It isn’t often that you wake up in D.C. to the sound of Chinese drums. But on one Sunday in November, I did just that, then blearily headed across the William Taft Bridge through the morning chill to my job at the Language, ETC lab, past a barrage of Chinese drums, pink-clad women synchronized in a high-step dance motion, and bundled-up Falun Gong exercisers, all involved in what seemed to be a great, group-oriented, goodbye to (and protest against, in the case of the Falun Gong crowd) Chinese President Hu Jintao. The Chinese president had chosen the Marriott Hotel as his home base during the G8 meetings in DC, which is less than a block from us. This was a brief, extraordinary, and early morning look within a Chinese-American bubble.Bubbles have been on my mind lately. For the last year, I have existed within the bubble world of academia, the deadlines and analytic pressures that make up most of my time: I’m a graduate student in creative writing. Washington, D.C. is another bubble, a place devoted to 60-hour work weeks, career advancement, and somber, black attire (the D.C. “safe” wardrobe). And then there is the biggest bubble of all, the one hardest to escape: the “American bubble.” All of it was getting me depressed.
This early morning barrage of Chinese drums shook me out of all three of these bubbles, and as I crossed the bridge in the early morning fog, my mind floated free of them. I was reminded of Lumphini Park in Bangkok in the early morning, for one, when the city is just coming alive, and the food carts are being pushed about. There’s a group of old Chinese men who come to the park every day, retirees mainly, who diligently engage in their Qigong exercises at dawn, and then retire to the side of a lake to play Mah-jongg and drink tea. It’s an impressive scene, one that allows you to forget for a moment the onslaught of that city’s urbanity and ceaseless activity.
I lived in Thailand for over seven years, and have traveled through places like Laos, Burma, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kenya, and Singapore. Over there, in various guises as a university professor, refugee camp volunteer, Peace Corps teacher, and writer, I saw a multiplicity of worlds, levels of poverty and hopelessness on one side that saddened me (child beggars, people who have spent their whole lives in refugee camps, Burmese border towns), yet also joy at the sights and sounds of the daily rich rhythms of life (night market food stands, mountain bike rides into pineapple fields, the “Thai smile” of my students). Thailand, of course, had its own bubble, but they are exposed every day to the U.S. through Hollywood movies, MTV, Coke vs. Pepsi, and people like me teaching them English. We are adept at spreading our news, and yelling “look at us.” Our bubble reaches everywhere.
In my fiction and nonfiction classes, I write much of that “other” world. Occasionally, a classmate will say, “I had no idea that existed.” I could share a bounty of information. Did you know that omelets taste better with sticky rice? Or that the Thai word for indifferent, “choy choy,” more essentially captures the sound of indifference than its English counterpart can? Or that there’s a song by a Thai singer named Palmy, called “Yak Rong Dung Dung” that you can’t help but dance to? I know from experience that those three things are just as real as a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte.
After a half-hour walk, I entered the language lab and immersed myself in my work, but there were too many languages there, too much confusion, for me to settle back comfortably into the three roles of graduate student, DC resident, and American. My computer job is a multicultural world in itself, involving a mix of some forty different nationalities, all adult language learners. These are working class people, most of them from Latin America, double-shifters in restaurants and construction, who use spare hours at night or the weekend to study English. These students exist within another bubble, the immigrant bubble, the same one that my wife Supalak navigates in her own way every day.
At 5 p.m., I walked out of the lab, back over the bridge, and stopped before my apartment building, still searching for something. The Chinese dancers and all their energy were gone, and there seemed to be nothing left, except for the gaunt quiet and cold of the late November afternoon.
And then I saw a sticker on a lamppost with the smiling face of our next president. I was suddenly reminded of the night earlier that month, when I stood on this very spot, and watched the city of Washington, D.C. burst open with joy when the final call for Obama’s presidency was sealed with the votes from the west coast. D.C. never bursts out in spontaneous joy at anything. I’ve lived five years in this city and have never seen what I saw on that night, a virtual catharsis of honking horns, yelling, and dancing in the streets, people high-fiving each other, soaking in the grandeur of something completely new, a bubble being burst.
I remembered that night again. I remembered the worlds that I’d traveled through, and even the sense of purpose that originally brought me here to the bubbles of graduate school, D.C., and America, and that will in turn propel me to the bubble I have come to know back in Asia. I grinned as I thought about the audacity of bubble-bursting — the pure, unadulterated fun of it. How lucky it is, really, to be able to travel on the boundaries of these bubbles, to see the temporality of them.
I touched the Obama sticker briefly, in thanks and in hope, turned away from the cold and the oncoming night, and climbed the stairs back up to my apartment.