Tuesday, December 22, 2015

China Daily - a fragment

For some reason I was digging through my folder of unfinished novels, and I ran across this fragment. In the end, I lost faith in this project. It seemed fake to me, a book that a Chinese person should be writing. I'm not sure if that's valid but I can say I have not read any such books, except for Sid Smith's Something Like a House, which I reviewed for FEER (and saved for posterity here).

Anyway, a few more chapters survive. The book was to be a picaresque comedy about the Beijing Posts and Telecommunications Boxing Team, based on the experience of a couple friends I knew when I lived in Beijing. Somehow it was going to end with the Tiananmen Square incident.  There was really a guy named "Patriot Zhang," though he was not a boxer.

Here goes:

VI. Train

The constant travel – “This moving train car of a prison” the team called it – was the worst part of being a Post. Zhang hated the anise-flavored watermelon seeds everyone ate and spat on the floor. He hated the smell of instant noodles, or, to be precise, the smell of the plastic sachets of congealed fat impregnated with flavoring that came with instant noodles. He disliked chatting. He loathed playing cards. He despised track-side scenery, all foundries and fallow fields with plastic bags hanging in the weeds. Worst of all, he could never sleep. The 18 hour return trip to Beijing from Shenyang—to which they had flown from Seoul on a rattling China Northern Airlines plane—promised to be terrible, as usual. Coach Wu was in a bad humor because he felt Gao and Fat Liu had humiliated the nation, and there was no sign the idiotic penis remarks were going to cease. Even Chen had joined in.
Long-distance trains offered three kinds of berths, which for political reasons were not named first, second and third class but soft sleeper, hard sleeper and hard seat. Only cadres and foreigners booked the 4-berth soft sleeper compartments, which were as expensive as flying. Businessmen, schoolteachers, state factory workers, soldiers, criminals, and what Zhang took for wretched unwashed Russians but in fact were European adventurers all took hard sleeper, where each had a cramped bunk to himself and shared a small table, a small thermos of hot water and a small window with five other passengers. Hard seat was reserved for peasants and professional athletes.
At the station in Shenyang, peasants outfoxed athletes horde: 0, leaving Fat Liu crammed next to the toilet, which had a broken door that wouldn’t close, and the rest of them to carve out territory from the aisle amid the farmers’ tremendous carryalls. Never mind the seat assignments: the attendants were good for nothing but collecting tickets and fining those who overslept their intended destinations, and even if the staff had been more competent, when it came to territory nobody could prevent a farmer from winning a war of gradual attrition. They consumed prodigious amounts of peanuts, watermelon seeds and diesel-scented liquor, the internal combustion of which resulted in poisonous farts. They opened their mouths fist-wide to pry out uneaten and unsavory scraps of pork, even teeth of the deepest black, and carelessly wiped it (the pork) on the seatbacks or flicked them (teeth) across the compartment with a forefinger. They blew their noses on the window curtains or, if those were too crisp, in their hands. And if you still didn’t yield, a farmer would fall into a deep, snoring, drunken sleep, a silk thread of drool spooling endlessly from his cavernous maw onto you, his mattress.
As soon as the attendant checked Zhang’s ticket, exchanging it for a metal chit with his seat number, Zhang retreated to the dining car, where he planned to bribe the supervisor with his 25 yuan bonus to let him stay the night through. In the dining car the first and second class passengers were thrown together at mealtimes (the third class brought its own food), but it was now empty except for two or three smokers in sharp, foreign-made suits. The kitchen staff busily set to work preparing box lunches for the trolleys, and the supervisor, a man with a mole on his cheek, counted the change in the cash box.
Zhang took a place in the far back, behind a table of idle waitresses, where he hoped the supervisor would ignore him. No one seemed to pay any attention until a businessman of middle age entered, glanced around the car and made straight for him. Zhang decided that the man must also have wanted to avoid the supervisor, because his eyes widened with surprise and then narrowed in annoyance when he found Zhang camped in the bribe-avoidance booth. Judging from the quality of his shoes and glasses, the man was Overseas Chinese. He nodded and sat down at the table next to Zhang, where he would be judged and sentenced by the supervisor in an instant.
Sure enough, the supervisor sent a waitress on recognizance. Zhang had hoped to secure a half-finished plate to pick at and thereby hold his money until nightfall, when the dining car closed and it would be necessary to bribe the supervisor to stay on. Now he would be forced to order something or go back to the hell of the hard seat carriage. Zhang was busy contemplating the cheapest item on the menu when the businessman demanded the woman’s attention: “Miss, I want to order food.”
“Wait your turn,” said the waitress. “This sportsman was here first.”
Zhang made a self-deprecating gesture.
I am inviting him to join me,” the man said in what Zhang decided was a Taiwanese accent. He moved over next to Zhang and proceeded to order sliced pork and scallions, fish-flavored eggplant, stir-fried spinach with garlic – here he paused to ask Zhang whether he liked century eggs and found he did – and a plate of century eggs, very black and very bitter. “And bring us two bowls of rice,” he said. “You eat rice?”
Zhang, who did not have to make weight for several weeks, nodded. When the waitress had gone, he thanked the man and introduced himself.
“Mao Chen,” the Overseas Chinese said, proffering his business card. “But you can call me M.C. You speak English, right? Good. English is the global language.” He spoke in Chinese, except for those aggravating initials. “I live in France, so I speak English with a French-Chinese accent and French with a Chinese accent. Have you changed your ticket? Yes? Do you think they’ll check tickets in here? I haven’t changed mine and I’ve left my passport with my luggage.”
Zhang was even more convinced that M.C. was Taiwanese by the way he aped foreign manners and bossed people around.
They have to come back through here when they finish with third class,” Zhang said. “But I doubt they’ll check our tickets. They’re assigned by carriage.” After each stop, the conductors collected passengers’ tickets, checked their passports and gave them a metal chit with their seat assignment on it. They kept the tickets from each carriage in a wallet, so they knew where everyone aboard was meant to get off, and before each stop, they came around and took the chits back and returned the tickets. One had to produce a ticket at the station to be allowed off the platform. The system had practically eliminated fare dodgers, except for during Spring Festival, when the crowd simply mobbed the attendants and scrambled over the turnstyles.
M.C. asked to see Zhang’s chit, and when he had inspected it put it down on his side of the table, next to his chopsticks, rather than handing it back. Zhang meant to ask him for it right away, but M.C. began to tell him a story about the first time he had seen the Eiffel Tower and it seemed impolite and paranoid to interrupt. Then the dishes began to arrive, century eggs first, and M.C. ordered them each a bottle of beer. Zhang decided all he need do was be sure to remember the chit when they finished and M.C. headed back to his berth.
They were snacking on the final dish when the door leading to the hard seat carriages opened and the attendants passed through to return to their between-car posts. M.C. began to move the metal chit back and forth like an indecisive chess player and finally left it uncovered on the edge of the table next to him just as the attendants passed. So, that was what M.C. had been after, Zhang concluded, but then reflected that M.C. had gone to an awful lot of trouble to avoid spending a thirty-yuan on a third-class ticket, and bought a sixty-yuan meal in the process. And, even if he had managed to get aboard without a ticket in Shenyang and somehow was able to avoid the conductors for the rest of the trip, he would have to produce a ticket in Beijing to get out of the station. Maybe M.C. did have a ticket, but had forgotten his passport at his berth and was too lazy to go back for it, Zhang decided. In any case, he didn’t like to be used, especially by a Taiwanese know-it-all.
With a beery, self-satisfied look, M.C. began to expound the benefits of living abroad. The overseas Chinese, who were all trying to be Americans from tiny satellite dictatorships, were worse about this than ordinary foreigners, who all had delusional fantasies about submissive women, kung fu and traditional medicine.
You might not live any better, measured by material standards, but you have a feeling of freedom, that you can do whatever you want and nobody will pay attention,” M.C. said. “You don’t have bribe your boss or treat him to dinner to get cleared to change jobs. Nobody but criminals has a personal file. The police pay no attention to the old ladies of the neighborhood watch.”
Zhang, who had heard that feeling of freedom nonsense before, poured the last of his beer into the glass and waved at the waitress to bring another one. He gave a noncommittal grunt.
M.C. changed tact. “Patriot,” he said. “An interesting name.”
I was born in ’70,” Zhang said. “Ten years earlier and I’d have been ‘Steel.’” Just about every man born during the infamous backyard furnace effort to support the Great Leap Forward was named Steel, Iron or Metal, just as those who, like Zhang, were born during the Cultural Revolution, were called Patriot, Hero, Lei Feng, Rocket and Space Conqueror.
But you do love the motherland, don’t you?” M.C. said slyly. “As an athletic hero of the state and so on?”
We must help the country to stride forward boldly into modernization,” Zhang said, mustering up a winning grin. “It’s our job to promote international friendship and cultural exchange and to provide an example for the world of China’s development.”
M.C. looked at him closely, but apparently could make nothing of his expression, for he didn’t pursue that line of questioning any longer. Instead, he rambled for a bit about the boundless varieties of pornography available in Western countries. When he finally rose to leave, he tried to take the metal chit with him, pretending to scoop it up without thinking.
Zhang grabbed his wrist. “That’s mine,” he said. “I need it to show the attendant and get back my ticket when we arrive in Beijing. You’ll have to change your ticket with the person in charge of your compartment.”
As M.C. apologized, Zhang again wondered what he was up to. Maybe he didn’t have a ticket, and hoped to exchange the chit for Zhang’s before they got to Beijing. His suit would certainly stand out in hard seat. Every farmer in the car would notice.
I’m terribly sorry,” M.C. replied. He lay the chit on the table, and Zhang released his wrist. “They might have thrown you off the train! Please, why don’t you take my ticket, and I’ll take your place.” M.C. produced a soft sleeper ticket and held it out. His face was red from the beer. He mopped his forehead with a crumpled napkin. “Please,” he said.
Done,” said Zhang, capitalizing on the idiot’s embarrassment without hesitation.
It’s a lower berth. Cantonese newlyweds above, whispering and giggling. I consider myself lucky.”
Have you seen the hard seat carriage?” asked Zhang, rising from the table. “I recommend you stay right here.”
He went directly to M.C.’s soft-sleeper compartment, where he was pleased to note another example of the man’s stupidity. The couple who shared the chamber were not newlyweds at all. One was a Hong Kong businessman and the other his mainland mistress. They were both crammed into the same overheard berth with the blanket tucked up their chins so all Zhang could see of them was their faces. The businessman blinked at Zhang with the confused eyes of someone who has just taken off his glasses. The girl giggled.
Zhang sat down on the bunk underneath theirs, where at least they wouldn’t be staring at each other, and took out the tattered China Daily, now eleven days old, that he was in the process of decoding. He was a few paragraphs into an article about the propaganda ministry’s policy on bad news. The girl above him immediately began to whisper.
You don’t love me…. No, you don’t. If you loved me you’d want me to be happy….. You’d want me to have an apartment, like my sister’s boyfriend bought her.”
Zhang tried to ignore her wheedling and concentrate on the newspaper article. The Ministry of Propaganda had announced a call for more bad news. Apparently they’d determined that all the rosy reports were making people skeptical. That was certainly true, but Zhang didn’t understand what effect they imagined for the more bad news announcement.
I hate you. You never do anything for me. You left me sitting in that room all day. Of course I was talking to the security guard. Nobody else paid any attention to me. No, he’ll hear us. Stop, I don’t like it that way” --
The door opened, startling the lovers. A foot thumped against the compartment wall. The attendant brought in a fourth passenger. He looked like a small-time criminal or a plainclothes agent of the Ministry of State Security. He glanced across at Zhang, sat down on the opposite bunk, and began watching the newlyweds as though they were television.
I haven’t exchanged my ticket,” Zhang told the attendant. He gave it to her and showed her his temporary passport and his identity card.
Beijing?” She took a metal chit marked 20B from a leather case and put the ticket in its place. She gave the chit to Zhang and repeated the process with the new man. When she’d given him his chit, she replaced the hot water thermos with a full one from the corridor and banged out.
The thug or secret agent now directed his crocodilian assessment at Zhang, who again tried to focus on his newspaper.
You an athlete?” he inevitably asked.
Right. I’m a boxer.”
What team?”
Beijing Posts and Telecommunications.”
American boxing?” He emphasized American as though he were accusing Zhang of treason.
Zhang folded the paper. “Olympic boxing.”
Of course. You mind taking a photo with me? For my kid.” The man gestured at a cheap instamatic camera.
Zhang moved over next to the thug, who gave the camera to the businessman’s mistress. She held it in one hand and kept the covers pulled up to her chin with the other.
My son will love this,” the man explained dully. “Are you famous?”
Zhang grinned crazily, winked and, secretly hoping it was some unknown obscenity, gave the thumbs up signal he’d learned from the giant. The camera flashed.
No, I’m just a boxer on a municipal industry team. Nobody’s heard of me.”
I see. Anyway, an athlete has a good life, right? Traveling all over the country in soft-sleeper berths, chatting up wide-eyed girls and leaving a trail of broken hearts. Your name in boldface in China Sport.”
Had he been sober, Zhang would have agreed or perhaps even more likely, responded with the ubiquitous national grunt that could mean everything from “You said it” or “Do go on” to “Not exactly” or “Stop talking shit.” But he was drunk, so he told the truth. “Maybe ten years ago it was like that, though I doubt it. In any case, it’s not at all like that now. In an Olympic year everybody gets a little bit excited over you, as long as you don’t explain just how unlikely it is that you’ll make it from the municipal level up to the national team. You might chat a girl up through a dormitory window or in a hotel elevator sometime, but there isn’t much you can do about it, with the coach, political educator, the informant monitoring your every step. As for traveling all over the country! Touring the motherland’s third-class hotels and collapsing gymnasiums, more like. Prisoners of the train. It’s like…it’s like Spring Festival week every month, crammed in hard seat. Only no noodles, no beer and no peanuts, with the weigh-in to look forward to. This was the first time they let us out of the country”--
He stopped. He realized that he was leaning forward from the edge of the bunk, his fists clenched at his sides. He hadn’t exactly shouted, but he had definitely raised his voice, an observation he made with some dismay as he watched the man’s sly smile widen with a slight twitch of his lips.
So life as one of our nation’s sportsmen doesn’t suit you?”
No,” Zhang emended. “It’s not that it doesn’t suit me. I—er—I—ahem—I’m just a little frustrated with the slow progress we’re making in our march toward modernization.”
The man leaned back against the wall of the compartment so that his face obscured by the shadow of the bunk above him. He faced the window and looked at Zhang askance. “So your criticisms of the state are motivated by boisterous nationalism,” he said.
That’s probably true,” Zhang stammered. “Only I hadn’t meant to criticize the state. I was just talking nonsense.” He could feel sweat trickling down his back between his shoulder blades—that cold sweat again. He was now certain he was dealing with an agent of the MSS.
The secret policeman watched him. In the berth above, the businessman and his mistress shifted positions restlessly, now and then thumping the wall with an elbow or heel. They no longer whispered. Zhang opened his wilted newspaper again and tried to read it, but found himself instead studying the page, wondering if the agent was still watching him and fighting the urge to look up and see. He read the same paragraph over and over again. Readership is down for many newspapers, including the China Petroleum News, the Communist Youth Daily, Chemistry with Chinese Characteristics and others, the Ministry of Propaganda announced today. Only the People’s Daily remains unaffected, retaining a circulation of 6.3 million dedicated readers.
After some time, the woman began to whisper again, wheedling about her sister’s apartment. Southerners are fearless, Zhang thought, remembering the old saying, “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”
You studying English?” the MSS agent said finally. He indicated Zhang’s China Daily. “Planning to go overseas?”
For personal development,” said Zhang.
Again silence. Then: “What made you decide to take up American boxing?”
Sorry?” Zhang said, pretending not to have heard.
Chinese kung fu not good enough? So you went in for boxing?”
It’s not American boxing. It’s Olympic boxing. Anyway, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I was at the Beijing Sports Middle School to be a hurdler – this was in ’86 – and the coach told me I wasn’t going to be taken up to the senior league.”
If you’re traveling with the team, and the rest of them are in hard seat, what are you doing in a luxury berth?”
It occurred to Zhang that the agent was looking for M.C. That would explain why he had been so anxious to swap his soft-sleeper ticket for Zhang’s place in hard seat, an act that Zhang had stupidly dismissed as mad. For an instant, he thought of saying he found the ticket left behind in the dining car, but then he considered that the agent’s next step would be to speak to the staff there, who were certain to remember his idiotic Big Red Machine tracksuit.
I swapped seats with a stupid overseas Chinese in the dining car,” he said. “He was embarrassed that he almost took my seat number by mistake and wanted to save face, I suppose. I went along. Losing face is one thing, but the hard seat carriage….” He grimaced. There was no reason to repeat M.C.’s ramblings about the feeling of freedom one has living outside China or his leading questions about his patriotism.
The agent produced a flimsy badge – not unlike the pathetic tie-pin Zhang had been given by the American military officer – and demanded to see his identity card. He noted his name and address. When he asked the couple in the upper berth for their identification, the Hong Kong business man had to reach across to the opposite bunk for his pants, and the blanket fell away to reveal that his mistress was topless.
The train was held up at the next station for M.C. to be taken off by the secret policeman. Zhang watched through the carriage window as he was led off, his wrists cuffed behind his back, by two ignorant People’s Liberation Army soldiers. The secret policeman walked behind and glanced back toward the train every few paces. When he caught sight of Zhang, he boxed the air for a moment, grinning. Despite the comfortable berth, Zhang did not sleep more than a restless hour or two for the rest of the way to Beijing.

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