“Find a map. Find a compass. Distrust both of them. Allow yourself the luxury of getting lost in a foreign city. You are always closer to home than you think.”
– Emir Manheim
I get lost a lot. When a colleague pointed out to me that there was a ‘quicker’ bus into work, my Chinese co-teacher quietly took them aside and said “Please don’t tell Ben these things, we will not see him again!” I took that bus once and ended up in a field surrounded by goats, staring up at a giant topiary pear, phoning my co-teacher to ask “Am I still in Beijing?”
Yes. That happened.
On my first day of work in Tongzhou, it took me two and a half hours to take the fifteen minute bus journey into work, swearing pretty much the entire time.
Yes. That happened too.
People have given up asking “where have you been?” if I meet them ten or fifteen minutes late, because it always leads to me saying “Well, funny story…” and then getting my arm caught in a bus door, or finding myself in a hutong five miles away, or shouting Mandarin swear words at my moped.
The thing is, I kind of like getting lost. I kind of like wandering aimlessly on my own. I kind of like daydreaming and ending up outside Goumao station asking myself “wtf?”
In Deliverance, one of the characters says “sometimes you gotta lose yourself before you can find anything.” Admittedly, shortly thereafter he ends up shafted in the arse, but that still ain’t a bad philosophy!
The screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga once said that he finds it easy to write his non-linear stories without an outline because of an “innate sense of cartography.” He insists that he can instantly navigate any foreign city, even if he’s never been there, because he can trust some kind of internal compass. I like to think of myself as the anti-Arriaga, someone who’s internal compass is set permanently to ‘snafu’, wandering into clusterfuck after cartographic clusterfuck until I suddenly have to stop and ask myself “Oh, where the hell am I now?!?”
My own theory is that I actually inhabit a reality that is about a block-and-a-half away from everyone else’s. That’s why I am never quite in the ‘right place’ at the ‘right time’, and why my entire life thus far can be summed up in two words:
“Where are you?”
“How’s your writing going?”
“It’s nearly there.”
“Did you find your phone charger/a girlfriend/inner fulfillment, tranquility and happiness?”
“No, but I’m nearly there.”
Whenever something slightly shite happens here in China, I try to remember to think of the quote that I opened this entry with. It’s scribbled down in one of the many pretty little notebooks I bought in Nanluoguxiang. The quote usually cheers me up, because it usually reminds me that wherever I am geographically/spiritually/narratively, I will probably always think that I’m “nearly there.”