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

Thursday, January 27, 2005

A Meeting of Minds (inspired in part by the xenophobic rants of the communist Chinese correspondents at

Verne Caldwell loped through the downtown sidewalk, nimble as a mongoose he flattered himself, through the canyon of glass and steel office towers, past the sidewalk marquees advertising lunch specials. His route was crowded, confounded, with obstacles, primarily the happy lunch break crowd, out and about cheerfully, squinting in the sunshine, hunting for new eateries, chasing up specials, letting off steam, dallying and lollygagging, window shopping, gabbling and exuberant out of the office.

Verne was hurriedly threading his way between these annoyances, muttering on about human furniture. Each scramble down the sidewalks at this time of day was a double-dose of irritation but accompanied with a spike of pride, a double-edged sword that gave him a needed distinction, a welcome sense of elevated otherness. He walked rapidly, like an Olympic race-walker to avoid a collision, an incident which had potential to enrage him, to unplug his awkward unanswerable frustrations and embarrass him by revealing that his self-control wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be.

Dustups excited him but he was pulled the other way by his past, his parent-inculcated pride in being a man of discipline; he strived honorably to quash these loose passions. Excitement, especially the wrong excitements - the addictive sensual callings, the power surge of successful sympathy tricks, the thrill of the effective imposture - could be the undoing of a person of rectitude.

Problem was, when he walked at a leisurely pace some of the locals had an unnerving tendency to walk right into him. Uncanny that. Drove him bonkers. He’d go to the left to dodge some punter coming head on. Rather than stay a straight course or go right, some of these buggers pursued him to the left and ended up meeting him head on. What the bloody hell was that all about?

He didn’t speak the language, wasn’t interested, couldn’t be arsed. What would kind of conversation could you have with people who couldn’t even tramp down a bloody sidewalk without plowing headlong into the other fella? Was it deliberate? What was it about? Why couldn't these geezers watch where they were going?

He’d run smack into a young fool just the other day, a tallish thin fellow, all gangly legs rooted in basketball sneakers and a shrill mocking laughter coming out of its wet smirking mouth, angling for attention. This soap-dodger lazily ambling down the sidewalk, side-by-side with one of his mates, eating up space, no consideration for others, no polite self-effacement in public. Verne had deliberately marched forward, come hell or high water, daring the boy to keep it up, yeah just keep it up, daring him to stay course, to play chicken, to test him to see if he’d blink first. By the time they impacted, Verne had worked himself through dozen stages of irritation, anger, high dudgeon and fury. He grabbed the wayward basketballer by the collar and shook him like a rag doll. Like a rag doll the boy didn’t resist him, went limp in his arms, hung on him like a deadweight, all eyes, whimpering, slobbering, his friends standing like an audience shocked into silence.

Why didn't the ball dribbler get angry? Why didn’t he defend himself?

In the early days, it had been lack of self-control that made him choke his first pedestrian. He’d shaken, heart thumping him from head to toe, a mixture of fury and a ragged-edged worry bordering on a heel-lifting cowardice. Retaliation was coming! And yet it didn’t. It never did in the ensuing publicly administered throttlings, gaggings, and garrotings.

Why? At first it was a question. Then a statement. Now it was a complaint. Verne would have been overjoyed, relieved, reassured by the prospect of a healthy bout of fisticuffs. Give it your best shot, boy! On the chin, I can take it. And then they could shake hands respectfully. No worries mate. Just watch your step next time. It can happen to anyone. Righto! We’re off then. Good luck to you.

But the fantasy never got any lift; it stubbornly failed to appear. This caving in business was abnormal, inexplicable, ominous. And why did the arsehole’s mates always abandon the one taking the damage?

It was all so very strange. What Verne couldn’t understand and couldn’t pigeonhole subverted his confidence and threatened to humiliate him in public. Public shame was the worst comeuppance of them all. Surprise, a commonly positive word, was a piercing throat-sticker in his lexicon.

And the more he looked and pondered, the surer he was that the nation was bending like a bow under decades of suppressed emotion. He’d seen examples of the murderous rampaging violence that broke out when people let their hair down, trying to slay each other like savages over a verbal misstep or a bowl of noodles someone forgot to pay. The inquisitive stare of an innocent bystander could get you killed once the insane sort of lunatic violence broke out.

One day the passive nation would break out in a mass pogrom and annihilate all of the latter émigrés, be they Chinese or foreigners. They’d all be collateral damage fit for sweeping into the national dustbin of history. And though he felt justified in his correcting of the behavior of others, in his instilling of a needed public discipline, he knew that the locals would see it as abuse unjustified. The reckoning was coming. It had come before. The next one was in the mail. It both frightened and excited him.

Ollie Cheng was coming up the street towards him. Cheng despised these damn foreigners, their messy guffawing laughter, the weird arrhythmic trotting strut of their men folk, the flat-footed sluttish hip-forward gait of their women kin. On the promenades or the beach, they romped like pale herds of bikinied furniture movers and grease monkeys. And yet despite their indecorum, they were awarded privileges, elevated above his fellows, his compatriots.

Despite their serial crudities, these rough foreigners with their cavalier spending habits had achieved technological advances putting them at the top of the global food chain. It made no intuitive sense.

So Cheng looked around for answers. First he turned to reading up on the prevailing conspiracy theories. The patriotic newspapers were full of them, detailed accounts of the wonderland of elites, cabals, and trusts that showed up under an ultraviolet lamp. But he tossed these over when he couldn’t picture the moms and pops who’d mothered and fathered his English teachers as being sophisticated enough to spin these complex webs of selfishness and hang them together. All the foreigners he knew were honest to a fault. In conversation anyway. They spoke their mind, spoke too much, didn’t know when to say when.

Speaking of which, why did these foreigners have such subjective opinions about China? And why couldn’t they mind their own business? China and Taiwan was a family affair. No ifs and butts. Except for the butt in Butt Out!

Cheng was all for free speech, as long as you were a patriot. And not a splittist! Or a sell-out to Yankee values! Or a worshipper of Jap dwarf fashions! Or a practitioner of Taikwando! What’s wrong with Chinese martial arts? Not good enough for you? Or the modern monster who maroons his venerable ancestors in old folks homes. Bah! Or one of those puffballs who’s gone and forgotten his ancestors and now stuffs his face with nontraditional fast foods, sloppy burgers, leathery steaks, Freedom Fries! Or…or…

Foreigners were a bad influence, squawking like parrots about things that didn’t concern them, inciting kids with subversive ideas. Be yourself! Let your hair down! Just do it!

Inelegant, they didn’t understand the sublime ecstasies of self-denial. Unsophisticated, they didn’t’ understand the benefits of delaying self-gratification. Beefeaters in the china shop, they were. It made him mad just thinking about it. Have one in his home? Perish the thought.

In a quest for enlightenment, Cheng turned to the old faithfuls. He started leafing through the classics in his local library, brushing the dust off the faded tomes, shooing snoozing grandpas from the cozy sofas. It never occurred to him to actually check out the foreign scene first hand, to be empirically curious, because that could lead to a humiliating cross-cultural incident. He was wrapped too tight to risk inter-racial interaction, with its dizzying welter of faux pas and multiculturalism. The last floored him: how could a cultured Chinese pretend to have respect for stone-age peoples, high mountain savages, island cannibals? Ludicrous! Or pretend to be on the same level with the European technologically advanced peoples, when his own people had been ahead culturally for millennia?

So he followed the enlightened lead of the hoary ancients and continued shunning foreigners, now privately referring to them with sacred epithets dropped from the lips of the old masters. He called them barbarians and divided them into two genera: the raw and the cooked.

When Ollie Cheng first saw Vernon Caldwell, tall and haughty, staring at him as he approached, it put him off… And yet...there was something about this ridiculous pale-skinned monkey that captured his attention, and drew him in a beeline to him. His sudden fascination gripping his entire attention, he dropped the book in his hand that he’d purchased up the street.

Verne looked down at the book and picked it up. Not just automatically, as was the way anywhere, but here hungrily, greedily. Good manners could be a form of revenge. He was a Good Samaritan with an ulterior motive. He took pride in showing these damn Chinese how things should be done. He praised himself for taking the time to correct irresponsible behavior by setting a better, more refined example.

Naturally, Verne's desire to make a good show went hand in hand with resentment because he could safely presume that Cheng would not lift a finger and rescue the book were the situation reversed. He looked off into the distance and handed the book to Cheng sulkily. "You dropped your book," he said dully, without warmth, as if to no one in particular. “Please” he said, with great relish, “be careful next time.”

Cheng was surprised and grateful. He particularly appreciated the patrician reminder to be careful. Most of all, he appreciated John’s detachment and his tact, not looking him in the eye and not humiliating him, as he expected foreigners to do, forcing him to face an obvious faux pas, relishing the attempt to make him squirm. Anyone could be foolish but only a boor upbraided one in public, making one take one’s comeuppance like a schoolchild. Cheng beamed, this white man might be civilized. He was certainly exceptional.

Cheng was moved to express his gratitude. "Thank you.” He spoke hesitatingly at first but thought better of it and looked Verne in the eye, the way foreigners do, and said, “Ahem…By the way, this book of mine, you might find it useful. It’s…eh…Harvey Mackay's Swimming with the Sharks. If involved in the business world in any way, I would highly recommend it. It contains many excellent suggestions and principles for enhancing efficiency, reducing expenditures, and so forth.”

Cheng’s English was remarkably fluid for he was indeed a quick study, but his accent was still quite strong as his English was book-learned. Languages were interesting conceptually and useful in conducting business, but it was quite another thing to suggest that he was interested in actually talking to living, breathing, farting native speakers. Verne wasn’t yet persuaded Cheng was fluent for his ‘thank you’ was elongated into ‘Shang-kuh you’ and ‘business’ stretched and worried into ‘bee-shee-nuss.’

More importantly Verne found Cheng’s familiarity presumptuous, his odd English disturbing. He gaped when Cheng’s wet mouth remained open during the pause in between words, gaping in the local fly-catching manner. This appalled Verne to the point of disorienting him and disrupting his thought processes, leaving him antsy and annoyed. Looking for something to be superior about, and thus relieve his sense of weakness, Verne honed in on Cheng’s gobbling of the opening and closing consonants of English words. He decided it was deplorable, a surely deliberate smear, a sneer, a willful fouling of Shakespeare’s sacred tongue. And yet, more than anything else, Verne felt doomed, as if the initiated conversation was now a gathering maelstrom of social obligations threatening to suck him in and pull him under.

After all, saying no was easy to strangers. Fuck off! was even easier because it gave things a rewarding finality. One more arsehole out of the way, one less bonehead to deal with, one more stooge put back in his hobbit hole. But once an unwanted conversation got on the go, he didn’t know how to end it gracefully. He always felt like a child, vulnerable, easily manipulated, easily led. Unnerving. Gave him goose bumps. He knew how to shout and harangue, reject and rebuff. The rules for that were easy. But he didn’t know the niceties for saying no. He just couldn’t say the damned word.

Verne's agitation grew, as it usually did in such situations, whether the conversation was with a foreigner or a local. His shoulders stiffened, his smile stiffened into a mask. As Verne looked on, Cheng was still chattering, the skin where his eyebrows should have been was quivering, his chinless chin wagging, his bridgeless nose making a cartoon out of his face, effacing his face. Cheng was making this disturbing noise about, “Terribly useful stuff. What you foreigners call toilet reading.”

Verne thought farts, bowel movements, digestive tract humor! Chimp-lish was his term for this barbarous chop-suey English. How to interact with the Chinese? When he wasn’t around them, he couldn’t be arsed to figure it out. When he was around them, there was no damn time to figure it out. Damned if you were and damned if you weren’t. It would take a lifetime to master the mystery of interaction with these inscrutable Orientals. In the meantime, he knew there would be awkward silences, perplexing apologies, laughs that meant everything from fear to anger. What a nightmare.

This fear made him unnaturally shy. He stammered, "Umm, that's quite all right. It's not really my cup of tea, the business world." But he was thinking that business is also one of those detested fields these Chinese naturally excelled at. Business meant greed, a view of money not as a means but as an end; not to mention the frantic heart-disease generating overtime, the abandonment of healthy hobbies like stamp and coin-collecting, fly fishing, or group tours to historical sites in favor of gambling (all about money) and majhong (an excuse to gamble), thrift (preparation for gambling), and all the other Chinatown stigmata of the monomaniacal fixation on commerce.

Cheng felt empowered witnessing Verne's weakness and hesitation. Cheng, a fellow patrician at heart, felt sympathetic and wished to help and protect Verne. He felt even more strongly now that he should return one good deed for another, that he should help this confused foreigner. Cheng's altruism, his desire to control and dominate others, came to the fore. "Well, speaking of tea, that's China's most famous export. It's the least I could do to buy you a cup of tea. I'm an expert in local brews, high mountain oolong. Though there's nothing of high quality around here. I know! Do you like green tea or red tea with pearls of jelly?"

"No really, it's all right."

"I insist. Many foreigners are rude, but you... you're different. Polite. Yes," and he rapidly evolved through excitement, then confidence, then earnestness, and then became aggressively imploring. "It is the least I can do to show a hospitable foreigner some hospitality."

He touched Verne and then shoved him. Verne, disarmed with the accusation of being polite, was still in passive mode, helpless without a ready excuse to exit. Without the ability to say no, he was incapable of manufacturing one.

As Verne began to move Cheng said "This stall over there is famous for its tea. Yet inexpensive. Tell me what you would like."

Parsimony irritated Verne. And yet, as a fumbling student of the Chinese language, he acquiesced, needing Chinese friends. His inability to be sociable had led to stilted pronunciation. He took a cheap pleasure mangling the language and blaming others for not understanding him. ‘Bu keyi’ (meaning ‘no can do’) became ‘beaucoup wee’; his pronunciation of ‘bu san bu si’ was tonally flat changing it from the original meaning of ‘not three not four’ (meaning ‘dubious’) to the incomprehensible ‘not mountain not waiter’. Either way, Verne thought, this Chinese guy treating him wasn’t so bad. Being cheap was one thing, accepting something free was quite another.

As they were moving through the milling crowd, a voice called out “John! Hey, John! Wait up!" A hand extended towards his, and Cheng noticed to his dismay that he had once again become the Chinaman invisible in his own country. The new foreigner looked right through and past him to Verne, saying, "Fancy hooking up with you here, man. Shit, I never see you out of class. You’re like a hermit or what, eh! Hell I don’t know. So what’s the deal, what’s happening, man?”

Verne prided himself on not being racist, but this Fielding Mellish was a Jew. That was different, a different religion. Fielding had the eyebrows, the curls, the deep dark liquid eyes, the stunted height, the verbosity, all the hallmarks of the natural born heretic were about him.

"Same... umm… not much Fielding. Just taking a constitutional."

"Say what? What's that?"

"Just taking a walk.” He said hurriedly, “For my health."

"Oh. Well, why didn't you say so? Hey, you wanna meet my new girlfriend? Yeah, this is Busher. Check out the duds, the package, man. She's all tricked out."

Verne extended his hand and the lithe, black-skirted Busher stared at it, not quite sure what to do. Fielding looked at her "Well damn girl, just shake it or something." He shrugged and laughed, "She hasn't quite got the hang of things, if you know what I mean." Fielding chuckled again, to good-naturedly mask his irritation and embarrassment.

Cheng knew what Fielding was thinking, that it was his responsibility to have trained Busher, to have picked her out of the muck and civilized her. But Verne too knew what Fielding meant, flaunting yet another long-haired dictionary. Cheng stared at the girl now, who looked away from him disdainfully. Cheng looked at Verne and knew what he was thinking: this tramp had acquired a short-haired dictionary.

Cheng eagerly noted Verne's awkwardness with Fielding. Verne was embarrassed to be seen with him, with this uppity opportunist who took advantage of naïve women. This once again confirmed Cheng's appreciation for Verne as a man of honor, of discipline, of substance. This Fielding fellow was clearly dissolute. A male slut, probably a lush and a pill-popper, a no-go right from the get-go.

Verne said, "Well, I'm sort of busy right now."

Fielding said, "Really? What's up?"

Caught of guard, Verne said "Uh… I'm just off for a cup of tea with this...umm...gentleman here." Verne had to stretch for an acceptable word in an attempt to dodge Fielding's contempt. Cheng heard a foreigner refer to him for the first time as a gentleman. This Verne had a keen eye. Verne was saying to Fielding, "I'm in a bit of a rush. No time to chat." Verne was looking off into the distance, again dodging the eyes of his foreign opponent.

Fielding was nonplussed, but also indifferent. All kinds of freaks studied Chinese as a second language and most of them never got the language down, the poor bastards. Too uptight, to nutty, too freaked out to get down with the ladies. He felt sorry for such people, but what could you do? "Okay dude. Well, I'm on my way. Yo! Busher, baby, let's haul some ass here girl."

She giggled, enjoying his sassiness, the novelty and unpredictability of his choice of words. He was cool, chic, like the best of this season's fashions. He made an excellent accessory, complementing her suggestive slip of a dress. He took her by the hand and she went very willingly, heels click-clacking down the sidewalk, attracting the attention of the hoi polloi and advertising her prize.

Verne followed the couple with his eyes thinking, Jews of the East or Chinky-Chonks of the West, he was surrounded by odd people with perverse dietary preferences, obscure religious practices, unhealthy obsessions with money.

Cheng interrupted his day-dreaming, pulling him towards the tea house again. Once seated, Cheng made a proposal. Cheng needed an English secretary, someone to handle the business communications, write letters of introduction, engage customers on the phone, and so forth. He needed a junior partner, someone who could interact with foreigners effectively and whose presence would impress people with the genuinely international savvy of his business operations. He needed someone who was reliable, disciplined, tactful. Someone no-nonsense, nose to the Grindstone.

Verne took up the job. He needed the money, though he despised business in principle.

However, he grew into his work. Dealing exclusively with foreigners, he didn't have to deal with Chinese except for Cheng whose near-perfect but fractured-accent English flattered Verne into believing he was still high in the pecking order. He gave up learning Mandarin and quit school, because it was no longer useful to him. Cheng provided him with a work visa enabling him to stay in country.

Verne realized that language acquisition was in fact a lengthy uphill struggle that was, in the end, a waste of time. What was he going to do with it once he acquired it? He could already order dumplings in a restaurant. Beyond that, what was the point really? If someone stepped on his toes, a cold stare was sufficient. If a taxi barged in front of him, a strong epithet in any language got the message across.

And so, Verne graduated from a discomfited student into an insulated business associate. Cheng trusted him implicitly, knowing that Verne would not waste his time with loose women, alcohol, drugs, or any of the other usual decadences beloved of in-country foreigners. Verne was steady, reliable, disciplined.

And so, Verne grew from an English secretary into the foreign frontman and mouthpiece for Cheng's company.

Things bumped merrily, steadily, if often dreadfully dully but securely and assuredly along until he ran into Fielding on the street a couple of years later. Fielding was in a business suit, Verne still in sandals, baggy pants, and highlighted hair. "Hey, Verne. Long time no see buddy. I thought you'd blown this popsicle stand ages ago. I never figured you for someone to hang around."

Verne tolerated him with an amiable smile, the Teflon manner that had enabled him to tolerate all of the sales reps that he dealt with over the years. He had matured, grown and acclimatized himself to the crudities and off-putting verbal fidgety nonsense of visiting foreigners. He never mingled with local foreigners now, finding himself out of touch and out of stride with them. He kept to himself. "Well, I've been keeping busy."

"Oh yeah, what happened to you anyway? You never seemed to really get into the language thing and then all of a sudden you just fell off the face of the earth. What have you been up to?"

Verne didn't want to get into a conversation, that recurring nightmare of obligation, and fended Fielding off by saying, "I work for an international business. I'm a key associate, you could say."

"Shit man. That's real savvy."

But Verne could tell that Fielding didn't really mean it. He asked him, "how about you?"

"Me? Well," he said shyly, out of character. "I've sort of got my own company. Exporting electronics. Specializing in fast delivery of high-quality designer prototypes."

"That sounds pretty good," though Verne was unsure of himself.

"Yeah, actually, now that you mention it. It is. It's not high volume, but high profit per piece. And more interesting because unlike mass OEM production, this stuff takes ingenuity, flexibility. Gets me out of the office and mingling with the movers and shakers."

"Sounds like you've done well for yourself." No movers and shakers for Verne. He felt reassured now, he'd made a wise choice sticking with Chinese gentleman Cheng.

"Yeah. I guess." Not wanting to embarrass Verne. "Well, it helps to have connections. As you...uh... probably know."

Worrying that if he pried, he would be embarrassed by what he found, Verne changed the subject and asked, "So, this must be your wife. May I have the pleasure?"

"Ha ha, the pleasure's all mine actually. She's not the little woman, not quite. Sort of a, uh…another connection, you might say."

When Verne return to the office, saying hello to Cheng stiffly, formally, despite the two years that had passed since their first meeting, he congratulated himself on his spiritual and corporal hygiene. His fortitude resisting temptations of the flash, his resolve to maintain his dignity and not give into any of the debaucheries favored by the local foreigners. The more of the local foreigners he saw, the more he began to see them through the eyes of Cheng. He noted their tendency to drunken debaucheries, their unhesitating almost bragging admission of various commercial brigandries, their shameless deflowering of local girls.

He was celibate by choice, just as Cheng, married off by his family, was functionally celibate. He began to resent free-wheeling disrespectful foreigners in the same way Cheng resented them. He began to realize with pride that he had more and more in common with the Chinese himself. He was assimilating. Multicultural. He understood these Chinese. Understood them better a damn sight better than the sort of Chinese-chattering, dinner-party mingling, whore-hopping clown like that damn Jew, Fielding, who was preoccupied pawing local tarts and deluding them with Hollywood expectations. He began to realize that the other foreigners were just tourist gapers, businessmen gawpers, and fair-weather English teachers. That foreigners advocating splittism were bloodsuckers aligning themselves on the butt-crack of the sacred Chinese nation. They had no right to their opinions, to their thoughts. Butt out! He turned inward, ever more inward. Congratulating himself on his insularity, his safe-haven. He was a bastion of propriety, an oasis of spiritual hygiene.

Copyright - Biff Cappuccino (this is so bad, I don’t know who would want to steal it!)

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