Monday, April 19, 2010

Hotel Ambos Mundos

After a long and profoundly foggy winter, I promised myself that I would stake out an outdoor writing spot so that at the first hint of spring I might claim it and write there all summer long. A couple weeks ago I went out on the prowl and found my writing spot - a little hardwood table stashed behind the mahjongg tables along Beihu Lake - but the better part of April passed before I got a chance to use it.

Then, without warning, spring came. I left the house in my usual five layers - thermal underwear, undershirt, button-down, sweater, suitcoat - and nearly melted on the spot. My students were first amused, then disgusted by how much I was sweating. After class, I draped my suitcoat over my arm, peeled off my sweater, and went out for a walk in Beihu Park, en route to my writing spot. But in Nanchong, a walk in the park is never a walk in the park.

"FOREIGNER! COME HERE!" some college boys shouted from a distance. "HEY LAOWAI, COME BACK!"

Then, another troupe of them approached.


It's always the twerpy college boys: square-framed non-prescription glasses, skinny black jeans, Converse All-Stars, hip-hop jackets - you know the type.

Back in the day, Shelley and I used to humor them.

"HAH-LOO!" they would shout, and "HAH-LOO!" we would shout back, at twice the volume.

"FOREIGNER!" they would bark.

"Foreigner!" we would gasp. "Where? Where? Let me at 'im!"

Laughter all around. But hardened veterans like Phil and Joe were unamused.

"Don't encourage them," Phil would sigh.

"Don't be their monkey," Joe used to say.

Once, some college twerps interrupted us at dinner. They shouted HAH-LOO and snapped several pictures before we had time to pose. Then they asked where we were from. Joe turned to them and said, in fluent Sichuanese, "We are from Mars." That silenced everyone.

In those early days, I found Phil and Joe a bit too cynical for my liking. I've never been one to mouth off at strangers, or to ignore a friendly greeting. But I've since become something of a veteran myself. I no longer encourage my hecklers. In a word, the constant heckling exhausts me. It probably seems easy enough to deal with when you're reading about it. But living with it is another thing entire. Where else on earth (aside from Korea) is it acceptable to scream at a complete stranger, a full-grown adult walking in the park? I'm twenty-seven fer chrissake. I sport a beard: leave me alone. So I politely ignore the college twerps. And of course, they act offended when I pass by without a word. But we are all humans here. If you would like to talk, please do come introduce yourself, and I would be more than happy to speak passable Sichuanese with you.

All hecklers aside, I navigated the park, following the faint scent trail left behind by my previous self. I walked past the arcade and the carnival booths, stopped briefly to check out the plastic bubble apparatuses which, for fifteen kuai a pop, allow children ages five and up to embark on a vomit-inducing tumble across the the surface of Beihu Lake. I passed something called the "Pleasure Center" and something else called the "Source of Life." Then I arrived in mahjongg country, where the Sichuanese men swearing at each other are very nearly canceled out by the soothing sound of plastic tiles sliding across felt-topped tables.

I sat. Immediately, I felt absurdly conspicuous, like the guy who goes to Red Lobster and requests a table for one. Red Lobster is a family restaurant, and China is a family country. If you do things by yourself, you may as well have the plague, or H1N1. My students refuse to believe that I live alone, and are creeped out by the thought of it. I tried several times to flag the waitress, but she looked through me to the table of boisterous drunks behind me. As soon as I started writing, a couple of dorks came and hovered over my shoulder. I swatted them away with a horsetail glance.

Beihu Lake: the most picturesque spot in all Nanchong. I had anticipated a picturesque writing session - not quite Hemingway chomping on a Cuban at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, but I figured I'd be able to get in a notebook page or two. Instead, I found myself distracted. Nobody was out-and-out bothering me, but every time I looked up from my notebook, I caught pairs of eyes watching me, and the people belonging to those eyes acted startled and offended, as though it were me staring at them the whole time. Lord only knows what those people must have thought of me, a sweaty laowai wearing a suitcoat on the first day of spring, sitting alone and writing furiously - and I bet he's not even going to order anything to eat. Well, if that doesn't beat the band ...

Nevertheless, I did get some writing in. At least this much worth. But I know it can't last forever. In a few minutes, someone will sit at my table, or drag me over to sit at theirs. At that point, I will leave behind the page and step out into the weird Chinese world, to do more of that all-important counterpart to writing which is called living. And perhaps that experience will inspire more writing, which will be interrupted by another minor confrontation worth writing about, and so on.

I suppose that's the important thing if you're a writer: that at all times you are either writing, or distracted from it.

No comments: