Saturday, September 04, 2010

You Are Here

I woke up this morning to the tune of a heavy metal nightmare. A demolition crew was sledgehammering the nape of my skull in the name of Progress, and I could not regress into sleep. I groaned and cursed my way into consciousness. Who, and where, was I? Neither question yielded an immediate answer. "Hungover" was the first word that sprang to mind. So I popped the VHS cassette labeled "Friday Night" into my memory and rewound the tape to see if I could count just how many formaldehyde beers I had imbibed the previous evening. When I got back to around 10 PM, I pressed Play. I fiddled with the tracking knob and trolled through the night's festivities scene by scene. Then I rewound some more. And then, shaking my head, I rewound even further. When I finally arrived back at lunchtime yesterday, having found naught but sobriety, I pressed Stop and ejected the tape. Jesus. I hadn't had anything to drink at all last night. Why, then, the demolition crew? Why, O merciful Christ, the hangover? That was when I sat up, parted the curtains, and remembered that I was still in China.

If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning. I'd hammer in the evening. All over this land.

Peter, Paul, and Mary: you could've written goddamned national anthems. China hammers in the morning. It hammers in the evening. And it hammers, and ball-peen hammers, and jackhammers. All over this land. People and Republicans alike, beware: the People's Republic, until further notice, is under construction.

The clock on the bedstand told me that it was 9 AM, and it's never been one to lie. I held my eyes open until they stuck that way. The sun was up. The Chinese destruction workers were up. So I figured that I might as well get up, too. It was well before my out-of-bed time, but there is no sense in even trying to get back to sleep when somebody somewhere is simultaneously renovating and annihilating the very apartment building you're sleeping in. So I wrestled myself out of bed, put on today's t-shirt and yesterday's jeans, slipped on 1967's shoes, fixed 1984's hairdo, and sauntered off into the mildly carcinogenic mist of 21st Century China.

I walked for several hours, walked from the sunblasted flats of the new-and-improved campus, across the murky, undeveloped netherlands, along the shoulder of the highway, over the dusty bridge that gracelessly hurdles the drooling river, through the exhausting haze of industry, past the gaping maws of gawpers, between the catcalls and heckles and beckons and leers and sneers and jeers and HAH-LOOs that are the bread and butter of my Chinese existence, and finally, into the throbbing, stomping twelve-cylinder heart of downtown Nanchong.

I was on a mission of sorts, you see. After a grueling three-day work week, I was on a mission to stamp my own passport and check out of China, if only mentally, if only for a couple of hypercaffeinated hours. I was on a mission to sit down and write. And I was on a mission to find Holly's Bakery, a coffee joint downtown that my Mennonite neighbor had opened sometime over the summer, while I was so busy stiffarming floods. There would be coffee, or so she had told me. Real coffee, or so she had reassured me. The only trouble was, I possessed not even the scantiest idea of where in the hell to find the place. And what with my nonsense of direction, what with Nanchong's labyrinthine streets, what with the daredevil taxis and kamikaze mopeds playing scotch whiskey hopscotch all over those gibberish roads - what with all that, I began to doubt that I would live long enough to pound that elusive espresso at the end of the doubleshot rainbow.

I drifted for an hour. The city tied me in double windsors. It made a balloon animal out of me. Eleven AM rolled around and, right on schedule, a rough-and-tumble crew of caffeine-withdrawn destruction workers set to work jackhammering my prefrontal cortex. I lit a cigarette but it did nothing for me. You cannot smoke coffee. Coffee cannot be smoked. In the streets I was descended upon by a flock of shrouded women belonging to a nondescript religion, and they made me sign things that I wouldn't have agreed to in English. And just as I'd given up hope, just as those dreaded Nescafe DTs started to kick in, I chanced to trip over a stream of pee, ejaculated by a nearby Chinese toddler, which sent me tumbling over a guardrail, which sent me hurdling towards an unusually western windowframe, and so it was that I stumbled across Holly's Bakery - nearly stumbled into it, in fact. I mashed my face against the glass and saw that the place was open, and empty. I went inside.

And I could smell it. Coffee. Real coffee. I need not describe the aroma. No description would suffice.

Coffee. I had arrived. I had awoken from a long, sweaty Nescafe nightmare and ascended into a finely ground Columbian wet dream. After wandering for forty days and forty nights through the freeze-dried desert, I had staggered and stumbled, clambered and crawled and finally collapsed at the pointed toes of a pair of Bogota snakeboots, had gazed slowly upwards, following the endless khaki to a golden belt buckle that segued into a sky blue button-down that collared a scruffy neck that reset its watch to a five o'clock shadow that spread into a lush Latino mustachio that just begged a sombrero - and there he was, the man himself: Juan Valdez, standing there proudly, austerely, alongside his loyal donkey, saying something rather congenial in Spanish, a bottomless pot of brew extended in his caffeine-palsied hand.

I had arrived. Holly's Bakery. The place reeked of coffee. But still I had my doubts. Odors can be deceiving. Especially in China. Trembling there at the counter, flipping through the one-page menu, teetering on the ledge between heart-palpitating hope and decaffeinated woe, I ordered a double espresso. The nice Chinese girl with the hipster glasses said hao and disappeared. I sat down in the darkest nook I could find. I tried to read, but the sentences kept repeating themselves. I fidgeted. I twitched. I paced while seated, if that is possible. And then, from the kitchen, came the soothing wail of an espresso machine. I allowed myself, then, to hope. Ever so slightly.

I sat waiting for a stranger to approach and ask me for English lessons, for my phone number, whether I could use chopsticks. But there was no one in the cafe except for me and the hipster barista, and she didn't seem like the type. I watched the binge-shopping Chinese masses scroll by in the street, and they every so often stopped to watch me - sitting there, doing nothing - through the window. I felt like a goldfish. So I puffed my cheeks out. And then the barista came with the coffee. She set the cup down upon the table, and the cup steamed. Then she handed me a goblet of real cream. And two packets of real sugar. I thanked her. No thanks, she said. Then I mixed the stuff together with a junkie's abandon and drank it all down in a single esophagus-razing gulp. And it was good. And my soul rejoiced. I sighed and sank into my loveseat like it was a Jacuzzi. I jittered around a bit from the shock. Then I pulled myself back up to my feet so I could order an Americano.

I had come to Holly's Bakery to escape, to drink myself walleyed on real coffee, and eventually, to write. I suppose that at any given time, I am meaning to write. But existence has a way of getting between me and the nude, white, college-ruled page. I appreciate existence for that reason. It gives me material to work with. It fills in the blanks for me. It dissolves my writer's block. I welcome the interruptions of the world, its distractions, its non sequiturs, as long as they don't involve a stranger asking me for English lessons, or my phone number, or whether I can use chopsticks, and so on. Before my Americano had arrived, before I had time to even think about uncapping my pen, the bell jangled, the door opened, and in came Meghan, my new Nanchongmate. An odd coincidence, but a perfectly welcome interruption. Shortly thereafter, Shelley, wearing a Vietnamese rice paddy hat for some reason, arrived, along with Christy, Jacob's successor. I put my notebook away, brushed the bohemian dust off my shoulders and assumed my role as Peace Corps mentor.

Which is a strange role for me. After a year in China, I feel like I know less about the place than I did before I got here. Thankfully, The Force is strong with these young Peace Corps acolytes. I am sure that they will do wonderfully without my help. They have already learned most of the things I was supposed to teach them in the first place, have learned many things that I do not know myself. So the less I explain, perhaps, the better. They are curious, of course. They have questions about China. And when I do shoot off at the mouth, I'm surprised at how much I have learned, and how much I've adjusted to over the past year. But I can well remember what it was like to arrive in Sichuan - naked, as it were; how new everything felt at first, how bizarre it all seemed. And I enjoy reliving those sensations, albeit vicariously. Because they remind me that I am still in China, that I can never assume anything, and that I can never quite be sure what, exactly, is coming down the pipe next.

We talked for a long time, the four of us, then we paid our tab and left. Out in the street, we were suddenly laowais again. Points, stares, laughter. The other three foreign devils went their way and I went mine. I had a cab to catch and a tutor to pay. As I approached Medical School Avenue, I ran up against a crowd of people. I pressed my way through the crowd until I collided with a pack of police officers shoving us all back. The police were waving their arms at us and shouting. It took me a moment to figure out what they were saying, and after I'd understood it, I wasn't sure how to react. Probably, I should have turned and run for my life.

"GET OUT OF HERE! GET OUT OF HERE! GO! MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!" the police were shouting. They were shoving us away from the street. A second later, I heard women screaming, and saw a handful of people running in the opposite direction, away from the police. And a second after that, I saw even more people running towards the street, towards the police, to check out whatever calamity was about to take place. And then I heard a high-pitched hissing and glanced up to see that a massive electrical transformer some twenty feet above, some ten feet away - and nestled ever so cozily against the wall of a four-story apartment complex - was spitting bright blue sparks into the air. It was then that I understood. Ah, yes. Death. So I backed away, but not very quickly. I was still interested, still rubbernecking. I took a few steps and turned to look back, not quite sure what the magnitude of the situation was. Then there came a shrill scream from the crowd as the sizzling transformer splashed fireworks against the sky. Everyone started to run. So I ran, too. After I'd put about fifty smoker's lung yards between myself and the pending explosion, I ran into Meghan and Christy.

"You again, eh?"
"Yeah!" I gasped, panting. "Yo, check it. That transformer over there is about to - "


" - explode."

I should stop apologizing for my Chinese existence. Unbelievable, bizarre, and horrific things happen in this country every day. And every now and again, I am lucky or unlucky enough to witness them. And I write about those things when I can. I just hope that you don't disbelieve them. I do switch insignificant events around so that they read better, and sometimes I airbrush them so that they look prettier. But that's part of my job. Otherwise, you couldn't bring yourself to read it. For all that, there are certain things that I do not and cannot bullshit. And the above sequence of events went exactly as it reads. Yo, check it. That transformer over there is about to - BAM! - explode. And it did. Anticlimactically, I thought. I had turned my head just in time to see it burst. It blew out in a bright blue box of fire. And that was all.

A minor disaster. Thankfully, not a major one. But you dodge minor disasters left and right in China. And up and down, for that matter. Every cab ride is a five-slug game of Sino-Russian roulette. I often forget the existential caprice you sign up for when you decide to live in China. I'm used to it by now. But life anywhere is worthy of a million-page waiver. No day is a sure thing. The morning promises nothing to the night. Even within the stumbling distance between man and coffee house, nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed. So don't you let me forget that. I am here. In China. And as long as I'm here, I might as well just cozy up to that fact.

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