room. Any gift from a child is a merit of honor, of understanding.

Emily Dickinson had a keen interest in children in her cloistered life. She found innocence in them that she could not find in surrounding adults. In their laughter, she heard truth.  Poetry milk.

We play soccer and Frisbee with the little people at our clandestine campsites, juicing them for connection, for imagery, for memorabilia. We become a part of their childhood experience, shaping their little memories. Perhaps, when they’re older, we will be the great blue-eyed dreadlocked 2 meter tall foreign giants that came for a week and played with them. In the small memory of child, everything seems bigger.  A day is a week could be years. Like the memory of the universe. The era of human life is the blink of an eye.  

They are the dark before dawn we seek. They are the memories of youth, before we realized that we could manipulate situations to go in our interest. They are illusion before disillusion. They are all night magic. Dreams in Technicolor before postmodern cynicism, a mainly Western concept that makes us hesitant to suspend our disbelief.

 We see them darting behind the bushes, racing along beside us as we ride between towns. Dirt smeared babies playing in the middle of the road, emerging from a field of water buffaloes. Little ones dragged behind older siblings to catch up to the spectacle. Hen gou de wai guo ren. Really tall foriegners. Feijo ren wa! African wow!

I think of the scar between my eyes that was carved there by a piece of broken glass bottle i fell on when i was four and dragged behind my 7 year old sister. We were running, panting, splashing through mud puddles to get to a friend’s house and back before my mother returned from work, expecting to find us clean and calm, watching TV or reading a book.

We hunt children. And they hunt us.

I am weary of them and their wide eyes. Their innocence attributing a certain acute evil. Their truth, darkness, as if they know something I don’t. As if they don’t know enough of what not to do, how not hurt people.

In Milan Kundera’s ”The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” they lived on an island where they made the rules. They had childlike curiosity that wouldn’t let up so that when a lady protagonist took refuge on the island. These malevolent angels probed her body for answers, feeling her breasts, caressing her hair, curious in the adult female body like artists studying a nude, studying the curves and crevices, the shadowed sex that bears children, the back that steadies the load, like God pregnant with Earth. Freeing her body from its ties to love, of soul.

Yesterday, they surrounded Drew and I as Drew gave an impromptu English lesson, and I, giddy from beer, shone a flashlight into his transparent blue-grays to demonstrate how pupils dilate. They clobbered us with a wind whipped by 100 heads leaning forward at once, the child-like thrilled adults hiding their nosiness behind the brazen bunch pouring out their souls to listen. After realizing that we had to get out or they would never leave, we excused ourselves saying that we’d return to our lu guan.

This did not matter. They followed and followed us still. An army of little waste high people scrambling up the stairs to our third floor room. They scampered right past the lu guan boss, and up past the internet bar undeterred by our gentle foreign polite suggestion that they shouldn’t come up. They flowed like unabashed, unmanaged children do, into our rooms, sliding up and around bikes, onto and behind beds, fondling our things with their little slippery child hands, filling spaces like Chinese traffic, frantic honking busses that do not wait, but honk to warn you that it is coming up right beside you.

If there is a space to be filled, they will fill it. These are the laws of nature. The ebb and flow of quotidian life like a people without a government, or a government spread so thin that its little propaganda signs do not matter, its warnings unadherred to, its construction signs moved out of the way so that a biker can get through.

These are night laws.  And they make us giddy for sleep. When the truckers have free roam over the earth and the night cooks laugh crooked laughs full of metal teeth, and all night, on my way back from trips to the bathroom, I can lean my head out of my shoddy hotel window and see the orange mood light from the midnight stalls forming perfect disco smoke through the hot pot and noodle steam.

And I feel safe. And can crawl back into Technicolor child land.

The Wonderful Adventures of Big Land (from HK)

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

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They ask me if I’m tired and I say yes.  They tell me what I’m doing is amazing and I say “thank you very much, but its really normal,”with a head nod and a shy smile, bashfully attempting modesty, guiltily accepting the complement as justification. We speak in small words and language helpers like “well”, “I suppose”, “that’s great”, and let long acoustic breathes flop into our big meanings like ice cubes in a tall glass of water, melting, always fills you up, always cools down the awkwardness of silence that burns ears. Aahhh 

We’ve been in big land ever since the wedding in Guanzhou when all of a sudden we were in the company of more white people than I’ve seen gathered in one place in 3 years.

In Japan, I knew my limits, and rested meekly on the foreigner crutch that allowed me to be aloof and ambiguous. In Asia, you can laugh when you’re embarrassed, or pretend you don’t understand when you don’t have anything to say.

In big land with its big ideas like carbon emissions, and non profit organizations, and one child polices, these tricks make me look silly.

 I found myself standing on the red carpet of a hotel banquet room coiling and looping with story book fantasia: glitter and confetti and ribbon and a bride sparkling in white and waitresses refilling whiskey flasks and people hunting for other people to talk to. This could be Hong Kong at night spinning on curvy sky ways, tubular lights making car trails, captured at the peak of speed, in a quiet postcard that moves like a bus in a floaty pen streaming down a snowy road where little people tidy little houses.

 I found myself twirling and turning trying to catch the clink of wine glasses toasting and the shriek of whispers shooting sharp tunnels through unprepared ears and the pillowed muff of heels piercing the cush carpet beneath them and the round body above them and the shrill staccato of confident lobby diners from the non-wedding world where people are free to be mute and untouched. The underworld of magnified sound padded me carefully against the onslaught of human interaction in big land. I kept my head steady for wind changes, ants carrying their eggs before a storm.

This is an eco system and I am an ant ducking for cover in carpet bush. Everyone is a predator.

I always get flabbergasted whenever we go to a big city like Shanghai or Hong Kong I feel like Alice looking into a world that makes little senseStreets glow like computer animated cartoon characters that appear 3D I cannot tell if they were drawn or graphically created And one seems realer than the other 

 I find it hard to fit my writing into the vast space of a cityI am spread thinWords appear in comic bubblesThey are not their descriptions They paint cartoon pictures of the people who speak them in this magnified setting of meeting new people and making new friends”。 We scramble to project positives images of ourselves because this is what people will remember of us First impressions pressed into the presence like a name in a gravestone   

We are in Hong Kong now and it is big. Jim has little patience for neon lights and the crowds and the trams and the billboards with the big models and their big abs shooting sexy laser beams with big omnipotent eyes. He’s a Montana man who dragged elks out of the woods before he could grow a beard. Buildings will never replace mountains.

I grew up in Xiao Dao Guo, that’s small island country to mainland Chinese. This does not suffice for the Hong Kong island people whose colonial past has spread out the whole world at its tiny finger tips.  One Nation, Two Systems. But this system, on the Hong Kong side, is much much bigger.

Globalization has the tendency to make small countries act big, or, in my country’s case, developing nations believe that they are developed.

The Bahamas and its relatively stable political climate draws in armies of international tourists imprinting pink feet on its tiny shores. 

Hong Kong has one of the busiest sea ports in the world and is fifth in attracting international passengers to its airspace.

The Bahamian dollar is pegged to the US dollar, and the economy leans on the service industries of tourism and banking. We manufacture nothing and have very little natural resources and skilled labor. We import everything that we cannot produce ourselves. We fear the Free Trade Area of the Americas gulping us down with its highly skilled, lesser demanding workforce, a long island ice tea that only kicks in when you stand up.

Hong Kong’s factories which initially built its wealth, are quickly being swallowed up by the cheaper, harder working, dispensable Chinese workforce. Now it is Hong Kong’s job to manage the huge amount of money generated in the mainland and its drudge task force of worker ants.

There are mouths all around tonguing crevices that tickle when touched.

But small country turn big doesn’t want to be touched. Doesn’t want the particles to drift. Wants to keep itself a subject – a being, a one and only. Leave the niceness to the big countries with the big aid like the US.

It is not an easy task for a mainland Chinese person getting a tourist visa to enter Hong Kong. Immigration officers turn away women who look more than 5 months pregnant fearing that they might intentionally remain in Hong Kong to make sure their babies are born there so that the child may have the right to better social health care and educational systems.

In Bahamas, we are constantly worried about Haitians stealing our jobs, exhausting our healthcare, and committing crimes, all of these accusations unproven by statistics, but highly feared.

But this is the big world. Or the small world under a microscope that unwraps it and all its cells out onto the sizzling sand so that one goes hungry for small wanders like purple oyster shells spat out onto the sea shore, and babies who wonder precariously away from the peripheral vision of their parents.   I am lying on the sand and my vision of the families playing at a beach near Mayrknoll is sideways. I feel lonely because I want to play with the children, but their parents and nannies are there. And I don’t want to be weird. This is not the mainland where children run rampant, invading our campsites and pulling us into their schoolyards to play. I have to scurry the sand for imagery.  I have to sulk.

This is big land and I am Glorified Individual. I have to walk with a click and suck the sound like a cup of coffee, my morning comfort. It’s become a habit here in Hong Kong. I have to lean my head forward, peaking at workers smoking in alleyways, exposed pipes on the backsides of buildings, cracks of white paint on the ceiling above my bed, floods on the 5th floor of a shiny mall, accents that don’t match faces. Did you know that there are Indians of Mongolian and Caucasian races?

In big land, I find myself comforted by the parks that are inhabited at any given moment by 80% immigrants. There are Indian or Pakistani men with greasy puffs and stonewashed bellbottoms smoking on the walls. There are beautiful Filipinas and Indonesians picnicking on plastic tarps beneath footbridges and on the edges of buildings. This is abnormal to me until I get kidnapped by a friendly Indonesian at a park beauty pageant for domestic workers, who explains to me that this is how they hang out. She takes me to a street stall to get coconut rice and curry chicken for $10 HKD. You know you’re in big land when you can get cheap ethnic food on the street corner.

I used to hate when the Japanese used the word “ethnic” to describe foreign food in Japan. They did not describe French food or Italian food or American food as ethnic.  Only the more exotic places, or the lesser developed country foods: Thai, Indian, Jamaican.

Peter noticed that they included Mexican and Italian food on the menu at Ruby Tuesday’s in Hong Kong, whose motto is “Simple Fresh American Dining.” 

One of my favorite slam poets, Chinese American from Oklahoma, Beau Sia, once argued in a poem that spring rolls ought to be classified as an American food.

This is big world, where identities come pre-packaged in combat boots, opaque leggings, bleached puffs, and kimono sleeve A-line jackets. At the mall at the top of The Peak, there was a store that sold “cool Japanese style” drinks. I can’t wait for my country to become a fad.

I like Kowloon better than Central. The restaurants there are more raw. There is still fish being squished and scaled in buckets out on the street. You can still get slimed if you’re not careful. There are night markets where crafty market ladies don’t take crap from bargainers. The Indian restaurants here are owned by Indians. And the interior is not decorated but for internationally renowned white plastic chairs. Sit and eat and make sure your glass is clean before you drink the water.

There is peace in the tranquil oasis of Mary Knoll, the 1920’s brick monastery that’s opened its doors to us for a week. It is on the other side of Hong Kong Island, behind several mountain ranges, where the land rolls out its tongue to the ocean. There are beaches and coconut trees here and it reminds me of home again. 

Nassau’s northwest shoreline is lined with mansions locked up in gated communities mainly inhabited by full-time and part-time foreigners hiding away behind coral reefs and sand hills, escaping their neon tubular lives. This part of the island, against the white sand and the sky-reflected sea, is pastel colored, happy colored. Most people are in good moods here. Even the construction workers move at the speed of the coconut trees, their bare black backs shining like polished lacquer in the unblocked sun. Pupils dilate in sun this bright.

There is peace here, shadowed by a vague discomfort. A sense of incompleteness. Like I don’t belong here. The Pacific Islander maids and nannies pushing children with blonde ringlets in strollers and walking chestnut golden retrievers smile at me with familiarity, the same look I get from Ethiopians selling write-off Timberland boots on the street. I am one of them.

But not. Not a maid. Not a merchant. Not selling suits. Not an immigrant in search of a better life. Just passing through on a bike. My friends are Minnesotans who know the difference between fly swatters and robins. Their vocabularies are different from mine, but we share the same passions. I am caught between familiarity with the foreign English teacher and the immigrant, the first world and the third world, the concerned hippy and the dirty pretty thing.  Beauty smiles up at me from big brown eyes in shadowy sockets gaping down as I use its face to start a blog.

Shameless graphomaniac that I am, I feel the need to write everything down to claim it the way a photograph claims an image in a pose. Keepsakes, the authority of memory. A ticket stub that shows I have been there before. I want to scar myself with experience so that I have something to start with. So that people ask me to explain: “What do you mean by that?”  So that I always have something to say at a wedding.

In big world, I find peace in immigrants. Those assimilated in inner city grime. Their culture is still raw like an unhealed wound, still steaming. Immigrants from finicky countries that may or may not ascend to G8 status. Immigrants that still speak their own languages, that still have little Indias and little Mexicos and little Indonesias gathered in apartment blocks in snowy cities, the scent of their curry or their pita bread carried through the pipes.

Immigrants that form little countries labeled in neon signs hung above highlighted streets in big land. Immigrants who push blonde babies in strollers while their own babies speak their first words to them via an international phone card. Immigrants that may or may not have a chip on their shoulder, but still manage to smile, unassumingly at someone automatically distrustful of their intent.

Immigrants who live under the intense, laser-colored city sky, bracing their shoulders against a marching crowd, arming themselves in fashion, and taking pics in the park on a lazy Sunday afternoon, their fixed off day, when the blonde children are under the supervision of their French and Finnish parents.

 Immigrants that have to start from here, and build.  Their journals burned. Their visa pages shrouded in work permits and extensions. Their memories of homeland unsticking themselves from the scrapbooks of their marmalade childhoods.  This makes big land seem much much smaller.

Fear, or the lack there of

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

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Fear, they say, the people who appear in books, the people who author life, they, say, should speed one up, say, dilate the pupils, hasten the synapses, quicken the pace at which the heart squeezes the blood like a fist around a throat, or a fist around the pole of a revolutionary flag, a fist thrust upward, the direction of blood after it is deflated of oxygen, its second trip around the body.

Fear, they, say, if done right, ought to catapult a country into a full-fledged war, pink and brown and sand-colored fists thrusting the sky as if to beat the blue pulp out of it, pulverize it to red dust, the ground that was made to sleep at its feet like a dog without a name, sleeping on the doormat on the other, wetter side of the door.  Then ground and sky would have the same genitalia, the same initials: D.S. Dirty Sky. And where is the mystery in that? Where exactly would the unknown be if I’ve already seen yours and you’ve already seen mine?

I wondered this, nonchalantly, too nonchalantly, in the tiny room with the old yellow sheet thrown on the lumpy lofty bed on the fifth floor of a dirty apartment in Guanzhou, the new town, with the old smell of Garlic and methane flowing through the pipes of neighboring apartments.

I remember Beijing in these smells. When Drew and I moved from the college area to Downtown, the place where grown ups played. We liked this apartment because we had Chinese neighbors who would try to converse with us in the elevator, whose plastic garbage bag smells and after lunch breath smells we would get accustomed to. We liked that we could turn something so old and minty green into a kitchen. That we could scrape the grease layers from the stove and wipe the dust from the exposed pipes and hang our own useful things like towels and gloves and pictures from the newly whiter walls, and cook up our own garlicky, oniony, sugary, cofeeish, honeyfied smells that deafened the memories of past tenants into a dog’s whimper on the other, wetter side of the door.  

Life was slow then. We woke up wandering. Wandering up from our beds with the thin skin of sleep still stretched on our eyelids like a tent moistened by morning fog. Wandering to the bathroom to empty the remnants of sleep from our bladders. Wandering through the emptiness of the living room wondering where to place ourselves so that when the other person emerged from their bedroom they wouldn’t enter on the wrong side and set each other on an offbeat, wrong feet wrong shoes. The morning is tender. The night is more clearly defined.

I told the man in Guanzhou in a clear, tired voice, that I didn’t want to sleep with him.

I had arrived here by bus an hour before the sun went back to its velvet draped room to brood, and rode my bike, weighed down by luggage like an eleven year old girl with new breasts, for 4 hours looking for the cheap inns, the ones I was accustomed to paying 10 kwai a person for. I had been forewarned that Guanzhou was almost as big as Beijing so the likelihood of finding a cheap hotel might be slim, but thought I would emulate my friends’ unstinting, fist-thrusting, persistence, to find a bargain.  Hong Kong and a new visa has already started the slow torturous job of gnawing my bank account to green digital threads that translate to 0 balance in an ATM’s brittle ears.

It was speed that brought me here. 

Speed without the fear. Velocity. Torque. A roll roll roll. A swirl swirl girly whirl. A swivel and a curl that sent me tumbling down the sharp hill on the small country road that mirrored the interstate to Guanzhou. We had climbed, slowly, painfully, 16km up up up to reach the last fingertips of climax, before the road would begin its wobbly downward tumble into the flat, hillless southern end of Guandong province, its spiral into Guanzhou. We didn’t anticipate (who could?) the sudden slide into ecstasy.

I knew I was about to fall the minute my front handle bars began to rumble like a belly ache deep below me, a muscle spasm that I couldn’t reach, couldn’t control. My bike was detaching itself from my body because I hadn’t pressed the breaks soon enough after starting downward, hadn’t given it any warning. I knew I was about to fall and was trying to calculate where exactly to fling my body and where to place my limbs to achieve the least amount of impact.

I flew. Sideways vision. Sky curving. Silver and black pebbled.  Horizontal road. Blackness. Zip. Whiteness. Zip. I am on a porch being cleaned by Jim. I am cold. We go inside a place where there is a pile of women and children arranged across from me like a pyramid, a portrait hanging on a wall with eyes that follow moving bodies.  I am watching them watching me wash my wounds with tears. I lift my shirt and Jim says, “Ohhh.” There is pain. I weep. There are talks of raspberries and boiled water. I want some. Boiled water inside my cold, shivering body. 

We spend the next 2 days in a small town in the mountains where I am under diligent supervision, Jim and Drew taking turns redoing my bandages. I hobble up the stairs of our inn slowly, feeling all the inches and millimeters where skin moves over muscle, rediscovering through pain all the points where my body is connected. I touch my face, and for the first time realize that it did not go unscathed. There is hardened flesh smeared from my lips to my cheek, which is fatter now. There is a bandage on my cheekbone. I feel colder.

Drew says I walk like a gangster. It hurts to laugh. All the boys curl up around my cracked body seeping into gauze like moist cold, like winters in Tropical countries where the cold creeps into your coat, like The Bahamas, which is still warm enough to wear flip flops and tank tops now. They watch movies with me as my body begins its healing process. They send me ahead on a bus to Guanzhou, our destination, the place of a friends’ wedding we’re invited to attend, scared for me to ride again.

 The bus rides at 4 times the speed of a bike (80 km an hour), giving me know time to admire the river slicing through the sandy mountain cliffs.

But I am not scared. No fear to deliver me from the slow, achy movements above my bike. I am chary and unsteady, my bike and I getting to know each other again after the obliterating crash that split us apart. I ride slowly, aware of what accidents can do to bodies, darting between the wheels of buses and the curbs of sidewalks, slicing through the electrified, carbon emitted city heat that pisses on my legs like a dog tired of sleeping on the other, wetter side of a door.

I am slow, getting slower, more exhausted. So that when the man flags me down on the fourth hour of my hotel search, I think that he is just trying to practice his English and that he is just excited to meet a foreigner, like the people in the countryside who fawn over us, treating us like royalty because we are new. I stop my bike, unnew, dented, wreckage weighed down by bags, my body, unnew, dented, wreckage seeping into sagging bandages.

Fear quickens you.  Exhaustion slows you down.

He says that I can stay at his place tonight. I am amazed at my luck and ask him if I can pay. He says it’s ok. I’m exhausted and it is 9:30pm. He rolls my bike along, lifts it up to the fifth floor of his smoke-webbed apartment that has smells of Beijing in it, opens the door to his room, puts my bags down on the floor and puts his arms around my waist, one of them on the raspberry gash in my side. I flinch and tell him that I do not want to sleep with him and that I have an American boyfriend who is 198cm tall (In case of any misunderstanding, Peter is NOT my boyfriend). He says that he has many girlfriends and that he likes foreign girls. He lays his hand on my wound again. I show him the dressing and he tries to touch the skin around it. I pick up Drew’s phone (which I have with me for safety) and threaten to call my 198cm boyfriend who is on his way to Guanzhou. He relents, and I roll my things back down the stairs nonchalantly, too nonchalantly, suddenly no longer feeling the pain in the wound on my waist.

I descend into the hot night city air that hovers like a ghost in an alleyway, like the sour, hot breath of a man on heat. I am not scared. Nothing in me quickens or thrusts fists. I am not even angry. The city is like other cities – busied into fluorescent haze like a techno music video, silhouetted bodies popping and locking against blazing advertisements and moving subway trains.

I consider sleeping at a net bar and breathing in cigarette smoke as i dosed in front of a computer screen for 8 hours. I consider going to a 24-hour McDonald’s where i can block the flourescent light out with my sleeping mask and use my laptop bag as a pillow. There is a park across the street and I am tempted to go sleep in it. Anything seems a better alternative to what I just experienced.

I go for one last ride around the block and find a hotel for 100 kwai. I weigh this against the park option and decide it’s worth it to have a clean, private place in which to change my bandages.

I stay inside the hotel for the whole next day feeling empty and cold. Feeling slow and limp.  My thoughts are blurred by the blue underwater haze of too much sleep. The only thing reminding me that I am alive is the pain reawakened in the naked flesh in my side that glimmers like a diamond medallion in the sunlight beaming down from the one window of my hotel room.


Thursday, November 15th, 2007

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Mould makes me cringe. I have a psychological reaction to it like some people do to the sight of raw fruit being bitten into. It is my one and only request when we stay at hostels in China: “Is there mould on the walls?”

About a month ago ago, we were in a town I did not like. It made me itch. The walls of our rooms were white, but mouldy. I stared down at the market below, waiting for rain and watching women whose faces had been blanched by make up too white for their complexion, their eyes shimmering with mint green eye shadow. They were feisty though, and this gave their widened eyes enough color to be convincing as they rambled about below yelling at street vendors over Chinese veggie pancakes. I stole glimpses of them from behind the predatory mist.

I’ve heard that it is a law in the United States to repaint the walls of an apartment after a tenant moves out. To start out fresh, white and mouldless. I think of this wistfully beneath the safety of the white comforters. Peter said that there is mould in the bathroom of the next room and that I should steer clear of it due to my “problem”.

I shudder at the sound of the word cracking like sunflower shells in my ear.

This is sensory overload. Density of life (Kundera). Too many things coming at me at once. This is China. TIC. Better keep it in its acronym form, or else images will burn your mouth like a steaming baozi eaten too soon. Like a high orange persimmon broken into with teeth. Orange innards gushing everywhere like a late morning sun just breaking through the clouds. Like my bladder after fighting with it for an hour before getting up to pee at 5am.

China is like this. Unsolicited intimacy like flies crowding a table full of food you want to eat. Over lunch, we talk about them cathartically as if to face our outhouse fears where the dark holes in the ground hum with wet moving things. Dogs step on our feet looking for food beneath the table and cats scratch their flees against our legs as they chase rats, which they will devour wholly, mirroring us as we hold our chopsticks of glistening pork midway to our mouths, watching carefully. They remind us of the life that used to be lived in the morsel of meat neatly sliced and stir-fried with lively peppers and carrots that make our mouths hang open, slobbering with anticipation.

This morning, I stopped, stunned at an orange cat holding gray, anemic eyes into its smushed misshapen head. I remember the head of my childhood cat that seemed bilious and bony when wet. She hated water, and shivered and sneezed, and hated us for washing her. We loved her more in this emaciated state, and gave her kitty desserts when she was dry.

Life is short. Even cats slip and die on cow blood as we sit and watch through the steam of noodles we blow at before eating. Hot breakfasts take the edge off.

We ate five feet away from a bucket of crimson blood sitting silently like paint before the paint thinner is added. A pig’s four hooves lay broken and exposed on a table next to it. I followed the sallow pink to breathing red to greasy gray to an endless market of hooves and legs that fuzzed into a lentil salad of flesh and silver knives and the slowing lives of cold fish sliced open, their gills still flapping as if they do not know they are dead.

Everything is out in the open.

Mingy chickens dart around gas stations poking the dirt for bugs. Dead pigs are held upside down by four men washing the dirt from their bellies, scarlet blood dried up on their snouts like smudged lipstick. Heads of pigs look upward from kitchen floors with the hallowed eyes of scared ghosts as we snap pictures from the balcony, feeling big like the friends of boxers. Cows lay stretched from skin to skin on the black asphalt, darkening the city dirt with their smeared blood. Animals take up little space when they die. Everything is eaten.

Then we shit them out and fertilize cabbage, a dish we’ve been eating a lot of lately.
Everything is out in the open.

Like the fat rolls in my midriff that deepen in ashen folds when I look backwards into the mirror to examine my weight. Sometimes I reach around to touch them incredulous that they are there: enough fat to make secrets in my skin. Dark secrets. Like the cabbage I ate for lunch yesterday. I shiver, invading myself with cold fingers and cold reality.

We pee out into the open. The boys can do it standing up and into the air with perfect aim, sometimes from the peak of a mountain as they make echoes with their voices into the hallow humanless valley. I have to look for dry bushes, sometimes dried trash. 2 weeks ago, I crawled beneath a bridge and found a dried out, cracked leather belt near a trail of needles that once tapped dried flaky skin for red blood. I made a neat puddle next to them, careful not to get the dusty blankets at the edge of the platform wet, conscious that there is human life here, however faint. However hidden in the nook beneath a bridge.

Something flapped in me like a page of an open book flailing in the breeze. Something cracked. I’ve been cracked. My defenses weakening.The walls between me and China are eroding like a Bahamian shoreline after a hurricane has smeared its white sand onto the black road blocking the passage of SUV’s freshly washed by joonsers with bare backs and teeth that have rotted from thier mouths.

I cringe daily.

The Cozy In Betweens

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

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I sat on a bus yesterday that catapulted me into today faster than I could say “sit back and enjoy the scenery.” But maybe I talk too slow. A writerly friend of mine once playfully called me verbose. Milan Kundera might say i was expressing the“sudden density of life,” a case in which a writer loses sight of the limitations of prose and logic and stuffs his scenes with a surfeit of actions (The Curtain). And that’s why I love Kundera. He puts a name and a face to my narcissism, which, by the way, I had no time for yesterday on the bus.

The minute I sat down with the sun slapping me on the forehead and the whiplash of motored acceleration pinning my back against the seat, I felt very very tired. I bid my comrades goodbye and fell asleep watching the scenery speed by faster than I could ride a bike. I woke up to the scenery latent and slightly agitated by people clanging luggage and skimming plastic bags against my knuckles. Next, the scenery was asphyxiated by an evening scarf as stygian as ink that hung from the windows of the train, which stopped 12 hours short of the 24 I expected and spat me from my top bunk onto the inchoate morning platform like something bitter.

Suddenly, public transportation is making me its bitch, twirling and slamming me into curbs and harsh morning temperatures ever since I ditched it for the slothful, but sexily steady 2-wheeled bicycle that my muscles and crotch have come to know intimately.

I am in Hong Kong now on business if business can be defined by the Olympics, foreigners, small unpronounceable countries, visa expiration dates, consulates, and passport photos. At least that’s what I wrote on the departure form: business. I left the guys behind somewhere in the dusty mainland. I hope that by now they are swigging baijui (rancid Chinese rice wine) with farmers who wear green oversized blazers and smiles pressed into their faces like wrinkles. That’s what I crave now in the midst of arbitrarily stylish boots and balloon skirts, where I must wear my serious city face so people won’t mess with me.

I am in Hong Kong now and the scenery is a passive aggressive flash of neon light suspended above labyrinth alleys flooding with African tailors, Eastern European accents, albino Chinese, and Philippine guesthouses. It rings in the ears like mantras: Do you need a single room? I know where you can get suits made cheaper than in your country. Where are you from? Ooh! Where is that?

Signs are everywhere, ricocheting messages of somebodies’ home; countries left behind: Namaste Indian Restaurant, Forest Green Vietnamese, Sushimasa, Patty’s Irish Pub, the Kangaroo, Tony’s Ribs. Food is the fastest way for a country to get around within another country. The best meeting place for a family of Indian migrants discussing business and counting one’s blessings over lunch. It’s the best way for me to fulfill my cravings of garlic nan and spinach chutney, momentarily forgetting the mainland’s steamed dumplings and tasteless cake.

But my senses are overloaded in this megalomaniac carnival. I’m too used to brown rice paddies, the candy green of tea bushes, the soft tresses of corn fields and sugar canes.

This is probably why I am fighting to push my writing fast between the time it takes for my laptop to run out of battery in this socketless café franchise, in between frantic sips of froth from a parched paper cup before the steam stiffens, in between the insipid drawl dripping between taffy mucked teeth that talk about the rich suburbs of Dallas over my shoulders from the other table. Elvis is on the speakers above my head and a red two-tier bus is having problems moving its massive hind from the minute parking space in front of the glass wall of this socketless café franchise. 

My mind is immersed in the memory of the books I saw at an English bookstore. Delillo, Marquez, Murakami, Achebe, Kundera. My mind floodlighted with the thought of all these ideas summersaulting onto the shelves like an animated puzzle coming together. If I could I would lick them all one by one.

This is like Shanghai again. Everything is too immaculate. The ketchup sits in shiny plastic bottles. Skinny Malboro lights sit between the fingers of skinny girls and skinny boys in skinny jeans and anime hair, clinking hips beneath the bamboo scaffolding. The shiny plastic signs and the white walls of the 7 Eleven’s glimmer like a jar of candy in a doctor’s office.

I feel safe enough to stay here all night if I have to. Chocolate covered matcha cakes and Japanese Pocky’s are sealed in plastic covered boxes. They are sealed so we can eat them.

There are signs everywhere telling us it’s safe. There are signs with girls in smoldering eyeliner nonchalantly hanging off the shoulders of boylike male models in tuxes, laughing, simulating good clean fun. Signs telling me it’s ok to come into this hotel and that bakery where the best blankets and the best treats lay awaiting me like a nipple to a newborn. Signs become symbols of security in a big, bombastic city like Hong Kong.  They have meanings deeper than their message.  I seek them out like I seek out food. 

But i know that i am homeless without my bike. I wonder around waiting for Monday, loosing myself through the alleys. The scenery screams and slithers beneath my senses like wet cold through a coat, creeping in through the button holes and collar until I am completely exposed. I struggle to capture the fleeting moments of people walking by, but all they do is blur. This city is too big for me.

The thing is when we ride bicycles, I never have time. We must ride, we must talk to the locals, we must see the moving landscapes, the billboards, the sugar canes and the farmers and the mountains. We must experience. The signs in the countryside indicate towns and distances in Chinese characters and numbers. The billboards sport propaganda messages to protect the environment that will be used to give Chinese citizens better homes. We glimpse monumental images of cooked dogs on plates and stock photos of the same Lithuanian blonde smiling on store signs.

We cannot get too involved in our own thoughts while riding less we get distracted and slow our strides or get sucked beneath the wheels of a moving trailer. We cannot get involved in owning things. We own nothing. We share everything, even our time.

I’ve grown accustomed to squeezing myself in the tender in betweens, knees to my chest, book on my knees, body cradled in a bed covered with luggage and loose clothes and open guitar cases. I’ve gotten comfortable with sliding sideways in the 5 minutes it takes to stop and pee or ask for directions or fix a flat.  I wake up at 5am while the others are still sleeping and fit my words in the tight urgency of the morning fuzz, where I must be terse if I am to outrun the REM that will eventually pull my comrades out of their delicate sleep and into the embryonic morning with me. 

In the city, I am dwarfed by the larger than life humans laughing down at me from their skyscraper wallpaper. Everyone looks different here and I’m not sure what language the passerbys are speaking. Indonesian? Vietnamese? German?

 I am alone. No one looks over my shoulder to see my notebook. No one asks me where I’m from unless they want to sell me something. No one cares. Not even me.  I am wearing my city eyes like dark car tints. I am alone and my time to myself is vast. I make sure to keep it that way, dodging soliciting Indians inviting me in for puri and dosa. I have a mission.

With my bike temporarily amputated and stuffed into the trailer (that Adam affectionately calls the hearse), I crawl into the box that is my hostel room, and sit Indian (ok, Native American) style at 2am, typing steathily while my teammates are dreaming in the mainland and everyone else in Kowloon, Hong Kong is downing vodka and dancing to a deaf hip hop beat on a Saturday night.

The Elusive 26th Birthday

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

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Last year, I told my Japanese students it would be the last year to celebrate my birthday. Next year would be 24 instead of 26. I would start to go in reverse. 25 was the oldest I wanted to be.

I’ve never felt so old in my life as right now. I feel my muscles as they move me through the mountains of central China. I am slow. And my teammates must wait on me, and ride back if I have a flat.

Yesterday or tomorrow, I am exhausted when we stop and do not have the energy to smile or talk to the gathering locals. I just feel. The pulsating muscles beat against my veins like a bell tolling on the hour.

Today the sky leaked its white blood again. It seeped down the mountains like a wound, sluggishly hugging the primary colored store signs and the putrid florescent trash that lay on moist asphalt like corpses not yet cleared away. It crept in, fingering my bones like the moonlight falling on faces when there is no other light. It wrapped the world in white gauze, healing it. I stood on the balcony of our inn, perception clogged by white, and waited. 

It is Monday as well as Sunday or October 23rd or 25th.I have been losing track of the days. I write “Day ?” in my diary and it makes me feel swept away like the fog that withdraws midday. A day reversing its steps. Like a stream of consciousness.

 I think it was 4 nights ago when it rained in the middle of the night, when everyone woke up clacking their heels on the wooden porch that was our shelter, covering things with plastic, shimmying shoes beneath bags, zipping rain covers over tents to stymie the bursting sky.  I don’t know. It was night and I was daydreaming. I hid inside the tent hoping to go back to sleep and dream the rain away. I’d zip the sun open like a winter coat after a long day. I’d let the sun come in and hold me naked with its rays. But my dreams always bring about the opposite.Today is October 24rd in my dream. And the boys believe it. I wake up to white fog covering the grimy city like a wedding veil. I’m careful with my routine: 1. Make coffee (I cheat and carry around a small bottle of instant Nescafe), 2. Put on biking shorts and T-shirt, 3. Pack, 4. Read a few pages from book on religions, 5. Check on boys. They sleep. They have made plans to let me sleep in and surprise me with Birthday cake. Only they didn’t let me know. And I have no idea what day it is.

Four nights ago, I danced as the boys played guitar and erhu beneath the moon on top of the hill where we slept. Drew called it a rain dance. The rain was my fault. A Chinese friend of mine said that the rain is female and the sun is male, so I replied to Drew, “Well, I am the yang.” My knees hurt when it rains. I must be getting older soon.

Today, the sun is dripping again. As if still wet from the rain dance 4 nights ago. As if doused with holy water. My grandmother used to call me the devil in hell. She must be looking down now and pouring slowly.

We had birthday cake and chocolate milk and Chinese mooncakes and dumplings and dumpling soup and fruit for breakfast. I blew out 5 candles trying not to spit on my name and the Chinese message written in red icing. I felt so honored. I felt young. I felt like riding.

So we rode 40 km to a mountain town with smiling humble mountain folk and  feasted on the best Chinese meal we’ve had since we started. At least that’s what everyone agreed on. We’re always up for food comparisons. Peter even notices the different tastes of the rice. Though sometimes, if he’s feeling ravenous, he mixes all the dishes together and eats with a spoon instead of chopsticks.The laban (boss) of the restaurant lapped us up a heaping bowl of ripe orange winter squash steamed. It is our favorite kind, in its natural state. We’ve made no mistake this time. This is not orange pumpkin sliced and boiled in a tasteless soup, nor is it pureed and sugared and corn starched. It is just a pile of steaming winter squash. We eat in confidence over our decisionless decisions.  This is fate.  Great restaurant, great people, great food, great mood, great weather (the sun came out), great Birthday. Everything has gone smoothly and we want to seal it with a date.

But curiosity must kill this cat, because the laban, our beloved laban, tells us that it is October 23rd. My Birthday is October 24th.

I am still 25. Cheers. This is still as old as I wanted to be a year ago. Maybe if we stay in this town long enough, the days will begin to peel back like old skin, our memories purified by the cloudy mountain sanctuary and the peaceful mountain folk and we will be back to our original selves, naked and raw. 

25 still am I. The world in reverse. Like a stream of consciousness. How did I end up here riding a bike in a mountain when last year, I was dancing like a cat on a friend’s bar table in Japan, wooing a man to “Satisfaction” by Otis Redding? 

Tomorrow, I am running through corn fields with a white dress on. I am 20 and virginal. I write poetry on a swing next to a lake as a beautiful boy with sunshine in his eyes watches from afar. It is sunny, which is good, because I like men.

This is a dream. Tomorrow it is my birthday. Tomorrow, I think, maybe, it could be, I don’t know, according to the laban, whom we respect because she knows how to cook a pumpkin, it is October 24th 

And I am actually 26. Older than I wanted to be. Tomorrow we camp outside on a rice paddy to celebrate because I want to be rebirthed in the Earth on my birthday.  The red sun transitions impalbably into the red moon, and i am confused whether it the sun itself or if it is its reflection that brightens the faces around me. I need my sunglasses to decipher the colors.


This is Eden and the sky is leaking its white blood on my brown skin again, wrapping everything in a wedding veil.Everything is about to be consummated.  Everything is about to become real. Everything is moist. Suddenly, I am very aware that I am grown. Happy Birthday to me. .

A poem: 451 Degrees Fahrenheit

Friday, October 12th, 2007

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This lab is hot, my mind

is on fire in the front of the rays.

I know i wont be able to sleep

 after im done.

The smoke wafts  

like incense in a temple and i want to wave it onto myself, I wantto quaff the holy water

in the ersatz well at the bottom of the church.

Keep these hands busy in front of me;

they’ll be strapped to the handle bars

of a moving bike

soon. There won’t be a place

to take a hot shower or a pen

to stick the contents of my mind to a page.

There wont be me,

just the tumbling wind

and the petrified plastic bags,

and the billowing clothes hanging to dry,

 and the hot hot muscles moving

 like a marionette, masterminded

by mercurial adrenaline

that might quit the minute a car cuts

my impetus. Got to stick with the torque,

the gyrating wheels,

man’s greatest creation, next to high heels,

which I left on the floor next to a silent pile of refuse

waiting patiently to be swept outside.

Ive forgotten myself in this inimical heat,

that makes my head go light and flaccid,

spinning like the asphalt rolling rolling by

beneath my wheels,

becoming one with wheels, slicing

the space between pebbles and particles,

and frames of references in paintings:

mountains and skies and flapping hawks

and greens with reds, and spots and stripes,

and shadows with shapes, and endless

contiguous courtyards with faces

that match and mismatch and melt.

The faster i ride the hotter i get.

My mind steams out of control.