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

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.


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