It’s New Year’s eve 1998. I’m at a party in the capital of Hunan Province, Changsha. The locals say “Fulan, Zahnsa.” Since I moved here in February my world has been quite different, to say the least.
Most of the attendees at the party are English teachers or university students, but there are also two scientists from the World Health Organization. They are a welcome change of company so I am eager to chat with them. After our introductory formalities, they quietly ask me something surprising.
“Don’t you find the people here a little slow?” One of them says.
The question admittedly catches me off guard, especially given from whom it is coming. Without jumping to conclusions I confirm that I am following him correctly and I limp in reply, “What do you mean?”
The other one says, “Well, you know. Don’t you think the people here are kind of dumb?”
I almost cannot believe what I am hearing, or rather that two WHO scientists are opening a dialogue with such a gambit.
The first one pipes in again and informs me how the soil in Hunan is depleted of iodine. Then the second one takes over, explaining how iodine is a key ingredient in the brain’s early development and without which results in notably lower-than-average IQs in grown adults.
I’m still not sure what to make of this though I am now intrigued.
She continues to tell me that they are researching whether an iodine-deficient diet amongst pregnant women leads to giving birth to children with low IQs as well. Their hypothesis is that this known defect gets passed through the fetus.
In a flash my near-year of endless and inexplicable Changsha foibles rushes through recollection: the Asahi tuna wrap I ordered at a five-star hotel restaurant when the chef forgot the tuna; the penne carbonara with bacon and mushrooms that was prepared at another five-star restaurant but delivered without the bacon and mushrooms; the countless store merchants who got my change wrong, like the one just yesterday who amazingly returned two quai on a nine-quai purchase with a 10 RMB note.
As I remember this array of regularly bizarre mishaps, it dawns that I may have been miss-assessing my time here all along. So much of the struggle and joy I have perceived as communication or cultural differences might have, in fact, been due more to simply having to navigate and tolerate idiots.
I ask them whether their findings have confirmed their hypothesis. But then they continue in a wry tone.
“You see,” the man carries on, “according to the sample of pregnant women provided to us by the Hunan government, we have actually concluded that over 80 percent of people in the province are geniuses.”
“That’s right,” the woman chimes in. “Our experimental population was rigged by the State authorities. They cherry picked all the women we were allowed to meet. So our conclusion is now unpublishable, and the WHO can’t take further measures to try and eradicate the problem.”
They both chuckle, and I too finally give in.
The New Year hour soon tolls, and I mingle back in with the crowd for rounds of toasts and good wishes. I don’t speak with the two people again or see them leave.
Fifteen years later I still have a special place in my heart for “Fulan, Zahnsa.” It was my first home in China. And with all of the changes that I have seen across the country, returning to Changsha brings me much comfort, for it is very much the same place I grew to love now so many years ago.
I get onto an elevator, I can’t remember where. A Chinese man in his late middle-age steps on. He is toting a Prada handbag that is tucked under his arm and behind his wrist. He is wearing a shiny watch, I think it’s a Rolex. It is just the two of us. I ask him in Chinese which floor, and he says eight. He makes an obligatory comment about my Mandarin and the doors close.
When he learns I am from the States he beams back that his daughter is studying there. I ask him where and he says she is at the number-eight ranked university. He glances at the eighth floor button lit on the elevator panel as if it is somehow auspicious, and he then looks back at me to see if I too have taken notice. I don’t give him anything.
I ask him the name of the university and he repeats that she is at the eighth-ranked one. I again ask the name and a little deflated he now admits he doesn’t know.
“Where is she studying, in what city, in what place, in what part of the country?” He is still smiling but he looks uneasy now.
“It is ranked number eight,” he now feebly bleats.
“You don’t know WHERE your daughter lives in the USA?” I semi smile and look up to see which floor we are on.
The elevator arrives on the eighth floor and the man doesn’t say anything and gets off.
“Bye, bye,” I say in English. “Nice to meet you,” I say in Chinese.
The doors close and moments later I get off on number nine.
If I added up all the hours I have suffered the indecency of being subjected to karaoke throughout Asia, the time would amount to literally months of my life. I can think of no other group activity with such singular disregard for aesthetic taste and one that so poignantly devours hope for the future of our race.
The sensory onslaught centers around the television, which by itself reduces social engagement to forward-facing blinking. Add to this the images on the screen: an asynchronous montage of frosted lovers galloping across pastoral landscapes, gaping in contemplation and overwrought with feigned longing. This, on its own, serves to stir and chill, but it is the mere beginning of the horror.
Enter the music. By and large songs range from drizzly pop to suicidal ballads. They are the inferior counterfeits of the most tasteless of western arrangements. But to make matters worse, these karaoke rip-offs are often not even played as they were originally recorded by their hapless poser composers, having often been re-orchestrated as synthesized versions of their poor copies. The final effect is reminiscent of a homeless busquer plugged to a Casio on the New York subway.
And if even this were the extent of the abuse it would still almost be tolerable. Yet karaoke is even so much less. Let’s lubricate the visual and audible onslaught with crates of warm lager and whisky cocktails sweetened with green tea. And let’s now smack around and screech into microphones, with the reverb turned up to a deafening echo. Yes, let’s. Bad ideas compound and flourish.
Sometimes a karaoke old-timer demonstrates his or her vocal prowess at a nationalistic military diddly, undoubtedly drawing enthused applause and subsequent rounds of toasts. Sometimes hookers are traipsed into the room with whom there is waltzing and fondling. Some of them can even impress with a boozy tune before being whisked to a hotel or into a corner.
A dark, confined and smoke-stained room with maximumly amplified music blasted through low grade speakers; the sexually starved scream through microphones and gush with inebriation and pride: for me an unparalleled nightmare, yet to many a karaoke dream.
So, the perennial question: why do I time after time fall victim to this agonizing charade? Perhaps, like Sisyphus, it is the hopeless belief that, but once, my struggles will conclude in a triumphant result. Perhaps it is my sensibility for the absurd, an appreciative and perverse eye for the culmination of nonsense. And like karaoke, the meaning is to be found less in the question and more in simply giving oneself over to the throngs of existence.