HAIL, SPIRITUAL OPIUM!

We’re back! In Taiwan! In quarantine! This week we talk about how we’re surviving by regressing to childhood comforts. Plus, links about 9/11, rural schools, Black composers in Europe, and Tony Leung.

Dear all,

Hello from Taipei! We’re on day five of a mandatory fifteen-day quarantine. We’ll get fined $3,500 USD if we leave our hotel room; if we venture too close to the door, as Albert did yesterday, we get a text message telling us we’re “beyond the acceptable range.” The Taiwan CDC calls us every morning to ask for our temperatures. On day two they had to call nine times because I never picked up. (“Sorry, sorry!” I said in Mandarin once we finally connected. “I’m not used to keeping my phone on. I lived in France and nobody called me.”) By that second day the baby—she turns two soon and at some point I probably should stop calling her “the baby,” but for now I refuse—was already pointing at the door, wanting out. Poor thing! In a few more days she’ll be pounding on it and I fear our fellow hotel quarantiners will brand us as child abusers.

As you’ve probably gathered, we’ve been on hiatus this summer. We spent most of it with my parents, who are in love with the baby: they delighted in everything from feeding her popsicles and ice cream to playing catch (though she can’t actually catch, so the ball just hits her gently, which makes her laugh). We felt very lucky for them to have that bonding time. On top of that, we got to see our brothers and their families. But there were also frustrations: it was a summer of perpetual waiting. We were supposed to fly to Taiwan on July 28, but a minor COVID outbreak here threw us into visa limbo and we couldn’t enter the country. (More on Taiwan’s bureaucratic immigration policy, and the absurdity of the visa process, in future installments.) And in the meantime our brains might have turned to mush. What are words, anyway?

We’ll formally relaunch A Broad and Ample Road in October, and have paused payments until then. When we do, the core newsletter will remain the same, but you’ll receive some options involving other new parts of the newsletter: Mandarin translations of select pieces, bilingual Taipei-based news on arts and music, and a broad collection of observations from Asia. We’re grateful to Substack Local for supporting this work, and to you for joining us on this journey.


Michelle: On escaping quarantine for … Super Mario World

It’s been five days, but it feels like five hundred. We’re trying to make do. I confess, I used to tune out, not without a hint of righteousness, complaints about hotel quarantine that likened it to prison—but now I’m feeling more sympathetic. The isolation is crazy-making! No walks or meetups with friends to distract you from yourself, just staring at half-open suitcases and chugging a lot of instant coffee. Within twelve hours, the baby had explored every inch of the hotel room several times over.

So how are we surviving? Well, we’ve let the baby watch hours upon hours of Peppa Pig, even though she’ll paw at us every half hour or so to remind us of her existence. (Albert’s reply to her: “What, you want to be parented or something?”) As for us, here’s our secret: something like fifty hours of Super Mario World 3D.

It’s been decades since I’ve played Nintendo, but having grown up with an older brother and logged thousands of hours playing the classics (Contra, anybody?), I have deep reserves of warmth and affection for its alternate reality, for Chun Li and Ryu and Yoshi. So when friends told us that the Nintendo Switch might help to pass the time in quarantine, we decided to go all in.

I know video games are unsanctioned by elite culture, but I suspect that’s less about refined taste and more about the refusal of pleasure. Deep down, I think, my snobby friends are just afraid that the undeniable pleasure of a Nintendo world is a threat to productivity. (What, like true crime on Netflix or Catcher in the Rye is highbrow?) That said, it’s true that video games are uniquely addictive—so much so that the Chinese government recently imposed the draconian restriction of play time to three hours a week. Companies that don’t regulate users are fined for propagating—not that they’re being dramatic about it or anything—“spiritual opium.”

Anyway, my skills are rusty. I keep accidentally dying. My Mario avatar leaps into an abyss or a lava pit or a toxic purple pool, his arms in full swing as if he’s not about to die. And then the death music comes on, and the words on the screen—TOO BAD! (Thanks, Nintendo. I feel much better.) Albert’s Luigi accidentally kills me too, knocking me off a ledge or a moving block. Somehow this only sharpens the strange contradictions of existing. In real life, people are dying all around me, which is why I’m in quarantine in the first place. But in this world, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I can always start again.

In quarantine you’re inert, pointless, giving nothing back to the world. In the Mario universe your physicality is extraordinary: you can dodge fireballs or leap onto cogs made of cookies (it’s hard to explain). You can fly. You can be “Tanooki” Mario, who has big furry ears and a striped tail and spin-kicks his enemies. (He’s based on a raccoon-like folk spirit from ancient Japanese lore, known for mischief and good cheer. I know what I want the baby to be this Halloween!) And said enemies aren’t real-life villains separating children from their families at the border, but adorable creatures with long-voweled names like goombas (evil mushrooms) and koopa troopas (evil turtles) and, my favorite, a shy bipolar ghost named Boo.

So here I am, on the cusp of forty, playing Mario Bros. It sounds silly, but it’s returning me to that crucial, albeit ever-deferrable, question of what it would be like to really live in the real world. As a nine-year-old discovering this pixelated universe by leaping over lava and sailing through clouds and throwing fireballs, I thought: Life will be like this when I grow up. Its logic seemed so simple and sound: you develop powers, help others, and see the sights while you’re at it.

Is this still a viable vision?

All summer I fretted about my productivity and how little work I was getting done. That anxiety continued into quarantine; I texted a friend to say I felt guilty for wasting the whole day trying to beat Super Mario World, to which he replied: Adulthood is a fiction! Productivity is a myth! I’m remembering a conversation with an old friend who gave up politics to become a Jesuit priest. For the longest time, he told me, we thought we were preparing for something else in the future. But this is it. This is life now. He asked: why do people, especially overachievers, so often not realize this? It must be that we aren’t happy; it must be that we believe real life is being happy and thus awaits us later. But this is life now.

And there’s nothing like quarantine to remind you that life is now, right outside the door. Sometimes we forget to step outside; sometimes we literally can’t. Right now in Taiwan a typhoon is brewing; trees are shaking and rain is coming down hard. The baby’s about to have another meltdown and Albert has taken her into his arms. “You’re bored, aren’t you?” he says. “Come, let’s look out the window. There’s a world. See the bus? See the wind? We’ll be out there soon enough.”


Overheard in the Kuo-Wu h̶o̶u̶s̶e̶h̶o̶l̶d̶ quarantine chamber

Michelle [as her Mario jumps onto a cakewalk floating in the sky]: This doesn’t make sense!

Albert [furiously pressing a button on his Nintendo controller]: They’re Italian plumbers! None of this makes sense!


Links

  • There’s been so much good writing about the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 that it’s hard to keep up. We particularly loved this symposium curated by Brad Evans at LARB, which features Bruce Robbins, Gayatri Spivak, Vincent Brown, and Sam Moyn, among others. Moyn points out in his reflection how the War on Terror led to “a dream of a morally perfect war, with belligerency itself a lesser evil brought about by those who chose to threaten America, and fought by America itself in the most principled imaginable way.” Relatedly, read this thought-provoking and incisive forum in Tocqueville 21 on Moyn’s recent book, Humane, curated by Chris Schafer with reviews by Duncan Bell, Michael Brenes, Emma Mackinnon, and Mel Pavlik, as well as a response by Moyn himself. 

  • We’ve also kept thinking about this moving piece by Phil Klay on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and how “dangerously seductive” the moment was, immediately after 9/11, when “America had found moral purpose again.” 

  • Read Kira Thurman’s excellent article on Black composers in Europe, a preview of some arguments from her forthcoming book

  • We wish there was more national attention paid to the unique struggles rural schools face. Here at last is an illuminating piece by Casey Parks, who writes:

    The problems rural schools face … are distinct and require distinct solutions. Not only are rural communities more likely to be impoverished, they’re also often disconnected from the nonprofits and social-service agencies that plug holes in urban and suburban schools. Many don’t have access to broadband internet, and some don’t even have cellphone service, making it hard for young people to tap outside resources. Rural schools have a difficult time recruiting teachers and principals. And long before the pandemic turned “ventilation” into a buzzword for anxious parents, rural children were learning in aging buildings with broken HVAC systems and sewers too old to function properly.

    In Holmes, a rural district in the Mississippi Delta, she writes: “Half the instructors were uncertified, and almost all of second grade was being taught by substitutes, meaning kids showed up for third-grade multiplication lessons not knowing how to add.”

  • On our last night in California, we braved the movie theater to watch Shang Chi! It was very pleasurable, and inspired Michelle to find a martial arts class in Taiwan so as to become a kung fu master. If you're a Tony Leung fan, read this great profile by Alexander Chee, or just slobber over the exquisite pictures of this perfect man.


October Book Club: Eduardo Berti’s An Ideal Presence

We’re starting our book club again! In October we’ll read Eduardo Berti’s beautiful An Ideal Presence, translated from French by our editor Daniel Levin Becker and published by our favorite independent press, Fern Books. In November we’ll read Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. We’ll announce the exact timing soon, but book clubs always take place the last Thursday or Friday of the month. All are welcome! Email us for the zoom link.


And finally…