Thursday, February 7

The Confessions of an Insom{a}niac XIX - reflections on the middle kingdom

chinese new year

The Chinese Lunar New Year has always fascinated me. I guess its because of the fact that it is a non Western tradition that is truly Asian. Moreover, I guess its also at the fact that I am not Chinese myself. Although I am Asian {which is a highly debatable term to describe myself, because some people of esteemed opinions apparently don't think a person of my origins is not Asian and some would prefer me to be called a Pacific Islander or Malay or whatever geo-politically correct term for what a Filipino is}, I do not celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year. I grew up with Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, All Souls Day and all those Western and Christian Festivals that in reality were not my own to begin with. I guess that's why I have this affinity with the Chinese Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, as the Chinese would call it, that even though it is not my own festival, it is in fact the closest thing that I could get to being Asian. Truth be told, Chinese New Years used to be as foreign to me as China itself. The only Chinese I knew was sweet and sour pork at the local take out in Manila. But that all changed when I came to China six years ago.

a kind of culture awe

I could still remember the minute I got off a China Southern Airline flight bound to Changchun. After leaving the Urbania that was Hong Kong, a bustling urban metropolis that challenged even New York and London in its cosmopolitanism, I had high hopes for the city that I was going to be working in. I was sure that it was not going to be as grand and as sophisticated as Hong Kong or even Manila, but I had high hopes still. I told myself that as long as there was a 40 story building then I would be fine. So I got out of the plane tired and a bit groggy from the flight. Then I saw Changchun with my own two eyes. Well, I saw the airport which was actually actually a runway with two old buildings and yes a control tower. It used to be an airstrip for the Chinese Air Force. Very spartan. A company representative, a Chinese woman who looked like a middle school student welcomed me to China and she then told me that we were going to eat dumplings {which I did not know what on earth they were back then} then shanghaied me to the van that was waiting for us. On the way to the dumpling restaurant I looked out the car window and started to feel a bit queasy about my decision in moving to China. The buildings were all similar - brick type, with sort of big numbers on the front that looked like factory buildings during the Industrial revolution {I later learned that the area where the former airport was situated was actually near the car factory}. I saw a donkey pulling a cart filled with hay and a Chinese family. I saw tuk tuks that looked like cars but they were tuk tuks. I saw bicycles, quite a number of them {I later learned that bicycle use had actually decreased in recent years prior to my arrival}. I got scared. All the things that my sister from California were telling me about China on the phone the week before I was about to leave were all coming back to me like a flash flood. Human Rights, Tibet, Tienanmen, Communism. Was this culture shock? That was the question that I asked myself back then while I was in that van going to the dumpling restaurant. Years later, I realized that it wasn't culture shock but a kind of culture awe. It was something different, the China that I inhabited. It was not Hong Kong, or Manila or Tokyo or New York or London or San Francisco. It simply was Changchun, a cold and and Kafkaesque city in the North East that is ironically called The City of Eternal Spring.

{Things have changed though. My city has a new airport. There are taller buildings. Residential complexes are popping up like mushrooms. Things are getting expensive. More and more Chinese people are earning more money. Crime has risen. English has become a designer language for middle class parents who want their children to learn and speak it like a"native" speaker. Changchun is very different from the Changchun that I saw for the first time when I stepped out of that plane 6 years ago.}

the fall of the sweet & sour pork & the rise of the mighty dumpling

The traditional Chinese food during the Spring Festival are dumplings. They are so because their roundness signify family reunion. In northern China on New Years Eve, families usually spend the whole day together making dumplings for the New Year Dinner Table. They make it literally from scratch, the flour for the dough, the meat, the vegetables are all prepared by hand. The dumpling I dare say, is the quintessential symbol of China for many reasons that are both shallow and deep. Suffice to say, my first dumpling experience was not as what I expected it to be. That day after the airport, they took me to the dumpling restaurant, the best one in town. I didn't like it. It was Chinese food yes, but it sure wasn't sweet and sour pork. I realized that Chinese food didn't appeal to me. It tasted, well, ordinary. A few months later when I sort of settled in, I kept asking my Chinese friends if they had sweet and sour pork with pineapple chunks and bell peppers. Of course they had none. I resorted to eating instant noodles for almost a month {they were cheap and they reminded me of home} until I got tired and resorted to eating the local food. I eventually got used to the saltiness and the oiliness of Chinese food. When that happened, my waist grew from size 30 to size 34. I wasn't happy about that part. It took me two years to actually appreciate the mighty dumpling and Chinese food. After that, I never ate sweet and sour pork whenever I go back to Manila. I guess it wasn't "Chinese" enough for me.

the laowai & the white man's hernia

Expatriates or any foreigner traveling around China are fondly called by the locals as laowai which literally translates to "foreign devil". I often ask my Chinese friends and even some expats who have been around since the Peking Man about the etymology of the word. Most of them told me that it actually originated from the Chinese's antipathy towards the Japanese during the Second World War which was then transfered to the Imperialist Americans during the Cold War which finally boiled down to any foreigner of any nationality that is not Chinese. Laowai, the foreign devil. If you ask me, I think all foreigners deserve to be called as such. Before you throw anything vile or rotten at my personal space, let me explain why. I am a laowai myself, and to be honest, I'm proud to be called as such. Other expats get annoyed and even furuious at the fact that they are called laowai. Most of them say its like being called a nigger, a kyke, a dago, a pollack etc. One expat, in his drunken stupor, even had the audacity to say that its a derogatory term for the white man. I'm just glad {and I'm sure that his companions were too} that one of the English speaking waiters spat on his drink before he served it to him. My two cents on this is that the ones who are annoyed at being called such are just annoyed at the fact that there is a term for them. Yeah you can call them chinks and dog eaters and such but never ever call us white folk laowai. This may sound a bit anti white bread, but its not really. I have white friends, really good friends. But my years spent living in a foreign country, around Chinese and foreigners led me to a realization that the white man has in fact this sense of ascendancy that is implicit in their language both spoken and unspoken. Most do not know it, the ones who do, live in it and celebrate it. It's nothing saying bad against the white folk. It's something that is factual, like non white folks {like many Chinese for example} have an implicit sense of humility when come in contact with the white folk for the first time. I did too. But then I woke up and realized that they actually are no different. Yeah, many would say that they rule the world, but I beg to differ. It's just like saying sweet and sour pork is Chinese food. White man's once superior balls has become an hernia with problems that auto gestates for generations of white man's {and by default, the rest of the world's} children to suffer. It took me a while to realize that they are no different, my white friends. They're just, well white, for the lack of a better word.

Going back to laowai, I think the word has a lot more meaning under the skin apparent. I think it signifies the love and hate relationship of China with world. The Noodle Kingdom, as I fondly call China is both a very complicated and simple society. Love and affection, spirituality and belief, Yes and No have different meanings and concepts and weltanschungs in The Noodle Kingdom. It is just not that simple yet it is also as simple as that. I know that I may seem confusing, but I guess you have to be able to spend time and be open to China's horizon's to say something as senseless as this. It may sound arrogant for many people, but I can say for a fact that I have had my share of China. It may not be the whole truth but then again, it is true. I maybe asserting myself a bit too much here, but then again I'm not white and I need the affirmation, so sue me.

The word laowai meant different things for me throughout the years. I have been called laowai so many times that I lost count. The one thing that I always found interesting was that after they call me laowai, they always mistook my nationality. I have been mistaken for a Japanese, Korean, Indian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Hong Konger {by heavens it is an indelible part of China!}, Xinjiangren {which is another by heavens!} French, American, Canadian, African {which is not even a country} but never a Filipino. Never a Filipino. I don't know if I would be hurt or worried or annoyed or what but it was saying something to me. Somehow, they were telling me that I am not what I am or what I was supposed to be. I am Filipino and I am Asian, but somehow, I am not Filipino and I am not Asian. I am them but I am also neither of them. I wouldn't call myself Western either. If I am neither all these things yet I feel that I am at the same time, then what am I exactly?

I found an appropriate term for this condition - removed. I have words to describe my the aggregate of my skin color, blood type, language that I was born to speak, gestures, dietary habits etc, but I am removed from that word. I guess that's the reason why I find a special affinity with the word laowai. It's a term that is removed from its original meaning. It's something on its own. It's both archaic and novel at the same time. I am a laowai and as long as I am in China, I will be one.

the lifer (?)

A lifer is a word that many expats call people who have been in the Noodle Kingdom for a number of years. A lifer for some, is a title of honor, but for others a bane. Some expats would call me a lifer, a pseudo local who knows the best prices and the best bargains and the best places, but I beg to differ. In all honesty, the average backpacker probably bargains better than I do and probably knows better places. There were/are others who had/have been here longer than I am, I would call some of them lifers, who have eagerly adapted and assimilated to the language and culture, who have made a family and a life for themselves in The Noodle Kingdom and have definitely become a local with the quote-unquote. China has become their home.

Still there are others, who have been here for a good number of years and but have never really been successful in the osmosis. I am hypothesizing here. Perhaps, they were not just that willing. Or perhaps they were already way too late for osmosis. Or perhaps they can never be weaned. Or perhaps it's just natural selection. I don't know. But what I do know is this. I belong to the latter. I do not consider myself as a lifer {for now, that is}. I can speak the language at a great extent, but I can never communicate deep thoughts, I can barely read, I don't have the patience to study Chinese writing, and I don't see myself here in ten years. Perhaps I am a glorified tourist, but I do not wish to think so. "Passing through" is just too harsh a word for me and it doesn't give justice to whatever it is I am doing here. I'd like to think that I am in transit, a person in pilgrimage. I will leave the Noodle Kingdom someday and I will carry with me, fond memories.

my love affair with the noodle kingdom

I am in love with China. I love it enough even to defend it from people who fault the country and the society for the sake of a 15 minute pub spotlight or just to ejaculate their gray matter in some random "foreign" party chit chat hoola. It is unfair especially if you realize that the person spouting those words has only been in China for barely 6 months and yet that person knows China like they have read the last 10 year profile on China like they have a yearly subscription on The Economist. It is unfair and I don't take it lightly. Yes I do believe in the Socratic method and the midwifery shit, but in some cases it doesn't work. If it doesn't work, I feed them a good dose of Chinese dumplings. China, like any other nation, it is constantly trying to define itself. It may boast of a 5,000 year history but it is still learning from its mistakes like many other younger nations and societies that are learning from theirs. I always get the impression that many people outside China and outside the field of economics and politics underestimate China's influence and reach and many Chinese citizens overestimate themselves as a society and as a people. The funny thing is, China is just like any other society - it has an economy and a government, it has a language, it constantly defines itself and it is unique. There's really nothing new here except the fact that it's China's 15 minutes. 15 minutes is 15 minutes. China, at the moment, is Paris Hilton and let China have it. In many ways, they deserve the 15 minutes. The West has been way overexposed and to be honest its bordering on stale to an overrated soap opera that has been running for 20 years. Being in love with a society doesn't mean that I don't find anything wrong with it. I find a good number of things wrong with it like I find a good number of things wrong with [ insert any, I mean ANY country here]. The point is, when you love something, you hope for its best and you do what you can do to help.

I guess, China kind of grew on me. Like what this German teacher once told me, "It grows on you, like a fungus." True enough, it does.

Tuesday, February 5

creatures of the night

I've always found Urbania to be beautiful in the nighttime and she is at her most beautiful in the late hours when the streets are almost empty of people and all that remains are the shadows of the day, lingering on street corners and dark alley ways, celebrating the darkness. The uncollected trash wakes and sort of moves with the play of neon lights and lampposts. Everything seems to be in a stasis, in a sombre and dreamlike wakefulness that puts you to sleep. Dark and resplendent. Urbania.

I couldn't sleep last night, so I decided to follow my shadow. I walked and walked the streets and thought about the day's accomplishments, which mostly was sitting in front of my computer the whole day trying to beat a looming deadline. Things have been really hard for me lately. Good hard, but still hard nonetheless. But I am hopeful because I could always hope.

When I went outside, Urbania greets me with a cold whiff of the coal smoke from the chimneys that keep the city warm in these areas. Urbania breathes and hums in a quiet cadence. I can feel it under my feet. I can hear it between my ears. She is between sleep and wakefulness.

The cold is inviting, so I walk. And walked. While walking, I tried to close my eyes. Trying to pretend that I was blind, I follow the blind footpath laid in the sidewalks, feeling it with my shoe-clad feet. Unsuccessful at my attempts to be blind, I open my eyes to find an old man on a tall bicycle looking at me while he was passing by. He had that look that kind of says that he wanted to know more about me. We matched gazes for a second or two. And in those two seconds, we acknowledged each other's presence, becoming friends, brothers, father and son, forming a bond that nobody could break. For two seconds we recognized and celebrated each other's tangent spaces. Two seconds. Then he was gone. He and I, like the remnants of the humanity that populated these streets in daylight are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers occupying the spaces where the darkness and the somber neon light meet. Creatures of the night.