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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Airport Entry

LAX is huge. There are airports, and then there are industrial blights of cement where planes land; LAX appears to be the mold for the latter. I left the domestic terminal, after agonizing in my own obsessive-compulsive way about whether or not my bags would really make it to Cathay Pacific flight 833 fourteen hours later. As it turns out, I was right to worry: I landed in Hong Kong, after a flight that didn't feel too long but still sapped all my energy, and was told that both my bags were lost. In short order I was told that one, then both were found; then only one. Long story short, I was two days in Hong Kong before both my bags got here. I didn't freak out, I didn't get angry or even annoyed; everyone, myself included, seemed surprised at how I just shrugged off the bad news just.

Anyway, leaving the domestic terminal back in LA, I sucked down the fresh Western air, hoping for a taste of Los Angeles, something that would signal to me that I was in a world or a life I'd never experienced before. Nothing; LA air is Delaware air, too. Life doesn't have those novelstic moments like that, especially not when you want them most.

I took a trolley to the international terminal, but before I walked up the steps and inside, I noticed a nicely-gardened yet quietly pathetic stone slab/monument, dedicated to some long-forgotten nothing, an irrelevant milestone that no longer has meaning: "the completion of the trans-polar air route, directly connecting the city of Los Angeles with the European continent." I like to think I'm the only one that has ever snapped a picture of it.

As you wade in to the international terminal at LAX, you're sucked under by a wave of voices, a giant sea of noise which gradually beings to sharpen into a mix of Chinese and Japanese, static-masked English over the loudspeakers, maybe a splash of Korean or even German thrown in if you listen carefully. The whole place feels like a mutated shopping mall; boring mall floor tiles, gum-covered maroon carpet, lines and crowds and big bags and bad food. I eventually made my way through the crowd and upstairs, to inhale the familiar and unsatisfying "food" of America, McDonalds.

Every time I eat there, I'm left with one simple question: "Why?" Just three days in Hong Kong, and even the most pathetic dirty noodle shop has more taste and character to it than anything McDonalds could offer. But then, McDonalds isn't real food.

Before I entered the line for lunch (all this bitching, and yes, I still ordered McDonalds; they have perfected the scent of their product to the point that I hunger for deep-fried fat the second the airborne grease wafts over my nostrils), I saw a lot of young Japanese playing PSPs or NDSs; I took out my DS Lite, to play for a while, all overt and the like; I thought that if they saw me play, maybe they'd think that I'm "in," that I "get it." I don't think anyone noticed.

A Chinese couple sat next to me as I ate, and all I could think as I listened to them talk was something along the lines of "Good lord, what have I gotten myself in to?" They spoke an incomprehensible loop of tones, just endless repetition of simple morphemes with only the most subtle variation, all lost to my English ears. I can't imagine being able to learn this language in any meaningful way in the coming year. And yet, I can't believe how much a single summer in Beijing sharpened my Mandarin. The more people I talk to at Maryknoll, the more I realize that learning Chinese will be my job: I have to find the tutor, I have to put in the study time. It's up to me, now, more than ever before. Ah, responsibility ...

A year. I can't believe it. I keep quieting the part of my mind that insists that this whole (mis)adventure is just going to fall through; that something will happen that will see me delivered home next week or next month, with some silly stories to tell about how I thought I - me! - could survive in China for a year on my own. Part of me is simply awed that I had the balls to just leave the US. What? Where, good self, has there been any precedent set for this kind of insanity? I'm a bit surprised someone didn't try to stop me.

One of the happiest coincidences of my life happened to occur during my 14-hour layover in LAX: my good friend Eric just happened to be in Pasadena, renting an apartment, and was able to find a nice place, sign a lease, and meet me for a quick dinner and a proper goodbye. Eric has enrolled in the film program at the Art Center College of Design, and he'll be beginning his classes there just as I begin to teach in Zhanjiang. We had just enough time after dinner for us to make the trip out to Pasadena to visit his new campus, and we had the good luck to visit during a senior design bonanza that showcased some of the school's top (well, senior) talent. I was blown away by the sheer variety of the art: highly perfected design in every form, and some of the paintings were just brilliant. Some of the artist clearly just want to go do matte paintings for Weta or ILM, or character design for the next Blizzard game; hey, that’s fine, if that’s you dream, you go out there and make some awesome fucking monsters. But some of the art was very personal, and I appreciated that. One painting that especially caught my eye was this erotic oil painting of a young couple mid-coitus; nothing too amazing, well done and all, unique perspective I guess, etc., but the artist added in a third party, lurking on the border of the canvas, watching. It just stuck with me, this painting that I was looking at, this voyeuristic act of watching that is being reproduced so distinctly in the painting. Good, and not in the “I’m so damn clever” pomod good.

The film department offered a lot of sledgehammer-subtle commercials, but to be fair, they were likely (as Sandy pointed out) done for non-profits. Still, they were ads that raped my mind with clich├ęs and left me with no real clear course of action; a failed ad, in my mind, and I think that if you can’t convey the simple message of a commercial in a heartfelt way, then your films will be equally unfocused and trite. But hey, that’s me. I think Eric will be happy there: he will finally be able to embrace the art that has so long been the center of his life, without all the unfocused bullshit he had to suffer through at Brown and in Delaware. And for that, I am very happy, even if it means that he won’t be back home if and when I return. I hope he finds whatever it is he’s looking for out there; a community of like-minded artists, an environment that nurtures his creativity, or (I hope, at the very least) a set of tools that will let him realize his art as never before. I know that he's ready for it.

But I also feel that I'm ready for this. I'm not an idiot; I studied a damn good amount of literature at Villanova, and I'm up to the task of teaching some of it now, too. Every time I realize that what I'm doing has been done better before, I also take solace in the fact that someone dumber than me has also done this before, too. So why can't I do this, too? The people I've met here at Maryknoll, the people my age, anyway, are no different from me. We've come for similar reasons, we have similar backgrounds, similar goals. Why can't I do this? Why shouldn't I do it? I can't think of any compelling reasons. Have I not always wanted this kind of life, a life where I don't go right into some cubicle hellhole where my soul rots as I wait to die alone? Haven't I always wanted the guts to live the dream - an unfocused and nebulous dream, yes, but a dream nonetheless - of actually doing something exciting, rewarding, and enjoyable with my life?

And here is just such a chance. Dragging me, reluctantly, inexorably, kicking and screaming and resisting the very plans I worked so hard to put together … behind all this, I find my self, my intuition, and the only thing betraying that is (again), my self, my own doubt. Why?

Because I'm afraid. I'm afraid of truly being on my own. I'm afraid of having responsibility; not only for myself, but for an entire class room of people. I'm afraid of having to act like a grown up because I still have this "who the hell am I to tell anyone anything?" sensibility.

Well, who the hell are you? Who is anyone - in office, behind a desk, or picking up the tab - to tell anyone anything? I claim no authority beyond the power of my own personal experience. That's all anyone has, regardless of the number of degrees on the wall, of books read or written; and it's about time I test what I claim I know. Only then can I fall flat on my face, pick myself up, learn, and continue to move forward.

This is the beginning of my adult life, and as scared as I am of the troubles that undoubtedly await me in Zhanjiang, I can't think of any other way I'd rather do it. I can't explain how or why, but I just know that I am exactly where I want to be.

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