Impressions of an Expatriate: China. Peter Jelen. BareBack Press. Hamilton, Ontario. 2014.
Impressions of an Expatriate: China is one of the more interesting poetry travelogues Today's book of poetry has encountered for a while. Peter Jelen's all too short book is a celebration of his time in Shanghai, Hong Kong, China. He loved every minute of it except when he didn't.
For those of you have never lived in another culture with a different and difficult language, Jelen gets it right. He knows that the small things are often the most amazing, the little wonders often the most startling. In another incarnation Impressions of an Expatriate: China might just as easily have been titled A Study in Manners.
She sat in a rusty wheelchair
at the end of an overpass,
no hands, no feet, no nose
a sign strung around her neck:
I'M A POOR SOUL
PLEASE GIVE ME MONEY
I unplugged my earphones
dipped into my pocket,
pulled out a couple kuai,
but then paused.
how did she get here?
If she has no feet,
she couldn't have walked.
If she has no hands,
she couldn't have wheeled herself.
if she has no fingers
she couldn't have written the sign.
I kept my change,
and was later glad I had.
When I asked one of my Shanghainese co-workers,
a very sweet girl named Sunny,
about this leper at the train station,
she told me the leper had an owner
and was carried there day after day to beg.
Sunny said "Don't give her any money,
it's a business,
people buy the deformed and use them as beggars."
With the foreboding tone of fortune teller
she predicted, "You will see worse,
She was right.
Jelen is not walking on the sunny side of the street, he is writing from a tradition of street-wise and unadorned poetry which is entirely suited, form meeting function. When called for we can breathe in the rancid funk from the over-ripe back alleys Jelen sojourns through.
You might get the wrong first impressions of China if you only see the unvarnished larceny Jelen gets up to. Today's book of poetry is convinced Jelen loved/loves China, but as Jelen makes clear, he is wandering a little off the regular tourist route. And we are the richer for it.
Garbage On My Head
I was strolling through the crowded
malodorous back alleys of Wuban
just being there.
It was so unlike Shanghai,
it was a place where Internet cafes
and telephone rooms were still a necessity.
It was a place without well-oiled sanitation,
where one would have to walk down the banks of the
Yangtze and dump one's own garbage still.
But some people were lazy sometimes.
Some people didn't want to walk all the way down
to the mighty river and dump their garbage.
Some people, I discovered,
dumped their garbage out of their apartment windows
and it rained down on passersby
rained down on me
fusty egg shells,
soggy bok choy.
I puked right then and there.
Then I drank some more
and forgot all about it
Peter Jelen's experience of being an expatriate in China opens up the world, Today's book of poetry has forgotten the source of the direct quote and my research staff are currently napping on the couch, the idea that you never really see your own country/society until you've lived outside of it remains true. When Jelen talks about manners, customs and practise it is the west that comes under real scrutiny.
These poems are immediate, some of them slap you up both sides of your head at the same time they are that quick. Poems like these come off of the page like Foghorn Leghorn making some big pronouncement or carnies barking for your attention -- but much like time abroad -- it's the
distillation of all that new information that provides the most interest.
The best cocaine I've ever had
was in Shanghai,
not because the coke was
of exceptional quality
like a prize winning vintage wine
I just mean that knowing
I would be blindfolded
and set in front of a firing squad
with one last Camel clenched between my teeth
if I got caught with it
gave it an extra
Clearly Jelen is no angel and this no bible, this is a road map of note, a guidebook that happens to be a journey of poetic self discovery. Jelen understands that there is both great freedom and unseen barriers when living abroad and as readers we get to tag along without having to carry any luggage.
When I travel, or read poetry, I want to get off the main street and avoid MacDonalds. Give me a back lane and some street food. I want to hear the patois, the sound of grease hitting a skillet. Jelen delivers.
ABOUT THE AUTHORPeter Jelen is a Canadian writer. He has spent the last six years living and working in Japan, China, and South Korea. He is the author of Better Than God, The Cure for Consciousness, and Impressions Of An Expatriate: China.
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