Laos: 0930-1006

After the turbulence and whisking clouds, the sky clears. 10 minutes to land. The dirt roads below remind you of the deep red earth between Lusaka and Livingston where elephants roam and you can buy fat cake and fried fish heads at road-side stands. From above, Vientiane looks a lot like deep red dirt roads. And green countryside. And murky rice paddies. It’s barely October…


First breakfast: two fried eggs. Then pork noodle soup, which looks and tastes like Pho, only this has no fish balls.

“How do Laos people drink coffee?”

The hotel restaurant waitress gives me a look, then she says, “you mean what’s the Laos coffee like?”

Her question is better. “Yes!”

“They put the condensed milk with the coffee and sweetener, but maybe it’s too sweet…for you.”

“Can I order—”

She shakes her head no. “Here we don’t have. You want Latte? Cappuccino?”

“Black coffee is okay.”

Slurps of pork noodle soup later, she returns. “One of the cleaner ladies here brings the Laos coffee every day. We will bring you some to try. It’s okay?”


“It’s just a small. Just to try.”

She returns with the drink on ice. It’s super savory and very sweet and milky; it complements the humid morning warm…


The hotel concierge presents a map of downtown Vientiane. She circles the hotel off Quai Fa Ngum.

“What must we see or do today?”

She writes “Hopeko” by one landmark to the far right of the map. “15-minute walk here,” she says, “maybe twenty.” She circles a few other locations.

“These are temples?”

“Temples. Yes.”

The manager, a French man, arrives then. “Have you been to Paris,” he says.


He circles another landmark on the map. “You must see this one. C’est tres magnifique.”

Outside, the air is clammy. On one side of Rue Settathirath, a gaggle of electric wires hangs and runs parallel with the road. Coffee shops and bakeries and French colonial architecture that reminds you of downtown Dakar. The narrow alleyways and worn buildings that could tell a million stories about back then. Instead of the tired yellow, bumble-bee taxis in Dakar, here there are three-wheeled tuk tuks painted heavy blue or green. Left on Avenue Lang Xang until Patouxay. Remember the Arc de Triomphe in Paris? Same-same, but different. Laotian mythology lives in the arc’s ceiling. Two photos by the fountain with Patouxay in the background cost 40,000 Kip…



Sharing several Beerlaos with an expat Aussie friend. Earlier today, the Richmond Tigers defeated the Adelaide Crows in the Australian Football League, which is a big deal for some Melbourne fans. She says there’s no western fast food in Laos. She says: “No KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks.”

“Yummy. Why not?”

“They’re still pissed at America for Vietnam,” she says.

Over 600,000 US bombing missions occurred during the Vietnam war. Because of Laos’ proximity to Vietnam, they bore the pain of many of those missions, and today, the remnants of that past are called “bombies” and they lie in the rich soil, ready to detonate, mostly in the north-east and east of Laos and each is the size of a tennis ball and filled with steel pellets. In 2006, the Vientiane Times reported that “about 400 people are killed or injured by unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Laos each year.” Another, more recent on-line site,, states that at least 20,000 lives have been lost since the end of Vietnam because of these leftover “bombies.”

Make Laos “Bombie” Free Again…

The beer is good and cold. She orders several dishes. The best is the fish served out of a plastic bag. The sauce is gooey and thick and just a tad spicy. Laos is a communist country so the conversation moves toward China. When I ask if Laos and China are partners, she nods no.

“I wouldn’t say they’re partners with China,” she says. She leans in and moves her hands toward each other like they want to choke or strangle something. She says China has dammed the Mekong and keeps damming the Mekong. Damn. Now, the Mekong is more difficult to predict. You think about cartoon analogies, because sometimes cartoons make more sense than real life. You picture Gargamel’s wicked, intruding hands harassing Smurf nation to make gold…She’s a writer too and you talk about how difficult dialogue is to capture—among other things. The Beerlao is starting to take effect, but the “bombies” are on your mind because you think that’s another sad story to hear about the world…


On a plane to Pakse. In the seat pocket, Champa Meuanglao: a charming magazine, and on page 40, there’s “The Tale of the Lady Fish” in both English and in Lao. You fall into the tale and you wish your culture had tales like this one to tout as your own. Maybe it does, but you’re not sure. Does the Sons of the American Revolution count? Here in Laos, the Pa Nang fish has only half a ribcage…

“Long, long ago, our ancestors spoke of a beautiful and magical princess, whose comeliness and virtue were reminiscent of those of the legendary Nang Soumountha. It was said that whoever was honorable enough to wed the princess would bring tremendous prosperity and richness to his people…her beauty spread far and wide across the many kingdoms, finally capturing the hearts of two valiant princes of two of the most powerful kingdoms in all the land…”

You already know how this will end. You look out the window of the twin-engine plane and down below and, Jesus, it really does look like sub-Saharan Africa. Back when you were in the Peace Corps, in northern Namibia, in Owamboland, in the tropical savannah, in the African Bush where the world was all relative to the dry and wet season, and everything on the radio was local Kwaito and Brenda Fassie, and almost every taxi driver in Owambo had a cassette tape of Don Williams.

Don Williams?

Don Williams, you remember? You wondered then how in the hell Owamboland attained Don Williams cassette tapes. You’re not sure what album it was—that doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s all kind of like that documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Or something like that. You haven’t listened to Don Williams since, but back then you memorized every song because you could envision the lyrics when you had to do chores like fetch water (eta omeya) or look after the goats and cows in the fields (you forgot that Oshiwambo phrase). Or maybe you just memorized Don Williams, because Don Williams was so slow and easy to memorize. It was easier than the CDs you had at the time for your Sony Discman: Rage Against the Machine, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Prince’s Musicology, Led Zeppelin II, and Enter the Wu-Tang.

“Realising that neither [prince] would yield, the princess, in a selflessly heroic move, sacrificed her own life to save the thousands that would die in warfare. Before her untimely death, she instructed her trusted aides to halve her body and offer one side each to both princes…The princes woefully did as they had been instructed. Once each half had been submerged into the water, it magically became a fish, and like the form from which it came, had only half of a ribcage…”

Wu-Tang Clan Forever…


Champasak is a sleepy village, but in ancient times it was the King’s home. You’ve been to Angor Wat, and this is nothing—absolutely nothing—like Angor Wat, but it’s kind of better because there’s no one here and it’s foggy and it might rain soon and your son is on your chest and you’re wandering through an ancient village. You make it to the top and the views are better than Angor Wat, but you shouldn’t compare, you’re just saying, right. There’s a temple at the top. You’re not sure how Hindu and Buddhism bleed together here, does it matter? There are relics and there’s burning incense. You make a prayer with your wife and son because yesterday a lot of lives were lost in Vegas and maybe, you think, America needs prayer from where you are. Meanwhile, the Mekong keeps moving…


Champasak sits right on the wide, milky-looking, moving-at-snail-pace Mekong river. It moves faster than it looks though and the mythical serpent-like Phaya Naga lives in the waters.

You commit to running every morning. It’s barely six, but the sun pokes through the bloated cloud cover and the roosters are crowing and your son isn’t awake yet, so, you know, it’s now or never. You take the main road first. You pass road-side shops selling everyday stuff, like stuff you’d buy once every few months at COSTCO or Target. The rice paddies here are lush green and full; rice grass sways with the breeze. The cattle look more like water buffalo than cattle. The houses are built on stilts, and you wonder if the Mekong gets this high, but later, you learn, because you ask, that, no, the Mekong doesn’t get that high here, but the stilted houses allow for a cool place for families to sit and relax and feel the breeze. Every house should be built on stilts then.

There are dogs on your run, and you think, no way you’re afraid of these dogs, and only one comes at you, running like it might snip at you, and you stop and point at it, and say, “no,” and the dog stops then, really afraid of you, and you turn and keep running and feel bad when you pass a monastery where a line of monks, draped in deep orange and maroon robes, walk. They’re serene, but determined, and you’re not sure if that’s accurate because you only get a snapshot of now. You keep running and see more monks and cut back off the main road and loop back along the even-more narrow road that hugs the Mekong. Families and shop owners are on their knees, holding out alms and food—sticky rice and fruit and hard boiled eggs—and they wait for the monks to arrive and pray over their residence and work place. As you run, you watch a few exchanges. It seems dogmatic, sure, but feels real. To submit to something. That always feels real.

After your run, you watch a crew team sprint up and down the Mekong. They chant. There’s a rhythm to it that you can count, but you don’t understand the words. Is it kind of like jiayou in Chinese? At the back of the boat, one man sort of kneels so he’s higher than the others. He’s looking out in front of everyone, directing them by knocking on the boat’s side with his oar in between the rhythm of the team’s rowing.


At a recommended restaurant for lunch. The owner speaks English. You order Beef Laap.

“North Laap and south Laap is very different,” she says.

You have no point of reference, but you say, “yeah? How are they different?”

“South is more spicy.”

You order more fried fish in chili sauce and take a drink of papaya juice.

She says she has a one month-old son. “It’s good luck if the son looks like the mother and the daughter looks like the father,” she says.

My wife and I look at each other and then at our son and then to her.

“You have very good luck,” she says…


The next morning, you don’t wake as early, but the roosters are still crowing and there are no clouds, but the sun’s not so high, so it’s still early. On your run, you miss the monks, but this time you pass children walking and biking to school. They are wearing their school uniform: crisp, white, buttoned-up collar shirt and navy blue pants.



You just learned that word, but it’s the greatest phrase ever. It’s almost as great as “Asalamalakum.”




Every morning should be like this one.

You run.

Green. Lush. Overflowing rice paddies.

You run.

Cattle sauntering through fields, neck bells cackling.

You run.

Stilted, cozy houses on the horizon. Chicken satays grilling on road-side stands.

You run.

There’s a dog.

You run.



You run…you could run like this for miles and miles.


Or kilometers of monasteries…


On your last morning in Champasak, you decide not to run. You’ll take a bike ride with your son or take a walk or do something else, like read. Grey, dusty clouds hover over the Mekong. They don’t look like they’re going to move any time soon, and you think it might rain. There are other things to write, for sure, but you don’t want to think too hard about Laos. It’s too beautiful and peaceful and serene. You spend your last few hours thinking about how to submit to it all…




The Vintage International version (1992) of James Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie offers some of Baldwin’s insight in the introduction “Notes for Blues.” Baldwin actually begins by expressing his general and genuine disdain for the American Theatre. He states, “I am not convinced that it is a Theatre; it seems to me a series, merely, of commercial speculations, stale, repetitious, and timid” (xiii). Baldwin goes on to explain that Emmett Till’s murder became the initial inspiration for his work with Blues for Mister Charlie. Baldwin, too, recounts how the death of his close friend, Medgar Evans, was in fact the tipping point to get his ideas in script form. At the conclusion of “Notes,” Baldwin writes: “When [Medgar Evans] died, something entered into me which I cannot describe, but it was then that I resolved that nothing under heaven would prevent me from getting this play done” (xv). In typical and true Baldwin form, he writes because he feels an urgency. Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie is, sadly, a timeless American tale. A white man kills an innocent black boy and then walks free. Baldwin finished this play in 1964, but it speaks to 2016 just as easily.

Blues for Mister Charlie is a play in three Acts. The set design is particularly important to Baldwin’s work. He presents two worlds, WHITETOWN and BLACKTOWN, which are separate, but sort of co-exist in Plaguetown, U.S.A. (xv), a pseudonym for perhaps (or, maybe, essentially) any city in America. Then, there’s the church and the courtroom, which are directly across from one another and divided by an aisle that, too, divides the whites from the blacks. Baldwin’s stage screams of a segregated world. It’s not minimalistic by any means. It’s a busy stage, done intentionally to note the confusion, the traffic, and the real racial collisions within America. The stage design accentuates the growing intensity between the whites and blacks especially in the last Act. While various individuals take the stand to share what they know about Lyle Britten’s guilt or innocence in regards to the death of Richard Henry, a young black male, the WHITETOWN and the BLACKTOWN make comments, almost as if it is a play-by-play at a sporting event. In one heated moment after the State asks Meridian Henry, the deceased’s father, about his personal life, the opposing thoughts of the two worlds shout at one another:

THE STATE: You have been celibate since the death of your wife?

BLACKTOWN: He never said he was a monk, you jive mother!

WHITETOWN: Make him tell us all about it. All about it.

MERIDIAN: Celibate? How does my celibacy concern you?

THE STATE: Your Honor, will you instruct the witness that he is on the witness stand, not I, and that he must answer the questions put to him! (pg. 103)

This commentary continues through the duration of the trial, which finds Lyle Britten innocent. What’s even more frustrating is that the trial becomes not about the murderous act of a white man, but the reputation of the dead, black boy. It’s all a setup. The reader (and the audience) knows that Lyle Britten will be found innocent. Baldwin was purposeful with his intent here and blatant with his message: even a dead, black boy is the guilty one, and both the BLACKTOWN and the WHITETOWN know this.

Parnell James, the loud and drunk editor of the local paper, is perhaps the most intriguing character. Parnell is white, but is close with both the accused and the victim. He grew up with Lyle Britten, the murderer, and is, too, close with Meridian Henry, the victim’s father. Throughout the play Parnell interacts with both families and towns, and it’s never absolutely clear who he truly sides with. Parnell is at the center of this collision. How can he choose one to fully support? He has to, and yet he struggles to do so. Again, Baldwin is not coy or shy with Parnell’s character. Parnell James represents many Americans—black and white—who find themselves at this crossroads. In the end, after Parnell finally gets the brutal truth from Lyle, he decides to follow Juanita, from the BLACKTOWN, to a Civil Rights march. Parnell’s not ready to lead this change, he’s just a follower, but he’s finally settled on which direction to take. Perhaps this is Baldwin’s subtle message to white America: you can only waver until you cannot.

Although this is a play, Blues for Mister Charlie feels like Baldwin’s prose. There are glimpses of his classic fictional characters in this play, which compliments his full work, I think. Baldwin was dedicated to his craft, his art, and his reason for writing. While I read this play, I constantly found myself thinking about John Grimes, David and Giovanni, Alfonso, Rufus Scott, even Sonny from his short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Baldwin knew the core of his characters, just as he knew the core of why he wrote. The final line of Baldwin’s introduction in “Notes for Blues” reads: “we are walking in terrible darkness here, and this is one man’s attempt to bear witness to the reality and the power of light” (xv). No finer words, I think, represent how important this play is today to our very divided and wavering America.

The Red

A human head, having been decapitated, was delicately packed in a cardboard box, but sent to the wrong address: 3857 Wester Drive. The box was opened on Halloween in the early afternoon when the sun is a pumpkin ball and the trick-or-treaters were not yet trick-or-treating, but the family had already eaten dinner and even the family dog Bobo, a Weimaraner, had been fed.

Here is the house. It’s red brick and has a red door. It’s very pretty. Mother, Father, Jane, and Bobo live in the red brick house. They’re very happy. See Jane in her Elsa costume play with Bobo. Jane goes to the red door. There’s a delivery. It’s in a brown, cardboard box. The UPS man says, “Careful, doll, that there box is dripping something red.” Jane says thank you and lugs it to her father.

“Wonder what’s leaking so bad?” Jane’s father says.

The red has bled through the flimsy cardboard bottom. Jane says I wonder what’s in the box. They go to the kitchen and take the black-handled scissors from the top drawer next to the sink and cut the top of the box carefully so it will open at the sealed flaps and inside the eyeballs are white because they’ve rolled back in its skull. It’s a man’s head.

Jane screams and yells mommy, mommy, mommy and runs upstairs. The father quivers to the sink and vomits a thick, pale red that comes from his insides. Something putrid. He doesn’t want to, but he looks again in the box, and the white eyeballs are staring at him. The dead man’s nose is pudgy and there’s a freckle on his bottom lip the shape of a coffee bean. He’s got a cleft chin and his dark hair is parted and combed nicely, as if that might have been his last act in the world.

The father can hear Jane and the mother descending the stairs. Bobo, who’s lying on the hallway floor licking the red, perks his ears at Jane’s sniffling.

“It’ll be okay, Janie,” Jane’s mother says and then she repeats herself.

“Don’t come in here,” the father says.

“What is it?” the mother says.



The father doesn’t respond.

The mother’s voice rises with fear and anger when she says: “Well, Griffin, what is it?”

“Janie saw,” the father says.

“Saw what?”

The father rushes to Jane. “You didn’t see nothing, Janie, you hear? Nothing.”

“Okay, Daddy,” Jane says, whimpering through each syllable.

The father just shakes his head no when the mother asks him again and again what’s in the box. The father tells the mother to take Jane to the park to play on the playground and swing on the swings. “Take Bobo too,” he says.

When they leave and the father is left with the dead man’s head, he looks again. “Shit,” he says at the man’s neck, where it had been severed. Flabs of skin are suspended in a sort of hopeless way. Inside the neck there’s a river of veins, muscles, and cartilage that had function when the man was a living person. Most of the bleeding red had emptied; the last movement from the man was his red blood dripping. Now, it’s a still, inanimate head, awkward and heavy like a bowling ball. The father doesn’t want to, but he touches it. The skin feels like his, that’s the first thought the father has when he taps the face and then feels the thing by rubbing it. He pokes it and smears his palm on it and notices the hardness of the skull. The father touches his own face in the same way and he thinks it could’ve been him.

A half-hour later, after the father can’t decipher how exactly the head had come to be decapitated, he calls 911 and the respondent says, now you’re sure it’s a real head, over and over, and when two police officers arrive, one officer vomits right in the sink where the father vomited, and then they leave with the dead man’s head in the cardboard box and the officer that vomited left his card and told the father to call him, and then the father is alone in the red brick home and almost misses the head.

It’s after ten o’clock that night when the mother calls and says they can’t come home and that Jane told her what was in the box and that they’ll stay at the Motel 6 off Kildaire Farm Road, and the father says okay and then drives the fifteen minutes to the motel, but before he does, he cleans the red. All of it.

The family is never the same. The dead man’s head haunts Jane’s dreams, and she says everything in the world will be forever stained red. Red, Halloween red. The mother says it’s worse for her because she never saw the thing, the head, and so her imagination runs wild like elephants stampeding in a grassy savannah. “Your imagination is a blessing and a curse,” she says to the father, and he just nods but doesn’t say a word. He’s not sure why, but he misses the head and thinks it’s probably the most outstanding thing that will ever happen to him in this world. A human head in a cardboard box on his doorstep is, in a way, like holding the winning lottery ticket, he thinks.

The father and mother decide they must sell the red brick house and move, and they put it on the market, but with the news coverage and all no one wants to live in a place like that so every open house is more empty than a donut hole. The floor is clean now, but always red. Here’s 3857 Wester Drive. It’s red brick and has a red door. It’s the house where the decapitated head arrived. See Bobo lick the floor. See Mother, Father, and Jane remember the day the decapitated head was sent to them.

Peeling Onions

There’s the story; then there are the stories.

In 221 B.C.E., or there about, Qin Shi Huang united the then very sparse and warring kingdoms of the Far East. Qin led the unification of what would later be hailed The People’s Republic of China. Qin did that. He became China’s first Emperor. That was the Qin dynasty.

I ask Johnny, our guide at the Terracotta Army Museum, if Xi’an is cold in the winter. It’s September and over 35°C outside. Inside, the clay warriors are dressed for real winter: heavy boots, long and stiff garments, scarves tied tight at the neck.

“Back then there were less people,” Johnny says, “so it was much colder, and the rivers were much wider. Now they are small.” Johnny is quick to respond to my questions. He’s an expert on Xi’an, a guide for over ten years. His feet are just as fast as his responses. I have a hard time keeping up with him, which has been my experience in China in general. China’s like New York City on Methamphetamine. I kind of love it.

When I ask Johnny why there are no women warriors, he sort of grins and cups his hands over his mouth, like he’s got a secret to tell, but then blurts, “At that time, you know, the woman is a slave. You could have many wives. Qin had more than 3,000 concubines.” There are terracotta horses and carriages and warriors and commanders and generals, but no terracotta women. That’s the story.

Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. On a television outside a megamall on North Street, just by the Bell and Drum Towers in Xi’an, I watched the victory parade for a few minutes with a gathering of other passersby. There’s a three-car procession down the center of Beijing, passing Tiananmen Square and the large portrait of Mao Zedong at the front of the Forbidden City. Mao’s portrait is like sign language. President Xi Jinping stands, always stoically, out the roof of the front vehicle. His suited torso, carefully parted hair, and steady head stays still, almost like he’s a hologram. Or a clay statue. There are no people on the street. Only straight lines of tanks and tankers and missiles and more tanks and soldiers and crisp blue skies. Xi’an is grey. As the President’s car passes, he yells to the soldiers, only his lips move, and they reply on queue with shouts and sternness. It’s all in Mandarin. I only watch for a few minutes. This is not my parade.

Later that night I watch the Gala Event on CCTV 1. It’s a show. There’s another procession. This time there’s a very content, but composed Chinese crowd. Parading are foreign diplomats and state VIPs. I see Putin; he’s walking at the front with Jinping. I try to guess where the other delegates and diplomats come from. I see Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, maybe. I don’t see President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. There are Chinese war vets: hunched and humble and smiling and wearing heavy, military green garb. Are they the modern day Terracotta Army? The diplomats shake hands on the way to their seats. They settle, and the theatrics begin. There’s dancing and singing and more dancing and singing. I think there might be more dancers than soldiers in China. I’m awestruck, really; the VMAs and the OSCARS and the GRAMMYS got nothing on this show. The most compelling part is the choreographed dance about the Rape of Nanjing. It’s a massacre: against all Chinese women, it appears. It’s intensely beautiful, but I don’t think about China or Japan. I think about humanity. Stories.

In 1974, a Chinese farmer, trying to dig a new well, struck the mighty, clay figures. He didn’t know what they were. He called his neighbors. They thought they must have been cursed. It must be bad luck. A few more calls. Government officials investigate. Archeologists bring their brushes and trowels and shovels. No, no, no, this is them: the mystical and mythical figures who were carved and kilned two millennia ago to commemorate and protect China’s first Emperor. Qin Shi Huang longed for immortality. The warriors face east, toward the rising sun, and are a part of Qin’s larger Mausoleum and tomb in the Lishan Mountains that faces the setting west. After the mighty Emperor’s death, his son was, “a stupid leader,” Johnny says. One dynasty ended, another began, and the Terracotta Army were forgotten, lost in history’s scrolls.

Today, the museum has three buildings. The first, and largest, is the size of two football fields and holds the most original and restored warriors. Each face is different. The torsos are hollow. Johnny says, “sometimes the artists are smart.” In the kiln, the hand-carved clay figures had to exude heat and fume or they would explode within the extreme temperatures: hence the hollow torsos. The heads were added later.

Johnny explains how the actual clay was brought to this part of the region. “Slaves carried it here from the south.” The women, I think. Today, archaeologists send the extra, crumbled clay to a factory to make replicas of the warriors. They deliver to America, if you want. Johnny says, “When President Clinton visited, he was offered a free one.” Clinton refused, saying he wanted to pay for it. I ask Johnny how much it would cost to buy a terracotta warrior. He said 10,000 RMB. About 1,500 US dollars. I cannot confirm President Clinton has one in his house, but Johnny is pretty certain he does. It might be at their front door. Maybe in the office. Stories.

I wonder about China, which is to say I wonder about my country: the United States of America. Original and restored and replicated. Stories. What about reenactments? What about retribution? What about the Trail of Tears and Tuskegee and Katrina? What about flags? Infamous stories. What do you do with the infamous stories? What about Donald Trump? That’s the best you can do, America? Donald Trump? Rich, white men jockeying for immortality. Stories: past, present, and future.

They all look the same, the Terracotta warriors. Today, I could have purchased an exact replica of a warrior made of the same clay, from the same land as the original warriors. I’ll take a woman warrior, please, on a horse, carrying a bow and arrow, shooting his story. How’s that for reenactment?

Peel stories, like onions.

On a Train

It’s 11:18 on Sunday morning, May 24, and I’m on the bullet train to Hangzhou. The train is mostly full, but, in our group, we are fourteen – twelve teenagers and two chaperones. It’s one of ISB’s Senior class End-of-Year trips, we’re traveling at about 310 kilometers per hour, and the word that keeps appearing in my mind is DERAILMENT.

Not, like, literal derailment. This train is smooth, clean, and comfortable. It’s just been a hectic few weeks. When I think, I see words. Literally. When I spell a word, a name, a phrase, or an idiom, and I see it there, written on my mind’s white board, I know it. DERAILMENT.

This past Tuesday I began my first course with UAA’s MFA program. I’ve been plowing through the required reading: The Best American Short Stories of 2014 and two works by Ron Carlson – A Kind of Flying and Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Carlson so easily and effortlessly captures voice in his short fiction. Reading inspires my own writing, and, after reading a little of Carlson, all I want to do is sit, type, and get stuck in story. I want to finish this piece that started with a playground. Now, it’s morphed into dementia, an affair, and physics, I think. Not sure where it’s going, but it’s going. All I want to do is finish, but I know it needs time. I need time to sit on it, let the characters marinate a bit more until the story’s juicy and ready to be either grilled or thrown in the freezer. I need time to type and then delete and then repeat until it feels real. Time, however, is not on my side at the moment.

Yesterday, a few friends and I went “busking” at 798, an artist district in Beijing. I had never heard of this term “busking” until I told another friend this past week what we were planning.

“Busking in 798,” she said. “Don’t get arrested.”

Apparently “busking” is a real term, and even though we didn’t have a permit to play music on the street, we didn’t get arrested. It was a successful event, which means we drank a lot of beer in the sun, I jammed on my djembe with the rest of Dirty City until my hands were swollen from playing euphonic praises to the universe, and we had our picture taken with many, many ever-so-curious Chinese passersby. iPhones ablaze. We were run out of one location, but quickly found a few others, and found, too, some future gigs. Dirty City likes 798 and vice versa. It felt good, too, to escape Shunyi – the Beijing suburbs – and play for an audience outside of our typical teacher-expat crowd.

Friday night there was more music. I sat in with the bits and pieces of a few local expat bands – past and present – to honor and celebrate folks finally saying good-bye to Beijing. We played well past my bedtime, but it was fun, again, to jam and chill with friends.

We’ve just passed through Nanjing, and once we hit the countryside it doesn’t feel like China. To me, China feels like a dream I always had growing up: it’s the beginning of some super-important bball game, I’m starting point guard, but I’m stuck in slow motion, while everyone else is at normal, human pace. I’m excited to be there in the moment, but I can’t catch up. I’m nervous. I’m confused. I’m lost. I’m frustrated. That’s what China feels like to me: at least the mega-city China. Watching the mountains and rice paddies and farms and clearing blue skies of the countryside doesn’t feel like that. I feel like I can breathe out here. It’s slowing down a bit.

One of the first official assignments of CWLA A662 was to submit a short bio and picture to the course discussion board on UAA’s Blackboard. It was one of those on-line thing-a-ma-bobbers, though, that won’t let you read what others have written until you actually submit. I needed some Jedi Knight trickery. What do I write? I don’t want to write too much and sound all over-anxious or dweeby, but then I don’t want to write too little and sound aloof. It took me an hour or more and I ended up rambling about Run the Jewels 2, James Baldwin, Africa, and our dog Bear. I submitted a picture – a selfie, in true Chinese fashion – of Jazzy and I outside Rome’s Colosseum, where she recently finished a marathon in 4 hours. I read the other bios. I’m nervous. DERAILMENT.

I haven’t had consistent physiotherapy time for my knee the last few weeks, but I’ve gotten into a good routine: light swimming, spinning a few times a week, push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups. It seems like forever ago when I had a physical derailment, but I’m getting back on track. Knees are no joke.

The “real” writing I’ve been doing lately is a graduation speech for next week’s commencement ceremony. I’m cool with the writing part; it’s the actual speaking that worries me a bit. The delivery. Classroom speaking is easy, but addressing a crowd of, like, adults and stuff, all dressed up. DERAILMENT. I reckon, though, the universe will provide. The Big Man upstairs will have my back.

My first impression of Hangzhou is holy humidity. It’s not sweat-through-my-shirt humid, but I can tell, tomorrow, I’ll feel it. It is a nice change from Beijing where it’s always dry and the palms of my hands are always ashy. We arrive at 1:30 p.m., and I assign each kid a different task. D____ will find subway line number 1 and figure out how many stops to our hotel. W____ will purchase the subway tickets and make sure we get the proper fapiao (receipts) to submit to our school. The fapiao is a big deal, and I imagine the China paper trail must be longer than The Great Wall. I’ve tasked S____ to use her 4G iPhone to find walking directions from the subway stop to our hotel. It all works.

Later, we meet in the hotel lobby at 6 p.m. and then walk to Hefang Street. The teenagers lead and I follow. They flip-flop through the touristy street that’s got trinkets and more trinkets. This could be called Trinket Street. J____, S____, and K____ get matching temporary tattoos on their feet. It’s that type of street. A few others buy durian fruit candy that smells real bad, but they swear it’s tasty once you bite into it. I tell them I’ll try one tomorrow. In between Silk World and some type of green tea specialty shop, there’s a haunted house. It’s 20 RMB (about US$3.50) to enter, and, outside, the guy selling tickets is yelling about how scary it is. He’d be an amazing carnie. I tell the kids they should try it, but then S____ says, “but, Mr. P, we can’t get a fapiao for that.” She’s probably right.

At dinner, they talk about what teenagers talk about. They gossip about last night’s prom. Who did what and why. I pretend not to hear. Or, maybe I pretend not to listen, because I don’t want those stories. I already lived those stories.

We get back to the hotel at 10:18 p.m. I call Jazzy and ask her how Bear’s doing because he threw up this morning before I left. I tell her I miss her and love her and that I’ll message her before I go to sleep. I love yous and stuff.

Tomorrow, I’ll check back in with CWLA A662 and UAA’s finicky Blackboard. I’m sure my next assignment will be posted. I think about my playground-dementia-affair-physicist short story, but there’s no way I can touch that now. Less is more. Before I close my eyelids for the night, I’ll try to read more Carlson. SLEEP has replaced DERAILMENT for now. I’m happy, though, to be off one train at the moment. I’m just on a little layover, waiting for the next one.