During my trip to see my grandma in China last week I learn such words as 造反 (zàofǎn - rebels) and 官府 (guānfǔ - government officer) and dutifully enter them into the vocabulary app I downloaded on my first day there. Ask your Asian friend, China has a boundless supply of TV shows with an American 90s aesthetic about feudal lords in bamboo hats with spears which somehow manage to be packed with fight scenes and yet unexciting. The 官府 had captured the leader of the 造反, a stout and muscular, bearded and paternal figure whose role, for much of the episode that was currently airing, was to be beaten, not as part of some torture to extract information but seemingly just in order to showcase the actor’s pain face. A second member of the rebellion, clean shaven with long hair and a determined face, tries to stop his leader’s execution but upon breaching the ranks of guards with a few wire-hanging flips is immediately outnumbered and surrounded. The 官府 smack the 造反 with their blunt 杆子 even though they could just as easily stab them with the protruding blades of their polearms. There can be no blood shown on Chinese cable, I think to myself. The rebels probably still win in the end, I think to myself. This seemed cooler in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, I think to myself.
Earlier we were at a mall at 1 pm on a weekday and I realized peeing into a urinal while wearing shorts how much piss must be routinely dressing the ankles of my jeans. They had offered us corn juice to drink at lunch, never pausing to ask themselves whether there’s really enough juice in corn to justify bottling it. Then they offered us pomegranate and I realized that the fool is me, and each kernel of the pomegranate had a seed, and if we can afford to make pomegranate juice then I shouldn’t be surprised that the logical extension of that is Chinese corn juice. Nobody was at the mall except us and some business men we followed up to the fifth floor, where the “GENTLEMEN’S CASUAL ATTIRE/LADIES GLAMOUR ATTIRE” sign both greeted and warned us. We brushed by the racks of clothes and I avoided the sales floor attendants who could tell by looking that I’m not Chinese enough, and headed back down to the previous floor, “ATHLETIC TIDAL” for some athletic tidal clothing, and the floors below. On the ground floor we discovered that Starbucks in China has espresso but no coffee, and that asking for regular coffee earns you the response “what kind?”
At our other grandma’s 90th birthday dinner, an uncle toasts to Mark and me, “回家” (huíjiā). Returning home. Mark uses the same phrase later to explain to a neighborhood guard why we don’t know our Grandma’s address and our cellphone numbers have the wrong amount of digits, but he should still totally let us in. He does. An alternative translation is “go home,” as in, “I’d like to toast to Mark and Jordan: go home.” I think to myself how fucking catty this makes my uncle if it’s intentional. We pass by the guard every morning on the way in and out as we whittle away our jet lagged early mornings at the university track. I run opposite three athletic looking black guys and an old Chinese man approaches me and says “those foreigners run so beautifully.” I nod sheepishly and offer, “yep.” Later we see him getting his photo taken with them and I silently resolve to work on my running form.
On the plane back the flight attendants pester the old woman sitting beside me, who seems to speak neither Chinese nor English and therefore communicates with us in gestures, “how do I get my screen to show the flight map,” “why can’t I rotate it to look like that guy’s screen,” to turn off her phone during the flight. Meanwhile I realize that the only time I watch movies is on planes and this gives me the strength to finish watching Spike Jonze’s Her before giving in to my weakly adjusted sleep schedule for 4 hours. When I wake up a flight attendant comes by again and tells the woman to turn off her phone. She nods and smiles and leaves her phone on. I wonder how much of this is motivated by traditionalist Chinese culture and how much of it is just leftover strictness from before Airplane Mode was invented and leaving your cellphone on meant that the pilot wouldn’t be able to hear the air traffic controller emphatically yelling “turn left or you’ll hit another plane!” in which case, someone definitely should turn off this old woman’s cellphone.
In four more hours we arrive back in San Francisco and I sleep for 10 hours. Then Monday night I’m lying awake in my bed from 2 am to 6 am, I can’t sleep because I’ve lost my land legs in the 15 hour time zone difference, and I’ve switched back to my work phone and lost all the vocab words I saved except the ones I memorized.