Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pepto Bismol Dawn

I went to bed around midnight but never got around to sleeping. My mind did crossword puzzles for half an hour, amused itself with half-baked puns and not-quite jokes. Then it jolted me awake at 1 AM with an idea. I hustled to the study and sat down in front of my laptop. I cracked my knuckles and typed the following:

"What if there were a bank where you could walk in, hand over your money, and the teller would give you an equivalent amount of food in return ..."

In that goofy frame of unconscious mind, The Bank of Food struck me as a sturdy foundation for an 800-page utopian novel. My magnum opus. But before I'd even broken ground on the second paragraph, the fog began to part, and I realized that, yes, such banks already exist. They call them restaurants. Dumbass.

By then I was fully awake and, given my work schedule, I decided that this was not a good thing. So I went back to bed and lay there reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Nothing like a thousand-page novel about a prison cell to put a man to sleep, I figured. But I have always been a carcerophile, so I read and kept reading until my Kindle ran out of juice. I was horrified when I checked the clock again and saw that it was 4:30. I needed to be up in two hours. Well, shit. I had committed myself to another zombie Monday. So I went back out to the study, dumped a couple kilos of Nescafe into a preexisting vat of lukewarm waterlike fluid, and drank my first cuppa of the stillborn day. I started writing, and I wrote until my laptop ran out of juice, until the shaded windows started glowing. I parted the blinds and saw that the sun was coming up. The sky was pink.

I took a birdbath in the sink, brushed my teeth in the shower, and poured all my Nescafe proceeds into a plastic water bottle for the road. I started walking to school. It was 6:30.

Mornings are by far the most pleasant time of day in China, and it's really a shame that I'm never awake for them. China's circadian rhythm doesn't start pounding until 7 AM, so I had a solid half-hour to enjoy the sounds of Nanchong rather than its ruckus, its sights rather than its spectacles, and its windborne aromas rather than its airborne diseases.

The streets were empty, aside from the occasional geriatric tai ji guru, sculpting and slow-mo chopping the air. They say you can kick a man's ass that way, but I imagine it takes a while. There was an oldster dance troupe in the square behind the Confucius statue, a bunch of grandmas two-stepping to a Chinese Salt 'n Pepa jam pumping from an old school boombox propped up at Confucius' learned feet. I caught my first heckle of the day at 6:47 AM, a scaldingly loud lao-WAI from a college kid, and all I could muster in return was the saddest, weariest "Why?" face, a face that made me shudder, and my heckler, too.

I've been rooting for winter this year. A first for me. As a native Nebraskan, winter is not something I would wish upon anyone, least of all myself. But summer hung around a bit too long, if you ask me, lingered like a stale barroom conversation well into the middle of October. I'd long since wanted to call for the tab and move onto the next thing, though I knew full well the next thing was another gray and miserable November in Nanchong.

That Monday morning, winter came in with the Pepto Bismol dawn, and Nanchong was once again all mud and London fog and puddles so deep that you'll lose your shoes in them if you're not careful. Just the way I remembered the place.

The sidewalk tiles are the same wherever you go in China, the same alternately off-red and bright yellow bricks, etched with the same pattern of parabolas, on and on forever. The sidewalks in Nanchong were laid either in great haste or with awe-inspiring laziness. If you had a mind to do so, you could pluck the tiles out one by one with a pair of chopsticks. If it's rained sometime in the past week - a safe bet in Nanchong - the tiles will spurt murky black water all over your pantlegs when you step on them. On at least two occasions that I can remember, the tiles have belched up live toads. Which isn't all that surprising. There are toads all over the place in Nanchong. You very rarely see them alive, but come autumn, the streets are practically tarred with squashed toads and artistic splashes of dried black toad blood. The other day, I saw a live toad that was as big as a small dog. I know this because there was a small dog standing right next to the toad, unawares. So I had time to compare. The toad hopped and the dog ran for its ever-loving life.

Nanchong winters are not Nebraskan winters. There is no snow, for one thing. And the temperature seldom drops below freezing, for another. But by some hideous miracle of humidity and air pressure, the winters here are perhaps even worse than the ones I've grown to know and loathe in the American Midwest. It is, as they say, a damp cold. It's colder indoors than it is outdoors. And likewise, you are colder inside than you are outside. You'll find yourself sweating, even as your bones have turned to icicles. It is a murky, gloomy, dead sort of cold. And yet I couldn't wait for it to come. And now it is here. And it will remain here through March. Or April. Winter, too, will wear out its welcome.

The classroom was frigid and dank as the Château d'If. My students were already watching an overdubbed version of The Gods Must Be Crazy as I ascended to my rightful throne. I clicked "stop" and my students groaned.

"Actually, today, we're going to finish watching The Joy Luck Club - "

NO!!!!! they shouted in unison.



A first. My students love The Joy Luck Club. Unconditionally.

"We want watch this movie!"

Watch this movie! they chanted, watch this movie!

And another first: I was legitimately pissed off at my students.

"No. This movie is in Chinese," I snapped. "This is an English class. I was nice enough to let you watch a movie today. So if it's boring to you, we can always, oh, I don't know, practice speaking English or something - "


I put on the film and took my place in the very back row of the classroom, where the desktop graffiti is vulgar and amusing. I've watched The Joy Luck Club sixteen times by now. Buy me a beer and I'll recite the whole damned thing for you.

Something I neglected to mention in my last post: I'm actually very popular on campus, at least among those students who actually know me. My former students adore me, and I adore them. Which only makes my college life all the more schizophrenic.

On my way out to lunch, I passed a trio of sexually frustrated twerps, and one of them barked, "FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU."

"Thanks," I muttered.

In the next instant, a gaggle of young ladies spotted me and started giggling.

"Mr. Panda! Hey! What's up?"
My old students.
"Howdy, ladies," I called out, suddenly jovial. "How you doin'?"

They giggled some more, and I smiled all the way to the next heckler.

It was noon and I had another four hours of teaching ahead of me. It was already a full 24 hours since I'd last slept. I had three hours to kill before my first afternoon class and no money to spend, and the tiles spewed raw sewage all over my shoes as I walked. And I walked, just looking for somewhere ... to go.


Adventures In China said...

I could feel that cold all over again. What a masterfully written essay, as usual.

"Mornings are by far the most pleasant time of day in China, and it's really a shame that I'm never awake for them."

I like this line.

alison said...

"Magic tiles." I should write a haiku ode to magic tiles.