I think any time you travel for an extended period of time you sort of start to lose your mind. All the little things that you thought you could live with, like the small ant colony in your bed, the fact that your feet are always filthy, the absence of proper salty tomato juice (it’s a fruit, y’all!) the dearth of personal space – They all add up until a single tiny straw, for example, the sudden and alarming eruption of LEGS from your toiletry basket while reaching for the toilet paper; causes you to make an incoherent phone call home sobbing and hissing broken phrases about “Consummate impudence in my soap dish” and “Insolently capering in my washcloth God Damn it.”
There are some things about Western life that are not only entirely foreign to China, they are literally incomprehensible. The Chinese language in all honesty does not contain a word for “privacy.” They have words that express solitude, and words that express furtive secrecy, but the concept of personal space is devoid entirely of meaning. It’s as telling about our culture that we have developed an entire sacred lexicon surrounding the idea of privacy as it is about China that they have such a significant dearth.
After discovering this, we did some pointed research and discovered that Chinese also has no word for “irony.” This goes a long way towards explaining why Tiananmen Square still has the name “Gate of Heavenly Peace” and not “Gate of Oh Holy Fuck is That a Tank.”
English, too, needs to borrow from other languages terms and phrases that never developed intrinsically, like “Déjà Vu,” “Schadenfreude,” and “Corona.” It’s just as relevant to understanding a culture to examine the concepts that are missing as the concepts that are specifically named. For example, the Chinese have a phrase “Sui Bian,” which is very difficult to translate into English. Very literally, it means “following convenience,” and so might best be understood as “Easy going.” But more subtly, it has layers of meaning that are nearly impossible to express, since this is a concept that English has never found the impetus to develop a word for.
But I digress. I was bitching.
Chinese people laugh when you get hurt. Like, they stand there and LAUGH at you when bad things happen. It’s like the entire freaking culture developed around an episode of “Ouch! My Balls.”
And the Xenophobia is insane. INSANE. Everywhere you go, people point and loudly exclaim, “LAO WAI!!!”(foreigner.) It’s like some involuntary ejaculation. I actually think they might explode if they held it in. Even places that see hundreds of white people a day are punctuated by the sound of the sighted-whitey verbal tic. And they take pictures of you, like you’re what they came to the great wall to look at, and they point at you and tell their children, “There is a foreigner! They can’t speak Chinese. They don’t know how to use chopsticks! They eat pizza. They say, ‘HALLOOOOO!’ Can you say ‘HALLOOOOOO!!’ to your foreign Auntie?” Once, at a restaurant, Fred and I got so tired of feeling like a zoo exhibit that we picked up a filthy kitten, walked over to the table of people who had actually crossed the restaurant with their offspring to stand and stare at us while we ate, and told the cat, “Look! Chinese people! They can speak Chinese, but they don’t understand English! They never use a fork!” The cat did not give a shit, and squirmed and yowled. The Chinese people, on the other hand, were delighted. “Lao WAI!” They cried, ecstatic.
In Inner Mongolia, in Xilinhot, a group of teenagers with cell phone cameras honest to God CHASED ME THROUGH A MUSEUM trying to take my picture. It might have been hilarious if set to “Yackety Sax,” but unfortunately real life does not have a caustic soundtrack.
And now we are in Thailand, which retains my international award for the country that infuriates me the most. Misfortune stalks me through Thailand, from the minor collision with a tour bus in Chiang Mai to the brutal sunburn blistering the back of my legs on the night train to Bangkok.
And don’t even get me started on my motorbike, which I was so excited to drive again, and which sounds like a maniac dumping a sack of nickels into a metal toilet in an echo chamber. I’m driving the Honda Robot Diarrhea.
It’s that time during the trip where you just kind of hit the wall, and all those tiny things that make you want to scream come piling up and make a mountain, founded on such underpinnings as the woman stabbing me in the back with an umbrella as I try to board a train with a huge suitcase, the constant covert photographs people take of me in stores, the taxi drivers who drive in circles and smile with all their rows and rows of teeth, the hotels that won’t accept foreigners, even at three o’clock in the morning when you’re sick and limping with blisters, the people spitting on the bus floor, the woman HAMMERING SOMETHING AT FOUR IN THE MORNING ON THE NIGHT TRAIN TO GUILIN (What the fuck could you possibly have to hammer on a freaking train at four in the morning?!?) the paucity of drinkable beer, the unbearable proximity of someone’s unwashed feet, the inability to flush toilet paper, or, for that matter, even FIND toilet paper (it saves restaurants and stores a lot of money to make you bring your own), the innumerable rip-offs, the health code violations, the enormous tropical spiders, the repellent stench of the public toilets – the list of provocations is endless and petty. But eventually one thing will get you, out of all the things that there are, and that one thing will be so idiotic, and so insignificant, and it will send you straight over the edge raving like a gibbering lunatic. And you will end by resenting the hell out of a place that contrives to make you feel embarrassingly stupid even as it drives you completely insane.
In the end, it was the giant sized cockroach fossicking around in my bath tray that broke me.
I might be getting ready to come home.