The Journey of Max Lobel
“I really enjoy writing, but I truly think I was born to be an accountant”
––– Everything is Illuminated, 2005
Thank you to Andy Reading Fund for making dreams possible through education across the world. I’m lucky to know Andy Wang, we met through Student Government at Lawrence University and I’m proud to be his brother mentor in Sigma Phi Epsilon. The rest is history yet to be made, but I’m looking forward to it.
Max with President Clinton, at Columbia University, 2015
Thousands of faces staring up to the podium. Different walks of life, slices of the multi-faceted threads that tie together the American fabric. They are here to listen but not to the person on the stage. Does anyone wonder who he is? Does it really matter? Does he really matter?
The President will be here soon and I stare out at the swirling sea of faces. Remarks semi-prepared, palms sweaty, heart rate rising, the anxiety building, bubbling. I feel it reach up from a pit in my stomach and grip the heartstrings and squeeze. We get glimpses of people in the limelight, not necessarily a façade, but we capture people in a moment and that moment may be all we have. So, there I am, suit, red to blue tie, podium reading fighting for us, and a face that could be in the crowd looking upon any other given day. Letting a thousand plus people into your life and back out so rapidly is a beautiful, but lurching feeling. One that I have been growing accustomed to and am always left looking for the next one.
My name is Max Loebl. I am an American, born and raised in the great state of Wisconsin. I attended Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, a classic, small American city, where I happen to have been born. Presently, I live in Shanghai, China where I work in the education industry. I have the privilege of introducing liberal arts to Chinese students and families. Andy, among many of my international friends at Lawrence, expressed the myriad of challenges they faced when coming to the United States to study. Since coming to Shanghai, there has been one incident that is perfectly emblematic of my experience adjusting to a new life.
First off, this is 100% Andy’s fault, though I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Andy connected me with a friend of his who worked at a TV station in Shanghai via WeChat. Prior to leaving the US we exchanged WeChat messages and she invited me to the filming of a Chinese television program. Obviously, I say yes. I arrive in Shanghai during a hot and muggy September and am scheduled to meet her within 72 hours of my arrival. We exchange messages, she provides details about the tickets and location, and I set out to meet her not having any idea what is in store.
Naturally, I get horribly lost. I call, since I’m running late. She picks up and does not speak English. I do not speak Chinese. We are at an impass. She yells a few words in English though, I can make out “lost! ….. lost! … late! ….. baby! … baby! …. Taxi!”. I decoded her frantic message and got a taxi to wherever I was meeting her. The cab drops me off in an isolated part of Shanghai. I see a crowd of people outside some gates. A girl, I guess the girl I’m meeting, is yelling at me surrounded by some big dudes who look an awful lot like security. She has a baby with her and is trying to get me to take it. I refuse the small child and she yells in Chinese with some English “Go in…. Baby! ….. There is baby! …. Baby! …. Wait!”. I take my ticket and am shuffled inside by the massive dudes as she stays outside with the kid, seemingly arguing with security.
Inside, I am herded into a security checkpoint. My phone is confiscated and in exchange I am giving flashing lights to wear on my wrists and some bread. I lost my access to the outside world, to translation, to maps, to basically everything. I stand alone in a line, more of a crowd, waiting for something, not entirely sure what. I am the only foreigner present and am starting to attract some stares. A security person seems to notice my sheer confusion and gives me another piece of bread and a satchel of water. I ask a girl next to me in desperation, “What is happening?” and am to my dismay met with more Chinese with some English… “Why?.... Wait… A little”. Perfect. I keep waiting until we are collectively corralled into a small hallway and then shuffled into a brightly lit, tron-like room, with hard angled red and green lights. Dub step music blasts in the background and a ripple of excitement washes over the crowd. The wave of excitement breaks on me and I retreat to the farthest back corner of the audience.
Everything is in Chinese, I live in China now, everything is in Chinese. Tech crew members and openers come out to start warming up the crowd. The crowd jeers, laughs, boos, hollers all in an impressive display of unity. Timorously, I join in, goaded by giggling girls surrounding me. Shortly after joining in, I’m caught mid practice boo by a blinding light. Several more find there way to me and then I’m surrounded by cameramen. The warm-up man on stage yells something in Chinese, the entire crowd turns and stares at me. Very clearly gesturing at me, the man on stage yells in Chinese again. I panic. I yell out in response “Wo shi meiguo ren!”. The crowd remains oddly silent and stage manager man yells again, but this time in English, “Come up here!”.
I have no options, I approach the stage amidst building applause. I am coaxed onto stage by several, seemingly d-list Shanghai celebrities, one of whom becomes my unofficial translator. I am asked to repeat the fake booing, laughing, acting surprised, acting scared, jumping, etc. but this time it’s just me on stage. The audience loved it.
After returning to my seat the program begins. I think it was some kind of stand up comedy show with lots of yelling and flashing lights. However, all in Chinese. One bald comedian, who goes by Li Dan, appears on stage among the entire cast. The host begins interviewing him, about what I will never know, but then Li Dan and I lock eyes. He stares quizzically and then erupts in a spew of what I think is some very angry Chinese. Jumping out of his chair and pointing at me he finally unleashes some English, “Where you come from!?”, then back to more Chinese. The crowd is loving it and my translator attempts to assist, “He is talking to you”.
Eventually this subsides, the show goes on, I remain confused, and return home with an odd sense of accomplishment. The girl who gave me the tickets never spoke to me in person again, but she incessantly bothered me on WeChat for money and to buy coloring books. She turned out to be crazy, unleashing some absurd threats when I declined to buy wig coloring from her. I saw myself being yelled at in a clip of the show that was playing on the metro the other day, I looked so innocent, but also so stupefied. There is no real moral to this story. I don’t know if I really learned anything tangible, other than the fact that life is confusing, it always will be, and sometimes it’s best to buy the ticket and take the ride.
“I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is”
There is something beautiful about learning a new language and submersing yourself in a new culture, it’s a new way to experience reality and I’m hooked. I am privileged to have spent time abroad in a variety of countries. So far, the list includes, travel to Russia, working in Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, France, The UK, Canada for pre-season soccer training, and Ecuador for research. The most salient experience has to be the times I have spent in Ukraine.
I have been to Ukraine twice for my senior capstone project with Lawrence University. My research has been on INGO and NGO support systems for Internally Displaced People in Ukraine. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the War in Donbas, millions of Ukrainians have had to flee their homes, searching for shelter in the western regions of Ukraine. The topic paralleled my time at Lawrence, the conflict began when I was a freshman and I followed it all the way to my senior year. Lawrence encourages students to explore and experience education outside of the classroom, so I was lucky enough to have the chance to travel to Kyiv, Ukraine to conduct a variety of interviews with different NGO coordinators for my research.
The experience was incredible to say the least. I met with fantastic people, hard workers, brilliant academics, and also got a taste of Ukraine’s wonderful culture. Whether it was catching a bite to eat at a Crimean Tatar restaurant or setting sail on the Dnierpo for a boat party, I had an incredible time. After months of hard work, I was invited to return to Ukraine to present my research at an international conference.
The conference was an incredible opportunity, but a nerve wracking experience. I was about 15 years junior to all the other presenters and many were old Ukrainian and Russian men, members of the last soviet generation. I was assigned an interpreter as presentations were given in Swedish, English, Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian. After some of the presentations there would be heated debate, rapid exchanges in Ukrainian. I felt out of my depth. I gave my presentation with success, illustrating how NGOs can improve the experience and support for IDPs, and no one yelled at me, which is always a plus.
But maybe the most interesting thing that came out of the conference was meeting my interpreter. A second-year student from Borysipol, Ukraine who loved languages and had dreams of traveling the world as an ambassador. She was brilliant when it came to translation, but as I spent more time with her, she began to share all her other talents. A classically trained pianist, artist, aspiring writer, literary buff, swimmer, and trained nurse. A classic renaissance human, something that I strive to be myself.
But from the outside looking in, everything is always easier than it seems. One night, we were sharing knock off, Ukrainian Budweiser in Golden Gates square. As we sat in the shadows of this majestic, several-hundred-year-old monument, she started to share what life was like in Borysipol growing up. She talked about being in a street gang or company, something common it seemed, and how she provided medical assistance during brawls with gangs from other districts. She continued to talk about her best friend turned lover who jumped from a 9-story building at the age of sixteen. All the hardship, depression, and self-harm that then led from that. I sat listening in the dark and the words kept on flowing. Her parents fought constantly, her dad had a problem with alcohol, and on top of this she was making an hour commute to school every day. And then she told me she was raped when she was 17. The words hit me like a ton of bricks, catching my breath in my throat, and making my heart pound itself seemingly out of sync. I did what I had been taught to do and offered support, consolation, offers to connect to counseling. She didn’t want it, nor did she seem to need it. She said that the universe always works out in weird ways, but always for the best. She added that these experiences good and bad just make us who we are, make us stronger and special. Her boyfriend was just drafted to the army this year, and he has been sent to train for conflict. So, on top of everything else, she is missing another loved one.
It made me reconsider the urges that I have to help everyone that I end up entangled with. This idea that everyone needs saving. For her it wasn’t even about saving herself, it was just about accepting the struggle that life gives us some time and focusing on the future. And now, when I worry about the world and panic about so many people needing help, myself included, I remember that there is a girl lying on her back on the grass in Borysipol, watching the planes take off into the sunset. Waiting.
Departure of the winged ship by Vladimir Kush