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

Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Oriental Express Updated - Biff Cappuccino

It all started with my friend’s mom, stalwart protector, boon benefactor, and my patron saint in a newfound and unfamiliar country: Free China. Now this was way back, way back in the 1990’s, just after English teaching got big and martial law was declared illegal. Everyone was letting their hair down, speaking their minds, and double parking. Change was slow and subtle, but good things come to those who wait and the Chinese are nothing if not a patient people. Now that the cops had no bad guys to beat on they had nothing to do and no exercise to speak of and got fat and lost most of their professional enthusiasm to do nothing at all. The new duties of waiting around blind corners to issue speeding fines to delivery boys or navigating hot summery sidewalks to issue parking tickets got a gallant man to feeling so low that he had to get drunk to fire up the necessary enthusiasm to beat up a trouble maker and then the liquor went and squired a man’s thoughts so off-key that the drubbing would get out of hand and the tender hooligan might get used over hard and get drowned to death by the special spicy sauce they’d being poring up his nose. Now these were early days, so the debate was still raging about what was due process and even what was cruel and unusual punishment given that a quick death wasn’t so cruel, considering the many other colorful options of the day, and because an unnatural death was so far from unusual as to complete a full circle and volley right back into the realm of natural. Even so, during a slow news cycle, a distinguished death along with color glossy photos of the family on the ball with the water works could produce some startling newspaper headlines and then heads had to roll and another stout fellow was out of a job and into gambling and then out of pocket and out of a home and soon his family was on the sidewalk bawling to beat the band. Everyone was crying now, which struck most everyone else as being balanced and fair. The press would get a hold of that one too and whoop it up on the front page in Technicolor with maps and addresses and personalized names and all the other paraphernalia and impedimenta that make the surreal more real. Then the pundits and other assorted smarties would elbow their way into the campaign and reflect and blame some uppity blackleg or elitist black cause or conspiracy blacklist for having made one man kill some other man, often working up an appalling powerful sympathy for the killer as well as his victim. After all dead underdogs don’t bark and it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. And besides in China everyone loves a victim and treats them like royalty, venerating and praising them for their innocence, unimpeachable moral rectitude, and distinguished complacency in the face of evil. People will fight and squabble something fierce over the high and mighty privilege of being a victim or make sundry arrangements to become one. Victimizers victimizing victims eons ago evolved grandly into that civilized discourse called the win-win situation, which is of course only fair and equal. It could still be a bit confusing to folks new to the game though and people sometimes rallied around the police and blamed the victim; begging your pardon, I meant the victimizer. Or did I get it right the first time?

Speaking of victims, my friend’s mom was down with a nagging cold one day when I paid her business office a visit during lunch hour one day. At first I attributed it to her natural sympathy for her husband, dad, who was in a melancholy state. Feelings are severely contagious in a Chinese household, the Chinese being so powerfully sensitive as they are. Dad was wearing a long face recollecting how he’d personally come in from the cold. In from the snoops industry, a respectable sink of iniquity which the sunshine laws had promptly corroded into a rust belt. He squinted and blew his nose, croaking indignantly and railing a fist the size of a handsome child’s at the heavens above the ceiling and saying, “Everything was fine until those damn laws came on. We’d been squiring and shepherding the good people and keeping them out of trouble for four decades. All that good loving down the drain.” This was so profoundly saddening an experience to him that he blew his nose again, wiped a tear and went to the bathroom where he peed on the floor so he could hector his wife, mom, about leaving his messes unattended and could supervise her so he could make sure the job got done right and she learned something valuable from it. He emerged a better man, pulled his shirt into place, and marched toward his Big Boss teak desk and leapt into his Big Boss black ox armchair with the arm phone, pen holder, briefcase dock, portfolio manager and the electric rocking attachment for busy people with no time to do their own damn rocking thank you very much. He got the massage attachment going, leaned his back into it, and relaxed. He looked down on us with the serene compassion of a bodhisattva and we all felt powerfully encouraged by his new confidence.

But when I looked over at mom, she was still down in the dumps. She gasped, gave something approaching a hacking cough but which was so dispirited that it stopped short and was satisfied with just a muffled exhalation. She dripped some spittle into a tissue and went back to her desk. She sat in her chair, the one without the supernumerary attachments, and I asked her if she was alright. Dad said solemnly, “Don’t bother with her young foreigner. She’s down with a ghost.”

“What?” I was incredulous. Not mixing ice cubes and warm water, hot rice with cold rice, cold water with hot bodies made sense. Yin and Yang. And always drink tea. Water leaches out the body’s minerals and can even poison you in large gulps. But ghosts? In this day and age? I was incredulous.

I wanted to inquire more of dad, the head sage of the household, but he was steadfastly watching the lunch hour news and happily cursing his favorite politicians.

I turned back to mom and asked, “You really have a ghost?”

She looked at me weakly, eyes moist, wiping her nose. “Ever since I returned from Boston.”

“So you got hit with a ghost here in Taipei?”

“No in Boston.”

“From who?”

“From the hotel.”

“You got a ghost in Boston while you were in a hotel? Which hotel?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Humor me. Which one? The Marriott that you usually stay in?”


I waited. And waited. The infinite patience of the Chinese could be exhausting. I asked, “So what happened?”

“The ghost jumped down my throat just when I was going to take an aspirin. I shouldn’t have taken any medicine in America. It’s all made of chemicals. I should have known better. Keeping my mouth open gave the ghost its chance to get in. It’s my fault. I deserve it.”

That’s one of the great things about China. Solving crimes is easy because guilt is easy to establish. Everyone’s guilty. Which is why all crimes end with a confession. Which is why the good cops and snoops were in such a bad way. With the sunshine laws, no more confessions could be lawfully extracted.

But I was curious about this Boston ghost. I asked, “So this ghost. Was he a foreigner or a Chinese ghost?”

“A foreign ghost, silly.” She smiled compassionately.

“A foreign ghost jumped down your throat?”

“Yes,” she replied resignedly.

“But don’t ghosts haunt places? If the ghost came with you from Boston, doesn’t that mean he can’t haunt the hotel? Surely a hotel is more fun for ghosts? More opportunities.”

“You foreigners don’t understand ghosts.”

“But it’s a foreign ghost.”

“But you’ve told me before that you’ve never seen a ghost.”


“And you don’t even believe in ghosts.”

“Okay. But still, there still has to be a certain logic to this right?”

“Not western logic.”

“But this is a western ghost.”

She smiled a great sympathetic gleaming grin. I looked across the office to find dad watching me with penetrating eyes. He lifted his chin, popped a sunflower seed into the air, caught it expertly between his lips, and suddenly burst out laughing through clenched teeth. He looked back at his TV and resumed cursing his beloved enemies on a talk show discussing politics. They exchanged harangues like old friends, like proud actors rehearsing favorite lines. It was reassuring to see television generate intimacy, not isolation.

I continued, “So this western ghost leaves his preferred haunt to go halfway around the world with you and come to China where he doesn’t speak the language. The only thing going for him is the great food here. But he can’t even eat it because he’s a ghost.”

“That’s not quite true. We feed ghosts. And give them ghost money for spending.”

“What on earth would a ghost buy?”

“Whatever he can afford, silly.” Her affability was implacable.

“And he’s probably racist too. A white man of his generation inhabiting a Chinese body? Oh c’mon. I don’t think so.”

She smiled blankly. Had I crossed a line I shouldn’t have?

Dad barked, “Young foreigner, you’ve been in our country for years. You’ve never even seen a ghost. Not even one. And this is country is crowded with more ghosts than living souls. Talking about ghosts with you is like talking about color with a blind man.”

“But surely it’s precisely because I haven’t seen any ghosts that…”

He waved me off, “You’re a man, eh? You must like politics then. Come over and watch this show with me. They’re talking about issuing police with stun guns.” He was smiling, aglow with the cherished thought of issuing some personal compassion in the flesh to whoever, whomever, or whatever was guilty.

And that was as close as I ever got to persuading anyone of anything about ghosts.

Biff Cappuccino

1 comment:

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