Tuesday, February 10, 2009


"Oh lord, here I find myself
neither with the resolve and strength of the beginning nor with the renewal of strength that comes from a sight of the end--here I am, in short, in the middle."
--Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife

Five months past, 5 months more.

There's a saying in Chinese: 'You're saying it like you're singing it.'

That's how I came to China, singing: 
"I'm gonna have a looksee...
funner than a book, see
what is going on."

Well I've looked. I've seen. A little bit. Of a lot.

I inadvertently jumped on the 'China's Hot' bandwagon, not having any employment in the U.S., or any apartment, no prospects for the year. Even when sniffing out Community College jobs because life as a playwright was unsteady, I was told 'Just because you have an MFA in playwriting doesn't mean that you can teach English at the Community College level.' Snap. The Asian and Women slots of the theater season found no space for me. The U.S. just did not have anything going on for me. And then, through a chain of fateful events, Shanghai Lida Polytechnic Institute offered me a job, with housing, salary and no bills and I had a year free. Game. Set. Match.

Now, let's just say, I'm singing it like I'm saying it.

There's a reason why conquerors who had their plans for converting China, in the end became themselves converted by China. The sheer force, the mass of numbers, the longevity (superiority?) of culture, the resilience, the endurance, the thriving survival instinct. And the power of shame and groupthink. Now with the Communist past of intensive criticism, self-deprecation, starvation for materialism and the power to disseminate and distract through the internet, China is full on super Chinese. No veneer of westernization can hide its core nature. The faint-hearted, the whiners, the precious need not apply to live in China. If you ain't into China, get out.

Of course the unifying element--as always in the world now--as always has been--money. Yes that dialect. Marvelous.

I did have physical culture shock coming back from Hong Kong. I literally shriveled up and got sick. The air and haze. The smell and diz. The hackspitting. The sour faces. The crowds. The disorientation. The slow wait for taxi. The exhaust. The unclean chicken. I did not have my game face up, and I contracted. Five more months, I thought...how am I going to make it through?

Being here has made me appreciate the freedoms of the U.S. The psychic comfort of being allowed who you want to be (I'm not talking about societal, parental, religious comfort) especially in the category of self-determination. The confines here are much stricter, what you can and can't do. Not for foreigners, of course. But looking like the majority, it's hard to distinguish, to be distinguished from, so you feel the suction towards groupthink. I'm immune to a lot of it because my Chinese skills are low and because I am not a typical woman here. But after a while, you do miss interaction with originality, creativity, just the width that the open western mind can and will allow.

What I don't miss about the U.S.? Punchlines--the ability to frame everything into a joke. I know it is not the U.S. that I left at the beginning of September, and the downturn is probably having a sobering (or debauching) effect on the culture. I'm glad that Obama is an adult and can model a serious tone for a serious time without having to appear to be a dictator (yet). A break from the laugh track to get the head screwed back on has been a relief. The Chinese tend to have a more naive comic palate--they aren't jaded and they are kept like children about information about their government (all news about China is positive, all news about the world is negative ). Consequently, pop culture feels constantly like the 1980's, as does the fashion, but I'm not here to engage in trend, ahem.

Which leads to--what am I doing here?

I really did think, with all the talk of modernization and Shanghai and China on the rise, that the country was gonna be more cosmopolitan, more orderly, more thought through, like Hong Kong, or like the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Whoa. That's still a long ways away. The U.S. can't even quite achieve what Hong Kong is...well some parts can...could.

I'm getting my head to a place--a clear place, a new place, an original place--to more astutely experience and notate the beginning of this 21st century. To provide my own media into understanding this moment. There's lots, lots and lots. As much media, opinions, talkingheads, bloggingwogs, punchlines, scandal, crisis, tragedy, history as there are skin cells in China. And despite all of the volume, it, too, all seems to feel the same. A groupthink by dint of information delivery system. I came here the first months, grooving on Shanghai like a tourist, impressed by the food like an American, digging the constant contradiction and comparison with the U.S., enduring the more bureaucratic and third-world aspects like any optimistic American super-trooper, appreciative of the time and space to write, mostly through blogging.

And now I sit in my ace apartment in the boonies of Shanghai, midpoint in my stay in China, realizing: it's kind of dire wherever you are in the world. 

So--new game plan.
Do not add misery into the world.
In fact, now is the time to delight.


Blogger k. terumi shorb said...

beautiful. thanks.

February 10, 2009 at 9:04 PM  
Blogger Edward Rueda said...

Dear Alice,

Bobby Watson (a.k.a. Edward) here! In 21st Century Ionesco fashion, my curiosity, Google, and Wikipedia lead me to your blog. Good thing the web can still keep us all connected, even from far away.

(My dad's having a similar time, using Facebook to cyberconnect with the Colombian 2nd cousins he hasn't seen since the 1970s, if at all.)

It is truly disgusting that an accomplished playwright like yourself could not get the teaching jobs in our Home Sweet Home. It's like finding out the local Kapellmeister playing wedding marches every Sunday on the Church Wurlitzer is actually a great Jazz composer.

But as you said before, I'm glad to see/read that you're still a "nice person in a--hole times." I agree with you COMPLETELY about how the US does reduce everything to a punchline. George Bush's administration is nearing the term of limitations, and the only criticism we hear are the yuk-yuks from Oliver Stone's awful film and Will Ferrell's one-man show.

Back home, I do fear lean times ahead, as we rush to dump trillions into an increasing hole. I write for NY1.com, a local news website for the city, and while 2008 was a year of contests, crime, and real estate deals, 2009 is looking to be a year of contests, crime, and budget cuts and deficits.

These are flush emotional times for me, thank goodness. For the last two years I've been dating a wonderful woman I met in journalism school named Allie and we're very close to moving in together. We're seeing Paris and Berlin together in April, with the appropriate stars and moons in our young eyes. I can reassure you that she's also a very nice person in these a--hole times.

I don't really blog, but feel free to write me at edwardarueda[at]gmail. I will definitely visit your page again!

Best to you across the sea,
Edward Rueda

February 10, 2009 at 9:18 PM  
Blogger Leon said...

Big Al,

i enjoyed that post especially since i had the same thought many years ago sitting in China thinking to myself "What am i doing here?". i too had that physical reaction to being back in China. i had that sour face as well thinking about all the hack-spitting, line-jumping, jostling, and total disregard for human life.

usually, i say "Geesh" out loud once every trip. this time was particularly loud. i saw a bus barreling down on an electric bike. the driver was honking the whole time for the guy on the bike to get out of the way. and the rush? just to get to the bus stop where he came to a stop just a few meters away from where he was honking like he was getting to a fire.

the secret to dealing with China: don't marvel at how such an advanced economic powerhouse could be so backward. marvel at how such a backward people could build such an advanced country/economy.

one last thing about Hong Kong. it is a great place to visit and i enjoy myself every time i pass through there. however, a place like Hong Kong could only happen under the shade of China. all those factory managers squeezing every last penny from the migrant workers feed money into HK to make it a great place to live. without the poor migrant masses in China, Hong Kong wouldn't gleam like it does. man, i sound like a communist now; luckily i'm going home tomorrow.


February 12, 2009 at 4:11 AM  

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