The things we notice in faraway places

In Shanghai
The eels hang from wires high overhead, their skins split open so they appear much wider than they are, like fish instead.They glimmer in the glow of street lights, so much more beautiful than the drying ducks beneath them that hang with their bellies open and empty. We walk beneath the eels and a fin scratches against L.’s hat. “Oh,” she says, “now my hat will smell like fish.”

In Hangzhou
When something is stolen from you, the first emotion you feel is panic and disbelief. How is it possible, you think, I was riding my bicycle. But a man on an electric bike saw it all, he said “Did you get him?” and you run but all the black jacketed young men look the same, the only difference is glasses or no glasses? And when the police come by, they are ashamed of their city, they say, “You’re Chinese-American, you just came back to your native country and this happens.” They shake their heads and tell you how to better protect your backpack. You bicycle back and almost cry because it has been a bad week with other things lost and this deep-seated shame that you are somehow managing to do everything wrong. But it is your roommate’s birthday and you have bought him a cake and you will sing and laugh. And you will, later, wonder about the man on the electric bike and why he didn’t chase down the fellow and should you have been more suspicious? But it is just another little mystery.

In Shanghai again
The flight- cancelled. No word in advance. Call China Eastern and get handed to people who don’t care, who say, “All the planes are full, you can try for standby.” Go to the other airport. Go to the wrong terminal because the info online was not up to date. Go to the counter for another airline. Cry but don’t worry, there’s a seat. The flight isn’t full. Feel a massive sense of relief as you board the plane. Nothing else can go wrong.

In Chiang Mai
What struck you first was the lushness of it, the greenery everywhere. Second were the people. The backpackers and hippies you don’t see much of in China. The way other languages fly through the air. Then: the golden wats hidden in tiny alleyways, the stray cats, the dogs sleeping on the street as if dead. The street stalls that sell things you cannot name and things you can, from rambutan to pad thai to roti drizzled with condensed milk and chocolate to mango with sticky rice. Rose apples and jackfruit and smoothie stands everywhere. Coconut snacks and meat on skewers and things wrapped in banana leaves and sausages filled with rice. Chedi Luang impresses you, reminds you of the Native American ruins in Arizona while Chiang Mai, at other times, reminds you of Hawaii and Mexico but maybe because of the heat, the humidity, the tropical feel of it all. But the air is a bit more polluted, from the burning of the rice fields, you’re told; it’ll be worse next month.

You go caving at Crazy Horse Buttress, rappelling down then, later, ascending back up at 25 meter drop with nothing to hold onto but the rope. And it reminds you of freshman year of college, of doing the same thing (but easier, but less professionally) down a wall around Grad Center. Inside the caves, there are spiders and bats and cave crickets and millipedes with no eyes. The farmers, your guides tell you, used to come climb down into the caves to collect bat guano for their fields. There are limestone formations along the cave walls, lava flows that sparkle like sugar. You chimney up small gaps and walk along narrow ledges with only a rope to guide you. The stalagmites take years to form from the stalactites dripping down from their soda straws. Inside the caves, you eat pork cooked with chili paste and talk about the others who go caving. Mostly Americans, they say, the Thais are too afraid. Outside, it is a perfect day for climbing. In the songthaew on the way back to town, one of the climbers talks about the caves at Datong, outside Beijing, then about bungee jumping 400 meters in Macau. “It was 400 dollars a jump,” he said, “and I went twice.” And if offered the chance, he would go again.

The next day, you meet two other alums of your college, Connie ’00 and Monica ’01 who just happen to be in your cooking class. And everyone else is great, too, Laura and Ben and Sheeba and Vinay and Monica’s bf whose name you cannot remember because you can’t spell it. 6 courses, all the food delicious and you decide that maybe you like coconut and coconut milk after all. And a flaming wok for drunken noodles. And the secrets? Palm sugar and fish sauce and oyster sauce and two types of soy sauce. As well as galangal and turmeric and lemongrass and oh so many birds eye chilis but you make it through your 20 chili dish and even try the 40 chili one and yes, you sweat but it’s not too bad. At least it’s not 麻辣, that Chinese numbing spice.

In Bangkok
The first mistake I made was in booking a room at a guesthouse in the backpacker district, near Khao San Road. The second mistake was getting one with only a fan and no a/c. In Chiang Mai, a fan was enough but 5 degrees and one hour south makes a big difference. The nights are muggy and loud; there are street stalls selling fisherman pants and short flowy dresses almost right below my window. And all the people who buy them, from the old with their sun-damaged skin to the young with their tattoos. Another difference– that the costume becomes a tourist one. But fitting for the weather, fitting enough that I try to haggle with some of the stall-owners but they will have none of it because my first price is too low. But isn’t that how the haggling game works? In China, they’d haggle with me agreeably, crying out “it’s so low, I won’t even make a profit” but here in Thailand, they look at my first offer and they wave me away. This disgruntles me. What is even worse are the times I just ask the price of some of the snacks at a food stall and am told, nonverbally, that the snacks are not for sale, or at least, not to me. I’m not sure why.

Beautiful things: The ferry down the Chao Phraya River. Wat Pho at night. The Temple of Dawn at night. The cats and dogs sleeping in the wats. The park by Phra Sumane Fort and the children playing soccer there. The way thai iced tea is made- first sweetened condensed milk then all the ice the cup can manage, a tiny cupful of red tea and more condensed milk poured on top. It lasts about 30 seconds. The curry that is scooped into small plastic bags and the green papaya salad that is pounded in a mortar along with dried shrimp and pieces of salted black crab. The flower market that is filled with chrysanthemums as well as flowers you cannot name, large green pods that perhaps bloom into something huge and beautiful. The asian art exhibition you stumbled across, full of vivid colors, and so quiet and peaceful that you wanted to lie on the ground with the body of a sculpture by the windows or just sit in the curtained “kissing booths” and think about what exactly you are doing here.

But when it’s time to go, you find yourself glad to be going back to China, back to the cold winter and an unheated apartment, back to your housemates and the streets with garbage cans galore. It is only 7 hours, by plane then by train and bus, all the way back home.

p.s. Yes, this is out of order and yes, there are very mixed POVs and what is going on with the tenses? but I don’t care and I’m lazy and I just felt like writing it this way because everything is always just a rough draft until I need it to be something more.

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3 thoughts on “The things we notice in faraway places

  1. Aww! It was just wonderful until you put in that p.s., I don’t think you needed to qualify it at all. But of course it’s up to you.

    What is 麻辣? The only thing like that I’ve experienced is Sichuan pepper, which we had in hot pot and it was a totally weird experience.

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