News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Ch04 - Temple Time (9200) 2004-04-08

Additional stuff to write into this chapter: You chuckle at a book vendors selection of books entitled “China won’t be bullied” while making comments to your wife. You are accosted by a suspicious student. He says you Americans have no right to bully China. You say you’re not American, but Canadian. You refuse to engage him in discussion because he’s not serious. He just wants an American to bully. He says “You white people, etc.” You tell him his math needs some work. You’re the only white person here. How can he use the plural nominative? Again you tell him he’s not serious about discussing the issue. Further, he’s using clichés borrowed from someone else to attack someone that I am not. In other words he’s not talking to me. He’s representing someone he doesn’t know to attack a person who doesn’t exist. You leave him there fuming.

Write Frank into the dialogue as the person to whom you’re explaining the temple and how you see things. Mention Michael in order to bring him back into the story.


Bunny hugged me and gushed, “I've got to go to temple. To give votive offerings.”

I smiled shyly, the budding erection in my shorts now reversing, gun-shy. “Really?” I knew what was next.

“Wanna come?”

I pursed my lips, snickering embarrassedly through my nostrils. “Umm…. Well….”

Her eager-to-please smile hardened into something more cunning and resolute. She was unwilling to go the ritual alone, I knew. Just as I knew she was inwardly embarrassed.

I started to wilt. God how I hated that! And my voice slithered beyond my control as I bleated, “Oh come on honey, you know how this stuff bugs the heck out of me. It's so…so primitive. You don't buy into this stuff at all. Don't be so wimpy. Stand up for what you believe in.”

I often started out strong with Bunny but when she put on that mask, it usually gave me the wobbles. It was funny because living overseas brings out the Moses in all First Worlders, yet I always seemed to do more pleading than preaching.

“C'mon honey-buns. You know…” I gasped, hoping low volume would hide my quavering.

Not that my fumbling didn't have any effect. Though I was Bunny’s husband, I was still a foreigner. She was nobody’s fool and thus visiting the temple and going through the motions at the behest of everyone else's expectations left her smarting under the gaze of an international observer and representative of Uncle Sam, the loved yet resented Great White Hope: your humble narrator. And that I wasn't even American made little difference. Here, furriners were Americans, Great Americans in fact, whether we liked it or not.

In my pale-skinned presence, as was often the national way, she felt she was being watched, held to an impossible standard, performing for an audience of inscrutable technologically-advanced critics. She had to outperform Westerners at each and every turn, at least within China or else she'd be letting the home-team down. She knew what we Americans would think of her going to the temple: weak-kneed, hidebound, un-self-actualized and just generally unenlightened.

I’d given Bunny my full emotional support at all times. Well, pretty much at all times. But adorable creature that she is, deconstructing issues and re-valuing values aren’t her forte, which after all don’t belong to a national tradition that's much encouraged these days. She's a person of action. The opposite of me, which is why we're so compatible: we can't really get in each other's way much, even if we wanted to.

But humiliation craved company.

I smiled awkwardly. More nose-breathing to suppress a potential shriek. I frowned and one of my eyelids started to flutter annoyingly. My shoulders compressed, evolution automatically minimized areas vulnerable to attack. My arms vaguely flailed as if there was a breeze in the room. I could never think well under pressure and my carriage went feeble and did strange things.

So what was so bad about going-along-to-get-along? Why upset the apple-cart and cause a mess?

Well, for starters, because it wasn't my religion. I was serious about her not giving a hoot about the ancestors. Ancestors? Ancestor worship? What ancestor worship? It was all atheists from the Black Dragon River to the Burma border. Religion was alternatively a fashion, a traditional hobby, an artiste stab at sophistication, an uninspiring act of political rebellion, or yet another filial obligation imposed by old-fart family patriarchs. Most of all, in a workers' paradise woefully under-stocked with bourgeois institutions of joy, it was a low-budget on-the-cheap form of leisure. In other words, it was just something to kill the time.

I preferred books. And beer. And food. And besides, the temple would be squirming with herds of middle-aged hypocrites just like us, plus a minority of doddering True Believers and a shifty pride of slick customers on the prowl; it would be low-brow operators, any way you sliced it, for as far as the eye could see.

I'd been to temple before. Oh yeah. The place would be crawling with old biddies squiring obsolescent husbands around like children. Not my notion of eye-candy. It was an omen for what the future held for me, and the thought of this as my comeuppance at the end of a long and perhaps even productive life made me cagey and irritable. And temple food in the mountains was pricy and yet mediocre.

And then when we got there the wife always got the exercise bug. Or was it Taoism and mountain chi she was trying to suck up? She just wasn't ready to admit it yet, maybe. Who knows? Either way, we went tramping around placid hills echoing with the blast of umpa-umpa Karaoke tunes care of the local entrepreneurs. The place was full of outdoorsmen smoking to beat the band and yodeling Frank Sinatra hits into a microphone.

I tried to make tracks away from these places. I dreamed of taking Bunny on something more outdoorsy: putting a canoe on a freight train and heading into the Canuck backwoods; disembarking at an uninhabited point on a map, portaging half a kilometer through pine and birch before dipping our feet into high Ph water full of leaping pike and lurking muskie, with the nearest road fifty miles away. Even my folk’s property was visited by brown bears, white-tailed deer, mallard ducks, kingfishers, loons, ravens, raccoons, golden and bald eagles, coyotes, you name it. But here people put fishing nets on the crests of mountains to trap birds, a sort of land-lubbers driftnet that fetched up anything moving, stranding and choking the whole lot to death.

The only wildlife remaining had six legs minimum. We got out of breath traipsing up-and-down trails on the local rocks, dodging discarded lunch boxes and bottles of yogurt, keeping an eye out for five-inch bright yellow spiders that cast webs up to thirty feet wide and those eight-inch centipedes the width of your thumb and with a shell like a crayfish. The trash was depressing, but the view was still very cool. The absence of trees in any number or size was weird sometimes, but the ten foot elephant grass, the behemoth bugs and the swarms of friendly hikers helped make up for it. But then you'd arrive at the summit and find barbequed fatty sausages and boiled vegetables hawked by dorky sun-dried farmers in tartan sports jackets, baseball caps, and flip-flops.

Why not put on the Discovery Channel, dodge the elements and couch-surf, and kick back with pemmican, the city brew, and a hash-pipe? (And don't blame me for seducing the wife with drugs; it's more like the other way around)

No dang temple for me. No sirree Bob.

I squirmed and put my hands out, palms up. I could have been begging for spare change. "Oh come on honey. You know, I hate that stuff. What's the point? You don't even believe in ghosts and spirits,” I said. On second thought, I looked at her sideways and wondered out loud, "Right?"

It was country where nearly everyone started out as a cynic with no belief of any kind other than Might is Right and the intrinsic holiness of the dollar. The party had squelched Faith and sat on True Believers so hard over the years, that most of them had decided against instructing their children to spare them a life of suffering.

But now, without TV sitcoms to compete with, Faith was fun. It was back, bigger and better than ever. And so little was remembered of the old traditions that many faiths were entirely new and scrabbled together in a dog's breakfast of patron saints. There were herds of Happy Buddhas, Daoist sorcerers, legendary emperors, ancient generals, ancestral miracle-workers to choose from. I’d even met a joiner of Vietnam's Cao Dai and learned to my amusement of this religion’s three archangels: Jesus Christ, Sun Yat-sen, and Victor Hugo.

Local polytheism, being DIY and closely associated with temple art, some of which is quite gorgeous by the way, acquired the trappings of fine art. Given the philistinism of socialism, this wasn't difficult. But by virtue of becoming an art form, local religions became immune and even indifferent to criticism. They became subservient to no standards and thus had no need for rhyme or reason. Loose talk about religious nuts and rib-ticklers about revealed lunacy went from being faux pas to being morally offensive.

I was informed that one needed to elevate oneself above the barking and braying crowd; aim for a higher plane beyond the din of rocket-scientists and pundits fumbling their talking points. The beatific lay in the eye of the beholder. Besides, what was there to explain when everyone was doing it?

Bunny sighed, knowing what I was thinking. “Well, she said, you can't be too sure, can you, Charles? We might as well go. Just to be on the safe side."

I moaned, “That's what Confucius said. He was already an atheist 2500 years ago. This is the year 2005. I mean, what do youuuu think, darling?”

She approached, sashaying sexily in track pants and painted toes. She spoke in Chinese, as she always did when something was important. (Engrish was for fun. It was light, jaunty, irreverent, casual, sophisticated. Not a serious language for real stuff.) She said, “I think you know we're going. Stop trying to put off the inevitable.” In a flirty voice promising worldly rewards, she added, “Come on, don't be a spoilsport! It looks good if we go anyway. The neighbors will think better of us."

And that, I thought to myself, was how it usually began. I'd spent a couple of summers in Taiwan and noticed how religion grew out of virtually nothing. China was heading in the same direction for the same reasons.

You started out as a child afraid of looking under your bed, but grew via a public school education into a certifiable atheist, snickering at superstitious oldsters. After graduating and becoming a worker bee in the national hive, you went along just to get along and ended up attending regular family and office sponsored tours of graves and temples during the more prominent holidays. By your late twenties you found yourself becoming afraid of dark rooms and things that went bump in the night. By the time you got to thirty-five you're giving guilt money to temples, just in case. Ten more years and you're still only half-convinced, but you sink yourself in the art and craft of propitiation. Just in case. After you retire, and have more time on your hands than you know what to do with, it becomes a welcome full-time job just keeping up with spook holidays, ghost festivals, fengshui taboos, farmer's almanacs, and various other abstruse and increasingly time and money consuming rituals. At the peak of your golden years, a full-blown True Believer emerges.

Some of the faithful became fetishists and fanatics and the only thing missing was the issuing of fatwas. But then again that could never happen in the panicky laissez-faire Chinese ethos. Old folk's homes were awash with fundamentalist cranks too paranoid to be pushy.

Bunny had mentioned the neighbors. The men had the social skills of high school athletes; the women were incurable gossips. Many of them sympathized with my plight: trapped somewhere between a monkey and the missing link. Bunny herself had just spread the word to the clothes hanging duo that I was unreliable, telling them that I needed managing like a kid and was prone to tantrums and burning myself. Gosh! With friends like my wife, who needed xenophobes?

It seemed plain to me that the neighbors either didn't respect me as it was or else that Bunny could persuade them I fell off the dark side of the moon if it suited her purposes.

I didn't see why I should bother being such a good sport. They weren't pals. More like adversaries in a neighborly cold war. And besides, today was Saturday. "Honey, I'm supposed to meet the guys today in about an hour. We got some activities going. You know, it's the weekend. Sports time."

"You're going to the bar so you can sit on your duff and watch soccer games?"

I forced out a laugh, "Huh-huh. You got me, honey. But still, it's the weekend, you know?” I gave her coochie-coo puppy-eyes, “It's the only time I really have to spend time with the guys."

"Charles, it'll only take a couple of hours. Besides, what about quality time? We need to spend more time together. I'm so busy running the trading company during the week, and you've always got your nose parked in a book. We never have time for each other."

"Yeah, but..."

She cuddled and canoodled me for a moment. She said: "Look, I helped you out the other day with those two doofuses on the veranda, right? I manhandled them just right. You'd have been out there for another half-hour, trying to persuade them with your Western logic. You know what would happen? In the end, they'd praise your Chinese and then politely ignore you and continue hanging their clothes up out there. I did you a favor, baby, now come on and return it."

This was true. She didn't give a hoot about the neighbors' clothes being up there.

My wife is seriously cool sometimes. She's second-generation from Hunan, the poor Northeastern province which has produced so many of China's statesmen over the millennia. They're cocky, decision-making types over there. That northern China dominatrix culture was one of the things that really endeared her to me. I had the best of both worlds: a woman's body and a man's mind. It sounds sort of gay, but I'm not homophobic anyway. I'm just not partial to body hair and rimming.

"Look, baby.” she said, “Just call your friends and postpone the meeting or something. You'll catch up with them later.” She pushed a finger into my mouth and, while I was trying to figure out if this was a sexy move or a gag order, she said: “The bar isn't going to run off without you. But you're coming with me. Okay?" Her smile was full of sharp teeth as she got up and went into the kitchen.

I ran my tongue around my mouth and exhaled slowly, but there was not much I could do. I was in debt to her. “Okay, honey, I'm on it. But...let's get this show on the road and get back here by 3 p.m., what do ya say?"

“Sure sweetie.”

I consoled myself by taking pride in the fact Bunny was a great persuader. She was, particularly given how darn inarticulate people could be around here. A grunt was a reply. Silence, whether dull, petrified, or hostile, was frequently the rejoinder which summed up the person’s thoughts in full on the matter at hand. Children were meant to be seen, not heard. That was the traditional mantra. But nobody seemed to have told anybody they could start talking when they reached adulthood.

While I dug through my wallet for my phone book and Frank's number, I got to thinking some more about this. I could feel there was something else in there, I just had to dig deeper.

People didn’t talk much. They didn't air their thoughts frequently. Ergo…umm… they didn't have much chance to think out loud or share ideas with others? Yeah. That’s it… No wonder fresh thinking wasn't nearly as popular as traditions. No wonder the invasion of technological advances, factory operations, credit cards and investment practices wasn't even recognized as an advance right across the board in terms of re-conceptualizing the world. No wonder all the local heroes were traditional thinkers: an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Hmm…that hit the spot. I was feeling cocky now.

When I got Frank on the phone and told him to tell the guys I wouldn't be there on time, he was positively delighted: "You can't make it? You pussy-whipped bitch! I feel for you." And he roared like it was the best joke he'd heard in years. “Damn, dude. It's the weekend, and you still can't get away from the ball and chain? I like your missus, but you've got to be your own man, man. Short leash or what? Oh..." and he paused for effect like a high school comedian performing for the low end of the bell curve, "Oh, I forgot. You're doing time for life.” More hee-hawing... “You don't want to know how I've been spending my liberty so far this weekend."

Frank was ex-service, a landlocked sailor who said he loved it here in good ole’ 'Seshwan Province'. But he often used 'liberty' as if he was on shore-leave and already thinking about getting back to the boat.

I tried to dampen his enthusiasm with a zombie tone: "Yeah, you're right Frank. I'm kind of in a rush."

"The dude is in a rush. Awe... a rush to do mommy's bidding?" More guffaws. "Look Charlie, my man, this is getting out of hand. Dang! As yo friend and former partner in crime, I's got to tell ya: you all gots to get control o’ yo’ life back, man." He was having a great time getting his licks in while the window of opportunity was open.

I said, "Look Frank, thanks for the corny accent. I can tell you care. Umm… I've got to go now. Really. So…"

"Hey! Don’t be doing me like this, bro!" Restarting the charm machine cool, he whispered in mock Soul Train: "But, let me help y’all out sometime. I'm connected. Anytime yo’ short, I’s can help you pick up dee slack. Y’all name the time and place. I be there. I’s got's the product that satisfies."

I tried to hide my excitement and come off as being bored, "Yeah, I know. I will.” I rubbed my eyes to district my libido, “I know you're good for it. Just not today. I'll talk to you later this afternoon."

"For sure, man. Let's hook up and do some bizness. Later, Holmes."

As we hung up, I envisioned him slapping a hand in the air, going for a high five. This faux rapper crap of his in the after hours was a bit much at times, but I had to admit he was showing some praiseworthy initiative, some spirited entrepreneurship. It really seemed to pull in the ladies though in our straitlaced factory town it didn’t take all that much to amuse. Besides, when he was shucking and jiving mode, the locals didn't know what they were looking at (a Jamaican East Indian émigré) and it was a good enough facsimile of what they saw on music videos. Coming overseas had given him anonymity, a fresh start. And he'd used this gift to morph into that shallowest of personas, the personality. Some might call it a shameless and bold procedure, but then again, despite the promises, the meek never seem to inherit the earth.

"You ready?" Bunny asked.

"Uh-huh." I was looking out the window at the cool green leafy veranda. It was my favorite oasis: a verdant refuge from the leaden grayness of rainy days; on clear days it was a thriving ecology offsetting the oceanic blue emptiness. I could lose myself in it, getting into Mandelbrot patterns of branch growth which were slave to a physiology selected for moving towards the sun. I played weaker plants as underdogs, giving them water during dry periods. Every new insect that appeared up here (exploring bees, hunting wasps, hapless butterflies tossed up by updrafts, dragonflies riding the thermals like eagles) was an epiphany, a discovery, an achievement! The virgin arrival of sparrows -- peeping and pecking each other fractiously while doing a recon of the landing zone and then cagily banging on plant stems to shake out squirming protesting food -- was a climax that had me running to the bedroom and pulling Bunny, groggy and bemused, out to check out the scene, to be my witness.

These intrusions didn't upset her; on the contrary she was amused and even found them comforting. She realized the veranda was my refuge; that my enthusiasm for plants and things on the wing was emblematic of my secret fragility as an expatriate, of my fundamental apartness from things and the resulting solitude and need for company. She knew now of my private unspoken need for fraternity, and that when it couldn't be satisfied, the hard-core thirst for a consuming, overwhelming distraction in which to lose myself and find meaning. Ergo, my constant daydreaming, my impulsive reading, my compulsion for the bar.

As to my little thicket on the veranda, Bunny could take it or leave it. She was awash in friends and associates, praise and affirmation. Besides, she was a jumped up country girl and associated greenery with her past; bald landscapes with her future. She wasn't trying to escape history, just leave it behind where she felt it belonged. The past bored her like yesterday's fashions, yesterday's restaurants, yesterday's friends. History was just yesterday’s news recycled by pencil-necks with a bent for entrepreneurialism. She wasn’t buying.

I wasn't trying to escape my past either. But I could use a breather now and again from the present. Today's fashions, food-joints, and bar flies often failed to satisfy. The past was romantic and fabulous, if only because it could be anything you wanted it to be. Unlike the present, you could reinvent it, garnishing or pruning as you went, with little chance of reality breaking in and spoiling the show.

But perhaps the critical difference between us was that Bunny was moving up in the food chain, whereas I had already reached my peak. Past it even, and I hadn't lifted a finger to get there. As an expatriate in a hinterland city that placed First Worlders on a pedestal, getting to the top of food chain wasn't an achievement, but a sort of duty-free right and reward for those with plane tickets and the right passport and skin-tone. As a young Caucasian English-speaking male, I had been granted an aura and distinction rather like that accompanying an honorary diploma. Being unearned, in the end it was unsatisfying. Once granted the top prize, it dawned on you sooner or later that you were in effect denied the opportunity for accomplishment and achievement. Things could be very anticlimactic when they came too easily, without striving, without challenge, without messing up a few times. And so, many of us took to idleness, sleeping in, chronic partying, laying girl after girl after girl.

Marriage was a way back to spiritual health. It was a sort of refuge from pampering and the endless debilitating, demoralizing, degrading and debauching free-ride. Marriage meant responsibility, financial targets, career goals; it meant joining that boisterous vortex of envy and showboating, backbiting and ankle-nibbling, individual tragedy and communal comedy that's known as family; it meant being accountable and becoming fair game. You were no longer a distinguished foreign guest, and were brought down a bevy of notches to become just another suspect and probably disreputable relative. I found this invigorating and healthy. It got me out of bed in the morning, full of vim and vigor, to make something out of myself in this world.

So away we went. When we got to the elevator, the live-in operator was missing again so I pressed the elevator buttons by myself. Bunny wagged a finger and frowned at my impertinence.

While walking on the sidewalk to get to Bunny's car, we came across a really swarthy fellow of about forty. The sidewalk wasn't crowded but there were people moving all around. I wouldn't have noticed him but for his above-average height and his being fixed in one place without any apparent purpose. People in my block were always busy, going places, getting things done. And when they didn’t chase around like hamsters, they slept like seals: flopping in front of their cash register or sprawling and snoring on top of their wares. China’s engine of prosperity was its people. Nobody just hung out.

Swarthy-guy was dressed in dark blue track pants, grungy flip-flops, and a green washed-out Mao jacket. I spied on him on the sly as he leaned over, fetched up something hurriedly from the ground, checked that the coast was clear, and then scurried off about thirty feet. There was no sign that he took pleasure in his find. He slowly, mechanically, stepped off the sidewalk and onto the edge of the road, oblivious to the steady stream of bicycles. Safe, he pulled out a lighter and a long thin papery object. He fired it up and I realized it was a cigarette butt.

He hastily inhaled several times. He smoked greedily, too hastily to enjoy it, afraid someone would snatch it out of his fingers. The cigarette butt was his claim, finders-keepers, like a dog guarding his food while wolfing it down, looking out sideways from nervous peepers.

I tried to point him out discreetly to Bunny, but she wasn't interested. "Come on Charlie," she tugged at my arm. "It’s just a vagrant. Whoopty-frickin-do! We’re going to the temple. Stop fooling around."

"But look at how he smokes. Isn't that cool? He holds his butts in this sort of European way, between thumb and forefinger. I've never seen anyone here smoke that way. Maybe has an interesting history."

“Maybe you just have an overactive imagination. He's just someone else without a job. He probably doesn't want to work. You know how they are. Who has time for these people? Let's get a move on. We've got an appointment with the temple." She pinched my cheek and pulled me like a wandering child to her car.

We took Bunny's dusty beater of a European Ford. As we went through the ragged outskirts of the city, passing down the economic ladder as we went. It being a city new to prosperity, the upper crust were still mostly living in the downtown areas and only recently, with the construction of ring roads, expressways, highways and rural byways, were troupes of Uncle Money-Bags & Auntie Funny Moneys moving into the hills where the clearer air and fresher sunshine convenienced looking down on the literally Great Unwashed. We were climbing a low hill, cutting around a thicket of residential complexes looking over the dried-up lake basin that held our city.

All around us were powerful ten and twenty story residential blocks within gated communities patrolled by skinny flunkies in grease-monkey overalls and military caps. They toted heavy-duty Kalashnikovs but were approachable and chatty when you asked them a question. This was the latest version of the Chinese fetish for walls and was a defense that cushy high-hats like Michael and his divorcee wife needed to keep the riff-raff out.

Soon enough, Bunny and I would be moving on up the hill and living large. The wifey was a hard-working business hot-shot, an emerging mogul. We'd soon be swinging from the chandeliers, smooching champagne kisses and dreaming fishy caviar dreams. Wealth would liberate us from the pedestrian concerns of food and board and replace them with an appreciation for luxuries such as body-guards, bulletproof doors, and automatic handguns. Like Michael, once I got enough money to buy a fancy car, it would be unsafe for me to enjoy it. I probably wouldn’t buy one because if I did, like Mike I’d have to hire a flunky and buy him a suit, a fake Rolex, and Oakley Blades. Following this, I’d have to visit the smelly farmer’s market and haggle for fingerless gloves, a scruffy blue Mao hat, and an imported second-hand Japanese business men’s suit, a refugee suit as they were called, and get used to driving my flunky around and pretending he was the Big Boss.

Many of these new residential buildings were quite attractive, particularly when set against the old style mausoleums and faceless chicken-coop factory style housing designed to pack in as many humans as possible. There were colorful tiles, atriums with plants, glass elevators, lumpy lawns, Japanese rock gardens, picture windows, rooftop gazebos in pink and purple neon tones, private balconies with sub-tropical trees and creeping vines blowing in the wind. It was quite an attractive step up.

Previous to these buildings going up, there had been several romantic foreigners living up here, Frank being one of them. They'd since been pushed out by the new construction, which blocked their view, crowded their space, trashed their fengshui, and bully-ragged their hard-won illusion that they were living on the fringe, establishing a new more proactive, independent spirited, and environmentally friendly society. This was while Frank was in his New Age hippy stage, having not yet found the persona he presently inhabited, face growing into the mask. I had always enjoyed his company, if finding his fashion statement personas confusing.

I smiled in the car remembering one occasion when I'd helped him, Nature Boy in dreadlocks, fix an antenna on his roof. His girlfriend of the time was quite the hottie: heavily betitted and petite, with fine skin and delicate fingers. She was what they call a flower vase in Chinese.

We were chatting about this underground bar band we'd been into. It was a fabulous screeching punk outfit called Rabidly Raucous, with a true grit attitude, an honesty that suffered no fools, and an integrity that took no prisoners. At least that's what the flyer said. Either way, Frank and I were real fans and our massive boozing helped subsidize their bar gigs. It was a shame the band couldn't keep its act together and stay off the booze, glue, and poppers, otherwise they might have gone somewhere. Probably jail, now that I think of it, given the way things are around here. Anyway, they were already half way there, giving command performances at department stores (though usually and unfashionably late), when they disintegrated, as so many bands do, at the half-way point. No discipline, I thought, and flinched recalling how many times my folks had upbraided me for the same weakness.

In the midst of our mutual sighing about Rabidly Raucous, from down below on the street fifty yards away, Frank's hottie hollered up to us, "Frank! Frank!"

She didn't know my name. She didn't ask. I didn't matter.

"Look! Look!" she howled.

Without looking at her, Frank shouted back, "What?"

"Can you see me? Can you see me? I'm here. Here!"

Frank ignored her.

“Hey! Look! Look!” she complained. “Can you see me?”

Frank turned to me and said, "She doesn't know what to do with herself unless she has a dick in her mouth."

I spread the word, and for one long philandering stage of our blithely useless existence, that sentence became a mantra with us.

Bunny looked over from the driver's seat and asked, "What's so funny? What're you smirking about."

"Huh? Nothing, sweetheart. Nothing important."

She was feeling chatty, left out, and hungry for a piece of the action: "I see you smiling in your sleep sometimes, you know. You have the sweetest expression when you're asleep. Almost angelic."

"That's when I'm the cutest, eh? When I'm unconscious?" and we both laughed.

It was the same with Bunny though, I'd finish a good book and come back to bed and kiss her when she was asleep. She'd surface, coming up and out of her late night coma and into the light for a second before returning to the warmth of darkness, a smile of contentment lingering long on her face. I never knew what it really signified, but it gave me an extended sense of satisfaction. It gave me peace, as corny as that sounds. But it really did.

We pulled into the temple parking area and found it full of vehicles. We turned around and backtracked until we found a nook in the road that provided parking space on the side of the road. Stepping out of the car, I looked over the cliff that fell down below us. Caught in the shrubbery growing out of the shattered rock was the usual abundance of plastic bags, bleaching chicken bones, and other debris left by generations of indifferent vandals. If I'd complain to someone, they would have been honestly mystified. I mean, where were you supposed to put garbage? In your pockets?

I looked over to Bunny and said, "How about I help with the parking? I can put the car a little more snug against the edge of the forest. If you leave the ass-end hanging out into the road, it's going to get clipped by a bus driver high on speed or else an indignant driver's going to get out of his car and take his key and scratch a blue-streak down the side of ours."

I seldom drove even though I had finagled a driver's license. I'd gone into the local motor vehicle office with a Canadian motorcycle license and a confident smile, dressed to the nines in a Hong Kong suit tailored by Pakistanis in the highly reputed Chung King Mansions. I'd gained weight since the fitting and the collar now squeezed my neck like a sausage in a collagen skin. My belly had achieved significant export growth and was near to bursting the buttons on my double-breasted Captain’s jacket. Still, at the time I outclassed the local refugee suits which were sold by weight, just like any other dry good, and not by fabric or cut. I fibbed that I was holding an automobile license. I pretended I couldn't speak Chinese so they couldn't ask any nosy questions. They couldn't read English and failed to find the overdue expiration date among the confusion of data listed all over the license. But I did join the slender ranks of customers satisfied with government service.

Bunny handed me the keys. Parallel parking wasn't tested on the domestic driving exam, and boy did it show. Everywhere one saw vehicles parked two feet away from the sidewalk or listened painfully as complaining tires were dragged by novices against curbs. On the other hand, all of this was still a great improvement over the bad old days when traffic was a pandemonium of tractors, motorcycles with side cars, bicyclers, draft animals, and pedestrians innocent of the concept of looking both ways before crossing. City drivers hauled buses up onto the sidewalks, heroically scraping the chassis against the sides of buildings, flattening shrubbery, knocking over saplings, scattering pedestrians, all in a bona fide effort to get everyone to their destination.

As we walked up the road, the fragrance of elephant grass came down from the mountainside in soft gusts. Judging by the cool, there must have been a spring above us somewhere.

"What you looking at? Is just grass," Bunny said in English. She was worried about the impression we might make in the temple. It wasn't everyday that a big nose showed up here. I usually had the feeling I was being watched. And I was. I was being scrutinized. But there was nothing I could say to calm Bunny that I hadn’t said before so I kept quiet.

We passed a burned-out bus shed housing several stray dogs. We’d walked past it last time we were here, several months ago. It was being left to rust and rot in the frequent mountain rains. Perhaps someone felt sorry for the pooches, a couple of which hobbled around on only three paws, and left it standing as a shelter.

We were at the bottom reception area, where buses dropped their last load of passengers and then embarked on the return end of their circuit, back to warm cozy smog of the city basin.

Looking up, the magnificent scarlet and black temple lay above us. It was a recent designer job with loud colors, fractured granite, and a slap-up paint job in places. But it also had some rather wonderful carvings imported from Taiwan, a crew of apprentice sorcerers, and had been convincing enough to be used as a backdrop in a Hong Kong thriller. It was built around blueprints made by Taiwanese architects on loan out of Shanghai. One of the reasons China’s government was apparently willing to fight for the island of Taiwan was because it was a sort of open-air museum of China's past and a nature preserve of authentic ghosts, spirits, and True Believers. China had forgotten its past and now regretted the forgetting.

As we walked up the stairs and I caught my breath and looked around, I felt that pang of tenterhooks, that foreboding that temples often gave me. Yet all I saw was happy milling crowds, snack hawkers, and a freeloading monk getting huffy at the temporal gabble and plunging through the crowd in a rush to display his irritation for all to see. It was just a temple, just a center for socializing and a watering hole without the fire water, like the small town churches back home.

Bunny interrupted me to say, “Charles, I'm off to get some bai-bain things. Just wait around here for me okay? I won't be long.”

I diverted my eyes and gave her a mock salute.

Bai-bai was the propitiation ceremony and like many things Chinese, it was stripped down to the basics for efficiency. Over the centuries, for example, the Chinese language had ditched conjugation, verb tenses, and even lopped the consonants off the beginnings and ends of words. It was streamlined and sleek. No wasted energy. Propitiation was two joss sticks and three bows. Done. Finito. Back to your favorite soap opera. You didn't have to dress up, comb your hair, put out your cigarette, or even tell your little hell-raisers to put a lid on it while in a holy place.

The temple interior had a luminous dark patina reminding me of a New York museum’s diorama of the Lascaux cave paintings. The blacking turned out to be half a dozen years of sooty carbon left behind by the twenty-four hour smoking joss-sticks; minute points of black light twinkled everywhere in the candlelight. And the smell of Chinese incense was wonderful, understated, nutty and reassuring. It was quite an improvement over the original, the colorful Indian joss, which was bold and dramatic, in your face and up your nose, clinging to you annoyingly like a 1980's disco meat-market pheromone.

Coming back out, the cavernous entrance looked like a smiling crocodile mouth propped open by toothpicks. One slip and it was curtains for those inside.

The columns held impressively rich artwork etched deep into the support strength. The roof was overloaded with acrylic dragons, cement phoenixes, terra cotta Buddha's making final poses before launching into the heavens. Given the history of the nation's architecture, the temple walls might be hollow, the dead space a grave for empty pop cans and embalmed beer bottles. Perhaps, architecturally speaking, it was a spiritual flophouse: inadvertently ready-made to flop down and engulf the votaries inside; ready to collapse into a tragedy that would be blamed on fate, on the serial temblors that shook a land trapped between the pushy Himalayas and the Pacific Rim of Fire.

A small boy, no more than four or five years old, started bawling as his mocking mother patiently dragged him, like a two-legged mule in squeaking sneakers and a sailor suit, towards the entrance. I felt I understood. The younger generation was raised on Discovery and National Geographic. Though people said TV dumbed children down, I felt it did the opposite for the smarter ones and made them more informed and imaginative. We saw what his more literal-minded mother missed. Smoke poured out of the temple mouth, like a dragon. We saw a slow-metabolism super-predator that could bide it's awful time, patiently waiting for the right moment to scarf on all of us.

I decided to follow the squalling child for a moment, curious as to what he would do.

When I was idle, like now, sometimes I’d tear the filter off a strong local cigarette. It gave me more focus, sucking out oxygen and bringing down the throttle, calming me like cheap weed. Sure enough, as I hauled on my cheroot, my eyes began to note the artwork disappearing on the columns. The concrete baked daily in the subtropical sun, drying out and becoming gritty and papery, in places revealing its skeleton of rebar. I was impressed by the evocative bas relief of flopping gold-fish, crazed battling warriors, obese happy Buddhas, and earnest pilgrims in traditional silks and handsome walking staffs (that doubled as weapons). All this wondrous first-rate imagery, carved by the wizened hands of a dying breed of Taiwanese artisans, was corroding, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, falling back into oblivion, back to where it came from, the dharma wheel coming full cycle.

I took a final drag on my cheroot and looked for the appropriate place to discard the butt. That meant over the nearest wall and into the jungle, which was forever fighting back paved civilization. I peered over as I let the dangling butt go and found the expected pile of debris. I entertained myself thinking that thousands of years from now, after the final nuclear Armageddon, archeologists will romp through this collection of petrified trash and prove that these Styrofoam lunch boxes held fetishes for the religious elite; toothpicks will become sacred blow darts, volleyed into the air to prick the arse of Great Bog in his heaven and get him off his duff and back to the heavy work of protecting us from ourselves; the skeletons of the votaries in the collapsed temple will be reinvented as human sacrifices, eunuchs and vestal virgins. All of this would advance the ambitious scholar up the career ladder much faster than admit that in fact those in attendance were mostly just a crew of easily skinned True Believers, clock-watching hypocrites like me, and profiteers like the management and food vendors.

The reality was, at least as far as I could judge, that the temple hosted just another happily libertarian, live-and-let-live, peaceful and low-brow polytheism in action. Not exciting. No fanatics and no martyrs. It was a design that proved blissfully free of monotheism's more destructive lunatics.

I was woken out of this reverie when the mother suddenly started into the kid again, this time sharply. He'd wet his pants, the universal protest of unhappy mammals.

Bunny came over and went to peck me on the cheek, distracting me long enough to grab a potentially uncooperative hand of mine and pull me in tow after her. I felt foolish as we began moving, realizing that of course it was unlikely she’d kiss me here in public.

We passed through the usual collection of vendors, and moved into the temple proper. A strong whiff of urine stench emerged as we passed the public toilets. But this heavy ammonia perfume was near indistinguishable from the top of the line entrées in the stinky tofu stalls. Far from being repugnant, the appeal of fresh ingredients made my mouth water.

The temple itself was full of oldsters, broken up with the occasional youth or middle-aged couple. Everyone was holding joss sticks between two prayer-like hands, bowing with their pair of smoldering sparklers. People were wearing apparel of every distinction. Come as you please.

At the entrance, tourists smoked cigarettes or went without and gaped. Youngsters, dragged along to accompany family members, collected outside in flocks. Someone's children shrieked jubilantly as they raced around and chased one another in flip-flops through this natural obstacle course; the randomly moving human obstacles making their game of tag more delightful. They gamboled and skittered between votaries and threatened to upset the elaborate brass receptacles holding a multitude of barely smoking joss sticks whose ghost juice was nearly used up.

There was a lineup full of crazy-haired country punters in below-average refugee suits, many of the pants long since shrunk into floods. They formed a rough wedge crammed end first into a gap between the temple and the mountain rock face. Therein, they formed a single line to view some particularly toothsome house god that inhabited a spot somewhere in the gap. Curious, I joined the crowd, took a few sharp elbows in my ribs and half a groin shot along the way, and in the end set my eyes on a porcelain figurine I could have sworn was purchased via mail order from a ceramic doll collector's magazine. But with icons, I suppose it's the thought that counts.

Walking through the temple again on my own now, I felt like a sort of low-risk ghost as I made my way over to Bunny. People ignored me at a distance, but at close quarters my appearance cleared a path in front of me. I was the only person not stymied by everyone else's bumper-car style of meandering around and stepping on of toes.

Bunny bought a pack of joss-sticks, and looked at me sheepishly as she started in on her bowing performance to propitiate the gods. I winked at her wondering, which gods? I had no idea. I made a mental note to ask her later.

I found a railing, leaned on it, lit up another smoke, and then took another lazy promenade to kill time. Gaining some distance and perspective on the temple face, I took a deep breath to take in the combination of kitsch and demure, figuring the former was for the visitors, the latter for the monks. Public gods inside the temple were oversized; most were gilt. There was a two story statue of the house god outside on the side of the steep mountain to attract the undecided.

And most of the Chinese script was brushed in larger-than-life strokes. I'd dragged up several former girlfriends up here in the old days and asked them what the script meant. I smiled, remembering that I’d been rewarded by my eager-to-please and eager-to-appear-knowledgeable feminine hosts with a range of confident interpretations, all mutually exclusive. If nobody seemed to know, nobody seemed to mind either. It was a happy, communal indifference. After all, everyone knew that somebody else knew. Besides, culture was deep and mysterious. The important thing was that you had some of it. But naturally all of this led to imagined traditions, imaginary history. Much of the national ethos seemed to be pieced out of this communal dreaming and the popular adage -- same bed, different dreams -- began to sing in my ears.

I looked on the walls and became puzzled again trying to read some of the Chinese script. I traced their strokes with my cigarette, but I’d already asked around before and knew that they didn’t exist in any dictionary. Some characters were invented for one time use only; the inventor cannibalizing conventional characters for their constituent parts and achieving something portentous and puzzling. Just because I wanted words to make sense, didn’t mean others did. My former girlfriends were impressed with the profundity of invented words and it was clear that I was the first person to have asked them what the words even meant. So much of their world, like ours, was a kaleidoscope of appearances, though Chinese hieroglyphics are particularly well-suited for pictorial rhetoric.

I continued walking around. There were quite a few puttering graybeards, some with staffs; others helped along the walk by their kids. One middle-aged guy with a bad haircut, but a nice burgundy golf jacket and shiny loafers was taking hurried photos of the temple, as if it was in danger of being closed off like a Fa Lun Gong exhibit. He copped strange poses like a comic director peering through his fingers while calculating the shootability of a scene.

Then, while looking at this scene, I realized why some of it seemed so familiar. It was the same esthetic and feel as early Taiwan. There, a generation ago, women tattooed their eyebrows, blew up their hair like cotton candy, and troweled on makeup that soon looked like ice cream in the sultry sub-tropic heat. Everything was writ large here too and for the same principal reasons of low incomes and freedom of speech. No wonder Disney was so popular. Not because folks were exuberant and dreamed large. Not because they were celebrating life as a grand festival. But because their lives were so circumscribed by the drudgery of farm & factory work and the clampdown on freedom of expression that they were unmoved by subtle expression. Everything had to be upsized to an enormous scale for it to show up on their radar.

Here in China, everything was still old shop. While Taiwan preserved traditional culture, China was reinventing the Industrial Revolution that Taiwan had gone through and grown out of. All around me were exhibits A, B, C, etc… The crazy wire-brush hair, the long innocent stares, grubby fingers resting in noses, kids pointing remaining fingers at me like I was an exhibit. I blew a smoke ring and recalled that it wasn't that long ago that a Holstein was an attraction at the Taipei City zoo.

I felt a hand grip my free arm again and automatically asked, "Can we leave, Bunny?"

"Hey, Charles! We just got here. I still got a couple things to do first. Relax. Take a look around. Isn't this temple fascinating?"

“Whatever you say honey.” And Bunny artfully dodged the smoke I was trying to blow in her face. Grinning I asked, “Bunny, have I ever brought you up here before?”

She smiled, poking fun at me. “Yeah. Now that I think about it. Several times.” She giggled. “But look, I’m almost finished. Just another few minutes. This place is interesting. It’s full of culture. Look at all the Gods and the monks. How about the view or the fengshui? This place has history too. You should pay more attention to this kind of thing.”

She scooted off.

She did have a point though. Graduate school. Bunny was practical as always. She was the rock of stability that kept my moaning from getting out of hand. Utopians were nuts and yet clearly we had much in common. My griping camouflaged a flighty romantic never satisfied with anything less than perfection. And my definition of perfection kept changing.

Yes, of course I ought to take a greater interest in local polytheism: religion plays as important a role here as it does back in North America. Perhaps even more important.

But it was a struggle to take religion seriously. I had a real aversion to the stuff. Too transparent. Like communism, successful religions were a power grab which generated a food chain, hierarchies, insecure vengeful orthodoxies, and power worship. I couldn't think of religion without conjuring up passive-aggressive fanatics and braggarts threatening you with their love for Great Bog in his heaven.

And departed religious hustlers enjoyed a very real after-life, continuing to get the jump on rubes long after they’d cooled in the grave. The dead hand of a savvy shyster could choke the common sense out of the land of the living for millennia at a time. This realization, and seeing its effects in the flesh, really wound me up, giving me a bout of clinical depression on my first trip to China as a teenager. The dampening spirit of the Prophet Marx was everywhere in abundance: depressing architecture, cuisine, protocol, sex, art, literature, sense. The realization that one huckster could do this much damage made me realize how fragile civilization was. Day after day the evidence poured in through my eyes and ears. It began to ride me hard, making me edgy and paranoid. The motion sickness of childhood suddenly returned and I couldn't travel by bus or car anymore. I was becoming seriously dysfunctional. I became panicky. What was next? I sprinted for the Free World but by the time I reached the border with secular Hong Kong, I was a gibbering wreck, neurotic and teary. It was like a hyper-allergic reaction; like being stung by one too many bees: the next sting would be lethal.

Frank helped me get on the road to recovery. We'd met in a hostel in Taiwan. The island was my safe harbor in those days. Frank was part of the exodus of big noses from China in the aftermath of Tiananmen in 1989. A Japanese girlfriend we were sharing had inspired us to come up with a scheme to go to Nagoya, the motor city, and set up our own religion seducing the proletariat.

We yapped about it for months. We had our favorite studies: his were Gurdjieff, Jim Jones, and L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame. Mine were Ignatius Loyola, Mother Theresa, and the Catholic Church. He wanted to push the game to the max, stretching believer credulity to the utmost while laughing all the way to the bank and the boudoir. He got greedy and grew evil. I wanted to play it safe and go with the stable growth of a tried and true business paradigm. But either way, once you've considered religion from the bird's eye view of the Creator, i.e. as an entrepreneur, it never looks the same. The deus ex machina implodes. Its complexities and mechanisms become reducible to laws and principles, like a lawn mower in a high school shop class.

As for my sanity, what could be deconstructed could be managed. I felt so much better afterwards. Something in my under-conscious gave way and the former tension that tightened up my shoulders at just the mention of China vanished. In the end, for one reason or another, mostly having too good a time guzzling and hosing to get off our duffs, we never got past the planning stage. Frank and I were really good at dreaming, exceptional even, but not so good at executing.

This probably helps to explain my decision to attend graduate school. I thought of university as a place where you can dream and get paid for it. The ivory tower is like the monasteries of the middle ages: herds of nerds on a shoestring and an endless flipping of pages accompanied by mumbling lips, puzzled looks, long enforced silences, and the temptations of plagiarism, joining orthodoxies, putting heretics' feet to the fire, sex scandals.

This seemed especially true for my thicket amongst the roaming groves of sapience. I was entering a dark romantic field, one of the dark continents of academia you might say: East Asian studies. Like the temple Bunny and I were in, it struck me as offering contact with the field’s True Believers, hypocrites, and agnostics. It would bring me in touch with the crème de la crème of the locals and the expatriates.

Sincerity and elbow grease would surely make me shine. Plus the government was offering a handsome scholarship to big noses, to bring in the foreign talent and give the university a much needed diversity.

It would be another free ride. When I got out, I would get tenure, lecture twelve hours a week, and get four months paid vacation. Best of all, Bunny would respect me professionally. I was psyched!

Copyright Biff Cappuccino

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