I'm finally on the bus, en route to A Very Laowai Christmas in Wanzhou. It took me the better part of two days to get to the bus station because Nanchong has six of them, and I can never remember the name of the one I want to go to. I asked my barber last night, but he thought I was just making chit-chat: yeah, Wanzhou, snip-snip, mm-hmm, bus station, snap-snap. I asked three different convenience store clerks, each of whom insisted that the bus was no way to travel and refused to tell me the name of the bus station. But I wasn't going to take the train this time around, nosiree. Chinese trains are dead to me. Owing to my last trip to Wanzhou, the train is a sensory cocktail of squawking junk vendors, screaming children, and feces.
I went home, went to bed, and redoubled my efforts this morning: I put my fate in the hands of a Nanchong Toyotavan driver. She took me to two different bus stations before consulting the cabby oracle, a tubby dude in a Russian hat who gave me a cigarette and bellowed directions that got me, at last, to the bus station I wanted to get to in the first place, whatever it's called.
If I am a C-List celebrity on campus, I am a jailhouse debutante down by the bus station. The college kids shout HELLO! - the bus station riffraff chants FRESH FISH! Cabbies, trishaw pilots, ticket scalpers, shoeshiners, whores, gigolos, warty old men in fake leather jackets flogging air filters for mid-sized Suzuki mopeds ... you wave your hands and run in the opposite direction, but your disinterest only succeeds in convincing the riffraff that you're secretly interested in their wares.
Claustrophobic and famished, I ducked into an alleyway that reeked promisingly of MSG. I wound up in the Nanchong toilet district and walked for blocks looking for a place to eat, finding naught but places to shit. Then I passed through Nanchong's J-shaped pipe district, responsible for the manufacture and distribution of every single J-shaped pipe in the world. Then I came upon the door district: street after street of doorless shops filled with doors, like something out of Borges ... I keep hoping that someday I will stumble across the Oriental Trading Company's Sichuan headquarters, where I would show the boss my old business card - Keith Petit, Freelance Copywriter - and maybe he'd hook me up with some complimentary "Over the Hill" koozies, hot off the press. But these wanderings seldom lead anywhere, just into the bowels of some kafkaesque/borgesian industrial labyrinth and, eventually, the realization that China is a very large place that I will never understand.
Now, on the bus, we are passing Nanchong's industrial labyrinths at warp speed. There goes the Fargo-sized-woodchipper district, the neon light district, the ginseng district, and then we're out in the industrial hintergrund: vast swathes of fenced-off mudpits marked with imposing Chinglish signs, mustard gas hanging thick in the air. The hintergrund stretches for miles. This is part of Nanchong, too, the part where no one lives and no one goes voluntarily - and it is probably the biggest part of the city. The area I am familiar with - my college campus and a couple of half-pleasant streets lined with what pass for bars in this country - is the cherry sitting atop a monstrous slag heap of hard work, noxious gases, and heavy industry.
My bus companion does not seem to care that I am a foreigner, so it's just me and the scenery and Robert M. Pirsig for four hours. Gradually, Zen and the Art puts me in a zenlike trance, then a fullblown coma. When I regain consciousness, we're pulling into a rest stop just outside of Liangping. I pop out for some noodles and a smoke. All the passengers who were hitherto unaware of the laowai on board are henceforth aware. They speculate (loudly) as to whether I can understand Chinese or not. The Mandarin words for "to understand" and "to not understand" are ting de dong and ting bu dong, respectively, so an odd chorus of Chinese bell chimes fills the air as I'm waiting in line for noodles. Ting de dong, ting bu dong, ting de dong ...
"What do you want? You want a hardboiled pigeon egg? Corn on the cob? Wiener on a stick?"
"I'd like some noodles," I say.
... ting de dong, ting de dong! A thrill sweeps through the crowd: he understands!
"Noodles!" shouts the vendor. "That guy over there sells noodles."
I head in the direction of the noodle man.
"Wait! You need to buy a ticket from me first."
I pause and scratch my head.
... ting bu dong, ting bu dong! Heads shaking all around: he doesn't understand!
"So, let me get this straight," I say. "I need to buy a ticket from you so I can get noodles from him?"
"You don't understand?"
"I understand," I say, "but I don't understand."
I hand the middleman seven kuai. He hands me a ticket.
One of my fellow passengers tells the noodle man to go easy on the spice.
"Laowais can't handle spice," he explains.
"What do I look like? A baby?" I ask. Approving laughter from my entourage. "Extra spice, please."
... ta chi la, ta chi la! A miracle: the laowai eats spicy!
I hand the noodle man my ticket. The noodle man hands me a bowl of noodles heaped high with chili pepper. I sit and no fewer than ten grown men huddle around the table to watch me eat.
Our Very Laowai Christmas turns out to be very laowai, indeed. Not since August have I found myself in the company of more than five Americans at once. I'm not sure how to act. I have no idea who Lady Gaga is. I keep reverting to Special English - "The weather in Nanchong is very, very cloudy!" - and using the sign language I rely on to communicate with my students. We eat burritos and drink spiced wine until, at seven sharp, China knocks at the door. In comes a man named Kingway, wielding a toddler in split pants. Some old timers arrive with a portable mahjongg table. A ten-year-old boy shows up with an erhu and performs for us. Dear Santa, earplugs make a perfect stocking-stuffer for the sensory-overloaded laowai on your list.
Fair warning: if you throw a Halloween party, your Chinese guests will turn it into a Mid-Autumn Festival party, and if you throw a Christmas party, they will turn it into a Spring Festival party. We sit around listening to the locals talk about Spring Festival. By now, of course, we are well-versed in the nuances of the Chinese New Year: four generations of Zhangs gather in the living room to watch CCTV for days on end, glutinous rice balls for breakfast, there is footwashing involved, etc., etc. But our guests don't seem all that curious about our own annual pagan ritual, about the droll-mouthed fat man cutouts on the wall, the plastic fir tree in the corner or the row of giant red socks arrayed in the hall. And why should they be? The Lunar New Year is upon us! Spring Festival is only a month away! This is China. Welcome to our China. Red lanterns are hanged to banish the evil beasts. You had better eat the black algae to engender prosperity and industrious well-being. Wash the feets at midnight for produce colorful life ...
Our guests leave at exactly nine PM, and it is once again a very laowai Christmas. We sit and drink and talk until dawn turns the Yangtze a healthy shade of cyan. I fall asleep in mid-sentence, refuting Thomas Nagel's What Is It Like To Be A Bat? The next afternoon, I'm back at the Wanzhou bus station, but there aren't any buses to Nanchong, so I catch a cab to the train station.
I'm smoking on the steps, waiting for the 8:00 train, when the Chinese Howard Beale comes swaggering towards me. "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymo'!" he screams to no one in particular, then his eyes focus on mine and he rests his hand on my shoulder. "Laowai, have you eaten?" Not in a couple hours, I say. "Let's go!" he shouts.
We wind up in a seedy dive across the street. Beale is visibly and olfactorily drunk. He orders three dishes: sauteed green peppers, the MSG cabbage platter, sweet-and-sour bitter melon. Then he fetches a couple of beers from the fridge, shoots a cigarette my way, and sits there watching me eat, drink, and smoke.
"Laowais are humans," he observes. "Chinese people are humans."
"That's right!" I nod. "We are all humans on this planet."
"You are a human. I am a human."
"Ha ha! You are correct, sir."
"Different minds," he says, pounding his chest, "same heart!"
He is shouting. By now the people around us are staring at him and not at me, a bad sign.
At home and especially abroad, I am a magnet for schizophrenics and raging drunks. When I'm at the pearly gates, I'll be escorted to St. Peter's podium by a ragged army of derelicts and winos who will inform St. Peter in broken English punctuated with OK!s and the occasional thumbs-up that I am a human, that I have a colorful heart, that I once gave them the equivalent of 17 U.S. cents for a hipflask of rice vodka, and for this good deed and many others I should be admitted to the massage parlor at the end of the neon pink tunnel.
"So, er, what kind of work do you do?" I ask.
What Beale describes involves too many hand gestures, seems too intricate and shady for my liking. I ask no further questions. He demands two more beers and tells the waitress to hurry up when the beers don't materialize instantaneously. The woman at the next table comes over to sit with us. She orders a dish of stir-fried mushrooms and watches me eat them. She mentions that she lives in Nanchong and that she has a son. She wants me to teach him English. Howard Beale pulls me into his trenchcoat.
"Do you understand what she's asking you?"
"But do you really understand?" he asks.
"She wants me to teach her son English."
"Yes," he nods. "She wants you to teach her 'son' English."
Oh, Christ. Not this again.
"Sorry, ma'am," I say. "I'm a volunteer, so I'm not allowed to teach for money."
"Oh, you don't have to do it for money," she says.
Beale nudges me in the ribs. He toasts the young woman and me and we empty our glasses. Beale stuffs a hundred-kuai note into the waitress's fanny pack on the way out the garage door.
The three of us walk to the train station. I try to lose them in the crowd, but Howard Beale clings to my backpack and keeps pushing me into the woman from Nanchong. He hands me a cigarette.
"Can I smoke here?" I ask. There is a sign above my head depicting a cigarette with an X through it. It says, confusingly, "SMOKING PERMITTED."
"We can't," Beale says, "but you can."
I light my cigarette and start throwing elbows in an effort to dissolve myself. Beale gets held up at the turnstile. The woman from Nanchong has a ticket for a different compartment, but tells me to wait for her when we get to Nanchong. I noncommittally agree and climb aboard.
I'd sworn off Chinese trains after my last trip to Wanzhou, but this time I manage to score a middle bunk in a sleeper cabin. My cabinmates are from Chengdu, so they don't even blink when a foreigner barges into their quarters with a beer in his hand and an Intro to Philosophy volume tucked under his arm. Someone has an especially cute three-year-old granddaughter who is too bashful to say hello to me. She is clamoring for her imaginary friend, a black scarf with skulls on it, whom she addresses as "Skully." As I'm climbing up to my bunk, one of the pins on my field jacket falls off. The little girl's grandma hands it back to me: it is my Poodleface pin.
"What does it mean?" she asks, staring into the poodle face on the pin.
"My friend gave it to me," I explain. "He was on American television once."
She squints at the poodle face, then back at me, as though Poodleface, American television, and my very laowai existence are as imaginary as Skully, whom she is stuffing into a burlap sack full of radishes while her granddaughter weeps and pees her pants simultaneously.