A Chinese Fiction Story

Last week, I gave my Chinese high school class a simple homework assignment. They were to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end. So long as it had at least eight sentences, they were free to be as creative as they wanted to be.

I thought I’d share my favorite story here. It was written by an eleventh grade Chinese student I nicknamed “Spider-Man” (never in class, but that’s always his name in my mind). He gained this nickname after the first week of class. We had a round robin of class introductions in which each student had to tell me something about himself or herself. He said to me, “Shhhhhh. Keep a secret, but I’m Spider-Man.”

Here is Spider-Man’s story:

Once upon a time, there was a boy. This little boy was blind. He cried all the time because of his blindness. He became blind from an accident he had when he was very little.

One day, the boy found a magic lamp. A Genie came out of the lamp and greeted the boy. The Genie gave the boy three wishes.

First, the boy asked for his sight. Then, the boy asked for a girlfriend. The boy told the Genie that he did not need a third wish. His eyes and a girlfriend were all he needed.

But then the boy looked in the mirror and realized he was actually very ugly.

The boy told the Genie he needed a third wish after all.

“Please make my girlfriend blind.”

 

 

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Overlooked Movie of the Month: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Only the video store scouring horror hounds know that a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre actually exists (several sequels do, in fact, but only part 2 is relevant for me).

The grim, documentary-like style of the original horrified with its naturalistic and downtrodden Texas setting, lack of artificial lighting, quick-cut editing, and reliance on implied horrors (the viewer’s imagination horrifies more than anything actually shown on screen). This essentially created the slasher genre and put Tober Hooper, the director, in the pantheon of legends. With Hooper returning for the sequel, most expected more of the same.

What audiences and critics got, to their dismay, was a gross-out horror comedy that plays like Hellraiser meets The Breakfast Club. Even the film’s poster pokes fun at The Breakfast Club, with the evil cannibalistic family posing like Emily Estevez and crew. The film wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, but viewers either missed this point or utterly hated it anyways. The movie was almost universally panned. It was quickly cast off and forgotten.

Time has been kind to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and it has developed a strong cult following over the years. The performances are fantastic. Particularly gripping are Dennis Hopper as a revenge-obsessed Ranger out to kill Leatherface’s deranged family, and Bill Moseley, who returns as the twin brother of his original film’s character.

The late Dennis Hopper and Tobe Hooper (rest in peace) were two of the most captivating hippies to ever work in the film industry. Even their worst material, I find, is eminently watchable.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is an exercise in surrealism, not realism. The gore is ratcheted up, as are the extravagant set pieces that take the viewer into a dark labyrinth that I can only describe as Jim Henson’s worst nightmare.

The 80’s were a decade of excess, and this film seemed to hammer home the point for its entire runtime. The pace is fast from the opening action scene (Leatherface on a fast-speed car, killing teens while pop music blasts).

Check out this film. Hooper embedded deeper meaning in all of his films (the original, he said, was a reaction to watching greedy Christmas shoppers) and this is no different. Will it change your life? Probably not. But you aren’t likely to forget it either.

A Basketball Star is Born in China

The start of basketball season was a blessing for me; I suddenly had more than a few teachers want to be my best friend. The teachers at my high school play basketball shortly before lunch, then again just after dinner.

The school’s French teacher claimed me for his team pretty quickly. We were already hanging out, so he got the “star American rebounder” on his squad.

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Playing basketball in a different country is a surreal experience. First, we usually play outdoors at night, and the courts lack any artificial lighting. I find myself trying to keep track of nine shadowy figures, all about a foot shorter than me, darting back and forth on the court and shouting a language I don’t understand.

When I’m consistently breaking an important rule, they’ll send one of the better English speakers over to me to kindly explain their own rules. Usually he’s out of breath by the time he has to articulate something, so it tends to be a lost cause.

I usually guard the tallest opponent by default, a local college student who likes to play in our area. He’s about my height, but ten years younger. I can tell he has the itch to play competitively with me, but he’s also nice by nature and sees me as the foreign teacher whom he doesn’t want to injure (I don’t get injured though). So an aggressive rebound is usually followed by, “Oh, I am so sorry, Matt!” I then tell him I’m fine and to please feel free to use elbows.

I still have a little of that athletic spirit in me that likes to hurt and loves making others hurt.

I’d say I pass to a guy on my team successfully about 50% of the time and obey rules I don’t really understand about 25% of the time. But I rebound. Oh, do I ever rebound…

A few weeks ago, the school French teacher and I went to the World Sculpture Park. I found myself walking through exhibits of Mao Zedong and Confucius, trying to absorb the history of a place I know too little about.

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Confucius said, “I want you to be everything that’s you, deep at the center of your being.”

That, I think, is a good goal to strive for.

 

Random Flashbacks of a Traveler

It’s the present. I’m wandering Nanhu park in Changchun, China, with a few fellow English teachers. The skies are clear, the sun gilds every inch of green and blue, and there isn’t a hint of smog on the horizon. Sudden gusts of wind make it feel like winter. Despite having a windbreaker jacket, I’m wishing I wore an extra layer of clothing.

People ride in paddleboats, navigating the lake in the park’s center. The wind makes it impossible for them to control their own direction. A local woman asks me to pose for a picture with her brother. There’s a skating rink, fair rides, horse rides, and ice cream stands. I remain convinced that the best things in life are free, with the exception of maybe books.

Outside, away from the groupthink-inducing media, away from the advertisement-planting social networks and the collectivist mobs that wait online for a headline to seethe over, I feel fully alive.

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I close my eyes and think about the world I’ve seen.

It’s 2007. Suddenly I’m at a Singapore zoo, riding a trolley and gaping at a wild hippo one second, a flying squirrel another. I sit with a group of swimmers attending Stanford and Auburn. We’re at the World University Games. It’s early evening. I think about how it’s now been over a decade since I’ve seen any of them, yet this memory could have been from yesterday.

As you get older, you realize that your memories work separately from time. Events from yesterday can be farther removed than events from a decade ago.

I saw Kara, the Auburn swimmer, five years later at a Masters swim meet. It was a completely random encounter that brings to mind the feather drifting at the will of an indiscriminate wind in the movie Forrest Gump. It’s difficult to keep up with people, but I often wonder if fate will afford another chance meeting.

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I’m back at a National Team swim practice at a local golf resort in Singapore, coated in layers of sunscreen, panicking from the strength of the sun (I’m kind of pale), and watching in awe as a wild monkey tries to steal the protein bars from my bag.

Then it’s 2005, I’m two years younger, and I’m visiting Montreal. It’s the last day of the swimming World Championships. The Japanese national team is coordinating cheers in the rows above me. I decide to have some fun and join them.

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I went back to Montreal eleven years later for work. Life is a circle, and some coincidences are too uncanny to ignore.

It’s 2016 and suddenly I’m 31 years old, not 20, and I’m ambling down Old Montreal along the St. Lawrence River. I’m with my manager and a French colleague named Fred. We stop for ice cream and drinks around noon, breathe in the crisp autumn air, and try to block all dread of the future. We’re all happy because we’re away from the cubicle, and we suddenly see each other as friends, not coworkers.

One breath taken fully in the present can brush all troubles away.

That night, I join a group of employees at the Sara B absinthe bar. We’re tasting several premium brands, laughing over stories, and enjoying the moment. Two drinks in and I’m convinced that my thoughts are profound enough to render me the next Aristotle.

It’s late 2016 and I’m in Lyon, France, navigating the downtown area during the festival of lights. The city is vibrant, with vin chaud (hot wine) being sold on every street corner. I drink as I walk and wonder how I’ve been to so many places in such a short amount of time; it was never planned. It just sort of serendipitously happened. I saw the world by luck of the draw.

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I took one more trip to France in 2017, to Combourg. I had a sinking feeling it would be my last venture to the country for some time, and took advantage by eating crepes by the northern coast of France most nights.

It’s summer 2016 and I’m in Las Vegas, attending an old friend’s bachelor party. I’m lost in a swarm of cirque du solei shows, Steve Aoki pool parties, MGM Grande buffets, and the Hakkasan nightclub. One night ended with a hookah at 4am at a booth shared with strangers. Another ended at the Hakkasan, where an old classmate of my brother had rented a private table for the night. At one point I did see Steven Snyder, the lucky bachelor, over at the Cosmopolitan, but large groups branch out quickly.

I’ll never be able to recollect my Las Vegas weekend without also thinking of the horror that just transpired, the sort of crime that bludgeons the soul by revealing the extent to which true evil can sink.

It’s the present again, and I’m thinking of last night. I dreamt that I was back at the University of Texas. I often do. Regardless of where I am, my mind is often back at the Lee and Jones Jamal Swim Center, dreading another Eddie Reese practice in a lane next to Ricky Berens. How did I graduate so long ago?

And finally, I’m stopped at a random mountain in Utah, way off the beaten path. I’m on a solo road trip from California to North Carolina. Having concluded that California was not a place designed to harvest my aspirations, I went back home. On the way, I decided to take a hike. I found a trail about thirty miles south of I-95 and walked up it alone. It was either Halloween or the day after.

I reached the summit of a small mountain after a few hours of labor and looked down at the vista. What went wrong? Why did I make so many mistakes over the past three years, and how was I going to right my course? It was 2012.

I look back on these moments and suddenly have no regrets. Every mistake was corrected, and every failure brought a new opportunity. It’s true that my decisions and lifestyle are atypical, but it’s also true that these moments were mostly full of joy. And I wonder, if all of this happened in the span of a decade, what adventures will the next decade bring?

Memories of America, Friendships in China

I was relaxing in my apartment yesterday afternoon, listening to music and forcing myself to pour through flash cards with Chinese vocabulary. The school principal from the high school I teach at knocked on the door. She had two large bags for me with a combined total of about five pounds of moon cakes. I said thanks as she took off for her own vacation. Somehow the taking of five pounds of moon cakes solidified that I am indeed teaching in China for a living.

I have vacation this week due to National Day in China, and I plan to spend it wandering parks, trying new restaurants, going to the cinema, and playing basketball with fellow teachers. The temperature is dropping precipitously; I can see my breath in the morning, a sign that winter is around the corner.

I met a couple from Michigan yesterday morning. They’re about my age and teaching in China for the same reasons I am, so we quickly struck a friendship. Shortly after meeting we took a long bus ride to Nanhu park, a major attraction here. We spent the day talking about life, what brought us to Changchun, teaching, and traveling.

One of the strongest ways we bond with friends is by sharing our past. I have plenty of great memories and more wild experiences than most have in a lifetime, but I don’t often discuss them. I’m convinced that a person who clings to the past cannot possibly achieve happiness in the future.  I want to be happy tomorrow, not reminisce on how I was happy yesterday. Yet when we want to bond at a soul level with someone else, we share our memories.

One great thing about being an expat: any fellow expat you meet is likely to be a captivating individual. The woman had an anchor tattoo on her neck, a row of earrings on the edge of each ear, and cut jeans. The man had slick black hair combed straight back against his scalp. In other words, we fit in well.

I told them about my office job the last few years. It was a great job, and my coworkers were good people, but I was also profoundly unhappy. After three years, I told them, I couldn’t sit at a desk anymore. It made me question my worth as an employee.

They had the exact same struggle in the office world and identical fears of being insufficient. Together we concluded that we simply were not wired to stand still, and traveling the world was our best option. Maybe it’s the mind of a thrill seeker. I don’t consider myself to be a thrill seeker, though if I ever write a book about the things I’ve done, the pages would convince you otherwise.

They were snowboarding instructors before moving here to teach. This was perfect for me; one of my goals is to learn to snowboard. There’s a ski resort ten miles from where I live.

They aim to be scuba diving instructors in Thailand after a few years of teaching. I think that sounds like a damn good idea. Maybe I’ll do the same. I am adventurous, but I can already tell that I’m not as adventurous as they are. Sometimes I have to be pushed into something new. I’ve pushed myself a fair share of times, but there is usually a sturdy wall of fear that I have to break through.

We also talked about “leaving the social bubble” that we were groomed in. Moving to a different country is, metaphorically speaking, breaking a bubble that limits your perception of what is possible. Society dictates a path to follow, a career to build, and a house to put a down payment on.

When you leave the US, you break out of the “trajectory bubble” and see that the only thing required of you is what you want to do. I often talk to friends back home and am quickly reminded their stresses; student loans, kids, car payments, and job security. I know there are expats that feel stress, but I honestly haven’t felt any in months. The emotion is beginning to seem like a stranger.

Back on the bus, we had a few stops left before our Nanhu park arrival.

“I try to put a lot of pictures on social media,” the woman told me. “I think that if I showed my friends that this sort of life is really possible, they might be motivated to do it for themselves.”

I thought that sounded like a great idea. I’m all for helping people “escape the Matrix.” Ultimately, though, I doubt I’ll post anything on social media.

I don’t share many photos because I’m not on social media. It’s too disgusting for me to waste breaths on. Refusing social media means losing some connections, but I believe the rewards outweigh the losses. People still have my number, and I share photos with curious friends all the time. In addition, I don’t have to subject myself to a fake social structure where corporations manipulate their tribes into parroting thoughts and emotions. I don’t have to feel the need to argue with strangers, or to allow my mind to react angrily to the manipulative headline of the day. I’m happy to direct my thoughts to where they are useful.

Back to reality. The three of us rented a boat in Nanhu park and spent the day eating desserts, enjoying the sunshine, and brainstorming places we would embark next. They will be gone in a year’s time. I might stay in Changchun longer.

Eventually, though, the three of us see ourselves living in Thailand for awhile. Perhaps we’re all destined to be scuba diving instructors, living outside the American bubble, looking in at what will by then be a distant world of Xanax, insurance payments, and credit card debts. Maybe one day we’ll return to the US. Most expats do eventually. The only thing that matters right now, though, is tomorrow’s new adventure.

There is one truth I am certain of: life is too short, not too long…