Like Kane In Kung Fu

A thousand miles walked is worth a thousand books read.

Salman Rushdie wrote that
if a man does not have men to follow him and a woman to adore him, then something within that man begins to die. Travel can often mean abstinence from both, and I find myself, in such periods of solitude within the foreign multitude, undertaken by all Ishmael’s loomings, so that “it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.”

I felt such a spleen, and neither heading to sea nor the pistol and ball could remedy it. So absurd and alone, this American in rural China, I sulked about like Raskolnikov, spurning all company when any local tried to talk to me. Sometimes they stared, a piteous and abject look, as if I were a phantom, and I stared right back. When some Chinaman looked at my hairy shins and sandaled feet I leered at his pant cuffs in an exaggerated way; when he laughed awkwardly I guffawed and chortled in imitation, and I walked away feeling a smug sense of shame and wondering why on earth I was acting like such a louse.

Qufu was a charming town. The moat or canal that followed the great stone wall all around the city was lined with willow trees and stone benches and was a fine place for a stroll. Gutters stood out at regular intervals, and beneath each there spread a triangle of scum to mar the martial span of black brick and white mortar with natural rot. At night the wall would light up, as would the red lanterns posted all along the top and the animated silhouettes of nobles in a chariot, which at first glance resembled St Nicholas in his sleigh. Cypresses and small shops lined the main thoroughfares, and though the traffic was a tumult of metal and horns, all empty space filled in with E-bikes, I was by then getting used to that aspect of China.

There are three things to see in Qufu, the mansion and the temple and the cemetery of Confucius, and I cared for none of them in my present mood, only for sustenance and brooding. I had a bubble tea and scowled at the Chinese, and even the adorable girls who employed all their English to ask me if I liked bubble tea could not raise my spirits by much. I was too hungry. In Laos I met a girl who once worked in Qufu as an English teacher, and she told me some good restaurant to visit in town called Shee Leye Den, or The Saucepan. I made extensive inquiries in the Qufu market, followed down to the main road some college student who was handing out fliers for an electronics store; and when the last man I spoke with gave me all the answers in fine English—“Oh, Shee Leye Den! It is closed”—and asked me, if I would just wait for him to go to the bank, to go to his friend’s restaurant, “because I like to make new friends,” I nearly dismissed him out of that aforementioned irritation.

“But no!” I thought,—“enough of this! Let’s do something!”

The man, whose name was Kinwen, drove me on the back of his scooter—“You like Chinese scooter? Very small!”—to his friend’s restaurant, where they called in the cook and served tofu in brown sauce, chili-spiced chicken, preserved duck eggs, and jīng jiàng ròu sī, sauteed shredded pork in sweet bean sauce, served as a sort of Chinese fajita platter, with flat rice bread, bacon, red chilies, and spring onions. Some might call me foolhardy for accepting hospitality from a perfect stranger so readily, in an isolated part of town, without ever asking to see a menu or about the cost, and more than one traveler has fallen into trouble by doing the same; but I was guarded against such concerns by my apathy and by a good feeling stirred by my host: cheery Kinwen, hale and hearty, easily excited, and prone to jokes. The food his friend served was also delicious.

Dining in China is strange, or unique, in certain respects. There is the tendency to order a showy field of warming beer bottles—Kinwen ordered only four—and the egalitarian style of eating, taking food from this platter or that and sharing a great many types of dishes, a rather socialist custom that long preceded communist domination. The Chinese usually order far more food than they can eat, and the leftovers, sometimes amounting to half of what had been served, are dumped in a bucket at the back of the restaurant to be served to birds or pigs. I think much of our meal ended up here. Also curious is the packaged eatery, the stacked plate, bowl, cup, and spoon that come plastic-wrapped from a dishwashing business, where the items are sent again when dirtied. Diners generally pay extra to use these, and as often go without them, though we stabbed ours open with chopsticks. China goes through forests of trees annually to satisfy its need for disposable chopsticks, which are slowly coming to be replaced by plastic ones. They can be finicky eaters. In some parts of China a ritual precedes the meal, where the diner puts some hot tea in a cup and washes the chopsticks there, then transfers it to bowl and plate to clean those as well. Kinwen and I did not bother about this.

Kinwen asked me, “Where are you living in Qufu?” I told him I did not know the name, but it was a room above a diner inside the southern gate, and that it was only twenty kwai. “Oh, so cheap! Is it nice? Is it alright?” “Well,” I said, “it’s . . . I mean, it’s okay. It’s twenty kwai, you know.”

The door to my garret wined and yipped like a stricken dog when I opened it, and I had to slam it like a gunshot just to get it to close. Inside there was a hard bed with a blue quilt, a bare and peeling nightstand, an old television set on a triangular dresser, and two red plastic chairs on a metal frame, like those you see in bus stations, without much more floorspace than all that furniture required. There were three windows in the dirt-smeared walls, looking down on the southern gate or on the avenue of Gulou Nanjie, and a door in the corner that led into a bathroom, I presume, was currently sealed in a nightmarish way with strips of masking tape.

I did not tell Kinwen any of that. He asked me, “How long will you live here?”

“Only two days, I think. Then I go to Beijing.”

“If you stay longer,” he said, “I can find something for you to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“At my middle school, you can help the students with English. None of them know how to talk. They only learn to take the tests, and that is it. Only learn how to write and not to speak out. I help some students who are behind at night, at seven, if you want to come.”

“Have you heard of Crazy English?”

Crazy English is a brand-name phenomenon of modern China: a new way of learning vocal English and overcoming shyness by going behind buildings, onto rooftops, or out into the fields and crying English words to the remote sky. “To shout out loud, you learn,” they say. The principals only frown and call it disgraceful, for this Crazy English violates the restraint of Confucian precept. But who cares for precepts? Speak out, young China!

That, at least, was what I proposed. Kinwen had never heard of Crazy English. We talked nonsense for a while. I learned that Kinwen was married and had a young son, and I told him how long my trip was when he asked, to see his reaction. He was bewildered. “But why?” he asked, and he wondered if most Americans take such a trip.

“Not really,” I said, having finished my beer and ready to rant. “Americans are neurotic—I mean very afraid. They are afraid of Muslims, that the Arabs will blow them up. They are afraid that Europeans will look down on them. They think they’ll be robbed or beaten up or killed, so they never leave their homes. You know many Americans are afraid of China.”

“But China only wants peace,” said Kinwen, apparently aware of this particular neuroses,—“China has always only wanted peace. Confucius once said, ‘It is better to live in peace than in anger and war.’ In history, China never attacks anyone, and does not start any wars. We are not like the Japanese, always want to fight everyone.”

“Or the Western countries. European history is a whole map of countries that all want to fight each other all the time. China has always wanted peace, so that the Chinese can make money and have good lives.”

China invaded Tibet in 1950 and fought a lightning war with India in 1962, both to secure the mountain passes of its western boarders, to make out of the Himalayas, the Pamirs, and the Tian Shan a new Great Wall, against the new barbarian hordes of the world: the Russians and Americans, perhaps in union with India, both threatened the fledgling People’s Republic. China prefers the prosperity of stability to that of war and have always dominated through culture and commerce, never by war. Western fears are a projection of our own violent insecurity, I tried to say, but psychology is difficult to translate.

We talked on and on and Kinwen said, “You are full?” I said I was. “Maybe we go. I have my class.”

“Oh, yeah, we should go. You’re going to be late.”

“You want to come, to talk to the students? You do not have to. Only if you want.”

“Yes, yes, I’d be happy to!”

Beer and conversation reddened my pallid soul, and I went up into the school with Kinwen. It was housed in an old apartment on the second floor of a building near the elementary school: the four bedrooms made into four classrooms by desks and blackboards and anatomy posters, and the bathroom still had an old rusty tub in it. All the rooms were silent with students hard at superfluous studies. Kinwen took me into the first class, where four students looked up from their books in shy confusion, and introduced me to his pretty wife, a volunteer at his little school, who graced me with a wide smile.

In each classroom I went through a simple routine of a few lines with each student—“Hello, my name is Jon, what’s yours? Where are you from? I am from America. Yes, I like Qufu. Very beautiful and good food.” Speak it slowly so they can learn something.

Kinwen showed me some workbook exercises that troubled most of the students—“Very difficult,” one girl commented, very solemnly—and he said, “They do not know how to speak out. They only learn what they need to take a test. This one, he has studied English for a year, and look, he cannot say anything.” Some of the students could but were too shy to speak. For many I was the first lăowài they had seen, and those who could share some simple phrases with me were visibly delighted by the novelty of communicating in a foreign language. I was just as delighted by the novelty of my celebrity, among such adorable and unassuming fans.

I went between the four classrooms for most of an hour, heard names and remembered none of them, traded simple questions, posed for photographs, and received a hug from one happy kid. “He likes Chinese food,” said Kinwen,—“look at him. He is very fat, and he is only twelve.” He pointed out the tallest kid, only thirteen and nearly my gangling height, and the smartest, and the one best at basketball—“Which NBA stars do you like? Oh! Brandon Roy!” One girl asked me to sing a song, and I dared her to sing one first. When she did chirrup some Chinese pop tune I felt horrified, but I could not lie—and they would not understand me anyway—so I sang a Tom Waits song.

Kinwen asked me afterwards, “Is it a children’s song?”

“What? No!”

But ah, I feel my melancholy slipping away!

“This is a great man,” said Kinwen in front of one class. “He has traveled for two years and seen thirty countries, and now he is in China.” The students gasped and even clapped when he had repeated it in Chinese. I fidgeted on my stool. Kinwen asked me to read something from one of the workbooks, a paragraph about the benefits of a healthy diet, and all the schoolchildren applauded sincerely when I had finished as if I were some elocutionist.

“Are you tired?” asked Kinwen.

“No,” I said, “but I should probably go, so they can get some work done.”

Kinwen said he would drive me in his car, and out on the road he said, “Thank you very much.”

“No problem.”

I started to go on, as we drove, about the American education system, about standardized testing and charter schools, and then Kinwen said again, “Thank you very much,” with such honest sentiment that I looked over at him.

“He’s really grateful,” I thought, “and all I did was answer a few questions, and Jesus, he bought me dinner.”

Kinwen told me that he had befriended one other foreigner, a septuagenarian from New Zealand who had been studying Confucianism in China for twenty years, who was introduced by a friend. Shortly after the old man began to ask for work, needing money, and Kinwen hired him to teach at these evening classes for two hours every night. The man agreed and asked for an advance—“I need the money!” He attended one session, accepted his advance payment, and Kinwen dropped him off and never saw him again. Last anyone had heard, the Kiwi was in India studying Buddhism. The experience had soiled Kinwen’s opinion of foreigners, and my eager volunteering—even the dinner seemed like too much payment—was unexpected.

Kinwen asked me, “How can I contact you? On National Day, we go to climb a mountain near here.”

“What mountain?”

“It is the mountain where Confucius was born. Very beautiful. You want to come? I think the kids would like very much.”

I was suddenly full of reservations—not mistrust, just laziness, which I could not express. “Well, I guess,” I said.

“But how can I contact you?”

“I don’t have a phone. Just come to the hotel, I guess. I don’t know. Maybe we’ll work something out.”

I gave the false acceptance of an American businessman, but luckily for me I ran into Kinwen again the next day when I was skulking out of the city gate. He had his wide-smiling wife on the back of his scooter, which he nearly ran me over with, and cried, “Jon! Tomorrow you will come with us?” I gave such a confused answer that, although I suppose I had accepted, Kinwen seemed to think I had declined. “But . . . well, so we leave at seven . . .”

I was likewise startled—“Yeah, seven, alright, so I can meet you out front”—by this defiance of my autumnal mood; and I expected the trip to be boring without compare, stuck with a bunch of shy junior high school kids who could speak ten words of English between them, and I had all these notes to transcribe for this cursed tale! But I accepted, and waking early after a night of bugs buzzing at my ears I showered and had bāozi and congee and readied myself for climbing a mountain.

Well Kinwen took me in his car to get more food from a cheap but good restaurant on the outskirts of town—“Is it rude? This is the Chinese way. When we have a guest we say, ‘Eat! Eat more!’ ”—and then we went to the alley in front of his school apartments to meet the students. Because the bus had fallen through, we would ride bicycles to a closer mountain than the one where Confucius was born. Most of the kids had already gathered with a fleet of bicycles, a score of them snacking on packaged treats and throwing shy phrases my way, but the gangling tallest one was late, since he was taking his own bike for me to ride. The whole day I felt like a guest of honor, respected and adored—and who the hell am I? A knight-errant, mounted on a chromed Chinese mountain bike? No, just some absurdity, out of my element, in the middle of nowhere, in rural China, that’s who! It felt like mistaken identity.

It was foggy when we started, but the clouds melted under the autumn’s slanted sun as we rode along the highway and east towards a mountain called Man Goes Up Mountain. So too did the students’ reluctant demeanors melt, making way for a springtime of eager words. I was bombarded with questions: any question they could put to words, including, “What is your favorite animal?” and especially, “Are you hot? . . . Are you tired?” I received compliments: “You are so strong. . . . I want your hair.” I think one girl fell in love with me.

All along the highway there were lines of pine trees with pale and brittle needles, making way for desiccated fields, yellow as old news and empty of crops; all the harvesting was done, and they looked dusty and forgotten. The sun was not too hot, though most of the students complained tirelessly, though politely. Kinwen rode his scooter with a young boy on the back—“He’s too little to ride a bicycle!” We followed the highway and stopped at a gas station where a boy’s mom worked. She owned three or four of them, and she came out, a woman big with success in a business suit, to faun over her son in the way of all mothers.

Kinwen’s class and I followed that highway for five miles and then came across some of China’s endless construction, which kept closed all the right lanes as they poured down the asphalt, and reduced traffic to the two lanes of the left and the far shoulder. Kinwen started the formation down the right lane, between the median and the concentrated stream of traffic, and I rode over to the shoulder with the all the E-bikes and pedal carts.

Kinwen shouted to me, “Jon, in China, we go on the right side.”

“But you’re going right into traffic!” I roared. Just then a truck swerved around a troupe of his students, scattering traffic cones in every direction. “Jesus Christ,” I swore. I pulled back into the right lane and rode up to the head of the line, then crossed the median onto the bare tarmac of the unfinished half, which here was clear of construction and traffic. Most of the students followed me. They seemed entirely unaffected by the trip, still joking and laughing and snacking on candy and meat snacks, although I had been sure they would all be flattened. Kinwen even reprimanded me in a lighthearted way for riding my bike on the wrong side of the road, and I argued with him for a few turns before giving it up and wondering what a responsibility it was to be a teacher.

Our route finally turned off the highway and crossed low under the railway tracks, swinging by a tree-lined road into a village filled entirely with corn. Shawled corn huskers sat amid great piles of the crop, slowly working their way through. Golden ears hung from the rooftops and from the laundry lines and were laid out to dry in sections covering half the road. There were fields of plucked kernels on the asphalt as well. Old women would rake out the plots, and as soon as they left the sparrows landed to feast. It all added to the sense of the season that had descended with October’s page on the calendar—the dry heat, the empty fields, withering leaves and copper grass, and the half-light of autumn. There were still flowers blooming, red and yellow [peonies] and [red blades], but all seen through that death bed haze of the fleeing sun, dim and ready for the last stop.

We came through this town to the base of Man Goes Up Mountain—more of a mound than a mountain, or maybe a jebel. We parked our bikes at a drinks stand at the base and took the stairs up into the arid forest, past the shrines of gods to a sacred Buddhist temple, where the men bowed and prayed. A goat track led further up to achieve the rocky summit. I was fairly screwing around up there, jumping between the rocks to take what pictures I could of the surrounding country with my busted point-and-shoot, while Kinwen shouted at me to be careful. I sat with the kids on the rocky walls and received some snacks, and I gave a tissue to the girl who was in love with me.

As we made to leave I saw the students drop band-aid covers and plastic wrappers into the crevices of the peak, and the girl discarded the tissue I had given her. I was quietely disgusted. When most had moved off to climb down the mountain, I reached in and grabbed most of the refuse, deciding to carry it off down the mountain myself. On the steps I came to be near the front of our spread out bands, and I grabbed a few more bottles as I paced. A girl must have seen this, because she began to collect garbage in earnest, with more zeal for it than I could muster, and she handed piles to her indifferent boyfriend. More girls, including the little one that liked me, caught up with us and began to grab bits of plastic here and there, and some of the boys as well, though most seemed reticent to do any more than carry what the girls roughly collected.

The idea, which I had never preached nor hardly demonstrated, spread. All who caught up to us were caught up in it: gathering milk cartons, sausage wrappers, and chip bags from the steps beside the trail, until the whole class was so engaged. I wanted to stop and rest my digging hands, to take a photograph, but I had started this and felt a heroic obligation to continue. Kinwen was astounded. “You influenced them,” he said, grinning out to his ears,—“you influenced all of them.” He offered to take my pile of trash so I could grab more. We cleared the land and filled a whole basket with our trophies at the base of the stairs, and all were smiling and talking about how cool it was, what we’d done. It was not pride I felt, but a sense of bewildered triumph.

We had lunch at a small restaurant there. All twenty students packed around two tables, the older kids at a far one and Kinwen and I with the younger ones near the door. I felt suddenly as a role model, and when Kinwen asked if I would have a beer, I whispered, “Maybe later. I don’t want to drink in front of all these kids.” He either misunderstood or ignored me and brought out two bottles. Soon the boy next to him, who was fifteen I think, had bought one too. We ate from big plates of food and bowls of soup until all of us were full, then began the ride back.

More kids talked to me now and with much better English. One rode up to me and huffed as he pedaled, “Jon . . . the other guys . . . want me to tell you . . . we really like you. We want you to stay . . . to stay and be our English teacher.”

Kinwen also wanted me to stay. He aspired to open a school just for instruction in English, where he assured me that I would have a place. In the meantime I might be a student teacher at his junior high.

I smiled, but I told them both that soon I would have to go.

Kong Fuxi lay buried in a great grove north of town, which I went to visit the next day. (Kong Qiu was like Melville or Shakespeare in their days: in lifetime he achieved only a scarce success. Thirteen years of travel and preaching yielded nothing but the scorn of his home province, where he eventually retired to a post as a minor official, mourned on his death only by a small circle of disciples. It was only later that Kong Qiu was named Kong Fuxi, Master Kong, Latinized as Confucius, and was raised to the position of the Great Sage, buried under his present tumulus, and named a father of China, the forebear of China’s philosophy of virtue—and also her conservative tradition and sad misogyny.)

This grove was an eerie, somber place—stone pathways amid the dim forest of ancient cypresses, the overgrown tumuli and weather-worn stelae to mark the memories of 2500 years of Kong generations. The wall, ten kilometers in circumference, contained a hundred thousand trees, and there were massive crowds of Chinese photo-pilgrims, hording up the main thoroughfare. I naturally took the first empty path I came across. I followed it until there was only the squall and chatter of insects and the occasional humming swoop of an electric cart packed with tourists, but for the most part I was happily alone amid the primeval splendor and ambiance, all green and dark.

The ancient cedars and twisting oaks formed a dim bower to fit the graying sky, and the floor was carpeted with lichen and a few struggling ferns. Away from the road, which was made of cobbles, there were mounds here and there where some forgotten scion of Kong was buried, the words on the stone markers ground away by ages. This was the oldest part of the grove, and I walked on toward the northeast corner, where those who died under the [Ming] Emperors lay. Statues lined the path to the most impressive tombs: pairs of stylized sheep, lions, horses, and towering scholars or warriors, sprouted from the weeds and vines. There were columns and stellae and spirit fountains, that would appear in the dim recesses of the forest.

Eventually I made a full circle of the park, and I forced myself to go to the tomb of Confucius in the center, where all the crowds had congregated. I crossed a stone bridge amidst them and by quick reflexes only narrowly avoided obstructing a number of photographs. The encircling walls were painted a dark red with paint made from pig’s blood mixed with straw and soil: a sacred paint in a color that turns evil spirits. The stone court within had a number of pagodas, donated by various Emperors, in a line leading back toward the tumuli. There was also a pistachio tree in a squat planter that Zi Gong had planted there when he was a wise young student of Master Kong, who when the old man died remained in lonely sorrow for twice as long as all the rest. Although a stray bolt of lightning recently struck the tree and fused it into moon rock, the passing Chinese still rubbed their hands all over it with wonder.

At the end of this crowded lane there were three burial mounds and three altars, marking the burial places of Kong Fuzi and his son and grandson. The streaming mob repelled me, so instead I climbed up onto a nearby wall and took a few photographs, before leaving the way I had come in.

I had promised Kinwen that I would say goodbye before leaving, so I packed my bag and left my garret, asking directions along the way to his school’s apartments. Kinwen was delighted to see me, and all the kids expressed their delight with explosive mirth. Each classroom was a pot about to boil over, the door jerking this way and that and faces appearing and vanishing again, suggesting some horrible excitement within. Kinwen very solemnly gave me a gift—a book of quotes by Confucius—and repeated his plans for an English school. He made sure I had his email, just in case.

I think Kinwen would have really liked me to stay, and the book was not the only gift he had for me. As I joked with a classroom from the doorway, Kinwen produced from the neighboring room a pretty girl and introduced her as a student teacher from the university. I said hello and how are you, and she said, slowly and with a shifty shyness, “Hello, nice to meet you. You are very handsome.”

“Well thank you. And you are beautiful,” and I told her she was a pretty girl in Chinese, too.

She would be in the hallway as Kinwen or some of the kids were dragging me this way and that, and we would talk in that testing, biographical way of two people who might start to like and trust each other. Meanwhile across her shoulder there was a puppet show of kids peeking out of doorways, one head over another, and jumping up from desks, and waving around, shouting all sorts of things, and chattering in their rooms. The schoolgirl who was in love with me peered out steadily with a drawn mouth, apparently crestfallen as I talked to the tutor. Kinwen also seemed anxious and kept pulling me away from her, saying, “You must say goodbye to them!”

All the classes screamed, “It was nice to meet you,” in their turn, and then I grabbed my bag, as some students cooed at the strength it took to lift it, and shuffled out through a cheering mob of them—and how no more than twenty students in a small apartment can form a mob, I could never say—and past a pair of frazzled boys who shook my hand on the way out of the bathroom.

“Jesus Christ,” I said to Kinwen, as I finally landed in the alleyway.

“Come on, I’ll drive you to the station. The battery is just charged.”

“On your bike?”

I looked at the little electric scooter. It went slow when it was just Kinwen and I, and now there was my backpack to drag behind.

“Yes, come on!”

Three students ended up down around us and unlocked the wheels of their bicycles. There was the tall one, the fat one, and the basketball fan, and they gathered around Kinwen’s bike as I sat on the back.

“They will guard you on the way to the bus station.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“No. It is only a joke. They want to get outside and ride their bikes. It is better to be outside than to be in the classroom studying.”

“I much prefer it.”

We kept talking as Kinwen drove me down the highway. It was not a long way to the station, but his engine went as slow as you might expect. Two of the boys formed up on the sides to chat with me, but the third, the fat one, lagged behind until he was out of sight. The two waited outside in the parking lot, and Kinwen came in with me. I thought he would just talk to the ticket vendor to ask for Tai’an, but before I could stop him he had paid for the ticket.

“No, no, it is nothing. You have done so much for us. You will come back to Qufu?”

“I’ll stay in touch Kinwen.” I laughed. “I’ll have to go home eventually.”

So we said our farewells, and I was on another bus with the whole world sliding by out the window. The bus neared Tai’an, and I saw the Great Mountain with its several peaks in the reddening light of an October sunset. By the time the bus pulled into the station, it was hidden from view by buildings. The city beneath Taishan, “Great Mountain,” where Emperors and poets would begin their ascent, is called Tai’an, “City of Peace,” though today the title is anachronistic. Around the Dai Temple at its heart, Tai’an is as much a whirlwind of metal and concrete and cheap labor as any city in China.

I elected to walk into the city center from the bus station, and on the way I thought, for like Aristotle and the Jain Lord Mahavir I do all my good thinking while walking—I thought, maybe I could have stayed in Qufu. There was Kinwen, father and friend, and we would open an English college together, and teach all those kids that adore and idolize me, perhaps teach them to recycle; and I would date that pretty student teacher and learn Chinese from her and become some wasted old ex-pat in Qingdao.


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