“After a few shots of baijiu you may feel unwell. After tons more you will stumble into things; until the one who can be said to stumble is no longer you per se. Until, stumbling through this baseless matter, upon which, all things are based; at last one face-plants into the ground of absolute reality, whereupon untold chronicles of mayhem ensue, and that shit. . . is fucking ridiculous. . .”
On My Deeper Understanding
of the Teachings of Mr. Wang,
THE FOREIGNER sat in lotus on the diamond plate flooring of the vestibule. It bounced and swayed with the drag of the slow train barreling into China. Making his train at the very last minute was to doom him to standing room only status that he now had to endure for the 18.5 hour journey from Beijing to Chongqing. Several others in the same predicament as he was also took to occupying this narrow corridor in between coaches, which doubled as a smoking area. Near a dustbin opposite him, under the fire extinguishers was a migrant worker in a denim Mao cap sitting on his gunny sack, while huddled in the corner a young couple, withdrawn inside of big dusty parkas were trying to sleep on each other. The tail end of a queue for the nearby toilet and streams of tobacco users were constantly squeezing into the corridor as well, where the foreigner didn’t actually seem all that out of place, chain-smoking a pack of DOUBLE HAPPINESS. No, he almost seemed to blend right in, especially when he would, on occasion, retrieve from the breast pocket of his jacket, a green traveler of baijiu, discreetly taking a sip out of the 100 ml bottle then, not so discreetly, wincing as he secured the aluminum screw cap. Wheels clacking over the tracks rattled the coach, creating a vibrational lull that seemed like it would put him into a trance. Spools of thought running through the projector of his mind, blanched by the Chinese spirit.
‘不行.’ A uniformed clerk was shaking her head. ‘你在错误的站!’ [‘You’re at the wrong station!’]
Staring at the clerk in utter shock, the foreigner did so, not because he actually understood what this woman was saying. ‘错误的站!’
But he had at least, intuited as much.
In truth he must have appeared quite ludicrous. The guy was disheveled, strongly smelled of fermented sorghum, and his corduroys had an egregious tear down the seat that exposed his long john underwear. A souvenir of sorts, he had picked that up during yesterday’s trek up The Great Wall; as well as the navy blue skullcap pulled over his thick brown hair, emblazoned with the words “长城.” [The Great Wall]
Fifteen seconds at the most transpired, before the crowd behind him began to push. Quickly sidestepping out of their way, he squinted at a sign above the three curved eaves of the station; shielding his eyes from the blaze of the afternoon sun, that, in despite of its incredible brightness, spread no warmth throughout the frigid air. It was almost as if he could still hear the explosive popping of fireworks. The sulfur in his nostrils. Scrambling to duck under aerial pandemonium boldly launched inside the alleyway. They were subsumed in smoke that coruscated with kaleidoscopic flashes, the ecstatic crowd, raucous with free beer from a nearby backpacker hostel, on account of the Chinese New Year. A giant blur of souls and their body parts, salvos of rockets whizzing above their heads, blowing up in the black void of moonless sky. There he was, arm in arm with a homeless man, together doing volatile figure eights in the thick of this batshit display. Unable to remember exactly how he had wound up with this wizened drunk, who for hours had been performing bizarre Tai Chi in front of the hostel bar’s window. Seemingly blitzed on sweet, creamy wine like one of those old Kung Fu masters of the Drunken Fist style.
Now he could see that above the curved eaves, under a façade of characters in stylized red calligraphy, there were three words he could actually comprehend, Beijing Railway Station. It was in that moment he suddenly knew, it wasn’t this station that he needed but Beijing West, a completely different station elsewhere in the city. He noted frantically the clock towers on either side of the building. The black marble faces with white hands read nearly a quarter to one. Or as he maintained in his head, according to Beijing time, a quarter to thirteen. His first instinct on any other day would have been to panic, but here at the tail end of his winter vacation he was riding out such a wave of intoxication—chasing four or five days of hung over mornings, that he was positively jacked to the tits with adrenaline; each sip out of the square green traveler, paradoxically keeping him lucid, firmly at the helm of this evolving storm. Not to mention that with his phone dead, his charger missing and less than 120 yuan, or about 16 dollars American in his pocket, he simply had to make that 13:38 train for which he already possessed the ticket. There was just no other way to get “home.”
Pivoting on his western style boots, he doubled back, moving as fast as the clunky footwear allowed. Each step was hard but squishy as he could feel his socks, his only pair already soaked through with sweat, but also stiff from nightly washing rituals that employed complementary soap in various hotel sinks. He shuffled past the influx of drivers hustling around the curb, whom he knew would try to take him for a ride, figuratively speaking. His intuition dictated that he put as much distance as he could but in the shortest amount of time possible, between him and this busy hub.
East and west bound traffic at a juncture of major expressways began to cease just as he approached the intersection, allowing him to bolt across, almost in a skipping motion, while clutching the straps of his backpack. His eyes hunted through the topographical features of his trajectory, scanning oncoming traffic for a recognizably green and yellow, or yellow and red taxi cab, scores of which poured down the north bound lane, but none of which displayed through their windshields a red LED light, indicating that the car was free. He kept walking forward, when, after about two or three minutes there was a dip in traffic and suddenly he espied, popping up over the horizon with perfect timing like poetry a single, free, unobstructed taxi. It slowed at the sight of him, executing a U-turn once he’d flagged the vehicle down.
Dashing several meters to the passenger side door somehow he knew that he was going to make it, just like he was already resigned to whatever destiny seemed to have brought him to China in the first place. A series of events that were as random as coin flips, but none of which could have been altered in retrospect, even the most insufferable bits, if he wasn’t to end up with an entirely different permutation of fate, in which he never would have met her.
‘巫州老白呢? Ha ha. . .’ The migrant worker was saying to him. ‘好喝吗?’ [‘OLD WUZHOU? Tastes pretty good, huh?’]
As the train rolled over a hill, it produced a jolt within the vestibule. The foreigner almost seemed to float temporarily off the ground, as the migrant worker too, nearly losing his bearings, grasped at the edge of his gunny sack. Meanwhile the couple in the corner were wrenched from their nap. Dropping the hood of her parka, the girl rubbed at her head, where it had just banged forcefully into the wall.
Unsure of how to answer, the foreigner did seem to understand what his comrade wished to express. He simply shook the baijiu. Of which, about one finger remained.
‘Ha ha.’ He echoed with a smile, so as to emphasize that he was fond of it.
OLD WUZHOU was after all, his favorite brand of baijiu. The reason why he was so partial to the stuff, was probably because he lived in Wuzhou. But there was more to it than that, as the substance did have its own particular charm. It was a thoroughly bottom shelf baijiu—costing next to nothing it could often seem—3 or 5 yuan for one of the travelers, and the bottle was also somewhat iconic in its own right; forest green with a Red Star logo. It still made him chuckle to this day, to think that a friend of his often referred to the spirit as “wine,” pronounced like “ween” in his thick accent, because, anyone who has ever tried baijiu knows the term wine is a manifestly ridiculous way to refer to it. Even the term liquor cannot adequately convey the power of this substance in the same way as perhaps, the term moonshine. This was not only because of the frequently 100 to 112 proof strength of baijiu, which is attested in the fact that many people use baijiu in a folk-style way, as a surface cleaner or disinfectant. It was also because of the taste which is difficult to describe but notoriously funky, comparable maybe, to sweetly rotten gasoline. Most would agree that the taste was pretty awful, but it was in the cheaper brands like OLD WUZHOU that said awfulness reached its full potential. Indeed as far as baijius went, you might say that OLD WUZHOU was in a class of the rotgut, Maoist blends. The better, more expensive Chairman Mao stuff like MOUTAI, for example, was more appealing—kind of like the rottenness opened up to reveal more complex notes of flavor. Or that the gasoline had grown mellow with age.
‘护照.’ There was, now coming into focus, a policeman standing over him.
He was sprawled out on one of the three-seat benches with his boots hanging into the aisle. A number of seats had opened up, about six hours into the trip when the train made a stop over in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan.
Unsure of how long he’d been out, he suddenly realized that they were stopped again.
‘护照.’ The policeman repeated, as the foreigner straightened up on the bench.
Making sure that he was sitting in just the one seat, he couldn’t read this situation like he had the others before. He was moderately sober by this point, and indeed quite the opposite was now occurring, because mistakenly he assumed the officer was going to bust him for sitting in the wrong seat.
‘Passport.’ The man finally said, in English.
Some tension dissipated. The foreigner unzipped his backpack, rummaging around inside. Finally, he handed over the hard blue booklet.
The officer inquisitively flipped through the pages; he was actually a fresh faced young man, humbly built and unlike cops that the foreigner was used to dealing with, didn’t seem to be boiling over internally with rage. His plain black uniform had a casual fit, which hung loosely on his frame. While attached to his belt there were very few items, including the notable exclusion of a big, obnoxious pistol.
He handed back the passport.
Shortly afterwards the train was moving again. It seemed the delay was at least partially attributable to him. Or that was what he began to surmise anyway. He could hear passengers in the vicinity referring to a laowai, to him, although as to what they were actually saying he was clueless. He merely recognized that one word, laowai, which meant foreigner.
It was among a limited list of words in Chinese that he understood, producing the distinct effect of making him feel pretty much exactly like the thing this word signified.
They were still passing through Henan, he assumed, looking out through the vibrating window of the carriage. It was pitch dark but somehow felt like the beginning of the day for him, whereas memories of the day seemed to have faded like a dream. Rubbing his hand through the condensation, he noticed that above a distant mountain, fireworks were still being set off. Any sound of this was effectively muted by the drone of the train, which lent each meandering rocket a mimetic silence that resembled for a moment, the stem of a flower, especially once culminating in a quick, neon bloom. Across the distance effecting a glint in his hazel-colored eyes, he tried to close them after a while, attempting several times in succession to lean comfortably against the back of the hard seat but finding this next to impossible. As he was loathe to admit to himself, this was only the beginning. From now on there would be nothing but the reciprocal effects of that inseparable flip side. He was coming down, and no matter how much his brain would cry out for the remedy, for more of what could relieve temporarily these intense sufferings that he would both feel and perceive—the other part of him, which was overjoyed to be done with it, that vile substance if only for now, knew there was no alternative but to wait things out.
Sleep was not going to be happening, and there remained 9 or so more hours until Chongqing. But after that the journey still wouldn’t be over. There he needed to somehow miraculously locate in what was one of the most perplexing cities he had ever experienced in his life, the long-distance bus station; also managing to do so on no more than 30 or 40 yuan, as it was imperative that he be able to drop 78 yuan on a bus ticket, in order to get back “home.”
Home was Wuzhou.
This was in Sichuan, just over the border on the outskirts of Chongqing municipality, about a 2.5 hour ride from the capital center. That was headed in a southwest direction, essentially tracing the route of the Yangtze river. Wuzhou was a river town, and what else could be said about it, other than it was the kind of place which has a long history of being just exactly that. A place with a long history. That was the thing about China; it was absolutely brimming with places like that. Wuzhou, then, was at least marginally famous in the grand scheme of things, for being the so-called “Wine City” of China. This was on account of its high concentration of baijiu distilleries, including several well known trademarks of which, OLD WUZHOU was the prime example.
Wuzhou was also in the romantic sense where he had left his heart, a place where normally no foreigner ever thinks to go—let alone live—if not for a very specific reason; or by the same token, if not purely by chance. Going back to Wuzhou felt on the one hand like a relief after these Beijing misadventures, but on the other still generated feelings of dread, now that his vacation was over. Having expended such energy on making sure he got back for work on time—otherwise, it was practically certain, he would be fined—he almost felt that, ironically now he could use a vacation. All there was to look forward to however, as well as to worryingly anticipate, was but the reintroduction into his daily grind.
His mind now drifted in that direction. Into the classroom. A place where, it was only really a classroom, insofar as it appeared to be one. Where, all was always well; everything attuned to the dictates of the Harmonious Society. Mao Zedong grinning warmly—who, too, began as a school teacher;—his portrait hung like a religious object on the eastern wall, where it radiated with paternalistic authority. Facing towards the south, about nine columns of desks were crammed into eight rows. These were made of corrugating metal with wooden tops, often defaced or rather eaten away, and inhabited by a sprawl of teenagers. Owing to sheer number there was a real, chaotic diversity to their behavior although that effect was offset somewhat, by the collective blue and white of their track suit uniforms. A majority were also wearing winter hats or scarves; on account of the feeble heating which circulated out of the air con unit, choked with dust but positioned so high up in the southwest corner of the room that servicing the machine was essentially perilous, and ensured that it went chronically neglected but for in the rare interventions of a daring maintenance worker.
By now it was nearly time for the third period after lunch, and the foreigner was arriving in Classroom Number 十四 [Fourteen] right at the beginning of their afternoon eye exercises. These were a part of the daily routine, occurring within an extra five minutes tacked onto the standard ten minute interim in between class periods. Prompted by a pleasant melody and childish sounding adult female voice that came on over the loudspeaker, all students were compelled to engage en masse in these coordinated eye rubs and face massages.
Clomping in on his western style boots, the foreigner made his way to the head of the class. He slouched behind a long wooden desk, which was elevated on a platform in front of the blackboard. A group of four on cleaning duty started to mop the floor soon afterwards, knocking out chalk dust from the erasers, among other menial tasks, in a rhythm that also synched with the hypnotic eye melody. While all the while the voice was keeping time.
‘一! 二! 三! 四! 五! 六! 七! 八!’ [‘One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Seven! Eight!’]
Removing a black and white checkered scarf, but keeping on his leather jacket, the foreigner rest his elbows on the desk and tried to relax. These five extra minutes, which would be subtracted from the forthcoming period, were actually something to profoundly cherish—in his line of work, at least—where a whole five minutes of class time, especially when groping around for something to do or say, could often feel like it stretched on uncomfortably for eons.
He cringed for a moment, considering the dearth of material that he would need to subsist upon, during his winging of the next 35 minutes.
‘一! 二! 三! 四!’
Noticing one of the local Grade 9 teachers out of the corner of his eye, she stood in the doorway with her arms crossed in front of her chest, overseeing the exercises. The floor was by this time thoroughly swabbed and yet, whatever progress had been made, also seemed to have been instantly undermined. Paths of dirty wet footprints ran all over the damp concrete floor now smattered as well, with a layer of white chalk dust. But this was of little concern. Any necessity or sufficiency of the scrub down was less important than enforcing the consistency of their routine. A routine which, one got the sense would still have gone off without a hitch, even in the absence of any attendant faculty member.
‘五! 六! 七! 八!’
So at last, he rose to the blackboard to scribble down a few trivial things, with about a minute or two left before show time. These were in some sense critical for what he was trying to do—actually teach these kids something—but then again it was also just a part of his routine, a way he was able to get through each day while maintaining certain appearances.
Finding only nubs in the aluminum tray beneath the board, he struggled to write large enough for all to see, which was basically a fool’s errand anyway. The size of the board was simply disproportionate to the sheer volume of minds in this room; requiring many towards the back, but especially in the very back to squint. It seemed to reflect an understanding that truth should be dictated, irrespective of any independent view. What followed being the unfortunate but thoroughly accepted fact that even learning itself was basically a byproduct of the education system; since everybody knew, memorizing exactly how to get the answers “right,” was all that truly mattered.
‘上课了!’ [‘Class begins!’] The voice concluded.
A few bars of classical music finished chiming out, then immaculate silence reigned for all of about fifteen seconds.
‘Okay. . . Hello, everyone.’ He was clutching a nub of chalk between his fingers like a cigarette, scanning the sea of teenage faces for any sign of recognition.
Largely he was met with blank stares and cynical smiles.
A boy in front, who was not wearing a uniform, and who seemed entitled to act impertinent, jeered back at him. ‘Hello!!’ It spurred a wave of laughter.
‘How’s it going?’ The foreigner carried on.
Several other maladjusted kids joined in this time, all of them screaming back. ‘I’m fine thanks, and you! ?’
He forced a smile. ‘Alright. Very good. . .’
Noise was already building back up from the rear to the middle to the front. Before he’d even finished with these preliminaries, it reached pre-eye exercise levels of clamor. So by the time he’d commenced the “lesson”—or, as it would appear to the overwhelming majority of them, commenced rambling on in his incomprehensible laowai tongue—whatever he was saying was rendered inaudible anyway, under their triumphant racket. But none of this was out of the ordinary. The truth was that for months now it had remained unclear—especially to this foreign teacher—what exactly he was supposed to be doing. Instead, all that he’d managed to pick up along the way was an impression of how to execute, what seemed to pass for “teaching” in this business. That is to say, what was expected of him, and largely all that he was able to provide, was a routine. A kind of rehearsing of imitable behavior, which he knew, as well as they knew, amounted to little more than the fulfillment of a strict requirement. It was the ticking down of a time slot, filled up with placeholding chatter, and they were only theoretically supposed to be listening to it.
It was a situation that, while understood to be less than ideal, nevertheless had to be accepted as the way that it is. But up until now this foreign teacher, for one reason or another, had never accepted it. He stubbornly insisted on taking the job seriously. Basically what this meant was that he followed a curriculum of his own making, and that he lesson planned. The only problem was that doing so was essentially pointless. It did allow one to feel, kind of like a real teacher; but then it produced no tangible results, and since one got paid regardless of how much one “cared,” caring was in this way a Sisyphean undertaking. It was a very steep and mentally exhausting, and then ultimately meaningless uphill battle, and one for which he was steadily hemorrhaging the morale that was needed to go on fighting it.
And so today for the first time in his “career,” he’d decided to skimp on lesson planning.
He called on one of maybe seven students who were actually paying attention. Quickly standing up, she recited an answer, and then sat back down immediately.
‘Ride my bicycle. Ha ha ha. Nice!’
He wrote that on the board; next to about, two dozen other words or phrases that he’d elicited from the class already, under the heading of “VERBS.” For like twenty minutes straight he’d been doing this, boring even himself into a trance like stupor.
‘Alright.’ He said automatically, racking his brain for what might come next. ‘Let’s go on. . . Shall we?’
Turning to the board, there was plenty of time to think during the long two or three minutes it would take for him to clear it; brimming as it was with such words as do, run, jump, play, go, going, go shopping, go on vacation, etc.
Finally done, he was still drawing a blank, but then hurriedly wrote out an error ridden sentence for them to correct. ‘Okay. This sentence contains, oh. . .’ He added in his head. ‘Six errors. . . Who wants to come and correct this sentence? Now—’
Seven hands went up.
‘Now, just one correction per person. Okay?’
He called up an overeager girl. ‘Just one correction per person.’ He reiterated, handing her the chalk.
But then he couldn’t help thinking to himself, that was a good one. Let’s go on. The phrase implied not only having been somewhere, but that there was also a logical place where it was leading!
Still, better to take the easy way. The path less fraught with trying hard for no good reason. Certainly it was less naïve; perhaps it would result in making him into a cynic and essentially a fraud, but then, at least he would not be a fool. . .
Before he could stop her, the precocious student had made quick work of his exercise. Ripping it apart, she corrected every error in a quarter of the time that it’d taken him to write.
‘Oh, ho!’ He responded, belatedly. ‘Very good! Uh, but. . .’
After dropping the chalk, as it were, into his hand; the student had already strut back to her seat.
‘But, just one correction per person. Ha ha ha! Okay?’ He held up a finger. ‘Just one. .’
Putting a hand to the board, his face a mere inch from the cool black slate, suddenly he felt for the first time today, the effects of his hangover starting to catch up with him.
So it was that without warning he experienced a horrific flashback. Some indiscriminate trigger had induced it in his mind. He turned back, facing the class for a second.
Having yet to write another sentence and looking disoriented, he envisioned in the swirl of their clamoring faces, a sign of recurrence. They were for that infinitesimal duration, which also seemed to persist for eons, like a room full of tormentors. That impertinent boy especially, whose proximity to the board gave him the most penetrating gaze into these innermost feelings of desperation.
But the full-blown crisis of that moment soon petrified into a mere underlying panic. Now hands commenced writing on the board, while the body continued shuffling around and mouth again was speaking out words, carrying on with what appeared to be the English lesson. The imperative of saving face compelled him to go on performing as such, in order to suggest that he was still in control. That he was an authority.
‘Who can. . . who can. . .’ He found himself repeating.
He was trying to reboot the sentence correction exercise but struggled in the aftermath of a realization, that he was now stuck, irrevocably somewhere that only a few years ago, he never could have dreamed was possible. In this situation of one in dozens before and in hundreds, maybe even thousands to come after, he was forced to confront what had become, in one way or another, and for what reasons he was all too well aware, the reality of his life.
‘Quiet! Please, everyone—ahem!’ He implored the room, concerned with the noise and lack of attention for the first time all period.
His panic had finally subsided, giving way to a banal residue. As these kinds of events were in general rare, but could also be expected with a degree of regularity, such as on the day after, in particular, a nasty baijiu blackout.
‘Ahem! Then. . . so—what. . . what we are going to do is. . . ahem. . . what we are going to do is. . .’
Whether his crisis of authority had caused, or been affected by a sudden increase in chaos that the classroom now descended into was unclear. But what was very clear, was the formerly sacrosanct veil of appearances had now been thoroughly punctured; leaving not a semblance of anyone even pretending as if they still deferred to the routine. Not even for the sake of ritual.
Backing up against the blackboard, he was flooded with the weight of nihilism, rallying the last of his energy to sketch in a languid hand, a cartoon gallows and stick figure man for them to hang.
There he was.
‘Let’s play a game, then. Okay?’ He projected, weakly. ‘Try to guess the letters of the word?’
He hoped those seven students might be corralled back into participating. But when he was met by utter indifference, even from them it effected the final nail, and he soared off to his happy place. . . thinking of nothing more than a cup of baijiu to wash this all away. . .
But then, Rex walked in the door.
Only inching his head in at first, the class immediately quieted on catching sight of him; the Chinese teaching assistant. He cut through all of the noise and the last remnant of disorder with his stern face. Although in truth, it was only in a rare moment such as this, that Rex commanded any real authority. Otherwise he was a small, rather unimposing man. He paced up and down the aisles, his hands clasped sternly behind his back, like a taskmaster. The echo of his tiny shoes click-clacking on the concrete hung in the air like a ridiculous threat. But now the students were at rapt attention. All eyes suddenly fell on the laowai.
Just like that, a real teacher manifesting before their very eyes—one come to enlighten them with his foreign wisdom—it was in this particular atmosphere, silent except for the sound of Rex’s footsteps, that he was forced to continue on as such.
‘Pick a letter! Any letter!’
‘E? No. . .’
It might be assumed because of Rex’s serious air, that the age appropriateness of such an activity would be an issue, a point of contention for the man. But this would be wrong. His bottom line was the same as anybody else’s, he was making his rounds to confirm the students were obedient. And for as long as Rex circled around them, that they were. Before the 8 bars of Minuet in G major broke out, that indicated the period was over. And Hangman concluded as arbitrarily as it began, all descending right back into chaos.
In his rush to leave, despite how invisible the last 35 minutes had made him seem, a clique of giggling students shouted after him. ‘See you next time. Mr. James!’
The shrill boom of their collective voices bounced off of the high ceiling and echoed around the room, and though he was putting it behind him, no sooner was he reminded of the peak of his crisis. How he had longed to hear those 8 bars of classical music; but how the relief he was experiencing now that he had, was only temporary. Sure enough, he would be right back there next time. Hell, he would be right back there tomorrow. That was inescapable. The existence of that thing was never going away. And yet, he could deal with that; it was being forced to cover up that thing with a disingenuous smile, which seemed to most demoralize him.
The laowai known as James, hurled himself out of the classroom into a dilapidated corridor of Laxi High School. Waiting at the end of the hallway motioning for him to hurry up, there was Rex, a static presence against the throng of uniforms.
‘Just—uh, just—uh. . .’ He was muttering and waving with the one hand, the other pulling on a long black whisker. ‘Just—uh. . . Go! Go! Go!’
Breaking out onto campus, awash in a glow from the setting sun, they bounded across the expansive courtyard, dodging classrooms of students playing badminton, or table tennis or basketball, or exercising in unison, but halted abruptly on top of a hill leading down to the entrance and exit gate. Several awkward minutes then transpired, Rex nervously checking his watch as they waited on the third member of their party. One more laowai.
Finally they spotted the Other James, crossing over the shadow of a flagpole. There was no mistaking him; especially in this crowd, as he shuffled through a cluster of gym teachers.
He was over six foot tall, handsome and slim like a model and very white. His curly blonde hair was almost long and bounced with the rhythm of his stride. Smartly dressed in khakis and a cardigan, he had his head angled downwards with a book under his arm, possibly something by Pynchon.
‘Hey mate. So how was it?’ He trotted up leisurely.
Rex stood there open mouthed, tapping his foot.
‘Yeah. It was.’
‘That’s about all I can say, I guess.’
Rex looked from laowai to laowai. In order to stem this confusion over their names, the Other James, who was from England, went solely by James. Whereas the James who was from America, went by Jim instead.
‘Okay, okay.’ Rex looked as if he might pull the thin whiskers from his chin. ‘Now we can go. Go. Go.’
‘All right, Rex. Let’s go.’ James said. Sporting a sarcastic grin, he then added, utilizing his best American accent. ‘Let’s blow this thing and get out of here.’
They tread cautiously down the hill. A trio of security guards smoking idly, sniggered as they approached. One triggered the barricade, which creaked slowly open.
‘Sorry for stealing Rex for so long by the way.’ James continued in an aside to Jim. ‘But you know, Thursday. Like I said. . . this round I had 22. The naughty class. Isn’t that right, Rex? 22 are the naughty ones?’
Rex laughed. ‘No! No, no. . .’
‘14 has this. . . real pain in the ass kid, up in front. . .’ Jim mentioned.
Minuet in G major was going off again, audible even though they were now almost a block from the school. Jim and James still jerked reflexively to attention on hearing it.
‘上课了!’ [‘Class begins!’] The voice declared.
They needed to cross a main road, where the flow of traffic was a dense free-for-all. Staring at the other side they braced themselves for a moment, and then in a manner that could have been taken for recklessness but which was actually normal, they strolled out into the middle of it.
‘Like a game of FROGGER.’ James shouted, squinting against the sun. It was an oft-repeated quip.
‘Come to think of it.’ Jim went on loudly, among a cacophony of horns and an aggressive stream of vehicles crisscrossing past. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen him wearing a uniform, which is. . . fine. But—’
Having crossed this thoroughfare, breaking left down a sidewalk stained with dubious liquid, they entered a block of the wet market.
James retched at the liquid. ‘Jerry said he heard something. Like if you see a kid up front who’s not wearing a uniform, that means he’s. . . privileged. Daddy’s the superintendent. Or he’s got loads of guanxi or something. . .’
‘Oh. That makes. . . a lot of sense.’
Here rustics from a nearby village peddled cuts of meat dangling from hooks, raw produce spread on dusty blankets, varieties of herbs and spices, and sea food floundering in plastic tubs. The tendency was to pause for gawking. Although Rex impelled his laowai.
‘Just—uh, just—uh. . . Go! Go! Go!’
Nearly to the bus stop, 32 was screeching to a halt as they approached. They practically leapt aboard it. But as every seat was filled, even standing room pushed to capacity they didn’t so much get on bus 32, as get absorbed into a clump of passengers. Then it set off in a jerk, affording no time to grab for the railing. Yet so profoundly was everyone squeezed in, no one could have fallen anyway.
Jim shook his head, near to laughing.
‘Ah, yes. No Laxi trip would be complete without this.’
‘Like a human full body massage.’
Jammed in between two elderly street sweepers, James rubbed his nose and swept his hair out of his eyes, then held his arms up awkwardly. ‘So what do you say. Go for a few beers at THE PETTY?’
‘What do you say, Rex! Drink some beers at THE PETTY?’
Rex put a hand up to his face. He shook it rapidly back and forth. ‘Oh, no. No, no.’
James grasped the overhead railing with both hands. ‘You must have to go back to WILLiAM, then.’
‘Yes.’ Rex answered stoically. ‘I will to WILLiAM. Yes.’
WILLiAM, SCHOOL OF LANGUAGE. It was the institution that employed them. Founded in 2008 by a 47 year old coal magnate called Xu Jin, originally Boss Xu as he was known, had conceived of the enterprise as being of use as a shell company. But then his mistress had convinced him that it could be profitable in its own right. They set out to corner the market in remoter parts of Sichuan, before established franchises like WALL STREET ENGLISH, METEN ENGLISH or ENGLISH FIRST could push in from Chongqing, Chengdu or Kunming. Later they saw there was even more profit to be made off of “trafficking” in the human resources which they were now licensed to import, because laowai are a rare commodity in places like Wuzhou. One way was in loaning them out to unlicensed schools such as Laxi High School, the place they were returning from currently, on the outskirts of the city.
‘Come on, Rex. Don’t you want to drink a couple of pijius with us?’ James went on. He must have looked like an orangutan, in comparison to the others, due to the span of his arms. ‘Talk to a couple of lameis.’ He added, winking. ‘Maybe even some shuaiges!’
Rex turned red. ‘Oh, no. No. Ha—ha—ha!’
‘Must be forbidden.’
‘It is forbidden!’
They often joked about this too, that Rex’s wife kept him on a short leash. But to know Rex was also to understand, more than he could admit, that his marriage to a woman nearly twice his age, was obviously a marriage of convenience. It covered up the fact that he was different, but also saved the woman from potential spinsterhood, who would have been otherwise branded a 剩女. [(Sheng nü) “Leftover woman”]
‘So the other day, Lulu, she says to me. James, don’t teach the students too much knowledge. For fuck’s sake can you believe that?’ It had been about a half an hour. ‘Don’t teach the students too much knowledge?’
They were sitting now. The brunt of the rush hour crowd had thinned out.
‘You were actually trying to teach them something?’ Jim asked, rhetorically.
‘I printed out. . . Yeah. Probably six hundred hand outs from the copy machine. This was before Laxi. You know, admittedly to see the resulting hysteria. But also I never know what the fuck I should be teaching them out there! Lulu. As she’s you know, scrambling around frantically. Trying to pick up all these papers that are pilling up. The copy machine starts malfunctioning. So she goes, James. You don’t have to teach them too much knowledge!’
‘I just. . . needed something to fill up the goddamn time!’
A few hours later. This conversation carried over to THE PETTY BOURGEOISIE’S LIFE bar.
‘Lulu, man. She will not stop asking me to teach these random classes. I swear, like five minutes before they’re supposed to begin! So I go, well then, how am I supposed to prepare?’
‘I stopped trying to—’ James cleared his throat. ‘Prepare—’ He applied air quotes. ‘A long time ago, mate. Makes the whole thing at least half way tolerable.’ He took a shot of beer. ‘Because then at least, you’re being open about it all, being so—’
‘I woulda been over my hours though too, is the thing. And Lulu, she’s in charge of the schedule, so—’
‘She’s in charge of giving us the schedule. But of course, Ms. Xu dictates it to her. . .’
THE PETTY as they called it, was a place which seemed to defy categorization. It had no overarching theme besides that there was no theme. Or every theme. It was a basement bar and had long wooden tables, kind of like a mead hall. But these vibes overwhelmingly clashed with vaguely art deco looking nautical adornments, that also coexisted with a whole bunch of Justin Bieber stuff. Probably the most consistent motif was Beijing Opera masks. Marxist-Leninist icons were a close second; as of course, no hip establishment is ever complete without a spray painted graphic of Che Guevara.
‘Regardless. This is spelled out in the contract. They can’t just make us teach for more than 25 hours per week!’
‘Our contracts must be different. They’ve got me for 30 hours, unfortunately. Can I get a ciggy?’
‘Sure, but 25 hours, 30 hours. Either way, there’s a cap.’
The theme of THE PETTY BOURGEOISIE’S LIFE bar was exemplified by the bar itself, because if you were expecting to order a drink from it like normal, well then good luck asshole! Despite the presence of a bartender and shelves stocked with imported liquor, not to mention an official looking menu with a host of options, it was only after trying to order any one of them, a White Russian, a Whisky Sour, a Gin and Tonic, did everything become fully apparent. They only sold beer. And just one brand of beer, at that. Some pissy lager called GREAT WALL. It could then be logically inferred that the bottles on the shelves were like taxidermic animals. Likely filled with tea or water.
‘Depends on how they care to define it.’
‘What’s there to define? Seems clear enough to me. One teaching hour equals one class period.’
‘Okay, but there’s something you’re not taking into account. See, I’ve brought this up with them before mate. They’re real dodgy about it. . . ’
The area they preferred had a glow in the dark mural spray painted in rad 90s colors, which was only a few tables down from a statue of Confucius.
‘Can I get another ciggy?’
‘Sure.’ Jim slid his pack across the table.
‘Fuyuan!’ James summoned one of THE PETTY’s many bored waiters. He appeared from behind the statue. ‘Zai lai liang ping pijiu.’
James looked dumbfounded. ‘Yes! Of course, beer.’
‘好的!’ [‘Okay!’] The bow tie wearing waiter said, then vaulted off.
Mumbling with the cigarette in his mouth, James went to light it. ‘You know how a Laxi day takes up. I don’t know, a good five to six hours? When you factor in the commute?’ He blew out the smoke, but then was suddenly gripped by a violent cough. ‘So then we do. . . two—p-periods. . . out there.’
‘We do two periods out there. At 40 minutes a piece.’
‘Pre—’ He was going red in the face, hacking deeply from his lungs. ‘Pre. . . cisely. Which makes for a grand total of. . . 1 hour and 20 minutes of teaching hours, mate.’
The waiter had returned. He placed two large bottles of GREAT WALL on the table. Taking an opener from his belt, he snapped off the caps. They fell with a clink onto the ground; then he bowed and ran away.
‘They don’t factor in the commute, is what you’re saying.’
Having recovered, James’s face was still splotchy and red. ‘What I’m saying it that, after today, 1 hour and 20 minutes has been subtracted from the number 25.’
‘Well, it should be 2, 2 subtracted from 25.’
‘But it’s not, mate.’
‘That can’t be right.’
‘Well.’ James reached for the beer. ‘And it gets even worse.’ He refilled Jim’s cup. ‘At the end of the week, the remainder gets carried over. Because after all, what is 25 hours per week, really?’ After refilling his own, he downed it in one gulp. ‘Just another way of saying 100 hours per month. Uh. . . 1300 hours a year! You get what I’m saying?’
‘No. That can’t be right. That would be just, blatantly. . . ’
‘I’m not defending it. But this is the way I’ve seen them handle it before. I’ve been saying this for a while now.’ Jim couldn’t hear over the din of karaoke, but James was beginning to experience a rumbling in his bowels. ‘What we need to do is. . . start pushing back. . . in terms of scheduling.’ He sat up straight, wiping his brow. ‘We’ve got no say in it, Ms. Xu controls every facet. I mean, sure. They ask us if we’re all right with it. But is that any more than the semblance of a choice? I mean. . . Oh, god. . .’
It looked like James was frowning and grinning at the same time. ‘This spicy food, I’m telling you, mate. Do Sichuanese people just have to go for a shit all the time?’
Jim grinned. ‘Heh, heh.’ He downed his drink.
‘Seriously?’ Squinting from his own cigarette smoke, James stood up quickly, snubbing it out. ‘Anyway, excuse me. I gotta go for a shit. . .’
As he hobbled off in the direction of the toilets, the music began to swell. It was the instrumental break of an 80s pop ballad; one that Jim had never heard, and yet had, a million times before. He poured his cup full of beer again. In spite of the irreversible chain of causality that had led to this moment, or perhaps because of it he felt perfectly content, with his hand cupping the chilly glass.
It made him feel like the shlubby antihero of a no-budget movie.
‘再来两瓶啤酒.’ [‘Two more beers.’] He asserted with confidence. A spiky haired kid with a cigarette in his mouth, slouched over an empty chair, perked his head up.
Still focused on the distant karaoke stage, he flashed a thumbs up sign Jim’s way. ‘好的!’ [‘Okay!’]
The empty bottles on their table were beginning to pile up. While they would be cleared eventually, for now they almost stood as if a monument to their reprobate achievements. After all this was an environment where binge drinking nearly attained to the level of a sport. Not to mention that they had also adapted to Wuzhou primarily through this behavior.
The kid ran over, racking up six empty bottles after placing two fresh ones down in front of Jim. He left the opener, noticing one bottle was still halfway full. Jim topped off his cup.
James returned from the toilets, still shaking water off his hands.
‘干杯.’ [‘Bottoms up!’] Jim announced, raising his cup.
James scowled ever slightly. ‘Fine.’ Snatching the bottle, he dumped in a foamy portion, not quite filling his. ‘Gan bei.’ He echoed, squinting with affectionate disdain.
They chugged their drinks.
As Jim went to light a cigarette, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He noticed the spark of recognition in James’s eyes and assumed it must be Theodore.
‘You guys made it.’ James stood up to welcome Theodore Thomlinson and Jerry Carr to the table.
Jerry was brimming with sober energy. ‘Freakin’ Chinese people, man! I swear they drive like freakin’ maniacs!’
‘Excuse me, gentleman.’ Jim rose in sedate fashion, cigarette in his mouth. ‘I gotta go drain my lizard.’
‘You don’t mind if I grab one of your smokes, do ya bud?’ Theodore asked Jim, shuffling up to the table.
‘Go fer it.’
An older lady had taken the stage. On the screen behind her flashed a low-fi music video featuring a beautiful girl dressed in bright regalia. ‘跑马溜溜的山上. . .’ [‘High upon the mountain side. . .’] She began to screech.
‘Oh god, what are they playing. . ?’ Jerry protested.
Jerry hailed from a wealthy suburb of Chicago, Illinois, and was a graduate of media studies fresh out of college.
‘Fuck if I know.’ Theodore mumbled as he lit his cigarette. He was a few years older than Jerry and also from North America, but had grown up in a township near Toronto.
He was the taller, glummer of the two. They were roommates, but moreover codependents in a way. Clinging to their ingrained customs such that they were almost always seen together, they were often referred to collectively, as Thom and Jerry.
Jerry clapped his hands. ‘Okay!’ About to make the announcement they had all been waiting for. ‘Guess who’s going to Laxi tomorrow?’
‘Let’s see.’ James calculated with assurance. ‘I went twice last week and once today. So I guess. . . you.’
‘Oh yeah.’ Jerry’s eyes got wide. ‘But guess who else?’
James shrugged, maintaining his demeanor. ‘And then, Jim I’m assuming.’
‘What about Jim?’ Jim said on his way back to the table.
‘Are you off tomorrow?’ Jerry asked him.
‘I didn’t think I was.’
Jerry turned back to James, grinning. ‘Guess again.’
‘No, no, no.’ James was on the verge of cracking up, but out of frustration. ‘It defies all logic!’
‘I don’t know what to tell you.’ Jerry was standing and scrolling through his cellphone, despite that the others were stooped over their beers. ‘But that’s what Lulu told me to tell you. That Ms. Xu told her, that tomorrow you are indeed, still going to Laxi.’
‘Fuck this.’ James was on his cell immediately, phoning up Rex.
Jim poured a cup full of beer. ‘Who’s handling Zizong?’ He inquired.
‘I am.’ Theodore said. ‘Again.’ He took a long drink, straight from the bottle.
‘I’m sorry to hear that, dude.’
The lady’s folk song had concluded. A waiter ran over to supply their table with more beers.
‘That woman. She drives me fucking crazy. I swear if she died like randomly, I would feel nothing. Nothing.’
‘Mate. You don’t even know what I would do to that woman.’ James said, his hand over the receiver.
‘Oh, we know!’ Jerry tittered. ‘We know!’
‘No you don’t mate.’
‘First off, Rex—’ James slammed his flip phone shut, then pointed the cheap model at Jerry. ‘Doesn’t have a fucking clue about any of this.’
‘Text Lulu. She’ll tell you.’
‘But then, tell us what you would do to Ms. Xu again.’
James grit his teeth, finishing up with the text. He shook his head, then took a deep breath. ‘Look. You know what I would do. . .’
‘What would you do?’
‘I would bang the shit out of her! You know that.’
‘Oh!’ Jerry adjusted the collar of his polo. ‘Ho ho ho, ha ha ha!’
‘Nice.’ Theodore rubbed the cleft of his chin.
‘Would you guys. . . bang Ms. Xu?’ Jerry was sitting now. Hunched over, as he tilted his head, his straight black hair fell out of his eyes. ‘Jim I mean, would you?’
“Jim” however was no longer listening. The metamorphosis had begun.
This was a threshold he passed through whenever imbibing strictly for the purposes of getting drunk, a crossing over into the unchartable realm of his subconscious that was impossible for him to experience directly as it occurred. But for those observing him, the contrast was like night and day.
‘Why would you ask me that.’ His face was tightened up into a ponderous scowl.
Jerry wrung his hands, continuing on with his next thought. ‘Laxi. Zizong. NUMBER ONE MIDDLE SCHOOL. I really don’t care anymore. I have fifty—what is it now?’ Jerry counted on his fingers. ‘Fifty. . . four more days, then I am outta here, baby! Woo!’ He pumped a fist. ‘U.S.A! U.S.A!’
‘Wanna know the first thing I’m gonna do back in Canada? Know what it is, eh?’ Theodore nudged Jim on the shoulder.
‘I am going straight to space. That’s what. I am gonna roll the biggest, fattest blunt you’ve ever seen and then I am going straight to space.’
He looked deadly serious about this.
‘We should feel sorry for Jim, here.’ Jerry saw Jim’s eyes go glossy like those of a shark, sort of deadened but instinctually aware. ‘He’s gonna be the one who has to go down with this ship.’
‘No, no.’ Theodore too now recognized the change. ‘Jimbo here’s gonna ride off into the sunset on a camel. A bottle of baijiu in his boot!’
‘Y’all are some real jokers.’
‘No joke, buddy!’ Jerry seemed vindictive. ‘Just you wait. Just you wait until the summer!’ He chuckled tensely. ‘How many hours did they have us working. Huh, Ted?’
Theodore closed his eyes.
‘Something like. . .’
‘60.’ Opening his eyes, Theodore stared into the fizzling beer. ‘Or was it 80.’
‘We haven’t seen one precious Mao of that overtime pay. Have we, Ted?’
Jim glared through one eye, at no one in particular. ‘Well. What’s it say in you contract? Huh? huh?’
The table stared apprehensively at him.
‘Huh? ‘Cause all I know’s I got twenty-four—’ He was seized by a hiccup. ‘Twenty-five fucking hours in my contract.’
‘And he’s sticking to that.’ James cracked a sunflower seed with his teeth, adding to a pile of shells that was accumulating.
‘And I’m sticking to that! But no, no but seriously.’ Jim’s voice became quieter. ‘Believe you me, fuckers. Believe you me, I’ll. . . I’ll fight ‘em.’
James became amused. ‘Fight. . . who?’
‘Who? Jim bellowed.
‘Who?’ He flailed his arms. ‘The fucking Commie sons of bitches? WILLiAM, James! WILL-ee-UM!’
‘WILLiAM. Yes.’ James grinned. He raised his cup. ‘You’re going to fight. . . WILLiAM. Cheers.’
Jim shot up in his seat. He was hovering over the table with ambiguous balance. A score of empty bottles rattled from the force of his rising.
They watched with lurid fascination as someone else tossed several 100 yuan notes on the table dismissively.
One fell just so, that it balanced like a steeple on top of a bottleneck.
Finally that someone else who was not Jim, but who wasn’t not Jim either, up and left the bar.
‘I’ll fight ‘em. I’ll fight ‘em. I’ll. . .’
He was stumbling down the sidewalk. The long stretch of Zhongshan Street was pitch dark, but for a swirl of traffic lights. ‘么事是啥子?’ He was mumbling to himself. ‘啥子是么事!’ [‘What is what? What is what!’] Swerving back and forth with a constantly shifting center of gravity, the air ferried him along as he crawled through a sea of emptiness.
All living creatures have this instinct wired into their brains. So where was he off to then? Nowhere that could be considered a place in the tangible sense. It was more like a feeling.
And then he awoke before dawn, on a couch still wearing the same clothes.
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