A KFC Menu Poem

February 8, 2011

pre-note: many months ago I scratched this on a menu at KFC . . . I just found it tucked away in a notebook. Enjoy!

Do nothing
To stop
ambition
Economy
Is most
important
for
Capital
Skills
Talents
Use
Them all
to
Get ahead
Work
Go, go

Desire
Lost in the
Cold
Burning from
Inside
Flash
Bang away
Sounds
flare
Fragile
People are
Conveyor belt
Living
Compartments are
Disjointed
Segmented
Apart
Connected
Not
Moment by
Moment
Event maybe
Leisure maybe
Today a
Little more
Creativity class
Demand
Some
Free talk
Harmonious
Society
Steps
Punches card to
Meaning
Lost in the
Cycle
No, no
Meaning
Abused
Tangled
Living
Pointless
Aimless
Better have
More
Aim
Than the best
Man
Moving
Headlong
To gain
BMW’s a
Symbol
Status
Face
Affirmation
Junky
Shows up
Don’t
Make
a mistake
Don’t
Lose

Do I love?
No, no
no
Never
Go Forward.
Can we
Riot?
No, no
no
Never
Shut your
Damn
Mouth
Hush
Remember
You’re
Happy Everyday
Progress
Ahead
Look at us
Loudest yelling
Man with
Microphone
Clutching
Tension
Suppressed
Bitter
Anger
Explodes
Chao
It’s the way
Up
Don’t
Question

Contemplate?
Think?
No, No
Never
Forward March
Onward
dammit
Go
Money
Get more
Move up
Climb
Higher
Mind
Turn off
Go, Go
Go
Shake
Hands
Move up
Rattle more
Chain

Smoke
Drink
Cheers
Money
Money
Give me
Take Me
Fast
Forward
to it
Go
Drink
Smoke
Overflowing
Wallet
Spills
Empty
Living

Give nothing back
Take and keep
Grandma
was poor
Don’t
Be
Like
Grandma
Poverty is
Scary
To us
Go, go

Can I
Get someone
to
Judge me
Grade me
Affirm me
And
Or
Talk to me
Skin
Deep
Breath
No, No
Robots
Forward march
Don’t
Stand in line
Waiters get
Served last
Don’t be
Be
The same
Set apart
On
Top

Remember
A Mao
Saved
Is a Mao
more
To busy
Tomorrow
I’ll dig
For bones
Answers
Today
Show me more
Money
now
Move out
Of poverty
Ignore it
Go, go
Go
Forward
Don’t stop
Halt
Never
Stop
Onward
Up, up
Up
Dammit
Move out
Nothing
stops
Progress

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The Music Box

February 7, 2011

There is nothing comparable in the history of the world to the cultural gap between the young and old in China today.

Tonight Qian Yu, one of my very attractive neighbors, sent me a message and invited me to KTV (karaoke). When a beautiful girl asks you to do something, you (I) usually do it. So I flagged down a taxi and showed the driver the address to The Music Box. Upon arrival I found room 119, opened the door, and saw something very strange. A bit odd. I saw Qian Yu’s parents (they were in town visiting for the Chinese New Year). Mother and Father sitting down, arms folded in silent observation of all this “new stuff.” They were out of place: shiny marble floors, dancing strobe lights, blaring speakers, erotic music videos, and now me, an outsider.

I greeted them. They grinned. I sat next to Qian Yu. They smiled.

Qian Yu sang a song. She’s a good singer. Not knowing the words, I watched onscreen as a fresh-faced Japanese love story unfolded. We clapped. Qian Yu smiled.

After I successfully deflected their attempts to hand me the microphone, on the grounds of ignorance, Qian Yu gracefully walked over and handpicked a song for her mother to sing. This song was a bit rigid, it came from another place, a different time. The luster was gone. Again without knowing the words, I watched the video unfold. It featured Chinese children waving Chinese flags, snapshots of Chairmen Mao and historic sites like The Great Wall. Mother knew every word. It was more propaganda than art (granted Qian Yu’s Japanese love story was more emotion than art, but that’s beside the point).

Mother finished. We clapped. Mother smiled.

They persisted so I went to pick a song. I searched the English menu. Qian Yu so graciously piped in and suggested Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” so I went with that. I knew what I thought of their videos; now I wondered what they thought of mine. Lady Gaga is a crass and capricious individual. She’s very different from the banality of patriotism. I was certain that when the words “I want your psycho, your vertical stick” came out of my mouth, Alpha-Centauri would explode, rendering our world moot. The only thing salvaging imminent apocalypse this time was the blessed confusion of Babel . . . thank God.

I finished. They clapped. I smiled.

After Qian Yu sang another song she playfully said it was hot so she took off her long over coat which revealed a black halter-top of sorts featuring swan feathers with hot pink tights hugging her legs running into magenta colored high-heel shoes (for the record it actually didn’t look as ridiculous as it sounds). Upon revealing her dainty shoulders, I watched her mom’s confused and nervous gaze at her singing daughter’s skin. She really didn’t know what to think of it all. The skin. The colors. The feathers. The shoes. Was this her daughter? Mom was wearing a dull colored wool overcoat with plain black pants awkwardly squeezing against the top of her boxy shaped black shoes. Daughter’s hair was long flowing and vibrant mother’s hair was wiry short and grey. The Music Box kept humming. We kept smiling and clapping.

You’ll be glad to know that I finished the evening off with a little evangelism and a lot more confusion. I selected Kanye West’s video “Jesus Walks.”

I teach too much. I’ve been teaching from the same four books for seven months now. I’m not magical but I’ve come to foresee every question, every laugh and every mispronounced word like a sorcerer sees a shrew. This can be mind numbing at times but sometimes, rarely my student’s unravel strange things about the world with their adventures into the feral jungles of the English language.

The other day I was teaching two university-aged students named Lilly and Frank and towards the end of class after learning how to describe people I ask them to envision and describe their dream husband and wife.

The boy’s usually grin in silence while the girl’s start rattling off lists. Of course, Lilly went first. Ladies always go first in Chinese English class. Frank listened carefully. Lilly’s very attractive. Frank would be lucky to have Lilly. I think Frank secretly likes Lilly.

She started saying things about height and muscles and about how caring and generous he should be. She pontificated (as if she had thought about this question before) about eyes, hair, job, bank account and family and then she paused for a moment caught in the thick underbrush she said, “He should . . . uh . . . uhmm . . . what’s the adjective?”

What’s the adjective? I don’t know Lilly but keep searching.

It’s in these remote canopies that I think about my family and friends back home. I think about funny little things like blazing stars and the mystery of language and why creatures are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside . . . but now I’m thinking about adjectives and why we can’t be all of them.

In scope, I haven’t been doing this for very long but I’ve learnt a few things along the way. For example, it’s very important to look away when a girl’s searching for the proper adjective. It’s only polite . . . you’ve got to give ‘em space.

It’s funny how a glance in the other direction can clear the way. So I looked under the table. The shiny glass balls dotting Lilly’s red shoes were shimmering in defiance against the cancerous glare above. The answers to the universe seemed to be caught somewhere in the flux of those beguiling rays. I couldn’t help but think that Lilly was going to be disappointed by whatever adjective she finally pounded into her sentence. Most women are.

Meanwhile, while Lilly was busy being inarticulate I looked at the other pioneer in the room, Frank. Frank was wondering about what an “adjective” actually was. No matter what it was he desperately wanted to become it. Whatever “adjective” meant it now merited the transformative attention of his cerebral cortex. He was determined to become “adjective” for Lilly’s sake.

Frank has forgotten that he and Lilly are both nouns. Adjectives describe nouns. Frank, the noun, is a cluster of sticky adjectives. Adjectives give expression to Frank’s Frank-ness.

God made Frank and Frank is . . .

Lilly’s answer escapes me now. I’m sure it was rapturous or something like that. But that’s beside the point. What incites me is of another sort. Something in my soul tells me that God made you and you’ve been trying on all sorts of adjectives ever since. My question is, what adjectives are you running to and what adjectives are you running from?

I’ll be a gentleman and look away.

The boss hovered over and said, “Eric, let’s talk.”

This is odd because my boss doesn’t speak much English. What did I do? What did I not do?

I went to the end of the hall with him where he takes his smoke breaks by the window.

He lit up.

Inhaled.

Exhaled.

Looking out the window he started talking about his daughter. He wanted me to tutor her in English before she went off to college next fall.

His daughter happens to be a brilliant young lady who had just turned down the opportunity to study in America because she was accepted by one of China’s top schools, Peking University in Beijing. An impressive feat considering the fierce competition surrounding a school like this in an overpopulated country like China.

She’s studying journalism in one of the best schools in a country with one of the strangest outlooks on the art form. It has been called “Marxist Journalism.” Marxist Journalism is essentially that journalism which promotes, guides and does not rock the social order of things already established. Chinese harmony is imperative to the art form. Puppetry if you will.

But I get to meet with her twice a week for the next few months and discuss anything I want. Anything! She is a delight and her English is excellent so we can get pretty deep into issues.

You’ve heard of propaganda. You’ve heard of The Great Chinese Firewall. You’ve heard of benign journalism that puts people to sleep.

For example: We were talking about the Dalia Lama (a terrorist to some in this country) and it came up that in 89’ he won the Nobel Peace Prize and she was shocked. She had never heard that before. And then I told her about the Burnside Writers Collective and she was shocked because she couldn’t read it because it is censored and blocked (I didn’t really tell her about Burnside but it is still blocked by the firewall to prove my point). And yesterday I read the paper about the new shiny train that goes from one city to the next (snore).

I imagine that journalism in this country will change in the next twenty or thirty years but for now the government still meddles in the press and sniffs out the dissenters who want to tell the real story. This kind of media turns out child-proof-news with no edges or slants. Safe, swallow-able tablets called news. Though, in some respect it might be better than the dogfight that the news organizations are engaged in back home. There are definitely no Jon Stewart’s or Colbert’s in this country, not yet anyway. But there is Sally . . . my boss’s daughter.

So what would you say to a future Chinese journalist if you had her ear for the next few months?

A Stone of a Woman

February 4, 2010

The other night as I was coming home I found myself apart of something I couldn’t ignore. The bus stopped. People got off. I was missing something. Four people remained on the bus. Two older gentlemen who were obliviously drunk so much so that they weren’t able to heed the driver’s exit rules. There was a college student who was asleep and me the confused foreigner who had lost the service announcement in translation.

The driver quarreled with the two stumbling men urging them to leave. They weren’t leaving. They were busy slurring insults at him and his poor mother.

I attempted to avert this scenario by politely interjecting and asking the driver why this bus wasn’t going to my home like it should be. The driver’s animosity shifted quickly. I came at me. He went into a red-faced-diatribe about . . . well, it was a bit fast and a little to complex for my Chinese level. I looked out the window and figured it was the last bus of the night and I figured that the last bus of the night wasn’t going to my home. At least that’s what the clues were telling me.

I stood up to exit and watched as one of the weak-kneed-wobblers tipped right into the hazy-eyed college student’s lap. In his defense he awoke hugging a pungent old man. And then only realized that the bus was not where he wanted it to be either. He brashly removed the smiling old man. The old man looked at me and stumbled and continued slurring his side of the story.

The bus driver kept pushing them out as I jumped off. From outside I continued watching these men interact with each other.

I stood next to a lady in a nice purple coat clutching her shiny black purse. She was elegant. This was no place for her. I felt embarrassed on her behalf for what she was witnessing. From here perspective I imagined that this looked brutish. It was a remnant of a more barbarous age. But she didn’t sway one way or the other. She was completely un-amused by the whole scene. Roused not, her gaze remained blank. The stumbling men nearly knocked into her, the stiff liquor swirled in the air but she didn’t as much blink an eye. She ‘nothinged’ them. Her lack of regard was impressive to me. She was a stone of a woman. A ruthless stoic in the presence of these inferiors.

The men continued assaulting and defiling the driver’s mother. And then it happened. The foggy eyed college student, off the bus now, in a flash lunged with a blunt swing at the driver’s head. It was sheepishly blocked. They squabbled and clawed for a bit. I glanced at the purple lady. She neither looked nor cared. She might have been deaf and blind for all I knew. Was I imagining her? Was she there? Was she real?

The driver and the boy continued to slap each other. These weren’t kung-fu artists by any stretch of the imagination. Dismiss that Asian stereotype. They hissed and scratched and then the doors were shut. No blood was spilt that night. No, it was just that gradual turning-up of the soft Chinese underbelly of social oppression and anxiety. It shows up every once in little social outbursts that you come to expect. And as quickly as it all began the now empty bus hummed its way down the road. Our young-slapper hasted his way into the shadows of the evening. Probably to get some rest. More than amused I was culturally grateful for being allowed to see this harmless and yet poignant exchange among fellow comrades.

In my opinion the drunk guys were just having a good old time. The college student became furious for some reason or another and decided to take it out on the wrong guy. The purple lady seemed priggish (maybe dead) but then again who really knows with purple ladies these days. And I guessed that the bus driver wasn’t going to have a good night when he went home to see his family.

But there we were on the corner of something and something that I can’t really pronounce in Chinese and our hearts were beating as the worlds beyond ours were expanding and bumping into each other in that soft cosmic interchange that happens when nobody seems to have a telescope.

The old men hailed a motorcycle-taxi. I secretly wished that they would do the same for me. But they didn’t. After they struggled getting on the motorcycle the one sandwiched in between his friend and the driver struck the drivers yellow helmet with force like a small child would do to indicate that it was time to go. I smirked. The men garbled out a laugh. The driver even smiled. The purple=stone-of-a-woman did not. She nothinged.

A bus came and the-purple-thing left.

I flagged down a motorcycle. I didn’t smack the driver’s helmet but I did pass the two men who were apparently nauseous from the ride. The one who struck the driver was now hunched over discarding the insides of his stomach on the pavement below. I was more than heartily impressed when he managed to wave me goodnight. The-purple-lady would have never done a thing like that.

On Existence & Shit

January 11, 2010

My friend Krystal Lambert posed a pressing question in a text message tonight. She said, “Umm excuse me.Could you please tell me what it all means,” I asked for clarification and she replied, “existence and shit?” To be honest, I can taste her question. It is stale bread. It cracks and breaks in your hand and scratches your cheek.And it goes down airy and dry.

Krystal, I recently read this by Thomas Merton in a letter he wrote to a friend, “Can I tell you that I have found answers to the questions that torment the man of our time? I do not know if I have found answers. When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of “answers.” But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further into solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. And what are the questions? Can man makes sense out of his existence? Can man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? . . . I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts. An arid, rocky, dark land of the soul that is sometimes illuminated by strange fires which men fear and which men studiously avoid except in their nightmares. And in this area I have learned that one cannot truly know hope unless he has found out how like despair hope is.”

Krystal, as you know, I have a Bachelors in Biblical Literature. And with that I can tell you about how the Greek of 1-Peter is better than the Greek of 2-Peter. I can tell you about how small the Hebrew language is compared to the English language . . . and yet that it is more dynamic. As one author puts it, the Hebrew language is Volcanic. It erupts and explodes. It bellows and hovers. With a single syllable it can sear your heart . . . it can destroy your whole life and make your bones tremble. I can tell you about how Jesus is the most untouchable soul in the universe and at the same time about how he is the most touched. I can tell you about how I believe in miracles based on the fact that I believe in the Jews and how I am baffled that they survived the violent forceps of history (Where are the Hittites? Show me one Hittite in New York City–Walker Percy). I can tell you about how it is better to give than to receive. I can tell you that the Kingdom of God is absurd and foolish and that it is upside down and backwards. I can tell you the importance of conserving the earth, of promoting peace over war, of justifying the plight of the poor, of re-discovering the arts. I can tell you about how we are wired for community, friends and family. I can tell you about how man is the most despicable, base, arrogant and prideful creature on this earth and I can also tell you about how man is the most glorious, angelic and humble creature on this earth.

I can tell you a lot. But for some reason I can’t tell you what I’m going to do with my life. I can only say in a Robert Frost kind of way that two roads will diverge in a yellow wood and I suspect that I’ll be sorry in the end because I could not take both. And perhaps one will be better than the other but I can’t say with certainty at this point because up ahead both ways tapper off out of sight. And I know that the decision I make now will make all the difference in the end. But now I must be vulnerable and take one step in one direction. But I’m not sure which and that kind of scares me.

I’ve been a lot of places in this world and taken a lot of steps with a lot of people. But for the first time in my life I am alone. I have always had at least one solid friend around me at nearly every step in my life . . . be that Andy, Cole, Bryan, Tyler, Krista, Scott and most recently Solomon. I am deeply grateful for all of them and I am jealous of their lives. I don’t want to be sappy here but love is a big word and love is appropriate for what I feel for them. But now I am alone. My friend has just left, my apartment is empty, my job is unfulfilling and my bike is carrying someone else. I’m alone. In a big city. Eating stale bread. And telling you the things I know and the things I don’t.

Krystal, I didn’t answer your question. Like Merton, I used to know the answer but now I’m beginning to understand the question. And I suspect that your question ages much like wine. Over the years it will ferment and expand. Keep asking and you’ll have a fine drink on your hands. Just promise that you’ll pour a glass for two.