Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The People You Meet in China

The wind blows colder here than it does at home. It whips between the concrete buildings and sinks its icy teeth beneath your jacket, under your skin, and into your bones.

Outside is a serenade of car horns, coughing, spitting, and creaky bicycles, and people conversing in a language where love an anger can be indistinguishable in sound.

It is halfway around the world, maybe more. It is far from anything familiar, where ordering a coffee is a challenge, and where nothing ever feels entirely as it should.

But in between the remnants of concrete Communism and beneath the layers of filth, lies something tangible and oddly comforting, even though it, too, is strange and unfamiliar. A language you speak. A joke you can share. An accent your recognize. A word you do not have to explain. A shared memory of a life put on pause.

In that world we were an hour away: Albany. Westfield. In that world we shared our stereotypes: Florida. In that world we understood a different kind of cold. Minnesota. In that world we walked upon the cobblestones: Edinburgh.

In this world, I do not know what we are and if we are different than we are in that other world that's hanging suspended like an alternate reality that someday, someday we'll return to. We talk of it like a pretend world, like an imaginary dream we shared as children in a sandbox, inventing a land far, far away.

The world is so close and we are outsiders. Outsiders on the periphery of two existences, straddled over a wide, choppy wake. We share what we can; we give what we can to each world: a story here, a photography there, a pool of memories we can collect in a scrapbook, let gather dust, and never fully return to.

The photographs and stories offer a glimpse through half an eye. But all that I've seen is not all that I've seen. The smells, the sounds, the sticky wetness that glues itself to the bottom of your shoes as you walk down Dead Dog Alley, sunglasses on, earphones blaring, and the disgustingly beautiful way the sewer bubbles over like a Lilliputian waterfall even when it hasn't rained for months.

The world isn't as small as it seems, and yet it is smaller.

Here is a temporary. Here is a rose petal, a dish of oily vegetables, a cake with tomatoes, seven people with mops, a bowling lane that never works. And here will be gone. In the long, drawn-out blink of an eye, here will be gone.

Good? Bad? Judge yourself and find your own answer, but the wide, wide world has seen that we cross. So, when you walk that way and I walk this way, and the noise fades and the sights and sounds once so familiar now see, foreign, I know the road you're walking.

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