Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Puppies and Kittens

In order to survive in China, you must push a lot of the foreground into the periphery. Otherwise, the madness will drive you mad. As I've mentioned before, peripheralization is something your mind will do on its own, provided you don't throw a wrench in the process by dwelling too damned much. Lately, an overabundance of leisure has given me time to reflect on what my brain passes off as normal these days. When I sit down to write, I can no longer rattle off half-a-dozen pages at a time, partly because my surroundings aren't all that novel to me anymore. A cavalcade of absurdities that would add up to the weirdest single day of my American life are, in China, commonplace and forgettable nuisances that stand between me and my apartment. What baffled me six months ago no longer even registers in my consciousness, though I could probably make a million dollars by wearing a hidden camera and selling the chopped-up footage to Spike TV.

Part of the peripheralization process involves honing your ability to act like a total douchebag in public, i.e. pushing your instinctive American politeness into the periphery. Otherwise, you will be torn apart by wild dogs. On Sunday afternoon, I was smoking one last ciggy outside a bus station in Chongqing when a bag man caught me by the arm and started breathing mustard gas in my face.

"Where are you going, my foreign friend?" he asked.
"Nanchong," I murmured.
"Nanchong! Let's go! Eighty kuai!"
"No," I said. "Leave me alone."
I snubbed my cigarette prematurely and went inside, tossed my bag onto a conveyor belt and waited on the other end of the x-ray scanner for it to emerge. But the bag man was persistent. I saw his hobo-bindle-on-a-bamboo-stick come sliding out of the machine. He swept it up, grabbed me by the elbow, gestured at someone in the distance, and the next thing I knew, I was being pulled at by three men in ragged suits, all of them chattering about Nanchong this, eighty kuai that.
"Don't touch me," I said. "Go away."
I waited in the ticket queue. The art of Chinese line crashing is something I have yet to master; I am not yet that big of a douchebag. So I waited politely, a cosmic fool, standing two inches from the plexiglas ticket window while one old lady after the next cut in front of me, completed their transactions, and jostled their way back out. By then, the three old men were literally riding my coattails.
"They don't have any tickets to Nanchong! It's useless!" the bag man shouted. "They're sold out!"
"I don't believe you," I said. "I'll ask the ticket lady about that, thank you very much."
But the bag man was right: they had sold out of tickets to Nanchong. As often happens in moments of Chinese frustration, a Mandarin phrase leapt to my mind: mei fa - nothing can be done. And so I turned to my old foes, the three old men in the ratty suits, and I asked them, "Nanchong. How much?"
"One hundred kuai," said the bag man, grinning. Miraculously, the price had jumped.
"Eighty kuai," I said.
He said nothing and led me out to the bus. The driver and the bag man exchanged a look. There were no vacant seats, but after a tense standoff with a baby, the bag man succeeded in persuading the toddler to sit on his mother's lap. I handed the bag man one hundred kuai and held my palm out for change, but he turned and walked away.
"How much did you pay for your ticket?" the mom asked me, her child gnawing at its hand, pondering my existence.
"One hundred kuai," I said.
"Ha! One hundred kuai!" She leapt up to her feet to tell the rest of the passengers. "This laowai paid one hundred kuai for a ticket to Nanchong!"
Laughter, a few incredulous scoffs, lots of puzzled stares. The mom sat back down.
"You got cheated," she told me.
"I got cheated," I agreed, unable to explain that being gypped the equivalent of four dollars was vastly preferable to spending the night at one of Chongqing's 32 McDonald's franchises.

Unfortunately, the Chinese bus offers no respite for the ripped-off and haggle-hardened expat. Chinese buses are loud. There is, of course, the ever-squalling horn, the ever-shrieking babies. There is also the feature entertainment, playing on a flatscreen television with the volume cranked way up into the red, a Tang Dynasty romantic comedy exploding with cartoon sound effects: slide whistles, cuckoo clocks, tweetie birds, farts, boings, bonks, bleeps, toots, belches, trombone wah-wah-wah-wahhhhhs. A Chinese bus ride without any passengers would be enough to trigger a sonic seizure, but Chinese folks of all ages love to contribute their own personal ruckus to the general cacophony; one by one, young and old alike will fire up their cell phone MP3 players, so the inside of the bus starts to sound like the symphonic train wreck at the end of A Day In The Life by The Beatles. And yet, for me, ear plugs are no longer necessary. Somewhere along the way, my brain, thoroughly fed up, cut out the middle man and stuffed wads of cotton directly into its auditory cortex. I can actually fall asleep in a Chinese bus, and so deeply that you have to fire up a Boeing 727 to bring me back from the land of nod.

So I fell asleep. A couple hours later, I woke up and noticed that the mom in the seat next to me was holding her baby out over the aisle. Curiosity sometimes gets the better of me: I craned my neck to see that, indeed, the child was pooping in midair, turds dropping single-file into a tie-dye colored bucket on the floor. A few minutes later, the bus stopped, mother and child disembarked, and the tie-dye bucket remained there in the aisle for the rest of the trip. I cracked open my window and resumed reading Kurt Vonnegut.

I don't mention this anecdote for the obvious gross-out factor, or to discourage those of you with aversions to public defecation from visiting China. But it is indeed a place where the boundaries of excretory liberation are being pushed into new and frightening frontiers. And that is something you get used to. I, for one, no longer find China's will-ye nill-ye, squat-when-the-spirit-moves-ye philosophy the least bit odd.

When I got back to Nanchong, I waltzed into my usual haunt and ordered a plate of eggs and pork. Then, half a paragraph into Vonnegut, I heard a soft jingling and, glancing up, had to fight back the most sickening sitcom "Awwwww!" as two tiny beasts, a puppy and a kitten, came tottering my way. The both of them sniffed at my shoes for five minutes, then got tangled up in a play-fight. The puppy won. My eggs and pork arrived. They were so good that I nearly wept with gratitude. Oh, China. Despite my better judgment, I am falling ever more deeply in love with this beautiful and disgusting place, a gorgeous but unkempt mistress who will chloroform you, splash you with mud, piss on your doorstep, and at the end of the day, smother you with puppies and kittens.


Kay Bratt said...

I loved your post. I spent over four years living in China from 2003-07 and everything you wrote brought me back real fast! It is such a hard world to explain to those who have never experienced it but I think you caught it-- or maybe it is because like you, I started to fall in love with the chaos and the too-sill-too-be-true antics I witnessed everyday. The poop bucket brought back lots of memories...I left China thinking that I had had enough--couldn't do it anymore. But now that I am back in the American life, I wish I was still in China. At least there I had a purpose.

patti s said...

Loved it-as usual.
Ah to be young and in love!
Waiting for the book to see how it ends.