Letter from (America) (about) China

“Welcome back to the land of loose sand, my friend. Long time no see.”

It took an hour and a half for the first horn.

But, if you subtract the time it took to get off the plane, find your luggage and get on the bus, then it took about five minutes for the first horn.

Three for the first near-miss.

I spent March in China, after three years back in America. I left China as an English teacher, dealing with sudden schedule changes and overly complicated logistics. I came back as a Navy sailor . . . dealing with sudden schedule changes and overly complicated logistics.

Everyone in the Navy does a particular job, and mine isn’t well known. The name certainly doesn’t help:

“Arrow Grapher? What the hell’s that?”

“Aerographer.”

“Huh?”

“I do weather.”

“Oh. So what’s arrows got to do with it?”

But even in the Navy, my job is pretty obscure, and since in the military we eat sleep drink and breathe acronyms:

“AG? What the hell’s that?”

“Avant-Garde.”

“En garde?”

Touche.

I know, I know, kind of went in secrecy, didn’t I? That wouldn’t have happened three years ago. Hell, back then I would have written some long Facebook note, tagging people who don’t care and chui’ing the niu about how I’m headed to this exotic place while you’re stuck in traffic tomorrow morning. Everyone hates people like this, and for good reason: they suck.

China’s not “exotic”. Interesting, yes. Lovely, yes. Exotic?

You see, three years does funny things to the brain. It makes you forget the worst and remember the worse as bad, the bad as good, and the good as some of the best moments of your life.

It makes your return a jolt to reality, and it can push you in the wrong direction: eight people asking you why your baby was crying last night isn’t amusing, it’s fucking annoying.

The man who cuts in front of you for the taxi isn’t an otherwise kind fellow influenced by a famine mere decades old, he’s an asshole.

And while this should go without saying, bai jiu is not a gateway into the local culture, it’s a deadly alchemy of poison and paint that causes certain former expats who are foolish enough to mix it with Sprite (to mute the nasty taste) to puke on the sidewalk and go to the hospital the next morning, where (and this too goes without saying) they stick an IV in you and send you home.

Three years makes the nostalgia lenses several inches thick, but no matter how thick, you need to take them off. Go on. Take them off.

And appreciate what deserves to be appreciated:

- walking through fields of sunsoaked youcai with my wife and daughter

- seeing how much Wuhan, despite remaining a construction site, has changed

- Wuhan University’s cherry blossoms

- bicyling along the dam overlooking the river, watching the barges carry great hauls of sand

And above all, seeing what few see, what few want to see and being content in the knowledge that their ignorant opinions on China don’t matter.

So my in-laws, my former students, friends, fellow former expats, expats who are lifers by choice and expats who are lifers forever planning that move out of China, I’ll leave you with this:

你的家真漂亮。

Book Review: The Ghost of the Lotus Mountain Brothel, by Ray Hecht

Henry seeks Ling Ling’s opinion on 1911 revolution.

“Oh I see. I think it doesn’t matter. Whoever is government, whatever happens, we all go to work same as before. Life very hard, don’t worry that never change.”

Henry looks at me for a moment and laughs. I never know why he laughs.

The Ghost of the Lotus Mountain Brothel is a story that could work in the present time. All the elements at play in the early 20th century — the class divisions, the dreams of a young working girl, romantic notions that don’t quite meet reality — are common throughout China, all against a backdrop of great change.

But no matter what changes, a working girl with a rubber sheath is no different from a working girl with a smartphone.

We hear it all from Ling Ling, a working girl who dreams of one day owning the brothel. She is a girl of dreams, and she nicknames her customers by the letters of the alphabet, from Ah-Ay to Ah-Eichi, a married professor, to Ah-Zed.

The alphabet men are just customers, while Henry, a British man who teaches her the alphabet, becomes something more. Ling Ling, much like Alice, the English name she chooses, spends much of her time in dreamland. The brothel is her home while the world outside is something to yearn for. When she accidentally throws Henry’s condom away, she and her roommate Siu Lee need to replace it. Their quest takes them to a higher-end brothel, “a true flower house”, and back at her regular brothel she thinks:

I want to travel more. I want to feel like this, more alive, and more often. I want to see what this City of Five Goats has to offer. Why live a boring life when I could be running dangerously through the streets at night with a used condom in my pocket and a loving friend at my side?

It is Henry who ultimately provides her with a means of escape that however uncertain does seem to promise a better future than owning the brothel. She calls Henry her “knight”, though not as shining to us as he is to her. A young girl of many dreams, she is still a low-end prostitute, one of

The lost among the City of Five Goats. We, who are curious of the city lifestyle, and hence we are punished for our curiosity. So we become working girls. Chicken girls.

Ling Ling thinks she wants something more. It’s only when she’s about to realize her dream that she makes a hard decision, and in the end, the ghost of the Lotus Mountain Brothel is less a ghost than it is a common experience linking 1911 to 2011.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Available on Amazon

A little episode at O’Hare Customs…

The customs agent was taking his time, and my wife and I knew that was a bad sign.

Then he pointed. A worse sign. And he spoke – the worst.

“You need to go over there. There’s a problem with her biometrics.”

Problems, you can count on those with US customs, and so can the fifteen or so people in this room.

Including the Chinese farmer.

From the countryside, he had come to visit his son. This was his first time out of China, first time on a plane, he speaks no English, and for his inauguration to the US, customs has sent him to this room, with no explanation. (( I know they explained it, but since he doesn’t understand English, I doubt hand gestures are adequate ))

He’s walking around, wondering what’s going on. A customs agent approaches him.

“Go sit down.”

But jet-lagged, 12,000 miles from home, the farmer is going tharn.

So our customs agent, well-trained in the subtle art of cross-cultural communication, digs deep.

“GO. SIT. DOWN.”

Fantastic. I never imagined that simply RAISING MY VOICE was all it took to break the language barrier.

Guess that’s why I’m don’t work for US customs.

It fell on my wife to calm him down. Soon — in comparison to say, geologic ages, not the lives of mortal men — they gave my wife back her passport, having fixed whatever problem was keeping us here. We left, not without an encouraging word to the farmer, getting his paperwork straigtened out, his biometrics corrected…

Or a fucking typo, for all we know.

Two Little Red King Sample Chapters

Two sample chapters from the novel Little Red King are now available. The first deals with John’s introduction to expat nightlife. It’s found here.

The second is LRK’s first real chapter, following The Seven Year Laowai 1. It’s found here.

Set in 2008 Wuhan, Little Red King is more or less about the doomed romance between a new foreign teacher and a Chinese graduate student. The never-sent query is here (or the post right below this one), and the structure of the book goes 7YL1, Ch 1, 7YL2, Ch 2…and so on, with the 7YL departing midway through while the main story takes over and returning at the end to help tie everything together.

More sample chapters are coming. The next one will be about a bad baijiu hangover, based on a true story of a certain former expat who had the bright idea of mixing Sprite with ricewine, to mute the taste. Unfortunately, it worked.

I said it in a Facebook message and I’ll say it here and I’ll say it again and again: I want Little Red King to be a fucking gut punch. So, while things will start out innocent enough, keep in mind this is a doomed romance. I want the sense of doom to set in, and I want it to set in quickly. I want this story to linger in people’s heads for years.

I want a lot of things. Right now, what I want most is for people to read the damn thing.

So feel free to have a look, and yes, I am open to feedback. Some four to five years on, the book remains a work in progress, though less of a work in progress than last time. So what do we call that?

Progress?