ImageWhat do you do when you’re up against the option to laugh or cry, drop or pursue not only the craziest side of you, but something that perhaps was not only your respite, but that you also questioned as such, perhaps both your best and worst side, essentially making you who you are?

I subletted my place to a friend of a friend for a month, after which a cleaning lady came who is regularly employed by my friend and realtor. Upon instructions to clean up the apartment (打扫房间), she obliterated all tangible aspects of my personality. I don’t know how some pictures of my mom’s wire-haired dachshund as a puppy survived my personal watershed, but she confessed that, in a cruel twist of fate so typically Mainland, there were a few things she deemed of value and thus did not toss: a roll of masking tape, the only unfilled binder and blank notebook, a pencil case and two bound albums of pirated CD’s, some chops, and some half used bottles of one-of-a-kind care products, like Nivea.

She was rigorous in her definition of not throwing away anything of value. Because I’ve had to think about this more times than I could have ever cared to, I realized that except for the chops, things like a stapler and what’s left behind would be of use and could belong to anyone. Public value perhaps, but no real personal value, and what can maybe only be termed a cultural misunderstanding of such magnitude, forcing my life onto center stage in an international comedy act I would never hope on the worst enemy, whose shadow I had been pursuing just hours before. 

Each new detail feels like an added dose of salt to the wound. At least the air of suspicion and finger pointing has been cleared in what I deemed as my personal 24 hour refabrication of the Cultural Revolution or any other tumultuous period in the history of any nation, but I’ve been feeling license to aggrandize all week apparently. Trust was the only thing my friends were cleared of in a useless police investigation of naming potential suspects – a lurking enemy among everyone I ever had contact with who could conceivably be considered a friend or acquaintance and who was now probably trying to do their best to help me; mostly people I usually distance from wary of our work/friend relationship, committing yet another social faux-pas as the uncouth foreigner and being cordially instructed on the “Chinese” way, or a vengeful romance from the scandalous love life I can’t even lie about having dabbled in. My trust in them was held for naiveté, but my claims rang hollow in asserting their innocence without further proof.

Maybe it was a bit narcissistic of me to assume that my identity was desirable enough to steal instead of being trashed unglamorously. If this is a logical explanation, it feels like more than I can bear. I can make absolutely no sense of it and am even less inclined to reconstruct. My heart and interest are gone, but maybe that’s a disturbing aspect I don’t entirely see through. I now have the pleasure of coming to terms with something even I haven’t rendered and retelling this absurdity to more people than I care to bore, first to thank everyone for their generous help, apologize for their inconvenience, and then launching into a waste of time whenever I need a certain document or item. The responsibility of their lingering “oh” in reply crash landing on my shoulders, just like everything else in China for so many of us unaccustomed to having to state explicitly “dust” instead of “dump” unless you really want your house cleaned. I know more than to wallow, but this is the most pointless waste I’ve ever experienced.

It’s surreal. I rummaged through flea ridden trash less than twenty four hours after visiting the police sty and with all of Beijing if not China geared into action and seemingly on the alert due to the vigilance of my alarm. In five years or less, I’ve learned to manipulate a failing system where service only exists if you know how to get it by calling someone high enough and in pulling all emergency cords I got to the vice director level, ok for my age but with definite room for improvement, perhaps my normal forbearance down after the serenity of Switzerland. But it was only at the sniff of international involvement and actual liability that an all-out search for what happened and my stuff actually began, ending pathetically in hapless anger.

Conversation was as formal as one would expect riding in the back of the police car to the dump. The superior showed off his English fluency to a cadet by asking me my name in English while demanding his pupil guess what he was saying, with me interrogating my seatmate, a poor “floater”, who had moved from Henan with his wife to Beijing and had cycled my material wealth to the trash, about his downtrodden existence. For whatever reason, two scrolls by a well-known Beijing University professor were of no retail value according to him among the uncultured peasants of today’s China and reappeared along with two or three paper cuts and two prints. In the only triumph, my negatives resurfaced dusty but mostly intact, and for my wade through the flea bin, I picked up some forlorn articles of my clothing; some embarrassingly purchased at sums probably several times the amount of the entire mound.

The whole thing is senseless. It’s ludicrous and I’m jolted by the feeling like I’ve moved from the zoo to an international circus. It’s insulting too, from me grasping at a bag of negatives taken with an expensive camera encased in specially purchased plastic negative holders and labeled tediously and reflecting upon this in front of people whose family income is perhaps based on filtering my trash to wreaking havoc among a semi orderly pile of clothes under the vulgar mouth of the “educated” police, who kept shouting insults at someone perceivably in charge of the heap complaining bitterly about my reckless scavenge and for him to shut up, to the bugs I’m convinced I again unthinkingly tracked into my apartment, because most people would not filthy anything let alone their living quarters with trash of any kind from a dumpster.

In my report to the police after realizing it was gone but not knowing the motive, I essentially listed as lost five years in time. I can’t price the value of it objectively because it’s among the options I would have turned to, bracing myself from disappointment. It’s taken me two days to realize that things like jewelry, a voice recorder, discman, vacuum cleaner, iron, and so forth are also gone. I walk in and out of stores empty handed because what I lost cannot be replaced and the rest seems superfluous. I would hope that as humans what we care most about is not what comes easy or is readily available. My routine defense was to never have expectations, but what’s life guarded against disappointment instead of building on hope? I question what it’s worth when alive and healthy are among the qualities I refer to reconcile with society and start my day off on the right foot. I spent years trying to rebuild a structure. I can’t look back and have no interest to start anew.

What’s life when you can’t even be attached to you as a person? In my mind, I repeated that I don’t care over and over but my attitude and actions towards innocent Mainland bystanders in the following week were appalling, particularly middle aged sales ladies who I must have associated with the cleaner given that they bear a physical resemblance and most likely a similar endearing provincial mentality. In questioning my values, I also questioned theirs and figured I’d be asking for it if I accepted help in any way from a society that compliments your 17 rmb purchase of toilet paper after thoughtlessly tossing letters from your mother and friends organized painstakingly in those plastic display books because they deemed them of “no value”. More likely than not, I’d gone through the options and put too much thought into my selection of toilet paper as well.

But if I really don’t care, then I have to accept, both my weaknesses and theirs. I have to accept because leaving is not an option for me now and because spending my time in a society being angry would only further increase the waste and disappointment, especially if I don’t care. I was embittered after leaving the first time ashamed to have argued with a street side vendor over one Mao (¥.01) in bargaining for fruit. Then I spent another two years navigating New York before leaving for China a second time. I was looking forward to the structure I thought I could finally come back to, even if it was material.

I always cherished the day I’d stop stepping on my own feet because gone with my things is the insatiable desire to make my own mistakes, fight my own battles, and learn my own lessons. I valued time over friendship as our most treasured asset, but with such a distinct breach, I realize that my pleasure was in sharing and while my things do not assume significance alone nor does our time. Little can be construed from our material possessions without anyone to reciprocate our experiences.

Strangely, aside from understanding friendship better, I also feel closer to the Mainland. I know now I would give anything for a friend having always admired people like a Yunnan colleague who saved nearly all of her salary for a year to give to a relative as a wedding present, and chastised myself when unintended personal purchases surfaced plus or minus the present I was purportedly shopping for. My respect and admiration for artistic people who create with their heart also echoed my fear and dismay that I probably have and would resort to something inanimate as well to take refuge from or replace another absence.

A new sentiment arises with each realization that something else is gone. If it’s practical or necessary like contact lenses, then it’s plain stupid. But while I was attuned to changing priorities, a part of my heart and my youth were in the impractical and their stark and sudden absence has assumed symbolic meaning instead. What does it take in the material world to make us spiritually whole or is the essence of mainstream society nurtured by a consumer economy and the meager fare of an industry? So much in our lives must to a certain extent mean more than we readily acknowledge or meets our eyes.

In recalling an origami book from high school and the flock of mini cranes I had been folding a friend, hoping that even if I didn’t reach 1000 they would still add the surprise touch of an unexpected pleasure I associated with a true gift, I realized I never trusted people here, partly knowing that few were so crazy as to be able to appreciate such an effort and, admittedly, partly because I didn’t trust myself. I was still only learning about my wants, likes, and dislikes and never trusted myself to say no, perhaps both a fear and an instigator in leading me to undertake everything that thinking people do not ordinarily do. Oddly enough, despite my age I was largely satisfied with my material things precisely because of my experiences in and exposure to so much, from the backwaters of developing third-world countries like China and Vietnam, to well-heeled New York and Europe, to the international diplomatic elite. Nonetheless, I’m not so materialistic as to deem a life without heartfelt trust in a person as having more value than one beset by physical ownership.

Inspired by a friend, I spent so much time in Switzerland thinking about something like if a book where ever to manifest. I wanted it to be personal but able to be appreciated as unique, not indistinguishable, and had thought of maybe structuring it based on how I learned the language like putting together a vocabulary, because my foremost goal in China has been to learn the language and vocabulary books are largely as much of a journal as I have. For better or worse, I brought the flash cards I have made myself sometimes daily over the years with me to New York. When Chinese praise my handwriting which I worked to improve on from books, it jolts to the forefront the stupidity and just how much I care. I was inordinately proud of things no fool would even venture, and maybe because of that as well.

Literally, I can tell a story with each word, beginning upon first landing in China with “明白(ming bai)”, even if seven years later I have never in my life felt less mingbai. I kept repeating “ming bai” to the grocery store clerk because I had no idea what it meant and from her half hour barrage, it was the only two syllables I could follow. Glancing over the Greifensee in Switzerland, it occurred to me that the scenery with rolling hills, church spire, sunset and other pastoral elements reminded me of the cover of a puzzle box where you could expect the placement of each piece as you put the picture together, while part of the attraction and challenge of China was not only not knowing where the pieces would fall, but often even having to create my own in an environment where I had no idea what the scenery looked like. I realize it all sounds inane and am at a loss to find any sort of meaning in something so senseless. If it’s a turning point, then to what? Because I don’t have the energy or interest to invest the time into a new direction in China.

As doubtful as it seems, it would be nice if after this I could be more tolerant of error, both my own and others. It almost makes life here seem less exhausting, which, in a large leap of faith, has maybe brought back a little of the interest I had in Beijing when I first arrived, albeit depending on the impetus to venture forth, knowing that what lurks outside is as much an invitation as a trap into more unnecessary snarl, traffic, or otherwise. While Beijing offered opportunity and convenience, today’s urban China is essentially constructed with very little care or foresight from the Made in China tag synonymous for Cheap to the rapidly expanding ring road system exacerbating not alleviating the jam and quasi-development of a modern nation and eventually the next superpower – all the “scientific and technologies” I had so successfully filtered out better than any foreigner I know from my work for a Swiss university on a project in Yunnan to associating very little with China’s age-equivalent generation X to the hand-painted scrolls and exquisite paper cuts, which, and perhaps therefore, couldn’t even be sold as trash.

I question the “modern” in a New China and where it’s all going, from the candy-coated and dutifully quoted astronomic GDP growth aka “progress” in the name of official promotion at the expense of a people and a nation, to the even more rapidly deteriorating environment, everything is “没办法” and excused as helplessly “Chinese”. Today’s urban China is unfettered yet draining, but in my apartment as a sanctuary, I had long ago sifted through my little biases against culture and society, mulling over what to do as a next step, nicely leaving the rest and what I perceived as trash outside my doorstep. Quite appropriately according to that trash, I was actually the one living in it.


Apparently, I bargained my own fate asserting the traditions of a country rushing to erase its own past. Similar to my most recent trash scavenge, I often likened my dig through China to a forage amidst chaos and confusion for a simple pleasure and my prospects were often as intensely personal as they were overtly public. Their liquidation caught me so altogether off guard at my own game and on turf I evidently perceived as my own, yielding perhaps the only part of me yet to be fully China-proofed beyond disappointment. Softened by only two months abroad in a tame environment like New York, I’m confused in a way once so familiar that has hopefully dispelled the last breath of air simply termed American that perhaps even spawned my immediate reaction.

China’s as good a lesson in the psychology of life as any. Surely, a roundtrip air ticket could have paid for many visits to a shrink, but why bother with a costly hour when China positions you in a residual seat among 1.3 billion in whose differences you can aptly resonate your own problems at a fraction of the expense and learn a new language to boot. You are each other’s respite, frustration, and even revelation. I speak Chinese with added calm and control aware of my limits, but with the ability to communicate, realizing that even language is mind over matter given an added measure of time. I’ve learned to decipher with piercing clarity the word “事” generally referring to an affair, from an intensely personal matter like a divorce to a casual undertaking, and I couldn’t have a stronger grasp over the Chinese use and meaning of “没事”, i.e. “it’s nothing”, most applicable at times when your heart is torn apart. Maybe it’s just another part of the detachment, but welcome to New China where detachment is survival.

I always wondered if ever the day would come when I would no longer wretch at the incessant calls and comments directed towards non-Asians which other foreigners brushed aside lightly or with humor while I lashed out or retreated to personal confines sullen and emotionally bruised. I’ve been tired of the frustration for a while, but now if I go outside at least I can see again albeit through jaded eyes, recognizing nostalgically social contrasts that once appeared promising and the opportunity that attracted me to Beijing before I too was disjointed by the urban sprawl. I observe street side hair dressers warmed by the refracted glow of light from the chance ray of sun to have penetrated the accumulated layers of pollution, seeing history as a harbinger and that what foretold events like 1949, 1911, and all the other dynasties from the Qing marking the end of a feudal China to its quasi birth in the Qin under a despotic First Emperor. It’s amazing how many Chinese people name the system (体制), more aptly termed the government in English, as a problem in analyzing social concerns and constraints, recognizing the weight of change yet knowing it’s the next order. 

What’s objective about an education teaching students to pay lip service to a nation? Rote memorization in a moneyed society based on options and choice, i.e. capitalism and opportunity, has essentially lost meaning, and my guess is that the Middle Kingdom may reform if and only when the education system changes, a near impossibility under official government sophistry from coastal provinces to developing (depleting?), liberating (occupying?), modernizing (colonizing?) western regions depending on whose time, terms, and watch you’re on. Deception and deceit harbor a marked tension feeding off of the growing economy causing this society to gradually get the best of itself. Communist ideology based on a Marx, Lenin, and Mao manifesto was corrupted not created under the guise of 三个代表 or the Three Represents, specious reason or excuse but hardly compelling theory for wealthy private enterprise to party in China and the West. 

With too many CD’s, I was incapable of refuting “cultural differences” as “reason”, while today I can drown out the noise of old favorites and answer more confidently in Chinese and English as an outsider knowing that perspective is all that distance and exposure can afford, that actions taken without a clear, coherent basis and understanding are mere deceit and more likely than not, a commercial mockery of the touted “ancient civilization and rich culture” that does actually exist in tangible and intangible form. There’s much a foundation could be conceivably based on but not essence and excuse. Indeed, society has traded long-term compensation for short-term reward. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is farcical until one day when we may all come to pay for it. It was bemusing at arm’s length as a callous New Yorker, like when a former colleague snapped a picture of a hornet’s nest of cars from the comfort of his luxury high-rise or when I could evade the situation like any adolescent all the while honing verbal and mental reflexes with a clever retort, but with a semblance of understanding I’ve lost all sense of purpose hence questioning my own defeat.

I’m relatively fluent and can function with significant ease, despite the hours spent delving into the intricacies of a language. I can dissect a reply as I can pare the nuances of “没事 (meishi)” because I know what to ask and probably understand to a certain extent the position and standpoint of the reply, but the laughter fades when it violates your person. There is no legal justice in a society with a flexible court system and partly why I would not invest more than I know I am capable of holding myself personally responsible for in such a capricious state, both my own and China’s. My biggest mistake may have been just placing this trust into another foreigner and acquaintance.

The sad thing is that this incident merely epitomizes the unfathomable bullshit many of us go through daily in China where perhaps we survive by learning to justify our sanity from the depths of the asylum; where we get slapped in the face by brief trips off the treadmill and outside the fish bowl marked with incredulous stares, wonder, and confusion from people we protect ourselves from by deeming them a little loopy as well. I’m certain most foreigners are driven by a kind of sadomasochism in coming and staying here, like the self-loathing that a friend maintains drives the stock market, but bred by a particular stupidity that has led us on a wager with life, like a Faustian pact with Confucius that I simply cannot grasp.  Ironically, I always said that if I leave China with nothing else I will always be most grateful for the perspective I have gained, but I can’t see past this loss as unnecessary.

In a twist so Chinese, the realtor called to explain that some possessions that the cleaning lady had taken and shared among friends had been retrieved. Strewn on the couch in his office was a silk blouse and some pants, uncut cloth, a discman, and everything I can’t remember last using somehow serving in exclamation of what’s missing. Pulling out crumpled clothing, I can’t shake the feeling of hurt and violation at having been stripped and exposed beyond the seams and of guilt and humiliation that mark their return. To the best of my knowledge, she has no incentive to return anything and I realize she mostly brought back the Chinese clothes making me feel too like I’ve had my own wool pulled over my own eyes. Should I bow in obeisance for something I still deem somewhat of a pointless waste of time and energy? Instead, I question which belonging would I want returned that could symbolize happiness or structure.

In this unquestionably Chinese version of the board game Clue, I feel overwhelmed as I try to handle something that is perhaps in part an enormous misunderstanding based on class, background, education, and values. The cleaning lady came to my house weeping, but it’s useless to ask how or why when she was just following instructions to clean up. Today, she surfaced with the comforter she got back from the Henan peddler I shared the police ride with, who had been storing it in his home to give to his parents. I asked her to have him come by and gave him a pillow and two comforters instead, one given to me from the rotating pile of stuff expats leave and take, now that the anger has dissipated and the pain of detachment is partly gone.

I’m hurt more than anything, because most foreigners know we’d spend every day being angry and miss out on the good things that Chinese society does, in fact, offer copiously if we just focused on our expectations. And, maybe in again trying to make any sense of this, I can start to understand why Chinese people or why even normal people buy things like expensive cell phones, clothes, cars, and other items. What do you do when you’re up against the option to laugh or cry, drop or pursue not only the craziest side of you, but something that perhaps was not only your respite but that you also questioned as such, perhaps both your best and worst side, essentially making you who you are? I have never converted my pride into dollar value and cannot objectively decide whether it was worth nothing or everything.