Since I’ve come back from my trip, a lot of people have asked me, “how was China?” I’ve struggled to answer each time. Usually I just said, “complicated.”
We in the west get a lot of the ‘what’ about China, but little of the ‘why’. In other words, we hear a lot about China’s totalitarian edicts, its sometimes-brutal crackdowns, its nonexistent copyright laws, and almost never does the reporting outlet even make a stab at the reasoning behind these things. We don’t hear about what the average people – not the shills employed by the Chinese government – say and think about it. Or what they think about each other. Or what their daily lives are like.
I’m going to try and write about China from a ‘why’ perspective, but realize – I’m a privileged white guy. I spent less than two weeks there. This is probably best ingested with a couple grains of salt. Maybe a brick.
Yesterday, I started taking a storyboarding class with the animation guild. Midway through the lesson, the instructor, a tough old master with decades of hard-earned experience, opined about the primacy of storyboarding. How it tells a story, how it’s the intersection of all arts, all human expression. Writers? They didn’t have to do the heavy lifting of sitting with the material and bringing it to life. Directors? They get to pick and choose. Accountants? Meddle with the end product out of jealousy. Creation, after all, is the most important thing in life.
This Tuesday, I was having dinner with a friend who’s training to be a librarian. During the dinner, my friend, an opinionated, smart girl who is like a real-life incarnation of Daria, talked about the art of archiving, and how important it is. How we are at risk of losing so much of our history, how we simply aren’t good at passing down information. How much we waste our time going off half-cocked, never learning from the lessons of the past. Knowledge, after all, is the most important thing in life.
Some months ago, I was taking a yoga class at a weekend retreat. During the class, the instructor, a nice young woman who’d been teaching yoga for years, talked about the evils of the modern-day junk food world and the importance of yoga. How it heals your body, purifies the toxins, straightens out your mind. How, if you don’t have clarity of purpose and an able body, nothing else will click. Your health, after all, is the most important thing in life.
It feels like I hear some variation of this every day.
I hear it from engineers, from dentists, from financial analysts, from politicians, from programmers, from believers, from atheists, from volunteers, from health nuts, from film nuts, from comic nuts, from people who are just plain nuts.
Everyone wants to be able to sleep at night. To believe one’s doing the best thing one can with one’s life. To believe in one’s own significance. To be able to keep moving as far as one can without the hounds of doubt nipping at one’s heels, burying teeth into calves, and bringing the whole march forward crashing to a messy, bloody halt.
But hey, sometimes they do catch up with you. And you need to take a breather to regroup.
And in unrelated news, I may be going to China for a week fairly soon.
In the past year, I have, in public, beaten strangers savagely with a pillow. I have made my opinion known as a judge at the LA Grilled Cheese Invitational. I have run down city streets with a shopping cart, handing out ice cream sandwiches to anyone who’d take them, amongst a shopping cart-wielding crowd of hundreds. I have witnessed the savage and erotic competition of the Los Angeles Air Sex Championships. I have tasted the most delicious that LA has to offer in the Cupcake Challenge. I have smelled the worst scent LA has to offer in the once-every-ten-year blooming of the Corpse Flower.
In the past year, I have thrown an impromptu house party at Ikea. I have ballroom danced in a supermarket produce section. I have joined hundreds of people in a spontaneous game of “Follow the Leader” at the most famous museum in Los Angeles. I have set up a “finish line” on a bike path, and given gatorade, encouragement, and medals to all cyclists. I have led a group of 30 to a busy intersection, held signs with them, and chanted with them, lauding all passersby as fantastic and important.
In the past year, I have brought down the house at a conference of 400-odd people by educating them about the practice of erasing animal genitalia from Hollywood pictures. I have helped another presenter inform the same crowd about the fecal Christmas traditions of Catalonia. I have every month stood shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the most interesting people in Los Angeles, and in so doing, been welcomed as one of them. I have been invited to join them in finding fascinating speakers, and I have accepted.
In the past year, I have learned at the feet of one of the most well-known foam monster-makers on Earth. I have made two Halloween costumes complex enough to send my friends’ minds reeling. I have signed up for more workshops at the same venue.
In the past year, I have started working at DreamWorks Animation. For my job, I have brought honor to my department by winning a Rock Band tournament, filmed myself throwing chimichangas at the intern for reference, and stared slack-jawed as Oscar-award winner Hans Zimmer jammed “I Like to Move It (Move It)” on guitar to inaugurate our new parking garage.
In the past year, I have written a great “Interesting things to do in LA” list.
In the past year, I have visited Japan, New Zealand, Chicago, and my hometown of Louisville. I have missed LA during each of these trips.
In the past year, I have, after a decade, finally made a home of Los Angeles.
“Your voice is different,” my ex says to me on the phone. “It’s lower, somehow.”
Of course it is.
My Japanese voice has always been different from my English one. It’s exacting and polite, engineered for small talk. It starts high in my throat, birthed two doors down from its graveÂ — a punch from the elbow instead of from the shoulder.
This time around, my voice is worming its way up from the pit of my stomach. A gut punch. My Western voice.
High and low. Head and heart. East and west. As ever.
I’ve come back to Japan after a year and a half, to see old friends. Only a handful remain, with most back in their home countries. With so much free time and so few people left, I find myself alone a lot of the time.
Two days into my stay, I meet up with my friend Megumi. We go out drinking, shouting across the table to be heard. We sing karaoke, my voice reverberating deeply enough to be heard in the bathroom. Later, we’re talking and I ask, from my gut, “what’s going on in your life?” She replies: “Nothing.”
“Okay,” I say. Japanese voice.
Years ago, I watched Paranoia Agent, an anime that I feel is more important than many realize. It’s a series about Japan’s troubles post-WW2. How they can’t face what they’ve done or what’s been done to them. How they’ve sanitized reality with Hello Kitty. How they look at cell phones more than each other. How they’ve retreated into their shells, never to stick their necks out.
Weeks ago, I am telling my friend Satoshi Okabe exactly this. I jokingly call it Okabe no kabe (Okabe’s wall). He smiles. He says he agrees. Then he talks about the weather.
A week ago, I am in my ex-girlfriend’s living room. We are talking about her job, her health, her desire to travel. We are talking in Japanese, and I am speaking from my throat. She says my English voice weirds her out. After an hour, we stop talking and watch a rented movie. She asks several times if I’m hungry, or cold. Three hours later, I give her a chaste hug and leave. Her last words to me are “Enjoy your new job.”
My last night in Tokyo, I am at a club with Megumi, and she is very drunk. She is leaning towards me, speaking in English, a voice several octaves lower than what I’m used to. She is telling me about her life for the first time.
Within minutes, though, the conversation’s over as she rushes to the womens’ restroom to check on her sick friend. After a half hour, I am standing outside the restroom, knocking on the door to make sure they’re okay.
And there we are, on either side of a door.
I am knocking and there is no answer.
When I was in Madrid, staying with my frined Amanda, I had a conversation with Moritz, one of her German roommates, about words that don’t translate well to other languages. As an example, he used the German word GemÃ¼tlichkeit, which he explained as the “feeling of being around a fireplace with your friends, comfortable and drinking hot chocolate.” We determined that “coziness” was the best equivalent, but that it didn’t quite capture the essence of the word.
GemÃ¼tlichkeit, it turns out, is what Munich was all about.