Hammered by Kindness

Sharing my diary entries detailing my “long way home” return from Taiwan via Europe in 1992, and reliving my decision to switch from flophouses to luxury hotels, I’m reminded also of how my sudden reintroduction to attentive restaurant service, after weeks of Chinese and Russian shabbiness, produced literally intoxicating results.

It was in the Xx Restaurant in Budapest (or was it Munich?) that the waiter, on bringing me my menu, asked if I would like to have an aperitif, while I looked it over. What a considerate question! This was more like it, I enthused, someone who knows how to treat a guest. Not wishing to profane the moment with a “No, thank you,” I asked the nice man to bring me a gin and tonic, which I remembered was customary for summer, even though I wasn’t really thirsty.

I sipped at the fizzy drink while perusing the bill of fare, and when the tuxedoed veteran returned to take my order for dinner, he asked me what sort of wine I would like with it. Of course! I remembered. One drinks wine with dinner at civilized establishments such as this one. I told my man that I would rely on him to provide the most appropriate ambrosia to match the veal I’d selected; and he brought the excellent white Burgundy for me to begin enjoying well in advance of my entrée. Naturally, I was careful also to finish off the gin and tonic, to avoid being rude.

The veal, balanced perfectly with the wine, melted in my mouth, and I leaned back in bliss, recalling how one week prior, I had considered myself lucky to be given a cold bowl of borscht, assuming I found the dining car of the Trans-Siberian open. When my hovering host cleared away my plate and asked me what I wanted for dessert, I started to cry, it had been so long since I’d been so well taken care of. I requested the chocolate mousse, and when he inquired, off-handedly, as to what sort of cordial I should like to go with it, accepted his recommendation of cherry liqueur.

A good half hour later, at the close of my repast, I wiped my mouth with the cloth napkin, paid the bill, took a deep breath of the fullest contentment and gratitude, rose to leave, and found that I could not walk.

Travel Journal: No More Roughing It; Arrival in Budapest (1992)

After the two [Ukrainian oil field workers] had both detrained, I had a very sublime conversation with my remaining compartment-mate. He was a Hungarian physicist who was “hanging up” whatever job he had in Moscow and returning home with his cat. For most of the conversation, it was this reserved gentleman who was asking me questions about Taiwan and other aspects of my life. Much as it happened during the Trans-Siberian conversation with the Australian woman, the relating of my exploits was quite therapeutic, but on this second train, this gentleman was the older-generation figure whose occasional encouragement and understanding I greatly appreciate, nay, crave. His questions also were aimed right at the point, the main idea, of each aspect we were talking about; he was [always] asking, “What was your purpose” for doing such-and-such? I was happy to have a purpose that guided me [and] that I could tell him. I think I meant that he was one of the few people who could understand my lofty life goals, as I expressed them; most folks simply smirked at how impractically I’d lived, “wasting” all that time in Taiwan, with little to show for it but weird experiences.

He also confirmed my observations re the Trans-Siberian, i.e., that trains in this part of the world were dangerous. Furthermore, it might have been a self-aggrandizing remark I’d made in Taiwan, that now was the last opportunity I had to adventure in Eurasia (before disunity and war, etc.); but my Hungarian companion seconded the emotion, explaining that the trains were daily witness to robbery and murder, and that he was leaving Moscow, in fact, on the strength of the sense of growing instability there.

True enough, our conversation had been initiated by the abrupt, uninvited entrance of two Ukrainian youths who had barged in for shock value (it sure shocked me as I looked and saw one of them sitting next to me and the other one blocking the door) but who finally didn’t seem to want anything other than to whine at the Hungarian before they got off. My companion later said that they were generally confused and specifically a bit drunk but at heart nice boys.

The effect of this gentleman’s descriptions of train-borne chaos was to put me on my guard during the crossing of the Hungarian border, in the early morning after my friend left, during a sunrise trip to the w.c., and upon arrival in Budapest, but after reaching that place, I saw that I’d definitely arrived in affluent, touristy, Europe and soon turned my thoughts from flight to food and other indulgences.

The first need-turned-indulgence, that of lodging, achieved its more luxurious state by the following means: The [homestay] hostess recommended by the [Moscow travel agency] turned out (after begging for change to use the pay phone) to be in Italy on holiday. I next was compelled by residual greenhorn desperation to book a guest room at a hostel through the services of a travel agency. Said travel agency gave me an address and a trolley number, but after riding the trolley all the way out to the burbs to where the room chanced to be, I found the host not at home. His absence was actually a blessing in disguise, for I opted on the spot to return to the center of town (before the host came back) and try my luck with a hotel.

I was not the only backpacker wandering the streets that morning, and after a while, I found the experience degrading. The prospect of carrying my belongings through city streets, looking for a room, I mean looking for a cheap room, was not inspiring. I therefore resolved to inquire for rooms at the first hotel I came across, which chanced to be the Astoria Hotel.

Rooms were US$100 a night, and I humiliated myself one last time by asking after cheaper flops in the area before I decided to reward myself for surviving a month on trains in the PRC and Russia. “You know what? Just put me up,” I said. My backpack and I were very happy for the pampering.

Travel Journal: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, from Moscow to Budapest (1992)

I took the long way back from Taiwan, traveling through Japan, China, Russia (via the Trans-Siberian), Hungary, Germany, France, and the UK. I had grown accustomed to peaceful, meditative train rides in my earlier adventures (the photo is from my first train ride, in China, in 1986), but I was not destined to enjoy another such experience, when I boarded the train in Moscow, bound for Budapest.

Munich, Bavaria, Germany                          August 7, 1992

To catch up with myself, the Moscow-Budapest rail journey was both potentially disastrous and lucky. The train itself was just like the Chinese soft-sleeper that seemed a rolling palace to me when I was twenty and which has grown less novel in my eyes (not as soft) during this trip, until this most recent ride, in which the train seemed to have lost all potential for a pleasure excursion and to have become the scene of an irksome flight. There does not seem to be the “hard sleeper” [available] in Russia, so there is no class boundary to hide behind; [in other words,] there are no hard sleepers, so all the soft sleepers are hard sleepers.

The first one in the compartment, I think I managed a “Not bad, Mr. Miller,” when I discovered my bunk to be the lower, trailing one that would allow the best view. Very soon, though, a loud man with a gold tooth entered the compartment with his copious bags. He immediately took off his shirt and began fussing with his gear, while I, out of necessity, arrogance, passivity, or what have you, began to constrict my space into the corner. He signaled that I should stow my bag below the bunk, out of the way (this was done, of course), and then he began to pile items onto the small table, where I had unsuccessfully staked a claim for my book. First, he set down about six cans of beer; then came two bottles of vodka, cigarettes, garlic (the items must have been chosen in order of aroma – all these smells could be discerned emanating from his bared torso); and finally came the main staples of bread, roast beef, canned sausages, parsley (another item selected for the prime merit of its fragrance), mustard, dried fish, cooked chicken, etc., etc. The flies came later.

The only position from which he could work the table was, of course, my window-seat refuge, so I yielded same to him as graciously as I could. I removed myself to the corridor, while “my” berth became a smorgasbord. The shirtless M.C. sliced the meats while his mustachioed friend and an older, more reserved man, imbibed. My impotent inner ranting in the corridor during this interval need not be detailed here. I presently tried to cop out by requesting a battlefield promotion to a first class berth, but this avenue of escape was soon found to be closed.

(Paris, 8/9) I think it was the shirtless gentleman who invited me back into the compartment and back to my seat, which he yielded; his timely invitation opened my window of acceptance, as it were, for I was then enabled to decide to submit completely to the situation and give up all frustrating hope of spending a clean, serene, evening.

I ingested the oily meats and breads and swilled down that warm beer, [sacrificing] the washed hands and face and brushed teeth that I’d prepared in advance for the trip.

(Paris, 8/10) Finally (actually, it was rather quickly), I was able to put a half-drunk smile on my face and lean my head back against the side, sometimes looking out the window, sometimes dealing with the questions that were thrown at me. The M.C. wanted me generally to eat more and drink vodka; I turned down the vodka by accepting a can of beer, with which I toasted him until he turned his attentions elsewhere (and I was toasted). In short, then, I found on this trainride out from moribund Eurasian ex-Communism that I had one final lesson to learn in the School of Submission. Having forfeited all control over the (initial) situation (which only would have led to conflict, if insisted upon), I was finally able to pass the time as peacefully as possible. I think it’s called buying popularity or respect. Later, the M.C. perceived that I was tired and actually prepared my bedding for me while I was (re)washing my hands.

Of course, a glass of vodka spilled during the night [due to] a sudden stop [illegible], and then the food ritual was resumed again in the morning. I had by then gathered enough respect to request that uneaten food be thrown out and not left out for the flies. Both the M.C. and his friend were Ukrainian and were returning home from their lucrative employment in the northern tundra, where they[‘d] worked on an oil rig. Before the afternoon was up, they had both gotten off the train. I was glad to have met them and also happy to see them go, before the food business got too monotonous.

Taiwan Journal: Inner vs. Outer Peace?

Yonghe, Taiwan, ROC                         October 25, 1990

It’s been several weeks since I’ve had the occasion to awaken to the sounds of a pleasant morning shower. The patter of the rain greeted my waking ears like the voice of some old friend, missed but not forgotten, and now that nature has returned to her friendly post and benignly discouraged us from our desperate enterprises, I can once more be sated with my own place, this little room, with only a gentle heartbeat audible outside, and the clamorous exertions of the organism thus muted.

Perhaps it is necessary to be reminded that we can be serene. I’ve always loved the heaven-sent power outage or even the tropical storm; it keeps one’s perspective natural, manageable, under one’s own roof. I know I can trust myself in that shelter to keep myself dry, safe, and enheartened.

But hark, across the airway, not far at all, even in the rain, I can still hear the unpacified and oblivious father, coarsely ordering things about in his own little world, just as on any other day. For him, I imagine, there is not even the briefest repose from his contrived vicissitudes — or relationships. Owing to this man’s command or frown, the child’s forced piano playing now comes plodding across, right on schedule. Venomous parental commentary forms the background score.

And alas, there are a few crying babies, families who bring the street noise in with them, and motorcyclists keeping their dates. Yet as for me, the clouds suffice to block out the illusion of time, and, liberated from the unnatural schedule of the sun, my heart beats in relaxed tempo with the patter of the rain, constant, though often picking up and tapering off, following the currents of my interest.

Taiwan Journal: Typhoon Day

Taipei, Taiwan, ROC                                    August 30, 1990

Hearkening back to the treasured, yearned-for “snow days” of grade school, today’s typhoon day seems now to be even a greater surprise and pleasure, simply because it was so unexpected as to be not yearned for at all. The day has been passed amiably here in Yonghe, with the first house meal cooked by housers from the ground up, as well as a great deal of newspaper reading and a three hour nap.

Looking out the window, I’m amazed that there can be so much water anywhere in the world, let alone falling out of the sky. Scores of aerial funnels run off of the corrugated fiberglass roofs and window-covers of the buildings across the alley, as though the apartments were sweating profusely or otherwise manufacturing the unbelievable quantities of the stuff in some interior factory or workshop.The rain is as a curtain, or rather an endless series of curtains (hanging across, parallel, perpendicular, at every conceivable angle to me) when in the atmosphere, before it touches or piles up against anything. In contact with the earth (or under the circumstances, itself), it is a pulsating, translucent force that laps and spits through gutters and drains, or slides off rocks. Reclining in bed after my 3-hour nap, I wondered about the one (or two or three) drops in this vast world of rain that would somehow be blown horizontally by the occasional gust of wind, blown through my window garden, penetrating my screen and flying underneath the billowing curtain, to land, or to touch, as a soft waft of moisture, my legs, arms, and face.

I was stirred to attempt a poem, following the above line of verbal reasoning. My thoughts turned to a sonnet tempo and then began to examine different questions of perspective: Should I be lying down, feeling the moisture coming through the window under the billowing curtain, or should I be kneeling at the window, observing the deluge outside. Although I’d been doing both all day (as well as walking in it and ignoring it), it seemed too dynamic to include both postures in a poem that would have best been a static vignette. Fumbling with the moral of the poem (one referring to poetry itself, preferably) proved to be my ultimate undoing.

I suppose poetic states of mind should accommodate the flow of words and feelings, though not necessarily of stimuli. It seems I’m better at describing natural events with a natural [illegible].

Taiwan Journal: How Not To Flirt

Taipei, Taiwan, ROC                                                    Nov. 3, 1989

A flirting accomplice at the office — everyone knows her as Nancy — shared a few moments with me in the copy room. She suggested the two of us save up some bread and then go to South Africa together. When I proposed a mere movie instead, she laughed with embarrassment and was unable to say another word.

Taiwan Journal: The Firecracker Gauntlet

Here is the diary entry from my first Chinese New Year’s in Taipei.  The experience stayed in my mind and became the inspiration for the first few pages of my novel, Southern Rain, now available for pre-order on Kindle. You can click on the link on the sidebar of this blog.

February 7, 1989                                                 Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

This town is crazy with fireworks. Small children employ every conceivable sort of artillery, turning every thoroughfare into a gauntlet of bouncing fireballs and air-shattering explosions.  The missiles ricochet off storefronts, apartment buildings, parked cars, speeding taxis, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. Traffic moves nonchalantly through the minefield, zigzagging around the volcanoes, which burst in their grand finales, right when a car passes alongside. I’ll never forget the sight of this old pedicab salesman, hawking his wares as he pedaled down the street, bottle rockets snaking along the pavement to explode directly beneath him or bouncing off of his torso. He kept idiotically crooning his sales tune, a living fountain of sparks. A lovely vignette!

Tales of Old Taipei: The Fake Rolex Man

My Taiwanese employer would frequently open its doors to a variety of hustling salesmen and invite them to peddle their wares to the staff. By far the most popular of these characters was the fake Rolex man, who graced our workplace every couple of months.

The rapturous tidings “The fake Rolex man is here! The fake Rolex man is here!” accompanied by eager foot beats, would herald his arrival. The honored huckster would set up shop in the conference room next to my boss’s office, and I was able to observe the stream of breathless coworkers, arriving singly or in groups, carefully appreciating the counterfeit treasures and, more often than not, emerging with small handfuls of them, grinning proudly. Returned to their desks, they enjoyed much celebrity, as others of their departments gathered around to marvel at the loot before succumbing to envy and hurrying over to see what bargains remained. It was all very amusing to me and broke the monotony of long afternoons poring over telexes.

Once during the lunch hour, on the day after a visit from the fake Rolex man, my boss, whose English name was William, took me aside.  He put his arm around my shoulder.

“You know, ah, we’re very concerned about you,” he said.

“Oh?”

“Is everything all right?”

“Yes, William. Everything’s fine.”

“Are you homesick? You’ve been away from your own country for a long time.”

“I’m not homesick…  Have I made some kind of mistake on the job?”

“No, that’s not it. You just don’t seem to be fitting in very well.”

“I don’t?”

“No,” William said, and then he grew even more serious. “For example: Yesterday, the fake Rolex man was here, and you didn’t buy anything. You didn’t even take a look.”

“Well, I don’t need a watch. I already have one.”

William tisk-tisked. “But surely you sometimes need to give presents. Don’t you have a friend who would like a nice fake Rolex?”

“Why would I give a friend a fake Rolex?”

“Harry, Harry.” He looked around to ensure that no one had overheard my sacrilege. “The fake Rolex man is here to help,” he said. “You should take advantage of every opportunity to obtain good fake merchandise. If you don’t, you’re just… It’s just not healthy.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Promise me you’ll take a look next time,” he implored. “You really owe it to yourself.”

I promised, but I was bummed. The watch I wore every day was an art-deco knockoff I’d picked up in Gongguan for twenty-five cents, and it kept perfect time; but did anyone notice? Did anyone give me any credit?

Everyone always assumed I was the maladjusted foreigner. I was tired of it.

 

Taiwan Journal: Youth in the Rain

August 23, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

An interesting set of people at the bus stop shared the thirty minute wait for the 0-East. One, of course, was a very poised woman. She smoked a cigarette, and once, when our eyes met, she smiled naturally and pleasantly. There was also this guy who I’d seen before. He had thick glasses and was kind of fish-eyed and muckle-mouthed, probably not very popular at school. I found myself trying to avoid looking in his direction, for some reason, until I noticed something unusual about his t-shirt. It was a political shirt, bearing the slogan, “You have the right to reject this Taipei.” Suddenly, I seemed to understand him, as though I recognized the same pattern in his life that I’ve seen in the States: Cast out of the crowd by forces not in anyone’s control, the outcast studies alienation itself, turning inward and moving out, trying to return to the scene armed with the ideas of exile. I lent him my umbrella.

The ensuing rain blossomed into a true thunderstorm while I sat in the front of the bus watching. It was a heaven-sent washing. Raindrops on the puddles in the street seemed to suggest a soft meadow. There was a mellowing of light and sound, under the auspices of a friendly patter of droplets, the splashing of tires, and the creaking of wipers. The rain tames us.

 

August 28, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

I had an interesting experience today worthy of a French movie. As I hopped off the 0-East at the Nanchang Street stop, I noticed a high school girl in the green blouse of the elite First Northern Girls School, braving the first drops of a downpour. After the usual hesitation, I offered her my umbrella, and I found her to be both easygoing and serious. She said right away that she too had not eaten, and we soon found ourselves in a noodle shop, under the leering gazes of the cheap girlie posters that papered the walls, discussing history, Taipei, the USA, the mainland. There wasn’t any tension at all. I didn’t get her name.

Tales of Old Beijing: The Modern Plaza Incident of 1999

The Modern Plaza sits across the street from People’s University and is accessible from it by footbridge. Its most significant architectural feature (for our purposes) is the fact that its second floor is bigger than its ground floor, creating a covered area in which temporary sales or exhibition tables may be placed.

One day (August 9, 1999) I left campus, crossed the footbridge, and made for the Modern Plaza, to pick up a few sundries. As I neared the entrance, I noticed that a special sale was indeed in progress under the overhang. About twenty high school girls were engaged in the campaign. They wore identical corporate t-shirts and were hawking what appeared to be cosmetics. The energetic young ladies beckoned me over, but I held up my index finger, signifying that I wished to complete my indoor shopping first but would be right back.

When I reemerged with newly-purchased sundries in hand, I dutifully returned to the little bazaar, to see what the ladies were selling. It turned out to be a sort of eye-relaxing gel in little blue tubes. The merchandise had obviously been acquired in bulk and was now being unloaded at a bargain discount. Moreover, an enticing promotion was in effect: If you bought even one tube of gel, you would be given a free “eye massage machine,” while supplies lasted. Apparently, the gel worked best in combination with the machine. Although I had never heard of either product, I found myself that afternoon with not much else to do, and come to think of it, a little something for tired eyes just might be the ticket. I volunteered for a demonstration.

I sat down on a little stool, and a slightly more mature  young lady (college age?), who, I hoped, had taken the five-minute course on how to apply the stuff, sat likewise on a stool, directly in front of me and actually between my legs. She directed me to close my eyes, and after my lids were shut, she began to apply the gel with her fingers to the outsides. The substance did have a cooling effect, and the overall experience was quite relaxing and a little hypnotic. Then the young optomasseuse announced that it was time for the machine. Her fingers withdrew from my eye sockets, and I heard her flip a switch. A little motor began buzzing, and then I felt a pulsating plastic globe gently kneading in a circular motion upon my closed eyes. I wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed it or not; I liked her fingers better. At any rate, she kept it up for only a few minutes, and then the buzzing stopped, signaling the end of the demonstration. She wiped the residual gel off my eyelashes with a Kleenex. Of course, I bought a tube of the gel and took possession also of the “eye massage machine,” which the optomasseuse showed me before putting into its box. It was a five-inch wand, battery powered, with about four or five interchangeable heads, such as smooth, rough, and ribbed. For some reason, it had a Playboy bunny symbol etched on its surface.

I thanked the optomasseuse for everything and rose to leave, but at that moment the sky opened up and it began pouring, very heavily for Beijing. There was nothing to do but to wait under the overhang, and the little sale area became an even friendlier island of refuge in the storm, as nothing brings strangers together better than a little shower. The gaggle of high school girls became especially peppy, and one of them sidled over to me. We exchanged pleasantries, but almost immediately, she began telling me about her boyfriend. I was not unprepared for this sudden revelation, for one of the graver responsibilities of an American man in China is to serve as impromptu confidante, counselor, and confessor for Chinese womanhood.

“Do you love him?” I asked, cutting to the heart of the matter. It seems I was always asking women “Do you love him?” back then.

Naturally, the girl didn’t know. I studied her carefully. She was no dope, bright and venturesome (she had, after all, come right over to me), just inexperienced.

Suddenly, I wanted to be in a French New Wave movie. “You see that white van in the parking lot?” I asked her. “Let’s run out, touch it, and run back.”

I’m sure she had never received such a proposal before. She beamed at the novelty but wanted to make certain what I was asking. “You mean that white van?” she pointed. “You want to race me through the rain, touch the van, and run back here?” She used a different word for “touch” from what I had. I’d said peng (碰); she said mo (摸), which sounded to me more like “stroke.”

“Yes,” I said. “Let’s run out and stroke the van and run back.”

Without another word, she screamed and took off into the deluge, and I followed. It was like a whirlwind, sprinting with the rain flying off our faces and pelting my freshly-massaged eyes, nearly slamming into the van, stroking its slippery surface, then stomping through lake-like puddles and back up the steps to the Modern Plaza, where everyone was cheering (if this happened today, all phones would have been on us) and marveling at the American graduate student and his dashing ideas. The girl and I were both soaked, her corporate t-shirt most of all, and people gave us towels.

We dried off, still panting; but there was a certain let-down of excitement, after our little race in the rain. The other stranded shoppers turned away, and the distance reestablished itself between me and my running mate. The downpour soon passed, and I bade her safe travels, took up my shopping bags, and returned to normal life.

For the next week or so, I continued to use the relaxing gel and the “eye massage machine,” before I realized that it was a vibrator (duh) and felt silly prodding my eyes every evening with a vibrator. I don’t think any of the high school girls at Modern Plaza that day knew what they were pushing, and their ignorance contributed to my obtuseness, for, since no one was behaving as though they were trafficking vibrators, I never saw that they were. If I were to chance upon a group of people talking into bananas, I would assume that they were telephones.

I donated the “eye massage machine” to a female friend who could make better use of it. I kept the gel…and the memories.

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