Wild, Wild East

It was late at night and I was hungry, wandering the aisles of Walmart. In my basket, among eggs and bananas, went Twinkies, vanilla cookies — yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

Outside Walmart, inside the wind-whipped and snow-crusted winter, Laramie, Wyoming is white. Patches of brown, haggard clutches of dirt and shrubbery, cling beneath snow and ice. A yolky glow of sun spills across the icy terrain. Fences, made of wood and about ten feet tall, are taut spines alongside the highway. A friend explained, They’re a barricade to catch the snowdrift; when blizzards blow their way across the plains, the fences keep snow off the interstate. Piling high against the fence, snow dunes form, like a blanched Sahara. I’d never seen these huge latticed wooden snakes before; I thought embarrasingly, that they might be a large-scale art installation.

When I moved to Laramie, there were two establishments that relaxed the coiled springs in my back. The first was Walmart. That sick mecca — with its hulking cement walls, its fortress of consumption, and class action suits biting back at institutionalized racism and sexism — would always fulfill my material needs, would be open during the loneliest hours of night, would be consistent, interchangeable, universal. Walmart was a source of solace, eternally lit, eternally abundant, a regrettable beacon amid the isolation of the plains.

The second place was Mizu Sushi, where I ate dinner that first night I drove in from San Francisco. Fish out of water. I pushed the food around my plate. What was sushi, besides a thin skin holding in a filet of former hope, packed next to a slice of something raw and uprooted?

And yet there was so much comfort in knowing that among or despite Taco Bell, Subway, McDonald’s, Chili’s, Pizza Hut, and every other franchise that marks the gauntlet of iconic American sprawl, I could get a bowl of pho or miso soup. In a warm broth on a cold night, I could slurp and savor a taste that traversed between community and contentment. I would however, as I always do, taste a pervading sense of estrangement.

The land itself is bitter, suited only really for antelope and sagebrush, but starting in the 1860s, hardy Americans boarded trains in Iowa or Nebraska, riding the rails across a barely populated steppe. Laramie was the western terminal of the Union Pacific Railroad, and despite its lawlessness, pioneers’ dreams culminated here. Their migration across this nation mirrored the journey of the sun — starting in the east, settling in the west. And now that we’re settled, tunneling back east again.



Last week I bought a humidifier, toaster, can of tennis balls, toothbrush, and a pack of eight plastic hangers. Every label: Made in China, China, China, China, and China.

Back at my apartment, my newly adopted possessions settle in among everything else, no fanfare or welcome — that assimilation happens behind closed cupboards. Toothbrush, after being born in China, and crossing the Pacific, might you feel more at home to clean a mouth that eats Chinese food, speaks Chinese words?

And yet, the cultural ocean crossing happens in both directions. Walmart has 250 stores in China, and plans for many more. China laps up Americana: youth adopting hip hop, cinemas dubbing Blockbusters, western pop music and the silver screen pirated fiercely, palates shifting and salivating for American experiences — smoking Marlboro’s, children celebrating birthdays at McDonald’s or KFC.

You embrace some of me, I embrace some of you. You shun some of me, I shun some of you. A push, a pull, a tango of mutual advances, concessions: Where is the equilibrium in a relationship between countries, between cultures?

I am not a twinkie, nor banana, nor an egg; I am both white and Chinese on the outside, and white and Chinese on the inside. In a big Asian city, I look for other white people. In a small white town, I look for other yellow people. Always looking.


709 E. Ivinson Apartments

This is where I live. I refer to my next door neighbor as “Hindustan,” which my half-Native American friend down the hall claims is racist.

He tries to shush me as we walk down the apartment hallway, “Stop calling her that — just find out her name!”

“I know her name! It’s Lakhvinder.” I roll my eyes, affecting superiority: “Hindustan is another name for India.”

Hindustan is often cooking something that makes our hallway smell delicious. I can hear her boyfriend through the wall, and he speaks loudly, but I can’t understand anything he’s saying, so it’s easy to tune out. I don’t ask questions; I just split the wireless bill with them every month and connect to their network. Hindustan.

Downstairs, Nina Swamidoss McConigley has an Indian complexion and an Irish surname. She likes “Hindustan” as a wifi name so much that she makes hers “Xanadustan.”

In her apartment, home to Ganesha statuettes and wooden hands in mudras, we talk about being biracial, about writing while straddling two worlds, occupying both and neither. And how to not write about it, as “identity” is seemingly gauche again.

Mio is Japanese, teaches Japanese, but I never see her around.

Russ is white, but has outdone me when it comes to celebrating Chinese New Year — he’s got red paper rabbits, decorations on his door. We speak Mandarin to each other, and he outdoes me there as well, there in the stairwell.


Laramie Porches

Apparently it’s best to hang prayer flags where there are sunny, windy days, and Laramie is one of the sunniest, windiest places I’ve ever been.

The slightest breeze sends the prayers fluttering. Laramie, given its piercing light and incessant aeolian whines and howls, must be blessed and blessed again. Walk around town and take note: red, blue, green, yellow, white squares of fabric, both new and shredding at their edges, imprinted in tiny Sanskrit, hanging from porches and high places, purifying and sanctifying, spreading compassion, wisdom and goodwill. Especially on Custer Street, near 12th and 13th Streets, and the intersection of 13th and Garfield — karmically, it’s not surprising that the concentration of well wishes is located in one of the town’s wealthiest neighborhoods. A touch of Tibetan love graces an otherwise stern-looking block on South Cedar Street on the West Side of Laramie.

If I cock my head so that I only see the juxtaposition of the flags against a halcyon blue sky, I can recall my few, but poignant, memories from Tibet. The village I stayed in was perched like a solemn bird on the cliff of a mountain. Prayer flags were strung between peaks, worn and tattered, like a thousand clotheslines flapping with sacred laundry, rippling with offerings of empathy.

Quinnie, my comically self-aware friend in the English department, stops me in the hall outside the copy room. Papers churn out of the machine, in rapid bursts. She grabs my arm with urgency, “Last night my prayer flags were ripped down by the wind! They’re all tangled up in the copper beech now — I’ll have to borrow a ladder to pick them out. Do you think I can cut them? Or is that really bad luck?”

Quinnie is a vegetarian, drives a Subaru, practices yoga, has lived in San Francisco, is a member of the health food co-op, votes Democrat, is affiliated with the University — in describing her, I realize I am, literally, all those things too. There’s a lot of us in this town, a legion — though an almost entirely white one. In regards to the prayer flags, Quinnie seeks me out to advise on anything Asian.

“I’d just leave them. Maybe the prayers needed a rest, and took refuge in your tree.”

I think about the flags trading freedom for shelter; and of the snow fences too — the many ways we let things go, but the many more ways we hold things back.


Wyoming Gamelan

Gamelan is the ensemble of musical instruments from Indonesia, most commonly Bali or Java. The musicians sit on the floor, the instruments at their feet, often with mallets in their hands, striking the sounds forth into a lush storm of melody. Gamelan sounds like a manic winged flight through a brass forest. It’s the most beautiful music. Claude Debussy was awed to hear gamelan for the first time at the Paris World’s Fair in 1889. My favorite composer, Erik Satie, a contemporary of Debussy’s, plucks gently from gamelan — elegant clangs resound through his signature and melancholic piano piece, Trois Gnossienes.

When I lived on Java, and it was a chief’s birthday, or a festival, that village would hold an all night wayang kulit, and outside among the tree frogs and dozing children, the leather-skinned shadow puppets would stay up all night, playing out the fates of the Ramayana epic. I’d hang on to the rushing streams of sound, drinking too-sweet tea and eating pandan cakes.

Here in Wyoming, I am the newest member of the Gamelan, and the worst player too. I cling to the sheet music and untethered without it. Our teacher, a Balinese gamelan master who drives up from Colorado (he has a monopoly on teaching gamelan in the Rocky Mountain West) keeps telling me to forget the music, just listen, relax, go with the flow. As if he’s counseling me on life in general, I nod, and slide my music just a bit more out of sight, under my bent knee. And though I nonetheless lose my place in the music for long stretches of time, I am still so happy to be here, in this cramped trailer full of gamelan instruments on the outskirts of campus. I’d rather be lost in this Indonesian jungle of sound than lost in the homogenous agoraphobe of Laramie.

Like so many gamelan groups around the country, it’s the white students and locals who practice and perform. We rehearse every Thursday. And when we play for the community, Indonesian students come and listen. I cannot fathom how our American landscapes, our mythology, the questions we ask of ourselves, our government, our universe, are answered by the sounds of the gamelan. And yet, here we are, pale and lanky, hammering away.


Passage to India

“Kandi,” whose brother owns the restaurant Passage to India, has no interest in discussing his ethnic background, proclaims no need for an Indian community. What Laramie is lacking, he says, is “nightclubs. I want to go out, late night, see some action…”; every time I ask him about India, about running an ethnic restaurant in a small Wyoming town, he wrangles the answer back to nightclubs, stories that place him in the center of London’s debauched nightlife of the 1970s.

The Passage to India is located on a bleak yet busy stretch of Grand Avenue, just east of 17th Street. They serve sublime mango lassis and a decent lunch buffet. At $3.50 each, it’s a pretty good deal— a mini jaunt to the streets of Kolkata, for the duration of a glass. No planes to board, no trains to catch.

The journey through Laramie, to India, was on Walt Whitman’s mind too, ever since railroad spikes were driven and canals widened, and he penned his exuberant ode to the dramatic changes of 1869:

“I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier,
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying
freight and passengers,
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle,
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world,
I cross the Laramie plains, I note the rocks in grotesque shapes,
the buttes…..”

-Walt Whitman, “Passage to India”

What would Whitman say to Kipling, who begins his poem, Ballad of the East and West, “OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”… I imagine Whitman and Kipling meeting. Riding that train together, as the steam-whistle shrilled and the cars clicked over the tracks, crossing the Laramie plains, noting the rocks in grotesque shapes, the buttes. And upon arriving in Laramie, alighting from the train, walking down Grand to find a bite to eat. Whitman might say, “I know this great placee — excellent tikka masala” and after walking through those doors, and sliding into a booth, the two of them taking a Passage to India.


University of Wyoming Student Union

This is a mall — there are banks, ATMs, vending machines, a convenience store, cafe, beer garden, food court. Panda Express. Lo mein, General Tsao’s chicken — the things my white dad and I like, that my Chinese mom never makes.

If you walk into the bookstore, a “Practice of Pranayama” yoga breathing video is featured on a Health and Wellness display as country music plays overhead. Billy Currington croons “They say time is a healer/ but it’s been no friend to me…” Will healing breath from the East sooth heartbroken pangs from the West?

There is every piece of apparel you could dream of, stitched with Wyoming’s ubiquitous logo — the silhouette of a man on the brink of glory, and perhaps, falling — riding a bucking bronco — riding for Wyoming, riding the horse that couldn’t be ridden — man and horse —the faceless faces of the state.

The Man and his bucking bronc ride on t-shirts, sweatshirts, collared shirts, jackets, sweatpants. They ride all the way from factories in China, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan and India. “Cowboys,” “Cowgirls” and “Wyoming” are sewn across soft cotton surfaces. Hang on, yellow and brown lettering, yellow and brown hands, cowboys and cowgirls.

No matter which store, no matter which style — the little pink ones for your baby girl, or the beige ostrich-skinned ones, the square-toed black ones, round-toed brown ones, the white and blue ones decorated with embroidered hibiscus flowers — the cowboy boots around town are almost all made in China.

The long-sleeved Wrangler shirts that have “Long Live Cowboys” and “American National Patriot” emblazoned on them are, unsurprisingly, made in Bangladesh. I linger over the denim shirt, feeling its coarse fabric, running my finger down its seam. What does it take to wear an “American National Patriot” shirt? Is patriotism wearing I-Love-America clothes, even if they are made on the other side of the globe? Or is it to be accepting and open-minded, eat Thai, learn yoga? I consider the facets of patriotism: to fight with, or fight back — to speak out, or shut up? To soon be mimicking Budweiser ads, greeting with Waaaaasabi instead of Wassup? It’s not just the mixed-race folks who are always mixed up. We’re all mixies now, whether we like it or not.


Prexy’s Pasture

This green stretch is a grassy canvas for your needs. You can graze your horse here. You can play cricket here. It is an equal opportunity deny-er — mostly, it is covered in snow and ice. But here you can celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi, celebrate the onset of spring and the end of the winter season. Anyone can join in — throw colored paint and water, celebrate the last full moon of the lunar calendar. Just grab a fistful of brilliant powder, and chuck it at whomever.

Nina, my half-Indian half-Irish friend, told me that there are never enough colors; someone’s mom ships the powder from India. In the end though, everyone just ends up tossing handfuls of snow at one another. The South Asians in Wyoming are so far from home — they celebrate spring by throwing snow. Out here, there is simply not enough color to go around.


Williams Conservatory (Department of Botany, University of Wyoming)

Walking around the conservatory, I spot cymbidium orchids, from the Himalayas, and bamboo, too. The woman running the plant sale in the conservatory says she grows decorative bamboo at home. Pandas are cute; zen gardens are in; and bamboo is attractive, with its slender, picturesque stalks. But allegedly it’s an invasive species. Even spoken from one’s mouth, the word “invasive” cuts — seems to threaten, violate. Invasion — entry, sometimes forced, sometimes initially permitted — followed by putting down roots, aggressive proliferation, refusal to leave.

“Golden bamboo can form dense, monocultural thickets that displace native species. Once bamboo is established, it is difficult to remove. Golden bamboo is native to China and was first introduced into America in 1882 in Alabama for ornamental purposes.” [1]

According to the 2010 Census, Wyoming is 93.5% White, and 0.8% Asian. Yet, homogeneity and monocultures of different sorts weave within one another, tenuously coexisting, alternately invisible, glaring, stealthy, oppressive.

Bamboo is not a problem in Wyoming, but other invasive species from Asia are. Dalmatian toadflax, hoary cress, leafy spurge, white pine blister rust, are among those with “no natural enemies” that “spread rampantly” are “leading threats” that are “dirty” and “outcompete native weeds.”

An afternoon walk in Medicine Bow Forest reveals the reddened, the fallen, trees defeated by beetle kill. The native mountain pine beetles chew their way through whitebark pine bark in order to lay their eggs. This is natural. But on top of the beetles chewing through bark, there is the problem of blister rust. Blister rust is a disease caused by rust fungus, which discolors and severely damages seedlings, saplings, and cone bearing branches, diminishing the pine’s potential for future growth. The combination of beetle and rust overburdens white pine forests. A mass grave intersperses among the living. Or, the living persevere among the dead. How do we find a sustainable balance between the native and the foreign?

I continue to read about white pine beetle rust:

“The disease originated in Asia and arrived in the U.S. in a shipment of infected seedlings from Europe between 1898 and 1908.  It has since spread throughout the white pine’s range, with a boost from a separate introduction to British Columbia in 1910.” [2]

Smack between the years that the infected shipment of seedlings arrived into the US, Congress renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act for the second time, in 1902. The Act forbid Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, from entering the country, indefinitely. While all other races were allowed free immigration to the US, the Chinese were alone in facing this legislatively mandated exclusion. Why? There were too many — inscrutable, stealing jobs, heathens filthy with a nonsensical tongue and bizarre customs.

Didn’t we build the railroad, back breaking labor at laughable wages? Didn’t we lay the tracks across this country, pay our dues? We? I didn’t do that work. But I do feel an irrational need to apologize for troubling you again, for devouring your jobs, and now, your trees. It must be in our chlorophyll blood — an unstoppable thirst for opportunity.


The Railroad

In June of 1870, announcements that the Union Pacific had decided to employ Chinese laborers on their sections of the railroad incited public indignation and threats from displaced white employees. At the time, there were over 63,000 Chinese in the US, and most on the West Coast. The Union Pacific found the Chinese to be “docile” and willing to work for very little. Railroad officials explained that they had difficulty finding enough white workers. The Cheyenne Literary Association debated the “Chinese Question” and in one of many editorials on the issue, Editor Hayford, in Laramie, wrote: “We are not disposed to yield up this country to a horde of half civilized Pagans without a struggle.”[3]

I try to imagine where Hayford stood. I wonder if his view of the landscape ahead, teeming with half civilizations and mountains, left him breathless. Perhaps he and I have walked on the same stretch of Laramie’s earth, debating our own versions of the “Chinese Question.”

Late at night, the moon climbs to its highest vantage, like a bright, cold pit with nowhere to hide. The Union Pacific points its smokestack like a cement finger into the sky. An iron wrought pedestrian bridge connects the east and west sides of town, and it’s a local past time to stand above the place where the trains rush fast and throttling underneath. The trains blare their chord of horns and the bridge shakes, and you grip the railing tight. Some people let out a scream, absorbed into the train’s roar, and I wonder how many think about just taking a little leap over the edge. To land, like in the movies, on a bed of coal zooming underfoot. I of course never do it, and instead run alongside, and inside, the empty railroad tracks. I imagine going west, further and further — past Rock Springs, Salt Lake, all of Nevada — until reaching San Francisco, back home. I could run north through the city, to Chinatown. Upon arriving, I would understand the movement in the air, but only half the words I hear.


[1] “Golden Bamboo, Phyllostachys Aurea (Cyperales: Poaceae).” Invasive Species: Information, Images, Videos, Distribution Maps. 04 May 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
[2] “Mountain Pine Beetle and High Elevation White Pines.” US Forest Service – Caring for the Land and Serving People. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
[3] Larson, T. A. History of Wyoming. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1978. 110. Print.

The Alive Sister

“They’re in imagination land. Each of them is a giant and they’re fighting over who will be the next queen of giant land.”

Or a Boris

“A man lumbers into a wood chipper,” is the headline stoking the fire of the local news.

Smooth Body, Smooth Mind

“It was my last appointment at the Perfectly Smooth Laser Hair Removal Clinic, and I was feeling pretty good about myself.”