Thus continues a series of notes about my recent travels. I didn’t post them earlier because they were mostly written as notes or based on notes scribbled in free moments in cafés, restaurants, train stations and buses. I have tried to modify them only enough to make sense of them, not to make them read-worthy. 
Buddhists call it enlightenment and describe it in terms of repeatedly beating yourself against a wall until, dazed and bloody, you turn go the other way. Psychologists only slightly less violently describe it in terms like absorption, saturation, and explosion. Literary types like to label it inspiration and credit their muse, while more religiously it’s known as an epiphany. For most of us, it’s finally getting it.

I read on several travel sites that you shouldn’t give money to child beggars, but I could not make sense of that. Wouldn’t children be more deserving of assistance? A few blocks to along Sisowath Quay was enough to make me appreciate the guidebooks’ insight. The child-beggars just bothered me. I didn’t know why or how. I just knew they did.

Child beggars

My insight came as I was making use of the wireless internet in Café Fresco. The café is on the corner lacking a nice view of the river, but providing plenty of passersby for visual consumption. I was thoughtfully gazing past my computer and out the window when a boy forcibly arrested my attention. He was poorly dressed but happily jumping around on the sidewalk while his mother talked nearby. He was enjoying his view of the café customers. He met my gaze and reciprocated my smile. It was the same happy interaction I’ve had with countless other kids on this trip. The wave was what killed it. It tipped Mom of about his happy interaction with a foreigner and quickly intervened. She inverted his hand and helped him into his practiced supplicant posture. The smile faded, the happiness evaporated and he was again the disturbing beggar boy.

Call me naïve, but forced depression just rubs me the wrong way. As does exploitation. His mother’s exploitation of her son’s helplessness. Her exploitation of my magnanimity toward her son. I’d have gladly played with him, taught him some English, bought him a meal and generally had a grand ol’ time of it. But I resented being lied to. She didn’t money to feed him. He wasn’t sad, poor and needy. He was still uneducated enough to be content with his low-income life. His mother was working hard to change that.

Perhaps that’s part of how we need to act as children to enter the Kingdom.
(04 Feb 08 | Phnom Penh) 


Thus continues a series of notes about my recent travels. I didn’t post them earlier because they were mostly written as notes or based on notes scribbled in free moments in cafés, restaurants, train stations and buses. I have tried to modify them only enough to make sense of them, not to make them read-worthy.
No, it's not Thailand, but it fits.
I steeled myself against the onslaught of vendors as I crossed Tha Na Phra An exiting the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaen complex. Swarming vendors were no match for my well-practiced, detached disinterest. Proud of my ability to shun faux Bangkok, I waded through the stream of tourists to check my planned course of travel against my guidebook. As I hadn’t eaten all day, I gave in to the urge to visit the Lonely Planet-pimped restaurant. The crowd of tourists inside doubled the severity of my self-mocking. I sheepishly ordered from the all-English menu and tried to hide my guidebook.

Waiting for my food, I watched the amulet seller outside the window. He hit up Thai and farang with indiscriminate futility. Eventually, a waiter took him out a meal. I was surprised to find myself thinking of his work as his career, his pop-up table as his desk, his guidebook-recommended restaurant at his back as his regular lunch break.

I surreptitiously scanned my guide’s description of my next stop. I rejoiced to find it would be less crowded and kicked myself for not following the advice to beat the crowd at the palace. I imagined wandering the palace alone and sitting in the café surrounded by Thai co-clientelle, realizing with a start the café would not exist, nor would the palace be open for viewing if it weren’t for the hateful tourists. Nor would I have a guidebook telling me what to see and how to see it.

As I visit new places, I’m always tempted to throw away the tourist help and just wander—avoiding anything touristy. Sure, I’d probably miss the key sites, but I’d see the ‘real’ city. The city that is supported by the dollars, euros, yuan and yen of the tourists. I’d have seen something authentic, but it would not be the Bangkok they write books about—in Thai or English. The tourists are part of the experience. The tourist traps are a legitimate part of the city. No, not the whole thing, but part of it. A thoroughly enjoyable, explorable, empowering part.

I loved my meal.
(30 Jan 08 | Bangkok) 

The Glass Elevator

Thus continues a series of notes about my recent travels. I didn’t post them earlier because they were mostly written as notes or based on notes scribbled in free moments in cafés, restaurants, train stations and buses. I have tried to modify them only enough to make sense of them, not to make them read-worthy.

Glass elevator(Apologies to RD)

I had a few hours to kill at Suvarnabhumi Airport, so I did what I always do at airports—I got something to drink and started walking. Suvarnabhumi is really a rather nice little airport. Lots of glass and steel. I gathered stares as I wandered the concourse, striding confidently toward the unused gates at the end of the airport, but I must not be the only person who kills airport time that way because the security guards at the end just flashed the famous Thai smile as I walked all the way to the obviously empty gate, turned around and headed off the way I came. Or maybe they were laughing, assuming I was lost and too shy to get help.

It was on the way back down the concourse that I noticed the offices outside the glass windows. For reasons perhaps only known to a now-forgotten group of Thai architects, they presented not only the operations of the airport to its directors, but also the all-too-personal actions of those directors and their subordinates to the general public. I couldn’t help watching for at least a few minutes. Most people seemed aware of their ocular defenselessness. Until they stepped into the glass elevator.

The first man to catch my attention was the man with the balding comb-over. He had walked down the hall like everyone else, I assume. I hadn’t noticed anything unusual about it, anyway. But as soon as the mirror doors closed, he started smoothing his few remaining hairs. He continued to do so until the elevator reached its destination two floors away and he anticipated exposure. He was blissfully forgetful of the glass walls of the elevator. The shoe tier and spit-polisher was apparently equally oblivious.

I think we all do that when we feel protected. Once the doors close on the world, we are free to honestly examine ourselves to make sure we give the right impression when they reopen.

Except sometimes the doors don’t close.

Before I explain that, I have to ask your impression of the men I described. Did you judge them or lose respect for them? I can’t speak for you, but I will freely share that I had no bad feelings for the men. I walked down my glass-walled concourse smiling at the view through the window they’d accidentally opened into their lives. I sat down at my own gate and gazed out on the world through 180° glass that was both my window to the world and its window to me. All at once I saw what was staring me in the face—I, too, was in my own glass elevator.

The world is a glass elevator, really. Everything we do is displayed for everyone around us.

My necessary extension of that thought demanded the identification of our doors. And isn’t it simple enough? We all erect walls. Walls of apathy or action. Feints to disguise our true desires and fears. If people care to, they can see past them. Most of us don’t bother. We are content living and viewing willful exposition, ignoring the hidden truth.

I want glass doors.

And a life worthy of them.
(21 Jan 08 | Bangkok) 

There is an I in Beijing

Thus continues a series of notes about my recent travels. I didn’t post them earlier because they were mostly written as notes or based on notes scribbled in free moments in cafés, restaurants, train stations and buses. I have tried to modify them only enough to make sense of them, not to make them read-worthy.


How you act when you’re alone may be your single most defining characteristic.
And, no, I didn’t just misquote the most famous definition of ‘character.’ 

I’m chilling in Beijing alone, right? My goal is to blend in. I mean, I know I don’t. The frequent stares I collect are a regular reminder of this. I don’t want to be an intruder, though. I find my own way even when it means walking around the block to find the subway station rather than struggling through the entirely possible audio/visual spectacle required to ask for help. I noted the subway station sign two stops back. I can get there if I need to.

I feel like a spy. An inept, under-informed, ill-equipped spy.

At the Forbidden City, I intentionally avoided spending time at the hot spots. All the foreign gawkers were there. I mean, I saw those things—who wants to miss the important stuff?—but I didn’t linger. No, I did my lingering in the more secluded parts of the garden. I hate tour groups. The drawback to my touring style is that I might miss things. The advantage is that I see what I want when I want. For example, scurrying past the highlights might have cost me a thorough history lesson, as my auto-guide hadn’t caught on enough to my touring style to keep talking as I moved away. I wasn’t ignoring her. I was interested. I just didn’t want to collect attention. But she said she enjoyed touring with me, so apparently she didn’t take it personally.

I don’t aim to be antisocial. That happens naturally when I travel alone and try to avoid attention. For example, I talked as much as I could at lunch. I ate in a little sidewalk shop in an alley off the main road. A middle-aged couple, their English-learning teen son, and the apparent uncle whose mutterings 

My dining companions

sounded exactly like Steve Carell to me occupied the other table in the dining closet. I almost exhausted my Chinese and the waiter’s patience ordering my lunch, but I had enough left to realize I was serving as the sole subject of their table talk. Once assured I could only reduce the attention by speaking to them, I answered what questions I could about myself and found out even less about them. I finished quickly and left new friends for the second time (the first was the volunteer Forbidden City tour guide). Both my appetite and my need for conversation sated, I wandered through the streets for a little while longer.

My desire for invisibility no more results from fear than it does from asociality. I blundered into three different banks trying to get my six month Chinese nest egg incubating in my American bank, but to no avail. I generated plenty of attention there—wandering from desk to desk gathering their tellers gets noticed. But I did it. And wasn’t even embarrassed.

Now I’m ensconced in my corner seat at the mall’s Starbucks overflow. Five of us loners occupy various tables. Most of us are pretending to be busy. The smart-but-dull-looking fellow next to me is browsing his paper for the third time. The businessman in the corner is holding his cell phone. He’s yet to use it, but he looks ready. And you can bet he’ll be loud when he does. Next to him is the is the Americanized (i.e., chubby) student pounding on his laptop. Apparently, the quality of the character is directly proportional to the strength of the stroke. Directly across from me, the shy girl is pouring a morose gaze into her frappuccino between sips. She won’t stay long—you can only do that if you’ll watch people. And I put on my best philosopher-poet face and hide behind my pen.


Unrelated Extra: Chinese marriages are strange creatures. This dorky middle-aged man is waiting for his immaculately dressed beauty queen wife to bring him his drink. She married in for financial and social security. I really can’t say what his reasons for the marriage were, but that’s not for lack of possibilities. They interact like Emperor and concubine—she’s submissive and helpful, but he knows enough to offer her genuine love. I highly doubt they have any of our romantic ideals of passionate love, but they both work at it. He looks his best for her. She looks her best for her. She needs pampering; he provides it. In return, he gets a devoted, submissive, beautiful wife. She expects, but doesn’t demand, and he provides. No silly emotional ties to hold onto. Just seeking mutual benefit. You can’t say it doesn’t work.
(17 Jan 08 | Beijing) 

White or Wheat?


So I’m in China, right?

One would imagine that would entail countless tales of a different life. Culture clash should at least account for the majority of the minority of my thoughts, right? I talk to the old folks at home and they want to hear about all the differences and my American expectations live on strong enough to push me to seek the stories I’m sure exist.

But they never quite materialize, and I’m trying to find out why.

Perhaps I’m just too lazy to document all the changes. In theory, my apartment has become a stronghold of American culture, buffered by the confines of the foreign experts dormitory and welcoming campus. Acculturation might occur more speedily and subtly than I suspected. China’s urban development could have camouflaged the unfamiliar in its cultural heritage.

I imagine there is some truth in all of those sentiments, and I am aware of enough cultural differences to satisfy those on both sides of the flight wanting information. But somehow I feel I’m not being schooled in the process of cultural observation and adaptation as I’d hoped to be.Invariably, one glaring cultural difference thrusts itself upon me—language. I cannot leave my dorm’s DCZ (De-Chinacized Zone) without being reminded that I don’t understand a key aspect of this society. Yet I continue to function and even thrive though practically a deaf-mute.

Which leads me to ask an important question: what is communication?

It’s an ironic question because, as a foreign language teacher, I teach all about communication. It is the theme of every lecture, the end-goal of every instructional activity. Yet I find myself unsure of its essential framework.The thought process (purged of my incessant excursuses) goes something like this: I’m walking down the street unable to verbally express a lone thought to passersby. Nor can they warn or inform me of vital knowledge. Yet this stroll feels no different from countless wanderings down countless American streets. My actions are the same. Aside from the fact that both I and those around me follow Chinese rules of visual interrogation—staring is acceptable here—there is no difference from such walks in my native land.

I’m wrong about something. I either fundamentally misunderstand communication and am, like all other humans, fluent in those primal communicative methods of facial expression and body language, as some would suggest, or err in my assumption that I communicate at home.

Either way, I’m learning. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to communicate what I’ve learned.