It’s 6:45 on a humid Sunday morning in Wuhan. The sticky asphalt and crumbling pavement secretes the soot and refuse from the night market vendors whom have just vacated the alleys. After one, maybe two hours of sleep, after a night guzzling the local formaldehyde-laced beer and befriending self-proclaimed criminals and out-of-work whores, sweating in the rancid early morning filth my taxi grumbles and squeaks at the rendezvous where I await true hell.
I’m about to be piled onto a minivan for four-hours of bumping and weaving along the Yangztee River to the Three Gorges Dam. But I won’t see the dam. In fact, I’ll be lucky to get more of a glimpse of the City of Yichang, though with a bent back and craned neck from aboard the short bus or possibly through an open sliver in a bathroom window at the conference hall while standing to take a piss. The aging venue will no doubt be sparkling in tacky grandeur, with worn upholstery and marblesque tiled corridors that waft of spilt Chinese spirits and unplumbed urine. And before I alight from the taxi to wake up to my nightmare, I remind myself of the treacherous return to Wuhan that night. At this point in the morning, however, the totality of the exhaustion and sensory dullness is just too insufferable to bear.
I contort myself exiting the taxi to avoid muddying my pants in the doorway, and this invariably causes my leg to cramp. Still reeling while the muscle throbs and sets, a woman in her sixties eagerly approaches as if waiting for my arrival. She is oblivious to my shattered state and animated to the point of offensive. Fervently, she accosts me at the curb and draws me onto the pavement. I am unable to acknowledge the gaggle of her young associates huddled outside the van, who seem sour and vague, and suck into pursed lips or through straws unrecognizable breakfast snacks that steam from sundae cups or plastic bags. The morning industrial traffic thunders close behind.
She does not introduce herself. Instead she forcibly launches into an unprovoked tirade about how Chinese are smarter than anyone else. “The Chinese are the best at math, and they’re the smartest people, much smarter than Americans!” As if hearing these words for the first time she bursts into laughter. “Chinese work so much harder, and I should know, because I was a middle school English teacher for over 30 years.” “Don’t you think Chinese are the smartest people?” she rhetorically exhorts. “We have 5,000 years of history. We can do anything. We are the smartest ethnic group in the world, even smarter than the Jews!” And she repeats these last two points twice.
I’m too riled to reply, too beaten to engage. The others waiting for the bus are too blasé to take notice. Their generation aside, I doubt their opinions would differ. Were they not so aloof to take notice, they might even find her behavior amusing, if not endearing. But this is irrelevant. My discomfort does not even cross her mind. And if it does, she could doubtfully comprehend her inappropriateness or simply wouldn’t care.
Hours later he would still brood over it, as if he had misplayed something, as if he should have said this or that, and he promised to get the words right next time. And there would always be a next time. More than a decade in China had taught him that. And the more he thought about it the more it infuriated him.