On an LA train. Note my long hair
After two years in China, two years of travel and adventure and yes dating, I was ready for my triumphant return to America. Some people like to go back to the home country often; every summer, every Christmas, every Chinese New Year. But with so many places to see in the world, and only so much free time as well as funds, I prefer an every-other-year approach towards seeing old friends and family. There’s not all that much for me in the States anyhow, to be perfectly honest.
I left my burgeoning/declining relationship and flew home. It worked out so that I was in between apartments, with boxes of clothes and stuffs strewn about various friends’ apartments back in Shenzhen. I was to live out of my suitcase for the whole month of August. Best month, for sure, to get out of the South China heat.
The trip proved to be rather epic. With a chill start, my good buddy who also happened to be my old roommate picked me up from LAX, that familiar Los Angeles airport I’ve been to so many times. Funny story how we became roommates; he’s a very old friend from Cincinnati (all the way back to youthful high school days), and after I’d already been in California a while one day I was surprised with a call and told me he suddenly decided to drive over to visit and move in with me. I said sure! I’ve since been long-gone, and he still lives in Long Beach to this day.
I even got to stay in my old apartment, in the center of the LBC. There wasn’t much nostalgia, no reverse-culture shock. At this age in my development, it’s quite easy to just pick up where I left off. I enjoyed relaxing for a few days. Went to the beach. Took the infamously shitty LA public transpot and met up with L.A. friends up in Echo Park and Hollywood. Went through various bureaucratic procedures at the California DMV and Chinese consulate. Nerd that I am, my favorite part was simply going to the big bookstores and sitting down and catching up on graphic novels. And, a bit of flirting with girls at bars, regaling of tales in China, and nothing at all came of that.
The high point was actually when I flew to the Midwest, believe it or not.
First stop, Indianapolis, Indiana. I have no affinity for Indiana whatsoever, not much culture in the middle states beyond Wal-Mart and McDonalds, but it happens to be both where my Dad lives and has a low-price airport. A lot of flying that month, one must be frugal.
Saw my Dad, saw my brother, some distant cousins, gave out souvenirs, lots of catching up to do. Then the quick drive to Cincinnati, Ohio, a city I do have much affinity for. Now, even before I went to Shenzhen I hadn’t lived in my own hood for three years. In total, it had been more than a while.
I like to Cincinnati my adopted hometown. It’s not where I was born, my unstable dysfunctional family constantly moved when I was a little kid, but Cincinnati is where I was finally settled. I went through puberty there, high school, first year of college. It’s where my experienced my most formative years. It’s where I met my oldest and closest friends. That is why I always make a long story short, and when I’m asked I simply say I’m from Cincy.
However, I don’t eat that nasty Skyline chili-spaghetti concoction. Neither do I follow baseball nor the NFL. LaRosas pizza with the ranch dressing is still recommended.
In subtler ways, the Midwest has had an effect on me. I’ve been told that deep down I’m a good Midwestern boy, I don’t know if that’s true, but I am from where I’m from.
As a matter of fact it’s a pretty cool town. A medium-sized city with its boring suburbs and outlying rednecks, but with a substantial downtown hip scene. I recall the old crust-punk houses I’d go to as a teenager. We had a race riot in 2001. Indie band The National is from the ‘Nati.
Ohio has a lot of big cities, I keep having to explain that. Also, the state is what we call in American political terminology a battleground state, and that means I have been exposed to a diversity of opinions. Not just unanimous evil whitey conservatives, or unquestioning patronizing liberals; I like to think I have an independent point of view and I can partly thank Ohio for that.
That’s enough background. What’s important is what happened to me.
I saw Mom and her side of the family, more cousins, and my youngest sister all grown up. My sister flew in for the occasion too. Stayed in suburban Madeira, unfortunately, but with frequent trips to Northside bars. I got to drive my mom’s car, and I’d been out of practice for the last few years so that was quite trustworthy. Don’t ask me how driving went, let’s just say I don’t get the appeal and I prefer the big city world of subways and taxis.
The only strange thing I can report, ‘reverse culture shock’-wise, is that in middle-America everyone has the same accent. You go to a bar and there are no Australians or Germanics. It’s not the lack of Asian people, the whites everywhere (not that different from an expat scene here) but the conformity of locals. Nobody asks “Where are you from?”
I guess I must say that some of my old friends where in various states of sad. Some doing better than others, but I don’t think it’s generally a good thing to stay in one midwestern city all your life. You can get in a rut. Especially if you’re a stoner. I heard about a bit of drama. Some of my old pals indeed cleaned themselves up. Surprising thing is only how few of them settled down. Still, my friends who are most impressive with their lives tend to be the ones who no longer reside in Cincinnati…
And then there were the old crushes. My female friends. I hope I impressed.
Well, only two come to mind. I’m going to mention one of them. Something happened.
After all the various parties, the drinking and texting and bonding. Finally, my last evening. There was a small party at the mansion, a large house one of my good friends affordabley rented in a ghetto neighborhood. Nice group of people, all there to see me off.
Gwen was there. Ah Gwen, my oldest Platonic female friend. Way back in the high school era, she was the girlfriend of a particularly cool guy in my crew. We went to punk rock shows together. We were even roommates for a while. Now she was a mom, now she had a kid. A young mom, a cool mom, but a mom nonetheless. (She was single though, okay, no more of that.)
She was actually excited about seeing me while I was in town; we were corresponding a lot before I showed up.
And she was so beautiful. The hottest girl I’d known. Obviously, I always had a crush on her. Maintaining female friendships is all about suppressing, we were ever just friends, but let me be honest here. I didn’t even think I ever had a chance, but I had been imagining it for a significant chunk of my life.
She was my first Platonic female friend/ And then I ruined it.
There was alcohol involved. We found a quiet dark corner in the house. I clutched her body, my arms going up and down her back. Faces together, we kissed.
Is it presumptuous of me to mention that I’ve been told I’m a good kisser?
“I always thought you were dynamic,” she said.
“Let us never speak of this again,” I half-joked, just in case it was necessary to say such a thing.
That’s all we ever did. We made out. No big deal, right?
Later she gave me a ride, there was a bit more making out in her car, and that was it. Nowhere to go to take it a step further, no time for anything to develop. In retrospect, it was but a goodbye kiss.
I took it way too seriously.
I did something wrong.
Although my relationship with Zoey was very much on the fritz, we hadn’t technically finalized the breakup yet. This was, in fact, the worst cheating I had ever done. All we did was make out, and it wast the worst. Because it was emotional. I let my heart wander. My heart wasn’t faithful.
I left Cincinnati the next day. I stayed in California for the following week, and we talked. I tried to convince her to move to Shenzhen with me.
The fantasies wouldn’t stop, my mind was thinking things I didn’t know I was ready for. It would have been perfect, I thought. We would get married. I know that’s rushed, but it would be so convenient with visas and such.
I thought I would make a good stepdad, I really did. I’d teach Mandarin – kids pick up languages almost instantly – and homeschool English subjects too. She could do one of those ESL jobs at a kindergarten easily enough, and her kid could go to the kindergarten! We could afford a nanny and go out together when we’d want to. Isn’t that a better system than daycare and relatives baby-sitting? She would love the SZ scene. Plenty of time for work and play and adulthood and parenthood. So perfect.
Happily ever after. I’d grow up instantly. For a few moments, it made perfect sense in my head.
I tried my best to convince her, in phone calls and emails. At least come visit me and check it for yourself, I pleaded. I think she seriously considered it. I sensed that she wanted to try, she was truly tempted. It would be an adventure, something better than staying in Ohio forever. Maybe even good for the kid.
But parents can’t be too adventurous. A good parent needs to be more sure of things. I’m pretty sure she liked me, I’m pretty sure she considered it. But I don’t know how seriously she thought about it. I don’t know if she tried to book a ticket but couldn’t get away. I don’t know if she would have missed her friends too much, if others gave her advice and told her not to take the risk. I don’t know if she was scared to leave. I only know she never came, not even to visit.
Perhaps if I made a move earlier, perhaps if we had a quick romance to preview a longer life together, perhaps if she wasn’t a mom…
Perhaps I’m just completely overblowing my fantasies here. Man, can I sure put the cart before the horse sometimes.
(And, to be frank with myself, I must have been projecting. Gwen’s a nice girl, a cool attractive girl, but in reality she’s a single mom in Cincinnati, Ohio and though there’s nothing wrong with that should I really have taken her to be so symbolic? Should I really have idealized her so?)
Upon reflecting on all these old feelings, it feels strange to me right now. Back then I told myself I was on the quick path to adulthood and I had everything figured out. There was a plan. The plan did not happen in the end, but I thought it in the realm of possibility somehow.
Today, I have no such clarity. I have vague notions, plenty of fantasies, realistic goals and pathways to be sure. But not that kind of plan. I don’t feel ready for marriage and parenthood whatsoever. I don’t feel like this kind of adult, not at all.
At the time, though I was somewhat realistic and knew it might not work out, it might have made me a bit too full of myself. I was brimming with way too much confidence.
All I did was make out with Gwen, a teenage crush is all, and talk about the future with her on the phone. And I thought I was the greatest in the world for that.
After that, I had to get shot down by girls a few times to get over myself, get dragged down to reality again. Good ol’ lame reality.
* * *
So I left my hometown, left my bickering family to not see them until two more years later, it was fine by me.
My Cally travels continued with a quick trip North to catch up with more friends. I flew to Oakland, I stayed in Berkeley, and had a sorta intense urban shamanism experience tripping on psilocybin mushrooms and wandering the streets of San Francisco with my sitter and me just barely not freaking out. It was empowering. Let me say that there is no place in the world easier to buy substances than the Bay Area.
When I left America, my country, I felt a great kinship with all my old friends. The ones worth keeping in touch with after all these years, these people are the best. I felt surrounded by love, blessed, overwhelmed and content, and above all lucky.
What a month. I was in eight airplanes. Four states (I left out Northern Kentucky, don’t worry about it), transferred in Manila, then the SAR and an SEZ and however many time zones that adds up to.
I returned to my Shenzhen life. A few changes, I moved, and mostly I did the same old thing.
There was still a girl here waiting for me. I had to tell her the truth. Not right away, but eventually I was completely honest with Zoey, I told her all. We broke up over it.
Then, not yet ready to let go, we got back together.
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This is your best piece so far, Ray. Kudos to you.
I’m going back home in July, after two years and for the third time after I left in 2009. Indulging in nostalgia and gripping on every opportunity to stay is something I have been through myself: home is a suit cut to size, you don’t even have to think or try and you are perfectly comfortable.
“Home is a suit cut to size,” I like that…
Nice article you have here, this is the same way I write my articles, telling a story. Anyways I will be following your blog, and I hope to see more of the same, if you get a chance, come check out my blog Voyagetoasia.com although my adventures in China are mostly in Shanghai.
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Shanghai is indeed an adventurous place. Ever been to the south? Don’t come in the summer unless you want to melt.
I look forward to reading your stories, sir.
Nice read and recollection! Now that is what I call a whirlwind of a month. I can relate to some of where you are coming from.
I used to go back to Canada every year but now it seems to be every second year. I find that not much has changed when I return but the whole visit make me realize how much I have changed in the 15 years abroad.
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Wow, 16 years is a long time abroad. I often wonder how long I’ll be. You’re in Taiwan right? At least it’s a bit more the ‘real world.’ I could see myself permanently settling down there or HK but not the mainland..
Actually, it will be 15 years next month.
I meant to type 15, but yeah. I’d edit it, too late now.
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