Double Happiness

by Tony Brasunas

Torchporch Creative, 2013

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Every person, like a waterfall, has a story, a beauty, an unexpected twist to discover, a trajectory and a velocity.

After reading Tony Brasunas’ recently published Double Happiness, I feel as if I have just emerged from an IMAX theatre, triumphant after watching in 3-D, an entire trilogy of a tireless quest through a lush landscape, for something very precious. The book leaves me with the same excitement, the surge of anticipation and exhilaration still ripping through the entire body I’d feel if I were exiting from an adventure-packed film. Trekking across the Middle Kingdom, over the expansive mountainous region, through incessant rain; careening down the Himalayan roads on a rollercoaster ride in a behemoth truck carrying bricks, not to mention the expedition across the Great Wall and the Himalayan foothills. What could prove more riveting?

Brasunas’ book is a moment to moment live narrative — we are there with him in the classroom with his Chinese students where, his task is not only to teach English, but to inspire the students to “uplift the nation.” He enjoys their spontaneity and the creative English names they have chosen for themselves, ranging from Donkey to Hitler, and striving to speak English via skits and role play. Other times we’re jostling down the Chinese market streets soaking up the fragrances of Asia—the tea, the incense, the cigarettes, the garbage, the constant body odors, the piercing fish sauces, the spry ginger, the fortifying garlic, and the heft braised port wielding dark plum sauce.

What impresses me most about this just-turned 23-year old — is that he is gutsy and undaunted and very ambitious in getting the most out of his trip to China. He has learned Mandarin, speaks it well, is often complimented by strangers about his ease of use of the language, and he’s diligent — picking up his little red language dictionary and learning new words every chance he gets.

Early in the book, we know that Bao Tongning (a phoneticized version of Tony Brasunas, last name first, meaning “Shared Peacefulness,” and christened by a professor-friend) has already decided what parts of the country he wants to see during his stay in China. Holding on to his weathered travel guidebook, “The Lonely Planet,” he confesses, an urge is pulling me west. I’ll stay here in Beijing a few days, then head out west to Xi’an, then take the Silk Road and see where it takes me. Maybe I’ll reach Jiuzhaigou or even Tibet.   I want to see the religious and spiritual parts of this country — the Muslim lands, the Tibetans, the Buddhists. In the course of his travels, you will find he does exactly that.

He wants to experience everything as directly as he can. This is why I’m here, why I’m teaching, why  I made this long journey. To know and understand China, to know and understand Chinese Students, and to know and understand myself. Teaching is another form of learning.

The young author shows immense maturity, broadening his knowledge about China’s history to get a better understanding of the place and the people he is beginning to know and appreciate. He reads The Search for Modern China which traces the revolutionary history from Sun Yatsen, the well-traveled scholar from Guangzhou (where coincidentally enough, Brasunas himself is teaching English!) who led a rebel army bringing down the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

From the tapestry of Chinese history here are some of the hefty knots that Brasunas highlights: the Kuómíntāng (Nationalist Party) and Chiang Kaishek, flagstones paving the course of the Chinese revolution; the Gòngchăndăng (Communist Party) led by Mao Tse-tung; the civil war in the 1930s, the Japanese invasion in 1937, end of World War II in 1945, followed by Mao Tse-tung’s victory, Beijing’s capture, and the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Subsequent to Mao’s death in 1976, political freedom in Taiwan, and Deng Xiaoping, the rest of the history is pretty recent and relevant to what young Americans might remember.

The Spring of 1989 and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square marked in red doesn’t seem that long ago, and that is why it’s refreshing to see China through Brasunas’s experience. We are right there with him in the opening chapter of the book, at Tiananmen Square, at an opportune time in the country when the huíguī, the handover of Hong Kong is to take place thus fulfilling Margartet Thatcher’s pledge to return the colony to China on June 29, 1997, when the Hong Kong flag—red with a single white Bauhinia orchid—will replace the Union Jack.

It is intriguing to learn about the electronic billboard in front of the Museum of the Revolution that announces “147,988 seconds,” in red digits, precisely measuring the chronological earthquake beats left until the huíguī. Four dark squares to the left of the decrementing digits suggest that the billboard has probably been counting down the years since Thatcher’s pledge.

Some of the many world famous historical and geographical landmarks, and major artworks of renown that Brasunas gets to see, include the Great Wall of China, (Why do people visit this thing? Thousands died to construct the wall…) and Bīngmayŏng-the Chinese name for the world-famous earthen warriors, better known as the “Terracotta Soldiers” that guard Emperor Qin Shihuang’s tomb, large enough to hold a 747.

Interestingly, two American icons in China are McDonald’s (Màidāngláo) and KFC. Brusanas’ sensitive nature is evident here, as he comments on his experience at MCD… When I open the doors, the picture flips into its opposite, like a photographic negative, and a world that was strange turns suddenly familiar: the subzero air conditioning, the synthetic yellow and red décor, the plastic imitation wood tables, the particular stench of special sauce. Here I know the mores, I know the words, I can be the one who laughs. I order in English…and he doesn’t need to thumb open his scarlet pocket Mandarin dictionary and build vocabulary the hard way, word by word.

Sometimes you see the youth for what he is, missing girlfriends, or dating someone. I watch the city pass… counting the months it’s been since I’ve had even a kiss. A real kiss. His appreciativeness is obvious, and his instant gratification humbling when he is touched by one of his students who thanks him fervently and wishes him well at the end of the term. For a moment this blows my mind—that I helped someone, that I got through somewhere, that I play a part in increasing human knowledge.

He doesn’t understand why they do what they do, but he ultimately comes to terms with it. He is moved by the affection and hospitibility shown toward him. With his students, he is always trying to inspire them, even playing his guitar in class and teaching them songs. People in the neighboring area enjoy his music so much he is invited to an important wedding along with his fellow teachers who are also asked to perform at the celebration. It is at this wedding that I understand the significance of the term “Double Happiness.” Beside the table stands an enormous upright greeting card, etched with a single red Chinese character. The Chinese character for the term “happiness” is duplicated and positioned side by side to describe a happiness that comes from a union of different things or a connection.

What a simple and unique way of expressing the term “double happiness.” Brasunas perceives the significance: We’re that connection, and we’re a part of that bliss: the foreign, the strange, the exotic—joined together with what here is normal and mundane to create union amid contrasts. What a beautiful conception!

Being an American teacher in China, or perhaps because of his youth, he appears approachable to many Chinese who are curious and interested in talking to him. People want to know his opinion on politics and other matters. A humanist at heart, you can sense the tug of conflicting emotions he goes through each time before he responds. He is respectful, weighs his words, and is not only honest, but very diplomatic in his replies.

Some English enthusiasts invite him by the river to a section called the English Corner and talk to him freely, enquiring about his opinion on politics in China and various subjects, including AIDS. Here, the author points out an interesting observation. The billboards on the far side of the river seem to scream their ads—capitalist propaganda facing off from one side of the water against communist propaganda on the other: “China here, America there”.

One of the billboards shows the “double happiness” character and alongside, two people — one Chinese and one “gwailo” (foreigner) happily playing ping-pong. It’s humorous, but the author finds some meaning there. Looking at the image of harmony fills me with gratitude—to be here, to be strange and scared and lonely and lost, and yet to be learning constantly.

I wonder how many tourists who visit foreign countries realize that they are all representatives of the country. Feedback such as the author’s is invaluable to both the parent country and the host. Here are some of his keen observations that might serve as a lesson for all of us.

The Chinese people aren’t afraid of each other as much as Americans are. There’s plenty of poverty, but there isn’t the abject homeless misery that one finds in American cities, and so while the poor and rich live as next door neighbors, people here have enough in common that internal justification for malevolence is needed, and it’s rare.

There’s more materialism in China than I expected, but still far less than back home. People seem content with little. People also seem more innocent, less jaded than Americans. Perhaps it’s because they have less knowledge about the workings of the system or their government. Americans make their own decisions about things. Chinese on the other hand, are making only small decisions while the big ones come down from above, with the government playing the role of the parent or god.

At times, it seems that Brasuna is depressed, as if some form of disaster hangs over his head. This disposition possibly stems from his gastric attack, when he was hospitalized and somehow began to fear his life might end. This feeling of despair continues despite his successes in meeting people who are kind to him, including two young girls with whom he shares a little more than mere friendship.

I’ve always longed for more space and time away from people. I’ve always assumed I’d finally figure life out when I could be alone. But now, today, I felt loneliness, a weird, unusual sadness, an emptiness, a grayness at the edges of things…This is the fear I felt as I fell ill—not just that I would die, but that no one would give a damn.

Even when the author seems to have a good time, amid the family in the Hui Muslim village at Linxia, we find him pensive and distraught when he is back to being by himself. I gaze into the sky, feeling strange, uprooted, and afloat on some vast cloud. How much of this paranoia, this fog, this dark fear is inside me? This despair, however, seems to take a turn after his meeting with the Tibetans, visiting the monks, watching them create a Mandala, and having time to reflect in that beautiful expanse of quiet green.

I like Brasunas’ idea of using Hesse’s “Narcissus & Goldmund” as commentators in his book—an ingenious use of sections of the novel in context with the author’s own musings, and narrative. It almost seems as if the book provides some sort of a symbiosis and ironically sets a tone for the author’s mood or thoughts. Goldmund: “What else is there than to live and roam, to feel summer and winter, to taste beauty and horror, to experience the world?” Brasunas: … to walk through the world this way I’ve stumbled upon: eyes, open, trusting more things… experiencing the odd, delicious, concrete knowledge that whatever happens is good.

By the end of my reading, I am convinced that the book leans more towards being “A Year in the Life of Tony Brasunas,” rather than a travelogue. I wouldn’t say “coming of age,” because he’s only grown a year older, but certainly agree he has become a whole world wiser. He admits the change in himself towards the latter part of the book, before he tours the Silk Road. Celebrating his 23rd birthday in the absence of his family and friends, he appears disconsolate and gloomy and writes:

It’s my birthday, and everything is over, everyone is gone. Maybe rain bodes ill, maybe I’ll meet my maker on the road, maybe this birthday will be my last…Maybe Chinese superstitions are rubbing off on me. School’s ended—the way childhood did and college did…I don’t have a way to leave behind my fears of being abandoned, confused, killed. But I recognize them now. They are the same fears that paralyzed me when I arrived here last August…I’m blind, solitary, ignorant, free.

I think the author’s visit with the Tibetans, his stay at the Labrang Monastery, and his observation of the monks creating the Mandala initiated a major change in his way of thinking. He appears to have evolved and matured in that brief, but most influential period of his stay abroad.

Most Americans are guided by something they’re chasing — pursuit of achievement, pursuit of pleasure, pursuit of happiness. This is about something else, a different happiness, a happiness not bound to the fulfillment of desires. It’s a happier bond to something that already exists.

It is interesting how masterfully the young author has written about the political situation in China with regards to distinct and important milestones of the Asian nation. He has voiced articulately, his youthful experience as an English teacher, and that of his students who felt comfortable to state their concerns about their country’s future.

The author uses descriptive metaphoric language to create an image. Peaks stand against the sky like torn green paper… Dimness grows from the shadows around us as the sky overhead shreds into pink and purple…Darkness drops like a curtainThe market peacocks a panoply of colors amid the town’s baldness.

This book has been published at a very opportune historical period. It magnifies a very important aspect in America’s relationship with China. Currently, with China in the news trying to earmark a segment of the economy and technology, many Americans may feel a twinge of discomfort or show a genuine concern about the possibility of the Great Dragon asserting its power. Brasunas writes from a very humanistic approach at a time when there’s definitely a crimping felt in the economic and political arena. It strikes me as one of the successes the author has demonstrated in his writing. He also manifests his respect for different cultures in the ease with which he establishes a lasting relationship, kinship, and understanding.

Brasunas has the makings of a good ambassador. To have spent time in close proximity with the people in the heart of China, watched them live their everyday lives, breathed in the landscape and participated in the spirituality, simplicity, and experienced firsthand Tibetan peace—this is the essence of global friendship—an acknowledgement of the people, and a way of establishing a peaceful world devoid of political machinations.

“Double Happiness” is an interesting read for anyone, but more so for young men and women who have never traveled out of the country, or those children born in America, or any place other than the country of origin of their immigrant parents. And as the author recommends, every American should see his or her country from abroad.

Pushpa MacFarlane likes reading poetry at open mic venues and on poetry podcasts.  She arranged, designed, and edited Remembering: An Anthology of Poems Read at Willow Glen Books, published by Jacaranda Press. Her poems can be found online at “The Willow Glen Poetry Project.” She is the lead editor of the upcoming Volume Three of this series. She creates and maintains poetry blogs for her friends and writes reviews on poetry collections. Her review of Carolyn Grassi’s Heart and Soul, a new poetry collection released by Patmos Press, can be viewed online. Ms. MacFarlane’s writing prompt was included in Vibrant Words published by PushPen Press.

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