Questions of travel
She couldn’t lose control. Even dishes needed to be moved in my sink. “Why?” I wanted to ask. I kept holding my tongue. I couldn’t lose control either. In the taqueria line I stipulated that she not ask questions. “They don’t speak good English here,” I said knowingly, as if I’m the city’s expert on Latino culture.
This need to be the guide, a pitfall of my pedantry, to tell people the rules just like the best teachers do — it feels so good when I’m convinced I’m right and that’s final. This is the problem. This is why travel becomes necessary: as an antidote to confidence.
So I’m in a Lyft headed to SFO. When I tell my driver I’m headed to Thailand by way of China, he tells me he’s from Hong Kong and offers tips on correct pronunciation. It was hard to mimic his accent as he repeated the word “Guangzhou.” He was funny and I was stoned. He told me about his daughter and her plans to study bio-chem when she gets to college. He hopes she’ll get involved in A.I. I was not really up for it, but I couldn’t help mentioning the Singularity. “Isn’t it a problem that we may depend on machines for everything in the very near future?” I asked, knowingly. His rebuttal was quick and hard to refute. “It’s the next step in evolution,” he said swiftly. He went on to speak much more articulately and persuasively than anyone with a Chinese accent I’ve ever talked to before. This is the world I’m headed to, I thought. My puny sense of entitlement was already thinning into long lapses in speech. I was silenced by his intelligence and my own marijuana stupor. Fitting for the world power drift of the twenty-first century.
When we got to the airport I thanked my driver and quickly found myself lost at the international terminal. For a few minutes it seemed no one would be there to direct me. Men in uniforms I couldn’t identify, nonwhite passengers now walked by me knowingly, without regard for my need for help. Finally I asked someone, I can’t picture them now, where China Southern Airlines is. It seemed obvious when they said “Number 6.” Yes, I saw now. There were numbers lining the endless aisles past where I could see. I walked briskly and stood in a short line, feeling like myself again. But I struggled to retrieve my passport when the young Chinese flight attendant asked to see it. My Osprey backback hung heavily on my body; it was awkward to swing it around and sort through the web of zippers.
She was not quite patient — her manner exuded an expectation of orderliness I would never meet. I worried about my fate in her hands; even so, I ventured to ask what it would cost to upgrade to a business class seat. I deserve to take care of myself, I heard myself whisper. It is the same voice I hear often when standing in Whole Foods. I enjoyed the period of waiting to be served as she bounced from her computer to the one next to her. She was talking to a male flight attendant whom I suspect disliked me. Then the unpleasant answer came. “That will be $3000,” she said softly.
Shit. I wondered if they, he especially, had conspired against me. My naiveté, writ plainly in my whiteness, my stupid backpack, my whole disordered yet solidly American appearance. I leaned in, twisting my face into its “let’s make a deal” look. “Not for that amount,” I said coyly, after she repeated the figure a second time. I sense she missed my innuendo that I was willing to bargain. It didn’t matter. In this case I failed to close the deal.
All of it — check-in, security, the terminal, my gate — felt unfathomably far back in time. Already I’d lost the San Francisco I know, and I hadn’t even left yet. As if to say goodbye, I visited a high-end juice bar that stood at the end of the line, just above the escalator that led down to my gate. In big cursive letters, some obnoxious name, like Joe and the Juice, gleamed at the top of a black banner menu. The dripping hipness stung my palate and warmed my spirit in the same gulp. When I approached, mild-mannered funk music surrounded the bar like an aura of safety. Inexplicably, I felt back in the Mission or some other ridiculous place.
“T’s up,” a kid with a man-bun said when I got to the front of the line. This meant he was ready to take my order. I looked up and invoked something pretty sounding — a drink with ginger, fennel, carrot, and “lemon dropping acid.” I appreciated the psychedelic reference and winced at its being on the menu. These were the fuckers who ruined the sixties. Or so it was easy to say.
Watching closely as a second barista retrieved my ingredients and blended them in a way that looked artistic, I felt a social-grace impetus to back away from the bar so as to look cool. I stayed put out of anthropological bluster. This is the contrast, I said to myself, beginning to feel an ease of orientation. Self-care taking vs. world-hardened competence. As I passed down the escalator one last time, the funk music de-crescendoing, I felt lost in the blurriness of the contrast. My juice drink cost somewhere between $12–13. It was delicious.
* * *
Why am I on this trip? I asked myself in Guangzhou, sitting at a café watching the sky change from black to white-grey. Probably it isn’t called a café in China. But I couldn’t think of another name. I recognized the McDonald’s logo and was a little surprised as I approached that there was no McDonald’s menu. The food I’m eating is traditional Chinese for all I know. Pork Dumplings in a sweet soy sauce. My first purchase was a cup of green tea from another café that looked eerily like Starbucks. Sure enough, when I signed the receipt I saw the self-congratulating logo.
As I write I’m listening to two Americans be instructed by a burly Canadian guy about what to do in Thailand. They started talking after a minor dispute over the Canadian’s credit card. One of the American girls offered to pay his tab, and after he said no he asked them to sit down. I thought of asking if I could join them, but when I heard the beginning of their conversation I wanted to remain in disguise. Unlike them, I don’t know where I’m planning to go or what I want to see. I want to question the American consumer-of-experience mindset, and that doesn’t come off as particularly polite.
“I just want to go to a nice beach, relax, maybe snorkel,” one of the girls says. “Well, you came to the right place,” the Canadian says with a chortle. We are still at the Guangzhou airport. They start quizzing each other on where they’ve been, how many days, what they’ve seen. “What’s your favorite place you’ve been?” a girl asks the guy. He begins a long description of his time in Peru.
It all blends together as I listen to his voice accent and emphasize. “My favorite place was…” seems like such a shallow way to account for one’s self in a world of others. (I think this as I fight to pick up my last dumpling with the chopsticks I’ve been struggling to grip correctly.) Their underlying assumption is that it’s OK to be this tourist-parasite because the vicissitudes of geography and world history have made it acceptable for a certain class of North Americans. This isn’t worth interrupting them to point out. They would welcome me to join them, I’m sure. I’m entitled to opine as another privileged traveler. But I don’t want to fit into their rhythm; I question whether it’s worth trying to change it.
“What do you think of humility as a basic starting point for any Westerner traveling to this part of the world?” I imagine asking. A well-prepared question for a group of academics or leftists sensitive to my learned concerns. Of course I imagine these people are beneath me because I’m guilty of their same crimes. Americans, wrapped together in our various forms of manifest destiny, travel the world in search of pleasing things. Different, but the same according to our credit card companies.
This guilt does not seem to penetrate my fellow travelers sitting just across from me. Yet when I finally strike up the courage and ask to join their conversation, I find that the two girls are residents at a Children’s Hospital in Orange County. They’re headed to Thailand for a break from work that’s undoubtedly harder and more giving than mine is. Still, I sense we’ll go on spending the wages of our unjust privilege.
The point I was going to make is that I learned how to lose control. Lesson learned, it caves in on itself.