Monday, April 05, 2010

Pigeons in the Park

I happened to be in Chongqing for the first annual Laowai Erotica Poetry Slam. We set up shop in the most neglected corner of a Starbucks, the one across from the animatronic pirates in Wan Da Plaza. All around us were Chinese coffee shop scenesters: college girls, young professionals, salarymen napping with Frappucinos stalled en route to mouth. We waited for a couple old foreigners to leave and then we slammed. Josh opened with a pair of raunchy limericks, then Erin gave us all a Large Hadron with a free verse poem about body particle collisions. Finally, it was my time to shine. On my walk up to the podium, I found myself, as usual, proofreading something I'd scrawled on the back of a Subway receipt. My offering was called "Pigeons in the Park."

After I'd finished reading, there was complete silence. Vijay ran off to the bathroom to vomit. Josh yanked at his collar. A handful of claps.

"Points for creativity?" someone offered. And all fell silent again.

Perhaps I had crossed some unspoken line. Perhaps my story had proven too erotic. Or perhaps it wasn't all that good. Flustered and ashamed, I bowed to the audience and returned to my pleather seat and sat there listening to the rest of the throbbing what-nots and dripping what-have-yous. All and all, I was a bit grossed out.

Milling around Wan Da Plaza, we came across a band setting up on the riverfront: a couple guitarists with Korean mullets and a drummer with an electronic trap set. They warmed up for half an hour, then they shuffled fifteen feet to the right, replugged all their rock paraphenalia and warmed up for another half-hour. A mosh pit of police gathered around the band, but I couldn't tell whether they were digging the music or warming up their truncheons. The band saw us - they muttered laowai and shouted HAH-LOO! - then they launched into the first verse of "Welcome to the Jungle" and followed it up with "Hotel California," at which point we wandered off and found something better to do.

I have mixed feelings about Chongqing. I can't recommend it. My hometown of Nanchong is a foggy place, but the Chongqing fog is of a more sinister palette: DDT white and coaldust grey. Despite the fog, as a foreigner, you are not invisible in Chongqing like you are in Chengdu. In Chongqing, a city the size of New York, strangers will still mutter laowai as they pass you, and shout HA-LOO from a safe enough distance.

After one last coffee with my erotic Western crew, I set off for the bus station and meandered for an hour along the dusty sidewalk that traces the sandy contours of the Yangtze. Eventually, I felt the need to drop a deuce and waddled into a seventeen-story business park looking for a squat toilet to clog. No options presented themselves in the lobby, so I took the stairs to the second floor.

"Excuse me," I said to a businessman waiting for the elevator, "but where is the ce-suo?"

He did not deign to acknowledge my existence. I stood there for a moment with my beard, my gnarled Irish half-fro, my trippy Radiohead-shirt-and-suitcoat combo. I cleared my throat. Was it not enough? I walked a circle around the man to make sure he was real. But he didn't see me. A bell chimed and he stepped into the elevator.

I walked to the end of the hall and found myself surrounded by police officers.

"Excuse me," I said to the whole regiment, "but where is the ce-suo?"

"What? What?" said Lt. Wang. "Oh! The chay-suay ... Try the fish place across the hall."

"But their doors are locked," I said.

"Then open them."

"But they're locked."

A heavy sigh. "I will help you."

It was 9:30 in the morning and the owner of the fish place was sleeping, but he jumped to his feet to let me in. I thanked him and he said it was nothing. I shut the bathroom door behind me. Then I squatted before the squatter in prayer, for there was paper.

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