My wristwatch says 4:55 a.m. I think it’s closer to 7:30 p.m. But the monitor in the minivan with the soft Chinese automatic voice says it’s 9:57 p.m. I’m a bit turned around.
We are met at Shanghai Pudong International Airport by a young national who goes by Gary—not his given name, which I asked for but would not be able to pronounce myself. He studies preschool education at the college, is the captain of the school’s soccer team, and likes Manchester United. Our driver, Mr. (J)ong is quiet. It will be two hours until we reach the apartment.
The first thing I notice upon arrival is the wet air. A few breaths confirm it in my lungs and send it back with curiosity. Will take some getting used to. And I’m sweating, but the van has air-conditioning.
A bus waits outside the Boeing 767, which traveled 510 mph at 38,000 feet (the plane, not the bus). Actually, there are two buses. The first one filled very quickly. Like, really filled. Crammed, you might say. There wasn’t enough space to our American eyes, so we—Cecilia and I—waited for the next bus. This one carried us and ten others to the terminal.
Inside, we are directed towards the fingerprint station. Scan passport, left four fingers, right four fingers, thumbs, OK. Then to Chinese Immigration Services and a long line. An informative video plays on the televisions: military, smiles, showing the foreigners that China doesn’t mess around. Passports stamped, we head to baggage claim. All our things made it, phew. Through customs, we roll our luggage to a parking garage, up a level, and find Mr. (J)long.
A bit of small talk, I offer Gary trail mix that my mother sent with me and fudge from the flight. He accepts both, eats the fudge. Mr. (J)ong takes us to the highway. It is dark outside, which is odd for some reason because I don’t think it’s that late in the day. Or the sun operates differently in this part of the world. Or I’m a bit turned around.
There are buildings with lights for walls. Or lights on the walls. I haven’t seen that in person before. Lots of apartment complexes; some are tall and new, some aren’t. I see many air—
400-606-5500, jd.com, on a red van next to us on the road—
My laptop died while writing the last entry. I don’t remember what I was going to say.
I bought a Bull wall adapter and a white-and-grey-striped bath towel at the Carrefour near Nanxiang Station; the former to charge my laptop which died and the latter so that I don’t have to air dry when I take a shower in the morning. I hope the voltage doesn’t mess with my battery; that would be unfortunate.
There’s lots to do.
I need a bank account, a TEFOL certificate, a this, a that. Food, groceries, I already have a SIM card from the Chinese phone company. I didn’t know what a SIM card was until now. It cost 50 RBM; Gary paid for it because he assumed he was supposed to. But then Ivy told me I needed to pay for it, so I gave the money to Jeany. (Ivy runs the joint; Jeany works in the office.)
I start teaching on Thursday, September 20, a week from today. First class will be literature to Rehabilitation Science students. Then critical writing, or “Composition as Critical Inquiry,” to Graphic Design students on Friday. The literature textbook is a Norton Anthology, the likes of which I saw during my time at Oregon State University. I don’t yet have a textbook for critical writing, though I don’t know that I need one. I plan on using the research essay formatted assignment that I used with my high school sophomores in the spring. It was on Fahrenheit 451, but the process could be applied to almost any topic; C-E-A-E-A-Cl is a stable body paragraph, easy to follow. We will see what kind of exposure my students have to the American essay.
I’m writing syllabi. The college gave me a format, but it feels like a formality. Tim Jensen, one of my writing professors, said, “Today is syllabus day, also known as cover-my-ass day.” I’m beginning to understand why—there’s gotta be some accountability otherwise a teacher could do whatever they want on a whim, without much consequence. But the content, policies, and schedule are subject to change at the professional discretion of the instructor, which means I can write with flexibility. Mike O’Malley, one of my education professors, hardly followed his syllabi, written to appease administration rather than give the students something to follow religiously.
Got a Teacher’s Appreciation Day bonus: 3000 RMB or about $400. Will save and use it for food and groceries. Or I’ll go halfsies on an e-bike with my roommate. That could be fun and potentially dangerous. Costly, too, but if it’s anything like the rest of Chinese products, affordable.
Set up an account with the Bank of Shanghai, necessary to be on the college’s payroll. The bank was helpful, I got a debit card, and I pray to God that the money I make will be easily transferable to my American bank account; I don’t want to spend much, here, if I can help it. We ran out of time, though, the bank closed before we could get help connecting our accounts to WeChat, which is everything, it seems. Most vendors and modes of transportation accept WeChat as payment: just a scan away. It’s like China skipped from cash & check straight to smartphones, without much regard to the traditional American form of payment: the (debit or credit) card. I have a debit but have not seen many places where I could swipe it.
On a personal note, God is good and providing. My roommate, Joe, is an MK (missionary kid). We went to Shanghai Community Church last Sunday—a two-hour commute by bus and metro. We walk in, they’re singing something from the mid-2000s, in English. It feels like a traditional American church: pastor is white, crowd is colorful, communion is open. Isaac is a lost patriarch, someone from whom we may learn what not to do when it comes to raising children, apparently. The sermon was three-pointish, with a brief resolution that I found insightful. Mostly, he retold Genesis 25-27, detailed but simple.
I have an audition for the worship team, want to know more about staying connected. I don’t know if there are any churches closer to us, though I’m okay with a bit of travel. I wasn’t expecting to find something like this; they even have community groups. Who knows, Joe and I may eventually host something if there are other believers out here in the Jiading district.
He remembers seeing a sign with a quote: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Attributed to Ernest Hemingway; hanging on a wall in Powell’s Books in Portland.
It’s Saturday night, and his roommate has purchased SKYY (vodka) and Kentucky Gentleman (bourbon). He likes the taste, the way liquor breaks apart the cells in his mouth, causing them to be numb and tingle.
He is alone in his apartment.
P. T. Barnum says, according to Hollywood, Goodreads, and Pinterest, that the noblest art is that of making others happy.
Does this make you happy?
Does your soul sing because you know God is faithful? Do Mack Brock and Amanda Cook move you, making you aware of your un-aloneness and the everlasting presence of the Father, here, in the room with you, now and forever?
Hallelujah, to the end. God be praised.
Amen. Let it be so.
He utters words, stopping to pray when Netflix will not stream as it should. He sees a circle, buffering, and decides to leave his twin bed and return to his Pavilion m6 with a newly-installed SSD thanks to a generous best friend. Do it for the friends and the family—who else will read this, anyway?
Thanks to Mineo, Lecrae, Wickham, Zayas, and Good News Today. You are, again, words on a page, a screen. But you transcend; you are more than that.
There is a conflict between two natures. He is of flesh, sold into chains, wrapped up in sin and perverseness and depravity. He may never have committed adultery in the 10-commandments-sense (he isn’t married, anyway), but he has committed lust, the sermon-on-the-mount kind as redefined by his Lord and Savior and Skye Jethani on a podcast he listened to, earlier today.
What would he like to do? He would like, in his mind, to please God. He agrees with Paul—he studies Romans 7 and sees that there is nothing good that dwells in his flesh. But he is flesh, is he not? He found a gym not far from his apartment and ran 0.7 miles to meet a man named Zhu who offers a yearly membership for 1,580 RMB. He wants to accept because they have showers, a bench press, and a patio. Plus, the environment is conducive to bodily improvement, unlike the teacher’s or student’s gym on campus.
His queue runs empty, and now he just types in silence.
He practices the evil he does not wish to do, and it is because of sin which dwells in him. He watches porn because he ignores the other nature. Because he is weak. It’s not a habit, though, which he tells himself to justify. It’s just a minor slip, he says. But he won’t get on his knees and repent—not until Sunday, at least—because he feels too guilty after the deed is done.
I am the one who wants to do good.
His Bible is open on his lap; it is dark, and he turns his head from page to screen, letting his fingers do the work. His mind, the mind that Paul says wants to do good, is stimulated by a depressant. It sees a war, waged in the members of his body—WRETCHED MAN!
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (Rom. 7.25). He, too, struggles with hamartia.
And where is his victory over sin when he falls?
He is delivered from bondage, so says the heading of Romans 8 in his New American Standard Version. There is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8.1). No katakrima even though his guilt is established and he sits, eyes to the floor, as Jesus takes his place.
His mind is more than the brain upstairs: it is the visceral and cognitive aspects of thinking, the parts of him that go beyond intellect and a + b = c. It comes from his chest, from the muscles around his heart. It keeps him from leaving the zoo, where his dead scratches and honest confessions are on view for every gaze, every voyeur.
He is either in Christ Jesus or in his flesh. On his way to life and peace or on his way to death, for the mind set on flesh “does not subject itself to the law of God” and “cannot please God” (Rom. 7.7-8). And what is the law of God if not to love him and thy neighbor?
I wish to please you, Father. Do I?
Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do I make you happy? Do this make you happy?
Is mine a noble art?
Writing sobers him, and he rinses his glass in the sink. Pees clear in the porcelain pot, brushes his teeth, hears the electronic hum. He shuts down: body, mind, spirit, droopy eyelids, and cyborg bits wired to create when he should be sleeping. Give him a blank page, and he is Joyce; give him a drink, and he is every Portland hipster, ever. But the stream is dead now, and his pond is covered in water lilies.
This will be an entry of sound. Since arrival, his ears have been bombarded by it: the Chinese chatter (to which he stands, politely, trying to look like he understands), the god-awful squawking of whatever bird (he assumes it’s a bird, maybe a crow being assaulted) nests on campus, and the music (or podcasts, depending on the mood) he ingests when he can’t abide by the first two and needs something familiar.
There is silence, too. Like now: all he hears is a keyboard, the AC, and a few noises outside. Laughter, barking, honking. Okay, mostly silent. The only real silence exists in bed, with his orange earplugs expanded, blocking.
He heard another kind of keyboard next door an hour ago. A piano keyboard. This reminds him of his new responsibility at SCF—his audition was a success, and Josh plugged him into the rotation.
He wants to practice. He imagines a scenario where his neighbor lets him in and he plays a piece (River Flows in You or Für Elise, the two he has sort of memorized) to show what he knows. Then he’d be able to learn lead lines for worship or Clair de Lune, for which he brought sheet music.
Sheet music—that’s funny. He realizes, for the first time, oddly enough, that music is universal: the only language we all speak. Notes on a page look the same no matter who you are or what tongue you possess. Aha! There is common ground, at least between enjoyers and purveyors of music.
His smartphone is updating to iOS 12.0, and he doesn’t want to leave the air-conditioned office, so he pulls up the Word document titled “Shanghai Journal,” looks at the clock, and writes a day and time in bold letters.
He just spent 2.5 hours at the Bank of Shanghai. His salary goes there, and he wants to understand how it works. He wants to be able to use WeChat and Alipay to make purchases because most vendors do not take debit cards (which he has) but do take cash (which he’d rather not carry a lot of). Since he doesn’t speak Chinese, he takes a student worker with him; her English name is Alina, and she is more patient than he is. Her English is passable, but she helped him get what he wanted: access to the apps that let him buy groceries and DiDi’s (like Uber) and anything really because WeChat is everything.
His students are quiet, well-behaved freshmen. They stand up when he calls their name to answer, and they do not sit until he tells them to. This is how they were conditioned in high school. He will try to break this because open discussions are an essential part of critical thinking, which it is his aim to teach. And open-ended questions, though sometimes difficult to answer, are the epitome of freedom and liberty and America and certainly not China because they’re collective here, and individualism is bad and they’d rather be silent anyways because it’s easier to be told what to think by some sage on a stage instead of a recent college graduate who wanted an adventure, so he came to Shanghai to teach English which is obviously not their first language—they wouldn’t even be in his class if they had done better on their examinations the year before.
Friday was a failure. It rained yesterday. Today was literary.
Friday was a failure because grammar is difficult, even more so for English Language Learners who struggle to read, to write, and especially, to speak (“to” + base verb = infinitive). Friday was a failure because his students were tired; Cathy had the courage to tell him so after class. But he has eyes and ears and could tell that the lesson was going nowhere. Why were they so tired? They had some sort of physical exercise exam the day before and had been preparing for a debate. At least, that’s what he gathered from Cathy. Sentences, clauses, phrases, independent, dependent—what the hell is he talking about?
ICEY: About last Friday’s class made you unhappy, we feel very sorry. I also asked my classmates after class, maybe because they learned about grammar and it was a little difficult for them, so it was relatively boring. Students will improve in the future. So may I ask you to forget that lesson? Students will certainly improve in the future! I hope you can give our class a chance!
MR. S: Hey, we are learning together. I don’t blame anyone for the failure, do not worry! If it seems like I’m not giving your class a chance, that’s something I need to apologize for. Thank you for your effort and concern, Icey.
ICEY: Ok, fine. I really thank you for your generosity. [Joyful Emoji]
MR. S: [Grin Emoji]
It rained yesterday. He met Dr. Dave Birner, Damien, and Daniel: three gentlemen representing Concordia, Wisconsin. He teaches Literature (sort of) to Rehabilitation Science students who will be going to Concordia for their junior year of college. It rained yesterday, and there was a welcome ceremony for the “family of CUW” in Rihua building, room 177. They were given blue t-shirts to wear to the ceremony. They talked a lot about the t-shirts because it was simple and a gift and something visual in a world of auditory chaos. Yesterday, it rained on students who may or may not even want to be in college, much less have to go to America for school when they’d rather stay comfortable in Shanghai. (What a cynical thought!) How many feel that way, he doesn’t really know.
Today was literary because he made the PowerPoint every Literature teacher makes, the one defining terms. Wells & buckets—what are figures of speech, images, symbols? How do rhyme, rhythm, & repetition work? What about form & style? Or tone & mood? And, most importantly, will he actually talk about them? Or will he just motion to a screen while they take notes using words they don’t know because they’re sitting at an elementary-school level when it comes to their grasp of the English language? Cognitively, he knows they’re there. They are smart, formerly dedicated, searching students. (The girls, especially. The boys… they need to get more rest because they like to close their eyes and nod off when he’s speaking. It’s obnoxious.) Today was literary because he made it so. Because God or coincidence placed him behind the keys and he had to Google search and check the glossary of his borrowed Norton Anthology for definitions of words he knows and uses subconsciously. Draw them out! Make them bend to your will!
Today was literary because last week he listened to Ear Biscuits episode 165, “Do YouTubers Watch YouTube? Part 2” by Rhett & Link. In this episode, they mentioned another podcast called Radiolab by WYNC Studios which he’d heard things about but never considered subscribing to. Then, he did. And today at the gym he listened to “In the No Part 1” and “In the No Part 2.” The producer, at the end of Part 2, said something about Part 3, which would be graphic and mostly uncut. The music playing behind his voice was ominous and rabidly beat-y. Foreshadowing! he thinks.
Beep! Beep! Beep! goes the washing machine. He stands and opens the door to his apartment balcony. Lifting the lid, he shakes and rests his damp clothing onto the hanger. Then moves the clothes inside. He turns off the balcony light, smokes a cigarette, and stares at the moon while wondering if man was made to roll tobacco, sell it, buy it, light it, and stare at the moon. He finishes, goes to the kitchen, swigs a glass of water and cuts open a pomelo, original from China, barcode 6928694868826.
Another month passes. He sits, now, in a polished wooden chair at an old desk in a room at an Inn at the edge of the village called Moganshan. It’s nicer than it sounds. But cold—there is no central heating in this part of Shanghai, only air conditioning that he knows will blow hot air because of the sun symbol on the remote. It should be snowing, but it’s not that cold, and he’s told they don’t get much snow here anyways in Deqing or wherever they are. It took nearly four hours in an early-2000s model tour van driven by the now-past-middle-aged Chinese man who smoked a cigarette at the pit stop where all the foreigners stopped for the toilet and snacks. They all smoke cigarettes unless they are married and their wives make them promise to quit. That’s Jie’s story, at least, but it’s likely true of others.
The lights are off. His coworker, Clay, snoozes in the bed in the room at the Inn at the edge of the village called Moganshan. Now the lights are on. Breakfast is in 20 minutes. He sips hot water from a baby blue Original ceramics mug that has on it a white rabbit and the word “dreams.” There is something dried and natural in the water, but he’s not sure, and it mostly just tastes water, not tea. He takes some pictures of the room so he won’t forget. Why write, then? To pass the time. Not for memory, certainly. He won’t remember this.
Breakfast is in 12 minutes. Last night they sat around a bonfire and played Mafia and Fishbowl. Serge, Jessie, Ethan, Ivy, Feng, Joe, Clay, and Frisky, Serge’s doggo. Before the bonfire, they ate Shao Kao (probably spelled differently), which is like shish-kebab barbeque over coals. It was mostly delicious along with the Chinese beer-water, fish ball soup, fried rice, fruit, and salad. He ate his fill, and his stomach bulged while his family did the same, miles away in Minnesota, celebrating a day of Thanks and Giving. He misses them, of course, but he will see them in less than a month when he flies to Portland for Christmas.
This is the story of Moganshan. Once, long ago and certainly before this place was ever spotted with the sounds of construction, horns, and villas, a man loved a woman. The man, Gan Jiang, one of China’s most skilled swordsmiths, was ordered by Helu, the king of Wu, to forge a pair of swords. He and his wife, Mo Ye, set to work on the swords but found that their furnace was not quite hot enough to melt the metal. Mo believed there was not enough qi—vital human energy, the air of life—in the furnace, so, depending on the storyteller, they either cut their hair and nails, casting them into the flames, or they cast themselves into the flames as a sacrifice to make the furnace burn hotter.
In the former telling, the couple eventually produces swords good enough for the king, except that it takes them three years instead of three months as the king had commanded. The two swords are named after the couple: Ganjiang and Moye, male and female. They keep Ganjiang and give Moye to the king. The king, already upset, learns of their treachery and moves to have Gan Jiang killed. Before he can do so, Gan hides the male sword and leaves a message about its location for his wife and unborn child. The child is born, raised, and told the truth about his father. He seeks vengeance, but the king is warned in a dream of his coming. The king places a bounty on Chi, Gan’s son, and an assassin finds him. Taking pity on poor Chi, the assassin suggests that he surrender his head for the king, along with the formerly lost Ganjiang. If he does so, the assassin will take up the bounty and avenge Chi’s father. He does.
The assassin brings the severed head and legendary male sword to the king, who is overjoyed at their coming. But Chi’s head just stares and stares, making the king quite uncomfortable. The head is boiled, and nothing changes; after 40 days, there is no sign of decay or breakdown. The assassin convinces the king to stare back, thinking the king’s power might cause it to decompose. The king bends over the cauldron, and the assassin makes his move, using Ganjiang to decapitate the king. His head falls into the water next to Chi’s, and the assassin resolves to remove his own head as well. Three heads in a pot, flesh melting now that the deed is done and vengeance complete, only skulls remain. The guards cannot recognize whose head belongs to whom and decide the three men should be honored as kings for their bravery and loyalty. They are buried in the “Tomb of Three Kings” at Yichun. The swords are lost, then reappear during the early Jin Dynasty. They, too, are buried, but at Yanping Ford.
Nearly two thousand years later, another man walks in the bamboo woods of Moganshan. He does not love a woman, nor does he know much about the making of swords. His knowledge of qi is limited to Danny Rand and his Iron Fist. But he has time, so he researches the story he only heard bits of on the way to the village of Moganshan. Feng, the teller, has it that the lovers committed suicide for the sake of the swords, and their souls are kept inside of the terribly beautiful weapons of old. He does not know which telling he likes better. The latter reminds him of Romeo & Juliet, except that these lovers died for a noble reason. The former is bloodier, more wasteful.
This entry is for yesterday because I was exhausted. I left Portland at 06:00 on Wednesday and arrived in Ho Chi Minh at 06:00 on Friday. The latter city is 15 hours ahead of the former, which means I traveled for 33 hours. Slept in pieces on airport chairs and airplane seats. No more than 3 hours at a time. Let’s do the math: 2-hour flight to San Francisco, 7-hour layover, 11-hour flight to Tokyo, 6-hour layover, 6-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh. Or thereabouts. Exhausted for the low price of $405.
I took a car from the airport to Long Hostel. Met another traveler named Marcus, who rode in an overnight train on a bunk with two feet of clearance to the ceiling. Squished. Crammed, you might say. He was sick and didn’t sleep much. I silently breakfasted next to a Russian man and a girl from the UK. The girl, I later found out, was named Kate. More on her in the next paragraph. After breakfast, I changed into shorts and secured my belongings in an unlocked cage in a back room. Check-in was at 14:00; I was too early to be shown a room.
Kate quit her job as a physical therapist to travel Asia. (She can’t have been much older than me.) I have no day-to-day plans, so when Kate said she was taking a bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels north of town, I asked if I could tag along. Walking to the station, we boarded the bumpy, noisy number 13 bus for 10.000 Viet Dong (approx. 0.43 USD). One and a half hours later, we transferred to the number 79, which took us to the tunnels. We bought our tickets and wandered towards the entrance. Finding seats in straight-backed wooden chairs, we watched an old bit of black and white propaganda about the Vietnam War. “Kill Americans,” “American enemies,” and “Medal of Honor for Killing Americans” were the phrases that stood out to me.
A guide spoke to us in English about the tunnels: “250 km long,” “layers deep,” “escape route to the Saigon River,” “vents made with bamboo for oxygen down below,” “twenty years to build,” and “booby traps.” He took us through some of the tunnels, the final one being the most difficult. “If you have asthma or are claustrophobic or do not like tight space, meet us at the tunnel exit.” I followed him 50 meters through the tunnel on hands and knees, going up and down below the earth. Saw spiders and bats. Was bitten by mosquitos in the jungle. Ate steamed cassava root dipped in crushed peanuts and sugar. Tasted like sweet potatoes and tapioca. Bussed back to the city, had pho with beef balls, showered at the hotel, and slept for 12 hours.