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

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Ch15 Hooking up in Hong Kong (incomplete, rough, first draft)

You and the guys meet in Hong Kong and commiserate and reflect.

See foreigners badmouthing Cantonese and demanding they speak English and otherwise be rude to the Chinese.

Michael said, “I hate foreigners badmouthing China. Make me want to whip out a can of whoop-ass.”

“Here! Here!” and we clinked cans of green Carlsberg and white Tsingdao.

“Fucking foreigners!” I squeaked.

We were on the first floor of Chung King Mansions, where the food was worse but the view better as was the likelihood of bumping into other familiar faces, fraternal ground-feeders in the English teaching food chain. The tables were fiberboard with collapsible aluminum legs, the surface had a bleached plastic finish embossed with flying pigs in light green and pink. We were in various states of repose, balancing atop three legged stools with round imperial scarlet plastic seats. The curry looked like the product of someone with indigestion: the color homogenized, the flavors subdued, the overall effect being culinary defeat. But location! Location! Location! won out as the place was full of shoppers and we were not just yapping, but also trolling for familiar faces. And for job prospects. Maybe a bit part in a movie. Maybe a smuggling run. Maybe an illicit municipal delivery. Maybe a boiler room job, purloining investment dollars from suckers that fell for confident white faces. Maybe just plain old dull workaday Engrish teaching.

Frank remarked between sucks of beer, “Noah is going to be held up as a sacred example of China’s open-mindedness and absence of racism.” We all groaned. “He’s headed for a professorship or a successful career in diplomacy. He’ll have celebrity, half a dozen hotties in the wings. He’ll be laughing all the way to the fucking bank.”

A round of half-hearted boos went around the table, none of us quite sure whether we ought to resent or envy him. Except for Michael who looked at us and grunted, “Yeah. That son of a bitch is like those foreigners you see on Japanese TV. They’re doing tea ceremony, cross-legged in kimonos, bowing and scraping. They’re out-Japping the Japs.” Seeing us frown, “Uhh… I mean out-Nipping the Nips.”

“I hear you. I know where you’re coming from.” I said to reassure him. His sort of embedded racism was so natural-born and well-suited to his personality, so sort of expected in him that you just couldn’t work up any resentment. Call it sympathy for the devil.

I pointed out the obvious, “I miss that fucking place already!” A round of sorry grunts went round. “The scalped mountains, the pariah dogs… the pariah people. The exhaust particulate, the food stall fumes, the coal smoke.” The usual deal of not cherishing something until you lost it. “The smell of cancer was never so sweet.” Lame doggerel but fundamentally true.

I lifted up my beer, and to give myself some time to suck on it, I plied Frank with “So you think we’ll get back in there? China I mean.”

He put his beer back on the greasy table, and looked off at the side, towards the blowing industrial fan which had long since heaved two generations of napkins into the aisle, “Yeah, maybe. A definite maybe. When democracy filters up or down or however it gets in. They’ll change the laws and remove the blacklists. But how long will that be?”

Later that evening, I went out to check my e-mail of the local Internet caf├ęs. I had yet to write my parents and inform them of our disaster. I was still in the process of working up the courage and a face-saving rationalization. Then I noticed that Noah had sent something. I've never got an e-mail from him before.

Hey, fool. Hope life is treating you good.

Say, guess what? Now that you and that a-hole Frank picked up and left in such a hurry, this school turns out to be cool after all. Once you two fools left, the local boys went and got real accomodating and friendly.

Remember them arguments you picked over democracy, free speech, human rights, and all the rest of that monkey-ass jive? Well guess what fool? Now that you two be gone, it turns out they agree with what you was saying the whole dang time. Yeah, brother. They was just faking it. They love this corny Uncle Sam America apple-pie bullshit just like you do. They eat it up way more than I do and God knows I am an American. They love it even though they don't know nothing about it. So they's got questions. Lots of 'em. I got answers. So I'm the authority now. The authority figure. The Man. Ethnic Man. Yeah! Feels real good. Fool.

I can't believe you two was such chumps. You know, coming in and playing the White Man. I know you got no choice but to be a white man cause that's the way you was born. But shit you don't got to be PLAYING the White Man, you know what I'm saying? As long as you was pushing the White Man shit in they faces, they was too proud to admit that you had something they wanted. You know the story about Fox and them sour grapes, right? Well too true brother. Once yo bony asses was on the plane, everything chilled. So in the future, even if you all got to be a fool, because you're born that way and don't know how to be no other, just remember you don't got to be no chump.

Anyhow, things is going real good. Pimpin! I'm on my way to being somebody. Get me a professorship. Maybe you can write me a note sometime and I let you attend one of my classes. You be looking good as my student. Styling!

You take care of yourself. Fool.


Irritated and embarrassed, my first instinct was to cast Noah as the future Ward Churchill of China. Noah too would become the sort of well-spoken ethnic poseur with the gift of the gab, chutzpah, and the opportunity to make a big name for himself and become a hero and sex symbol to everyone but the people he represented.

But then again, there was a ring of truth to what he was saying. It was all too familiar, now that I was being pointed in the right direction. After all, the routine for guys picking up local chicks was similar. Cuties start chewing your ass about foreigners being hairy, having body odor, being aggressive, uppity, uncultured, semi-civilized and so on. If you'd put up with ten minutes of this, the girl will ask if you want to go back to her place. You've passed the endurance test. She wanted you from the get-go but on her terms. If you don’t show contrition for someone else’s sins, get lost.

In other words, in a country famous for infestation with social protocol, we'd forgotten the most basic rule of thumb: to be polite. Yet another fabulous mistake on our part. Incredible that Frank and I could have forgotten this. Noah, blessed with a less popular skin tone, wasn't in a position to forget. He had meekness forced upon him, the lucky bastard. And in China it often seems the meek shall inherit the earth.

When I brought Noah's email up with Frank the next day, he wasn't amused. In fact, he was incredulous. "He's just making that shit up. You don't really believe him do you? Even if it was true, you can't be babysitting people. I mean, c'mon Charlie. Don't wuss out! You see a bad argument, you chop it off at the kneecaps and go in for the killshot. How can you entertain being a pussy in the face of bad logic. And another thing, you know..."

That was as much as I needed to hear before zoning out into the hypnotic spin of the industrial fan. He was in denial. What happened, didn't happen. He talked it away. Much like our beloved faculty members, he was only willing to accept the truth on his own antsy terms.

Why get in the way of his delusion? He was happy with it, just as I too had once been. He would learn in his own time. Or maybe he wouldn't learn at all. It's a big enough world for all of us, so what does it matter anyway? But it was high time that I got my act together. Learned sensitivity, protocol, the niceties and refinements of cross-cultural ass-kissing. Sloughed off my personality, reinvented my values, gave up my mores, exchanged ethics for morals. It's a full time job being somebody you ain’t in order to become some new body that you are. Whole hog. Hook and sinker. It’s going to take a while, brother. But I’ve done it before. I’m in for the long haul.

Copyright Biff Cappuccino

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