At last we entered the final area, a little square enclosed by different buildings. Each one was somewhat squat, no more than one or two stories tall, with grey shingles. Everything looked almost stylized to the imagination of an Eastern temple. Out there in the cold near all the monks in red, it all felt very real regardless. The monks eyed us and we them, standing as strangers barred by language from a straight connection. Even if we had the tongue to tie our two groups together it would have been an entirely higher level of courage to break the ice. It was nothing particular about Tibetan monks. In the majority of temples we went to the monks did their own thing and let everyone else do theirs.
The tour guide told us to sheath our cameras at this point. In a certain area we could take pictures of monks, buildings, whatever else. Inside buildings and deeper within the monastery, they disallowed photography. I felt somewhat glad for it. Pictures help with capturing and keeping a moment but not necessarily for enjoying it. It is a tricky tradeoff where I remember less of what I could not take a camera to, but absorbed more of it at the time. At this point we entered the Grand Golden Tile Hall. Here and in the Potala Palace we got cut off from our cameras and it made the dimly light and sublimely colored Tibetan tapestries come alive.
The bright and glaring sunlight made its exit and only gentle lamplight wore on our eyes now. The intricacy of the tapestries and the cloth covering the hallways was so intense that it felt overwhelming to try and take it all in at once. All the complex interweaving patterns created a sense of what the world’s cosmological phenomenon might look like. Pockets of well-organized tomes stood not far off either, sparking off endless thoughts on what they contained. Wild parts of my mind flirted with ill formed ideas of tantric secrets, but it was more likely the scrolls contained sutras and religious history.
Eventually we came to the large golden statue of Tsongkhapa himself, the man whose spiritual deeds sparked such grandeur. The golden statue itself was beautiful and awe inspiring in its own right, but the atmosphere meant everything here. A church inspires with ceilings that stretch on endlessly high, and cavernous expanses allowing all a seat. Kumbum felt small, but personal. The hallways were spacious enough, but crowded with so many banners and colors showered in dark light that in some way it felt packed and expansive at the same time. In this area we saw more monks and visitors giving offerings and sitting before the statue of Tsongkhapa. The holiness of the area radiated in a way I can only imagine Notre Dame or the Sistine Chapel or the Hagia Sophia might.
A dear friend I had made on the trip remarked to me how incredible the experience felt to him. He called it one of the most intense experiences he had. I had to agree, and felt good doing so since I heavily pumped up Kumbum to him while we explored Xining. I try to keep a healthy balance between cynicism and romanticism, to not to get swept up into breaking things down into nothing or building them up so they become everything.
Yet, Kumbum deserved respect and absolutely should radiate holiness and awe even by objective standards. Kumbum is one of the oldest religious institutions in Tibet and second in importance only to Lhasa. It should inspire in the way Notre Dame might. Centuries of tribute and donation from a mostly poor peoples, centuries of elite support, centuries of a good section of many people’s resources funneled into this site.
The result was sublime. As we loaded back on the bus, I felt enlightened by an understanding of how so many people could give so much of what little they had to a venture that never paid them back materially. Grandeur and awe incite such a flood of emotions that they become a payment all their own. As I reflect, it is not so unlike the sky scraping buildings of New York or the terrifying obelisk we dedicate to George Washington.
Nation means nothing on its own, and neither does Capitalism, but seeing all that steel and all that marble help me admonish these ideas. The abstraction springs to life in form of the finest construction people can manage. Incredible skylines remind us of how far we have come. Named after businesses, they make remarks on what might have got us there, or at least paid for the construction. Marble monuments that seat Lincoln like Zeus in a hallowed hall solidifies America into a material realm. In Tibet the grandeur of golden Tsongkhapa does not seem so different, bringing to life an abstract idea of this man become sacred symbol.
The thought makes me feel so close to so many far places but so grounded in my home. I could understand the motives and sentiments of almost any monument, but the true meaning is different. My fingers might grasp at the meaning of monuments, but I wondered how much I could ever close in on it without living in the society that made them. I still wonder if I can only properly feel the full cultural pull of the National Mall.
Before boarding the train to Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region proper, we had to see Kumbum Monastery. Kumbum provided the first real glimpse into the traditional Tibetan culture and religion that all of us had heard so much about.
Few places matter more to the Yellow Hat or Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism than Kumbum Monastery. Voices in media often speak of Tibet as one entity held tight by one faith. The reality has a few more grits to sort through. Tibet once had heavier pagan or shamanistic beliefs but these seriously started to lose prominence when one of Tibet’s great dynastic kings, Songtsen Ghampo took over. Songtsen was no small talent, quickly taking control of much of the Tibetan plateau and patronizing the region’s early Buddhism. Eventually he would even rout the forces of the Tang Dynasty.
Later on the Bon faith would arise in contrast of Buddhism, though it could never get quite as hard a hold. Tibetan Buddhists themselves could not quite agree on everything and splintered into several sects that rose and fall. The Dalai Lamas and the Gelug School now iconic across all the world started up in the 14th century with Tsongkhapa and a small town outside Xining that would become Kumbum Monastery.
Our bus wheeled up to the outer wall of Kumbum early in the day, just as it opened. We had all layered up but the cold winter morning could cut through any number of layers. The whole place was quiet except for us shivering and chattering. For a while everyone just stood outside, waiting for a signal from our guide to head in.
An eager salesman with a plucky grin spotted us. He had the reigns of a shaggy white pony in his hands and offered rides for anyone willing to pay. None of us were much pliable to the offer, though. As tourists we likely disappointed, not buying from the stands of handcrafted goods outside or opting in on pony rides. Most of us were saving up for Lhasa, a place bubbling with commerce and worship.
Aside from our group Kumbum did not have so wide an audience this early in the morning. A Tibetan woman and her kid came walking in with us and there were a few other folks scattered about. I do not doubt that, come a little later time, the place would get a bit more active. Still, Kumbum was a monastery slightly removed from the really big population center, so it may never have had so many worshipers as monks.
The sparseness of the monastery added to it anyways, at least for a visitor from far off. Generic holiness as I knew it always had this idea of solitude surrounding it. Generic holiness shows itself in form of a person alone in a church atoning, like in the movies. Yet if there was anything that the Yonghegong monastery in Beijing and my sometimes unstable routine of bible study taught me, it’s that faith and religion come alive when people come together underneath it. The people make the faith as much faith makes the people. That dialogue with an idea of something holy or unworldly good was always what gripped me.
Still, Kumbum easily shined through the biting morning cold and everything else that kept attendance away did not mean much. The monastery gradually wove upward into the side of slightly sloping mountain. The sharp red, gold and greens burst to life in the sunlight and from that moment I could feel myself romanticizing everything. I fought against that urge. I love the romantic but it can really run against you if you really want to grip something.
Red arches welcomed us into the monastic compound. Our long linger in the cold came to an end with a row of white stupas topped with colorful spirals at their tops and intricate colored patterns at the bottom. Each stupa represented a different part of the Buddha, Shakyamuni’s life and teachings. The sun shined down and the tour guide led us further in. First we visited a few rooms on the outside of the complex, shrines to various religious figures. We could not take pictures inside and unfortunately my memory cannot hold all the specific images. Still, the colors in all the temples, the deep reds and oranges stitched into so much incredible quilt work, and the glimmering gold of mighty statues has not left me. Rather, the colors just bleed into a mess of mixed images that won’t separate for all my pulling at them.
We walked through the thick and brilliantly colored cloth that covered the thresholds of some of the shrines and dropped small donations as we went. Sometimes we got shawls in payment for a donation. They feel thin to the hand and would not combat the cold, but they have beautiful color and decoration. They came with a meaning too, red for passion and love, orange for prosperity, and so on. Even with the meaning attached the shawls reminded me that I was as strange as a person could be to this place, separated by layers of culture thicker than a thousand of these shawls.
The tour guide showed us complex statues made from Yak butter, and important offer given to Tibetan temples and monasteries, before we walked off the beaten path to somewhere deeper in. Along the route we ran across some monks making their way into the main complex where we would soon be. They worse Nikes and eagerly eyed their smart phones.
It might seem a sharp contrast, but Buddhism and Capitalism do not often clash so much. Even before capitalism ever came about, any religious order needed money and resource to stay alive. Often those resources had to come from the surrounding towns, the monks and abbots too busy with holy scripture, prayer or meditation to manage all on their own. So monks in many places lived as a privileged class funded through heavy donation.
My father never pushed Buddhism very hard on any of us, but he had demystified it for me. Buddha does not wipe away the little terrors people feel. Even monks stay human, eating human food, finding human shelter, at least until the accounts say they burst into clouds of lotus flowers. Like any religion Buddhism could coexist alongside anything from something as small as smartphones or as sinister as fanatical violence. I was glad to see monks in Nike’s as another reminder to not fetishize faith.
Nothing gets people so riled up as a chance to see Tibet. That plateau has been talked up higher than it lies above sea level. Our group of exchange students hardly proved exempt from the pull of the mystical plateau. Beijing University offered us a few travel lines, but so many opted for the line with Tibet in it that all but two of the lines had to be cancelled for lack of travelers. Most of my peers desired to see Tibet above all else, and signed up without knowing much of the other sites along the way. I could not blame them, the chance to see Tibet proper does not present itself often.
In the end we all piled into the Tibet travel line anyways, heading off to learn about Buddhism. I like to say that even if it did not include Tibet I would have picked it to explore one of the religions I was raised with. To this day I am not sure if I was speaking true or trying to diminish my shallowness. Either way, it did not matter. Almost every site on the list I knew and wanted to see, from the old capitals of Luoyang and Xian to the temples on the Tibetan plateau to the sacred peaks and historical cities of Sichuan.
Our first glimpse of Tibetan Buddhism came after we landed in a small city called Xining, the capital of a far off province called Qinghai. At first glance it did not seem Tibetan but it no doubt was a part of the plateau and influenced by a mesh of cultures, including Tibetan and Han Chinese. Trade between Han, Mongolian, Turkic and Tibetan empires allowed Xining to flourish. It rose up right on the edge of what the Chinese call Qinghai and the Tibetans call Amdo, two names for a similarly assigned space. However, we came to Xining for a nearby monastery more than the city itself.
Still, the city had a significance worth exploring. At the intersection of several cultures, Xining’s probably seen a lot of every sort of people. Mongolians, Tibetans, Muslims and Chinese all played a part in its history. Now it stands as the largest city on the Tibetan plateau. None of that translates into its skyline or across its urban sprawl.
Large though it may be for the plateau it is a small city on China’s scales. Of all the places I had been in China none felt as empty and spacious as Xining. To be fair to Xining, we did not stay there for very long and only went exploring on one quiet night.
Besides, Xining had a very special charm all its own. Few places felt quite as honestly human as Xining. This is a city with more work than pomp. The city lacked the grand skyline of China’s megacities and it could not sprawl out endlessly like Beijing does. Rather, it exists and only ever existed as the simple and practical version of itself, not reaching out to be a Big Apple or even a Second City. Xining did not feel dressed up, a rarity for a country rediscovering the clothing of State Capitalism and Confucianism.
Despite my all too natural reluctance to go out, I ended up heading out after dark to explore the town with a group of friends. We struck a path along a street next to an empty canal and walked a short while before stopping at corner store. A young man stood half asleep at a slightly dilapidated chrome counter. He welcomed us in and bade us to buy whatever we liked, though he spent much more energy welcoming in a white cat. I could not blame him; the cat seemed much more interesting.
A large part of China’s spirit – as I saw it – manifested in bottles of water and cats. The people there could not do without either. The tap water in China is undrinkable even for the iron-stomached, making bottled water a constant. Office places had several 32 packs of plastic water bottles stacked atop coolers. Campus stores sold big bottles with handles. On the street a vendor stood at the ready with one as well. Restaurants served steaming hot water in part to ensure customers of its secure quality, and partly out of traditions I only half understand that call for hot drinks
The cats paint a cheerier picture. Stray cats are a fixture along the streets of Beijing and Xining. People leave little piles of kibble for the cats to eat and let the felines come and go. The small office where we met at Beijing University even had a cat all its own, affectionately named Xiao Bai (小白) meaning “Little White.” It came in for food but sometimes stuck around for company.
We got our bottles of water and had the man up front ring us up. He was fairly friendly and pretty tired. He tossed up three fingers to indicate the price, then dropped a word I did not know. Spotting the confusion, he smiled and cut back to the Beijing dialect, common speech. China’s tongues do not just divide at Cantonese and Mandarin but at the boundaries of every province. Dialects can differ right down to the county line, sometimes so steeply separate that they could be languages all their own. All across the country most people can speak Beijing dialect at least like a second language.
After that we ambled onward for a while, realizing that few places outside of that corner store and some McDonald’s were still open. We thought everyone was asleep until we came upon a super poppy tune emanating from a distant plaza. A bunch of senior citizens had gathered at a nice and open place to do some nighttime group dancing. They quickly invited us over, curving hands and mouthing “Lai 来! Lai 来! Lai 来!” So for a while we did a little group dancing in a foreign plaza. Some older women helped show me the ropes and by the end I was deep in the formation trying hard to stay in step. My compatriots pulled me out of the group and we went on walking.
Past that point we did not have so much to see. Before we knew it we had stumbled upon another plaza, this one even more massive and filled with some strange sculptures we did not understand. After some loitering a nearby McDonald’s called our name, mostly by merit of being open when everything else was closed.
The magic of marketing has made McDonald’s and other fast food brands a middle and upper class treat in China. The menus feature American style foods often with a Chinese twist, featuring fried chicken with a Sichuan sauce and a curry chicken plate served with fries. One of the biggest culture clashes I have ever had was over a pizza hut in Chengdu, where I ate a freshly made pan pizza underneath glinting chandeliers while watching well-dressed businessmen chat at a nearby table. Though this McDonald’s proved pretty interesting too.
I got another bottle of water to have when I woke up next morning and sat at a table a slight way away from a middle aged Chinese woman sowing something nice and colorful. At first nothing seemed amiss. Gradually a tragedy etched into her expressions and she started to sob and heave quietly in the corner. There we were, foreigners in one of the furthest parts of a strange land all alone on the second floor of a McDonald’s save some workers and a woman crying into a quilt.
The moment struck me as I felt simultaneously very far and incredibly close to her. My language skills could not grapple with her troubles and my social skills would not have been up to the task either. Still, I was one of the few witnesses to a breakdown, one of the warm bodies nearest to some unfortunate thing that had brooded until it spilled over. No travel guide in the universe could have explained to me how to handle the situation.
Stories started to swirl around in my mind, trying to understand what might have happened. A friend of mine and I started to speak carefully in English. We wondered openly what to do, but also what this woman’s tale was. Had she lost a child recently, went for a night time walk and ended up knitting and sobbing? Was she just distressed at things at home or homeless entirely? There was no way to know even though we tried to figure it out. The most respectable thing to do may have been to stay silent or talk about other things. Perhaps we should have lent a hand despite language barriers. We should have tried to do better by her. We should not have given into curiosity, but if we were not weak to exploratory impulses we may never have ended up in China.
After that we just walked back and relaxed at the hotel. It was a very human city and it gave me plenty to think about even if not much happened while I was there. The bell would call for us very early next morning and we’d end up hastily eating a bare-bones breakfast before going to Kumbum Monastery. The tale will continue next week with the monastery. I will leave a few photos as a bit of a teaser.
When the morning came and I woke up I got right back to my task of trying to write down the scenery. At the time I think I hoped that the brief project would help me understand how to describe complex sights in an understandable way. Now, feeling I may not get a chance to go back and see the same sights, I hope it worked like taking notes in class, each word helping me remember a mountain carried away from my memory by time and space.
The mountains on one side take on a reddish hue. The wide grassy plains look torn from the American West. On the other side bits of shredded white glaze the stony grey or dark yellow mountainsides. Sometimes we pass a truly impressive peak far out in the distance. The huge, awe inspiring peaks strike out from the ground like a massive white tooth. I could see the peak clearly, except for where a veil of clouds covered it. It seemed straight out of a fantasy book.
Power lines trace our progress, sometimes skating alongside the train. No one seems to live beneath us. On the Tibetan plateau near the railroad, the houses sit in isolation. Each one is wide apart from another with herds of livestock between the next home. Sometimes a village comes along full of squatting, single level houses fenced in by short brick walls. Each house looks modest and brown, some have been painted splotchy white.
For a brief moment we reached a high point where I could see a lot of what we passed. Where the mountains swooped down and reached their base formed up great dips and clefts. The light and smooth grassy slopes encircled the mountains. Far off I can see even more clearly the land of pure white peaks that tower above us even still. They form up in a wide range, the white of their peaks pushing toward the white of the clouds. Though today there’s nearly no clouds across the sweeping blue sky.
The sun beams down on a set of small white houses. The houses sit atop a hill lording over a flat area where a bunch of shaggy yaks graze. On the other side not so far away is a huge grey industrial park full of black bricked factories or warehouses. A dusty fog accrues around the streets surrounding the industry. The mountains rise up behind the park, obscured by a lingering film of smoke. The smoke sits stout and low over the factories, allowing me to only catch the white tips of the distant mountains, gleaming beneath the sunlight all but unfettered by clouds.
The park was at a station we arrived in for a moment. A crowd of people line up at a small shed, maybe to get a ticket to board.
On the side away from the park the sky glows the brightest shade of blue I have ever seen. The park looks empty, but it is still very early in the morning. Only a couple hours have passed since sunrise. I was only half awake to catch the early morning hours. What morning scenery I do remember was beautiful.
A slight crest of light crept over the edge of the mountains. A rim of casual, almost dull light ran across the top outlines of the mountain range until it gradually started to tumble down the slope and illuminate everything else.
When I woke up fully the sun had risen fully with me. I beheld so many frozen lakes and rivers. Thin layers of icy frost covered some streams entirely. In other areas the sparkling white ice crusted at spots around the shore. The lakes and rivers stretched for a while, some with a darker blue haze of ice over them. They all glinted in the daylight.
Now we leave the station and the factory. The eerie industrial mists contrasted the incredible clarity of the streams and the sky.
Large red mountains miles off in the distance look over great grassland. Little black dots mark out some sort of grazing animal, maybe yaks or goats. Small brown and white houses dot the plains as well. Far beyond the red slopes and grassy flatland, another epic icy peak pierces up toward the sky. Even though it is so distant it sticks out so clearly. A truck runs along an empty road. Gradually a thin trickle of car traffic populates some few roads crisscrossing plains.
The train pulled in close to a small bunch of houses. Most have a nice white sheen of paint on them, though some are brown. None have two stories, but they are longer than I had thought looking at them from a distance. Some rooftops have solar panels on them, and most have a rope decorated with multi-colored triangular flags that leads from the roof to the ground. One area had two small clusters of houses, one with about five and the other about ten. A frozen lake sat dead between them. The houses all had the multi-colored flags, some ropes of them linking one house to another. I also caught sight of some hefty tents and practical motorcycles and mopeds too.
The train leads us near a swathe of behemoths, the icy peaked mountains I saw before only in the very far distance. They are mostly blanketed in snow, the but the grey of their rocky sides show in some places and yellow green grass grows in some flat areas along their base. Even though we are close to the mountain ranges, it is mostly grassy right around the train.
All across the land water floods and freezes over in little divots and streams. Less people live beneath these large white peaks. Still, I saw a large spacious looking town of at least twenty houses beside the flat land running next to the train. When I looked hard enough I caught another pretty large town close to the foot of a mountain. The snow around these villages flakes off before the glow of the sun so that even the village near the mountain has a sea of dry, yellow grass around them.
Some houses seem dirty, somewhat shabby and rundown. The white sheen of these houses cracks and muddies, the multi-colored flags are dulled by stains. Others have a cleaner, fresher veneer, with the white of the paint and the colors of the flags marking their houses brightly out beneath the shining sun. Most houses have at least one motorcycle, maybe as an automated way to stay mobile and keep track of pastoral animals, if not just to cross vast distances like anyone else would. The kinds of motorcycles they have are plenty popular in China’s dense, sprawling cityscapes.
I saw some Yaks up close as well. They look kind of goofy, like big shaky, shaggy masses of messy fur loafing around. They seemed like a cross between a St Bernard and a cow. A Tibetan herded them along, dressed in a dark blue shawl with grey scarves. What looked like a white dog ran next to him or her, helping manage the herd.
I had trouble keeping an eye on the houses and plains since the mountains to both sides of me caught my eye the most. The soft red slopes returned and out of them erupted the sharp, craggy brilliance of those snowy peaks that reflected the sun’s rays. They stretched and stretched until they filled the whole horizon to the brim. The snow caps on top looked so picturesque. One ran like the edge of a serrated sword, curving until it formed a semicircular ring atop a mountain.
Not a shred of air separated the image from my eye. The contrast between that and smoggy Beijing was striking. But the air here seems clear compared to the States too.
It ends abruptly there. If I had my eyes set on putting these little accounts online when I started writing them, I may have written a more satisfying conclusion. The whole trip to Tibet still sticks out distinctly in my memory. Maybe later I will drag my recollections back out into the air and collage them into another article. It could do me good to get some words down before time stretches them even further from the little things they once described.
Looking back at what I focused on, I think I betrayed my own background more than Tibet’s. Growing up in the flat American Midwest, mountains have always impressed me. Seeing something natural go up that high is just plain unusual where I came from. The mixture of snow and grass, cold and less cold, was just as novel to me. Most of all, after spending near all of my life living in cities I have always liked looking out on long rides and seeing some of the countryside.
When I wrote for my journal I was just a step away from glorifying it all over the steel jungles I have come to love and call my own. As lovely as the view to Tibet was, my image could never be honest to it. The literal high points of the landscape probably stuck out too much, as did all the things I made of its rustic nature. Cities wear you down after a while with all their bustle and no cities I had yet seen had the bustle of Beijing. After my tour through the endless modern oddities that are Chinese cities I perhaps saw too much of what I really wanted in Tibet: a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively.
Towards the end of a semester spent abroad in China, our class went on some study trips. After weaving through most of the mainland we got on a day long train ride to Lhasa, Tibet. Trying to pass the time on a long train ride to Tibet, I turned to my journal. However, as I tried to get my thoughts on paper, the scenery got my complete attention. So I chose to write about that instead.
The writing became pretty consuming, and I did not take any pictures. The window’s reflection would have made most of them look pretty bad anyways. Still, to give some idea of what I am describing I interlaced some pictures of the Tibetan Plateau I took when off the train into the article.
The sky looks crystal clear. I did not think any patch of sky could look so clear and empty. White clouds drift in immaterial puffs over towering mountains. The soft trails of white from broken clouds melt into the light blue sky. All around the train a mile or so of flat land spans out into the distance. Scattered settlements dot the landscape and herds of sheep graze at the start of distant slopes. Winding roads punctuate the wide, flat, empty terrain.
At points the grass yields to small streams of translucent water creating dark green swamps marked with little ferns. The water is so clear that brings bits of the sky to earth in form of reflections. The clouds come to the earth in small puddles. Three billboards drift by, the first I had seen so far, though more would come here and there.
The train started to pass by massive lake Qinghai. The lake spread out for miles alongside us, and encompassed the setting sun. The lake shimmered on endlessly into the distance. The sunlight ran in long golden stretches across the earth. It sat cut in half by the ground, like a sparkling orange mountain rising up from a massive lake. Lake Qinghai carried the sun’s gleam to the shore right near the train. The brilliance of the light bouncing off the water shined so brightly that I could not stare straight into it. I stared instead at the way the bulbous conglomeration of sheer light broke off in pieces at the side. I tracked the light of the lake the same way I would try to look at a burning star.
The bright and endlessly wide, shimmering blue salt lake still haunts me as I write now. Looking at Qinghai felt like staring a deity straight in the iris. Not even words by the thousands can capture the magnificent way the Qinghai reflected the sun’s final blast of light.
The sun looks to visit other parts of the world. It leaves a sublime goodbye through dark orange rays illuminating less and less of the rising and falling knolls, and the stretches of flat lands. Herds of furry yak look to graze on into the late evening. One yak sped off from the herd. The yak’s heavy, legless body bounded across the flat land spread out before the slight slopes of nearby hills. Its fur bounced with each bound.
The mountains in the distance grew dark, and human settlements become more spread out. The splotchy green sides of the not so steep but still tall mountains form up in the distance. Earlier the sun lit up the far distance. In it, I could see steep sloped, towering mountains capped with snow. It looked like a scene wrapped around a bottle of water.
A perfectly lucid gloom surrounds the far spread of land now. Past the mild slopes a massive brown plateau shoots violently up from the undulating earth. It recedes and the land turns back to the rise and fall of gently sloping hills. Some sharply steepen up and form strange crags. We are now so high that the clouds flirt with the mountain tops. My breath shortens as I look at the mountains climb to meet the sky.
Now the slopes rose sharply and widely up, but still in great circular bulges of earth like smooth waves of dirt. They roll up to the cliff sides that shoot up to touch wispy grey clouds. One hill jaggedly broke into a shorter altitude. The cliff ran along the hill until it pushed into the smoothness of it, creating a corridor of flatter, lower earth within the grassy knoll. The pattern of the cliffs almost looked like a pagoda, wide at the base and rising up thin into the side of the hill. It even had sides that splintered inward, looking like the way the roof of a pagoda pushes out at each floor.
I wish my pen could grab hold of all the wondrous landscapes around me. Some images must slip through. I do not have the time to do all of it justice; I do not have the ability to do any of it justice. The progress I made will have to do fine enough. The night comes soon and the thin light turns all the distant mountains into only rising shadows. The darkness blurs the lines and the mountains all blend into the back of one massive and shifting form. In one big poof the low and high lands merged together. They rise and fall, waving goodbye as night covered the train windows up completely.
Overall, the players on my server did not seem to talk much. Perhaps games back home went that way too. Calamitous racket always sticks out more than silence, and the words could not grip me as they did in America. Even when things turned bad players rarely took to the keyboard. I would sometimes try to type things in pinyin.
I knew how to type in characters, but not in League’s in game chat system. When I typed in pinyin the other players gave me an array of awkward or disgruntled emoticons. Most of my messages came across through bursts of color and sound, pings.
Through pings and movement alone teams came together or crumpled apart. Only using pings and movement, I found it easier to figure if I baited the team into something bad. Most of my own shortcomings felt more present. With only pings, it became clearer how movements alone can cause miscommunication. Though mistakes stood out more I did not mind them as much.
In a ranked game giving up first blood caused my stomach to sink. It felt like other players were waiting on the wings to write something rude. It did not need to be particularly confrontational. They could utter a simple “ugh” or “come on”. It only had to have that senselessness of an annoyed person behind it. It needed only the blind and maligned idea that a sharp, kneejerk indulgence in shaming another would somehow straighten them out. Even if I ignored the user, I would likely tilt harder than a teapot. Even if no one made a comment the sinking feeling alone could cause a tilt. With the chance of argument cut away I studied mistakes more clearly.
Slip-ups still irked me. I knew that four people still relied on me. It still felt bad to do poorly by my own standards. I removed all the things I blamed my fragility so heavily on. That only meant I had to admit to my own flawed thinking. A bad apple could spoil the whole bunch but a good thought could keep me from biting into rotten fruit. I always plunged myself head first into unnecessary mental narratives. Too many hours went to thinking up resolutions to problems I could have been up and about solving. My happiness depended on me. That lesson would become clear as I opened up to China.
The language came quicker as the semester wore on. I wove through the city to see famous temples and to get to work and back. The fear of getting lost and not knowing enough of the language always remained. In the beginning retreating into an asocial shell seemed the best response to that fear. I saw the flaw in that and Confidence came gradually. With it gathered all sorts of new acquaintances and connections, Chinese and American. That confidence applied right back to League.
I still lacked the ability to read enough characters to piece together most of the things people said. But understanding comes subtly. Pointing at pictures can get you food in any country, and reading enough contexts will help you gain some understanding. When the chat filled up after each mistake players made, a rager likely chose this game to vent his frustrations. When “好 (hao)”, good, popped on the screen it likely meant congratulations. I even picked up on some unique Chinese internet slang like SB (Sha Bi 傻屄).
Sha Bi roughly translates to “stupid bitch” or “stupid cunt”, surprisingly brutal insults by American standards. People talk up the Confucian elements of social rigor in Eastern societies and the freedom afforded by individualist America. Yet, people seemed much more frank and open in China then in America. Back home my parents and peers taught me a social script for near everything. Even if rage cut to the bone, I would not call someone a stupid bitch unless I wanted a fight. It feels extraneously angry even for the internet.
SB popped up in a lot of games too. Though it translates to stupid bitch Chinese players dropped it like American players drop the ellipses. I bristled at it in an unusual way. In the North American servers the ellipses or “why?” annoyed me for the petty, passive aggressive behavior they exhibited. SB filled me with this mixture of confusion and indignation.
I wondered if Chinese people got that mad or if the culture put less weight on those words. Ellipses might annoy me, but I would not report for a few of them dropped in game. If someone called me a stupid bitch in game for giving first blood, I would report so fast. The difference jarred me for a while.
Once I started registering the toxicity it became pretty fun to interact with. Big walls of characters blipped into the chat interspersed with SB’s. I never figured out how to type characters in the league chat (despite genuine efforts) so I wrote random things in English. Wrathful players would not register my absurd replies, nor I theirs. Sometimes I did try to say nice things in pinyin (Romanized characters).
During a casual bout of absurdity I met a friend. We played in a lane together and I offered up strange assurances and compliments in English. He responded asking in English if I spoke Chinese. The questions continued during downtime in the game. We spoke afterwards in the league client, where I could type characters. We did our best to translate for each other, as we knew similar amounts of the other’s language. I learned that he lived in Beijing and attended college studying computer sciences.
Rather quickly he said he had felt fate ordained the friendship. It is not the most unusual platitude in China. The Chinese use a term called Yuan Fen 缘分 to indicate any sort of fateful relationship. I cannot account for how often Chinese people throw the term around. We still email back and forth. League introduced me to a friend I hope to maintain.
I owed it gratitude for an element that I loathed it for. The socialization that I despised at home felt beautiful abroad. The thousands of miles did not change so much, nor did the language. The truth was that League had the power to be what anyone made of it. I treated the game as though it had great control over me. It felt like a slot machine drawing in my energy and spitting out tokens of praise or denial.
In reality it provided a barometer for my own wellness. If angry and frustrated, league appeared a den of ragers. If happy and light, it seemed the fun distraction I needed. When closed to the world, League injected meditative emotions to help me through. When I opened up it let me socialize in a ways unseen in real life. League might have some control over me. It might swallow up half to a whole hour of my day in one game. The length sits out of my control as does the actions and words of others.
For all the control I gave it, it gave back just as much. The ultimate experience came down to the way I handled life just moments before entering the lobby. The Chinese servers taught me much more about my identity than it did the middle kingdom.
Without knowing a word or character of Chinese, I decided to study abroad for a semester at Peking University. At the time I foolishly expected much of the world to move to my mother tongue. My interests in Chinese economy and history ran deep, and my advisor told me that I would need to know the language to continue to pursue my interests.
The curiosity for China did not stop at figures and books. Something about the unfamiliarity of the country’s philosophy, language, and even geography created in me an idea of a wholly unfamiliar people. I suppose I wanted something to explore. Perhaps that thirst for exploration plunged me into the Chinese league servers. I knew I wanted to play League in China as soon as I submitted the application to go abroad.
For a twenty something male, the desire should not seem so out of place. In my life back home League formed a legitimate means of communication. My friends sometimes spent entire nights on the NA server. We gleefully constructed ridiculous team comps and ideas. Other times we tried to semi-seriously push our ranked 5 team up the ladder. After playing League for so long, the game started to become a type of social indicator. The way that you played League reflected on how you behaved in real life, and who you associated with. When I first began, I played with a friend who took the game more seriously and stressed about winning games. He did not rage and loathed the raging community around him. We enjoyed painting the game with this sort of heaviness.We enjoyed trying to win and get better. As time went on, we both transitioned into college. He stopped playing League.
I continued with a new group with a much goofier attitude. We like to mess around. We created two ranked 5 teams dedicated to goofing off in game. Our first team, Lock In and Wreck Face, required us to instalock a full team and try to win with whatever we got. In our second team, Off Brand Cereal, we got to pick our champs but we had to use off-builds and go into weird lanes. The time constraints of double majoring, continuing to write creatively, running an internet radio show, and going steady with a girl meant that I could not play with that same serious mentality.
I wanted to play League in China for a lot of superficial reasons. I did not want to get too rusty. I wanted to see if Asian players were truly gods amongst men. I wondered whether their meta differed and what champs they played. At the end of the day, I just enjoyed Leaguing. Above all these, two reasons pushed me into going through the odd process of creating a Chinese account. League reflected attitudes in real life and to me it seemed a window into a Chinese gaming mentality I knew nothing of. Do people rage, do people troll, do people run goofy comps? I wanted to know because the answer to each question taught me something of a reality still mysterious to me.
The biggest pull came from my absolute Chinese illiteracy. Hard fought loss or an outright stomp, even losing a game of league took effort. I tired of hearing so much bickering. I grew up in a house with three older sisters and a bit of a hot head dad. I wanted the thick sort of skin that could steel me against a household bursting full with wild emotion. Failing to keep my cool fostered this deep feeling of inadequacy. It gripped deep into my chest and pulled at this long standing desire for emotional strength. Every time I queued up and felt some fury, those talons clawed away at my self-image. In China, I could League and appreciate the game all in my lonesome. No matter what anyone said it literally could not scathe me. I felt damn sick of the other players. I wanted a chance at the silence and purity of play that NA could not give me.
I broke into the Chinese server, following the complex guidelines set out to me by a Reddit post. I needed to play bots before I entered PvP. Mulling over who to pick for my first bots game abroad, I spotted the Chinese art. The Chinese splash art looked gorgeous. Karthus went from a skeleton with silly hat and a big robe to a terrifying, no faced necromancer with burning eyes and a gilded staff. Twitch had longer arms and legs, looking like a scrawny and more humanoid anthropomorphized rat. He looked like a more PG version of the visually reworked twitch. Cho’Gath resembled a terrifying, gargantuan monstrosity ripped loose from the void. The Chinese splash art raised the bar on almost all occasions. It gave the game a polish I never realized the game could use.
Splash arts never came across my mind in America. Back home I played set roles and set champions. I had certain top laners and marksmen that I preferred, and a pool of owned champions to select from. In China, I could choose any sort of Champion. Sure, I still knew what I liked, but once you threw out the meta, the rune pages and the masteries, every champion played a lot differently.
When it came time to pick a champ, it took me longer to deliberate. During the races against the clock to secure a champ, the splash arts seriously came into play. Seeing a champion in this sheen of idealized glory made them more enticing. In those last minute decisions, the splash art conveyed a quick feeling of the full glory of a champ. As a player brought back to level 1, not knowing which champ to pick, it made all the difference.
Even old favorites like Wukong had this almost preposterously badass look about them. The whole visual styling in China felt different, but more appropriate. China focused on evoking images of intense battle and heroic power out of each splash art, as where the NA server had a more playful and light focus. I preferred China, because to me it just fit. I am a summoner controlling one of the most powerful entities in a world, even if I am just playing a game. It helped that for the most part the Chinese splash art seemed better drawn.
In the very first co-op vs. AI match I played, our Blitzcrank rallied four of us to the tribush near the bot tower. We cheesed first blood and beat the bots into the dirt. For a second I let the prospect of an inherently more talented server carry my mind away. Over the next few days the Blitzcrank free week faded along with the rose tint on my glasses. The early levels provided a lot of easy wins. It felt unkind to stomp new players. Luckily it did not take long for games to become battles between smurfs. As I climbed my match history evened out with wins and losses. At around the tenth game matchmaking placed me in with the rest of the smurfs. I started playing games at level 8 where teams took dragon and occasionally used junglers and supports.
It seemed no different than smurfing in NA. Smurfs still lacked runes and spells to play all positions. Supports and junglers did not exist. Ideal team comps did not exist. All bruiser teams duked it out against all burst mage teams. Even all smurf games looked messy and strange. It provided a pleasant reminder of the days when I loaded up a smurf to play with low level friends. That familiarity felt soothing in a place where the trees, the birds, the spiders, and the air I breathed all looked different. When arriving, the foreignness of it scared me so deeply. It felt terribly lonely without school friends to speak with. Knowing nothing of the language sometimes put me into isolation. It became tiring to function at a basic level. League provided a rejuvenating normalcy to retreat to.
My first experience with the Beijing subway went overall pretty well. I remember standing on the train, when a homeless man came by. He had no arms or legs and scooted himself and his tin pot along. The type of homeless people you see in China perturb like nothing else. A homeless man in any city presents an interesting predicament. Growing up city to city, I’ve been trained to ignore homeless people my whole life. My parents never outright told me how to treat them. I observed it from every thinking, feeling, and compassionate adult in the area. Ninety percent of them turned their nose at homeless people. What should make me so different? After all, altruism’s wasted on homeless people. This is what we are all told we know. Money serves you better than them. They’ll waste it drowning their sorrows in liquor. They are probably scammers, dressing down for cash. If you give one of them cash, the whole street will ask for it. If you give just one of them cash, why not give cash to another? What made the first more worthwhile. Homeless people present a moment to decide if you want to judge someone. They present a very real moment in time where you can look a person dead in their eyes and decide just what worth you see there. When someone brushes by a homeless person it is not that they have a cold heart. They do not want people around them to suffer. They probably do not think homeless people worthless. It is just that judging challenges a person. Judging annoys a person. Judging downright exhausts someone. It depletes you, even if you think you made the altruistic move. Even if you think you made the sensible move. So the only move to make is to pretend you have no judgment to give at all.
Homeless people are a predicament. I could never know where they came from. I could never see where they would end up with my dollar. I never will have the information to make me feel secure in my judgment. I have ignored more homeless people in my life than I care to admit. I will not make much excuse for it. It is tough to deal with, but I have done plenty of tough things before.
Chinese homeless people are particularly exceptional. They tend to be amputees, and they tend to wear tattered rural clothing. A lot of them have darker, leathery skin from all the years under the sun. They look like they come from another country. They seem like refugees from some harsh distant land with an ever blazing sun. In reality, they come from the same land brimming with young adults in designer clothes. They come from the place with seas of steel towers that stretch for miles. But the sun feels sharp here too.
It felt striking seeing this man amidst all the people commuting in their nice formal wear. The subway sped on anyways. Holographic ads ran alongside the subway car, telling us about new luxury goods. The visualized inequality does not feel uncommon. I would see plenty more homeless people in my time here. The contrast still shocks me. It reminds me that even this humongous city only offers me a small slice of an even more vast country. Somewhere in this vast country capitalism has yet to fill everyone’s coffers.
Beijing feels massive all on its own. Exiting the subway, I expected something similar to the cities I was used to. It was not so different. It had the same model that most cities follow, except a lot more packed. It seemed like buildings were pushed closer together and generally more people walk, drive, and bike in Beijing than even in New York. Despite the crowd, Beijing feels about as calm as DC and much calmer than New York. I find my campus more hectic than the city. The bikes of Peking University feel endless. Lots full of bicycles litter the campus. I cannot recall the last time I walked anywhere during peak hours without having to wade through bike traffic. The part of Beijing I saw on my walk to work felt calming compared to the cluster fuck of bikes at Peking University. Of course, not all of Beijing felt so calming. Later I will discuss the parts of the city that made me feel truly schizophrenic.
The walk to my office occurred in a more residential, notably not that notable downtown neighborhood. Any part of a city can feel notable because most cities barrage you with big buildings. Any part of city feels like it might be brimming with something, because a decent amount of people live and build there. Though, there are parts of any city that are almost purely functional. They may have tall buildings, but the buildings house office space. They might have street vendors, but they are not pushy like the ones on touristy avenues. Likely, they don’t push because there’s no great competition around them. They might well be the only street vendor there. Houses still sprawl out, full of interesting architectural features and interpersonal dramas. But none of the houses put that is on display, so it is odd to spend a lot of time looking at them. This part of Beijing felt functional. It had a large bank, residences everywhere, and lots of office space. It also had plenty of stores and some street vendors too. Still, nothing popped out.
Initially it made me feel out of place. But having done the walk a few times, I like it. I do not feel any more included in the area. Most people there will never know me. Many will continue to do triple takes upon seeing me walk through. Their eyes will pry at the how and why of where I am. It can make me uncomfortable. When I am all about myself, I ask them what right they’ve got to go looking at me like that. When I calm down and click into the context I can understand it. I am a very odd sight. It is not like in America, where we see people of different hues constantly. America’s full of different sorts of people. We do not just have Mexicans, we have El Salvadorans, Hondurans, Venezuelans, Argentinians and more. We do not just have African-Americans, but Africans form Kenyan, Egyptian, South African, and many more places still. America’s melting pot status took on a real, physical form. I took that for granted. In Beijing there are Asians and then more Asians. Even in the very touristy areas, Asians vastly outnumber anything else.
In a way China must be diverse. With a dominion strung out over so many miles and lands, people can act like tourists in their own country. The same goes here in America, where there east and west coasts flood with tourists coming from the across their own country. But to my observations at least, America’s got more pigmentation than Beijing. Even in Indianapolis, I got used to seeing white people, African-American people, Asians, and Latinos. I might even see some Europeans or Africans as well. In DC the variety intensifies further. In the great crowds of Beijing, a non-Asian person really sticks out. I cannot blame them for staring, because they do not get the same opportunities to see out of the norm people. In America out of the norm almost is the norm for cities. Street performers dot the urban landscape. Foreigners of all sorts come here seeking education or attractions. America’s a weird and colorful place. I forgot until know just how much I loved it for that.
Do not think that means China looks dull or boring. Beijing might appear more homogenous, but I doubt that truly is. Besides any off that, Beijing has a liveliness all its own. I see some of that liveliness on my walk to work. That is what I love about it. I do not feel very included, or even that settled into routine. The walk there and back always rings of a certain strangeness. That strangeness comes from liveliness that I am not a speaking, understanding part of. I might belong to it in some physical sense, but I cannot understand or grasp it. So I love my walk to work because each time I feel introduced to a fascinating aspect of life across the world that I did want to know about. I wanted to see how Beijing looked and lived. That was one reason I came here. On the way to work, I get a glimpse at that. Even better, I do not get to know it fully. The mystery makes it all the more enticing. I cannot analyze it until it becomes dull. I cannot sink so far into it that it seems mundane. Every time there is something fresh about it, because it has something I cannot quite get my hands on. Much akin to the general act of living.
As I walk to work, a few women sell all sorts of tech gear on a blanket just outside of the subway. Another couple of stands set up even closer to the subway. They sell all sorts of bottled drinks and plastic wrapped snacks underneath large cafeteria umbrellas plastered with worn “Coke” and “KFC” logos. How did they get their hands on those umbrellas anyhow? When I get further along the street vendors fade away into little mom and pop convenience shops. The shops usually sit just outside large tenement communities with their own gates and gardens inside. To get to my work I have to walk through one of these communities. The instructions felt strange at first. My boss told me to walk through a little community of bike repair stores and fruit stands sitting inside the courtyard connecting a few apartment buildings. How would they put an office building in here? It seemed odd that the Economic Observer, a major independent publisher in China, would set up in the midst of it all. As I walked through a street lined with cars and scooters I saw all sorts of people cross in and out. Some older, more traditionally dressed people lounged. In the meanwhile, well to do businesswomen flocked out as fast as they could. Porsches parked near rusty bikes. The apartment buildings gazed down at all of it.
The building I actually work in used to be a kindergarten. A playground still sits outside. It brims with the blasting sort of color children love. It is all bold blues and streaks of glowing red. Inside, the tiled floors have painted designs meant to teach children simple English words. My actual day at work felt much less entertaining than getting there. Since it was the first day, I learned what I would do, and then decided to head out. My co-workers never offend and I like most of the work I do.
After leaving, I decided to check out a small park that my boss recommended to me. Parks appeal to me. Parks provide a spot of calm in an urban environment. They can pack up with people, but all that beautifully arrayed nature keeps my anxieties in check. Here in Beijing the parks feel particularly beautiful. Most of them center around bodies of water, featuring multiple bridges and paddle boat services. On a clear day, a Beijing park has a lot to offer. Rows of weeping willows sway over quietly rippling waves of water. Each park features an expanse of great green trees running up and down slopes along the coast of the rivers and ponds. This park was not even exceptional, but it seemed beautiful all the same. After that I would visit the Yonghe temple and Ditan Park.
Both inherited ceremonial significance from the days passed. Ditan Park used to have shrines dedicated to a goddess of the earth. Emperors used to sacrifice animals in the middle of a large courtyard at the center of the park. While the foliage all still stood well maintained and ordered, the buildings themselves had seen better days. Grass grew wildly up beneath the grey tiles of the sacrificial courtyard. The goddess of the earth came back after all this time to reclaim her shrine. Signs at various points told visitors to refrain from superstitious activities. It did not seem anyone came for worship. The park had a few families, a few Asian tourists with their own cameras, and a good deal of old people performing calisthenics.
The Yonghe Buddhist temple could not have been more different. Beggars and incense salesman formed a line all along the outer wall of the temple. I gave money to one, determined not to ignore them. The beggar next to him immediately got pushy. For whatever reason, it made me feel indignant. I did not know what I expected. Giving does not make you a saint, and no saint ever became kind out of a desire for reverence. Kindness can be forced, and if there’s no other recourse it should be. But I missed the point. The point being the universe would not give me immediate reward. It may give me no reward at all. The reward’s not the point.
Inside the temple everything looked well preserved. Great ornate buildings housed just as decorated statues of various holy figures. People entered with hands full of incense. No signs told them to avoid superstition. They walked in, stood outside or inside of one of the temples, and went about their religious ceremony. To give a quick breakdown, the physical act of a religious ceremony means a lot more to Asian traditions. In Buddhism there are mantras, which involve chants of verbal worship, but there are also mudras. Mudras serve as something like a chant done with the body. It can involve the whole body, but mostly refers to hand and arm gestures during meditation. One woman performed a very complicated mudra every time she took a step. It involved carefully moving her arms through the air in various circular motions until she stopped and bowed so low her forehead touched the ground. The grey from the stones and the black from the ash of burnt out incense covered her forehead. Most other people had other forms of physical ceremony. Many people went to each shrine, offered up a stick of incense, and bowed low three times. I saw a few people hold the base of the stick of incense to their heads as they bowed. I read about this, but seeing so many people engage in forms of worship made all my religious texts come to life. The place felt hallowed in no small part due to the respect paid to it. Yonghe provided a strong contrast to Ditan. Their holiness did not completely come from the buildings enshrining long held beliefs. It did not float in the air either. That true sense of holy stemmed from the people themselves. Examining it, I wondered how religiously Buddhist I ever was. I rarely chanted, and I could not imagine doing what they did. But religion’s a tricky word, and I have already talked about too many tricky words today.
I left Yonghe feeling very intrigued with the whole affair of religion. Though, I often felt like that. Religion, philosophy, whatever you call it, deeply affects the thinking of thousands of people. Historians study it regularly because of the role it often plays in the lives of the people of any given period. As a history major, I ran into it plenty. As someone curious about the whole affair of life, and how other people interpret this madly wide space we live in, I run into it more than what’s healthy. In that regard the introspection and intrigue did not feel fully new. The questions it made me ask, I had asked before. The punctuation marks became a bit more packed.
After that I headed back. I lived through the first week. Once things got rolling I would feel much better. Routine started to scrape itself together. My mind weaved back into old familiarities. The internet helped with that, too. Consciously I just wanted to know I could contact the people I loved regularly. Something subconscious brooded behind the internet as well. Having the internet again let me go back to my routine of leisure. I could return to my well scheduled web-comics and youtube channels. The internet let even my passions fall into neatly folded schedules. The internet helped me turn everything back into a form I could understand. My mind would digest its food again in three perfectly timed meals a day. No stomach pains needed, my timetable turned on again. Still, I had let my eyes feast on something huge. I let my mind know I was not home. I hopped off the boat, to realize the ocean feels more massive from a foreign shore. No amount of timetables, schedules, and webpages could tear that full sensation off the contours of my sensory system.
A lot of travelling in China would turn into handling that sensation of overwhelming fullness. When something like that strikes me, first I feel like hiding. It has taken me years and years and years to realize the importance of accepting. Life’s always seemed bloated. There’s so much color and so many constants floating around. The first memory I have, I recall myself looking out at the wide blue sky shining over my tiny, fenced in backyard. When I was that young, it really was endless. My next nearest memories sits me by our ancient desktop. Even then you could use it to explore endlessly. Gigabytes of data splayed out all across the undeveloped internet infrastructure. I grew up watching it all come together into this huge and sometimes hideous network of intertwining facts and stories.
We had so much to learn and so much to do. All the old pursuits of sportsman and readership remained, but now we had video games and technology. Back then, if I can still digress, I loved to play games that gave me a sense of something wider. Most of my strategy games stored information about civilizations in encyclopedias buried at the back of menus. I would stare through the glaring gloss of the screen to get at the info. It would burn my eyes to the core. I constantly played games that let me lead thousands of soldiers into battle. I liked the clash of civilizations and the personal dramas that expanded beneath each click. I never knew why. It took me longer to get into shooters. By the time I did, the internet abounded with newly laid roads leading to blog after blog. With each year the internet got better and better. Each passing year somehow facilitated the intake of media more than the last. Somehow it gets easier still, to the point where no one uses RSS feeds. I stopped needing those old strategy games. Maybe I found a wideness to substitute the one I lost. Maybe the world suddenly flushed full of shit to wrap my head round and I got tired of thinking against something in my spare time. Perhaps the strategy games got worse as I got old. It could have nothing to do with me. Maybe I think it has something to do with me because I can find every story, email, and status update I wrote and suddenly I am as wide and fractured as the world I am in.
Who knows anything about me anyhow? Certainly not myself! My part wasn’t even thinking when I started making moves on me! I myself am fine with being lost on that “me” front. After all, I’ve been watching me for some time now, and I am pretty sure I’ve found me a shady fellow. So much jibber-jabber could never be wholesome. No sir, I wouldn’t go letting me in my house if I were myself, methinks.
What comes after that breath? I still do not really know. I suppose the simple response would be another breath. If I got more complex, I’d say a step.
I stepped out of my room and towards my internship meeting. It came time to return to the flow. Sea of troubles, waves of worry, or rivers of raving, it did not matter. When I got there we all sat down and heard the head of the program talk. He explained that the American internship market worked like “free love”. Interns and business mingled like eager singles. Sometimes something worked out, maybe for a year, maybe for a ten, and other times it never got off the ground. The applicant and the business kept moving. In China internships work like arranged marriages. Usually Chinese firms can find people to hire. They do not need interns, and if they take them it is to cultivate a connection. Companies allow Peking University to give them interns to develop a positive relationship with the university. Naturally our performance at our internships would reflect on Peking. The pressure started to mount and I felt a little worried. He assured us that most people enjoyed their internships. At worst, interning would bore us. I felt a bit better about it.
I wondered just how I would get to my job and when I would start. After everyone had their questions answered, we filed down the hallway and waited outside of an office. We went in one by one and received a slip of paper with contact information. It affirmed me just to have a number in my hand that I could use to contact my employers. Now I would get the ball rolling. I could start my semester knowing what I would head into. I do not know the veracity of such a self-statement. You never know what you get yourself into. Not fully, anyways. Someone could tell you every little bit you’d see under the sun. You would forget half of what you heard by the time you got to where you needed to be. That’s what gives it a sense of beauty though. That clash of known and unknown. It is all that great black empty space that makes each star seem so bright. Who is to say all that black’s empty if it can illuminate like it does? When I look up the sky seems fuller than I could ever grasp, constantly brimming with something so light or so dark.
There’s a lot to be said about largeness, but in that moment I was not about talking. I got lunch with the kid I met from the airport and we had a merry enough time. Of course, I would end up talking with him little after that. We did not share classes or interests. But sometimes matters of friendship become as much chance as cherry picking. Maybe other men and women dig for gold. I’ll root for the potato’s my nature’s given me. After all they’re hardy! What’s more, potatoes won’t prove me the fool. Besides, gold’s just the standard. I don’t want my friends being sold over the TV. No, I’ve gone cherry picking before, and it’s never set me so right as the dirt beneath my feet.
The rest of the night I spent eating pizzas and drinking beer. Inebriation reduces the way your mind bristles at your skin, that’s for certain. But let me say, I’d take the biting cruelties of sobriety any day. I like to slip from the sensitive surface layers of my brain like any man. My mind manages its reprieves where it can, relapsing to more simple synapsing beneath waves of floating melodies or drifting smokescreens. The only problem’s that my stomach’s weak, and it can’t go flying off the handle like the head. It needs the earth above the sky, and I don’t begrudge it why. It helped my mind all the same to spend a day forgetting how wide the world would get.
The next morning we rode the subways and saw the mall area near the school. What a fascinating thing it is to devour food you cannot name in your native tongue. That’s when I started to marvel silently at the place I came to be. It is a funny thing, because everywhere’s bright, big, and wonderfully conjoined to the same massive pallet of dirt beneath our feet. I stood beneath the buildings spreading wide and far. In that moment the wide blue sky spread out over the endless city. At eye level posh Chinese teens wore T-shirts bloated with broken English, while homeless men and women lay collapsed around their tin cups. It all came out of a different world and it all felt shocking. We came in delivered on the same sort of planes. We poured off the same sort of underground railways. But once I got off the boat and onto the shore, I saw the ocean spread its long arms out. I saw how foreign the far off coast really was. It feels strange and has yet to leave me. I wonder, even going back and returning to the familiar, if I could ever shake it. At the time it seemed a bit overwhelming when heaped all over my worries and cares. I did not think too hard on it.
At the time, I had to start up all sorts of new classes, learn all sorts of new things, and encounter new brands of struggles. I did not really want to face the wideness of the world grinning at me. I would have had it put off another day. Though, it may never have come another day or in another place. It took really going far off from home in a place very different to comprehend how wide the world is. Seeing the vast blue sky turn into endless black space seems all the more illuminating now. There’s a great deal out there beyond me. Beyond even what I know, or may ever know in my short life. But wherever I go, I do feel certain about that now. I did earlier too. Perhaps now the certainty feels stronger. There’s something reassuring in that strength, though I cannot say what. Maybe it gives me something to hold on to while the river roars up to my ears.
During classes I did not have the same feeling. It all felt like a bit too much to grapple with. Luckily classes went pretty well at the start. My teachers all seemed interesting and earnest. The Chinese professors looked poised to try very hard to teach us the language. That was good. They would need the moxie. Learning a language is hard. Teaching it is even harder. It further reassured me to see other students who knew no Chinese. Maybe I was stupid for going to China unprepared. At least now I knew a company of fools just as unprepared as I. As a group you can devise excuses for why you ever made the mistake of it. Can a man in a crowd ever feel like irrational? Though I do not think any of us made a mistake going here. I do not think it was irrational either. We just hamstrung ourselves a bit.
The economics teacher has an extensive English vocabulary. She walks with tremendous posture. Despite being small, she almost seems tall. Something in her bearing seems royal. She lectures calmly and carefully, wondering a bit between each thought. It is not a perfectly clean or energetic lecture class. Still, something seems very interesting about it. I could not put my finger on it. Even from the first day it felt intense almost without energy. I had teachers like that before and still find it hard to explain the vibe precisely. Perhaps my own desire to get my China specific studies made it that way. I remember another kid felt much more bored by the whole affair than I. None of us knew how it would turn out by the end of the first day, anyways.
I would have my economics and multi-ethnic classes once a week. They were three hour long block classes. I disliked the format. I would prefer two classes a week in shorter segments. It would allow us to review more readings and break up the material. Besides that, any subject gets old after a good two and a half hours of sitting. I start to zone out. We would have five Chinese classes every week. We have two on Mondays and Wednesdays. A two hour long class would teach us general Chinese, and a fifty minute class would drill us on speaking. Every other Friday we would have a quiz over the material. If there was no quiz we would have class as normal. The main class had homework for us pretty much every day. I have learned a lot of Chinese. The class worked me harder than most others I can think of. I gradually came to understand how busy I would be.
The understanding became all the more real when I went to my internship. I emailed my boss and asked for directions. He gave me an amusingly convoluted path to follow. It featured a lot of visual association. When I woke up and made my way to my workplace for the first time, I really understood why. The subway was easy, but the streets were not. In a city so old, it becomes hard to lay out streets just how you would like. They get twisted and gnarled into weird paths. People set up in strange places along the way. Sometimes they end up blocking the path. In a city like Beijing, every bit of space mattered too. Endless amounts of tiny human innovations placed houses in all sorts of unsuspected alleys and corners. Parts of the city look brand new. Others look very old. They all mesh and fall into one great clump that is “Beijing”. Navigating that clump can really frustrate someone illiterate to the Chinese language. Literacy is quite the task too. Even the lowest level of letter-learned knows a minimum of 3,000 characters. I did not understand at first why my boss gave mostly visual instructions. Trying to navigate Beijing in my free time taught me why. Even if you could read, they lacked clean, easily accessible addresses. They lacked wide streets falling on a centrally designed grid. Beijing has its beauty. It has its ugly too. In both cases it is a clump. One sprawling, living, breathing behemoth of humongous human energy packed tight. I get a new story every time I try and navigate the vascular networks spindling across this Goliath. Soon I’ll tell you the first of many stories I’ll forget before long. Let’s shatter them and diffuse the bits through memory. Lets watch time tenderize them into something chewable. Let’s watch memory metamorphisize what happened. When we’ve turned into butterflies, let’s fly together and see what became of the cocoons.
I do not know what I expected from Beijing. Maybe I wanted to write truthfully that I took the city by storm. I would demonstrate my savviness and skill at living. Any difficulty I had, I would defeat with care and a grounded outlook. Looking back, I do not miss the mark entirely. The situation I entered appeared more difficult than it was. So far I have only engaged in a few dumb moments. I guess I expected to do more than just get along. I thought I would do it all gracefully. I do not know why. I have never been terribly graceful. I broke my head open seven times. I usually tripped over my own feet or ran into walls.
My abroad adviser told me I could live in Beijing with minimal Chinese language skills. He was right, but I read more into it than what was really there. You could live, but you surrendered some control to the circumstance. Abroad you have to do that regardless. But when you lack for language skill, it is harder to help yourself out of a situation. I never thought about it, but I would need to travel with someone if I wanted to do certain things. I could not wander off alone as I liked to do. I would not learn near as much about the people either. Language rose up like a mountain the minute I hit Shanghai. It was not that communication became impossible. Rather, my inept tongue robbed it of the glamor. I became a tourist. I fall into the ranks of ugly Americans waving money around hoping it serves over foreign words. I hit myself hard the moment I designated beauty to grace. My own ugliness became a self-invented loss of face.
Nothing happened when I entered Beijing. Not much happened in Shanghai either. But I lived life long in the Midwest’s cool and contemplative shadow. It made it much easier to dance to the tune of nothing. When you don’t delude it, a night bar hopping’s just as much nothing as a night browsing the web. I feel you ought to live context to context for anything to make sense. That to me is the only way nothing becomes something, and eventually how every single moment comes to mean everything.
Beijing’s airport did not present many problems. Recuperating my luggage, I went off to find the people who would take me to my university. They appeared quickly, despite being mired in a large crowd. I sat with them for a talked for a while until another student and I walked off to get water. It felt exhilarating to know I found the right path all the way there. Finishing up the travel details made me feel secure. The moment you admit there’s security at all, you’ve guaranteed yourself some coming insecurity.
In a way my insecurity arrived quickly and socially. More students gathered and coalesced into a larger group. No one talked much, but I felt out of place. In large groups I tend to. I am used to it. Individual conversation’s what I am about. In a mix of people everything just skips along the surface. The questions move simply and quickly. It feels as though I am performing mental manual labor. The talk does not hurt me. In ways it makes me stronger, but I would prefer not to do it. I would prefer intentional mental exercise, because then I have a specific direction. I am chasing an impulse down and pounding at it. In groups I mostly go silent either from the boredom and fatigue in labor, or fear that I might drop something precious in my clumsy movements. Besides, no matter how much I tell myself not to, no matter the length of my introspective flagellations, I cannot shake that I don’t care to know most people in a crowd. Everyone has a story and a character worth every moment poured into it. I do not know why I can admit that, but never act up to it in a group.
By the time I got on the bus much of the worrying subsided. Engaged in one on one conversation with another student, I enjoyed myself. Beijing sped by the windows. The reality of it flickered for a second. It felt dauntingly beautiful. We got into Peking with little time to actually do much. Most of us headed to our rooms and would fall asleep after setting up our rooms.
Our orientation contained a flurry of activities. We started with an introduction to the campus. Peking University is a goliath. The campus forms up around old imperial gardens, giving us immediate access to a stunningly green park hugging a large lake. Four gates lead into the campus, and all gates pour right out into Beijing. Strikingly, even though Peking is pretty far out from the center of the city, the environment around it looks heavily urban. Beijing has to be the biggest city I have ever seen in my life. The incredible density of the place hit me. This would not be like DC, where the high rises fade into low lying suburbs dotted with a few towering embassies, libraries and business centers. It would not work like New York where it mostly fit to an island and sprawled out from there. Here tenements and skyscrapers sprung up everywhere. Every part of the city felt populated. Later, when I would get further in, I would see just what crowded meant here.
Various Chinese people I have talked to, including those uninvolved with Peking University, call it China’s best educational institution. Peking enforces very selective standards on Chinese students and, to a lesser degree, foreign students as well. Even still it accepted some 15,000 students into its undergraduate class. The university’s campus feels like a semi-autonomous community. I am sure that if I tried I could live every day without taking a step out of one of the gates. Food vendors line the streets, peddling from stands just outside numerous restaurants. The nearby general stores sell most things, ranging from toilet paper to mattress pads and power converters. Our campus leaders gave us a brief idea of what the campus held. They pointed out a few impressive looking buildings and facts as well. Peking University certainly has a prestige to it.
Then the program coordinators gave us more information and a placement exam. Students that wanted to enter the beginner class opted out of the test. I wanted to go the beginner course, but I had learned some things from Rosetta stone earlier in the summer, so I went for the exam. They threw down a page burdened with characters I never knew. The professor in front started speaking a language I know sharply knew I could not understand. I tried to stick it out, but I realized it was pointless. I was guessing on every question. I got up and told another teacher I needed to go to the beginner class. I would only waste their time with this exam. They let me go, and I headed back to the dorms. Unfortunately because I took the beginning of the test, I never got to meet up with the other beginner Chinese kids until classes started.
A nebulous arrangement of fears circled me. The foreignness of the setting bit at me. The teeth of it finally sunk in. I chafed at the mental pain of the possibility of getting devoured out here alone. It was not just the distance of the Pacific Ocean that poured into my mind. The distance of twelve hours did not feel half as harsh as the chance of failure. How far I would feel from myself if I gave up, or got lost after getting here. That frightened me a lot, because I have never been far from my own side. Not for long, at least.
I went back to my dorm, got on my computer and used nearly all my battery to talk to my girlfriend back home. I wanted to reach my family too, but my power converter had stopped working. I could not charge. The thoughts came swarming in. What had I done? What had I committed myself too? In all my vanity and desire I abandoned the languages I knew, Spanish and English, to pursue a new setting perhaps beyond my capacity. I might have thrown away a whole semester. With the death of my computer, I realized I only had myself to talk to. I did not know anyone else well enough yet. Worse yet, I might never get to know anyone in my program that well. Most other people on the program actually spoke some degree of Chinese as well. It pounded in my feeling of foolishness. I once felt emboldened by my own courage. Now I worried that my valor ought to have been discretion.
Miles away from home, left with no way to communicate with the familiar, I started feeling stranded. I still had a lot of the day left. Beyond that I still had a lot of my time here left. Perhaps the rest of the trip would become marred with that intense feeling of being stranded and incapable. What if I really had nowhere to go but down? Failure is an option, even if it is not a choice. I panicked something fierce. My mind kicked around all sorts of emotions. I let the introspection thrash and go wild. I needed to be honest with myself. I needed to feel something dire and disconcerting. If I did not express that at least in my own head, than I would have cracked. I did what I had always done. I let the storm rage. By now I learned to let it rage deep. I let the wind sweep the dust up off of old insecurities. Various indulgent currents of curated catastrophe crashed through the cerebrum.
I stuck my head up out from the turbulent waters and took a deep breath. In that moment, it was everything. But when the water fell out of my ears and the sounds returned, it was nothing. When the myriad of cars sped off towards the distance and the array of birds and bees chirped and buzzed, it was nothing. Beneath the massive boiling sun, beneath the ever expanding space, it was a single deep breath. Nothing to worry over. Just another bit of everything.