&: Diary (2)

(March 9th, 2019) They took this house down in a matter of days and loaded most of it into the back of a truck. There's a smaller single-family home next door, to the right in that picture, but every other direction, it's packed in with highrises and apartment towers. There used to be a row of old homes on the block, leading to a café that's still there. But this was the last of two holdouts. If they take the other one down, and buy out the smaller apartment six-story tower beside them, there'll be room to put up a new development. Probably going to be a hotel, the way things are going. Right now, it's a muddy empty lot. You ever see Tokyo from a rooftop? I mean, still in the central wards, but outside of Shinjuku or Shibuya or Minato. It's just miles grey. Like, if you take the Yamanote through the section that starts at Ikebukuro, all those stations nobody talks about, Otsuka, Sugamo, Tabata, Nippori, grey apartment blocks as far as the eye can see. I always thought, the Skytree looks amazing, sitting over Tokyo's east end, but since it's planted in the least attractive part of town, the view directly below it, especially when the fog or smog rolls in and you can't see much further, must be depressingly grey. I've never been up it, though. Just the lower levels. Grey, grey, grey, though, from there, even. When I lived further east, around Minowa, the neighborhood had only about a decade of gentrification under its belt, only a decade out from being seen as a no-go zone for respectable residents of the city, a zone of outcastes and migrant workers, a few decades out from hosting street battles, labor organizers and workers on one side, organized crime and the police on the other, fifty years out from being a slum. That means that Minowa is still, for the most part, still grey but the grey comes in more interesting shades, with stretches of it rapidly gentrifying (that means, in Tokyo, putting up apartment blocks, nothing else) and stretches of it still looking as they did a few decades after the war. That won't last forever. But the area around Ueno is already lost. It's the perfect time to put in hotels. It's peak tourism. There's a new APA going up beside the supermarket near Matsugaya, must be at least fifty chain hotels in Shitaya, Negishi, Matsugaya, so even the character of the neighborhood feels less lively than it did in Minowa, more tourists than local residents. 観光公害 is the term used in the local media (观光公害 in Chinese, just simplifying the character, usually "tourism pollution" in English). The danchi 団地 that I live in feels marooned in a sea of fresh development, construction and demolition sites all around. Unlike most other public housing complexes, especially the ones outside the central wards, it's only one building and not really identifiable as a housing project, and I imagine it fit in with most other development up until a decade or so ago when they started to get ambitious with the highrises. When a hotel went up two lots down, it caused anger and confusion. There was a public meeting of the danchi's 自治会 (the complex's own governing board) and the neighborhood committee (in this case 下谷1丁目町会, and probably also the 坂本町会?), where residents were assured that there would be no disruptions from foreign guests. In the danchi, the average age of residents must be around 75, so the idea of a big hotel going in next door, and the changes it might bring, were upsetting. If you've been to Kyoto, or even over to Asakusa on a nice day, you've seen 観光公害 (but a friend that's lived in Asakusa since the '70s assures me that it's always been swamped, just with fewer foreign tourists before, and it's become an issue now that Chinese tourists are coming, a situation that it's easy to find out how the average Japanese feels about). The hotels are not replacing anything particularly interesting and the tourists are mostly glimpsed briefly as they come up from Ueno Station with their wheelie suitcases or stepping out of coach buses. There's no reason to hang out in Shitaya, either, so it's not like they're stirring up trouble. When the hotels and residential projects go up, the developers mostly rip down '70s and '80s-vintage apartment blocks. The neighborhood hasn't been lively since the residents of this danchi were in their 30s, probably, just a nice place to put apartments right between two Yamanote Line stations (Ueno and Uguisudani) and close to a Hibiya Metro Line station (Iriya) and a Ginza Metro Line station (Inaricho). There's still Asakusa (tolerable after dark) and Ueno (no worse than any Yamanote station area and better than half) close enough, if you want some liveliness, I guess. I should start going to 自治会 and 町会 meetings more regularly.

(March 10th, 2019) If I ever write a novel loosely based on me in my twenties, it will end with taking the K600 out of Guangzhou in November of 2013 (five years, three months, fifteen days ago). There's not a story there. I just saw a picture of the ticket I took, and I was thinking about it. I remember, I didn't tell anybody that I was leaving, or, a few people, I told them I was going to Tibet. I cleaned out my rented room and filled a half-dozen plastic grocery bags with garbage and carried them down to the front of the building. I didn't expect anyone to notice, at least for a few days. I didn't expect many calls. I was still using the battered Nokia phone that powered down if left on for more than a few minutes. Somewhere around Shaoguan, I got a call from the manager at Rebel Rebel, offering me a job tending bar, but I'd already given up on the city. What if I'd gone back? I could have gotten off in Chenzhou. Somewhere around Changsha, I got a text message from a woman I had met in Shenzhen. I forget now how we met. I wrote somewhere else once, a story about meeting a prostitute in Shenzhen, who I ate duck blood soup with and took a taxi to see the mural of Deng Xiaoping with, and I'm sure that story is true enough, in its own way, but I set the story in the wrong city, and it was this woman that I took a taxi with to see the mural and walked in a night market with. I was getting a visa in Hong Kong, spending a few nights in Shenzhen on either side of the time in HK. Was she working at one of those bars near the Petrel Hotel? I remember we went back to my hotel but didn't sleep together, took a shower together and laid on the bed, watching a show about pet tigers. All I can remember about her now is that she had unexpectedly curly pubic hair, soft and fine and light brown. She said the reason for the curliness and fineness and light brownness of her pubic hair was that she was an ethnic minority—I could scan the list of the fifty-six ethnic minorities right now and I still couldn't remember which one she told me. I sent a message saying that I was busy with work and that perhaps I could visit her in Shenzhen sometime soon. I didn't tell her that I was on the K600. I didn't tell anybody. I cleaned out my rented room and dumped whatever I couldn't carry into plastic bags and tossed them in front of the building. In a bag, I put  a few shirts, a pair of grey Levi's slacks bought before a job interview, my laptop, and some notebooks, whatever book I was reading. I bought a hard seat ticket that morning, the 23rd of November, and waited in a KFC until it was time to leave. I remember, somewhere north of Zhengzhou, they sold, at one of the stations, clay pots with rice and pork. I guess you could throw them out of the window, after you were done? I don't know. When the train was north of Beijing, it stopped at Shijiazhuang and I got off to smoke a cigarette on the platform. Someone took my notebook off the table where I'd left it. I watched it happen. I was too tired to care, just a notebook... Maybe I had something in there that could change this into something with a point. There might have been some moment I forget, some key observation. But there's nothing here. A few months after I got to Datong, I was in a detention facility out in the countryside and then I was on a flight to Beijing and then to Vancouver. That's a turning point, though, getting on the K600 that day. I don't know where I'd be, if I hadn't taken that trip.


&: Bananas

The Yunlong Mountain Tunnel was opened in 2002. It runs about a half mile through the center of the mountain. The city has spread miles and miles beyond its former borderlines but Yunlong Mountain used to be on the southern edge of the city. A highway runs through the bottom half of the tunnel and the top half is a pedestrian walkway. If you cut down Zhongshan Road to the park along Yunlong Lake, you can get into the tunnel, up a long concrete slope, and come out on the other side in Quanshan. I don't know how the place looks now.

I might have taken a taxi through the tunnel, couple years ago, but I wasn't paying attention. I couldn’t even tell you what year it was. But it was the last time I visited Xinran’s hometown. Think about it a bit harder, it must have been when I was in Dalian, and I took the boat across to Weihai or Yantai. I don’t have any memory of that part of the trip, except for seeing out in front of the ferry terminal in Dalian, a man had spelled out his girlfriend’s name in LED candles out on the tarmac, waiting for her to get off. I remember I took the bus from Weihai or whatever city on the Shandong coast, and got off at Linyi to take a piss and eat some bus station baozi. I remember that even then, there was so much distance between us—emotionally, of course, but also, we’d spent the last year, at least, living apart. It would have been the first time I saw her since she left me in Vancouver and went to Shanghai. It was a cold day and I remember that I took her hand, getting off the bus, and she was wrapped up in a parka and a facemask. We took a taxi out to her parents’ place, maybe wandered around a bit downtown first. The taxi hit a cat on the way out there. She loves cats. It felt like a bad sign. That’s all I remember. Her parents had finally moved into the house that the local government or whoever had promised them since their danwei housing was demolished in 2007 or 2008. Her mother washed my hair. As far as I know, she’d never told them that we were married, and hadn’t told them that we hadn’t seen each other in years. She probably hadn’t told her parents that she was going to school in Guizhou and running surveys out in the hills, either. I have no idea. She ran a hot rag over my head and dripped water from a basin, washing out all the grime of the ferry ride and the bus and Linyi.

The city had changed completely. There was a Wal-Mart. The city center had been completely remade by the new mayor. I listed places we used to go and most of them had been torn down. The dandan noodles place by Minzhu Lu Xiao Xue, gone. The barbecue shacks along the river, replaced with cake shops and apartment blocks. The shitty karaoke place by the Garden Hotel, long gone. We must have gone through the tunnel to get out to her parents’ apartment. Their apartment was in Taishan, almost down where the University of Mining and Technology had their campus. So, we have taken the tunnel. It was dark already. Her mom went out to get a roast chicken, which she always did when I came for dinner, and shredded it and put the meat in a bowl, sprinkled it with dried chilies. Her father didn’t drink or smoke, but they usually opened a bottle of baijiu, too.

The tunnel, though, I was thinking about it, today. Right after we met, Xinran bought a bike. She had a battered old early-1980s-looking bike before but she bought a low, pink thing to replace it, with tiny wheels and a basket on the front. She’d ride downtown in the afternoon and I’d meet her at her friend Liu Chang’s store down the street from Golden Eagle and Carrefour—long gone, too, and Liu Chang married the local weatherman. We’d get something to eat and I’d ride her back across town, usually stopping off at the lake to sit on the benches and try to finger her, or we’d rush home and get dinner at the restaurant in the xiaoqu opposite mine and beside her parents’ old danwei dormitory. But we’d always go through the tunnel, up that big concrete slope. I’d push to go all the way up with her on the bike, pushing as hard as I could to keep the pink bike’s tiny wheels spinning, then, when we got up in the tunnel, glide through.

I guess they set some big vaults down in that mountain, too. That always made me think it was older than I learned it was. I thought maybe bomb shelters. But anyways, there were big vaults in there, and they’d unload fruit to store. The upper half of the tunnel, there were vendors up there, people selling cheap crap, sometimes baozi or whatever, and always bananas. The trucks would come and unload their bananas into the vaults and women would come out and spread tarps and sell the fruit off of them. As the season went on and the fruit ripened and the prices markered on the cardboard signs of the vendors got lower, the smell of ripe bananas replaced the stench of diesel exhaust.


&: Diary (1)

(January 1st, 2019) I made a reservation a few nights ago, just after Christmas, at the Pullman in Tamachi and requested a room with a view of the tracks so that while I worked I could watch the green Keihin-Tohoku Line trains race the green Yamanote Line trains. At night, I took the train to Asakusa to meet and friend and then came back and walked around Shibaura for a while, going over the neat bridges that connect the artificial islands. I don't know what Shibaura looked like before, but these days, it's uniform blocks of off-white apartment blocks, massive public housing projects too expensive and coveted to look like my own danchi in Shitaya (or similar projects in Nishi-Kasai or Hashiba or out in the suburbs), Lotteria, a few chain izakaya, Chinese massage places, a few office towers, second-floor cram schools, and a koban. The commuters from Tamachi station disappear into the apartment blocks. Shinagawa or Gotanda, just down the line, are the places to get a drink or pay for some company, and Shibuya and Shinjuku are close enough to get a taxi home even after last train. This is what all of the central wards are going to look like in a decade: central retail and office development surrounded by uniform apartment blocks, office towers with restaurants at the bottom, and a few businesses hanging on at the periphery.

(January 3rd, 2019) I took a walk in the afternoon, cutting through an alley behind my danchi through our neighborhood of fresh little condos and crumbling mid-Showa buildings where mostly elderly residents hang on in single room manshon, and out through Uguisudani. The cheap hotels that run along Showa Dori are making their way into Uguisudani, too, with love hotels on the margins of the red light district rebranding as hostels and guest houses, so that there are now tourists—red-faced Americans in cargo shorts, as well as Indonesian girls in headscarves, on that day—walking through the dense quarter of hourly stay spots that serve the deriheru that stock for convenient delivery women and girls in the cheap apartments around Negishi. I always feel uncomfortable walking through without any business in the love hotels, especially before the evening commuter rush. I wondered what the tourists made of the place or how many of the details they could pick up—did they catch the men nervously, chastely saying goodbye at the north exit of the station to women whose mouths they just came in? I don't know. I stood in front of the cigarette machines outside the Smile Pharmacy (offering tax-free sales to tourists, too, shifting from selling the essentials of a red light district, perhaps) and I watched a bike cop come through and flush the Chinese streetwalkers out of the south side of the love hotel block, and followed them north. They were conspicuous in their inconspicuousness, nearly identical long grey parkas and big leather purses, the kind of middle-aged women that wouldn't look out of place on any block in the city. I cut back out into a more respectable part of the city and slipped into Nippori, the first place I ever saw in Tokyo, coming that day three years ago off a train from Narita. I thought about walking all the way out to Ikebukuro. I used to take that walk—same distance, similar territory, at least—every now and then, when the last Yamanote stopped at Ikebukuro and I'd have to walk out to Oku Station. But the trains were still running and I knew there wasn't much I hadn't seen between the two stations, so I took the Yamanote.

Ikebukuro is a place I've been through many times but I've never lived close enough to spend much time there, like Nippori or Uguisudani or Ueno, or even Roppongi. Its reputation as a sleazy shithole popular with commuters out to the suburbs seems to be accurate. Apart from that, it's worth mentioning that Ikebukuro Station has become one of the centers of the Chinese community in Tokyo. In a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books' China Channel, I wrote: Chinese residents and sojourners have made Ikebukuro a new Chinatown. If you want to eat suancaiyu or maoxuewang, you can find it there; if you want to buy an unlocked phone with multiple SIM slots and do it in Minnan dialect, there’s a shop in Ikebukuro; in a city that seems to encourage racist landlords to fuck with you, you can find a rental company in Ikebukuro that will find you a place in no time; and when see what the rent is going to be, there are legit (and less-legit) employment agencies that will have you working the same day. But like Uguisudani, you can miss what's really going on, unless you know what's going on. The shop selling maoxuewang is probably only advertising it on Wechat, and the phone shop is on the third floor of a nondescript building with a pharmacy and a massage joint below it; the Wenshengtang Chinese Bookstore that I wrote about is almost impossible to find even staring at Google Maps directions; there are Chinese grocery stores and restaurants on the north side of the station but you're more likely to get a sudden whiff of cumin and chili or pickled cabbage than you are to notice the storefronts.

(January 8th) We spent the past few days at the Shangri-La. It's only a ten minute drive from Shitaya but it feels like it's in another city. Our room looked out over Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace. We put on vintage luxury pulled from musty Asakusa thrift stores—European fashion brands bought up in the baburu jidai and perhaps sold on by filial sons and daughters come to move their parents from shitamachi to suburbs—and went out to walk in Ginza and spend our money unwisely (for Asumi, hand-painted Comme des Garçons shoes and a bottle of perfume, and, for me, forty dollar hamburgers). The truth is that like everywhere in Tokyo, it lives off tourist dollars, and most of it feels like any metropolitan collection of malls and department stores, but there's something left of the old Ginza (not pre-war Ginza, exactly, or even Ginza of the baburu jidai—just "imaginary Ginza," I guess: department stores and writers and trams and Shiseido models, scenes from Shimazu Yasujiro films, maybe Ozu, café culture, literati... all those signifiers mixed up together) on the backstreets, the shops that are off the radar of Mainland shoppers, the ancient kissaten, whatever cafés have hung on and haven't been replaced by Doutours or Starbucks, the tiny restaurants... We ate at one of the Michelin-starred tempura spots that hang on to basement real estate in Ginza, sitting at the counter with couples drinking Chablis—that felt like Ginza, at least. A middle-aged man drunk off imo shochu, there with a slightly younger date (a woman from his office, I thought), presented with a deep fried umeboshi hiding a nugget of chestnut: "What's in there?" The chef calls back: "You can eat it." "Is it an egg yolk?" "Eat it and you'll see." He orders another glass of shochu. The tail of the shrimp follows the head, placed on a slab of slate covered in a sheet of thick paper. I've never tasted any shrimp that sweet. The meal ends with iced coffee served in a ceramic bowl. We walked back through Nihonbashi and Yaesu, no salarymen on a Sunday night.

The next morning, I started planning another trip to Beijing. Another goddamn trip to Beijing. Five years ago, I would have loved the chance to spend even a few days in Beijing, but it's become a hassle. We sat on the bed plotting out the days required and I booked a flight on Air China and a stay at the Kerry in the CBD. The thought of clearing customs and making the trek into the city... It fills me with dread. There's nothing I want in Beijing, anymore.

I spent the rest of the final morning at Shangri-La watching the trains sliding into Tokyo Station, the Chuo racing the Yamanote north, the long aquamarine nose of the Tohoku Shinkansen sticking out from under an awning...

(January 10th) I made breakfast for Asumi and walked through Uguisudani to the Calligraphy Museum in Negishi. Although I've walked by it many times, I'd never been inside. There was an exhibition called Ou Gishi Shodo no Zanei, with Northern Wei and Jin Dynasty rubbings, many of them made in the 19th century at stelae and inscriptions from the Longmen Grottoes. The museum had the feel of any municipal institution in the country. I followed around the space a girl with inky black hair, wrapped in a parka, mouth and nose hidden behind a surgical mask. She studied each rubbing for so long that I couldn't help but wonder what she saw in them. To me, they looked like stenciled graffiti you'd find on a concrete wall, advertising plumbing services or counterfeit documents.

In the main building of the museum, I expected to see Japanese calligraphy but found instead rooms full of Chinese antiquities, Northern Wei, Sui and Tang stone carvings, including a seated Amitabha cut out of a grotto in Shanxi; there were bronze bells from the Zhou and jade from Lolang; hollow bricks from Western Han tombs and inscriptions carved in stone for patrons of a pagoda. It's hard not to think of how those objects must have been brought to Tokyo. Plenty of those blank faces and missing limbs at the Longmen Grottoes arrived in Japan in the '30s and '40s. Tens of thousands of books, artifacts and other objects were looted from Chinese museums. I pictured the stone blocks being uncrated at Yokohama, being examined by the art historians that went to Henan and Shandong and Shanxi at the turn of the 20th century to make the rubbings in the Ou Gishi Shodo no Zanei exhibition. It was the Japanese that helped discover the place, after all, guys like Okakura Kakuzo ("The first foreign explorer to visit Longmen was the Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura, who was later to head the Asian department of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Okakura stumbled upon the site half by accident in 1893, took some photographs, and returned home to Japan to lecture with his lantern slides of the Binyang (Pin-yang) cave's central grotto"), Tadashi Sekino, Seigai Omura. (I wish I knew more about Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura, so that I could put together some thoughts here, the place that these examples of Chinese art had in shaping Okakura's ultranationalist vision of a unitary Asia and his conception of Oriental art history, and this museum's collection is a legacy of thinkers like Okakura but I'm going to move on.)

I have this really intense memory of going to the Longmen Grottoes for the first time. It would have been 2006, as part of a—I didn't see this at the time—very early attempt to salvage our young relationship. We took a train out to Henan. It was a familiar place to her, I guess, since she had family in Henan, on her father's side, I think from around south of Zhengzhou. She used to spend summers out there. So, we went to Luoyang first, if I'm remembering this right, and stayed at a Seven Days Inn, took a bus out to White Horse Temple one day, then Longmen the next day. It feels like I'm recounting a movie or something but I remember being deeply moved by it, the view of the grottoes, looking down the Yi River. It was tied up with my feelings for her, and I couldn't help but see her face in the carvings, Vairocana lips and long, long Guanyin eyes.... I was in love and impressionable. It felt somehow like I was connecting with her on some deeper level, going out on a boat on the Yellow River or whatever. At this point, I'm not even sure how much of that I really felt and how much was just fantasy cooked up later. Also, part of it was that the entire place, the culture, it was all a mystery to me, still. Like, going to the White Horse Temple, I had no idea about anything, the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism and turtle dragons or even the Cultural Revolution. So but, goddamn Longmen, it made an impression. And just—it's surreal to see a chunk of it set in a climate-controlled room in a blank institutional room in a neighborhood of love hotels and chain izakaya in East Tokyo—like, is the real thing still there? It feels like coming across it in a post-apocalyptic situation, like the last artifacts of a dead civilization. I mean, it's still there—the statues and the stone and the inscriptions, most of them—so, it's weird to be confronted by a piece of it carved out of the real thing.

I could probably write something formal about the exhibition and the museum. I could set the museum, start with shitty love hotels, coming upon the museum like Okakura came upon the Longmen Grottoes, lay out a brief history of Japanese collecting rubbings of inscriptions, talk about the disorienting feeling of coming upon the stone statues cut out of their original locations? I'm not sure there's anything there and I don't know enough about the history, probably. There's probably more to say about the Japanese conception of Chinese art history or Japanese esthetic nationalism or whatever than about the objects in the museum.


&: A story about spending time in a detention center in Datong

This is a story about spending time in a detention center in Datong. It's not a typical story about foreigners ending up in detention in China. I neglected to register with the local Public Security Bureau but I wasn't accused of a crime and I wasn't deported. I don't bear the local Public Security Bureau any ill will. I was treated well, despite being very cold and bored.

The story starts with leaving Guangzhou because my life was shit or because I was depressed and wanted to run away from everything. I think that's the most interesting part of the story.

That was a year before I ended up in Datong. I flew into Shanghai from Vancouver, then got on a thirty hour no seat train ride to Guangzhou. It's very easy to explain what I was doing. I wanted to escape. I had let a relationship crumble and I had been fired from a job working at a liquor store. If I was going to work a dead-end job and watch my future slowly darken, I thought I might as well do it in Guangzhou.

After I arrived in Guangzhou, I scraped together a pretty good life: a slack job in Tianhe, a Xiguan girl that spoke English with a SoCal accent, a Hunan art school girl that dressed like Sherlock Holmes, an apartment in a xiaoqu full of water features and palm trees and illegally parked Panameras. It didn't last long. Maybe a few months. I wasn't trying to build a future, so it was easy to fuck around and abuse the freedom of not having to give a fuck about anything. I became nocturnal, haunting the clubs downtown and drinking too much. I went out every night. I woke up once in a hash dealer's apartment; I woke up a few times in massage parlors and on sidewalks. That makes it sound more glamorous than it was. I spent a lot of time locked in my apartment, pissing in Gatorade bottles, smoking weed and playing Secret of Mana. But I knew that things were grim. And I knew what to do, at that point. I had been through the cycle before: escape, fuck things up, escape to somewhere where the stakes were higher, escape, repeat. I felt things breaking apart. I found an email that had gone ureplied-to in my inbox for months, someone I had met in Vancouver introducing me to a friend that could offer me a job in Shanxi.

I didn't tell anybody that I was leaving. I cleaned out my apartment and filled a dozen plastic grocery bags with garbage and carried them down to the front of the building. I didn't expect anyone to notice, at least for a few days. I wouldn't get any calls. I was still using the battered Nokia phone that powered down if I left on for more than a few minutes. I put everything I owned—a few shirts, a pair of grey Levi's bought before a job interview, notebooks—in a bag that I could carry over my shoulder. I bought a hard seat ticket on the K600 that runs from Guangzhou all the way 2000 miles out to Baotou. I waited in a KFC until it was time to leave. I rode the thirty-six hours out to Datong, feeling the air growing colder every stop we made headed north.

Datong was cold. The old city was being torn down to put up a fake wall and a new temple complex. I could walk across the central town in a few hours. I survived on xianbing and sleeves of Oreos. I worked for a man with bad teeth and a lot of money, a low-level but authentic Shanxi coal boss who made the jump out of the coal business at the right time and diversified into heavy equipment, manufacturing, hotels and a half-dozen other sidelines. I worked for his cousin Huang, and was mostly left alone in a corner of an office that served as a travel agency and advertising company. The girls that worked in the office with me seemed just as idle.

I had no friends except a girl whose name I've forgotten now, who, seeing me sitting alone in a cafe, using the WiFi, entered, sat down, and then went home with me. After I slept with her, she insisted that she move in. We had relationship that was not unhappy but completely joyless. She doesn't figure much in this story. But I don't want to delete the references made later to her. I will call her Qiaoqiao.

As winter approached, I made a visa run to Hong Kong and ended up in Guangzhou with a new work visa, waiting for my flight back to Shanxi. I went out that night with a few former colleagues and clients. As the night wound down I found myself in a bar with a businessman from Uganda who ran a business shipping furniture and heavy equipment to East Africa, and a man from Syria who was married to a Mexican girl I knew through a friend. The Ugandan left as the Syrian and I took to take a taxi to a twenty-four hour private club. Over drinks he asked me for a long shot favor: I know a guy here, he said, going to medical school. His brother came over too and has gotten into a bit of trouble. Nothing serious. Nothing with the police. But the brother is very religious. He’s trying to get the kid out of Guangzhou.

I met the kid the next morning. Samir had grown up in Kenya, the son of a middle class Baluchi family, with a civil engineer dad who had two wives. (He discovered it when his dad ended up in the hospital and he ran into a boy who looked exactly like him in the corridor—his half brother.) The family ended up in a suburb of Toronto, claiming refugee status on bogus Somali passports. His passport said he was twenty two years old, but he had just turned twenty. In Canada, his two brothers became devout Muslims, active in their mosques. They married Pakistani girls and made plans to get out of the country. Samir’s phone still rang the call to prayer five times a day but he was more passionate about Bollywood, fashion and poetry. When his eldest brother went to Guangzhou for medical school, he followed. His brother had early suspicions. Samir could barely negotiate the city but he had had started fucking boys he met on a dating app, smoking ice and coming home fucked up at four in the morning.

Samir came with me to Datong. He lived in my apartment and came into the office most afternoons. The girls in the office loved him. He taught them Madhuri Dixit dances and they got him to take their lunch order down to the restaurants in the alley behind our office tower. I paid him out of my salary and made sure he was well fed. On Fridays we took a taxi to the mosque and I waited outside for him, chatting with the woman who came every week to sell frozen halal chickens from out of her Hyundai trunk. I translated what I remembered of the imam’s speech for Samir. We talked and got drunk together and ran through the shitty clubs. He made connections, somehow and it wasn’t long before he knew all the secret gay pickup spots in the city and where to buy poppers. I’m sure his brother wouldn’t have approved.

I tried my best. It's fucking wild to see someone that was around the same age as you when your life went off the rails putting their life off the rails in almost—without poppers and Islam—the same way. The night before we went to jail, I gave him a speech. I remember, we were sitting in the living room of our apartment. I told him that you can never be happy unless you learn to control yourself. It's not important what happened after that. We went out, I went home early, and Samir stayed out and got into some trouble.

In the morning, Samir came home with the police. They asked to see my passport and invited me to go for a drive with them. They filmed the arrest, so somewhere there is a video of me blearily answering my bedroom door and walking to the two black Passats that were waiting outside. A tall woman in a trench coat was in charge of a group of plainclothes cops. She apologized for disturbing my rest. I got into the backseat of one of the cars and Samir got into the other.

We were brought to an office of the Public Security Bureau. I was asked what my relationship to Samir was, if I’d been with him the night before and an outline of my activities over the last several days. We were taken to a hospital, pissed in cups and—I think?—had our blood drawn. I couldn’t talk to Samir but I tried to put him at ease, smiling over the nurse’s shoulder, making light conversation with the cops shuttling us around. They let slip that because I had a work visa I should be okay —detention but no deportation — but they were not pleased that I had never bothered to register at the local police station. We were taken to a KFC up in Beiguan and treated to lunch.

We got back into the cars and drove out beyond the edge of the city on an empty highway. We drove for an hour. It was late fall, the greyest season in a grey country. I talked to the cops that were riding with me, sitting on both sides of me in the back of the Passat. For a while, I thought that we might be driving to the airport, but I quickly realized we were going in the wrong direction and too far out of the city. I didn't care where we were going. When we pulled up at a walled compound and walked the gravel driveway up to a row of low, grey buildings, I knew Samir had not been able to read the three characters above them that indicated we had arrived at a detention centre.

In a cold room, we stripped our clothes off and were photographed back, front and side. We were given orange vests and flip-flops, and had any metal zips or buttons cut out of our clothes. One of the guards gave us a tour of our cell:

Put cold water in this bucket in the morning. Put hot water in this canteen. Shit and piss in this bucket. These basins are to get your food. This rag is to clean. Don’t touch the beds until it’s time for bed. Sit on these stools. Lights out at nine thirty. Out of bed at seven. Breakfast is at eight. Then you can go to the bathroom, dump your shit bucket and get water. Inspection is at nine. Lunch is at eleven thirty. You nap between one and two thirty. You eat dinner at four thirty. Any questions? Follow the rules and you'll be fine.

There were no other formalities. No interrogation, for sure. No reading of charges. No pre-trial hearing, obviously. One of the guards brought us steamed buns and pickled radish. We went to sleep. . No one told us how long we would be there. I had no idea that would be my life for ten weeks.

Every morning we were roused from bed by one of the guards shouting: Qi chuang! Get up!

There were three cells on our block. One of them was connected to ours by an outer walkway. The third cell was on the other side of a grid of metal bars. The other cells each held five men, who were slow to get up in the morning. Depending on the guard they might bang against the metal bars or shout individual prisoners’ names, or they might just yell. Samir was slow to get out of bed, too. I would warn him when I saw the guard walking across the courtyard.

I was up before anyone. I took pride in obedience to the rules. Even if the rules were casually enforced or ignored completely, I took pleasure in following them. On the walls of our cell were the rules of detention and the rights of prisoners. I read them until I memorized them. Nobody else seemed to give a fuck.

When I got out of bed, I pissed in the bucket in the corner, folded my bedding and exercised. I ran on the spot, did pushups, jumping jacks, more pushups, and leg raises while hanging from the upper bunk of my bed. The cell was cold in the morning. Snow had not fallen yet. But a dusty December wind blew through the screen of our cell door. Samir had been given an army surplus parka. I was wearing a tight orange sweater that the police brought to me after they searched our apartment. It belonged to Qiaoqiao and I'm sure she was unhappy not to get it back. Below the sweater I wore a grey V-neck that I had been wearing when the police came to the door. I also had a pair of Levi’s jeans with the metal button and the zipper cut off. It was tied through the front belt loops with a piece of rope. When I warmed up, I put on my fake leather jacket — zipper and buttons also cut off — with the orange prison vest over it.

The cell was large enough for eight prisoners. There were four bunk beds and a metal cupboard with three doors. In it we kept our plastic basins, toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and leftover food. There was a TV on the wall between a window and the door. In the corner of the room, high on the wall, was a camera nested in a mess of wire.

When Samir got out of bed, he washed the floor beside his bed with a rag and performed his ablutions. He poured hot water into a basin from the thermos and mixed it with cold water from our clean water bucket. He cleaned his hands and arms from wrist to elbow, rinsed his mouth and sprinkled water on his socks. He knelt on his army coat to pray. After he prayed he shook out his jacket, put it on and sat on his stool beside the radiator.

At seven-thirty we got our first chance to leave the cell. Samir refilled our thermos with hot water and refilled the clean water bucket. I emptied the shit bucket and went to get our breakfast. The prison cells were arranged around a courtyard with a tree and a fountain in the middle. Around the courtyard were classrooms, activity rooms and a room with a pool table, but nobody entered them and those rooms stayed shut while we were there.

The prisoners from the cells who dumped the bucket left the cell first. We walked together out of the courtyard, into the main building and out again into a concrete backyard. We dumped our shit and piss and wastewater into a steaming hole in the ground covered by a wooden trapdoor. Samir was too weak to carry the bucket, so the task was mine.

The officer on duty at the prison supervised the dumping of the shit buckets. They usually asked me how I had slept, then gave me a cigarette. Before the police knocked at my door, I started every morning scrounging for a pack of Zhongnanhai and smoking two of them while watching the English-language news on CCTV-16. Samir always told me he knew I was awake by the click of my lighter. After a week in prison my morning cigarette was less about feeding a habit and more the thrill of special treatment and contraband. We enjoyed the game of scoring cigarettes from the officer and guards more than actually smoking them.

Breakfast was the same every morning. We got it through a window that opened onto the courtyard. We each had a small plastic basin of pickled radish and carrot with steamed buns, and there was a larger basin to share, a thin porridge made from millet. After a week there was an occasional treat: fermented bean curd. The first time that the man who scooped the food into our plastic basins asked me if I wanted a special treat, he told me that we were respectful to him and never complained about the food. The bean curd was pungent and salty, the texture of cream cheese. I spread it on the still-warm steamed buns and saved my pickled vegetables for lunch. Samir drank the millet porridge and ate a steamed bun.

The period between breakfast at seven-thirty and lunch at noon was the dreariest and most hopeless time of the day. Time moved slowly. I tracked the passing hours by watching the sun move against the bars of the outer walkway. Samir and I rarely talked. The cell was cold. There was a radiator and he lay against it, dozing. While he slept I looked out of the window, listened to the sound of water in the pipes, and steered myself through private memories until I nodded off.

At 10:30am was cell check. Whichever officer was on duty would come to our door and we would sit on our stools and wait for him to call our name. When he called our name we put up our hand. We all had to keep our hands raised until he told us to put them down. This rule was explained to us on the first day.

There were three officers that rotated prison duty through the week. The first was Cai. He was in his mid thirties, married, and hated his job. He was writing a novel about Ming loyalists using martial arts to fight back against the Manchus. We discussed literature a few times and he mentioned he knew Cao Naiqian, a writer and Public Security Bureau officer in Datong. He didn’t think much of Cao’s writing. He said that if I stayed a few more weeks maybe he could set up a meeting. Some afternoons, Cai let me sit in his office. He didn’t smoke but bought packs for me. We chatted for a few hours about history or books or women. When other people from the prison wandered into his office he went silent until they left. He said: They don’t understand any of the things we’re talking about.

Zhang was the oldest of the officers on rotation. He looked like a cartoon cop, a tough short guy with a crew cut and bulldog jowls. He was the only one who stuck to the rules posted on the wall of our cell. He criticized the folding of our bedding. Once he walked us over to the neighboring cell and showed us their blankets, which were folded neatly. We tried to improve our folding and he never brought it up again. He was the gruffest of the officers but was free with his cigarettes and had been the one to dig up the parka for Samir.

Wang was tall and also had a crewcut. He was quick to discipline the other prisoners but generally unconcerned about the rules. One of the men in the other cells clearly had connections and seemed to be the source of the smuggled cigarettes that the prisoners passed around during our outside time. The cigarette smuggler was often let out of his cell for trips to a bathroom inside the guard’s quarters. Wang was the only officer who denied his requests and openly mocked him in front of prisoners and guards. When he came to check our cell he was always puffing on a cigarette. While the Warden looked over his shoulder disapprovingly at our floor or bedding, he would laugh and ask us when the fuck we were getting out.

The Warden was always looking over someone’s shoulder disapprovingly. He scowled at us when the officers gave us cigarettes. When he walked through the courtyard he was accompanied by a trio of boys in their late teens who fetched things for him, opened doors and lit his cigarettes. One of the boys had his hair teased up, dyed with purple streaks. He wore skinnier jeans than a prison guard should wear. Another boy wore a black satin jacket and thick glasses. They were clearly intimidated by the men in the other cells, who glared at them and pushed past them to get to the bathroom. I still don't know what the fuck was going on with the Warden or his boys. It seems fucked up, looking back, and I don't have an explanation.

Those mornings stretched on fucking forever. The boredom started to fuck with me. That was my only complaint. It only got worse. We had CCTV-1 but you can only sit through Boonie Bears so many times before it starts to grate. I used to take walks in my head, through places I had been before. Like, the walk out from Waterfront Station, down Cordova, cutting over to East Hastings, through the gates of Chinatown, back north to East Cordova and Oppenheimer Park, up onto Powell, with views out on the harbor, past the sugar refinery and the container terminals... The long walk from Kowloon Tong, over to Nathan Road, through Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei, all the way to Star Ferry Pier.

After the boredom, the cold was the worst. Some afternoons, there was frost on the walls. We both wore three pairs of socks. Our shoes had been replaced with flip-flops. Samir was always cold, even with the parka. He sat against the radiator most of the day. He ate very little and lost weight. I knew I could spend a long time locked up. I knew it didn’t matter. But I felt bad for Samir. It was his fault we were there and he had apologized over and over again. I hated to see him cold and hungry and hopeless. He vowed he’d stop fucking boys. He said he’d go back to Kenya, where his cousin ran a school, work with him there. Sometimes he didn’t talk all day and sometimes he wouldn't shut up. We dug deep to find stories we hadn’t yet told each other yet.

When I was cold, I exercised and sat cross legged on the floor on my army jacket with my feet tucked under me. At times I enjoyed the cold. I wanted to be uncomfortable. My move to the north of China was part of that impulse. In Guangzhou I had been living in a dream city without knowing it: loud, tropical hot, alive twenty-four hours a day. I thought about my last nights there, swallowed up in the crowds, going to Loft 345 to hear friends DJ, coming home at dawn with soft rain falling on the palm trees outside my apartment, everything made more beautiful and important by the slow decay of a hash high.

There was something profoundly peaceful and right-feeling about those morning in Datong, sometimes. I had kept running and running from shit, trying to feel something in my fucked up life, and maybe I wanted to breathe dust and to be cold and hungry and stare at the walls.

Lunch broke the monotony. Samir filled up our water thermos and I went to collect the food — usually more steamed buns and a basinful of boiled cabbage with lots of black pepper. The black pepper collected at the bottom of the basin and looked like dirt—or mixed with the dirt, I guess. There was also a store in the courtyard, staffed by an older woman and a younger woman, which was open during lunch- and dinnertime. The store sold instant noodles, shrinkwrapped hard boiled tea eggs, toilet paper and whatever prisoners requested. About a week into our stay someone from my company stopped by with cash and it was handed to me by one of the guards. I peeled off a few red bills and asked for cigarettes. We bought Orion choco pies, custard-filled spongecake and digestive biscuits, and ate them while we were allowed to watch CCTV-1.

I didn't recognize the man that came from my company. He seemed to intimate that the company was being shaken down by the PSB. He insisted we'd get out soon.

After eating lunch, Samir prayed again and we got into bed. Apart from these two hours in the afternoon and after lights out, we were not allowed to sit on our beds. That hour and a half in bed was a transcendent experience. It was the first time in hours we felt warm. Sleep made the time pass quicker. We knew the day was halfway done.

I used to think a lot about a trip I took to Lianyungang. I've written about it before, a fucking million times. I took mushrooms and slept beside an abandoned fishing village, out on a concrete pier. I had a sort of flash of enlightenment or something the next day, walking through the city, something about how, if I was going to be at my lowest, starving or freezing, I wanted to do it in China. It wasn't that I felt at home there. It was like realizing you can live in your favorite novel or something, for me. It felt like even living completely without purpose, I was still doing something, learning something about an unfamiliar place. Maybe it was bullshit, but it was like a peak life-in-China moment, and getting swept up into a Datong detention cell was the—despite whatever I felt or said about how it was profound or meditative or instructive—definitely the nadir.

After waking up, in the mid afternoon we got time outside. It was cold but the sun was bright enough to make it warmer than our cells. We walked down the outer walkway, wrapped up in our jackets, and I chatted with the other prisoners.

Most of the men in the other cells were petitioners, or men locked up for petty crimes that they wouldn’t specify. Most of them had been in detention centers before. One of them wore an army coat with the gold buttons still sewed to it. He had been in the People’s Liberation Army. His house had been torn down when Datong began construction on its replica ancient wall. When he petitioned in Beijing he was arrested near Zhongnanhai. He spent a night locked in a room in Beijing before policemen from Datong came to collect him.

Another of the men had his eye gouged out a few days before. He had gone to Beijing, too. The factory he had worked for was bought out by a private company. Then the company was sold and shut down, and the factory and employee dormitories were demolished. There had been promises of an apartment on the edge of Datong, and a pension. But he had received neither. He moved into a house in the old city and it was demolished, too. He got in a fight with a man while locked up in Beijing. After a trip to the hospital he was brought to the detention center.

Most of them would be released within four or five days. Their wives stopped by and brought them food. While we smoked cigarettes and talked, Samir prayed.

The nights were easier.

Dinner was the best meal of the day. Samir ate very little, even when he abandoned his halal guidelines and simply avoided dishes with visible pork. I ate basins of stir-fried pork and ginger, lamb stew with cumin, braised chicken and potato. The steamed buns were the best I had ever had, handmade and chewy and dense. There were handcut noodles with pork and wood-ear fungus. After dinner we watched the news on CCTV-1.

The radiators came on in the evening and the cell felt warm. On some nights, we laid out parkas on the floor after dinner, opened choco pies and watched whatever was on CCTV-1. By the time bedtime approached, I had forgotten how shitty the day had been.

When the lights went out at nine-thirty, one of the guards would shout: Shuijiao! Shuijiao! Sleep! Sleep! The radiators were almost blazing by then. We would undress and talk while we lay in our beds. It was peaceful and warm in bed. The lights stayed on all night.

Every day was almost the same. It was cold and boring.

I mentally prepared myself for two years. I thought: I can do this for two years. I thought there would be a trial. I planned to forego deportation and take the time in detention. I know this isn't how it works. But—two years, I would have been fine with two years.

I felt guilty about everyone that worried about me. I think that might have been worse than the cold and boredom.

Once a week someone from the Public Security Bureau would meet with us. I would translate for Samir. They asked the same questions. They let Samir call his brother in Guangzhou.

When I got my phone, I saw that there were long text messages from Qiaoqiao, saying, basically: Who the fuck is this? You claim you're the police but I know a police sergeant and you're going to be in trouble when I track you down. It went on like that. She called the phone whenever it was turned on. I guess the PSB were going through my text messages. But all they got were angry threats from a local girl. I find that touching, thinking back. The phone was useless and I had to write down a number to dial. I didn't call Qiaoqiao back.

The PSB people hinted that there would be a trial. A woman from the Canadian consulate came by and everyone in the detention center showed up to work with their uniforms on, for once. I can't remember what she told me. I think I called my mother. On the table in the conference room where we met her, there was a pack of Zhonghua, and I smoked at least five, washing them down with hot jasmine tea.

This story doesn't have much of an ending. One day, a woman that we had never seen met with us individually. She asked me if I wanted to come back to China. She asked if I could buy a plane ticket home. In the afternoon I sat with the guard Cai in his office and he told me: They’re just going to keep you here until your visa expires. Spring Festival is coming, and they want everyone out before then.

The necessary arrangements were made.

It was five-thirty in the morning when Cai came to our cell. It was dark outside. He told me that I would be leaving that day. I hugged Samir. Cai brought me across the courtyard to the guard’s office. He gave me a pack of cigarettes. On the security monitor I watched Samir pacing, tidying the cell. Cai said: You can leave now. They’ll come to pick you up soon. They’ll let him go in a few days, probably. I exchanged my flip-flops for my shoes and took off my prison vest. I sat with Cai for a while. The black Passat was waiting at the gates.

The woman from the Public Security Bureau handed me my phone and my wallet. We drove to my apartment and we met two men there. I packed a few things in the bag I had brought up from Guangzhou. I changed into new dirty clothes. The men were wearing grey slacks and plastic parkas. I walked with them to an airline ticket counter and watched as they tried to buy last minute tickets on a flight to Beijing. They finally secured three seats but one of the men had to make a last minute call to okay the expense.

When we landed in Beijing, the two PSB took me to a Real Kungfu restaurant for my last meal. After lunch they slept with their heads on the table.

The story ends there.

I sat in that Real Kungfu waiting for a flight out of the country. I've flown out of Beijing since then and I think I've walked by that Real Kungfu—or it might have been replaced with something else, by now. But at that moment, I thought that those were my last moments in the country. I had devoted so much time and energy to the place and the language and I assumed I would never be back. I sat up while the PSB men slept, watching the waitresses, braless in their red uniform polo shirts, stringy hair tied up, wiping down the tables after the lunch rush. When it was time to go, the PSB men tried to cut through the security line and were reprimanded by a teenager in an ill-fitting uniform. We took one last picture together. Maybe it went into the PSB file along with video of my arrest and a picture of me standing nude in a detention center reception room.

There's no conclusion. The story ends there. Maybe the experience dislodged the fantasy I had had since that day in Lianyungang. I'm not sure. The whole experience felt pointless. I went back to China a year after I flew out of Beijing.

No hard feelings.

(A version of this appeared on The Anthill and Alec Ash edited that early version. The site is gone now. Some of that Alec Ash-edited version remains here. Thanks, Alec.
Another note, too, that I've written versions of this story a few times and I notice myself fudging the facts here and there, leaving things out, for various reasons, mostly related to personal privacy and the privacy of people involved. That's just how it is. This is close enough, though.)


&: Mito, Ibaraki

The next day, I had given up on writing again. I got up early and I walked up to Keisei Department Store again, and then down toward the south end of Tennocho and Senba Lake, where there is a red light district.

The red light district in Tennocho is depressingly large for a town the size of Mito, made up of mostly fashion healths and soaplands on the south side, snack bars and pink salons on the north side, around the massive koban and blocks of abandoned danchi.

At the west end of the south side of the district stand the ruins of Trump Castle. It was not yet eight a.m. and nobody was around. I found a doorway blocked with cardboard and scrap wood. The smashed windows above the lobby let the early morning sun shine on graffiti and smashed sofas and Bacchanal wall reliefs painted in primary reds and greens. I went out into the lanes of the red light district to find a good angle to take a picture.

There is always that contrast in those red light districts, in a city like Mito, or in Yoshiwara, near my home in Tokyo, the contrast between the women, or the idealized companion with soft, perfumed skin, the half hour or hour or ninety minutes of love, and the places that these women work which are usually roughly built, sometimes crumbling buildings.


&: Taking ketamine in China

Ketamine was an important part of my first couple years in China, made an appearance almost every night I went out, and I credit a synergistic combination of the PRC and blasts of K粉 with curing my depression and anxiety.

There’s not much of a ketamine culture left in China—never was, unless you count liberal Hong Kong and Taiwan, where references to the drug made it into song lyrics and novels (see: “Sit Down to Float: The Cultural Meaning of Ketamine Use in Hong Kong” by Karen Joe-Laidler and Geoffrey Hunt in Addiction Research & Theory, 2008, and also "Ketamine use in Taiwan: Moral panic, civilizing processes, and democratization" by Liang-Yin Hsu in International Journal of Drug Policy, July 2014, and then look up "The Great K-Hole of China" by Robert Foyle Hunwick on Motherboard)... There were QQ空间 pictures in passworded albums of girls you met out with lines of K in the shape of a heart, soundtracked by a 周杰伦 ballad autoplaying in the background, some Sina blogs that came off Go Ask Alice-ish. The subculture most identified with ketamine must be late-80后, early 90后 subcultural 非主流 kids—非主流 as it was used in the mid-2000s, less online cute and more Zhengzhou night market goth. But beyond those online scraps, there's not much, kind of like dextromethorphan, maybe (loosely associated with hardcore punk and early internet/IRC people but never really commemorated outside of Bluelight, Third Plateau's #dxm, Youtube videos with less than 1000 views).

Really, it could have been anything, benzodiazepines or methamphetamine or GHB, but ketamine came along first and it was a cheap way to get fucked up.

It’s easy enough to trace how ketamine became a major drug of abuse in China in the early- to mid-2000s, geographically, at least. The loose supply of ketamine across Asia helped the drug filter into international scenes, and in Hong Kong in the late-1990s, the drug was first used to cut ecstasy or issued as a comedown package, later in its pure form, an idea possibly adopted from expats coming back from raving in Goa. It spread from the club scene to working class karaoke chillout sessions (again, see: “Sit Down to Float: The Cultural Meaning of Ketamine Use in Hong Kong”). From there, the jump to Guangdong and out to the cities along the coast was simple. By the year 2000, with almost a hundred million migrant workers, many of them in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other coastal centers, it didn’t take long for ketamine to be brought back inland.

Ketamine, for a brief time, enjoyed a reputation as a fairly safe social drug, openly laid out on club tables and offered to friends at KTV. Erowid lists some effects of ketamine: “Pleasant mental and/or body high / Increase in energy / Distortion or loss of sensory perceptions (common) / Closed- and open-eye visuals (common) / Dissociation of mind from body / Ataxia (loss of motor coordination) / Severe confusion, disorganised thinking.” Ketamine is a dissociative hallucinogen, not unlike phencyclidine (PCP), dextromethorphan (DXM, mentioned already, an antitussive that replaced heavier ingredients like morphine in cough syrups), or beloved research chemical methoxetamine (MXE). In low doses, there’s not much more than mild dissociative effects, decent euphoria—and if you go into the club to order the cheapest bottle on the menu (counterfeit Red Label or some sketchy vodka), ketamine and alcohol have a synergistic effect, making it a great way to save money.

At higher doses, ketamine is completely incapacitating and a heavy trip can mimic a near-death experience. In the West, its most notable booster was John C. Lilly, noted for taking ketamine to communicate with dolphins. Lilly took ketamine in an isolation tank and had visions of competing factions of aliens, the Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO) and the solid state entities that planned to put humanity on domed reservations (see: The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography by John C. Lilly).

In the early days, the purity of ketamine was extremely high (“Sit Down to Float” quotes a Hong Kong Government Laboratory report that has ketamine at an average of 80% purity), since the majority of the drug was coming, at first, from labs in the Indian state of Maharashtra diverting pharmaceutical-grade product, through Hong Kong to the People’s Republic. When those smuggling routes were shut down, clandestine and legal operations along Guangdong’s east coast began pumping out their own.

By the mid-2000s, the ketamine boom was in full swing and I had just arrived in-country. The first time I took ketamine would have been in 2006, sometime in June or July, on a hot humid night in Nanjing. I took a bump in an empty lot outside a club. The edge of the lot had been strung with green lanterns advertising Carlsberg and a few carts had been set up, selling lamb skewers and grilled oysters topped with mixian and garlic. I didn’t know what I was taking. I thought it was cocaine or possibly methamphetamine. But the effects didn’t match what I imagined either of those two would be like. Years before, I fell in love with dextromethorphan-containing cough syrup, and it felt like a low dose of DXM: stoned warm and spacey, a bit silly, dumb. I put two and two together.

The second time I took ketamine would have been in a club in Xuzhou. I was sitting at a corner booth with two men who I had met that night over Red Label and iced tea. I forget the name of the club now and it didn’t stay open more than a year. The club had an Uzbek dancer who went up on the bar every few hours and when she took off her bikini bottoms, the bartender doused the Formica with baijiu and lit it, and she danced in front of a wall of wobbling blue flame. The music was the type of dumb club beats that have ruled clubs from Irkutsk to Changchun for a quarter century, hard bass and pop vocals, cranked up so that we left every night with ears hissing in the morning. There were clubs that kept a tighter leash on drug use but this club was not one of them . The tables were covered in powder. Each table was illuminated from within by a pale red bulb, so that the booth we were sitting in glowed red. One of the men, whose name I have long since forgotten, worked at the mound of jagged crystals, crushing them under the edge of a bank card and then chopping lines. The man that offered me the line of ketamine that night had a tattoo between his eyebrows, faded away to an indigo thumbprint. I snorted lines until I felt drunker and sloppier than I should have felt, and then I rolled out of the booth and danced. Frames started to go missing. William White's "flanging." I remember feeling my head float up and how it seemed to hover like helium balloon tied to my collarbone, and my body moving not under any conscious control. Time slowed down and there was a rush of euphoria.

After that, I started to organize expeditions to the first club I’d snorted, or buy my own supply and set up in any of the other clubs in the city, to initiate friends, some coming from as far away as Nanjing and Jinan, into the ketamine club. It was not a healthy habit. I remember once, swearing to my then-girlfriend that I was off ketamine completely and then, while she sat beside me, snorting a line offered to be on a plate by a local tough. I was mixing with bad company. Someone I knew had half his face paralyzed for a couple weeks. Someone I had done K with passed out in a road and got his head run over by a truck.

Because at that point, like I said, it could have been anything. But I started taking ketamine outside of clubs and went deeper. I bought it from a rich kid that lived a few streets over. He went out every night and hid his lines in an ashtray covered with a napkin. The booth beside him was always littered with popped blister packs. We went to his apartment in the morning, his room up on the third floor, to smoke cigarettes and listen to music. He must have been in his early-20s but seemed younger than me. I would buy from him Ziploc short grams, and take bumps in an internet cafe while listening to rap music on the big cushy headphones. It’s comparatively easier to describe the visual and auditory hallucinations that accompany a drug experience but harder to describe the way that your thoughts move differently. On ketamine, my thoughts felt smooth, moving like pebbles on the bottom of a river, or two pieces of hard candy in a cheek. I went home and cut lines on my bedside table, feeling the euphoria and the feeling of my head floating away, my limbs moving like they were on seized hinges, until I was moving but feeling as if was no longer in control of my body, until finally the room itself was replaced by another world. I don’t know how to describe the experience. The effect seemed to be unlike a psychedelic experience, though—and I’d never enjoyed psychedelics or experienced this—where there’s a spiritual epiphany, some overwhelming moment. I had taken high doses of psilocybin mushrooms and been catapulted somewhere, completely disconnected from reality and, later, unsure of where I was, even when I was conscious again. Even the deep experiences with ketamine were milder. I would describe it as like freezing to death, slowly fading out. None of the chaos of psychedelics but clean and ordered visions of grids and tables. All of these descriptions are a waste of time, probably, unless you’ve personally taken higher doses of ketamine or a similar compound.

As unhealthy as my experience sounds, I’ve come to believe that ketamine cured my anxiety and depression.

I had spent the years before going to China for the first time stumbling through the first years of an undergraduate degree, dropping out and being kicked out a few times, drifting between jobs cutting grass, stocking shelves, and in a slaughterhouse. After a disastrous experience with LSD, the anxiety and depression I had felt simmering at a low level for years boiled over and became something weirder and more fucked up. The feeling was like suddenly becoming aware of myself — a horrible anxiety at the feeling of my own consciousness, maybe, I guess. I took a combination of paroxetine and clonazepam, with zopiclone to fall asleep. I spent the time I was not working drinking Orange Crush, listening to The Life of Joseph W. McVey and playing Gran Turismo 4. I took a combination of paroxetine and clonazepam, with zopiclone to fall asleep.

The idea that ketamine can cure depression and anxiety has become accepted (see: “The Role of Ketamine in Treatment-Resistant Depression: A Systematic Review” in Current Neuropharmacology, September 2014, and “Oral Ketamine for the Rapid Treatment of Depression and Anxiety in Patients Receiving Hospice Care” in Journal of Palliative Medicine, July 2010, "Ketamine for the treatment of major depressive disorder and bipolar depression: A review of the literature" in Journal of Mental Health and Clinical Psychology, January 2017). I think there was more to it than that.

This is something that I think about, that with China and ketamine, there was some synergistic effect. There was China, this country that broke me with experiences I didn’t expect, broke my heart, and played for me twenty-four hours a day a soundtrack of cicadas and jackhammers, so that I had to escape to an island and abandoned village to gather my thoughts. There was no chance to slip inside myself, most of the time. There was no time to think—only act. I wish I could capture something of what I felt there and then, because it sounds ridiculous to even me now.

There’s a story that sticks with me and that I’ve written versions of so many times that I’m probably confusing fiction with reality. It was one of the last times I took ketamine and one of the closing episodes in that chapter of my life. I hope it suggests, I guess, how I was living at the time.

I caught a ride to Lianyungang and took a bus to the coast. I walked along the causeway out to Liandao. I’d come with no bag, just my CECT slide phone, a few bags of K, a few gelcaps of ground up psilocybin mushrooms muled in by a friend of a friend, some cash. I’d wanted to go to the island, alone, for a while, since visiting a year or so before. I took the mushrooms while going across the causeway. The ocean was yellow. It’s shallow there, and the rivers that empty into it are full of silt. I took the road that loops around the island. Fresh asphalt became grey cobblestones and then dust. Rock strata in shimmering quartz and dull lemon stacked. Sea breeze trees on the cliff above the cut rock. Fishing villages of stone houses, built carefully on top of one another, running down to rocky beaches. In a few of the villages, one or two houses remained alive, their red tiles still maintained, clothes drying on a line, a thin curl of smoke from a chimney. I walked back to one of the abandoned villages and picked my way down the wrecked path from the road. On a concrete pier, I sat and watched the sky darken and turn orange and then go dark. The mushrooms had kicked in, mildly, and the sound of the ocean slapping the pier sounded like an orchestra. I spread my jacket below me and sniffed K until I could pass out. I woke up late the next morning. There was a layer of dew on my clothes and my hair. I walked back across the causeway and took a taxi into the city.

Lianyungang looked like every other city in China, the same busy streets lined with grey buildings. I have walked around a hundred cities in China that all look the same and have never lost my fascination. Lianyungang looked like every other city in China, the messy apartment windows and then a leafy alley leading to a middle school and the echo of the morning exercises in the yard and the shiny haired students in tracksuit uniforms rushing to class and the chaos of a bus stop and the smell of a row of restaurants and the chalkboard menus and the styrofoam boxes of seafood and the men on the side of the street selling pineapples and notebooks and a wet market with its smell of blood and dust and the sidewalks of bumpy green and red tile. Even at the lowest, even when I was starving or freezing, walking down the street anywhere in China, I felt like I was where I wanted to be.

I don’t know how much of this is true, anymore. I know I’m conflating two stories here, at some point. I went down into an underground shopping arcade and into an internet bar. A girl walked down the row of computers and sat in the couch beside mine. She was wearing an Adidas tracksuit jacket, black and orange and a black shirt underneath and shiny black plastic pants. She had a necklace with a square gold background picture of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus. The girl with the Virgin Mary pendant woke me by pulling my headphones away from my ear and letting them fall back. Her face was dark and she had fat cheekbones and a strong jaw. Her eyes were round and singlefolded. Her eyes were puffy and light brown. She had the features and accent of the people of rural coastal Subei.

We walked back up to the street. She walked beside me and leaned into shadows. She was tall and had long legs. She wore a short skirt and black tights that ended at her calves. The girl told me her name was He Ting. She told me that we could go to her home. Her village was outside Lianyungang. I live in the city now. Nobody lives in my village, she said. She lived in Lianyungang with three other girls. They had an apartment in the city. The girls were at home in their village, she said. They were from the same village as her. We walked there and went up the dusty stairs of a grey building. There was a heavy security door. From the window, I thought I could see the ocean through the haze. We stood at the window and passed a cigarette between us. We blew smoke into the haze. We sat for a while and then went out and bought takeout food from a restaurant. We bought chewy sticks of garlic shoots and pressed tofu, dried stringy dog meat with Sichuan peppercorn, cauliflower and potato, and carried it back to the apartment. We ate and then, when it was dark outside, we lay side by side on her blanket on the puzzle pieces. She said she wanted to go out. She stood and went to her suitcase and I turned my head away. She came back in a black dress with black leggings. The top of the dress had a frilly collar. Her neck was dark; and the skin across her collarbones was darker. I saw her nipples through the thin cotton. She lay beside me. She asked if I wanted to kiss her and did. The kiss was short and I felt out of breath. I felt nothing. Her friends booked a room at a KTV and we snorted ketamine—their powder and mine—off the glass table while drinking Qoo and vodka. The ketamine waves swept up to my ankles, maybe as high as my shins, and I felt the dumb glow of it without crushed.

And in the morning, the morning glowed like I’ve never seen a morning glow. We walked west and went along the ocean, where condo towers formed a wall along the edge of the city. The fishing villages had been swallowed by development and the few old homes along the water had been turned into restaurants and guest houses. Boats sat on flat muddy water. We went along a beach, climbing over sharp smashed rock and sandy cliffs. We came to a place where a creek trickled into the ocean. The sand was brown and cool. The ocean smelled like sewage. We sat on the rocks above the sand. He Ting asked if we wanted to swim. We undressed. In her clothes, she looked tight and long; but when she was naked, her breasts hung heavy and round. Her stomach was round. A dark line ran from her navel to the wild mess of her pubic hair. There were sharp tanlines over her upper arms.

That morning, after I said goodbye, before I got on a bus to Nanjing. On the way there, I probably wrote some version of that story, too, and that version, written in a notebook on the bus before taking a quick nap probably colors all versions written since. That was the last time I did ketamine. I knew I didn’t need it anymore.

(Until a few nights later, probably at Castle Bar. But that doesn’t count. And years later, on the roof of an artists residence in Guangzhou, while smoking a joint, standing around a bathtub that was filled with stinking rainwater. That doesn’t count either.)

I don’t know if the Lianyungang story says anything, but I hope it describes the break that China was with my previous life, the hammer blow of heavy ketamine experiences on top of it.

I left the country for the first time in 2007 and didn’t go back to live again until 2013. By that time, the scene had changed. I checked. There might have been flecks of ketamine in the 摇头丸, but pills and ice had mostly replaced K粉, and there no more tables covered in powder or dealers openly soliciting. I saw a friend get hooked on methamphetamine and haunted plenty of drug dens, but I never got offered a line of ketamine.

I've seen conflicting reports but it does seem that ketamine was missing around that time. Seeing a spike in synthetic drug use, anti-drug authorities in China had ramped up efforts to smash production facilities and distribution networks ("China's War on Drugs" by Shannon Tiezzi on The Diplomat, August 2014) and lock up dealers (see: "17% increase in foreigners caught for drug crimes" by Zhang Yan and Chen Mengwei, China Daily, June 2014). Labs that had turned out tons of ketamine in China’s south were busted (“China deploys 3,000 police, speedboats and helicopters in village drug raid,” The Guardian, January 2014).

Other manufacturers turned to foreign markets and compounds like methoxetamine, which has higher potency and less urotoxicity, as well as 3-MeO-PCP and 4-MeO-PCP. When MXE and other drugs were covered by a 2013 UK ban on arylcyclohexylamines and made it onto the radar of other drug enforcement agencies, a new class of dissociatives came on the market. These new drugs, including methoxphenidine, ephenidine and diphenidine displaced other dissociatives (see: “Pharmacological Investigations of the Dissociative ‘Legal Highs’ Diphenidine, Methoxphenidine and Analogues” in PLOS One). So—pure speculation—the ketamine drought that spread to the West probably also saw some substitution or cutting of ketamine and other drugs with other compounds like MXE (until it was banned in China in 2015), and any number of dissociatives that have popped up on the dark web, including eticyclidone also known as O-PCE, 2'-Oxo-PCM also known as deschloroketamine, 3-MeO-PCMo, and 2-FK, among others. With the pattern and location of busts these days, the continued popularity of ketamine, and talking to a few people in the know, it would seem that it’s coming in from Indian sources again, including huge labs in Gujarat and Goa, and transiting through Taiwan to Fujian ("More than 1 tonne of ketamine seized from fishing boat," Taipei Times, February 2018), or possibly from operations in Myanmar (“Golden Triangle's drug production expands, diversifies amid opioid concerns,” by Tom Allard for Reuters UK). But, again, pure speculation...

Either way, there’s still plenty of ketamine out there, these days. I’m told it’s as popular as ever, down south, but except for that night in Guangzhou, sometime around 2013 or 2014, I never came across ketamine again, outside of Wechat dealers. North of the Yangtze, in my own experience, methamphetamine, other stimulants like cathinones, research chemicals to mimic MDMA, and benzodiazepines have mostly replaced ketamine. As wages have risen, ketamine came to be considered a low-class and potentially dangerous alternative to better drugs; the availability and price of methamphetamine makes it even more attractive. The side effects of ketamine are unpleasant and nobody seems to be looking to head too deep into the waters. Even if ketamine is arguably safer than benzos or meth, it's probably easier to casually get into those.

I’d love to end this by relating my experience stumbling into the last bar in suburban Beijing where people still openly do blasts of ketamine to a remixed pitched up 易欣 ballad, but it didn’t happen. I’m sure I could live that life one more time down south, make friends at some rundown KTV in Nanchang or Shantou. This could close on the discovery of a Chinese psychonaut community trying to communicate with river dolphins.

I'm sorry. I just wanted to put this together before the whole thing sounds completely like bullshit to me.


&: Record of Regret

This is an excerpt from my translation of Dong Xi's Record of Regret. It came out earlier this year as part of the Chinese Literature Today series at University of Oklahoma Press.

In this section, narrated by Ceng Guangxian to a bar hostess, it's the height of the Cultural Revolution and Xiao Chi, Baijia and Guangming, classmates of Guangxian, have signed up to join a production team in the countryside. Xiao Chi, who tried to seduce Guangxian only to be turned down, went down to the countryside because she thought Guangxian would join her. He turns her down once again but then finds himself traveling to the village where she has been sent, only to discover that it's probably too late...

She said: "We're going to harvest rice tomorrow. I can't sit up with you all night."

I told her: "I came all this way to see you. I didn't even plan on it. I was just walking by the train station and got on. I barely made it here." She looked up, studying me suddenly, as if looking for something she had lost. I said: "I was too stupid to understand before. I'm sorry."

"What's the use of saying sorry now?" She put a few roasted sweet potatoes in a plastic bag. "You should go. You might miss the bus back to town."

"You haven't told me what happened."

"Everything that was supposed to happen already happened. You can't change it now."

"If you don't tell me, I'll go ask Baijia and Guangming."

"What do you want from me?" She took a sheet of plastic and wrapped a flashlight in it. "It's time to go. Don't make trouble for me here. I'll tell you everything on the way." We took the flashlight and the sweet potatoes and went out onto the muddy road. The clothes that had just roasted dry in front of the stove were soaked through within minutes. For a while before she spoke, there was no sound except for our shoes in the mud and the hiss of rain. She said she didn't know what had made her fall for me. She said that maybe it was my curly hair, which made me look a bit like a foreigner, or maybe it was something else. She thought for a while and said that maybe it was the way I smelled. We'd always been told that the capitalist class stunk . . . So maybe my body odor carried some trace of that scent. I must have been right about the handkerchief, I thought. She must have been smelling my sweat on it.

We went by the village of Niutangao and the tall sycamore that stood at its entrance. Xiao Chi asked me: "Do you remember the day I left?"

"Of course."

"Do you remember how I looked out the train window and waved?"

"You were waving to your mom and dad."

"I begged them to let me stay in the city. They couldn't help me. I was waving at you."

"I couldn't tell."

"Are you kidding me? I even called your name. I told you to write me. I could tell you didn't hear me, so I said it again and I saw you nod. I saw you wave back at me. Don't lie to me."

"I swear."

"Then why did you wave? Why did you nod your head?"

"I didn't."

"I saw you! If you won't admit it, that's fine. I'm not going to keep talking."

I hadn't nodded or waved at her, but I finally said: "Fine, fine, fine."

She'd ended up in the countryside, waiting for her first letter to arrive. She had run out to check the mailbox every day to see if there was a letter from me. Baijia and Guangming got letters, but she received none.

A single letter was all that she wanted. Even though food was sparse, she would have given up a meal in exchange for a letter. Baijia and Guangming waved their letters in front of her face, so she could see the names of their female classmates. While they read their letters, she went outside and looked at the trees on the ridge, imagining that I was somewhere out there. She finally gave up and took the bus down to town. She wrote a letter to herself and signed my name. She apologized, as me, and told herself she was beautiful. In the letter she wrote, I proposed to her. She wrote her name at the top of it, then went back and wrote "Dear" in front. If I had just sent the first letter I wrote, she probably would have gotten it around the time she wrote her own. But I never sent it. All those letters had piled up under the bamboo mat on my bed. If I hadn't been so stupid . . . She started riding the bus to town to send herself letters. Every trip, twisting on mountain roads and bumping over muddy roads, she got violently carsick. The scenery of the mountains was as beautiful as that essay in the newspaper had described it, but she could barely see it. Eventually she gave up. She held the letters she had written to herself and cried. Finally, she burned them. She told herself that she would stop missing me.

When she arrived in Guli, Guangming and Baijia had been taken to live in Captain Wang's home. Captain Wang sent Xiao Chi to live by herself in a concrete hut a short distance away. It was, he said, better for a girl to stay by herself. The hut was a simple concrete box, dark and cold inside. That first night, she had stayed awake under the mosquito net, shivering. She thought she heard footsteps outside and went to the window, but didn't dare to look out. She wished she had a man to sit with her, to hold her hand. She decided that she would marry the first man who came to save her. She didn't care how old he was or what he looked like. The sound of footsteps came again, nearer now. She was lightheaded with fear. She yanked the door open and ran out of the hut - straight into the footsteps. A voice said: "Settle down. I'm here to watch your door."

Everyone working on the production team was assigned a job. If they were digging, everyone had a patch of earth to dig. When they finished digging their own section, they sat down and watched the other workers dig their patches. On her first day, Xiao Chi had been handed a hoe and given a section to work. She had never held a hoe before. By the end of the first day, her hands were covered in blisters. The next day, she was given the same tool and another patch to work. The blisters ripped open on the shaft of the hoe, drenching her hands in blood. The pain was so horrible that she felt as if she were working with a knife that she was holding by the blade. She couldn't complain; she would be criticized by the other workers. The whole point of coming to the countryside was to experience the hardship of the poor farmer. At first, some of the other workers would give her a hand. She fell behind again and again. Finally, most of them stopped offering to help. But one person continued to help her, even when the other workers laughed at him. He was the same one who had come to her door that night and kept watch. She was thankful for him. She thought that Chairman Mao had sent a man to look after her on the production team.

One day he came into her hut and told her that he wanted to get serious with her. She shook her head. Even though he had helped her and protected her, she turned him down because she was still in love with me, and she didn't want to marry a man from the countryside and be stuck there forever. She always used me as an excuse, saying she was in love with a man in the city. She even showed him the letters that she had written to herself with my name on them. But he said: "If he really loves you, why doesn't he come here to see you? Why is he just sending these letters?" He wasn't discouraged by her refusal. He kept helping her. He carried water for her, chopped wood, and washed clothes. He went to the market in town and brought her back brown sugar. 

Two days before my letter arrived, a heavy rain had begun to fall. When she went back to her room after work, tired and hungry, all of the firewood was soaked. She filled the stove and tried to light a fire. The stove belched white smoke, but the fire would not stay lit. Tears began to stream down her face. It was hard to separate the tears of pain from the tears caused by smoke in her eyes. Just as she was about to give up, the man came to her hut and helped her light the fire with a drop of kerosene from the lamp. She looked up at him with amazement, as if she had just seen the birth of fire itself. She stood up and fell into his arms. It wasn't that amazing, really: he had merely used kerosene to light some wet firewood. But she hadn't thought of it herself. From then on, she always used kerosene and a match. She'd once cried and sweated over the wet firewood. Learning the method was a blessing.

Maybe it was fate that my letter arrived right after that night. If it had come only a few days earlier, maybe she wouldn't have fallen into his arms so easily. If I hadn't forgotten to put a stamp on the envelope, if I had sent the first letters I'd written . . .

The sky was just lightening when we arrived at the Bala People's Commune. The minibuses outside the Revolutionary Committee office were waiting, driverless. From a PA above us, announcements intermittently echoed down the muddy roads. We sat down on the stairs outside the office. I asked: "Who is he?"

"I don't want to tell you yet."

"Is it Baijia? Guangming?"

She shook her head.

"He's a farmer?"

She shook her head.

"Do I still have a chance?"

"No, I've already . . ."

"Already what? Slept with him?"

She frowned. She said: "That's none of your business."

"I'm not going back. I'm going to stay here with you. I'll join the production team."

"Forget it. I told you to sign up. You said you didn't want to go to the countryside."

I felt a lump in my throat. My tears came freely, mixing with the rain on my cheeks. She said: "You're still a child. What are you crying about? It won't help. All my tears couldn't bring you here." That only made me cry harder. It made me feel better, though. She turned her back to me. "There are lots of girls in the city," she said. "I'm sure you can find someone better than me."

"I only want you."

"You can't have me. I can't just split myself in two. You have to go. I need to get to work." She left me there, holding the bag of sweet potatoes. I called after her, but she kept walking until she disappeared into the rain.

Are you getting tired of this story yet? Let's take a break. Sorry, I forgot to bring cigarettes. I didn't know you smoked. Order a pack, it's fine. As long as you're listening, I'll keep going. Order another plate of fruit.

When I got back to the city, I took all the unsent letters from under the bamboo mat on my bed. I put them in envelopes and put two stamps on each envelope. The way I did it, I put one on the back and one on the front. Even if one stamp fell off, the other one would still be there. I went out and mailed all the letters. A little over a week later, I got a parcel from Xiao Chi. When I opened it, I saw all of my letters, unopened. I fell asleep holding the letters that night and woke to the sound of myself calling her name. My heart was broken. I stood facing in the direction of Tianle. I saw a light on the horizon and imagined it was Xiao Chi's kerosene lamp and the fire in the stove. I imagined I could see the smoke rising from the chimney of her concrete hut.

I went to the warehouse and sat on a bench in the hall. I thought back to the night that Xiao Chi had climbed up on the bench and twirled off her skirt. I thought about her big, beautiful legs. If I had seized my chance, if I had taken her in my arms, I wouldn't be here now. I was filled with regret. Now the chance was gone and she hated me. I looked at the bench that she had stood on, and it seemed to glow as if illuminated by a spotlight. I saw her stepping up onto the bench. I called out: "Chi Fengxian." The only response was the bark of a dog. I turned on my flashlight and saw a stray dog, filthy and sick, cowering below one of the benches. I lifted the dog up and held her against my chest. I carried her back to my dormitory at the zoo and fed her sugar water and rice. The dog seemed to improve, and her breathing, which had been shallow and labored, began to strengthen. After a few hours, she had the energy to lick my hand. I brought medicine from the zoo's veterinarian and took some of the meat that was meant to be fed to the tiger and the bears. After a few weeks, the dog's coat was glossy again. After that, she followed me everywhere. When I went around the zoo, doing my chores, she was with me. I called her Xiao Hua, after my dog that had died and been hung from the tree.

But this dog had appeared after I called Xiao Chi's name, so I started calling her Xiao Chi. Whenever I called her name, she ran to me. If I felt sad, I'd talk to Xiao Chi. When I missed Xiao Chi, I had the dog, at least. I scrubbed her clean every night and let her sleep in bed beside me. Now when I called Xiao Chi's name in my sleep, Xiao Chi was there. The dog healed my broken heart.

Autumn came, and the zoo was covered in fallen yellow leaves. Every day when I got off work, I was met by Director He's cousin, He Caixia, who'd been given a job as the zoo's accountant. If she was sure nobody else was looking, she'd steal over to my side. "That curly hair," she'd say, "is it Soviet revisionism or American imperialism? I'm guessing it was American imperialism your mother preferred. You aren't the child of landlords at all, are you? You're the son of American imperialism. You'd better listen to me, or I'll turn you over to the Red Guards." While she spoke, one hand would be in my hair and the other would be between my legs. She would grab me so hard that I felt sick to my stomach. I used to walk away completely shaken. The only things I had to look forward to after work were my dog and talking to Zhao Jingdong, another one of the workers at the zoo.

Zhao Jingdong didn't talk much, but he sure could listen. He was a great audience for a story: he'd laugh in the right places, slap his thigh when something was really funny, sigh sympathetically at the appropriate moment - all the things you'd expect of a good listener. He also knew how to keep a secret. I was always worried about that, since I'd gotten myself into so much trouble telling the wrong things to the wrong people. I told him the story of Director He and my mother, how I'd found them together, and the story never went beyond him. He was like a vault.

He taught me something, too: if you wanted to be a good friend, you had to be a good listener. One night, I sat up and told him the story of the warehouse and Xiao Chi taking off her skirt. He responded: "A girl drops her skirt right in front of you and you reject her ? Well, that's gotta hurt, right? She had to be disappointed. Maybe you've heard about the Widow He, who works at the zoo. I've heard lots of stories about her trying to seduce certain men who ended up turning her down. Nobody wants to be turned down, right? Even if what they're asking is unreasonable."

Zhao Jingdong kept telling me that I should go visit Xiao Chi: "Make some time. Go see her. At the least, you're comrades, right? It's because of what you said that she ended up all the way out there, so you should show some concern. You should show her you're still thinking about her." He kept saying it: go see her, go see her. It was like a buzz in my ear. Eventually I saved up the money to take the trip, and I planned to use my sick leave to get time off work. When I told Zhao Jingdong, he seemed even more excited than I was. He asked me over and over again how far Tianle was from the city. Finally, he came to my dormitory room and spread out a map marked with an arrow pointing from the city to Guli. The way he'd marked the map, it felt like Xiao Chi was a military objective. He went out again and came back with three jars of braised pork and five bundles of dried noodles for me to give her. He saw me off at the train station and went back home with Xiao Chi the dog. 

A cold wind blew against the windows of the train as it left the city. After a few kilometers, the train passed into mist, which then covered the windows. Anyone looking at the train as it rumbled by would have seen its color darken and take on a hue like raw steel as the sunlight shrank down to a red ball on the horizon.

The next evening, I arrived at Guli. Everyone in the village seemed to be gathered under the lanterns at the commune hall. They were standing around a low stage. When I got closer, I could see two figures kneeling on the stage with old shoes hanging around their necks - it was Xiao Chi and Yu Baijia. Xiao Chi's hair was in disarray. Her face was cut, and there was blood on her lips. Yu Baijia had clearly been beaten, too. His left eye was swollen shut and ringed with a black bruise. I finally realized that it was Yu Baijia who had protected Xiao Chi. It was Yu Baijia who had played Prometheus in her cement hut.