it is impossible to sit down

Posted: May 20, 2010 in travel
Tags: , , , , , ,

Or at least, it has been.

Currently, though, I’m riding on the KTX, the fastest train in South Korea (not to be confused with a KTV, which is a Chinese Karaoke joint — also fun), being ferried from Busan back to Seoul at what the screen in front of me claims is 286 kilometers per hour. Countryside and cities whiz past my window, whole mountains filling my frame for just seconds before they disappear behind my view, my train, my path. An odd allegory of my life as of late.. no, my relative silence hasn’t been due to isolation, or lack of access, or writers block, but simply a inabillity to just sit the hell down and focus, put a pen to a pad and spill some ink. The last few weeks have been an amazing, colorful blur, a whirlwind through cities, music festivals and concerts, bars and rooftops, parks and riversides…

In Bokeo, they called me Doc. In Guangzhou, they called me TooTall. In Sabuk, a man in the bus station insisted I was the reincarnation of Adonis. In Kunming, I met a real live saint, and we did some sinning together. In Guilin, an Israeli and I coaxed the chef at our hostel in to letting us use the kitchen to make some Arabic food. When asked what we were making, he kept calling it Israeli (apparently this is a common thing in the region? kind of like how Serbs speak Serbian and Bosnians speak Bosnian?) so I kept calling it Lebanese so as to fuck with him a bit, even though we both knew it was simply Arabic. In Yangshuo, I was cursed and shadow-punched for about a minute by an irate shopkeeper because I didn’t buy his teacup. In Shanghai, I helped a fellow Lebanese guy commit minor currency fraud (exchanging money here requires an amount of paperwork tantamount to US immigration or bankruptcy). In Taebaek, I smoked my last American Spirit. It Beijing, they took away my last Bic lighter. Everywhere I go, I try. Everywhere I go, I meet strangers. They become friends. And then I leave them. Leaving each place is hard. Looking back is almost impossible.

Sometimes I run on auto-pilot.

Wake up in a bed. Wake up on a mat. Wake up in a train station. Hunch under a shower head seemingly designed to only rinse my celiac plexus. Hunch over a sink that barely reaches my thigh. Brush teeth. Make instant coffee. Eat some jiaozi. Eat some ramen. Take this bus. Sleep on that train. Catch this flight. Fill out that form. Stand in this line. Get to the front of the line, learn that the lady behind the glass has no interest in speaking English, or possibly just has something against tall lanky white boys. Okay, stand in that line. Much better. Argue with the taxi drivers. Rush to an airport. Push past the others. Sorry sir, your flight has been canceled. Here, have a meal voucher. Shrug. Read. Talk. Smile. Pinch pennies. Splurge. Try to plan more. No, wait, try to plan less. Rely on serendipity and benevolence. Rely on brain. Rely on Visa card. Troubleshoot the cell phone re-charge card. Troubleshoot the railway card. Troubleshoot a toilet. Troubleshoot WinXP in Mandarin. Hey look, the Blue Screen of Death is still in English! Neat!

Rock out to Sharon Jones on a walk. Slam to the Black Keys on the bus. Bob my head to Squarepusher on a hike. Flow with Slum Village on a bike ride. Chill to Tino’s Breaks Volume Five around a picnic table. OH SHIT! DANCE PARTY! Cue the Daft Punk and some Lindstrøm! Sip some Yanjing. Gambei some Jim Beam. Talk to every random stranger that will give me the time of day. Try to hear a story or two. Try to find some common ground, through pantomimes and gestures and broken language and photos. Maybe take some mental notes on how horrible my pronunciation of "píjiǔ" or "hěnhǎo chī" is. Work on the numbers again (‘four’ is still tricky for me — it’s like "ssiiiihiiua" but in one syllable). Try not to think too hard. Don’t rush but don’t loiter either. One week at a time…


If you’ve seen anything at all about Shanghai recently, it has probably centered around the Expo. I am admittedly still somewhat ignorant of the happenings, save for what I’ve read in the Times (which is miraculously no longer blocked in China) and what I’ve heard from folks living here. I know that in 7 days, I was already sick of hearing about it, and feeling odd urges to smash and tear those stupid Haibao statues and posters that are seemingly always within sight. I know that a riot almost broke out at the ‘soft opening’ the weekend I arrived, but only from the mouth of a man who witnessed it (problems get swept under the rug pretty fast here). I know that it is a fantastic universal source of blame for anything and everything that has been going wrong… and in China, things often go wrong.

I like Shanghai. For as Westernized as it is, it’s still completely China, but with 1% to 2% of the population being ex-pats (and 1% of 20 million is a fair number of people), you can find virtually any scene, any kind of music, any food, any sport, anything you want. The whole place is dense and cosmopolitan and wild and surprisingly clean and shockingly friendly… nearly every ex-pat I met in my week there, almost every single one, offered advice, or help on finding work, or a place to crash, or the skinny on a show I might like, or something. I was shocked at the camaraderie of the ex-pats there; when you think of a community, you generally don’t think of 200,000+ random foreigners in one of the densest, most populated cities in the world, but that is exactly what it is — a community. It was really striking. In seven days, I went to shows and clubs and restaurants and wine bars and dinner parties and jazz clubs, and even got put on the guest-list to see an absurdest piece of French theater by a fellow Madisonian. Doors opened. People welcomed me. It was great, and I miss them all. I would totally live there given the opportunity. But for now… well, there’s really only one mantra, and it is one I’m not very good at following: keep moving.

My first night in Shanghai, I met Mo, the Lebanese guy who I aided in exchanging some Won to Yuan. He’s knee-deep in an internship in South Korea at a robotics institute, and was in Shanghai on his visa run. On the walk back from the bank, while we were chatting about bloodlines and such, trying to figure out exactly what degree of cousins we are (as Lebanese, with no evidence whatsoever, we’re almost certainly cousins), he mentioned he should have used his Venezuelan passport. "You’re Venezuelan?" "Well, my mother was born there… my Grandfather went over for business, long ago. You know how we are — we are everywhere…" and in a comic stroke of like-mindedness, four seconds later we turned to each other and exclaimed, in stereo, "Wherever the money is!" And it’s true…

sore thumb syndrome

I stand out sometimes. I’m sure my height is a factor, but I’d like to think there’s something more to it than that… in any case, especially as someone who struggles with the most basic phrases of the language, I certainly look like I don’t particularly belong here. There are plenty of foreign faces of all races, religions and creeds in China, and in Shanghai, where as I mentioned, 1% of a dense city is made up of them, I rarely get a second glance… but in other areas, I can illicit a whole galaxy of stares, glares, smiles, comments, small talk, laughs, points and gestures. The kids are the best, because they’re so honest about it: there’s no shame in their staring and pointing, and no ill will either. They will commonly run to their parental unit and hug their leg, burying their faces into the clothing, or sometimes the exact opposite: a huge grin, accompanied by a wonderful "HALLOOOO!" which would melt even the iciest heart. Sometimes they try to hug me, which is only funny because the parents’ are never particularly happy about it, though by the time they grab the kid off my leg, even they are hard pressed to repress that natural urge to smile. Surely they were kids once, albeit in a different China altogether.

The Icy Glare of Death is the worst, though… I still have a hard time with it sometimes, though I’m getting used to it, and manufacturing methods of good natured yet half-cynical diffusion can be fun. Sometimes, when the stare is really bad, and all I wanna do is lock eyes with the sidewalk, or maybe run, I’ll just put on this real shit-eating grin, one that takes up my whole face, even the eyes smiling, cock my head slightly, and go "Ni hao maaaa!" (Hey how’s it going are you good?!) to break (or possibly ignite) the deafening awkwardness. This rarely brings about a response, although sometimes it works brilliantly, and the tables turn one-eighty: their eyes suddenly find something, anything else to stare at, and if they happen to be walking, the walk becomes a flustered, hurried gait. Regrettably, though, I have yet to have a single one tell me how they’re doing. Stay tuned.

One week in Beijing: art world, music scene… what does that tell you?

My arrival in Beijing coincided with Labor day, which I was honestly surprised to learn the existence of in China. This was a mixed blessing. My ignorance led to the only form of transportation being a 16-hour overnight bus (inexplicably more expensive than the 12-hour train ride — I blame the expo), but in return, we were greeted with a plethora of things to do over the weekend: two music festivals, the Beijing Modern Art Fair, and a gaggle of after-parties and concerts, most of which I never made it to.

After re-acclimating to Beijing, we went hunting for the Beijing MIDI festival, just Northwest of Yuanmingyan park. MIDI started in 1997 and bills itself as a rock festival, although it stretches the limits of this to the extreme — four stages (plus a rouge tent), playing almost every music genre that could be equated to ‘Rock’. Ever see a Hong Kong metal band play opposite a Finnish power-pop all-girl trio? Or an over-the-hill British punk group belting opposite a Hard-House Mash-Up DJ? Or a solo folk performer strum 50 yards away from a group of psy-trance raver chicks? I have… and it was pretty awesome.

I have been to some festivals in my time, but this one was certainly one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever seen. All the usual trimmings of a festival were there: ink, dreads, Jagermeister, an unconscionable number of Che Guevara t-shirts, tents, flags, beer and skin, but the mix between the stages was really something special… I was sad to not see anything resembling hip hop (dub-step doesn’t seem to exist here yet, either), but at least the DJ stage was always pumping something good. At one point I walked past a crowd, and I heard through the shuffle "have you seen so-and-so?" and the answer was something like "yeah, over at the main stage, listening to that hippie shit". Hard not to smile at that stuff.

I didn’t make it to the other festival going on that weekend, Strawberry, because I wanted to see the art fair instead. It was huge and very well organized but inexplicably only ran for 3 days, only 2 of which were open to the general public. I’m pretty glad I went though; every gallery and studio in Beijing was representing, plus a few hundred others. It was held at the Beijing Agricultural Exposition Center, an ironic venue considering a lot of the subject matter, and one could have easilly spent much longer there than we did — the scope of it was simply massive. It was like cruising all of Dashanji 798 and then some, in 5 hours, and after a day of schmoozing around and taking a ridiculous number of photos, we went for Thai food…

The rest of my stay in Beijing was soaked up by visiting with old friends and new ones, researching teaching certifications, taking notes on Korea, sitting in the sunshine, reading a lot, and generally keeping my mind going in 30 or so different directions. I feel I am constantly at a fork, but the fork seems to have five to ten paths to choose from at any given time. As a graduate of the ‘Don’t Think’ school of traveling, I am always at odds with how to go about making a real, actual plan… and if I were counting, I think for this trip I’d be on plan number 60 or so. Hard to focus, hard to choose, sometimes hard to feel like I’m not losing my mind, my edge…

Fight Apathy…

…or, don’t. Whatever.

Trip Report: Korea. Coming soon. Seriously, I’m sitting down. Soon.




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