Thoughts on Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

23/365: Train Reflection Train Reflection/#23/D7000/Train leaving Urumqi/Xinjiang, China

What a beautifully complicated and, at times, incoherent novel. I swam through the last section searching for some resolution, some deus ex machina to sweep in and tie all the loose ends together into a coherent story. That moment never came. After digesting the material after my addictive consumption, I am glad it didn’t happen. Still days after reading the last sentence I feel I am still holding hundreds of threads and trying to find a way to weave them together in a way that makes sense. Regarding the plot, I am not sure if thats really important in the end. Of course I’ve read a variety of blogs and while I think understanding the plot has its place, I don’t think it really matters. What I do know is that I have a lot of string in my hands and I can connect them anyway I please. As DFW said himself: ‘Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame’. The way these threads can be connected is up to me. The beauty of this book is that there is so much up for interpretation, Wallace just set the stage for interpretation.

I am in here…I am not a machine. I feel and believe.- Hal Incandenza

While I was reading IJ someone asked which character I identified with the most. An interesting question. And given my full reading, I’d have to say Hal. In the first chapter of IJ we meet Hal who is unable to communicate/interface with anyone. He is a consumer of the world but is unable to voice his thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. As he is questioned by a group of admissions directors in the first section, Hal tries his best to respond but falls dreadfully short.

In China I feel very much like Hal. Unable to communicate. I’ve sat at many meals struggling to concentrate on the rapid Mandarin flying around me and getting lost. Catching bits and pieces but unable to make any sense of the more complex conversation topics. Even when its not advanced conversation between doctors I find it difficult to maintain a place in a conversation, this issue is further confounded by my limited vocabulary.

My conversations will begin with full steam and once I run out of topics I can discuss the conversation stalls and often dies, the person I am interfacing with turns to their other side. And this is of no fault to person I am talking to, they are unable to interface in English and so our conversation ends in awkward silence after I say “Dui Bu Qi, Wo Ting bu Dong” I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. Of course I could ask the speaker to further try and explain their question or thought, but often this just complicates the matter and I am further lost in the conversation. After a while sitting at these tables its understood that the Lao wai, foreigner, doesn’t understand anymore and conversation for me kind of ends. I listen to other’s speak and talk. The thing is I do understand some things. I catch words, I catch an odd sentence, I know what realm the conversation is about. And that’s where Hal’s quote comes into play for me. I am in here. I am not a machine. I feel and I believe. I have thoughts, I have opinions that I want to share and expound upon with like minded people. I can contribute more than just a taken seat.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt like this though. Throughout med school I often felt like I was a silent consumer, except with a select few individuals. Conversations in school often revolve around one topic: medicine. Personal thoughts on medicine, personal experiences with medicine, personal opinions regarding medicine. And while I do have my thoughts about medicine, it encompasses more the system of healthcare and ways to maximally deliver care to patients while eliminating waste and redundancy. These topics though, don’t come up often, and because of that I am often silent.

One interesting aspect about my time in China has been through my roommate, Kyle. He is in a field so totally different from my own and possess the self confidence to make art and disseminate it to people. His influence extends beyond our frequent noodle binges and the occasional cigarette, but extend into an existential realm where I want to stand up and say look at me. I am here. I have beliefs and ideas, and I want to talk with you about them. I want to talk to you about my art, my photography.

More so though, I want to listen to your thoughts. I want to hear what you have to say. I want our opinions and thoughts to clash so that  we can come away from our conversation with an expanded view. I want to hear what you feel about my photographs.With Kyle and his friends throughout Beijing my conversations are often not at all about my work in China, my time in medical school, or the crazy patients I’ve taken care of(though a few stories have been told here and there), but rather arguably more interesting topics regarding thought process, art, criticism, politics, how to bring about change. It reminds me of days in college, after 3AM, with my roommates and what better to do than talk about esoteric topics and ideas.

Back to IJ, why can’t Hal communicate is another question. And most likely there is no real answer. It could be due to something he ate, but it might not. In the end though do I believe he will ever be able speak again? That is the more interesting and important question. And, I believe, yes, Hal will regain his ability to speak. He needs to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life. He cannot allow others to chaperone his life only to please others. He has to become authentic.

In reference to me, I also believe I will be able to communicate. I’ve already started to, I just need to keep rolling with the self-confidence. And learn to able to hold it no matter who I am standing around. That is something that this Fogarty experience has really begun to teach me. It’s already changing my life. That, and I’ve got to take some Chinese classes…

Final thoughts: Read Infinite Jest, it may not totally change your life in the grand sense of things, but it will expand the way you think. It will have an impact. And it will steal a few good few months of your life. But that is totally worth it. I will be reading this tome again.

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Day 3-11-Xin Jiang Journey

15/365: Airport ReflectionAirport Reflection/#15/D7000/Beijing International Airport/Beijing, China
16/365: Xin Jiang Cai
Xin Jiang Cia/#16/D7000/Urumqi/Xinjiang, China
17/365: Urumuqi Light
Urumqi Light/#17/D7000/Urumqi/Xinjiang, China
18/365: Bad Lamb
Bad Lamb/#18/D7000/Tianshan Mountains Near Yiningi/Xinjiang, China
19/365: Yining numb spicy soup
Yining numb Spicy Soup/#19/D7000/Yiningi/Xinjiang, China
20/365: Recycling
Reclycing/#20/D7000/Urumqi/Xinjiang, China
21/365: Gobi Safari
Gobi Safari/#21/D7000/Dongguan/Gansu, China
22/365: Desert Trek Desert Trek/#22/D7000/Dongguan/Gansu, China

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Things I learned/Accomplished in Xin Jiang:

  1. Don’t travel without a passport. Ever. Even if the Chinese Government says you can. They lie.
  2. I finished Inifinite Jest…Finally. After years of attempts.
  3. Traveled from one end of Xin Jiang to the Gobi Desert in Gansu
  4. There is reason that in a week there is at least one day of rest built it.
  5. China is beautiful, despite the CCPs attempts to commercialize it
  6. I look like I am from Xin Jiang
  7. One Nikon battery lasts roughly >1 week of intense shooting
  8. Shot my first roll of Fuji Velvia 50 started my first roll of Kodak Ektar 100
  9. I like traveling through China via Train
  10. 2 year anniversary with Jennifer!

What a whirlwind. So much has happened over the last few days, it’s hard to even begin. The crazy part is the adventure isn’t even half way over. Let me put it this way: a lot of Chinese people think that I am from Xin Jiang given my complexion and general Asian features. After 4 days I’d be proud to call myself a Xin Jiang ren, the amount of beautiful culture and kindness I’ve encountered here is amazing. On top of that, this part of the world is beautiful. Despite the slow consumption of Xin Jiang by the Gobi Desert, Xin Jiang continues to cling to a diverse and breathtaking variety of landscapes. From windswept deserts, rolling planes, to grass and gymnosperm covered hills this part of the world is unlike any other.

The worst part is I almost didn’t get to see any of it. First piece of advice regarding travel in China, ALWAYS CARRY A PASSPORT. Even if the immigration division of China gives you a temporary passport with reassurance that you will be able to book trains, fly in airplanes, and      generally move about China with all freedom of a passport, they are wrong. Miserably wrong. Heading the train station and taking at least 4 hours, my twin Scholar, Zhang Xi and I realized it was going to be almost impossible to get me a ticket. Returning back to our HPV training conference at the Urumqi Cancer Hospital, I had pretty much accepted that my Xin Jiang adventurer was going to be cut short. Despite arguing, debating, and flattery it didn’t seem like I was going to be able to do any of the planned itinerary Xi and I had planned.

After the day’s lectures and talks it was finally time for dinner. Supper was at one of the fancier hotels in Urumqi and we sat at an over 20 person round table, seriously this thing was huge. As luck would have it I sat next to the head of the cancer hospital, a modest man in his late 50s. I did not know this at the time of my seat placement. As the meal started and alcohol began to be passed around the man next to me offered me Bai Jiu, white alcohol. Not to offend any of my Chinese friends, but I think Baijiu tastes like wet dog…no exageration. But, from my limited experience in China I knew you never turn down anything from an elder, even if the the mere memory of the taste of baijiu makes your spine shiver in the worst way possible. So I manned up, I accepted the toxin. And 4-5 shots later, despite the terrible things my GI system was forced to deal with I was having a good time. I made speeches regarding my motivations for choosing China. The man next to me really liked my reasoning for coming to China. He was proud to be sitting next to me (I’ll discuss this in another post). And the night continued with more wine, baijiu, and delicious food. After the dinner I was finally informed that the man I sat next to was the head of the cancer hospital. After our night of drinking he said he would be more than happy to call the head of the train station and make sure that my temporary passport was more than sufficient to buy a ticket. And just like that, my journey was no longer a dead end but rather another lesson to learn: get drunk with the people you eat with, it builds up guanxi, Chinese term for relationship. With that all in mind, this was only my first day in Xinjiang, and already I had hit the most devastating of results and already I had found a way to bypass this roadblock.

Beyond this, the natural landscapes present in this part of China are absolutely beautiful. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

ALSO, I am very lucky to have been with an amazing girl, Jennifer for the last 2 years 🙂 Happy anniversary bud! Love you 🙂

Day 12,13,14-APSA, Red Stamps, and Preparations

12/365: Newspaper?
Newspaper?/#12/D7000/Lama Temple Subway Station/Beijing, China
13/365: Chinese Lunch
Chinese Lunch/#13/D7000/Dongzhimen/Beijing, China
14/365: Welcome!
Welcome!/#14/D7000/Wukesong Camera Market/Beijing, China

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“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”—Ferris Bueller

On my way to Beijing, I thought it was only appropriate to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In my mind it made sense to leave a city I love by watching the quintessential Chicago movie. It didn’t disappoint. If anything it made me miss the city and all the wonderful people I’ve left behind even more. I remember this quote from the countless viewings of this classic film, but this time it really stuck with me. While it’s probably because I am older and each year is a smaller proportion of my life, but I’ve already been in Beijing for two weeks and it seems like I just got here. I am experiencing so much and its almost overwhelming how every sense is assaulted everyday by Beijing life.

The last few days I’ve done so much. I had the opportunity to speak at American’s Promoting Study Abroad (APSA), an organization that grants scholarships to lower socioeconomic American high school students to study in China, as a young professional. I introduced these teenagers to ideas regarding careers in global medicine and global health. I remember being in a similar room in 2012 when I was a mentor for a different generation of APSA students. Now that I’m on the other side of the coin, how time flies. I look back at how young I was then, I’ve done so much growing up in the last two years, I hardly recognize the now me equivalents in the back of the room, mentoring these students of today. Life moves pretty fast.

I’ve also dealt with the worst of Chinese bureaucracy. In China, to be an official document it has to have a red seal of whatever organization represents the document. I’ve spent countless hours on buses crossing from one end of Beijing to the next trying to collect these stamps on all my documents in hopes that I can legally reside in China. After so many days of this constant leaping through hoops, I have finally collected all the correct forms, with all the necessary red stamps, and I can finally collect my proverbial $200 in the form of legal residency. At least I hope, I won’t get my passport back for another 20 days, so who knows what unknown roadblock might be lurking next.

Beyond that though, I’ve made time for my research project, tightening up the proposal for IRB submission. I’ve made time for myself, visiting different parts of Beijing, including the Wukesong Camera Market (SO MANY LEICAS/HASSELBLADS/EVERYTHING), dinners with new friends, and now I stand before the next adventure: Xin Jiang.

I am so excited. I will have a large amount of pictures to upload when I get back and a lot to share about what I saw/experienced.

Day 789-Baby Steps to Big Things

7/365: Night time Fan
Night Time Fan/#7/D7000/Andingmen/Beijing, China

8/365: Slow Night for Business
Slow Night For Business/#8/D7000/Beijing, China

9/365: couple teesCouple Tees/#9/D7000/Beijing, China

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It’s tough to describe the last couple of days. Friday, I finally met my UNC based mentor, Dr. Smith, and had a discussion with her and my Chinese mentor, Dr. Qiao, regarding my project in Beijing. Initially it revolved around investigating prevalence of HPV in a small sample size (n=100) of migrant females throughout Beijing. While this is not a representative sample size by any measure, it would serve as a pilot study for future research, at least that’s what I described in my proposal. My meeting exceeded all my expectations.

Apparently my interest in the migrant population throughout China is an avenue of intervention Dr. Qiao wants to get into. He, and a few other Chinese scientists looked at my study as a perfect launching point to begin understanding HPV in this population, but they too had qualms with my sample size. With an estimated population of 250million throughout China at virtually every major metropolis my sample of Beijing was small and unrepresentative. Dr. Qiao wants to expand my study to cover multiple cities and cancer centers throughout China seeking to test HPV in migrant workers throughout all of China. This will allow me to not only increase the representation of my sample size it will also drastically increase the relevance of my study and serve as a much more clinically important study. To see 2 years of thought, research, and planning beginning to become a reality, but also a grander more exciting reality, it is hard for me to verbalize just how I feel. I get chills. I am excited for the mountains of work that lie ahead. It is going to push me to my limits and stretch my ability as a researcher, scientist, and my own resolve but this is a challenge that I signed up for, and while I may not have known what I was getting myself into initially, this is exactly where I want to be.

The weekend doesn’t end there though. Yesterday my roommate invited me to an event his company was hosting called, AM brainstorm. (www.bactagonprojects.org). At the event local and foreign artists, journalists, photographers, and many others from around the city gather to discuss a preselected topic. Yesterday was architecture, something I hold very dear to my heart. It was 6 hours of conversation where I actively contributed my view. It was an event unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in Chicago, reminding me of late college nights where procrastination leads to deep conversations about life, art, and philosophy.

Also, I got a bicycle (I wear a helmet). Best choice of the week.

Beijing has been so much more amazing that I could have possibly imagined. And honestly, it keeps getting better and better every day!

Day 6-Are You a Reporter? Report the Mess!

6/365: MonotonyMonotony/#6/D7000/Panjiayuan/Beijing, China

DSC_1096 DSC_1113I was walking on the street today taking pictures and an older Chinese women approaches me out of nowhere. Normally people don’t mind me taking pictures of them, and I did not think I had taken a picture of this particular Chinese woman and my immediate reaction was whoops, I’ll delete it no problem. But she kept on asking me “ni shi ji zhe ma?” Are you a reporter?

Stunned, I kept trying to tell her no, I was just a lao wai, foreigner, taking pictures for fun, but she didn’t believe me. The fact that I could speak Chinese and I looked remotely Chinese with a big fancy camera meant I was a reporter. She was actually happy I was taking photos of the area, in her eyes, the place had gone to hell and was a complete mess. The government needs to do something she said. Report the mess she continued, show the world my dirty street.

As I tried to assuage her fears that her street wasn’t that dirty in comparison to other streets in Beijing she began to agree. But then asked, if the street wasn’t worth reporting why wasn’t I writing about the Malaysian airplanes…

Oh, China. I love you.

Day 4&5-Getting the Hang of Things

4/365: Weee!Weee!/#4/D7000/Beijing Hutongs/Beijing,China

5/365: Under the sanUnder the San/#5/D7000/Beijing Hutongs/Beijing, China

DSC_1041 DSC_1037 DSC_1070 phoneshotThings are starting to come together. Getting all my living necessities out of the way. Closer and clsoer to a residency permit. As soon as these humps are cleared I can get to the research.

My flight to Xin Jiang has been booked. I can’t believe it. I will be observing field research and helping educate Xin Jiang physicians on a variety of topics. An amazing opportunity. I plan to take full advantage of my time in Xin Jiang.

Regarding my new home. It is amazing. I living in the center of Beijing in an area rife with life. I love the vibrance and bustle that these streets have in comparison to the streets of home. One of the many reasons I’ve always had a soft spot for China.