Friday, August 24, 2007

Perspectives from the Eastern Horizon, Column 1

Continuing the run of articles I've written about my experience in China, my first column of a series they're calling "Perspectives from the Eastern Horizon" appeared in The Belmont Citizen-Herald last week.

The inside of this airplane is ordinary—uncomfortable seats that look like they were upholstered by someone locked in a darkened room; flight attendants, starched and smiling; a man in the next row snoring lightly, his chin on his chest. It’s what’s outside that is remarkable. I am flying over Xinjiang, China, an area of savagely serrated mountains and vast deserts with nothing much in between to roll out the welcome mat. I stare out the window at a range of peculiarly ragged sandstone peaks that look like crumpled newspaper ascending from an arid, dusty floor, and think about the places to which this semester of travel and study abroad in China has brought me.

Just last night I was in Beijing, luxuriating in a well-appointed hotel room, an island of quiet comfort in the midst of that smoggy, perpetually hurried city, resting after an afternoon of playing the history student to the city’s many ancient sites. Three days previously I was taking a turn as tourist in smog-choked Xi’an, home of the famous Terracotta Soldiers, an all-clay army one particularly arrogant Chinese emperor had manufactured and buried in his tomb to ensure his continued rule in the afterlife. Two nights before that, I was living the expatriot life in the warm air of Kunming, Yunnan province, in the far southwest of the country, working on a mammoth 36 page term paper while enjoying the triumphant feeling of familiarity with a place that in many ways embodies the opposite characteristics of my homeland. And four weeks before that I was Girl Anthropologist, spending my study abroad program’s independent research period learning about the folkstories of ethnic minorities (similar to our Native American tribes) in the remote Nujiang Valley, an area of towering emerald mountains and ferociously thundering rapids a two-hour drive from the Myanmar border.

Perhaps it is the exaggerated distance from my window seat to the landscape below, the perspective afforded by air travel, that allows me to be struck at this moment by how profoundly disconnected each of those wide-ranging experiences has felt, how independent each one seems from the others--a separate epoch, almost a different lifetime. I feel as if I am a child looking at the different rooms in a dollhouse where the maker has forgot to put in doorways. Each of these experiences is a separate component in one body, a different and discreet view onto the whole vista of my experience. My explorations are united in their role as a part of this whole, but to me they feel as if they have no inherent connections, as if each was completed by a different person. Yesterday night, in that wonderfully cool hotel room in that city many times the size of Los Angeles, I couldn’t sleep. Recalling my adventures in the dark, the thought suddenly came to me: “I’m like a cat, I have so many lives.” Thinking about this admittedly curious gem, I smile a little. There’s nothing so simultaneously silly and profound as 3 AM epiphanies.

Despite the tendency of that hour to produce jewels of absurdity, I do think there’s an important idea to be uncovered here. Growing up, living the way I have, it’s been easy to forget how lucky I am to have enjoyed the opportunities I’ve been offered. The prospect of being to live the lives of so many different people, whether they be expat, researcher, and student or father, lawyer, and golfer, is a luxury that not everyone can afford. The chance to try on so many facets of the world is truly something to stop and contemplate, if not for which to show gratitude.

The plane is now traveling over snowy, craggy peaks that proclaim that they mean business as they cut ragged holes in the cotton wool clouds. I can feel the bracelet I bought while playing explorer on the Laos border resting against my wrist, the grit of sand from a trip to the Gobi Desert wedged in my sandals. And I realize: we are the one piece of evidence that all the lives we live exist in concert, the one place where our pattern of experience converges into something tangible, something concrete.

The mountains look fierce, sharp, and dangerous, and yet from here surmountable, as if I could leap easily, lightly, from one peak to the next. And so it is with my various lives, spread out below me through the miracle of perspective, a distance that will only increase as I grow older. Yet another piece of richness to add to the collection of my experience, then, to have the memories of my many lives to cherish for years to come, to hop from peak to peak in my mind’s eye like so many newspaper mountains.

I'm hoping to write several more columns for appearance in the Citizen Herald once things get in control on campus. Also, for those of you interested in following my writing appearances on other subjects, I will have a piece in The Portland Phoenix coming out in early September-- I'll provide a link here once it appears.

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