Hobbit’s Dreams

I had the weirdest dream last night. I didn’t remember it right away either. I remembered it when I looked into the mirror and saw my ugly ass haircut.

The “boys” at the hair salon—they’re like these seriously AGGRO gay Chinese hairstylists, being gay is not the salient point (they just happen be gay or acting as if they were flaming, maybe it’s a pose, I don’t know) BUT they are belligerent—always gave me a whacked up haircut. Every time I go in for a trim or a clean up as you say in Chinese, they look offended and I walk out with Gumby-Head.

Gumby makes his first appearance.

Gumby makes his first appearance.

A good haircut makes a man sexy! To wit...

A good haircut makes a man sexy! To wit…

It is a total WTF. I’m ugly enough. I don’t need help. Anyway, I’m looking into the mirror, wondering why my head slopes to the left and suddenly the dream I had in the middle of the night returned to me full force and slapped me in the face. You know those mid-sleep dreams come from the depths of Morpheus’ dreamland, so they are weird. Your unconscious rubs elbows down there with ancient archetypes and even occasionally meets other dream-walkers. Those dreams from the Deep often freak me out. I never get bothered by those “I just feel asleep and I’m twitching” dreams nor about the “I’m about to wake up and have to pee anxiety” dreams. If those are weird they are usually affected by your internal clock and/or external stimuli like birds chirping or an alarm clock, what have you.

morpheus-iris-01

God of Dreams

Dream sandman

Do yourself a favor and read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Morpheus Pinterest

This image is too cool not to post. From Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/poophakoitawan/04-morpheus-the-dreams-iris-rainbow/

No, the dreams you have to watch out for are the ones that wake you the fuck up in the middle of a deep deep sleep. That means AY your dream self met a core truth that scared the holy bejesus out of you or BEE your dream self met one of the Elder Gods and it wanted to infect you with madness or malevolence. I think mine was the former, but who really knows?

Oh, by the way I will “narrate” this dream as I was taught to do in my Jungian dream workshop that I took way, way back in college. You are supposed to slip back into the dream and relate it exactly as you can with no embellishment, as if you were seeing it for the first time and dictating it into a Dictaphone or whatever.

I am in my parents home in Katy. My ma and pa are there. My brother is to the left of me. My father to the right. My mother is center. They are okay but their smiles are also slightly anxious. It’s bright in the kitchen. I am trying to pretend that nothing is wrong. I am making a joke. It’s a joke but my father doesn’t like the joke. He turns away in disgust. I see his face melt into disapproval. I try to call him back but he won’t listen. My brother moves to comfort me. My mother now looks disapproving. My brother is trying to salvage the situation because we are supposed to eat together and have a nice family dinner. Suddenly I look at my father and he has no head. His head vanishes. No blood or gross looking things sticking out of his neck. Just gone. I am freaked out by this. He keeps walking away from me without a head. My brother asks what’s wrong. All the sound is like I am underwater and I can barely hear what anyone is saying to me. I look at him. He looks at me looking at Pa. He says nothing. I point and I try to say what’s wrong. I blink. His head comes back. But his head was gone. Now it’s back. I look at my brother and part of his face and chest disappear. I jump back. The part of his face that remains looks at me puzzled. My Ma is concerned. It’s me. I am seeing things. I am losing it. Then part of my Ma’s torso disappears. Like someone removed a giant Lego-block from her chest cavity. I am freaked out but I am more freaked out because I realize that there is something really wrong with me. My mind is snapping. I try to stay calm. We will have dinner together. We walk to the dinner table. My Pa is there sharpening the knife. The front half of his head is gone now. Sliced away and nothing is there but a brown skin-colored smooth surface like clay. My brother is half there half gone and so is Ma. But then their body parts return. Then disappear. It’s my vision. I’m okay. It’s just my eyes are bad. That’s all. We sit to have dinner. My brother asks me if I want wine. I think no, but say yes. I look down at the beautiful table setting. It’s so pretty. My Ma put out all of the best plates and cutlery. I look at the turkey, but it’s not a turkey. It’s Hobbit lying on the table even smaller than normal. The size of a huge fat turkey. Pa is not happy with me but he is going to make it through dinner because that’s what he always does. He is standing and passes the carving knife and fork to me. I know it’s not Hobbit, it can’t be Hobbit, but it looks like Hobbit. She seems okay with it. She says nothing but looks at me with that smile that she gives when says “This is my trademark smile! I’m so cute!” and she snaps her tiny little fingers and strikes a pose. I feel so anxious I can barely breathe. Hobbit just smiles and looks right at me. Pa is angry because he thinks I will make a scene again. I always make a scene. That’s how he looks. Ma just looks at me and says something that I don’t hear but I know it means, “Go on, go on.” I feel tears running down my face but I hope I am not crying or at least I am not making sobbing noises. I carve Hobbit up. It’s like carving Thanksgiving turkey and she doesn’t seem to mind at all. She just looks at me smiling, “I’m so cute!” I think I hear her snap her fingers but that’s not possible because I’ve already carved her wings off. Every one eats but I can’t. I have to. I feel Pa looking at me. He’s so angry it’s like heat from a furnace. I don’t mean to cry but I do. Tears are running down my face. Everything is cotton and fog and drowned. I hear but don’t hear Pa slamming his fist on the table. Ma is shaking her head, “I did it again. Ruined another family dinner.” My brother is busy wolfing down his meal. Pa’s head is shaking so violently. Then it’s time. Everyone pushes back from the table. Lulu is barking. She runs around my feet. Even she is angry with me. We walk into the posh posh living room. The football game is on; it’s so loud. I hate football. There’s a noose hanging from the ceiling. I don’t know how. It’s time. The noose lowers until it reaches the carpet and I step into it. I am hoisted into the air by my feet. I am hanging upside down. Lulu is still barking so angrily at me. I don’t know why. What have I done? It’s me. It’s all my fault. I have to hide my mind. I hang from my feet. Ma Pa and my brother all have something in their hands. Maybe roughhewn planks or maybe tree branches. The room gets brighter and I can no longer see the furniture only my family raising their arms. I get more anxious. I wake.Hangman-noose-with-a-dramatic-background-462147693-Credit-fergregory-iStock-630x419

I woke up and shut my laptop. I woke up feeling freaked, but I realized the sun was coming up (three thirty in the goddamned morning) so I pulled my sleeping mask over my eyes and went back to sleep. That dream was a real keeper though.

I try not to dream any more. I have kept a dream journal for many years and I have decided that what I learned a long time ago at the temple where I studied Buddhism was true. Well true enough.

Dreams are all bullshit. There’s no point in paying attention to dreams. All that matters in life is your waking reality, the reality you deal with when awake. Most dreams are exactly what Ebenezer Scrooge said they were: an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There is nothing of import from the other world and if there is, it’s best to leave it alone. We are not equipped to deal with archetypal beings. If there is an afterlife, that’s when we’ll deal with it. Now, in this waking life, you have to be aware of each moment as aware as possible of your actions.

I have forgotten that lesson and I need to get back to it. I realize I have slipped far down into a hole and forgotten what I need to survive. Dreams don’t matter if you don’t change your everyday reality.

Hobbit has crazy dreams too. In fact, her dreams give my dreams a run for their money. I don’t tell her about my dreams. A lot of my dreams are way too sexual and she would not be able to handle it. And she’s not the object of my prurient dream affections, which fact would make her little hobbit-sized head explode. Plus some of my dreams are just weird violent so I don’t tell her (I don’t tell anyone) and anyway I quit keeping a dream journal. I just ignore them and forget them as soon as possible. Usually.

Hobbit, however, likes to roll over and tell me her dreams right after she has them, any time of the night. I don’t mind as her dreams are quite interesting and I love to play Carl Jung and interpret them for her.

What freaks me out about her dreams is how often she dreams of having a daughter, sometimes twin daughters! Both of us are too old to have children. Well, technically I’m not, but she is past that “safe age,” although maybe there’s the possibility of in vitro or surrogate, but that’s for rich people. Poor people like us have to have kids the old-fashioned way, blood sweat and tears. Still, it really freaks me out how sweet and lovely her dreams are when she dreams of her dreamland daughter. My reality or rather our reality can’t compete with wish fulfillment. She swears it’s so real. I tell her that her daughter in her dreams is really herself, but Hobbit won’t listen to me and instead says it’s one of her deepest dreams, to have a daughter. Her real son is such a fulltime pain in the arse (and inevitably conjures up memories of her previous marriage to her wife-beating bastard of a husband) that Hobbit wishes she had just had a daughter, a little her, a little princess to love and care for in just the way she wished she could have been cared or could be cared for. I know this and tell her that I am sorry I am such a poor excuse of a husband. But, hey, at least I’m honest.

Hobbit recently had this dream and I wanted to share it but things always got in the way. Things are always getting in the way.

This was back in April, the fourth I think, or maybe the third, anyway she woke me up at four-thirty in the morning to tell me this one.

“All right Hobbit, tell us about your dream. We’re all fucking curious to hear about it.”

Hobbit said: So in my dream I had this old American teacher. (Slight laughter.) Umm. The director of the English Major office asked me for this favor. She asked me to take in this American teacher for one night or for some time because he couldn’t find any place to stay. So uh umm. And she knew that in our house I had extra room, an extra room, so uh I asked this guy to come into my house and I gave him my bed to, to let him, let him rest, rest. But he it was strange that he forgot to close the curtain before he went to bed. It was strange; it was weird to me because my American husband always makes a point of closing the curtain to protect his privacy. So I helped him close the curtain before he laid down and uh after he laid down I uh, I uh snoopied at his stuff that he put on the shelf. And the uh shelf is at the place where we put our wardrobe in real life, right? So I, I saw some photos. I saw some photos. And one of the photos is uh is him in a desert like place dressed in car-mou-flage. And on the back of this photo he wrote some English words, which I cannot recall very clearly now. Uhhhh, he wrote something like he “I am a MISFIT” and uh “I am” uh “I’m serving special service in the Army” you know that kind of special service that people can people are supposed to do the most dangerous things in the battle. And they are very good at shooting people. Uh I and this photo shocked me cuz I thought ‘Oh wow this American teacher once served in the army?’ You know. And uh and I found another photo, which was his wedding photo, wedding picture. In, in the picture he is putting on the wedding ring on his bride’s ringfinger and uh I and just as I wanted to read the words on this on the back of this picture anyhow this picture disappeared! Either because he woke up or because of some weird things you know that always happen in the dream. Anyway I didn’t got the chance I didn’t get a chance to read the words on this picture. And then this is basic, basic, the basic that I can remember now. And in my vague memory I remembered we walked in the dining room? Or in the classroom? That’s it. Nothing special happened later, later, afterwards. (Snaps fingers.) I’m done.

My Hobbit is a real hoot I’ll tell ya. When she wakes me just to relate these things. I record her dreams for posterity because, hey, you never know. These things might just come in hand sometime. But anyway when she shares her dreams with me, no matter how painful to me they are, I feel closer to her. Sharing dreams is special I think. It’s sacred. It’s fun too and we always laugh about them. But sharing dreams is like sharing real life dreams. Maybe not better, but for a brief, brief moment, it is better.

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Turd War in the Green

Zen relied more and more on entering the Green in order to find peace and balance. His home life left him so desperate and lonely that he needed the quiet meditation and tranquil solitude of nature. He relaxed in the Green and used it to clear his thoughts.

The forest was in full bloom and everywhere animals and insects he never thought existed in the city popped out to say hello. There were many small brown sparrows—some that looked as if someone had been plucking out their feathers; plump red and brown horned squirrels with bright eyes and huge teeth; red-tipped, white tipped, and blue-tipped, magpies that sang marvelously in the canopy above; shiny black and green beetles skittering through the air; frightening finger-long centipedes; huge purple-winged flies; ubiquitous mosquitoes and gnats (especially after it rained); small spiders launching themselves into the air trailing their silken threads and large spiders building catcher’s mitt-sized traps between the pale branches of the Korean willow trees. And humans. Young and old. Here, there, and everywhere.

With the warmer weather the forest became populated at all hours of the day and night. In the summer, the sun came out promptly at three-thirty AM and by four the tai ji players were out in the clearings of the forest, moving their hands like fog across a lake surface, some practicing with their flexible tai ji swords, others not; the tree huggers were out soaking up the green energy shooting upwards and outwards from the earth, into the reticulated net of roots, rising through the wet trunks, and into their shriveled fingers; middle-aged women shrouded from head to foot in order to protect their delicate skin from the strong rays of the sun were power walking along the trails, some singing classic army songs from their youth; musicians were trilling on flutes or horns; lovers who had been up all night were ensconced on diverse benches and lost in each other’s eyes and lips; and Zen. The only foreigner in this forest, a forest alive with small forest creatures and large hairless apes.

Zen didn’t mind. He walked quickly between the trees, picking his path carefully to avoid the people. He didn’t like them staring at him while he practiced archery. He didn’t mind either, but he didn’t particularly care for it. Chinese people had no qualms interrupting someone while he or she was practicing whatever art or exercise of choice. Westerners would respect a person’s privacy, even in a public space. In China, that concept was greatly diminished. In the West, Zen only ever worried about the police harassing him when he practiced martial arts outdoors. Here martial arts were commonplace and people were not afraid of anyone swinging a sword or a staff or a pair of nunchakus. Nor apparently shooting arrows.

Zen was worried that his archery practice would be considered reckless. In the late winter when they was much less people about, he felt nigh invisible. A ghost slipping between the slumbering forest sentinels to send darts through the cold air into a handmade target. He carried the bow and arrows concealed in a cheap green sack, the target wrapped in an old black plastic garbage bag. He hoped anyone who might see him would think he was just crossing the forest after doing some shopping. He was not fooling anyone however. The shape of the bow under the green sack was too obvious. Once when he took Hobbit into the Green with him, they were questioned by the old guard at the gate. Zen ignored the old man’s question but Hobbit turned very brightly to him and said, “We’re practicing archery!”

Zen chided her for revealing “his business.” “This is my business. I don’t like people to know my business!”

“Sorry. I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me not to say anything.”

“It’s probably not legal to do this here.”

“I doubt it matters.”

And it didn’t matter. Subsequently, after he passed the guard watching dramas on his iPad device, the old man would see him and raise his arms, pulling back on an imaginary bow, and smile. Zen forced a smile. And after many weeks, the smile was no longer forced. Each time Zen arrived the old man was happy to see him and smiled broadly. Zen began to look forward to seeing the old guard. He no longer felt like an outsider. He felt as if he belonged to the forest and the forest to him. The forest had accepted him. Now that there were more people, Zen took extra care that no one was coming down the path where he practiced. He was not shooting far in any event, only thirty yards or so and he selected a path that was not much in use. It sloped slightly downhill and where he stood the toddler-sized target made of old clothes and cardboard against a good-sized oak, there was a gully that rose slightly on the other side. It was perfect and seemed made to order. If he ever missed the target (which was rare), his cheap arrows fell harmlessly into the muddy bank of the gully. It was less than twenty minutes for Zen to find blissful peace.

Zen was in love.

Even back in America he had never had such a perfect place to shoot his bow. In America you had to live out in the country if you wanted to set up an archery target and shoot off some arrows. He had tried to do that in West Houston once and the police were quickly on the scene, the contemptuous neighbors peeking through the window curtains. Zen couldn’t always make it to the archery range or drive out to the countryside where no one would care. For one thing, he rode a motorcycle. He couldn’t tote his bow and had to rely on family or friends to give him a lift. Then, traveling by city bus was always an ordeal in Texas. The truth was he just could not bring himself to carry his bow case on public transport. It just seemed wrong.

Here in Harbin, on the other hand, he could walk out the apartment door and escape the city in minutes. In minutes.

Zen was in love.

True, this was his first summer shooting in the forest and he had to be wary of granddads and their screeching grandkids, but they never walked down his path, narrow dark and wet and away from the main trails. Occasionally an old man or old woman would cross between the trees, searching for wild herbs, but Zen could hear them stumbling through the brambles from a long way off. Zen was sure he would never accidentally hurt anyone with his arrows and he didn’t.

Zen was content. This had worked out much better than he had ever expected. He crossed an ocean to find the type of meditative practice that fulfilled him. He breathed in the wet oxygen-rich air and felt the forest breathe joyously with him. He swore he could hear the trees soughing in ecstasy with him.

A gentle smile on his face, Zen entered the green, crossed the broad stone path that crisscrossed and circled the forest, and slipped down the narrow path that led to his clearing, his clearing, the clearing he had so judiciously selected to remain away from prying eyes and screaming children and moon-eyed lovers and jogging geezers.

He was almost to the clearing when he saw a strange sight, a phantasmagorical vision. It was a perfect heart-shaped ass, so white it literally glowed, the symmetrical cheeks like large luminous eyes, just above the ground, near the oak tree where he placed his target. Zen’s pace slowed. What the hell? Zen did not register what he was seeing at first. He thought it was an animal, a forest sprite. Then the beautiful buttocks trembled ever so slightly and squeezed out a dollop of excrement.

“Oh hell no! Stop! Stop!” Zen ran at the floating ghostly magnificent buttocks yelling at the top of his voice. “You can’t do that here! Stop!”

Zen was so engrossed to stem the desecration of his sacred space that he didn’t see the young man rushing up to detain him.

“Please wait a moment!”

Zen tried to circle the young man, but the young man fended him off, imploring him to wait. A young female voice yelled out, “Don’t look! Don’t look!”

Zen was livid. He didn’t look. He turned away but berated the young couple over his shoulder.

“There’s a bathroom at the front gate. If you need to go to the bathroom, just go there. This path is for people to walk on.”

The young man begged his forgiveness and explained that his friend was “urgent” and felt “much pain” and just “couldn’t wait.”

“God damn it,” Zen said in English. The young lass wiped herself clean and dropped the used tissues on the ground.

The couple vanished down the other end of the path and Zen was left alone in his precious forest with a fresh steaming steamer, the slightly redolent odor of female excreta rising in the green-tinted air.

“Fucksticks,” was all he could manage. “Just fucksticks.”

There was nothing else to be done. Zen laid down the target and bow, making sure there weren’t any other surprises underfoot, and got to work. He fashioned a digging stick and dug a hole, a good ways away from his practice area. Then he found some thick broad banana-leaf kind of weeds and used it to transport the offensive matter away from his precious area. Finally, he swept the forest floor with a dead branch. Good. He was satisfied. No harm no foul. Time for peace. Thank God she was a woman!

The next time he almost stepped in it. And it was a sizeable steamer from someone who had obviously had had a lot of corn in his recent meal. Zen wanted to vomit. He had to peel off a huge section of bark from a dead log in order to scrape “it” away. Zen took extra pains to be careful. He did not want to track human “mud” back home. Hobbit would kill him.

Was this the end of his archery? Zen had tried other spaces in which to practice and this small clearing in the middle of the forest along a narrow path closeted in by the thick foliage was just so perfect. Away from prying eyes. Private. Too private obviously.

In the warm sunny days that followed, Zen was forced to perform clean up duty each time he went to his precious spot. Only when it rained was he given respite from this odious task. He had had enough and complained to the old guard, but the old man only blinked at him uncomprehendingly and raised his arms, shooting imaginary arrows.

Zen then made up signs, very tastefully and artfully done and in perfect elegant Chinese, asking people not to go down this path and use it for a toilet. Please use the bathroom located at the front gate. When next he returned, the signs were kicked over. One man had even—almost assuredly a man because only a male would perform such an atrocious and vicious act of defilement—dropped his odious loaf right on the center of one of Zen’s polite signs, looking like a bizarre postmodern work of art: shit on a plate.

This was war.

Zen was not going to give up his sacred space so easily. It was his tranquil turf and he’d be damned if he was going to let these barbarians defecate all over it. This was his forest, his. And he belonged to the forest. He loved her like a good woman. And he was not going to let her moist holy spaces be profaned by hairless apes with weak sphincters. He had tried being polite. Now it was time for more drastic measures.

Still, he couldn’t very well chase away perpetrators while carrying a bow and arrows (even if the archery set was for young teens and not in any way suitable for real archery or hunting). There was always the police to consider. Moreover, Zen didn’t want to get confrontational. Chinese people had a keen disregard for any official signage. Witness the thousands who lit up right next to no smoking signs or who shoved to the front of queues even when orderly lines where painstakingly roped off. No, Zen had to think out of the box. What might scare people off? Or at least prevent them from going down the path? He had to think about it. Ghosts? Make people afraid of a ghost or some monstrous creature? He doubted he could pull it off. This wasn’t a Scooby-Doo cartoon. In the middle of the city, who was going to believe that a horrible monster lurked in these small woods? And then, it occurred to Zen.

“Ah ha!” he yelled from the bathroom.

“Ah ha what,” asked Hobbit. ‘What’s going on in there? What are you doing?”

Zen laughed. This just might possibly work.

“What are you doing in there? Are you watching porn? I told you to stop that!”

“I’m not watching porn! Goddammit! You shut up and mind your own business! Damn Hobbitses.”

Zen went out and bought the supplies he needed. That evening he got to work.

“Oh my gorsh! What are you doing? Cooking all that food! I’m not eating dinner here you know. I’m going to my parents’ home.”

“This food ain’t for you, silly Hobbit. Away with you!”

“Hmm. Crazy dwarf. Who wants to eat your food anyway? Still, I should taste a little to make sure you’re doing it right.”

“Away with you I say!”

“Humph! How rude!”

Zen cooked a feast for an army. He made egg and tomato and mushrooms with green and red spicy peppers, red curry potato and broccoli and tomato, steamed corn, and four different kinds of dumplings: pork and celery, beef and carrot and green pepper, egg and leek, and shrimp and corn and vegetable. In addition he bought fried chicken hamburgers and chicken burritos from the local cangmai. They weren’t real burritos like back home, but they would do the trick. He cooked four cups of rice in the rice cooker and then laid out all of the dishes on the foldable round table in the living room.

“Are you inviting someone over? Is it your girlfriend? If you invite that vampire into my home and I’ll kill her! I will!”

“I ain’t inviting anyone over anywhere. Jeez. For a small Hobbit you got a big imagination. Now I’m busy. This’s work. Lemme alone.”

“Fine. But I’m not doing any dishes.”

“Do you ever?”

Hobbit slammed the door on the way out to her parents’ home and Zen sat down to eat.

And eat.

And eat.

He was so full he thought he might die. He felt awful and happy at the same time. He could barely move to clean up the dishes. He lumbered into his office and fell down on the dog-bed. He fell asleep listening to his stomach gurgling like some diabolical machine. Indeed, there was something infernal happening inside his digestive system. With every morsel that Zen ate he made sure he dabbed on some kind of fiery spice: Tabasco sauce from the import market, spicy Korean bean curd paste, Hobbit’s father’s special super-hot red pepper oil, Thai sweet chili sauce, and finally good old American yellow mustard. It was a lethal concoction.

When Hobbit returned from dinner she demanded that he open all the windows.

“You open ‘em. I can’t move.”

“You’re trying to kill me. That’s what it is. You want kill me and marry a younger girl. Pervert.”

Zen moaned.

Early the next morning, Zen got up and made coffee. He poured the boiling hot coffee into a thermos and took out some special pills he bought at the pharmacist. He packed up his small yellow backpack and set off with his archery gear for the forest.

Ninety minutes later Zen returned, whistling quietly and looking quite satisfied.

“Had fun? Good shooting?”

“Oh yes. Very good shooting.” He kissed Hobbit three times, one on each cheek and then on her lips. This time he didn’t pretend it was disagreeable.

Later that day a young couple was strolling through the Forestry University’s experimental forest along the smooth stone pathway. They walked together happily, the young man holding his beautiful girlfriend tightly, and the young woman leaning into him. They paused at the entrance of a small path that led off into a section of the forest that was particularly thick and dark and green. The young woman whispered something to the young man and he nodded. She pulled out a package of tissues from her purse and then gave the purse to her boyfriend. She disappeared down the path, but came running back almost immediately. Her face was aghast and she was pinching her nose closed. She hooked her boyfriend’s arm at a run without explanation, and the two of them pounded down the stone pathway until they made it to the safety of the front gate.

Afterward, the path gained a certain notoriety and almost everyone avoided that dark green heavily wooded section of the forest. A fetor, not quite human, but definitely not animal, terrible and fearsome, lingering and caustic, pervaded the shadows among the trees and formed a palpable deterrent to the forest visitors, leaving only one man, one lone foreign man, carrying a bow and some cheap arrows and a handmade target made of old clothes and tape and cardboard, light of foot, light of spirit.

Into the Green

Peter disappeared.

I expected as much. He could only spend so time many pal-ing around with an old fart like me before his hormones kicked into overdrive and demanded pacification.

After a week or so the photo stream started up. Pictures of a group of young men and women out drinking and eating. Close ups of cute girls. Then closer up. Then things that only should be seen in anatomy textbooks or I don’t know. The Kama Sutra.

Hard to find a photo that would not scandalize the public.

Hard to find a photo that would not scandalize the public.

That’s not fair to the Kama Sutra, though. The KS is a book on the art of love. Drawing an analogy between Peter’s relentless pursuit of a new GF and India’s famous book on the art of lovemaking is like trying to make an analogy between a George Bush Jr. speech and a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speech. They’re both Americans giving speeches and both are juniors, but that’s about it.george_w_bush_quote_3Martin-Luther-King-Jr.-zumwalt

Getting Peter’s photo history was like a big cat (or dog) sending me updates while he was out on the prowl. Random chickee-poos he would meet somewhere or who would walk into his web—I mean store—and he’d chat them up and then—bingo! Hello Jungo!spider-to-the-fly

If I sound a little bit envious then I apologize. Because I am way more than a little envious. (sigh)

Peter was on the prowl. He even stalked the perpetually grumpy co-ed who worked the counter at the gym. Usually when I interact with Chinese—male or female—I get them to smile because, hey, I speak Chinese pretty well, and I crack jokes with them. Not this cara de piedra. Nothing I did did any good. She looked at me as if I had just raped and killed her grandmother. No scratch that. That’s not accurate, because that would mean she emoted. There was no emoting coming from her.

She treated me like a damn gnat that had landed on the screen of her big Samsung cell phone. Moreover, she couldn’t really be bothered to shoo it away. I would stand there, my head just over the counter, level with her eyes, and smile my nicest friendliest dirty uncle smile.

“Hi!”

No response. Cough cough. Extend gym card and 50 kuai deposit for the locker key. Long drawn out sigh from her. Snatches—snatches—card and bill out of my hand and throws the locker key onto the countertop. I say hello, please, thank you, good bye, every time. And I could never get any kind of, any kind of, the Chinese say, 人情味兒 rénqíng wèi’èr , warm human feeling. And that was it. She had none of that. She was one cold mama. Yeah, I wasted not a little grey matter wondering why she didn’t like me. It really bugged me. I saw this girl almost every freakin’ day. She can’t spare a polite smile?i9

I mentioned this to Peter and he said, “No, no. She’s really nice.” I did notice that when I came in with Peter she deigned to look up from her phone. At him. I still did not exist and fumed in my non-existence.

She not only looked at him but actually went out with him (albeit briefly). He sent me pictures of her and him smiling. Smile. Ing. And having a ball. I don’t know that they actually balled, but that would be purely incidental. What was amazing was seeing a smile on the girl’s face. She was transformed from surly lazy counter-bitch into sweet, angelic, pixie Asian chick. Whatever Peter has, we oughta bottle it up and sell it. The hell with Viagra Cialis whatever.

Before

Before

After

After

Anyhoo, since Peter was lost or out on the hunt, I was not about to stop going into the woods to practice archery. It was May and rainy, but the weather was gorgeous in between the storms.

In April, the trees began to sprout their leaves. Little by little your vision into the distance diminished. As the foliage grew in, the bare trees lost their stark appearance, lost that spindly pale bone-flesh feel, and seemed to swell with life, with power, with green. I know that is impossible. Trees don’t get fat, but it seemed that way. The air was so fresh, I swear I could smell the oxygen wafting off the leaves. The forest floor was soft wet and spongy from the intermittent rains. Yet above me around me the trees penetrated the air with their new green velvety palms and leafy fingers glistening with raindrops. The sun was not cold, not hot. Not even masculine. The sun gave off a feminine light. She was naughty and sweet, gentle and ticklish, falling between the branches and leaves, to drop at my feet like a prankish child, rebound quickly and dance off elsewhere. The winter forest had transformed into a place of magic, populated by elves and fairies and wood spirits. Sadly no Hobbits were anywhere in sight. My Hobbit was back home sulking over whatever it is that Hobbits sulk over. The irony is not lost on me.

Elves in the forest

Elves in the forest

So alone in the forest, but very much not alone. Solitude, but not solitary at all. The beautiful blue-tipped and white-tipped crows were telling jokes to one another. Squirrels gamboled in the leafy network of branches. In the distance a dog yapped happily. She had found a friend.

I love the forest.

I love stepping away from the cold grey dirty city and entering the green bosom of nature. In her I feel at home. And I, American Zen, have never felt at home in any place made by man. Never in any city or town or village. But in the forests, in the woods, in the mountains, in the jungles. These have been sanctuaries, all too brief, but they have been refuges from the blight of mankind, from the pain and worry of dealing with the human things, the man things, the woman things.

In many churches across the world I have seen beauty, man-made beauty, architectural psalms paying tribute to the glory of god, but I have never felt god. Only in nature have I felt that divine power, that masculine feminine fullness, bountiful and dangerous and limitless.

For a little while anyway.

For a little while, I tramp into the forest, am enveloped by the forest, blocking out the skyscrapers, shutting out the noisy construction, scaring off the fearful anxious human things, and I am left alone-but-not-alone with a crappy wooden bow and two cheap arrows, a homemade target stuffed with old baby clothes and a greasy seat cushion.

I nock my arrow. Breathing in, I pull back on the string, pulling it to my lips. I feel the finger-tab touch my lips.

Kiss.

My eyes line up with the center of the target. I feel more than see the arrow lined up with my vision.

The trees whisper all around me, scattering the sunlight children, who dance and laugh and play in the pale shade of the trees. One of them jumps onto the tip of my arrow and as I exhale, releasing, she rides the arrow through the green air, splitting the shadow and the light, riding true, riding straight, riding into the heart.

I smile.

I know peace.

new target

new target

sunlight rides my arrow into the target

sunlight rides my arrow into the target

i'm happy

i’m happy

Harbin Night Market: That’s a lot of Wangs.

Peter texted me: I break up with my girlfriend.

I texted back: Did you break up with her? Or did she break up with you? Or did you both decide to break up?

We fight. She say me if I love her. I say no. She cry and left. Game over.

Peter is not a playah, but he sure acts like one. He goes through girlfriends more than he changes his chonnies, which is not saying much since the guy lives in a pseudo-basement apartment with no running water or electricity and rarely has a chance to shower. He sucks electricity off the office building next door and defecates in a plastic bag over a pan and dumps it into the gutter before the street sweeper passes by his cell phone shop at daybreak. I know when he’s been too lazy to get up because his little closet store smells like night soil.

I politely tell him, “Dude, it’s kinda ripe in here.”

He claims it’s the kitty litter, that he hasn’t changed it. I know the difference having owned cats off and on and having had to crap in my own hands because there wasn’t a place in which to cop a squat. Nothing teaches you humility better.

Peter texting me this bit of information means I might have to babysit him for a little while. Although he has always cheated on his numerous girlfriends and always watches porn all day long, he was basically a kid. His behavior led to tearful break-ups but sex was really just candy for his (I’m assuming) outsized membrane. He was attracted and attached to (i.e. codependent with) a girl based on how sweet her pussy was. He met all kinds of girls who were looking for a good time (but also secretly hoping for something lasting) and inevitably they’d go away crying. There were a lot of one-night stands. I know cuz Peter often texted me photos of him and his conquests au naturel. I told him it was not funny and that he ought to have a little more self-respect. He thought it was funny. I did not. Most of the girls were fine looking, too, I’ll have to admit. I often warned him that one day he’d get his. And he did once, for all the good the experience did him.

He met an older woman, Sun Cui. A real piece of work that one. A wild woman with the cutest most divine little boy. How the hell she ended up with the Dalai Lama for a son I’ll never know. Just goes to show you that life is fucked up. I hated her the first time I met her. She was essentially a Chinese version of a dumb blonde bitch. One of the most irresponsible mothers I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet.

This human cat ran around with several guys at a time, utterly shameless, protesting to each one that she was faithful, dumping her kid on whomever was at hand. And I get the whole double standard thing. I do. It’s one thing when all parties agree to free love, but cheating on your other is heinous and dishonorable. On top of that, ditching your kid so you can go drinking at a KTV? There has to be some sort of Mega-Bitch Award for that kind of behavior.

She got her claws into Peter and gave him a taste of his own medicine. Peter was distraught because whatever talent this woman possessed in the sack enchanted him to desperate distraction. He was not himself. In other words, he was undeniably irretrievably and indefatigably pussy whipped. He got into a couple of fights trying to stake her as his own. She never let on that she didn’t want to be exclusive and made up all kinds of excuses why she kept waking up in some other guy’s bed. Sometimes leaving her handsome little Buddha child in Peter’s care. This worried me. Peter was not the kind of guy that should be taking care of a little boy. I had to babysit the sweet little tyke on more than one occasion. “Where’s Mama? Where’s Mama?”

Absorbing all of his laments about his two-timing dragon lady, I pounced on the irony of the situation, but at the time Peter only looked at me with pained eyes: “I really love her! I really love her!”

“No, you don’t. You barely know her, Peter. It’s just lust. Sex. Don’t let her do this to you.”

He would call and call, and she’d ignore his calls. I gotta hand it to Peter cuz he’d track her down, find her with another guy, and a brawl would ensue. Peter might be a kid at heart, but he’s extremely powerful.

I’ve seen him pick up guys who weigh over two hundred pounds and bounce them on their heads. Literally. It was a move he picked up from his shuaijiao days. I told him not to do that move in a fight. He could seriously injure someone’s spine or even possibly kill him. Between the bouts of crocodile tears, he’d smile; crying from Sun Cui breaking his heart, but smiling with the predator’s pride of being able to dominate the savannah. He might be the toughest lion in her pride, but she was still shacking up with every Li, Zhang, and Wang in a fifty-kilometer radius. That’s a lot of Wangs.

One shattered heart later, umpteen other girlfriends later, umpteen donnybrooks later, we were back here again.

This latest GF, a tall Harbin girl (slightly big in the hips with long heavy limbs and as educated as a bag of hammers) had lasted a lot longer and I knew why. She spelled Peter at his little cell phone store so he could meet with me and go lift weights or practice archery. I never much cared for the dumb chick, but she did have her uses and I pointed that out to him. She essentially learned how to run his shop (and put up with all his bullshit) while he ran around town with his buddies—male and female buddies. Love gave her the wherewithal to become an impromptu businesswoman. I admired her for that. The things we do for love. The things love enables us to do. No matter how you slice it, it’s masochism. But at the end of the day any girl stupid enough to pin her hopes to Peter’s comet was short a few million cells in the grey matter.

I sighed. It was unfair to her (I never could remember her name—that’s how little she mattered to me, supposedly Peter’s best friend) and I pointed that out to him.

“Peter, last week you were telling me how much you loved her and that you two were gonna get married. Shit, your Ma wanted you two to get a house together.”

That was true. He tried to borrow money from me, like several wan, and I didn’t have that kind of money. I stalled and stalled because I was not gonna get mixed up in that money pit. It was inconceivable to me that a guy as young and sexually irresponsible as he was could even think of marriage. I mean, I know I’m not one to talk, but this was clearly a situation where someone’s traditional expectations were crashing on the rocks of reality. His mother and ex-girlfriend were high on baijiu if they thought Peter was anywhere near taking on the responsibility of a family. Probably most of China’s population was not anywhere fiscally prepared to marry and raise a child, but that didn’t stop parents and grandparents from harping on it. They ought to advocate celibacy and homosexuality. The last thing China needed was more people.

Peter wanted to drown his troubles. I told him in no uncertain terms that we were not going to go get drunk.

“Just a couple beers.”

He wanted to introduce me to one of Harbin’s night markets. It was down on Hongqi Street. Fine. I could do that. But no drinking.

Night Market

Night Market

Night Market scene.

Night Market scene.

When I saw him, his face was ashen and drawn. His skin was grey and rough anyway, like the Grey Hulk from back in the Sixties. Peter didn’t get to bathe often since he lived in that stanky basement. The Grey Hulk analogy was apt since Peter also had a bromance going on with the Big Green Behemoth.

Hulk # 1, the Original

Hulk # 1, the Original

In addition to photos of him and bimbo du jour, he’d often send me pictures of the Hulk, telling me he wanted to look like Hulk. Like I said, big kid. I would send him pictures of Namor or Green Arrow since that was the body type I aspired to, although at my age I was just trying not to look like fucking George Costanza. In my defense, I doubt Jason Alexander possesses my physical skill set even if we could pass for twins.

Namor the Sub-Mariner! What a swimmer's bod!

Namor the Sub-Mariner! What a swimmer’s bod!

Original Green Arrow

Original Green Arrow

Oh George!

Oh George!

I figured we’d walk around the night market for a while and I’d try my level best to stick to my diet and keep him out of trouble.

We ended up having a good time. We goofed around taking pictures, trying on women’s hats and whatnot, me blanching at the disgusting food they had on display. I refused to eat or drink and he respected my terms.

Worms anyone?

Worms anyone?

Big Black Beetles

Big Black Beetles

Grasshoppers I think.

Grasshoppers I think.

Bu-FUGLY caterpillars.

Bu-FUGLY caterpillars.

More Worms and coccoons

More Worms and cocoons

The Ubiquitous CHUAN, creatures on a stick.

The Ubiquitous CHUAN, creatures on a stick.

That first night was special. The weather was pristine. Cool but not cold. In fact it was just cold enough that milling around with the mass of unwashed humanity kept you warm. Of course, sexy svelte lithe Chinese women everywhere. Christ, Chinese women are so fucking achingly sexy and beautiful! I wish I were either younger or richer. Either that or a goddamn sexless robot. That way I wouldn’t feel the horrible riptide of desire every time I brushed past a Heilongjiang beauty.

Night Market 8

Night Market 8

Night Market sweets.

Night Market sweets.

We went to the night market every night for five days and after the first coupla nights it was boring as hell. Eventually I started trying the food and we had a couple of brewskies at this small tea shop out of sheer boredom. I brought my laptop and did some reading while he posted pictures of our misadventures on WeChat (China’s FaceBook).

I never got so bored that I ate the barbecued semi-formed baby chicks that Peter swore by. He said that eating these eggs in which the baby chicks had begun to take shape helped put on muscle mass. I told him he was fulla shit. I didn’t care how much muscle it might put on your biceps, there was no way in hell I would ever let that pass my lips. Jeez, even if I wasn’t (usually) vegetarian, even if I was a diehard carnivore, I could never eat that. It sounded like someone’s nightmare. Imagine that: you’re trying to eat a hardboiled egg and discover there’s a dead little chick inside. Yeesh. Gives me the shivers thinking about it.

Chick egg fetus. Yum!

Chick egg fetus. Yum!

I held Peter’s proverbial hand every night. I didn’t mind being away from home. Hobbit was still treating me like a red-haired stepchild in a black family, so I needed the distraction too. I also realized I had missed being around people, believe it or not. I was off so much on my own and alone (in China of all places) that I forgot the simple pleasure of just people-watching (as opposed to girl-watching which is less of a pleasurable activity and more of a painful involuntary hardwired biophysical response).

I even bought a few stupid baseball hats. The last night we went to the market, Peter brought me a new cell phone. I had been complaining about the other phone (that incidentally he had given me for free). I appreciated that it was free but the damn thing was so cheap it caused more headaches than it solved. I even asked him to find me an iPhone, something I should never have done since I knew where—and how—he acquired them.

Peter, despite my warnings, engaged in several side businesses besides repairing cell phones and slapping on those silly plastic protective coversheets. In fact, these side deals were his most lucrative transactions. He still maintained a few connections from back in the day. He’s a businessman right? Most businessmen with such thin margins are always ready to make a little extra money and you know if you weren’t too circumspect about the origins, well you know, as long as it wasn’t a habit. Peter had Johnny Law or rather Zhang Law come down on him before and he had to spend a few nights in lock up while the Po-po went through his store and confiscated everything they thought looked suspicious. A few nights and a few thousand kuai later he was released on his own recognizance. Basically the police just took all his goods and any cash he had on hand and kicked him out with a warning not to accept stolen goods ever again. Like they gave a shit. Peter swore he would walk the straight and narrow but that only lasted a short while.

“How much is this?”

“Don’t worry. It’s a present for you. Take. Take!”

“No way, man. How much? You gotta take something.”

“Two kuai.”

I pushed it back across the table. “I won’t take it. I will fucking pitch it right through this window.”

He just smiled his big shit-eatin’ grin.

I played with it. This was China’s answer to iOS and Android. Some Chinese company had obviously ripped off Apple and Samsung and rolled out this cheaper version. This Chinese “Apple” system was all the rage now. Later I found out just how expensive the phone cost, but at least Peter took some money for it. Fucking capitalism. It absolutely corrupts all of us, absolutely.

You’re NOT gonna eat that dog!

Sunday morning was dreary with rain. The brief hot spell that seemed to confirm the dire effects of global warning had vanished and left in its stead cold, steady rain. Moreover, the cold was unrelieved, penetrating into the apartment blocks like a rash of home invasions. No heat emanated from the radiator pipes as the municipal government quit burning coal by the twentieth of March every year regardless of the weather. The denizens of Harbin felt the chill all the way into their bones.

Zen was no different. He woke up feeling as if he had been abducted by aliens. Said aliens then experimented on his hip and knee joints, hollowing out the marrow and inserting some kind of strange device that periodically emitted jolts of searing hot electricity down his legs and up his spinal cord.

God, he felt miserable. Just exactly what fresh hell was this?

Old age. Old muthafuckin age. Almost half a century and I’m still tryina keep up with young people. I oughta just pitch it all in, break out a dime bag of primo Colombian and enjoy the last half of my life. All this exercise shit is for the birds.

He glanced over at his part-time spouse.

Somehow Hobbit did not seem to age. She was out of shape in the sense that she could not hike up a mountain or run a marathon, but then again, she never would do such activities. However, the crazy little thing never gained weight and was as limber and spry as a fifteen-year-old gymnast. And she never stretched.

Meanwhile, Zen did yoga three times a week, forcing his hips into the splits, pushing his feet to bend outward from his knees at a 45° angle (that’s what ice hockey goalies have to do he told himself). He lifted weights, jumped rope, chuffed on the elliptical machine, climbing imaginary mountains and ellipticalling for endless kilometers. And for what? That tenacious spare tire hung from his waist like a giggly hula-hoop. Did it make his knees feel better? More limber? Or did it make his knees feel like a couple of Bratva Boys went at him with claw hammers.

The rest of the day after a workout Zen’s body was a smelly gasbag of aches, pains, and bruises. He looked at his skinned knuckles. Once upon a time he could work the heavy bag for an hour straight and do two hundred knuckle push-ups. Okay, maybe not two hundred. But a lot, goddammit. He felt slow.

In contrast, Hobbit was scurrying around the bedroom like a squirrel getting ready for winter, clambering up the bed, pulling wide the curtains, opening the window, dusting—of course she only ever dusted where she worked and never anywhere else, meaning that there was a perfect clean rectangle on her desk, but everywhere else the dust was half an inch thick—airing out the pillows and blankets. How did she do it? She as agile as a young child. Crazy little Hobbit.

Zen stood up. Rather he tried to stand up. A shaft of pain ran from his left hip outward, upward, downward. He felt as if someone had shot him. He fell back on the bed.

“Aw. You back still bothering you?”

Zen glared daggers at Hobbit. “Yes, my back is still hurting me.” His voice was sardonic, imitating Hobbit’s voice.

“Poor baby. You want me to 摸一摸?”

“No I don’t want you to 摸一摸. Getthefuckawayfromme!”

Hobbit tried to rub Zen’s back but he pushed her away. Another spasm of pain hindered him and he gagged in agony.

“Oh my God,” he whispered. “That’s not normal. I must have bone cancer. It’s gotta be bone cancer. The pollution in this stinkin’ city has killed me!”

“You sucha dramuh queen. Let me 摸一摸!” She reached for him again.

Zen slapped at her hands. “Get. AWAY!”

Fuck it. He had a schedule to keep. It was Sunday. He had to get a workout in because once Monday started he would have to work like a madman.

What would Batman do? Did Batman have days like this? Wake up after a hectic night of crime-fighting and groan like a septuagenarian? Zen tried to ignore the sarcastic voice in his head that quipped Batman was a fictional construct. We’re all someone else’s fiction thought Zen with dismal irony.

After moving around a bit, he felt better. While brushing his teeth, he noticed a lot of blood. Great. Something else to worry about. He had found a lot of blood in his stool the other day, but he figured it was nothing. After washing up, he packed his bag: jump rope, timer, bag gloves, bandana, knee pads, yoga mat,…gym shoes! Shit, almost forgot my gym shoes.

“Take you umbrella. It gonna rain all day.”

Hobbit smiled at him. The face of a Buddha. Damn. She was his Buddha. Buddha with OCD, but a Buddha nonetheless. He pecked both her cheeks and then pretended he didn’t want to kiss her on the lips. “You haven’t brushed your teeth yet! Dragon breath!”

She squealed like a wanton child, waiting for him to complete their ritual. He kissed her again, three times, left cheekbone, right cheekbone, lips.

Outside the rain had relented. It looked like a patch of blue sky was trying to break through, but a scary black wall of clouds loomed from the west. Definitely rain.

He walked out to the main road, stepping around the huge puddle-lake that had built up in the parking lot over the night. Of course, he thought, no one ever fixes the damn drains here in Harbin. An SUV whizzed past him, splashing him with mud and rainwater.

“You dumb fuck!” Zen cursed at the driver, shooting him the finger. The driver may not understand English, but everyone understood the universal middle finger. Bastard. He’s gonna kill somebody drivin’ like that.

Although the apartment block was on campus grounds, people drove with reckless abandon. Zen hated that the people who worked and studied at NEFU had so little regard for the people who actually lived on campus. There were little children and pets walking around all the time. Although there was a posted speed limit, it was ignored and never enforced. Just like the no smoking signs. No one gave a damn. No regard for life, these bastards.

His mood soured, his hips and knees still shooting errant bolts of pain up and down his nervous system, Zen felt weary, world weary.

Didn’t he read somewhere that if you’re feeling tired it’s not good to push it? He should just rest. Not go to the gym.

He walked past the Qiangmai where he bought water and beer from the one-eyed owner and then he paused at the next alleyway.

If he turned right here and then another right, he could go back home. Spend his morning reading literature and drinking coffee, studying Russian, making lesson plans, anything besides gym torture. Today I can be a scholar. Tomorrow I’ll go to the gym. I’ll either go first thing in the morning or after the meeting. I can make it.

Zen was rationalizing his decision, walking down the narrow alley when he saw the owner of the Qiangmai, a one-eyed, tall, fat, bald man, struggling with a medium-sized white dog with black spots. He was putting a string around its neck.

Zen was nonplussed. What the hell was he doing?

There was a de-limbed tree growing next to the entrance of the new badminton building in the alley behind the Qiangmai. The workmen had left short stubby branches. The owner held the struggling dog with one hand and tossed the rope between the limbs where the branches forked. Then, he cinched the rope frightfully tight around the dog’s neck and hoisted it up. The dog had time for only one small pathetic yelp; its eyes bulged in pain and fear. It dangled on the tree like a grotesque piñata.

“What the hell are you doing! 你干嘛呀!” Zen yelled.

The owner was trying to tie off the string on the chain link fence next to the whitewashed building. He was shocked that someone was yelling at him.

怎么回事! 你 为啥 把狗 杀掉 呀!” Zen tried to grab the rope from the man’s hands.

“你干嘛!” the bald man yelled.

“Why are you killing this dog!” Zen screamed in English.

“啥? 啥意思?”

“你 为啥 把狗 杀死!” Zen pulled at the man’s hands.

The man was trying to push Zen away, but Zen was adamant. Finally the one-eyed man relented. He thought the foreigner had gone crazy. The dog fell to the mud and lay in a dazed heap.

“Why are you trying to kill the dog? What did the dog do to you?”

“啥?你说啥?”

The one-eyed owner of the Qiangmai was not a young man. In fact, he was a very sick man. A lifetime of smoking and living in northern cities that burnt dirty coal had taken its toll on his lungs. The doctor had told him: quit smoking and drinking or you won’t live to see your grandson grow up. Eat healthy foods. Stay warm and take walks morning and night.

你啥意思 烦我呢?” the one-eyed man asked Zen. His hands trembled and though it was cold out he was perspiring.

The foreigner looked dangerous. He wasn’t very big, but there was the glint of a madman in his small brown eyes. He knew this foreigner. Everyone did. He was married to that hellion of a little English professor who yelled day and night at her foreign husband, her son, her parents, her colleagues, the vegetable sellers, everyone. There must be something wrong with him to marry such a devil woman. Maybe he had been driven insane? The one-eyed man stepped back another pace. He could feel his heart thundering in his chest. He coughed wetly and squinted at the short foreigner through his good eye.

Zen said, “我是说 为什么 你 非要把狗 杀掉?

杀掉? 什么杀掉! 吃肉, 呗!

As a remedy against the cold, the Qiangmai owner had bought this mutt at the local market. Dog meat was good to drive away the cold from one’s bones. Why was this foreigner stopping him from preparing his meal?

吃? 肉? 吃肉?” Zen was astounded, dumbfounded. This was not the first time nor would it be the last time that he would encounter what he considered cannibalism.

Just then, the dirty white mutt staggered to its legs and trotted away down the alley.

The owner was angry.

你看!” He pointed at the dog running down the street. “你 给我 找狗!

Zen hesitated. Had he erred? People eat dogs in China. Shit, people eat just about everything in China. His own in-laws had gone out and purchased dog meat for his first meal with the whole family. Dogmeat was a delicacy. Sweet Jesus! Help me. Disgusting! He just couldn’t. Goddammit. Couldn’t tolerate it!

Suddenly, he heard the dog yelp sharply. The two men looked down the street.

老吴 呀! 你 干嘛 把狗 放了!

It was the Qiangmai owner’s drinking buddy, a local cop. He held the dog by the scruff of its neck. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth. On eye bulged further out of its socket than the other.

“What the fuck! Another cannibal! You bastards, can’t you just eat chicken?” Though they could not understand English, Zen’s tone sounded offensive. The owner of the Qiangmai explained quickly to his friend that the foreigner was most likely insane. The cop, not a large man himself but large in his mind with an inflated sense of authority, shook his finger at Zen.

这事 跟你 无关! 走! 你走!” The cop screwed up his eyes and blazed fury from beneath his thin black eyebrows.

“Don’t yell at me you pompous worm! You’re not gonna eat that dog!”

But it was too late. While Zen was scuffling with the cop, the one-eyed man had strung up the dog on the killing tree. The dog had not resisted at all.

Zen felt something breaking inside him. He just had had enough: the Internet censorship, the pollution, the frustration with work, his unhappy marriage with Hobbit, his rebellious teenage stepson, betrayed by his body, betrayed by his country, betrayed by life, angst, depression, the shitty weather, everything, everything seemed dead set against him, everything in an instant collapsing down on his head. Now he had to tolerate the murder of a dog before his very eyes?

“No way man! You’re not gonna eat that fuckin’ dog!” Shouting in English only frightened the one-eyed man and steeled the resolve of the cop.

Suddenly Zen pushed the cop to one side and tried to free the dog from the erstwhile hangman’s noose.

The shouting had attracted the attention of the nearby university security guard. When he saw the men scuffling with each other, he shouted to the other guards to run over and see what was the problem. Meanwhile the construction workers, with nothing much to do on a rainy Sunday morning, walked over to see what was happening. A crowd formed: security guards, construction workers, college students, elderly folk out for their morning walk, children with the morning off from classes, even the neighborhood dogs and cats all gathered around Zen, the cop, the Qiangmai owner, and the hanged dog.

The owner and the cop were trying to keep the rope securely around the dog’s neck. Zen was trying to tear the rope off. The security guards were trying to pull Zen’s hands away from the dog, but Zen had the strength of a madman.

The dog, insensate, tongue hanging out even further from its black-lipped snout, flopped pathetically between the rough hands of the struggling men.

Zen strove against the arms pulling him back. None of the guards wanted to harm the foreigner. That would be a big stink and create endless paperwork. They would have to perform self-censorship in front of the superior for sure. No one wanted that. They gently but resolutely tugged him away from the tree.

The cop shouted in Zen’s face, “滚! 给我 滚!

Zen had stopped shouting back. He knew he was losing this fight. He saw the myriad Chinese faces surrounding him and he felt intense hatred spike through him. They were all animals, cannibalistic cannibals, dog-eating monsters! Monsters! He felt tears of rage, impotent rage, building in his eyes.

Then, an old woman dressed in a blue and yellow polyester tracksuit stepped into the circle of men restraining Zen. Her face was horribly scarred as if from acid or flame. Her voice, though old, carried authority and rang clearly in the cold wet air.

At once the men released Zen and retreated a respectful distance.

In good but accented English, she asked Zen what the matter was.

It was like a pin inserted into his balloon of rage. His angry energy deflated and left him all at once. He felt like throwing up.

Everyone waited patiently for the foreigner to speak. He raised his arm, pointing at the hanged dog, and then dropped it. He lowered his head in shame.

“I didn’t want them to kill the dog.”

She automatically translated his words and the crowd of men, women, and children all laughed. She hissed at them and they quieted down. A few began edging away. The show was almost over.

The one-eyed owner explained what had happened. The old woman quickly analyzed the situation and came to a conclusion. She said to the foreigner, “Are you all right? I hope you were not hurt?”

He shook his head. In Chinese, Zen said he understood the situation and he realized he was at fault. Bowing slightly, he apologized to the owner and the cop.

没事, 没事,” the one-eyed man said. He was glad the foreigner had calmed down. In his heart, he enjoyed his visits to his shop. It was a kind of pride that the foreigner bought goods at his store. The cop, though vindicated, glared morosely.

Some of the crowd were impressed and complimented Zen on his excellent Chinese. A few children began tossing a ball back and forth. A small bright black dog sniffed at the tree and raised its hind leg. Some college students began to talk amongst themselves: He must be a professor here. Only professors speak such good Chinese, right? In fact, he must be a high level professor. Isn’t it amazing how he can speak Chinese? An American, you say? No wonder! They’re amazing. Those Americans can do anything when they put their minds to it. See, Chinese people are not cultured like Americans. Americans don’t eat dogs. Yeah, man’s best friend they say. Some of the security guards clapped Zen on the shoulder and then walked back to their card games and cigarettes.

The old woman said, “I am sorry that you had to see this. I have a dog myself and would never eat dog meat, but in some parts of China it is considered a delicacy and recommended by doctors for certain illnesses brought on by the cold weather.”

Zen bent down and picked up his yoga mat and umbrella from the mud. He looked at the dog, legs sticking out stiffly like wooden pegs, its eyes narrowed shut now, but its tongue still hanging out like a dirty pink ribbon. It was dead.

“Oh, so sad. Your things have fallen in the mud.”

“It’s nothing. I’m really sorry for all the trouble. I better go. I’m very sorry.”

“No harm done. Take care.” Her English was quite good, Zen thought.

Zen didn’t know whether to wave goodbye at the Qiangmai owner—after all, Zen bought water from him almost every day—or to just leave. He cast his eyes down and walked off quickly. He heard laughter echo behind him and he ground his teeth in anger. They probably weren’t even laughing at him, but it felt like they were. What a horrible horrible day!

At home, he stormed into the apartment and whipped off his jacket.

If this were a Russian novel, the writer, sensitive not to offend the cultured sensibilities of his or her readership, would merely narrate that Zen entered the dank apartment and blackened the air with a barrage of invective. American readers, however, hardly shy away from the idiosyncratic linguistic habits of their countrymen, especially when it comes to imprecations. In fact, some readers even take pleasure and pride in the range of expletives and profanity extant in the English language. Sadly, Zen was not very baroque when it came to the art of cursing and when flustered he tended to, well, he cursed thusly:

“Fuck this fuck country! Fuck this dirty fuckin’ stinking fuckety fuckin’ polluted fuck shithole of a muther-fuckin’ shithole! Fuck!”

“What? What what? Mud! You’re getting mud on the floor!”

Zen shucked off his shoes. “Hobbit…”

Zen related to her what had happened.

“OhmyGod! Are you hurt?”

“Almost! I was almost hurt! I coulda bin killed. They pro’ly woulda eaten me, Goddammit. Ah hell! I’m sicka livin’ here. I can’ take it any more. I just can’t. It’s too much. I couldn’t do anything to save that dog. What the hell is the matter with China? All the things they can eat in the world and they have to eat man’s best friend? I’m not talking about Bessie the stupid cow or some dumb fish. I’m talking about a beautiful dog. A dog. Lassie. Rin Tin Tin. You know, Krypto, Benji, and Scooby-fuckin’-Doo.” Zen was wound up, ranting and huffing and pacing and puffing.

“You can’t think like that, you know. That’s like trying to, you know, take someone’s pork or chicken cutlet. You know, even my parents eat dog, you know you know. Not when you coming over of course. You can’t be so serious about these things.” Hobbit took his dirty yoga mat and umbrella out to the balcony.

Zen slumped in his office chair, head in his hands, defeated.

“I’m worthless. I couldn’t do anything. Fucking feckless muthuhfuckuh. Too old for this shit. Where’s a superhero when you need one? Huh? Where’s Flash? Where’s Green Arrow or sumkinda shit. We need the Avengers and the Justice League to fix this damn country! Huh! Ah…fuckit! My back hurts.” Zen’s face pinched with self-pity and desperation. He felt black, so black, sinking into an abyss. He knew he was being irrational and unfair, but he also felt incapable of stopping his slide down into despair.

Then Hobbit’s cheerful voice sang out from the balcony where she was washing the mud off the yoga mat and umbrella. “La la la! You’re my superhero! La la la!”

What she said stunned him. It was like a terrific slap in the face. He was cursing her country and countrymen, he cursed her, he spouted vitriol, but she could still…. She could still…. How?

Here.

Here it was.

A choice.

Wallow in self-pity or acknowledge the gift.

He had to act immediately. If he didn’t act he might die.

He got up and it felt like he was ripping his self out of an old crusty shell. With each step closer to Hobbit he felt the anger the hate the venom cracking off his skin, flaking off, sloughing away….

He surprised her.

“Whatwhat?” Her eyes wide open, alarmed.

He embraced her. “Nothing, Hobbit, nothing. You…you are China. And I love you.”

Relieved, she said, “Yeah! That’s what I like!”

Zen kissed her three times. Slowly. Thoughtfully. With awareness and gratitude.

The world might eat dog, but here at least they might be able to find some modicum of peace. If not today, then maybe tomorrow.

Occupy Renminbi: the Gravitas of Subversion

Zen was working on his budget, feeling depressed at the state of his penury, when he noticed something funny on the pale green one-kuai note. Not ha-ha funny, either. It had what looked like a short poem printed on it. Someone had taken a chop or more likely a rubber stamp and affixed a short poem in blue-green ink to the back of the paper bill. This was not the first time he had noticed this.2015-05-17 10.50.23

He took a closer look at the tiny Chinese characters. He could not have been more shocked than if he had picked up a string and upon closer scrutiny realized it was a venomous serpent.2015-05-17 10.47.15

The poem was a message denouncing the Chinese Communist Party. He had to be sure.

“Hobbit?”

“What? I’m busy. Go away.”

“Just pull your damn head out for a minute and take a look at this.”

“Whatwhatwhat?”

“This.”

“So? It’s yi-kuai. What’s the big deal? Is it mine?”

“No, I mean this. The print here. It’s…it’s a message against the communist party. I mean, that’s like massively subversive.”

“Sub- what?”

“Y’know, secretly trying to make the CCP look bad or like trying to stir up rebellion against them.”

“Ah! That’s nothing. It’s a trifling. No one pays attention to that garbage. You’re jumping the shark.”

“Uhhh, I don’t think that’s the phrase you want to say.”

“You’re jumping something.”

“Yeah, okay. Well, I am perhaps jumping at my own shadow or jumping to conclusions, but what is plainly manifest is that this was purposefully printed on the coin of the realm. And someone didn’t just write it by hand. They went to the trouble to make a seal or some kind of rubber stamp to mass print their message on the one-kuai bill.”

听不懂!

“Never mind. Thanks for your time.”

Zen left Hobbit and the air behind him filled with a cloud of virulent denigrating epithets. Zen took no notice of her calumny. This was too interesting. He looked through his billfold and found another message, different, but still anti-Party. Muthafuckah, I can’t believe my eyes.2015-05-17 10.17.21

It was true. There was another message, this time in dark green ink, very clearly and legibly printed on the back of a one-kuai note. He compared the two notes. It was easy to understand, even an intermediate student of Chinese would be able to translate the message. Zen opened up Google Translate just to make sure. Hobbit should help him, but of course asking her to do anything…. Ah, never mind! I’ll do it myself!

The blue-green message was an actual poem in four lines written in simplified characters, but the lines were read from top to bottom and then right to left as in olden times. Actually in Taiwan this print convention was still in use. Zen wondered if Hong Kong publishing houses also used the original print conventions of complex Chinese characters or if they adopted the CCP’s pinyin print conventions, which followed English language-style of left to right and then top to bottom.2015-05-17 10.50.11

The poem was probably doggerel, but Zen’s Chinese language skills were not so good that he’d be able to tell the difference. It read:

Chinese Communist tyranny has existed for many autumns,

Corrupt officials enjoying happiness of the people’s worries!

The demise of the evil party is (will be) an act of God,

Quit the Party’s team and ride the ark!

Quit the party and ride the ark? What the hell? In pinyin, one could see the a-a-b-a rhyme scheme employed:

zhōnggòng bàozhèng jǐshíqiū, (中共暴政几十秋)

tānguān xiǎnglè bǎixìngchóu! (贪官享乐百姓愁!)

èdǎng mièwáng shì tiānyì, (恶党灭亡是天意)

tuì dǎngtuánduì chéng fāngzhōu! (退党团队乘方舟!)

The characters qiū, chóu, and zhōu all rhymed: oh, oh, oh. Pretty cool.

The dark green message was a note against the Party.2015-05-17 10.17.44

It read:

zhōnggòng shì xiéjiào, huózhāi fǎlúngōng xuéyuán qìgōng màigěi wàiguórén hé yǒuqiánrén. (中共是邪教,活摘法轮功学员器宫卖给外国人和有钱人。)

The Chinese Communist Party is an evil cult, living off the organs of Falun Gong practitioners they sell to foreigners and rich people.

A dark message indeed. That sounded too incredible to be true. Or was it so outlandish that it must be true. Zen thought of the wild and crazy machinations of the CIA in South America when they embarked on anti-socialist anti-communist agendas. They even tried to blow up Castro with an exploding seashell. Their psych-warfare division was notorious. In the Fifties they had tried to plant spies in China. Was this a CIA gambit bent on destabilizing China? Nah. This type of strategy couldn’t have much of an impact. It was more like someone thumbing his/her nose at authority. Still, what a wonderful….

“What are you doing!” Hobbit barked at Zen.

“What?”

“You can’t write about that. I’m getting worried. You might cause trouble.”

“Shut the fuck up. You worry about your thing and I’ll worry about my thing. Don’t interrupt me.”

“Nothing will happen to you, but I could have trouble. They could say that I was affected by my foreign husband and then I could be put in jail.”

Zen snapped at her, “Jail would be good for you! Less stress, three squares a day. Now leemeealone. I’m busy!”

Hobbit did not understand what he meant exactly, but she was sure it was not well intentioned. She slunk away vexed and anxious. Her stupid American husband had no idea of the amount of trouble he could cause her and her family. She could lose her position at the university in the snap of the fingers. In two snaps, her job, her parents’ pension, gone. Three snaps and she could be swallowed into the belly of the beast. Who would look after her parents? Raise her son? Not him, that was certain. Stupid stupid American.

Zen paused, his conscience pricking him somewhat, but not for very long. This was too interesting. He decided he would begin a collection of these political messages in a bottle, for that was what they were. Someone flung this political call for insurrection into the financial ocean, millions of hands shifting folding sorting transferring changing, millions and millions of transactions, and finally this bill had reached shore, his shore. The shore on the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. Somewhere in Zen’s mind heroic background music began blaring with brass horns and bass drums.

He’d post them online for other foreigners to see. Ha! Occupy Wall Street indeed! That abortive failure by well-fed Americans. Here is actual rebellion. Imagine someone marking dollar bills with messages urging people to overthrow Wall Street, cast out Congress, and take back the government for the People of the United States. That’s illegal in the YOO-ESS-AY. It was written in the Constitution somewheres, “Thou shalt not deface the instrument of your subjugation.”

That’d never happen. Americans have a short attention span, easily distracted by Rubenesque reality TV stars or someone increasing the rates on their video streaming services.

Kim Kardashian, photo d/l from www.usmagazine.com

Kim Kardashian, photo d/l from http://www.usmagazine.com

Americans have such a cushy life that they have forgotten what real suffering is like. Zen sighed. He had forgotten as well. When was the last time he was hungry? Really really hungry. Not I’mlosingweightinordertofitintomybikini, but we-don’t-have-enough-money-for-food hungry. Too long. I should fast, he thought. To remind myself how most people live in the world.hunger_header-2

It was true. Here in China, although there was a sense of all of that is solid melting into air, some things still carried significant consequence, gravy-tas, groovy-tas. Gravitas.

Zhuhai and Shenzhen: Part 3 of 3

Zen had not finished the last post on his junket to Zhuhai and Shenzhen. He was procrastinating. Instead of doing what he should have been doing—writing—he was fussing over his goalie equipment, trimming the loose threads, folding and even re-folding the black long johns he wore under the bulky ice hockey gear, taping the plastic cords neatly together, as if all of this foofaraw would improve his gameplay or draw him any closer to finishing his writing assignment.

Something was bothering him and he couldn’t put his finger on it. It was an itch, but physical. It was…ontological? Existential? It was something unnamed. Deep down, Zen had a phobia of completion. This phobia was buried deep and inextricably tied to his core fear of death that no psychologist at $135 an hour was ever going to find. Perhaps a crack team of Nobel Prize-winning psychoanalysts might have been able to locate the neurosis (had they been so inclined), but such gifted men and women would more than likely politely decline to squander precious hours on what was an otherwise common and thoroughly banal case. Not everyone could be saved.

Zen, congenitally prone to fruitless daydreaming, gave in to one of his flights of fancy. He imagined that “Not all will be saved” as one of the original thirteen commandments (instead of ten) that Moses brought down from the mountain. Filled with both compassion for his long-suffering people and also corrosive doubt concerning the propriety of his messianic path, Moses opted to conceal three of the most disheartening divine utterances. Some were a bit ambiguous and Moses wasn’t at all sure of his hearing. The roaring of the Red Sea still reverberated in his ears. In anxious and dreadful uncertainty, his people grumbling mutinously, it was better to stick with the first Ten Commandments that were fairly clear and direct.

After this reverie, Zen began to ponder why only a select handful of the world’s population could be saved. Why must the lion’s share be doomed to unmitigated misfortune and fruitless toil? His Devil’s Advocate, munching on a pomegranate, one leg dangling over a purple and white lama wool hammock slung between two enormous kapok trees in the forest of his subconscious, said, “Why? Oh Zen. You are a buffoon. Simple. Most people are a bunch of worthless losers. And you ought to know. You’re one of the them.” The Advocate smiled, his mouth half-full with juicy purple flesh from the pomegranate fruit.

Zen went off on another metaphysical tangent. His Advocate made sense. Paradise was probably like life on earth: only the crème de la crème gained admittance into the country club. He thought about the billions—no—gazillions of dead losers. Perhaps their souls never even made it off the planet, their ectoplasm decaying into dust. Probably, most of the world’s dust was composed of untold billions of insignificant and unremarkable individuals, persons who when alive imagined themselves as worthy and deserving, but who ultimately died thwarted by their own feckless venial natures, unmourned, and quickly forgotten. Every day roughly 10,000 tons of dust sifted down on the heads of the living and most of it the putrefied remains of failures, freaks, and flops. It might very well be possible that inhaling the vestigial motes from these ancient underachievers contaminated the hale, brave and ingenious and infected their chances of success with debilitating lassitude, enervating fear, and paralyzing antipathy.

Actually Zen tried to have these thoughts, but he was impervious to sustained and penetrating critical thinking. He might every well have possessed a case of PISD—Philosophical Ignorant Sloth Disorder. Although he could not conceive of such sophisticated thoughts, but he did feel a malaise creeping through his body like an ague or as he imagined it: weird extraterrestrial paramecium nesting in his bone marrow and feeding off his creative soul. In actuality, he thought he was a tad lazy or perhaps had a weird fear of success. But no, a genius could legitimately fear success. A dunce only indulges in pipe dreams when he attributes his self-destructive behaviors as a fear of success. Zen was a bit of a dunce.

Being moronic and rather than rolling up his proverbial sleeves and putting proboscis to grindstone, he made another cup of green tea whose leaves were so old they were both brittle and moldy depending on what side the sunlight had fallen on the recycled glass coffee container. Then he read online analyses of yet another black man’s life snuffed out by the callous brutal hands of the American law enforcement. Then he re-packed and re-taped the homemade arrow target made from Danny’s second-hand baby clothes and his yellowed threadbare judo gi (long in disuse). Finally, he reviewed his Russian grammar self-study textbook. None of it helped to dispel the ontological or existential itch blistering his spirit.

His small Apple laptop, slightly oily from the constant dusting of cancerous particulate matter that seeped through the shoddy weatherproofing on the windows, its fan whirring quietly as it uploaded pirated items into the Cyber netherworld, sat on his broad desk like a crying baby whose evident distress stemmed from that familiar and horrendous odor wafting evilly from between its legs. Zen, slothful incorrigible miscreant that he was, knew what ailed him but was reluctant to take action.

He thought about his successful larger-than-life brother. How much he loved him secretly. Actually everyone loved him. Of course, there was the obvious familial love that everyone espoused on birthday cards or at holidays or when enough intoxicants had been imbibed, but Zen loved his brother on another more profound level, an existential level (he thought). Born a Gemini, Zen had always yearned for a twin, an identical and physical brother that complemented all of his attributes, counterbalanced all of his faults, making him whole and meaningful, the two of them bonded like fraternal signifier and signified, an unbreakable dyad released into the world, an irrefutable text, langue and parole bundled in one cosmic pair, absorbed by the masses, understood by every individual, perhaps even adored by all women. (Women in Zen’s unconscious tended to default back to a bathetic stereotype of young, comely, conciliatory, and slightly Asian-looking females.) More than all that, he felt that an existential and real twin would give him peace.

Not having a twin brother who could psychically intuit his every mood and gesture, Zen looked to his older brother for occasional camaraderie. This was a fool’s errand as the two siblings could not have been more different. This Zen knew and yet being a dunce, it deterred him not one iota from wishing that his older brother would give a dog a bone and spend a little more time with him, despite the fact that any more time spent together would only increase his older brother’s contempt for his younger brother’s irrational iconoclasm and generally progressive Weltanschauung.

Zen was basically fucked.

At last, he sat down in front of his MacBook (Pro) and decided he owed it to his miniscule readership to at least try to finish the bloody post on the abortive junket down to Zhuhai and Shenzhen. He would cogitate. Cogitate. Cogitate. Elbow on lap, fist under clenched jaw, he cogitated.

If Zhuhai was a pearl, he thought, then Shenzhen was the oyster shell. Probably this generalization was as fair as it was inaccurate, but it sounded good. He would sing the praises of Zhuhai. Glorious and Splendid Zhuhai!

He was not feeling particularly generous of spirit, however. His body was very sore from the past two days of ice hockey. It was Zen’s first time to get back in goal after almost three months. He had to wear a knee brace for six weeks because he had sprained his MCL falling into the Chinese splits while making a save. The Chinese medical doctor, coincidentally a teammate and orthopedic surgeon, had found some other irregularities in Zen’s knee, but Zen couldn’t be bothered to translate exactly what the doctor had told him. He got the gist: stop playing ice hockey and wear a damn brace. He did stop playing, but Zen was too cheap and blockheaded to buy the damn knee brace, and then he determined, based on his vast knowledge of common sports injuries gleaned from the infallible and ever-accurate Internet, that weight lifting wouldn’t hurt his knee (too badly) and might even make it heal faster. After his knee got worse, and after his teammates discovered he wasn’t convalescing in the prescribed manner, they forced a knee brace on him. The Harbin City “Old Warriors” descended en masse on Hobbit’s apartment (after she had left to give her weekly lecture to the graduate English students), pinned Zen to the floor, stripped him of dignity and pants, and strapped the knee brace to his leg. It was not that they loved Zen overly much, but, one must understand, goaltenders were a precious commodity in Dongbei.

After the required six weeks of convalescing was up, his hockey buddies called him up and reminded him it was time to get back between the pipes. But an unseasonably warm spring had descended on Harbin and Zen was not feeling particularly inclined to put on the stinky equipment and stand half-frozen in front of the rusty iron cage while his “friends” fired pucks at his benighted (block) head and magically hit every inch of unprotected flesh.

“Look at these bruises!”

“Don’t worry. You just need to get used to playing again.”

“And my knee still hurts.”

“There’s only a few days left of ice anyway. You can rest all summer. You’ll be fine.”

Zen didn’t think so, but he caved. He always caved, dammit! Anyway, the season would be over in less than a week. The rink ice would be allowed to thaw and all hockey and skating activities would be suspended while the annual repairs and repainting were undertaken.

His fresh bruises had given him a metaphysically thuggish and cruel disposition, however. It was in such a crotchety irascible mood that he recalled that last day in Shenzhen, recalled with loathing. It was totally unwarranted as that last day was relatively relaxed and work-free.

After that abysmal dinner and tense confrontation with Professor Dickhead, Zen woke up early to do some calisthenics to try to cleanse his body of the nasty intoxicants. His mouth had a foul taste and his muscles ached to be stretched. His dear nephew, his brother’s oldest son, had sent him a humorous page of freehand exercises. Each cardiovascular circuit workout was based on a different comic book character. Zen tried the Batman circuit in his hotel room. In his mind he was six feet tall and two hundred pounds of martial arts elastic steel, but the mirror revealed the desperate truth: a short paunchy middle-aged man, gray at the temples with knobby knees that were exhibiting the inevitable onset of osteoarthritis. Not the Christian Bale Batman, but the Adam West Batman. Zen squinted his eyes to shut out reality as he jabbed his fists into the chilled air of his hotel room. His knee was swollen and hurt like hell, more than usual, but he couldn’t recall why that should be. For some reason Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was reverberating in his head like a broken record. His second alarm went off. Time to get ready.

After scrubbing his tongue vigorously to remove the awful paint thinner/burnt rubber taste of the white alcohol from his mouth, Zen met the young Englishwoman for breakfast. She was late again and Zen could only smile sheepishly at his director when she scowled in his direction. The honeymoon was definitely over in their relationship. Zen noticed that his Director smiled less and less at him. He could not blame her. She had finally seen through his pedagogical parlor tricks. Expert indeed! He felt more like a parrot, repeating the phrases of great teachers. A true expert would be able to synthesize the experience at hand and arrive at an effective solution. Unfortunately, the only solution he could come up with was “pack my bags and head for the hills.” He was certain his Director would not want to hear that. In Zen’s mind, he saw himself as a child-sized parrot, an abnormally large red and yellow beak, squawking shrilly, “Reduce teacher-student ratio! Reading is fundamental!” He touched his nose absent-mindedly and winced. It too hurt like hell. He wondered why. At least the other leaders were pretending that last night never happened and seemed willing to chalk it up to “too much liquor.”

Zen of course had conveniently left out certain details from his previous blog post about the dinner in which his nemesis had made the young foreign teacher cry. As the night progressed and the expensive bottles of white alcohol were trundled out by the exquisitely coifed beauties of the restaurant wait staff, the evening devolved into pompous bombastic toasts and aggressive displays of male vim and vigor. The director, paragon of etiquette and pulchritude, sensed where the men in the party were heading with these vulgarisms, excused herself and the other female leader, and retired to the non-drinking room. There they joined the young chatty office girls and sexagenarian female leaders, who were all nodding sleepily together at one end of the table.

The male leaders had Zen all to themselves and decided to bait the diminutive pathetic foreigner who dared to stand up for the honor of the young Englishwoman. They forced him to participate in arm-wrestling and other such contests that determined pecking order. Zen, though drunk and ostensibly choleric, still had enough sense to not get rough with these men. They were, after all, school leaders and party secretaries and most were older than he. There would be nothing to gain and everything to lose by acting tough. But he felt put upon. After Professor Penile-Dysfunction began teasing him for losing at arm-wrestling—he referred to him with a disparaging saying that when translated meant flower fist and embroidered kick, or in other words a paper tiger—Zen got angry and challenged his nemesis to a fight.

“I’m sick of your pathetic shit! You scrawny-necked pencil dick! I’m going to thrash you to within an inch of your miserable misbegotten life!”

Of course, that was what Zen thought he said. The white alcohol having taken effect reduced his words to gibberish and the jovial men guffawed in response, thinking Zen was trying to tell a joke in Chinese. The liquor made his fierce grimace look rather like Bell’s palsy.

In any event, Chinese men may insult and scream and yell all sorts of nasty words to each other, but physical fights are rare. A fight is serious business and assiduously avoided. Everyone in the vicinity will do their utmost to prevent actual fists from being thrown. Zen was not planning on throwing a fist however.

He got up and (in his mind) began to dazzle the male entourage with a stunning display of footwork reminiscent of Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee. What the leaders saw however was a dwarfish drunken American dancing what might have been an Irish jig had the Gaelic dancer been possessed by a Sri Lankan female banshee. They tried to calm Zen down. Zen pirouetted miraculously and dropped to the floor thrusting out his leg in a vicious sweep. It was a beautiful leg sweep; it was a gorgeous leg sweep. It was perfect. It was as perfectly executed as it was off its mark.

The impressive kick struck one of the beautiful slightly nervous Chinese flowers who were standing along the wall, ready to serve the drunken men. They were all of them sharing one collective desire: that this group of drunkards would settle down and go back to their hotel rooms and sleep it off so that they could get off work early. The poor young girl who was struck by Zen’s kick was working her through beauty school and had dreams of opening her own nail salon. She was a thin and slight waif and this diminutive stature protected her from Zen’s ill-timed and ill-conceived leg sweep.

Zen’s calf caught her perfectly where her perfect dainty feet met the marble floor and sent her flying into the air, her small frame describing a luscious impeccable parabola. She did not even have time to throw out her arms to save herself. This was lucky. She sailed like someone catapulted from a standing position and landed supine and stunned, but essentially unharmed onto the Egyptian blue velvet couch. Only one jet-black strand of her immaculately coifed hair was ruffled.

Such an aggressive move startled and frightened everyone and the men all billowed out of the drinking room in a raucous crowd to smoke fancy slim gold-tipped cigarettes in front of the restaurant. The young male servers, also sporting immaculately groomed hair, trimmed eyebrows, and a light dusting of makeup that rubbed off on their black silk collars, lifted Zen from the floor where he had begun to snore loudly, a small bubble of mucous growing and shrinking from his left nostril as he inhaled and exhaled. The stunned Chinese flower allowed her beauteous sisters to help her from the couch. Although she was the innocent victim of Zen’s ridiculous attempt to even the score with his nemesis, she felt not anger nor fear but only pity for the tiny foreigner, now trembling in his drunken stupor as if a winter wind were blowing over his small frame.

After twelve minutes and thirty-eight seconds during which Zen belched incredibly loudly and broke several sheets of noisome wind, he woke up in a daze to find the waiters and waitresses clearing the table. The handsome and comely servers were looking at him somewhat disagreeably from the corners of their eyes. Zen stumbled out to the restaurant foyer where the entourage was gathering. Everyone in various stages of exhaustion, food coma, and/or inebriated fog piled onto the tour bus. Zen forced himself into the seat next to K. As the bus gurgled and lolled along the half-empty streets, Zen dared to try to caress K’s pale arm next to him. First, she moved her arm away. Then, she crossed her arms. Finally, she blasted the point of her sharp elbow into the bridge of Zen’s nose. K was not a black belt in anything, but at twenty-six years of age, she had had more than one drunken idiot try to grope her on public transportation. That did the trick. Zen dozed for the rest of trip to the hotel.

Fingering his tender nose gingerly, Zen recalled why K was refusing to meet his glance. Aw, to hell with her. He remembered why he should be angry with her and not the other way around. He was as done with her as she was with him.

After a quick breakfast that only made Zen even more nauseous, they checked out of the hotel (apparently they were going to another hotel after their visit to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen), left their bags chained together behind the front desk, and piled into a new tour bus. The previous tour bus had to be cleaned, as several members of the group had gotten sick on the way home from the restaurant.

The time spent at The Chinese University of Hong Kong was as brief as it was entertaining. A high caliber of professionalism and erudition was patently manifest. They had a very brief greeting ceremony and then the signing of the cooperation agreement was done tastefully but quickly in order to maximize the time of the group’s visit. The school site managers gave a smart board presentation of their campus so that all members would be oriented properly on the tour.

The campus looked like a small picturesque European village but with all of the modern accoutrements. The young foreign teacher did not understand why such a fuss was being made over a university. Zen had to explain to her that not all universities were equipped with state-of-the-art technology. Indeed, back in Dongbei, dilapidated buildings were common even at the university level. There just weren’t enough funds to modernize all of the buildings on every campus. At least that was what Zen was told. It was a common refrain: no money.

The de facto tour guide, a smart (very) young director with excellent language skills who apologized profusely that the university chancellor could not greet them personally, led them into a special building that required a special key card. This was apparently where high level research was conducted in robotics? Yes, robotics!2015-04-21 11.33.00

“This should be pretty cool,” Zen commented to the young Englishwoman, who was trying her best to not whiff any more of Zen’s Godzilla-like breath.

“Yeah, I got it. I can see the pictures on the wall.” She stifled an involuntary gag response.

They were led into a room where a robotic arm was painting gorgeous calligraphy onto rice paper. Through the painful fog of hangover Zen marveled at this amazing bit of technological magic. And it was truly amazing. The angular arm dipped a long wooden brush into a flat broad dish of black ink and then proceeded to write out lines of Chinese poetry, smoothly, gracefully, with confident uninterrupted strokes. In fact, the young female engineer standing next to the display had to rush to scroll fresh rice paper under the robot’s arm. Since “the robot” only had one arm, it could write but could not reach for a new sheet of paper to write on.2015-04-21 11.33.11

The engineers, proud parents of their one-armed baby, took turns explaining the facets of the robot. You could program their robot to write any statement at all. You merely typed the text into the keyboard. Moreover, the robot was learning how to write it’s own poetry. This fact brought a lot of astonished gasps from the group. This was their real goal: to create a robot that could imitate the style of individual poets and then synthesize various styles into a harmonious new style. Absolutely marvelous.

The Calligraphy Robot

The Calligraphy Robot

Zen tried to make a videotape of the robot, but his own badly outdated digital camera, having taken an ill-advised rafting trip down the Songhua River two years ago, was suffering from technical difficulties. Zen had to be content with just getting some badly out of focus pictures.

There were other marvels in development but the one that stuck out in Zen’s mind was the robot “Petsitter.” Another team of engineers had designed a robot friend for pets. While owners were away at work, the Petsitter would provide entertainment for the pet, rolling along like a metal banana-yellow soccer ball with a golden band running along its north-south axis. The engineer kicked the robot over and like an indomitable R2D2, it righted itself and zigzagged between the feet of the humans, humming happily. Another engineer explained that the Petsitter was able to detect “undesirable” odors and could spray a pleasant fragrance to offset the offending smell.2015-04-21 11.31.38

The robot bumped into Zen, rolled back a few inches, gyrated on its golden axis, and then aimed a sizeable cumulonimbus of rose-scented fragrance at him. Everyone laughed—especially K—but Zen was not amused.

“Seems to me your robot got a few kinks that need to get worked out.”

The engineer picked up his yellow baby, examined it, and then put it back down. “Yes, we has not perfected he yet, but we getting there. He gonna be great one!” Everyone enthusiastically agreed even though only half of them understood the young engineer’s words.

The Awesome Petsitter

The Awesome Petsitter

K whispered something to the foreign teacher; they both looked over at Zen and giggled. Zen felt his face flush red. Damn that K. He had a desperate urge to put her over his knee and spank her like a naughty child. Zen discreetly sniffed his armpit while the troop filed out. He could have sworn the robot was looking at him.

They were hustled down to the school cafeteria and ushered into an enormous dining hall decorated in what must have been seventeenth century French style wallpaper and curtains. The ceiling had intricate wooden carvings and the football field-long dining table was covered in an incredibly heavy dining cloth. While everyone got seated, Zen begged the young Englishwoman to save him a seat and he slipped out to the restroom. He scrubbed as much of his flesh as he could with the package of moist wipes he kept in his computer bag. It would have to do. He swore he would never allow white alcohol to pass his lips ever again in this lifetime. He imagined kicking a penalty shot with the Petsitter.

Back at the dining table, scrubbed and refreshed, Zen had to suffer further mortification. He had been too hung over to properly read the menu that they had given him in the morning. He was supposed to select items that the school chefs would prepare for lunch later in the day. Zen, his eyelids moving over his eyeballs like sandpaper, just put a check into every box. A train of servers lined up behind his chair and deposited dish after steaming dish in front of him.

“I think,” said Zen, “that there’s been an error in translation.” Everyone laughed.

“Some kind of mistake!”

“Yeah, that’s some kind of mistake!”

“Poor guy. He didn’t understand the instructions on the menu this morning.”

“I guess your Chinese isn’t as good as you think, huh Eric?”

“He can’t read Chinese, that’s what it is.”

Zen tried to make some excuse about categories of food, but the more he explained the more everyone laughed. Though the foreign teacher could not understand Chinese, she understood that the members of the group were teasing Zen by the various shades of purple-red scrolling up and down his face like a broken computer monitor.

“There’s no way in hell I’ll be able to eat all of this.”

It would be an insult not to eat the food so carefully prepared. Then Zen hit upon an idea. This was a Western-style meal in which everyone was given their own plates to consume with knives and forks instead of chopsticks (much to the delight of the foreign teacher who was tired of balancing her food on the wooden implements and more often than not dropping said morsels on the table, the floor, or her lap). There was no reason Zen could not share his meal with the other members. Most of the men were not only big drinkers, but also big eaters. Some of them had ordered too little, so Zen proceeded to push his food onto the plates of those seated around him. He lumped generous portions of baked salmon, Pakistani curry chicken, and New York T-bone onto their plates. At first they protested, but after tasting the delicious meats, they eyed Zen’s plates hungrily. He passed the plates down the table and in minutes all of the food was gone. Zen had not even taken one single bite of any of the food that he had ordered. In any event, his stomach was grumbling in discontent at the awful barrage of alcohol it had been subjected to over the past few days.

Apparently, it was a delicious meal and best of all the directors at this university only plied the table with hot tea and soft drinks. No alcohol in sight. A joyous respite. Zen felt a deep enduring love for the administrators of this university. After the meal, they gathered for one last round of photos in front of the calligraphy exhibit in the main building, said goodbye, and shuttled to the hotel where they would spend their last night.

Before arriving at the hotel, the tour guide offered a list of options that the group could elect to do. At first, it was optional to go along on a tour. Then, after they disembarked, this option was rescinded. This sudden reversal of the program was not properly explained to the two foreigners. Had Zen been paying attention instead of daydreaming of multiple ways in which to exact revenge on first his nemesis and then K, he might have saved them all a bit of trouble. Zen and the foreign teacher had elected not to go along with the rest of group on the sightseeing tour. They hustled to gather their belongings and grab some rest. They both needed a break from this communal experience. Moreover, the young Englishwoman perceived the Chinese contingent as overly controlling. She had trouble understanding why they insisted that she and Zen accompany them to some silly theme park. It seemed even less important since the director herself had to rush off to the airport to go to another important meeting. Surely it wasn’t mandatory that everyone attend this event. Eventually, after an acerbic parley between Zen, K, and the logistics secretary, it was granted that Zen and the foreign teacher would be permitted to go off on their own as long as K chaperoned them. The two foreigners were relieved. (And puzzled: why chaperoned?) Both of them had had enough Mandarin language. While everyone else went to visit the Splendid China Miniature Theme Park, Zen, the young Englishwoman, and K could go window shopping and most important of all find a Starbucks. Both foreigners were going into withdrawal for a decent cup of coffee.

“What! As if we needed babysitting!” she complained.

Zen commiserated with her and made a silly joke about the Chinese wishing to safeguard her English honor from possible American infringement. She looked at him stonily. Oh-KAY. Bad joke, he muttered to himself. Zen turned to K. He tried to present an inscrutable face to her, but she could tell he was upset about last night. She knew him well enough. She felt embarrassed and sorry about the young Englishwoman’s distress, a little worried that Zen might give the director a bad accounting of her management of the situation, and also miffed that Zen treated her like an enemy. It was a bad idea to ever get involved with the eccentric temperamental American.

“May we freshen up a little bit before heading back out?” he asked, the overly polite tone incapable of making his hostility.

“I’ll see. I don’t know if we can check in without the rest of the group.”

“Are you kidding?” The foreign teacher was incredulous.

Since the group had gone immediately to visit the Splendid China Park, they had not bothered to check in. They just left their bags in the care of the front desk. In order to receive the group discount, all members had to be present. How frustrating!

Eventually the front desk got permission from a higher up to grant this favor to “our foreign friends.”

The foreigners were given key cards, but K, being a member of the office staff and not a foreign guest, had to freshen up in the downstairs restroom. Despite his irritation with her, Zen felt sorry and ashamed that K should be treated like a second-class citizen. In the past under such circumstances, they had discreetly shared facilities, but given how things stood between them, this was impossible. Zen wanted to prompt the young Englishwoman to offer to bring K to her room, but she grabbed her card and bolted for the elevator. Zen cast a doleful gaze at K but she quickly dropped her eyes and pretended to look for something in her purse. Zen turned on his heel and followed the foreign teacher into the elevator.

Later, the three of them wandered the clean-swept shopping malls nearby the hotel. It was an amazing and grotesque display of capitalism, capitalism on steroids. First, they wandered into a warren of small narrow stores selling trinkets, gewgaws, and knockoffs of famous brands, each store piled on the other with barely room to draw breath. This crazy labyrinth was next door to an enormous mall that housed many of the world’s most famous and most expensive brand stores. Even Zen, a fashion philistine if ever there was one, recognized many of the names: Yves Saint Laurent, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany’s, Cartier, Coach handbags, the list went on and on. K was not insensitive to the cold shoulder treatment she was getting from the two foreigners and ditched them after an hour. She was particularly sickened when Zen purposefully took them into the woman’s lingerie section and began trying on several items. The silly foreign teacher guffawed loudly while K stood mortified issuing apologies to the saleswomen. The truth was K was jealous that Zen and the foreign teacher were getting on so well. It did not help matters when the young pretty lingerie sellers laughed at Zen’s antics. Peeved, she went back to the hotel to relax and wait for the other leaders to return from their tour.

Zen and the young Englishwoman breathed a sigh of relief. K was acting like such a wet blanket. They found a Starbucks in which to sip coffee and check their email on their respective devices. After they had devoured a blueberry cheesecake and Black Forest Chocolate cake, the two of them went shopping. The young Englishwoman needed a portable cell phone charger and Zen wanted to buy Hobbit and Danny a gift. Zen felt his conscience pricking him that he had neglected to get his wife and stepson anything from this trip. His conscience was not pricking him so much as warning him. The last time he returned from a business trip without a present, Hobbit looked so forlorn and misbegotten that he wished the plane had exploded on the tarmac rather than returning him safely to Harbin. About the time they were done shopping, K sent them a text to tell them when and where they would gather to have dinner.

“God, do we have to?” the young Englishwoman asked.

“I don’t know. Since the Director of the Center has already left maybe we can skip this dinner. It’s been known to happen.”

Zen spoke with K. The foreign teacher could tell from his tone that it was no go.

“Sorry. K is telling me that we have to show up. It’s the last time. Tonight we can go off on our own, though. That is if you can stand my company for another night.”

“Yeah sure. That’s fine. I’m fine with whatever. I just am a bit sick of eating with the entire…you know.”

“Yeah, believe me I know.”

Dinner was much better than expected. Most of the leaders had either gone to dinner with other colleagues or had left Shenzhen for other venues. Best of all, the despicable man who had made the foreign teacher cry was nowhere in sight. Zen and the young Englishwoman were glad and prayed he had left town. Moreover, since the director was not in attendance, no one was forced to drink.

After dinner, the two foreigners strolled around the neighborhood. Zen had the cockamamie idea of sneaking across the border to Hong Kong. They walked down to the Ping Yuen River, but could not see it much less find access to cross to it. There was a tall white concrete wall built along the entire river shore. About every four hundred yards a guard tower snaked with razor wire loomed down on the road. The windows (looking somewhat like gun turrets) were dark. The towers looked unlived in, but that was highly unlikely. There were pedestrians hurrying home from work carrying groceries in plastic bags and cars whizzing along the thoroughfare, but other than that there was nothing to see. Zen noticed that along the shore there were several fancy gated condominium communities that obviously had a great view of the river and Hong Kong. The daunting white wall paused at their entrances and resumed at the edge of their properties. So much for communism.

This part of Shenzhen reminded Zen a little bit of Hong Kong. The roads and pedestrian pathways were designed in such a way that one could not simply cross the street without hopping several ridiculous fences and medians. One had to find a pedestrian bridge or underpass in order to get over to the other side. He thought of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island. It felt as if you could get trapped on one of the medians in between the fast-moving rivers of speeding traffic if you weren’t careful.

They decided to be adventurous and raced across the road, dodging Jaguars, BMWs, and Mercedes Benzes, vaulting over the steel medians until they reached the bus depot. Once there they made their way to the last stop on the Metro’s Green Line. They got on the subway and rode it to the Grand Theatre stop.

They walked over to Lizhi Park and fast-walked around Lihu Lake. It was nice to see so many people out and about exercising this late in the evening on a weekday. Grandparents were playing with their grandchildren, young lovers were either strolling along the lake or finding quiet shadowed bowers in which to sit and enjoy each other’s company. Many sports enthusiasts were jogging around the park singly or in small groups. Zen asked the foreign teacher if she would not mind stopping at the exercise area so that he could stretch his legs.

While Zen was trying to look cool doing the standing splits against the chin-up bars, the young Englishwoman was immersed in cyberspace, taking not the least bit notice of Zen’s physical accomplishments. She was updating her friends back in Wales about this horrendous trip spent in the company of an American blowhard and a pack of uncivilized Chinese bumpkins from the North.

The fact that she didn’t comment on his flexibility stung Zen’s pride until he reminded himself that he was stretching not for applause, but in order to relieve his aching lower back. He consoled himself with the Chinese chengyu 对牛弹琴 duìniú tánqín that meant playing the piano for the bull or cow. The nearest linguistic equivalent would have to be casting pearls before swine.

If the young Englishwoman were hard pressed she could have shared a few choice rejoinders that might have cut Zen to the quick. For example, she could have said, “Every bird relishes its own voice” or “The older the man, the weaker his mind.” Rather than sting each other with shrewd remarks they kept quiet. It wasn’t that they didn’t like each other, but travel takes its toll and traveling with workmates can be exhausting. After taking the subway back to the hotel and reaching their rooms both of them found they were glad to quit each other’s company. It had been a long day at the end of a long trip.