Walkabout

Xishuangbanna

The bus pulled into a lot in the darkness and I got on my bicycle and rode into the town. It was warm and breezy. I was close to Laos and within a few days I would give away my jacket and my shoes. I was in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. The name meant “twelve thousand rice fields” in the indigenous language.

The town was called Jinghong. Some things had not changed. It was full of temples and orange cloaked monks walking through the streets with notebooks or butcher paper and bundles of vegetables and pork. Some things had changed. The streets were lit with bright telephone kiosks and open air shops selling toilet bowls and shiny refrigerators; I rode under a bridge and through an alley and the low pink lights of the massage parlors hummed and the made-up girls sat on leather couches behind colored glass. The university had beds for a few dollars and I checked in and went out to an internet café. (This one was a real café, more or less—grimy inside like a cafeteria but with doors open wide to the dusty street). Across from me, a fat Chinese girl was playing some kind of online slot machine, smacking the spacebar every few seconds with an irritating bang, cigarette dangling from her lips. She gazed into the screen without blinking; the room gave the impression of an entire generation vegetized by online gaming.

I went around the corner and found a café where I ordered a pineapple filled with sweet sticky rice; this was something friends and I would eat with relish in our Beijing neighborhood’s Yunnanese restaurant. I hadn’t seen them in Kunming. It was a dish from Xishuangbanna. There weren’t a lot of tables and I wound up seated across from a middle-aged Frenchman in a blue skull cap that made me think of Jacques Cousteau. He was barrel-chested and had thick little spectacles that made his eyes bulge out like a tortoise. He was a former chef at the New York City Waldorf and lived in Jinghong now. He wanted to harangue the Bush administration but I steered him off it; seeing that he was boisterous, I decided to excavate his thoughts.

“I know people who dedicated themselves to working in a third world country for ten, twenty years,” he said. “Yes, most of them give up one day. I had free cooking schools in the Philippines; I taught young people how to cook. I thought it would get them ahead, give them a way to live, but they go back—they all go back. It falls apart. The bulldozer is rusting in the field when we go away. You just give them an extension. I’ve been in Asia for twenty-five years. Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia—all of them. Most people in Asia are coming and looking for a new philosophy and they wind up in a monastery for years, running away from Europe and America. It just fucks them up more. Everyone is looking for a path. In European culture, you’re stupid if you don’t. I had three restaurants, a house, wife, and dogs and I sold it all. I thought, why do I need these things? For me, I’m here and I don’t know why. It doesn’t really concern me. I realize the luck I have and I try to live the best until the end. Look at all those people shit-scared. You die and go to heaven and then your kids are stamped with the same thing. Santa Claus bullshit. If you have kids, first apologize. This is why I like the Asian kids. Way smarter, way faster because they don’t have that bullshit.”

He was chuckling and smiling in a strange inverted way that turned the corners of his mouth down and wrinkled the corners of his eyes. He continued: “There’s no competitive time thing in Asia. I hate how Western people know their age. In Asia, there’s not that time sense. Feelings will make you old; that is all. There are girls in Asia courting me; not prostitutes; nice, good girls—twenty-one or twenty-two. In Europe they think you’re a pervert, but not here. The girls are pragmatic. They want a man with money—older, stable, who can support them financially. I hate the European existentialist atmosphere; religion holds people in their lot. I hate India for that. My ancestors were all serfs; look at the French Revolution. We changed our lives in the here and now. The world is getting worse and worse; it’s ecologically fucked. This is why I like the anti-religion of China. Ever since the Cultural Revolution, religion was banned. I didn’t ask to be here. I’ve helped some people. What’s the point? Tell me, what is the difference between the seed of a plant and us? I hate these assholes with their Bibles coming to China—5 million of them. Human history has been only war and empire. Power is concentrated like in a bowl and when the bowl breaks, it will all go back, back into crisis. There hasn’t been a single time in which there was no killing of human life. It might be happening on a small scale. But to think that there will not be other wars, other killing on a mass scale in human history—that is very naive. We are more efficient. Now we say we are more civilized. We haven’t evolved in any way. I think of us as the same animals we were back in the day. We study them like they are from another planet. I understand something that most people don’t understand. The line of life. We are here for so long and everything we do is for survival. They say go to Africa and help. What does that mean? Because your life is too empty and you need to go and then you’re not helping. You only get in the way. Me, I enjoy. I enjoy because what else would I do?”

Eventually, the man excused himself to meet with friends and I felt glad that he had them. I was happy to have met him. I was beginning to like these expatriates. Not the fatuous “Lonely Planeteers” with their snap cameras and guidebooks, but the wandering exiles who’d come to the other side of the world to hole up in cafés and nurse some spiritual wound in the forgiving anonymity of a place that was not their home. They were shocking; they had true feelings for life, sad and bitter as they were sometimes. What mattered to me was that they were alive—thinking, choosing, working, and reworking the world around them into a multitude of different environments and still restless, trying to find comfort in a way that went far beyond the Chinese big three: a house, a car, and a television set. This search could not end on a point like, “I enjoy.” I believed the man would doubt and vent and agonize like Augustine until his dying day, and I think this search would always push him towards some horizon of truth and hope as long as he lived. The chasms were black and blinding, but in the end there was life.

I went back to the university with its nighttime crowds of young people who always looked younger than me. The Chinese universities made me so happy. They were full of life and romance and market noise. All summer at Beijing University, bright-eyed couples walked around holding hands, each one smiling like a child with a secret that’s too good to keep to himself. At night, the campus was full of couples—lying two by two and draped all over like Dali’s melted clocks; in the rock gardens, under the pagodas, by the fish ponds, all night long, kissing in the dark summer grass amongst the fireflies. Other groups sat in wide circles watching movies on a shared computer screen or singing songs on their guitars. I was always alone at night but happy there, lying out in the night grass with my headlamp and a copy of Byron’s poetry that became my summer life beyond Chinese.

“There woos no home, nor hope, nor life, save what is here.”

Here in Jinghong, the night was still alive. Young people sipped tea and soy milk in the courtyards and chatted in circles, reading over thick, disheveled text books. In these places, I rarely felt moved to speak to anyone; I needed no more camaraderie than what I felt just walking along alone amidst this glowing home of youth. I walked until I was tired and went back into my cold-water room with its broken television and big thermos of boiled water for making tea. Through the open window I could hear a group of boys drinking, shouting and slamming down cards. Then I slept until the dawn.

The next day I rode out into the countryside. I’d borrowed a book from the café where I’d met the Frenchman. It was a collection of anthropological essays on Chinese culture and included poetry segments. I rode out to the end of some muddy fields by a brown river that barely seemed to move. It was my first glimpse of the Mekong, a river that runs from the mountains of Tibet all the way to the delta in Vietnam, where it lets out into the South China Sea. Eventually, I’d be riding down it alone in a canoe and sleeping on the sandbars; I didn’t know this yet.

Along the river, there were small huts with smoking chimneys; butterflies and dragonflies hummed over the hard, cracked dirt where plants poked through the ground. Swallows circled overhead. There was no shade anywhere and the sun was getting hot, so I crawled under the barrow of a rusted-out tractor and read poems by Li Bo:

Each family maintains its rural occupations,

Men grow white-haired, yet never go abroad.

Alive, they are the villagers,

Dead, they are the village dust.

Soon, a man and his wife came down the mud road between the fields on a motorcycle. The man had a plastic container strapped to his back and a hose and shower-head that he carried in his hands. He went down to the muddy river and filled the container on his back, then he walked alongside the rows of vegetables—cucumbers, corn and peas— sprinkling water on them in streams.

I went back to the same café later in the day and continued reading the collection of historical poems and essays; it read like a strange book of maxims:

A monument in Sichuan: “Heaven produces myriads of things to nourish man. Man never does one good thing to recompense heaven. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill and kill!”

A Ming dynasty Emperor to his daughter before hanging himself in the Forbidden City: “Why did you have to be born a princess?” Sobbing, he killed her with his sword.

“The earth is a globe. Its very nature has neither beginnings nor ends.”

Foreign perspectives: “If prompt action were not taken to defend China, this country, which, for several thousand years had been the home of civilized human beings, would soon become a wasteland of uncultured savages.”

“My parents had left me a good name, though they had left me nothing else.”

At a table beside me, an Australian boy and an Israeli girl were chatting over cigarettes and an early dinner. They were exchanging books. “I just picked this up in a hostel in Vietnam,” the boy said. “The hero’s had a fair bit of sex by now and two of them have died.”

“No, I couldn’t take that away from you,” she said.

“He’s on a mission of revenge.”

I listened a bit. They were going over some maps and planning out a week-long hike in the hills outside of Jinghong. This sounded interesting. I asked them if they’d be willing to take one more person; I said that I could help translate. They agreed and we decided to meet up early the next morning. It was late December and somewhere on our walk, we would celebrate Christmas with whoever would take us in.

Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.