Friday, April 07, 2006

Friday evening in downtown Songjiang: one minute I am enjoying myself walking in the flow of a crowd shifting from the workday into a night of leisure and window shopping. The next moment a dark cloud comes over me. I cannot explain it. There is no reason for this cloud; I am not aware of a reason. I feel lost and worthless. But then as I am walking, a boy in a green sweater smiles at me and I smile back. The clouds dissipate.

At a CD and VCD store, I look over the VCDs of which a few weeks ago I was stung with a bad copy of 'Casablanca'- distorted audio. At $1.25, I cannot really complain. I see a VCD of 'Brokeback Mountain' for the same price but I pass on it. I then look through the bin of current Chinese music: Kissy, Angela, Rain. I heard a bubblicious song by Angela while riding around in the mini-van driving around Wuxi but I do not buy it. I will have to ask the students what the name of the song was that I liked. And then I see it, put there for me; A strange Chinese collection of Madonna hit songs (Right On!) 'Music,' 'Ray of Light,' 'Papa Don't Preach,' 'Holiday,' 'Like a Prayer,' 'Like a Virgin.' It comes in a little box and it is $1.25.

I take it to the counter. I have my jean jacket on with all the buttons pinned to it. I am into the kissy kitchyness of Mao. I have started buying Mao buttons at flea markets and putting them on my jacket. The women at the counter point to Mao and smile and say something to each other. I hand the cashier the money for my Madonna find and leave the store. I am excited to get home and play it. "I wandered through the Wilderness..."

Again, life is good. Jo gave me a toaster. I bought some bread at Christine's (an upscale bakery where bread is 60 cents.) I have a strange Madonna hits collection to listen to on my rocking Hyandai speakers. I bought a polka dot tray for cheap at Lotus - which I swear I saw a similar one at Crate and Barrel for 100 times what I paid for mine - on which to carry my toast, coffee, cigarettes, candles out to the balcony.

Back at the apartment I crank Madonna like it was Sabbath 'Sweet Leaf.'

I have tea and toast on the balcony. I light candles. I smoke a cigarette. Life is grand. I look at the dark labyrynth of vertical poles in my backyard that one day soon will be a building. I blow out the candles and retire to my bedroom. My bed has a new striped set of sheets, pillow cases and a duvet cover. The main color is yellow with lime green, grey and red stripes. My bed looks like a Big Ed sized Grand Slam golf shirt.

On and off for the last few weeks, I have been reading Fitzgerald's 'The Beautiful and Damned.' I read until a little after midnight and then I turn off the light and wait for sleep.

As I drift off to sleep, I wonder how many Chinese people have heard Van Halen's 'Atomic Punk' from Halen's flawless first which makes me think of a conversation I had a few years ago with my friend Ray - at the time he was the music editor of Interview Magazine. We were out in New York on our way to see some lame band that was getting lots of attention. Now, I do not even remember which in the assembly line of lame bands this particular one was. Somehow, Ray and I got on the subject of which albums we would take on a deserted island with us. The first album he mentioned was the first Van Halen which would definitely, no joke - willy nilly -be one of my candidates. I think he was a bit surprised when I agreed because he told me he was joking. He then started naming the critic cool list with Galaxy 500 at the top. I stuck with the first Van Halen.

6 AM - I hear the pounding of hammers, the cawwing of Chinese workers and the dropping of huge steel pipes. The construction has begun like it does every morning at 6 AM. I fade in and out of consciousness. I look at the clock.

The time is now 7:30 AM. I fade back into a dream. I am in the house in which I was raised, the house which is on the back of my album 'Motorcycle Childhood,' a very Brady house. I am walking through the house looking for everyone. No one is there. I am calling my mom's and my dad's names. They are not there. As I walk about the house, I start to notice it has fallen into disrepair. Some of the windows are broken. The furniture has that abandoned look. The cabinets are bare except for a lone can of pork and beans. I wake up. The time is 9 AM. I have the day ahead of me.

I put on Madonna (again), 'Music' (again) and fix toast and tea. I have the toast and tea on the balcony. A construction worker waves and calls "Helro." I wave back. At 9:30 AM, the heat of the day is already approaching.

I hear a knock on my door. I am listening to Nico. Jo asks me if it is me. I tell her it's not me it's Nico. Nico is German. She then tells me that she used to really like a guitarist who is quite critically acclaimed but she could not remember his name. She kept trying to think of his name. She wanted to tell me she liked him because he was from some strange place in America. I offered Carlos Santana. No, no that was not it. I said Roy Clark, Glen Campbell. No, no someone who had a name like Ritter but not Tex Ritter. I then said Leo Kotke but I knew he would be too obscure and he did not come along until the 1970s.
"Oh you know, that state...What state is that? That state where Jennifer is from." With the name Jennifer suddenly thrown into the conversation, I had no clue who Jennifer was. I was thinking Jennifer Flowers, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer McCarthy. I then realized she meant Jennifer the other American English teacher - Jennifer who is concerned about Max smoking and playing poker; Jennifer who told me that Maureen would be in for a surprise to see people on the drip smoking in the hospital.
"Yes, yes, that is the state. Now if I could just remember his name"
Awkwardly, we stand in the doorway. I ask her to come in to see my new bistro set.
"Oh isn't this lovely," she says.
We both look over the balcony and she comments on the huge bush that is now a small tree which is blooming just beyond my kitchen balcony. At this time, I notice a construction worker relieving himself by the bush. Since she is pushing 70, I wonder if she will notice. And, if she notices if she will say anything.
"Oh, oh, what is he doing?" She asks but is not really asking because, fortunately, she keeps talking. "That is rather unproper behaviour to be soiling your teagarden in such a heinous manner."
"Well, I guess my tea garden is the construction workers' community toilet."
"Yes, yes, I guess so but so improper."
Jo leaves, muttering about improperness and mystery Minnesota guitar players.

I write and putter around the apartment until 11 am at which time I hear a knock on the door. I open the door and Maureen is standing there. The two Australians are going to lunch at the school cafeteria and have invited me to go along with them.

Maureen and I go to the cafeteria quite often. Jo never goes. She complains about the msg that is put in all of the food there. Furthermore, I am surprised that she is going with us because of her unfortunate calamity a few nights ago after eating an undisclosed meal at said cafeteria. During her night class, she had to excuse herself several times because the cafeteria cuisine rocked her body like the Jedi hitting the Deathstar. After this near death cafeteria experience, Jo told me to never, under any circumstace what-so-ever, let her eat in the cafeteria again.

"No matter how famished I have become, do not let me set foot into that place again. I do not know what my students must have thought. They must have thought I have truly given myself to it."

Cut to: Maureen and Jo - with me along for the Yank perspective - walking to the cafeteria on a Saturday mid-morning. As we walk, Jo mentions Bizmark, one of the students in a special English lifestyle preparation course she teaches. From what I can gather, this class teaches a student how to complain about his meal in English. Bizmark is in my class 11, one of the six oral English classes of 50 students. Jo says Bizmark is quite argumentative in class. She likes to discuss Chinese history with the students. Bizmark argues with her that what she is saying is false according to what he has read in various Chinese newspapers. Jo tells him the Chinese papers are lying and that he should read British and American papers for the facts. I interject that American papers sometimes seem to have difficulty with the truth.

By this time, we have made it to the second floor of the cafeteria. Our conversation seems to always revolve around the weirdness of China. Maureen says it is like trying to learn how to do everything backwards. Jo asks me how long my relatives would last here if any made the trip. I say my relatives would get off of the plane, get in a taxi, get out of the taxi at their destination, take a look around, get back in the taxi and head back to the airport, get on a plane and go home. I say most of my folks could not deal with the unsanitary conditions. Maureen interjects that her sister-in-law would do the same thing and she is actually Australian Chinese.

The other day when we were eating at a nice restaurant in Wuxi, the overflowing slop buckets were in the middle of the restaurant. In the USA, that would not fly I said. They concurred as Australia's voice of two.

At this point, their voices dropped to not much louder than a whisper. Jo started in on the current events happening with Taiwan. Taiwan wants to stay independent of China. China sees Taiwan as part of China. This is a very controversial subject. Jo mentions that China will coerce - with bribes and other ways - other nations to agree. She then says that she believes when China becomes powerful enough, Japan should be concerned.

"My students do not have any sense of history." Jo says. "I tell them that if it was not for the US during World War II they would now be Japanese."

We finish our Won Ton soup. They head to our office in the 6th floor of the International Building. I go back to my apartment. I putter around for a bit. I debate doing the few dishes in the sink. I don't do them. I head to downtown Songjiang. As I am leaving my apartment, I see two young recruits in fatigues. One of them is smoking a cigarette. They do not see me.

As I have said, I am an oddity here. Many people when I pass say 'Hello' or 'Ni Hao.' I 'Ni Hao' and 'Hello' my way to town. Sometimes I am the first to speak. Sometimes I wait until the other person speaks and then I speak. I pass a father and his teenage son. They are both staring at me, not smiling. I smile and say 'Ni Hao.' They just keep staring at me, not smiling.

Once I am in downtown Songjiang, I duck into alleyways where I have not trodden. I go into unfamiliar clothing shops. Clerks approach me and say things that I do not understand. I shake my head and say 'xie xie' 'bu' and 'bu xie.' I can say the crap out of these words. The clerks look at me and smile and pull clothes off the rack. Many times these clothes are tacky t's with random English sayings which make no sense. They sometimes sound like indie rock band names.

From the alleyways, I head back to the familiar territory of mainstreet. I take an escalator up three stories to the home store where I have bought lime green sheets and rattan soled slippers. The saleslady walks up to me and converses with me adamantly. I nod and say 'dui dui' (yes yes). But I have no idea what she is saying. She seems appeased and walks off. I head back down to the street.

I wander into another multi-level department store. I browse the men's section. An Armani knock-off catches my eye until I realize it looks like a cheap Armani knock-off. The saleslady pulls my size out and I say 'bu xie' and walk off.

I hit the street again. My afternoon excursion has made me hungry for a snack. I debate going back to Christine's where I got last night's bread but I decide to stroll back to my apartment. The heat of the day makes it no longer necessary to wear my funky Mao pin jean jacket. I take it off and throw it over my arm and make the trek back to my apartment to fix a snack.

I have a snack of steamed dumplings over vinegar drizzled lettuce out on the balcony. The construction workers do not notice me. I drink a Pepsi with the dumplings. I buy the dumplings in bulk in the frozen section of the Lotus supermarket. A bag of 20 or 25 costs under a dollar. This is next to the dried fish section where, yes, dried fish hang for purchase. They look more like some sort of Salvador Dali sculpture, perhaps they could complement 'First Cylndric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper's Brain' (which is in the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, FLA).

After lunch, and still debating the dishes, I lounge on my new sofa and read more of the Fitzgerald book. I drift off to sleep a few times. Maureen stops by. She has just been to see Jo. Jo is deathly ill. Maureen asked her if she wanted to go to supper later. Jo told Maureen she never wants to eat again.

Suddenly, I think of the mystery Minnesota guitarist - Ry Cooder. If Jo returns mentally unscathed from her second near death cafeteria experience in less than a week, I will let her know that Mr. Cooder is actually from Los Angeles, California.

It is now night, the construction workers have attached two massive flood lights to the orange tower which is opposite my apartment. The flood lights shine into my living room. They are strangely comforting in an Orwellian sense. The labyrinth of vertical poles are starting to become a building or perhaps a ridiculous Lars von Trier movie set. The workers are preparing to pour the concrete for the second floor. I still debate doing the dishes.


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