As some or less than some of you may know, after a grueling 9 months in the real world, and perhaps at the brunt of it all in the sweat soaked streets of Manhattan, I sought respite through a 4 month vacation (that is still largely ongoing) beginning in China, specifically Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. For the first few days after landing in Shanghai I felt really good, maybe a little too good. There was something very unusual but also incomparably comforting about entering into a sea of bodies just like mine that made me feel at home even though I was thousands of miles from it. The first week in Shanghai was a national holiday so everyone was off work and on the streets, slowly ambling along the river that separates the old Shanghai from the new. You couldn’t escape the luxuriously slow rhythm both because people had nothing else to do but enjoy the sun and also because it’s nearly impossible to upset the pace of a million people walking in tandem. It’s hard to explain the “at oneness” I felt there, maybe it was the realization of my unconscious habit to give a tip of acknowledgment or self effacing smile to Chinese couples on the street or to groups of mandarin speaking cliques moving inseparably through crowds of brown and blonde hair, or maybe it was looking around and seeing every phenotypic variation of myself without the need for that same reminder of solidarity. The fact that I pored over thousands and thousands of faces in what felt like complete disguise -no one had a reason to look or not look at me- and yet I wasn’t incognito, I just was without any need for explanation or justification. I was just another face in an ocean of black hair and brown eyes, which surprisingly made me feel even more welcome.
But eventually this romantic impression left me for a much less satisfying one. It wasn’t long after these first few days in Shanghai that I became increasingly annoyed with the different cultural norms that showed themselves at every available opportunity. Perhaps it was the brazen lady who shoved her way to the front of a dense mass of people waiting altogether civilly for their turn to get on the subway, or the middle aged man in a tank top barely big enough to cover his pouting belly who hocked a wad of semi opaque loogie right next to my foot, or the woman squatting at the top of a staircase refilling used and thrown out water bottles to resell downstairs while I looked on in horror, speechlessly shoveling boazi into my jaw dropped mouth. Yes, it must have been one or all or a lot more of these moments that made me crane my neck in nostalgic comradeship when overhearing a tourist say “general Ts-oh’s chicken please” or “no American toilet? Never mind then”
But then there were enchanted moments like when Jenny, the restaurants manager at the Grand Hyatt where I was neither a guest nor patron, walked me down deep into the mall to hand deliver me to a box of tampons that was so fortuitously the literal only box that it seemed as if it’d been hand selected and reserved for me, or UFC who drove us two hours to and from a sparsely populated beach framed by two heaps of seemingly floating mountain that looked straight out of the movie Avatar, or distant relatives I’ve only ever met once and ten years ago who treated me like a combination of their best friend and master.
Which leads me to a slew of somewhat obvious and less obvious conclusions. I’ve determined the feeling, maybe even rush I got when I first arrived in China is similar to waking up on a Saturday morning, strapping on my maize and blue and making my way to the Big House for a fall afternoon football game–everyone’s fumbling through the streets as obnoxiously as you, people are hanging off wooden porch beams screaming because everyone else is and no one cares cuz we’re all in this together. That sense of unity is forgiving and justifying, you don’t have to have a reason why you’re laying face down in someone’s lawn, you’re part of a greater shared experience that exempts you from judgement or explanation.
Yet the fact remains that sometimes I think people in China do gross and/or rude and/or strange things, but that’s ok because I’ve realized (and have been realizing through different experiences abroad) that I’m much more than I’d like to admit a spoiled, often ignorant, and entitled American. And as much as I’d like to rage with people wearing the same jersey as mine, I wasn’t brought up with the same school spirit. While I uncompromisingly appreciate, protect, and am proud of my ethnicity & background (and I can’t emphasize this enough), I’m still more culturally American than I am anything else–I’m used to sitting on a toilet that stands off the ground when I have to potty, to people who are polite even if just for formality sake, and to whining and complaining when things aren’t as entirely convenient as I think they should be. I guess for better or for worse that’s what makes me feel at home, even if we’re not all Chinese.
Our first day in Shanghai looked something like this:
I was watching Miracle on 34th Street today (actually watched it twice in a row because for some reason AMC is too lazy to program more than two movies a day) and was *astounded* at how quickly Dorey and Bryan “fell in love”, a feature of most romantic comedies and certainly the unvarying theme of all Hallmark movies without exception and even when about dogs. Despite having spent my fair share of nights in the early (and later not so early) years of my childhood planted on the sofa giggling along while Matilda (I really don’t know her by any other name) charms Santa and her father-to-be with brimming precociousness and an unusually cute face that I sometimes want to eat, I’ve never taken objection to and frankly never noticed this glaringly obtrusive trend before. For those of you who didn’t spend your childhood junked up on Christmas movies and bonbons smeared on your face, there is really only one thing that you need to know re Dorey and Bryan’s romantic relationship and that is, to oversimplify things, that they have only spoken a handful of times (I realize this may be contentious and some may say that they’ve been dating for as far as we know years, but to my discretion I’m pretty sure they met an hour before the movie started) come Thanksgiving and are married by Christmas. And yet up until my 22nd year of life I accepted this as normal if not laudable behavior. What?
Now, I don’t mean to preach about “media’s” destructive influence on society and give you some annoyingly pedantic essay that would make me hate myself as much as you would (although to be honest, I probably will do that sometime next week) but I really just want to know if and how movies are reflecting or influencing real life? Of course this conversation could go on forever and across an entire breadth of lifestyle modeling, but for relationships specifically, do the interpersonal patterns in movies affect how we play them out in our own lives? On the one hand I’m quick to point blame at them for what I see as a general tendency in couples to not know (or seriously care to know, or in “the right ways” (I hate me too, it’s ok)) each other before committing to serious undertakings, myself having been included. It seems more common than not that people unknowingly sustain their relationships on superficial pretenses and that it’s only a matter of time before the cracks fissure and you drop into hell—or my mom just told me that so I’d be celibate forever. But hoping it’s the former, maybe we’re doomed to this miserable forgone romance and our only salvation is in trade schools for the healing heart during which we brandish ourselves with symbols (“optimistic”, “hurt”, “healing”, “addicted to red meat” etc.) in order to attract compatible companions (which I’m pretty sure is an arranged marriage in which case we should all just get those).
Yet on the other hand, I think these subliminal movie messages can’t possibly have had any irreversible effect or else I would’ve married that guy I met in the hall once 10 years ago at the drinking fountain. Yet due to some divine intervention I’m happy to report that I’ve thus far dodged (or more likely was dodged by) every man that would have possibly taken me as his nearly teenage wife after one month of dating. Instead I enjoy yelling at Jonatan until we both cry, in addition to long walks to the delivery ice cream truck. Quite simply, it amazes and inspires me that I’m in a relationship in which I feel aggressively genuine, and seek to cultivate in an intentional way. If it were up to Hallmark I’d be married to some hick who for no reason wants to be my kid’s dad and likes when I make him waffles in pumps and a bustier. But here I am, androgynous as ever with a fierce suspicion of all men who don’t approve of my shredded underwear from the 6th grade, and I find myself with a person that is as comfortable being as inexcusably frumpy as I am, respects me as much as I respect myself, loves his family as much as I love mine, accepts me more than I can myself, and challenges me intellectually & emotionally every day except for when all we do is nothing + sugar and fat. So how do I reconcile my fear of having drank the romcom kool-aid for far too long and without warning, with finding myself, wits in tact, exploring a relationship that is deeply soul enriching and with no foreseeable plans to marry? Some might just say it’s a Christmas miracle.
(Also I’m 22, so…)
In recent months I’ve been caught up in a slew of vacation idleness including and mostly limited to a copious amount of brain rotting cable television (no offense Hallmark movie channel) and unhealthy amounts of red meat. While it definitely has its rewards (never need to think, move, or shower) it becomes an exhausting chore to remain so inactive for so long. But what seems equally if not more troubling is how easy and addicting this lifestyle can become, and how much of an active effort it is to be productive and keep mentally and physically agile. So why this hair pulling contradiction of feeling compelled to do and accomplish things and similarly feeling compelled to the couch, steak in hand? Does anyone else share this distress with me or should I start going to therapy?
This whole issue came up today when I stumbled on an old email that I sent to someone after my freshman year of college, and was relatively shocked at the general interest and curiosity that seemed to possess me, and also discouraged that the questions that were unsettling then are those that are now more complicated to me today. The email was surprising and also expected–I feel like I’ve been trying to figure out the same thing for years without much clarity or progress. Whereas in college it felt like self-indulged rumination, now it’s clear to me that it’s always been a struggle to feel as though I’m fully realizing my ambition and intent (because, after all, what is my ambition and intent?), and far too tempting to be pulled into the way easier yet much less rewarding mindlessness that accompanies TV and stuffing my face. Sometimes I wonder if it’s not my nature to be in a fixed state of always secretly wanting to go home and watch movies & TV (albeit I’d like to think at least good movies & TV but this is up for debate) no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It’s with honest effort that I understand these incongruences and try to come to some productive arrangement between the two. Maybe I’m just intimidated by the increasingly certain realization that life requires a constant level of control and purposeful determination (and thereby diligent restriction) that always by nature becomes (or just inherently is) a life in effortful strife. This is especially exaggerated by the conviction of desperately wanting creative control over my life that often precludes the traditional workspace–a workspace in which being diligent is enforced and supervised. During the disparate months at a time that I’ve had a job, my high productivity is quite frankly amazing to me and I’ve wondered to no avail how to sustain a similar work ethic of my own accord.
It never feels good to be overcome by self doubt and question not only my abilities but even more terrifyingly my motivations. Am I just lazy? Am I just disillusioned and day dream too much? Or might I actually have an uncompromising need to explore creative/self-made endeavors and am I willing to cultivate the work ethic to back it up? It’s gotta be one or the other, right? I worry that I’m never going to outgrow this teenage cliché in which I desperately try to define the meaning of life while I lay in bed eating Ho Hos for dinner. It’s the 15 year old, pizza buffet loving, teeth rotting girl in me that whines, can’t I just have my cake and eat it too?