Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Third Place

For every man must have somewhere - to go.
- Marmeladov, Crime and Punishment, as read by Anthony Heald

I am a man who is constant need of somewhere to go.

In a broad sense, in an abroad sense, I am always moving, always leaving the country or on the verge of leaving it. Sprinting like Mr. Zip to make a connection, zipper undone, shirt half-tucked, parti-colored strips of underwear flapping like Tibetan prayer flags from the jawline of my suitcase. Or snoozing with a backpack for a pillow on the cold, unforgiving floor of the International Departures lounge of Chicago O'Hare in the wake of a connection that never arrived. I have returned to America several times since I left it in the summer of 2006, but I have never really been back. I have always been in transit, between jobs, between countries. I have spent a good part of my youth on the lookout for Malthusian industrial nowherelands in which to fritter away my youth. And I have spent the better part of my youth living in those Malthusian industrial nowherelands, frittering away my youth.

In a momentary sense, I am fidgety to a fault, never quite at ease in my apartment, or in a loveseat down at Starbucks, or perched upon a barstool at The Brothers Lounge. The moment I get cozy, I am no longer cozy. I am forever doing the same Last Man Shuffle I wrote about in a blog post, oh so long ago. I want to move. I want to be comfortable. I move in order to find comfort. And by now, after four years of shuffling, I suppose motion is the state that has become most comfortable to me.

My Last Man momentum carried me to China. Then the Peace Corps shipped me to Nanchong for two years. And so it was that I somewhat unwittingly committed myself to the Akron, Ohio of China. I fell into her arms, and she caught me in a vice grip. I am no longer in motion. I am suspended in midair, trapped in amber, frozen in carbonite. I am stuck in an eternal layover. I am in Nanchong. I can make excursions to the Big City on the weekends, if I have the money. I can take leave, should I so desire. But I am anchored here, shackled here, Chinese fingertrapped here in Nanchong. I cannot leave this town very often, or for very long. For the next year at least, Nanchong is pretty much the only place I can go. And after one full year in Nanchong, the only Chinese city I know, I have not yet found anywhere - to go.

There are coffee shops, yes. And bars. But on my paltry Peace Corps stipend, a cup of actual coffee is far too dear to make a habit out of it. And the bars here are not really bars, just very loud and confusingly decorated rooms where a bottle of beer costs ten times more than it does at the mom 'n pop shop next door. And anyhow, the bars and the coffee shops are either so crowded that I'm liable to start a passive-aggressive riot just by ordering a drink, or so empty that I'll have three waiters and five waitresses fawning over me while I'm trying to read Crime and fucking Punishment. So, where does one go in a town like Nanchong? Beats the hell out of you. Beats the hell out of me. At the very least, I know where the Chinese people go. They go shopping.

Shopping is a contact sport in this country. It is also what people do for fun. But me, you couldn't pay me to go shopping in China. The people. The screaming. The beshitted toddlers. The flashing lights. It stresses me out. It freaks me out. I have seizures, or at least I fake them, just to get out of the store in the most expedient and least violent manner possible. In short, I don't see how shopping in China could appeal to anyone with a functional limbic system. But when I ask my students what they did over the weekend, even the surliest dudes in class will tell me, "Uhm, like, ohmigod, I went shopping!"

There are bars in Nanchong, but most of the establishments here sell clothes. Or clothing accessories. Or clothing accessory accessories. Or, I don't know, crap.

In the beginning, all the neon lights intrigued me. That first deceptive cab ride home gave me the misguided impression that Nanchong was a city with a thumping, pulsating nightlife. But nobody's partying here. The moment work lets out, everybody's out buying fake Gucci purses. For themselves or for their girlfriends. Or for their wives. Or for their mistresses. Or for their other mistresses. At 11 PM on a Friday night, everybody's out buying pre-torn jeans. Everybody's out buying skirts that look like they were bitten in half by a shark. Everybody's out buying facelifts and whitening skin lotion. Everybody's buying.

When I first met Meghan, my new sitemate, she asked me whether there were any good Mexican restaurants in Nanchong. I busted up laughing. Mexican restaurants! That's a good one. But then I choked back the giggles, and I felt kind of mean for laughing in the first place. It was an honest question. And really, I wasn't sure how to answer it. Because I didn't know. I didn't have a clue as to whether there were any Mexican restaurants in Nanchong. I'd never bothered to ask. After my first couple of weeks in town, I just figured there weren't any and got on with my Sino-Bohemian existence.

I ought to have asked. Because there could very well be a Mexican restaurant nestled somewhere in the irritable bowels of Nanchong and I'd be the last one to hear about it. Nanchong is a big place. Bigger than Denver. And I haven't explored very much of it, to be honest. So who knows what diversity lurks beneath the Han Chinese veil? Once upon a time there was going to be an Italian place, but The Italian died last summer. My friend Holly just opened a fantastically realistic American coffee shop downtown, and if I hadn't known her, I wouldn't have known about her coffee shop. So I could be missing out on all sorts of cosmopolitan monkeyshines.

But over the past year, I have come to doubt it. I don't know Nanchong very well, but by now, I know what to expect from it. It is, as a Korean friend of mine often said about his motherland, a place where nothing is impossible, but nothing is possible.

For better and for worse, China is one of the few countries left on earth that has stubbornly refused to become anywhere else. When I left America four years ago, I left in search of somewhere else, somewhere that wasn't America. Somewhere unchained from chain stores and unbranded by brand names. Somewhere authentically itself, whatever that means anymore.

I certainly didn't find what I was looking for in South Korea, where the Jack Daniel's flowed like wine and the Franzia flowed like whiskey. And when the whiskey and boxed wine were finally tapped out, when we'd polished off the last of the Guinnesses, we would hit up Burger King for some 4 AM munchies. Or McDonald's, if we were desperate enough. There was a Bennigan's downtown, and you can't even find those in America anymore.

Poland was no better, and no worse. And Mexico - well, Mexico was Mexico. The only thing missing was Taco Bell, but there was no need for Taco Bell in Mexico. Because it was Mexico. No shortage of tacos. No shortage of bells.

So I came to China hoping it would be different, that I would finally break free of America's gravitational pull. And I suppose that I have, though not quite in the way I had anticipated. It's more like I've rocketed out of the earth's orbit altogether, sailed countless light years across the galaxy, only to crashland on some desolate, hyper-polluted asteroid that Colonel Sanders colonized in the mid-1950's, then abandoned to the natives.

The very worst of America is on display here. There are two McDonald's franchises in Nanchong, and at least four KFC's that I am aware of. I visit them only sparingly, i.e., when I am very drunk. Uncle Sam is there when you need him, in desperate times, in drunk times. And he waits for you with open arms. Come to papa, he says. And when you're drunk enough, you obey. His restaurants wait patiently for your hard-earned cash, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are strewn about the city like little fluorescent-lit oases of processed lard in an endless Sahara of nutrients and MSG.

I won't lie. I do, on occasion, succumb to my bestial cravings for genetically modified meat. But for the past year, I have subsisted for the mostpart on Sichuanese cuisine. And I have enjoyed it. I cannot complain about Chinese cooking. Sichuan food is what I will miss most when I leave, and it is the one thing I can say that the Chinese have done right, and done right proper.

There are plenty of places to eat in Nanchong. But I have yet to find somewhere - to go. I do not have a coffee shop or a bar. I am not a regular anywhere. Imagination goes a long way when you're living abroad, but I can no longer pretend that the coffee shops here are coffee shops, or that the bars here are bars. I can't even stomach the places anymore, to be honest. They just depress me. On a Friday night, I'd much rather have a cold beer in my apartment and screw around on the internet. On a Saturday morning, I'd much rather pound Nescafe and read a book in bed. I no longer want to go out on the town, so I don't. Perhaps this strikes you as sad, but the alternative, to me, is even sadder still. Getting pestered at a coffee shop while Kenny G ovulates through the loudspeakers, being force-fed unwanted beer at some hyperkaraoke meat market juke joint. It's no fun. It's negative fun. And just think of all the money involved. No, I'll pass.

For the better part of a year, I've quipped to myself that Nanchong would get its first Starbucks the very day that I left town. Not the day after, mind you, because I'd never know about it that way. No, the City Planning Commission (if indeed there is one) would be sure to time things such that the Mayor of Nanchong (if indeed there is one) would be cutting the red ribbon on my day of departure, as I peered, rubbing my disbelieving eyes, from the backseat window of a green Nanchong taxi on its merry way to the train station. Snip. A round of applause. And the proletariat masses would rush in for their very first Venti Green Tea Frappuccinos.

It's not that I am all that enamored of Starbucks Coffee, though I secretly kind of am. It's more about what Starbucks would mean for Nanchong. For a city that will always have x number of McDonald's, and x² number of KFC's, and a handful of funky pizza places of the sort that consider "tomato sauce" an extra topping – for Nanchong, another McDonald's, another KFC, even a Pizza Hut would be redundant and meaningless. But a Starbucks would suggest to me that a corner had been turned in the Chinese hinterlands, that a new multicultural Golden Age lay shimmering before us somewhere on the smog-smeared horizon. To acquire a taste for processed lard is one thing. Human beings love lard. However much we fight it, our lard lust is innate. But for Nanchong to finally embrace coffee - an occidentally reviled substance that local folklore places in the same category as black tar heroin - that, my friends, would be revolutionary. Nay, counter-revolutionary.

And hell, it would give me someplace to go. I can't go anywhere in China without attracting unwanted attention, not even McDonald's or KFC. Even at McDonald's, I am a foreigner. Only the Starbucks in Chongqing and its sister franchise in Chengdu are sacrosanct. In Starbucks alone I am safe. Starbucks isn't 'Nam. There are rules at Starbucks. The Geneva Convention specifies that one may heckle a foreigner in public places or locally owned establishments during daylight hours, but that all embassies, consulates, and Starbucks Coffee franchises are strictly off limits.

I forget why I even looked it up. It was a Monday night. You look up all sorts of garbage on Monday night, just so you don't have to go to bed and find yourself on the wrong side of Tuesday. I typed the words "Nanchong" and "Starbucks" into Google and pressed enter. And what popped up on screen was a road map.

"Well," I said, "I'll be damned."

It had been there all along. Starbucks Coffee, not even a mile from the Old Campus. True, it strained the imagination, pushed the boundaries of what few things are possible and what many things are impossible in Nanchong – but there was the name, Xing Ba Ke, and there was the logo. So I took out a notebook and jotted down the directions, in the way that I jot down directions to myself – not in that paternal shorthand one uses when directing misplaced out-of-towners, but in the sort of vulgar prose-poetry that lights a fire under my ass.

Dear Pan Da,
Listen, shitbird.
So you get out of class and people heckle you. Fuck that noise.
You walk down past the campus hotel. Some undergrad flips you the bird and tells you to go fuck yourself. Who cares? Then there's that really pretty street on the left, the prettiest street in all of China ... don't go down that street. No, you want to take a right and walk down that fucking grody avenue that slogs along the lake like a human-sized sewer runnel.
Follow that avenue until you get to that shady four-lane highway where you're no longer sure whether the women on the streets are just women on the streets or ladies of the night. Take a left.
Then, you will walk for a long-ass time until you come to a government-issue blue sign that bears the following confusing Chinese symbols: __ __ __. Take a right.
Walk until you're about to die of exposure. Hopefully, you'll hit Crush Imperialism Road well before then, but no promises. In the event that you reach the intersection before rigor mortis sets in, hang a left on Crush Imperialism Road.

And so on. Upon second thought, the Starbucks was far more than a mile from the Old Campus. It only looked like a mile on Google Maps. But maps, especially Google Maps, are deceptively small. It would be a hike. But hiking I can handle, as long as there is a destination at the end of the hike, a place where I can sulk and brood with my Amazon Kindle projecting samovar-hot Russian literature, a steaming cup of Unfair Trade coffee firmly in hand, a Zoot Sims b-side warbling on the house stereo, some cultureshocked Chinese dudes tearing the condiments bar asunder, spilling organic brown sugar everywhere, spiking their coffee with six kilos of nutmeg and sixteen cows' worth of creme – and as long as those dudes don't harass me while I sulk and read my Dostoevsky ... for all that, I would walk five-hundred miles. And I would walk five-hundred more, as the song goes.

So I set out on Wednesday after work, a young Ahab looking for his Venti White Whale Latte. I walked at such a ferocious clip that my secondhand wingtips seemed to devour themselves with every step. I'd bought them for a dollar at an Omaha thrift store almost two years ago. They were scuffed and winestained when I bought them, but relatively intact. After a week in China, they turned black and hard as dried lava. And by the time I reached Crush Imperialism Road, they looked like a couple of abused Brillo pads strapped to my feet. Still, I walked. I would violate the Starbucks No Shirt, No Shoes policy if it came to that. But I would get my coffee. And I would get my Dostoevsky. And I would get my solitude. That much was certain. I was not to be denied. Not on this particular Wednesday evening. From Hell's heart I stab at thee ... hey, come to think of it, wasn't Starbuck a character from Moby Dick? It is now 7 AM, and this blog post is starting to get weird.

I wandered into new territory, parts of Nanchong so foreign to foreigners that the people in the streets didn't know whether they should heckle me, or kiss my feet, or call the police, or what. I passed a beautician offering "NEW SLEEK HAIL STYLE," and I laughed. I passed a restaurant that utilized none other than Saddam Hussein as their logo. And not just Saddam Hussein, but post-Operation Iraqi Freedom Saddam. Bearded, delirious, tortured, raising a single defiant finger in the air. The name of the restaurant was "B.T.," which I guessed was shorthand for bian tai, Chinese for "fucking crazy." It made sense, in a sense, but why it would make for good restaurant marketing was beyond me. Saddam Hussein is not exactly Colonel Sanders, though they were both military figures in their day, and at least in monochrome, they do bear an eerie sort of resemblance to one another. But Saddam Hussein doesn't make me hungry. The visage of Colonel Sanders, on the other hand, does. And here I leave it to the reader to determine just how perverse it is that otherwise sane, non-cannibalistic human beings can be driven to the point of salivation by caricatures of deceased colonels.

I kept walking. There was a ruckus in my wake as the people behind me suddenly realized that a foreigner had passed them by, as they realized that they had let me get away. Some desperate HAH-LOOs in the background. I kept walking. Eventually, I reemerged onto a fairly familiar stretch of road. Yes, this road, I remembered, led to the inter-provincial bus station across town. Which meant I was way out in the sticks. There were high-end car dealerships and high-end apartment complexes. At the same time, there were bona fide peasants, and vegetable vendors, and garage stall cigarette shops. At the very least, the Chinese rich are not above buying from the Chinese poor. The cars whooshed past on the highway, like spaceships from an era both before my time and far ahead of it. I kept walking. I trusted my directions. They promised me that a Starbucks would be coming up any moment now on the left. Still, this didn't seem like a Starbucks neighborhood. I began to doubt, not without some small amount of pride, that a foreigner had ever walked this street before. And the shopkeepers were certainly baffled enough to flatter me in that respect. They gasped. They gawked. Black BMW's shuttled past. Here was wealth. Here was poverty. Here was a part of China that had long since been developed, but hadn't been tidied up for foreign eyes. That should have been my first tip-off.

I kept walking. Altogether, I walked five miles in pursuit of what I ought to have known was perfectly unattainable: that Starbucks at the end of the smog-smeared horizon. After an hour or so, I got in such a walking rhythm that I didn't really want to stop. So when I finally found the place, I didn't quite know how to react. There was the sign, and there was the logo. XING BA KE, the Chinese word for "star" and the Chinese transliteration of "bucks," spelled out both in Chinese and in English. Starbucks. And there was the logo, or something like it. I had found it. The Starbucks at the end of the smog-smeared horizon. But I knew immediately that no, this was not a Starbucks. I was greeted by a primly dressed hostess standing behind a podium. I sensed that I should've made a reservation beforehand. Pan Da, party of one. Through the window, I could see plush couches sandwiching glassine tables with ashtrays planted smack dab in the middle. I could make out the estrogen tones of Kenny G, and I lingered around just long enough to hear that the track was playing on repeat. No. This was not Starbucks. This was a Chinese coffee shop. This was the kind of place where Chinese salarymen go to sell themselves for prices that make my Peace Corps stipend look like a financial hiccup. So I bolted. Or at least, I walked swiftly in the opposite direction. And where that would take me, I could only guess.

In the end, it took me to an empty restaurant. The owners had never seen a foreigner before, and brought a two year-old of theirs out with the food to practice his English.

"Hi," I said.
He spit up on himself.
"Hello," I said.
He put his fist in his mouth. His parents tissued up the spittle.
"How are you?"
He toddled away.
I ate my twice-cooked pork.

The night was still young and I didn't really feel like going home. The sun had set, but it was only 7 PM. I didn't have to work in the morning, so perhaps there was some mischief left to be done. I retraced my steps and walked my way back downtown. I passed a trio of places that billed themselves "pubs," and thought for a moment that maybe I'd step into one of them for a pint and shoot the shit with whatever clientele happened to be around. But the windows were frosted and bolted shut, which meant that they were whorehouses. Or worse, whorehouses masquerading as bars, so I'd walk in and get hustled by some college girl turned poolshark. She'd ask me to buy her a drink and thirty minutes later, I'd walk out 200 kuai lighter without so much as a consolation kiss on the cheek. So I passed. I kept walking. I found myself back at the Old Campus, where I tried in vain to hail a cab.

When you need a cab in Nanchong, they are not to be found. When you couldn't give a damn about taxis, they will very nearly run you over trying to get you inside them. Such is the nature of the Nanchong taxi system. It doesn't make much financial or existential sense, but both the cabbies and the locals seem to put up with it. The cabbies change shifts during the morning commute, and change shifts again during rush hour, such that eight vacant taxis in a row will pass you by when you're trying to get to work, and eight vacant taxis in a row will pass you by when you're trying to get home from work. If you're lucky, maybe they'll slow down just long enough for you to blurt out your destination. But inevitably, your destination is not in line with theirs. They're off the clock. They don't have to take you anywhere if they don't want to. They're off to park their car in some back alley, and then, off to go out boozing with their fellow cab drivers until the next shift begins. And who can blame them? But at 10 PM, when you're just trying to make your way to the convenience store without being crushed by a Volkswagen Santana, they'll come swerving out in front of you, wondering whether there's anywhere you'd like to go.

"No, nowhere," you'll say. "Just that shop across the street."
"But what about downtown? Lots of bars downtown, you know. Lots of coffee shops."

I lucked out on the night of my ill-fated Starbucks crusade. It was rush hour, and I managed to catch the sixth cab. But as he was swinging over to the curb to pick me up, a moped slammed into his bumper and one of the passengers went flying out into the street. She lay there startled for an instant, but once she realized what had happened, she started bawling. The pilot, her boyfriend, parked the moped and rushed over to scream at the cabbie. Then he went out to the street to see if his girlfriend was alive. Then he returned to scream at the cabbie. Tentatively, I got in the backseat.

The cabbie was stoic, unsympathetic. And for my part, I was rooting for him. I was willing to testify on his behalf in Chinese court (if there is such a thing). The cabbie had signaled and slowly glided towards the sidewalk. The moped, meanwhile, had been riding his ass, and the pilot had been speeding along inattentively, on the wings of love, as the song goes. His girlfriend was alright. Sniffling a bit, but alright. In any case, Mr. Moped seemed more concerned about his ride. But his shitbike was alright, too. Still, he kept demanding money from the cabbie, and kept stealing glances at me in the backseat, as though I were somehow to blame. Of course, I was the obvious suspect in all this. Car accidents are a rare event and foreigners are a rare event, so in the rare event that those two rare events collide, it makes sense that they should be connected.

Eventually, Mr. Moped made a gesture that might have been obscene, and the cabbie reciprocated it. Then the cabbie hawked a loogie out the window, lit a cigarette, and asked me where I wanted ... to go.

"Take me home," I said.
"Home," he grunted.
"The New Campus," I said. "The First Wing of the New Campus. The Big Gate of the New Campus. The Teachers' Apartments on the New Campus. Building number 61."
"So that's home," laughed the cabbie.
"It'll do for now," I said. Or something like that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

haha interesting. I was born in Nanchong but have never stayed anywhere for more than 4 years since I was 14. I read your blog in Kansas after googling "Nanchong KFC".
I paid a visit to Nanchong two years ago (only for one day). It is still sweet as usual. I'm sure you will miss it sometime in the future as well.