Thursday, February 2, 2012


Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.


It was not without a heavy heart that I left home last Friday. I had to chew upon my cheek to suppress the tears as I bid my parents good bye. Such is life, they will say. As all good idle days must eventually come to an end, I finally set upon my first post-academic path with a one-way ticket from Saint Louis to San Francisco, and another henceforth to Hong Kong. A foolish and even reckless decision, I thought and now certainly know, though one that must see itself to fruition all the same.

I shall not bore you with tales of Californian connivance: you've been there before, in spirit if not in body. That is not, however, to show ingratitude to my lovely hosts: you know who you are. If it were up to me, I would retire to Napa tomorrow to fish, frolic and fete the passing of time. Alas, we are still young, poor and restless - and shall be for quite some time (the latter if not the former). As sensory neophytes, there's much we've yet to endure.

It is presently six in the morning, standard People's Republic time, though I've been up since four. A bout of insomnia? Not quite. I dozed off round 8pm last night and am now left to pick up the pieces. Thanks to the World Wide Web and some lovely speakers from my sister I can listen to Sam Cooke's 'Change is Gonna Come' and Shostakovich's 'Waltz No. 2' over and over again. I doubt the neighbors will mind, if there are any: I live in a five-floor walk-up through the back door of a hair salon in the shopping district. Like my grandfather used to say, it could be worse. And that's some solace in a strange and, dare I say, uninviting land, is it not?

Where to begin? I'll skip the marvelous ride from Thayer's place in the Lower Haight to San Francisco International and go straight to the flight. Boarding's to begin at 2:40pm - 1.5 hours after the scheduled time of departure - and the mass of tepid humanity waiting to cross the Pacific begins to grow impatient, if not weary. Without any prodding, they begin to form a single-file queue from the check-in desk to the furthest reaches of the Olympian waiting room. Not everyone, of course, but easily over half amass their belongings and make that quintessentially British leap of faith. (Good to know someone still does: Lord knows they don't in India). In the meantime I took the opportunity to occupy one of two computer-friendly desks that had just freed up. I would need a proper desk if I was to make any progress with this tiresome translation of Montaigne's Essays (The perils of consumerist indecision: I had to buy something at City Lights - though I also thought of dear Rimoch in doing so).

Anyway, their collective praxis began to take a life of its own: the more they lined up, the more excited the crowd became. If we build it, they will come. Godot is just around the corner. The earlier we board the plane, the less of a 12-hour flight this will be. The pilot is bound to finish his bloody mary any minute now. Or sext-message. (Whatever it is they do pre-flight). Finally, as if to pop their elusive balloon of aggregate optimism, the overhead speaker awakened. "Flight CH975 shall not board until we say it does. Might you kindly return to your seats." Dejected, they do so without a murmur. At least we tried.

I often marvel at how despicably spoiled some of us have become. One can traverse the globe in less than 36-hours for the equivalent of less than a month's wages (I realize that's a very, very relative figure), yet we rarely know how to grin and bear it. We look for endless diversion, the miracle time-and-distance-disappearing mechanisms we have back on the mainland. Of course, when I say "we", I mean me and my fellow first-world-first-worlders and first-in-third-world-worlders, most of whom I suspect of being as base and fickle as myself. Not content with contemplating the prospect of crossing the ocean in a flying bird, we look to film and media to get us over the hump, without which we're often as clueless as an Amazonian in the Beltway. Which is why this particular flight was so refreshing, if such a thing can be said of elevated, enclosed spaces in the company of 500 cross-oceanic strangers.

As we boarded the flight, the Mandarin crew offered each patron from a selection of newspapers: the Chinese accepted, the Indians (most of whom were Sikh) kindly declined. The former ambled through the news for 30-45m and dozed off. The Indians, for their part, hit the sack upon settling into their seats. I, dreary eyed and somewhat nauseous, took meaningless stabs at Montaigne. When that didn't work, I switched to Hobsbawm, another pigheaded idea. Whether it was fear or trembling that finally put me to sleep, I shall never know. I did, however, wake up in time for the first of two on-flight dinners, a motley of roast pork and noodles.

It was with some surprise, then, when we effortlessly landed in Beijing. Thoughts adrift had done their part (along with a chemical inducement at some point), and here we were, in the beast of Middle Belly. Though an angry lad took my matches at customs, central planning more than compensated: the awe-inducing facilities of Peking's landing ground was replete with a Costa Cafe and ventilated smoking room. 30 seconds later I was joined by a paunchy little man in a baseball cap with an electric flashing green bill. He would keet it on for the duration of the flight to Hong Kong.

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