Monday, April 18, 2011

The Only Compass That I Need (is the one that leads back to you)*

"It's been so long..." — David Bowie, off "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" from Let's Dance, 1983†

On returning from an eight-day spring-break vacation that spanned three cities, two major bodies of water, and one mountain range, upon arriving in Beijing on a rumble-roar red-eye train at 5:45 am with gunk in my eyelids and more sleep on my mind, when standing in line at the subway station with a leaky right eye and a stomach that screams for breakfast, I realize that I've been returning all the while to Beijing as if it were my Ithaca, my home. The idea must have been inceived somewhere between our trip to Yunnan and this very travel from which I have just returned, and it is alien, strange. Is it possible that over the course of a short two months I've become so accustomed to the busybodysea of Beijing that I could call its iron-and-concrete sprawl home? Maybe it's because I've been forced to become fast friends with 20-odd students around the same age as me who are now like a small family, maybe it's because the program I'm enrolled in has been so welcoming, or maybe it's because of a certain crazy-for girl, but the prospect of sticking around in Beijing is actually almost comforting. I don't plan on living here, and I certainly plan on returning home to my friends and loved ones in America this June, but still, there's something there in that first microgranular thought in the dark night of that train ride when I thought, "I'm going home."

There is nothing worse†† than being ripped off as a tourist other than being ripped off as a tourist while being fully aware of and helpless against the fact. So were we, my travel companion Emily and I, stuck in Huangshan at the base of the mountain: a ride, needed; a taxi, the only available. We had trekked the small town around the mountain looking for the bus back to the city (also Huangshan), to our hostel, asking hotel managers and restaurateurs alike for directions (Emily's Chinese is a few levels beyond mine, so she did most of the talking) but to no avail. We wandered into a Traffic Police station to find the place open yet empty, a cup of tea still steaming on a desk, the place silent and muggy. A tripod series of pictures propped up near the entrance featured grisly scenes of motorcycle crashes with Blood on the Pavement, the traffic police's deterrent against unlicensed driving or something. We found out, finally, from a few clerks at a Super-8, that the bus stops running at five pm. It was 5:30. Emily called the hostel we booked at, and they told her we could only take a cab. 
The taxi manager knew right away what was up. He was like a dead-eyed dog: he could smell our helplessness. Beneath brash attempts at bartering with his price, he could see that our only option was to take one of his cabs. He knew it and he took advantage, and though the price we paid was considerably less than others have paid in the past, and though in the US the price was more than reasonable, we knew that for what the meter would have been and what a Huangshan native would have paid, we were certainly ripped off. What could we do? We sat on our hands and thought spiteful thoughts. Emily hoped he had kids to feed to justify such dealings. I hoped (and later wished otherwise for the man) that he lived alone, that his only real happiness in life was earning rip-off money—a poor happiness, indeed. As a tourist, though, such is expected. People yell "hello" to you, they snap pictures, they mutter "外国人," they stare. 怎么 No harm done. When you're a tourist, you have to realize that you're already (in the pessimistic light) leeching off someone else's real culture†††, so you should, theoretically, just bite the bullet and take what karma kicks your way. 

So maybe that train ride home in the pitch hours of a lightless seaboard gave me peace of mind because I knew I'd be returning to the familiar, to a place where folks didn't care if you were different, to a place (Wudaokou) where the familiar thing was the foreign student intermingling with the Beijing native. Maybe Beijing felt like home because in Beijing the slurred-speech cabbies always run the meter. Maybe I was comforted by the quasi-family that mitosis'd in the fluorescent halls of a high-floored dormitory. Either way, Beijing felt like home, and though there's another home out there waiting for me, the fact that something feels like a duck and looks like a duck is enough, right?

*From the song "Compass" by Jamie Lidell

†It has been so long (since writing here, since being in Beijing). I'll update throughout the next week or two regarding the actual trip: climbing Huangshan, visiting Nanjing, cruising the coast at Qingdao, accidentally consuming duck heads, seeing the reaction to the Nanjing massacre ~70 years later, etc.

††Of course there is worse than being ripped off while traveling. There is being robbed/mugged, trafficked, killed, becoming a homeless stray, nearly starving, running out of money, finding our you were adopted, losing all one's teeth, getting in a knife fight, and on and on. It's only a figure of speech.

†††There is something to be said, though, about the certain types of tourism that permeate such places as the Grand Canyon, Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum, or even Huangshan: is there really a local culture being leeched off, or has the place been robbed of anything real it once had and turned into a corpuscle of pure disgustingly-fat greasy-boned mass tourism? When thousands flood a crevasse in the recesses of Huangshan to fight for position at the stairs leading, eventually, to Yingkesong, is anyone being leeched off of, or is the rock dry?

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