Monday, December 20, 2010

On and Off the Road to Neijiang

Masculine idiocy has a way of disguising itself as pragmatism. Practicality. Common sense: the voice of the testes. It works sometimes. Other times, it self-destructs. The same rationality that invented the calculus drives a man to reduce a malfunctioning can opener to a battered heap of scrap metal.

But as long as idiocy remains incubated there in the masculine mind, it is both safe and harmless. No one will bother it in its cave. In its cave, it will bother no one. It is mere bullshit introspection at this point: it has not yet been beshatted. There is no way to detect an idiotic manthought until it is fully digested by the manbrain and excreted out the manmouth, at which point the outside world exacts its swift and unforgiving judgment, usually in the form of a kick to the crotch, the very origin of the bullshit manthought in the first place.

My sitemates and I decided to go to Neijiang for Thanksgiving. The two of them went about the planning process in their own effeminately reasonable ways - consulted students, looked up ticket prices online, weighed the pros and cons of various modes of transportation - while I nourished my inner Jew reading Portnoy's Complaint and otherwise whiled away the week flatulating and scratching my junk around the apartment up until the day before departure, when I was suddenly assailed by my usual wave of pre-departure panic.

I happened to run into Meghan that afternoon. For her and Christy, the jury was still out. They weren't sure which bus to take. Their students had presented them with a travel dilemma that I, in my infinite masculine wisdom, decided to resolve.

"Our students told us that the direct bus to Neijiang takes six to eight hours," said Meghan, "but they said that if we go to Chengdu first, then catch a bus to Neijiang, it only takes four."
"Students schmudents," I said.
I observed that Neijiang was only 240 kilometers away, and that it was impossible that the direct bus would take eight hours. Heck, I said, with all the running around you'd have to do in Chengdu – catching taxis, buying more bus tickets, waiting in line - with that whole rigmarole, I bet it would take eight hours from Chengdu.
"Yeah," said Meghan, a bit warily, "You've been here longer than I have. I guess you're probably right."

The next morning, Meghan and Christy sallied forth at daybreak. I loafed around the apartment eating cereal, waiting for my jeans to dry.

I made it to the bus station at 11:45 and had the good fortune of winning Seat #2 on the 11:50 direct bus to Neijiang. Seat #2 gave me a panoramic view of the road, as well as a direct line to the bus driver in brokering pit stops for my hyperactive bladder. I was the bus driver's right-hand man. His co-pilot. The Andy Richter to his Conan. Sitting in Seat #2 meant that I was hidden from the gawping crowds in the middle and rear of the bus – if I played my cards right, no one would ever know there had been a laowai on board. Aside from the bus driver. And my neighbor, a college coed. A smitingly gorgeous college coed, I might add. This meant that I wouldn't muster the courage to talk to her. Which meant I could get some reading done.

My neighbor stuffed her shopping bags under the seat and sat down rigid and slouchless next to me with her hands on her knees. Then she leaned forward and asked the driver how long the drive would be.

"Depends," he said.
"Depends on what?"

We sailed away. The bus merged onto the highway. NEIJIANG - 240 km. Already, I was beginning to question the merits of Seat #2. For one thing, the floor was movie theatre sticky and the air was swimming with fruit flies. For another, the only loudspeaker on the entire bus was bolted to the wall directly above my head – and it should come as a surprise to no one that the Chinese like their in-flight entertainments loud.

My neighbor was uninterested in talking to me. So uninterested, in fact, that she quickly zonked out into one of those mouth-open, slobbering-everywhere slumbers. Which looked nice. I tried to zonk myself out as well. But I could neither sleep nor read nor write nor think, what with the fruit flies and the squawking loudspeaker. Then, as we left the highway for a shitty gritty two-lane road, there was death via vehicular manslaughter to consider.

The panorama view from Seat #2 was suddenly a curse. Blasting towards oncoming traffic at a combined velocity of 120 miles per hour terrifies me, as I figure it ought to terrify anyone, but I'm the type of guy who can't take his eyes off the onrushing headlights. On road trips in the developing world, I cannot help but stare my own mortality in the grille. Reading was out of the question; Portnoy's Complaint turned colder than a frozen latke in my lap. I sat there in a cloud of fruit flies, sweating, feet stuck to the floor, calculating the space between the tip of my nose and the mirrors of each and every semi-truck that typhooned past. Twelve inches. Six inches. Three inches. Just the widowpane. The road narrowed from two lanes to one, and after a while, even the one lane was debatable. A notional lane. A platonic ideal that no one had gotten around to building. Smelling fear, the fruit flies mounted an offensive on my scalp. They were sluggish and out of season, but they had strength in numbers.

But even death grew boring after a while. Gradually, my mind drifted around to the in-flight entertainment, a piece of VHS junk called The Little Princes. The protagonists – who else but The Little Princes? – were a trio of ten year old kung fu fighting brothers. Caught between the adorability of childhood and the depravity of puberty, The Little Princes seized upon a little bit of both for their own distinctly Chinese charm. They were cheeky and misguided. They were lecherous creeps. They were not altogether likeable. But they beat the shit out of everybody.

My favorite scene took place in an optometrist's office. American optometrists are generally soft-spoken Jewish men. But the Chinese archetype of the optometrist is different. It is a feminine archetype, an unusually busty archetype, and one that is dripping with sexuality. Or so I gathered from my bus screening of The Little Princes.

Optometrist: Read the first line, please.
Little Prince #3: L … R … Q … O.
Optometrist: Very good. Second line.
Little Prince #3: W … A … L … V.
Optometrist: Excellent. Bottom line.
Little Prince #3: Optometry Exam Number 54, Copyright 1982, Xiao Wang Printing Company.
[some sort of "baffled" sound effect]
Optometrist: What! You can read that? I can barely read it, and I'm standing right next to the board!
Little Prince #3: Of course I can read it, missy. It's easy with eyesight like mine. They don't call me "Eagle-Eyed Little Prince #3" for nothing! I could read it with my eyes closed.
Optometrist: Well, we'll just see about that! Close your eyes, young man.
[Little Prince #3 shuts eyes]
Optometrist: Now tell me what you see.
[camera zooms in on Optometrist's blouse]
Little Prince #3: The label seems to say … 38-D. Xiao Wang Brassiere Company. What does that mean?
Optometrist: [fainting] Well, I never!

Amidst all the leching and asskicking, there was a song and dance number. Granted, the Little Princes fared much better at leching and asskicking than they did at singing and dancing. But as a critic, I have to say that the soundtrack really held the film together.

We are The Little Princes
We will pursue our enemies to the very ends of the earth
We will banish all opponents to oblivion
We are young and we are mighty
We are The Little Princes
We will handily dispose of the problem

Thirty minutes into The Little Princes and two hours into the bus ride, the sleepless weeks of writing were compressing my eyes into hyphens. Neither death nor 140 decibel fart noises could keep me conscious. I gazed out the window and saw that we were approaching a village that billed itself "The Lemon Paradise of Sichuan." But the fruits on the billboards didn't look like lemons. They were green. They didn't even look like fruits. They appeared to be gourds. I drifted off into a half-sleep and dreamt of Donkey Kong throwing lemonlike gourds at me. I had just reached Level 3 when the bus skidded and swerved and I was jolted awake. Out the window, I could see that we were being chased by peasants, and that the road ahead was blocked by two very large trucks. Pirates? A bus robbery? Terror on the high seas? A hijacking in the Lemon Paradise of Sichuan?

The driver stopped the bus and leaned on his horn. The trucks didn't budge. Briefly, he considered off-roading it into a ravine, which would have killed him and everyone else on board. Then he shut off the engine and got out to parley with the peasants. A few minutes later, he came back and told us that we were going to stop for a while. A few minutes after that, the peasants boarded the bus with crates full of lemon gourds. Almost everyone on the bus bought a lemon gourd, except for me and the smitingly attractive coed next to me, who was still drooling everywhere.

We remained parked there in that weird place for half an hour. It was 3 PM. The sun seemed neither to rise nor to set. It just hung there like a lemon gourd on a string. The sides of the road were strewn with gutted lemon gourd carcasses. I could hear the people in the seats behind me snarfing away, sucking the juicy gourd meat through their teeth. When they were done, they cast the rinds onto the floor of the bus. Ah, yes. Hence the movie theatre stickiness. Hence the fruit flies. I watched the driver smoke a cigarette with the lemon gourd people. I saw him shake hands with everyone, and I could've sworn I saw him pocket a little something for himself.

The lemon gourd trucks parted and we were moving again, but not for very long. Just long enough for the smitingly gorgeous coed to wake up in horror at the sight of a bearded white man next to her. Then she remembered where she was, remembered me, wiped the drool off her chin, and stared at the television, which was playing trashy Russian music videos by then. We were entering a village of even less consequence than the Lemon Paradise of Sichuan and the road had thinned out to a salt and pepper strip of gravel upon which three lanes of traffic were bargaining with each other for death or safe passage. I had a good view of the speedometer and I could see that we were moving along at a steady 80 km/h clip, much too fast for my liking, up until we were stopped outside the Village of Little Consequence, at which point we were moving at about 0 km/h, which is much too slow for anyone's liking.

We were stuck behind a convoy of kerosene tankers. Together, we rumbled into the village like a procession of elephants. The villagers were lauding our arrival, or lampooning it. They walked alongside the bus, chattering and cat-calling and peering into the windows like we were zoo exhibits, something the other passengers were uncomfortable with but I thought was rather ordinary. Our driver grew impatient and tried to pass one of the kerosene tankers, whose captain responded by threatening us with fiery death, swinging so close to the bus that I could've reached out and touched the kerosene tank if I'd opened the window. The bus driver stopped and shut off the engine. We were officially screwed. None of the tankers were moving. There was no way to pass them without killing the entire population of the Village of Little Consequence and ourselves in the process. So we just waited there. And then, amidst the already bountiful absurdity, the capitalized Absurd struck. A four-to-the-floor beat pumped from the bus stereo, and after a brief synth interlude, I heard the six words that no self-respecting gentleman of poor endowment ever wants to hear: don't want no short dick man.

I had heard the song before, three years ago in a club in Hangzhou, but passed it off at the time as just another formaldehyde-induced hallucination. I've since googled the song. Surprise: it's called "Short Dick Man," and it's by a band called 20 Fingers. It is perhaps more fun reading the song than listening to it, unless you happen to be on board a Chinese bus stuck in a village of little consequence. The abridged lyrics are as follows:

don't want no short dick man
eensy weensy teeny weeny
shriveled little short dick man
what in the world is that thing?
do you need some tweezers to put that thing away?
that has got to be the smallest dick
I've ever seen in my whole life
I have ever seen in my whole life
get the fuck out of here
eensy weensy teeny weeny
shriveled little short dick man
isn't that cute? an extra belly button
you need to put your pants back on, honey
don't want no short dick man
pobre, pobrecito
que diablo eso?

I no longer even laugh when these sorts of things happen in China. If I did, I would likely be wack-evacked for giggling in perpetuum. So I just looked around the bus to see whether anyone was wearing the same facial expression that I was, which one of you tech-savvy kids might render like so: >:-O. But no. The people were bobbing their heads to the beat, secure in their magnitude. Here were no short dick men. Here were men of girth and substance. Here were satisfied women. Here were the Chinese. Me, I kind of grimaced and checked my watch and wondered what would end first: our internment in the Village of Little Consequence, or the extended Short Dick Man megamix.

I fired a text message to Meghan.

"How's Neijiang?" I asked.
"We're not there yet," she said.
">:-O, " I typed. "You guys left four hours before me."
"Yeah," she said, "we did."
"Three hours in and I'm stranded in a village," I wrote. "Does it get any better?"
"No," she wrote, "it only gets worse."

I was not encouraged. Neither was the bus driver. So he left the convoy of kerosene tankers and set off down a side street. He rolled down the window to ask a villager whether we could make it through to the highway. The villager nodded emphatically. The peasants gathered around the bus and seemed to be carrying us uphill. They would perhaps one day tell their grandchildren about us. The Bus That Came to the Village of Little Consequence. There was daylight ahead. A through street. A dusty little capillary that would lead us back to the clotted artery to Neijang. We were almost there. And then we came to a series of widely spaced pillars in the middle of the road. The bus driver stopped the bus at the top of the hill. He shut off the engine, got out, and visually measured the breadth of the bus against the space between the pillars.

"We're too big! We won't fit!" he screamed.
Ah. Poetic justice for the Small Bused Man.
The bus driver's peasant Virgil trembled.
"Sorry," said the peasant.
"Sorry? Sorry! We've wasted a half hour. You told me we could get to the highway on your shitty peasant road." Here, the driver spit in the dust. "Fuck you, you fucking cunt."

The driver got back on the bus. He fired up the engine. Fuck you, you fucking cunt. I knew the words. They were some of the first I'd committed to memory, but I had never before heard them used in China. I was shocked and amused, which looks like this: >:-D. The driver put the bus in reverse and we coasted forlornly back down the hill. The villagers gathered around to laugh us off. When we'd returned to the main road, the kerosene tankers were long gone and the road was clear. The driver cursed at his sudden good fortune.

But we weren't free yet. The road ahead wasn't quite busworthy. It wasn't even monster truckworthy. Looking back, I still have no idea how the kerosene tankers made it out of town. The driver stopped the bus and got out to consider the potholes. One of them was deep enough that the driver practically had to spelunk his way down into it. The Chinese words zenme ban popped into my head: what to do? And almost instinctively came the Sichuanese reply: mou fa – nothing can be done.

I have used the following tagline before in writing, but it is not really mine to use. It belongs to Richard Lee of Daegu, South Korea, and it was originally applied to South Korea. But I will borrow it once again – assuming that the namedrop is a sufficient citation – and I will here apply it to China: the land where everything is possible, but nothing is possible.

There is a certain zenlike contradiction to possibilities in China. Or perhaps it is more of a Daoist thing. But the laughably sure things in Chinese life – e.g., that you can get noodles at a noodle restaurant – sometimes turn out to be absolutely, unthinkably impossible. Twice last week I went to restaurants that not only specialized in noodles, but did not in fact sell anything other than noodles. And on both occasions, I was told, "No noodles." Mou fa. Nothing can be done.

And yet, what do the Chinese do when a road is in such disrepair that a busload of 49 people and one laowai appear to be stranded forever in a village of little consequence? Why, they build the road.

Noodles at a noodle restaurant? Impossible. "Short Dick Man" playing on a Chinese bus to nowhere? Possible, even probable if you're stranded on the bus long enough. But building a road, almost from scratch, in order to get a single vehicle back onto the highway was a stretch of the imagination for me, even as I sat there and watched the peasants do it. They scrambled about with wheelbarrows full of ground-up stone. They lugged over massive slabs of concrete. Whatever scraps they could drum up from the construction site across the street, they dumped into the potholes. And one way or another, the potholes were filled and leveled off, and in fifteen minutes flat, the only road out of the Village of Little Consequence had been rebuilt.

The bus driver fired up the engine and we crept slowly forward. Finally, the laughter I'd managed to stifle through twenty minutes of "Short Dick Man" came tumbling out. The peasants were steering the bus forward like it was a taxiing 747. We dropped gently into Divet #1, then rolled up and out of it. Divet #2 gave the TV set a good rattle, but aye, the mizzenmast, she held. Divet #3, the real doozy, the one the peasants filled up with what looked to be birdseed, set the bus a-shimmying, but our fearless pilot clung to the wheel with two iron fists until the front tires at last kissed the somewhat paved road that stretched out ahead of us. The driver gunned it. We were off. My fellow passengers let out a whoop, and the peasants let out a whoop – either because they were happy to have helped us, or because they were happy to be rid of us.

All and all, the bus ride to Neijiang would take seven hours. My sitemates were none too pleased with me when I arrived, but I'd like to think that they derived some satisfaction from the knowledge that karma had indeed given me my well-deserved seven-hour kick to the crotch. And then, suddenly, it was Thanksgiving. And there were forty other laowais to entertain. The masculine idiocy, as it turned out, had only just begun.

1 comment:

Catherine said...

Amazing. I'm in awe of your ability to recall detail. The same story, written by me, would've been two poorly written paragraphs long. Good show, Keith.

Also, I remember being like, eight years old and listening to my little Walkman radio when "Short Short Man" suddenly attacked my innocent ears. I haven't thought about that song in 20 years. Thanks for the refresher :)