a year ago about Michael Arnold's rather long-winded and complicated wedding to Xuan, his Chinese-Vietnamese partner of many years. Mike made at least three visits to a mobile wardrobe during the photoshoot that accompanied the wedding ceremony, managing to preserve a superbly suave expression in the heat of Ho Chi Minh City as he posed with his wife on a bicycle, stared longingly into her eyes beside a sickly-green canal, and strew flowers into a breeze that may have been generated by a small electrical fan.
I'm very pleased to hear that Michael and Xuan have just produced a baby girl, and that the birth was apparently a lot less drawn-out than that marriage ceremony. Michael and Xuan have settled in Ho Chi Minh City - that's the politically correct name, since the triumph of the revolution in 1975, for Saigon - but Michael has spent most of the last decade in other parts of East Asia, especially China. Along with his fellow Sinologist Hamish Dewe
, Michael has created a body of texts - travelogues, poems, urgent or desultory e mail epistles to friends and relatives in a half-missed, half-despised homeland - which acts as a sort of bridge between New Zealand and the vast and dymanic societies of South Asia.
Michael may have found a secure place for himself in Vietnam
, living contentedly in a vast and ancient house staffed by in-laws who cook and clean for him, writing for a travel website, and exploring medieval Cham towers and brightly syncretic Bao Dei temples on his weekends - but his first encounter with Asia was troubled. He spent his first Chinese winter in Shenyang, a city in the cold north of the country which Le Corbusier might have designed in a very bad mood.
Full of curiousity, determined to socialise however cold and seedy his surroundings, and contemptuous of conventional medical wisdom, the young Michael Arnold became very sick in Shenyang, and was perhaps lucky not to be buried in the city. When he had recovered from the illness that laid him low for weeks, Michael produced a long piece of writing, as hallucinatory and as realistic as any really fightening nightmare. I published an edited version of the text in the thirty-third issue
of the Kiwi literary journal brief;
for many readers, Arnold's story, with its sickening but strangely sensuous details, was the most memorable piece of writing that the journal
had carried in some time.
I thought I'd reproduce 'Shenyang' here, not because I want to bring back bad memories and diminish the joy that Michael and Xuan must be feeling over the birth of the first child, but to indicate some of the travails which Michael has faced and overcome during the last decade...]
Black snow brought inside on shoes marbles itself into wet swirls on every vacant patch of floor. Drop anything and you stain it. You can try to wash your hands when they've been soiled, but the faucet in the Zhongshan School bathroom never stops its unsterilised dribble of tap water, and the soap is greased and sticky in a grimy plastic cup. Look left at the wrong moment and you'll see the kid's mothers squatting in the non-cubicled girl's room, whose curtain is thankfully replaced now with a barely adequate saloon door. The men's room still has a curtain. I stand at the urinal and the man next to me begins clearing his throat, Shenyang's daily gooey anthem wrung out from men and girls alike; he makes his deposit next to the urinal, as opposed to in the bowl where it would be flushed away. It will be stood on by the next patron and traipsed throughout the building or out into the snow.
At Tie Xi school, where I teach an adult class, it is sometimes worse, when pipes periodically burst above the only squatting lavatories in the building. Used paper and feminine pads, both too thick for the drainage system, are stuffed together down a side gutter; sometimes it is impossible to flush, or the cistern is continuously emptying itself through cracks onto my coat. In my classroom, a rusted radiator ejects dark puddles of oily water alongside the main wall. I seem to be breathing in the chalk dust, which cakes onto my hands leaving grimy dry marks and thick moistureless skin cracking at the tips of my fingers.
Where there is ugliness without, there is often ugliness within. I was beginning to feel that Shenyang people suffer from a spiritual affliction, as if the greatest culture on Earth had been forced into cold, apartment blocks stinking vilely of smoke and old food and sewerage, and had become itself darkened. Everyone has some subtle evil about them; the nicest of my co-workers all have some connection with a forger or gang member or criminal, and can offer discounted rates on stolen or copyright-breached items. One remarked sadly, in the words of her own father, 'Chinese people have lost their decency'.
I wanted to visit a night-club. Friends of Xiao's offered to take me after one of my evening classes: they came to meet me in my room at Lan Ting before I left and wanted to watch TV until I returned. I had been lying on my bed all afternoon in lazy discomfort; the girls on TV had been rubbing face cream into their skin again, with a smile and a zenmeyang? which normally means 'how about it', but in this case meant 'buy this cream and be my mirror'. The girls outside have overdone it with stern masks of makeup over blotchy pockmarked skin, their slippery unshowered eyebrows rising like snakes over black irises. I watched them from the taxi window: the driver had decided to try his luck with a foreign passenger and attempt a longer route to Zhongshan Road to earn an extra buck or two, so I had plenty of time to watch all the pedestrians as we circumvented the main road that directly connects my hotel with the school. A plump woman attempted a spitball which the wind blew back over her fatty breasts. She wiped at the mess halfheartedly. At a roundabout I saw an older woman who had pushed her thick trousers down to her knees and was holding her shirt up as she crossed the road, moaning and waddling in snow-cold wind.
It was getting dark. My classes on that particular evening were my most difficult, filled with students who had no choice but to take the extra classes in English, because of the insistence of their parents. Love in these families descends from baba and mama in the form of scholastic pressure; the children are not rude, but unresponsive and unmotivated. The curriculum dictated that I should teach them the names of dinosaurs in this lesson; why a 12 year-old Chinese girl would need to learn the word Compsognathus I have no idea.
It was almost 9.00pm before I got in. They were still watching TV, another drama about people shooting people because of some girl. And the hero is sitting there in some bar, in a really old cotton shirt, with a bit of fluffy stubble, talking about shooting. The gangster arrives and they start open mouth kissing and he slips the bra strap off her shoulder, and that's all you see except when three suits bust down the door and shoot them while they're writhing under the silky sheets. These dramas are often more extreme, death counts can number in the thousands after half an hour, at which time the entertainment switches to a kung fu piece, heads get kicked away from the neck, fists crack into guts, reminding me of the constant fighting that can be seen in the real Shenyang. Someone shoves some other guy, punches are thrown, a serious amount of blood is spilled on the dirty pathway... it could be on the street, in a food court or anywhere.
I have a headache but we go anyway, and soon we are in a dark thumping room, and the chalk dust is sparkling ultraviolet like a star-field on my jersey, and we are seated at the balcony with a view of the floor in which a writhing girl in a bikini is threatening to take off her underwear. The thought that she's as unlikely to have showered within the last few days as has anyone else in the city makes this prospect rather unappealing. The proceedings at these venues always follow the same bizarre format: first, patrons come and order the amount of beer they expect to drink in the evening, which for reasons of 'face' means that more often than not a ridiculous number of bottles get piled up in boxes on tables. Then, instead of dancing, patrons are entertained by the most incongruous series of acts: vocalists might be expected, but when orchestral music oiled out of the speakers and a troupe of ballerinas emerged I was amazed. The ballerinas were followed by a circus act, as a couple and their daughter balanced everything possible on their noses. 'Yellow' (meaning pornographic) acts are next, but with the stern policemen positioned around the place, a fashion show with a flash of leg in a long skirt is as yellow as it gets. That is, of course, until the bikini girl comes out. She reaches for a microphone and delivers a stream of flawlessly beautiful Mandarin with the pronunciation of a newsreader. She thrusts her hips at the boozed gents in the front row. 'Zenmeyang?' I try to think of an appropriate Chinese phrase expressing disinterest.
Some of the faces at the front are local celebrities: they wander on stage at will to force bills at the dancers. One singer openly addresses a song to them, saying 'Please flirt with me'. And then it's all cleared away and the DJs come out, and the customers move into the centre to spend the remainder of the evening sweating over each other, until the enforced closing time at two o’clock. Dancing is led from beginning to end, the DJ mumbles phrases of hype-cool English into the microphone all night in between zenmeyangs, a woman in tight jeans and a crop top similarly provides a commentary on the rhythm as she twists in a cage. I dance near an edge, neighbours spot me and try to shake my hand in what appears to be a good-natured attempt to greet me and ask where I'm from. In context, it seemed an uncomfortable attention where none was necessary, what with them spinning in alcohol with too-wide eyes and grins. I was under protection anyway - one of my 'hosts' had elected to come downstairs with me. Earlier in the evening he'd offered to fix me up with girls if I got lonely in Shenyang, and now he took his job pretty seriously, grasping my hand at every disturbance on the dance floor. When a fight breaks out his big hands drag me to another side of the room.
Later, I am noticed by some slip of a twenty-something girl who drunkenly begins to thrust her chest into my back; but I'm looking in the other direction as I'm about to be approached by two sodden British boys...they step over, I don't stop dancing, they shake my hand. I see one of them at a later point crawl up on stage and hump one of the dancing girls; the police pull him down fast. I peek at the girl behind me - a superb job on the makeup – and notice that she now has another dance partner, whom she quickly shoves away in favour of yet another....ah, she the free agent I think, but she probably won't go home with some guy tonight, like she would in Auckland. These guys all live with their parents too.
The smoke and the beer are a little too much this evening, as they are the next night when we are taken out for Xiao's farewell dinner. It was put on by the family friend whom I'd quizzed about politics a few months earlier - he had threatened to check up on my Mandarin, which I was aware was less than up to scratch as it could have been with more effort on my part. I found I could understand a significant percentage of what he said, but without real clarity. He toasted me, but declined to swig the whole glass of beer as is the custom: he told me that if I'd understood one hundred per cent, he'd have sculled the lot in salute. Perhaps it was fair. Interminable karaoke followed, I gave a Faye ballad in an inappropriate key, finding I was unable to control my throat, which was beginning to ache. I wanted to go home, but was bound by politeness for at least ten more vibrating numbers... finally Xiao managed to find an acceptable excuse for going home, and I mumbled farewells before wandering home on the freezing streets, the streetlights seeming to bend over me, streetsellers balanced on mounds of ice calling for me to buy their fruits and fish heads.
I was barely conscious when Xiao said her farewells - the whole day seemed to pass in frames, interspersed with bouts of coughing and a thumping in the chest which seemed to shake the blood behind my eyes. The window had iced over, I was chilly, and then oppressively hot, the night passed too slowly with no hope of sleep, shapes in the room, voices from outside the window shouting in the dirty local dialect of Mandarin.
I was dreaming, but unsure of where the dreams were coming from, for I didn't appear to be asleep. I was aware that I'd begun to work at a company, perhaps in Shanghai; in fact, I had been employed as the general manager, and was enjoying the company bar, all drinks paid for by the firm. The room was dimly ochre, the girl I was dancing with seemed to lose interest and moved away. It took me a while to notice she'd stopped dancing with me, I stumbled towards the bar and slumped onto the stool. They were playing some old American classic bores on the sound system, the only Western music that they are familiar with in China, songs which are routinely wrung out for foreign visitors in the hope of making them feel at home. Nothing is more alienating.
The bartender is a black American woman with an attractive smile. I order yet another mixer, and she leans over carefully and says, It's because of your glasses, you know’. ‘What?’ She reaches over and takes off my dark glasses, and I see that the left lens is missing. I inspect the glasses uncomprehendingly, then slowly turn my head towards the dance floor, scanning for the lost lens.
‘It's in your breast pocket. You put it there when it fell out, you were crawling around the floor searching for it, don't you remember?’
I didn't. In the pocket is the lens: I fumble with it for a moment, fail to push it back into the frame and put both back in the pocket for a future, rather more sober operation. It occurs to me for the first time that I must look foolish, and I ask sheepishly, ‘How did I get so drunk? I don't remember ordering so many drinks’.
Triple shots. They are always triple shots here. Company pays for everything, even her. She gestures towards a slender busty girl on the other table, who I now notice is watching me. What do you do here? I'm the GM. And she cocks an eyebrow, and I qualify, the new GM. I look back at the girl at the next table who smiles, I give her a grin and a little wave, and look back at the bartender. I don't really like white girls. She looks at me funny like I'm trying to pick her up and I'm some disgustingly drunk exec guy and I realise how dumb I look - what kind of orange juice do you guys do here? And she smiles and says, the very best, and I say get me one of those.
Over my juice I recall that I have missed an appointment with a close friend, and I conceive that I have caused him some displeasure, again. I should really call him, apologise...what about that idiot I was talking to this afternoon in my apartment, talking about his lover or something, he got me a couple of drinks, some pretence of doing business. Trouble is, position like this is all face, there's no real grudge work to do, you just meet people and tell people what they should be doing, drink the company's free spirits. Classic Chinese business method. So I'm sitting there trying to force the lens back into my glasses again but my hands are all shaking, and I realise that I just can't look after myself at all. This is when it all starts becoming Shenyang again, and then no, I'm an English teacher, and I still can't take control of myself. My God, if I was this sick and totally on my own, I'd be dead. I can't buy food here, can't cook, can't recognise products or methods for cleaning the bathroom.
I'm taken to the hospital, in the back of a taxi in the cold. Outside the sun is a bright white coin in smutty clouds, a man is tugging a woman as she tries to push his arm away, she sees my face as the taxi passes her, her expression is a mixture of surprise, humiliation, and a wish to leave. I can't speak Chinese, a doctor walks me through wards as he draws on a cigarette to an untidy desk where he pulls some traditional concoction from a desk drawer. Another speaks a little English, but not enough to adequately enquire after my symptoms. I manage to get a translation of the medicine she is about to inject me with - penicillin. The bathroom facilities are no more advanced than are those at the school, I am fortunate to have worn the trousers in which I had left a wad of tissues.
I am given a handful of remedies, and prescribed a series of Di Liu, which is the local slang for 'drip feed'. Greasy nurses lead me along a dirty corridor and I am leaned on a vacant bed, my hand is swabbed with a briny solution and pierced, and a colourless liquid with unknown purpose begins to enter the veins of my arm. Someone was pulling on the tube, I managed to put together a clumsy sentence in Mandarin which equated to, 'quit messing with my dripfeed'.
In bed at home, I was still feverishly hot. Xiao's mother finds me with most of my clothes tossed out on the floor and scolds me, I am suddenly very cold and request an additional duvet. Nude beneath it, the sweat seems to bubble all over my skin, I see that blood-brown blotches have scattered themselves over my shoulders from underneath, and by the morning they have covered my skin. But it is already evening, my colleagues have invited me for dinner again after work and we sit in KFC together, Lily, Lawrence and I. Lily has taught me how Chinese women flirt, Lawrence has gone over the bodies of our more attractive female co-workers. This is the third night in a row I have ignored advice and stayed out, the restaurant seems unbearably hot and outside is death cold, and I have cancelled my adult lessons again, because after three hours straight talking my throat is beginning to give. Millet, the Tie Xi school secretary, has asked me to wait with her so we can take a taxi home, her apartment is very near mine. Her shift finishes five hours after mine, but I take the chance to rest with her near the oil heater. My adult students pass by the desk one by one, they have invited me out for dinner again but I have to refuse. Instead, Millet and I duck out to KFC, she manages an impressive dinner compared with mine. In the taxi, all the signs seem to display the same characters, on the corners are small fires, men wheel their blackened mixers of popcorn, which fall out in long pale sacks like grubby wombs.
Have I eaten the soil in Shenyang, or swallowed balls of snow? I am looking up at an enormous chimney stack, thankful to be here, in this country. A line of workers are digging a ditch at midnight, the machinery which would make the job simple out of budget. The streetlights are limey green behind willows lining the avenue, I don't know who it is I am talking to but I don't recognise the language that even I am speaking. It's because I've been lazy, or depressed - the textbooks lie sitting on the spare bed in the hotel room, but I haven't been to classes in weeks, with the illness. I can see the outlines of the Chinese characters on the poster of Wang Fei on the wall; it's illuminated by the billboard lights on the traditional Chinese medical facility across the motorway. Friends invite me for more beer, his girlfriend strokes my face in the back of the taxi. Or perhaps I am still here under this duvet, taking Di Liu which I have learned remedies a stomach ailment I don't suffer from, everything that comes out of my mouth in the shower is yellow like that dancer's bikini. Perhaps I never left the duvet, I'm not even sure I'm in China, because the sun seems to be setting over the Waitakere ranges in West Auckland where I spent my childhood, and I am crying, because it's beautiful and it's the last time I'll be watching this.
It will be Christmas soon. Christmas will be white, although from my window I cannot see outside, just the patterns of white frost swirling around my window like shoe dirt on the staffroom floor in Zhongshan school. I consider hanging a line of blinking coloured lights from the tube of my Di Liu. The nights are long and I can't leave my bed, I sleep at 6 am and wake at 4. I can't decide if I've been teaching or not. I call home and schedule a flight back to New Zealand right after Christmas. I decide that the whole trip has been a failure, with no significant progress in a language I ccouldn't hope to comprehend. My bed is a bubble of English in a shockingly dirty city of fragmented Chinese, and I seem to be part of an illness from which all the people here suffer from.