What It’s Like to Be Different

I’m not the same as them.

I follow the beat of a different drum.

I’m strange. Odd. Peculiar. Mysterious.

 

It’s a good thing.

 

“You’re unique.”

“You’re quirky.”

“You’re a character.”

I make life my own.

 

It’s not a good thing.

 

“Why can’t you just act normal?”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Will you ever change?”

I don’t harmonize with their chorus.

 

I’ve been labeled

An “enigma”

A “wild card.”

I’ve been individuated with

“Asterisks”

“Red flags.”

 

I’ve been called:

“Interesting”

In a good way.

“Special”

In a good way.

“Different”

In a good way.

 

Different has a wide range of personalities.

Different is terrible.

Different is inexplicable.

Different is hilarious.

Different is wonderful.

 

But the thing to keep in mind is this:

Different is different.

 

And that’s the only thing you’re certain of getting

When you deal with me.

 

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What It’s Like to Visit Home

I’m in a big yard in a suburban neighborhood by myself, ball and glove in hand, and I walk inside and there’s pictures on our wall and it’s our wedding, except it’s only me in a tuxedo, and a few family members in the audience, but they’re not smiling; they’re worried, they’re dying, it’s too late. Another picture: I’m tossing a Frisbee to a ghost of a baby that won’t exist in time, in time for my grandparents to see it, in time for me to be a great-grandparent, in time for us to be a young happy family, and everyone’s moving on, and I go back to the empty yard, and I’m surrounded by empty houses, and on another block are all of my friends and their families, happy, real, official, in time, and I wander through their blocks but now they’re busy, busy with reality, and I’m lonely so I go back to my empty street, and I’m even lonelier, and I don’t know what to do to make my block as colorful as their block, and I just want to start over and live a real life, and I feel like it’s already too late, I’ve already admitted defeat by Time, and I look back and try to figure out where I went wrong.

The Shoe Parade and the World of Confusingness

shoes

As a grandparent-proclaimed “growing boy” during my younger years, I had a tough time staying in the same pair of sneakers. In addition to constant half-size elongation, I absolutely destroyed respective heels and balls and other parts I don’t know the name of on every make and model of footwear. I used to go through like three or four pairs a year. I have decided to call this collective glory period the “Shoe Parade.” I need to be careful because that might be the name of a shoe store.

During the Shoe Parade, I gained a glimpse into the world of confusingness. My shoes decayed (yes, I was very scientific back then) at a much quicker rate than kids who seemed to live similar lives and who were going through similar, if not greater, bodily growth spurts (I was always short but my feet grew quickly; admittedly, while they grew taller, I did not measure their feet on a regular basis).

My best friends and I ran amongst golden cornfields, rambled through countless neighborhoods (actually just two or three), circled the bases of makeshift Wiffle ball fields, and protected the streets that held Abraham Lincoln’s legacy while pedaling away on our BMX bikes. And yet in spite of the fact that these friends were roughly one foot (12 inches, not shoe-related) away from me at all times doing the exact same things with their feet, they kept the same shoes for a year or two, and I didn’t.

I couldn’t wrap my ahead around this phenomenon. It made me question reality. I was “spoiled” with shoes, they would say. Then I displayed my soles, and after seeing more white sock than rubber, friends would politely hint that I was a “stomper.” I then walked really softly (to the point of tiptoeing), but nothing changed. Why was this only occurring on my feet? Was there something else going on?

I had no idea how crazy that world of confusingness would get, beyond the shoes I tied every morning. Young adulthood has been really weird. There’s been so many situations where things haven’t gone like I thought they should go, whereas for other people events always seems to unfold in a perfect logical order. I don’t have a name for this period, but it’s a few steps past (a footwear pun) the Shoe Parade.

Sometimes, I get kind of tired of it and want to find a simple place for my feet in the normal-person world. It can be tough living in a land where I expect outliers on a daily basis.

So a while back, I transitioned to the “regular” sort of life, or at least I tried, with occasional success. I told myself it was the right thing to do.

But then I looked down at my shoes, and I realized that they’re like a size too small and they’ll be a size and a half too small by next year. I might as well just shut up and get some new sneakers.

Squeaking Into the Darkness

Here I am at 2:30 in the hot summer Sunday AM, the squeaks from my 300 RMB mini bicycle echoing through the empty polluted streets of Beijing, looking like an idiot, exposing my lean non-Chinese figure with tight work pants and a Banana Republic shirt raised above the belly button to limit further drenchings of sweat, Taobao fake 3M pollution mask aface, bike seat raised to the max and still not high enough. Sanlitun is buzzing as usual tonight, but within a matter of minutes I ride from bright club avenue to dark, desolate road. I’m slightly afraid, yet that feels 5x better than sitting in a noisy gay bar where I feel nothing but pop beats and awkwardness. The late night dramatics of a solo bike ride in a gigantic city kind of hit some special inner escapist note.

Here I am at 3:30 in the hot summer AM, the squeaks of the cheapest possible IKEA bed frame provided by the apartment agency resonating through my small room, capturing ridiculously subtle private movements such as taking an almond out of an almond bag, which I do one at a time, likely audible to my Chinese couple neighbors. Although I just showered, my room’s AC is not strong enough to prevent a further wave of sweat on my lower back and face and annoyingly my hammies, so now it feels like I’m getting a cold as I watch a Chinese soap opera to try to learn Chinese the way many Chinese people learn English, but I’m really just reading the English subtitles. I eventually switch to VPN’ed Netflix, whose original Star Trek episodes are loading excruciatingly slowly, and yet I guess the five whiskey sours I downed and the hookah I hit quite heavily have given me these bursts of energy and patience that are completely unwarranted for such a retrospectively lackluster American 60’s TV show.

Here I am at 4:30 in the hot summer AM, the squeaks of the desk I have switched to painfully audible as I enjoy crunchy Chinese Skippy with stolen hotel chopsticks, for some reason watching another episode of Star Trek with large headphones, which I think amplifies the chewing noise. In no way do I feel sleepy, but I decide it’s time to hit the sack now to avoid waking up in the PM. I watch recaps of American baseball games to get in the mood, and while there are 162 games, seeing the Cardinals’ loss instantly puts that mood into a depression, but more like a childish pout than a full-on adult depression, and I finally fall asleep with bad thoughts in my mind.

Here I am at 7:30 in the hot summer AM, and nothing, something something too tired think squeaks. Please coffee. Wake up. Wish more sleep.

Here I am at 8:30 in the hot summer AM, back at it again with the bike and the squeaks thing, coffee recently imbibed somewhat quickly. Severe lack of sleep and surprisingly only slight hangover aside, I am ready to get up and go on this Sunday, to accomplish meaningful things, to figure out my life before work tomorrow. I park the bike and head inside my first stop, caffeine and I walking in together with a determined smile.

Here I am at 1:30 in the hot summer PM, stumbling out of the bank trying to figure out why it’s so difficult to send $500 home, starving to the point where decision making is no longer possible, no actual meal-serving shops in sight, still many more things on the list, dinner plans being one of them, and what with transit times and the time it takes to digest food and not be in a trance, I realistically will have like 30 actual minutes to get something done, and I really miss living in a smaller city. At this point, I realize the squeaks have probably ended for the day.

Here I am at 10:30 in the hot summer Sunday PM, biking through the streets again, wondering where the weekend went, questioning my choice to live in this city, but as I stop thinking for a moment, I hear the squeaks of this silly bicycle, the ones I thought had disappeared for the day. I laugh, because the squeaks are the reason I’m here. I made the choice to be the person who gets into nonsensical adventures, the person who faces seemingly unnecessary adversity, and this place has definitely fulfilled those whims. For that reason, I will gracelessly, inelegantly, but eagerly continue squeaking into the dark night, wherever in the world that night might be.

6 Occasionally Fun, Usually Interesting Months in China

Month 1

I succumb to the $14.99 in-flight Wi-Fi just in time to see the Cardinals lose Game 4 and the series to the Cubs, and while flying over the North Pole that is gorgeous but also makes for an extremely confusing route on the non-sphere-shaped in-flight map, I am in a six-minute existential crisis that goes away when the old Chinese woman next to me falls asleep on my shoulder.

I arrive in Beijing unable to see Beijing, sweating and standing in an extremely long customs “line” learning how Chinese queues work, pulling the protruding metal rod from an overstuffed yesterday-purchased Wal-Mart luggage bag which has already broken somewhere between CLT and PEK.

I am of course expecting movie-esque fanfare from my company upon airport arrival, when instead, an aloof old Chinese man holding a piece of paper with the company name scribbled on nods at me and wordlessly speedwalks ahead and I am apparently supposed to follow, and he is now a tiny speck in a closing elevator, and I get stuck entering. The expressionless stares from a crowd of Chinese people will become familiar soon enough.

After 30 minutes of intense small-bus driving, my closed-eye instincts tell me we are close to downtown. I open my eyes: we have gone from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3. We’re picking up another person, and my driver parks illegally in a muggy parking garage. I guess I’m supposed to wait inside the van. I’m drenched in sweat and almost deaf from reverberated honking when he returns with another employee from America one hour later. She is annoyingly overenthusiastic about the whole experience, but she’ll later be a friend. We get stuck in the Beijing rush hour on the way back, the kind where the drivers put it in park and get out and socialize on the road while smoking cigarettes in the dense pollution and run back when things get going and floor it three feet and park and do the whole thing again.

When our van finally arrives at the He Ping Li Hotel two hours later, we almost die by lightless electric scooter and then by wrong-way aluminum rickshaw as we cross the side road to get to the entrance. It’s been about a week since I actually slept, and that’s all I want to do now. I don’t want the Chinese gf to see me in this sub-human insomniatic jet-lagged state. No people tonight, just a nice bed and…oh, there she is standing in the lobby to surprise me, and we were supposed to meet later, and I’m upset that she will see the not-real version of me on our first-ever date together in my dramatic first night in a very distant country that I dreamed would go perfectly. I smile.

The next two weeks are spent attending intense training and listening to the exact same Norah Jones album while eating the exact same hotel breakfast every day. And I wake up at exactly 3:43 every morning because my body clock is confused I guess. Also, the hotel bed is a queen-sized rock.

I have to find an apartment in the next two days in the like eighth largest city in the world and I have had approximately ½ day so far to actually look for places, and I have zero idea what I’m supposed to be looking for, and I fully accept that I will probably settle. On the last day, I find a decent-looking place close to work. On the rental website, there is a picture of a robot man, a robot couple, and a question mark. I move in, and I am for some reason surprised when the place is not a third-world shanty. The other robots end up being Chinese, and one of them becomes a friend.

There is a confusing IKEA security incident where I bring an IKEA bag from home and I think they think I’m stealing it.

Observing, teaching.

All of my weekends are spent doing complicated bureaucratic visa-related things in all corners of this gigantic city.

Month 2

Lots of teaching and pollution. It’s getting cold and dry. Finally starting to have time on weekends, but it’s freezing out and the city’s so freaking big and I don’t have a car and I don’t know where to go so I go to these weird deserted mountain parks that are in the city but take a 1RMB 3-hour bus-ride to get to and only one or two end up being interesting. I do get to see a quiet part of the Great Wall while there are still leaves. Going out to eat for nearly every meal because it’s cheap and I work weird hours. Starting to learn basic Chinese words, but pointing and saying “this” or “that” works for perhaps too many things.

Month 3

Seeing the gf more. Christmas is a day by myself Western coffee shop-hopping in big malls reading Philip K. Dick for the first time while Chinglish Frank Sinatra performs quite well at an odd little gala. It’s smoggy, and there’s little on the fanfare front because it’s not a Chinese holiday. Christmas night is a 35RMB fake Taobao tree and later, an expensive English version of the Phantom of the Opera we’re still humming to this day.

Same kinda thing for New Year. They’re on a different calendar here, so a good chunk of the Chinese population is sleeping while I’m in a French bar with English teachers standing in a dark corner with no TV or anything like that engaging in a very anticlimactic countdown that is confusing because the apparent bartender who is standing on a stool leading it does so at 11:56 on our iPhone clocks.

I’ve started to “grade my language” even when I’m not teaching English.

Feeling the old dramatic existential thoughts, why am I in China, I’m regressing, etc. etc.

Month 4

I don’t know how I’ve made it this far. Some of the other intake groupies are getting restless to the point of possibly breaking the one-year contract.

My gf’s bday is stressful because I still don’t know her that well and what do you get a foreign person when you are a clueless inhabitant of their foreign land and you know nothing about the culture and the norms and there are lots of weird things you are not supposed to give people here because of bad luck or whatever, but she likes elephants and I find something with an elephant on it at the last second. The following day is my birthday (we planned that nicely) and she gets me a heavy winter coat that will still barely save my life in the next two arctic months.

In February comes the absolute madness of Spring Festival, which is like a weeklong Christmas + New Year x 3 that will make you despise fireworks and hallucinate about long traveling lines leaving the city. We go to my gf’s small hometown, where I learn that I am a Russian movie star. I meet her ridiculously nice family: 25 Chinese people seated around a very large table, asking questions in Chinese and toasting toxic baijiu, gf translating, no clue how to answer, just smile and take the smallest possible sip.

We go to an island in Thailand. The water is pretty, and we snorkel and boat, but the last day ends in infamy because I flip the rented hotel scooter while not even doing anything dangerous (maybe it’s karma for walking away unscathed from Mexican MarioMoped with the bros), and when we check out (with still-fresh wounds), there is a large extra charge on our final bill and a much bigger one on my ego.

I miss San Francisco a lot.

Month 5

It’s getting warmer out after the long winter, yet I’ve realized Beijing is kind of boring to me, so I start to leave more. I get used to pre-awake taxi rides, speed trains, and exiting Chinese airplanes. I’m closer to maximizing my middle-of-the-week weekends. I remember that I like taking pictures. Get to see pretty things like Xiamen, Shanghai, cherry blossoms in parks. Maybe I’m becoming comfortable in China.

Month 6

Just when I think I get into a work-life balance groove, my body completely gives up for a few days after a weeklong smog, and I get what they first a “common cold” and then a “respiratory infection.” No idea what it is, but NBD, back to normal. I spend the night in a small village and get to drive through the mountains and am pleased that I have taken my spoken Chinese from level 0Aa to 0Ab. But then the sickness thing happens again on a bigger scale, and I start to question my future here. One foot is out the door. Maybe one and a half, but I somehow muster the energy to bring the one-half foot back in and persist, and I get better, and hopefully it doesn’t get bad again.

I watch Kobe’s dramatic last game and Golden State breaking the Bulls’ record on opposing screens while eating pulled pork in a Memphis-style BBQ place with my friend from Memphis who says it’s really Texas-style.

I hit Chinese Starbucks Gold, which is ridiculously harder than and annoyingly separate from the American version.

I do more traveling, spending some time in coastal cities like Dalian and Tianjin, and I make a few friends. I like all of the places I’ve visited more than Beijing, but it’s easy to like them when I only have short adventures there, ya know?

We finally throw away the Christmas tree.

 

In conclusion:

I constantly feel nauseous, and I’m not sure if it’s the pollution or the 7/11 Kung Pao chicken.

My English has improved since moving to China.

Chinese hospitals…

No tips seems to work better than tips.

I have met some really cool people here.

The VPN makes the Internet even more unbearably slow.

Cheap Western staples like Mexican and burgers and greasy spoon breakfasts are expensive here, and I miss taco salads and bacon and eggs with hash browns.

Repetition. Playlists at restaurants are the same like six songs literally for months. Video and audio billboards play one 20-second ad over and over and over again. Vendors say something like “please come buy my products, this one is on sale right now” in Chinese into a megaphone and hit the repeat button and sit in a chair for hours. No minds seem to be lost except mine.

So much lip-syncing where the amount of mouth- and eye-work to sell it is actually quite impressive, and this is crazily impossible with rhythmless Chinese opera, but they do it anyway.

Insane as the driving and traffic is, I have not seen a single major accident.

There is a choreographed dance by employees in front of some company or by old women in some park happening every single day.

What is a “paper towel”? “Napkin”? Cheap toilet paper is used for absolutely everything except restocking the communal bathroom roll.

There’s nothing like a refreshing glass of scalding hot water.

 

OK, gotta go buy more pollution masks. There are plenty of other things I’ll tell some of you later.

As they say here, “adiós.”

 

 

 

 

Jump

Image

The sign reads:

HAZARDOUS CLIFFS

DO NOT ENTER

Of course, I enter. To be fair, judging by the way the metal fence is bent, plenty of other people have had the same idea.

I walk on what resembles a path through the ice plants and climb over rocks. At the end of the path is a narrow stony overhang that juts into the sea. I slowly approach the edge and observe the jagged rocks a hundred feet below. A small lighthouse can be seen in the distance.

I’m suddenly frightened, but of what? I used to be afraid of heights just like plenty of other people, but lately, I’ve been fearless, and I have sought out the adrenaline rush – being so much closer to death makes me feel that much more alive. On this occasion, however, the fear is taking over.

The wind roars. The giant waves crash against the rocks; some of the spray makes it all the way up to where I stand. Not a soul is in sight. It’s just me and the ocean and this cliff. I take a few pictures of the beauty, then I put the camera aside. I move a few steps closer to the edge. I’m one foot, one loose rock, one gust of wind, one startling noise, one slight push away from falling to my death. These are all cause for concern, but there is a much greater fear looming from somewhere else.

The things I mentioned are all external, and I have little control over them. What I’m really afraid of is within me. I’m afraid I will momentarily lose my senses; I’m afraid, for an instant, that I will not be able to understand what it means to be alive, that I will no longer know how to differentiate between right and wrong, that I will stop being human and abandon my ability to reason in the face of overwhelming curiosity.

At first I was standing still, but now I’m disoriented – dizziness starts to take over. The ocean turns into a vortex; the waves begin spiraling faster and faster, and my eyes follow the circle religiously. I’m hypnotized, I’m entranced, I’m under a spell that is increasingly hard to resist. A powerful concerto commences. I find myself swaying to the wave’s rhythm like the buoy in the distant surf. Earth’s gravitational pull increases. My body is twice as heavy, and the weight shifts to my head and torso, leaving me dangerously unbalanced. The vortex is now a magnetic field. The music speeds out of control, prestissimo. The spinning sea leaves me paralyzed and intoxicated, and I am drawn in without a fight. Darkness surrounds me. Consciousness evaporates into nothingness.

I open my eyes and gasp for air, dumbfounded and terrified.

I jump backwards and try to regroup, but I am too shaken up to move from the solid ground I am now on.

No, it’s not falling I am afraid of; it’s jumping.

I’m afraid not of a deliberate jump but rather an unconscious one. A fall caused by myself, a completely different version of me, an outsider unaware of the impending danger.

After a deep sigh, I walk up to the marked trail and take a quick glance back at the rock I was just standing on.

In the crashing waves of the ocean below, I saw my life. I am afraid to give up control and awareness of my surroundings. I am afraid I won’t be able to remain at a distance. I am afraid once I enter, I won’t be able to escape. The world is trying to guide me, but I keep resisting. I prefer to guide myself, even if it is random and chaotic. The lighthouse directly in front of me adds irony to the situation.

It’s like the feeling you get when your body is telling you to sleep, but you fight hard to stay awake, except my body is telling me to wake up, and I am fighting hard to stay asleep.

What scares me is unrelated to any literal oceans or cliffs. There are many things that frighten me in the world, but for some reason, the thing that scares me most is living my own life.

One of these days, that other version of me – the fearless, wild side not worried by the sheer height of the cliff or the sharp rocks below – will step in, and I will have the courage to wake up and take the plunge.

Busy Come, Busy Go

Potential employers have collectively stopped counting to 1,000 in this game of hide-and-seek. Now that their eyes are open, they can finally see what is standing right in front of them. I got tired of hiding. Why not just count to 100?

The same thing happened last summer. I hadn’t been able to find anything at all for months, not even one return e-mail or acknowledgment of existence. Then I got a real estate finance internship.  A few days later, my temp agency contacted me for the first time in two months. They offered me a job doing busy work at Chase, and I quit the unpaid (yet full-time) internship for it. A day after that, I was contacted for a temp-to-hire position doing finance and criticism and writing, but due to my ridiculous 2nd / 3rd shift hours at Chase and the unknown duration of my assignment, I turned down an interview. Based on the interest I was drawing in the present, I wasn’t worried about being able to find something in the future.

When I found myself with no job a few weeks later, I went back to being invisible to the job market. Nothing at all changed. I was still the same Curtis applying for jobs, yet my Inbox and Voicemail stayed empty. I began scouring Craigslist for anything and everything. I sent hundreds of e-mails, e-mails that I put time and effort into, and I wrote up numerous great cover letters. Nothing. No response. On extreme occasions, I would get a “Thank you for applying, and we’re impressed by your credentials, but you’re not what we’re looking for at this time.” I applied to Target. On the application, I checked every box for the stores in the city I would be willing to work at, every box for the positions they needed help in (including overnight stocking), and every box for time availability. Weeks later, I got the usual e-mail. I couldn’t even get a freaking interview for minimum wage overnight work no one else wants to do. Same with Walgreens. Same with Barnes and Noble. A number of grocery stores. I couldn’t even get a call back to be a pizza delivery driver. Apparently I’m not as overqualified for those jobs as I thought.

I had my resume looked at by the Loyola Career Center, and besides a lack of relevant work experience, they thought it was very good. I had Bradley’s Career Center review it years back, and they thought it was fine. There isn’t a glaring weakness or a “Don’t Even Dream of Hiring Me, Don’t Think About Interviewing Me, Ignore My Qualifications and Extreme Flexibility, Don’t Bother Letting Me Know You Received My Job Inquiries or Have Made a Decision Either Way, and Pretend I Don’t Exist” stamp.

Lately, I’ve been applying for things in many different areas, but I’ve naturally been focusing on finance. The same resume and credentials that were ignored the last few months are somehow in the spotlight again. Last week, I had a phone interview with a tech start-up for a business development / finance internship. A day later, my (third) temp agency awoke from its slumber to inform me of a finance position at an accounting firm. The same day, two other finance-related companies not only responded to applications I had sent, but responded with invitations to set up interview times. Hours after that, the tech start-up let me know I was chosen for the internship; I start next week(!) I wouldn’t be surprised if I get the other jobs as well.

It’s ridiculous how my life works. I was looking for something to do to benefit myself besides learning French and writing, so I started the CFA thing. I just started my hardest quarter in school. Combine the academic workload with a job (or two or three), and I’m going to be absurdly busy. Where was everyone when I had nothing to do and no commitments? It’s like I’m that guy girls only want to date when I’m unavailable.

Is this what I wanted? I do need a job for work experience and money, and I’m trying to benefit my future self. Yet I don’t have time to think anymore; there is no time to reflect on who and where I am. Am I moving forward, or am I just a hamster on a wheel? I’m going too quickly to know if this is right. I’m working very hard for the future with little regard for the present. In terms of the composition of my life, I’m increasing quantity, but am I increasing quality?

I am forced to ignore my inner awareness, to repress important questions and observations. I am sacrificing mental independence for positive future prospects. I am hesitantly taking the bus instead of driving my car. This can end up well, or it can end up in disaster.

There’s always been a wall between the real world and myself, and every time it starts crumbling, I run away. I don’t like feeling imprisoned by life. Subdued, inhibited, contained. I’m not going to give myself up for the sake of “necessity.” I will either come out of this unscathed and content or powerfully inspired by my discontent.

I’ll be on my guard.