Fourteen days, I been sleepin' in a barn
Better get a paycheck tattooed on my arm
The dog days of summer took a rabid bite out of my ass. And in this country, loss of ass is the ultimate loss of face. So on a trashy Tuesday afternoon, I hobbled on down the road to consult my friendly neighborhood practitioner of Chinese medicine, the provincially feared Dr. Wu.
I found him behind the counter, in the lotus position, levitating four feet off the ground with a stale cigarette butt clenched between his teeth. It took him a full minute to notice me. Then his mouth dropped open like a glove compartment, the cigarette fell dead to the floor, and he barked the word laowai. Disbelieving, he hawked a loogey and the loogey levitated, too. Gross, I said.
"Where are you from?" Dr. Wu asked.
"Can you use chopsticks?"
"Do you like China?"
"Do you want a cigarette?"
He hovered back down to his bare feet. He squeezed a pack of Hongmeis from the pocket of his robe, offered me one, and lit one for himself. We smoked, sizing each other up. Then I cleared my throat and kowtowed before him. He nodded.
"Symptoms," he grunted.
I described my affliction to Dr. Wu in the most apt cartoon metaphors I could think of at the time.
"When I open my wallet, flies come out," I said. "When I look at my friends, I see hotdogs and hamburgers. When I pass a restaurant window, I turn into a wolf and my tongue dangles way the fuck out my mouth."
"Yes, yes. And when you try to withdraw money from the ATM, a sad trombonist plays a descending glissando somewhere in the distance."
"That's the one," I said.
"Hmm," he hmmed, gathering his fu manchu into a goatee. "Yes. I understand. You are hungry but no food fills. You are thirsty but no cold beverage quenches. You are jonesing but no cigarette soothes. You punch in your PIN number but no ATM machine puts out."
"Yes. It is clear to me now. All very clear. Yes."
"Is it serious, Dr. Wu?"
"It is serious. Very, very serious," he said, shaking his head. "I am afraid it is Ah Q Disease."
"Ah Q Disease? What the hell does that mean?"
"It means - " and here, he paused to light his second Hongmei with his first. Then he smirked. "It means: bitch, you broke."
I begged and pleaded for the antidote.
"Doctor," I said, "ain't there nothing I can swallow? To put some money in my wallet?"
Dr. Wu snapped his fingers and his cigarette vanished. He smirked.
"I said, doctor, ain't there nothing I can swallow? I said, doc-tor, to put some money in my wallet?
He gazed at me wearily, muttered something to himself, then sank down below the counter and rifled around in the shelves. He reemerged with a vial of black slime and a fun-sized box of Cocoa Puffs.
"You put the slime in the Cocoa Puffs and you drink 'em both together," he said. "You put the slime in the Cocoa Puffs, and you'll feel better."
"Now lemme get this straight," I said. "I put the slime in the Cocoa Puffs and I drink 'em both up."
He nodded. "You put the slime in the Cocoa Puffs. And call me in the morning."
I took out my wallet.
"How much?" I asked.
"And what is the slime, exactly?"
"Pulverized Left Buttock of Landlord. Good for treating poverty," he said, "and The Clap."
"And where'd you get the Cocoa Puffs?"
When I got home, I put the slime in the Cocoa Puffs and mixed them up real good with a chopstick. I took a deep breath and chugged down the whole sugary-sulfurous concoction in a single gulp, with a beer chaser. Then, after a mad dash across the room, I chundered it all into the kitchen sink. Holding my own hair back and groaning, I fumbled around for the vial, squinted at the label, and made out the fine print at the bottom: "NO BEER CHASERS."
I flopped down on the living room couch. I didn't have the money for another vial of Pulverized Left Buttock of Landlord. So there was nothing to do but while away my last hours watching Season Five of The Wire. I took a break after Episode Four to look up Ah Q Disease on Wikipedia. The prognosis wasn't good. I'd have to quit smoking. And drinking. And unless I amputated my broke ass myself, I only had three episodes to live.
Apologies. I am speaking in metaphors again. Yet another symptom of Ah Q Disease.
This is my roundabout way of saying that, bitch, I was broke. It was September the 16th, and I had already blown most of my September stipend way back in August. I was feeling generous at the time, so I decided to donate my Peace Corps proceeds to the Chinese Economy. It was for a good cause. Or so I thought. At the time.
August was a wild and delirious month. My brothers and sisters of Peace Co., Ltd. were being shipped back home one by one, so I voyaged to Chengdu to see them off, one by one. I made that trip more times than I can now remember. Looking back, the entire month of August kind of bleeds together into a single regrettable night on the town. It was like going to an Irish wake every day of the week. Who knows, me lad, when you'll ever see the likes of these people again? Vijay's last words to me were "Black Power," accompanied by a feeble brown fist thrust halfheartedly into the air. And Jacob faded into the night with his usual nonsense. "I reap what I say," he said. "You reap what you say?" I asked. "I reap what I say," he said. Then he was gone. And so on. By the end of it, I was taking saline tablets to replenish my tear ducts. By the end of it, my wallet looked like a cirrhotic liver. By the end of it, my liver looked like my wallet.
I found out school was starting about twelve hours before school started. I received a phone call from my handler around 8 PM. Class starts tomorrow at 8 AM, she told me. You had better not be late. A polite string of affirmatives from my end. Well, I'm in Chengdu at the moment, but ... I didn't know, but ... Okay. Yes. Good. Good. Great. Yes. That's fine. Yes, ma'am. I'll be there. Then, a button was pushed, a tone sounded, and a torrent of profanities sprung out of my lips like a canned snake. This is how the semester starts, not with a bang but an f-bomb.
So, ragged and sleep-deprived, with a pocketful of lint and a mouthful of sand, I caught a black cab back to Nanchong. By the time I got home, it was already too late for sleep, so I stayed up planning the next day's lesson. I smoked like a film noir dick until the night turned black as coffee, until the unsuspecting sun woke up and was silently chloroformed by the noxious gray fumes of Nanchong County.
My Mandarin tutor got wind of my return and came by in the afternoon to remind me of an old I.O.Her. Another five hundred kuai out the window. The days leaked past. My stocks tanked. Eventually, my pockets grew so light that I no longer needed a belt to keep my pants up. Then my stomach shrank until I once again needed a belt to keep my pants up.
I wasn't living the lush life any longer. I was living like a bohemian Gandhi. Drinking tap water. Subsisting on rice and ramen. Smoking cigarette butts. I was wringing quarters out of pennies. But given the kind of August I'd had, and figuring in September's daily commute, figuring in photocopies for 400-odd students, figuring in the occasional bowl of rice, figuring in the foreigner tax that I pay when I'm not paying attention, and the stupidity tax that keeps me in cigarettes - figuring in all of that, and after a week or two, even on my very best behavior, I found myself in dire financial straits well before payday. Which was Monday, rumor had it. Or Tuesday, according to more reputable sources. And as timing would have it, Wednesday through Saturday were a bank holiday.
On the Friday in question, payday was three or four or eight days away, and I could hear poverty buzzing in my ears like one of those fat Chinese houseflies that possess a special affinity for human ear canals. So instead of taking the bus that afternoon, I walked the five miles to class. By the time I'd arrived, the resurgent Sichuanese sun had worked me over and I was wearing a shirtbeard of sweat. And a tan, apparently.
"He's turned black!" gasped a student in the front row.
The Children were appalled. Me, I was flattered. I'm one of those guys who has a permanent beard tan. I'm whiter than white on rice. But when I glanced in the bathroom mirror during my smoke break, I saw that I was indeed looking rather swarthy. Ooh la la, I said to my reflection. Not quite black, though. Not as black, at any rate, as Jacob. Or Chinese Jacob, for that matter.
I walked home in the evening and wasn't heckled once the whole five miles back. Unbelievable. Unprecedented. Five unharassed miles - this was an anomaly, one that begged an explanation.
After a year in this country, I have come to be a firm believer in Jung's collective unconscious. At least as it applies to China. China has moods. I swear it does. My temperament no longer fluctuates much. I'm in China today, and I figure I'll be in China tomorrow. So I live accordingly. But there are days in China when you, as a foreigner, get the shit heckled out of you. Every other person screams in your face. The mopeds chase you down the sidewalk like heatseeking missiles. The construction crews seem to be conspiring to jackhammer your feet, to drop a pallet of cinderblocks on your head, to weld your eyes shut at any given moment. And those days are most days. They are Chinese days. But Chinese days are followed by unexpected hours of inexplicable calm and invisibility. Nobody notices you. The people you meet are courteous and uninterested in the color of your skin. The sidewalk mopeds give you the right of way. The construction crews wave at you, then get back to work on their 73-story apartment megaplex.
But still, these five miles were an anomaly. Not even the good days are this good. I walked and walked. And nobody bothered me. I walked for five miles through a cloud of asbestos and anonymity. And those five miles begged an explanation. And the only theory I could put forth was this: that my newfound complexion and proletariat sweatstains actually scared people. By growing a beard and walking around in the sun all day, I had successfully transformed from whitebread Nebraskan to Muslim extremist. And it was pleasant, this invisibility thing. I vowed to spend more time outdoors. And I vowed to keep my beard.
I had about three US dollars to my name, so I bought myself some crummy ramen noodles of the heat-inflated beef variety. I bought a bottle of water. And I bought a pack of four-kuai Shipai cigarillos.
When I got back home, I boiled the bottled water and dumped it into my bucket of noodles. The noodles sizzled and radiated an eye-watering chemical sting. The beef duly inflated. I sat down at my computer, smoked and tried to write. Nothing came. I grew restless and decided to do some laundry. Clearing out my pockets, I found an unopened pack of cigarettes - what? I set the pack on my writing desk. Then I opened the pack to make sure the cigarettes were real. I fingered them with my eyes, beholding the miracle. I certainly hadn't bought the cigarettes. Nor am I the type to shoplift, not even under the most punishing financial duress. So, where had the cigarettes come from? Perhaps some kindly old shopkeeper had stuffed the pack into my pocket when I wasn't looking. As a gift to a lonesome foreign soul. But the jeans I wear are so damned skinny that I can't even take anything out of my pockets, much less put anything into them. Perhaps I was a shoplifter after all. Perhaps, sensing the destitution lurking around the bend, my subconscious had goaded me into swiping the smokes from the counter when the cashier wasn't looking. But Chinese cashiers are always looking. I brooded. There seemed to be no explanation. I have a gift for making cigarettes disappear, but I have never, not once succeeded in spontaneously generating them. I pondered these mystery cigarettes for a long time. There they were, staring me in the face like the barrels of a gatling gun. Twenty of them - of the half-decent ten kuai variety, too. Then I decided it was silly of me to sit around questioning China's sudden generosity. The thing to do was whoop it up, overdose on Nescafe, and write until Saturday showed up in the mail like a canceled check.
Around midnight, Saturday showed up in the mail like a canceled check. I watched the lights across the way flicker out one by one like cigarette butts stomped into the pavement. I got up and tossed a pile of laundry into the washing machine, salted the pile with soap, hit a few buttons at random, and pressed START. A squeamish hissing issued from the machine. I knew what that meant. No water. I tried the tap. A loogey of liquid rust squirted out and nothing more. So much for showering, or wearing clothes over the weekend. But I was okay with that. A typical weekend in the Peace Corps. As long as there was plenty of Nescafe, abundant smokables, an overheating computer, a leaky air conditioner ... briefly, I entertained the thought of collecting all the AC runoff in a bucket and dumping it into the washing machine, but the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that the fluid coming out of the air conditioner was even remotely related to my friend and yours, dihydrogen monoxide.
I wrote for several hours and didn't really get anywhere. I smoked like a coal preparation plant and sang gibberish songs to myself. My AC slobbered all over the heap of rags nestled against the wall and my computer crunched along, erratic and lovable as ever. Then, around midnight, there came a frantic knocking at the door. It was a Chinese knocking, so it came at me in two second intervals. Knock-knock-knock, pause, knock-knock-knock, pause, knock-knock-knock ... I got up to answer it, out of annoyance more than anything else. Then I remembered that I wasn't wearing any pants. So I fished the dry, soap-dusted jeans out of the washing machine and struggled to button them around my waist. The knocking persisted, then it grew louder, more frantic.
"Just a moment!" I shouted in Chinese.
At the door was a sweaty old Chinese man. He started shouting at me before the door had time to open all the way. I knew this couldn't be good. From the old man's cloud of rage, I managed to pluck out the words "water" and "you." I immediately understood the problem. With unusual tact, I explained to the man that there was something the matter with my air conditioning and that I would rectify the problem ASAP. He was not at all comforted by my reassurance and tried to push past me into my apartment. I held him back, for his sake. He kept craning his neck over my shoulder, peering into the writing room.
"Don't worry," I said. "It's an air conditioning problem. There is water coming out. I didn't know it was bothering you down there. I'll turn it off immediately."
He understood, and was suddenly grateful. He bowed before me and smiled, nodded his head rapidly, and said so many thank yous that the words came out in an unbroken convulsion of xie xies. Xie xie xie xie xie xie xie xie xie ... I nodded uncomfortably and shut the door.
I switched off the AC. A few last wallops of slobber pitched to the floor. The room grew instantly muggy, and a kind of steam seemed to waft out of the walls. Then my computer shut off. I dropped the f-bomb. So much for writing. Or showering. Or wearing clothes. Then, from across the room, I heard a splash, and saw that my upstairs neighbor's AC was leaking into my room.
So overcome was I at that point by the sheer folly of existence that I plowed through an unprecedented number of cigarettes, wrote furious and absurd things in an old moleskine, and smoked well into the dark side of Saturday morning.
When I woke up around noon, I had five cigarettes left, and six kuai to my name. About one US dollar. I seemed to remember that there was a bit of gas left in my Chinese bank account, though certainly not enough to be taken out of an ATM without the aid of a crowbar. So I walked the five miles to the bank and asked the teller how much I had left. He took my bank book, fanned it in the air to get the sweat off of it, and swiped it. A beep. He read something off the monitor and laughed. A machine grinded and printed. The teller handed me a receipt.
"Ten kuai and two jiao," he said, grinning.
Ah, yes. I suppose this must be funny, after all.
"In that case, let me take out the ten kuai," I said. "I'll leave the two jiao there. A jiao saved is a jiao earned, as they say."
The teller handed me a filthy taped-together ten spot. A buck fifty. I walked back home and bought some lunch.
Buying cigarettes was out of the question. Certainly, even at the age of 27, survival still took some precedence over self-destruction. But the prospect of survival didn't exactly thrill me at that point. Unless my long-awaited stipend came in on a Sunday, I'd have to make it 48 hours without a cigarette. And there wouldn't be much eating along the way, either.
On the walk home, I scanned the sidewalks for a homeless hundred kuai note tumbling past in the wind. Or even a stray, half-empty pack of cigarettes would've done me some good. But it was nothing but dust and human feces and bits of copper wire, nothing but receipts and real estate brochures, piles of vomit, glass shards, crumpled beer cans, and used cigarettes so old and clearly expired that not even I would stoop to try and smoke them.
Nor would I stoop to ask any of my friends for money. What friends I have here are good ones, so no doubt they would've helped a brother out. But the university hasn't paid the Mennonites in three months, and I imagine the new volunteers, were they to find me on their doorstep late at night in the throes of nicotine withdrawal, trembling, sweating and begging for a ten spot, well - I wasn't sure that would've made the right impression.
So I resolved to lie there in the missionary position and take it like a man. Starvation aside, nicotine withdrawal or no, I would make the most of my weekend in the red. I decided that I would make it my weekend of fasting and spiritual reflection. My two-day Lent. My Diet Ramadan.
I spent most of Saturday curled up in my fake leather sofa, reading My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. Pleasant company, if nothing else. Hell, I thought, I could use a man like Jeeves. He'd know what to do in a tight spot such as this. "Well, sir, I happen to be acquainted with a ramen noodle distributor just outside of Devonshire ... "
I got up and tried the sink again. More rust juice came squirting out. I flopped back down on the couch and re37watched There Will Be Blood. By the time dinnertime rolled around, I was feeling mighty smug. Why, I hadn't smoked a cigarette in ... six hours. But as day dithered into night and my nocturnal writerly instincts started to gnaw at the bars of their cage, I began to experience that familiar hot air balloon sensation between my ears. I needed to write. And I needed a cigarette.
I scoured the ashtrays, but my stores of half-smoked cigarettes had long since evaporated. I dug through the pockets of all known pairs of pants, suits, coats, pantsuits, and suitcoats - and I added up my life savings: a truly pitiful five jiao. One twelfth of a dollar. About seven cents that had to last me two days. I laughed aloud, and kept laughing until I began to fear that I was probably laughing rather too much given the circumstances.
I sat back down on the couch and fanned my five jiao out on the coffee table like an ill-omened poker hand. Five jiao. Seven cents. I imagined all the things I could buy in China with five jiao. Why, I could probably order an extra dash of vinegar to go with the noodles I couldn't afford. Or an extra scoop of Sichuanese numbing pepper to go with my nonexistent twice-cooked pork. I could perhaps even afford to take a leak in a public restroom, though dropping a deuce would've been out of my price range. In sum, I concluded that having five jiao was about as good as having no money at all. Except it was probably a great deal worse, because I had to sit on my ass in my apartment with five worthless jiao laughing at me the whole time.
I finished Jeeves and started reading The Big Sleep by Raymond Carver. But all Detective Marlowe's smoking on the job really put me in the mood for a cigarette. And unlike Jeeves, Marlowe didn't really seem like the kind of guy who could get me out of a jackpot. So I put down the book and fired up the computer. I tried to write. But writing while your body is busy purging itself of nicotine is like trying to catch feathers in a wind tunnel. So I resorted to desperate measures. I started cleaning my apartment.
Cleanliness was not my motivation. Neither was boredom. Their powers combined are never enough, even, to inspire me to make my own bed. Shame has, on a handful of occasions, duped me into tidying up the place. As have social pressures: a visiting friend, a date with the plumber, snooping employers, et cetera. But this was something else. This was pure desperation. I was not cleaning my apartment - I was excavating it. Or rather, I was cleaning for the purpose of excavation. There was money at stake. And cigarettes at stake. And money with which to buy cigarettes, at stake.
I know myself well enough by now to know that I am the kind of guy who will pitch fistfuls of money on the floor, and then kick them under the bed, and then, over time, kick all sorts of other worthless junk on top of the money under the bed. I am also the kind of guy, believe it or don't, who will discard empty packs of cigarettes without bothering to make sure that they are empty. So I was confident that if I spent a solid ten minutes tidying up my room, I'd come up with four hundred kuai and a box of Cuban cigars that had somehow come into my possession over the past year.
But after I'd cleaned for two hours and turned up nothing but three jiao, I began to worry. On the plus side, I'd worked my way up to eight jiao: a respectable American dime. But eight jiao was certainly not enough for the kind of cigarettes that I was interested in smoking. Enough, perhaps, to drop a deuce in a public squat toilet. But that was way down on my list of things I'd want to do with eight jiao. Way down on my list of things I'd want to do period.
I journeyed deeper into the center of the filth. I found old boarding passes for flights I could no longer remember taking. Phoenix to Guadalajara. Guadalajara to Phoenix. Dublin to Warsaw. Warsaw to Chicago. Chicago to Cincinnati. Cincinnati to Omaha. Omaha to San Francisco - hey, I remember this one! I found old socks, stiff as newspaper. I found the keys to cars I could no longer drive. I found a rusted-out watch, stone dead. I found an old cell phone that I managed to fire up for five minutes so I could flip through its phone book and reflect on the state of my social life circa 2006, before it flickered and went out forever. I found old journal entries where I was imitating Hemingway so badly that I nearly vomited all over my freshly mopped floor - for want of a fireplace, I threw them away. I found Mexican centavos, Polish grosz, Eurocents, Korean won. Japanese coins, like little silver donuts with holes in the middle. I found coins from Thailand, Vietnam, Ecuador, Australia, Indonesia, and all manner of places I have never been. I found a crumpled can of Korean beer that I was able to date to around April, 2007 A.D. And then, under the bed, I came across a promising pack of purple Pandas, relatively untrampled. I shook the pack around a bit. Something rattled. I flipped open the lid and there, inside, was an untouched, mint condition, perfectly smokable cigarette.
"Booyah," I shouted.
And then guilt set in. What are you doing, Pan Da? Wasn't this, after all, your two-day Ramadan? Your Diet Lent? Your weekend of temperance and sobriety and spiritual reflection and what not?
"Fuck it," I said to myself. "It's China."
I lit the cigarette and smoked it. And it was good.
Nicotine withdrawal is a funny thing. For me, it isn't the grinding freight train that it is for some smokers. No headaches. No cravings. No, none of that. For me, nicotine withdrawal is a very rational descent into ever more ludicrous stages of rationalization.
At first, it's not really a big deal. Smoke 'em if you got 'em. If you ain't got 'em, don't smoke 'em. Sure, after about six hours, a cigarette would be nice. But so would a lot of things. A ladyfriend to snuggle with. A cat. A pair of decent shoes. A new suitcoat. A functional AC unit. A laptop that doesn't overheat.
After about twelve hours of deliberate non-smoking, my subconscious tackles the case from the public health perspective. Fuck it. It's China. Who knows what kind of nasty shit you're putting in your body as it is. Lead. Asbestos. Melamine. High fructose corn syrup. Among other chemicals yet unknown to science. What's a little tobacco on top of it?
After fourteen hours, my internal debate starts to take on a more existential bent. Look, brother: smoking helps you write, and writing is what you want to do, and you're finally excited about writing, and you're finally sitting down and doing it every day, for several hours every day, so why stop a good thing? Can you write when you're not smoking? (An awkward silence ensues.) See? Smoking goes with the territory. It's the curse of the trade. Smoking is stupid. You know that. But you've already sold your soul to the devil. You'll trade it back later. Now write. And smoke.
Even after all that, I'm still not quite convinced. But after sixteen hours, my subconscious goes for the apocalyptic jugular. Hell, look at the way the world's headed, it says. Has the world gotten safer since you were born? Has oil gotten more plentiful? Has the number of humans on Earth gotten smaller? Shee-it. We'll be lucky if we have five years left. Every tomorrow is an unexpected paycheck. You wake up every morning and think, fuck, is it still on? The way we're headed, either we'll spawn an artificial intelligence that makes our feeble human experiment look like Chinese checkers - in which case, our robot overlords will either wipe us out or kindly cure all our diseases and put us out to pasture - either that or we'll blow the whole shitshow to smithereens. Either way, Petit, you don't stand to be smoking cigarettes for very much longer. And if you do, you certainly don't stand to suffer their consequences. And you enjoy cigarettes, do you not? So, why not enjoy them while you can?
And that last argument always gets me. After sixteen hours, whatever brains I have turn back against themselves like a hangnail.
The problem with Sunday, though, was that neither the technological singularity nor the apocalypse seemed to have gone down overnight. And my stipend hadn't come in, either. And there I was with a hot air balloon for a head and eight jiao to my name. In the parlance of our times, I was royally fucked. So I went down to the bank to see what they could do.
"Has my stipend come in yet?" I asked the teller.
By now, this twiggy little stick of a man had seen my face plenty of times before, had seen it joyfully contort with sudden wealth, had seen its brow furrow with unforeseen scarcity. Still, he laughed in my face when the computer beeped.
"No money," he said, and smirked. "Two jiao."
At the Bank of China, they have these little Customer Approval machines propped up in front of the teller windows. You can hit one of three buttons to rate your banking experience: Satisfied, No Feeling, or Dissatisfied. And your vote gives the bank tellers points, or takes those points away. The bank tellers are rated on the five star system. The veterans have all five stars lit up on the machine. The rookies have no stars at all. Your vote can light up the stars, or blot them out. And as the bank teller smirked at me and my poverty, and as I grimaced at him and my poverty, I let my index finger hover over the Dissatisfied button for an instant. I raised my eyebrows at the man. He smirked. Then I turned away without hitting the button, and I left.
Or I tried to leave.
"HAH-LOO!" barked a security guard.
"Come here," he said, sternly. "Sit."
"I have to go home," I said.
"Come here," he repeated. "Sit."
He was wielding a rubber truncheon, so I complied.
There were two other guards loitering around the desk, and they were watching me, smirking. The main man looked me over, assessed my ragged jeans, let his eyes linger a bit on my sweatbearded shirt, then leaned forward in his chair.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"Can you use chopsticks?"
"Do you like China?"
"Why are you here? In our China?"
"I teach English at the university."
"How much money do you make?"
I cocked my head to the side and stuffed my tongue in my cheek.
I walked back home. My tan had worn off. I was heckled all the way. When I got home, I knifed open an old backlogged care package from my parents and polished off a box of Nutri-Grain bars and a tube of Salt & Vinegar Pringles. I cleaned two more rooms of my apartment but found no cigarettes and no money. I hadn't smoked since Saturday morning. It was Sunday night.
The water was on again, so I resalted the laundry from the night before, turned on the washing machine, and pressed START. It whirred for a couple minutes. Then the power went out.
"Son of a bitch bastard," I muttered.
Everyone in the apartment complex flooded out into the streets. For two hours, it was me in my dark room, writing away with the last juice my laptop had left, while TV-withdrawn children screamed and shrieked and wept down below. Then my computer shut off. And it was just me in my dark room. I felt my way to the living room, thinking I'd watch There Will Be Blood again. But ah, yes. No power. I felt my way to the bedroom and thought I'd read another couple chapters of Chandler, but when I hit the lightswitch - ah, yes. No power. So I felt my way around the apartment for a while, unsure, really, what to do with myself, until I kicked over a bottle of beer and stumbled across an idea. Ah, yes!
It pays to drink in China. Whatever you pay for a beer, you can get a third of it back by returning the bottle. And over the course of a year, the bachelor that I am, I have accumulated my share of brown-tinted glassware. And there at the foot of my bed was a cleaned-out care package. Well, I'll be damned, I said to myself. I loaded the box with bottles. Hot damn. I was back in the black.
I made three runs to the convenience store that night, and collected a cool 54 kuai. About ten bucks. And it was good exercise. My biceps were practically visible by the time I was done with it. And 54 kuai goes a long way in this part of China - at least to the cigarette shop and back. So I had myself a good vegetarian meal, polished off four bowls of complimentary rice, and, yes, bought a pack of the mediocre Shuangxis I love so well. The apartment was still dark when I got back, but around 10:30, the lights popped back on and there came a joyous shriek from the streets below. I fired up the washing machine and it rumbled for a good five minutes before my downstairs neighbors pounded a broomstick against the ceiling.
"Fuck me," I said, and turned off the washing machine.
Then I sat down and typed up the bulk of last week's blog post. I gave up after a while. Then I tucked myself in at 1 AM because I had to be up the next morning. I drifted off to sleep with ten kuai to my name and dreams of fishy-flavored eggplant dancing in my head.
7 AM arrived at 7 AM. Right on time.
I zombie shuffled to the shower and let the lukewarm water drizzle down onto my fontanelle. I toweled myself off and ransacked the cauldron of day-old coffee in the kitchen. I put on my damp, half-washed jeans and my damp, half-washed shirt. Whatever junky financial schemes I'd devised the night before, I was still wary of my cashflow, so I walked to school.
I had eight classes to teach that day. And there I was, walking along a dusty highway, malnourished, pissed off at nothing in particular, pissed off at everything in general, wearing the least stinky outfit in a very stinky suspect lineup wardrobe, with ten kuai burning a hole in my thigh while somewhere in the electronic ether, a much-needed government stipend was muscling its way down the wires, en route to the lowly Nanchong branch of the esteemed Bank of China.
I taught those first four classes with half my mind waiting in line at the bank. And I taught well. I tend to teach my ass off when panic strikes a match against the back of my brain. With about three minutes left, I kindly asked my students if they would mind it so terribly much if I let them out a couple-three minutes early. Nobody objected. So they went their way, and I went mine - down the secret stairwell for laowais, janitors, and other untouchables.
I walked the half-hour to the bank. Already anticipating failure, I resolved to check in at noon, then to wait two hours and check in again at the bank across town. So as to not arouse suspicion. So as to not arouse laughter and mockery. I caught the time of day off the scoreboard of the gynecologist across the street. 11:49. I slipped my bank book out of my backpack pouch and went in.
The security guards barked at me. I ignored them. I asked about my stipend. The teller smirked. He took my bank book and swiped it. A beep.
"Hasn't arrived yet," he said, "but you still have two jiao. If you want to withdraw - "
"I'll pass," I said. I turned and left. The security guards barked at me.
A Chinese metropolis is not the kind of place you want to spend your time if you have no money to spend. It's like being stranded at Chuck E. Cheese's without any game tokens. I couldn't even afford a pair of Groucho Marx glasses at that point. High noon. I had two hours to kill and no way to dispose of the body. It was the hottest day of the year, so wandering around aimlessly like I usually do wasn't an option. I'd already dropped all the cash I had on water. I stood outside the Bank of China, genuinely at a loss for where to go. Meanwhile, the hecklers were mounting. Standing in one place wasn't an option, either. Stillness is never an option if you're a foreigner in China. Wasn't there a park I could go to, or something? A place in the shade where I could sit and smoke and read by my lonesome? Somewhere I could go to get away from all these ... people? I walked. The sweat stained my shoes.
The elementary school down the way was letting out early. A couple of spotters duly spotted me and shouted "FOREIGNER!" And as the kids streamed out of the gates, they pointed, shouted, and followed. Call me the Pied Piper.
The adults were no better. As I came up on the old campus with a tail of screaming children on my ass, a motorbike slowed to a walking pace and the two full-grown twerps on board screamed at me point blank.
"HAH-LOO! ... HAH-LOO! ... HAH-LOO!" A pause. "HAH-LOO, foreigner! Wo shuo, HAH-LOO!"
They kept at it for a good two minutes. I walked and sweated. Another motorbike carrying another couple twerps puttered over to heckle me, but the awkwardness that arose between the twerps when they realized that they had, all four of them, gone out of their way to give me, a bearded laowai minding his own business, a hard time - the awkwardness sent the two motorbikes scattering like a pair of dragonflies.
I saw a posse of college kids coming my way, so I left the sidewalk, paused to light a cigarette, and kept walking, into oncoming traffic. Let me be clipped by a motorcycle. Let me be smacked down by a public bus. But no more heckling, please. Undeterred by my evasive maneuvers, the kids shouted HAH-LOO, HAH-LOO, HAH-LOO. Then, WHAT'S YOUR NAME? Then, WHAT'S YOUR NATIONALITY? Then, I LOVE YOU. Then, FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU. I kept walking. It's a tough love in this town.
A couple of thirtysomething twerps spotted me as I was returning to the sidewalk.
"Foreigner," one of the twerps said, loudly, in English.
"Chinese person," I said, in Chinese.
"Foreigner," he said again, more boldly. He wasn't smiling.
"Chinese person," I said.
I let him have the last word. This sort of thing gets old after about three days. You ought to try it for two years.
I found a secluded spot behind the Building for Biology and Animal Experimentation on the old campus. I hid behind a thicket of bushes and read my book for a minute or two. Then some coeds on the sixth floor of a nearby dormitory caught sight of my foreign hide and wouldn't let me live it down. HAH-LOO, FOREIGNER. HAH-LOO. So I got up, swept the sweat off my forehead, and took another walk. I racked my brain for a place I could go where there wouldn't be any hecklers. In all my time here, I've never really encountered one. Then I passed a girl in the street holding an umbrella and wearing a respiratory facemask and wielding a notebook over her face to boot. Ah, yes! The sun. To be dark-skinned in this country is to be horribly disfigured. So it stood to reason that on a hot-ass day such as this ... I tried to think of the sunniest, most brutally deforested spot in all of Nanchong. And I decided that the river was a safe bet. So I walked the five miles to the river.
When I got there, I found the stairs down to the riverfront barricaded with sandbags. Because of the floods. I thought about scaling the sandbags, but I didn't want to make a scene. And anyway, all this walking around town in shitty shoes on shitty sidewalks had turned my knees into softballs. So I walked some more, until I came to an alleyway that weaseled its way down to the riverfront walkway. Then I walked along the river until I was out of earshot of the highway. I found a set of stairs leading down to the water and sat down on the top step. I lit a rancid four-kuai cigarette and rolled up my sleeves. And I sighed one of those sighs that seems to take more out of you than it puts back in.
Beneath me was an old, brown fisherman, squatted on a plastic stool he'd planted in a sandbar on the margins of the river. He was fishing with a long, elastic pole. His bait looked to be a string of pigeon eggs, though I couldn't quite see well enough to tell for certain. He sat there for a half-hour, motionless, silent, tensely loose. And I sat there watching him. After a while, he yanked back the rod and flossed the fish off the wire with his fingers. It didn't seem like a profitable enterprise, fishing this river. The river was little more than a nosebleed. Most of the waters were proceeds from the Nanchong sewer system. The river was shallow as a Prom Queen and nothing stirred within it but garbage. What this fisherman had reeled in were guppies, minnows, discarded goldfish. But you dry them out a bit, douse them in spices, and sell them to the Jack Bar downtown - and I imagine you break even, if you're retired.
I timed myself by the cigarette. These are cheap ones, I reminded myself, last about four minutes. Smoke three of these at ten minute intervals and it's time to walk two miles to the bank across from the train station.
I smoked and watched the fisherman, and found some small solace in his work. His patient, solitary, futile work. The city was faintly audible, with its screeching cars and shrieking children and hammering jackhammers, but the lazy trickle of the river and the sewer water sloshing down into the river nearly drowned it all out. I closed my eyes and remembered Mexico. A bird squalled somewhere in the distance, a lovely sound I hadn't heard in a good long while. The waters burbled and the sewage sloshed. I kept my eyes shut. I was on the beach. I was on the coast of Michoacan. I was elsewhere. I wasn't there. I wasn't here. I wasn't anywhere. Then somebody hawked a loogey over my shoulder. I opened my eyes and saw that it was the fisherman's buddy, equipped with fishing pole and basket of bait. Somebody from one of the riverfront apartments spotted me and shouted HAH-LOO, FOREIGNER, HAH-LOO! I got up and brushed the dust off my pants. I walked away from the river, stepping carefully over the poles the fisherman had left behind on the sidewalk, and made my way back to the city. The afternoon buses droned past on the overpass with the window blinds drawn to, but I could make out the eyes watching me through the slits.
I took my number at the bank. I waited in line for a half hour. Then I approached the teller and asked whether my stipend had come in. I handed her my bank book. This was a different branch with different tellers, but they were laughing at me just the same. She swiped my bank book and the computer beeped.
"No money," she smirked, and handed the bank book back to me.
I opened the book and flipped through it. And I was amazed to discover, there at the bottom of the third page, that overnight, I had accrued a whopping two kuai in interest.
"Wait," I said, "I have two kuai here. And I'd like to withdraw it."
"You - you want to withdraw two kuai?"
"Yes. That's what I said."
"What do you want it for?" she asked.
"I need water," I said.
She turned to her supervisor and told him all that I'd said. He laughed. She laughed. They both laughed. Then she swiped the bank book again and opened a drawer. She took out two grimy notes and, smirking at me, dropped them into a cash counting machine.
"2," said the machine.
Then she handed me a couple of forms. I signed them both and shot them back. She stamped them several times each and handed me the money. All 25 cents of it.
"Thanks," I said.
I bought two bottles of water. I was broke again. I walked back to school and stood there on the fourth floor of the Teaching Building, smoking my cigarettes of woe and waiting for the bell to ring. Jesus, I said to myself. Christ, I said. I rested my head on the balcony. I drifted off into a half-sleep. I daydreamed. And for whatever reason, I daydreamed of Dr. Feezell, the wonderful old curmudgeon who, when I was a sophomore in college, cured me once and for all of superstition.
Feezell. The Man. He is perhaps the world's leading authority in the Philosophy of Sport. For what it's worth. At a Jesuit university, he was my first flamboyantly nonreligious professor. I stopped going to Midnight Mass two weeks into his Philosophy 207 course. Bald, goateed, with a penchant for wearing his reading glasses propped up on his scalp. After a couple years of feeling genuinely lost, Feezell was my first introduction to what has become an important axiom for me in the years hence: fear not, Petit - there are people who think as you do - you just haven't met them yet.
Feezell assigned us an essay on the first day of class. The topic: How would you design the universe if you were God? And in my plucky sophomoric way, I responded with a succinct, snappy little page to the effect of, "If I were God, I wouldn't allow myself to be God, so the whole question is invalid." I was awfully proud of myself. I turned in the essay with a smirk.
Feezell was visibly agitated the next class. I sat there grinning in the back row. Up until he spoke.
"Life is a game," he said. "College is a game. This class is a game. But you can't play the game if you don't follow the rules. Having carefully read all of your essays, I found that certain individuals in this classroom are not willing to follow the rules of this particular game. And although some of the essays in question might have been witty, and though I admit that some of them were unusually well-written," - here, Feezell let his reading glasses slide down to the tip of his nose and stared directly at me - "and though I may have found those essays amusing in the most absurd sense of the word - despite all this, those essays did not play according to the rules of the game. And lest we forget, this is a game. And there are rules. And I shall grade those essays in accordance with the rules of the game."
And with that single Feezelian flourish, I snapped into adulthood. That was it. That was my moment of clarity. But of course. How had I missed it? Life was a game. There were rules. And to not follow them was to not participate in the game. And who doesn't want to be a part of the game? Outside of the game, what else is there? I understood it then. And I understand it now. Neglecting the rules meant sitting on the sidelines. Neglecting the rules meant not existing. To neglect the rules was to fail the class. To neglect the rules was to lose the game. And I had been neglecting those rules all my life. Had made a point of doing so, up until Feezell.
And hunched there with my forehead steaming on the hotplate balcony, as I woke up from my daydream, all of this struck me as a pretty weird non-sequitur. Until I realized that rules were precisely the problem I was up against. What were the rules of the game, after all? Well. The single, all-consuming rule was money. And I had none of it. And so I couldn't play. And not playing the game is a fucking drag.
"Fuck me," I said aloud. I lit a cigarette. I was awake, but my mind yet wandered. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, if the school canceled afternoon classes. So I could go to the bank. So I could withdraw some money. So I could get back into the game. But naw, I said to myself, you're not that lucky. The bell will ring, I said to myself, and you will walk the hallways straining to remember which classroom you're in. Then, the bell rang, and I walked the hallways, straining to remember which classroom I was in.
But the classrooms were all shut tight and deadbolted. I took the stairs up to the sixth floor, then wound my way all the way down to the first floor. No classes were in session. I walked all the way back up to the sixth floor and wound my way back down again. Eventually, I ran into a janitor.
"Teacher," she said, "where's your classroom?"
"I don't know," I said. "I forget."
"Are classes in session today?" I asked. "All the classrooms are locked up."
"I don't know," she said. "All's I know is, none of the teachers have shown up."
"So there are no classes."
"I guess not."
"So I can go the bank."
"If it's open," she said. "It's a holiday coming up, dontcha know."
"Yes. I know," I said, and thanked her.
And then I did a little Michael Jordan fist pump and took off down the stairs.
I walked the three miles to the bank. Everyone smirked as I came in.
"Has my stipend come in yet?" I asked.
A beep. Some laughter.
"Nope. Still got that two jiao, though."
"Great," I said. "I'll let that shit accrue interest."
For lack of anywhere else to go, I walked back to the river. I watched the fisherman fish. His luck seemed to be about as good as mine. Guppies, minnows, goldfish. Slim pickins in this town for the quiet man.
Around 4:30, I walked back to the bank. I took a number and waited in line for a half hour. Several people cut in front of me, but miraculously, I didn't punch them in the face. The security guards were locking the doors by the time I was able to present my case to the bank teller.
"Has my stipend come in yet?" I asked.
My heart was playing drum solos in my chest.
"Well," smirked the teller, "let me see."
Meanwhile, as often happens, another customer had taken an interest in my case.
"Can he speak Chinese?" the man asked the teller.
"He speaks a little," the teller said. "Not very well, though."
"Where's he from?"
"I don't know," said the teller.
"Where are you from?" the man asked me.
"America," I grunted.
"Can you use chopsticks?"
"Do you like China?"
"Why are you here?"
"I teach English at the university."
I was craning my neck to see what the teller was reading off the monitor.
"How old are you?"
"I'm twenty-seven," I blurted.
"Do you like Chinese food?"
"Are you married?"
"You should find a Chinese wife."
"How much money do you make?"
"I don't make money," I said.
A beep. The bank teller read the monitor, shouted something at his buddy, and sat there spacing out for a moment. He got up from his chair and scurried off to tackle some paperwork. He stamped a couple documents and did some filing. I was waiting for him to light up a Cuban and pour himself a glass of sherry. Then he sat back down, turned to me and said, flatly, smirking, "No money. Still got that two jiao, though."
"Have you gotten used to life in China?" asked the man.
"Yes," I said.
I turned around and walked away. Then, as I reached the door, as the desolate 24 hours before me came into focus, I could hold off no longer. I slapped the bank book across my thigh and shouted the word "FUCK!" Instantly, the bank tellers broke into unfettered laughter.
"He's angry!" someone shouted.
And they laughed even harder. The door swung shut behind me and I could hear the waves of laughter doppling in and out until the door finally swung to a stop.
That night, I returned three more boxes of beer bottles and made another 54 kuai out of nothing. I went to the convenience store and bought a bowl of ramen and a four kuai pack of Hongmeis.
"You're buying these?" asked the clerk, turning the pack over in her hands. She laughed in my face.
"Somebody has to," I said, and stole off into the bankrupt night.
I didn't have to work on Tuesday, so I did my best to sleep the day away. I certainly didn't want to be awake for it. I wiped out midnight through 2:30 PM with great ease. But around 2:30, all the babies in China start screaming. I woke up. I swore off having children. I took a shower. I knew the last ten hours of Tuesday were going to be a bitch. I walked the five miles downtown and checked in at the bank. Not surprisingly, my stipend hadn't come in yet, so I spent a couple hours walking around, kicking rocks, being foreign, being heckled.
A peculiar state of mind sets in after you haven't had money in a while. Everything seems rigged, like a carnival game you can't win. Everyone is against you. Or at least that is the perception. You actually stop to watch people eating meals in restaurant windows. Fruit becomes unusually appetizing. Apples. Bananas. Oranges. You start to eye puddles in the street with the depraved thirst of a stray dog. You begin to despise money, and the people who have it.
Between banks, on my way past the university, I saw a curl of five kuai bills go rolling past on the sidewalk. My first instinct was to bend down and grab the cash, discreetly slip it into my pocket and buy myself some lunch. But my second instinct, by far the more powerful of the two, was to let it go. To let the money drift by. Because it belonged to someone else. And anyway, hundreds of people were watching me. Judging me. And I certainly didn't want to appear on an episode of Chinese Candid Camera. So I left the loose money behind. And I kicked myself later, kicked myself in the ass, kneed myself in the crotch as the day wore on and the sun ripped away the clouds like a cheap negligee.
In my wandering, I ran into a coworker of mine, the nice Chinese lady who is married to the Italian. I hadn't seen her in a while, so I asked her how she'd been. She didn't answer me, talked about something completely different. This is a roadblock I have encountered often enough in my Chinese conversations, so I rephrased the question. How was your summer, I asked.
"Um. Not very good," she said.
"My husband," she said. "He passed away."
This sucked the smoke right out of me. I've never been very good at expressing sympathy for that which I cannot understand, so I was silent for a while before settling for the standard I'm-very-sorry-to-hear-that.
"Yes. I was in Italy for the summer," she said. "For the funeral."
"Jesus," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Yes," she said. "We will go to hot pot tomorrow. You should come, too."
We parted ways. I made my way back to the river. Along the highway, I passed the restaurant where I'd first met the Italian. There, he'd split a pack of Hongmeis with me. He lit one and smoked it through the gap in his teeth. He offered me one. I accepted. "They're cheap and they're good," he had told me, though I hadn't believed him then and I certainly do not believe him now. His English had been good. He had translated a verse of Dante for me, there at the restaurant. I had liked him. So as I passed the restaurant, I lit a Hongmei in his honor. And I remembered the last time I'd seen the Italian. He was disembarking from his moped across the street from the university, and a crowd of college kids were gathered around him, shouting very loudly, loud enough even for me to hear, about how fat he was. "FAT FOREIGNER, FAT FOREIGNER, FAT FOREIGNER," they had chanted. He stared at them, uncomprehending. It's a tough love in this town.
I sat by the river for altogether too long. The burbling sewage shooshed me into half-sleep. I forgot where I was, I forgot what time it was, and I forgot about the state of financial ruin I was trapped in. Then I was grazed by the side mirror of a passing moped, and I remembered everything quickly enough. I got to my feet, dusted off my jeans and set off at a steady trot. My circadian clock told me that it was about 4:30, and I'd have to step pretty damn lively to get to the bank before it closed.
I couldn't run with my shoes the way they were, or with my knees the way they were. So I stepped pretty damned lively. I was HAH-LOOed and FOREIGNERed and LAOWAIed the whole way, but I didn't hear a damned thing. I had my mind on my money and my money on my mind. When I arrived at the bank, the tellers started chattering, and smirking, and laughing. All except one little lady in the middle. And as it happened, I drew her number. Or she drew mine.
I tussled my hair.
"Hey, er. I was wondering. Young lady. If my, y'know," I coughed, "if my stipend has come in yet."
"Let me check," she said. She took my bank book and swiped it. Nothing happened. The screen painted half-moons across the lenses of her glasses. She read for a moment and handed the book back to me.
"It says you have one-thousa - "
"Yes. Okay." I turned away from her. I hooted, and my hoot painted the cavernous walls of the bank building with a kind of joy they'd probably never known. "Sorry. In that case, I'd like to withdraw 500 kuai."
"500 kuai it is," she said. And she smiled. She didn't smirk. She did her job, while the other bank tellers watched me, smirking.
"Please sign here," she said.
She handed me the money.
I thanked her.
I pushed the "SATISFIED" button. The machine beeped and said something in Chinese.
She thanked me.
"No problem," I said. I pressed the button again but nothing happened. And I smiled broadly and hooted once more. She smiled back at me and watched me leave.
I hailed the first cab I saw and told him to take me home. He stopped at the campus gates to let me out and I said, "Naw. We goin' all the way with this tonight." So he drove me to my apartment.
"Wait," I said. "I'd like to go to the shop."
"Which one?" he asked.
"The one on the corner."
He drove me there. By then, the fare was quite sizable.
"Wow," he said, "you must make a lot of money."
"Brother, you don't even know."
The shopkeeper's eyes bugged when I stepped out of the cab.
"I haven't seen you in a long time," she said. "I was starting to worry about you. Where you been?"
I scooped up a couple-three beers from the fridge. And a pack of Shuangxis.
"Away," I said. "On business. At the bank, mostly."
"Sounds exhausting," she said.
I stuffed everything into my backpack and I walked home. I was back in the game. I was back on the case. And brother, I had some serious writing to do.