The only reason why God created man is because he was disappointed with the monkey.
Dedicated to my great friend Tom
Living overseas away from family and the familiar is difficult. There are stages of difficulty related to culture shock. The stages of culture shock are a general guide to the sequence of emotions people experience. The four basic stages are: honeymoon stage (everything is new and interesting); hostility and irritability (frustration with everyday differences); gradual adjustment (first adapt on the surface and then working on deeper personal issues); acceptance (assimilation, adjustment and integration with new culture). And if you live overseas long enough you get reverse culture shock. One of the odd things that remained a constant source of cultural refreshment for me was the presence of monkeys in Asia. I know it may sound strange, but that was a little thing that brought me back to the so-called honeymoon stage.
There are no monkeys in North America. I don’t fully understand why but I have had a deep affinity for monkeys since I was a little boy. Perhaps it is some far-reaching primate kinship, or just I think they are cool. I’ve always tried to connect with primates I saw in zoos, because I don’t like to see them trapped in such a mind-numbing environment. I saw this sad little orangutan in a Chinese zoo and spent twenty minutes playing with him through the glass. His face was rapturous, as he had gotten used to people banging on the glass trying to upset him. Monkeys and apes seem to naturally gravitate towards me. I don’t like performing monkeys because the owners are often cruel, but I will feed them if I can.
Probably the first monkey I got to know was Curious George. As a little guy, there was a time when I wanted to be the Man with the Yellow Hat, because I liked George’s misadventures. The first monkeys I ever saw in person were spider monkeys owned by a family down the street. To say they were not sophisticated people would be an understatement. I think they had three little monkeys. They would wear tiny diapers, and were given racist names. I remember seeing them climb the tree in front of their house, more nimbly than squirrels. This was also back when pet shops could also sell apes. Okay, let me date myself a little, as a kid I really enjoyed the cartoon Magilla the Gorilla which anthropomorphized gorillas. Because I thought having a gorilla buddy would be fantastic. But thought better of that idea, after I’d watched all the Planet of the Apes movies several times.
I have always loved space exploration. The first primate astronauts were named Albert I – VI were launched atop V-2 rockets. Albert I reached a height of 63 kilometers, not quite outer space. Albert II was the first living being launched into space in June 1949 when he reached an altitude of 83 miles. During the Space Race between American and the USSR, I read about them and wondered, what did the apes and monkeys think as they were launched into space. That was before I learned of the meaning of anesthetized. On January 31, 1961 a chimpanzee named Ham reached 253 kilometers and returned safely. This brave chimp paved the way for Alan Shepard incredible suborbital flight May 5, 1961. After that I was only interested in human space exploration, except for a brief time when my kids would watch Captain Simian & the Space Monkeys.
The first wild monkey I ever saw up close was in Hunan Province at the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. It was one of the inspirations for Pandora the Na’vi home-world in Avatar. The natural scenery there is stunning, but what made the trip special for me was getting up close and personal with the native, semi-tame, monkeys. They would hear the tourists rustle cellophane and plastic and rush down to panhandle or outright pilfer food. I laughed when one stood up in a pantomimed threatening gesture so another could sneak in and snatch a bag of oranges from some tourists. Chinese ladies carry umbrellas to protect against the sun and one lady expertly fended off the monkey bandits by opening and closing her umbrella while thrusting it at them. I was in heaven just watching the little buggers run around.
I would later encounter monkeys in many places. For instance, when we visited Angkor Wat, I laughed as a crafty monkey crossed between tour groups on his way across the ancient temple grounds. There is a monkey god shrine guarding a bridge in Hoi An, Vietnam. My last six years in China I lived in my wife’s home province in the tropical south. There were many banana fields nearby. There was a tourist cave nearby that had many local monkeys. As they were often harassed by small children throwing things at them, most would stay in the hills until after the tourists went home. When we visited, I brought some high quality bananas from Thailand. The guard told us where to wait, and after the tourist left, the monkeys came down to raid the trash. The one in the picture looked at me, and I am not kidding, he raised and lowered his eyebrows several times, as if to ask – how about a banana? I gave him one of the Thai bananas and his expression changed to one of delight and he immediately thrust his hand out for another. A nearby monkey must have gotten the scent and reared up as if to charge me, I gave him two bananas to keep him busy and retreated. Their expressions were human-like, we “had a moment”.
I was the managing editor and lead writer for a monthly magazine and weekly newspaper while I lived in China, and as such I got to dive deeper into Chinese culture than most visitors – that and: being married, teaching little kids, chatting with family friends, traveling to far off the beaten track. And so my wife and I were lucky enough to meet Sun WuKong – the Monkey King. The number one superhero of Chinese history. The Monkey King is the protagonist of classic novel The Journey to the West . The television show has been on since 1986, and it is one of every Chinese person’s favorite shows. A well-connected friend of mine paid back several favors by arranging a private tour of Hengdian World Studios – the world’s largest at the time. We got to watch the filming of an episode. The director thought I was a foreign director. After we watched for a few minutes, the famous Monkey King actor said, “Hello, how are you?” We were then told to leave the set. So, in the end I got to meet one of the most famous monkeys of all time. Meeting the Monkey King ended my culture shock altogether. In closing, the Monkey King, and I suppose I do too, personified an expression used in Buddhism, including Zen, Taoism and Asian Literature: Monkey-Mind – restless and whimsical. Our human minds/thoughts/passions are like monkeys. There is more, but my monkey-mind could use a banana and some simian videos.