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

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Between Two Homes 5: Airplane Bathroom


It is a few hours into the flight and I’ve just woken up from a very fitful sleep. When I woke up everything in the airplane was gentle with the quiet shifts of people in light sleep and quiet engagements that cut small shadows out from the soft light. My head had ran up against the arm rest and mussed up my hair pretty badly. For a while I did not notice but eventually my hand ran through my hair and something did not feel right. In the reflection of my phone I saw the full damage and quickly decided to go to the airplane bathroom to fix it.

The plane had no turbulence and no one but some flight attendants were paying attention. It crossed my mind that I could maybe just pat or comb the hair down in my seat and not draw any attention, but I was bored. The airplane was dim, littered only with little movements, and my long arms wanted to yawn large out on the open of the dark blue aisle carpets. I pulled out a bag of product and swiftly slipped out from my seat and into the aisle. My eyes flickered toward the attendants and a few other sleepless people to see if I was being noticed. I clutched my bag tight. My memory is spotty and sometimes I think some people looked at me, but only in that passive way that people use to track some new motion – besides, I wondered why it mattered anyways that I caught any attention.

Hair is an odd thing. Recently I had got mine cut into a shape entirely new for me where the sides and back are short and the top is long meaning it requires some kind of product to maintain. I know that this is a pretty normal style but I have always cut my hair short then let it grow again. My hair is uncooperative generally, forcing itself to fall straight in one direction so that it sproings up against any product and challenges what I try to do with it so I was hesitant to have to make a working relationship with it where I actually asked something from it. Maybe two months prior I’d not known how to use hair gel and in the small space between then and now I’d had my eyebrows trimmed and a quick routine with hair wax down pat.

Hair is an odd thing because of how core it can be to identity. Even just a bit ago I’d had different standards for my hair; I hated for it to be dirty and coarse and generally wanted it hygienic and conditioned but I never dared step past cleaning; the path seemed treacherous and time-consuming – which at first it was. Now I was working with two tins of product and trying to make it stand in a way that wouldn’t hide my features and my hands plied fast to the management of the unruly strands. I dipped into one tin of styling clay meant to stem rebellion and swiftly after into another tin meant to style follicle society into something smooth moving and sweet smelling.

I used to simply not want another thing on my hands so I kept on an easy pattern with my hair that involved about as much laziness with comb as you could manage. To be fair, the adventure into styling is a bit risky and I feel unless you have the compliant wires of some kind of a celestial model shining in the disgustingly kempt way a distant star does you are bound to have a bad hair day at least once while learning the ropes. Hair products exist in plethoric abundance fit to all sorts of niches and designs. When you first wander into their aisles odd names strike out in italics laced fonts focus tested to get your attention – they say hello. You say hello back but it’s an abortive greeting – it is not exactly what you want to say! Who you are? What do the words on you mean to me? You’d ask all that but the words are upfront and ugly in front of pretty things.

At the start most folk only know about a sociable fellow named gel and that was my only point of contact too. Gel, if you’ve never made the acquaintance, is a nasty and formidable beast that can do perhaps more than you want it to – a creature that you know to seek out for the same reason others know to avoid and treat with caution. In my first reckoning with it I knew nothing of it but what it did to the aforementioned blazing celestial model bodies plastered on the packaging, so I smacked a dollop into my hair without even rolling it into a thin layer across my palms and fingers first; this is a recipe for disaster. I tried in earnest to spread the clear and heavy solution across the outer ends of my hair and lace it into something and it turned out a half-organized mess of lopsided strands hardened into odd directions. Only after a few hours eagerly listening to words of YouTube-based hair sages did I realize all the other strange materials you could spread in your hair – I picked up some conversation topics for when I returned to all the brand names; I knew how to cut the curves of the question marks so they were smooth. I realized there was a whole weird world outside of gel – which was good because even when spread right, my gel was a thick and all too forward kind of slime; even when my hair stood up just right, it felt wrong.

In the airport bathroom I felt confident in slicking the styling clays – that I’d come to know on my own and through mutuals – from root to tip across hairs and riding it all as it were a wave toward a tight end at the back of my head. In fact I had come to love the pure motion of it; there’s a pleasant smoothness to swishing all those individual threads into a single fabric with one loose pull toward an end. I’d always liked running a hand through my hair to feel the smooth sensation of several separate things entwining together and I had worried rightly gel wouldn’t allow that; gel does not allow it, but all the other shadowy figures and strange foreign names in the hair aisle do.

What still vexes me a bit is how I got here, to this conversation. It was a bit dizzying to jump from lowest effort hairstyles to one of these low cut back and side modern things that extend out from a wider whirl occurring deep beneath hair follicles. I could apply that same question to where I stand generally too. I’d picked up a lot of things I never worried about before – applying past hair; Collagen moisturizer for my dry shoulders that itch on winter nights showed up in my bathroom one day; right next to it a sleek and futuristic looking black and blue container repairs the damage done by facial cleansers and razors; my two blade razor had retired quietly and a fancy orange striped five blade one replaced it. Something behind all of these things felt curious and fun; I chased these things ultimately because I wanted to. Had I always wanted to? If so, what stopped me?

The chase at first felt a bit heavy, leaving dripping thoughts on the proper masculinity of moisturizers. Perhaps the roadblock was as plain as that. At this point I probably still give a damn how things seems, but a sizably smaller damn than I used to give; why not look the cashier in the eyes while I buy two flavored lip balms? What’s there that I can dodge? Would I dodge it by getting a ChapStick with MEN plastered all over it? That’s entirely more homoerotic… I had one of those flavored lip balms in my hand now and applied it easy, in that same smooth motion of pulling hair into place. The moisturized feeling is plenty fine and so is the shine that comes around the lips.

So how did that barrier go down? Masculinity is a tricky thing to wrangle. It’ll kill you if you aren’t stern and careful with it; I am genuine – it has sharp and phallic horns that penetrate and gore. My bisexuality’s a generic answer but not one I discredit; I can’t deny trends began changing when I started stating plainly to myself and others that I liked sex with men; first I stated that to myself and then spread the news from there where it felt natural – or just awkwardly obligated. There’s a bundle of nerves and oddness that goes in taking on that identity and it’s a bundle I’ll write on when I’ve untangled it (hey – maybe never). Even now it feels a little foreign to claim it – a social contact I definitely know but can’t quite tell what to call when I cross it on the corner. No matter how many alternating romantic fantasies of each gender I indulge, no matter how it goes in reality, it feels in an instant I could fall to either side of the line. After tipping over to a side I’d regret ever saying I straddled the middle line as I fed old sayings I’d heard: “rooting for the other team” “looking for attention,” etc. It is all tired words that make me tired too. Well, one thing I can say early was that something about slipping on the moniker made adding some trappings that went with it easier.

Adding the trappings was a somewhat unconscious action with only correlating relationships, which makes the precision of it harder to detect. I asked a gay friend why men put on the kind of lispy affectation – the stereotyped gay voice – and he said he didn’t really know. Now that I stood with an I-give-a-shit hairstyle and clothes that I had selected based on whether they actually match, I couldn’t say why any bit of gayness made that – or the pairs of paints that fit slicker to the long slimness of my legs – more compelling. Maybe it was always compelling but now it was easier to admit and become swallowed up in; maybe it was not even fair to lay it out in that way, with that kind of question to him or to myself. There is nothing inherently homosexual in a sleek and clean of a tight-fit image. All I could really say was that I made changes out of enjoyment, a sort of fullness of embracing outer as well as inner and I want to make more changes as the same enjoyment arises.

As I sized myself up and smoothed out my shirt so it could get crumpled up against the airplane’s seats again, I’d remembered what my Mom said. When friends asked about the new style or when I told it, I’d often blame it on the bisexuality. Only my Mom challenged that laziness in slipping into a generic thought. “It is also because you are growing up.” She said. And I realized how my haircut resembled my Dad’s, how he’d apply ChapStick in the car, or even employ a mouth spray; I remembered buying him cologne one holiday – though that’s always been a masculine read for perfume. If all this primping existed as a manly thing to hover inevitably toward, why did it feel so disguised? Was it just me missing the new issues of GQ? Maybe the memo was there in my inbox and I just never read it. It is obvious now as I grow up that apathy’s a great path to a crap end and you ought to put your image together for yourself if no one else; I am not exactly sure why it wasn’t obvious then.

Stepping out of the airport bathroom into the quiet airplane I felt unsure of exactly how I arrived at the conversation I was having but I felt as sure as ever of what I was saying. With my black flip comb stuffed neat in my pocket and a hand running along the swivel in my hair. At the end it boils down to the feeling of dragging all those hairs together, patching all that dry skin into one smooth surface – a feeling I like. In the end it is just the look and feel of things in the odd low-light glow of a sleepy international flight.

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 4: Handkerchiefs


Travelling through Shanghai was a mess. People communicated less well than in Changzhou despite knowing English and the signs made less sense despite directing more folk. After searching and asking around for a train that leads straight to the airport I gave up and decided to take the metro. This was easier to manage but trying to get tickets I stalled for a bit which allowed a lady to come up and help me with the task. It turned out to be a scam for money on her end and I realized if I made a fuss she’d leave but staring at the strange hope she had clutching to ten yuan notes it all felt kind of petty. I gave the ten RMB up.

It made me remember visiting NYC for the first time. Oh right, you clump up people and they get strange. Often times they get outright terrible like heavy traffic grit’s gotta make you gritty too. I don’t like it but maybe it’s just the function of what’s made my form. Growing up with Indy’s small city politeness and then studying in DC’s company town professional aura makes the aggressiveness of real metropolises seem ugly. Maybe not always ugly but rarely pretty.

There was another foreigner looking at the subway map the same time as me. I left early but he’d catch up with me later and we talked a long time. He had the modern man kind of cut with short hair on the sides and back and the rest product-ed upward slightly. This was something I’d look to do with my hair later. He’d been in China for longer than me but hadn’t studied it as much. Most English speaking foreigners did not have a direct interest in China and more a curiosity for a teaching job. I can’t fault that at all given how crucial employment is even just for the confidence of a person. I was just lucky interests aligned with a position. More and more I am realizing that.

I think we were each agreeable and sharing a travel struggle so we hung around one another for a while. He had confirmed what I suspected all along and told me I was being underpaid at my current job. Effectively he was making double my salary and it was something I suspected at the beginning of my program. The way he put it down I think he wanted me to be madder than I was but honestly I had a feeling early and accepted the cheaper payment because I wanted a way into something interesting. It had provided that. In a conversation compromise he admitted he’d have done the same as me out of that same impulse to get moving. Don’t mistake the jostling of salaries as much – it is common practice in China and one that bled into us. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve been asked my salary. I enjoyed the company of the man kind of like me, living here at the same stage of life doing something similar.

China had invigorated him and working here made him reluctant to even visit home. I did not pry but his history intrigued me from the bits of it I snuck peaks at. He was going to be a cop but decided to go abroad first. He had been in two long term relationships that had ended. I had been in just one but the way he described the meandering and hesitant aftermath thick with frustration and distance resonated in an easy way. He was a native Floridian. Of the few Floridians I have met, none have seemed to like their home state yet. On my end I was excited to return to old home from new and have a nonsensical pride and love for an average Indiana that would probably forsake me on my weirder traits when the chips really hit the table. But that’s all unnecessarily cynical. At the end of the interaction he talked about going to Changzhou and I felt no problem opening my home to him.

We got to talking about handkerchiefs. This sprung from discussing his time in the Philippines which sprung from discussing travel. He posed the keen question of where I wanted to go or end up and I answered noncommittal because there are only two cultures that naturally called to me and now I vacillate between them. I am not that interested in seeing the world for all it is. Travel feels burdensome.

The Shanghai airport is properly looming and full of empty air. The ceilings are so high that birds could nest up there somewhere, though they could not live there. I have seen a solid number of things and my memory gets hazier when I add more. Living in a place – I’ve only done that three times. I could stand to do it a few more times.

Anyways – handkerchiefs. In the Philippines, as he told me, a lot of people use them. I wondered at the practicality of it because a tissue seems like a one use thing and after that use you’d rather not touch it much. He said that they were more useful through being washable and that most folk just kept a big store of them on endless rotation. Later on in the flight I’d watch The Intern, which felt so distinctly well made along average standards that it confused me. It felt like a thing people would examine later to determine changing mores in our day – or just a movie that would safely appease every family member. Handkerchiefs were an oddly central theme and a kind of stand in for a polite and un-intrusive masculinity the movie saw as nearly lost to modern times. It was strange enough to run into a dialogue about handkerchiefs in real life and stranger still to find it in fiction right after. In one day I had heard more arguments to carry handkerchiefs than I had in the rest of my life. The arguments to carry handkerchiefs were effective but as I am heading to back to China there are still tissues in the pockets of my fluffy red jacket.

~Austin R Ryan

Travel Anxiety


I wake up slightly before my alarm because my body is tingling with tired energy. Everything feels porous because inside I have enough energy to be flooding but outside I don’t have enough to reel it in through my pores. It pours out over the side of my bed and for just a minute I’d fiddle with my phone and turn off the alarm. Assuming I am not fully up would be silly given the experience I have of myself. My Dad is in the bathroom. I can hear him but not how long he will take. How long will he take? I don’t need much time but he could still take too much of it. How long will he take? Probably not long, right? How long does he usually take?

Everything’s ready and lined up but surely I am forgetting something. I won’t think about whatever it is because it isn’t super significant. I have what I need. I don’t need breakfast and there is not much of it that’s quick. My Dad offers to make bacon and toast. What’s the time? 6:15 it reads. 6:15 and we should leave at 6:30. How quickly can it be made? I must have asked that. It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s okay and it’s fine to give up a bit of that time for breakfast. Especially because my parents make it. It is the last meal from my father I’ll have in a while. There’s only Canadian bacon in China and I’d like a last taste of real bacon. It would not be worth it if it made me miss the plane, but it couldn’t. It surely couldn’t because my plane is 9:30 and that’s so many minutes away. I have counted them so many times. Three sets of sixties from when I set out. 2 and one half set when I get to the airport and it should take just 1 set of sixty to wind up at the gate. That leaves one and a half set just to in case of disasters. I have never had more than one disaster at an aiport but it cost two hundred dollars. Two hundred dollars is a quarter of my paycheck. This time a disaster would be the whole of my paycheck. I can afford a disaster but it would be half of what I’ve saved over months of work. But there won’t be a disaster and if there was I’d be ready.

It’s 7 and I am saying goodbye. It is just 7:30 and I am at the gate. There was a longer line than I expected but at the Indianapolis airport this is still next to nothing. You know I was only home for two weeks? Why was I driving to leave so early? If I stayed an extra hour to talk with my parents I’d have been fine. We’d not have much to say but the company’s appreciated on each end. Should I have rushed off? I am bowing again to fearful impulses. At the same time, my Dad couldn’t have seen me off if I left later. Was it a bad decision? It would have been definitively a good one if there was a disaster.

Get this: my layover at O’Hare is only 50 minutes. 50 minutes and O’Hare is very big. If they land me at the wrong terminal I should still be able to get to my right gate in time. Knowing O’Hare there could be a technical difficulty and that could just screw me but truly there’s nothing I could do about that. I’d might as well put it out of my mind because it’s out of my hands. It is absolutely out of my hands. If I had to recheck my bag that’d very likely doom me but I asked the woman at the check in station and she said I didn’t. It is possible she’s wrong because one point in the process has been wrong about the next one before. When I went to Beijing I nearly missed a flight because of rechecking bags. Another time I was actually fortunate because one person said I’d have to recheck bags and the other prevented me having to do this. I am not sure how my luck would be here and maybe I would only know if I saw my bags at that final claim.

Remember when I said the layover was 50 minutes? Kidding, it is 7 hours and 50 minutes. Mechanical delay notifications buzz over the speakers and you should hear the Chinese chatter all around me. Wudian wudian wudian delayed delayed delayed. Rosetta stone just taught me what that meant. I tell my parents and my Mom already knows that I won’t want to visit Chicago relatives for fear of having to return to O’Hare from the outside. I’ve been burned by O’Hare’s abysmal systems before and really I’d have hardly any time with my relatives. But if I’d hopped on the opportunity as soon as the delay came in I could have had maybe 3 hours. Is that so little time to not be worth it? What worries me more than all these missed connections is that now I get into Shanghai at 10 PM. It takes around 2 hours to get in from the airport to the central railway station and get tickets, and by this time the train station will certainly be closed. I’ll have to spend a night won’t I? Will they pay for me? Do I select my own hotel in that case or just a voucher for something near? In the case that I do get my own hotel or just have to find one I really need to have a name an address on hand. Since I often don’t get wifi in China I’ll need to do this now and screencap the results on my phone so I could give them to a cab driver. Actually, if I can’t find an outlet – which at O’Hare is entirely likely – than I really ought to turn on my Chinese phone and take a photo of my American phone’s screencaps because my American phone powers down faster once I am in China and it may not last long enough. If that eventuality happens than I’ll need to ask about a hotel and they’ll point me somewhere expensive and if I pay 500 RMB for a night that is 1/10th of my monthly salary because of a poor phone battery! Heaven and a half, I am really tired.

I could nap here at O’Hare. Thing is, I should nap right before the plane because this would allay my jetlag the best. Though, if the delay shortens and no one wakes me up at the gate I could miss the plane. It might be better to just sleep at the very beginning of the flight, though this would not be as good for my jetlag. I could sort that out when I land but I’d like to have energy for getting to the train station. The thoughts don’t actually matter because I get caught up watching Lynch’s Elephant Man, which is really very beautiful. The movie is long though. It is thirty minutes from over but maybe I should stop it and return to the gate. It is an hour til’ departure but they may have bumped it up. The cafeteria I am in never plays announcements. I wonder why this is, but it is because it is O’Hare. O’Hare is a model of a mini modern hell. I have seven hours and fifty minutes to waste with you, O’Hare. Do your worst. Actually, don’t. Don’t bump up my flight and not tell me and make me miss it, please. Please don’t do that because I am so curious what happens to the elephant man. I really want to know about the movie but I also want to know what happens with my plane. Has anything happened? It is only fifteen minutes until the show ends. Okay, I can wait for the show to end. They wouldn’t bump it up on me. This fear is not so big. Okay, 14 minutes. Alright I’ll pack up everything around me so I can zip out at the end of the movie. First I’ve got the power cord pulled out of the defunct outlet and in my bag. 13 minutes. Then I have my phone and my mouse and my keyboard all back in my bag. 12 minutes. It is me the movie and the laptop. 11. 10. 9. 8. The plane should still be there. 7. 6. 5. It should really still be there. 4. 3. I really hope it’s still there. 2. 1. Why wouldn’t it be there, though? Okay, done! I’ll check. I’ll check on my plane right now. I go through a crowd of teenagers on some trip together with their school. It’s all been managed. Their smiles have no weights on either end. There are still lots of Chinese people here so my flight should be around, but what if it just left them too? It didn’t, it is there.

I buy some books and food before the flight. Is it funny I got Kafka’s short stories for the flight? I adore him as much as every English teacher I had told me I would. Damn you, you insightful souls! Am I really that predictable?…

On the plane there’s really nothing at all I can do so you know I am almost relaxed. I don’t quite sleep properly but the plane’s got loads of caffeine and I am fine. What would I do if I turned into a big roach? I think I’d handle it better than this guy in the Kafka story. He never tried to write a message in his sticky cockroach juice. Damn skippy, I’d write my family a fine I ❤ U in my sticky cockroach juice. I’d like to think my Dad would know to exhibit me sideshow style too so I could at least cover my cockroach costs. Can’t blame poor Gregor for too much though, he’s got a calmer handle than I’d have. Although, his mind is too much on things past his control.

 

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 3: Airplane People


Hey, just so you know, these don’t run in sequence. You can read whichever little piece you want without having to know the other. Anyways, isn’t it oddly intimate and strangely contained sitting next to strangers for over ten hours?

On the Airplane I sat next to an old Chinese man from Wuxi and a woman from the Sichuan province. The old man was with his old miss who sat next to the lady from the Sichuan province. When they got to talking the Sichuan woman asked where they were from, because she couldn’t understand them. It was strange because I could catch most of what they said, but Wuxi is very close to Changzhou. Somehow I started talking with them and they were all very pleasant and as we small talked in that official Mandarin common tongue. The old man wore a Purdue shirt and I told him I was from Indiana and he told me he had a kid in university there. I wanted to show him the tickets I had from when I went on a day trip to Wuxi but for some reason I didn’t. The Sichuan lady talked to me on and off about things I can’t remember. It felt swell to be able to swap simple sentences though.

Once she even asked me what the dessert dish was – it was a chocolate mousse. I translated the word mousse to tell her but apparently it does not have a food meaning in Chinese so she first asked if it was edible and then corrected me to say jelly. Though I then felt this was incorrect, because as far as I am concerned if it is chocolate it can’t be jelly or jell-o. It had to be a pudding or a mousse or something else. Languages have so many gaps between them you are bound to fall in at some point so I did not press the issue any further after she corrected me.

In front of me there was a little mischievous boy with a perfectly circular face and big sideways poking ears making trouble masquerading as some small simian – maybe a little lemur – and pestering for attention. He had shot up from his chair a few times to give me ubiquitous stares which I met with waves and all sorts of faces. It didn’t faze him. When I let my long legs loose and pushed up poke toes out underneath his chair he smacked the edges of my feet. It didn’t faze me.

Little lemur child and I naturally developed a storied airplane history. He was stretching up at the reading light above him and his parents were too tired to stretch arms up for him. On his behalf I hailed a stewardess and pointed her toward him. She’d had enough of his monkey machinations and row running explorations already and curtly pointed to the little remotes in the seats that managed the lights. Guess I should have known that well enough. The little lemur child would not acknowledge the help of either of us anyways and as the polite Americans we were it of course made us both a little sore.

Children are tough entities to strike reason into or extract reason from. They do and you deal with it because they were compelled by some wrenching invisible force to do whatever they just did. I am not sure this one ever actually slept and I am not sure his parents were ever awake more than an hour. The boredom for him must have been a bit rigid so he popped up at me a few times and made perfectly neutral expressions pretty much no matter what I did so gradually I became mostly neutral to him.

I got up to the bathroom a lot that flight because I could not get much sleep either – an unpleasant surprise – and they kept refilling my jasmine tea – a pleasant surprise. Finally the old man whose slumber I kept disturbing arranged a seat swap with me and his wife. Once I settled into the aisle I saw the boy’s round head and satellite ears crop up. His eyes shot to me and for a second the neutrality had faded for a bit of disappointment. Some of my neutrality faded though I don’t know in favor of what. At the end of the flight I’d accidentally scuffle him with the edge of my backpack. He protested for a second and I apologized for a second and no one seemed to notice either way so we both stopped and set our eyes forward. When we landed it was like everyone felt too weary to do anything but get out quickly with eyes downward.

~Austin R Ryan

Between Two Homes 2: Airport People


In the Chicago airport I got very lucky. The pit stop in Chicago was unplanned to the point were we all had to recheck our bags. I was supposed to go straight to LaGuardia where I’d spend ten hours – basically the night – on layover before I got home. I had gone to the gate and mostly accepted my fate when I let my parents know I was in Chicago. We had lots of family and plenty of options to get home from here so I thought I’d see if they wanted to manage something else. My Dad urged me to take it up with American Airlines, since the unexpected stop put me so much closer to home.

I am not sure what American Airlines looks like or how I’d describe it. In my head it is probably some fusion of cramped seats and crowded check in lines with those pleasantly dim fluorescent lights hanging over the counters. It is kind of a distant thing – not really a stark image at all. But when I am there at the counter American Airlines is the man standing behind it, speaking with a slight Eastern European accent. That accent is an O’Hare familiarity I enjoy after coming back from China. The man is only half into my conflict, which is only fair because I am just two thirds there myself. He has a kind of neat and slightly too tight image like everything else in the airport. In conversation it comes undone some and he calls me “buddy.”

When he directs me back to the counter of my own flight I am despairing slightly because the line in front of it is full of patiently waiting people trying to nudge into any empty spaces the flight has. Like me they stand tight by their bags, fidgeting slightly. At that moment maybe AA looked like anyone in uniform so I clambered over my own baggage toward an unoccupied attendant standing at a kind of podium with an odd, antiquated looking computer in it. She clicked and clacked at it with some inquiring looks, like she wasn’t urgent about it or was even figuring it out herself. She was a middle aged woman a few inches smaller than me despite curly hair that rose up two or three inches. I explained my situation quickly and without expecting much because I was so last minute that my flight to LaGuardia would board in twenty minutes.

She calculated for a second in a quiet kind of concentration, but it did not actually take her long to decide to reroute me. “It makes no sense to go to New York when you are this close.” I agreed but felt pleasantly surprised to hear her completely take my side. It did not seem her hands were tied up in anything and she quickly began to bounce between a computer in the desk and the one at the podium. The time ticked down and with each minute I was worried my luck would run short and I’d go to LaGuardia. I’d half expected it even though she had told me straight that her work at the computers was to switch my ticket around and print me a new boarding pass. I’d expected some little administrative thing to trip it all up.

To be fair, it ran right down to the wire. The attendant next to the one helping me started to announce the boarding just before my passes to another flight printed. I thanked the attendant heftily and she deflected them mostly, saying it made sense and it was no problem. In truth it looked like a bit of a task for her, tabbing between two computers for a solid fifteen minutes right up to the start of the boarding process. It was hard to tell because of how steady she was and the quiet tone that she spoke in. She had just a small flicker in a voice as slight and resolute as the airport lighting. For a second I stood at the gate as though I still had something left to do there or like I’d left something behind.

Only two hours away from home I was smiling like the bright Midwestern sun while I sat by a wall charger to give my phone enough life to make contact with my parents. All the folks around passed with rhythmic steps and some looked down to better understand my squatting. I smiled at a few and the last hour felt filled with slight motions of politeness as efficient and measured as the low light flood of white airport light that felt pure to the point of sterility. But you know there are often moments – completely random and very small – that always break like a ray of real sun through the slick veneer of things. When that happens I never know how to react and sometimes I slide right back into the slickness of the veneer.

~Austin R Ryan

Stray Observations between Two Homes: Night Skies


Travel isn’t a contiguous experience in my memory. It starts out that way but as the memory of it gets rusty only abnormal images in the transit stick out and the rest of the connecting bits between them disappear. I won’t tell you how I boarded my flights. I don’t really remember anything but stray observations so that’s the best either of us will get – what a generous person might call vignettes. It is not chronological either. Don’t get on my case about that – think of it is an artsy thing concerning time’s potential shape as line or a circle or an exotic fruit. And I know I have been keeping you waiting too, but I am still technically on vacation. Sorry, that is an unfair excuse for me. I’ve lauded this too often as a passion to pretend it is pure work now.

There were two clear skies in my travelling. The first one came before I had left physically but well into the time my mind was too eager to linger in Changzhou. I had come back from my normal dinner walk out to a strip with some chain restaurants. Since I’d return to American food I went to a western place to accustom my stomach to big meat proportions. I’d made a mediocre effort to meet a friend there but the cold was biting so we’d both stayed close to our homes instead. When I went back outside I made my normal walk back but I stopped twice because the night sky was clearer than I had ever seen it in Changzhou.

The first time I stopped inside a small circular plaza with streets that shoot out of it like tendrils penetrating into pertinent parts of the city nearby me. It was incredibly cold and incredibly quiet to the point where both things felt biting. Thin and dry equally, the silence and the cold had similar sets of teeth and I liked the feeling in a short measure. Then the cold started to seep in through the thin threads of my gloves so I kept on.

Second was when I slid into the tendril that spits me out closest to home and had walked a little bit down the road to my school. Out there I felt I had to stop. It was strange because I felt like I was settling a debt to the city. Maybe I was just acknowledging the clear sky it gave me before I was leaving – that is a kind thing. It probably sounds pitiful to you but it was stark to me that in the vastly dim sea above I saw a few speckles of light sailing around. It was stark and very kind the way they shined like they knew my metaphor hungry mind was chomping at bits for that kind of business. There were just a few sparkles but that kind of clearness was rare and I could even feel it in the way the air was only laced with coldness as I breathed it. Then my hands got cold again and I went in sniffling and numb at the ends.

When the second clear sky came I only looked once. The second clear sky was in Indianapolis. Mom had just grabbed me from the airport and we were making the familiar drive into the city lights toward home. It was kind of a meager skyline and I recognized every building. The little lights of still illuminated windows and blinking signals stuck out in the dark and helped shape out the skyscrapers. Above the sky blinked with at least twice the speckles I’d seen in Changzhou and for a moment I lost sense of my context. I looked out the window and said, “what a clear night! I can see a few stars.” My mind was still in China and my eyes were still smog spotting.

~Austin R Ryan

Changzhou, Indianapolis, and Loving the Average


A while has passed and now I have lived near half a year in the city called Changzhou. I have travelled the nearby cities well enough to lose my camera while drunk. Would you like to see some stellar pictures of Hangzhou? Well, I can tell you some pretty swell things to Google. If you’ll give me a thousand words or so I’ll paint you an odd view of Changzhou.

Here is what you must understand about Changzhou: it is middling. It is the burning embodiment of average raised up on an Eastern heavenly mandate. I can hear you wiki’ing in the distance this city along the Yangtze and wondering aloud how four million folk in a place with three thousand years of history could ever be average. That is China for you. That density and age make for a notable place is an American notion I carried for probably pretty long and dropped maybe three months after living in Changzhou, Jiangsu, China. Density and history are near everywhere where I am now.

Jiangsu is a notable province in China. Look no further than Jiangsu for behemoth megacities, former capitals of long-lasting dynasties, mountains, rivers, and beautiful gardens all along banks and the slopes. When you look just don’t dig at exceptional in Changzhou. Just so you know the dynasty that sat capitol on Changzhou – metropolis formerly known as Wujin or Piling – only lasted around a year. There are rivers and canals in Changzhou, but they don’t compare to Suzhou – the Venice of Asia. There are woods and parks in Changzhou too but the city known for lakes and trees – Hangzhou – is two hours away in Zhejiang province. You will find plazas and historic streets in Changzhou but understand that in Nanjing the plazas memorialize massacres potent and lingering ugly on the sticky start of the 21st century and in Changzhou the plazas are right outside of amusement parks. The historic streets in slim little Wuxi stretch out for a while in devotion to old kingdoms enshrined in classical literature. Here I have to be fair because Changzhou has a historical boulevard sprung up from famous ancient literature too – only it is just one block of one street lined with some very high quality comb shops.

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Here is where I get brutal and desecrate my hasty made Chinese home like I am a dog with no shame. The unexceptional nature of Chanzhou is welded straight into its name. Chang (常) means ‘average’ or ‘common’ and Zhou (州) used to mean ‘prefecture.’ Zhou might just be the most common thing to fix to the end of a Chinese city name. If you got one solid character on deck to describe that riverside Chinese city you are building you just slap zhou on the other end and get business moving. What this means is that Changzhou was deliberately and consciously named Averageville potentially as early as near 600 AD. That name fits all five fingers and lines tight right around the wrist of this place.

This is where I tell you that I am not being mean, that I am actually being loving in my honesty. This is where I profess my love for the average over a long and slipshod drawn comparison of two average homes I have known. I have judged Changzhou for being boring, dull, and riding the median line. I have made my fair share of jokes, calling Changzhou “too chang” for the cool things other cities have, but the ugly truth is that my hometown has no room to talk. Let me confess – Indianapolis is the American Changzhou.

The linguistic lineup should strike immediate. Though Changzhou does directly translate to something like “Averageville,” indirectly it may as well translate indirectly to Indianapolis. American naming conventions are far too furiously erratic to name a place Averagevile, but Indianapolis comes close to that mark. Polis being the Greek part of city, Indianapolis is effectively Indiana City. Even at its historical root it would have meant Indian City which is impressively more generic than the current iteration.

One of the funny things that happen when I introduce myself to Chinese folk is most guess I live in Shanghai. I say I am not, and they say, “No! Maybe you are in Nanjing?” When it becomes clear where I really live they just ask why. What am I doing here? Why am I not somewhere else? It is funny to me because when I meet a curious sort of soul in Indianapolis – maybe an odd foreigner or just a transplant – I ask the exact same. Hey, why are you here? Nice to have you and all but Chicago is three hours up that way. Did you consider Memphis? Minneapolis? Both Changzhou and Indianapolis sit in the intersections of more interesting locations and leave you wondering whether folk are just wandering through. For me it does beat living in the far rural fringes where everything feels distant.

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Don’t get it too twisted. These two cities may lack in naturally interesting things but they have their ways of recuperating. Amusement parks are one prominent answer. Changzhou has three amusement parks right inside of it. The first and foremost is the actually renowned Dinosaur Park which combines exhibits of fossils with a small collection of rides and a massive assortment of intriguing dinosaur-based entertainment and scenery. It is hard to describe and you’ll have to see the pictures below, but the makers of Dinosaur Park must have feared that giant Jurassic lizards were not draw enough so they decided to couple it with an odd medieval theme. All the statues of dinosaurs wear fantastical armor or a kind of generic court clothing. Further into the park the aesthetic turns to gears and a color-saturated steam punk setting. The statues are all over the place and a deeply strange fusion that is just too curious to begrudge. By the end of the day I wanted all dinosaurs to wear armor. Dinosaur Park costs quite a lot and only has one really solid roller-coaster, but it is worth a visit to see the strange conglomeration of dino-themed water park, amusement park, museum, theater, strip mall, and children’s center. Never did I feel quite so strangely at home and detached from the face of the Earth as at Dino Park. The over priced gift shops and restaurants shacked up with rickety roller coasters and nearly fluorescent children’s attractions are in the Midwest as much as Florida. It is just that in the Midwest they are not near as famous.

Changzhou’s second park is a personal favorite and a bit underrated. For a notably cheaper ticket you can make it into a theme park centered on a history you won’t find in the US – though the commercialization of it may feel familiar. Called Yancheng Park, it actually has a proper park with some interesting history just alongside some pretty cool rides, and you can read my larger two part story on it here and here. The third and last is CC Joyland – a regular old theme park – that I have not visited and cannot guide you through. A cynical side of me screams that these quiet places have to twist up ugly plastic shapes to make fun.

Yet, there is a soft and sincere side of Indianapolis and Chanzhou dwelling inside the regular parks and it can soften any cynic no matter how pretentious. Hongmei is Changzhou’s biggest and most known park, with a massive reconstructed pagoda right alongside a small lake. It has a wonderful little viewing pond where flowers gather and shine underneath the sun. I found a dead turtle there and took several pictures. Outside of the water and the temple Hongmei did not strike me as having much but I have been spoiled because almost every Chinese city has at least three very good parks. In fact the reconstructed pagoda at Hongmei’s center is one of the largest in the world and deserves its own due. On top of it you can see the grey haze of rapid industrialization settle on the beige, brown, white, and light reddish identical apartment complexes spread out into the endless horizon.

Another park called Xintiandi sits right near me and has no famous attraction to speak of. Though people don’t know it, to me it feels much more artfully constructed and definitively more modern. Xintiandi opens with a large black obelisk that touches the sky and has a meaning that I have not pieced together yet. Little pools of water in between the main walkway after the obelisk lead up to a large pond or small lake that reflects the newly built malls, offices, and apartments of the Wujin district. To the side there’s a wide grassy plain where people sit and play with families. I have seen grandpas flying kites with grandkids, grandmas gathering in multiple groups in different sections of the park to dance together, parents and children seeing talent shows, and runners getting their daily exercise in at Xintiandi. When I come back up from the large white slab that is the Golden Eagle mall to the south of Xintiandi I walk across a bridge with translucent hard glass planks. Little kids stare down at the lazily moving water. I have seen more than one set of wedding pictures taken on that bridge.

The black obelisk at the entrance of Xintiandi reminds me of the Veterans Park in Indianapolis. It is just a small stretch of green maybe two blocks wide in front of the ever large public library but it opens with a black obelisk thinner than at Xintiandi but lined with gold. In that park I have also seen wedding pictures. Children have tried to sell me school drive candy and sometimes I accepted and hopefully pushed them another dollar closer to a prize toy. I have seen middle aged people practice tai chi together and had one man tell me how it helped him beat his cancer. I do not know much about science but I’ll believe that quiet and passionate spirit can triumph it.

I have ran up the clean marble steps of the World War II memorial in Indianapolis and looked outward at the slight bunches of traffic accumulating. Laced underneath my own breathing is the gentle hum of engines gently whirring in stillness as they sit at lights. The way the white noise picks up into a managed roar as green replaces red sounds like bubbling rapids. I have never known living in anything but city and for me the hum of distant cars feels like river water constantly overturning and lapping up against itself. When I am stepping steadily through Xintiandi or even just walking past the dancing old ladies on the way to my grocery store the noise of constant motion dimmed by distance slides subtly underneath the noises in the foreground.

Maybe you look at me like I am trying to escape the serene hum of small cities. I have never made it a secret that I’d love to live in the West Coast where the sun always shines or Chicago the sights are endless. In college I skipped the Midwest without two thoughts and settled into the stunning marble of D.C. In China I studied in the unbelievably immense urban sprawl of Beijing and when I sought work I aimed for Nanjing – the glorious former southern capitol of a few notable Chinese dynasties. I ended up here in Changzhou, my Chinese Indianapolis.

But I am not too aggrieved and I am not trying so hard to escape. I said facetiously to a dear friend that Indianapolis had prepared me for urban mediocrity. It was facetious but it was not false. Indy prepared me by making me love the average as it appears in the friendliness of neighbors and the slick sound of cars coming and going. Changzhou does not carry the art and culture of Shanghai and Indianapolis does not carry the art and culture of Chicago, but there’s plenty that feels great in the average and plenty that feels average in the great. The people in average places will drop what they carry to help you. Average places can pause and slow pace because nothing in their identity seems pressing. In smaller cities, communities will hold you tight because for all that ‘standard’ doesn’t do it also doesn’t ask that much of you. In NYC, DC, Beijing, and Nanjing life has slapped me in the face with strangeness but in Changzhou and Indianapolis I’ve squinted and found near as much of it. In Changzhou people try to know me and I try to know them too. In Beijing I was another unfamiliar face.

Well hell, screw the East and the West I was born in the middle and I’ll probably end up interred in the quiet dirt there too. Some days I may want a more glamorous metropolis but where I live will never change where I was raised. When a big city swallows me up none of my hometown identity will die. The churning pearly white skylines of modern metropolises can’t scrape the small city simplicity off me so I might as well learn how to find the bright spots in the dimly lit cities I have come to call home.

~Austin R Ryan

Pointless Stories: Reflections


I have never lived in a rainy city before, but now I am in a rainy province. So far it is mostly drizzly and each time I go out I am not much inconvenienced. It is deceptive, where if you disregard it the water really builds on your skin and then you are flooded.

I like to go out for a walk every day if I can because my apartment is all white plaster walls and white tile floors and it is a claustrophobic aesthetic that starts off empty and ends up dirty. There are art posters and all sorts of picture frames in my home though, because I had already known of China’s odd love of pale patterns. I’ve flecked it with color for a homier vibe.

Usually when I go out it’s not very far because for whatever complaints I have of it, my home has all my routines and my business inside of it. It is warm and has everything I need. That’s probably something worth mentioning too. When I go out on one of my evening strolls it is often to scavenge for a supplement to dinner, or some kind of thing I need for teaching or living, or both. During the weekend going out’s a bit more pointed. The school’s cafeteria closes down and there’s no work tomorrow so that’s when the long journeys into town for food, drink, and company happen.

Last routine weekday step-out I had bought a mop and a trash bin with a pop-up lid. Well, I think that was the last time I stepped out – actually reflecting on it the last time might have been when I went to KFC. I specifically wanted to order an intriguingly odd looking hamburger meal that came with what looked like a giant strawberry red pizza roll and some sort of hot drink. The pizza roll was actually a super sweet kind of jelly pie thing that tasted better than the burger. The burger itself had a layer of dried noodles on top of it and loads of sloppy applied sweet mayo. The hot drink was corn juice, which I guarantee tastes exactly the way you imagine it.

Anyways, the events blend. I can’t really remember the sequence, but there are a lot of small discrete motions that stick out from the continuous motion. The pity I had for the trash can I was buying sticks out like a wave in the humming sea of consistent motion. That trash bin had cost a surprising amount and I bought it explicitly as a used a toilet paper container. This was a premium trash can – I am telling you – and it must feel like it got a raw deal literally pocketing what my body wouldn’t! Its stainless steel exterior shines underneath the dim lightbulb in my bathroom right now and I still feel the pity I had for it the day of purchase. “Hey, sorry,” I’ve maybe even said aloud, “but you were the only thing with a lid, and honestly you are doing a swell job keeping the smell in.”

I am getting off track. In Changzhou it rains a lot and there a lot of reflective surfaces. This is probably my favorite thing about the city. The reflective tiles of the sidewalks are mostly that strange kind of grey with different tones and shades inside it, with some different colors patterned in here and there. All in between the grey there’re are thin lines of deep black tiles containing the smoothest reflections and in them I can see the glimpse of the grey and black Midwestern skyline designs of Chicago. When the rain really falls it is easy to get caught up in the city and its reflections. Sometimes when the night sky is really clear the outlines of the buildings become stark underneath the wide open. Then the rigid design of this rain slicked little city expands and if my eyes spiral inward, they are plain caught to it and beholden for a little while. Each upright slab sits equidistant from its neighboring building, and if the neighbors are a part of the same apartment complex then they’ll have the same facades too. The angles are equal and the balconies jut out in sequence like the arms of swimmers popping up from under drizzly rain curtains. For a while I was catching single swimmers out and watching their simple motions but with that kind of approach I was missing the way the whole show comes together.

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This last night I went out the sky was not too clear, I think, but even on the smoggy evenings all that’s up comes back down in reflections. The rain was going in the same light drizzle it has had for the last few weeks and all along the ground there was the slick veneer of water on smooth surfaces sticking face up and looking. What they saw is marked right there in the rain pooling on top of them and for some time I’d just stare at my feet stepping over puddles and catch a single heavy and stout piece of skyline quivering porous underneath me. After a while treading the same paths there were certain moments where I found that reflections convened with the images gazing into the watery mirror, like reality doubling up. It was probably a good number of patterned walks ago when I noticed how this long stretch of wide tile cut down the middle by three green reflecting pools ran up to a reflection that always catches me now. It comes along through this little back road a friend taught me to take to that is a bunch of passages that lead to a circular plaza where old ladies like to form up and do square or pair dances. The passage that leaks out to a main road goes on for a bit and about midway through its distance the flat, tall, and wide face of a white building with thin veins of multi-colored neon lights reaches out at first only in reflective rainwater pools. It pulls at my feet and as I follow it the long white thing slinks into a normal shape while the base of its reflection joins to reality and points straight up at the sky. The building and its mirror image both sit blinking multi-colored, probably wondering why I eyed them up top to base to base to top. If I was untoward to the tile and the concrete, I apologize.

On the main road all the reflections are still there and sometimes even clearer in they way they form buildings up into massive straight lines, all standing at attention in perfect rows that shoot to the sky and into the Earth. Wherever I go, KFC, Burger King, a restaurant, it is bright and warm and the servers somewhat know me. In each place I mostly want silence or to talk with a friend in English, but I’ll try to order and do the necessary interactions in Chinese. People will likely watch me eat and at this point I don’t even notice peering eyes much anymore. The days reflect each other like this. An experience at one nearby place reconstructs down from its top to its base to the base of another nearby place to that other place’s top. It is why it is so hard to pull the days apart and I stick to memorizing the things that send a brief ripple through the puddles over the steady fall of rain.

There’s no absence of those kind of ripples. Once I was deeply curious about the old ladies dancing in the plaza an how long they want on for, so I joined in on the whole duration. It was really long, maybe an hour and a half of aerobics set to Chinese “Cha-Cha Slide”-esque music. By the middle I was into it and by the end I was exhausted. “Are you tired?” asked an old man in Mandarin. “Very tired.” I replied back.

Another time maybe two or so weeks back I met a college age girl who spoke great English – or rather she met me. I had sat down at Burger King and she came over to me with such a genuine zeal I couldn’t let it go un-reflected, even though I wasn’t looking for a conversation. She had a very warm and low-lit buzz about her, like the café lighting of the Burger King (US brand fast food joints have nicer design in China). Apparently she had a foreign teacher at her university but had never found one roaming in the wild, feasting on its very own imported native fruits. She was in some kind of business management end of the textile industry and was thinking of going abroad so she plied me with fairly deep questions about how living away from home feels. I kind of liked that because it was unlike the average conversation where I’d say for the tenth time where I was from, what my work was, how much I was paid, and how long I had been here. In the end she got my WeChat (a poplar messaging app) and we sped off to separate places. I haven’t heard from her since, but that’s normal and it does not make me sad anymore. I don’t think it is just because I expect it, but because now that I have seen the first be the last so many times, I don’t think the lack of a sequence colors the one-time-things any worse.

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Then I’d go back home. Sometimes some drivers mulling about by their parked cars will stop me and talk for a while. They have some pretty fun banter and seem eager for me to find a girlfriend. Just this last time I stopped for a coke at a nearby convenience store and chatted with a middle aged couple who run the place. They have a black and white cat patterned so it has a thick mustache. I had met it before when it was a lot smaller, but it remembered me when I took my hood off and started playing with my hand like it had before. I spent a bit spinning my headphones around for it to paw at while I pet it, so of course the owners and I talked about cats and the pets I had back home. Then I waded back in through the crowd of parents looking to pick up kids and exchanged quick hellos with the gate guards.

Past the gate and in the courtyard there’s this massive, red, abstract star. When it rains water pools around its circular base and the star shines once up and once down at every angle. Then there’s a brief walk where the school buildings rise up to each side and things feel a bit more cluttered before everything falls to wide and open as the basketball courts come in on the right and the student cafeteria on the left. The basketball court’s a solid green surface that extends all the way to far outer wall of the school. Not too far off, there’s an apartment complex of similarly styled beige buildings with jutting strips. They stretch down and leak into the reflecting green surfaces of the basketball courts until the top of the reflections feel in reach and the summit of their tangible bodies feel out of touch.

Finally there’s the last few strides home. The dormitories are way in the back of the campus and they sharply cut off the wide open plain made by the expansive basketball courts. They are flat but for iron frames outside of windows where kids hang sheets and clothes. Two of them squeeze right up close to each other, maybe only fifteen feet apart, and fence off the teachers’ apartments where I live. Each building is about four or five stories and they make a thin mountain pass that the plains filter into – a dark little channel covered up top by a tin roof. Looming right behind them are the apartment complexes that reach up at least twenty floors, speckled on each level with intermittent light. Straight forward the road is gravelly and crooked, creating for imperfect reflections. The dorms and apartments lean into the water on the ground but rugged and rickety terrain turn their blocky bodies splotchy. As I near the pass the apartment complexes lean in closer, breathing over the neck of the dorms. The peaks of mountain ranges mark the instant end of the reflective plains as the darkness of the pass swallows me up and the pitter patter of rain drops clapping cold tin blend seamlessly with the hushed murmurs of students and the distant drone of cars. When I step out of the pass, the dorms circle up behind me and the humble hill of my apartment complex sits just beneath the twenty-something story apartment building and the speckled lights that it thrusts upward into the starless night sky.

It took me a while to realize it but much of the campus is designed to keep people out of the rain, with tin roofed corridors nearly always connection to overhangs and tunnels. There are corridors of wavy tin roofs that cover lanes leading to the area around my apartment – which has stone ping-pong tables, a parking area, and a small building for holding trash. I can rarely smell the garbage but it draws in all sorts of noise and excitement. In the nights the wild cats of the campus sustain themselves off this garbage and argue over it fiercely and in the mornings Chinese people also argue at least around it but for reasons I can’t discern. When I hear the cats I laugh, but when I hear the heated Mandarin something in me gets a bit angry too and I am not sure why.

Crossing past the garbage there are parked scooters and cars lined up neatly before the wall of the campus. At first it startled me to see security cameras and sharp glass shards lining the top of the wall near our apartments. Now I don’t even catch their reflections. I suppose that’s the sign of a good security measure – present to outsiders and subtle to insiders. It is interesting though,, that once I get close enough to see those glass shards I can also almost glimpse into that high-rise community sitting right behind me and looking straight over.

When I step into the narrow space that leads up to the door I can hear the sound of rain hitting tin now overwhelming everything. For a bit I listen for the scraping sound of dirt falling off my shoes and onto my red, improper English adorned doormat. Opening the door, the fluorescent lights are already bounding out off of white surfaces to greet me. Inside the blank sea swallows up everything and I am almost sleepy underneath the fluorescent lighting, the warm air, and the vibrating hum of the heater producing it.

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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