I was recently asked to join a group on WeChat (the favoured choice of communication and social media by the Chinese people) called ‘Wuhan Hidden Writing Talents’. This platform is intended as a way to give foreigners in Wuhan a place to share their creative whims, one day potentially leading to some kind of online blog or website, or maybe even some kind of print publication. I’m unsure of exactly what it is at the moment, or if it will succeed in leading to something tangible in the future. Despite this, I was asked to write an introductory piece. Not knowing what to write about, I turned to what I know best: Music, talking about cool things I like for no reason, living in China and writing about not knowing what to write about. Read it below.
Imagine that you experienced your entire life in a moment. Try to understand an existence where all the major events in your life occurred in a split second, like your life flashing before your eyes, except it didn’t, it just happened – it was, then it wasn’t. Take a minute to wrap your head around being born, learning to walk, starting school, getting drunk for the first time, falling in love, listening to your favourite record, having kids, losing a loved one, making something, being praised, getting criticised, arguing passionately, dying and watching David Lynch’s Inland Empire, all at exactly the same time. Understanding that last one on its own is hard enough.
While living in Australia, I was led to believe that this is how its indigenous peoples grew up understanding time – a concept I’d only heard before in relation to an explanation of how God himself experiences it. I can’t even begin to talk through this concept, mainly because my time in Perth, one of the most remote cities on earth, was spent cooking my body on the beach and drinking terrible wine out of a foil bag inside a cardboard box.
Fortunately, as a boring Westerner with no fixed faith beliefs and a linear understanding of time, the only weird time theories I usually come into contact with are in W.B. Yeats’ discussions of time’s cyclical nature. I no longer live in Western Australia – I call China my home now. And dear god, is there a lot of that time-y stuff around here. I don’t mean baffling theses, I mean periods of nothing – spaces in my day when I don’t need to do anything. That’s because I’m a foreign teacher, and being one in China translates into an abundance of time. And time is a wonderful thing, right? Time allows us to ponder the world, to learn, to be productive, to take care, to be creative. And China, what a great place to have so much time. China is bustling and vibrant, filled with extraordinary places to visit, things to do, food to eat and people to meet; it’s loud, strange, seemingly in constant motion, an assault to the senses. When I came to China, I was sure these two things would combine to become a driving force of inspiration and encouragement to write.
It seems time plus China equals a whole lot of distractions. After a day of teaching, I could write, or watch five seasons of The Wire. I could write, or catch up on every Academy Award nominated movie from 1986. I could write, or read The Guardian online for three hours to make me feel extra specially smug about all my liberal, left leaning opinions. I could write, or play Candy Crush Soda Saga. I could write, or have a nap, all the Chinese are doing it, so what the hell?! There’s something about the mixture of buzzing traffic outside my apartment, screaming seven year olds in the playground, a weather spectrum with no middle, and a multitude of hours of no plans or responsibilities, that makes me want to do nothing.
My biggest inspiration to write is music. Even when I’m doing something impossibly mundane, in my darkest moments of unproductiveness, I’ll likely be cursing myself to an old age of hearing aids and tinnitus by blasting some kind of music at unnecessarily high volumes. One of my favourite things to do is play around with different genres of music that starkly juxtapose what I’m doing or where I am with the sounds I’m experiencing. I believe that music always has a sense of place, even if that locale isn’t necessarily connected to the music or the lyrics. Because music can become so intensely personal, it detaches itself and allows the listener to place it where they feel it best belongs. Sometimes this can manifest in a different country or city, maybe a particular task or chore, building or street or even feeling. For example, for many months, I had grappled with listening to a double album by an artist known as Dirty Beaches called Drifters/Love is the Devil. The second side of this record contains dark and deeply melancholic instrumentals that I just couldn’t fall into, to my frustration, regardless of where I listened to it. Then, one day, out of nowhere, on a long walk home from Glasgow city centre, under drizzling rain, after a few beers, it opened itself up to me. I can’t say if it was down to being a little inebriated, or the pathetic fallacy, or both, but I love that record now, and it will soundtrack shadowy, lonely walks home from now until I go deaf.
This intense sense of place that I attach to the music I listen to is an even more indecipherable occurrence since coming to China. Sometimes it doesn’t even happen in this profound way. Take a band like Swans. They are more inclined to create vast soundscapes of noise than mere songs. Tracks build in atmosphere as instruments swirl in ever increasing thickness of layers, voices stacked on top of each other until they resemble the deathly wails of the underworld, Michael Gira’s militaristic incantations authoritatively leading you through the hordes. Swans usually play in my headphones when I’m sweeping the dust off my living room’s floor. Not that this band reminds me of cleaning, but at least it makes my procrastination seem more eventful.
Speaking of noise, Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods is pretty good at drowning out the beeping of car horns and random shouts of “waiguoren!” as you walk the streets to the nearest metro stop. It’s much better to listen to Kendrick Lamar’s anthem of social solidarity ‘Alright’ than hear the 3,745th rendition of the Little Apple song coming from an amplifier on the street. I’ve found that the jazz funk fusion of Billy Cobham really makes lesson planning seem like space travel.
However, the record that defined this for me came out in January. David Bowie had just passed away, coming to the surprise of pretty much everyone (his final act of defiant sleight of hand), and I sat in my bedroom, shaded from the biting cold of the Wuhanese winter, hoping that news of his death was some kind of sick joke, but listening to Blackstar and knowing it to be true. This record, his parting gift, filled with so much beauty and knowingness will forever be inextricably linked to my my second year in China. I can’t think of any greater a way to remember Bowie, perhaps my most idolised musical hero, than to have it connected to the lasting experience that is living in China until the end of time.
And now, like a Kafka novel, a Stewart Lee set or Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I don’t have an ending to these musings, other than to say that, however clichéd, sometimes writing about not knowing what to write about is as good an excuse as any to use your time wisely.