Saturday, July 10, 2010

Moth Logistics

The mosquitoes have returned to Nanchong, back from their timeshare vacation in Thailand. I didn't notice them at first. I figured the constant buzzing in my ears was the televised vuvuzelan ambiance of the Uruguay-Ghana game. I assumed the stinging sensation in my right lovehandle was merely the onset of my usual late night Nescafe DTs. I sat there writing. Twitching and writing. Itching. And writing. Backspacing. Rewriting. Twitching. Itching some more. Then I whirled around to see that a twelve-legged helicopter with a stabber the size of a Capri-Sun straw was sucking my blood through my shirt.

I swatted the beast and tried several times to finish him on the rebound, to no avail. So I went nuclear. I picked up a nearby canister of Chinese Raid. Psssssssshhhhhhhh! Not quite a direct hit, but the ominous gray mist spread across the room and, upon contact, the mosquito buzzed a frantic mayday to his comrades, went into a tailspin, and crashed audibly to the floor. I turned the canister over and squinted at the ingredients. The Chinese symbol for death. Whatever is in this stuff, I thought, it can't be good for anyone.

Living abroad, you will find existential questions waiting for you in your morning bowl of imported Fun Pak Alpha-Bits. "ARE YOU HAPPY?" the Alpha-Bits will ask. Yes, you tell them, I suppose I am happy. "ARE YOU BECOMING A BETTER PERSON?" I dunno, you grumble, probably. "DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN YOUR COMMUNITY?" By then, you're just trying to finish your cereal before it finishes you. It's hard to tell, you gurgle as you're slurping up the sickly sweet dregs, but I believe that I am. And then the Alpha-Bits have nothing left to say because you've eaten them all and moved onto Raisin Bran, who isn't much for conversation.

Existential questions may nag from time to time, but they are easy to answer because you realize by now that they are unanswerable. Far more distressing to the incompetent bachelor are more practical questions, questions of survival, questions like: Why are there so many bugs in my apartment? and, Why are bugs drawn to my apartment? and, How should I go about killing all these many bugs in my apartment without killing myself in the process?

My host family, in my deafmute days of grunting and gesturing, once gave me an electronic device that, through much grunting and gesturing, I learned was supposed to be plugged into the wall. Then, every couple days, my host family would supply me with a small teal-green tablet that bore the Chinese symbol for "bugs." After more grunting and gesturing and several rudimentary diagrams, I learned that I was supposed to slip the teal-green tablet into the machine, and that the machine, via a small heat plate, would disperse fumes that would kill on contact any and all mosquitoes, ants, cockroaches, chiggers, no-see-ems, rats, and burglars.

The heat plate machine seemed to work. But here in Nanchong, I cannot find it and wouldn't know how to ask for it. So instead, I use these DDT-frosted cinnamon roll incense sticks that take a solid ten minutes to light, and once lit, fill the apartment with a foreboding stench of indiscriminate death. The DDT cinnamon rolls get the job done, but at what cost? Minute by minute, I watch insect after insect drop to the floor like Spanish futbolistas and wriggle their legs until death sets in, and I begin to wonder whether I am biologically above all that. In the afternoons, I watch - somewhat amused, extremely disgusted - as an insectoid World War II rages in my living room. The mosquitoes come in droves, gather and mount kamikaze offensives that are suddenly and abruptly quashed by my mustard gas cocktail of DDT and cigarette smoke.

But even with the aid of chemical weapons, I am at an extreme disadvantage. I am but one man. The insects are infinite. I will reproduce when I am 35, if ever. They reproduce every two seconds, put Catholics to shame. The bugs have strength in numbers. All the DDT in China could not stop them. So, although I fear insects more than anything in the known universe - it is not rats, but cockroaches that await me in my Room 101 - I have learned to live with them. I regard them almost as pets. If you can't beat them, sublet your apartment to them. Naturally, when my six-legged roommates aren't around, questions of entomology occur to me.

Why are flies so attracted to humans? I wondered. I asked Jeeves.

"Well, old chap," he said, lighting up a Winchester, "flies are attracted to humans because humans often possess food. We are an upper class species with upper class sensibilities. Flies, as scavengers, are always on the dole. So they mooch off of us. Our pheromones attract them in droves, and once they have found us, they refuse to leave us alone."

I was eating fourthmeal at the time, so I told Jeeves to shut up. His answer was more disgusting than anything I was prepared for, and I preferred not to think about the matter any further.

Late one evening, I heard a sudden chorus of vuvuzelas overhead and glanced up at the ceiling. I was appalled to find a biker gang of black-winged insects clinging to the light bulb. I had never noticed them before. During the days, they ran rampant, but at night, I had no clue as to where they went, what they did during their afterhours. I figured they migrated down to the Jack Bar. But no, my living room ceiling was their headquarters. Their Central Perk. The Point. The light bulb was where they mated, swapped business cards, held clandestine Socialist caucuses ...

Curiosity got the better of me, so I asked Jeeves again. Say, Jeeves, why are bugs attracted to light?

"Well, old chap," he said, "nobody's quite sure about that, but I reckon ol' Jeevesy has a jolly good hunch."

He turned 'round to the blackboard.

"Nocturnal insects," he said, "use the moon as their compass star when migrating long distances. With the advent of the electric light bulb, the insect community has found itself in a sticky wicket - they think light bulbs are the bloody moon! And that's not the half of it! When they ... why, hullo ... well, what's this, then?"

A white van screeched up to the curb. The doors flew open. Jeeves's Winchester fell to the floor. One man threw a bag over Jeeves's head while the others worked on him with billy clubs. "Oh, dear me," Jeeves said, fainting as the men carried him away and dumped him in the trunk. The doors clapped shut and the van screeched off into the distance. My screen went blank. "The connection to has been interrupted," it read. Weird, I said.

Though it was nearly midnight, I decided to get out of the house, away from the bugs. Outside, I ran into my neighbors and their four year-old son. This is not unusual. There is no curfew in China for children under the age of five. Parents here never miss an opportunity to show off the solitary fruit of their loins. My neighbors, a professor of basketball and his wife, a yoga instructor, were out in the courtyard, running a high-speed passing drill with their giggling son while several elderly admirers looked on.

"Hah-loo, Uncle!" whispered the father as I passed.
"Hah-loo, Uncle!" whispered the mother.
The child said nothing. He was busy eating his own hand.

"The Germans lost yesterday," I said.
"Ai-ya! I know. I wanted them to win."

My neighbors, for whatever reason, are the only people I know who are rooting for the imperialist powers in this year's World Cup. The rest of China is - or was - pulling for Brazil, Argentina, and North Korea, in that order. After North Korea lost seven-nil to Portugal, I risked a chuckle in front of my students.

"But teacher," said one student, "they tried their best."
"Yes," said another, "they tried their best."
"But seven to nothing!" I cackled. "Hilarious!"
"Very sad," said a third. "They tried their best."

A few days later, when, glowing and somewhat red in the cheeks, I told the basketball professor that the United States had defeated Algeria at the last possible second, his wife jumped up and down and clapped her hands. This is all fairly unusual, of course, but has nothing to do with anything.

"What a pity the Germans are lose," said the basketball professor, in English, and was about to continue when his son interrupted him.

"Daddy?" the boy said in Chinese, pointing at a nearby streetlamp. "Why do moths always fly towards the light?"
"Well, son," said the basketball coach. "I'm not really sure. I think they like the heat."

Instinctively, my hand shot up in the air. I knew this one. And I was stoked, stoked to have understood the exchange, and stoked to be privy to such a formative moment in the life of a Chinese youth.

"Actually, I just asked my friend the same question," I said, thinking of poor Jeeves. "He is a bug expert."

The basketball professor nodded dubiously.

"It turns out - well. You see," I said, fumbling for my vocabulary, "moths like to travel. They travel to very far away places, very late at night. The moon helps them find where they are going. They are not used to electric light. It is a new invention. The moths think light bulbs are the moon. So they fly to the moon, so to speak."

It took my neighbor a moment to sort out my clunky syntax, but when he did, he nudged his son and said, "You hear that? Moths think light bulbs are the moon!"

His son laughed, amused.

"Well, good night, Uncle," said the basketball professor.
"Good night. Uncle," said the kid.

And in the moment, I did feel like an uncle. Just wait 'til they get a load of the pull-my-finger gag. I bid the neighbors goodnight and, gazing up at the half-eaten moon, fluttered off to a neon light on the dark side of town.

1 comment:

alison said...

We called the heat plate thing "Wenzi-be-gone." Vocabulary learning at its best.