Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Last Day of Autumn

As I was forging through the dampness towards the nearest non-electrified ATM, some college bros spotted me and one of them shouted, "To be or not to be! A question!" I hope literary quotations are the new direction in laowai heckling. I wouldn't mind all the attention if my admirers hit me with words of wisdom from E.M. Forster and George Bernard Shaw.

Winter has come to Nanchong. At the laowai Halloween party, one of the Mennonites told me that it gets so ruthlessly cold in Nanchong that he actually flies home to Saskatchewan for the winter. That moment was like The Deerhunter, when the warhungry steelmill riffraff encounters a Vietnam vet at the bar, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, when McMurphy returns from electroshock therapy: the fading of smiles, the shuffling of feet, the optimistic persistence in disbelief. For the first two weeks of November, we newbies went about our work in cargo shorts and t-shirts. And then winter came. Saskatchewan is sounding downright peachy right about now.

I'm no lightweight when it comes to winter. I am a Nebraskan. In subzero temperatures, I have been known to gallivant in a hoodie full of holes and a pair of corduroys. Objectively, winters in Nebraska are much worse than winters in Sichuan. The temperature is lower, the wind is stronger. But there is something about the quality of the cold here. Nebraska is dramatically cold, with gusts of wind and eddies of snow. Nebraska is also capriciously cold: it will snow two feet one day, only to be 65 and sunny the next. But Nanchong winters are consistently, mercilessly cold. It is a damp cold, the kind of chill you get when you read 1984. It chills you to the bone. I once watched a tai-chi master kick my friend's ass in slow motion, and that is the sort of cold Nanchong has to offer. Because Sichuan is situated under some imaginary Chinese line below which buildings are not furnished with central heating, there is no escape from the cold, unless you are showering or nestled under several blankets with another human being. When I happen to be in my apartment - a rare thing these days - I huddle as close as possible to the plug-in radiator. This morning, I couldn't finish my Mandarin journal entry because my hands were shaking so bad.

The last day of autumn, whatever the calendars may say, occurred last Friday. It was sunny, and warm in the sunlight. I was leaving my Mandarin lesson. My tutor had invited me to air my grievances, and air I did, for two hours, while she tweaked my syntax along the way. Passing the outdoor ping-pong tables, I saw that they were full to capacity - all forty of them - and that the games were halting mid-ping mid-pong so that the players could take a good long look at me. There was kung-fu in the square by the stadium, badminton games across the street, and a soccer match raging in the mudpit down the way. The Chinese are nothing if not active. My thoughts were heavy, but pleasant. I could chew on them for hours. The sun was setting over the ten-story Jiao-Xue Building, whose roof was built to look like a splayed book, from whose pages a middle-aged man from Anhui Province leapt to his death two weeks ago.

Anhui is a long way from Nanchong. The man came to my school, his alma mater, looking for work. The university informed him that there were no positions available. So he took the elevator up to the top floor of the Jiao-Xue Building, situated himself in the spine of that great big cement book on the roof, and jumped. He jumped at 11:30 AM, right around the time I would've been coming back from class. The students in the building were said to have heard the splat. Trauma counselors were dispatched. The man left his wife and child behind. So it goes.

I am not one to dwell on coincidences, but the day before the jumper jumped, I met a middle-aged man on the bus who happened to be from Anhui Province. I knew he was an out-of-towner because out-of-towners are rare, and because I could understand him: he was speaking Mandarin and not Sichuanese. He complimented me on my Chinese and said that it was bang, which is a word I had to ask my tutor about: it is the east coast way of saying "awesome." So I thanked him. We chatted for a bit. Then I turned away, because I was tired of talking to strangers on the bus, and because I needed a few minutes to think about what I was going to teach in that morning's class and how I was going to teach it. He got off a few stops before I did. The next day, someone leapt to their death from the tenth story of the Jiao-Xue Building.

My toilet is malfunctioning and public restrooms do not come with toilet paper, so I carry a roll in my backpack.

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