Wednesday, September 01, 2010

There Will Be Flood

When the rains come softly in Sichuan, you can hear the big fat individual drops dropping like nails on the rusty aluminum overhangs of the buildings. When the rain comes down hard, you can hear nothing but the rain. It whooshes. It washes. The rain whispers loud enough, even, to drown out China. The sound of the rain envelops you like a cloud, and only the most violent of loogeys, hawked by the most pneumatic of old men, is loud enough to cut through the sonic fog.

The rain was coming down hard the night I arrived in Dazhou. And not surprisingly, I was without an umbrella. I roved the campus like a forgotten dog. It rained until my Pumas turned to sponges, and I sensed that it wasn't the kind of rain that would stop. The rain had already flooded the sewers, and would soon flood the river. And while an unseasonably boisterous tributary of the Yangtze was creeping ever closer to campus, a foul-smelling flood of considerably higher proof had already inundated the second floor of L'hôtel des Laowaix, in the French Quarter of Dazhou County, Sichuan Province, People's Republic of China. The moment I checked in, I knew I was in for a long and liver-curdling couple of weeks.

It was round about ten PM and my fellow Peace Corpses, from the sounds and smells of things, were well into post-banquet mode. I set my hobo bindle down beside my bed and followed the eye-watering fumes to a door at the end of the hall labeled "Andrew Moose." I made my belated entrance and bowed, gracefully and apologetically, there in the doorway.

"Panda!" shouted Moose. "Beer run!"

I suppose I deserved it. I was eight hours late, after all. But that, for once, was not my fault. Nanchong had flooded, the power had gone out, my alarm clock had shut off, the bank was closed, the barber shop wouldn't shave me, et cetera. Perhaps, I grumbled internally, these laowais should be buying me beer. Then I thought of Kevin, my Chinese handler, and what he would say given the circumstances. "What a pity you are so late. What a pity. You had better go on a beer run." No. In the land of passive-aggression, I'll take good old aggressive-aggressive American douchebagism any day of the week. So I duly bowed there in the doorway of Andrew Moose's room, and then I duly ran down to the convenience store, and then I duly opened my lint-clogged wallet and duly bought my fellow running dogs of capitalism the next round, and the next round after that. And the one after that. Because I'm nice.

So it began. And so it went. For two whole weeks, night after night, beer upon beer upon regrettable baijiu. Under the fleeting spell of formaldehyde and conversation, time seemed to stand still from time to time. But in spite of our sodden efforts - and perhaps, indeed, because of them - the second and minute and hour hands of the present inevitably groped their way into the unimaginably hungover future. Midnight begat 2 AM, and 2 AM spawned the bastard child of 4 AM, and 4 AM did unspeakable things to 5 AM, and that unholy hour presented the lot of us like a pile of stray kittens to the loathsome dawn. Still, the urge to remain awake, and to keep bullshitting, and arguing, and insulting these wonderful Western minds - in English! - persisted. Hence it would prove a long and liver-curdling couple weeks.

We weren't juvenile (twentysomething) delinquents the whole time. Far from it. During the daytime hours, we were model volunteers. We gave all, and we did some damned good work, I think. But given the circumstances, and given the living arrangements, and given the personalities involved - given all that, some amount of delinquency was inevitable. And I firmly believe that our late night delinquency was for a greater good. Perhaps I am the only one of our group of nine who will admit it, but we damn well missed each other by the time the Dazhou Experiment finally rolled around. For months, for an entire lunar year we had been working our hairy foreign hides off. And during that time, we had (at least publicly) restricted ourselves to Chinese goodthink. Can you use chopsticks? Yes. Do you like China? ... Yes. Do you have a Chinese girlfriend? ... No, not to my knowledge, no. Et cetera.

Cue the Dazhou Project. Suddenly, here were nine Type A American personalities who wanted to talk, and really talk; who wanted to drink, and really drink; who disagreed with me about everything, and really disagreed; who called me out on my bullshit; who caught my Simpsons references ... and there we were, arranged coed-wise on the second floor of a Chinese dormitory, sans-RA. So, understand that we weren't striving for delinquency - not exactly - but that the whole situation was trouble to begin with. I knew in advance that I wouldn't see most of these people ever again, and neither would they ever see me again, so we all felt the need to sneak our jabs in while we could.

Each and every night of the two-week Dazhou Experiment would prove a long night for me. Most of the other volunteers, save for a couple, were more responsible than I. Micah and Allison were generally the first to leave, but they are de facto married, so I don't fault them in the least for retiring early to their own private boudoir in order to perform their nightly duty to The Party. Jeesun would take off shortly thereafter; she has a boyfriend back in Philly to attend to, albeit virtually. Katie, as Moose's attorney and caretaker, would linger a bit, but only just long enough to make sure that Moose didn't asphyxiate on his own bullshit. Emily has managed to woo a Chinese boyfriend, and now that I know all about him and the work he does, I will refrain from saying anything else about their torrid Sino-Navajo affair - at any rate, she would receive a long-distance phone call from Chengdu around 1 AM and leave shortly after Katie. Emma, a Brit-Lit major, always hung around much longer than she ought to have, for as heated and perverse and decidedly un-Victorian as the conversation inevitably became. But even she gave up after a while. By 3 AM, the room had pretty much cleared out, leaving the unholy trinity of Moose, Jacob, and Panda to sort the universe out - until four, until five, until six AM. If there existed a 27 AM, I am sure that we would have discovered it, planted our flag in it, and stayed up 'til then.

But we had to get up at eight every morning. So there were chronological limits to our delinquency. And we pushed them. There were several nights where sleep seemed more joke than biological necessity. To sleep for one hour? Or to continue hashing out the parameters of the known and unknown universe? Both possibilities were absurd, but the latter possibility was much more fulfilling, so sleep always lost. Our conversations ranged from the banal - Super Mario 3, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Howard Cosell - to the otherworldly, and we made our conversational leaps unpretentiously and - or so it seemed to me at the time - seamlessly. But not always peacefully. There were tense moments where a three-man battle royale seemed on the verge of breaking out. But cooler heads always prevailed. And at the end of the night, fistpounds were exchanged. And on more than a few occasions, awkward three-way manbraces were shared. I learned much from those firewater-side chats, and in retrospect, I certainly wouldn't trade them for eighty hours of sleep that, as it turns out, I wouldn't need anyway.

And I'd love to transcribe some of those firewater-side chats for you. But anyone who has heard one's own voice on a tape recorder, or who has seen oneself on television, or who has watched someone else's impersonation of oneself is familiar with the extreme discomfort involved in retelling an inside joke, or reenacting a conversation, or replicating a personality. The microwaved, leftover result is unpalatable, to say the least. So, try as I might (and try I won't), I cannot and will not regurgitate any of the conversations that took place over the course of those two long, liver-curdling weeks. At this point, I'm not sure I can even remember them, though they changed me in such a way that long-term memory is insufficient and unnecessary. I suppose I will resign myself to saying that those two weeks were pseudointellectually significant for me, and then I will resign myself to finally getting on with my Great Flood of Dazhou saga, which may or may not be pseudointellectually significant for you.

That first night, I went to sleep at 27 AM. And then I woke up at 8 AM and taught teachers how to teach. As an icebreaker, I had my students (teachers) interview each other. They chatted in English. Pleased as hell, I walked around the room and constructively eavesdropped. Then I asked for a few volunteers to introduce their partners to the class. After a surreal two-minute standoff where nobody was quite able to muster the cojones to speak, I called on a fortysomething gentleman in the front row.

"Would you mind telling me about your English partner, Mr., er, ah, Zhang?"
"Sorry, teacher. But I cannot speak," said Mr. Zhang.
"Don't be shy! We're all friends here," I rejoined.
A round of applause from the studio audience. I felt, briefly, like Tony Robbins.
"No. Really I cannot speak," said Mr. Zhang. He slid his cellphone out from his pants pocket. "My father's hometown is flood and I must telephone my father. To see if he is still living."
"Jesus," I said. "Christ. No. Go. Call your father."
Mr. Zhang bowed slightly and ducked out of the room.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I announced, "if any of you are concerned about the existence of your relatives, please do not ask to leave my classroom. Just go."
My students took notes.

Somewhere along my errant way to Dazhou, I had drawn the short end of the chopstick, so I not only had to teach four hours that first day, but I also had to give a two-hour lecture on American Culture at 2 PM sharp. I raided Moose's stores of Nescafe and spent the early afternoon pacing the narrow, moldy perimeters of my hotel room, practicing my delivery, perfecting my timing, stiffarming my hangover. Then, well before I was ready, it came time to perform. What follows, I am sure, will seem like hyperbole. Because what follows will seem mostly unbelievable. And I realize that I have a habit of exaggerating or rearranging events in such a way that they make pseudoliterary sense. But what follows is what happened, more or less, as far as I can remember - and Moose as my witness, to the best of my ability, I have refrained from distorting these next five or ten paragraphs. Though I haven't written them yet, I know they will be very hard to write. It is easy, in my experience, to make the mundane interesting. It is infinitely more difficult to render reality believable.

It was a hot day and it had finally stopped raining. I swaggered into the lecture hall at 1:30 PM, unfashionably dressed but fashionably early. Kevin, my handler, embraced me against my will and asked if I wanted some water. Sure, I said. Give me two kuai, he said. Grumbling, I forked over twopence of my Peace Corps blood money, then I dished my USB stick to the IT Guy and stepped up to the podium. I checked out the audience. Hundreds of Chinese English teachers sat before me, fanning themselves, hawking loogies, toggling through the ringtones of their thousand-dollar Nokias. Check one two, I mumbled into the microphone. Check one two.

My American Culture 101 Powerpoint opens with the oldest trick in the Powerpoint book. A picture of Samuel L. Jackson. A picture of Daniel Day-Lewis. A picture of Khalil Gibran. A picture of Francis Fukuyama. Which of these individuals, I ask, is American? I cringe. I shudder. I drink more Nescafe. The Rest of the World would laugh me out of the lecture hall. But I have given this lecture all over Sichuan Province, and always the response has been the same.

Samuel L. is, at first, not American. An overwhelming NO from the audience. Then a murmuring ensues. Followed by a ruckus. The NBA is cited. LeBron and Kobe are cited. China loves basketball, and American basketball players are almost always black, so maybe, the audience figures, just maybe Americans can be black. After much heated debate, black people are agreed upon as perhaps, possibly, maybe Americans. Samuel L. Jackson is possibly, maybe, perhaps American.

Daniel Day-Lewis is unquestionably American at first, but my audience is clever and they sense a trick. So they shout a muddled yes/no that sounds something like "sysonooayshuysuesnoysy." Which I interpret as: maybe yes, maybe no. Daniel Day-Lewis is maybe American, maybe not American.

Then comes Khalil Gibran. Bearded, olive-skinned, Middle Eastern. The oldest Powerpoint trick in the Powerpoint book has been suddenly and completely forgotten. This man is not American. He is a Muslim. He is Osama Bin-Laden. He is a terrorist. NO, shouts the audience, NO NO NO. An overwhelming NO.

And then, Francis Fukuyama, who has been proclaiming (albeit absurdly) the end of history for several decades in unaccented English, he cannot be American, either. Because he is Chinese. He is one of us. NO, shouts the crowd, NO NO NO. An overwhelming NO.

I take a long swig of Nescafe. Next slide, I murmur. And cue the punchline: all of these people, but one, are Americans. Samuel L. Jackson is an American, Khalil Gibran is an American, and Francis Fukuyama is an American. But Daniel Day-Lewis, if he were in character, would pummel you with bowling balls for calling him American. He happens to be Irish, and he happens to have starred in one of my favorite films of all time, There Will Be Blood, a film that Jacob, my fellow volunteer, happens to hate with a fiery passion that will never die, and so on.

So it goes with my college kids: Americans are white and blue-eyed and yellow-haired and they are rich and they don't love their families and they can only eat beef and bread. And so it went, at first, with my teachers in Dazhou, who had been studying English for a quarter-century, who had (for a not insignificant amount of time) been steeped in some warped interpretation of American Culture. Disappointing, of course. Frustrating, certainly. But such is my work. By now, I am no longer fazed or unfazed by it. Neither jaded nor gilded. By now, I am merely determined.

I ruthlessly guzzled from my Thermos of Nescafe, and then I gave my students (my teachers) some hard statistics. True, America is mostly Caucasian, but it probably won't remain so. Cue pie chart. True, America was once rich, but it doesn't currently appear to be so. Cue line graph. True, America was born a Christian nation, though it certainly is not so today. Cue anecdote.

"My students often ask me if I am a Christian," I said. "'Teacher, you believe in Jesus, yes?' And I tell my students that, no, I do not believe in the Christian idea of god -"

I was so startled by what happened next that I did not appreciate the timing. Only much later did my fellow volunteers inform me (laughing their asses off) that my last words before the blackout were, "I do not believe in the Christian idea of god." So I hope their testimony contributes to whatever credibility I have as a narrator. It really happened this way, and I suppose that I am burdened with the responsibility of proving it.

I do not believe in the Christian idea of god, I said, period. And then, suddenly, all was dark, or slightly dimmed. My microphone was dead. The projector screen had gone black. My Chinese handlers sprung into action, were scrambling all over the place, fumbling with cords, unplugging and replugging electrical wires. Only after a full minute of total chaos did I begin to entertain the idea that the impending flood might have had something to do with anything. My audience, meanwhile, was caught up in an old-timey courtroom uproar. What's the big idea?, etc. I stood there at the podium, looking around for a gavel to bang.

My handlers in the front row gestured for me to keep going, to keep lecturing. But speaking over an audience of 300 Chinese adults, even with the aid of a PA system, is an exercise in ... well, it's really too much exercise to be worth anyone's while. My vocal cords were no match for the loogey-hawking masses. I knew that much from experience. So I tightroped the ledge of the stage and cleared my throat several times, then I paced back and forth and hawked a false loogey - perhaps this might summon their attention - and then, finally, I stood stock still behind the podium, scratched my head like the fop I am, and surveyed the scene. And as my eyes searched the audience for an audience, I spotted Moose a few rows back and saw that he had collapsed into his desk, and that he was laughing so hard that a Rorschach blotch of sweat had formed on the back of his shirt. And that set me off. I started laughing and I could not stop. I faceplanted into the podium and laughed into my elbowpits until there were no more laughs to be laughed. And then I hooted to myself, took a swig of Nescafe, and wandered off to the bathroom to take a much-needed piss. Eventually, I wandered out to the balcony for a much-needed smoke.

My students (teachers) had assembled there to watch the gathering flood. And after I'd lit my ciggie and recovered from the divine relief it afforded, I grew as entranced as my students were with nature's bubbling wrath. The raging brown waters of the pseudo-Yangtze were ten feet beneath us and rising. According to my neurotic calculations, the lecture hall would flood well before the end of my two-hour lecture. Meanwhile, traditional Sichuanese debris rafted past. A hot-pot table coasted by and my students shouted out the English word, "table!" The carved wooden fringes of a Buddhist temple floated past and in unison, my students said, "pagoda." We were learning vocabulary. Improving our Oral English. At one point, a vague, yellowish blob bobbed along downstream and several of my students murmured, "body." For the life of me, I couldn't tell how serious they were.

Katie, who was scheduled to follow up my lecture with something far more educational and informative, came out to the balcony and, unperturbed by the pending rapture, started playing with the roly-polies on the banister. She pinched one of them between her fingers and held it up, legs writhing, for all to see.

"This is a roly-poly," she said to my students, in her delightful sing-song teacher voice. "We have them in America, too!"
"Roly-poly," my students chanted. "Roly-poly!"

Though I love all creatures great and small, I would never lobby Congress on the behalf of insects, which I find terrifying and disgusting and insulting to all humanity. But Katie, bless her South Carolinian heart, right there and then set about crushing one unsuspecting Chinese roly-poly after another in the vain attempt to make them roll in the Western mode. And I could not abide.

"Jesus God. You're killing them!" I shouted.
"But they're roly-polies," she said, squishing one between her fingers. "They're supposed to roll!"
"No. They're Chinese roly-polies," I said. "They're Confucian. Who knows what they will do when provoked?"

And what they did was this: they died. En masse. Feebly, I tried to stop Katie, but she was on a mission. A crusade. She aimed to convert these heathen, anti-roly polies with the sword. To Katie's mind, these lightly armored Chinese insects were roly-polies, whether they knew it or not, and she would teach them how to roll by force, if necessary. It got ugly real fast. She killed at least eight of them before I could stop her. Meanwhile, my students (teachers) were murmuring the words "roly-poly" and "dead." I tried to disrupt Katie's Inquisition by pointing out a daddy long legs that happened to be high-stepping its way up a nearby wall. And I was genuinely excited. I hadn't seen a daddy long legs in years, not since I lived in Missouri, and was amazed to find one in Dazhou, of all places.

"Daddy long legs!" I shouted.
"Daddy long legs," repeated my students.
"House," a few of them murmured, as somebody's living room tumbled past.
"Daddy long legs," I said.
"Car," they agreed.
"Roly-poly," they remembered.
"Daddy long legs."

Katie reached for the daddy long legs and I smacked her hand.

Then Kevin, my handler, embraced me from behind and dragged me back into the lecture hall.

"Good news. We have a generator," he said. "The power is on. You had better finish your lecture now."

Evidently, my Powerpoint would continue, even as our lives were transitioning ever more ominously towards the final slide.

I reassumed the stage. Check onetwo, I said into the revived microphone, check onetwo. A round of applause. I opted to skip over the blasphemous segment of my lecture and said, hastily, "Not everyone in America is a Christian. Moving right along -" And then there came a deafening pop from the PA system and the lights went out again.

More scrambling. More plugging and replugging. I paced the stage. I took a swig of Nescafe. Then, outside, the flood sirens went off. Which did much in the way of convincing me that I was not merely neurotic, that I hadn't overdosed on Nescafe, that in fact there was a very real natural disaster about to take place. And who was I to lecture on diversity in the face of the all-devouring apocalypse? That, or something like it, was the modest appeal I levied against my handlers, in Chinese and in English, but they were not to be persuaded. The show must go on, after all. My handlers did not seem aware of any conflict of interest, not even of that one interest we are all interested in as humans, as living things, as organisms: that of survival. Out of politeness, I fought the urge to run for the hills. Then I conquered that urge and stood there on stage like Merriam-Webster's definition of an oaf. Though my audience was, by that time, either half-panicked or half-asleep, my handlers insisted that my lecture must proceed, and that my audience must remain. In the moments that followed, my handlers spontaneously generated a generator that regenerated the generator which revived the electrical system of the lecture hall in which I was supposed to complete my lecture while the gathering flood threatened to dampen the whole damned party, and that right soon.

The projector screen fired up again. The microphone screeched, a banshee of feedback. I took a long swig of Nescafe - my last, I wondered? - cleared my throat and proceeded.

"Anyhow. America is a very diverse place. Diverse. Many different kinds of people. And some of them don't believe in - "

The speakers popped, the screen went black. There was a kind of finality about the third blackout that pleased me. I was free, and I knew it. My heart rejoiced for its renewed prospect of beating and thumping and stumbling into the indefinite future. The crowd got up to leave. I stepped down from the stage. My handler negotiated with his handler for a time - perhaps there was a third meta-generator in the broom closet? - then he slowly approached, gripped me by the bicep, and told me that my lecture had been postponed until tomorrow.

"Sweet. Will there be a tomorrow?" I asked, as a matter of journalistic interest.
"Yes. Always," my handler said.
"Cool. Thanks for the water," I said, and took a grateful swig from my bottle of Nongfu Springs, even as the undrinkable, unfishable, unswimmable springs of Dazhou County began to trickle into the lecture hall. I rolled up my pantlegs, and so did everyone else. Then, right on cue, hordes of barechested Chinese peasants entered stage right and started loading the amplifiers, the computers, the podium, et al, started hauling everything out of the auditorium. Much panting, much chanting, many loogeys were hawked. Exit Panda stage left.

I ran into Jacob on the way to the hotel. He was sweaty and short of breath, dressed in Marvel Comics-themed athletic attire.

"Aren't you supposed to be lecturing, man?"
"Canceled," I said, "due to apocalypse. Whatchoo doing?"
"I was just playing basketball. With the children," he added dismissively. "You had lunch yet?"

We went to the cafeteria, or what Chinese students refer to (in their delightfully Orwellian English) as the "canteen." The food wasn't half-bad, but it wasn't half-good, either. Moose joined us after a bit. We laughed a lot, as we are wont to do, and our laughs echoed. Aside from the three of us, the canteen was empty. But before we'd had time to give up on our food, the canteen began to fill up with shirtless peasants. They lingered around for a while and smoked, spat on the floor, shouted at each other. It wasn't clear, at first, why they were there at all. Then they sprung into action. They smoked and spat their way outside, and under the command of some derelict peasant captain, started hauling in tables, desks, chairs, sound equipment, computers, et al. They were at work. They were preparing for the flood. They deposited all the heavy, valuable stuff in the back of the canteen. A questionable move, I thought, given the proximity of the canteen to the very flood waters they were trying to avoid. These gnarled old men were moving tens of tons of equipment up a single flight of stairs, while the river, from the looks of things, appeared quite capable of washing Dazhou right off the map. Rearranging rickshaws on the Titanic, or however the idiom goes.

I couldn't bring myself to finish my undercooked twice-cooked pork and I was in desperate need of a nap, so I bid zai jian to my 27 AM partners in absurdity and left the canteen.

In China, crowds will gather around just about anything worth watching - a fatal car accident, a cellphone promotion, a Tibetan junk vendor, a laowai - and the crowds had turned out in droves for the Great Flood of Dazhou. As a foreigner, I tend to avoid crowds, because if I'm not careful, I will become the center of their attention. But I happened to be passing by. Happened to have nothing better to do. And I happened to be very curious about the horde of people standing outside the canteen, because they weren't talking much, weren't smiling, were unusually sullen for a pack of Chinese rubberneckers. So I wormed my way into the crowd and got up on my tippy-toes to see what, exactly, they were looking at.

There were two attractions, I suppose. First of all, there were the peasants: the lao bai xing, the bang bang men. These men are the beauty of China. They represent all that is good. They carry burdens for a living. And there they were, hauling the Dazhou University Music Department pianos up and out of the flood zone. Impossibly old men carrying pianos. They say an ant can lift 50 times its own weight. The bang bang men worked in crews of eight. Eight scrawny old, wiry old shirtless men, lifting a baby grand out of the muck and up an uneven flight of stairs, then collectively lugging it twenty feet before setting it down with a gentle thump! in the rear of the students' canteen. Fascinating, inspiring, horrible to watch. The coxswain would bark - HEAVE! - and seven oldsters would chant, HEAVE HEAVE HEAVE. HEAVE! HEAVE HEAVE HEAVE. HEAVE! HEAVE HEAVE HEAVE. These men were old enough to be your great-grandpa, if not greater. I stood there and watched. I couldn't believe that these oldsters, scrawny and malnourished as they were, were up to the task, and there were moments where it seemed the piano would slip from their fingers, tumble end over end, and smash with a splash and a Thelonious Monk discord at the flooded foot of the stairs. But the bang bang men persevered and got the job done without fail. They delivered twelve baby grands to the canteen without so much as a scratch, while they, the scarred, bruised, battered lao bai xing, were already well beyond repair.

But the main attraction was the river itself. It flowed and it raged. It thundered. It muscled along like an unimaginably large serpent snaking past in the gathering gloom. It rumbled. It breathed. It held us under its spell. The old men weaved their legs into the balcony and sat, smoking cigarettes and watching the river. Here was nature, our old nemesis, our one-time adversary, now strapped down to the bed, etherized, tranquilized, subdued. Long ago we conquered it, put signs all over it, made it a tourist attraction. Were awfully smug about all that, and justifiably so. But now, the river, on a whim, had reduced us all to ants. Reminded us that yes, we had defeated it, but could nevertheless be washed away, erased, obliterated with a careless shrug of the shoulders. The river. I couldn't take my eyes off it. The power there. I thought nothing, felt nothing. I was not afraid. Understand, I fear petty things, and fear them deeply. I am afraid of insects, Styrofoam, flying in airplanes. I fear chalkboards and advanced mathematics and swimming pools. But I did not fear the river right then, or the annihilation it promised with a mudshot wink as the smog-blurred sun fell down behind its back. I was interested in the river. I studied it. I was, I suppose, learning from it.

One month before I set out on my Dazhou adventure, well before much of western China flooded, I wrote the following:

One day the river will march single file, overflowing its banks, and it will inundate the world in its uniform earthtone, reflecting itself and itself and itself, on and on forever, and it will wash all the dirt away like a glass of lemonade spilled onto an anthill.

I wrote those words with a lot of caffeine in my system, and I wrote them about a thoroughly domesticated creek in Chengdu. That creek will never flood. I imagined it could at the time, that it was capable. But I did not mean for those words to be prophetic. I didn't foresee the Great Flood of Dazhou. At the time, I foresaw another cup of coffee, and that is all. But I do find those words rather apropos when I think back on that uncertain evening in Dazhou, watching the waters tumble past in the background, even as they seeped and inched their way into the foreground. Wondering how to react, wondering whether I should panic, whether I should laugh, whether I should feel anything at all. Wondering whether I ought not to call somebody important and cancel the whole Dazhou Experiment straightaway. But no, I have always found that the best course of action is inaction, especially in times of helplessness. Past a certain point, you have to let go and recognize your role as an ant, as a pebble caught in the flood of history, of physics, of nature, and all the rest. We are pebbles, I suppose. No more, no less. And once you let go, the whole existential shitshow is tremendously fun to watch, free will be damned. Let go. Enjoy. Laugh. And try to write about it, if you have time. Over the years, I have come to accept my place as an observer, as a pebble, as a somewhat intelligent ant. There remains much to overcome, much to be fought for, much to rebel against, and humanity needs a great deal of help in that direction. But I am no longer interested in hauling baby grands up uneven staircases. That job, perhaps, belongs to other, more courageous pebbles. That task is beyond me. I like to watch, and to think, and to laugh, and to write about the shitshow as it unravels. Why are we here? What is human destiny? What does it all mean? I have my guesses, but I don't know. Nobody knows. And I don't suppose anyone ever will. But isn't it pretty to wonder about?

Down by the river, while I gawked, a couple of college girls hovered in my hairy midst. They giggled about me, chatted to each other about me, worked up the courage to talk to me. And after a while I preemptively struck: I talked to them. They were from Zigong, but had come to Dazhou to study. They were freshmen.

"Do you live on campus?" I asked in my motley Mandarin.
"Yes," one of the girls said. "We live here."
She indicated the dormitory in front of us.
"We live there."
"That's awfully close to the river," I said. "Aren't you worried about the flood?"
"Yes. Very much so," she said. "If the water gets any higher, we're going to have to move all of our things."
"Where will you move them?" I asked.
"We don't know."

The girl giggled, blushed. Her accomplice was silent, giggled a bit. I was the first foreigner they had ever spoken to or giggled with. The flood seemed like a serious enough dilemma to me, but the girls were more shaken by their first conversation with a laowai than they were by the looming deluge.

The sun went down. It floated for a moment like a mandarin orange on the surface of the river. Then it sank beneath the waters and the light vanished. The world dimmed, the shadows spread, and only the immediate foreground remained visible: the flooded shops, the climbing waters, silhouettes, cigarette ends that blossomed and faded into the darkness. I took out my battered cellphone and sent a quick message to Jacob: "The river is climbing up the steps to campus. Ought to come see it." I waited, but Jacob didn't answer, and he didn't come out to watch. Meanwhile, the river inched and centimetered its way up the stairs. The same stairs the oldsters had climbed an hour before, chanting and spitting, with pianos on their backs. The brown waters made their way up the stairs, stood poised halfway for a moment like an asthmatic old man, and then they climbed further - subtly, almost imperceptibly, like a tedious argument of insidious intent, to borrow a quote.

I bid farewell to the college girls, wished them luck, and walked back to the hotel. I lit a cigarette along the way, smoked it for a bit, but stubbed it out before I could really enjoy it. I waved to the desk clerk and went upstairs. Perhaps, I hoped, Moose would buy me the first round. And perhaps life would proceed as normal in spite of the flood. I would sleep at 27 AM, wake up at 8 AM and teach teachers how to teach. There will be a tonight and there will be a tomorrow. This is the assumption we all must make. It's no leap of faith in my book. It is a necessity. What else do we have? Life will resume as it always has. The show must go on. Eventually, I suppose, it won't. But isn't it pretty to think so? And isn't it unpleasant to think otherwise?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've heard whispers from the dark corners of the internet that you're writing a book? Reading this makes me want to purchase said Grimoire.