Pee-ployee of the Year

When I lived in Japan, I got on a hot streak where I had a bowl of rice (among other things) for breakfast nearly every day for a year.

Despite now being married to a lovely Chinese gal and living in China, I eat rice far less often. I suppose I should have said we, as neither of us eat rice more than 2 or 3 times a week these days.

This intermittent consumption lead to a problem – often we would make a batch of rice and not finish it in one sitting. Then, out of absent-mindedness, we would forget there was any more left in the cooker. Fast-forward a few days to our next rice-augmented meal, and when you open the cooker you’ve got the singular pleasure of a pot of stank, moldy mush staring you right in the face.

After making this wasteful and probably health-hazardous mistake one too many times, we got into the habit of leaving the rice cooker top open during periods of disuse, with the inner pot extracted, washed, and stored elsewhere. This helped us remember if the pot was in use or not, clean or not, and basically solved the problem nicely… until yesterday.

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The Bathhouse

Ah yes, the bathhouse.

I lived in Japan for nigh on two years but never once wrote in any meaningful detail about onsen – so why am I covering the Chinese bathhouse? Because onsen, like cherry blossoms, are only described in mere words by fools. Neither language nor pictures can convey anything approaching their true nature… they must simply be experienced.

The Chinese bathhouse, on the other hand, is a much more pedestrian affair – even when opulent, they still exist on a most mortal plane far below transcendence. Nevertheless, their chronicling still challenges the writer as one cannot lean upon the crutch of beautiful pictures and must make-do with incisive narratives instead. I hope you find my making and doing sufficient…

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One night, during my final few weeks in Japan, I rode my bike south along the coastal highway out of Beppu and down into Oita, from there I turned inland and pedaled through the night until the office buildings turned to apartments, apartments turned to houses, and houses turned to rice paddies. It was there that I came upon a low hill, at the top of which after climbing several hundred badly grownover steps, I found a small Shinto shrine. Having paid my respects to the resident kami, I then walked back to the top of the steps and sat down to contemplate my commanding view of all of Oita spread out across the alluvial plain below me, and the perfectly serene circumstances of my surroundings.

During a previous evening’s solo outing, it had occurred to me as I strolled in the dark through a quiet neighborhood that I would forever be an outsider there. That no matter how well I spoke Japanese, or bowed, or played shamisen, or stood spellbound as cherry blossoms drifted downwards all around me, I would never be able to call that place home. While I was struck by the sudden clarity of the thought, my heart met it with quiet and comfortable acceptance which I found myself unable to explain.

Sitting alone at the foot of the Shinto shrine on my tiny mountain, surveying the prefectural capital below me glittering in the warm summer darkness, I began to understand. While I would never be able to (nor desired to) overcome 22 years of American imprintation on my being, I had found a beautiful rhythm in Japan – a daily resonance, a finely-crafted harmony which existed for me nowhere else. I understood then that life and circumstance would conspire to lure me away from that land, but my connection to, my feeling with, and my desire for it would never fade…

And now Time finds me seated at a table for two in the corner of a Shenyang Starbucks beside a long window overlooking TaiYuan shopping street. Today, tomorrow, and perhaps even the day after are marked by gray skies and a slow steady drizzle. Such weather is a most excellent time to contemplate, methinks.

I arrived in Shenyang in early September of 2007 – this week marks my 20th month in the city, more or less equivalent to the time I spent in Japan during my graduate studies. Yet, as I sit here gazing out the window at the slowly flowing sea of walking umbrellas, I can call up from within no meaningful appreciation of this place I now call home. Despite 3 jobs, 2 apartments, and my fair share of adventures around town, I cannot describe my feelings towards this place as anything other than detached.

Now I am not so foolish as to extrapolate my feelings for one city – however large – to characterize the entire country. China is not Japan. In Japan there are only 2 places: Tokyo/Osaka and then the rest of the country. Having spent significant time in both, one can safely state his true feelings towards the land. China, rather, is like America. Boston, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco might as well be different planets.

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