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

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Ch09 First Class (rough)

We were up on the second floor of a new snappy snap-together plastic and blue-glass prefab. Looking straight out of a manga cartoon, it’s a bank all the same. Having walked up carpeted stairs past farmer’s almanacs, double happy posters, and huge calendars with Nepalese mountains and Taiwanese temples, the wife and I sat down at a stained fiberboard desk behind which sat a friendly 30ish female bank worker which natural blush in her cheeks, rouge in her lips, and the suggestion of a nice ass. The wife pulled out some US notes she’d filched from the wallet of a drunken customer the night before.

To pass the time I asked her and the teller about the faces on the bills. When I pointed to George Washington, my wife hunted around the bill for clues, fixed on the distinguished lineament of the sacred visage and pronounced “Lincoln.” I bit my lip and asked the teller. She fingered the dull note the hue of aquarium algae and confirmed, “Sure. Lincoln. That’s him.” Then I showed them a note bearing the portrait of the romantic Thomas Jefferson. The wife pouted, then sucked her teeth, and ventured, “Washington.” Again, the teller backed her up.

When I first got to East Asia, Flips and Japs were all the same to me. Now it was a taste of my own medicine. My wife and the teller couldn’t distinguish between one white man and the next. We’re all just cookie-cutter whitey. In all seriousness, though my wife loves me, she hasn’t the foggiest idea of what I really look like. You see the same thing with movie posters with local artists painting likenesses of Arnold that come out looking like Patrick Swayze. The glory of Arnie’s muscle is there, but then they’ll go and plant a chiseled pinhead on top.

And yet both the wife and the teller were aggressive about their choice of likenesses. George Washington was Lincoln. They were sure. They ended up pressuring me to admit that I was wrong as if by force of personality they could convert something wrong into something right. It’s a curious approach to knowledge. A sort of anti-empiricism. Faith over fact. Suspension of disbelief dragged kicking and screaming out of the theater and into real life. Anything is real as long as you have attitude. And then you learn to believe it yourself.

As a concept it was amusing; the sort of salty snack that whet your appetite for more beer and blather on a Friday evening. But in application in a school of higher learning, it was going to stick hard in my throat; in fact, it wasn’t going to go down well at all. And either it went down or I went down.

The university exam turned out to be a bit of a bird. As I settled into my appointed schoolboy's combo chair and desk, I took a deep breath to calm myself and peered at the questions. The first was about the development of international relations and required an explanation of major paradigm shifts in recent decades. The second question required distinguishing between collective security and collective defense, plus provision of examples of how both had been implemented and their effects on East Asia. The third required the student to discuss the One China Policy with regard to content, principles, assurances and guarantees. It further required a description of significant gray areas, internal contradictions, and the goal of this policy. Last but not least we had to come up with definitions for flexible response, the Bush doctrine, ASEAN +3, and the bureaucratic politics model.

Dry but simple stuff and though I’d been a complete ignoramus three months prior, I was well enough versed in the material now. As I got down to work, I realized the hardest part would be scrabbling out Chinese characters fast enough to write my answers. Stretching my neck, I handed my paper in ahead of time and emerged from the examination room confident I’d passed.

Noah, Frank and I received notices of acceptance in the mail. On the way to the first class, I told Frank about the good news. He surprised me asking, "How did Noah get into the graduate program? Not the kind of person you’d expect to knuckle down and prepare for school. Could you see this clown in a university program back home?"

He didn’t back off for a minute. He might have said ‘Well, I’ve got nothing against the dude. You know. I’m cool. Whatever, you know. Besides, it’s China. Who gives a fuck? But don’t you think it’s a bit odd, that, uh…” Nope. No chance of that.

I shrugged, made a pained smile and rolled my eyes at no-one in particular while defending Noah, "Well, let’s say it is some sort of affirmative action thing. We’re all on the receiving end of this anyway. The exam wasn't difficult. More like custom designed to get anyone in. As far as I could see, it only screened out the imbecile, the Section 8, or the applicant functionally illiterate in Chinese." I looked at him but he said nothing and glared straight ahead. "Besides, look on the bright side. He ought to be live one, with all his causes and identity politicking and championing of the victim-hood. Should be a fucking riot! I mean," trying to sound convincing, "if it was just you and me, it might be tits up for fun."

He didn’t buy it and winced at my clumsy attempt to be down with the street. A warning to watch where I placed my sympathies. Too vulgar for the groves of sapience. At times like these he struck me as seriously in need of Zanex and a lay. No chance of that either.

Speak of the foreign devil, Noah was up ahead at the campus gate and I called out to him to wait up. As we picked up the pace, Frank mumbled quickly, "Fuck affirmative action! Waters down the program and it reflects badly on people like us when we graduate. The qualified get pulled down just to pull up the unqualified. That's not fucking fair."

I was tempted to say that I was hardly qualified either and that just being a foreigner was unfair; whether banged up by unfair treatment or floating on a free ride.

But this would just get him going and the last thing I wanted was him to start sneering at me. Once that started, there’d be no end to it. He'd discover I was a dilettante sooner or later anyway. There was no such thing as ‘people like us'. If there'd been more foreigners, we'd have formed mutually exclusive cliques and bagged on each other wholesale. So I kept a lid on it.

Why speed up the inevitable disillusionment? I preferred keeping my friends for as long as they were willing to be kept, for as long as I could manage to keep them. Loneliness will do that. So I kept my mouth shut and let Noah take the heat. He could take care of himself. He was a talented chameleon. If he got hit with rejection, he could reinvent himself and give it another go. Having a second wind made for second chances. Which made for courage and fresh starts. I'd always been a once bitten, twice shy kind of stick in the mud. False pride will do that.

Noah was resting with an arm on the gate, like he was claiming it for his own and daring anyone to mess with him. Some students looked at him curiously, but all avoided him as they went in. He might be one of the masses, but he was feeling primus inter pares today. He was dressed fashionably in a blue poverty chic distinguished by hygiene: no yellow dust in his blue pants, no food stains on his blue jacket, no spittle dribblings around the corners of his red mouth. Perhaps he was angling at the droves of cuties in the periphery.

He said, “So what’s up? You mofos got into the program,” he teased, “must be slacking off on standards. Dang, any biddy foreigner can get in here. When I’m president of this school, I’m going to have to make some changes.”

Frank was silent and looking at the wall running down the campus wall while I teased Noah, “Presidents aren’t academics. They’re just jumped up PR execs.”

“Precisely my point, white boy. I was born for PR.” But when I looked at him, his gaze had settled on a tasty piece of ass in magenta jeans splashed with cancerous glo-colors, a tropical jacket in surgery green sofa fabric, her white leather and rhinestone purse at her left elbow, her arm pointing up at a 45 degree femme Nazi salute. Very doable.

“You dog.” I laughed and then pointed to the wall, “You’re going to have to plant a fresh layer of glass shards into the cement to keep the foreigners and other degenerates out.”

“Razor wire my friend.” He pointed in the opposite direction, where the glass shards had been replaced recently with curling loops of cookie-cutter razor edges like a series of distant WWI German crosses. “Yo, get with the times.” He mocked gently. “C’mon lets get going or we’re going to be late.”

“You’re right ready to get go,” I half-asked.

“Of course. This is graduate school fool. I’m here to get an education. Why else would I be here? I have a career to launch.”

When we reached the classroom for our first scheduled seminar, we found the classroom abuzz with student chatter. As we entered, things settled down rapidly and some of the students checked us out, with looks lengthening into stares. We were inured to gawking and tuned it out while checking out the large tan oval table surrounded by plywood chairs. The professor hadn’t arrived yet and we scoped the place out.

Mao was on the wall. It was the largest of several portraits of revered mob leaders and featured him doing the Mona Lisa, prim smile hiding slashing knife. Sun Yatsen was also in attendance, the Chinese do-gooder champion of the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Given that power comes from the barrel of a gun, and Sun was mostly a blank charge, it came as little surprise that former tent evangelist Mao was jumped up on the wall larger than the national rain god Sun Yat-sen.

The short of it was that any tendency to be sanguine and uncynical evaporated with these advertisements. You might as well have planted portraits of Hitler and Huston Chamberlain on the wall and expected us to celebrate by pulling out tambourines and planting flowers in everyone's hair.

I motioned for Noah and Frank to sit down first while I continued to size up the portrait pecking order. But then they threatened to sit down beside each other so I pushed them out of the way and grabbed a chair in the middle.

"What's your problem?" Noah snorted.

"I get the feeling you two might need a referee in between bouts."

Noah threw a suspicious look at Frank who was ignoring me and staring at the wall, sharing my interest in the corporate hierarchy.

The prints of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zimin and Hu Jintao were similar in size. The tradition of looking over your shoulder worshipfully at the national traditions seemed alive and well here. This produced a nation of patriots who never looked where they were going, walked straight into trouble, and blamed the other person for being in the way. I got a heavy feeling we were going to be in the way.

Frank got out a scratch pad and a mechanical pencil, and started doodling, assembling his thoughts, attack strategies, contingency plans. He’d kick-started the debate long before he arrived, prepping himself by running everything between his ears first. He was here to bust heads, take scalps. Noah was here to learn. He pulled out bronze designer eyewear, gaudy frames without lenses, and pulled a rechargeable 100% locally-made laptop out of his backpack, thus dodging the political problems attendant with either Japanese or American technology. He’d settled the debate long before he got here: yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir. I could hear it already.

What was my role, my stragety in this farce going to be? I scratched my head idly, searching around for something itchy. The reality of where we were was starting to sink in. Where we were going with all of this?

Outside in the street, in the marketplaces, in the shops and the factories, sweatshop bosses and wage-slaves gave up sleep, limbs and even lives in their manic ache for a future of prosperity and toys. Financial security was the new frontier. I admired them for it. They were going to make it come hell or high water.

The portraits on the wall were like Aztec hieroglyphs, indicating our profs felt the future couldn’t live up to the bloodthirsty past. Without free speech and vigorous discussion, the nation's patriots failed to connect many, many dots. In forum discussions, there was often an Alice in Wonderland quality. What lurked ahead in this classroom? We were outnumbered and playing on their home turf now. Tragedy or comedy? Probably both.

Copyright Biff Cappuccino


  1. Anonymous4:19 AM

    I've always found the collocation 'the wife' or 'the girlfriend' quite condescending. Women rarely use the term 'the husband' as it has a rather cold and detached ring to it.

    Does 'the wife' not have a name? Does 'the wife' denote the person you're married to? Does 'the wife' realise she is being referred to in such an impertinent and patronizing manner?

    Of course 'my wife' denotes ownership, but is most often the chosen possessive pronoun to signify your relationship. Alternately, using a definate article to imply that 'the wife' is the wife of yours, of whom you are speaking...just seems to be a lexical trend among laddish males trying to act cool.

    Otherwise, your blog IS very cool in many respects notwithstanding the longwindedness. But please don't be offended by my cheekiness. Just a hint from your friendly neighbourhood feminist.

  2. Thanks for the remarks. I've little idea of what I'm doing fiction-wise. I almost never read fiction, which is of course a great hindrance...haha...though I've been forcing myself to do so, from time to time. As to how people express themselves in English, even in this regard I'm pretty clueless. I'm so used to being the only person with anything to say on the topics that interest me, that I usually do most of the talking. That doesn't help. Neither does my usual impatience with what most people have to say about any subject. I have to get back in circulation, keep my mouth shut and listen to what people say and of course watch what people do. Writing fiction is probably one of the things I'm least qualified to do...haha... And I mostly speak Chinese, not English. Yet another barrier.

    This is my fourth bad novel, though not nearly as bad as the others. At least I'm taking this one seriously. I still don't even have a clear conception of the mindset of each character. Next week, I'll start reviewing the whole thing and clean it up and make it more consistent. Then I'll print out a few bound copies and hand it to a few people here who will cut and slash through it mercilessly. Time will tell if it turns out to be something readable...

    The lads are trying to be cool. But that's only this week's flavor (maybe) and is rather inconsistent with last week's I'm sure. What I'll do with 'the wife' and so forth remains to be seen. I was shocked a few years back to hear an educated haughty friend from Berkeley California refer to his wife as 'wifey'. Maybe I should use something along these lines...haha...

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.



Blog Archive