Monday, September 28, 2015

Eclipse

I'm watching the sun give way to a flickering of fireflies. They hover over the lawn, illuminating patches of faded grass-- the end of a season. Another ninety-degree day slips into a cool breeze and hails September weather. I'd wear a sweater, but I'm eager to embrace the chill forming on the back of my neck. Fall is birthing an irresistible heir-- new beginnings.  And I welcome her.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

SunRise

It verges on murky this morning. I woke up to darkness and somehow found the sun. But even through its rise, the spread of color piercing the darkness, a listless grey hangs in the distance. I could turn and embrace its presence, as it almost looms behind me, but I'm drawn to brightness. My eye is captivated by a neon spread of pinks and orange, of burning white light that brings tears from glancing too long. Still, I know that shade of darkness, perhaps threatening rain, lurks like some unknown monster in the space out of the corner of my eye. I can't even look at it directly, more just feel it watching me, watch the sunrise. It plans to interfere, to comment on focused attention, and I plan to deny it. Even as it would eat every inch of color, every patch of white light,  I will ignore it.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bumpkinville!

Okay, so that was kind of a dramatic headline. But I want to talk about small town living.

After seven (rough estimate), months of being bedridden, I have finally reached the physical health and stamina that allows me to engage in the world outside my bedroom (sigh of relief, and at last!). Having relocated to my parents, I find myself in Georgetown, a bumpkinesque small town located north of Austin. If you want to understand just how small this town is (and also if you've know Denver well enough to know the reference, sorry for being exclusive), just think of Auraria campus. The Georgetown population is roughly the same (last I checked), in population as the Auraria campus. Boom. Big for a campus, small for a town. So small.

What makes Georgetown especially unique is that half of it is, what I would call, a very picturesque retirement community. That's right... old people. Everywhere. And not that this is a bad thing, but just based on what I see when I go out into the downtown "square," it is probably 3/4, 65+. Upon first returning to Georgetown, I was relieved by this. I didn't go out often, usually just to the doctor's, but being surrounded by old people ( is this politically incorrect to say now?), kind of comforted me. I was relieved by the lack of pressure we so often allow ourselves to feel when immersed in our peer-group (don't act like I'm the only one who feels this way, and also, sorry for all the parens today).

So that being said, I spent several months blissfully living surrounded by everyone else's grandparents. As a teetering, feeble 25 year-old, I sort of fit right in. But then the unexpected happened, and I started to recover... and then I didn't fit in. What you must understand, is that if this small town population is mostly elderly people (there is the term I was looking for!), then the percentage of the population that is my age group is very, very small indeed. This has not stopped me, however, from venturing out into Georgetown, and trying to make friends. Here is what I have discovered:

Living in a small town, nay, living in Georgetown, is kind of like going to that family reunion you have never gone to before.

See, and this is why I, personally, have never gone to one. Let me further expand: I have a rather large extended family, most of whom lived near to each other, while my family lived on the opposite side of the country. Driving out to make visits once every year or two proved awkward; everyone knew each other and had inside jokes, and nothing made any sense. Aside from these somewhat sporadic visits to various family members, there wasn't a lot of contact with the extended family. In fact, we didn't even go to family reunions when I was growing up, and many of the members who did, I had never even met. In early adulthood my mom started taking various siblings of mine to the family reunions, and I always opted out. Awkward (yes, I'm a coward, but I'm certain some of you understand exactly how this feels when you are younger, and the awkwardness established during childhood doesn't exactly wear off when you become an adult. They still have their jokes, and stories, and memories to share, and you have some foreign looking pot-luck dish you can't identify).

If this example doesn't hit home, I'll give you another (back up!). Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY has had this experience when dating at least one person: Think of when you first started dating. Remember when you FIRST met all his/her friends, and how they sat around making a thousand inside jokes and then explaining them to you through chokes of laughter and expecting you to find it equally hilarious. Awkward. You had to sit through them laughing for extended minutes (10-15 at a time), and smile, to show you were engaging everyone, sometimes laugh, but mostly not laugh because everyone knew you didn't know what they were laughing about. It's kind of painful, right?

The point is, this is Georgetown. Unlike the family reunion, everybody has dated everybody else. And like the family reunion, I am the odd one out. Like your BF/GF's friend circle, everyone knows everything about everyone else (because they went to kindergarten together, or babysat each other, or went to school with your parents...etc.). And you enter the scene realizing that there is not a single person who doesn't know everyone else. There is noone you can talk to who doesn't know anyone you would talk about. No bar you can diss, no person you can tease (make fun of  #cough). This is why the south is so polite in speech. Everywhere either is, or started out as a small town, where everyone knew everyone and had to speak ever so kindly or they would be the subject of much gossip (even over nothing).

So what I am discovering is that crass northerners (says the girl born in Mississippi), have no place in southern, small towns, and the only conclusion I can reach is that I have to at least move to the nearest city. Before everyone here knows me, and before I make a silly gossip of myself-- or even worse, make myself the subject of other people's gossip!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A New Kind of Patriotism


I'm trying to decide how I want to frame this. Being an expat is somehow hallmarked within a culture as unpatriotic. Leaving your country to live in another, for any reason, creates a strange, unspoken, interpretation that one is apathetic toward their native land. In China, as foreigners, patriotism for our homeland was never reinforced within a playing field of international peoples. I may have been in China, surrounded by the Chinese, but expats gathered together and made a culture of their own; a culture not defined by roots tied to any country. We were united in that we all decided to live somewhere totally foreign to us. It was a choice, and often the only characteristic of ourselves that we knew for certain we had in common with one another. 

I sat one night, at a rooftop bar in Dongcheng with a group of expats I was meeting for the first time. It was dark and cool outside, and per the usual, there were no stars to be seen across the murky expanse of pollutants that layered into a wall between myself and the sky. I looked up occasionally, despite the knowledge that there was nothing to see, just to remind myself that the sky was actually there, and so were the stars, and the moon-- up there somewhere.

There were women from Brazil, South Africa, men from France, Italy, the list goes on, amounting to about 15-20 people; not more than two from the same country. I had never been surround by so much diversity (in the purest sense). And it was a strange thing to be among total strangers, but know that these people were the people who chose to connect on one commonality: the expat factor. And yes, that is a real thing. I sat and listened as they made jokes and spoke in several different languages at the same time. It was complex; cultures all so different, accents that varied drastically, all colliding into one another rapidly. I couldn't keep up. Simultaneously, the scene, on whole, as it stood before me was simple; just people talking to other people, foreign people. 

I distinctly remember realizing that I was the only American in the group, and hearing all of them crack jokes about America, I quickly began to realize how other countries viewed my own-- and their own, for that matter.  I remember hearing several jokes about Americans, and as I did, flashing back to what one of my friends told me before I left for China: "remember that you are an ambassador, not just of yourself, but of your country. Everything you say or do represents where you come from. Try and keep this in mind when you decide how to represent yourself."  I might be paraphrasing a little, but the over-all point I want to make, is that those words were 100% accurate, and 100% relevant. I sat and realized that these expats felt very differently about America than I did, and the only way I could change/impact their perception, was by bringing the best side of myself. 

As I tried to keep this perspective in mind, I felt something that would not have been stirred in me were it not for these circumstances: patriotism. I don't mean to say that I did not love and support my country prior to leaving it in order to live in China. I mean that I'd never been so inspired to check myself at the door and be, in every way I knew how to, the best side of America. I wanted to show them, that behind the stereotypes and impressions, not all Americans are that stereotype, and further, that stereotypes are rarely the best side of any country. 

Being back in America, I can't shake that sense of patriotism. I wish I could extract it from myself, like sap from a tree, bottle it, and give it people. Not because others lack patriotism, but because, much like Pandora's box, once this side of patriotism has been opened within oneself, it can never be locked away or closed again. Feeling the way I do (having playing no large role in what American's might consider patriotic acts, such as serving in the military), I wonder: how do soldiers feel when returning home? What kind of patriotism do they feel, and how does it differ from my own?  I have such a vastly different perspective from such a small experience, but it changes (very much), the angle at which I view, and think about, so many things.

For example: Sports. Football! Now hang with me for a bit, I know this seems like a wild tangent, going from patriotism and soldiers to sports, but I promise it isn't. 

I almost never watched any sports prior to leaving for China. Football season always irritated me. Perhaps because I grew up in a family that didn't really follow pop-culture trends (not a positive or a negative, just a fact). Listening to people get feisty over which team would win; watching all the adds on TV;  realizing that a large portion of the year would be devoted to football parties; bars always being packed full with shouting men who bump into you repeatedly with the excuse that the game is on and they are excited-- that stuff drove me nuts (arguably petty, but hand with me a little longer).

Looking at America under a new lens, I see football as something American's have created so much culture around. Americans come together, fairly united in the sense they are all watching the games together, showing support and enthusiasm. We have formed a tradition, one that some 90% (no source for that stat, I made it up and I don't care), of Americans become crazed and excited about. The conclusion? Watching football is patriotic!!! America + NFL = patriotism ! BOOM!  If this is how everyone views football, I do not know. What I do know, is that football has become some kind of patriotic ceremony in my mind, and I have begun to try and understand the game better, following along compulsively, shouting at the television, talking to friends about it, getting involved. 

This is the positive, albeit mildly twisted, form of patriotism I have adopted, in order to cling to the sentiment I discovered while talking with expats in China. I love America. I want to understand and learn more, be knee deep in its goodness, and that reflect all the best sides of it to others. Can this catch on, like a disease? I don't mean to be a lemming football fan, but I genuinely enjoy knowing that tons of other people are all doing the same thing, generally at the same time, and with a similar amount of verve. We have shared enthusiasm. 

On the flip side, something else has recently caught my attention, and is the reason I bring football up while discussing my new found form of patriotism (bringing the tangent home here!). I caught my first game recently, on TV, and was disgruntled when, right before a commercial break, the following message came on: "this game brought to you by Hyundai, proud sponsor of NFL." Yes, this is about money. Well, sort of. 

My sense of love for my country, and all things AMERICA has transformed into a larger part of me than it ever was before-- A sense of patriotism is something that I hope to believe is in all Americans, and that transforms or grows, depending on our circumstances and experiences.  And I watch the professional football season kick off, and enthusiastically enjoy the patriotism involved in participating in the football season, I pause and consider that billions of dollars are poured into football by companies who want to sponsor the game, and my heart sinks. Not because I don't enjoy it, obviously, and not because I don't want others to enjoy it. 

I'm bothered because I wish (Oh God I wish), that those same sponsors would pour an equal amount of money into our veterans. And while I love that Americans have football as such a huge uniting cultural element (in our contemporary society), I'm also saddened, that we are so capable of devoting money and time to such a strange form of entertainment, but not to soldiers and veterans, not on the same level. And as my new sense of patriotism stirs in me, I wonder: where America's patriotism is headed? I don't mean just as individuals, but as a unit. 

I'll cling to mine. I'll also watch football, and enjoy football, but not without some aching sense of duty, that we are a country of people capable of greater patriotism than just superbowl parties and flatscreen Tvs. We are capable of representing the best aspects of our country, especially within its borders. We are capable of loving our country, and also making our country what we love. 

Oh CHINA!

WiFi! I really wanted to connect to you tonight, at the Uptown Social in Georgetown, but you are password secured (unbelievable). I'm glad I checked though, because as I scrolled down the list of available WiFi networks, I found that my phone still had all of the networks I used while in China, saved. And I can't help but think about...

"Tommy Boy on Hong Fu Lu," where Karen and I would runaway from our insane job to get our 65 RMB coffee. The shop was more like a broom closet located under a set of stairs in a strange, "Harry Potter" way, but those baristas sure knew how to make one insanely good coconut latte. Coffee in China was so expensive! And yet... we splurged if just for the excuse of not being near the people we worked with, of finding something that reminded of us home--escape. We could curl our hands around those paper cups, close our eyes, forget about the absurd humidity of the subtropics, and pretend we were home-- just for a moment.

"Visionshop," which, much like many other places I frequented, had a name surely pulled directly from some frightening translator. This bike (the two wheels and pedals kind), shop was frequently converted into a cigar lounge when guests came to find the good stuff (Cubans!). Also laced with a variety of other dainties (mind you not the kind I wanted but certainly the kind that inspired odd questions and odd behavior), was a regular crowd pleaser, and I can remember the first time I went in, and the proprietor, Johnny, did his utmost to make me feel at home. There it is again, that feeling of home.  

"OFTR visitor optical," again, I can't vouch for the person who named the WiFi network, but One For The Road was an awesome Irish themed bar designed specifically for expats. I remember when I first arrived in Dongguan and Bathabile, my roommate, took me around to show me some of the local haunts-- this was the first one. Initially, I couldn't for the life of me understand why someone would want to put a bar that looked and felt so distinctly western, in China. I scoffed at it, reminding my roommate that I came to China to be in China, not some recreated version of the same Irish pub every moderately sized city in America has. OFTR was very much that wooden floor, Irish propaganda on the wall, very classic rock on the radio, and dishes such as fish n' chips. It was like stepping out of China and back in the Irish Snug on Colfax in Denver--except that all the employees were these sweet Chinese girls. As time wore on, I found reasons to hit up OFTR, though. Reasons to step foot back on familiar soil.

"Glenn's WiFi," the most amazing couple I met in China, hands down.  Glenn and Miao showed me around the real China. They gave me dirt roads, crumbling brick walls, memorial sites, giant and very sad historical trees-- they showed me CHINA. Not just the quickly growing western influence, not just the big areas and the expat hot-spot, they showed me streets, alleyways, culture. They showed me exactly what I came to find out about.

So here I sit at the Uptown Social, looking out into the night sky, admiring the stars and remembering that this is the same sky, and these are the same stars I found myself gazing at from the garden just outside my apartment in Nancheng. DG I miss you!

Friday, September 11, 2015

On Adulthood, and Finding "I"

The thrill of sneaking around is epitomized in a child's mind as the height of sophistication. Whether sneaking out a window late at night, reading in the bed after lights out, taking a cookie from the jar before dinner, we just lived for that shit--moments of rebellion.  As kids, a lot of us weren't given many choices we could make for ourselves ( either that or I grew up on a vastly more strict household than the average). When we wanted to make choices for ourselves, the most satisfying kind was the kind we made privately-- clandestine operations.

Adulthood is all about choices. Work, friends, car, bills, right, wrong... the list goes on eternally, and with too many little, annoying details to want to think about it any closer than skimming the reality we face daily. I consider how eager I was as a kid to sneak around, how many things felt so exciting to do when I knew there was no adult supervision. The thrill of being caught (with a desire to not be). Yes please.

I've gotten all caught up in adulthood. In this mundane process of making decisions based on some construct of right or wrong. What is "good" for me? I look closely at my options over the last few years, and my decision making. Choices everywhere. How often did I "sneek out" to enjoy something for myself? How often did I take time to breathe and consider the needs of self (my self, that is)?

Alright, at the onset maybe I sound like some egocentric maniac trying to convince others to only think of themselves (hyperbolic rendition of the above, but I see how it could be misconstrued as such). So let me clarify. My point is not to encourage people to make bad choices, be dishonest, or over indulge themselves. Let me give an example.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine came from out of state to visit for the weekend. The trip was last minute, and my friend didn't give me much notice before coming to see me (the day before). When I  found out the trip had been booked, I wanted to do my best to make sure that the trip was something engaging, exciting, something to be remembered. If you are going to bother flying to another state to visit me, I'm going to do my best to make the experience rival others in your lifetime. This was my mind set. I went about planning an entire day of activities, everything from graffiti parks to good places to eat. I prepped maps, food, car music, the works.

The morning of, as I packed the car with all my well prepped extravagances, I paused, between loading an ice bag of snacks and a bottle of sunscreen. Already I'd worn myself out, just getting things together, and in order to make someone else happy. Awesome, good friend 101, right? Treat others the way you would want to be treated? Then something dawned on me: I don't ever treat myself this good. And what I mean is, I don't set aside an entire day to myself. Consider in preparation what I love to do, map out where I can do those things, and then spend a day alone, enjoying the things I enjoy for myself. I don't ever sneak out anymore.

Sure, I'll work hard to earn things, hang out with friends, go do all kinds of activities. But I have never planned a date for myself. They say that in order to be loved we first have to love ourselves. I consider the way I want to treat other people, the type of friend I want to be to other people, and then realize that I never stop to consider myself in that same light. Sure, I am alone a lot of the time lately, but I don't consciously gift myself with time alone. I don't stop and say, "hey, just myself and I, we are going to enjoy each other, get to know each other, pamper each other."

Maybe there is a host of people out there who have already figured out that they need to dedicate time to themselves; not time in which they are trying to gain, to work harder or learn more, but to just appreciate oneself. And maybe there are some people out there who can honestly say that they have never gifted themselves with themslelf. Shit, if you have friends, I am certain you have enjoyable qualities, do you ever enjoy your own qualities, for no reason other than yourself? Sneak out the window when noone is watching; stay up late reading after lights out; eat the damn cookie before dinner?!

God, we get so caught up in the wake-up-on-time-for-work, party-on-the-weekend, work-out-tomorrow, lifestyle.  When do we take time to be self aware, and to enjoy it?!

And here I think about the difference between my native culture, and my new one--old self, and new. I consider that the lifestyle I was raised in, my surroundings, advertisements, entertainment, all catered to one very consuming, loss of self, loss of mind, lifestyle. Constantly going, never slowing down, never looking. Appreciation of anything starts with appreciation of yourself. Just like the ability to love starts with how you love yourself.

Late at night, outside of huge living developments, hundreds of elderly women gathered to dance together in the darkness. Men would sit by, holding babies and rounding up children playing in the streets, while the grandma's of the community did nothing but dance. I sat and watched for hours one night, just amazed at how graceful these women were, and how totally alive in the moment they were. Not necessarily connected to each other, but connected with themselves, and in turn, they functioned fluidly as a group.

We have this mentality in America, "I can't do X because I have to take care of Z." When does this way of thinking become a trap to ourselves, a lie? Is it just an excuse we have been taught, hindering us from having what will make us truly happy inside? Freedom. Not even public freedom, but private freedom-- a freedom of the mind, of self. I've got it now, though, the idea that self exists.

I know, you're thinking Descartes already figured this shit out. But what one man has figured out, another takes for granted. Ayn Rand wrote about in her book, Anthem: humanity had become one conglomerate identity, and individuals forgot what it was to have an individual identity-- they lost "I." On a less surface playing field, have we done the same thing? Have we lost the "I" inside of each one of us?

I hear people say all the time that my generation is a "me" generation, only thinking of themselves. Chances are, you've heard this said also, although perhaps not in the exact same phrasing. But I don't see individuals truly thinking of themselves, I see them acting on a group identity, and surrendering themselves entirely to something else... something indistinguishable. If I could say anything about my generation, it is that we are a generation who has lost ourselves.

What I am really trying to get at though, is that you can. That's all. You just can. And we should all start reminding ourselves that we can. I'm going sneak some time away from everything, just to be with me. I'm going to plan it out, make it worth my time, make it unforgettable, and enjoy it, every moment. I'm going to take this opportunity in life to get to know myself a little better, make sure I can stand to be with myself before expecting others to, and then I'll brave everything that comes after. I'm going to eat the damn cookie while noone is watching, and when I do, I'm going to remind myself that I'm doing it for me.