Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Archive for January 2008

Keeping a Third Eye on the Elections

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It’s snowing in Shanghai, and I am locked away in a Norwegian friend’s flat while he is home for break.  The curtains are closed, barricading the cold ceaselessly seeping through single-pane Chinese glass.  A dull yellow lustre hangs in the apartment, an eerie midday gloom.  I am wrapped in a thin blanket, wearing a sweater, basketball shorts, wool socks, and moccasins.  The wireless isn’t working, and the internet cable only reaches to a backless section of the L-couch.  And here I sit, hunkered over, as the couch permanently molds around my sinking posture.

I am poking around the internet.  A little election coverage.  Some sports.  Some grad school research.  Some meaningless chatting.  Vietnam research.  If the apartment was littered with drugs and paraphernalia, perhaps I could channel my inner Hunter S. Thompson.  But it’s not.  And I can’t.
Just baby steps.  Baby steps to a new direction.  Baby steps to the next bright idea.

The NYTimes ran an interesting article, today.  It’s an adapted essay, rather, entitled “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony,” taken from a soon-to-be published book by Parag Khanna.  She(?) discusses– in detail– the shifting of our global order to a more permanent tri-polar system consisting of the US, the EU, and China.  Predominant schools of political thought trumpet theories on the 1990’s collapse of the US-USSR bipolar system rendering a new unipolar, US-controlled global system.  Yet, as the decade passed, those theories were largely proven to be just that, theories.  Not laws.  The Pax Americana, if there ever was one, certainly did not endure.

“Globalization resists centralization of almost any kind,” Khanna writes.  An interesting thought.  Most notions of globalization stem from a bastardized sub-context, that of Americanization, a paradoxical notion of Hollywood ideals and Wall Street morals.  The truly global effect of globalization has been a connection of those entities seeking support for their own mantras, not necessarily in search of adapting new ones.  As Khanna wrote,

“The self-deluding universalism of the American imperium — that the world inherently needs a single leader and that American liberal ideology must be accepted as the basis of global order — has paradoxically resulted in America quickly becoming an ever-lonelier superpower. Just as there is a geopolitical marketplace, there is a marketplace of models of success for the second world to emulate, not least the Chinese model of economic growth without political liberalization (itself an affront to Western modernization theory). As the historian Arnold Toynbee observed half a century ago, Western imperialism united the globe, but it did not assure that the West would dominate forever — materially or morally. Despite the “mirage of immortality” that afflicts global empires, the only reliable rule of history is its cycles of imperial rise and decline, and as Toynbee also pithily noted, the only direction to go from the apogee of power is down.”

This notion of delusion and a slipping grasp on power was factually supported by an article in The NYTimes just days earlier.  This prior article analyzed a recent US poll, finding most Americans believe, regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election, America is facing a slippery slide down the geopolitical order.

People often ask how my time away from the US has impacted me.  Some are genuine.  Others are only seeking a funny story or two.  The latter want to hear how backwards and foolish other cultures are, or how easy the women are to bed, or how dirty something was, or if I eat dog meat.  There is a voyeuristic curiosity, tacitly implying, or subconsciously insisting, that America retains a righteous status.  To the former, those intellectually benign and altruistically curious, I offer a more elaborate explanation.  Yet, it is hard to express the significance of personal soul-searching, moments of solitude and solidarity, and how each correlate to a clarifying description of global citizenry.  Khanna does me one better in writing,

“Karl Marx and Max Weber both chastised Far Eastern cultures for being despotic, agrarian and feudal, lacking the ingredients for organizational success. Oswald Spengler saw it differently, arguing that mankind both lives and thinks in unique cultural systems, with Western ideals neither transferable nor relevant. Today the Asian landscape still features ancient civilizations but also by far the most people and, by certain measures, the most money of any region in the world. With or without America, Asia is shaping the world’s destiny — and exposing the flaws of the grand narrative of Western civilization in the process.”

I love that line: “the grand narrative of Western civilization.”  It reminds me of Manifest Destiny.  It reminds me that all of this is a story, to one day be bound in books, buried in rubble beneath the sands of time.  It reminds me of the millions of Americans who believe in the prophecies of the political pulpit and the paradox of those principles we hold to be “self-evident truths.”

The last section of Khanna’s essay offers solutions, real tangible political opportunities to buoy the American way of life in a shifting geopolitical order.  “We must build a diplomatic-industrial complex,”  he wrote.  The days of bullying are over.  There are too many other kids standing in the corner saying,  “Yeah, I hate that guy too.”  There are new realities that demand new pragmatic principles of polity.

In my time away from home, I have analyzed what it means for me to be an American, how I conceptualize that, how it impacts myself and the world around me.  I have become more aware of what this title means.  And through all of that, I remain loyal to the beliefs in which I was raised, the self-evident truths of a world envisioned by Americans, though never realized.  Through all of it, I have tried to shed my nationalism, to view the world in a more objective manner, to pick out trends, codify cultural collectivism, measure predictions versus practicalities.  I do so not in a Darwinian sense of survival of the fittest, but in the sense of adaptation.  I was raised to believe individuals create a nation, that individuals are the sole vehicle of change.  And while the world punches away on my idealism, I refuse to surrender to the belief that America is not fixable.  Irrespective of all the terrible storms we have unleashed on the world, in the eye of those rests an underlying moral principle of change for the good.  Yes, I too have been brainwashed by the narrative.  But I refuse to believe the last chapter has been written.

Written by Miles

January 28, 2008 at 9:32 am

Tricky Chicken Tikka

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One of the many things I failed to accomplish while home was to buy a small refrigerator magnet for a friend of mine.  It was her birthday, and she has this bizarre hobby of collecting magnets.  It was her one request.  And measured against the 500 other requests I had– mainly, to buy every Chinese person I know a brand new iPod– it was modest.  Still, sad to say, I flopped.

I decided to make it up to her by taking her out to dinner.  She picked the place, and we set plans to meet there Friday around 7:30.  I spent the late afternoon browsing bookstores in the city, hoping to find some inspirational travel reading.  The weather was awful, cold and drizzly.  It was the type of innocuous drizzle resulting in more of a mist than a downpour, one carried by the wind at all angles, sinking beneath an umbrella and irrespectively clinging head to toe.

Finding a taxi on rainy days, let alone rainy and cold days, is no easy task.  After  having some prick steal one in front of me, meandering down a few more side streets, I waved one down.  It was 7:00, and, considering traffic, I was still a good 20 minutes from the restaurant.  Text Message: “Hey.  Waiting for an interview.  Guy still hasn’t arrived.  Meet you at 8.  So sorry.”  Damn.  More time to kill.

I exited the taxi in a semi-familiar neighborhood.  For some reason, as I recalled, this area consisted of one nice bar and a few nice restaurants surrounded by a bunch of seedy “talking girl” bars.  Rather than drop a pretty penny on beers waiting for her inside the restaurant, I decided to buck up and explore a bit.  It is, after all, my last few days in Shanghai.

8:00 came and went.  Still no word.  8:15.  Nothing.  I called her.  No answer.  Must still be in the interview, I thought.  So I sent her a text: “Looks like you aren’t gonna make it.  Good luck, let’s reschedule!”  Case closed.  Time to find another taxi and hightail out of there.  But by now, the rain had picked up.  There were more people standing in the street looking for cabs than actual cars on the road.  Not a good sign.

I have a strategy for times like this: Aim towards big roads/big buildings and stay moving, being sure to walk against traffic.  Even with such a genious approach, I still wasn’t having any luck.  Thoughts were racing around my head about my last few (miserably cold) days in Shanghai, what I still had to accomplish, how I was going to fare traveling all alone for a few weeks…  I was coming to terms with the fact that I would have to get used to eating alone in restaurants when…  Cue the heavenly spotlight!  I walk past an Indian restaurant.

I.  Love.  Indian.

I paused.  I was going to have to eat alone anyway.  It might as well be Indian food.  I found the entrance and popped in.  For a restaurant, there was a peculiar lack of seating.  A bar, six seats.  Two small tables, four seats.  I explained to the one hostess working there that I would like to eat dinner.  Figures, I was mistaken.  The restaurant was upstairs.  I found a  semi-circular stairwell towards the end of the bar and climbed right into a line of waiting patrons.  Damn.  Eating alone is one thing.  But waiting alone to eat alone?  No thanks.

On my way out, the hostess downstairs stopped me and explained I could sit in her bar and order food from upstairs.  Alternative plan… hmmm.  Ok, done deal.  I try to find a discreet location to hide my lowly one-person dinner party, but this place lacked any secluded corners.  I post up at a bar table against the window facing the street, ordered a beer and some chicken tikka masala.  As I am waiting, an older gentlemen walks in.  He orders a G&T and sits down at the end of the bar directly across from me.  The hostess approaches him and cordially asks if she can join him.  She starts idly chatting him up about his business in town.

Odd, I think to myself, pretty friendly.  A short time passes and in walks another girl, who saunters behind the bar and starts yelling about something in Shanghainese.  Shift change?  Five minutes later and in walks yet another couple of girls dressed to impress.  Wow, popular little place here, I tell myself.  Then, mysteriously, they sit down and it becomes apparent they also work at this fine establishment.

Hmmmm, ten chairs, five girls.  Uh oh.  I thought I had walked far enough to clear the district.  It was becoming clear, I had thought wrong.  Here I am, a young handsome lad sitting front and center in the window of a shady lady bar.  Dammit.  Worse, the girls never even approached me!  Now, come on, not that I am buying, but I am still a patron.  What was with the second-class service?  Why the discrimination?  Test message: “Just finished.  You still around?  I am starving!  Where are you?”  Reply: “At a shady lady bar with an Indian restaurant upstairs.  Come save me!”

Written by Miles

January 14, 2008 at 9:14 am

Airborne Reflections

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Twelve hours into my flight I was well rested. And I still had two more hours to go. The stewardesses, or “flight attendants” if you despise my sexism, had shut all the window blinds. Are those “blinds?” More like lids. Little vertical oval eye lids. On my way back to China, after absorbing numerous You’re-eyes-look-slanted jokes, here I was staring out the opposite of eyeballs.

Completely opposite. Opposition. Direction. Incongruence. Inconsistencies. Buzzwords humming around my brain like a hive of African killer bees. I was crawling in my own skin, that’s the cliche. This always makes me think of The Mummy when those little scarabs unleashed in the underground temple insert themselves under The Greedy Prick’s skin and a puke-inducing lump slides its way towards his brain like a rising thermometer. That is how I felt, with the scarab at about throat-level.

I was devastated. Leaving my family the first time was one thing. I thought, then, my return was imminent. I was wrong. This time around, I know the sacrifice to come. The time between. The holidays alone. Repeating it. I get older, and time disappears.

So there I was peering out my cyclopic vertical oval eyelid: nothing. Just black. Darkness. A void, an abyss. We were over the Sea of Japan and darkness symbolized my status. Devoid of light; not in a sorrowful sense, in an incomplete sense. A page yet turned. A pen stroke yet to hit that page. A page yet to be bound. And every page was my book. My Book.

Being home, seeing old friends on their path, awoke in me a sense of– for lack of better word– order. I was envious. Routine can be a blessing; a ladder can be a blessing. It is only that moment when your foot slips on a wet rung and your body hangs suspended in mid-air that you are truly terrified. The result of the fall is unknown. The unknown is terrifying. The darkness is terrifying. Maybe that is why as children we all cradle the fear.

The uncontrollable freedom of my life terrifies me. Oddly enough. Every choice I make lies outside institutional paradigms. There is a bend or break moment as I toe my way out each limb. I could easily end up Wily Coyote tumbling branch by branch, ass over teakettle, all the way to the ground floor. I am climbing my tree in the dark, no supervisors, no emergency lighting on the floor; and I admit, it is terrifying.

Written by Miles

January 9, 2008 at 4:21 pm