Monday, May 7, 2007

two years ago

Two years ago, summer, I was falling apart in China. It was a brutal place. It was where air conditioning for the rich made everywhere else feel like hell. China was the place where I let things happen. Two years later I am patching myself up in Taiwan.
Two years ago, summer, I missed the only bus of the day out of a small town I was eager to leave. The place was so damn idyllic, what could I possibly research there? I was so mad I decided to walk it, all 30 kilometers of it, so I loaded up on bread and sausages at a store where the people stared at me. The road ran through the forest. It was not far from the North Korean border. As soon as I was in the forest I knew I was a sitting duck for passing bad men. At the noise of cars coming I ran into the trees, crouched down, and waited for the quiet to come back. In this paranoia my anger evaporated. Lucky for me some men picked me up 6 hours later, footsore and regretful, and took me the rest of the way to Lushuihe.
Two years later I am employed. I ride a bicycle to teach English, edging out front at red lights, out front of the poisons of two dozen idling motor scooters. They roar when the light goes. But by then I am across the intersection.

Two years ago, summer, I went off on a bike into the countryside, looking for Koreans. I thought maybe I could study them. I thought I could crank up my rusty Korean and study how they got on in a Chinese city. Only there were no Koreans to be found in Tonghua, the city I had picked on a map. I picked it for its closeness to the Korean border. I landed there in June. I heard talk that a lot of Koreans lived outside town, in a village. I rode out there. The country people stared at me. I rode slowly, thinking. They were all so skittish I didn’t know how to talk to them.
A boy rode slowly by, looking at me. I asked him the name of the place. He showed me around. At a stele marking the spot of a Chinese kingdom no one had heard of, I realized he was a girl. I realized her clothes were rather dirty. She was the lowest of the low, her parents dead or gone. So she didn’t give a damn who she talked to. Her neighbors gave her a nasty face when she brought me to her home. The mud walls were papered with newspapers. She kept asking me when I could show her the pictures I took. I remember her crooked writing, on a piece of paper, writing her name for me. Pretty soon I gave up on Koreans altogether and left the Northeast. I have a photo of her leaning out her front window, from behind. God knows what has become of Miao Miao. It can’t be good.
Now two years later I sit in a duck noodle shop. It is hot. A girl kneels on the floor, lying her head listlessly on a little chair. She is facing a fan. I wait for her mom to pull up my noodles from the boiling water.

Two years ago, summer, I couldn’t find an internet café to save my life. They had been shut down from Beijing to Shanxi. The yellow earth plateau, cradle of Chinese civilization, was baking. My hops by train from Beijing, to Xuanhua, to Zhangjiakou, to Jining, to Datong, to Shahe, to Taoyuan, to Yuncheng, were all windows open, hard green-seated trains with sunflower seed husks underfoot. A fire had killed a dozen college kids in an unlicensed net café in Beijing, and suddenly I could not communicate with my parents. All net cafes were ordered closed by the government. I was cut loose like a bottle on a wave – and corked as tight.

Now two years later I call S on her cell phone when I get off work. She cries sometimes, but not for anything I have done. She says I have turned cold and I look up at her ceiling, thinking I am cold, alright, I had enough of that heat and madness two years back.

Two years ago, summer, I poured out the broken dish shards of my feelings in long e-mails home. In Yuncheng I finally found a place that was open but the people running it fucked up somehow or the power went out and I lost my unsent torrent of words. I walked back to the train station in the dark, in a steady hot anger. Two years ago, summer, it hit 40 celsius a few days in a row. One of those days was the 8 hour train to Yuncheng. Heads bobbed, shirts came off. Police cadets across from me downed beers and dozed off, slumped together, like teddy bears, and the eroded yellow landscape hovered in the wavering air.
Then there was the time in Xian I bought a phone card that simply did not work. The guy refused to take it back, saying I must have let someone see the code number. I tore the card up, threw it in his face, and walked out, another man’s voice following me out, shouting, “You get back here! We’ll settle this right now!” I felt a touch of danger and kept walking.
Then there was the time I arrived in Chongqing on a night train, and I wanted a place to shower and nap before my afternoon train out. Chongqing was one of those cities that adhered to Cold War era rules forbidding foreigners from staying anywhere but 4 star hotels. It was pouring. Hotel after hotel turned me down. But I only snapped when one desk clerk, looking down at her room list, said sure, she had a room, and then looking up said, “Hey! Aren’t you a foreigner?” A deadly cold heat welled up. I pressed her, saying I just want to shower, for god’s sake. It is dangerous, she said. Who is dangerous? I asked, Are your guests thieves and killers? I knew the more I pressed my logic the more she would harden but I could not help it. Saying nothing more I planted myself in front of the desk, facing the sidewalk, resolving to stay until my train boarded or they let me in. An hour or two later their security man said, “Come on, now, why not just take a seat for a while?” and I relented, anger spent, but still not talking to her.
My e-mails were full of such stories, sprinkled with tales of wondrous sights or serendipities, like the old travelling circus manager on his way town to town by train to apply for permits to perform, or the kids playing in a stream in front of a mountain hiding the Hanging Temple, but which looked like it had been airlifted from Utah’s Wasatch Range and set down there. The kids scattered like birds from my camera.
Now two years are passed and my e-mails are flat and regular, a prairie of eventlessness, thanking mom for sending this address or that form. Every day getting on noon I place a white pill on my tongue and swallow. Every Tuesday I travel to Taipei and do therapy with a guy named Frank, a Taiwanese man who studied at Eastern Michigan. “Tea, coffee, or water?” he asks me each time I enter. Life is good. How different things were back when I was spitting fire.

Two years ago, summer, was East Asia’s nationalist madness: the World Cup. I made it to Korea to see my cousin, on the way to China, just as it was getting under way. He and I walked the empty streets of Chunchon looking for a place to watch the match against Poland. We heard the city explode twice, hit like a bomb by Korean goals. On the ferry to China a few days later I watched the Portugal-US match in the swaying lounge. But the Korean men could not believe Portugal was losing. Their acidic, sarcastic comments dampened my pleasure, and I slipped out. I was to grow weary, over the next month, of the South Korean frenzy, the mass stamping of feet in the stadiums, the liturgical roar, “DaeHan MinGuk!!”. Their obsession as a nation is to be noticed by others. I would have thought the Olympics got them noticed. But nothing is ever enough. Hunger has its own logic.
It was not until I was in China that the fevered fact of the patriotic nightmare fell full on me. China was in the cup for the first time ever. No Hercules could have shouldered the weight of one billion dissatisfied peoples’ dreams. China lost first to some Central American nation of a few million people. Their next match, against Brazil, should have been the occasion for a colder look at reality and a trip to the karaoke hall. But what happened was a tremendous outpouring of hopes precisely because of the long odds, and the fame of the opponent. A craving for respect craves most deeply when logic holds against it. It was as if China’s 11 men appearing on the same field as Brazil’s was in itself a token of possibility, of dignity. But the nationalist fever took off from there. The nationalist fever demanded a feat which could match the longings of so many people stomaching so many glasses of beer.
I was invited to a food court with a big TV by a couple of college kids I had met. We ordered some dishes and sat down. But as soon as the match was underway my whiteness turned from mere fact to dangerous visibility – in my imagination, anyhow. A rare Chinese drive down onto Brazil’s side, easily deflected, punctured the balloon of pent-up desire, and it cascaded from all sides with a roaring and shouting like a sudden swell of the ocean. The power of oceans unsettles me. I have been in enough crowds to know that one’s political views and nationality can become mere details if one is different enough to attract the wrong kind of attention. My appetite dried up. The mutton noodles I chewed were like strips of leather. They tasted of the unhappy flavor of the people around me. Brazil racked up goal after goal. Currents of frustration rippled the crowd, eddies of anger.
I was praying harder than any of them for a Chinese goal. I was wondering which way to run. A head or two began turning my way, muttering things about America. In the end, big sporting events are important to people because they symbolize various relations to power, including thwarted power. A thwarted China can always mutter that America had something to do with it, metaphysically anyhow, just by being so strong -- as if there were only so much power to go around. Eventually I relaxed. No more heads turned my way. People watched until the last bitter moment and filed outside, 6 Brazilian goals imprinted on the memory.
Now two years have gone by, and I am in a country that is not allowed the designation, “country.” Taiwan’s entry to the Miss World pageant wears a sash reading, “Chinese Taipei.” The handful of nations that still allow Republic of China embassies are treasured symbolically, far beyond the importance of Nicaragua or Burkina Faso in world affairs. Taiwan would not exist as such without American power, and I live peacefully as a welcomed colonial representative. Yesterday I asked my 14-year-old student what sports he liked. He stood up and turned around to show me the name “McGrady” on the back of his Orlando Magic jersey. I nodded approvingly, not having the slightest idea who this McGrady was, and not having the heart to confess it.

Two years ago I learned the optical powers of alcohol. Total strangers or recent acquaintances plied me with the stuff. Gradually they achieved a heart-warming glow in my eyes: strangers I could hardly do without. The alcohol did not lie. The domineering boss in black shirt who gruffly ordered me to grace his table did turn into a wonderful person. His domineering style lost its ability to annoy me. I melted into the role of amiable foreign figurehead, gobbling as much tender fish as I could, making friends with one of his underlings.
When we descended into squabbling over who would drink last, the compliant young mistress stepped onto the stage and guided the wounded plane of our friendship in for a landing. I took the phone number of Mr. Fan as the great Asshole was babysat by his mistress and helped out the door. I hopped onto my bike and raced back down into town feeling warm and happy. Stopping to ask for the nearest public toilet I found myself, still groggy, in a half hour conversation with a middle-aged woman about the ecological and political implications of chemical fertilizers. She compared them to the opium forced on China by the West in the 1800’s.
Then there was the barber, a lanky guy full of hospitality. Once we had chatted in the public bath next door to the barber shop as water dropped from pipes in solid streams without the distraction of shower heads. He invited me up to his home one afternoon, where I was greeted by his five older sisters – all products, no doubt, of his parents’ quest for a son. They stood tall and regal, but their manner was vivacious and unaffected. I was an honored guest, urged to toast each one and match them drink for drink and song for song. The oldest sister sang operatically, with heroic poise. The beer helped me follow her act without the usual self-consciousness, and they applauded politely. But it was not all ceremony. My friend’s brother-in-law in city government discussed ecological questions with me. By the end of the liquor I was fully convinced that our meeting was indeed, as all asserted in their toasts, destiny.
Soon after that day, I bought a bike. In my riding into town I grew convinced that I was in the vicinity of a lane I had entered 5 years before, on an overnight stay in Tonghua. I wandered down the lane, looking hard at each building, each noodle shop. My skin tingled. When I saw the public toilet on the left, in front of a brick wall, I knew that was the spot. I told someone what I was doing and she knew someone who would remember and someone else fetched her. An old woman walked up. She did remember the visit of a foreigner to their lane years before. I had the uncanny sensation of reawakening a near-dormant memory by returning to the very spot of the memory’s birth. The old woman had not talked to me, but had listened at the doorway of so-and-so’s noodle shop as I chatted inside with several people, including a Korean woman. It was amazing enough to have stumbled by chance on the exact spot I had stumbled upon years before – a chance on top of a chance. A man passing caught my ear with questions in English, and before long I was scheduled to be his guest the next evening. He was a teacher.
As it so happened, the duty of my new relationship with the barber had settled on my shoulders as soon as the effects of the liquor dissipated. So I invited him to eat and drink – later in the same evening I was to visit the teacher. I enjoyed the teacher’s hospitality, eating and drinking in his modest brick home, on his small brick bed, with his brother, wife, and cherubic little boy. By the time I made it to the barbershop I was already shaky. The barber’s choice of “white liquor” and dog meat stew made a mess of my innards, and I prayed over a plastic bag in my grey little room in the whorehouse that night. It was a flexible prayer: keep it in or let it out, but enough of this suspense.
Then there was the trip to the Changbaishan Nature Reserve and its pretty towns. On the train back I met Jais, a young, white, blonde, Danish man with a big, white, grin. Back in Tonghua, riding two to my old bike, we decided to try out a grill-your-own shish kebab place for dinner. It was surely some unruly trick of fate that placed us at the same table as a particular thick-necked young man and his girlfriend. Before long we were pouring each other beers and locked into a vicious cycle of pleasantries, a mutually assured destruction of good feeling. Singing was clearly required.
In the karaoke booth, our passions finally found expression in neck-vein-bulging song. The man bellowed songs into the microphone, but I was at least as good, choosing from the 15 or 20 Paul Anka and Joe Cocker songs and howling, “I love you just the way you aaaaaare!!” The more I sang, the more Jais drank. The more he drank the more he leaned puppy-like into the flattered, politely declining girlfriend. He refused to sing. His easy-going, undemonstrative nature had yet to be tempered by the demands of drinking with Chinese. Those glasses of beer were not for killing time, no sittin’ on the dock of the bay here! We were there to drink and make friends, dammit, and you would sing! He knocked back glass after glass, as if somewhere in his mind he were getting closer and closer to fondling the girlfriend’s hefty breasts.
When his resistance to singing finally crumbled, the plaintive, unadorned sound of his Danish folk song was shocking. Its vocal nudity was practically obscene. It was nude, nude of performative effort of posturings. I am not sure whether we were more admiring or more taken aback. It absolutely did not fit, like a dove in a room of monkeys.
Suddenly, after glass 16, Jais grew deathly pale. I have to leave, he said. But our thick-necked friend, hurtling along on the tracks of destiny, powered by the momentum of good feeling, would have none of this. If Americans believe that friendship and obligation are two separate things, they have not seen a Chinese friend try to leave another before the liquor has been drunk dry.
I was caught between the bullish affection of the Chinese boy man and the sickly bleating for rescue of the Danish man boy. Negotiated settlements went back and forth; proposals were tendered, then tabled.
If he drinks one more glass we can go.
No! he cannot drink another drop, look at him!
OK, fine. I will drink his half, because I am his friend, and I will do him this favor, and you drink the other half. Good? But he should sing another song. The girlfriend tried interceding, clearly seeing the absurdity of the scene, but it was not enough. The runaway train of her boyfriend could not be stopped just like that. Somehow I herded the noodle-like Jais out the door and into a taxi, but even then I had to battle our friend not to pay the taxi driver. We had left him early, which was bad enough. I wouldn’t let him make us look even more childish by accepting taxi fare.
Jais lay in bed for two days bemoaning his rashness and his fate – his breastless fate. We spent an awful day with the couple, victims of our respective cultural imperatives.
We rode to Beijing on the same train, Jais and I, and I invited him to accompany me to Yanching to visit my old friend Protect Mao Wang (a rather common name for 30-something men). Jais showed up at the bus stop with a big-bellied, white bearded, merry-eyed Spaniard who demonstrated the clear superiority of the European way: Spring Break at 50! Wei Dong treated us to a feast at a restaurant, and he drank white liquor toe to toe with the lusty Spaniard. The last time I had been around Wei Dong he had told me he could not drink on doctor’s orders, somehow related to an incident in which he was carried into a hospital to have his stomach pumped and he lay wailing, “But I am an educated man!” for the whole floor to hear. “The doctor gave me a medicine enabling me to drink huge quantities,” he said mischievously.
The next day he escorted us to a nearby “model village” to have a look. After we had eyed the donkeys, looked down a well, and walked over the aqueduct, it was time for a feast at the home of the village party chief. I was breaking myself slowly into the white liquor, mainly because beer bloated me and made me want to puke and shit at the same time, and also because of white liquor’s lesser hangover. I rigorously stepped on the brakes of overdrinking, politely declining the older men’s unreasonable demands. But I always gave them the satisfaction of taking a small drink. I voraciously ate the good food, dish after prodigious dish, from the hands of the team of women. I raised my glass several times on my own, thanking the party chief, the village head, and other kind citizens for the honor of this welcome, and hoping that the future would bring not only even more closeness between we friends brought together by nothing but fate itself, but also between our two civilizations: China and the West. The lascivious Spaniard, wild chest hair peeking out from his black tank top, moved around the table filming and eyeing the women. Wei Dong was more than pleased by my performance, which made him look good as well. I had let the liquor do its work of lifting me performatively into the clouds of eloquence and winds of feeling, without letting it trash me, to use the poetic American. I guess one could say it was like riding a dragon – rather than the other way around.
That was the last time I drank for friendship, and the last time I drank much at all. Two years have gone by, and if I drink I just feel woozy. There is no pleasure, thanks to the little white pills I take since panicking on a subway last year. They sell lemon smirnoffs in the 7-11s here in Taiwan, little bottles. The other night my girlfriend’s sisters each swigged one as we ambled onto the campus of the older sister’s alma mater. Like soda, they said. But even that pleasure of drinking for the buzz – in other words, for oneself – is denied me. At least it gives me a reason to try and get off the pills. Especially with a Taiwanese summer coming on, and the smell of barbecuing meat in the air.

Two years ago I was in a nightmare landscape of dropping water tables and eroded bare-earth bluffs. In the town of Nankou (South Pass), between Beijing and the Great Wall, trees next to the road sprout rustling plastic bags, dozens of them. Non-degradable throw aways have been introduced before any notion of public space, littering, or civic pride not run by the state. Stores and restaurant clerks and street peddlers hand them out like there is no tomorrow, and as in the US, a quick breakfast (dumplings, in this case) ends up with an empty plastic bag. Tossed out the bus window, a wind catches it and snags it on a tree by the road. The tree becomes an emblem of radical capitalist change mandated from above.
Now two years have gone by and I am in Taiwan. Environmental degradation has been given a genteel face of public neatness and private consumption. Many restaurants place little clips that stand up, on tables, whose sole purpose is to hold the plastic wrappers on disposable chopsticks. Meanwhile outside of town whole landscapes are shredded for housing for the rich. It is a mix of small-scale personal fastidiousness and a gargantuan, systemic, rapaciousness.

Two years ago in China I ate like an animal. Atmosphere means nothing. Food is the Chinese sex. Seen from China, Americans are food Victorians. Visual cleanliness was unimportant. Service was grim to indifferent. Food itself is only beginning to be packaged, processed, and made psychologically convenient. In other words, elites are beginning to eat food that is prudishly produced in industrial settings. This food is as removed from its natural state as possible. Most Chinese people still eat food that is fresh. The “conveniences” of freezing, wrapping, and refrigeration and chemical preservation have not yet dawned on them. More advertising will be needed to convince Chinese to eat unfresh food. Such advertising will, of course, highlight the visual, imagined freshness of this industrial food.
In markets, meat and vegetables are displayed naked to the air. There is an unmediated eroticism to food there. Plastic wrap to them would be an unnecessary obstacle on food meant to be cooked in thousand degree oil within the hour of purchase. No doubt they will be taught by Kraft and other large corporations the benefits of progress: packaging, sugaring, chemicalizing, and freezing. But for now a visit to a Chinese restaurant kitchen will reveal a shockingly primal scene of fire, metal, and crackling-fresh food frying – frying in a cave-like atmosphere of grease and squalor. There is an ancient excitement in the kitchen, a whiff of the hunt or of the ritual bonfire, something vaguely violent, sexual, physical. There is none of the visual tease of American commercials advertising mediocre, utterly defeated food.
In Yuncheng’s sweltering afternoon I happened upon a restaurant busy with customers, so I went in. Laborers sat near me, slurping molten-red soup and munching flat bread wrapped around raw green onions. I don’t know how I ended up with “mutton pao mo,” or even what pao mo might be, but it was an ecstatic brew of mutton, noodles, goat innards, and spicy who-knows-what that had me gobbling like a fool, using the flatbread as a napkin to swab the soup dribbling down my chin. The place was indifferent, floors a mess of bones and dirty chopsticks. I would never forget it.
In Sichuan I found many humble restaurants would arrange all their materials right there on a table in the road. There was never any reading involved, then, in the meal. One inspected the produce, the meat or fish, spoke from the stomach, and ate a good meal with sweet potato rice for a buck fifteen. Cooking in those places is not yet a mystery hoarded by a privileged few experts who sell cookbooks; there are no “tips” or “tricks.” Cooking is still common knowledge, with its variations from place to place, done more or less well, and nothing is written down.
Now two years later I eat in places with clean floors and walls; places selling Japanese noodles or rice lunchboxes. In the night markets there is still the noise and light of China, but the people here are like me, looking for something new. The people here have the restless dissatisfaction of all people under capitalist discipline and bodily prudishness. Trends come through, and make a quick buck and then die of overkill. Curry is big now. There is China’s light and noise here, but not its heat: the heat of food as a production of fire, knife, plants ripped from soil and animals just killed. Food in China is still a wild, vital thing, still fresh with the hint of life, not yet saran-wrapped into sterility. One can try any mainland Chinese dish in Taiwan to see the difference.
Today in Taipei I ate at a noodle place that is rare here: they serve Shanxi Province knife-cut thick noodles. The women sliced off a hunk of dough, held it in her palm, and with a small sharp blade shaved long strips into the boiling water. There is another place I have gone, in a dingy alley, where unshaven men in singlets lord over cauldrons of sauces and pots whose bottoms are crusted black. You drop your face close to the bowl and suck greedily, an animal, along with all the office workers who, like me, are refugees – for a moment -- from the bland food and self-repression of the capitalist world.

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