Aristotle was considered the godfather of drama two thousand years before Kanye West dropped Yeezus. One of his keystone concepts he uses to explain the hold that drama and comedy have on us is this idea of ‘catharsis’. Many of you probably only know about it in the same way that I did, through rigorous rewatches of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Upon a deeper look however, it turns out that the idea behind catharsis is that if human beings are built to experience a huge variety of emotions, we have an inherent need to periodically experience all of them in order to experience relief from depression, anxiety, or whatever the ancient Greek equivalent of those things are. Why do we watch scary movies that make us afraid and listen to sad music that makes us cry? Closure. Cleaning out the emotional pipes. Peace of mind. Catharsis.
Greek philosophy was probably the last thing on my mind on that wet and rainy street corner in the Hong Kong predawn with two hundred pounds of luggage at my back. My genuine process was probably much closer to my quickly developing mantra for this blog: Why the fuck would I do this to myself? But in terms of catharsis, I am glad I to get this particular emotion out of the way because I have no interest in ever experiencing it again. Maybe that is where the answer to the riddle of my being out here lies?
It sounds silly calling it a riddle, but the real reason why I wanted to come out here is still very abstract, even in my own mind. People constantly ask, “Why go to China?”, and I can pretty much rattle off any number of the generic answers: “I wanted to travel.” “I want to build my resume.” “I really like Chinese food.” Most of these are entirely acceptable, and some even get a laugh. But the honest truth of it is that I don’t really know.
The nature of this blog might have a funny flow of time to it, but time is a construct to begin with. Yes, it is important to experience the moment. As a matter of fact, I should probably get more into the habit of experiencing things as they come (This is probably a good place to achieve that actually). I could be revealing a flaw in my thinking, or perhaps exposing the root of several others, but can’t experience be considered the culmination of all the moments leading up to it? Can I consider time a gem? Precious and multifaceted. A three dimensional object constructed of a series of planes through which all the other sides can be seen. Creating harmony through the refraction resulting in a soft glow.
Sad excuse to drop a long-winded aside, I know. But in my process, these rapidly seem to be becoming a running theme throughout the series. Whatever. My blog. Go read about electronics and kitten sweaters if you want, but I promise you there’s some compelling shit going on here.
So anyway, this whole mess started when I had answered a posting on indeed asking to contact me about an opportunity to teach abroad. Of course I answered yes, because isn’t that just romantic? My ex (still kills me to call her that) and I often joked about the consequences of me going. Would we stay together? Could I leave the dog? How would I feel about using a hole-in-the-floor toilet? But the truth of it was that when I got back from Russia, I always considered taking another trip abroad. As these things are wont to go however, months and years passed. My Russia friends continued traveling and my American friends moved into their grown up careers. Meanwhile, I sat here in limbo between the two, shuffling my feet to avoid picking one. I promised myself big things, but grew into the creature comforts of suburban life. I drank and smoked to numb the contempt I had for myself that I wasn’t motivated to make anything happen in my life. Commitment meant to one meant that I was killing the other. I could only keep them both alive by procrastinating. Growth required sacrifice, and I was being selfish. A petty king of dirt who would not abdicate his throne to modernize the state. An cruel dictator in a state of one. Why the fuck would I do this to myself?
I was teaching at one community college to pay the bills, but at first my discontent put its weight on my work life. Of course my job was shit, because I wasn’t fulfilling dreams. I didn’t leave room in my life for evidence of the contrary. Nonetheless, I kept at it because that’s what people do. Right? I worked at one community college after my MFA in Creative Writing. Yeah, I got an art degree because I’m special. Being a novelist was my dream career plan. One key problem though, I am not confident in myself enough to write. Why the fuck would I do this to myself?
I lived with my girlfriend (now-ex, I suppose) for a semester and commuted to school. Rather than settling down, probably because I was shuttering at the idea of domestication and, you know, starting a real future with my at-the-time girlfriend (Why the fuck would I do this to myself?), I doubled down and stupidly said, “Let me see if I can find something closer to home.” I’m sure there’s a saying for this, like Penny wise, Dollar foolish, or something like that, but no saying will bring that life back. One backwards K on the score sheet: strikeout looking.
I started from square one and found another college in North Jersey. They gave me a job on Memorial Day and changed it on Labor Day. They took all summer to fuck me. I was in a position where if I quit my other college, not only would this put me under the requirements for my student loan forgiveness program, I would be forced to leave my second school at the time. Unless I moved in with my (now-ex, I suppose) girlfriend and picked up the college by her. Have you ever had an opportunity screaming for your attention, and tell it to be quiet so that you could think? Two backwards Ks.
Out of stubbornness and pig-headedness, I ran an extensive campaign two after the semester already started to get into another college and labeled it a romantic pursuit to protect my fragile little ego. I must have applied to ten schools in New Jersey ranging from Rutgers to Atlantic City Community College. Rejected by all of them and defeated, on my way home from one of my commutes, I was at the intersection leading either home or to my original hometown college. I was in regular contact with the dean who had given me several bits of life advice throughout this community college teaching process. In a sloppy and perceived romantic gesture, I cut someone off to get into the turning lane and returned to that dean.
When I got into her office, not only was she not there, but a teacher that I had when I was a freshman at the school was unpacking boxes. She informed me that the dean that I had befriended had moved to another school on very short notice. Fate twisted again and it turned out that she was in the process of looking for a last minute teacher to fill in a spot for English 2. To which I said, “I’m a teacher.” To which she said, “You’re a teacher?”
We started the emergency process of bringing me into the school as quickly as possible. During which, I reminded her that I was one of my students back in the day. “Oh yeah,” she said. “I think I remember you.” I neglected to remind her that I was the student that she expressly told not to try something experimental on a project, but did it anyway, almost failing the course over it. These are the moments where I confused romantics with irony. The problem with these little beautiful moments is that they have continued to validate me for all the wrong reasons. The cold rain in Hong Kong could be considered long overdue karma.
Of course, being the bandolero that I was, I took all three colleges despite two separate scheduling conflicts because I was sick of not making enough money to pay back my student loans and drinking beer on the weekend at the same time. I drank and smoked more because I was frustrated that there is no room to grow as a college adjunct college, which in turn made me late for my classes, killing my confidence in my own career path with begot drink and smoke. Blame my situation on ‘the man’ or ‘capitalism’ or some shit. Sabotage myself. Rinse. Repeat.
In time, I ended up frustrating one of the schools with my disorganization and bad attitude with students. The exact quote from the class that killed me was “College is for big boys and girls and if you don’t like it you don’t have to be here”. The student seemed to agree with me, seeing as they stormed out of the room and informed the Dean of English of this incident as well as the strange 40 minutes that I wasn’t in class on Tuesdays. Woops. Believe it or not, all I needed to do to get back into this school was present a finalized and well formatted syllabus and they would consider rehiring me. Of course, I didn’t do this, because, you know: me. I declared myself too good for the hour-long commute, but in reality it was more likely that I feared the concept of moving from my childhood home and getting started on a future with my now-ex seeing as how that would have brought my work closer to her. Three backwards Ks. You’re outta here. Thanks for playing. (Sorry, babe.) (Why the fuck would I do this to myself?) (Why the fuck would I do this to you?)
The other school – the one who caused the scheduling conflict and double booking in the first place – it seems I found it necessary to send them a very nasty yet quite eloquent letter about how absurd and unethical this was to treat an adjunct teacher. It turns out the reason fro the reschedule was due to a massive walk out of Board of Director members, causing chaos for the full-time teachers who took my class. Needless to say, this school has not contacted me about teaching since that semester. To be honest, I’ll get over this one.
So after all my pride and fighting and romance and lack thereof, I withdrew into the hard shell of creature comfort in my old and familiar town. The world traveler, the Masters grad, the writer, lived at his parents drinking and smoking and shuffling his feet over the same old novel I had for the past ten years. Frozen in amber where no one could hurt my pride anymore. I couldn’t possibly disappoint myself because nothing was expected of me. I do believe my girlfriend loved me, and maybe she still does, but this probably hurt for her to watch me day by day lowering the standards I held my life to. It hastened the deteriorating of our relationship, but things don’t crack under their weight without outside force. We were frozen in time. There was no way to break up because nothing was changing. We were on the fast track to rushed marriage and a young divorce.
I felt the dreamer in me slipping away and dying. My writing ground to a halt. I looked at old pictures of myself and wonder how I once thought I could be anything other than a lay peon. I saw beyond the veil once. I wielded the stuff of the universe. I once really believed that I could shed corporate shackles and lead a fulfilled and enlightened life. How did I let the Holy Grail slip through my fingers? I dropped it in the dark. I dismissed that former self as arrogant kid unfamiliar with ‘the way the world really worked’. I became the grumpy old me I never wanted to be at the ripe old age of 27.
One day, I was on a beer run. Go figure. Our ice machine was on the fritz, so whenever I went to get ice, I saw it as a great opportunity to re-up the brewskies. I needed to go out shopping for something I can’t remember, but I needed to drop off the ice and beer before it got warm. I was in the house less than two minutes when the phone rang. My father was home, but I figured I’d help him out and tell a solicitor to piss off so he didn’t have to. I think fate literally called, but physically it was a recruiter who wanted me to go to China to teach English. Sure, I’d thought about it before. What young unmarried adjunct professor without children or a career plan didn’t? I’d actually looked into it with my ex. A teacher at one of the schools I disgraced myself promised it would be ‘an experience of a lifetime’. I was afraid of the paperwork, the timeframe, the pay, and, you know, any sort of commitment to improving the quality of my life. After we looked into it, nothing came of it and we returned to our stasis.
To compile the weirdness here, the night before a friend of the family was hosting an Argentinian guy for the week. They were tattoo artists and he was on something of a pilgrimage to the U.S. to get some training from an American shop. We had an hour-long conversation in Spanglish about the state of our respective countries and the cultural differences. It awakened something in me. I remembered Russia and the adventure. I remembered the parties and the monuments. I remembered the rush and the prestige. (Totally forgot about the hardships, but you know, we’re still not quite caught up to Hong Kong yet.) I said to my brother that night, “I can see myself teaching ESL.” And here I was, on the phone with a recruiter seeing if I was interested in an interview. There was only one reaction: I have to go.
And that’s how I got to China, right?
Nope. More hardship. My girlfriend decided that she couldn’t stay with me. She was starting a career and didn’t take kindly to the idea of a pause button, especially when things were tense to begin with. Seven years were erased over a couple weeks, but not entirely. I still don’t think I’ve fully let go, but that shit is too personal to put on here. (Woops.) The break up and the transition ended up affecting my work. I got in fights with a group of douche bag students when I informed them that they were douche bags. They told on me and I was removed from the class. (Can you pick up on a trend forming here?) The only reason I probably wasn’t fired was because thanks to China, I wasn’t taking classes the next semester. I considered taking online classes, but I failed the online course to get approved to teach them because of China paperwork, the problems with that class, and a series of excuses. My writing was slow I was more depressed than ever. I submitted old work to my writing workshop and got offended when they told me that. By the time I got on that plane, my life was over. The old me was dead.
All my eggs fell into this basket. Maybe I could find the child dreamer that had to be inside of me in China. Maybe my muse would awaken once more and bring on another golden age of perserverence and creativity. The romance would perpetually reawaken like phoenix ashes. Like Arthur in Avalon. The Once and Future Writer.
Good thing China is going so smoothly right from the get-go.
These were the thoughts on that street corner in Hong Kong. The failure was real and palpable. It was over. My dreams, my life, everything. I was going to die out here in the rain and only the street sweepers would mourn me. Well them, and my family and loved ones. To brighten things up a bit, everything China is really hard. It’s kind of backwards to say that, but what I mean is that I am earning my keep. It is very easy to live a quiet, comfortable life in America. I have a home with a loving family. I had a beautiful girlfriend who loved me for what I was. There was food in the fridge and my bed was soft. Everyone speaks English. There was nothing wrong with that life. The only problem is that I wanted to be something special. And I got lost in Hong Kong over it, not to mention the other difficulties, hardships and whatever the hell else I am going to write around this blog. But it is good that it is difficult, because every success means that I’ve gotten stronger. I am regrowing a spine from scratch, but this one already looks like it is going to be stronger than the last. My muse and my girlfriend are gone. I don’t know if either of them will every be back. Part of becoming strong and independent is me accepting that. Loss. Going without. Sacrifice. That is what the quest for the Holy Grail is about. It can’t be the glory of finding it, because you have to embark on the journey not knowing if you are going to get it.
We’ve run out of time for me to tell you how I got out of the Hong Kong mess, but *Spoiler Alert*, dead men don’t write blogs. As I started writing this, this story started as an aside, but the more I wrote, the more clear and apparent this side of the story needed to be told. If not for your entertainment, then for my own conscience. Good on you for getting front row seats to my own catharsis. I am coming to terms with those months to years leading up to that 16 hour plane ride. I reflect on them now, and I suddenly realize the significance of all this. I’ll get back to fart jokes next week when I finish this section of the story.
Chronology be damned, let me leave you with the story of someone I met out here. A cockney British man in his 40’s just started this job the same time as me. We first met as he showed up late to a dinner out with the group of teachers who had just come over. The restaurant was easily one of the nicest I had ever seen. It was called The Dining Room because it seemed to be modeled after a Bed Bath and Beyond (the menus were styled like catalogues) and it stressed the Chinese virtue of shared plates. The new guy was out drinking the night before and he looked pretty rough. Still, he refused the beer served at the table. He says that he swore of drinking on weekdays.
Having experienced a couple addicts and all-around ruffians back home, I was somewhat frightened by the man. In time and over dim sum however, this man and I became quick friends. We even work in the same district now. On the way out here, we got to talking and I found out that he had been working in China for the past 7 years. He had been around to a couple different companies but had only recently gotten fired from his last before being hired by mine. Despite his very limited Mandarin and even less interest in Chinese culture itself, he got around the city extremely well and offered a quick survival guide on how to make one’s way around here. It turns out seven years ago he came over for answering a job add at the unemployment office. He kept acknowledging how wonderful it was to get a ‘fresh start’ and he was glad to have friends that he enjoyed sharing his experiences with. He is actually the one who told me that you have to accept the craziness of China, because if you fought it, you would only make yourself explode. If all these massive buildings and bright lights can’t change a culture that is thousands of years old, what makes you think you can?
I got around to asking him what happened at his last job. Being a much better guy than I had originally cast him, he was very forthcoming. He acknowledged himself to be a bit of a problem drinker. He dealt with a lot of shit from his higher ups in the Chinese bureaucracy and it caused him to pick up for a terrible dislike his job. Unsurprisingly, he drank to compensate. This caused him a lot of late marks and absences on his attendance sheets. Eventually he was issued an ultimatum by his company. Show up late again, and he was fired.
Right around that corner came a Sunday night that he was out drinking. With work the next morning, he told me that he knew the exact drink that did him in. That morning, he slept in and got fired. His eyes grew distant as he began talking more to himself than to me. He said that he couldn’t believe himself. He knew the whole time what he was doing, but still he marched on that night and kept drinking. He acknowledged that he was in a bad place and he just walked off the edge. He followed up saying how grateful he was to get another chance in a new place, but he still hadn’t forgiven himself for what he had done. He looked at me with eyes that I will never forget and said, “It was like I commit suicide. You know?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
See you next week.
By Caspar David Friedrich – The photographic reproduction was done by Cybershot800i. (Diff), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1020146%5D