It may seem silly because I have hipster cred flying out my ass, but I fucking love the song “Piano Man”. Yeah, the Billy Joel “Piano Man” we all heard ad nauseum on our parents’ car stereo FM radios growing up. While it may be solidly in the running for cheesiest song of all-time, I’ve always seen it more like if Seurat decided he was going to paint the sad, pastoral snapshot of an American townie bar instead of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
When you’re wasted with your friends, belting out lyrics about how you’re “sharing a drink they call loneliness” with as much smug and irony as your dozen bottles of Miller High Life can muster, it sort of washes out that peppy tale of despair. Yeah, sure Billy Joel gets out alive. Good for fucking him, the self-satisfied prick. But what about that worn down old man, or Paul, or John, or Navy Davy? Underneath all of Joel’s Napoleonic “well these sad bastards have each other, and I’m their meek, piano-playing Christ, here to save them!”, there is a horrible cautionary tale of complacency turned despair. These men will never leave. They are past the event horizon in that liquor-swilling black hole, and they know it. They confide as much in Billy, and Billy looks on from the outside, not really noticing as they get sucked deeper and deeper, then he plays them a fucking piano ditty and calls it a day.
And I’ve been there. I felt that exactly a year ago, sitting in my basement watching Ghost Adventures, mere days before my scuffed and dirty Nike sneakers walked onto an Air Canada flight to Shenyang. A few weeks ago, I felt it again while I sat on the cushioned bench of a crappy Jinzhou night club, listening to music from a playlist the DJ hadn’t fucking bothered to change in over a year, but loved to play it at ear-splitting volumes. As I fought to force as much cheap whiskey down my gullet as possible, I thought to myself, Am I going to be here eight months from now, at this same bar, after a cookie-cutter Sunday at my painfully easy job that I’ve already lost some passion for? Maybe. But then eight months could become a year, and a year could become two, and two could become five, and so on and so forth. It will always be the same. Nothing will change. My back to that cushion, I could feel tiny, complacent hooks grabbing me. I realized that the longer I sat there, the harder it would be to unstick myself. I looked at my friends, people I care about deeply but know they will be gone someday, whether it’s tomorrow, six months from now, or whenever, and I made the surprisingly difficult decision that I needed to leave.
I guess after a year of living in another country, in a crumbling, tightly wound little burg like this, away from all the creature comforts and relationships I’ve ever known, I’m supposed to be different. I’m supposed to be changed by this. Am I? I couldn’t tell you. That’s for you to decide. But Jinzhou has nothing more to teach me. It’s time to move on. There is no future for me here, and to stay would be a slow, unsatisfying suicide.
So, first I’m going home for a week, because I want a goddamned burrito and a beer that doesn’t taste like Bear Grylls ran out of water in his canteen and to see my family for the first time in thirteen months. Then, I’m moving to Xi’an to work at a different school. I don’t really know what it has in store (aside from a pretty badass terracotta army in the immediate vicinity) but the idea of an empty, wide-open, “anyone’s guess” fate is exciting. It means I’m young and full of potential. It means I still have a lot of life left to live.