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Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Gandalf Syndrome (or, The Exploding Plastic Predictable)

I logged this entry some time between the end of August and September 1. And here we go:

Everything in this country is leisurely. It's a slower pace, a more laid-back way of life; just recognize that you don't have as much to do, and you can then take your time to do it. No one is on the tight schedule that everyone in the west forces themselves into. The Chinese even have a siesta, of sorts: everyone takes a nap around noon, and nothing much is open before two. Any culture that places such importance on napping clearly has its priorities straight.

Waking up this morning, I felt much the same as I did going to bed: I was in China; this is going to last for a year, and its going to take every scrap of mental stamina to survive the year of isolation that is coming.

Oh what a difference a day makes.

I don’t know what I was expecting coming here – I had spent time in off-center Chinese cities before – but for some reason, arriving here yesterday left me with an immeasurable sense of shock. Hong Kong isn’t China, I had been saying since I arrived, and yet when I stepped out of the taxi in the dry heat of yesterday afternoon, all that flashed through my head was: this isn’t Hong Kong. This isn't HONG KONG!

And so I awoke late today, lounging in bed until almost 10:00, kidding myself into thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could sleep all day and that China could just come back tomorrow. I talked myself into showering, dressing, of overcoming the sheer exhaustion and numbing depression of having arrived, and I began to clean. I listened to some great music as I cleaned: sweeping to Llano del Rio, doing dishes to Sister Ray, cleaning the stove to The Gash. And I just felt ... better. Making my home my own, letting any worries I had just fade as I focused on a task; it made me feel better, made this place feel comfortable; I just may enjoy this after all.

Man, I wish I had season 2 of Little Britain to watch right now. I got through all of season 1 at the Maryknoll house, and I’d give anything to put on season 2 right now.

Nicki, who is turning out to be braver than I, the experienced China traveler, suggested we go out "for lunch or something” this afternoon; we had both spent the morning cleaning our apartments and we both, I guessed, really wanted a break from the monotony.

And so we walked, out past the muddy turf of the campus track, through the gnarled metal teeth of broken fences and the long wispy fingers of the gigantic trees, out the front gate of the university and down into the exploding plastic predictable of the city of Zhanjiang.

And lo, it was decreed that the staring shall commence.

You know, having spent a summer in China, having gone through a week and a half of orientation and preparation, having been personally pulled aside by one of the larger brothers at Maryknoll and told specifically to get ready for the inevitable staring, I was still unnerved, annoyed, and ANGRY at all the staring. We’re lucky in the US; we have so much freedom, so much opportunity to just do whatever the hell we want, and we’re good enough to even extend that freedom to anyone (well, nearly anyone) who can get here. And that’s why we have every ethnicity in the world, why you can walk down Main Street in Delaware (DELAWARE, for Christ’s sake) and see an Indian restaurant, a Chinese grocery store, and a handful of the worlds other ethnicities represented. But in China, it’s (obviously) Chinese; waiguoren are as odd to us as, well, talking apes, I guess. It just doesn’t happen: everyone is five-foot-something, black hair, bronzed skin, and that’s that. Nicki, at 5’9” and with long blond hair, is just alien; me, at 6’3”, wide, brown-haired and blue-eyed, is just unheard of.

It’s the Gandalf Syndrome: you’re in a land of hobbits, of small, similar-looking people, polite and helpful and good, if a little naïve; and you are this great wizard, towering over them, with all the esoteric knowledge of The West; and just walking down the street, they tail behind, curious and staring; I can almost hear their faint cries, “Fireworks, Gandalf, fireworks!”

Those Chinese aren’t so bad. The staring isn’t malicious, it isn’t hurtful or disrespectful; it's simple curiosity, and it’s exactly what we’d do if everything in our country was the same, too.

We walked a few blocks away from the main highway, the artery that connects the endless stream of taxies and motorbikes with the far-off malls and department stores. And suddenly I decided that I wanted - no, needed! - an alarm clock. Which I was able to buy with a minimal amount of pointing and grunting. On our way back to campus - the heat was just brutal - Nicki and I stumbled into an internet café, and decided to check our email. That is to say, we saw a computer, went in, and asked to use it; 4 kuai for an hour’s worth, or $.50 per hour. Looking around the shop, there were two computers, a printer, and large spools of various fabrics; I’m pretty sure the guy was a tailor, and was just too polite to refuse.

Back at the apartment, putting away some groceries and continuing the cleaning, and the responsibility and freedom of living, fully and completely, on my own, began to sink in. I can do whatever I want! I can walk around the room naked, I can finally have a clean kitchen (after living with slobs for the past four years), I can stock my fridge and all that other cool stuff. Money permitting, of course, the responsibility is both enjoyable and welcome.

So, there you go. The beginning of - dare I say it?! - me enjoying my time in China. And it's only been getting better.


Patrick said...

Glad to hear it! I knew you'd pull through. I bet you'll have a great time. Have fun!

Meg said...

Gandalf Syndrome! That's freaking awesome! I'm going to steal that description!