Saturday, May 15, 2010

Interesting Times

Before I left England for China in 1936 a friend told me that there exists a Chinese curse — "May you live in interesting times". If so, our generation has certainly witnessed that curse's fulfilment [sic].

— Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, Diplomat in Peace and War

I came to China in search of interesting times, and upon arrival, did my darndest to avoid them. I turned my apartment into a bomb shelter, walled myself in with secondhand Russian novels and truly apocalyptic caches of Nescafe. And ten months later, China remains China. I crack open the venetian blinds. There she is. China. Gray and metallic. Under construction. Growing more exotic and mystifying by the day. But I stubbornly remain myself. Four teaspoons of Nescafe, two chapters of Crime and Punishment. Every day I have the option of getting myself into all sorts of Chinese weirdness, but for the sake of sanity, I avoid it, opting instead to pursue my own weirdness in the comfort of my hermetically sealed bachelor pad.

But in China, I am never bored or uninspired or comfortable for very long. With eerie regularity, about once every three days or so, something or someone comes along and startles me right out of my hermetic slumber. China ambushes me on the walk home from work, gives me a wedgie and a purple nurple, steals my lunch money and runs cackling off into the distance. Or she takes me out for karaoke, serves me fresh watermelon and spiced radishes, gets me drunk on Crown Royal spritzers, and at the end of the night, when I insist on paying, she swats my hand away, reaches into her purse and makes it rain. These things happen to me. China does these things to me. I have no say in the matter. I can no more avoid China than MSG, can no more escape Chinese absurdity than I can breathe her air without inhaling coaldust, or drink her tap water without ingesting lead and arsenic and formaldehyde and all the rest. I came to China in search of interesting times, and despite my best efforts, I have found them.

When I came home from Mandarin class last night, a man in a bright orange China Mobile t-shirt was waiting for me in the stairwell. He shook my hand, then hugged me. I laughed uneasily. He followed me up the stairs and slid an ID card out from his billfold.

"My name is Mr. Wang!" he shouted. I turned the card over in my fingers. Indeed, Mr. Wang he was. He asked me where I lived. Upstairs, I murmured. I asked where he lived and he shouted, not here. In his left hand he held a plastic binder. His right hand kept pinching me. We arrived at the fourth floor and he hugged me again. Then he patted my gut.

"Don't ever drink," he shouted, hoisting up his belly for comparison, "or you'll get fat like me!"

My thoughts turned to the bottle of Duwel in my backpack, the first formaldehyde-free beer I'd managed to get my hands on since my arrival. I looked into Mr. Wang's eyes. A flicker of madness there. I could imagine him stabbing me in the stomach, swiftly retracting the dagger and darting down the stairs in one fluid motion. How cruel that would be. Me bleeding to death in the stairwell, a handful of neighbors watching me expire, and this beautiful eleven-ounce bottle of imported Duwel in my backpack that one of my college roommates would dump out over my grave after the funeral. Mr. Wang cackled. I smiled. Then he grew serious.

"No, don't ever get fat! We are men. And we like women. And women like us," he said, banging his fists together in the International Sign Language for "doing the wild thang." He cackled again and smacked me in the gut. The smile slowly faded from my face. I stared at Mr. Wang while he ranted at me. A puzzle was assembling itself in my brain. Mr. Wang looked familiar.

"So," he said, indicating my door, "let's go inside and talk."
"Actually, my apartment doesn't look so hot right now," I said. "It needs cleaning."

By then, one of my neighbors - a delightful chainsmoking Buddha of a man - was watching us from his doorway, smoking a Hongmei and grinning ever so slightly.

"Come on," Mr. Wang insisted. "Let me in!"
"It's very messy in there."
"I'm not scared!" he shouted, and laughed. "No, I'm not scared of anything, because of this!"

He reached down into his shirt and pulled out a small plastic crucifix. I nodded. And so one piece of the puzzle had fallen into place: I was being proselytized. But still, this Mr. Wang looked awfully familiar. Who was he? Where had I seen him before?

"Let's go! Let's go inside!"
"Wait," I said. "First of all, who are you?"

He yanked at my arm, pulled me towards the door. And that was the moment it all came together. Who is Keyser Söze? Who is Mr. Wang? Right then I realized that the man on my doorstep was the same maniac who, six months earlier, downtown, had yanked my arm as I was making an important cigarette transaction and tried to drag me out into the street. In the meantime, he had tracked me down, found out where I lived, had waited for me in the stairwell, and now he wanted in my apartment.

"Who are you?" I asked again.
"I'm Mr. Wang," he smiled. "I'm your friend!"
"You are not my friend," I said. "I don't know you."
He laughed. "I understand. I understand."
He turned and tried the door to my apartment.
"It's locked!" he shouted.
"Of course it's locked," I said. "It's my apartment."
"I just want to talk."
"Then we can talk here. What do you want?"
"I want to help you," he said.
"Help me with what?"

He laughed and smacked me in the gut.

"Look," I said. "I just got home from work. I'm very tired. How about we talk some other time."
"Let's talk now! Just for five minutes!"
"I am a busy man," I lied.
"I understand. I understand. In that case," he said, and opened his binder, "do you know where Ao Yan-Fei lives?"
I blinked. Ao Yan-Fei was the Chinese name of one of the Mennonites.
"No," I said. "I have no idea where she lives."
"You don't know?"
"No. Sorry. I have no idea."
"But you must know! You laowais are thick as thieves!"
"I'm new here," I said. "I don't know where anybody lives."
"But I want to help her!"
He smacked me in the gut. I looked him in the eyes.
"I don't think ... she needs ... your help."
"... what?"
"I said, I don't think ... she needs ... your help."
Mr. Wang laughed uncontrollably.
"Everybody needs my help," he said. "Look here."

He opened his binder. I peered over his shoulder as he shouted and thumped his index finger down on the handwritten pages. I squinted but couldn't make out any of the writing, just the words "In the year 1966 ... "

"Okay," I said. "I really have to go."
"Come with me to Ao Yan-Fei's apartment!"
"I'm not going to her apartment, and neither are you."
I pointed towards my door.
"You see that? That's my apartment. That's where I live. That's my home," I said. "You are bothering me. I didn't invite you here. I don't know who you are. You're a stranger. You just showed up."

Mr. Wang frowned, then smiled. He raised his finger to speak, but I cut him off.

"And I know for a fact that my friend doesn't want some stranger showing up at her apartment," I said. "That's her home. That's where she lives. It's not polite to bother people at home. It's not very Chinese. You're not being very Chinese right now."

By then, in addition to the chainsmoking Buddha, a couple other neighbors had poked their heads out to observe the spectacle of the furious laowai shouting in bad Sichuanese, and under the gaze of so many Chinese eyes, Mr. Wang grew nervous.

"Just tell me where she lives," he said softly.
"I'm not going to tell you that."
"Okay," he said, "then I will find her myself."

He flung his arms open, hugged me, and swatted the hell out of my back. The bottle of Duwel clinked around in my backpack. Then Mr. Wang turned and scampered down the stairs two at a time. I watched him leave. Then I turned to my neighbor. He glanced at me, glanced at Mr. Wang, then glanced at me again. He spun his finger around his ear in the International Sign Language for "batshit crazy." Then he bid me a good night and shut the door.

After I'd triple-locked the door behind me, I sat down on the couch and cracked open my Duwel. Was it ever good. Then I put on an LCD Soundsystem album and turned it up so loud that the speakers threatened to jump off the table. And I sat there thinking about Mr. Wang. Was he schizophrenic, or just Christian? How did he find me? Why had he chosen me in the first place? Was I right in turning him away, or should I have caved and let him into my apartment, where the squalor of my bachelordom would have driven him away in seconds flat? No, he'd have said to himself, stifling a dry heave, this Pan Da cannot be saved.

In China, confrontations like these are mercifully few and far between. Most of the negative attention a laowai receives is strictly hit-and-run: a distant heckler, constant laughter, constant stares. It is omnipresent, but rarely is it personal. That said, when you finally find yourself mano a mano with someone who is actively conspiring to make your life less enjoyable, it is extremely difficult, almost impossible not to lose your cool. All that hit-and-run aggravation catches up with you all of a sudden. If you happen to have Irish blood pumping through your veins, you must stifle the impulse to punch, to kick, and to swear. You have to take a deep breath and politely suggest to the gentleman that he vacate your 800 square feet of rented property. Fight passive-aggression with aggressive pacifism. Gandhi and Martin Luther King and all the rest. Forgive these people, for they know not what they do. They know not what Irish rage they incur. Speak softly and -

A knock at the door. I sat there, frozen. Another knock. I stared into my beer. Knock, knock, knock. Slowly, silently, I got up and retreated to my study. I turned down my music, then switched it off altogether. Knock, knock, knock. I sat and waited. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour, and still the man knocked. I googled Chinese obscenities. "Fuck off" seemed a bit too strong for my purposes, as did "go to hell," but "leave me the hell alone" felt apropos. Knock, knock, knock. I waited. Knock, knock, knock. I tried to read. Knock, knock, knock. Then I got up, stormed across the living room, and peered through the peephole. There was Mr. Wang, knocking, smiling.

"Listen," I shouted, "I don't need your help."
"I want to help you!"
"This is my apartment. This is my home! You are bothering me!"
"I am trying to help you!"
"Leave me the hell alone!" I shouted. "Get lost!
He laughed. "I understand. I understand."
A moment passed. Then he knocked again.
"Go away," I said, "or I will call the police."
"You're going to call your friend? Ao Yan-Fei?"
"No. I am going to call the police."
"Oh. I understand. I understand."

A beat. I took a breath. I took a step towards my bedroom. He knocked again. So I kicked and pounded all hell out of the door. Mr. Wang let out a startled yelp, then he laughed. He shouted something. Then, finally, I heard his voice receding down the stairwell. I waited there with my ear pressed to the door for a minute or two. Silence. Then I gathered up my bottle of Duwel and my secondhand copy of Anna Karenina and curled up in bed. Oh, Anna, it's been so long. She's looking a bit worse for wear these days. I don't take care of my books. Her spine's all scoliotic, her pages stained with hot and sour soup, her foreword falling out one page at a time. But there she is, Anna Karenina, in all her promiscuous glory, sultry and seductive across the ages. And in these times of interesting times, I can't help but sink into Leo Tolstoy's interesting times. I can put Anna Karenina down. China, on the other hand, is inescapable. I crack open the venetian blinds. There she is. China. A security guard hawks a loogey. A nightbird cackles. Who knows what lurks around the bend?


Anonymous said...

It's a good thing you didn't let him in, he may have actually attacked.

Katherine said...

He sounds like some frightening, Kafkaesque deity.