Going Back to China

I rolled through an intersection without stopping.  I pounded, tapped, blasted, and played the car horn like a motherfucking riot.  And wherever I went pedestrians and motorists alike trembled in fear.  America is a diverse country.  That was something I had missed while teaching in Hunan last year.  I had missed the Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, hipsters, Goths, jocks, blacks, whites, yellows, reds, gays, conservatives, liberals, independents, blondes, brunettes, etc., etc.  Everybody was fiercely self-expressive.  But when I drove in the traditional Hunanese Driving Style, I got to see the one thing they all had in common: In a flash their facial muscles flexed, pupils dilated, white teeth showed, and cheeks burned red.  And then their eyes and faces melted into confusion.  Yes, I am an asshole.  It felt so good to be American once again.

But on the other hand I had China withdrawal symptoms.  I missed China.  I missed the rush of riding helmetless on motorcycle taxis through, against, and between oncoming traffic.  It made me feel like Han Solo (“Never tell me the odds!”) racing through asteroids while gunned down by Imperial Tie Fighters.   Living in China was a potent and lethal addiction, for China is a drug.  Its novelty and strangeness and chance of death had ways of pumping your dopamine levels to Everestian heights.  But it was unhealthy too.

I got a summer gig at a sign factory.  Yes, it was one of the America’s last factories.  They made signs of all things.  I told the Veep that they were lucky to have me.  After all, as a former student of literature I had become skilled at signs, cryptography, symbols, codes, and semiotics.  Dan Brown’s fictional professor of semiotics Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks) had nothing on me.  So would it benefit the company if they had an expert to make sure all their products and services were up to code?

Instead they made me a jack-of-all-trades.  I worked in Collections where I spent countless hours hounding people for money they lacked.  And I acted busy.  It was an office space setting.  Nobody spoke their mind.  Everybody insisted they were glad to have a job.  Once in a while I realized my ass got numb and tingly and my eyelids got muscles cramps from staring at Excel spreadsheets.

My cell mates – who wore their years of office work like adaptive layers of fat to luxuriously cushion their seat bones — made no effort to conceal their scorn from my immature sense of humor (hell, anything to prop up the walls that seemed crush me like an oncoming battle tank.).  I threw out peanut gallery commentary in order to dispel the silence.  They countered with a wall of scorn.

I eventually called and re-called everybody on the Collections list.  And then, just for fun, I documented my so-called life on Twitter, Facebook, and the company intranet.  Despite this, I still had too much time to sit at my desk.  I had even guzzled water so that I would have frequent excuses to get away from my desk.  My metabolism slowed down and despite fasting, I actually seemed to gain weight as if the water and air I breathed seemed to be sucked up and combined with waste carbons to build up surplus energy reserves around my stomach.  Paranoia set in and I had visions of my abdomen expanding over my belt, onto my thighs and down my knees, and then finally sagging down to the carpet.

A week felt like a lifetime working in a dead letters office.  I wanted to scream.  Or at least let out a barbaric blast of methane that seemed to have gotten bottled up inside me from sitting for so long.  Of course I never did this, but just thinking about it and the office’s reactions (or lack thereof) sustained me for several phone calls.

Later after staring at a computer screen or spreadsheet my eyes glazed over and I had visions: There I am in proper business attire sipping a bottle of water, leaning as far back in my chair as possible with a phone clenched between my left shoulder and left ear, yawning, looking up at the ceiling from upside down, receiving somebody’s voicemail, delivering my request for a call back, and then catapulting forward, the computer monitor in my hands like an out-of-bounds soccer ball, driving it down into the floor and dancing a heathen jig around it, chanting: “Take this Jay Oh Bee and shove it!”

And then the proles would rise up and demand partial ownership.  Or at least a Papa John’s dinner party.

They eventually moved me to the assembly line.  It was nirvana.  I found myself standing at a table putting signs together with my bare hands.  It was wonderful.  The boss would put a pile of metal and plastic in front of me, show me what to do, and then let me work.  After a couple signs, I was able to go on autopilot: my hands worked while my mind flowed hither and thither, wandering free as it would, sojourning to other worlds than these, pondering alternate realities.  So this was why Socrates was a bricklayer.

But across from me was Rachel.  She was the only extrovert on the floor.  I was wandering through a forest of bioluminescent fungi in a sunless cavern littered with ancient ruins and wondering about which word to I could use to begin a love sonnet for my future Chinese concubine when Rachel pounded on my ear drums.  Boomlay, boomlay, boom!  I looked up and saw that she was looking at me.  Her green eyes needed me to realize that she had opened her mouth eons ago to ask a question.  Since I had once believed that chivalry was cool I obliged her.

“Huh?  Did you say something?”

She had said my name and wanted to make sure she wasn’t bothering me. She looked straight into my eyes as she put a sign together.

“Yes, you are.  But what the hell, you have my attention.  What now?”  It was a continuing conversation after all.  When I think of this conversation, I liked to imagine that perhaps my face was jolly and the corners of my eyes fanned out with wrinkles and my voice was laced with laughter.

She wanted to talk about something.  It was essentially grammatically correct self-talk.  Babble.  The kind of stuff to fill silence with.  I gave her all the listening cues.  I even picked out keywords and asked for details.  All the while her words went through one ear and out the other.  I realized that she must have been feeling tired, and now she needed to re-energize by talking.  That was okay with me.  But the truth was that I was wandering again.  I was back in China where life was dangerous.

Somehow I managed to catch that Rachel was talking about herself, her children, he ex-husband, her sex life, Jesus, the stuff she bought, the stuff she’s buying, and the stuff she’ll buy.   Suddenly I wanted to be some place special like Yemen or Afghanistan.  She peppered me with questions with machine gun efficiency.  Each round ripped through me before I had a chance to respond.  This was a common ploy used by extroverts.  They would ask you a question so that they can cut you off and dominate your thoughts and make sure you were listening.

I had been in China where people worshiped the ground beneath my feet, surreptitiously photographed me, flocked to my aid in the aisles of Wal Mart.   But the best thing of all was that Chinese people respected my ravenous hunger for solitude.   But for Rachel I was just another cuddly panda in the friend zone.   Not a good place to be if all you wanted to do was eat, shoot, and leave.