last night i rambled through the neon streets of a nameless north Asian city, lost and utterly foreign and happy as a clam.

like any dream, it made no narrative sense. i was simply elsewhere, escaped, otherworlded. it was vivid, a montage of sense recollections and body memory, smells and sights and pace all propped up like rusty actors on a stage that seldom has much call for them. they fought for their star turn, elbowing in on each other in rapid succession, costumes dusty but still perfect in form, bizarrely familiar in their forgotten but once-intimate Otherness.

it was day and night both in this dream, and Seoul and Osaka and Beijing and Busan and Daejeon all together…a hundred human habitations of relentless urbanity merged, distilled…all these but never Shanghai, nothing so recognizable and coherent to the occidental eye as the grand old Whore of the Orient with her Art Deco facades. there were piss-ridden alleys and sterile fusion bars, ten-lane thoroughfares with whizzing cars and motorcycles and scooters, both sides of the street jammed with a cacophony of lit signs that disdain all notions of harmony and makes Times Square look tame. i do not know what they hawked, in my dream, but then i never knew what they said when i was there, either. the in-jokes of signage were lost on me just as the Engrish hilarity of neon proffering “pork catlet” – cutlet – was presumably lost to those who lovingly promoted such wares. in my dream were colours, so many colours cutting into the dark in bright clean lines, blurring into a haze, and the graceful arc of the few old buildings that remain against the cigarette-box-design of the new, thousands of them, disappearing into the horizon in a sea of unending ugliness made vibrant by the tang of sugar or garlic or vinegar or liquor from the street vendors and the fetid waft of garbage and sewage beneath the open grates of the alleyways. and always, for months, the fallen cherry blossoms lingering. in the dream they were underfoot and all the paving tiles were shaped like diamonds.

girls with kewpie-doll double eyelids, surgically created but so ubiquitous that the under-thirties appear utterly genetically different from their elders, bestowed stewardess smiles upon me as i plowed along, eating up ground in this imaginary Ur-city too big to be outwandered. people thronged, fifty thick on the streets. fish flopped in plastic basins, pigs’ heads and carcasses with paws grinned glassy-eyed at me from market hooks. the modesty of appropriate dress perched alongside the gaudy love hotels, grinning at me, sex unmentionable yet discreetly everywhere, vending machines with cock rings displaying their wares like cans of coffee or goggle-eyed stuffed animals. cartoons everywhere. i felt a little, on waking, like i’d been in a cartoon, some strange cigarette-smoke and plum wine-laced anime tableau designed for aesthetic impact…but then remember that i always felt that way, there.

ah, the sometimes beautiful invisibility of being Other, of being so hopelessly and irredeemably different that there will be no true belonging, no amalgamation. all is pardonable or ignorable, chalked up to the barbarity of skin rather than individual indiscretion. no history, no ties. my feet were shod in army boots, then in the plastic bathroom slippers one would never sully with dirt from outside one’s apartment. but i went marching, marching, flashing through corner stores and chicken stands and grand public edifices to historical events i do not really understand, all in hard pink plastic footwear bearing homonculous-shaped toy rabbits on it, and my legs were strong and did not ache.

i could have walked all night long through those kaleidoscope streets, dreaming. and when i woke too early to the sound of “mama” echoing through my bedroom in my house in a town i have known all my life, i felt suddenly, incongruously homesick.