There’s Something About Chaos…

Right before I lost my job in DC the last time I lived here, an old roommate of mine invited me to fly down to Honduras, where she was living at the time, to take two weeks to cross the border with her and travel through Nicaragua over the Christmas holiday. She and I had bonded one night while sitting out on our old porch, smoking joints as a summer rain drenched the city. That was before I’d gotten sober that time, and as we’d sat out there on the rotting couch, I’d told her a non-linear version of the story of when I’d traveled Europe after my junior year of college. Maybe it was that story itself that prompted her to invite me to travel with her through Central America when her job setting up an eco-tourist system down there came to an end right before New Year’s.

Army green troop transports and American military jets were still sitting out on the airport runway in Tegucigalpa when my own commercial plane flew down in between the towering mountain ranges to land there in the Honduran capitol. Carrie, my old roommate, wasn’t a fan of Honduras at all. She wanted us across the border as quickly as we could get there. In her opinion, the nation was overrun with crime, oppression and American economic imperialism. The TGI Friday’s we passed on our way out of the airport only helped illustrate her point.

Carrie said it, and I agreed – Nicaragua felt entirely different. The oppressive air of American foreign intervention dissipated even amid Managua’s poverty. There’s something about chaos that smells of freedom. In the city of León, Carrie, who speaks fluent Spanish, took us off the tourist’s well-beaten path, which consisted of more Australians than Americans back then and out into a small bar on the city’s outskirts, populated completely by Nicaraguan locals.

In that bar’s smoky, wooden atmosphere, a lone musician sang solitary notes while strumming his acoustic guitar. The music moved back and forth from somber to lively. Sober at the time and far beyond my own native borders, I became acutely aware of the color of my skin, of the redness of Carrie’s hair and of my inability to speak the native language. Unable to communicate, I didn’t want to panic, but given some of the places I’ve traveled in my life, I wasn’t completely sure whether or not we were safe.

An extremely tall man with a serious gaze approached me. “From?” he asked, his finger pointing directly at my chest.

“United States,” I hesitantly told him over the din.

“U.S.A.?” he loudly wondered amid the music and crowd.

I nodded.

“Un momento,” he said, and he disappeared back into the fray. Aware of the difficulties our two countries had faced during my childhood in the eighties, I wasn’t entirely happy that tall man had felt the need to approach me, and his singling me out amid the crowd certainly didn’t make me feel any more comfortable in that obscure place.

When he returned, there was a shorter, boxier man with him. This man had a mustache, a paunch and a scar running down his cheek. He was smoking a cigarette. I swallowed carefully as he easily asked me in an accent I couldn’t quite place, “You are from the United States?”

“Yeah,” I responded humbly.

“Interesting,” he told me. “I am Fernando. What part of the United States are you from?” he wondered.

I wasn’t sure where his questions might be leading, but I told him truthfully, “I live in Washington, DC.”

“Washington, DC?” Fernando asked. “Not Virginia?”

“Yeah,” I said, “Washington, DC.”

Fernando smiled. “I live in Washington, DC,” he told me.

“That’s weird,” I told him, not sure whether or not this man with the scar trailing down his cheek was telling me the truth, and not sure even if I wanted him talking to me at all.

“Yes,” Fernando said. “What part of Washington, DC do you live in?” he went on.

Uncertain from his sidelong glance whether or not he actually believed me, I told him, “I live in Northwest.”

“No kidding?” he said, “I live in Northwest. What part of Northwest do you live in?”

“Mount Pleasant,” I told him

“No kidding?” Fernando said. His eyes grew wide. “I live in Mount Pleasant.”

“That’s funny,” I said.

“Yes,” he went on, “Where do you live in Mount Pleasant?”

“Newton Street,” I told him.

“Ha!” he responded, “I live on Lamont Street. Where on Newton Street do you live?”

“Newton and 18th,” I said.

“I live on Lamont and 16th,” he told me. “We’re practically neighbors,” Fernando exclaimed. I must have looked at Fernando distrustfully because he added, “You don’t believe me? Look.” He pulled out a U.S. driver’s license to illustrate his point. Sure enough, right there was a picture of this man with the scar down his cheek, his name – Fernando and an address on the 1600 block of Lamont Street in Northwest, Washington, DC. We laughed together, slapping one another’s shoulders in jovial familiarity, and I finally introduced myself to him as Gabriel. While Fernando must have been explaining the situation to the tall man who had originally approached me, I called Carrie over and told her about this odd encounter as well. She introduced herself to Fernando in English and to the tall man in Spanish.

Fernando explained to me that the bar Carrie and I had entered was an old Sandinista hang out. Everybody there had fought in the war, he told me. They’d hidden in the mountains when the Contras had moved death squads into their city. They’d performed guerilla raids and come triumphantly home when the United States lost interest in their country sometime during the 1990s, and that very year I was there, he reminded me, the Sandinistas had finally won their country’s elections again for the first time since the late seventies. Just like The Clash had triumphantly proclaimed on their 1980 album of the same name, the Sandinistas were back in power with no interference from America. Fernando translated the lyrics of the ballad I was hearing right then while the troubadour sang them so softly and beautifully. He was telling a story about a woman whose husband was sentenced to a military prison during the war. The world became clearer as I gazed at all those haggard faces in the bar’s smoky atmosphere.

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There Was No Need for Symbolization

Yesterday, I didn’t know what to do. The unemployment’s starting to get to me. It’s the days. They wind on while I sit in my apartment looking for jobs, working on this, reading books and watching movies on Netflix. It’s gotten to be too much. I took the Metro down to Farragut West and dropped off the checks for my old 401(k) with some online brokers to deposit in the new IRAs I’ve opened to avoid paying taxes on my miniscule retirement funds. On the way back, I realized I was passing through the Smithsonian stop, and I decided to get off the train.

Above ground, on the National Mall, I got a call from some recruiter out in Tyson’s Corner. She wouldn’t even tell me what the job was she was calling me about. I told her I’d be more than willing to meet with her hiring manager, but I needed to know what position they were offering. “I have very specific financial and career goals in mind,” I told her, which I do. Even though, that’s hard for me to believe, too. But she simply kept repeating they had multiple positions open. I sat down on a bench. By the time she finally hung up on me, I realized I was sitting right outside the Freer Gallery. Sitting still for a moment, staring at the green bushes budding with remnants of DC’s recent rain, I took a few more puffs off the vaporizer I’d bought the day I lost my job – it’s kept me cigarette-free for almost a month now, and I decided to go into the Freer to contemplate the cultural intricacies of Asian art in the United States.

The gallery I wound up in was filled with a historical collection of Chinese screens. My grandmother in California has always loved those artifacts while I’ve conceitedly taken them for granted as simple, decorative art – nothing worthy of study. But in this setting, with the museum curator’s write-ups adorning the walls, I paused. Remembering my previous unemployment in DC, I reminded myself this was the only chance I would ever have to appreciate this moment, and I wanted to make the most of that realization.

Screens conceal. They rearrange to conceal another space in a different place. In Japan, during Heian times, they were the formidable opponent every man had to overcome to discover his hidden desires. I wasn’t sure whether or not China possessed that same history, but I recalled this lecture a professor from my first master’s degree gave to our Literary Chinese class. While we were discussing a poem, he asked if any of us noticed anything odd about that particular piece. We pointed out the poet’s use of this or that character, but he said that wasn’t quite what he was looking for. He asked if we noticed any symbolism in the poem. The students, myself included, scrambled to see what wasn’t there. “There’s no symbolism in that poem because China, at that point in time, didn’t need any symbolism,” the professor said. “It’s simple,” he went on to our incredulous looks, “If there are no cultural taboos, there’s nothing to hide. If there’s nothing to hide, there’s no need to symbolize.

With my former professor’s ideas ringing through my mind, I stepped up to examine the intricate paintings decorating this selection of historically significant screens. The line work was so subtly ornate. There was motion in the tree branches, sound in the rushing waters and stolidity in the rock faces. Aware of Japan’s early respect for all things Chinese, I realized the paintings on these screens were probably the origins of the artistic traditions that have eventually culminated in Japanime during my own lifetime. These images, animated, created something like Ghost in the Shell or Akira – movies so influential on my American collegiate life of the late 1990s. No artistic tradition exists within a vacuum. Everything has to be learned somewhere.

Staring at those natural scenes of flowing waterfalls and stiff ridges, I imagined myself a wealthy merchant in 16th century Beijing, the Ming Dynasty’s bustling capital for the Middle Kingdom, what we today call China. I saw my daily cares there as not so different from my own here in DC, from my dad’s during his lifetime in Southern California. I remembered a painting my dad had had hanging in his living room back then. It had been a painting of a red brick wall outlining a lone window. Drapes billowed out that window. I’d always imagined it as being somewhere in Europe, maybe in Venice. My dad had always said what he liked so much about that painting was its implication. There was a cat sitting alone on the sill, and my dad had often told me he wondered what was going on behind that window, in the room he and I couldn’t see. It wasn’t a great painting, but it always made me think.

These screens were like that painting in my dad’s living room, and the wealthy Chinese merchant I imagined myself to be appreciated them in the same way. Escaping the bustle of the city’s marketplace, I retreated to the sanctity of my own home, but the nature I visited on those screens transported me to another location. My walls evaporated. Mountain breezes blew between the woods’ earthen scent. Punctuating the birds’ high cries, a waterfall crashed in the distance. No, there was no need for symbolization. Just like this project I’m working on right now, those screens contained everything they actually were.

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