Twenty-one years later

What did you want to be when you were a kid, my friend had asked someone else, and then she tells me all about the other person’s answer but I’m thinking about mine. She wasn’t asking about jobs: she was asking about fantasies and dreams. When you were the hero of your imagination, and we all were sometimes, were you Spaceman Spiff? A world-renowned explorer? A tomb raider? A secret heir to the throne, with hidden powers?

Even before I knew anything, I knew I didn’t want to be a princess. Prince, either, if that was a question. My Halloween costumes included dinosaur, Indiana Jones, and a box of French fries, mostly for convenience’s sake. Sometimes masks are magnifying glasses to the soul’s insides, but mine weren’t: even now, even at scifi and fantasy conventions where anything goes, I don’t wear much revealing clothing. By that, I mean the costumes that signify fantasies and the ideal projection we could almost become.

Since I was six, I didn’t want to be the magical special child who inherited the kingdom or the hero who saved the day. I wanted to be a tiger: carnivorous, wild, alone and free.

Twenty-one years later, I’ve learned the new story about job interviews, deadlines, work schedules, social functions and polite emails. I can talk intelligently about career goals and skillsets and tell a story about the future that involves health insurance and retirement plans.

Somewhere, though, the old dream-story survives, far away in some impossible wilderness, with nothing to analyze and no one to obey.


Ashcan Hymn to Hermes: For Ex-Expats

When my husband ordered kung pao chicken at Lotus Café
for the $8 lunch special,
the waiter brought him a glass of ice water.

I stared.
Like a newspaper puzzle for children,
spot the mistakes:
fork and spoon on the side;
dishes served on the sides of the table for individuals,
menus in grammatical English,
no exploding-heart chicken or black urine fish in sight;
English English everywhere,
and a glass of cold water for a perfect finish.

O Hermes, patron god of UPS drivers,
who flashes like the tarnished blur of subway cars,
O god of the speed camera,
to whom we sacrifice plastic-wrapped servings of airplane apple crumbles,
you remember what was said about ice water
when we flew on winged cars or sandals
to the land where squat toilets and the CCP rule
in equal squalor:

“Don’t you know that will make you sick?”
“Don’t drink cold water while you’re pregnant. It’s very bad for baby.”

From another foreigner:
“Got a cold? Drink hot fucking water!
Cancer? Drink hot fucking water!
Dead? Hot fucking water!”

Then we came back, O Divine Traveler and friend of travelers,
O Consummate Priceline Negotiator,
O Mischievous Couch Surfer and dancer on the HotWire,
where no one brings plastic gloves for eating pizza,
where fifty brands and species of peanut butter
extol their virtues in immaculate English at every A&P
and no bartender stocks baijiu.

How far we’ve wandered, O drifter-god,
O giver of journeys and the lessons of journeys.

We are here again where we started.
So when does the journey end, sweet Wanderlust?
When do we stop wandering
and come home?

Home is a thing with tethers

It is the last night of the cruise and my eyes keep flicking to the clock as I frantically fold, organize, toss, and stuff. This suitcase needs to get packed. These toiletries need to be neatly sorted and stored because everyone’s in the Crow’s Nest, the ship’s nightclub, on Deck 14, downing martinis and getting possessed by martinis and entering running-around-the-dance-floor-giggling mode, which only activates after Martini 4. This is our last night and we need to celebrate with urgent festivity. But I can’t leave until this monstrosity of a suitcase is safely stuffed and stowed. Come on come on come on. It’s 10:30 PM now and I’m throwing stacks of towels into the suitcase, there must be at least fourteen towels all in Easter egg pastels and they are all neatly folded and tucked away into a suitcase the size of a car trunk. I have twenty toothbrushes and fifty button-down shirts and seven pairs of pants that all have holes because they were well-weathered before I got to Shanghai, where plum rains and the sticky fingers of five-year-olds wore them to their last threads. Now the suitcase is the size of a Walmart aisle and it’s 11 o’clock and the waves are splashing outside the cabin window and I’m folding sheets, pillowcases, small elephants, tickets, endless tickets from trains in Rome and museums in Athens and Buddhist temples in Beijing double-decker hop-on hop-off tour buses from Sicily and sailboat rentals from the Bahamas. Then there are the souvenirs, Jin Mao Tower-sized skyscrapers of souvenirs: delicate lavender-scented soaps from Provence, lucky cats from dingy markets in Shanghai, evil eye pendants from Greek duty-free shops, tiny bottles of Fanta-colored kumquat liquor from Turkey. I’m cramming six weeks into the suitcase and for everything I pack, something new springs loose to the cabin floor. For everything I remember, something’s forgotten. Three different lotions that my mother bought after seeing my skin burn to a crisp. Two bottles of olive oil that my father bought because he disdains using lotion for his own deep-fried skin. Maps of every city, ancient cities, the ruins of cities, the reconstructed visualization of lost cities. Every memory cracks and sheds flakes on the floor. The suitcase is bulging with digital photos and full stomachs and bad hangovers and empty martini glasses, with six weeks at sea and thirteen months in China and fourteen months of saying to myself: I want to go home.

Midnight and the packing is finished. It’s time for the last drinks and the last dance! I zip the suitcase closed and race up nine flights of stairs to the top deck. When I get there, the lights are off, the screen is dark, and the dance floor’s varnish shines, with no one’s dancing shadow to obscure it. The counters are cleared and the party is finished. It’s over.


The next night, I’m talking with Connor at the laptop. It’s the last night, she says. Where should we celebrate? I nod, gripping the table as the ship lists in the waves. Let’s check Smart Shanghai, I tell her. That site always lists some fun event or other, or at least shows where to find the cheap drinks. Perry’s? No, that’s a little trashy for a farewell celebration. How about that place with the French food and the beautiful staff manager from Sweden. I think it’s near the Crow’s Nest, or maybe down by Deck 8. Maybe a stop at Yuyintang on Deck 6 because I’ll miss weird Chinese bands and their Mongolian throat-singing once we leave the ship. How about that? Then the three of the four-man traveling group of early-twenties boys (charitable people nicknamed them the Boy Band, I called them the Brat Pack) sidle up to the bar and smile expectantly at Connor. I roll my eyes but understand: Young men like pretty young women. Le sigh. Nevermind, I tell her, go talk to them. I’ll find somewhere fun for us to celebrate. I always do.


It’s been a little over a week since I came home to the United States after a year and two months abroad. In the daytime I reunite with beloved people and eat Taco Bell and Boston Market and slowly learn what home has become while I was gone. People hold doors open, toilets have seats, restaurants have English menus. It’s enough to bring a homesick expat to tears, or at least a little eye-mist.

So I’m not too worried that in idle moments on the internet, I look up cruise ship itineraries and other ESL teach-abroad positions. Wanderlust is a force of habit. It’ll probably fade after a few weeks.

In my dreams, it’s always the last night of my travels, and we never quite finish saying good-bye.

Queers, fears, and Muay Thai

When a friend asks what the guy I’m seeing is like, my other friend answers before I can: “He has dreamy eyes.”

His eyes. In a letter that’s currently in transit to my friend’s mailbox in the United States, I tried to describe them and I wrote that they were like underwater lights in a hotel pool after dark: as serenely clear, as luminous.

So, when the daymares come, I see his eyes—just slits through a wince of pain, shutting tight when the punches land. Slivers of luminous blue-green as blood spatters his face. They’re hurting him, taunting him, doing the outlines of terrible things that I refuse to imagine in colorized detail. I never know who they are, but only their actions matter: their malice in its hideously pure form destroys him, and I am powerless to help.

This again. The anxieties and the flashes of horrific imagery: they are the usual sign that the crush is going well.

My crushes go through certain recognizable stages, and each stage has its own telltale signs. When I’m beginning to like someone, we’ll inevitably end up in restaurants because the new stages of attraction make your senses pop.  Everything tastes better when you’re with someone you’re starting to like: the steak is juicier, the crème brulee richer, even the tap water is sublime. We must take advantage! There’s no time to explain, find some duck confit and an excellent wine pairing!

Then, if it survives long enough, emotions get more serious. I start to recognize the genuine compatibilities I might share with another person, and when I want to explain to others what my paramour is like, I can hear the admiration in my own voice as I rattle off the precise details that endear him to me. And then he gave me the last of the cheesy bread. And then he gave the little toy racecar to the six-year-old girl playing next to us. And then he sang a song about Coyote stealing fire from the gods.

In other words, I start to recognize him on a deeper level and care about him—and that’s when the daymares start. I will be riding the metro home from work, staring at a Chinese grandmother absentmindedly picking her nose, when I suddenly know that he is being followed by large men who scream faggot as his pace quickens. Or someone recognizes him from when we left the gay bar the other night, and he doesn’t know he’s being followed, and—glass bottles, tire irons, hammers— there are so many objects in the world that could hurt him, and so many people who say they want to. At least, in anonymous Youtube comments.

The rational part of my brain recognizes the absurdity of this thinking. Gaybashed? In Shanghai? From what I’ve seen, you’d have to hand someone a stick and then run into it repeatedly while instructing them to yell homophobic slurs (“In English, this means ‘Unity between our two countries’”). I’ve gotten more trouble walking around NYC during the damned Pride Parade than I ever have in eleven months of living in China.

Maybe the paranoia comes from watching the wrong movies. In mainstream movies, nothing good ever happens to the gay characters—unless it’s a comedy, at which point, nothing happens at all. But they sure do talk funny.

Or maybe, the internalized homophobia from years of mainstream media consumption and Catholic school has gone underground and learned a few sneaky tricks. Years have passed since my angsty teenage era of suicidal thoughts. I know all the correct discourses about queer empowerment, the gift of difference, and the freedom of living life beyond heteronormativity. I’ve done my time campaigning for gay rights, volunteering at the Pride Center, and dragging friends and family out to educational conferences and the like. Plus I send in my dues once a year to the Destroy the Fabric of American Society Fund, which gives me a 50% discount at home décor stores and florists. So instead of passively wishing for my life to end, or subconsciously seeking out dangerous sexual situations hoping that someone else will help it along, I’ve found a better way to hate my queerness: to visualize all of its most beautiful gifts being violently destroyed. Because the wider world still knows that people like us are depraved abominations in need of correction or annihilation, and the back of my brain keeps waiting for it to find us.

 I had my first crush on a boy when I was five. I got with my first boyfriend when I was 14. I’ve been with Jeff in a polyamorous (bonus queer points) arrangement for eight years. I’ve been with wonderful women too but at this point I know that my greatest passions and desires are for men; I know there is so much to love inside them, and so many who deserve it. Now, I’m turning 27 in a month and after all this time, I still feel uncomfortable accepting happiness when it looks queer.

And yet, the events of the world outside my head aren’t helping. In a few months, the Winter Olympics will be hosted by a country that has seen the torture and humiliation of gay teens broadcast on the internet and the passage of an anti-‘gay propaganda’ law that criminalizes positive treatment of homosexuality within the earshot of children. In NYC, home of Stonewall, Greenwich Village, Broadway, rumor has it that the number of anti-gay hate crimes in 2013 is predicted to reach double that of 2012. Every headline I read about gaybashing isn’t about an anonymous gay stranger— in my mind, it’s about my husband or the other men I’ve been with. We share the same nature as the victims, and if they are not safe, we are not safe. The men I love—because I love them—are not safe.

My brain: it worries, it frets, it nervously tears the labels off of beer bottles.

The most destructive response to suffering is learned helplessness. So say psychologists after administering electric shocks to rodents. So, like a rat pressing a button to stop an electric current, I am taking what measures I can to control the absurd panic: I go to Muay Thai class and bash the hell out of some pads. The instructor is a demon-warrior made purely of red shorts, crazy eyes, and skin-covered bones, and though he doesn’t speak much English, his glare of disapproval will get me wailing on the pads until my joints go numb. Week by week, the classes progressively decrease in agony as my conditioning improves.

I’m no fighting dynamo—my right middle kick is pretty decent and my elbow strikes aren’t shabby, and otherwise I try drowning my opponent in my sweat—but it’s amazing how differently men react when they learn that you’re studying Muay Thai. It is not a pretty martial art; there is no standing on the Great Wall, hypnotizing cobras through sheer badassery. However, its speed and aggression require you to focus all of your body’s power, which can turn out to be considerably more than you’d thought once you learn proper technique. It is a martial art fit for people who expect to encounter brutality.

A proper kick to the pads sounds like a thunderclap. I work up a lightning storm as my sweat pours onto the mats and I try to punish my body into being what I’ll need: stronger, faster, more powerful. I need to be bigger because in the daymares, they are always bigger. I need to be able to protect him and I need to be unafraid.

Then, when I leave the gym and another flash of gaybashing violence flares in my mind, the fear returns. Sometimes, I can land a solid hit. I’m also 5’4”, a buck twenty-five, the smallest and least experienced guy in a room full of muscular men who know how to make a punch count. Of course, that’s not the heart of the problem anyway. Whether I’m with him or not, he is unprotectable against everything that could hurt him. If only I could be big enough to suffuse the world in a fine mist, and if trouble came, I could suddenly materialize where he needed me—just my head, right there, to take a hit on the chin so he wouldn’t have to. The sight of some random Chinese/white guy popping out of the air would probably distract them, so he’d have long enough to destroy them (and I know he could, because I don’t fall for weaklings). This body, contained in space—I wish it could be enough—hell, I’d do with a few more inches of height, or a bit more thickness around the torso and arms, so if I needed to take bullets for him, I’d have a few more inches of meat to catch them.

After all these years, and all of the beauty that queerness has allowed me to experience, some part of me sees what terrible strangers have in store for us and knows they will come find us.

I don’t know how to stop being afraid.

I don’t know how to stop believing that the possibility of violence is my fault.

And worst of all—most poisonous of all—I can hear a sibilant voice deep down hissing: Well, naturally—isn’t that what faggots deserve?

Being queer means a lifetime of fighting demons, within and without. Someday, maybe I will be able to look at him and think: this is pure and exquisite, this is right, there is nothing to be ashamed of, and believe it. To dispel the daymares, though, I would have to trust the world not to hurt the men I care for, and I’m not sure I can take that leap of faith. Cheesy bread, toy race cars, songs about Coyote… I have too much to lose.

“Mortal, guilty, but to me the entirely beautiful.”

Fourth of July, and we gather around the improv comedy troupe to hear a group of non-American expats explain the American Revolution. One of them is from Mexico, one’s Chinese, one’s Italian. The others, I don’t catch because I’m esophagus-deep in a bottle of wine again. The bottle is where all of my productivity seems to evaporate these days, and it’s a difficult choice: write alone, in the apartment, with Shanghai gathered outside my window like the monster under the bed just waiting for the lights to go out—

(I can’t sleep nights any more. The internet remains my faithful companion until 2, 3, 4 AM in the morning for no good reason, except I need to read another article, research another idle thought, browse another profile because it’s more natural to read the copywriting on dating websites than in catalogs. I read “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” again and think: James Joyce called this the best short story ever written, and gods willing, I will never understand it with more rawness than I do now.)

–or drink with friends, because friends can laugh and joke and render the monster invisible for awhile. The trick is to get drunk before I notice Shanghai again, so that I can fall blissfully asleep still chuckling at our antics and inside jokes, before the high drops and I slam into the earth again, where grandmothers hock like wannabe-badass teenagers and girlfriends get beaten by their boyfriends while the police say the familiar phrase: this is just the way China is.

I tell friends that I’ve instituted sober days into my schedule, because I need the restriction now to keep the fridge closed and the wine bottles corked. It isn’t a great sign but so far, worse signs seem to have been prevented.

The familiar names come up during the improv: Thomas Jefferson, the shot heard round the world, Paul Revere, the right to bear arms, democracy, liberty, and freedom of speech. I remember this world, before street food and dirty tap water that not even boiling will render completely safe (heavy metals remain in the water, you see), when I could eavesdrop on public transportation and ask customer service people for help without drawings, hand gestures, and translation apps. Between bursts of applause I can hear the familiar background noise rising to my ears, the familiar white noise in the backdrop of my life: two and a half months left before this is all a fever dream, and only your husband knows it was real.

I look at my Shanghai friends and think: I would battle this abyss for as long as it took, if it meant I didn’t have to abandon you here.

(The loneliness of an expat is unlike any other. The worst time of the day for me is coming home from work and wondering what to eat for dinner, knowing that none of it tastes like home and there’s no one to share it with.)

I think of my friends, family, and loves back in NJ / NY / the USA, and think: there is no number of people I wouldn’t betray to come back home to you.

The machinery of time grinds against itself: the urge to sprint forward, wind the clock until I am at Newark Airport touching American soil again, and the need to drag my heels into the dirt. Pleas into the starless smog overhead: let me go home, let this finish. And others: another moment of this, another drunken night with people as restless and lonely (secretly?) as I am. Please. Please don’t take this away from me. (A prayer to myself, the part of me that makes the hard choices. Someone has to.)

Expat life, expat leaving. My cellphone contact list is a graveyard of the dearly departed, people who needed to go home because this place had nothing else for them and like all of us, it was extinguishing them. I miss them. I envy them. I think of my number someday soon becoming a ghost in someone else’s phone, and I’m paralyzed. Surely this dream can’t be over yet.

Seasons end, and dreamers awaken. Memories dissolve while some linger. I have lived in this place, I have loved in this place. Some lonely nights when the darkness closes in, I hold  the dual loves to my chest and the ability to make sense of the warring impulses is gone. I can only think: please. Please.


“If you ever go to one of the lindy hop meets in the States,” he says, “you’ll never be the same.”

The Chinese woman next to him, who is not monstrously tall, nods with dramatic bug-eyes. “It will CHANGE YOUR LIFE.”

My fellow expat nods. “Here, you’ll see four or five people who are really passionate about dancing. At the meets, you’ll meet… hundreds. The first time I went and saw all these people who truly love dancing, I thought: this is where I’ve wanted to be my whole life.”

It’s a nice change of pace, this evening’s social outing. In a city of 23 million people, including over 150,000 expats (the officially recorded ones, anyway), most of us foreign teachers end up hanging out with the same 20-30 people at work and at night. What’s more, the go-to socializing experience is also usually the same thing: finding cheap drinks and drinking them until we all feel stupid and amused.

Not to say that there’s something wrong with plugging yourself with liquor until everything is funny, but it’s not the most fulfilling activity. It’s pizza for the soul, delicious and comforting enough to eat night after night. Every now and then, though– don’t you just want to head to the local Indian place for some gulab jamun?

So I went out to the little bar four metro stops away to learn how to swing dance. It’s a lovely atmosphere, with weathered wooden floors and music that would work in a time-period-accurate filming of The Great Gatsby. I’m learning the Charleston, which is great fun, though oddly sweat-inducing, but my favorite part is watching the veterans dance. They twirl their partners all over the floor with gleeful abandon (still on the beat), grinning through the entire song.

This is what I miss: watching passionate people doing what they love. Back home it was easy to find things I love because my friends tend to love the same things. It was easy to find the places, things, and people that gave me fuel, made me love them. Out here, there are good people and places with fun decor, but the available crowd of friends and acquaintances is small, and the city encourages routines. The language barrier makes life difficult enough that once expats have successfully carved a social niche for themselves, they fall into it without much variation. Finding a new venue or a fun event is an adventure in Google translate and juggling Chinese search engines (more likely to find items of local interest) and VPN-assisted searches (more likely to be in English).

The sprawling scale of the city, the unimaginably thick hordes pouring out of the subway, the daily frustration of finding something to eat when your appetite for Chinese food has long since dissipated, it can give you amnesia. Me, for instance: I write in this blog once a month, when I came here thinking I’d be able to crank out another novel. The expat bars are littered with musicians who haven’t played in months and keep meaning to pick up an instrument at a local shop, one of these days.

This isn’t to say that the city is a black hole sucking the vital creative essence out of each foreigner it devours. Out here, passions aren’t just maintained; they need to be protected and actively fed, aggressively promoted. Otherwise there’s an existence of work and drinking in laundry-cycle repetition.

Living with passion– it doesn’t just happen as naturally as I’d hoped.

Of thee I sing

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day— at night the party of young fellows,
     robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

“It’s in my book,” he said. “The secret.”

“What secret?” I asked.

He smiled knowingly. “Everything. The secret to life, man. The truth.” He flopped back in his chair to eye the Chinese staff, who were watching yet another war movie on the screen. “These dumb fucks, they don’t understand that we’re talking about life.” No—he said that later, after the beer and rice wine had thoroughly reduced his great illuminating secret to incoherent drivel.

At the time, we went on talking about fiction and nonfiction, writing and traveling. Everyone who comes to China is looking for something or running away from something. Other truisms are also true. Who isn’t seeking something, especially in the 24 – 28 age bracket? Who isn’t tired of being the same person for two decades and failing to achieve the same old goals? But it takes a  uniquer kind of person to hop on a 10+ hour flight and flee to a communist country that doesn’t trust you—the kind of person who writes books and thinks he has the secret to everything.

“I don’t write fiction any more,” I said. The kid who grew up dreaming of his future novels now ghost-writes doctoral-level papers on international relations and comparative politics, and pretends to care about politics in Bahrain because that’s where his client is from. A kind of fiction. But if I had to be honest, I read the kinds of essays now that would have torn my heart open years ago, and instead of feeling moved or graced, I get annoyed. I want to snatch the writer’s pen away and say: stop pretending. Meaning isn’t a piece of furniture that sits on the coffee table as a conversation piece, and transcendental beauty doesn’t coexist with electricity bills, getting dumped by text message, cereal boxes, and check engine lights. Life isn’t like that.

In real-life, no one gives a damn about your self-doubts and your private failures. So instead of the autobiography dump, I say: “I just don’t have patience for things that aren’t real any more.”

The great thing about talking to people in real-life is that under the fast pace of conversation, you might accidentally say something true.

Being an expat is a juggling of fictions, though. Things that expats have in common: the book they’re writing with inspiration from their current country; Skype; disgust of squat toilets; making fun of each other’s regional slang (the Brits don’t get ‘We can swing it,’ the Americans don’t get ‘I like the cut of his gib’); and alcohol.

Gosh, I like beer. Here it costs less than a US dollar (important to distinguish from the Canadian or Hong Kong dollar) for a 610 ml bottle and it opens all doors to social contact and relief from the day’s struggles. Those struggles are constant and many– not being able to read makes standing in one place on the street visually tiring: writing, writing everywhere, and not a meaning to glean.

Illiteracy is a hobby that makes everyday activities exhausting. There’s a man at your door with a clipboard? While standing in your pajamas and resisting the pounding throb of a hangover, your hair arranged like a crime scene, try an elaborate pantomime to discover his purpose and whether it seems legit. Trying to find your way to a new address? Google Maps doesn’t recognize all the street names, or will direct you to roads that sound similar, or will pick the right road at the opposite end of the city. You could catch a taxi and then grunt eloquently as he asks which turn to take and which exit is yours. You could look at a bus station schedule and instantly lose all hope of taking the bus without experienced guidance. So when your shift of getting punched in the crotch by five-year-olds comes to an end, the last thing you want is to once again fail at basic communication.

The bars are the most expat-friendly establishments in the city. The menus are in English, hawkers try to lure you in with specials using English, and most of the interiors look just like American dive bars (graffiti, YYYYY Wuz Here carvings in the wooden tables,) or British-styled pubs. We can pretend we’re at home and when we feel like screaming at this city, everyone will understand the words.

That fiction doesn’t last long—six months, I’m told, before culture shock hits in the bone. If you’re going to leave, you leave then.

Others stay for years or say they want to and talk about their reasons at parties. One says that she just feels at home in China, she can’t explain it. One says that at least he has a reason to feel out of place in China. It’s worst to feel out of place back home, where he doesn’t have a reason to explain it.

Meanwhile, the holder of the secret of the universe has moved to his remote town in the country, where he’ll be one of two foreigners in the village. Middle-aged, full of wisdom just waiting to come out at the right time, when his book is done. When asked about his family he mentions two brothers but he doesn’t say if they miss him.

One thing is for sure: the man drinks, leaving empty bottles of rice wine in his wake like the splintered lumber left behind by a hurricane. He never talks about home. We do, when we eat and drink, slightly less, at a teppenyaki place to celebrate a co-worker’s final week in Shanghai. She and the love interest are going home to Canada to stay.

Someone gets a silly idea, or just saw Casablanca and wants to share the love. They start singing “O Canada.” Some of the Brits counter with “God Save the Queen.” We Americans join last with “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s a clusterfuck of mixed verses and tunes, but people are smiling and it’s all so gloriously English-language. Really they’re the same song: songs about homes we left behind, places that take shape in our heads as the kinds of fictions we can finally understand enough to love. We parade out of the restaurant to our next destination, where more beer bottles will be drained, and the middle-aged expats in the next room eye us over their eyeglasses as we go out singing.