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

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Ch10 Class in Session (rough draft)
3400 words

As the professor shuffled into the room, we turned. He was moving heavily. Bent over with an armful of books, he looked up and smiled shyly, his gaze slowly moving across us like a water buffalo eying skittish birds. It was heavy going for the old dude and he was panting in his tired navy blue polyester suit, a red sweater-vest, a tie that didn’t leave an impression and white sneakers that did. An encouraging smell of library books entered the room with him.

He was in the standard uniform. The down and out kind. Not that there was any other at the moment. For all the tall talk about respect for education, most educators were paid jack. Everyone piped down as he found his chair, red and plush in the seat, the edges chafed and grey but still comfortable, still respectable. We were on fiberboard and rattan, the natural give cushioning our behinds. The classroom chatter faded to a respectful silence and the sound of traffic and the distant hoots of the two eternal debaters filled up the empty space.

The professor looked up, fatigued but genial. A new sweaty aroma hit my nostrils and my gaze moved to his hair where I found the expected dandruff like dry snowflakes. Frank and Noah were leaning away from the table, but for the rest of us the smell of a naturally earthy specimen wasn’t a problem.

Suddenly, as if orchestrated, the Chinese grad students stood up like a sports team trying to make a good impression with the new coach. I smiled, half-expecting them to burst out in a company song.

Then the professor turned to us inscrutable occidentals. Finding himself in the presence of a superior being, Noah stood up and stooped over half way between a nod and a bow. The professor stayed seated while returning his greeting, nodding politely, conserving energy. Frank smiled blankly, his face a mask, the sparkle gone from his eyes. I did my cheeky best to stop my whimper of a smile gleaming into a leer. An aimless will to power was still strong in me and the sight of bowing and scraping encouraged it.

The professor sat up and raised his arms to rearrange his books on the table. As he went through them, I noted a selection of Chinese essays on Sunzu's The Art of War and an English edition of Colson and Groom's International Relations Then & Now: Origins and Trends in Interpretation. It was encouraging that we’d be able to converse in English and Chinese.

He stacked his books on the discussion table and then thought better of it, cleared his throat, glanced around and put them on the ledge behind him, leaving a scrapbook and pen on the table. As he turned back, taking his time, unhurried and mellow, his presence had a calming effect on us all. The tension separating the Chinese students and us dissipated for the moment.

The prof’s face was lined like used wrapping paper though he was but fifty. The dry weather in this part of China was one reason. But he had deep crow's feet too and smiling came easy. Too easy I thought. Through a lot, he’d learned to grimace his way out of trouble. In many ways he was the quintessential professor of his generation. A few whiskers sprouted around his mouth, cropped but not shaven; there was a mole on his left cheek and chin, both sprouting thickets of facial hair. He had late-night bloodshot eyes and a shiny dome enclosed by steel wool hair in wild wavelets like the laurel wreath of a country champion.

He looked around at us, taking in the square and round faces. He had a warm glow that suggested he was always thinking pleasant things and which cheered me up considerably. But with experience I learned that it was an agreeable camouflage: projecting something, revealing nothing.

"Um..." he began and then thought better of it and began pressing his thin suit jacket as if it was a gift wrapper and he was trying to feel what was inside. He picked up the pace, his fingers flying through his pockets like a dodgy postal worker tickling envelopes for hidden dollar bills. The professor looked up at us, angling for a helping hand, whereupon a long-haired Chinese student gallantly handed him a smoke with impressive speed. He must have been ready for this moment. The professor thanked him and fired up his smoke with the student’s Zippo knockoff.

The prof leaned back to get comfortable, acquiring the serenity you see in old black and whites of satisfied opium customers. He was a well-adjusted old bird. He looked over us again and smiled and this was the first time I suspected a deliberate vagueness about him and realized I needed to keep my wits about me.

He thought for a second, paused and tipped his ashes on the floor to keep them off the table, inhaled and then said, "Well, this is the first class our department of international relations has opened to the foreign community and I would like to welcome the three foreigners here today." He nodded and opened his palm indicating us, flipped more ash on to the floor tiles, inhaled, snorted smoke, and continued gently, "We look very forward to learning together, to profiting from the exchange of opinions across the political spectrum. I expect that there is… ah… much for both sides to learn and I hope that we can proceed in a mutually advantageous fashion."

He cleared his throat to say something else, and then thought better of it, swallowed and then said calmly, "What I mean to say is that… ahh… I hope we can proceed in an air of mutual friendship. I for one am very happy to welcome these three Americans here to our school. On behalf of the department I welcome you," at which point he began clapping his hands gently, his cigarette clamped between two fingers, and the Chinese students followed his lead in a sort of clapper posse.

I wasn't used to being flattered and was too vain to wave this off as the feudal routine it was. It was too tempting for the sadist in me not to call them clowns and laugh it up. They were just being polite in their own way, a favor I should have appreciated. Instead, I suppressed a chuckle, putting my hand in front of my mouth and choked the laughing gas into a poor imitation of a cough.

Noah bent forward and turned his head, giving me a smile full of sharp teeth. Frank wasn't interested in us. Being labeled an American had probably got his goat. I scanned around and gave the table my best look of simpleton’s contrition, but the long-haired student's gaze lingered on me. I tried to tune him out. He wasn't buying any of it. Who knows what the professor thought? Nobody’s business it seemed. For all I knew he was a smiling knife.

To clear the air he suggested, "It would be good for all of us to give a brief self introduction. It would help us all to have an idea of where everyone else is coming from and besides we need to get to know each other better anyway. Let's start with you there young man," pointing to the Chinese student closest to the window.

There were five Chinese students and the first four ran through the usual background of urban parents, father an engineer or an entrepreneur or a government employee, mother a factory worker or a market vendor. When it came to Longhair, he muttered quickly in a strangely accented Mandarin, "My name is Li Dalong (Li Big Dragon) and I am from Kunming. My family is descended from the Dai people." But rather than knuckle under and accept that being a cooked barbarian meant second-rate genes and poor judgment in one’s choice of ancestors, a sort of moral failing historically speaking, he embraced weakness and made a weapon of it in the best tradition of the underdog messiah. “My parents are journalists and have been reporting on the plight of the disempowered.” Looking over us with a frown and in a superior air, “Reporting on the abuse of peasants and government profiteering. All at great risk to themselves. My father has been beaten and received death threats. But sacrifices need to be made to get our country up off its knees. To achieve fairness, equality.”

He was the perfect prototype of the peacetime patriot. He borrowed his parents’ pride and wore it on his own sleeve. He dared anyone to challenge him. In lieu of good genes, he had good lineage.

He kept rattling on, lecturing us about the rights of the people and our responsibilities to pick up the downtrodden, to protest poor work conditions, to avenge the self-immolation of farmers at the end of their rope. “There were 58,000 violent protests in China last year!”

“How do you know this?” one of the students asked, pulling off his glasses and gaping. But he wasn’t incredulous, but impressed. Longhair had been accessing offshore websites beyond the reach of patriotic censors. Cool!

Longhair ignored him. He was on a roll, “This is a growing trend and the question is: do we want to ride the wave or be swamped by it? And speaking of trends, our nation’s strength is growing. We need to assert ourselves on the international stage. It is time to avenge the insults of the foreigner powers, to end the humiliations they continue to perpetrate on us. Remember Belgrade. Remember Hainan Island. Remember…”

“Yes, yes,” wheezed the professor. “Thanks so much for your introduction,” sounding more and more like Mr. Howell in Gilligan’s Island. “I’m sure we all get the point.” He raised his hands to indicate that clapping-time was here and the Chinese students began patting their palms to commend the rousing speech. Noah began clapping too. This was too much. I coughed again, leaned back, and slapped him between the shoulder blades.

He shot an evil look at me, his eyes furious. Over the noise of the pattering palms I shrugged and said lamely, “Sorry, man.” Looking at my arm as if it was to blame. “I don’t know what came over me. I got a fit of coughing and wanted a slap on the back. I got disoriented and slapped yours instead.” I rubbed my cheek, “Crazy shit, man. I don’t understand it either.”

“Try that again homeboy and I’m going to disorientate your face.”

I bit my cheek and smiled apologetically about my big lie and turned back to the clappers to end the conversation. What I’d said was so dumb and incredible, that it might be true. A standard trick you learn in international dorms. Either way, Noah wanted to appear safe and cuddly to the locals so there was no way he was going to lash out at me here.

I looked over at Longhair, who was focused on the professor. But I knew he was privately basking in the glow of his fellow’s admiration. He was a scammer for sure. He spoke at a hectic clip to keep people out of his one-way conversation. Speed was a warning and an offensive maneuver. His go-getter habit of taking the attack to the enemy made me sympathetic right away. He might be a prick, but I’d respect him at a certain level.

He was sharp, to the point, and nervous. Yet he forced himself to be confident. The more he’d talked, the stronger he became, feeding on the sound of his own voice like a psychic perpetual motion machine. He was emblematic of the best of the younger generation: impatient and pushy, self-centered and self-assured. He was a great improvement over the run-to-seed older generation, still waiting for the axe to fall thirty years after the demise of Mao. But of course, personal freedom doesn't just mean freedom to be yourself but also freedom to hassle others.

Frank and I gave our spiels. Nothing you don't already know.

Noah's was interesting though. After getting his Sri Lankan folk’s emigration to Los Angeles out of the way, he spoke in Chinese with great gravity, "I speak to you my brothers as a man persecuted for his skin and his culture. As a man once oppressed but now liberated. Liberated here in China, a multicultural nation opposed to racism and cultural oppression, where the underdog can speak his mind freely and not be harassed and persecuted. I was once treated like a dog.” This got the local students going with a flurry of oohs and ahhs and even the professor let a raised eyebrow escape his micromanaged countenance. “Yes!” said Noah, rising to the occasion and pausing to let the air rush deeply into his lungs, making him heady with the onset of hyperventilation, “And didn't the colonialist oppressors ban dogs and the Chinese people from Shanghai?" There was a rumble of louder acclamation now, with several quick glances first to the professor for permission. "But no longer my brothers!” Even louder praise burst out and I began to see the echo-chamber effect of the southern Baptist church coming into play. The sneaky devil! Hosannas and Huzzahs threatened to bust out any minute but then Noah pulled up short and mellowed his audience, “I am here to humbly learn and to make a contribution to this great country. I thank you all for giving me the opportunity to attend this esteemed university."

“Thank you for your kind foreign understanding,” smiled the professor, followed by the regulation patter of applause.

This was getting complicated fast. As a tight crew, the three of us foreigners might get away with anything. But with Noah politicking like a Sunday morning preacher, and a good one at that, he was fracturing our coalition. The splitter!

Longhair... I'm going to continue calling him Longhair. Not out of disrespect (his type is the can-do future of this great country) but because Big Dragon isn’t what he looks like and makes him sound like a clown. So many bad names are launched into birth certificates by hopeful parents placing too much faith in magic and fortune tellers. We later learned he grew out his locks playing speed guitar for a metal band in Kunming. He was a rebel: a word which still means something in a land crimped by five thousand years of traditions.

I stole a glance at Longhair. He was looking down at the table, not yet persuaded by Noah.

And there was good reason for this. The sacred 'humiliations.' This referred to a series of events that began with the Opium War, what some heretics call a series of comic skirmishes that ended the Chinese Drug War and put the Chinese Drug Czar out of business. If somebody deep-sixed the Drug War in America, he'd be hailed as a hero by many. But China is different. Why? Because a rose grown on the colonial plantation could not smell as sweet. There were other humiliations such incursions into China by the European powers and Japan. Sun Yatsen was so humiliated that he spent years in colonial enclaves and colonial powers raking in tons of pocketed donations from foreigners. Mao ended up so humiliated that he refused to take back Hong Kong, spoke fondly of the US and thanked the Japanese for invading China because they set the stage for the communist defeat of the nationalists. Lu Xun, the famous writer, didn't feel humiliated until he returned from Japan to China and noticed some of his compatriots compared poorly to the Yellow Peril across the bay. Maybe he was confused. Writers can be queer and irresponsible birds squawking any nonsense to sell a story.

It was all very confusing for a self-confessed ignoramus like me too. Who was I to form anything but an opinion that could be wormed out of later without too much humiliation? But not the peacetime patriots for whom there is a right way and a wrong way for everything. Admitting that shit just happens sometimes, historically speaking, is to lob a series of patriotic nuts into the cosmic machine. Makes everything complicated. Cold-stone patriotic facts get spun into creepy mirages that float off the stage of history. Everything gets weird and difficult and threatening. It’s just morally wrong. Conspiracies however...

The introductions over, the professor urged, "Ask questions everyone,” meaning the mammals with almond eyes. “Open a constructive dialogue with the foreigners." He was smoking and many of us had the urge. I looked around at the empty room while he asked if any of the students had any questions. Longhair set the tone asking in English, "In such sense, do you think America should be the leader of the world?"

I raised an eyebrow, pinched my nose, and looked over at Frank whose shoulders were rising in irritation. Yes!

But it was Noah who took the initiative and replied "America shouldn't be the leader of the world. It doesn't have the moral right. I believe we should have a multipolar system, just like during the Cold War. When there were other powers like China to balance the world and make it a better place to live in."

I said nothing, preferring to wait and see what people would say.

One of the other students, handsome, well dressed and in a brush cut, followed up calmly with, "The Bush administration always claims that it is spreading freedom and democracy to all over the world. But there is widespread suspicion over the motives of what the Bush administration is doing. Some experts say democracy is just a beautiful pretext for America to seek its own interests. So personally I think there is a kind of hypocrisy here."

A fair enough question really for someone peeking out from the bamboo curtain, but way too much for Frank who was now red in the face. He said in a low tone, the words a hiss through bared teeth, "You poor, poor moron." In this room, surrounded, he felt like a junkyard dog insecure on a chain, made savage by impending doom.

I suddenly snorted sharply as snickers escaped, lunging through my nostrils and threatening to put a mess of mucus dribble on my face. I didn't know what inspired this reaction, but it was too late to stifle. I felt like a schoolchild who'd farted and was waiting for the other children to blame each other. The sound of an ambulance rang out in the distance, making me think of a rubber truck coming for its patient.

The professor was kind enough to save me from myself, asking "Are you alright?...umm..." and looking at his scratchpad to check for my name, "Charlie? Is it?"

"Yes, professor" I replied. "Thanks for asking." I was sincerely grateful. "Much better in fact." I beamed.

The ambulance siren continued to pick up and we all began to wait to see if it was stopping here. Ambulance service was relatively novel still. The squealing grew to that frantic level that gives you violent tendencies. It was now too loud to speak and my eyes grew large and I started to have shotgun fantasies when the wailing finally began to decline, whereupon the screech of braked tires broke through and the sound of two vehicles impacting followed. But the ambulance continued merrily on, rushing forward to save lives elsewhere. I raised my arm and barked, "Long live China! Long live China!"

The students looked at me with concern and our professor finally broke with his mask for a moment and frowned at me. But it was a form of comic relief that fortunately no one understood but Frank and Noah, who were smiling at my outburst.

"Sorry," I said to everyone. "I just had to get that out of my system." I rubbed my facial stubble. Nobody pried. Nobody quizzed me. Lunatics were common stuff in a country where the old folks lived at home and dementia became familiar, accepted, and then taken for granted. What was so strange about a demented foreigner?

"Shall we continue?" I said perkily to get the show back on the road and get attention off my odd behavior. Saved by cross-cultural confusion, the inscrutable occidental struck again.

Copyright Biff Cappuccino

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