Sunday, June 06, 2010

Sick of Hellos/Sick of Goodbyes

I returned home from the Carsick Cars show with six kuai and a crumpled wad of pornographic pamphlets to my name. On the walk home, I dropped two of those six kuai on a bottle of frozen yogurt and stealthily slipped the crumpled wad of massage brochures into a public trash can when no one was looking. Then, on my way up the stairs, I stumbled and fell, smashing the glass yogurt bottle in my right hand. At first, I was bereaved by the loss of yogurt, which pooled in a jiggling mass of off-white slime and started somersaulting down the stairs like a semisolid Slinky. Then I noticed the black blood spurting from my hand. Well, hot damn. Though I felt no pain, I sensed that time was of the essence and I took the stairs up two at a time.

"HAH-LOO!" called my neighbor as I approached. He nudged his son. "Uncle! Uncle!"
"Hah-loo, uncle," the kid murmured.
I waved and a wallop of blood splashed audibly to the floor. My neighbor gasped. The kid let out a yelp and ran back inside.
"Hao, hao," I said, smiling. "I just need to go inside and fix this."

I shut the door behind me and trotted across the living room, blood raining all over the dirty t-shirts that carpet my apartment floor. I stood for a moment hemorrhaging into the kitchen sink before I realized that I wasn't at all sure how to go about treating a wound of this nature. So I retired to my study, sat down in front of the computer and tried to access Google. It was mysteriously out of order for the moment, so I settled for Yahoo.

"How to treat a cut," I punched out with my left hand. But the search only yielded information on sanitizing envelope-related injuries. I glanced at my right hand and saw that the drizzling blood had already filled the better part of a nearby cup of milk tea.

"How to dress a wound," I typed. Scrapes, nicks, diaper rashes. "How to dress a severe wound," I typed. Stabbings, shootings, farm machinery mishaps. At long last, I was getting somewhere. Step one, the instructions read, wash the shrapnel from the wond [sic] with clean water. I returned to the sink and flipped on the tap. A torrent of rust juice came squirting out. No. I ransacked the apartment for a bottle of Nongfu Springs, finding naught but a single half-empty bottle of Nongfu Orange Juice. The wound instructions mentioned nothing about O.J., and the O.J. instructions mentioned nothing about wounds. So I slipped on my favorite blue hoodie, stashed my bloody hand in the kangaroo pouch, and made a dash for the nearest convenience store.

By the time I'd hoofed the fifteen minutes across campus, my sweater was already soaked through with ominous amounts of dark blood. I grew faint. A kind of giddy delirium blossomed in my brain. I began to hobble, then to stumble. And when I finally arrived at the bright lights of the university's strip of meat-related capitalism, I was suddenly reminded, as though I had forgotten, that I was still in China. Here came the HAH-LOO birds.

I ignored them. They were college twerps, drunk and unemployed, and here I was, a 27-year-old laowai bleeding to death on a crowded street. And on a school night! The college twerps followed.
I walked faster. Rivulets of blood trickled down the side of my jeans.
Enough. I snapped. I stopped, turned around, and in the loudest voice I have ever yet mustered in my life, I shouted HAH-LOO!, HAH-LOO!, HAH-LOO! But I did not win the effect I had hoped for. The college kids were triumphant. We got a big one this time! They turned and ran giggling into the fetid Nanchong night.

If nothing else, the misspent adrenaline kept me conscious long enough to complete my mission. I bought two big bottles of Nongfu Springs from my usual convenience store clerk. She raised an eyebrow as I navigated the whole transaction with my left hand.

"No beer?" she asked.
"Oh, no," I said. "No, no. No beer."

She raised a second eyebrow. Then she asked if I wanted to play with her tortoiseshell kitten, as I usually do.

"Oh, heh. Maybe next ti - "
HAH-LOO! a man shouted in my face. I turned and walked out the door.

I followed the trail of Panda blood all the way back home. I was amazed at and somewhat proud of the amount of gore and yogurt I had left behind in the stairwell. I returned to the sink and doused the wound in Nongfu Springs. The water seemed to sizzle upon contact. I winced and retreated to my bedroom. I flipped the light on and the bulb exploded. In darkness, I fumbled through heaps of unwashed laundry and stacks of unread books for my Peace Corps Medical Kit. I unclasped the plastic hasps with my left hand and groped around in the dark. A dimebag of Un-Aspirin. A spritzer of bug spray. Sunscreen. Antihistamine. Nasal decongestant. Oral antidehydration salts. Condoms. More condoms. Tube after tube of Astroglide. A pair of surgical scissors. I shuddered. Then, finally, I came across what I'd been groping for: a bottle of Betasept, some sterile gauze pads, and a roll of Ace Bandage Wraps.

I cleansed the wound once more in the healing waters of Nongfu Spring, then I attacked it with Betasept. The stuff wasted no time in getting down to business: my field of vision went white and I found myself desecrating every religious personage known to Christendom. Then the pain ebbed away and I calmly wrapped the wound, humming a John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman tune as I worked. Done and done. En route to my study, I surveyed the scene. Man alive, man. Like they'd filmed Saw 7 in my living room. Then I sat back down at the computer and, I don't know, vanity Googled myself or something.

The next day, using my gory right hand as a prop, I successfully taught my students the words yogurt, clumsy, and dumbass. On Tuesday, my neighbor invited me in for watermelon. I flopped down on his couch and made an earnest effort to devour three kilograms of my least favorite fruit. My neighbor squinted at my hand the whole time and finally asked me how I'd hurt myself. For want of a Chinese vocabulary, I went the Tina Turner route and told him that I'd fallen down the stairs. He nodded dubiously. Then, after I'd spit little black seeds all over his parquet floor, apologizing after each errant shot, I stood up and thanked him for the hospitality. And the watermelon. I extended my hand. He bowed and squeezed the hell out of it and a jet of black blood shot across the room.

"Oh my Gatt!"
"Jesus," I said. "My bad. Sorry. I -"
"No, is okay!"
"Man. I'm really sorry. I just - "
"Is nothing, nothing!"

My sloppily dressed wound healed with a quickness that was nothing short of miraculous. By Wednesday, a garden variety Band-Aid got the job done and my students no longer asked questions. By Thursday morning, I could do push-ups again without having to mop the floor afterward. I did four of them, then I checked my email and was pleasantly surprised to find all sorts of messages from my friends back home. "Jeff Hines, you old dog!" I crooned as I clicked on the first email and waited eagerly for it to unfurl. The words materialized on screen: Jason died today. I blinked and clicked on to the next message, from my long-lost Beasley: I don't know how to put this ... surgery ... complications ... I sat very still for a while. I got up to change my Band-Aid. Then I sat back down. And the day went by in time lapse.

My old friend Jason had passed away. I had known him since the seventh grade. He was one of the charter members of our high school commune of misfits, pseudo-punks, and apostate Mormons. At an age when I was seeping miserably into the late-90's janglepop oeuvre of Counting Crows and Matchbox 20, Jason introduced me to Sparklehorse, Camper Van Beethoven, Pink Floyd, and a long list of iconoclasts I still listen to today, while my moth-eaten janglepop collection decomposes in an attic somewhere in suburban Nebraska. Jason had survived open-heart surgery as a child, had heart problems all his life, was a regular at the Offutt Air Force Base emergency room. So his death didn't exactly hit me out of the blue. But when you're young, or young enough to believe that you are young, everything hits you out of the blue.

For several hours, not a single articulate thought formed in my head. All was blank. But after a while, as the sun sank below the vacant 32-story apartment building on the hill, the wheels started turning again, and I began to ask the sort of questions I imagine most people ask upon the loss of an old friend. When did I see him last? What did we talk about? What was the last thing he said to me? I struggled to remember. Was it ... no, couldn't have been. But maybe ... Then - ah, yes. It must have been a year ago. Early summer in Nebraska. It was a UFC party, a suitably geeky occasion, at Jonathon Payne's house. You and Beasley showed up at Payne's doorstep around ten with a sixer of Old Style. You hadn't seen Payne in years. You knew him as his mid-pubescent Trekkie incarnation - Coke bottle glasses and socks with sandals, a bowl cut and a dirtstache - so you were surprised and more than a little depressed to walk in and find Payne surrounded by a throng of disproportionately hot platinum blondes in haltertops.

"Oh, hey guys," Payne called. "Beer's in the fridge."

Then he absconded to the basement with his harem. Giggles bubbled up through the air vents. You and Beasley sat there in the empty living room and shot the bull, idly watching men kick the shit out of each other on the flatscreen in HD. Together, you polished off 66.666% of the sixer. Then the doorbell rang. Payne did not come upstairs to answer it. You were surprised to find Jason at the door. You greeted him with a tallboy. Then the three of you sat there for hours talking about, well, music, what else?

It wasn't such a bad last memory, when I thought about it. I began to feel less guilty about Jason's death. More selfish concerns came to mind: Jason was 28 and I am 27. He had heart problems. Once upon a time, I had heart problems. I lit a cigarette and glared at the pack. Stupid. Jason was the first of my friends to pass away. All my teenaged and twentysomething delusions of immortality suddenly seemed as ramshackle as a Council Bluffs patio. But I am young, I told myself. I am 27, which is still young. And yet ... I snubbed out my cigarette in a rice bowl. Stupid. I needed to get out of the apartment. Take a walk, go for a run. Something. I needed to get out. So I slipped on my favorite blood-encrusted blue hoodie and scurried out of the apartment.

Ah, yes. As though I'd forgotten: China. On my way out the door, I was greeted by a couple of two-year-olds who pointed at me and shouted lao-wai, lao-wai, lao-wai! Jesus, I thought, does it begin that early? These kids can't even walk, can hardly speak, and yet they sure as shooting know a foreign devil when they see one. I could imagine their parents, holding up flash cards at the dinner table. What animal is this? It's a tiger! What animal is this? It's a dog! And what animal is this? (A blurry Polaroid of Zach Galifianakis) It's a laowai!

I walked. I orbited the university's manmade lake, its nocturnal beasts silent and sleeping in the late evening sun. Up until eleven o'clock, there are young couples making out on the benches along the lake. Then the young couples scurry home to beat curfew and the nocturnal beasts come alive and the night starts to sound like Merriweather Post Pavilion, an album I'm sure Jason enjoyed. An album I enjoy. "Foreigner," murmured a Chinese couple as they passed. "Chinese couple," I said.

I circled the manmade lake for a while, then I trekked the five miles to the city proper. It had rained the day before, so the shoddily lain sidewalk tiles belched up mud and live toads with every step. Then the sidewalk ran out and I walked along the shoulder of a two-lane highway for several miles, the cabbies executing kamikaze lane changes with inebriated nonchalance, the dump trucks billowing black chalk and screeching their horns as they clattered past. The air was metallic, the noise deafening. But it felt good to be outside, to be alive and walking, to be touched however feebly by the sidewards glance of the Sichuanese sun.

When I'd arrived downtown, I decided to buy some cleaning products at the supermarket. It seemed like an opportune time to tidy up my apartment. To start anew. And maybe I'd buy a six-pack of Carlsberg and dump one of the cans out in my bloody sink, in memoriam. And to sterilize the sink, perhaps. I checked my backpack at the front desk and I grabbed a shopping basket. As soon as I'd passed through the turnstile, a couple of college girls shouted foreigner! and started following me.

They followed at a close distance, no more than four feet away, pointing and laughing all the while. For a full five minutes, I pretended to be fascinated with a women's deodorant display in the hopes that they would find something better to do. But I was the best show in town. Horrified, I realized they could watch me for hours. So I wandered all the way to the opposite end of the supermarket. They gave chase. Then I executed a military about-face, the one my dad taught me as a kid, and wandered all the way back to the women's deodorant display. And there the girls were, four feet behind me, pointing and laughing, laughing and laughing. Perhaps in another part of the world, I might've been flattered - but I know China well enough by now to understand that when a girl laughs at me in public, it isn't because of the rakish figure that I cut, but because I am an oafish-looking foreigner. I possess about as much sex appeal in China as Louie Anderson, which may be an over- or understatement, depending on your opinion of Louie Anderson.

I hid out in the tea aisle for a moment before jetting off to the toilet paper aisle. Then, in the pest repellent aisle, I removed and replaced several cannisters of Raid while the girls looked on and laughed. I wanted to pull my beard out, but what could be done? Finally, I walked very deliberately to the most secluded corner of the adult beverage aisle, turned to the girls, and asked, in Chinese, "Why are you following me?"

The college girls acted so dumbfounded that for an instant I almost believed that they had never been following me in the first place. But no, I reminded myself, these girls had followed me for fifteen minutes, had laughed at me and mocked me as I struggled through the already odious task of shopping. And they were women, more or less, these girls. So I was justified in asserting myself just this once, wasn't I? I mean, wasn't I? I was an adult, after all. They were adults. A crowd had gathered to watch the confrontation unfold, and I knew already whose side they were on.

"Why are you following me?" I asked once more, trying to weigh my voice down with paternal authority, only to hear it come warbling from my larynx like a prolonged, high-pitched blast of flatulence. The girls trembled with newly acquired innocence. The crowd glared at me.

"I am a human being," I said unconvincingly. "You are human beings. I came here to buy things. You came here to buy things. So let's buy things!"

My appeal to capitalism did not seem to win anyone over, not right away.

"But please don't follow me," I went on. "I've had a bad day, and it's very annoying to be followed and laughed at."

The girls did not answer, offended as they were by my brash behavior.

"Very annoying," I said, and walked away.

Upon my departure, the crowd clucked their collective tongue and offered condolences to those poor college girls for having suffered the verbal abuse of an obviously deranged and profoundly hairy/sweaty foreigner. But, I thought to myself, it was entirely true that I had had a bad day. And the girls had been following me. And a Chinese man my age would have responded with at least ten times as much hostility. I had merely asserted myself, politely and in a voice that was so soft and feeble as to warrant even more laughter. And surely a man who deals with xenophobic taunting and less-than-admiring admirers day in and day out is entitled to one or two self-assertion cards a year? I mean, isn't he? It was no use. I could not prop myself up. As I often do after asserting myself, I sank into a troth of self-loathing guilt.

But no matter, I said. It's behind you. And so are the college girls, watching and laughing from a safe distance of twenty feet. I wound up buying several bottles of bleach, a 24-pack of toilet paper, a pair of rubber gloves, and a six-pack of Carlsberg. The cashier, like almost all the supermarket employees I encounter in Nanchong, turned out to be one of my former students. She waved as I approached and called me by my Chinese name, Pan Da, which is the password that unlocks my civility. I brightened suddenly, asked her how she was doing, how long she worked every day, why she wasn't teaching Engl - no, that question was off limits. She gave me only short answers and didn't look up at me once, either because her manager was watching, or because she was more than fascinated by the array of sanitizing and brain-sanitizing goods I had purchased.

On my way out, I was very nearly peed on by a baby who, with the blessing of her nearby mother, suddenly decided to pop a squat on the floor, right there in the doorway of a Rolex shop. I couldn't help but look. It is an image that promises to endure in my brain even after a million Carlsbergs, China summed up in a single stomach-churning, heart-rending tableau: a baby, squatting and copiously urinating in the doorway of a Rolex retailer. And meanwhile, China sped past at 1.3 billion RPM. The crowds swirled around the baby, then instinctively stepped over the puddle she left behind, stopping only to crane their necks and scream out their friendly greetings and salutations at the oafish-looking laowai who was by then a mere hairy speck on the fluorescent horizon.


patti s said...

my momness kicked in and i really want you to go home for a while and get a little tlc. you manage to write soooo great even when you have been dumped in one of the pits.
ps all i can think about is how much i could clean the heck of your apartment.

Joshua said...

I stumbled across your blog as I was idly googling "Nanchong" this morning. My wife is from Nanchong and is there now—I'll be heading there at the end of the month (my 3rd or 4th time). We lived in Shanghai until 2007, but came to Austin, TX for my wife to do grad school. (We actually saw Carsick Cars at SXSW here a couple of months ago).

If you're interested, we'd love to get together while we're in Nanchong—it would be nice to hang out with a laowai there. If you'd like to, feel free to send me an email at

It seems like you're into music. If you'd like to check out some other good Chinese bands, I highly recommend P.K. 14 (Joy Division-esque and they actually sing in Chinese). Some other indie bands worth checking out are: Ourself Beside Me, Snapline, Hedgehog, and Xiao He (he's incredibly experimental; he improvises everything and plays around with a loop machine—kind of like a schizophrenic Phil Keaggy). Some of those bands are admittedly better than others, but it's nice to hear something other than the typical pop music you hear on the radio and TV.

(Apologies for leaving this as a comment, but I couldn't find a way to email you through your blog.)