20181128 - Lawless
I’m sitting on the 3rd floor banquet room. Breakfast buffet: complimentary, with the room. The room: 200 Chinese Yuan (CNY) (or, depending on who you ask, RMB which stands for Ren Min Bi, or, translation please, “The People’s Money”. Disclaimer: this whole thing is about to be real educational, you ignorant piece of…).
3rd floor: Banquet. Buffet: Complimentary. Room: 200 CNY. That’s less than $30 USD. And it’s nearly 4-star accommodations (so they said).
And this cliche Chinese opera music is playing in the background: some Chinese string instrument, screaming nasally female voice. A taste of The Orient. If you know, you know. Then, it comes to me: Lawless.
Cue theme music. Start with the opening from West World, that’s a futuristic television series about the old Wild West. Imagine wild west theme music. Western string instruments, western pianos, twang twang twang twang. If you know the one from West World even better because that’s what’s playing in my head. Now, in that audible pause between the wild west twang couplets, mix in the screaming nasally female voice of the cliche Chinese opera. Now, slowly fade out the West World theme song, and play in to full volume the cliche Chinese opera, like you’re in the banquet room with me. Like you’re about to semi-satire your visit to North Korea in a Vice docu-series (actually, that one’s worth a watch. Look it up on YouTube if you want to know exactly what music I’m thinking of).
Take a bullet train from Shanghai, 5 hours, due wild wild fucking west. That’s about 1,000 kilometers towards nowhere. What’s that in miles? I don’t know, I don’t care, you ego-centric American fuck. Welcome to the metric system, dumbass.
Now you’re in Wuhan. Buy a bus ticket. Wait an hour. Then get told they can’t actually fit everyone on the bus. Refund?? Customer service?? Apology?? We’re headed to lawless country. To that No Country for Old Men country. To that take a piss but, ha ha, we have a mostly running faucet but no soap in any of our bathrooms because who really washes their hands out here country.
Wait another hour with slightly wet but non-disinfected hands. Take a bus 2 more hours, 300 more kilometers. Take a bus where the driver’s straight up cranking hoons (that’s cigarettes, not even a Juul??) all ride long. Take a bus where you’re maybe two blocks from your destination, and some dude gets pissed and starts yelling at the bus driver to let him off at this corner because that’s where he lives and the last bus driver did. Bus driver says, fuck off, and keeps driving.
You’re in Qichun now. And this shit is lawless.
Qichun. Follow along. I told you this is about to get educational.
Qi, it’s pronounced like the “chi” in the Chinese martial art “tai-chi.” Qi, chi, Qi, chi. Say it a few times. And get it fucking right. My grandpa did tai-chi. And he’s from Qichun. Have some respect. Ok next: chun. The first part, the “ch”, is pronounced like the end of “it’s”. Just the “t-apostrophe-s” part, like a hiss with a “t”. The second part, “un,” is pronounced like “win.” Now, Mr./Ms. College Degree, combine the two. The end of “it’s” and then “win”. Chun. T’s-win. Chun. T’swin. Now: qi chun, qi chun, qichun, Qichun.
That’s where you are now. Qichun. The Chinese wild wild west. It’s fucking lawless.
I walk from the bus stop to the hotel. There is what appears to be a major high speed roadway; and on the front porch of every store-front and/or living-quarters that is separated from this roadway by (maybe) a slight sidewalk, are chickens. Gen-u-ine free range. And dogs. Without leashes. Without leashes?? Without leashes. Well there was that one with a leash, and also a muzzle, and definitely a bark, and probably some rabies. This place is fucking lawless.
I keep walking and see a dog. It looks dead. It’s laying on the ground, eyes closed, tongue hanging out, I see no movement. And this dude is about to skin it for dinner. Now, I’m not sure if that’s what actually happened, but this is the kind of place where you imagine that kind of a thing because it feels totally possible! I’m not a racist, so I’ll tell you what I actually saw in this dog-eating country: around 5pm I walk by this dead looking dog and this dude starting to hang rope on this tree like I’ve seen Gordon Ramsay do before he skins a wild boar (again, YouTube it…). Later, around 8pm, I retrace my steps and next to one similar looking tree I see a mound of dirt covering about the same size as the dog, and next to another similar looking tree I see a bunch of water that was recently sprayed as if to clean a scene of some crime. I’m not an expert, and I don’t remember exactly which tree I saw the dog and the dude near – hence I described areas around multiple trees – but the evidence is damning. This place is fucking lawless.
We get to the hotel. Get our key cards. Ask for the wifi info. They say, “oh, right, um, the wifi name, um, is the room number, and, um, if it doesn’t work just try the, um, next room number, or just keep trying until, um, one of them works.” “And the password is all the same, it’s written on your card.” Go upstairs. Try the password. Doesn’t work. On the way down to dinner, ask what the password is. They say: “Oh, um, try four 8’s, or, um, eight 8’s..” Eight 8’s??? Lawless!
Get to dinner. And this guy across from me is cranking hoons. The waitress notices, grabs him an ashtray, puts it down right in front of his face. He cranks away. He taps the ash on the floor. Then, maybe only half-finished, he throws the rest on the ground, and stomps it out. There’s a lazy susan with all the food. But the ashtray is set solid on the table right in front of him. All dinner long. He’s cranking half-hoons. And all dinner long he’s throwing the other half-hoon on the ground. Who the fuck is this guy? Lawless.
Actually his name is Yao. There are hundreds of different characters for any single sound in the Chinese language (see, more education), so to clarify, someone asks: “which Yao?” His girlfriend replies: “Yao Ming’s Yao.” Fuck. Lawless.
Now Yao, this big fat (as the guy sitting besides him wise-cracked: “8 month due belly”), lawless fuck, is screaming screams that rival the cliche screaming Chinese opera lady. And he proudly yells, I kid you not, “I hit my kids so hard, they’re too scared to come home, so when they finish school, they know they better get a job.” Damn. Lawless.
Dinner is food I recognize but have never seen before. Chicken noodle soup with that gen-u-ine free-range chicken, and a non-zero chance they got that chicken from one of those porches we walked by, and slaughtered it just before we got there (we had to wait an hour between when we ordered the soup and when it arrived at our table…). Like with the skinned-dog thing, this is just that kind of a place. Veggies with double-cooked pork, and not little 1 by 1 inch squares of pork you get in the states, but legitimately full-size slabs of bacon. They don’t fuck with snack-size. And these steamed potatoes cooked in cups of rendered pork-belly fat and garlic that tasted just like, but better than, any garlic mashed potatoes from the West. Poultry. Veggies with bacon. Garlic mashed potatoes. They fucking stole Thanksgiving! Lawless.
We go on an after-dinner walk. And surprisingly the buildings and streets are lit like Vegas. But the buildings look more like they’re stuck in 1950’s North Korea (just like that Vice docu-series you’re not going to watch!). But they’re not stuck in the 1950’s. Everyone has smartphones and everyone is on WeChat. But on the way in I saw new buildings being constructed. And they still all look like the 1950’s! They just don’t give a fuck. Lawless.
There’s open-air karaoke being projected on some wall. It’s loud af. Right next to that are old ladies dancing to old lady music. Right next to that are the youths dancing to some hip hop jams, but again, not modern hip hop. Like… 1980’s jams? I bet they all have wechat, though! Lawless.
The next morning, I’m still full from the Sichuanese Thanksgiving feast and hoon smoke, so I steer away from the beef noodle soup for breakfast and head straight to the watermelon. In the plate of watermelon, swimming in the watermelon water that’s collected, is a dead mosquito. I watch person after person take some watermelon. So… what the fuck. I go right in. I’m fucking turning lawless.
Dad’s stuffing his face. I ask: why aren’t you full too? He says: I didn’t eat much last night, they didn’t use “gong kuai” last night, and it ruined my appetite. What?? They didn’t use “gong kuai”?? Gong kuai, which literally translates to “community chopsticks,” is the term for “serving utensils/chopsticks.” Then I remembered, oh yeah, we were all just serving ourselves with our own chopsticks… But wait… My Dad… thought… this place…. was too… lawless? My Dad, my lawless Dad, thought *they* were too lawless? My Dad who doesn’t use an alarm to wake up?? Who doesn’t ever buy tickets *in advance* of going to the San Francisco Opera?? Who always, always, always, drivers under the speed limit no matter who is tailgating or honking?? This place. Qichun. Lawless.
1000km train from Shanghai. 300km bus from Wuhan. In Qichun. We’re headed yet still into the wild.
We’re driving through roads still being built. Through farmland, completely unpaved. And we come to a fence. The cab driver says, “looks like we’re at the end of the road.” My Mom’s second cousin, who’s legit 75 years old and rode his motorcycle from this exact farming area to meet us for our banquet breakfast buffet, says “hold on,” gets out from the passenger’s side, walks up to this fence that looks like it’s made of a million of those plastic can holders that six-packs come in, and kinda just rips it open. He makes a hole big enough for a car to get through. He gets back in the car. We drive through. And we’re surrounded by more free-range chickens. My mom says: “Shouldn’t you try to close the fence back up? What about the chickens?” He says: “Don’t worry, the chickens ain’t going nowhere” (in a Chinese southern-draw, seriously the local dialect sounds mandarin with a southern-draw). This place. Lawless.
We drive through the chicken patch. And ahead is a field of tall grass, at least four feet tall. The cabbie says again: “Ok, seriously, we’re at the end of the road.” Now my mom’s second cousin is arguing. “Trust me! You can go ahead. I’ve been here, trust me!” And some lady appears out of the grass and she’s waving us in. “I told you! Trust me. You can go ahead.” And this cab drives through this tall grass, barely. And we’re here. The meter says 50 RMB. But the cabbie says, for all the trouble, 70. Done. Lawless.
He drives off. Wait, what? How are we getting out of here? Lawless.
Have you ever dug a hole, six feet deep? Neither had I. Nor have I still. I tried to help, but my mom’s second cousin and then another second cousin who appeared, said: Don’t worry, you have no idea what you’re doing, city boy. So these two, well now there’s three, 75 year old second cousins are digging this hole. And my 26 year old city dweller self is standing watching. Lawless.
One by one more keep coming. More second cousins. And husband/wives. Daughters/sons. We started with a handful, less than five. Now there’s somewhere around 15, maybe even 20. And in this small clearing, surrounded by tall grass, trees, and somewhere close-by the farmhouses of all these second cousins who appeared, we’re digging. We’re about up to the necks of the 75 year old hole diggers. They start digging up some white dust. And one of them says: we’re there! That’s maybe hour number three, he says that. He isn’t some 8-foot tall freak, by the way, in fact he’s much closer to a five-foot tall stereotypical Asian man. So up to his neck isn’t quite six feet. It wasn’t until about hour five or six that we actually hit bottom: at my Puopuo’s (grandma on my mom’s side) urn. Lawless.
A year ago, my Gonggong (grandpa on my mom’s side) was healthy AF. He flew to Quantico, VA to watch me graduate from Marine Corps OCS. He walked the mile or so from the parking lot to the parade deck, no problem. He walked an hour every day. And did tai-chi (let’s call it what it is though, now that you’re educated: tai-*qi*) an hour every day. He was 96 years old. Most of his family died of tuberculosis when he was younger. He survived. His brother and father died in World War II. Over half the company he commanded perished during one of its bloodiest battles. He survived. Then he was forced into jail and labor camps for several decades because he fought against the communists. He survived. He wife, my Puopuo, died of cancer 15 years ago. He survived. Lawless.
But a couple months after OCS, my mom took him to China one last time. She had a feeling he was getting weaker. They were going to visit home, Qichun. But right before they were supposed to leave, my Gonggong told my mom he wasn’t feeling well, and he didn’t want to make the long trip.
He developed a cough. It got worse and worse. The doctor said his lungs, and also his heart, and also he, were dying. Then a couple days after his 97th birthday, he FaceTimed me, and a couple hours after that, he decided.
No to tuberculosis. No to world war. No to civil war. No to cancer. But now. He decided. Fuck life. Fuck death. Fucking lawless.
So we handed his urn to the one second cousin still in the hole. First a layer of this white dust my mom said helps keep out moisture and bugs. Then the urn. Some more white dust. Then some bricks. Then some dust. Then some bricks. Then six feet of dirt. Like a dirt bolognese lasagne. I normally really like bolognese.
All the while traditional firecrackers are going off and “heaven money” is being burned. Don’t touch the flaming money with any metal though, or it won’t go to him in heaven, they said. We ain’t that fucking lawless.
Now my mom’s kneeling on the ground, bowing her head and hands toward the tombstone, crying out “Baba! Baba!” Like she did as we drug her away from his body at the viewing. And the second-cousins are saying: Don’t cry. Don’t cry. There’s no need to cry. She keeps crying. Lawless.
The fire’s safely out. We’re packed up. And we’re headed into the car. I brought my running clothes just in case. Turns out, according to a second-cousin, we’re about 20km from the hotel. That’s exactly my long run distance… My mom’s kinda screaming: Don’t leave, you don’t know this area, mommy doesn’t want to lose you. I get in the car, and we’re driving, but I’m changing in the backseat. Right after we pass the the plastic chicken fence, the car stops. I tell my mom: It’s ok, I’ll be fine, trust me. And I fucking go. Lawless.
My legs are tired from standing around a 6 foot hole all day, but I run. Lawless.
My lungs are tired from inhaling countryside air that’s ironically (and literally lawlessly) more polluted than Shanghai city air, but I run. Lawless.
At some point I’m crying, and I can’t see, but I run. Lawless.
It’s gotten into all of us. Dad. Mom. Me. Lawless.
We’re surrounded by it. There are signs clearly fencing off a major construction site. The old lady in front of me picks up her bike, hoists it over her shoulder, and walks right under this giant currently-operating bulldozer. Fuck it, me too. Lawless.
I’ve made it out of the farmland, and the sidewalk is ending. Ahead is that same major high speed road. It’s the only way back. And there are people walking their kids, biking whatever loads. Fuck it, me too. I even overtake a bike or two, I swear. Lawless.
This place has no laws. Whatever God you pray to — Christian, Jewish, Islam, Capitalist — he don’t come out this far. We cry, we run, we live, we die, whenever the fuck we want. Qichun. Say it right, motherfucker.