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

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Philanthropoid (9700)

I first met Pinky at a coming out party for an arrival struggling on the road to celebrity. The newbie was there with the host, Fred, when the door opened, maximizing exposure to the guests and laughing in a vaguely artificial way, throwing his head back for dramatic effect. I smiled and introduced him to my Chinese girlfriend, Crystal, who extended a hand offering all the doughty resolve of an autumn leaf ready to fall from the tree. I placed him somewhere around twenty-seven. He was a financial investment wheeler-dealer with the bleary eyes and perfectly coiffed hair I'd come to associate with inmates of the industry. Judging by the receding hairline, he wasn't long for the profession. But over here, who is? He seemed harmless and personable so I scratched a check-mark on his name card. Besides, in this town better the predator you know than the one you don't.

The promise of Afghani cuisine was the bait bringing in the athletes of our socialite scene. There was hummus gelling on morning blue flatware, peppers and other fried batter munchies drying on wax paper, tart and sour cream dips in fiber-wood bowls, pita and chapatti lounging in wicker baskets, and a mystery salad growing out of a magnificent wooden tablet. Authentic? Can’t say, but I can vouch for the pantheon of palate ticklers. There were loud proclamations of success amongst the gawkers snaking around the serving table and a round of cheers and applause for the bowing chef and his partner went up later that evening. With a doobie clenched between my teeth, I took Crystal's hands and smacked them together like a child’s, encouraging her to clap. This produced gusts of cynical laughter from her. After the food was wolfed down and the gluey serenity of booze, smoke, E, and blotter fell upon us, the schmoozing, glad-handing and card-exchanging began in slow but earnest fashion.

We were a mob of industrious expatriates, what my parents might have called yuppies, desperate for something real on the weekend to sink our communal teeth into. Five days in the office dealing in two or more languages, usually mangled (often by ourselves), and straddling two or more cultures, usually mutually incongruous and often hostile, could be frustrating stuff. It wore on you and could get you down. Hence the weekend binges, the wild shooting of wads, and the collateral damage in the bedrooms which occasionally made the scandal sheets worthy reading. Even those refugees from the corporate world who were flogging English were fagged out by the end of the week: too much repetition for some; too much performance anxiety for others. This evening’s crowd was united by a craving for the reassurance of something old-world and richly, viscerally satisfying. The Afghani treat was the ticket, no mistake.

Fred Beagle III, sloshed scion of damaged American gentry, was hamming it up as the evening's host with the most. He approached me and the mistress in his dinner jacket, now fleshed out with a muffler in pink soft-ice-cream hues which he’d wrapped around his throat, producing the season’s fashionable metrosexual look, complete with coy limpid eyes. With a glass of house sherry and a cigarette in hand, he embraced me and pulled me over to, "Pinky, my good man. Have you two met?" To moi he said, "George! Let me recommend Pinky Tickler,” who winced noticeably, “He’s first rate. A man about town. Something of a legal eagle too. Someone good to have on your side in the clinches."

Pinky extended a hand and looked at the host, "I'm flattered Fred, but really..." He winked to me and said, "I don't mind making a good impression, but try not to be too impressed George."

I smiled at his weak hee-haw and sucked on my drink pensively, preparing for ennui. But he reached out to shake my paw so I had to be polite, "Ah, yes. Of course. Myself, I'm a translator and interpreter by profession. But, uh... hmm... don't seem to have any name cards on me.” Looking to Fred for a way out, I pleaded, “I thought this was a food and grog fest." Patting myself down for cards I knew were not to be found, I mumbled, "Foolish of me, I must say. I'll have to get some more printed out."

Fred gripped my shoulder, "Hey, Georgie-boy, slow down. Chill, chill. No need for cards outside of business hours, is there Pinky?"

“No, that’s quite alright. Don’t stand on ceremony on account of me. Call me Pink. As in ’in the pink, full of pish and vinegar!’” He smiled broadly, exposing some very healthy choppers.

I cocked my hand in his direction and winked, "Cheers!"

But his eyes suddenly flopped over, like a slot machine or the ball-bearing rollers you see in warehouses; catching the weight of impact and then going with the flow. He recovered immediately. The glimmer was back in his eyes and the skein of worry lines was reinvented as laugh lines. His face promised geniality.

I introduced him to Crystal who stared at his extended hand like it was begging for spare change. She excused herself to trot to the ladies room.

I fibbed, “She doesn’t really get the hand-shaking thing yet. She’s from the China mainland.”

Pinky asked, “Whereabouts?”

“Shanghai.” Fred interjected and gave us both a knowing look.

She had the raptor’s gift for sizing up prey and wasn't impressed by this rabbit: a baldster in sensible clothes, his khaki chinos and a pale blue button-down number hung loosely off him as if he’d recently lost significant weight. Maybe Crystal thought he had cancer. Perhaps she believed cancer was contagious.

Naturally, Pinky’s tic pulled at my sympathy, if not Crystal’s. Much of China is still immersed in a Gilded Age dog-eat-dog ethos. When Shanghai goes democratic, the first candidate running on Nietzsche’s platform, ‘The weak and botched shall perish; first principle of our charity. And one shall help them to it,’ will be a shoe-in for mayor.

The conversation turned to the law biz, not my forte so I just stood back and watched. When Pinky spoke, he held the floor with an air of command, looking you in the eye while sawing the air or clawing his shirt. For emphasis, he frequently made the hand sign for ‘perfect’, his finger and thumb forming circles, the remaining digits propelled forward and stabbing the air like daggers. The feel of wind roaring in his lungs animated him, putting him in constant danger of dropping things, spilling drinks, stabbing people with those terrible fingers. All motion was writ large, like an ex-child overindulged by the folks. And who would name their child Pinky?

He seemed nice enough though. Which explained Crystal's attitude. Not that I like nice people either; they’re always getting in the way. Couldn't put my finger on it yet, but something gave me the feeling he was used to getting in folks’ way.

Having done his duty as host, Fred strode off and I watched as he extended his hand to others. I was afraid Pinky would be a bore and I rummaged for excuses in the event I had to ditch him. I continued watching Fred, admiring his patience hobnobbing with what he privately called ‘breathers’, his play on the waggish gay term ‘breeders’. As he weaved between bodies, he bobbed a smoke between his lips and babied a drink, pressing the flesh with exit strategies of 'I need another smoke' or 'I'm off for a refill'.

I turned to Pinky and said, "Sorry about the card thing. Nothing personal. It's an informal evening and you don't look like overly fastidious about the professional thing, anyway." This was pure BS. In this business town there was no such thing as taking a break from chasing down professional advantage.

He surprised me by getting to the point. No, he surprised me by having a point. "So I've heard you're interested in environmental issues." He dipped a finger into his drink and sucked on it.

I said, “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

He snapped a finger and a youthful plump secretary came over. "Dorothy, be a darling and give this young man one of our cards." He had the politician’s perma-smile and I was thinking practice makes perfect.

But then his face tightened up and the blood left his skin, leaving him grey with gravity as he said, "Having achieved what I wanted in my professional life, someone at my age often wants to do something significant with the rest of their years." He looked off into the bustling gathering and said wistfully, "I've got a law firm that more or less runs itself. My partners, my people, they're happy."

He felt superfluous and needed to be needed again. I nodded, "Well, what do you have in mind?"

His eyes lit up and the color reappeared. Excited, the hand holding his drink sagged and I reached over to grab it before it fell, "Environmental protection!” he almost shouted. “Do you realize that whereas the Earth has evolved for over 4.5 billion years, each moment is different from every other moment? We have to live in peace, in harmony with all things. The creator doesn’t rank homo sapiens higher than homo erectus. Australopithecus is dead and buried. Homo Floris is long gone. It's a privilege for us to be alive and it's a privilege which can be withdrawn by Mother Earth or the creator at any time. But," and he pursed the patient lips of a game-show host squiring breathers, "Before I get any further, what are your feelings about nuclear power?"

This was a key question and he was egging me on hopefully with motherly eyes. But I’m pathological for truth and so I mumbled, "I don't know. Never really thought about it that much.” Losing the struggle with my subconscious completely, I blurted out, “I guess I'm... uh... okay with it."

Pinky threw me a naughty-boy look. As an employee, he would have fired my ass. I rushed to bridge the abyss, "Well, I'm into environment protection in the sense of being... uh... opposed to deforestation.” I coughed to give myself time to think. “I've seen quite a bit of shit up in the boondocks, out in Wulai Township for example. Back woods abo woodsmen logging with chainsaws and cutting trails with backhoes. The head honcho an ethnic Chinese.” I scratched my head, “And I’ve a connection to a son of the mayor out there. A bit of a transvestite man-killer... haha…” But humor transgressed some boundary with Pinky. “Um... Anyway... You know... I’ve been out there and seen things. Bad things.” I was fishing, lamely chumming the waters, but he wasn’t biting. I needed more breathing space, “So, um, what's the nature of your environmental program?"

He rubbed his chin, deliberating whether to stay the course. Nuclear power will end the world in the second coming of the Big Bang: the true millennium is in the post and the anti-Christ already amongst us sowing disinformation. My soul had been revealed to be tainted, already bought and sold. The best shot he’d get at it was sloppy-seconds, thirsty-thirds. I was too polluted to ever be pure again. And a comedian is a sad twisted soul, a recidivist of shots below the belt, a wrecker of proprieties and a leveler of pieties, an iconoclast bull in the China shop.

But he went for it anyway and brightened himself up reminiscing about his organization’s range of interests and proposed actions. They were for combat with corporate environmental desecration and for returning land to aborigines. They were pro wind energy but opposed to new hydropower development. They were pro localization of all commodities. "We're trying to stir up interest in various pro-environment activities. We’re thinking public events, newspaper features, environmentally friendly businesses like restaurants and cafes that only use local ingredients."

“Okay…” I paused for a second. Surely the island was crowded with restaurants stir-frying local ingredients exclusively. “Well, what about working with politicians? The incumbent party heavily stresses localization and indigenous culture. We might dovetail with three key politicians who've been pulling the public’s nose with publicity stunts all year. They’re known as the Three Stooges and, though the resemblance is there, so are the acres of television coverage they’ve been harvesting.”

He said nothing, just waiting serenely, as if performing some sort of meditating stunt, opening his chockra points while standing up, a swami waiting for demure applause. He was looking at me with dead doll eyes and I was overcome with a sudden passion to slap him to see if he was awake. Would that make a positive impression? On me it would.

Yet the fact he was still there indicated interest. I cleared my throat, “One of these politicians held a televised press conference with an inner tube around his waist. This gag got a lot of coverage. He advocated providing inner tubes to all potential illegal immigrants mobilizing along the Chinese coast.”

But Pinky said, “That seems cruel.”

The secretary dutifully wobbled her chin, “Uncaring.”

I rubbed my eyes, “Okay. Well, more to the point, he also campaigned to ban the sale of Chinese beer in Taiwan because China will not allow Taiwan beer to be sold under the name ‘Taiwan Beer’ in China. National sovereignty and all that rot. Anyhow, we could liaison with these people, formulate talking points and generate synergy. We could fix up a win-win situation for the politicians, who want the limelight, and ourselves, who want to get something done.” I opened my hands, waiting for him.

He listened, chewed his lips, and said, "Interesting. Interesting." But he wanted more and turned to his secretary.

She carped, “But ideas need to be put into action.”

He turned to me with a serious air, waiting for my response.

It was becoming exasperating but I volleyed forth: "Well how about I write some articles to help promote your program? Give me a bevy of issues that you need covered, and I’ll do the legwork and the research and write articles up for you for free. Copyright is mine of course, but you can take what you want from the articles after which I'll pitch them to local newspapers and regional magazines." I was giving him plenty. And he needed it too. Did it get cheaper than free?

He bunched his lips again, bit the lower one, and stared at his thumb, bringing his eyes together like, but said nothing all the while. I plugged up the empty air with, "And, even if I don't share your concerns vis-à-vis nuclear energy, I could pen articles for you on the legislature's wrangling over the Fourth National Reactor. I could do features, while you manhandle the editorials, the opinion pieces. Would that be useful to you?"

His secretary had been sizing me up, assessing utility but also threat potential. What if I was competent? And I’d been here for so many years! Every move of mine would show her up as a greenhorn. She wasn’t quick, but she was methodical. Her lips were pursing in a tattoo of irritation at my presence.

But what about Pinky? I couldn’t fathom what the problem was. I was offering coverage and connections to politicians and other movers and shakers that I trafficked in. And yet, no enthusiasm. Why?

Trying not to sound peeved I said, "Well Pinky. If you'll give me an idea of what sort of articles you'd be interested in, maybe I can write some copy for you."

He replied, "Well, have a look at our web site. It's on the name card and you can figure out what you can contribute on our behalf."

"Sure. But to insure I don't write articles you’re not interested in, it would probably be best for you to tell me your specific needs. Right?"

I’d made a demand and his eyes rolled, two eight-balls in tandem shocked by the cue. He stammered, "I hear what you're saying. But really, just take a look at our web site and if you like it, then write some stuff for us and send it on over. We would love to read it."

He was sweating and the secretary put her hand on his shoulder to show solidarity. Sure, I’d put Pinky off his mood, but her anger was play-acting: she needed to be seen doing something. Playing the role of mommy seemed part of her job description.

The next day, after a breakfast of curry and chips, I took a look at his web site. I pored over his Earth Manifesto with increasing enthusiasm. "Hey," I said to Crystal, "Check this out. Fabulous stuff!” She came over sipping a cup of hot tea. “In an attempt to be in synch with the politically correct craze for de jure equality, he writes Earth with a capital E and creator with a small c.”

“So?”

“I guess this is affirmative action for the Earth which has every right to be as precious and magnificent as its overrated creator.”

She shrugged at me and retreated to the living room, slurping as she went. I remembered at last that I was speaking Chinese, a language with an entirely different verbal minefield for political correctness. Pinky’s website had a 30 page excerpt of John Zerzan online. It took real fortitude to wade through the prodigy's turgid Chomsky-like style which, like the master himself, indulged in industrial strength name-dropping and the ripping of obscure examples from safely unfamiliar contexts. Pinky reveled like a naughty boy in Zerzan's opposition to intellectual property right protection: his books weren't copyright but 'copyleft'. And Pinky had left an online plea for some virtuous reader to translate all 30 pages of the excerpt. I knew his firm had an in-house team of pricey translators. Now he was asking for translation and offering no compensation. I was beginning to suspect that Pinky’s approach to philanthropy was to allow other people to give freely of themselves. He provided guidance and moral leadership; you provided blood, sweat, and tears.

This inspired me to look up Pinky's law firm on the Web. The masthead contained no surprises: amongst other things his firm handled "intellectual property (registration and prosecution, enforcement and transactional)" not to mention "general corporate investment, capital markets and project finance". I had to wonder how he juggled the intellectual and professional conflicts of interest, though I was starting to assemble a moving picture of the shell-game he was playing.

While publicly billing the big wigs, our Robin Hood was privately sponsoring public events protesting the same crew - McDonald's, Wal-Mart, and Disney - and celebrating their every misstep like an ambitious socialite celebrating the pratfalls of the reigning primadonna. Was that what this was really about?

The website had a blog roll and Crystal returned while I started opening links. She snuggled me, extending long fingers into the innards of my shorts. Peering over my shoulder, she planted her full weight on me, indicating impatience. Not with my failure to respond, but with all the English text before her. There was no Chinese.

I explained to her that this first website was an advocacy site run by some organization suing the British government for the return of the Elgin Marbles; to have them sprung from the British Museum and repatriated to Greece, their country of origin.

"Why do they want the marbles returned to Greece?"

"So they can be pilfered at greater convenience."

She honked, "Sounds like China!"

The second website was run by African-Americans suing Cherokee Indian tribes for tribal membership. Cherokee elders were refusing tribal status to the descendents of slaves held by their 19th century ancestors. In theory, no black could belong to an Indian tribe. In practice, this minimized the number of hands in the casino cookie jar.

"Indians owned slaves?"

"The Cherokees were the last slave-owners in America. They had to march federal troops in there in 1866 to give them their freedom."

Another website annoyed the eye with large flashing script carved in thick crayon letters and without warning a mechanical tune chimed out at 80 decibels. I killed my speakers and the nationalist melody faded out. The site activists wanted apologies ('...sincere apologies. We're sick and tired of insincere apologies.'). They were angry with the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1910.

I didn't have to explain this site as there was some Chinese script littered over the webpage. "Damn Japs," Crystal blared, wrinkling her nose. That was the sum and total of what anyone needed to know on the subject.

"But didn't the Japanese invasion free the 5~10% of Koreans who were slaves?"

"They freed them so they could enslave the other 90~95%! Selfish! Dwarf pirates!"

Another group was suing the Italian government for reparations over the Roman Empire’s invasion of England. They wanted a trillion dollars and a hundred thousand slaves.

She snorted. "Why are they suing for something that happened 2000 years ago?"

I explained there was probably no statute of limitations on cultural or military imperialism. The conversation beached on 'statute of limitations' for a while until some surfing convinced her that such a legal concept indeed existed. She was shocked a nation would hamper itself with such constraints but her spirit brightened when she recognized it as another example of Western weakness and decline. But she remained flabbergasted that a colonized territory would sue its colonizer. 'That's crazy!' and she folded her arms below a pouty mouth, suspicious she was going to get stuck with the dirty end of yet another argument.

She couldn't imagine a territory sliced and diced and put to the torch by an empire's armies and then have the cheek to moan about being endowed with Chinese culture and civilization. To put it crudely: they should have laid back and tried to enjoy it. The yellow man's burden still lay heavily upon her.

This was key to understanding her disdain for Japs. There were enough war atrocities to go around for everyone but what really stuck in Chinese gizzards was Japan showing cultural leadership in Asia. No ex-colony of the Middle Cultural Hegemon could get uppity like that. This upset the yin-yang connection and went against traditions not to mention regional fengsui. It just wasn't done. Not that I risked a pointless fight by saying this to Crystal.

I returned to the law suit being filed in the World Court against the Italian government. I summed it up for her: "Essentially they're saying the Romans came into England in 52 AD and eliminated the indigenous Britannic culture, wounding the pride of the people. Before the Romans arrived there was human sacrifice, tribal warfare, blood vendettas, high mortality rates and short life spans. A happy indigenous culture prevailed. Then in came the bloody Romans with their phalanxes and their triremes. Using this unfair military advantage they imposed public schools, literacy, hygiene, all weather roads, currency, a liberal economy, peace, and so forth upon us. That led to cultural hegemony which facilitated metastizing hybridities which in turn strangled the growth of authentic indigenous cultures, grass-roots technologies, and incipient conceptual artifacts. It was an early form of cut-throat corporatism with global multinationals pillaging local assets."

Crystal surprised me by saying, "I see what they mean." Stroking her chin, "Western nations invading China did the same thing. Imposing their values, poisoning us with their drugs, stealing our assets, hybridizing our future."

My eyes widened with pleasure at her co-opting 'hybridize' on the fly. "But opium wasn't imposed on China. China's had opium for more than 2000 years. After the Opium Wars it just became legal to import opium, that's all. It was less expensive for Chinese consumers than the domestic stuff."

"So you hurt our local business. And you would never let people in your country smoke opium."

I yawned, "Come off it Crystal. Opium was legal in England all throughout the Victorian era. There was no double standard. In fact, for quite a while the Tao Kuang emperor himself considered legalizing opium in China."

"That's not true!" her eyes reaching into mine, trying to defeat me through force of personality.

Thank god for online subscription libraries. She hated being refuted, but it was constant refutation that endeared me to her. Knowledge was power and, like me, she was addicted. But it was a two-edged sword: If I started bumbling corrections, she'd abandon me like yesterday's newspaper.

Of course abandonment was unlikely. Crystal's notion of common sense was a common one. If she, a newspaper reader who rarely cracked a book, had not heard of something, then it simply could not be true. After demonstrating an untruth of hers, she'd exasperatedly ask me how I knew better than she. I took great pleasure shrugging my shoulders and stating the simple truth: 'I'm a foreigner.' She'd punched me hard in the shoulder the first time I’d said that.

And in the same pensive moment, it occurred to me that Pinky was that quintessential expatriate phenomenon: the first kid on the foreign block. I'd met a few and was familiar with the pattern. He would have arrived as a young dreamer, a hippie wannabee who’d missed out on the 60’s and was still trying to make up for lost time. He was fascinated by the profundities of Chinese culture: meditation, monks, tai chi, won ton soup and fortune cookies. Skedaddling to China in early days, he hadn't distinguished himself by being a quick study, but by having the double-happiness of speaking his native language (English) and having a pulse that beat under the right skin tone. Reverse discrimination was something we all profited from but he'd worked the advantage to vastly greater effect than most. I had to admire him. He’d become head honcho of a law firm while I schlepped it on the streets as a dime-a-dozen translator. He was august and arrived: a made man in the chamber of commerce, a hash harrier runner, and a Sunday morning breakfast speaker droning himself into the hearts and minds of his happy peers. He was financially secure and well-respected: the incompetent in chief, or what's known formally in the biz as the CIO, the Chief Incompetent Officer. He serviced his connections with a smile. The opacity of cross-cultural interaction made it difficult for shy locals, never eager to offend, to distinguish between honest mistakes and serial morons. With the passage of years the competition had heated up and he'd turned over the day-to-day affairs of the firm to more competent late arrivals. He nominally managed an operation that in fact managed itself. Now that was smart.

All of this peaked my interest. I called Pinky’s secretary and left a couple of brief messages regarding potential assistance I could render. She never returned any of them. That wasn’t much of a surprise. But when I left email messages at Pinky’s email address, these garnered no reaction either. I gave up.

Then one day a couple of months later, Crystal ran into the secretary in one of the more upscale shopping districts. “The secretary get really mad at me when we argue,” she chirped happily in English, recalling fond memories of aggression. I could just imagine. Crystal was pugnacious and eager to get your goat to avenge two centuries of ‘Chinese humiliations’. Her scale was dwarfish and makeup and heels made her elfish, camouflage for a Napoleon complex. Looking for all appearances like a bratty kid, arguing with her in public smacked of child abuse, and she had the woman’s knack for making the shameless most out of uncomfortable situations when you both knew stranger’s eyes were prying.

"McDonald's is a bad company," the secretary had boasted.

Crystal frowned for a moment as if stunned. In China, McDonald's showing up in Tiananmen Square meant democracy was in the mail. It also symbolized the overthrow of socialism, which was even better, and proved that greed works, which was the best news of all. Endowed with Shanghai's infamous superiority complex, it didn’t take much provocation for Crystal to look down on someone, let alone a chunky foreign woman who let herself go to seed and wasted her natural advantages in a shopper’s market for men. And speaking English was another way of not taking them seriously, talking down to the barbarians, her fractured linguistic contempt: "Why you hate McDonald's? What's matter with you?" And she focused into a hard stare, like an engineer trying to debug an anomaly.

The secretary looked directly at her, "Well, first of all, McDonald's should give its employees the right to form unions. And second..."

"No, no, no! McDonald's should have right to fire unions."

In China unions had been used for decades by the commies to oppress workers and extort owners. During the empire unions had a prettier name, guilds, more appropriate for a gentler, more hallowed era of employee thumb-screwing and employer flogging. The secretary was clearly new to the job.

"I beg your pardon? Unions help people get better jobs and improve people's income levels. Right now all the money is going to the corporation."

"You crazy woman." She laughed out loud. "Don't you play stock market? I own McDonald's stock.” She pointed at her nose. “McDonald's belong to me."

"Noooo!” She stamped her feet and made a pained face, as if hoping it wasn’t true. “It belongs to the corporation," she pleaded.

"What? Do you know what coorporation is?" The secretary wasn't sure what that strangulated word referred to and shook her head dismally. "That's what I thought. Many foreigners so ignorant, okay? Coorporation is many people coorperate together. When I'm a stockholder, I'm a coorperator. And the coorporation belongs to me. A little bit."

"No! That's crazy!"

"Hush, hush! What you know?" It was all Crystal could do not to blurt our her favorite phrase: 'stupid foreigner'. "If union, then have to pay employees more money. That mean higher prices for McDonald's food. If business cost go up, then profit go down. That mean my stock lose value. So, when you help the employee, you hurt me. You think I'm crazy? Why should I be happy to be hurt by you? If you want hurt people so badly, why you don't go hurt yourself and leave everybody else alone?"

The secretary’s voice was rising, "That's the most insane thing I've ever heard. I don't want to hurt people! I only want to help them." But for one woman to tell another that she's only there to help is a losing proposition.

"And my boyfriend, George, showing me this guy you like. This writer, John Shersha."

"Who?"
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"John Shersha. He want to abolish long division and multiplication. Any number over ten is bad."

"What? Who?"

Crystal looked at the goggling secretary as if eying a feeb, then sidled over and began impatiently scratching on her palm with her finger. It was just like this in Shanghai when trying to communicate with some poor sod with a raving bumpkin accent: like one of those clowns down from that hick-town Beijing. She scraped J-O-H-N and then Z-E-R-Z-A-N. "He one crazy son of a bitch," she elucidated, "No wonder you foreigners have poor math skills."

"John Zerzan is a genius!"

"Yeah. A genius who can't count to eleven."

The secretary was getting impatient and her face was reddening, but this only confirmed Crystal in her prejudices. She taunted, "And why do you foreigners hate the Chinese people?

"What? Good lord! We... I mean, I... I don't hate the Chinese people. What a nasty thing to say!"

"You!" Crystal suddenly thrust her finger rudely in the secretary's face, frightening her. "You hate Chinese women most of all! I can see it in your eyes, fatso." She burst into a cackle and quick-stepped off into the crowd, leaving the secretary fuming on the sidewalk.

This peaked my interest in the Pinky environmental protection juggernaut. To dodge the phone trap, I went directly to their office and looked up the secretary. I informed her that I had a couple of old stories I could recycle for them. “Useful stuff,” I panted with promise.

With Pinky not around, she was herself: pleasant but not interested in anything in particular. Life moved on, outside of her, past her. Whatever was her motto. Now that I was out of the power loop, I was no more significant than a flickering image on the tube. I had an intimation she was ready to pull out a file and do her nails, but I soldiered on, "Look, why don't I just send them to you and you can give them the once over and decide for yourself. I won’t mind if you feel you can’t use them. But if they’re good, you’ll be the one taking the credit for accepting them. You can tag on your name as editor or something. Whatever." She looked up at that word.

I’d gotten through. “Okay,” she said, “But we would need your article in the proper format."

"What format?"

"Well, we use an early version of WordPerfect. We don't like to buy new software. It's very wasteful you know. Goes against the principle of recycling and excessive consumption."

I was prepared for these irritating sanctimonies and if I was patient enough not to put my foot in her ass, I might be able to get it in the door. "Well, I don't have WordPerfect. Can you make a copy for me so I can put my documents in the right format?"

"Oh no! We couldn't do that. That would be copyright infringement. I'm afraid you have to go and buy your own copy."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "You're telling me that I'm going to have to spend money so that I can give you work that I've done specifically on your behalf for free?"

“Well an old copy should be cheap.”

“An old copy of software? Who the hell sells old software? That’s like someone selling old milk. How many tycoons have you ever heard of making their money selling old software?”

“Can you lower your voice please?” I had to credit her with being patient. “Look, I’m just telling you what needs to be done. I can’t do anything about policy.”

What a cop-out! She was in charge. I said, “So I have to run around town, hoping to get lucky and find an antique shop stocking old software? Or maybe you want me to rummage around the mattresses of old people looking for the stuff? ”

She stared blankly.

I was incredulous. “And you still require me to spend my own money on software so that I can give you articles which I’ve written for you for free.”

"Well, I'm afraid so."

“I’m the fuck out of here!” and through the office I marched, head bowed in defeat, and like an angry street-person muttering to no one in particular, I raved incoherently about knuckle-walkers clogging up the information highway.

She was gracious enough to follow up my proposal with an email apologizing for their unusual needs, but not moving on the software. I was done with that NGO. And when friends informed me that this was standard treatment at NGOs the world over, I decided I was done with them all.

A couple of weekends later, this was all supposed to be safely down the memory hole. I was out in a patch of forlorn mountains, looking forward to tucking into some grub at a familiar hole-in-the-wall. I'd just parked my Ford beater and Crystal was sitting down at a table, impatient for me to make the man's end of the decisions. My first decision was to ignore her and survey the scratchy slate mountains, their grey sides collapsing like pastry under the dissolving rain, crashing into the roads below and clearing out clots of tourists. Above the tunnel was a pass where strong saffron light was pushing through in spears up into the cosmos. The colors were striking, cellophane and honey against a baby blue sea. Such aerial artwork meant a current of dirty desert air from north China was invading across a hundred kilometers of ocean.

Before I had time to point this out to Crystal, who probably couldn’t be arsed anyway, a couple of scruffy kids trundled up to us. One was a troublesome twelve and the other a snotty-nosed eight. Both were in blue jammies with embossed flying toasters faded under layers of dust and crud. The taller ragamuffin was the one in charge and with his arms on his waist and a pouty mouth he challenged me: "Hey, big nose, is this your car?" I replied in the affirmative whereupon he undid his fly and started peeing on my tire, like a dog marking out territory. Crystal started laughing while I shooed the ragamuffins away, flopping in rubber slippers and shrieking with pleasure at being chased down the vast empty incline of the mountain street.

The proprietor was a spent Chinese woman peering out from glassy eyes. At first I couldn't make out if her long pauses were indifference or defeat. But I'd been up here several times since. She'd been marooned here for years, fending off the local ways. The fact she was running a going business was testament to her adamantine refusal to give up Chinese ways. But the cost of chauvinism was high: her eyes were no longer windows on her soul but palisades protecting a faint and flickering spirit. And when she expired, the store would die with her.

I sat down at the table and looked over the valley below: a patchwork of pretty vineyards and melon yards, groves of apple and pear trees, the odd thicket of camphor and pine filling in the gaps. Above us was a struggling second-generation forest of beech and laurel, with the flowers of wild rhododendrons crowding the roads. Pressing in upon this fresh-air ghetto was a crazy quilt of lettuce and other green-grocer cash crops planted on bare gravel carrying a layer of white fertilizer approximating detergent powder from a distance. A couple of disheveled adults sauntered past, bleary-eyed with alcohol, looking angry at nothing in particular. It was noon.

Crystal smirked, "Why didn't you slap that monkey? Barbarian rug rats. Violence is the only education that'll ever learn them anything."

It didn't pay to be weak in front of her. "Yeah, I wanted to clout that kid upside the ear, but I'd better not start any trouble. We might get our asses kicked."

She sneered and said, "You mean that you might get your ass kicked. Nobody's going to kick my ass. Well," wiping her hands and standing up. "Maybe I should take care of it."

"Knock it off. If you cut loose here, they'll been shooting spirit arrows into you within 24 hours and sending both of us to meet our eternal reward in Hell. This ain't Chinese territory. Your big mouth is really going to..."

I was interrupted by a hand snatching my plate. But it didn't belong to a derelict. Or at least not a local one. The hand belonged to an arm belonging to Barney. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of sour booze and cheesy unwashed gear. He was gaunt and dirty, his beard grubby and uncombed, his jean jacket stained, his pants hanging off him like a flat-assed homeless bum. But in fact he was suited up. On a mission. And what missionary worth his salt doesn't cherish the example of Paul of Tarsus, with love in his eyes and a belly full of murderous rage at a world that won't listen, "Is there any bush meat in these noodles, fuck-head? I bet you didn't even think to ask, did you? You assholes come up from the city and facilitate these drunken savages' rape of the land!"

He had that do-gooder habit of cherry-picking history for its worst epithets when he got safely in-country. At the party held by Fred Beagle III he'd been pleasantly coy and warbled a more charming tune when I asked him how things were going with 'domesticating our noble savages.' He gave me a savage look of his own before smiling to the circle of stoned investment analysts, "Forgive George. He's a bit tipsy, but his heart’s in the right place. On the other hand, these minority folks really ought to get their act together sometimes. We need to educate them in how to better coexist with the natural flora." When I'd answered that with the query 'surely we're supposed to be learning from them', a black look came over his face and I knew it was time to shut my trap. He was about to go ballistic and who knew what butcheries a man who'd burned his passport out of hatred of the Great Satan George W. Bush was capable of. Missionaries, perhaps secular ones most of all, toss humor overboard like ballast once the mission gets on the road.

Now, under a robin-egg blue sky, with trails of cloud confetti above us and the warble of songbirds in my ear, Barney believed he was improving the experience by pushing his red mug into my face and shouting, "Don't you give a fuck? Or is your love of the wilderness just a ploy to get bitches to suck dick." This was performance Barney, the HBO Barney, Barney unplugged. But I was too jaded to be amused by such a raw performance. I wanted an older, venerable, respectable Barney, an edited, expurgated, Old Spice Barney in plaid pants and carpet slippers.

Aging hippies are as amusing as acne at 40 and his youthful energy was aging my patience fast: "No, you're right. I came up here specifically to eat bush meat. Keeps dick hard. Nothing better." And I hunched down, rested my elbow on my grown with my forearm and aimed a power-fist at the sky. I slapped the inside of my elbow with my free hand, producing that European gesture for 'fuck-off'. "Yeah! That's right! It's a free country, ain't it? And I told the mama-san here I'd give her an extra $.50 to lay out an extra man-sized portion of endangered species. I did it just to impress Crystal with my weasel. Now she knows who's boss of the boudoir. I'm the man. Fuckin' A!" I looked back into my food, wishing him away.

I could feel his glare, but his silence meant he knew he'd overstepped proper bounds. I looked up again only to find Crystal leering. She loved it. She had that mainland Chinese empathy, that joy in taking in a good show of someone else's suffering. She'd never stopped popping nibblets into her gleefully chomping mouth the entire time and now blurted out a newly acquired English phrase, "Why don't you two idiots put heads together and make asses of yourselves?" She chortled and then went back into Chinese, "Tell this stupid melon to sit down." Then back into English again for Barney, though she knew he spoke Chinese, "You hungry or what? You want I ask mama-san kill chicken for you? Dead chicken, good chicken."

In a country of shrinking violets, this offensiveness endeared her to many foreign men. But not Barney who, realizing he was wasting time singing to our choir. He rushed into the store, past the sagging displays of dried noodles, bean paste, chopsticks, and rice wine, past the double happy sign and the farmer's almanac, past the private stash of custom tea hooch and wasp poteen for preferred customers, and charged right into the kitchen. The female owner came out of her daze and out of her chair and went hurtling after him, shouting, "What are you doing? What do you want?"

I sighed and jammed a last podunk of noodles into my mouth with warped poverty chopsticks when Crystal said, "Hey, isn't that the other dork?" She was pointing to a cobalt blue minivan, out of which Pinky was emerging, dressed like a native politician. He was in a sports jacket, dress pants, and loafers. The only foreign distinction was the replacement of the Caterpillar Tractor hat with a Mac to keep his baldness warm. It worked up an interesting effect with the headgear and his sense of mission turning him into a venerable Anglican who'd just received benediction, the beatific smile of the blessed adorning his sun-dried lips.

He was so surprised to see me that he shouted, "Ahoy!" Startled by the words, for a moment he was confused by his own utterance, but happily so and said, "I mean, hey there!"

"Hey there yourself, sailor." I grinned, "Looking for a good time?"

But the racket was still leaking out from the kitchen. As Pinky approached, his face softened and he pronounced with a whisper, not wishing to foment a clash of civilizations, "A domestic dispute." He rubbed his chin and confided in me as if he was my uncle, "Alcohol does these things. It's tragic what our civilization has done to undermine the culture of these poor people."

I glommed his shoes. For a man who felt the people's pain and craved being as one with them, he was dolled up pretty natty. But his religious votary look put me in a confessional mood, "I heartily agree. Western civilization is at it again. That's Barney in there wreaking havoc and destruction. Imposing his cultural hegemony upon the locals, as he... uh... often does in these situations."

His head fell to the side, listless. Another nervous tic? No, he was decoding the ambient pink noise like a robin listening for earthworms. Nope. Wrong again. "Barney?” he mumbled, “Seems to ring a bell. Who's that?" He turned to me, his eyes narrowing like a lip-reader’s, focusing carefully on the speaker’s mouth.

Crystal said from across the table, "Barney got trabow. Big trabow now."

"Trouble." I repeated, "He's making big trouble now. She's right about that. That's his specialty."

I was thinking maybe I could get Pinky to resolve the problem, keeping me out of it. I didn't want to become persona non grata out here just because Barney didn't have enough sense not to do the right thing no matter where he was or who he was with. There's a time and place for everything, and most of the time and most of the place wasn't and weren’t anywhere near Barney.

Now a conniption of muffled hooting and hollering was poring from the bowels of the restaurant. Though it wasn’t like people to get violent around here unless they were drunk, which was often, it sounded pretty serious. Pinky cringed, “What in the h-e-double toothpicks is going on in there.”

“Barney gets himself into these things all by himself you know. He’s a loose cannon and a bit of a maroon sometimes.”

All of a sudden the muffled commotion emerged into full audio spectrum and we could hear the high frequency complaint of rubber soles pushing off tiles, air gulped desperately into lungs, and a knife swishing through the sullen mountain air. There was a sudden racket of guttural exclamations, half-words in an unknown tongue which we yet understood with crystal clarity. And the floppy sound of panting in public: always a bad sign in China.

Barney shot past our table, six feet in front of a dusky aboriginal gentleman with a cleaver in hand and a motor-mouthful of those incomprehensible imprecations. Barney was making impressive speed for an oldster. Hunter and quarry quickly disappeared down the incline of the lonely mountain road and the restaurant went back to its pristine quietude.

I exhaled a gush of pleasure and picked up my knock-kneed chopsticks to tuck into more tucker, when I noticed something ominous. A posse of local yeomanry was presently emerging from a handful of unpainted clapboard homes to see what the commotion was about. There were smiles on the sober faces, scowls on the rest. But with the two sprinters having fled the scene, all eyes now fixed on us. Men with purpose in their eyes, in unzipped pants, tattered windbreakers, and crazy workingmen’s hair began approaching. Being swarmed by a crew of ex-head-hunters was too much anthropology in one day for me and I hissed, "I don't like this vibe at all Pinky. That's not love in their eyes."

But Pinky was never a fan of current events: too complicated. He refused to recognize our predicament: guilt by association. He preferred the malleability and security of the past: "I sure hope Barney is going to be alright. Do you think we should go after him?"

But he was really hoping for an excuse not to go after him and I was sorely tempted to let the chickens come home to roost. Putting my chopsticks down and motioning to Crystal to get up I said, "Well if we don't, things may get ugly. Yeah, maybe we should hop in the van and chase them down." But all I really wanted to do was to get the hell out of there and save our skins. If we got out alive, we could do the right thing and call for a coroner and a traditional stripper for Barney’s funeral. Barney had been asking for it. Fair is fair. But all I'd ever asked for was a plate of stir-fry, a brew and a view.

As I got up from the table, moving slowly so as not to betray chicken-shit nerves, I heard Pinky blurt out, "But I don't want any violence. I'm a pacifist." Was he hoping for an intervention care of the creator?

I barked, "You want us to use harsh language? That aboriginal dude has a fucking big knife!"

I was on the verge of venting a primal scream and looked to Crystal for relief from madness. She was smirking and for once I was assured by her indifference. Her cockiness might save our bacon. She was too amused, too full of contempt, too saturated in 5000 years of propaganda to be scared. To her, this was a dustup between two species of savage, the raw and the cooked. As long as I, her pet savage and honeybunch, didn't become a victim, it really had nothing to do with her. And I could hardly blame her for being just another poverty-chic tourist who prided herself on being a detached observer; the Chinese edition of the quintessential modern global player who does nothing when bloody mayhem breaks out and then poo-poohs the outcome when things inevitably go wrong, excusing herself by saying it wasn't her culture and there was nothing she could do.

The sortie drew closer, sullen, eyes fixed in wolfish stares. Being used to Chinese shuffling, strange men striding like big rugby players was intimidating. The first one reached me, stopped in front of my face, and announced in English, “I’m not China.”

I didn’t know what to do with this correction apropos nothing and my gaze wandered all over eternity as I squeaked “Pardon?”

“Where you come from?” he asked in English and grabbed my shoulder and shook me like a rag doll.

But I knew where this conversation was going now. "Canada.” I exhaled pleasantly. “Do you know where that is?"

He laughed, "Of course.” Pointing a dirty finger over my shoulder, “It is outside."

They pushed us back to the table in the amiable fashion of jocks shoving each other around and brooking no teetotalers at an initiation party. We sat down to shoot the fat. Some lush in the gutter alongside the parking area was awoken by the commotion. A disheveled head looked out and began competently wailing a Cantonese cover of a Japanese pop standard.

The first man aimed his finger at Crystal and said with a dark firm gaze: "Is that one Chinese?" In reply to my nod, he said "Too bad." And Crystal stared at him. As my blood brother and instant pal he confided in me, "You need a real woman.”

I kissed ass good and proper: “Yeah, I know what you mean. These Chinese bitches. It’s always about the money. Money, money, money. They can never get enough.”

He was still speaking English when he cupped his hand and spoke into my ear, “Don’t tell the Chinawoman I say this but you need somebody fine.”

“Yeah?” I smiled.

“Like my sister.”

Crystal started to complain out loud but I grabbed her wrist and squeezed hard. I didn’t know where the conversation was going but I wanted out of there just as badly as she did, before I got locked into something sleazy that could set me up for extortion, jail time, and expulsion. Besides, Barney was still out there somewhere. We had to save him.

Another buck kept pestering me for my name and address. He claimed to want business connections with ‘the outside,’ a territory whose perimeter I began to realize started about 20 km to the west. The other men hooted him down and told him to knock it off. “Stop being so Chinese,” they howled.

Pinky was impressed. They were all individuals, with discrete personalities. They’d preserved their culture by being xenophobic, obnoxious and mocking anything from tried to creep in from the ‘The Outside’. But he said, "They’re such good people.” He meant they were noble savages. “They’re untouched by the more decadent aspects of our own civilization. Commerce & consumerism are absent here. They’re so much more relaxed, better adapted. Do you notice how naturally friendly they are?"

I scrunched up my face, "Tell that to Barney. Don't forget he’s still out there. We need to go fetch him."

Pinky waved me off, mesmerized by the smiling welcoming aborigines at our table, and said, "Let nature take its course." Fresh food and brew was being ordered up post-haste by the locals, several of which were razzing the owner, but all were happy to have guests and were treating us for free.

Pinky began chattering with some of the men but I gripped his forearm, "Barney's out there getting chopped into dog meat, okay? He's a nut and a fanatic. But he doesn't deserve death, goddamn it!" Pinky’s eyes rolled in classic fashion but I wasn't sympathetic. I said, “What’s with you anyway that you think economically backward peoples are somehow an advanced edition of Homo sapiens?”

Suddenly a rat-a-tat-tat of tinny percussion sounded out. We all looked over to see the two urchins, the same enterprising pair who had formerly attacked my motorcycle, now attacking Pinky's minivan. They had a couple of two-by-fours between them and a series of clunks and whumps issued as they now started on the soft front fender and moved towards the headlamps which they were sure to burst like ice sculptures. The men at the table began laughing, vicariously enjoying the sport.

Pinky leapt up and ran over to save his vehicle, grabbing one of the kids and his stick. Forgetting to pay attention to cultural niceties, he shook him like a rubber-chicken. But the kid booted him in the shins, causing Pinky to shriek while two outraged aborigines from our table jumped up and raced over.

This seemed like the cue for Crystal and I to make our getaway and I grabbed her wrist and hauled on it, ignoring her protests of discomfort. By the time I’d dragged her squawking to the minivan, providing more sport for the men, both of the punks were back to beating the minivan and were showing some deft handiwork rearranging the grill. Pinky played his part, taking a couple of slaps from the two men who were learning him the local hands-off management paradigm for early childhood education. It was obvious to me that they wouldn't hurt Pinky, but Pinky didn't know this. They were still browbeating him and muttering to him in the local language, their boozy breath flowing over him while he whimpered, tears trickling down his cheeks, his eyes diverted in terror. I couldn’t resist marching up and belting out: "So what do you say, Pinky old boy? Should I intervene, or should we let nature take its course?"

Half an hour later, having eventually succeeded via special pleading and having completed the required bonding ritual of sharing glasses of rotgut with the men, we waved frantic goodbyes and shot down the road patrolling for Barney. I took the Ford while Crystal tooled out in the minivan. Pinky was still in shock and useless to the world. But so was Barney. I was only half-surprised on finding Barney guzzling and half in his cups together with his assassin at the next pit-stop down the road. He refused to come back with us saying, “They’re wonderful people George, if you know how to handle them. You got to be firm with these upcountry bastards. Let ‘em know what’s right and back it up with some spirit, some chutzpah. And if that doesn’t work, call in the marines.” He was joyously sozzled and we left him behind with a wink and a peace sign. Pinky was right after all. Let nature take its course.

Eventually we were back in the city, safely at home. No more adventures for a while. Crystal was bored and beginning to nag for sport. Things had heated up and contempt prompted her to speak in English, as it always does, “So when Westerner tell a lie, it to make a point. But when a Chinese tells a lie, it because Cultural Revolution destroyed all values and turned China into a billion rats.”

“C’mon you’re oversimplifying the argument.” I fingered my chin and threw a salesman’s grin at her, “You already know this argument inside and out. Developing countries usually have totalitarian regimes and their populations lie like rugs because truth-telling in public will get you killed. Who’s going to tell the truth if it’s going to cost you or your family their lives? And…

“I tell you before. China is not total-iranism… Total-little-are-ism.”

“Totalitarianism,” I said, without slowing down. If she was going to needle me with this rehash of an old doomed argument, I wasn’t going to help her out.

“Total-whatever-it-ism. And then …”

But I didn’t hear anything beyond this. I was yet again enchanted by her knack for adapting words while running full throttle. Marvelous! And half a clich√© floated through my mind: China needs do-gooders like a fish needs a bicycle.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Homeward Bound (3000) by Biff Cappuccino


It was one of those moments in which I was asking myself, "Why am I still here?" I wasn't wondering why was I still on the island, but why was I still here sitting at this table with Jeff Desjardin and his band of fair-weather amigos chundering away at the table leaving me to myself, my wife and boredom makes three. I decided then and there that my misplaced loyalty to him would not be misplaced again. But then I remembered having made this oath, or something like it, before.

We were celebrating Jeff's wedding of convenience with a stag party: one with women in attendance, but minus the principle inconvenience of the bride. He blamed it all on being ‘seduced against my will’ by a widower ten years his senior with a permanently gammy leg, two teenage kids, and a not inconsiderable bank account. Jeff had a jolly look while he slapped me hard on the back, a virile warning that ‘loose lips sink ships’ and explained conspiratorially: "There's something about her that brings out the compassion in me, you knows? I have this, je ne sais quois, this sympathy fer someone down on her luck that way. I've had me a long run of good luck in me day, it's like time to give back to society and all."

I paused, impressed. Not with the fibbing, but with his appropriation of 'give back to society.' Could he parse it? I had trouble enough pinning the phrase down myself, like stabbing a wriggling leech to a specimen board. But he had graced me with an explanation. That meant he took me seriously, which placed me somewhere on the right road to respect. It warmed my heart that the sun was deigning to shine upon its satellite.

I was with my wife, Chang. Her Chinese name was Ho Chia-rong. She’d been obstinate about adopting a proper English name. Celia, Victoria, Vanity, Madonna, Britney. I could tolerate anything better than Chang! “No can do!” she’d stammered, pouting and railing puny fists. She was too polite to say that my friends were too complacent or incompetent to pronounce her Chinese name without desecrating it. She’d sized them up. Chang was as familiar as Chink and just as easy to roll off leather tongues.

We’d been invited to fill out today’s motley crew and demonstrate to all and sundry, perhaps mostly to Jeff himself, that not all of Jeff’s friends were from the south island wasteland of fly-by-night English teachers and its ultra-demimonde of retired crooks and part-time gang-bangers. The wife and I were the token high-society folks, the sort he aggressively mocked behind my back to put his envy at ease. We were there to witness the festivities and give our benediction via sainted smiles. The quasi-religious significance came inadvertently from my movement into the literary world where I was, if truth be told, a failed and failing writer. But in a non-reading world such as Jeff’s I enjoyed a cachet the illiterate typically grant to those wielding the written word. I was become a shaman through my holy ivory-tower abracadabra and was respected for the occasional shots of mystic mumbo-jumbo I sent across the bow.

I’d become privy to the attempted heist of the widower’s heritage while witnessing him in the courtroom. The wife-to-be was sweating nervously in shorts and crutches; he was proudly decked out in slip-in buckle loafers, gray designer exercise pants, a dark leather sorority jacket, and a ratty scarf that encircled his neck like the skeleton of a python that made a mistake. The judge was the Southeast Asian doppelganger of James Earl Jones and repeatedly pursed rubbery Negrito lips, giving Jeff a forceful fishy eye, indicating either prior acquaintance or that he expected to be seeing Jeff again in the far from distant future. Nevertheless, the proceedings went off smoothly, as mechanically as assembling a printed circuit board.

For now, happy days were here. We were living large, pals united by a crimeless crime, un-bustable proto-thieves, honorable men before the law, stuffing our gizzards on his wife's tab. We were at Jose's Mexican restaurant, a dive which attracts customers primarily by osmosis; strays and hungry waifs are lured in by its auspicious location next to the Tony Aroma's Prime Rib. Jeff and friends were boisterous, munching loudly, sucking back beers, and kicking up a friendly racket. Through the yellow-bean oil, the beer, and the cigarettes, I could smell whiffs of wino and rotting onions. Somebody or some bodies in attendance were hitting the local cough medicine overstrongly again.

It wasn’t Jeff though, for he shoved me amiably and said, "Be a sport and grab me some Whisby outer the shop there, will ya?" He was pointing out the window and, despite the vaguely familiar name, ‘Whisby’ isn’t the Chinese bastardization of ‘whisky’, but instead a total misnomer stimulant packed with caffeine, sugar and nicotine.

"I look underage and I'm not carrying any ID,” I apologized.

Fred, his buff blonde partner in excess, three armed robbery counts in the home country but now reinvented as respectable English Teacher and contributor to a better tomorrow, pointed a grubby finger and exclaimed, "He thinks he needs ID. In this country?" and he burst out laughing, food heaving between flapping lips.

I tried not to look while Jeff cuffed him up the side of his head. "He's my friend, asshole! I won't stand for none of that shit!” And to the rest of the table, “There’ll be no razzing him and that." He picked up his bottle of beer and drank, the table quiet as it waited for him to put it down and start talking again.

Fred had quailed. No choice because Jeff was his source for weed. Fred couldn't function on a daily basis without his stone for hoops, his teaching stone, sex stone, snooze stone, stoned stone. He'd have gone into the agricultural biz himself, as Jeff had done successfully, but his bluster masked a timidity unwilling to risk having his neck stretched under a scaffold, the sentence that went with trafficking on this island.

My wife tugged on my arm looking for attention, her excuse being to nag me in Chinese with: "Stop chattering. You and your pals are just like a bunch of women. Eat your food before it gets cold!"

Fred said, "I like your wife. She's cute!" and he smiled like he’d enjoy slapping her. Probably on the ass. She ignored him.

Jeff rabbit punched me in the shoulder. I pretended to be a man, while he said, "And don't take no offense at Fred. He don't speak for me. But he’s fucking A-okay! Okey-dokey?” I deadpanned to mess with him, whereupon he growled under his breath, “Ya overeducated bastard. You always gots an expression like yer dick got squeezed between the covers of a book.” But then he seemed to suddenly realize he was blowing his cover. He got his act together quickly, grinned a sharp toothed smile and said, “Now looky here." He figured I owed him and to seal the deal he put his arm around like we were instant pals again. "I really need a suck of that shit, eh? Liquid wrench, you see?” Convivially, sincerely this time, hoping I’d go for it, he said, “Look, I’ll share it with ya. These a-holes don’t like it, but I’m telling ya, it’s great shit. I’m fucking serious. Puts a frikken jump into your freaking step. So how's about you get off your knobby arse and fetch a bottle for me?"

"No can do.” I said in a chipper tone, “My wife wants me to eat."

He whispered so my wife wouldn't hear: "Don't tell me you've gone all fucking pussy on me, ya fucking pussy you?"

I looked at the food and twisted my lips into a tragic grimace of defeat. Fred was a slave to weed, Jeff was a slave to his women. Only when the cat was away, could the rat come out and play. He couldn’t imagine that I ran my marriage like a house of correction. I don’t know why more men don’t. But it was enough to put him off his stride. He gave up in disgust.

The plates came and I discovered we were being treated to the house enchiladas. They were deep-fried like chicken nuggets or old-fashioned doughnuts. The salsa sauce wasn't hot, but sweet: a sort of Mexican equivalent to Chinese-American food where ketchup does double duty as fermented bean sauce and beet sugar has superceded MSG.

It put me in the mood to find a 7-11 and buy a hotdog. Reliably, dependably mediocre fast food, but at least not disappointing. My wife was staring at me, willing me to eat, nodding at the food like I was a pet unhappy with kibble and holding out for table scraps. I returned to staring at my plate, looking at this desecration of LA Tex-Mex, while Jeff and his buddies were greedily shoveling the profanity into their mouths, spilling flakes of deep-fried crust on their shirts.

Jeff was talking out loud to his plate, "I want to get one of those paintball kits. Man, when that ball hits, it stings!" Looking up at the table he wagged his chin, inciting a table-wide Pavlovian chain-reaction of chin wagging, and said "Ain't nothing better than a good old game of paintball to get you going, put the zip back into you?"

Fred one-upped him, "You got to think larger than that Jeff. Get yourself a new Lexus. Insure it. Then, when it gets stolen, get a new one for free."

Jeff was nodding, “Hmm… not bad...” filing the suggestion away for future use. "That could work. That could be the ticket!"

Ralph upped the ante with, "No way man. I say, you should go all the way and get a sea plane. This is an island, don’t forget. You can land anywhere." Anywhere, except where we and most of the national population was: several miles inland. "Travel in style. Check it out, Jeff." A murmur of approval made its way around the table, with me mumbling too so as not to be a wet blanket. Chang pinched my forearm. Jeff rode the wave of support, exclaiming, "Yeah, that's the ticket. Fuck China Airlines. Too expensive. Shitty service. My own plane. All I gotta worry about then is the gas money."

He was beaming, ecstatic at his deft integration of luxury with economy. Talk was a luxury that was indeed economic. Talking was an opportunity to create fantasies. They spent many an evening building the improbable into the incredible and finally the impossible, looking back on their accomplishment and giving it due appreciation, like it was a real-world work of art, substantial and lasting.

Their mirth, their hopes, ambitions, and expectations depressed me. But why should I care anyway? I relaxed, exhaled, and smiled blankly to Jeff who wasn’t paying attention. To each their own, I thought. They were happy. ‘Butt out!’ was the best advice I could give myself.

I turned to my wife, who was slurping beer from my glass rather than order a beer of her own. I said in Chinese, "What was I thinking? Why did I come here?" But she just shrugged and pushed her plate away, dodging involvement and said, "It was your idea. We should've gone to the Burmese ghetto." I dabbed at the food detritus that always built up on her lower, fleshier lip and wiped down my glass where that same lip left sediment behind. She was right though. It was my idea. It was always my idea. That was part of the problem. She didn’t volunteer ideas because I was the male half of the equation. Forming ideas and making personal decisions that overtly involved the both of us was a form of selfishness she didn’t indulge in. Being sly was less obtrusive, less self-centered, less narcissistic. Sneaking my beer, or filching shopping cash from my billfold, wasn’t selfish as long as I didn’t notice.

I looked out the window and into the setting sun, imagining myself eating curried mango, fried curried tuna steaks, tomato and pepper Thai style shrimp on a bed of Indian rice. Ghetto staff barely spoke Chinese, didn't speak a word of English. Being locked out of a Third-world language could be a blessing in itself when you wanted peace of mind. The chef would snort and grunt. The kitchen was far from antiseptic. But the food was three-dimensional, with a foreground of piquancy and a rich background of varied flavors. Each dish was like a culinary success.

But we couldn’t do it. For Jeff it would have been a failure. It was downscale. His new marriage was an upscale success. He and his down-and-out pals, as always, wanted dreamscape, the appearance of good food, good living, good friends; not the reality. Status was more important, for status was the trumping of appearances over reality. And this was despite Jeff having taste in food; becoming a philistine of the palate had been a journey, a personal jihad I’d critiqued for taking him into glorious nether world of nothingness and nobodies. And yet he’d landed on all four feet like a cat. Of all things, the rat had cornered his prey, the new wife.

I’d taken to daydreaming again and was looking out the window. Someone dapper was standing there. He’d emerged from Tony Aroma’s and was now scorching a cigarette with a metal lighter, a gleam of reflecting sunlight coming in the window now and again. He began rocking back and forth for warmth in the chill breeze.

I pushed away my plate of deep-fried failure. Jeff noticed I was bored. Shoving me to get my blood flowing, he narrowed his eyes when I turned to look at him, daring me to cross him. "Well what do you got’s to say there Biff?"

But I wasn’t’ in the mood for jousting and launched a camouflage of verbiage into the air. "I think you should do something more profitable with your time, bud. You've got a talent for HRM. You’re connected with the local panjandrums. You speak the biz lingua franca plus dialect. Build on your skill-set and take her out for a test drive."

He smiled slowly, carefully, wondering whether there was a joke or a trap somewhere in that tangle of nonsense. He bunched his lips like a horse plucking a sugar cube, marking time to think. Eventually he pronounced, "Yeah, fer sure. Too right. Just thinking about that one the other day, there." I didn’t follow this up. Neither did the rest of the table, which had gone silent, people dodging my eyes.

My wife pinched me, sensing I’d said something rude. The problem was more like I had failed to say something rude. Fred's mouth was half open and he was squinting at me, waiting for me to say something intelligible, so he could close his trap and get on with chewing. Ralph was more of a decision-maker, pissed and yearning to nail me for showing off with fancy five-dollar words.

Suddenly Jeff looked at the table and fished out a Doritos chip and held it up to the light. Scanning it like a prospector holding a diamond in the rough up against the sun, he said, "Look man, don't that have the figure of Doreen? Can you see it, Biff? Like a brick-shithouse, yeah! Check it out.” I was appalled but for official confirmation he pushed it under my nose. As I brought my head back to look at it, he pushed it under my nose again. I didn't know if I should look at it or eat it.

He got impatient and made a face like I was an oaf or an ignoramus.

Ralph’s girlfriend spoke in English, seeing an opportunity for language practice, and hooked a finger in the air at me, “He stupid. He got shit for brains.” Ralph made a slow high-five gesture, signaling her to meet his hand over their plates. Their palms slid frictionlessly off each other, making the sound of one hand clapping. “That’s it honey,” he said sweetly, Jesus to a child, his mood made pleasant by her parroting of his favorite phrase. But she was sucking up to him, sucking him ever closer to the alter of marriage.

I was about to explode. Hazing, ground feeders, and wall to wall predators were more than I could take in small doses at this festival of the illiterate. Words failed me so I just signaled that I wanted to go out for a smoke. I excused myself and went out to join the fellow with the metal lighter. He had to be better than this.

It was Franklin. Of all people! A sight for sore eyes. It had been years. He greeted me as a stranger, not recognizing me in my beard. I was too embarrassed to tell him who I was. He was a professor at a good school, I was a kick-around shaman to the illiterati. We said our hellos. Still not knowing who I was, he asked how long I’d been here. I shrugged my bashful way out of answering. He laid down the rules of engagement with, “This island attracts all the riff-raff from across East Asia. If you’re still here in six months, you’ll know you’re one of them.” I laughed, then roared with an elemental, primal joy. I grabbed his hand and shook it violently, in part in celebration, in part for support as I was laughing so hard my legs were beginning to fail me. He was still staring as the tears were streaking down my cheeks and I sank to my knees like I was praying to heaven. In communion with a higher God. I felt home, finally. Home at last.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Chinese Take-away (incomplete practice short story)

Argyll has been an enduring lesson to me in the good sense of a man following his instincts and remaining true to himself. It’s also pointed out to yours truly, with crystal clarity and no little personal embarrassment, the futility of setting oneself up as an amateur wiseacre. For Argyll had no outstanding talents, no silver spoon, no distinguishing training or skill set. And yet, without foresight or planning, he unerringly made a bee line for what he wanted out of life and got it.

His full name was Argyll Alexander and he was a happy love child whose Russian parents conceived him to the free market rhythms of the Bee Gees. 'Staying Alive' was the family anthem. His parents were terrorized Jews who'd got out during the Brezhnev era of the Cold War. They arrived in Israel, joyous and ready to kibbutz but then discovered the disadvantages of not being Ashkenazi or Yemeni. They joined the second stage of the diaspora out of Russia, which was a Pan Am flight to New York City. There they discovered street crime and the disadvantages of not being WASP. Their surname, Alexandrov, became Alexander in short order while his father kept a lookout for jobs that allow them to move out of the Bronx. Daddy Alexander was brilliant, industrious, and published, and soon established himself as an associate professor of Russian studies at Columbia. When the opportunity to become full professor at UC Berkeley came up, he didn't hesitate to make the leap across the flyover country.

Argyle grew up in an elegant loft on Telegraph Avenue, right above Blondie's Pizza (then only $.50 for a wedge of pepperoni pie) and right across the street from Chinky's Take Out (since renamed Chinese Oriental Dreams). The family was impecunious in those early days and ate economically. Fast food was not a luxury but a mainstay and little Argyle made frequent trips to local eateries for instant eating. As a young boy Argyll appreciated Blondie's cool counter culture: the groovy staff picking their noses and daring you to buy a slice, and the service with a sneer and in-house motto of 'the customer is always wrong'. But it was Chinese Oriental Dreams that really captured his fancy. Nose-plunging and loogee hacking was au naturel. The chef was earthy and unpretentious, wearing his culinary heart all over his sleeves. The staff was solicitous to the point of being sycophantic. And you didn't have to tip if you didn't want to. And Argyle's family didn't want to.

The staff spoke this mysterious Oriental language that sounded like jackdaws crowing or crows jackdawing. And little Argyle just loved Chinese food. Bite-sized pot stickers, steamed buns that fit into your hand, baked duck tidbits, won-tons that melted in your mouth. As a small person, even big food could be threatening to Argyle. Thanksgiving turkeys were vast and imposing, gnawing on drumsticks was awkward and dirty. Baked potatoes were heavy and looked like weapons to be lobbed, while there was something deceitful about the secret heat contained within their skins. He stayed away from them after he realized they were organic bombs, sizzling traps for surprised mouths. But Chinese food was small and delicate, just like him. Dainty morsels for tender hearts. It was no accident that he was forever enamored of things Chinese from childhood on.

In Berkeley, however, to his parents chagrin he picked up the Berkeley vibe. They became tense with worry and increasingly irritable. Would this doom his professional future? Their baby-boy!

Whereas his parents' first-hand experience with a socialist state had made them rabidly anti-Communist, Argyle recognized that their trauma had produced pathology: an unfortunate blinkered cynicism. They were in America now, America the beautiful! Each day was the first day in the rest of your life and they just didn't get it. He personally felt the vibe, breathed it in and mellowed on it. He was encouraged and humbled, doing his own part working for a better today and tomorrow for everyone. He joined the informal Telegraph Rainbow Coalition in his own unique uniform of tie-die and Birkenstocks. Donning lenseless eyewear was a sign of protest, a declaration of community and sympathy with the faux African-American student nerds on campus. No purple lenses, no purple haze, man. Too sixties. Outside of class, he was proactively evolving into a part-time soft-soap Socialist, full of warm and fuzzy feelings, a penchant for ruminative navel gazing, and a clean all-American desire to help the underdog. And when the underdog wasn't himself, it could include others.

I first met him in a hostel when he took the bunk bed above mine. I’d been hoping to keep the top bunk free for laying out clothes to dry and for shagging chicks. Height in a hostel bed means privacy from eager eyes on lower bunks. I’d piled all sorts of junk up there: slippers, sneakers, and a filthy ash tray. I'd dumped all of this mess on top of an old blanket. It was stained with menstrual blood, urine, and spent sperm symbolizing various trophy bangs of the previous occupant. He'd unwittingly revived the 19th-century tradition whereby surgeons refused to clean their bloody aprons on the premise that the more blood and gore the more experienced the surgeon. A good advertising meme never dies. Either way, rather than degrade and waste the blanket by cleaning it up, I put it to worthy use as a sort of filthy scarecrow to keep away fastidious occupants. But Argyle wasn’t impressed. He wasn't fastidious. He was down with dirt, into coexisting with germs, rather like me. But he was also on his own trip. Up there on the top bunk, at the end of a hard morning and ready for a mid-day siesta, he just wanted shade from the bright lights, bright city.

I got back from work one day and found him up there sound asleep. Bummed, I shook him and asked him about his luggage, hoping to ferret out some excuse to weasel him out of staying in the top bunk. He gained consciousness slowly and grinned even slower still and said with a doper’s smile, “I don’t have any, man. I mean, like, a shirt and pants is all I need to motor. If I need more I’ll buy some.” Coming up with negative, I changed the topic to girls, he said, “I love Vietnamese chicks, dude. Oh, they’re…” He thought for a moment, pondering the possibilities, and said, “They’re… cool.” 'Cool' was the perfect word. It was also the only word. When I asked him why he'd come to China and not gone to Vietnam, and hoping I could put him back on his plane, he replied, “No way dude." He shook his head languidly, smiling that die-hard smile, "It's too far.” And when he bumped into me and a couple of friends out on the disco circuit he shouted admiringly, “You guys are hot!”

You get the picture. He was in a dimension of his own. But he was also the nicest of guys and always operated with the best of intentions. He wouldn't sneak my shaver, leaving me with a rash the next time I scraped the blade packed with someone else’s germ flora over my skin. He wouldn't wipe down the table with one of my shirts and blame it on the Chinese cleaning staff. He wouldn't steal the clips off my backpack or scratch my CDs or cockroach my cigarettes. And he wouldn't answer the hostel phone and tell female callers that I wasn't in but that I had deputized him to service them on my behalf. Nevertheless, we were on a different wavelength and on a different wavy-gravy trip.

He moved out soon and we went our separate ways. It wouldn't have surprised me if I'd never seen him again. But then we both inadvertently landed jobs in the same translation office. We translated study plans and recommendation letters with our clients beside us and most of our clients were university seniors, getting ready to leave the country and perform studies overseas. The females, no matter how appealing they were on their own merits, were ugly ducklings on the local dating scene. Local fellahs couldn't take them seriously as marriage material. Not if they were going to be spending a year or more abroad amongst Hollywood temptations. This made our office a meat-market and cornucopia of cute petitsas.

Argyle, however, was having a hard time mastering the local ways and professional lays. His penchant for being a man of few words handicapped him in an industry specializing in excessive verbiage. Nervous-nelly Chinese students, some of the most homework bound in the scholastic universe, found his almost pathological inability to be nervous disturbing. They complained about his speed. His permanently happy face made them resentful at first, and finally, sulky. Perhaps worst of all, many of the female clientele wanted a nubile man and felt ripped off having been assigned a dud for a stud, which is to say, a defective translator.

But Argyle just took it in stride and put it down to cultural differences. "You can't criticize The Other or Otherness. It's just, I dunno... Insensitive." One major cultural difference was that the Chinese hadn't discovered this fact and complained majorly about other cultures and other Others. In this case, the Other was Argyll. But he wasn't jugged by the boss. He always won the sympathy vote. Mine too.

Then one day it looked like he was going to score. I was delighted and the rest of the office rooted privately for him too. All eyes were on the fetching minx: an aboriginal babe, dusky and pretty and foreign to the Chinese rat race. Come down from high mountain ledges with pristine air, she was a natural flower child and in sync with his trip. To me, she was a coconut princess, the airhead with a good heart that Argyle was discovering best suited him. By fits and starts, he was coming to grips with the awkward fact that for him Chinese culture was often best divorced from the people who created it.

As the afternoon progressed, they got along swimmingly and she edged closer and closer to him. I'd seen clients go so far as to sit on the laps of their foreign consultants, but this wasn’t her style. Her Chinese name was Serene Grace and when he asked her for her native language name, she was embarrassed, but happily so. No Chinese would have asked. Better get the savages in the habit of speaking a real language. Chop-chop!

He found her shyness inviting and insisted on disinterring her real name, the authentic Otherness. 'Mountain Orchid' she whispered and he gasped. She stared at him moonily, waiting for him to make the next move. He stared back at her, fascinated. Checkmate. Over the course of the dreamy air-conditioned afternoon, they gelled sweetly, like honey and molasses.

He invited her to a movie, paying for her ticket. She took him home, for free. On a mattress laid out on the floor of a Spartan bedroom, he put his cock in her hand and taught her how to pleasure a man. After a few seconds he barked like a puppy and as he shot forth, she burst into a shriek. "What's the matter honey," Argyll pleaded out of breath and still dopey from the rush.

She was shaking, shocked by the unnatural bodily eruption. "What's that?" Pointing with the other hand at the sticky mess of Elmer's glue on her fingers and blouse.

"Well what do you think it is, baby?" he replied calmly. She looked helpless, inarticulate but who needed words with those limpid puppy-dog eyes. He looked deeply, drinking deeply of the wells of her soul, and said sympathetically, "Honey, its sperm."

She grew calmer and then pouted like she was going to cry. In full wail, "I didn't know it came from there!!!" and fell on his shoulders sobbing.

Argyle was moved. These were the protests of a lady. A princess. His coconut princess.

It was such a touching scene that when Argyle told me, I couldn't help burst out laughing. "Where do you find these players, dude?"

"She's not a player!" he protested. "She's my... my honeybunch." And the earnest expression on his face which had recently been covering for the happier smilier one indicated he was falling for her.

In the office one of the other translators, Jess, who'd bounced from the low-rent Oregon grunge scene to the lower-rent China teaching scene, tried to be helpful, “Is she religious by any chance? You know, a lot of these mountain tribes have a hard-on for Jesus."

A flicker of recognition spread across his face. "I think she's... yeah, yeah. Totally. She's a Catholic I think."

Jess was young, buff, and blond. Living in a developing country had gone to his head and he boasted regularly that he was a 'sexual athlete. I score hat tricks real regular.' I was afraid to ask what a hat-trick was and I didn't want to encourage him. Trying to be helpful he said to Argyll, "Well, you know the deal with the Whores of Rome. Hand jobs, blow jobs, and in the keister. The Catholic hat-trick is what you should be aiming for buddy."

Argyll had a dithering look on his face, his mellow approximation of distaste.

But it had no impact on Jess. After all, unsolicited advice is often just a cover for hassling someone. "Everything's kosher with these chickypoos," he said. "Just not regular sex. Some of these Catholic girls even become keister bunnies. I don't flirt with religious skirts myself, but, hey, check it out, you might like it." And he extended a duo of thumbs up, only half in self-parody.

But Argyll was turning up his nose. She was a lady, and he wouldn't debase her by treating her like a normal human being. He later confided to me that he was “delighted she wouldn't go all the way, man. I mean, it’s a privilege to be rejected. Don’t you get it?” I didn’t. Since when was rejection not failure? But he corrected me saying, “Jeez, dude. I mean, going all the way was something she would have done in a one-night stand situation. This is serious. Romance! She’s taking it slow.” A glowing smile spread over his face, like the warm assurance of the morning sun inching above the horizon. His languid emotions could have a powerful charismatic effect, like now. Though I always tried to duck their impact, his emotions, always sincere and felt whole-hog, could really resonate with me.

But the implication remained that marriage was the only solvent capable of prying open her legs. Though, of course, he wanted much more than just sex. A soul mate and intellectual companionship. And this was how we ended up going down to the east coast into a pretty little town above the littoral.

We flopped aboard the drowsiest coziest train down from Taipei, past defunct fishing villages with dry-docked boats in gay colors, their pretty names painted in pictorial Chinese script. And shunted by shut-down rusting mining towns, their collapsing plants and wasted landscapes reminiscent of industrial England. We continued moseying on down past a vast plain invaded and settled by Chinese who'd pushed the aborigines into the surrounding escarpments. Argyll, inner-peace incarnate, slept, while I watched the clock frustrated with being unable to sleep or read.

Finally we reached another spine of dark plush mountains, rushed through several strobe-lit tunnels, eventually coming out to South Harbor station where we disembarked. Refreshed, Argyll sucked in the wet air and beheld the spanking new fragrance of flowers and diesel. He got into the moment, immersing himself and luxuriating in these primal joys in a way that I could only observe from the outside like an ornithologist trying to imagine being a bird in flight. I envied him.

My attention span was different, and so inevitably was my focus. Or lack thereof. We were at the ocean edge of a floodplain emerging between two parallel mountain chains. This was a flat delta of gravel and immense boulders tumbled down by the slashing downpours of a thousand generations of hurricanes. The mountainsides were radiant, festooned with a modern and prehistoric flora: fern trees, man-size fronds of wild rhubarb, tree-strangling creepers, tree-strangling trees, then hardwoods, then cedars and looming pines outlining the mountain ridges which themselves loomed gray and threatening in the sea-deep sky. It was a beautiful Jurassic Park panorama that pushed profoundly into the heart of the island for 20 km or more. The air above was crystal clear, the sky a pelagic blue with intermittent shape-shifting tufts of white and circling raptors riding thermals. If you gazed long enough, the sky became a vast ocean, as if you were looking down upon the Earth from space.

Mountain Orchid met us at the train station and escorted us to her home. We entered a surprisingly expansive living room to find a tasty spread waiting for us: plates bearing salted guava fruit, sliced pears, jellied sun dried prunes, roasted peanuts, and dried shrimp with chili peppers. This was ringed by shot glasses of mountain oolong tea: in this case, above-average leaves which performed their appointed role of puckering astringency and leaving the tongue with a sweet after-taste. I looked around and was impressed with the busy way the room had been stuffed with woodwork, not just the beveled shelves, the varnished furniture, and the professionally stained knickknacks, but also the expensive selection of carved driftwood scattered about the floor without any real plan. This stuff is popular along the Chinese coast as it's considered fortuitous and to occasionally house spirits. Well-shellacked, one gallant old stump did service as our table.

Her father approached us and shook our hands. He making an impression in his oversized and baggy turquoise woolen sweater which puffer-fish fashion, puffed his upper body to nearly twice life-size. This was despite the fact he was already sturdy fellow inhabiting a six-foot frame. He looked to be in his sixties, with a sun-dried sable skin and an air of fatigue and ennui hanging about him. Perhaps we weren’t the first courtiers. He was doing double-duty as chaperone and body guard, standing up for law and order and making sure the foreigners didn't get out of hand, raise riot in the middle of the night, and go hunting for scalps. But his was a not unreasonable suspicion. After all, we were a couple of young bucks from another tribe and in his house sniffing after the women.

I’d heard from a friend who frequented these mountain ranges that these people were fiercely resentful of the neighboring aboriginal peoples. Their numbers were small which made them edgy and suspicious of outsiders. Until the Japanese and Chinese came hacking through the bush a century back and the wild shooting broke out, the aborigines and their culture had been untouched and in a pristine state of going at each other’s throats for centuries like the Hatfields and McCoys of yore. Chopping off heads was their bar mitzvah ritual. You didn't graduate to manhood until you'd assassinated another man. Traditional communication with the spirit ancestors was accomplished by pressing a prisoner into service and shooting arrows into him with a wish-list attached. When he died, his spirit communicated your wish list to the deceased ancestors. I often wondered if head-hunting was an unconscious Neolithic form of population control which enabled the aboriginals to live in harmony with the rest of nature, mankind not included. I didn't bother sharing any of this cultural history and idle speculation with Argyll because he would have felt, perhaps correctly, that I was deliberately acting as a wet blanket to extinguish his idyllic romance. Besides, I could already envision him making a face and lecturing me, ‘Times have changed. Each day is a new day, bud. The first day in the rest of history’s days...

We were introduced by Mountain orchid to her father, mother, and an extremely appealing sister with perfect skin, large eyes, a forthright gaze, and marvelously thick eyebrows that gave her a wolfish hungriness. It took a pronounced effort on my part not to stare. The Chinese feminine reaction to my ill-disguised interest would have been panic and a disappearance act or else overeager solicitousness as the horse got out of the hustings and the chase began. With this mountain woman, however, there was something primal about her, a lack of inhibition proceeding from an absence of strangling social norms that gave her choices beyond those of the more typical Chinese worry-wart. She was comfortable with herself and alert, soaking up context like a sponge.

As a way of introducing ourselves, we chatted about a range of topics. They expounded at length on the circumstances of the local people. The father was particularly favored to know as he had formerly been the village representative. "Outsiders don’t know that we aborigines have traditionally had a very tough time. Invaded by the Chinese, and then the Japanese, and then the Chinese again. Three different regimes, all hostile. Three trials by ordeal. Much bitterness. Terrible memories. These outsiders really hurt our people."

Argyle hunched forward and asked sympathetically, "Are things getting any better these days?"

"Maybe. Economically, things are slowly improving. Still, we are behind the Chinese. We are discriminated against. What can we do about our dark skins? They’re not like a beard you can shave off." And his family tittered. Irritated that his carefully cultivated somber mood had been exploded, he exclaimed, "Are we not all brothers on the inside?" and threw up his hands. He got up and looked out the window with a sad eyes and an affecting gravitas.

While digesting all of this, I'd been gazing around the room absentmindedly, again admiring the wealth of products: the ceramic flatware on display, the Korean brand tea boiler proudly mounted on the stained wood shelf, the 24 inch television advertising that they’d made good. It wasn't a Saks Fifth Avenue shopping spree, but neither was it poverty chic. The aborigines weren't well off? He must have meant some general economic malaise. They must have poor relatives squatting in the hills on their haunches, chewing betel nut, getting mashed on moonshine, and hunting flying possum by night for stew. All that I could see was that his immediate family was doing just fine. The daughter was readying herself for studies abroad, quite an expensive proposition to carry out. And on the train, Mountain Orchid let on that one of her brothers was a local policeman while the other worked for the fire department. Dad was formerly the local government representative. Putting two and two together implied that dad had schemed to put the whole family on the public payroll.

Argyll stood up saying, "Well, I guess your people will just have to take things one step at a time. “Each day presents new opportunities for them. Where there's a will there's a way, that's what we say in America." He looked around the room and said, "At least your people have their culture. Your most valuable heritage."

I wanted to interject and say that gripping their culture to their chests was holding them back. Just as the Amish held themselves back. The difference being that the Amish accepted that walking into the future while looking over their shoulders at the past was a choreography with a downside, as well as an upside.

Mountain Orchid corrected Argyll plaintively, "But our culture is dying. Our people are losing our traditions. Television has invaded our community."

With two people talking this jive, I began to smell a rat: the politics of personal irresponsibility. Losing our traditions? Televisions invading? How can you lose traditions unless you want to give them the slip? And how do TV’s invade and who’s giving them their marching orders?

The handsome sister continued in this fine tradition saying firmly, "Our people only dance for money now. Only for tourists. They won't dance for their own people anymore."

Mountain Orchid summed up, "We’ve lost hope. Our community is falling apart as Chinese capitalism draws our young people away. Even our language is going extinct."

Argyll looked at me and said, " My God! I never even thought of that.” He turned to me and pointed, “Something like six thousand languages are poised for extinction by the end of the 21st century. Isn't that right Bill?"

Bill was me. "Um, I guess so." I said squinting, "That's what some people say anyway."

Argyll was on a roller-coaster ride of purple sympathy and golden righteousness and angry to have his trip interrupted, "Why? Do you have some reason to doubt it?"

Given the mood of the room, debate would have devolved into a rancorous argument so I surrendered the point with a cowardly shrug. I tried to inject myself back into the discussion via saying something useful. "Well, I guess one of the reasons that many minor languages - not that I mean any disrespect to your people’s language - are going under is because they don't have a written form. If some sort of writing script is developed, there's a decent probability that it will last longer I would think."

He stared at me. I stared back. His face was as solid and immobile as a potato. So I said, "Well, perhaps you should think about using the alphabet to transcribe your language. I don't know?" Turning to Argyll, I asked, "What do you think?"

Argyle and Mountain Orchid exclaimed, "Great idea!"

While they celebrated I shook my head and wondered, 'Great idea? Wasn't it the obvious thing to do?" It was the first of those funny moments I've since had many times realizing that outside oppression ain't necessary to keep a people behind; an absence of internal motivation does the job all by itself. And my feeling that this was the case only grew over the next half an hour while we sat around discussing how to canvass for political and financial support to have linguistic experts transcribe their language into print. Help had to be imported in the form of Chinese funding, Chinese experts, Chinese cultural development projects, and Chinese tourists. The climax of these innocently cynical machinations was in the mail already: within a couple of decades they'd become fully acculturated True Patriots of the Middle Kingdom. And the next generation of indignant activists and soul-searching academics would blame the Chinese for it.

A couple of hours later, I was pleasantly stuffed on finger foods, dazed and ready to pack it in. Mountain Orchid spoke to her father in their native tongue, a train of rolling r’s and fluttering f’s ventilated into the evening air. On receiving her orders, she took us to our sleeping quarters across the street. She opened the door to their guesthouse and led us upstairs to a loft containing a pair of pleasant bedrooms. After giving us a quick run through the amenities, she bid us a good night. On showering up and crawling in between the thick cozy covers needed for these mountain locales, I scrounged around for reading material to help put me to sleep. Scanning the shelf of magazines next to my bed I noticed a sci-fi novel and a handful of booklets in Chinese. The novel turned out to be penned by the famous Hong Kong writer, Ni Kuang. I had hopes but after a few pages I concluded he must have written it on the fly to pay gambling debts, for the story wasn’t even good enough for wrapping fish. I turned for relief to the booklets, pried one out and read the words on the cover out loud: Phonetic Transcription of the Shanxi Minority Language. What? I shook my head in disbelief. What a fool I’d been. It was their local language transcribed with the Roman alphabet. It was surprising enough that we spoke Chinese and it must not have crossed their minds that we could read Chinese too. Both parties were full of surprises and I wondered what other surprises were in store for our side of the equation.

I declined putting off showing these booklets to Argyll until morning. My mind would run through scenario after scenario and adversely affect my sleep. I rapped on Argyll's door and shoved a booklet under his nose. He was annoyed. Under the gun, he grew articulate and new expressions I'd never seen before emerged through his skin, "You're so cynical dude. I mean, that might not be their language. How do you know? You know, maybe it was brought in from somewhere else. Like a paradigm for the transcription of their own language or something.” I raised an eyebrow, unconvinced. He began speaking fast, at a normal human pace, saying: “Or maybe another guest left those books here. They could be gifts. These people are very generous. I'm sure they have people here all the time. And didn't you hear what they said? Her dad's a local panjandrum. A big-wig. There's so many possibilities. You don't know what happened. You don’t man. So you shouldn't rush to judgment. You’re so judgmental."

I smirked, "You ought to go to law school when you get back." I blew out my cheeks, seeing this was going nowhere fast. “Well, we could just go and ask them. That would settle things, wouldn't it?" He didn't look amused. "Come on Argyll, let's cross a street and see what's up with this."

Argyle slipped in front of me surprisingly fast, blocking my way. "Hey dude, I can't let you do that. No can do. She invited us down here and there is just no way I'm going to put her in some kind of uncomfortable situation just because you're in a mischievous mood. Look, I invited you down here which makes you my guest. If you go and act like an asshole, I'm the one who's going to get tagged with being a shithead." He switched to a more soothing tone, bringing his pumpkin face closer and breathing on me, "Now I'd appreciate it if you just try it be nice for once. These are nice people. Stop abusing their hospitality."

The only thing that moved me was his sincere desire to enjoy himself here. He made me feel guilty and besides, what was the harm. He had no money, no assets. What could they screw him out of? The worst they were doing was fattening him up and pampering him. So I relented, "What ever turns your crank Argyle. Just sleep on this, man. There's a pattern of..." I wanted to say 'bullshit' but that would have taunted him and lured us both into another pointless discussion. "...a pattern of something going on here." I looked at him, but he was calm, back to being serenity itself. I lost my enthusiasm for pushing him in the direction of unpleasant thoughts and inauspicious suspicions. I gave up. "See you in the morning dude. Sleep tight." And that was the beginning of the end.

After breakfast in the morning, they put us in a car and took us for a Sunday drive around the valley.