Learning

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Early this morning, I threw a piece of discoloredly well-used toilet paper into the trash can. Admittedly, I had just awoken from satisfyingly deep slumbers, and moreover, the aforementioned trash can had a temptingly toiletside location, as if it had paid the realtor extra to be within ‘home-run distance’ of the proverbial ballpark. But neither of these excuses can cover up my unthinking, muscle-memory-induced action, which, here in America, would generally be deemed questionable.

This is a typical faux-pas committed by Asia-habituated westerners returning to their home countries, and one that I thought I had brought under control. I may still be “uncivilized”, as the Chinese might say, in a variety of ways; I may still be a country bumpkin of sorts, but at least I disposed of waste in a manner acceptable to most first-world Health and Sanitation Boards. I could, in short, take care of my own shit.

But as I found out this morning, that still isn’t always the case. A strain of un-civilizedness, of barbarity and wildness and consequent confusion of identity, unwittingly boils up inside of me and with ultimate inevitability spills at random into the apparent peaceful order of my daily life.

Sometimes it slips out in my speech, when I speak as if others around me cannot understand the language, or when I’m unwittingly harshly honest or truthful or, above all, overly direct about a situation or person or aspect of culture around which most Americans would normally daintily tiptoe. Or it comes out in my grammatically butchered simple sentences, or attempts to search for even the most commonplace of the words. It’s not that my grammar and vocabulary have regressed; I still enjoy pulling out the most extended and self-masturbatorily absurd lexical resources English can offer to the casual (social?) user. Instead, it’s when I find myself in the most quotidian of situations, situations in which I was constantly engaging in China – buying goods, eating at a restaurant – that I find myself at greatest grammatical and syntactic deficit.

Sometimes this lack of civilization appears in my actions, most notably in my increased admiration for – and consequent action upon – spontaneity. I appreciate the need to plan in certain situations, if not as frequently or voluminously as most Americans. We are truly a nation of planners, where what is on paper – as an agenda, blueprint, or itinerary – often matters far more than what actually happens. We are constantly pushed to document, record, organize, systematize; we are less frequently (and, in some cases, never) urged to feel, experience, or live. After three years in Qinghai, I have come to realize that, by engaging in spontaneous activities and feelings and experiences, I ultimately live more fully. I wake up on a Saturday; what will I do? It’s sunny; I wander down a street and see where it leads. Or I jump on a bus to the once-militarized, now re-wildly barren rollingly fogburnished hills of Marin county and run up any trail that looks interesting. Or I jump on some type of transport – bike, train, bus – to somewhere that sounds interesting and proceed to find out exactly how interesting it is (or isn’t). Regardless of absolute levels of interest, I see and feel and experience and learn and live far more in this way than in others. Strike one point up on the board for unplanned barbarism.

And sometimes, it slips out when meeting others. As a proverbial “new guy” in a city full of recent arrivals, I find myself constantly meeting others. Once initial greetings have been completed, I find that I’ve lost what little knowledge I once had of the art of conversation. All of my reference points are Chinese or Tibetan or something central Asian and wild at heart; the tchochkied accessories of modern life’s onward striving have left me behind, and thankfully so. I find myself lost in nearly any discussion of American pop culture, or products, or sometimes even politics; I didn’t have any communications for a large chunk of time, and when I returned I found that I hadn’t missed them as much as expected.

My apparent lack of shared cultural reference points has not been helpful while making friends, and has been even less helpful while attempting to date. I always feel self-centered talking about my experiences in China, and yet it seems, at times, that I have little else about which to talk. I have become clueless, random, culturally and socially barbaric; I simultaneously feel somewhat at home and fully out-of-touch and out of my depth and lost and confused and consequently aggravated. I can’t say I fully know who I am, but how am I to preserve whatever who I have become while maintaining my place in the chaotically modern orchestral symphony of a society that we’ve labeled “America”?

Yesterday, I was just about to walk up the flight of steps that leads to my front door when something caught my eye. I looked down; my foot had tread on a slip of paper, long and narrow, on which were rows of Tibetan writing. My heart skipped a beat: how could this page from a Tibetan Buddhist scripture (for it was that) find itself to my door in San Francisco? Was this a case of complete entropy, chaos, chance; was it caused, was it a sign that I was being followed; was it simply that someone else in my building was studying Tibetan? Why was this page here, and what was its story?

Even in San Francisco, apparently, random and unexpected and barbarically surprising events occur. Hopefully, enough that I’ll start to regard this place as home.

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