Instant Ramen


Instant Ramen is like the heat that drips up from a fresh cup of caffeine. Instant Ramen is chicken flavored sodium packets that smell like home. Instant Ramen is my most unhealthy healing potion.

When I was really young I got stomach bugs pretty frequently. They may not have come around much more than for a normal kid, but I feel them heavy on my memory like parental hands on my back; I feel them thick like retches over cold toilet seats. When my stomach was a mad sea we’d send it Ramen because the square noodle packet was like a full empty: nothing but sodium and noodles all laced up in tame flavors. Things would calm enough and fill enough to not have hunger pains churn under nausea like earthquakes inside storms. Older, nursing hangovers, it was the same deal – just much less dramatic.

As I got older I thought Ramen might drop out of my home and head but it kept up with me. Just about two or three years ago I started getting sleep problems and when I’d stay up until I was too hungry to pass out I’d rip the orange packet half open and eat the noodles like a candy bar. Sitting up at 5 AM grinding dry noodles into paste feels a bit weird and desperate at first but after it works a few times it’s all pleasant; it is all pleasant to break up the cool night with the tactile feeling of teeth churning.

The Ramen got older too, grew up with me. When the plainness of it wasn’t enough anymore I’d throw in new spices and learn what I liked on top of the bland noodle base. When noodles and broth stopped filling me up I’d dice up meat and veggies too. It was still a half-assed attempt at a meal – never the best I could make for myself – but it’d keep me running. Sometimes it even felt rejuvenating, breathing the scent in like distant incense, feeling the powder on the tips of fingers like sidewalk chalk, absorbing the odd magic of my ugly instant food. That magic could walk me back through time to when I was feeding friends while parents were out working, to Dad dropping an egg or a cut up hot dog into the soup so that “it would at least have protein,” to Mom putting ice cubes in the soup so my sisters or I wouldn’t burn our tongues.

Instant Ramen was healing in the way returning to wholeness is healing. This food has been there nearly as long as I can remember. When adulthood and identity shifts rattle my mind until I feel scattered I drain the noodles and the broth from the bowl and feel like all the fractals and bits of me fight tight together into one whole.

~Austin R Ryan

American Plain Views


I currently live and work in Minneapolis as an educator in an Americorps program and freelance writer. Sometimes it is peculiarly pretty here. It is pretty in a way that’s as much a sensation as a view. These little snippets will hopefully let you in on some of those American plain views.

View Heading Down Penn from Olson:

Olson Memorial Highway pushes out in both directions like big tar rivers and the grey-black backs of big straight serpents swimming into and out of center city. If the light allows, you can ford it all at once and if it doesn’t you are in an island in the middle watching the rust and the shine of cars sprint like metallic fish up and down stream. It is dirt, mud clot, and trash spotted right by Olson but further on past is the Harrison neighborhood where things get cleaner, greener, squarer and on with lawns and their houses. A little black girl cast in bronze statue welcomes you. Here the hills rise and sink slowly as the gentle undulation of a half-urban half-suburban dragon. The way the road stretches, the way there are no trees to block the skies or the hills as they rise, you can see right down Penn as it weaves up and down and up until it is too high to see past; just from seeing how the sky goes and goes and the earth goes and goes you’d guess there wasn’t any end to it. But then, eventually, you’d hit the highways and the interstates.

View From the Back of the 19:

Metro Transit buses have big windows to soothe you that bit they delayed you when they came late. Metro Transit buses are blood capillaries that pump in and out of the downtown heart where folks are moving but not wanting to be seen. Uptown, Northeast, by lakes and by campuses and by dive bars on rise is where people tell me you want to be seen. Metro Transit buses have big windows where these thoughts float out of sight and mind like clouds in the wide sky.

On the good days it feels like a Venice high in the sky. Your four wheeled gondola shared with a smattering of other people goes sailing down the light blue sky; your four wheeled gondola gliding on heaven to get you to the next earthly mess. The 19 – my four wheeled gondola – goes under the dark arches that connect concrete block buildings stretching out over two streets, making Hennepin Medical Center. Sunlight peaks out from the Hospital’s shadow until the 19 plunges fully into the bright light. It weaves up to the long and grassy green lawn in front of the Government Center. That building splits into two dark pillars wrapped together by a glass midsection and pulled tight by heavy black cross-lines so it looks like the corseted back of a boxy, cartoon-ish dominatrix.

After that the 19 comes through downtown where things look new and glassy and the construction turns everything to congestion and tightness. When it pops out into Hennepin it looks like one of those true downtown stretches full of bars and avante-garde buildings twisted up into modernist shapes. When breezes by the stadium, passes the brown and flat Transit Center, and leaks into Olson, it is just apartments and peaks down long and short residential roads.

On the bus a woman – White or Latina – sits and babbles brightly to her child. Another mom – Black – comes on and her toddler rushes up to the other kid and they seem to just stare before the parents direct them away, smiling and managing awkwardly. People come and people go. The driver lets a man know where to get off. The child leaves and the toddler cries for bit. Another mother and her kid – elementary age – comes on and picks up the transparent green binky the toddler dropped. The two mothers talk about the wide blue sky and the hot sun and the children all wrapped up in it; they talk on and past when my stop comes and I go.

~Austin R Ryan

The 5 Up and the 5 Down


I am in a new town so I am on new transit. For job training I have to go to up and up to the north end of Minneapolis so I am riding the 5 up and the 5 down. It is early and chilly and dry here. September is ending and everyone is huddled tight and small into jackets. When I left without one I doubled back so I could slink into it too.

The 5 stop is a few blocks down, on an intersection of two large streets. Where I am couchsurfing there are a lot of Somalian stores just on the near corner, and on the far corner where that street ends there is a hip record store called The Electric Fetus; in between all that there is a Wendy’s. About mid-way through the walk there is an overpass that looks through a rusted iron fence at the Minneapolis skyline. The buildings are tall and wide and glassy, mostly new but for some odd eggs like the Foshay. The sky is very wide and very open. The wide and blue of it is caught and pushed out a second time by the reflective skyscrapers so that looking at the cars all pour seamlessly inward feels like slipping into an undertow. It stops me for a minute and I let myself fall in and get washed around in the noise and the scenery.

It strikes me walking down the sidewalk that everyone here is unfamiliar, but it starts to matter less after each new city. At first it seems strange and indecipherable to be in a new brand of hectic city but after a while the elements bleed together. Nothing is so like Beijing or D.C. but nothing is so unlike them either. That feels very refreshing to me – akin to relapsing into a Jones soda or catching up with a friend from a while ago; familiar and unfamiliar. It scares me to imagine rural living because I don’t even have a frame of reference – wholly unfamiliar.

There are only a few people waiting at the same 5 stop as I am and even fewer that I can remember the look and bearing of. It takes a little while for the bus to get there, but it does and the man in front lets me know, friendly and folksy, where to swipe the bus pass I am borrowing. I am not feeling fine and out enough to reflect that energy well.

The first leg of the trip is through the city proper, us going underneath big buildings and near large malls. People really come and go around here. Once we clear into the north that’s when people quit their coming and going for settling and sitting. North Minneapolis has its troubles from what I am told and I believe all that, but in the daytime it does not matter so much. Walking to a specific destination down a big street during the day isn’t asking for trouble or anything else. It is odd to me that people feel keenly otherwise – imagining maybe rioting streets or lawless gang rule – but my worries over rural areas are as irrational – imagining horror movie sequences and serial killers. It is just difficult to get a frame of reference – planted wholly in the familiar.

As we get out of downtown and more towards the near north a woman gets on and starts to talk on the phone with some kind of legal counsel. It becomes clear she is prosecuting a case against someone as she reads out a list of charges in a perfectly flat and casual voice. It is hard not to eavesdrop because of how her casual and informal flow grinds against the seriousness of the various charges. After a while, overhearing her just becomes hearing her and it starts to feel zen to listen to the manifold charges wind out calmly – almost in procedure. I feel less worried; that might be a backwards response. I figure you could read her words backwards or forwards but what you should do was not read them at all and let them just be hers. It was already too late for me, and now it is too late for you too.

When I get off the 5 I actually missed my stop by a bit and pulled the wire before we had even reached a cross street. The bus driver stops right away anyways and I get back headed the right way. Coincidentally the right way has a cool look and a load of interesting stores – including what I think was a gas station painted entirely over with this somewhat abstract mural that my mind grasps more for the colors and swirls than the shapes and substance. I think there might be a Wendy’s up here too – in between everything else.

 

On the way back down the bus is at first empty of any other passengers. I am feeling fine and out enough to squeeze a small conversation from quiet bus driver while we figure out if my transit card has enough money on it. A really trendy and smartly dressed young woman comes on and graciously waits for me to sort myself out. For a while there is barely anyone on the bus but as we near downtown, it gets more crowded. A pretty drunk or just bizarrely enthusiastic and loud man swaggers on board and instantly tries to befriend the quiet bus driver. After a minimal interaction he declares success, screaming, “This is my man! This is my brother!” about the bus driver to the rest of the bus. He eventually saunters over to the middle of the bus and his thoughts spill audibly out – about half the full portion of his head tumbling out in accidental volume spikes. When another man comes on and is taking his time to pay at the front, the (presumably) drunk man offers to cover the charge. The whole bus, he declares, is family. The man paying upfront, maybe not feeling like family or too much like family, refuses the drunk man’s help once, then twice, and then sternly. The drunk man returns to his seat but he still holds on to the family point for a bit.

In what feels like just an instant we get downtown and people pour the bus back up to full. A girl who sounds about high school age sitting behind me. A bit later another man comes onto the bus and makes some kind of loud noise for some reason – I had stopped paying attention. I had stopped paying attention at a bad time because the girl behind me says, “damn son!” so loudly and resolutely and naturally that a good chunk of the bus chuckles; a middle aged woman even giggles herself into tears. She laughs and laughs, gearing up so much that a second wind sweeps over me and the rest of the bus and we all laugh and chuckle and smile again.

“Oh thank you.” She says to the girl, “I needed that.” Afterwards the laughing woman reassures the man too, “we are laughing with you not at you.” Being a good sport about the whole thing, he agrees that it was pretty funny. I still don’t know if it was pretty funny, or if it was even a comedy at all, but it might have been better that way.

A few stops down the line another girl who knew the first one comes in and they both settle quickly into a conversation. The one tells the other how she got the bus to laugh – seeming as surprised by the whole thing as I was – and the other tells the one how she just got done with a fight.

“Well, you look pretty good for just getting out of a fight.”

“Yeah she didn’t even have time to hit me.”

It all feels very nonchalant, but energetic and excited at the brims and edges.

They both sound pretty young, but I don’t really know how young they are. They go on for a bit back and forth about how some neighborhood folk gave the second girl’s pregnant sister some trouble. The first girl notes how that should be out of line while an old woman in a pink overcoat, with thick black sunglasses sits down next to me. She smells faintly like cigarettes in a surprisingly pleasant way and we both make eye contact and smile at each other for a moment. This woman is the stereotypical picture of the urban old woman – covered in fuzzy pink, clutching a cane and a plastic bag, big hat and big glasses that leave only her little grin showing – but I don’t really know how old she is.

Not long after that the drunk man stumbles off the bus angered and with others around him encouraging him to get gone. In a little bit I’ll leave too and so I get up and stand by the exit door. A man gives me a hello so warm that you’d think we knew each other. He thinks we do; he asks if we had talked to each other earlier and I say no, because we haven’t. When we get off he wraps an arm around my shoulders and tells me that he’s a homeless vet named Lorenzo and ask for three dollars for a bite to eat and I say I used up the last of my cash on the bus fare, because I had. His lips knit into a tight and small frown and his arm falls limply off of me. I apologize and wish him good luck before slipping off, away from the bus stop.

Public transit can be one of the most interesting sights in a city but also one of the most dull. The lottery of it is as much part of the city character as anything. Flitting moments of realities far outside of all my self-obsession drift into orbit for a second. It draws me out like a spectacle but it isn’t one. The moments are not mine and so I don’t have to chase them down for completion or explanation or plainly owe them or have them owe me anything at all. The moments apply like a texture on top of the smooth, simple, scheduled rhythm of city transit and blend in with the other sensory memories on top of other buses and subways and characters of other cities until it is all this familiar and unfamiliar thing I feel like I’ve seen and never seen.

Malka


Malka is Hebrew for queen – some people know that. What most don’t know is that Malka is the best name for fat tabby cats. This is not just because most fat tabby cats look like they have fine black crowns on the top of their heads. In the mind of a fat tabby cat, she is and has always been a great grey queen with a domain of human subjects grateful to witness her royal mouse hunts; so that fat tabby cat is as much a queen as Elizabeth, Victoria, and Golda (Meir, of course).

This is the story of two fat tabby queens and the kitty kingdoms they had. Malka the first, Malka 1, just plain Malka did not accept many of the subjects that came and went through her country. The original empress, she ruled over a small domain – an apartment in Chicago not far from the lake – with just two old folks named Carol and Sheldon as true subjects. During many Hanukkahs and many Passovers all sorts of other big, furless cats would come and go but she did not know or trust them. They would get no dead mice and no affectionate purrs from her. Many of them truly did not deserve it; young and greedy, they grabbed at her with hungry palms that pulled and tugged; she – a proper Malka – deserved nothing less than the best and softest pets and she would come claim them at her own leisure!

Though Malka I was not always a kind queen, she sometimes showed a softer side. Yes, she scratched and she bit and all the vagabonds and trespassers knew to fear her claws; yes, she hissed and howled at clumsy but friendly hands too; but when a child cried on her couches and bedsides she would retract her razors and paw them condolences. Malka I was a strong and mean ruler but she was soft and kind especially to her closest subjects. When she went she was mourned deeply and she left her subjects with a fat tabby cat shaped hole in their hearts.

However a proper queen always has a lineage. Not so long later, another tabby cat – young and without a kingdom – was busy stepping across a dark road. Many other nights she had darted across street and field, deftly dodging coyotes and cars, hawks and Hondas, but this night was different. Small and agile, a natural hunter, she leaped and bounded across that dark road again, but got struck by a passing car and dropped one life of nine. Left along on the road she mewed and cried until some strange set of hands carried her off to a vet before the other eight could slip away. The vet labored on this tabby – hardly even a cat yet – until by the end of the night it was stitched up and saved. However, it was still homeless. The fine folk that saved her could not keep her and instead of a kingdom she found a cage.

Shaved and small, set in a kennel full of bigger cats, she was a queen with no kingdom, an empress in exile. Little did she know, Malka I had come as a spirit to find another tabby cat to grow fat and continue her line. Malka I found the little tabby and told her to keep her shaved side hidden against the kennel wall and mew sweetly for the next old lady that came in. Sure enough, the next visitor to her cage was an old woman named Carol, who had a fat tabby cat shaped hole in her heart.

When the handlers took the kitten to Carol, the kitten she was skeptical at first. Who was this human? Could she be trusted? She shied away but Carol, even seeing her shaved side with all its scars, knew another Malka when she saw one. Carol sat for a while and talked with the little tabby.

“You look so pretty!” She said to give the queen compliment.

“It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.” She said, and kept her distance to give the queen respect.

“We’ll feed you and you’ll have a great big place where you can chase birds and mice.” She said to give the queen a true kingdom.

This little tabby kitten decided to step over and let Carol carefully lift her up and cradle her in palanquin arms. At that moment they both knew she was not just a Malka, but Malka II, Malka the second, Malka two. Carol brought the cat back to Sheldon, who smiled and said,
“Gee well, couldn’t you have got a healthy one?”

All the same they came to love the new Malka. Her fur grew in again, just as lush and beautiful as before she was hurt and before long she was a cat with a kingdom of wetlands out in the country, complete with birdbaths to stalk and gardens to weave through. Malka II had surpassed her predecessor; she had more not just in land, but in kind subjects too. By now the once young subjects had grown and learned how to keep their fingers from tugging and their palms from pulling so Malka II was generous with her affection and let many who came into her kingdom pet her. Perhaps Malka II became kind through being grateful. Her fortunes had turned sharply as she went overnight from losing a life to gaining a kingdom. Whatever the cause was, Malka II became even more beloved and bequeathed than her namesake and in no time at all she had filled fat tabby cat shaped holes in hearts that didn’t even know they had one.

~Austin R Ryan

Mulberries


The walk to the nearest grocery store is about 20 minutes in whatever weather Changzhou has for me – usually rain and wind. I call this local Tesco the fish market and if you went in I think it would be clear why. All along the way up to Tesco there’re a lot of things happening but in Tesco there’s even more going on. There are two floors to it, the first having clothes and shampoos and anything else you shouldn’t eat if you can’t help it. My little fish market isn’t so packed on the first floor but ‘packed’ is relative even past the normal standards for most adjectives and it’d be too crowded for a lot of folks I know back home. Up top where the food is it gets truly hot and hectic.

A kind of low-sloped escalator walkway leads slowly up to the top floor where all the heat has risen and sticks around in glops. Right out front are the bread, fruit, and fish sections where most people crowd around to inspect the fresh food for the freshest food. Kids are clamoring and people are talking up more hot air to feed into the already hot and healthy glops. The glops crowd around with the smell of fish and bread and fruit until eventually things yield into pre-packaged things such as Oreos and other big cookie and snack brands. All of the checkout stations wrap around in an L at the front – the smaller side of the L being quick shop stations that are rarely open. After a normal ten to fifteen minute wait with my red bag bloated up with daily things I step out of the whole place back into the relative cold.

Along the way a friend says she’s nearby so I go looking a little bit and after not catching her come into a chain bakery called Bread Talk. In China most folk don’t have ovens or like to bake so there are bakeries everywhere. In the back of the warm and orange tinted Bread Talk there’s a row of drinks packaged with deep primary colors that stir me. I go to the one with blue so dark it nearly seems like velvet. It’s shaped like a little jug and the top is wrapped off with a cloth on top like homemade jam. It’s mulberry juice.

It feels cold on the edges of my hot fingers just recently roughly wrought by the hard and heavy pull of my red bag full up with food for the week. It’s not competing on price but I am buying on feeling so that doesn’t matter. As soon as it’s sold I peel the cloth wrapping off and twist it open. It is cold and deep and rich.

My best childhood friends live down the block and a little ways away from a mulberry tree whose sweet fruit hangs its branches low. We were lower stooped back then but reached up enough to pull the mulberries down and I remember my friends introducing that kind of taste to me. It was sort of like a blueberry in taste, without the sweet bite of sugary juice. Blueberries are tense capillary fruits with thin skins full to burst with juice and flavor, but mulberries have a more mellow grind – like a less intense raspberry.

It is cold and deep and rich. I am ambling back to my home in Changzhou on muscle memory-based navigation because my head’s back underneath that mulberry tree; I am clinging onto branch like those rich little berries. That day the skies were gray in China but I was looking up and feeling the light blue of humid Indianapolis summers. There were white clouds above me, white clouds as fluffy as my thick sighs after each greedy glug of the deep blue – almost purple – juice. I am home in Indy now and walked the family dog underneath that mulberry tree. I had forgotten how all the berries fall and stain the concrete sidewalks with smatters of purplish blue and bluish purple. I had forgotten how small it really is now. Despite all that the sky is really just as wide and just as blue; the clouds are still fluffed up as Midwestern sighs.

~Austin R Ryan

So Fashion!


Let me tell you I was gonna post up my usual kind of god damned high art imitation BS blog post about the black mold in my home and some of the hard times I’ve been having here in China but that’s not the piping hot helping I want in my bowl right now. No sir, I’ll tell you what I really wanna talk about is fashion! I don’t wanna talk about American fashion and you can run and tell that to every single young adult male wearing salmon tone boating shorts. When it comes to fashion, the cargo shorts, the slacks, even the best bought band shirts of the USA have nothing on the glee that Chinese style brings to me. To say that Chinese fashion is off the rails doesn’t even do it justice because there are no rails in Chinese fashion at all and everyone indulges recklessly in free-form fashion every day with not a single fashion task force out to get them.

For example, once I found a man wearing a baby blue sports coat over a baby blue plaid pattern shirt over baby blue khakis just sitting in a chair in the middle of the wide sidewalk outside of a large commercial center. It was like a color of the rainbow came down to Earth. Before I came to China, I didn’t know that I wanted to see men douse their bodies in clothes of one single primary color and now not only do I know that I want that but that I’ll probably get it. Sometimes I don’t even look and when I pull on my red jacket while I have my red slacks on I’ve found I’ve become the red guy. I am happy to be the red guy; I embrace this role; I embrace representing this primary color at the clothes congress. Where in America this man may receive verbal beating from abusive fashionistas, here he is safe to shine in beautiful baby blue glory.

American fashion is boring, cowed cowardice compared to Chinese fashion. In America a woman likely fears leaving the home looking like a witch. In China many women leave home looking like terrible witches with faces as pale as the moon and long, flowing coats and dusters as black as the awful magic they use to reap vengeance on those that dare jock their soup. It is a wonderful thing to me to see a young woman enter the KFC with a black massively brimmed hat that’s round and cutting as lumber mill buzz-saws over a long flowing black coat that flicks in the wind behind her. Her dark-as-night boots and pants round out a sci-fi FBI agent image she punches into the world like a typewriter punches ink onto a page. This woman has no fear of her look both because it is semi-regular (there are many witches here) and because few others have judgment of it.

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When I go to America no doubt hair dyes and beards and flannels and everything else will feel like a warm blanket of a much missed home. Yet if you asked me would I miss the witches, I would almost indignantly tell you that of course I would miss the witches; I would miss them maybe more than I would be happy to see face piercings again. If you asked me if I would like for everyone to be witches I would say – definitely indignantly – that no, I do not want that; that clearly goes too far. But 50% witches is agreeable to me, though I would say 30% is ideal as I have a healthy fear of the dark arts.

Furthermore, the witches are just one great and terrible dark cavern on the strange fantasy-scape that is Chinese fashion. The women just one accessory away from wearing an actual princess outfit must be admired too for all their frills. There is nothing ironic about literal frills in China. So many blouses have frills like you wouldn’t believe – flagrant frills layered on pinkest of pink patterns . I have a coworker who regularly comes in with what I speculate are literal Lisa Frank patterns printed (and often bedazzled) on giant pink and purple shirts that reach to her knees. I have seen her wear unicorns, I have seen her wear bedazzled pink sports jerseys, but I have never seen anyone bat an eye. If you think that sounds anything less than victorious than my friend you just have to shatter that American judgment calling you to plain protestant styles.

Besides, the plain and sleek styles have their representatives too. Most people go for subtle and regular patterns of button-up shirts and jeans (though khakis and slacks are much more common). Some people have simple dresses and once I even saw a woman in a pants suit come out of a Pizza Hut (this was a vividly joyous moment for me). Muted earth tones do exist here and people do wear them. However, many normal ensembles incorporate an item of clothing – shirts, jackets, the seat of the pants, the legs of the pants, the entire pants – that say something that is absolutely absurd English or just pure alphabet soup gibberish. My personal favorite is a jacket that says, “This ain’t no real bustard” on it. I have seen these “this ain’t no real bustard” jackets several times and I have so many questions. Did they mean to write bustard – which is a type of bird – at all? Were they going for bastard or for mustard? In either case why is the authenticity of the bastard/mustard on display? I am bad with multiple negatives, so I also NEED someone to tell me if this is or isn’t the real bustard. And is this is a meme? Is this what memes look like in China? Do people wear memes here? I don’t know about how all celestial forces feel, but I am 80% sure the Abrahamic God considers wearing memes a sin and will flood-genocide (drownicide) us again if we start to wear memes en masse, so I hope it’s not a meme.

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There are of course many other ridiculous things written on shirts but sometimes the message is not so much ridiculous as surprising. I have a bag – where I store my many soup cans – that says, “seven days away, I think I thought I heard you say.” The odd quote is indicative of an outright genre of clothes and accessories that say something correct but still kind of baffling. Clothing in the US tends to carry a pretty light message and words on clothes often just share some easy laugh factory material. Chinese t-shirts aren’t usually chuckle buckets, opting to spread weirdly serious messages instead. I once waited in line for soup behind a little boy in a jean jacket that read “ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE WHO ELSE BUT ME.” On the topic of children, every trend here applies to them because their parents dress them like tiny adults. This is as absolutely adorable, strange, and fantastic as you are imagining it to be.

Anyways, I have started to accumulate shirts with wonky words, but some are oddly expensive. I had my eye on a shirt that just said “sample text” but it cost over 100 RMB (15-ish USD), which can pay for 3-5 meals out and much soup. I have managed to find some cheap items such as a shirt with the beloved Nintendo character Yoshi over a plain red background with a word bubble that says “Happy!” underneath giant black letters that say “I love family,” a shirt with a picture of a hat just above a random paragraph attempting to describe the idea of fashion, and a hat that says “If.”

People here also borrow from other countries – particularly Korea. Many people wear Korean hats with a lot of extra space at the top where one could hide a trinket or a can of soup. It is not often but occasionally I see pretty boys wearing long jackets with weird words or patterns, some sweet ass kicks, a colorful hairdo that must have taken a lot of hair spray to maintain, and impossibly tight jeans that must take a lot of work to squeeze into.

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On pants, nothing makes me think quite as deeply as the difference between the pants of American and Chinese men. In China men rarely wear baggy or ill-fitting pants and on it easily looks much better than the frequent style young American men adopt, where the pants are wide enough around the legs to contain a terrible and endlessly discontent void. Yet, there is a drawback as many Chinese men must have a man bag to make these tight jeans work practically, or even to make well fitting pants look good. Tight pants effectively have no storage and well-fitting pants look as chunky as a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag when their pockets hold a wallet, a phone, spare change, an mp3 player, and a can of soup emptied into a sandwich bag. Many man bags look pretty good but some don’t quite hit the mark, which makes man bag selection another clothing piece to pour soup worry into. Furthermore, I can’t help but think that in the US the assault on masculinity the murse can resemble might cause a frothy broth of rage to boil up in more traditional men and also men who believe your soup belongs in a sandwich bag in your pocket. Indeed, it took me a while to come to terms with the man bag and accept that, yes all men are still carrying soup even if I cannot see the vague shape of the sweet nutrient juice bulging against the edges of jean pockets.

With this topic I could go on endlessly, but ultimately what I love of Chinese fashion is simply the lack of concern it has for a single standard. With so much influx of global products and styles, fashion here is a saloon in the Wild West where there are no rules and you wear what you want so long as you can shoot from the hip and store a steaming can of chunky dinner-cereal emptied into a sandwich bag somewhere on your person. You can do literally anything and there are literally no rules about clothes in China! [Correction: After the time of publication I was informed by my editor that there are in fact “laws” about “clothes” and “public indecency” in China and I was apparently “lucky” not to be “arrested” when I went to the store in the buff.] Here in China even the word fashion is as free flowing and unrestrained as soup and often used as an adjective. “It’s so fashion,” is in my mind not so much Chinglish as it is a modification our language needs. When I leave China I’ll miss the bold and wild fashion it has; I will miss the colors; I will miss the witches; I will miss the serious and confusing gibberish; I will miss inhaling the rich stew of intermingling global trends.

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~Austin R Ryan

How To Be Alone With Words


Writing has always struck me as an immensely lonely experience. I have put content up on several blogs for over five years, and seen all sorts of fluctuations in views. Sometimes I strike a chord in nearby friends with a wary word of mine. Sometimes I win things with the sentences that I string together. That’s really rare. Most times nothing happens. I have reached out to my nearest and dearest to get sincerest feedback on my best shit but believe me the relief of the lonely is temporary. It is a fluctuation from the form, a brief shift in something fundamentally a thing for me and by me. I based it in solipsism since I was a boy. For me it has been a way to address the words that bite at the back of my brain and stain a page with them. Readers mostly come and go without matching a word of mine with theirs.

I am alright with that. I promise. This isn’t a guilt trip trap to get you to read more, so rest easy and go as far as you like.

A long time ago I was antisocial and hid away any words I did. I disliked the way other people talked and read, so I’d spray whatever I wanted out across a page and assume it’d go misunderstood. These days publishing the things I make is a solid love – but one I forget about. It is something real and often rewarding, though not always so consuming. Both back then and now I feel lonely in writing, even though currently I let people read me when I think I’ve prettied up. There’s nothing wrong with that though, and I am not trying to lodge a complaint or make a call.

I have asked plenty of people to connect to something, and I have had plenty oblige me. It is pretty nice, a great way to socialize. But, there’s a level of love for this thing I do almost rote that’s never really shared and probably shouldn’t be. There is an effort in writing that can’t fully be received when an hour’s write is a minute’s read, so it starts feel solitary – like the smoothness of a final draft hides the mountains climbed just to make it decent. There’s a way that even friends and family will fall off from my collection as it expands, too.

That’s okay. When I was younger I’d get sore about it, but then I got around to adulthood and understood their business better. They aren’t obligated and what they do read is more than enough for me now. When they read, the things they say always surprise me and often light up my whole week. But if I wrote for them – to chase down that sensation of togetherness – then I’d have stopped a long time ago.

I started writing a lot in fifth grade, so it’s been over a decade now and I think I’ve finally learned how to be alone with words. After this time dragging my linguistics alongside me, pipe dreams of a million readers and a bestselling book haven’t died, but I don’t think they need to for me to understand that an actual audience would not divorce the loneliness from writing. I’d still be sitting up alongside myself at night, digging up shallow ground I contrived to be deep to produce another story. I’d still be gratifying the things I found right and feeding or pouring out emotionality to keep myself on balance. Until I stop loving it, all these words are primarily for me. It is unfair to give a gift to yourself and pretend it’s for someone else.

Writing is lonely, but because it is for me. Writing makes me feel alright being alone because I use it to settle the scores I have with myself. It is not a proper way I measure myself, though sometimes I mess up and try to use it as a ruler. It is not a part of my struggle to be a better person and correct my shittier behaviors, though sometimes I’ve slipped up and used it as a soapbox. Nor is it enhancing my career or saving me money, though plenty of times I wished it did both. If anything, it lightens the load of managing all those other things and so it belongs mostly to me. Sharing it brings so many surprises and fine moments that I rarely regret it but in the end it is my way to properly settle with myself when no one else is around.

In America, a person can feel unaccompanied across any number of social circles. No one is bound by their social setting, they are encouraged to be free and fly toward the thing that gets them their personal glory. There’s no yuanfen or reincarnated spirits catching up over another lifetime. There’s often just that lonely feeling in knowing that any relationship can be transitory. I am alone in writing because anyone’s relationship to my writing is just as transitory, floating article to article based on their time tables – and saying that should never condemn them or me. I like being alone in writing, because ever since I started I’ve felt more like my relationship with myself isn’t transitory – Like I am by my own side. As I have come to let friends and family inspire me, I’ve felt our relationships may not be so transitory either. I might feel alone but seldom empty and for me that’s how to be alone with words.

~Austin R Ryan

Melodic Mongolian Folk Metal


Metal’s made a name for itself representing the heyday of Norse raiders but the genre’s heavy riffing love goes above and beyond Scandinavia. If your culture has a violent voice buried deep in its past or present, some entrepreneurial metal heads will exhume it up and slap it into an album. Results vary in terms of quality. Recently an excellent subgenre has popped up from the sparse grassroots of the East Asian steppes. Welcome to the fold Mongolian Folk Metal.

Mongolia’s rich roots of conquest and epic raiding of sedentary societies makes it an amazing target for Metal’s Asian storytellers. Pair the slams of a double bass drum and the aggression of snarling guitars with a loud vocalist and you have a method prime to tell stories of plunder and societies torn asunder. It’s no wonder that Metal made its way to Mongolia!

If you want a good glimpse into the novel subgenre, then look first to Ego Fall, Seven Treasures, and Tengger Cavalry. These bands all come from China’s Inner Mongolia province. It aptly raises some eyebrows that the big names in Mongolian Metal come from China. It is hard to tell how big a touching point is it to the musicians. Does talk of appropriation abound, or is that a creative crisis unique to western art? The bands that have a presence outside the strange sheltered Chinese internet stress their Mongolian origin. Tengger Cavalry even speaks up about the things they see battering traditional Mongolian culture in China.

Tengger Cavalry politics

Accepting Mongolian heritage does not negate a Chinese aspect either. For the state and many people living in it, to be Chinese only means to be a citizen of China. One can be Han Chinese (the ethnic majority) or Mongolian Chinese or Tibetan Chinese. The Chinese state includes all ethnicities into one Chinese “family.” In a way America does the same with all its unlikely immigrants. America tries to bind with the hot water of a melting pot and China tries to bind with the blood of kinship. In the end the resident, immigrant, and artist chooses whether to accept that stamp of nationality, put heritage above it, or settle down in the middle ground between the two extremes.

Ego Fall is probably the most identifiably Han Chinese band among the trio, with songs full of Mandarin vocals. However, they still build their sound around Mongolian folk music and metal more than anything else. Ego Fall stands tall as the elder statesmen of this budding subgenre, having played the longest and produced the most of any of the three bands.

Pinning down Ego Fall’s sound in one category is a tough task. Some songs like “Legend,” and many others off their album Inner M constantly employ Mongolian traits such as the recognizable overtone throat singing as well as the incredibly bouncy twang of the horse-head fiddle. “The Horn Starts” also features whole verses of Mongolian throat singing matched with heavy guitar riffs.

In Spirit of Mongolia Ego Fall buck the folk trend and root themselves more firmly in heavy metal territory, with deep screeching vocals and damn near heavy everything. Songs like “The Rule in Troubled Times” create an odd take on a traditional folksy style of beat by recreating it with synthesizers. Other songs like “Iron Horseshoe” break from metal to return to Mongolian folk styling paired up electronically to sound a lot like hard rock.

Ego Fall keeps things interesting between every song by making it hard to guess what they’ll do next. That wildness can also make it harder to fall in love with the band due to some of its stranger shifts. If they settle into a groove you love, you’ll never know how long they’ll stay there. Furthermore, electric guitars dominate Ego Fall’s instrumentation, so when the folksy Mongolian elements fall out their music sounds a bit stale.

Nine Treasures sticks to a more consistent style and sometimes sounds more parts hard rock than metal. The singer fluctuates between rhythmic talking and deep throat singing, but never losing grip of his characteristic low, growling vocals. Like Ego Fall, Nine Treasures relies a lot on strings, but more those of folk instruments than guitars. “Sonsii” demonstrates how Nine Treasures songs play a bit like ACDC style rock anthems with lots of rising and falling action set to simple but powerful melodies. While their style can sometimes want for more, they do a great job of making songs that fit the image of hordes of horsemen galloping across endless grassy plains and incorporating folk instruments in a way that makes the Mongolian folk element more than a quick gimmick.

If Ego Fall sits like a great khan on this genre, then Tengger Cavalry is the true challenger rising up to take the kingdom. Tengger Cavalry formed in 2010 and has since hit the studio hard. The band instantly opened with an EP, then in 2011 produced their first full album, signed with an international label in 2012 to get the album out to western audiences, and then made two more albums by 2014. Their newest album came storming in less than a month ago.

Led by a man named Nature Ganganbaigal (Tianran Zhang), this band of all Mongolian artists does not have a weak song. Each album takes on a different sound that still stays identifiably Tengger. Folk instruments ride wild side by side super heavy pulsating double bass drum beats and distorted guitars.

Songs like “Hymn of The Wolf” and “Hero” blend in Mongolian elements so well that you could have sworn Metal was meant to have them. Other songs like “Legend On Horseback” rely much more on the folk elements. The violent reverb of electronic distortion becomes scenic background noise to the folk instruments, until the guitar solos take the song back over. “The Wolf Ritual” pits the stretched and sonorous sounds of traditional strings against the choppy and heavy blare of electric guitar. Old and new battle it out in a duel of string solos that evolves throughout the song until both styles blend seamlessly together for the finale.

In every song, Tengger’s exceptional mixing puts the band over the edge. Ganganbaigal worked extensively as a soundtrack composer, and his ability shows in the way he mixes the sounds of each song. The folk instruments never get drowned out, but they never sound artificially loud. For such a young act Tengger’s almost unbelievable sound quality sets a bar for Metal as a whole. Every note resonates. What’s more, they release albums almost annually and just put out their newest work Blood Sacrifice Shaman, which measures up easily with the rest of Tengger Cavalry’s discography.

For those inclined to the clean and craftily composed, ride into battle with Tengger’s curated sound ringing through your ears. If you love anthem rock, ally with Nine Treasures. For those obsessed with the distortive elements of Metal, follow the Ego Fall horde. If you can, check out all three! One day they may stand as legends in an even more fleshed out subgenre. In some distant dawn, these sweeping steppe melodies may run over the rest of the world! Tengger Cavalry has already taken the first step with international releases and lighthearted social media pages.

tengger-cavalry-cuties

~Austin R Ryan

P.S. – If you are interested in hearing more Mongolian music with excellent mixing and sound, see Nature Ganganbaigal’s recently made label, Khulug Music. If you are interested in learning about all sorts of excellent music check out WVAU – the site that originally published this piece and many better ones!

Pointless Stories: Running


I go out running every other day or so. After a while all of the runs blend together into one stream of pounding feet and burning air. I often run the same routes at around the same time on the same days a fixture. My body anticipates the release of energy.

In each thirty minute bouts a lot can happen and a lot can go unnoticed beneath the drone of sneakers smacking the concrete. Sometimes the sun shines so brightly and the wind does not show up at all. The heat dries out and creases cracks across my lips. The sweat works overtime and comes in smearing lines from top until it leaks to the bottom. On the hottest days it even seeps into the socks. The run becomes longing for the next stretch of shade. Sometimes a penetrating pain roars across one of my sides and I’d like to slow down. When my mind is pliable and my body insistent enough, I do.

There are those few days when it feels like the stare of slick sunrays is a sickness I am fighting. In those stretches I become obstinate. I don’t want to give an inch to the angry weather. The running form I had half learned across several semesters running cross country full unravels. It is raw, repetitive violent movement between me and the ugly muscle cramps the heat brought along. A cramp can feel like so many things. It can gnaw on the side like a wolf deep into the shank of a lamb or it can punch like an embittered rival pushed over an edge. It can even stab with the vigor of a fencer, precise and sharp where each tack lands. There’s no beating it fully. I can only transfer it to the track below and pound out a quicker path.

Running can chew through your deodorant and ruin your scent. It can cut your breath into bursts and kill your sound. It can shake your stomping legs, scrunch up your arms, and bend your back until your stature falls too. Running can make you ugly, but there are days where it is beautiful too.

On the right day, the wind blows merciful and the sun doesn’t outshine the shade. Strides become longer than usual, feet feel lighter than usual. Drips of sweat cool the skin in small doses, and gentle rushes of wind peel back the harder layers of the heat. On those days, I could look up in the sky and not mind my feet at all. I could keep eyes on the treetops and watch sturdy oaks tremble at the extremities. I could absorb the full blue sky and feel like I was swimming through a sea of air. I’d say hello to every neighbor and smile at all the dogs they were walking.

I wonder if it is those days I run for. In the back of my mind a voice tells me I won’t live longer for sucking in sick city air and bashing my ankles up against grey concrete. That voice speaks in harsh whispers of my budding addiction to the beta endorphins spinning across synapses. When I run it’s the sound that twists my daydreams into demons hounding at my heels. And when those words really set in I wonder if I run to dodge those demons. I wonder if I am running to be a better coward.

I don’t think it is as much as that, though it can feel like it is even more. It can feel like each step is over a threshold. When the whole wide sky stares down and bleeds ugly heat into my skin, I’d think it was a forge refining the iron inside me. So many dreams of dramatic action sparkle inside my skull and I’d swear there wasn’t a person in front of or behind me at all. Everything had faded and I finally fought myself into being the person I ought to be. The glowing image of some forgotten glory I could reclaim blasted in the back of my mind. When all that happens I wonder if I am chasing and lusting madly for something. I wonder if I am running to be a better person.

All that droning noise can drown out a lot of what happens in those thirty minute bouts. In all the wondering it is easy to miss the slick and neat trim of my shoelaces gliding along the edge of my fingers as I pull the shoe to fit my foot tight. The burning sensation of stretching hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps can fly under the radar. So goes the scratchy inhales and exhales of all sorts of air from the free and clean to the gaseous exhaust exiting cigarettes and tailpipes.

There’s a deep and resounding language in all that physical motion. Give your breath enough attention and you can catch blood cells oxidizing every step. Tuning into each step, it becomes clear how well your form fits your body and your shoes fit your feet. Falling completely into the sound around you reveals the power of the uptempo in your music, and the draw of the downtempo of city streets and sleepy neighborhoods. When I lean into every breath, step, and sound of a run, I don’t think I am running for the language in my head. When I am running, I don’t think the pontificating means much at all.

~Austin R Ryan